Perspekxxtive

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.

  1. 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. 

File under: primitivism, deep thoughts, technology


Anonymous

History

I believe that the two could co-exist in the future. The far off future anyway. This gets to a root technology question of travelling at or above the speed of light. Bear with me. I envision a fossil fuel endgame that by comparison to our lifespan is way out there. I’m thinking 2000 years or so. Technology advances and fossil fuels including coal will eventually disappear. Barring the miracle of cold fusion, there is nothing on the horizon as a magical energy source in a 2000 year time period. You never know where science is going, but I for one don’t believe in the parabolic rise of technology.

Look at the diseases we have cured. None in the last 50 years or so. Look at the diseases we eradicated at the turn of the century. Science is so more advanced today, but after a few “easy” discoveries, we are basically stumped in science as it realtes to 100% cures of disease. We have vastly improved cancer treatments that appraoch a cure, but they center around better ways to remove what is there as opposed to curing it.

I think the same applies to cold fusion, speed of light travel and other things along these lines. I believe it is more likely that there will not be a magical technical cure to fossil fuel extinction. This will result in a society that de-evolves into a sustainable 1800’s type of existence. There could be islands, or oaisis’ of medical treatment centers interspersed in a de-evolved society. It would be a highly enlightend and educated soceiety, but one that lives a sustainable simplified life. Energy would be concentrated in technology centers that would mostly focus on medical treatment.

You and your buddy could plan the future of the world!

This is an out there guess, but if I had to put money on it, I would bet the world looks like this in 2000+ years…


Dave

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Anonymous

History

No relief for fossil fuels? That is unrealistic. There are many technologies already available to end our dependence on fossil fuels. The problem is political and greed driven. Duh. Until people realize that we as a civilization have to shift from fossil fuels to other energy sources, we won’t make any progress. The main hurdle to overcome is the infrastructure problem. That hurdle CAN be jumped, but WILL IT is the real question.

Dan

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Chuck

History

“Will it” is one important question, but I’m not even so sure that it can. The reason is simple - infrastructure. As it stands, some two thirds of the oil we use go to transportation, and practically all our transportation is fueled by oil, including hybrid cars. There have only been a very few experimental designs that have run on non-oil sources, mainly hydrogen cells. Hydrogen cells, however, are very expensive, and would quickly become even more expensive if we started trying to phase them in on a large scale, because they require far and away more platinum than we have to spare. The prices as they stand now to make as many hydrogen cars as there are oil cars is I think more than the world’s total GDP. It would be decades before we could have anything even close to widespread hydrogen cars - and by then it’d be too late, since we’d be out of oil. Solar similarly would require a complete redesign of the workings of cars, and would be cost-prohibitive. The main problems with renewable energies are that they’re too expensive still, and that it would take too long to phase them in in a way that would significantly affect the economy. To find a guy who covers this a lot more knowledgeably than I could, go here and read the section titled “What about green alternatives like solar, wind, wave, and geothermal?”

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Anonymous

History

I, too, see a society that is more sustainable but that has pockets of “technology” and “science” which serve to better our health. In an ideal setting, what Dave is saying would make sense. Once all the finite stuff runs out, we will need to have sustainable societies.
I’m going to send you a book by Shane Claiborne. He’s a young guy probably about 30-ish. He already has an independent bunch of people who have a separate economy- grow their own cotton, make own shirts, live in own commmunities, grow own food, trade using a currency that is only meaningful to themselves. They refuse to fight or join the military. And they don’t just care about themselves, but all humans, and give freely anything they have. He cites Gandhi, M.Teresa, MLK, the early Essenes, the early Christians, Jesus’ REAL teachings, other examples of nonviolent resistance throughout history, the Amish, a commune in Tennessee, Wendell Berry, Jared Diamond, and on and on. He debated even publishing the book because he didn’t want to use the paper and natural resources but he gave a bunch back to environmental groups.
Sorry I have been late getting all these things to you. Still trying to get them all together. Love you muches and muches.
Mom

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Anonymous

History

Hydrogen fuel cell technology is a dead end game. Read a few issues of the economist and you will see that even the proponents of hydrogen admit that it is not realistically doable. If the compass of energy alernatives ever seriously points that way, methanol is a far better solution. There is no viable way to really produce hydrogen. There are ways to produce it using sustainable resources, but no way to produce the quantities needed for mass transit in cars that is economically feasible.

So far all other renewables can’t produce the energy required to fuel our appetite. Cold fusion could, and it is the only real alternative so far to fossil fuels.

It took millions of years, or even billions to store all of the energy on this planet that we are plundering. There will probably be lots of discoveries of new oil fields, gas fields, a way to convert shale oil into gas. It will however run out. It may take 10,000 years, but it will run out.

All I am saying is to be careful that the american “entitlement” mentality does not cloud our judgement. We are not entitled to a magic bullet energy solution.

The way our technology has outpaced our humanity leads me to believe that we are better off without one.

Dave

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Anonymous

History

Solar, wind, gravity and wave hydro, are all technologies that are renewable. If really done right, with efficient technologies, free from politics and restrictive patenting, these sources could come close to closing the gap.

To say that only as few experimental technologies for non-oil cars have been made is at best ridiculous. Tons of technologies have been developed over the years. Once they get too important, the oil companies gobble them up because they are protecting themselves. (See Chevron and NiMH batteries) Additionally, many patents are classified security risks because they could upset our economy of oil and big business money grubbing so they never make the light of day. To actually think that viable technologies don’t exist is to have your head up the butt of a politician.

Dan

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Anonymous

History

Not buying the oil company conspiracy. Money grubbing is too powerful to keep in a bottle. If there is a way to market it and make money, the money grubbers will make it happen.(See wall street). Did you know that in the 1980’s financial services made up 10% of the GDP, but now it accounts for 40% of the GDP? Funny money and credit mania. I was watching the news tonight and they said that last thursday the financial industry was within hours of total collapse. Money was being pulled out of everything, and for the first time last week, money markets actually lost money. The funny thing is that this mess could literally turn into 1929 overnight, espeically if the world doesn’t buy our govt. bailout IOU’s. The tension on Wall street could be likened to the Cuban missile crisis, but stupid america is not too concerned. Very learned people are VERY concerned right now. It like watching a movie of a nuclear powerplant meltdown. The top scientests know the gravity of the situation as it leads up to crisis, while the masses of other stiffs in the plant don’t have a clue.

Dave

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Chuck

History

Dan, Dan, Dan,
You didn’t read the article I link to. It’s not by a nutjob guy. If you read his whole webpage (which I’m not asking of you - just that one section - but the whole thing isn’t a bad read), you’ll find he’s a sane guy with well-reasoned arguments. And he lays out a pretty compelling case that the renewable technologies we have simply cannot be scaled up fast enough - not even close to fast enough - to avert what’s already happening. If I’m picking between an argument backed by facts and an oil company conspiracy theory, I’ll go with the one that uses facts.

Dave, you might be interested to know (or might already know, judging from what you said about learned people) that Chris Dodd, the Senate Banking Committee Chair, has said before the Senate that “we may be only days away from a complete meltdown of our financial system.” And John Boehner, House Minority Leader, said that “this could be the most serious financial crisis that the world has ever dealt with.”

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Anonymous

History

Sorry, I misspoke about the GDP. In 1980’s 10% of corporate profits were from the financial services industry, and now it is 40%. 40% of the rise in your stock portfolio or 401k is based on gouging you, the consumer into borrowing money for something.

They are robbing us so that they can give back to us. It makes no sense and this market is gonna prove it.

Dave

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Anonymous

History

Nat, Nat, Nat,
I didn’t call anyone a nutjob. Furthermore I didn’t claim that these technologies would fully close the gap and avert an energy crisis anytime soon.

Okay, I read the article. It has some good information but it also made lots of subjective blanket statements that are represented as the final truth. It also uses statistics to its advantage (see How to lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff).

I also saw these three HUGE problems.

1..Where was the question “Can further development of modern renewable energy technology become more efficient and more productive in the future?”
2..Where was the question “Is it possible for renewable energy sources be used to create more renewable energy sources?”
3..Nice advertisement at the end. Hmmm wonder which way they want to skew their argument.

What I’m saying here is that necessity is the mother of all invention. Go camp in the woods and be scared if you must, but I prefer to be on the part of finding answers to tough problems and not hiding from them.

As far as the financial market is concerned, yeah, we’re in deep $h!t. But we also came out of the great depression. This may be tougher than then. The bottom line is that if you aren’t heavily invested (as you are not, as far as I know) the problem won’t affect you as much as the people that have made tons of money over the past 10-20 years. The profits are now being shown to be false and those who made all those gains will likely now lose them. Boo hoo.

Dan

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Anonymous

History

People still think I’m paranoid and a doomsayer, not the people on WallStreet, but hey anyway.

I recommend that everyone have some significant cash on hand. If this thing crashes like it could, you could literally go to the ATM’s and they WILL NOT dispense money. This isn’t doomsayer bullshit. IT is a REAL possibility. It is not running and hiding or being a doomsayer, but hedging against a real possibility.

People may say I’m a doomsayer, but I am also going to stock up on at least a short supply of food. If nobody gets paid, the food trucks aren’t going to roll for awhile.

Dave

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Chuck

History

Only thing is, cash is only worth anything because everyone agrees that it is. Rather than stock up on cash, stock up on gold, or even better, stock up on useful tools and food.

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Anonymous

History

Well! Let me suggest you are all nut jobs. Ha! Ha! Truth is Fuel cells work as do many other alternative energy sources. Republican oil barons fight tooth and nail to reject our “eventual” reality. They tell lies about them and print them in magazines and paper. Find out who owns these magazines and papers..

ALSO

Having a nice house does not mean you do not love, respect and protect nature. I have a nice house and I respect nature. G.Pa

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Anonymous

History

Fuel cells really do have an upside. Just not in cars….

http://www.economist.com/science/tq/displaystory.cfm?story_id=11999229

They may be powering your computers and personal electronic devices soon.


http://www.economist.com/science/displaystory.cfm?story_id=11529364

Dave

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Anonymous

History

Want a new topic? Here’s one. Tomorrow I hope to get into that kitchen and bake ginger cookies for you. That should give you some energy. Grandpa and I are proud that we grew our own acorn squash and have a bunch of them, and we had a bumper crop of apples and made 15 pints of applesauce. You put the two together and yummo. And that from our little city lot. That’s our little part for sustaining the world’s resources. I’ll let you know if I don’t get the cookies done, so you won’t stand drooling at the mail box. Grandma

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Anonymous

History

Well, we got the address from your mother, but she just said Rawson Hall, Grinnell, etc. So that’s where they’re going. Watch for them in a couple of days. Love, Grandma

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Chuck

History

Okay, guys. Sorry I haven’t been giving any comprehensive sorts of responses. Dan, as for your HUGE problem #1, he mentions that solar power has made massive increases in affordability and efficiency, and costs 5% of what it did a few years ago, but yet it still has a growth rate of 10% per year, and that’s not enough to take over the electricity market. The answer is, yes it’s possible to keep refining alternative energy methods so they become more efficient, but at the rate we’re going, it’ll soon become moot. I think I did the calculation somewhere else here - if solar contitues at its current growth rate, it’ll be 60 years before even half the US’s electricity comes from solar. If I recall correctly, the other alternative sources suffer the same problems, or more crippling ones (hydro, for example, suffers the problem that we can’t really viably dam any more rivers than we already have).
For HUGE problem #2, whether alternative energies can be used to develop alternative energies, the answer is yes, but they won’t until renewable energy powers most of the grid and cars. Until then, they’ll keep using oil and coal. Well, unless they run out and have no choice, but then it will have become too late.
And for your HUGE problem #3, well, at least he doesn’t hide that he’s affiliated with Nitro-Pak. I think, though, that he probably linked to that after he had had the site and the arguments up for a while. I doubt he’s being paid off by Nitro-Pak. And, his affiliations don’t affect his arguments - you still have to attack those instead of the ads.

The reason I said he’s not a nutjob isn’t that I thought you said he was, but that I thought you might have dismissed it before reading it as about Peak Oil and therefore probably written by a nutjob. I guess you just hadn’t read it.

My position on McCain and Obama? Well, any president is going to continue destroying the environment, but Obama will destroy it appreciably slower than McCain, so I’m for Obama.

I’m going to write a new blog sometime soon. Maybe today or tomorrow.

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Anonymous

History

I still have problems with your argument that it will soon become moot, and it’s too late, etc. These are ridiculous blanket statements that I’m surprised you would make so haphazardly. I agree that at the rate we are developing these technologies now, you’re right it would take way too long. The problem is, very little is being spent on these technologies. If more investment was applied, coupled with a greater sense of urgency and need, the technology would likely grow at a much faster pace than now. I can’t stand it when people say “at the rate we’re ___ now,” it is usually a meaningless statement. Just think about computer technology over the past 20 or 30 years, if that technology still moved at the rate it did in the 70’s you’d still be using 5-1/4” floppy’s and no hard drives would exist.

You also didn’t address wave energy or ocean energy. This is relatively new technology that has just begun to scratch the surface and could have huge potential. Not to mention geothermal, which I apparently left out before.


Now down to the basic numbers:
Our sun produces 386 billion billion megawatts (Both billions are there on purpose). Earth catches approximately 32,485,000 terawatts per year. We currently use 140,000 terawatts per year. That’s a big gap. I’m not saying that it would be easy, but there is obviously potential for solar energy to fill the gap if you look at the simple numbers.

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Chuck

History

Wave energy ( = ocean energy, no?) can only be used close to the coast in very specific geographies, so it can’t be scaled up much. Geothermal also needs a geological hot spot; Iceland could get along fine with it, and certainly Yellowstone National Park, but I’m pretty sure it can’t be scaled nationwide either.

Now, you probably can call these blanket statements. That’s because I’m not expert enough to know all the nuances of each alternative energy. That’s something I’ll have to do (when I can find time - I have a backlog of at least five books right now, not even including ones I’m reading for classes). But, you can’t deny that at our current point in time, renewable energy has little more than a nominal place in America’s economy - especially when you look at transportation. Nor can you deny that the people with the money and power to change something seem pretty uninterested in doing that so far. As peak oil becomes obvious, the economy will obviously tone up its production of renewable energy technology. But it sure looks like no one is going to bother to do much before it’s obvious. The economy is reactive, not proactive. The mainstream media don’t even like to mention peak oil (and at least once, a news channel - but I don’t remember which, so I’d have to search out the source - admitted that they don’t talk about peak oil because it’s a real buzzkill, not because it’s a load of crap). Call this a sweering generalization if you will, but since peak oil will happen quickly when it does (or, shift that to present tense), I’m pretty sure there won’t be enough time to build up an entire new infrastructure for transportation and farming, nor will there be enough money for a quickly implemented solution - especially with the shape the global economy has descended to in the last few weeks.

I’m thinking your terawatts calculation is at least a little misleading. For one, subtract 2/3 for how much of the earth is ocean. Subtract another 60% because the world record solar cell efficiency (doubtless prohibitively expensive, for now at least) is 40%. Then subtract a considerable amount for cropland that you can’t block out. Then subtract more for arctic areas that would get sun too obliquely, and subtract some for Seattle because the weather sucks there. Even with all that and more that I haven’t thought of, there’s probably a considerable margin more than we use, but it would mean covering an incredible area with solar panels. Last year someone using 50% efficiency (not far from the theoretical maximum) calculated .2% of the US land area, or the area of all paved roads in the country. And we’d need to make 2000 km² per year for 20 years to achieve it. (source)

But I’m not arguing specifically against solar; I just happened to remember the points about it better than I did for other energies, when I was writing that blog.

As for your thing about computers in the ’70s, Moore’s Law says that processing capacity will roughly double every two years. That’s been going on since around 1958. We got to where we are right now by going At The Rate We Were Going Then. (Though it can’t continue like that forever, for the reasons I talked about when I mentioned the Singularity.)

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Anonymous

History

I too find it interesting that peak oil is not mentioned too much in mainstream media. Peak oil for US sources was quite awhile ago.

Another thing I have noticed through the years all of the strip mining in eastern kentuky and west virginia. I fly over these areas alot, and I can tell you that the land is beind altered alot and on a big scale to get the coal that they are looking for. Clean coal is the next realistic player for american energy independence, and it is really going to take a toll on the land.

Ever get the feeling that the energy reserves we are “harvesting” at an alarming rate will leave a terrible legacy? It isn’t a whole lot different than what we did/do with the logging industry in the last 150 years.

Dave

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