Michael Mobbs has triggered an important conversation by “coming out” as a climate survivalist. He expects “societal collapse … a total breakdown within the next three to five years”, so he’s selling his ground-breaking and beautiful off-grid sustainable home in Chippendale and planning to move to the New South Wales South Coast.
Mobbs has contributed an enormous amount over many years, but this latest intervention is deeply problematic. It is wrong in fact and wrong in approach, and could contribute to making an already bad situation worse.
While climate breakdown is well under way, and societal collapse is a very real possibility within my lifetime if not necessarily his, there is no serious projection to justify a timeframe as short as three to five years for total breakdown. And the approach of running for the hills (or the coast) is neither sensible nor helpful. It only makes societal collapse more likely, by curtailing action and dividing the community even further. And, in that scenario, it won’t even help you survive.
Far be it from me to criticise Mobbs’ personal choice here. His exhaustion and lack of hope is completely understandable. He has been actively working for solutions to ecological destruction for decades, leading whole communities towards action, while being ignored by the vast majority.
Some of the responses to his declaration, suggesting his approach has been an individualist one ignoring the need for collective action, are ignorant of his work. Mobbs has been working for collective action, using his own personal action as an inspiring example to support others to follow suit and work together for systemic change, as all effective collective organising does. In this way, he has driven vital shifts in building regulations, and more important shifts in understandings of how we humans can and should live as part of the natural world rather than trying to separate ourselves from it. Ecological thinking teaches us that all collective action is made up of interwoven and interlinked individual action. As Greta Thunberg says: “We need system change rather than individual change, but you can’t have one without the other.”
If we’re to survive in the far-less-hospitable world that two centuries of institutionalised greed, selfishness and short-sightedness have bequeathed us, it will only be together. It will only be by using the coming years to cultivate resilient, cohesive, cooperative, equitable communities, embedded in the natural world.
That’s why, while Mobbs is of course entitled to choose to retire with our thanks for what he’s achieved, the criticism of his public declaration of survivalism as embedded in a culture of white supremacy and the right of wealth is also entirely legitimate.
Survivalist retreat shuts off the possibility of action. It assumes that there is no longer any chance of preventing catastrophe, that there is nothing left to be done, that no action to reduce our impact will have any effect. While the scientists whose research I read and who I speak to are increasingly desperate, none condone this view. All argue that, even if we were to pull out all stops now and drive the fastest and largest transition in human history, we will still face severe impacts for generations to come. We will almost certainly lose all corals, including the Great Barrier Reef, for example. Fires and storms and droughts will continue to get more intense and frequent. Make no mistake, things will be bad. But, if we act fast, it doesn’t have to mean extinction. The worst thing to do right now would be to cut off that option and give in to those who want to keep milking profits out of the destruction of our only home. That only makes it less likely that any of us will survive.
Retreat, of course, by definition, is only available to a select few. This is why the focus of the responses to Mobbs’ declaration from the left, in particular Amy Gray’s searing critique, attack it as inequitable and racist. My addendum is that just as survivalism makes extinction more likely by cutting off the option of action, dividing our society even further makes societal collapse even more likely. This would be the worst outcome of all.
At this point in history, now that we have locked in ecological disruption on a scale our species has never known, we must learn the lessons of ecology. And the number one lesson is that resilience is the key. Resilience, not dominance, is the real strength, especially in hard times. And the secret to resilience is connected diversity, cohesion, cooperative coexistence.
That means that in many ways our most important task right now is to build social cohesion while learning to live within natural limits. Luckily, there are ways of making sure that the two go hand in hand. Whether it’s urban community agriculture or local sharing and repair groups; whether it’s models of participatory democracy like Voices for Indi or community renewable energy cooperatives; whether it’s stripping corporations of the rights of legal personhood unless they properly respect social and environmental norms, supporting worker- and user-owned cooperatives to compete with them, or prioritising the long-term interests of traditional owners and workers over the profits of fossil fuel corporations; all these point the way towards holding off the worst ecological impacts of climate disruption while building the resilience to avoid the societal collapse it could trigger.
If, at this moment, we turn even more against each other, we have no future. The strongest will survive for a while. Then they, too, will be lost.
In reality, Michael Mobbs’ solution of urban living in harmony with the natural world, brought together with deep democracy and cultivating social cohesion, is the only path to survival.
Teaser photo credit: By JasonWeingart – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0