Ben Green doesn’t have to worry that Vladimir Putin might cut off Europe’s gas this winter, fret about a seasonal revival of Covid-19, or panic about a looming global food crisis.
Green weaned himself off gas when he purchased the five-hectare (12-acre) grounds of a derelict East German army barracks three years ago: the previous owner, who used it as an outdoor museum for vintage tanks, had gutted the building of water and gas pipes. Green patched up the roof of the refectory and insulated the windows so that temperatures inside don’t drop below 5C at night. He bathes by pouring a bucket of cold water over his head and cooks on a wood-burning stove.
A 49-year-old Englishman with a greying ginger beard and the word “Vegan!” tattooed on his left upper arm, Green is unaffected by fraying supply chains because he lives almost entirely off the vegetables and fruit he grows on his land. If, as Green hopes, friends give him an oil press for his 50th birthday, he will soon be able to cut out the occasional four-mile cycle to the nearest village for cooking oil.
On those trips he does stock up on tea, coffee and chocolate, but they are luxuries he could dispense with in the case of a systemic breakdown of supply chains. The fact his food miles are still measurable at all is due to the bottomless appetite of Fat Tony, Brunhilde Demagogue and Marilyn Monroe, his three Mangalica pigs.
Coronavirus is not a cause for concern – partly because Green is twice vaccinated, in spite of one what one may assume from his enthusiasm for herbal remedies, but mainly because he lives on his own in the middle of a remote spruce forest in Saxony, whose exact coordinates he keeps secret, and rarely receives visitors.
Green does worry about this year’s extreme heat and drought, which is endangering his race to fill his cellar with 100 pots of tomato stew, 180kg of potatoes and 22kg of dried beans in order to survive the winter.
But this summer’s soaring temperatures may also lead more people to recognize Green’s experiment in self-sufficiency as a model to emulate in preparation for a climate catastrophe. A catastrophe, Green believes, which is inevitable and imminent.
“When I was born, we were at 324 parts of carbon dioxide in one million parts of air. This year, we hit 420. Change is coming, and if you’re not prepared for it, it’s going to be fairly awful.
“What we are looking at isn’t the end of humanity but the end of capitalism,” he said, describing climate breakdown as the common denominator behind the various political, food, energy and health crises that have started to converge in recent years. “The collapse is going to happen, and this is the year when people will notice.”
Living in expectation of the apocalypse is no longer a minority position. A YouGov survey carried out at the start of the coronavirus pandemic found almost a third of respondents in the US anticipate a life-changing disaster in their lifetime. A separate poll of five countries in 2019 found that more than half of respondents in France, Italy, the UK and the US think civilization as they know it will collapse in years to come.
In America, anxiety about a systemic breakdown has fed a trend of “preppers” stocking up on food supplies and arms to look after themselves and their families. During the pandemic, US sellers of underground shelters reported surging demand.
Green, who chronicles his hermit existence on his Instagram account, The Pirate Ben, sees himself in the vanguard of a more positive and less selfish European counter-movement: “happy doomerism”.
“The problem with preppers is: what do they do when the baked beans run out? I don’t want any fear here – that’s where all the white power stuff comes from.”
He doesn’t believe in the need for population reduction, as do some on the fringes where the far right and eco-activism overlap. If people can keep or relearn their knowledge of how to sustainably work the land, Green argues, there should be enough food for everyone: “What I am trying to do is preserve the best of our society for when we come out at the other end .”
There is more of The Good Life than Extinction Rebellion to his decision to rescue his pigs from a butcher – an act of “effective altruism” the three huge pigs are evidently unwilling to repay. Their never-ending hunger for horse muesli mixed with hay pellets, and stale bread rolls from the nearest village bakery, is what still stops him from living a 100% self-sufficient and climate-neutral existence.
“The pigs were the worst decision in my life,” he said, as he gives Tony a doting pat on his muddied back. “It was stupid, and clearly detrimental to my goals.” Eating them would be the logical conclusion, he admits. “But it’s not going to happen.”
To call Green a humanist would be one step too far, he said. Building a self-sufficient post-climate change community requires discipline: he rises at 6am, feeds the pigs, tends to his crops, mows grass, feeds the pigs a second time, and then goes to bed at around 10pm.
And such discipline requires a strong belief in right and wrong. He places the blame for climate change not just with a few powerful individuals, he wrote on one recent blog entry, but all of those who participated in a world-destroying economy: “Every person who works for a fossil fuel company in any capacity should be tried for genocide. From the kids in the post-room to the CEOs.”
Green reiterated the point when asked about the blog entry. “A few show trials for genocide would go a hell of a long way.” What would be the punishment for genocide? “I think that’s fairly well established.”
Before he moved to the barracks in the Saxon woods three years ago, the native Brummie pursued a successful career as an IT engineer. Spells in Austria, Spain, London and Berlin ended when he was fired from his last job in Zurich in 2018.
With the severance payment and his savings, he bought the former barracks of the East German National People’s Army.
Though he speaks fluent German, the choice of location was the result of a rational cost-benefit analysis rather than any strong affection for the eastern German state bordering the Czech Republic. “You want to be as far north as you can be for the heat, but also as far south as you can be because of the sunlight for the growing season.”
Seekers of self-sufficient lifestyles setting up communes in Spain or Portugal, he said, were “insane” because they would struggle to work the land amid rising temperatures.
Preppers look after themselves. Green wants to set an example for others to follow, but for now happy doomerism remains a movement of one. After starting out with occasional volunteers who helped him work the land, he currently runs the project solo. A strict no-drugs policy at the barracks is designed to put off half-hearted dropouts.
“The first follower will have to be very special,” he said, sitting down in the refectory to escape the midday sun. “They will have to believe in the project in the way even I don’t.”
Anyone seriously interested in joining Green in the event of a climate-induced famine can pay €3,500 (£2,950) to be put on a waiting list, though he gives no guarantees that will automatically secure a place. One person has already made the payment.