Thursday, September 25, 2014

Anarcho-Primitivism's Elephant in the Room

To enhance life is ominous; to force the breath is to strain it; to exert strength is to promote aging. All this contradicts the Dao, and whatsoever contradicts the Dao soon ceases to exist.--Dao De Jing Chapter 55 (my translation)
Anarcho-primitivism seems to have always struggled with the accusation of being inherently "genocidist". More recently, it has become fashionable to furthermore dismiss it as "ableist", another scarlet letter to which we "primmies" seem frantic and, very frankly, dismally unprepared to adequately respond. I suspect the reason for our terrible track record in defending against these criticisms is mainly due to a reluctance to fully accept the actual implications of anarcho-primitivist philosophy--a lot of us haven't been honest with ourselves. I think it's time for a little honesty.

I've written here and here about the necessity of completely aligning our will with nature's, or what is known in Daoist terms as the Dao. For all the customary mysticism that people tend to attribute to the philosophy, Daoism is really pretty simple at base. The core tenet may be summarized: the only way to thrive in a world completely determined by natural principles is to live in accordance with them. Industrial humans seem to have forgotten that the world, not to mention the rest of the universe, is indeed completely determined by the Dao; instead, they fantasize that technology allows you to escape or transcend such natural limits and permits you control over your own fate, and the fates of those who are "less evolved". Science and technology embody the mentality that nature can actually be improved upon if understood well enough. I would argue that there is actually nothing that gives people the ability to flout nature's laws with impunity--after all, even technology must obey natural principles like physical laws and chemical realities--and, therefore, the only way to maintain the possibility of life on Earth is to learn from nature's lead. In my very first post, I cited the example of an oak tree's acorns: for the health of the forest as a whole, while it is extremely important that each individual acorn will strive to grow into a full-sized oak tree, it is equally just as important that most acorns will never have a chance to sprout due to being consumed by squirrels or rotting away in water, etc. Nature does not favor the oaks over the squirrels, nor the squirrels over the acorns. The oak tree wants a stable environment first and foremost, and allows nature to calibrate how many acorns it produces, how many become trees, and how many serve as squirrel food, all toward the goal of maintaining stability in the ecosystem. One single organism or species is incapable of correctly assessing the infinite variables and feedback loops that comprise a complex ecosystem, and if the oaks were to somehow over- or under-produce their acorn crops in defiance of nature's carefully wrought calibrations, the impact would be felt on all levels of life throughout that ecosystem, possibly for years. There is compelling research that forests behave as an integrated emergent organism, much like how individual cells from different types of tissue constitute a human being:
For example, during spruce budworm infestations, spruce forests always contain trees that do not produce alterations in terpene chemistry. Researchers examining the trees have found that they can increase their production, they simply do not. In other words, these are not "weaker" trees that are simply succumbing to a Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest dynamic, but strongly healthy trees that are intentionally not increasing chemistry production. The long-range benefits of this are clear: By not raising antifeedant actions in all the trees, the forest makes sure that resistance does not develop in spruce budworms as it does in crop insects exposed to pesticides. Plant communities literally set aside plants for the insects to consume so as to not force genetic rearrangement and the development of resistance.--Stephen Harrod Buhner, The Lost Language of Plants
Thus, if an individual oak naturally gets sick and dies, we would not mourn for it from a Daoist perspective just as we do not mourn the death of a white blood cell when it sacrifices itself for the sake of homeostasis when it engulfs a pathogen in the body--the white blood cell was part of something bigger, and so are we, not just in some mystical, new age, metaphorical sense, but in actual, functional reality. Humans can be considered a type of constituent cell meant to function in harmony with other cells that together comprise the planet, itself a part of a larger entity we call the solar system, and so on. An anti-technology stance is by definition one that rejects artifice and the manipulation of nature; it is a philosophical position that inherently champions the way of nature, and yet, when it comes down to nature understandably itching to reduce the overblown human population for the sake of the health of the entire biosphere by means of disease, genetic degradation, or simply letting us choke on our own refuse, etc., why is it that we primitivists suddenly become gun shy about allowing nature to do to humans what a functioning immune system in an animal does to a malignant growth or bacterial infection? I suspect it has to do with lingering leftist sentiments that confer ultimate value to human life above all other considerations, including detriment to the planet's ecology. We may try to deflect away from discussing the elephant in the room, we may try to avoid the issue or change subjects, whatever it takes to not admit that anarcho-primitivist philosophy, if taken literally, demands a massive die off in human population (as well as bovine, porcine, grain, and all other associated domesticated animal and crop populations). It is a knee jerk response inherited from deeply entrenched liberal idealism to deny the slightest whiff of misanthropy, and too often this self-consciousness has undermined primitivist arguments. From the Daoist perspective, since humans and all other aspects of life depend on nature/Dao for their existence, not the other way around, it only makes sense to align with nature, even at the temporary expense of humans, because in the long run abiding by natural principles, including those that govern population size and the health of gene pools, ultimately ensures that all other living things may also thrive in proper proportion relative to the rest of the biosphere. Does nature behave genocidally, or have ableist biases? Of course. If it didn't avail itself of these tendencies when appropriate, the result would be dangerous for all life. If humans are a cell type that forms part of the whole planet, then right now I think it's safe to say we're behaving like a cancer. Cancer cells, of course, die along with the host when the host expires, so the cancer doesn't gain anything by spreading--the cancer is ultimately malignant to itself, as well. It spreads because it is out of balance--something isn't working correctly. Nature wants to bring things back into balance so that life can continue to thrive. 

We've acknowledged anarcho-primitivism's elephant in the room, but what about civilization's? It is true that high technology is what makes it possible for seven billion people to exist on this planet. Technology produces more food than could ever naturally occur, prevents more deaths through medical and safety interventions, provides the infrastructure necessary to manage and control the potentially problematic behavior of vast numbers of life forms (human and non-human alike), and enables the transport and trade of all manner of products throughout the globe, just to name a few of the obvious ones on the list. I would pause here to point out that technology, of course, isn't magic, though some seem to treat it as though the above boons were basically free lunches made possible thanks to our species' grand intellect. In fact, to consider the effects of technology as net gains for humans, one would have to be almost willfully ignoring the corollary questions of, for example, if technology produces more food than would naturally occur (by definition exceeding sustainability, since nature already generated life in a balanced way at the maximum possible sustainable rate at the time of agriculture's adoption), then what are the short and long term consequences of imposing an unnaturally high demand on the environment, favoring a few species we like to eat at the expense of many others we don't like to eat, and, by extension, what might be the pragmatic and moral issues associated with allowing a population wholly dependent on this unnatural (read: unsustainable) scheme for its survival to continue reproducing be over time? After all, the ratio of caloric expenditure to caloric recovery in conventional agriculture went from 1:2 in the 1940s to an absurd 10:1 today. Or, just how many deaths of and injuries and insults to other life forms (again, human and non-human alike) must routinely occur by means of habitat loss, carbon emissions, pollution from drug factories, persistent drug compounds entering the soil and water from patient bodily waste, radiographic waste, countless disposable latex and plastic gloves, tools, and packaging, etc., to sustain the life of one privileged boy or girl with a genetic defect or disability from an accident? Obviously, I could repeat examples almost endlessly, all with the same glaring point: whatever the vaunted benefits of any given technology, the drawbacks thereof invariably negate and outweigh them. 

For a group of people whose core principle consists of rejecting high technology, anarcho-primitivists are embarrassingly coy about the very obvious consequences of taking away the high-tech systems that enable the feeding of our seven billion sapiens or the research, development, manufacture, and distribution of all our life-saving medications and devices. While there might be the slimmest chance that jettisoning technology would occur in a systematic stepping-down process over many decades to allow for a relatively less traumatic shift worldwide to a non-industrial lifestyle, it seems clear that in most scenarios, the removal of high technology will lead to massive death tolls, disease, catastrophic meltdowns of currently active nuclear plants, and a lot of despair, desperation, and violence. In the future, people will almost certainly be increasingly reliant on technology to ward off any number of possible apocalypses, and this dependence will continue to generate more potential disaster. The image that comes to mind is that of the buffoon who, after imprudently generating a large mess in another person's home, hastily tidies up a messy room by stuffing all the piles of clutter higher and higher into a tiny closet, and as he attempts to shut the flimsy door on the bulging tower of clutter, it all comes crashing down on top of him, leaving him buried under the avalanche of his own shortsightedness. Addressing the problems we currently face that were generated by our prior use of technology (this includes the vast majority of congenital and non-congenital health issues) with more technology is like fending off the effects of withdrawal from alcohol addiction by imbibing more alcohol--as I've stated before, stealing from the future to pay for today. Every time we examine the present, we find that we are actually more embattled, more imperiled, by increasingly complex, nigh-impossible to solve problems--the consequences of previous technological (thus, counter-natural) solutions. It makes little difference whether a contemporary problem has its roots in a technology adopted ten thousand years ago or ten weeks ago--throwing more technology at it will just wind up compounding the overall problem. Therefore, the sooner technology is abandoned, the lighter the consequences we will have to suffer. If we feel that the death of the majority of people on the planet and the radioactive poisoning of the biosphere for centuries to come following the abandoning of technology now are intolerable, then how much more terrifying, how much more irresponsible would it be, to keep on going using technology to fix technology, until it all inevitably collapses anyway? The definition of an unsustainable system is that it will eventually collapse. The way things are looking, this collapse is likely coming very, very soon. Therefore, the people who believe that staying the course with technology means avoiding unnecessary calamity are deluding themselves. They have absolutely no concept of where all these threats to life on Earth come from, but they are taught, and they have faith, that no matter what, technology will offer a solution. As anarcho-primitivists, we should probably aspire to be a little better than such blind faith and face up to reality. Many, many people will suffer in the coming years, but this has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not we forgo industrial technology.

I'll liken civilization to an out-of-control train. The wheels of the coming train crash were set in motion quite a few millennia ago, and there simply aren't any brakes. People feel that making the train go faster should get us all to safety, but they are ignoring all warning signs that speak to the contrary. We primitivists are advocating cutting our losses and jumping off, risking bumps, bruises, broken limbs, even death--but the alternative is even greater suffering when this train finally does crash. Not everyone is able-bodied enough to make the jump off the train--but primitivists didn't want those folks to have to be on the train, nor did they want a train in the first place. The longer this train is kept running through the efforts of the civilized world, the more vulnerable and dependent people will be born on it, the more hostages the train can boast. If the critics of anarcho-primitivism are so concerned with solving the problems of the world, why, then, do they fervently embrace the use of technology, a tactic that historically has only ever escalated all our crises over the long term? This irrational behavior parallels that of animals infected with rabies--infected animals, of course, are dangerous, threaten the rest of the population, and can never be reformed or cured, but can only be isolated or put down. Because primitivists recognize that there can be no resolution to the many crises of civilization by technical means, only a conscious decision to not exacerbate and further perpetuate them, we are denounced for supposedly advocating genocide. We absolutely should not be cowed by these asinine accusations, but instead point out the glaring hypocrisy and irony of such glib and weak critiques. How should one respond to the indignant wheel-chair bound, the diabetics, the hypertensive, the genetically predisposed, the premature births, and the rest when they accuse us of ableism? It's very simple: ask them how they justify bringing others down via the greater intensity of resource consumption, exploitation of habitat, pollution from industrial processes, and general infliction of very real harm, most egregiously to the poor, rural, and non-domesticated (once again, human and non-human alike) inhabitants of the rest of the world, who seem to be to them utterly invisible, to maintain their own lifestyles, effectively sacrificing many to support their few. How do they justify risking the ruin of the entire biosphere and the possibility for any life on this planet just so that they can personally exist? I am sure they will feel offended and shocked, but what about the victims of their industrial needs, whose voices are almost never heard as their lives, cultures, and histories are torn apart at an ever increasing rate in order to make our insular societies more accommodating to the privileged disabled and ill? If it comes down to a response of, "Well, better them than me", "Who gives a shit about some aborigines or Bangladeshis", or something of that nature, I'm sure we would find our sympathy for their indignant victimhood quickly evaporating. The only way to resolve any of the crises facing the world is to let things run their natural course. The truth is, almost none of us coming out of civilization are "able-bodied" enough to make it in a totally wild environment. Where are our tribes, where are our elders who can teach us the ways of survival and pass on important knowledge about the world? We've been left stranded inside civilization, cut off from the Dao, already watching our current way of life implode. Let's be honest. If you consider yourself disabled, then civilization is your enemy, not anarcho-primitivism. If you take the side of your enemy, you are suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. Our one and only hope of surviving the consequences of our own past indiscretions is to step back and allow nature to reassert dominance in whatever way, be it "genocidal" or "ableist", she deems fit. Nature--Dao--is the final arbiter in deciding what is appropriate for all life.


  1. Overall, I like the assessment that you made here. The only way that technology is unacceptable is if a “palatable solution” from an anthropocentric perspective is impossible. If it were possible, there is no room for a critique because technology would “work”. In the end, it doesn’t because it is dominated by capitalist relations and value creating more value without regards to the consequences. The system only functions if it grows and destroys. One point that I would not be sure of is the idea of “collapse”: I think this is too eschatological and I don’t count capitalism out for a second in being able to continue to propagate itself even after most of the world is in ruins and a wasteland. More fundamentally, I have been encountering scholarly work that investigates how hunter-gathers “engineered” their environment in highly sophisticated ways, mainly through burning, to optimize the land for game and gathering purposes. Some accounts state that certain areas had the resemblance of an English lawn, making passage through them quite easy for wagons. That might just mean that we have to rethink “wildness” to a certain extent (much of what is now the continental United States was agricultural and landscaped by the indigenous inhabitants, as was the case with much of the Amazon rainforest if European accounts are to be believed). However, what we have in our case might be an example of what vulgar Marxists would call a transformation from quantity to quality: just because Australian Aborigines made their environment more hospitable using selective burning doesn’t make that equivalent to strip mining or what is going on in the Alberta tar sands. I would be interested in your thoughts in this regard.

  2. While I can see how positing an inevitable collapse smacks of eschatology if you're coming from a biblical background, I would point to the actual evidence--signs of imminent or actual collapse abound not just in our biosphere (end of coral reefs, acidification of sea water, increasing plastic pollution of oceans, massive extinction on a daily basis), but also sociologically and just in terms of basic infrastructure. I guess it could be argued that these types of collapse do not automatically suggest a collapse of capitalism per se, but I find it difficult to contemplate the perpetuity of capitalism in the absence of available resources. Capitalism, after all, does ultimately have to draw from physical reality, and without, say, crops, water, soil, minerals, or even a sufficient surviving population of humans, capitalism will cease to exist--or so it would seem to my mind. Perhaps try this: while it may seem tired and cliched from a viewpoint already inured to Abrahamic conceptions of armageddon to talk about an inevitable apocalypse, the Dao De Jing really does not cite collapse as something that has to happen in an absolute sense, i.e., that it is pre-ordained as part of a predetermined course of history, but rather that IF something is out of alignment with the Dao, THEN there will be collapse (see the quote from DDJ ch. 55 at the beginning of the original post), and that, I think, really isn't a big leap of faith, but a readily observable phenomenon. It happens every day. You forget to water your potted plants for a week, they'll start looking rather pathetic; an oak tree isn't limber enough to bend with a gale force wind, it snaps apart and dies. Just because something like capitalism is large in the sense that it is dispersed and encompasses the lives of many doesn't mean it isn't also subject to this principle.

    I am familiar with research that demonstrates how hunter gatherers shaped their environments to better suit their needs mainly from my studies of Native American history. I'd also point out that many Native American societies were in fact agricultural, but seem to have been able to maintain a high degree of egalitarianism, thus ostensibly defying the typical anarcho-primitivist generalization that agriculture invariably leads to hierarchy and domination--I have felt for a while that this is an oversimplification that, while indicative of the right direction of analysis, requires more refinement. This is a subject that I intend to expand upon in a future post. In terms of Daoist philosophy, there isn't necessarily a contradiction between technical means and harmony with nature. Many passages in the Dao De jing, for example, cite with approval the use of tools for the sake of farming, just with the caveat that these tools remain "dull", e.g., simple, human-scale. Indeed, many traditional farming methods, such as the Spanish dehesa method of woodland grazing, or permaculture-style practices like forest gardening, actually generate soil fertility and ecosystem diversity and resiliency, but the important distinction I would make here is that these practices follow nature's lead, as opposed to unilaterally dictating and imposing, as modern science and high technology normally do. To use an example, if one makes a simple canoe, shapes it to offer the least resistance to the ocean's waves, and paddles efficiently so as to match and utilize the inherent motion of the sea, then, from a Daoist lens, this approach conforms with the Dao. Contrast this with a vessel that simply powers through the waves obliviously using a fossil fuel-based motor, creating chop and injuring marine life while traveling at great speed. The former promotes a better appreciation and sensitivity to the dao of the ocean and of the canoe while minimally impacting the environment, whereas the latter seems guaranteed to promote lack of awareness, noise, an adversarial relationship with the waves, and impatience at possible delays.

  3. Fair enough. I was wondering if you have read Gary Snyder's The Practice of the Wild, as it seems to echo some of the things stated above, plus he was interested in Asian religion as well, this time, Japanese. Would love to know your thoughts if you have read this book:

  4. I have begun reading Snyder and can see why my writing reminds you of his. Also, I particularly appreciate the frequent meanderings into linguistics, as it was my major in college. I have only read a portion of the book, but my feeling at this point is that Snyder seems to be attempting to capture a sort of zen feeling with his writing, sometimes taking a rather gestalt approach the way zen monks use koan in order to induce a sort of sudden realization. I'm not sure that this tack is so successful in convincing your average civilized person that we should submit to nature. Instead, I feel it's probably most appealing to those who come from civilization but already are seeking a better relationship with nature. Have you read Stephen Buhner's work? It's similar but with a lot more "meat" in terms of examples, evidence, etc. mixed in with reflective anecdotes and the like. The Lost Language of Plants is great.

    One particular point that Snyder makes seems problematic, though: he distinguishes between things that are "natural", which really means any and everything that can actually exist, including all the consequences of civilization, and "wilderness", which refers to a state of self-emergent abundance that allows all members of an ecosystem to thrive. Thus, he gives the example of New York City being natural (i.e., possible, which is self-obvious because it exists) but not wilderness (because the city does not provide habitat for a large enough range of life forms). I think this is highly erroneous. I am reminded of David Kidner's version of this sort of distinction in his book Nature and Experience in the Culture of Delusion (highly recommended), wherein he speaks of things that are "real" versus things that are "actual". In this scheme, New York City would be considered "actual", but not "real", because only things that abide by natural principles are real, i.e. not out of touch with reality. I really like this scheme because it emphasizes that something like NYC, while actually existing, is divorced from the larger reality, and as a result is by definition unsustainable. It is only actual for as long as it can successfully cheat reality by gobbling up distant resources at an increasing rate, but eventually reality will catch up.

    This struggle to adequately define nature seems to be another chink in the armor for primitivism, and we probably need to address it the same way we need to address accusations of ableism. I agree with your sentiment that to say that a city is as natural as a beehive is utterly disingenuous. The example I like to use when someone argues that since humans arose from nature, nothing humans do can be construed as unnatural, is incest. No human culture that I know of considers incest acceptable, aside from maybe aristocracies/royalty. Everybody knows why. Nature isn't some blank slate upon which you can just do anything you like and expect nature to still hold together. Just because you can sleep with your brother or sister doesn't make it natural. To argue otherwise is to utterly deface the value of the word "natural", which, I suspect, is exactly what critics of anarcho-primitivism would like to achieve.


  5. Personally, I suspect the best solution would be to describe nature not as a state, but a kind of pace. This would resolve the problem of reconciling novelty that always occurs in nature. For example, the first fish that crawled onto dry land was engaging in entirely novel behavior. One might be tempted to characterize the event as unnatural on the basis of its unprecedented nature, but really, the fish was only able to venture onto land because other organisms (fungi, then plants) had already begun colonizing dry land and modifying the atmosphere, and the fungi and plants themselves only began to colonize dry land because circumstances in the oceans promoted adaptations that encouraged a very natural transition to dry land living as part of the evolutionary process. In other words, the novelty of the fish's actions fell well within the tolerable limits of nature's pace of change, and in some ways it would have been rather unnatural if something like that didn't occur sooner or later, given the circumstances that existed then. Nature embodies constant change--a central tenet of Daoism. The distinction, then, between something that is natural versus something that is not, is whether or not the phenomenon in question falls within nature's pace of change. Something that outstrips the pace breaks the Dao's rhythm. The rate of technological innovation certainly fits that bill, synthesizing so many novel situations and materials that adaptation in the biosphere is rendered impossible. We cannot compare the impact to an ecosystem of the emergence of a new species of butterfly to that of a strip mine. The former exerts only a gentle impact on the ecosystem, and the rest of the ecosystem has time to adapt to a new equilibrium, and eventually the ecosystem will be strengthened by virtue of the increased diversity. This sort of natural pace of change actually increases ecosystem resiliency. The pace of change imposed by the latter has the opposite effect. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that pace of change could be used as the benchmark with which to judge what, indeed, could be considered technological as anarcho-primitivists mean it. An anthill, beaver dam, or beehive certainly does change the environment, but it does not undermine the ecosystems in which it exists, and, in fact, enhances them over time--anteaters and badgers adapt to feeding on the ant mounds, many species of riparian birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish, and plants adapt to the pools created by beaver dams, and of course bears and badgers are attracted to the honey inside beehives. Natural change to the environment can be thought of as a series of scaffolds on top of which more changes may be safely made. As time goes on, those scaffolds become integrated into the foundation of the ecosystem, supporting more scaffolds, lending more support, stability, and options with which to withstand disruptions like disease, fire, etc. Technology lacks this ability to integrate and enhance an environment; rather, it raids the natural world and haphazardly takes apart the scaffolding in order to apply them to a much narrower purpose, and, while it may build with these stolen parts, its works will never feed back to the biosphere or fill the precarious holes left in the structure of nature.

    One last thing: take a look this article: MIT research from 40 years ago predicted a collapse in terms of population, food, economies, and industrialism in general starting right around now and extending to about 2030. It is absolutely striking how closely the researchers' predictions match up with actual data of the past four decades. It is evidence such as this that makes me think that collapse is really pretty much a given.

  6. I find your explanation here concerning nature as pace rather compelling. It appeals to the recovering Hegelian in me (I would use the "d" word but I don't think I would go there). While I think lots of questions could be asked here, I think I will have some food for thought on this topic.