Civilisation Retreats, Wildness Persists

We are reposting this text in fragments (as is our nature) in relation to resurgent theorytwitter buzz for the essay. Read the original in full: here.

All comments and discussion welcome.


Desert, by Anonymous

5. Civilisation Retreats, Wildness Persists

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

— Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1817

Empires spread deserts which they cannot survive
Read it in the ruins of Ur and Mu Us, the desertified fields of Wadi Faynan [78] and the Techuacan Valley. [79] Empires spread deserts which they cannot survive. Raids, insurrections and desertion often mark the fall of civilisations but the real ground work for their destruction has always been done by their own leaders, workers and zeks. We are all working towards the destruction of our civilisations. [80]

“Civilised man has marched across the face of the earth and left a desert in his footprints.” [81]

The extent to which global heating will cause the expansion of hot deserts is unknown but that they will do so — and drastically — is a pretty safe bet. The interaction of soil, climate and civil power will continue to be a dominant factor determining both history and the opening up of territory for freer lives. That agricultural systems will fail as the arid worlds spread means that, once again, civilisations will have to retreat from much of their previously conquered lands. In some places this will be total, in others a matter of degrees.
In my mother tongue deserts are uninhabitable, abandoned, deserted ; but by whom? Not by the coyotes or the cactus wrens. Not by the harvester ants or the rattlesnakes. Not by the namib quicksteps, the meercats, the acacias, the tahrs, the sandgrouse and the red kangaroos. Deserts and arid environments generally are often biologically diverse, though by their nature, the life is sparser than in other biomes. While some desert areas are lifeless, in most communities of animals, birds, insects, bacteria and plants run, fly, crawl, spread and grow in lives unordered, undomesticated by civilisation. Wildness is in us and all around us. The battle to contain and control it is the constant labour of civilisation. When that battle is lost and the fields are deserted, wildness persists.

Behind the dust, meanwhile, under the vulture-haunted sky, the desert waits — mesas, butte, canyon, reef, sink, escarpment, pinnacle, maze, dry lake, sand dune and Barren Mountain. [82]

Nomadic freedoms and the collapse of agriculture
I remember sitting crouched in the red, under the hot sun, the wind low, the silence of the desert was absolute… or it would have been if it wasn’t, of course, for all the gossiping. There are people here, not all deserts are unliveable, but for states a surplus is barely possible. The sparseness of life favours nomadism — whether by herders, foragers, travellers or traders.

No one can live this life and emerge unchanged. They will carry, however faint, the imprint of the desert, the brand which marks the nomad. [83]

While the concentration of power can arise in any society with some level of domestication, overall the more nomadic a people the more independent they are likely to be. Governments know this as can be witnessed by the widespread attempts to settle their desert nomad problems. Whether it is the obstinate survival of Aboriginal life ways in Australia, [84] the uncompromising resistance of the Apache led by Victorio or the recent Tuareg insurrection in the Sahara, nomads are often adept at fight and/or flight.
Helene Claudot-Hawad says in a discussion of Tuareg conflict with modern states that: “State boundaries have by definition a fixed, immovable and intangible line, and are purposefully made not to be transgressed. They separate what are meant to be mutually opposing entities.” [85] That the resistant independence of nomads is often mixed with a practical disbelief in borders makes them threatening to the very ideological basis of governments.
Global heating will stimulate transformations in human land uses. As noted in the previous chapter, in some places peasant self-sufficiency will likely replace export orientated monoculture, while in others withered crops may be replaced by animal husbandry. In the expanding arid zones a good proportion of those who successfully adapt may do so by embracing nomadic freedoms and transhumant pastoral subsistence. [86] In others still, nomadic pastoralists and agriculturalists may revert to hunter-gathering.
For most of our species’ existence, all were foragers and wilderness was our home. Hunter-gatherer societies include the most egalitarian on earth [87]and where such cultures have survived to modern times they have done so in areas remote from centralised power and often unsuitable for agriculture. For example the Spinfex people of the Great Victoria Desert have been able to continue their traditional lives despite the advent of Australia’, as their homelands are so barren that it is not even suitable for pastoralism. [88] The !Kung too, managed to live well and free as gather-hunters in a very harsh environment — the Kalahari. [89]
When agriculturalists face extreme food stress or external violence, foraging is an adaptive strategy that has been turned to many times. For some this may be temporary, for others permanent. Thus, with spreading desertification we could see, in some places, a spreading desertion from civilisation to something resembling our original anarchist wild-life. Whole new bands of foragers may evolve following collapses of agricultural viability and the retraction of exuberant, energy rich state powers. Given the present condition of many arid zone pastoralists and foragers it is more likely that in most cases we will see hybridity — an increase in autonomous nomadic populations relying both on animal herding and foraging.
Sandgrouse and creosote
On a more general level, many of those with a longing for wildness and a need for freedom from authority have gravitated towards the frontiers often hot deserts and semi-arid regions.

As I wander out in the gentle spring,
I hear a keen call of your roads, O Desert!
I shall leave my home in the dreary hills
How sad are other lands compared to you, O Desert!

— Seidi, a 19th century Turkman poet

Such possibilities are present — and will be more so — in many regions, Even for those within the walls of the supposed global powers, there will be an expanding outside. In the already water stressed areas of southern Europe, deserted farms and villages have been re-inhabited by anarchists, hippies, cults and others wishing to flee the direct gaze of authority and desert the prison of wage labour. Similar ‘drop out’ situations are present in the drying heart of Australia and the western deserts of North America. Here, importantly, aboriginal communities persist or are re-establishing. The long indigenous strategy of survival — “we were here before and will be after” — may bear desert fruit. As numerous contemporary struggles illustrate, anarchists and native peoples can make good allies.
Some of the oldest communities live in deserts. In the Mojave is a Creosote bush clonal colony thats slowly widening circle is estimated at 11,700 years old. Recent genetic testing has indicated that the Bushmen of the Kalahari are probably the oldest continuous population of humans on Earth. [90] These communities — both plant and human — are inspiring examples of resilience, but having survived millennia in the hot deserts they may not survive the still spreading cultural one. The ancient Creosote bush ring is quite low to the ground and grows on US Bureau of Land Management land “designated for recreational all-terrain vehicle use.” [91] The Botswana government has forcefully relocated many Kalahari Bushmen from their homelands into squalid re-settlement camps, seemingly to enable diamond mining. [92] For free peoples and wild-life the harshness of our cultural desert is a most threatening of environments.
Overall, then, as the planet hots up we should remember the nomadic freedoms of the herders and foragers, the refugia of aboriginal peoples and renegade drop-outs, the widening habitats of desert flora and fauna. That arid zones will expand brings positive possibilities as well as sadness for the diminished, often previously vibrant, ecosystems. [93] There can still be a beautiful flowering in the desert. I have mentioned the possibilities opened up by the spread of hot deserts, but course there are many closures too. Even some relatively anarchic cultures on or beyond the desert frontiers will become unviable. Species will become extinct. While there will be survivors in the expanding desert lands many will choose to flee the heat. Some of these migrations — to some extent already happening — will be intranational but many will be international.

In the hot arid world survivors gather for the journey to the arctic centres of civilisation; I see them in the desert as the dawn breaks and the sun throws its piercing gaze across the horizon at the camp. The cool fresh night air lingers for a while and then, like smoke, dissipates as the heat takes charge… [94]

These are some of the last words in Lovelocks Revenge of Gaia. As civilisation and much of humanity flees and/or dies as the hot deserts expand what of the cold deserts — what of the new “arctic centres of civilisation”?

read more here:

Part 1 :: Part 2 :: Part 3 :: Part 4 :: Part 5 :: Part 6 :: Part 7 :: Part 8 :: Part 9 :: Part 10

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