Wisdom only begins when we let in the grief and rage of understanding climate breakdown. Can we find radical hope in the face of social collapse around the world?
A huge number of people – 350,000 and counting – have downloaded Jem Bendell’s paper Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy.
Here I want to develop one thing that Bendell talks about: social collapse.
But first, for those who have not read his research paper, there are three key truths Bendell tells.
Firstly, climate change has been moving much faster than scientists predicted. Things are going to get very bad within the lifetime of some of us now living. We don’t know and can’t know how bad, or how quickly this will happen.
Everyone that Bendell speaks with bases their predictions on their political beliefs. That’s true of everyone I talk to too.
Bendell chooses to think that social collapse is inevitable, catastrophe probable and extinction possible. That’s my guess too.
A second truth: scientists have, for many reasons, been under constant pressure to downplay the dangers and extent of climate change, and not to scare the mob.
Non-governmental organisations have constantly colluded with governments and corporations to conceal the scale of the catastrophe, and to push solutions that will not solve it. Scientists and NGOs do this because their funders demand that.
A third truth: Bendell says it is hard, at first, to accept what is coming. I have found that too.
I first got involved in climate politics because I’m a freelance writer and in 2004 I decided to write a book about climate change. I thought it would be interesting and there would be a market, God forgive me.
I got involved with a climate action group – the Campaign against Climate Change – and started reading. Several months later I began having the same nightmare most nights for months. In that nightmare I was trying to tell some people something, and they were not listening.
What was happening is that I was understanding the implications of what I was reading. One reason is that I take science seriously, and I understand numbers. The other is that I already understood social collapse.
That was bad enough. For the next four years I knew what would happen if we did not act. Then at the end of the UN climate talks in 2009, on a Friday lunchtime in Copenhagen, I read the text of the agreement Barack Obama had just made the other governments agree to.
That text ended the Kyoto agreement and said that henceforward no government would have to make compulsory cuts in emissions. Every government could choose what cuts or increases they wanted. The Paris talks in 2015 extended that to 2035.
I understood what Obama had done immediately. That text ended the possibility of action for a generation. Since then, I have understood social collapse is coming.
Two memories keep coming back to me. In one I am six years old. Mr. Dillion is my father’s best friend in Ludhiana, the city in Indian Punjab where we live.
Mr. Dhillon tells me the during partition his parents hid a Muslim under their house – under the porch, I think. Mr. Dhillon is above me, smiling down. I understand he is proud, and that there is some terrible tragedy in the air around him. He tells me they saved the Muslim’s life. I have few memories from that age, but that one I have remembered.
The Partition between India and Pakistan was not ancient history then. It was seven, one year older than me. What Mr. Dillion told me was important to him because no one else he knew, just his parents, had done that.
A million people, more or less, had died in a few weeks in Punjab. Half of them were Hindus and Sikhs killed by Muslims. Half were Muslims killed Hindus and Sikhs.
I grew up knowing that it is people like us, people all around us, who do the massacres. And that very few of us are lucky enough to be Mr. Dhillon’s parents. And that he was telling me to try to follow their example.
In the other memory I am twenty-three, a young anthropologist beginning my first fieldwork, in the town of Lashkargah in southwestern Afghanistan.
Walking back to the only hotel in town for my supper, I pass a teenage boy standing on the side of the road. He says something quietly. I am well past him by the time I understand what he said. I am so proud of myself. It is the first Pushtu sentence I have understood outside of a lesson. But I am too embarrassed or shy to go back to him.
He said: “I am hungry”.
To the north of Lashkargah a terrible famine was beginning. I understood within weeks that boy was a refugee from that starvation. That famine, I know now, was caused by drought caused by climate change. Like every famine it was also caused by inequality and cruelty.
In the North of the country the government delivered foreign aid grain. The district officers put armed soldiers around the piles of grain in the middle of the towns to prevent the hungry getting the food. The poor sold their land at knockdown prices to the rich to buy wheat from the district officers at five and ten times the usual prices. Those with no land to sell died.
My friend Michael Barry asked some starving people why they did not storm the grain piles. One of them said: “The King has planes. They will come and shoot us down.”
Those were Russian planes, flown by pilots trained in America. US Aid knew what was happening to their grain aid. I know that because the wife and daughter of the man who ran US Aid told me so as I drank scotch in their nice house in Kabul. They were upset because they could not get their husband and father to do anything.
I have told that story many times since, in many ways. I will go on telling it, boringly, until the day I die. I tell it to make an important point about what serious climate change will feel like – and what it already feels like for many millions.
No one dared to storm those piles of grain. But when the ‘leftist strongman’ Daoud, the King’s cousin, staged a coup two years later, no one would die for the King. The famine had left him with the mark of Cain. And when the communists staged a coup against Daoud four years after that, no one fought for Daoud, the King’s cousin, either.
The story of Afghan politics after that is endlessly complex. But the direction is clear: war after war, betrayal after betrayal, endless grief. Always in the background, the failure of the rains, across all of Central Asia, for decades.
It would be wrong to reduce the Afghan tragedy to climate change. There was much else involved, many great powers, unspeakably murderous invasions by Russia and the United States, and dishonest greedy resistance leaders. But as time goes on, in our world, climate change becomes more and more of a driver of such tragedies.
The massacres at Partition and the Afghan tragedy are not what most people in Britain mean when they say ‘social collapse’. Bendell himself is clear enough: “Starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war.” He’s right.
But what most people mean is what you see over and over in the dystopian movies. There are little groups of savages wandering the roads, scavenging and fearful, making tentative friends to keep the dark at bay. That is not remotely what it’s going to be like.
That fantasy of disorganized savages goes back to the ugly ruling class British thinker Hobbes in the seventeenth century. He believed that only the firm supervision of the state prevented a war of all against all.
This is a long running fantasy among all elites, because their deepest fear is that the rest of us will loosen their iron grip. It is fantasy that still appeals to people who grew up in privilege. It is the fantasy that informs the Pentagon, who warn us that climate change will mean “civil unrest”. I cannot imagine a world so degraded that we did not react to runaway climate change with civil unrest.
The most influential promoter of this view of ‘social collapse’ has been Jared Diamond. Many of my friends love his book Collapse, because they see it as a warning about climate.
But in fact he tells one historically inaccurate story after another about how civilisations fell into dark ages because they strained the environment too far. Most of these stories are actually about how a population overthrew tyranny and went back to living in smaller scale, more egalitarian communities. (See Questioning Collapse by Patricia NcAnany and Norman Yoffee.)
But that’s not what we are going to face either. We have enough experience of horror in modern history to know what the ‘social collapse’ of climate change will look like. Consider the middle of the twentieth century, when sixty million were killed. Probably a small number compared to what we will face, but useful for thinking on.
Of those sixty million, think of the killing fields of Stalingrad. The six million dead Jews and Gypsies. The two or three million who died in the Bengal famine because the government of Atlee and Churchill decided they needed the Indian railways to move war material, not grain.
There were one million famine dead in northern Vietnam because the Japanese army made the same decision. The three million or so dead in the North China famine. Then there were the dead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. (The US Air Force bombed two cities, because although the first bomb won the war, they still had another design of bomb to test.)
Or think about the fire bombings of almost all Japanese cities which killed far more people than the atom bombs, mostly in more painful ways. And there were all Stalin’s deportations and camps. The murdered at Partition in India. The many millions dead in actual uniforms, which seems so old fashioned now. The tens of millions raped here and there.
All these numbers are approximate, you understand. No one was counting properly.
Almost none of those horrors were committed by small groups of savages wandering through the ruins. They were committed by States, and by mass political movements.
Society did not disintegrate. It did not come apart. Society intensified. Power concentrated, and split, and those powers had us kill each other. It seems reasonable to assume that climate social collapse will be like that. Only with five times as many dead, if we are lucky, and twenty-five times as many, if we are not.
Remember this, because when the moment of runaway climate change comes for you, where you live, it will not come in the form of a few wandering hairy bikers. It will come with the tanks on the streets and the military or the fascists taking power.
Those generals will talk in deep green language. They will speak of degrowth, and the boundaries of planetary ecology. They will tell us we have consumed too much, and been too greedy, and now for the sake of Mother Earth, we must tighten our belts.
Then we will tighten our belts, and we will suffer, and they will build a new kind of gross green inequality. And in a world of ecological freefall, it will take cruelty on an unprecedented scale to keep their inequality in place.
Our new rulers will fan the flames of new racisms. They will explain why we must keep out the hordes of hungry homeless the other side of the wall. Why, regrettably, we have to shoot them or let them drown.
Why, unfortunately, we are running out of food for the refugee camps in the desert the other side of the wall or across the channel. Why the people on this side of the wall who look like the people on the other side of the wall are now our enemies. Why we have to go to war.
It is easy to hear those voices, because they are all around us now.
I think a lot about my grandchildren. Bendall’s timing is, I think, right: “In the lifetime of those now living,” he says. Not in twelve years. I think that is possible, but unlikely. In the lifetime of my grandchildren, very probably. Of course I worry they will die. But that’s not really what I fear. More I worry about what they will have to watch and have to do to survive.
The usual version of the wandering savages is not just a mistake. It’s a lie that conceals the state. But it also conceals what Mr. Dhillon told me. It was our neighbours, he was telling six-year-old Jonathan. Because it was something important to him, and something I needed to know. It will be your children, or your grandchildren.
Becoming the perpetrator
If you look at the places where people are living social collapse, what you see is that anybody can become the perpetrator. Anyone who knows the recent history of Syria understands why someone might find themselves in a Christian death squad, a Hezbollah death squad, an ISIS death squad, a Kurdish spotter calling in American death on the heads of Sunni Muslims, an American special forces, a Russian pilot, a medic with the White Helmets saving lives, a soldier in the Free Syrian Army, an Assadist nurse saving lives in an emergency room, a prisoner in an Assadist torture camp, an interrogator or a father holding his dead child on the shores of the Med.
Anyone who has lived through the last forty years in Afghanistan or Somalia understands the same. There are so many accidents of birth and experience. There but for the grace of God go I.
And of course there are right choices and wrong ones. The differences matter, and there are rivers of blood between them. But you cannot assume you, or anyone you love, will come out on the right side. That is part of the tragedy.
Syria. Afghanistan. Somalia. Darfur. Southern Sudan. Somalia. Eritrea. Iraq. Haiti. Congo. There are invasions in the history of many of those countries. Not all. Mostly American invasions. Not all. There is serious climate change already in all of them except Congo. The climate change is not the main thing driving the collapse in most of them. Yet.
Except for Darfur and Chad. What is happening there is insanely complex, and partly driven by a proxy oil war between China and the US. But the rains failed in Darfur and Chad in 1968, and they have never properly returned. Some years are better, some years threaten famine. At heart what has happened there is a war between herders and farmers for disappearing grass.
Never expect a pure climate change horror. Always it will arrive dripping with the blood and excrement of capitalism and empire.
Scientists and environmentalists have discovered the problem of climate change. They have told us all about it. Brilliant. Without them we would march uncomprehending into hell. And now most people know. This is a great achievement.
But scientists and environmentalists are conservative people. The green movement is mostly white, mostly posh, mostly in the rich north. The deep wish of many environmentalists is to be a small business person.
Most of the those suffering now are in the global south, or they are poor, or people of colour in rich countries. But the movement against climate change is still small in the poor countries.
The solutions we need are socialist solutions. The kinds trade union activists have always liked. We need a hundred and fifty million climate jobs now to rewire the world. Not business jobs, but public sector jobs.
Yet the unions have done little about climate change until almost yesterday. The socialists have done far less.
There are two possible reactions to this divide. One is to slag off the other side. Socialists, anarchists and trade unionists point out that Extinction Rebellion is a bunch of posh people who do not understand climate justice. Environmentalists point out that socialists and trade unionists have done nothing.
Another political alternative is emerging, though. I have been part of what unions did, and small as it was, I can hear student strikers all over the world repeating what we said. They talk about a Green New Deal and climate jobs because that’s the only solution that makes sense. I heard Greta Thunberg call for a general strike last week.
This is breakneck, eyeballs out time for every union climate activist in the world. We have solutions. Tell everyone. Even more, get your mates out the door.
Another piece of news from last month. The coordinator of Friends of the Earth Mozambique wrote that everyone there understands now that the cyclones are climate change. Maybe she exaggerates. But many people there now know this. This knowledge can transform the world.
When the famine hit Bengal in 1943 the Indian National Congress, the opposition to the British colonial government, did nothing. The links are complex, but that’s why they had the partition massacres four years later.
When the famine hit northern Vietnam early in 1945, the tiny bands of communists in the mountain jungles came down into the city and led crowds trying to seize the grain silos. Within a year they controlled the North.
Until now those who suffer most have mostly blamed God, under various names.
I have a dream. In Mozambique, or South Africa, or anywhere, those who suffer collapse march on the American embassy. They demand the small amounts of money they need to survive on the land. And they demand eight million climate jobs in the United States. For Americans. And a million climate jobs in South Africa.
I have often mentioned this dream in front of audiences of NGO people and environmental activists. It goes down like a lead balloon. They know they cannot bite the hand of the funders. But also they fear the rage of the mob.
Imagine a million victims of the storms, or a million farmers who have watched their crops die. Imagine their rage on the streets. Anything could happen.
The soldiers could mow down the crowd. The soldiers could fire on the crowd. Or not. The crowd could lynch the people in the embassy, or not. The black people of Washington DC could march on the White House.
Here’s another thing about uncertainty. Maybe we have time. But more important, there is no one tipping point, then feedbacks and runaway climate change. There are many tipping points, each worse than the last.
The key factor is the basic driver of the feedbacks – carbon dioxide emissions from coal, oil and gas. The more of that, the more the feedbacks. The end-Cretaceous mass extinction that wiped out land dinosaurs was terrible. But the end-Permian mass extinction was far worse than the other great extinctions in geological history, because the drivers were worse.
At each point we can act to slow down and reduce the damage. That’s the good news. It doesn’t mean we will be OK.
But also remember that social collapse is not the end. Remember Darfur. The rains failed there in 1968. There was drought, rape, murder, revenge, hunger and starvation. People buried the dead and got on with living and made peace for a while. Repeat.
Then in 1985, in the midst of the first really bad famine, the people rose up in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. They stormed the grain silos, the workers came out in a general strike, and the military dictatorship fell. Many of the crowd storming the grain silos were refugees from the famine in Darfur and the West.
The main opposition, the Umma, led by al_Mahdi, a graduate of the University of Oxford and the grandson of the Mahdi, came to power. His government would not, or could not, give people what they needed. There was another military dictatorship, more hunger, civil war in the South and Darfur.
To read what it was like to live in those times makes your head hurt and your stomach lurch. So think what it would be like to live through those times.
Now, the people of Sudan have moved again. It started in December, in Atbara, the old center of the most strongest union, the railway workers, and the communist party. The protests started because the government tripled the price of bread.
Now people are demonstrating all across Darfur too. They march to surround the military garrisons. In the center of Darfur, the crowds march from the many camps for displaced persons, marching on the army, demanding the abolition of the militias, the opening of the prisons, above all the right to return to their land.
Despair and rage
People have learned in fifty years. The leadership of this uprising lies with Sudan Professional Association, an alliance of new unions of doctors, teachers, veterinarians, lawyers, pharmacists and others.
This is because people do not trust al_Mahdi’s Umma, the communists or Turabi’s Islamists any longer. The crowds in Khartoum surround the military headquarters, nonviolent, because they know they must bring over the ordinary soldiers to their side. They have been hundreds of thousands and are now at least a million. They know they cannot permit a transitional military government.
I don’t know how it will turn out. No one knows. But there are two lessons. One is about what happens when collapse comes to where you are. People survive, and endure. They learn and come back again.
The other is that if those people in Darfur and Sudan, or in the other Darfurs elsewhere and those to come, make it their business to halt climate change, they can change the world.
I don’t want to sound hopeful here. The lesson of Bendell’s paper is that wisdom only begins when we let in the grief, despair and rage of understanding the climate tragedy. But what we are seeing in the climate strikes, Extinction Rebellion and all the rest, is that hope can only begin when we allow the grief and rage to course through us.
Life and death
I know why people want to go off grid, run for the hills, live in bioregional communities. But they are so wrong. They abandon the people of Khartoum, Shanghai, the Mekong Delta, Birmingham, London, New York, New Orleans, Mumbai, Kolkota. Shame on them.
Maybe many are going to die. I don’t want to say extinction is impossible. I read James Hansen’s book six years ago. There is a terrifying chapter in there. But there is a good way to die. I learned that when I was an AIDS counsellor in London for six years, back before we had the drugs to keep people alive.
I watched how my patients died, and how the gay men I worked with died. The former drug injectors and the heterosexuals mostly died in lonely shame. Sometimes I was the only person they could talk to.
But the gay men who were out, who had been part of gay liberation, they died for the people around them, the people who would follow them. They were not stoics – that kind of fake courage would be no use to the others. They showed panic and despair.
But they also showed, by the way they lived, you can do this too. And the other men of their community, and the lesbians, and their families, held them. And because of that strength they won the drugs that let so many who followed live.
They had politics. They had love. They died well. Die like that. And try to live like Mr. Dhillon’s mother and father.
Jonathan Neale is a writer and editor of One Million Climate Jobs. He blogs with Nancy Lindisfarne at Anne Bonny Pirate, and was secretary of the Campaign Against Climate Change for several years.
Image: ‘Blood of our Children’, Downing Street. Tom Dorrington, Extinction Rebellion.