Thursday, April 29, 2021

3499. Climate Scientists: Concept of Net Zero Is a Dangerous Trap

By James Dyke, Robert Watson, and Wolfgang Knorr, The Conversation, April 22, 2021

Sometimes realisation comes in a blinding flash. Blurred outlines snap into shape and suddenly it all makes sense. Underneath such revelations is typically a much slower-dawning process. Doubts at the back of the mind grow. The sense of confusion that things cannot be made to fit together increases until something clicks. Or perhaps snaps.

Collectively we three authors of this article must have spent more than 80 years thinking about climate change. Why has it taken us so long to speak out about the obvious dangers of the concept of net zero? In our defence, the premise of net zero is deceptively simple – and we admit that it deceived us.

The threats of climate change are the direct result of there being too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So it follows that we must stop emitting more and even remove some of it. This idea is central to the world’s current plan to avoid catastrophe. In fact, there are many suggestions as to how to actually do this, from mass tree planting, to high tech direct air capture devices that suck out carbon dioxide from the air.

Read more: There aren’t enough trees in the world to offset society’s carbon emissions – and there never will be

The current consensus is that if we deploy these and other so-called “carbon dioxide removal” techniques at the same time as reducing our burning of fossil fuels, we can more rapidly halt global warming. Hopefully around the middle of this century we will achieve “net zero”. This is the point at which any residual emissions of greenhouse gases are balanced by technologies removing them from the atmosphere.

Climeworks factory with tractor in foreground.
A facility for capturing carbon dioxide from air on the roof of a waste incinerating plant in Hinwil, Switzerland July 18, 2017. This is one of the handful of demonstrator projects currently in operation. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

This is a great idea, in principle. Unfortunately, in practice it helps perpetuate a belief in technological salvation and diminishes the sense of urgency surrounding the need to curb emissions now.

We have arrived at the painful realisation that the idea of net zero has licensed a recklessly cavalier “burn now, pay later” approach which has seen carbon emissions continue to soar. It has also hastened the destruction of the natural world by increasing deforestation today, and greatly increases the risk of further devastation in the future.

To understand how this has happened, how humanity has gambled its civilisation on no more than promises of future solutions, we must return to the late 1980s, when climate change broke out onto the international stage.

Steps towards net zero

On June 22 1988, James Hansen was the administrator of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, a prestigious appointment but someone largely unknown outside of academia.

By the afternoon of the 23rd he was well on the way to becoming the world’s most famous climate scientist. This was as a direct result of his testimony to the US congress, when he forensically presented the evidence that the Earth’s climate was warming and that humans were the primary cause: “The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.”

If we had acted on Hansen’s testimony at the time, we would have been able to decarbonise our societies at a rate of around 2% a year in order to give us about a two-in-three chance of limiting warming to no more than 1.5°C. It would have been a huge challenge, but the main task at that time would have been to simply stop the accelerating use of fossil fuels while fairly sharing out future emissions.

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Graph demonstrating how fast mitigation has to happen to keep to 1.5℃. © Robbie AndrewCC BY

Four years later, there were glimmers of hope that this would be possible. During the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, all nations agreed to stabilise concentrations of greenhouse gases to ensure that they did not produce dangerous interference with the climate. The 1997 Kyoto Summit attempted to start to put that goal into practice. But as the years passed, the initial task of keeping us safe became increasingly harder given the continual increase in fossil fuel use.

It was around that time that the first computer models linking greenhouse gas emissions to impacts on different sectors of the economy were developed. These hybrid climate-economic models are known as Integrated Assessment Models. They allowed modellers to link economic activity to the climate by, for example, exploring how changes in investments and technology could lead to changes in greenhouse gas emissions.

They seemed like a miracle: you could try out policies on a computer screen before implementing them, saving humanity costly experimentation. They rapidly emerged to become key guidance for climate policy. A primacy they maintain to this day.

Unfortunately, they also removed the need for deep critical thinking. Such models represent society as a web of idealised, emotionless buyers and sellers and thus ignore complex social and political realities, or even the impacts of climate change itself. Their implicit promise is that market-based approaches will always work. This meant that discussions about policies were limited to those most convenient to politicians: incremental changes to legislation and taxes.

Around the time they were first developed, efforts were being made to secure US action on the climate by allowing it to count carbon sinks of the country’s forests. The US argued that if it managed its forests well, it would be able to store a large amount of carbon in trees and soil which should be subtracted from its obligations to limit the burning of coal, oil and gas. In the end, the US largely got its way. Ironically, the concessions were all in vain, since the US senate never ratified the agreement.

Aerial view of autumn foliage.
Forests such as this one in Maine, US, were suddenly counted in the carbon budget as an incentive for the US to join the Kyoto Agreement. Inbound Horizons/Shutterstock

Postulating a future with more trees could in effect offset the burning of coal, oil and gas now. As models could easily churn out numbers that saw atmospheric carbon dioxide go as low as one wanted, ever more sophisticated scenarios could be explored which reduced the perceived urgency to reduce fossil fuel use. By including carbon sinks in climate-economic models, a Pandora’s box had been opened.

It’s here we find the genesis of today’s net zero policies.

That said, most attention in the mid-1990s was focused on increasing energy efficiency and energy switching (such as the UK’s move from coal to gas) and the potential of nuclear energy to deliver large amounts of carbon-free electricity. The hope was that such innovations would quickly reverse increases in fossil fuel emissions.

But by around the turn of the new millennium it was clear that such hopes were unfounded. Given their core assumption of incremental change, it was becoming more and more difficult for economic-climate models to find viable pathways to avoid dangerous climate change. In response, the models began to include more and more examples of carbon capture and storage, a technology that could remove the carbon dioxide from coal-fired power stations and then store the captured carbon deep underground indefinitely.

Metal pipes and stacks at a factory site under grey sky.
The Tomakomai carbon, capture and storage test site, Hokkaido, Japan, March 2018. Over its three-year lifetime, it’s hoped that this demonstrator project will capture an amount of carbon approximately 1/100,000 of current global annual emissions. The captured carbon will be piped into geological deposits deep under the sea bed where it will need to remain for centuries. REUTERS/Aaron Sheldrick

This had been shown to be possible in principle: compressed carbon dioxide had been separated from fossil gas and then injected underground in a number of projects since the 1970s. These Enhanced Oil Recovery schemes were designed to force gases into oil wells in order to push oil towards drilling rigs and so allow more to be recovered – oil that would later be burnt, releasing even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Carbon capture and storage offered the twist that instead of using the carbon dioxide to extract more oil, the gas would instead be left underground and removed from the atmosphere. This promised breakthrough technology would allow climate friendly coal and so the continued use of this fossil fuel. But long before the world would witness any such schemes, the hypothetical process had been included in climate-economic models. In the end, the mere prospect of carbon capture and storage gave policy makers a way out of making the much needed cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.

The rise of net zero

When the international climate change community convened in Copenhagen in 2009 it was clear that carbon capture and storage was not going to be sufficient for two reasons.

First, it still did not exist. There were no carbon capture and storage facilities in operation on any coal fired power station and no prospect the technology was going to have any impact on rising emissions from increased coal use in the foreseeable future.

The biggest barrier to implementation was essentially cost. The motivation to burn vast amounts of coal is to generate relatively cheap electricity. Retrofitting carbon scrubbers on existing power stations, building the infrastructure to pipe captured carbon, and developing suitable geological storage sites required huge sums of money. Consequently the only application of carbon capture in actual operation then – and now – is to use the trapped gas in enhanced oil recovery schemes. Beyond a single demonstrator, there has never been any capture of carbon dioxide from a coal fired power station chimney with that captured carbon then being stored underground.

Just as important, by 2009 it was becoming increasingly clear that it would not be possible to make even the gradual reductions that policy makers demanded. That was the case even if carbon capture and storage was up and running. The amount of carbon dioxide that was being pumped into the air each year meant humanity was rapidly running out of time.

With hopes for a solution to the climate crisis fading again, another magic bullet was required. A technology was needed not only to slow down the increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but actually reverse it. In response, the climate-economic modelling community – already able to include plant-based carbon sinks and geological carbon storage in their models – increasingly adopted the “solution” of combining the two.

So it was that Bioenergy Carbon Capture and Storage, or BECCS, rapidly emerged as the new saviour technology. By burning “replaceable” biomass such as wood, crops, and agricultural waste instead of coal in power stations, and then capturing the carbon dioxide from the power station chimney and storing it underground, BECCS could produce electricity at the same time as removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. That’s because as biomass such as trees grow, they suck in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. By planting trees and other bioenergy crops and storing carbon dioxide released when they are burnt, more carbon could be removed from the atmosphere.

With this new solution in hand the international community regrouped from repeated failures to mount another attempt at reining in our dangerous interference with the climate. The scene was set for the crucial 2015 climate conference in Paris.

A Parisian false dawn

As its general secretary brought the 21st United Nations conference on climate change to an end, a great roar issued from the crowd. People leaped to their feet, strangers embraced, tears welled up in eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep.

The emotions on display on December 13, 2015 were not just for the cameras. After weeks of gruelling high-level negotiations in Paris a breakthrough had finally been achieved. Against all expectations, after decades of false starts and failures, the international community had finally agreed to do what it took to limit global warming to well below 2°C, preferably to 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels.

The Paris Agreement was a stunning victory for those most at risk from climate change. Rich industrialised nations will be increasingly impacted as global temperatures rise. But it’s the low lying island states such as the Maldives and the Marshall Islands that are at imminent existential risk. As a later UN special report made clear, if the Paris Agreement was unable to limit global warming to 1.5°C, the number of lives lost to more intense storms, fires, heatwaves, famines and floods would significantly increase.

But dig a little deeper and you could find another emotion lurking within delegates on December 13. Doubt. We struggle to name any climate scientist who at that time thought the Paris Agreement was feasible. We have since been told by some scientists that the Paris Agreement was “of course important for climate justice but unworkable” and “a complete shock, no one thought limiting to 1.5°C was possible”. Rather than being able to limit warming to 1.5°C, a senior academic involved in the IPCC concluded we were heading beyond 3°C by the end of this century.

Instead of confront our doubts, we scientists decided to construct ever more elaborate fantasy worlds in which we would be safe. The price to pay for our cowardice: having to keep our mouths shut about the ever growing absurdity of the required planetary-scale carbon dioxide removal.

Taking centre stage was BECCS because at the time this was the only way climate-economic models could find scenarios that would be consistent with the Paris Agreement. Rather than stabilise, global emissions of carbon dioxide had increased some 60% since 1992.

Alas, BECCS, just like all the previous solutions, was too good to be true.

Across the scenarios produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) with a 66% or better chance of limiting temperature increase to 1.5°C, BECCS would need to remove 12 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. BECCS at this scale would require massive planting schemes for trees and bioenergy crops.

The Earth certainly needs more trees. Humanity has cut down some three trillion since we first started farming some 13,000 years ago. But rather than allow ecosystems to recover from human impacts and forests to regrow, BECCS generally refers to dedicated industrial-scale plantations regularly harvested for bioenergy rather than carbon stored away in forest trunks, roots and soils.

Currently, the two most efficient biofuels are sugarcane for bioethanol and palm oil for biodiesel – both grown in the tropics. Endless rows of such fast growing monoculture trees or other bioenergy crops harvested at frequent intervals devastate biodiversity.

It has been estimated that BECCS would demand between 0.4 and 1.2 billion hectares of land. That’s 25% to 80% of all the land currently under cultivation. How will that be achieved at the same time as feeding 8-10 billion people around the middle of the century or without destroying native vegetation and biodiversity?

Read more: Carbon capture on power stations burning woodchips is not the green gamechanger many think it is

Growing billions of trees would consume vast amounts of water – in some places where people are already thirsty. Increasing forest cover in higher latitudes can have an overall warming effect because replacing grassland or fields with forests means the land surface becomes darker. This darker land absorbs more energy from the Sun and so temperatures rise. Focusing on developing vast plantations in poorer tropical nations comes with real risks of people being driven off their lands.

And it is often forgotten that trees and the land in general already soak up and store away vast amounts of carbon through what is called the natural terrestrial carbon sink. Interfering with it could both disrupt the sink and lead to double accounting.

As these impacts are becoming better understood, the sense of optimism around BECCS has diminished.

Pipe dreams

Given the dawning realisation of how difficult Paris would be in the light of ever rising emissions and limited potential of BECCS, a new buzzword emerged in policy circles: the “overshoot scenario”. Temperatures would be allowed to go beyond 1.5°C in the near term, but then be brought down with a range of carbon dioxide removal by the end of the century. This means that net zero actually means carbon negative. Within a few decades, we will need to transform our civilisation from one that currently pumps out 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, to one that produces a net removal of tens of billions.

Mass tree planting, for bioenergy or as an attempt at offsetting, had been the latest attempt to stall cuts in fossil fuel use. But the ever-increasing need for carbon removal was calling for more. This is why the idea of direct air capture, now being touted by some as the most promising technology out there, has taken hold. It is generally more benign to ecosystems because it requires significantly less land to operate than BECCS, including the land needed to power them using wind or solar panels.

Unfortunately, it is widely believed that direct air capture, because of its exorbitant costs and energy demand, if it ever becomes feasible to be deployed at scale, will not be able to compete with BECCS with its voracious appetite for prime agricultural land.

A man tends plants in a greenhouse.
The Climeworks Gebr. Meier Greenhouse in Hinwil, Zurich. CO2 increases crop yield from direct air capture. Such projects demonstrate exciting possible applications for captured carbon, but there is no prospect they will have any measurable impact on reducing global warming. Orjan Ellingvag/Alamy

It should now be getting clear where the journey is heading. As the mirage of each magical technical solution disappears, another equally unworkable alternative pops up to take its place. The next is already on the horizon – and it’s even more ghastly. Once we realise net zero will not happen in time or even at all, geoengineering – the deliberate and large scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system – will probably be invoked as the solution to limit temperature increases.

One of the most researched geoengineering ideas is solar radiation management – the injection of millions of tons of sulphuric acid into the stratosphere that will reflect some of the Sun’s energy away from the Earth. It is a wild idea, but some academics and politicians are deadly serious, despite significant risks. The US National Academies of Sciences, for example, has recommended allocating up to US$200 million over the next five years to explore how geoengineering could be deployed and regulated. Funding and research in this area is sure to significantly increase.

Difficult truths

In principle there is nothing wrong or dangerous about carbon dioxide removal proposals. In fact developing ways of reducing concentrations of carbon dioxide can feel tremendously exciting. You are using science and engineering to save humanity from disaster. What you are doing is important. There is also the realisation that carbon removal will be needed to mop up some of the emissions from sectors such as aviation and cement production. So there will be some small role for a number of different carbon dioxide removal approaches.

The problems come when it is assumed that these can be deployed at vast scale. This effectively serves as a blank cheque for the continued burning of fossil fuels and the acceleration of habitat destruction.

Carbon reduction technologies and geoengineering should be seen as a sort of ejector seat that could propel humanity away from rapid and catastrophic environmental change. Just like an ejector seat in a jet aircraft, it should only be used as the very last resort. However, policymakers and businesses appear to be entirely serious about deploying highly speculative technologies as a way to land our civilisation at a sustainable destination. In fact, these are no more than fairy tales.

Crowds of young people hold placards.
‘There is no Planet B’: children in Birmingham, UK, protest against the climate crisis. Callum Shaw/UnsplashFAL

The only way to keep humanity safe is the immediate and sustained radical cuts to greenhouse gas emissions in a socially just way.

Academics typically see themselves as servants to society. Indeed, many are employed as civil servants. Those working at the climate science and policy interface desperately wrestle with an increasingly difficult problem. Similarly, those that champion net zero as a way of breaking through barriers holding back effective action on the climate also work with the very best of intentions.

The tragedy is that their collective efforts were never able to mount an effective challenge to a climate policy process that would only allow a narrow range of scenarios to be explored.

Most academics feel distinctly uncomfortable stepping over the invisible line that separates their day job from wider social and political concerns. There are genuine fears that being seen as advocates for or against particular issues could threaten their perceived independence. Scientists are one of the most trusted professions. Trust is very hard to build and easy to destroy.

But there is another invisible line, the one that separates maintaining academic integrity and self-censorship. As scientists, we are taught to be sceptical, to subject hypotheses to rigorous tests and interrogation. But when it comes to perhaps the greatest challenge humanity faces, we often show a dangerous lack of critical analysis.

In private, scientists express significant scepticism about the Paris Agreement, BECCS, offsetting, geoengineering and net zero. Apart from some notable exceptions, in public we quietly go about our work, apply for funding, publish papers and teach. The path to disastrous climate change is paved with feasibility studies and impact assessments.

Rather than acknowledge the seriousness of our situation, we instead continue to participate in the fantasy of net zero. What will we do when reality bites? What will we say to our friends and loved ones about our failure to speak out now?

Banner reads 'Tell the truth 2050 is too late'.
A young woman protests the UK’s target of reaching net zero emissions by 2050, which many believe is too late. Essex, UK, August 10 2020. Avpics/Alamy

The time has come to voice our fears and be honest with wider society. Current net zero policies will not keep warming to within 1.5°C because they were never intended to. They were and still are driven by a need to protect business as usual, not the climate. If we want to keep people safe then large and sustained cuts to carbon emissions need to happen now. That is the very simple acid test that must be applied to all climate policies. The time for wishful thinking is over. 

Sunday, April 25, 2021

3498. Pacific Northwest’s ‘Forest Gardens’ Were Deliberately Planted by Indigenous People

By Andrew Curry, Science Magazine, April 22, 2021

For decades, First Nations people in British Columbia knew their ancestral homes—villages forcibly emptied in the late 1800s—were great places to forage for traditional foods like hazelnuts, crabapples, cranberries, and hawthorn. A new study reveals that isolated patches of fruit trees and berry bushes in the region’s hemlock and cedar forests were deliberately planted by Indigenous peoples in and around their settlements more than 150 years ago. It’s one of the first times such “forest gardens” have been identified outside the tropics, and it shows that people were capable of changing forests in long-lasting, productive ways.

“It’s very creative and sort of unique work,” says University of Kansas, Lawrence, plant ecologist Kelly Kindscher, who was not involved in the research. “Many of us know there are historical imprints on the land, but tend to dismiss Native Americans and Aboriginal people globally in terms of their impact.”

Because these wild-looking forest gardens don’t fit conventional Western notions of agriculture, it took a long time for researchers to recognize them as a human-created landscape at all. Many ecologists argued until recently that such islands of biodiversity, seen also in Central and South America’s tropical rainforests, were an accidental and fleeting byproduct of fire, floods, or land clearing. Without constant maintenance, ecologists assumed, the “natural” forest would quickly take over.

To show that the forest gardens were the result of human activity, Simon Fraser University historical ecologist Chelsey Geralda Armstrong first identified village sites near the city of Vancouver, Canada, and two closer to Alaska that local tribes were forced to abandon in the late 1800s.

Counting and identifying the species growing on and around the former settlement sites, she found they harbored a far more diverse mix of plants than the surrounding conifer forests. The plant species also filled a wider range of ecological niches. “It’s striking to see how different forest gardens were from the surrounding forest, even after more than a century,” says Jesse Miller, a Stanford University biologist and co-author on the study.

Meanwhile, nearby patches of land logged decades ago and left to regrow on their own were covered with just a few species of conifers and didn’t have the same colorful, edible catalog of species. “The forest gardens bucked the trend,” Armstrong says.

That suggests the forest gardens were not only deliberately cultivated by Indigenous gardeners, but also remained resilient in the face of dominant local flora long after people left the scene, the researchers report today in Ecology and Society. The mix of different species was probably key to their persistence, Miller says: “There’s less open niche space, so it’s harder for new species to come in.”

The forest gardens were filled with plants that benefited humans, but they also continue to provide food for birds, bears, and insect pollinators, even after 150 years of neglect. It’s evidence that human impact on the environment can have long-lasting positive effects. “A lot of functional diversity studies have a ‘humans are bad for the environment’ approach,” Armstrong says. “This shows humans have the ability to not just allow biodiversity to flourish, but to be a part of it.”

Other researchers say the findings could help boost the case that Indigenous knowledge has an important place in conservation efforts. “Anthropologists and archaeologists have been arguing in favor of this, but there’s been a lot of resistance from ecologists over the past 20 years,” says Patrick Roberts, an archaeologist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History who was not involved in the research. This study, he says, is an important piece of evidence showing human modification can add value to ecosystems.

It also helps explain a mystery that puzzled many European anthropologists when they first visited the Pacific Northwest in the late 1800s. Despite the absence of what the Europeans considered “agriculture”—cultivated fields and annual cycles of planting and harvesting—the tribes they encountered were socially complex, with large, sedentary populations and hierarchical societies. “That stumped a lot of anthropologists,” who thought Western forms of agriculture were necessary for complex societies, Armstrong says. “Now we know it wasn’t just salmon.”

Thursday, April 15, 2021

3497. Villagers & Pillagers: Who Will Survive the Collapse?

By Craig Collins, Counterpunch, March 19, 2021

Unless you live in a state of denial you’re probably like me, troubled about the future. There’s not much left of mine, but my daughter’s generation and their children will have to survive the aftermath of fossil-fueled civilization on the ravaged, toxic planet we’ve left them. How will that look? Will democratic eco-settlements rise from the ruins, gain a foothold, and begin healing the planet? Or will tribal warlords rule the rubble?

Some folks, with the aid of renewable energy, permaculture, and other adaptive Green technologies, are already preparing for collapse by vastly improving upon the “back to the land” communes the young utopians of the Woodstock generation once created. Back then, dropping out of consumer capitalism and living on the throw-aways of American affluence wasn’t very hard. Here in northern California, the Diggers’ collective and the novice farmers of Morningstar Ranch shared whatever they could score from Goodwill, rescue from dumpsters, harvest with their limited gardening skills, or make with the aid of the Whole Earth Catalog. And, if communal life became too difficult, dropping back in was easy. No one was preparing to survive the collapse of industrial civilization. They believed automation and abundance would soon make workplace drudgery unnecessary.[1]

Today, a new generation of ecovillagers embraces the same anti-consumerist convictions. But the world has changed. Mother Earth is in critical condition. America is no longer awash in cheap energy; economic growth has flat-lined; upward mobility has gone into reverse. For now, most Americans get by with shabbier versions of daily life and cling to the hope that sooner or later progress will resume. But denial won’t stop carbon-addicted civilization from breaking down as it trashes the planet. The day is quickly approaching when energy scarcity, ecological disasters, global pandemics, economic crashes, and political mayhem will make business-as-usual impossible. Consequently, yesteryear’s counter-culture utopians have morphed into a new generation of dedicated eco-survivalists determined to live well with less and heal the planet.

Some Green survivalists have already decided to sever most of their ties with industrial society and begin living off the grid. Experimental efforts, like ecovillages and lifeboat communities, that strive to become as Earth-friendly, resilient, and sustainable as possible have sprouted all over the planet.[2] Others have organized grassroots initiatives to transition their communities, cities, and states away from dependence on a climate-disrupting global economy addicted to fossil fuels.[3]

After a year like 2020, the number of people who consider themselves survivalists has risen dramatically.[4] Unlike most Americans, survivalists don’t assume their communities won’t be ravaged by pandemics or slammed by hurricanes, floods, droughts, or wildfires. They anticipate a time when we may not find food in the supermarkets, clean water in the faucets, electricity in the power lines, gas in the pumps, money in the ATMs, and medicine in the pharmacies and hospitals.

But so far, most survivalists are short-term “preppers.” They’re preparing to weather passing disasters, not the prolonged collapse of industrial civilization. They’re readying themselves, as individuals, families, or small groups, for temporary calamities like earthquakes, pandemics, climate disasters, or economic crises. They focus on stockpiling food, water, and other necessities; arming themselves; and gaining survival skills and emergency medical training.

Wealthy preppers may try to become more self-sufficient by building retreats, bunkers, or underground shelters to outlast more extensive catastrophes. Some even plan to be ready if the banking system implodes, credit freezes, financial assets vaporize, currency values fluctuate wildly, trade shuts down, and governments crumble or impose draconian measures to maintain their authority. But short-term preppers aren’t trying to build the transitional settlements that will shape life after industrial civilization.

Unlike preppers, Green survivalists are creating alternatives to industrial civilization. They are building permanent ecovillages—settlements designed to become “thriving models of a future world.”[5] Although today’s ecovillages sprout on the experimental fringe of society, their future success is vital because the crucial skills needed to survive system failure are becoming more urgent every day. Their survival and recovery strategy calls for reweaving the relationships and relearning the skills our pre-industrial ancestors used to grow and preserve food; make clothing and tools; construct homes and workshops; generate renewable energy, recycle resources, and create a lively Earth honoring culture.[6]

Green survivalists hope humans will wake up to their universal peril, overcome their addiction to fossil fuels, and ditch the ecocidal economy that pursues profit at the expense of people and the planet. To create a sustainable alternative, these “bioneers” are committed to healing humanity’s toxic relationship with the Earth by integrating the wisdom of indigenous cultures with the most useful insights of science and ecology.[7] Ecovillagers hope to lessen the severity of the impending collapse by initiating a cooperative contraction toward simpler, more locally resilient societies that thrive within the carrying capacity of their bioregion.[8] Green survivalists believe a network of ecovillages can provide Earth-friendly lifeboats for the Titanic shipwreck of industrial civilization.[9]

Ecovillage bioneers pursue a vast array of skills like permaculture, habitat restoration, rainwater catchment, and beekeeping; woodworking, masonry, ceramics, and tool making; alternative energy generation, solar ovens, and passive solar construction; acupuncture, herbal healing, and midwifery. Ecovillagers favor democratic decision-making and egalitarian social relations that strive to eliminate class, race, and gender hierarchies.

Unfortunately, ecovillagers are oblivious to, and woefully unprepared for, a looming threat to the future they hope to create. While they hone their abilities to live peacefully with each other and the planet, other survivalists intend to stay alive through plunder and pillage. Instead of permaculture and renewable energy, tribal survivalists prize weaponry, warfare, and military might. Their survivalist manuals and clandestine training programs emphasize close-quarter combat, tactical gear, firearms training, kidnapping, and urban guerilla tactics; sniping, chemical weapons, incendiary materials, explosive devices, and booby-traps; fortifications and body armor; surveillance, short wave communication, and cyber warfare.[10]

There are several brands of tribal survivalism. But most believe the world is destined to become a battleground—a war between clashing religions, races, nationalities, and civilizations. Christian tribalists stress their religious identity and envision some biblical version of apocalyptic survivalism.[11] Others prepare to win a bloody race war or a battle for national supremacy, and some believe the survival of Western civilization is their holy crusade.

While the narratives vary, each version of the coming collapse calls for tribalists to vanquish their enemies and assert their supremacy.[12] Tribalism is usually some mixture of ultra-conservative religious, racial, and nationalist ideology. Often, race, religion, and nationality are fused into a broader tribal identity.[13] They believe Western civilization is crumbling under the decadent influence of Godless humanism, globalism, communism, race mixing, multi-culturalism, and an excess of Jews and non-white people.[14] They encourage white Christian patriots to take up arms against the global Jewish Illuminati and purge Western civilization of communists, eco-freaks, Muslim jihadists, and the invading “mud races” from “inferior” civilizations.[15]

Tribalists all share a belief in the superiority of their select group and their determination to prevail over others by any means necessary. To survive collapse, they commit themselves to a fierce battle for supremacy and control over dwindling resources. Tribal “accelerationists” plan to sow chaos and plunder their way to power by sabotaging society, fomenting conflict, disrupting governments, seizing land and resources, and eliminating, expelling, or enslaving anyone outside their exclusive racial, religious, or patriotic minions.[16]

Some tribalists intend to claim a specific territory for their homeland. Others want the entire planet. Survivalist militias like the Northwest Front, the Base, and Aryan Nations, plan to impose a white ethno-nation upon the inhabitants of the Northwest through terrorist sabotage and guerrilla warfare. Inspired by Harold Covington’s neo-Nazi novel, The Northwest Imperative, a growing number of ├╝ber reactionaries have designated the American northwest as their point of retreat when banks fail, power grids go down, and the government declares martial law. The Northwest Front’s website declares, “Our long term goal is to present the government of the United States with a situation whereby the struggle to retain the Northwest becomes politically and financially insupportable.”[17]

The same territory has become a popular potential homeland for faith-based tribalists who claim to prioritize religion over race. American Redoubt is a political-religious migration movement founded by militant survivalist James Wesley Rawles. Like the white nationalists, Rawles designates eastern Oregon and Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming as a haven for conservative, libertarian-leaning Christians and Jews. He claims his American Redoubt Movement, “is analogous to the Puritan exodus from Europe. They couldn’t fit in and said, ‘We’re going to move to completely virgin territory and start afresh.’…In effect, we’re becoming pistol-packing Amish.”[18]

Other tribalists, like Ben Klassen, the founder of the Church of the Creator, fuse racial and religious tribalism and deplore the notion of limiting their supremacy to some territory smaller than planet Earth. In Klassen’s words, “We are determined that the winner take all—that the White Race must colonize, occupy, and inhabit all—and we mean all—the beneficent territory of the Planet Earth…The White Race will either take all, inhabit all, or we will drown in a sea of mud races. The world is becoming far too crowded to support both us and them.”[19]

Tribal survivalists deplore democracy and have nothing but contempt for the ecovillagers’ inclusive egalitarianism survivalism. They uphold the rule of authoritarian overlords who dominate through racial, religious, or political indoctrination and intimidation. Unwavering loyalty is fostered through fear of dissent and the vilification of “outsiders” who supposedly threaten the tribe’s survival.

Unlike tribalism, Green survivalism fosters a sense of empathic solidarity based on our universal humanity and our common ecological predicament. Eco-survivalists prioritize the fact that, first and foremost, we are all human beings struggling to survive on a degraded planet. They seek non-violent coexistence between people, not a battle for tribal supremacy. Yet, by their very existence, ecovillagers’ commitment to peaceful, cooperative, human survival poses a fundamental threat to exclusive, supremacist tribal doctrines.

Make no mistake, tribal survivalists hate environmentalist “Greenies” of all shades. They believe their tribal militias need to be armed and ready to defend their way of life from eco-terrorists, climate crazies, and other “Green totalitarians.”[20] For them, global environmental crises like climate chaos and massive extinctions are junk science. They believe UN bureaucrats, eco-liberals, and New World Order totalitarians have concocted these fake threats to undermine American sovereignty and impose “a comprehensive plan of utopian environmentalism, social engineering, and global political control.”[21]

America-first tribalists consider ecovillagers part of this New World Order’s insidious plot to herd Americans into crowded “habitat zones” so that the rest of the planet can be devoted to wildlife preservation.[22] They believe Americans will be evicted from their suburban dream homes, herded into urban “hobbit homes,” and forced to abandon their pick-ups and SUVs for bicycles and mass transit.[23]

In the twisted, fearful logic of patriotic tribalists, ecovillagers are engaged in a totalitarian socialist conspiracy to rob white Christian Americans of their carbon-addicted, consumerist lifestyle. For them, it is irrelevant that suburban America is unsustainable, ecocidal, and doomed to obsolesce. They blame ecovillagers for threatening the American way of life, instead of providing a resilient alternative to industrial collapse. This amounts to blaming the firefighters for causing the fire.

The fundamental incompatibility between tribalist and Green survivalism means that the “live and let live” eco-survivalist ethic will not be honored or tolerated by warlike tribalists. Today ecovillages are shielded by the government’s ability to contain and punish paramilitary tribalist violence. However, as modern civilization unravels and government’s capacity to restrain tribalist violence fails, thriving ecovillage settlements will become targets—vulnerable to attack, pillage, and destruction.

Like it or not, ecovillagers will be forced to defend themselves from conquest and plunder or face enslavement or extermination. To avoid the fate of slaves, medieval serfs, or Native American tribes, ecovillagers and their allies will have to develop strategies to repel tribalist violence. Those who believe that today’s ecovillage experiments are “thriving models of a future world” ignore tribalism’s emerging danger at their peril. Because, if things fall apart as they expect in the not too distant future, there will be no government around to protect them.


[1] Diaz, Tom et. al. Home Free Home: A History of Two Open-Door California Communes. (Friends of Morningstar, 2017).

[2] Litfin, Karen. Eco-villages: Lessons for a Sustainable Community. (Polity Press, 2014): 9-11.

[3] “A Movement Of Communities Coming Together To Reimagine And Rebuild Our World”

[4] Castillo, Michelle. “Why Many Are Becoming Preppers During the Pandemic,” Cheddar (Sept. 3, 2020):

[5] In 2014, Karen Litfin estimated the number to be about 2 million, but ecovillages have grown substantially since then. The number of off-grid ecovillagers around the world, while growing, probably totals less than 3 million. Litfin, Karen. Eco-villages: Lessons for a Sustainable Community. (Polity Press, 2014): 187.

[6] “What is an Ecovillage?”

[7] Litfin, Karen. Eco-villages: Lessons for a Sustainable Community. (Polity Press, 2014).

[8] The Global Alternative Society Movement includes a variety of initiatives such as Ecovillages, Transition Towns, Voluntary Simplicity, Community Supported Agriculture, farmers markets, land trusts, local economic development and alternative technologies.

[9] Global Ecovillage Network.

[10] Velocity, Max. Contact! A Tactical Manual for Post Collapse Survival (Independent Publisher, 2012); Field Manual of the Free Militia (1994):

[11] Foster, Brian (aka Zion Prepper) & Calista Carole Foster. The Christian Prepper’s Handbook, 2nd ed. (self published, 2013).

[12] For an overview see: Lamy, Philip. Millennium Rage: Survivalists, White Supremacists, & the Doomsday Prophecy (Pelnum Press, 1996).

[13] This fusionist sense of tribal identity is expressed in acronyms like “ORION” Our Race Is Our Nation.

[14] Lamy, Philip. Millennium Rage: Survivalists, White Supremacists, & the Doomsday Prophecy (Pelnum Press, 1996).

[15] Andres, James. From Mainstream to Fringe Conspiracy: Examining White Supremacist Literature Before and After the Civil-Rights Movement, Masters Thesis (Western Michigan University, 2019):

[16] Collins, Craig. “Can We Exit This Road to Ruin?” Resilience (Feb. 16, 2021): ; Huffman, Greg. “Far-Right Accelerationists Hope To Spark The Next U.S. Civil War,” Facing South (Feb. 3, 2021):

[17] The Northwest Front Handbook

[18] MacDonald, G. Jeffrey. “Secession Theology Runs Deep In American Religious, Political History” St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Nov. 30, 2012):

[19] Klassen, Ben. On the Brink of a Bloody Racial War. (Church of the Creator, 1993): 21.

[20] Sunshine, Spencer. “A Guide to Oregon’s Patriot Movement,” Up In Arms:

[21] Erickson, Amanda. “Trump’s Climate Change Shift Is Really About Killing The International Order,”Washington Post (March 29, 2017).

[22] Koire, Rosa. Behind the Green Mask: Agenda 21 (The Post Sustainability Press, 2011).

[23] As proof they cite Agenda 21, a nonbinding UN planning paper signed by the first president Bush back in 1992. To hear them tell it, Agenda 21 poses the “most dangerous threat to America’s sovereignty” and will lead to a “new Dark Ages of pain and misery yet unknown to mankind.” Tea Party tribalists successfully lobbied the Republican National Committee to denounce Agenda 21 as a “destructive and insidious scheme” meant to impose a “socialist-communist redistribution of wealth” on America. See: Koire, Rosa. Behind the Green Mask: Agenda 21 (The Post Sustainability Press, 2011). In reality Agenda 21 is not even a treaty. It has no legal force, no enforcement mechanisms, no penalties, and no significant funding. It is not even a top-down recommendation. It merely encourages communities around the world to come up with their own solutions to overpopulation, pollution, poverty, and resource depletion. It is a feel-good guide that cannot force anyone, anywhere, to do anything. And it has succeeded in forcing people to do just that—absolutely nothing.