What if some forms of limited resistance were undertaken? What if there was a serious aboveground resistance movement combined with a small group of underground networks working in tandem? (This still would not be a majority movement—this is extrapolation, not fantasy.) What if those movements combined their grand strategy? The abovegrounders would work to build sustainable and just communities wherever they were, and would use both direct and indirect action to try to curb the worst excesses of those in power, to reduce the burning of fossil fuels, to struggle for social and ecological justice. Meanwhile, the undergrounders would engage in limited attacks on infrastructure (often in tandem with aboveground struggles), especially energy infrastructure, to try to reduce fossil fuel consumption and overall industrial activity. The overall thrust of this plan would be to use selective attacks to accelerate collapse in a deliberate way, like shoving a rickety building.
If this scenario occurred, the first years would play out similarly. It would take time to build up resistance and to ally existing resistance groups into a larger strategy. Furthermore, civilization at the peak of its power would be too strong to bring down with only partial resistance. The years around 2011 to 2015 would still see the impact of peak oil and the beginning of an economic tailspin, but in this case there would be surgical attacks on energy infrastructure that limited new fossil fuel extraction (with a focus on the nastier practices like mountain-top removal and tar sands). Some of these attacks would be conducted by existing resistance groups (like MEND) and some by newer groups, including groups in the minority world of the rich and powerful. The increasing shortage of oil would make pipeline and infrastructure attacks more popular with militant groups of all stripes. During this period, militant groups would organize, practice, and learn.
These attacks would not be symbolic attacks. They would be serious attacks designed to be effective but timed and targeted to minimize the amount of “collateral damage” on humans. They would mostly constitute forms of sabotage. They would be intended to cut fossil fuel consumption by some 30 percent within the first few years, and more after that. There would be similar attacks on energy infrastructure like power transmission lines. Because these attacks would cause a significant but incomplete reduction in the availability of energy in many places, a massive investment in local renewable energy (and other measures like passive solar heating or better insulation in some areas) would be provoked. This would set in motion a process of political and infrastructural decentralization. It would also result in political repression and real violence targeting those resisters.
Meanwhile, aboveground groups would be making the most of the economic turmoil. There would be a growth in class consciousness and organization. Labor and poverty activists would increasingly turn to community sufficiency. Local food and self-sufficiency activists would reach out to people who have been pushed out of capitalism. The unemployed and underemployed—rapidly growing in number—would start to organize a subsistence and trade economy outside of capitalism. Mutual aid and skill sharing would be promoted. In the previous scenario, the development of these skills was hampered in part by a lack of access to land. In this scenario, however, aboveground organizers would learn from groups like the Landless Workers Movement in Latin America. Mass organization and occupation of lands would force governments to cede unused land for “victory garden”—style allotments, massive community gardens, and cooperative subsistence farms.
The situation in many third world countries could actually improve because of the global economic collapse. Minority world countries would no longer enforce crushing debt repayment and structural adjustment programs, nor would CIA goons be able to prop up “friendly” dictatorships. The decline of export-based economies would have serious consequences, yes, but it would also allow land now used for cash crops to return to subsistence farms.
Industrial agriculture would falter and begin to collapse. Synthetic fertilizers would become increasingly expensive and would be carefully conserved where they are used, limiting nutrient runoff and allowing oceanic dead zones to recover. Hunger would be reduced by subsistence farming and by the shift of small farms toward more traditional work by hand and by draft horse, but food would be more valuable and in shorter supply.
Even a 50 percent cut in fossil fuel consumption wouldn’t stave off widespread hunger and die-off. As we have discussed, the vast majority of all energy used goes to nonessentials. In the US, the agricultural sector accounts for less than 2 percent of all energy use, including both direct consumption (like tractor fuel and electricity for barns and pumps) and indirect consumption (like synthetic fertilizers and pesticides).12 That’s true even though industrial agriculture is incredibly inefficient and spends something like ten calories of fossil fuel energy for every food calorie produced. Residential energy consumption accounts for only 20 percent of US total usage, with industrial, commercial, and transportation consumption making up the majority of all consumption.13 And most of that residential energy goes into household appliances like dryers, air conditioning, and water heating for inefficiently used water. The energy used for lighting and space heating could be itself drastically reduced through trivial measures like lowering thermostats and heating the spaces people actually live in. (Most don’t bother to do these now, but in a collapse situation they will do that and more.)
Only a small fraction of fossil fuel energy actually goes into basic subsistence, and even that is used inefficiently. A 50 percent decline in fossil fuel energy could be readily adapted to form a subsistence perspective (if not financial one). Remember that in North America, 40 percent of all food is simply wasted. Of course, poverty and hunger have much more to do with power over people than with the kind of power measured in watts. Even now at the peak of energy consumption, a billion people go hungry. So if people are hungry or cold because of selective militant attacks on infrastructure, that will be a direct result of the actions of those in power, not of the resisters.
In fact, even if you want humans to be able to use factories to build windmills and use tractors to help grow food over the next fifty years, forcing an immediate cut in fossil fuel consumption should be at the top of your to-do list. Right now most of the energy is being wasted on plastic junk, too-big houses for rich people, bunker buster bombs, and predator drones. The only way to ensure there is some oil left for basic survival transitions in twenty years is to ensure that it isn’t being squandered now. The US military is the single biggest oil user in the world. Do you want to have to tell kids twenty years from now that they don’t have enough to eat because all the energy was spent on pointless neocolonial wars?
Back to the scenario. In some areas, increasingly abandoned suburbs (unlivable without cheap gas) would be taken over, as empty houses would become farmhouses, community centers, and clinics, or would be simply dismantled and salvaged for material. Garages would be turned into barns—most people couldn’t afford gasoline anyway—and goats would be grazed in parks. Many roads would be torn up and returned to pasture or forest. These reclaimed settlements would not be high-tech. The wealthy enclaves may have their solar panels and electric windmills, but most unemployed people wouldn’t be able to afford such things. In some cases these communities would become relatively autonomous. Their social practices and equality would vary based on the presence of people willing to assert human rights and social justice. People would have to resist vigorously whenever racism and xenophobia are used as excuses for injustice and authoritarianism.
Attacks on energy infrastructure would become more common as oil supplies diminish. In some cases, these attacks would be politically motivated, and in others they would be intended to tap electricity or pipelines for poor people. These attacks would steepen the energy slide initially. This would have significant economic impacts, but it would also turn the tide on population growth. The world population would peak sooner, and peak population would be smaller (by perhaps a billion) than it was in the “no resistance” scenario. Because a sharp collapse would happen earlier than it otherwise would have, there would be more intact land in the world per person, and more people who still know how to do subsistence farming.
The presence of an organized militant resistance movement would provoke a reaction from those in power. Some of them would use resistance as an excuse to seize more power to institute martial law or overt fascism. Some of them would make use of the economic and social crises rippling across the globe. Others wouldn’t need an excuse.
Authoritarians would seize power where they could, and try to in almost every country. However, they would be hampered by aboveground and underground resistance, and by decentralization and the emergence of autonomous communities. In some countries, mass mobilizations would stop potential dictators. In others, the upsurge in resistance would dissolve centralized state rule, resulting in the emergence of regional confederations in some places and in warlords in others. In unlucky countries, authoritarianism would take power. The good news is that people would have resistance infrastructure in place to fight and limit the spread of authoritarians, and authoritarians would have not developed as much technology of control as they did in the “no resistance” scenario.
There would still be refugees flooding out of many areas (including urban areas). The reduction in greenhouse gas emissions caused by attacks on industrial infrastructures would reduce or delay climate catastrophe. Networks of autonomous subsistence communities would be able to accept and integrate some of these people. In the same way that rooted plants can prevent a landslide on a steep slope, the cascades of refugees would be reduced in some areas by willing communities. In other areas, the numbers of refugees would be too much to cope with effectively.14
The development of biofuels (and the fate of tropical forests) is uncertain. Remaining centralized states—though they may be smaller and less powerful—would still want to squeeze out energy from wherever they could. Serious militant resistance—in many cases insurgency and guerilla warfare—would be required to stop industrialists from turning tropical forests into plantations or extracting coal at any cost. In this scenario, resistance would still be limited, and it is questionable whether that level of militancy would be effectively mustered.
This means that the long-term impacts of the greenhouse effect would be uncertain. Fossil fuel burning would have to be kept to an absolute minimum to avoid a runaway greenhouse effect. That could prove very difficult.
But if a runaway greenhouse effect could be avoided, many areas could be able to recover rapidly. A return to perennial polycultures, implemented by autonomous communities, could help reverse the greenhouse effect. The oceans would look better quickly, aided by a reduction in industrial fishing and the end of the synthetic fertilizer runoff that creates so many dead zones now.
The likelihood of nuclear war would be much lower than in the “no resistance” scenario. Refugee cascades in South Asia would be diminished. Overall resource consumption would be lower, so resource wars would be less likely to occur. And militaristic states would be weaker and fewer in number. Nuclear war wouldn’t be impossible, but if it did happen, it could be less severe.
There are many ways in which this scenario is appealing. But it has problems as well, both in implementation and in plausibility. One problem is with the integration of aboveground and underground action. Most aboveground environmental organizations are currently opposed to any kind of militancy. This could hamper the possibility of strategic cooperation between underground militants and aboveground groups that could mobilize greater numbers. (It would also doom our aboveground groups to failure as their record so far demonstrates.)
It’s also questionable whether the cut in fossil fuel consumption described here would be sufficient to avoid runaway global warming. If runaway global warming does take place, all of the beneficial work of the abovegrounders would be wiped out. The converse problem is that a steeper decline in fossil fuel consumption would very possibly result in significant human casualties and deprivation. It’s also possible that the mobilization of large numbers of people to subsistence farming in a short time is unrealistic. By the time most people are willing to take that step, it could be too late.
So while in some ways this scenario represents an ideal compromise—a win-win situation for humans and the planet—it could just as easily be a lose-lose situation without serious and timely action. That brings us to our last scenario, one of all-out resistance and attacks on infrastructure intended to guarantee the survival of a livable planet.