Most people reading this will probably already agree that the world is a mess. At this point just about everyone can tell that something is horribly wrong with our society. Of course this doesn’t mean that most will agree on what exactly that is or what we should do about it. The majority seem to still be convinced that the main problem is just the political party they vote against but a growing minority is starting to come to see both of the main parties as flawed. Barrack Obama’s presidency has been a huge wake-up call for a lot of disappointed Liberals and now with Donald Trump taking over the Republican party even staunch conservatives are starting to question the integrity of mainstream politics.
The one thing that the entire political spectrum has consistently agreed on, besides the world being a mess, is a need for economic growth. Almost all the arguments focus on what policies would create the most jobs and get people to do the most shopping. The Left contends that things like raising the minimum wage, raising taxes on the rich, increasing spending for welfare programs and manufacturing bazillions of solar panels will get more money into the hands of people who will spend it and that this will basically solve all our problems. The Right, on the other hand, contends that growth depends mainly on keeping rich people happy, lowering their taxes, doing away with pesky regulations on their businesses and cutting funding to social programs. I can at least sympathize with the Left a little bit here since they’re at least following their own logic. There really isn’t any line of reasoning that makes the right-wing’s ideas consistent. They complain about the poor being unable to take care of themselves then do everything they can to prevent self-reliance. They know self-reliant people don’t need corporations to produce the things they depend on. This means they spend less money and less profits go to the rich, who, despite being the biggest recipients of free money through economic rents, subsidies and tax breaks, are somehow considered the creators of wealth. All evidence shows that “trickle down” policies have never worked and by any honest assessment there’s no reason to believe that they ever will. As the rich have gotten richer, the poor have gotten poorer. The Right’s policies are so inimical to the majority of voters that they rely almost entirely on irrational single-issue constituents. They would have almost no support without pandering to Christian fundamentalists, racists, blindly “patriotic” military vets, senile old people stuck in their ways and those ignorant and scared enough to be easily misled by whichever candidates look the most confident. The Left’s policies at least have the potential to put more money into the hands of most people. But then again would it really be a good thing for consumption to increase?
If there’s any one thing that the vast majority of humanity should be able to agree on it’s probably that they want what’s best for their children. This is how a lot of these flawed political ideas are sold after all, as being the best ways to ensure a prosperous future for the coming generations. But what problems are really threatening them? And what effect does growth have on those problems?
First off has to be climate change. Decades ago scientists warned the world that atmospheric CO2 concentrations should be kept below 350 parts per million (ppm) and we’re now officially above 400 ppm and still climbing apace. This is expected to lead to devastated coasts from harsher and more frequent storms and rising sea levels, as well as droughts, wild fires and some other problems that I’ll be mentioning in this list. It was never a mystery what caused increased CO2 levels or what needed to be done to stop it. We know that burning fossil fuels, deforestation and soil degradation are the main contributors. We also know that economic growth has always been strongly dependent on increased energy and land use. Many try to argue that things like improvements in technology and forestry and farming practices will allow the economy to grow even while using less energy and only harvesting as much biomass as can be regrown sustainably. There is some truth to this but improvements can only go so far and a lot of what’s labeled “sustainable” regarding forestry and farming is just slower destruction. Sure, resource use doesn’t have to increase at the exact same rate as GDP but when you’re dealing with a system that crashes without perpetual exponential growth and that’s already causing so much damage to the planet we live on at current rates of consumption, how long can increases in efficiency really postpone catastrophic damage from over consumption? Or to make another argument, even if there is a possibility to continue growth forever without increasing the rate of damage we do to the world, what makes that the best option? We don’t even know it can be done, and to be honest, I’m as confident as a human being can be about anything when I say that it can’t. It’s also a hell of a lot more work than just changing the way the economy functions. The ability to get what you need with little effort is generally a sign of intelligence but again, a lot of us are still buying into the idea that creating more work to do is always a good thing. Having some work ethic is certainly admirable but do you really think your kids should have to waste their lives doing mind-numbingly tedious tasks 60 hours per week when even our current unsustainable living standard could be maintained with everyone’s hours cut literally in half? I’ll get more into that topic later. For now I just want to stay focused on the main problems before getting into the ways I think they should be handled.
Other ecocide related issues are pollution, species loss, and ocean acidification. Industry has left us surrounded by carcinogens and other persistent environmental contaminants. Endocrine disrupting chemicals are thought to be responsible for the lower testosterone levels and sperm counts in men (both approximately half what they were just one generation ago). Plastics that will take centuries to break down will continue choking wildlife for that entire timeframe. Populations of phytoplankton, the organisms that should be producing approximately two thirds of the planet’s oxygen, have dropped nearly half from where they were in the 1950s. We’re currently seeing the highest rate of extinctions since the dinosaurs were hit by an asteroid 65 million years ago. Some estimates are as high as 10 species lost every hour (over 200 per day). It’s officially being called the sixth mass extinction that this planet has faced, and we’re the cause. If extinction was to continue at this rate there would literally be nothing left within 100 and 200 years depending on whose estimates for existing species is closest to correct. Anyone who knows anything about ecology will tell you that diversity is essential for resilience. This isn’t just an issue of kids not being able to see tigers and polar bears or something. It’s a sign, a dire warning, that if things continue as they are entire ecosystems that we depend on could fail.
Next up is resource exhaustion. Peak oil has been a major concern for a while. We know it’s a finite resource, meaning it, and all other fossil fuels, will run out if we continue to extract them. The peak is the point when the rate of extraction is the highest it will ever be. From then on if your economy must grow and its growth is still tied to energy use then you’ve got some serious problems. Many thought we would, and perhaps did, pass the peak already. Others argue that increases in fracking, mountaintop removal coal mining, the tar sands projects and new methods of extracting methane hydrates from the oceans will give us another decade or two before we have to deal with it. Arguments are still going on as to whether the disruption, whenever it comes, will prevent us from burning enough fuel to cause irreversible global warming and an uninhabitable planet. As Bill McKibben and many others have pointed out though, estimates for fossil fuel reserves suggest that depletion is losing the race with climate change as there could still be five times more fuel than scientists have calculated would be safe to burn. This leads them to conclude that we need to invest heavily in renewables. However, most people aren’t expecting solar panels, wind turbines, biofuels or any combination of renewable alternatives to match the power of burning fossil fuels. Plus “renewables” aren’t really renewable. Sunlight, wind, waves and biomass are themselves renewable but the technologies that convert them into mechanical energy are still made with finite resources using toxic processes, and the energy they produce is still used for not so “green” purposes. Even the tree-huggers are just kicking the can down the road by ignoring economic growth.
Closely tied to resource exhaustion is war. You don’t exactly have to be a conspiracy theorist these days to acknowledge that regions of the world with important resources to the global economy are also rife with conflict. There are the obvious examples dealing with oil but this goes far beyond energy sources. As Richard Heinberg and many others like to point out, the problem isn’t just peak oil. It’s peak everything. Wars have been fought over resources as seemingly innocuous as soil, water, furs and spices. The hazards extend beyond the immediate casualties. The birth defects from depleted uranium, Agent Orange and other toxic weapons eat away at populations for generations. The economic impoverishment leads to all sorts of social problems that communities struggle to overcome. Desperation leads to crime, friends and neighbors lose trust in each other, sexual violence and child abuse increase, exploitation runs rampant as the desperate come to accept de facto slave labor, and so on. Often these things are goals of the enemy forces, at least the leaders of those forces, because they want this destabilization. Then the disempowered start to see terrorism as their best option for retaliation. Even the winning country hasn’t become safer from the conquest. Parents on both sides teach their children to hate the children of their enemies and the violence perpetuates. This is what happens when people depend on, or maybe just covet, resources that they don’t have on their own land.
Another major threat that just got hinted at in the previous paragraph is inequality. It’s strange how so many people who consider democracy to be a top priority don’t see anything wrong with such egregious wealth polarization. They generally understand the need for voters to be educated and politicians to be held to their campaign promises in some way but still believe that each person has one vote. Unfortunately, every dollar spent is a vote for something, so when the top 62 richest human beings have the same wealth as the bottom half of the entire species then each of them literally has 50 million times the influence of a poor person. The wealthy “vote” against the interests of the majority, acquire more “ballots” as a result and the problem snowballs until reaching a breaking point. Statistics show that wealth inequality effects rates of violence, drug abuse, depression, disease, environmental negligence and many other social problems. When we say we want what’s best for kids I think most of us can agree on health, peace, happiness and clean environments as goals.
The last problem I want to bring up in this introduction is irrational beliefs. I won’t label all religious practices as inherently dangerous but we have to recognize that fundamentalist sects and their self-fulfilling prophecies are currently a threat. We have to acknowledge where these beliefs came from and why. We also need to extend this logic beyond beliefs that explicitly label themselves as religious and include a critique of scientists’ goals and how we define “progress.” That’s a lot to summarize in one paragraph here but so much has already been written on this and the other problems I’ve listed that I see no reason to go beyond a quick summary. Anyone who needs more detailed explanations should check the resources I’ve listed in the back of this book. This introduction is more about making sure we’re on the same page than it is an attempt to proselytize. So that said, let me just point out the crusades I’m concerned with. First is the evangelical Christian crowd in the United States who literally believe that once the Jews have reclaimed the Promised Land that Jesus will come back and kill everyone who doesn’t worship him (including those Jews). Seeing the end of the world as a good thing is obviously kind of a problem. Jewish Zionists are following a similar script, believing that a territory of the Middle East has been given to them by God and that anyone else who’s existed on this territory for over a thousand years has no right to it. This horrible treatment of fellow human beings is one of the main causes of a third crusade, radical Islam. Their general goal is to do away with all “infidels” and create a world inhabited only by what they consider to be true Muslims. We’re also seeing a similar trend with Hindu fascism but as of yet there isn’t much concern about it in the American media, probably because India hasn’t got as impressive of oil reserves or as much significance in the Bible. All these religions have a susceptibility to start crusades because of their imperial origins. They were basically designed as tools for empire, combining ideas from earlier faiths to encourage acceptance among a wider range of followers and then twisted to turn those new followers into servants and soldiers of their empires. Obviously there are still some good messages in these faiths and many benign followers but that doesn’t change the fact that this susceptibility exists, and that’s exactly why these faiths are so dominant.
Science, despite being labeled the antithesis of faith, has a similar history to religion. Knowledge is power and for this reason empires welcome it with open arms. Clearly leaders don’t always approve of all their subjects having this knowledge though, not until they come to see it as beneficial for themselves. These days their power depends on the rank and file having a little more technological savvy than it did in the days of catapults and drawbridges. If those on top want satellite surveillance and biological weapons then a significant portion of the common folk need to have some understanding of astrophysics and biology. The scientific method, devised as a technique for solving problems, depends on rational thinking but the scientific crusade does not. This desire for more knowledge and new inventions at any cost has created a society willing to sacrifice more victims to their “gods” than ever before. Even though most of the theories contrived are valid, the endless desire for “progress” is still as irrational as anything religions have strived for. They literally have to ignore their own findings to keep advocating for increases in their research. It should be obvious that lack of data isn’t the problem. If we defined progress as making improvements in our lives then acquiring knowledge is more about growth than progress. Wisdom, on the other hand, is about making better use of what we already know and deciding when enough is enough.
So if a growth imperative is detrimental to future generations, what has to be changed to get rid of it? Where did it come from to begin with? Most advocates of degrowth label fractional reserve banking as the culprit. Basically if money is loaned into existence as debt with interest attached to it then in order to pay off these debts new loans must constantly be taken out, the money supply grows and there’s never enough in existence to pay off all debts. This clearly does make economic growth a necessity but it ignores how long imperialism has been around. Unfortunately the fractional reserve system is just an intensification of a problem that already existed. For this reason others blame capitalism, the concept of “business”, the use of money, urban lifestyles, or “civilization”, agriculture, domestication, and imperial religions. Some would say any religion at all because superstitions inevitably lead to misunderstandings and then those lead to bad decisions, groups irrationally following corrupt leaders, and things like the environmental degradation that makes conquest necessary for survival. Then that conquest causes the mistreatment of individuals that leads to psychological problems and cycles of violence. The debate rages on as to how far “back” we need to go but clearly the root is deeper than a modern banking policy.
So why do I propose primitivism as the best option? First I should probably describe what I mean by primitivism. A lot of people use the word “primitive” in different ways, most often disparagingly for something considered inferior or outdated. I use it more to mean a lower level of dependence on technology, basically simple living. How do we gauge whether something is low-tech enough to be considered primitive? The term “democratic technic” was coined by Lewis Mumford and can most easily be described as a technology that a locality can have full control of, meaning they have the resources and abilities to build them themselves. This includes things like bows and arrows, atlatls, clay pots, mud ovens, and stone or bone cutting tools. As a general rule this means they don’t depend on fossil fuels, plastics, metal or glass but these things can technically still be used in much more limited ways. This is the main criterion I use. I don’t want to create the impression that I’m an official spokesperson for all primitivists and that they all define it this way. This is just what I’m referring to when I say it. Others, like many anarcho-primitivists will contend that primitivists must be hunter-gatherers who forgo all forms of domestication, are totally self-sufficient, egalitarian, anarchist, feminist, good stewards of their land, tolerant of other cultures, peaceful, and some argue that they must be atheist while others argue that they must be “spiritual.” Primitivists even argue over veganism and paleo diets as requirements. I would contend that even though a lot of these things are good goals they shouldn’t automatically be considered a prerequisite for primitivism. There have been thousands of experiments in primitive living throughout human history and some are more worthy of emulation than others, meaning that primitivism alone isn’t the full answer, just a major part of it.
Now that I’ve told you that I plan on proposing simplicity I need to explain why I consider it better than the more complex, technological alternatives. Many reading this are probably more in favor of what I would disparagingly refer to as a techno-utopia. There’s no doubt that a modern lifestyle with long distance trade, high-tech gadgets and all the comforts we’re used to can be arranged better than the status quo. We know that companies resort to using planned obsolescence, intentionally rejecting the best designs because long lasting products means selling less of them. We also don’t need advertising agencies brainwashing people into updating styles and replacing things that still work fine just to stay up to date. We know that we’ve passed the optimum level of consumption for maximum happiness. We could be happier with less stuff and all that stuff could be made to last much longer. We could have less kids so that less people exist to need this stuff and it can all be produced and recycled with a fraction of the energy and pollution that current manufacturing requires. All of this is true. I totally agree that it can be done a lot better. But is better good enough?
Had these policies been adopted from the start of industrial civilization and we’d always updated designs immediately for maximum efficiency, and had we decided to keep the human population within a specified range and used an economic system that allowed or even incentivized all these things, I’d imagine that this civilization could have lasted a pretty long time. I still don’t see how it could be truly sustainable or peaceful considering the coordination and coercion necessary to bring all the ingredients together that these inventions require and to collect all the data to reliably run such a complex system, but yes, I concede that it could have worked out a whole lot better for those involved. Considering that we’re already on such thin ice though, literally, being closer to sustainable isn’t going to buy us much time. If we’re not making the world better by our actions then it won’t be long before we’re finished. I’ll get a little more into this in later chapters. For now I just want you to have some idea what you can expect.
Plenty has already been written describing what’s wrong with the world. There are hundreds of books describing peak oil, climate change, permaculture, indigenous cultures, alternative economic models and primitive wilderness survival skills. This book is not going to be another rehashing. This isn’t about putting a clever spin on what we’ve all heard a million times already. This isn’t about putting together the best summary of anarcho-primitivism, anti-civilization or rewilding. I hope this book can be used to get more people interested in these ideas but there’s no reason for me to go into detail on things that are already covered so thoroughly elsewhere. I’ve included a list of resources in the back for those who want to learn more on these subjects. I want to spend most pages on the things I’ve felt were lacking in these other books. I’ve read hundreds of them, watched probably close to a thousand documentaries, and wasted countless hours listening to interviews and talks. These writers and speakers just keep repeating the same ideas while shying away from answering questions about solutions. I’ve seen so many people just get frustrated and quit because of this. We need to move beyond the typical platitudes of “awakening consciousness,” “finding our story,” “reconnecting to the earth” and “starting a conversation.” We need clear visions of what the alternatives would actually look like and possibilities for getting from here to there. We need to be able to answer questions like “so what do we do?” That is what this book will be attempting. This will begin with a simplified thought experiment where I imagine what it would take for humanity to reach a primitive lifestyle if everyone was in full agreement and nothing was inhibiting their actions. From there we’ll move toward more realistic possibilities. If you have trouble following my ideas you might want to consider starting with the list of resources in the back, picking up some of those books, watching some of the documentaries and catching up before moving on. For those who’ve made it this far without scratching their heads, the rest should all be pretty straight forward.