If guys with guns are talking about collapse, why can’t we?

Thanks to Hollywood, we have all seen stories of near apocalyptic futures, where people descend into violence and depravity. We have also seen sensationalist, even racist, TV news reporting on looting after natural disasters. It seems the mass media is not always a good channel for hearing about the solidarity and cooperation that emerges between so many of us in times of crisis. It takes authors like Rutger Bregman to remind us of the better sides of human nature. Or Rebecca Solnit to show how human solidarity has always been a powerful resource during crises. Unfortunately, such views don’t get as much airtime when it comes to discussing the possibility for societal disruption and collapse.

Which is what I do. Because hundreds of scientists and scholars have been warning us that we face “global systemic collapse” due to the pressures we are putting on the planet. When I explain that to people, and they take it to heart, then their reaction often includes imagining violence on their doorstep. It’s an understandable reaction and one I also felt when learning about the dangerous pace of climate change. This fear of violence is perhaps why the phenomenon of ‘preppers’ with guns has grown in some countries. A fascination with violence seems to be why journalists reporting on people who anticipate societal collapse have often focused on that kind of prepper, rather than the people growing food or campaigning non-violently because they want to soften the collapse.

But the real prepper story is not about rich people building bunkers in the middle of nowhere. Nor about conspiracy theorists getting ready to defend their kids from nanobots sent by, um, Bill Gates. No, the real prepper story is that our own militaries are prepping.

To mark the UK’s day of remembrance, the campaign group Extinction Rebellion visited the Cenotaph and, with British Service Veteran Donald Bell, unfurled a banner saying “Honour Their Sacrifice: Climate Change Means War.” The reaction from the media was mixed, with some expressing annoyance and others wondering just how climate change might lead to war. Hopefully some more people will have looked at the work of the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MOD) on climate. Because, for at least the last 2 years, the UK military have been planning how to operate in a world experiencing a catastrophic rise in global temperatures. The MOD has a unit of 60 personnel looking at trends that affect the security of the UK, and the capabilities of its militaries. They produced a report in 2018 that summarised the risk of major disruption from climate change. The head of the unit that produced the report, Brigadier Ewen Murchison said their key finding was “the pace of change and level of uncertainty could outpace good governance and unity.” He was highlighting how dangerous climate change ultimately impacts on society and politics. 

In a follow up report to the MOD in 2020, the authors note that with current trajectories, “temperatures are predicted to increase by 2.3–3.5°C by 2100.” As strategists, they take this scenario as both plausible, because it extrapolates current trends, and likely, because there are no signs of those trends changing. They then assess the climate change impacts on the context and functioning of the military.

The report recognises how the cascading effects of rapid climate change affect all of society. For instance, it increases the risks of disease outbreaks and disrupts the transportation networks and utilities needed to sustain healthcare. They warn that by 2030 the world could already face a ‘perfect storm’ of food, water and energy crises. “The demand for food and energy is estimated to rise by 50 percent by 2030, while water demand has been projected to increase by 30 percent,” the report notes. “In regions where food shortages are combined with poor governance, climate change could contribute to civilian protests, rioting and an increased likelihood of violent conflict.” That conclusion echoed the 2018 MOD report which explained “climate change may increase the probability of simultaneous breadbasket failures with the potential for devastating impacts on the global food market. There could be knock on effects for worldwide stability as higher food prices, in combination with poor governance, have been shown to heighten the risk of protests riots and conflict.”

What someone considers to be ‘poor governance’ is subjective. In a situation of food and water shortage, then upholding free markets rather than enforcing the means of supplying basic needs could be a form of poor governance found in many states not considered to the MOD, including the UK itself.

“Defence industry infrastructure is also likely to be exposed to climate-related events that could disrupt parts of or whole supply chains, affecting the supply of essential equipment and battle-winning capabilities,” the report warns. The UK might lose “access to supply chain inputs such as minerals used for manufacturing defence equipment, platforms and components,” or if “violent conflict takes place in mineral-mining regions as a result of resource shortages.” That could undermine the UK’s “force readiness.” In other words, armed forces may consider going to war to ensure their ability to go to war, by securing access to key resources. Already, you may note a problem. If the military of one country is analysing the implications of collapse, then it’s likely that many will be. Therefore, many armed forces will be war gaming how to control foreign countries merely to sustain their capacity for war. Where does such thinking lead for humanity heading into a highly turbulent period where we must become more efficient with resources and fairer in how we distribute them, in order not to make matters worse?

The political bias of a military approach to this topic is clear in the text. “In the coming decades some countries may be tempted to deliberately limit supplies of scarce resources for geopolitical gain (resource nationalism) and tension over resources, possibly including military action to secure supplies, cannot be ruled out.” Here the sovereign right of a country to decide how resources within its borders are exploited is reframed as “temptation” which would then legitimate “military action.” It is unlikely that the MOD would consider the sovereign right of the British public to decide how its lands, forests, and minerals are exploited as simply a temptation that could warrant foreign invasion of the UK. Of course, the resources in question are fossil fuels and metals, as well as the rare minerals that are essential for electronics. The countries with large and concentrated reserves include Chile for lithium, and Brazil and Vietnam for rare earth minerals. Would the MOD have framed sovereignty as problematic if those resources were mostly found in European countries? We do not know. But we have reason to wonder whether racist and imperialist assumptions underlie the MOD strategy process for them to have produced such analysis.

Brigadier Murchison explained in an interview how their strategy report is “unclassified, so it acts as the starting point. Then you can delve down deeper into issues of interest by working with classified information.” Working with classified information, and coming to classified conclusions, is understandable in the field of national security. But as both their reports note, climate risks affect the whole of society, and raise questions about responses that would also affect the whole of society. For instance, the MOD report notes that “geoengineering (deliberate large-scale manipulation of an environmental process) could become a strategic geopolitical (and irreversible) choice for governments.”

Looking at systemic risks that affect all of us is not a technical exercise, no matter how much the personnel of a bureaucracy may wish to conceive of it that way to avoid examining their own values and biases. As they consider collapse risks and responses, the culture and training of people will shape their analysis. Brigadier Murchison’s preparation for this work included being a commander during the war in Afghanistan. One of his colleagues in that war accused the marines he was commanding as “abusing Afghan citizens, treating local allies with contempt and showing little regard for the rules of engagement.” His experiences as a soldier may or may not help him in the work he is doing now. But what is clear is that it should not only be people in military organisational cultures who are looking at the risks and preparations for societal disruption and collapse.

So who else are looking at the risk of collapse and how to respond? One sector are the banks and hedge funds. In an internal report on the commercial implications of climate change, analysts for the large bank JP Morgan concluded that it is “likely the situation will continue to deteriorate” where one “cannot rule out catastrophic outcomes where human life as we know it is threatened… Something will have to change at some point if the human race is going to survive.”

If you are rooting for humanity to make the best of a bad situation with climate chaos, then you might want to have some people with other values, instincts and training than the military and bankers to be planning for it. Unfortunately, dialogue on this possibility is being suppressed amongst the general public by scientists and environmental commentators who tell us that such discussion is unhelpful. In particular, people who are engaged in environmental justice activism are being condemned for talking about the likelihood of societal collapse. One of the most vocal critics is the mainstream climatologist Professor Michael Mann. According to his forthcoming book, The New Climate War is not going to be fought in the 2030s by armies seeking to control the resources that sustain their power to fight. Instead, it is a war of words where he condemns people for saying the situation is worse than what he says. The means of condemnation has become quite fanciful. He told the Guardian that youth: “are victims of a disinformation campaign by bad actors like Russia that have sought to undermine enthusiasm for climate action”… “Part of that is by driving a wedge within the environmental movement, and doomism is a great way to create [that] wedge.”

The term ‘doomism’ is rarely defined by those who use it. For them, it seems to cover anyone who believes that it is too late to reform our current capitalist systems to achieve an orderly transition to an environmentally sustainable situation. So has ‘doomism’ been promoted by Russia? An internet search produces nothing about Russia promoting ‘doomism.’ But it did not take me long to find out what Western security agencies have reported about Russian disinformation on climate. The US government found that the main activity by Russia was to promote activism against fracking and a pipeline. Perhaps because Russia does not want competition for its natural gas exports. Clearly it would be illogical to conclude Russian actions delegitimise all activists against fracking as being either stooges or dupes of foreign disinformation. Other studies have found Russian disinformation has promoted anti- and pro- environmental views in ways that encourage scorn and anger at people with opposing views (though it appears we need little encouragement). However, while the US State Department’s latest (August 2020) report on Russian disinformation mentions a range of issues, climate change is not one of them. Therefore, to claim that Russian disinformation on climate change is a significant factor in public understanding and policy in USA or anywhere else is factually weak and risks betraying activists in the climate movement. It also feeds the anti-environmentalist agenda of right-wing politicians and their alt-right social media.

Instead of such evasions, it is time for climate scientists like Professor Mann to heed their own warnings from 2009. “If global warming is to be limited to a maximum of 2 °C above pre-industrial values, global emissions need to peak between 2015 and 2020 and then decline rapidly” he concluded, in a report written with the world’s leading climate scientists 11 years ago. They cited a consensus view of scientists that “rises above 2 °C will be difficult for contemporary societies to cope with and are likely to cause major societal and environmental disruptions through the rest of the century and beyond.” Elsewhere in the same report, they wrote: “There is a very high probability of the warming exceeding 2°C unless global emissions peak and start to decline rapidly by 2020.” As the year comes to an end, we may wish to grasp at mythical straws, but emissions levels are rebounding in those countries coming out of lockdowns, so the slight reduction in global emissions in 2020 due to the pandemic will not continue. It is clear, therefore, that according to the 2009 Professor Mann and his colleagues, we have missed the chance to avoid disruptive impacts on societies. In addition, further research shows that many catastrophic impacts will be occurring from a 1.5 degrees temperature rise above pre-industrial levels, not 2 degrees. We can and must still try to curb emissions and draw down carbon, but it is also time to accept that will not prevent massive disruption and breakdown in most societies in the coming years. That is why the militaries are planning ‘as if’ that will be the future.

It is understandable that many climatologists do not want to face the horrific situation we are now in. But in trying to shut down our discussion of collapse, do they really prefer that we leave it to the battle-hardened officers, doing their classified analysis of matters like geoengineering, food security, health systems and resource control? Do we really want them advising governments to accept they will need to go to war just to protect their military capabilities, with the huge humanitarian and environmental costs involved?

Or, to put it more simply: if the guys with guns are talking about collapse, why can’t we? Because the militaries of the world are discussing potential collapse, then so should all of us. In workplaces, churches, mosques, temples, synagogues, trade unions, universities and even schools. Upon hearing that scientists do not want young people to consider dangerous climate change is now certain, one student told me to tell them: “who are you trying to protect?”

Clearly, discouraging people who have humanitarian and egalitarian values from joining initiatives that anticipate collapse is counterproductive. Instead, collapse anticipation is a growing field of scholarship that encompasses and transcends climatology – and needs to become part of mainstream policy discussions. People who are not afraid to discuss how to soften the collapse of industrial consumer societies are joining the Deep Adaptation movement. But soon there needs to be a policy process, perhaps in the form of a Global Citizens Assembly, where people from around the world can discuss how to triage a planet in distress. If more climatologists can be honest enough to accept the truth of their past warnings, then they can shift the UNFCCC to engage more in a difficult agenda of fair and urgent adaptation. At a minimum, that may help avoid the tragedy where countries fight wars simply to maintain their power to fight. At best, it may help us to imagine that another end of the world is possible. A world not shaped by military strategies and financial gamblers, but infused by compassion, curiosity and respect. Perhaps a world where we plant the seeds of another way of life.

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