I hate to turn this blog into an “all talking about primitivism, all the time” blog. It’s not, really, but something happened yesterday that made me think about it differently. I was hanging out with my friend Ben in the room of two of his friends. I got to talking with this one guy about primitivism. The thing was, when I was talking my point of view, I couldn’t seem to come up with many arguments to go against him. After I came back to my dorm I realized that this wasn’t just because I tend to freeze a little bit while talking, needing more time than some people to collect my thoughts, but also because when I was talking with him, I had to reconsider the premises I already considered obvious. This guy is a singularitarian – someone who believes that in not too long, the curve of technological growth, already curving upward in exponential growth, will reach a “singularity”, where the growth is close enough to a vertical that it will effectively be infinite and we can do anything.1 Having loved nature all my life, I had to really adjust my thinking before I could say anything that would make sense to someone who thinks the measure of mankind’s progress is the degree to which it controls its environment (controlling its environment is inescapably a euphemism for destroying nature). And I had to really adjust when I heard him say that “any species that’s worthwhile would survive without our help anyhow.” (To which I replied, “If I shoot you with a gun, it must mean you weren’t worthwhile enough to survive, right?” – And he said that what we’re doing to animals is totally different, I guess on the basis of the fact that we aren’t doing it literally with guns. Actually we are, at slaughterhouses with special slaughtering guns, but that’s beside the point, which is that he’s completely wrong.) That’s when I realized that I need to write something that deals with primitivism specifically geared toward someone who would dismiss it out-of-hand and can’t see how it might not be ridiculous. Because that’s the kind of person that a whole lot of people in the world are. Quite possibly some of the people reading this.
So, the first question is: What do you gain from going back to a primitive way of life? This question is unnecessary except in our upper-crust part of society. The vast majority of people in the world are extremely poor and would, when viewed even from our upper-crust perspective, have been better off if civilization hadn’t arisen. But in America, it takes a little examining to convince people that hunting and gathering wouldn’t be the same as eternal misery in squalor. The first thing I’d like to point out is that in bushmen societies of Africa – these are societies in the desert, where life is pretty difficult – the members only need to work about two or three hours a day on average in order to find their subsistence. Their neighbors who have been convinced to grow food instead are effectively enslaved to their farms, because the farms take so much work. After I said this, the singularitarian just said, “What do they do with all that extra time?” When I told him that they bond with each other and generally have a great time together, he said he’d rather be working, so he could make better machines, because he views that as play, not work. I doubt he’d say the same in practice. He’d be among the innumerable who wish they could spend more time with their family, especially their kids (though he seems like he might not be the having-kids type), if only they didn’t have to do so much work.
Here’s another question. He talked about working every day so that he could make something that’s better than it was yesterday. You couldn’t do that living in the jungle, could you? It’s a pretty romantic notion: continual improvement through smarter machines. But who defined machines as the meter of “better”? From my perspective, continual improvement would be learning each day to cooperate better with nature so that nature and I can both live more comfortably. Eventually, I’d get to a point where I wouldn’t improve much anymore – but the difference between me and him is that I’d then be satisfied that I’d at last gotten to where I need to be, and didn’t need to keep trying to improve, whereas he would never be satisfied and is always working toward a continually receding goal.
Well what about my hypocrisy? Obviously I’m not sincere, since I haven’t already gone out and started living in “the jungle” (for some reason he always called it that, even though I’d be living in North America and it’d be called a forest), right? And likewise, Derrick Jensen can’t possibly think his arguments are valid, because he hasn’t abandoned civilization yet – in fact, he’s used civilization to distribute the books he writes.
Well, no, because I was raised in civilization and never got hands-on training with any of the techniques I need to know in order to live off the land. I can’t yet go back into the wild and survive, probably. Once I can, I still won’t for a while, because for one thing, a society of one is depressing and vulnerable, and I’d need to find some people who would come with me. I’m most likely to find those people here, or through the internet. Civilization has kept people with ideas like these from growing up together, but fortunately we can now use civilization in order to get back together. And as for writing books, Derrick Jensen has done more good for the natural world by raising awareness about primitivism through his books than he would have if he had just gone off and started living in the redwood forest. As long as civilization is still around, it helps if you can work against it, not just leave it. It helps you (by increasing the health of the landbase you’re living on) and it helps the rest of the world.
So, thanks for bearing with me. If you have any questions, just ask them: that can only make this post more valuable.
Singularity is a pretty idiotic doctrine, as far as I’ve been able to see. It ignores the fact that every other curve that has had exponential growth has slowed down to become a logistic growth curve. (Actually, I just read that the main proponent of it knows technological growth will become logistic, but has decided it’s going to happen too far in the future to matter to him.) And the reason that we’re going to be able to disobey this law is that, as the guy in the dorm said, “We’re smarter.” He went on to mention several benchmarks of our smartness like the understanding of DNA and the making of computers, asking rhetorically if any other culture has understood those things, and acted like that proved our superiority and our capability of hitting a Singularity. But notice that any previous culture could have said that about cultures that didn’t have their technology (“Has any other culture been able to use a springy stick and some string to shoot a pointy stick so fast that an animal can’t run away from it?”) and any future culture that advances farther than us could say it about us (“Has any other culture been able to make all the molecules of an object become energy and then reconstitute again at a distant point?”) and argued just as successfully that their culture alone is fit to achieve singularity. So, no singularity. ↩