No, You Shouldn’t Move to New Zealand to Survive the Climate Crisis
A new study delivers a laundry list of potential escape routes from climate destruction.
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A few days ago, an article over at Mic started making the rounds on Twitter. It was titled "These 6 countries are most likely to survive a climate-change caused societal collapse." It’s not exactly a surprise that people were interested. From continent-spanning wildfire smoke to catastrophic floods around the world, recent headlines have certainly given us all a glimpse of what the future might hold if we do not curb carbon emissions fast.
The inspiration for the Mic article came from a new study, conducted by Nick King and Aled Jones of the Global Sustainability Institute, and published in the journal Sustainability. The paper itself—"An Analysis of the Potential for the Formation of ‘Nodes of Persisting Complexity’"—claimed to offer a less problematic alternative to previous studies that developed the concept of "collapse lifeboats," or small, intentional communities designed to withstand potential catastrophic failures of the current world order.1 It did so by looking at a set of criteria for entire countries that the researchers postulated would put them in a relatively advantageous position should the complexity of our current, energy-hungry economic and social systems start to unravel.
Among the factors looked at were the capacity to increase agricultural production relative to population, the availability of renewable energy resources, the state of ecological protections, and the robustness of governance and anti-corruption measures. All of which undeniably may play a part in resilience in the event of a worst-case scenario. Other factors, however, feel decidedly troublesome—for example, the ability of a nation to isolate itself from the rest of the world.
The assumption appears to be that our communities, or nations, will be stronger if we can cut ourselves off from others who are struggling. And it also appears to be this assumption that led to all those news stories touting a “list” of places folks can run to in order to survive.
As Josh Long, a professor at Southwestern University, noted, the framing of these stories deserves a great deal of scrutiny—a fact that is especially pertinent given what we know about who is, and who is not, responsible for the majority of historical emissions:
Meanwhile, Heather Murphy of The New York Times spoke to a whole host of scientists who questioned everything from an over-emphasis on island states to the very idea that mass migration is bad for a country. And are the three points where my skepticism kicks in most strongly:
Secondly, the very notion of isolation being a strength feels decidedly questionable. As Linda Shi, a professor in Cornell University’s department of city and regional planning, told The Times, it’s a concept that could potentially stoke xenophobic (and probably authoritarian?) impulses. Despite our culture’s tendency to focus on bunker survivalism and individual hoarding of resources, as the recent pandemic has shown, resilience comes from social connection and willingness to help—not from retreating to our corners.
And thirdly, I may have missed it in the research, but there doesn’t seem to be much focus on who—within each “node of complexity”—actually gets to survive. Given the huge existing social inequities in the United States, for example, it’s fairly easy to imagine a scenario of gated survival compounds with those less fortunate being left out in the cold—metaphorically speaking.
It’s also worth noting that the assumption of Western-style "good governance" is what we’ll need moving forward is questionable, at best. What if, instead,nwe looked at nations where indigenous knowledge and concepts of power were still relatively respected and supported?
To be fair, much of my problem with this discussion has less to do with the intent of the original research—there is value in studying what makes communities or nations resilient—and more to do with how it was packaged, and then inevitably repackaged by news outlets. Because once you dig into the research, the authors themselves note that reliance on isolated survival locations may not be the best path forward:
“It may be possible to control a ‘power down’ of global society as a preferable pathway to that of economic and environmental collapse. The ‘power down’ would comprise a concerted, global, long-term effort to reduce per capita energy and resource usage, equitably distribute resources and gradually decrease the global population including the possibility of ‘Building Lifeboats’ through community solidarity and preservation.”
Presumably responding to the backlash, Jones, the study co-author, told The Times that folks were drawing the wrong lesson from his research:
Professor Jones says people may be misinterpreting his intentions. He’s not suggesting that people with the means to do so should start buying bunkers in New Zealand or Iceland, he said. Rather, he wants other countries to study ways to improve their resilience.
There’s no doubt that climate threats are coming—and it makes sense to study worst-case scenarios. But the focus on “persisting nodes of complexity” in a world that’s unraveling was inevitably going to be interpreted by many as a laundry list of potential escape routes.
When push comes to shove, I know that I, for one, would much rather be living in a collaborative, equitable, and justice-oriented society that’s working with its neighbors to lift all boats—not hiding away on an island being governed by an isolationist regime. Happily, this type of collaborative and solutions-oriented society is also exactly what we need to prevent the collapse from happening in the first place.
Let’s get to work.