Almost every time I bring up the problems with modernity or try to discuss the possibility of primitivism with someone I’m told something like “then just leave if you don’t like it here! Nobody’s stopping you!” This response is a testament to how little thought the average person has put into the way the economy works. Anyone unhappy can’t just walk away from the infinite growth economy and expect the people who still support it to just respect their boundaries when they run out of space. Go anywhere on this planet and no matter how remote you’ll see that there’s already a negative impact. People living in the arctic, much further than most would consider withdrawing to, went from having one of the lowest cancer rates to one of the highest because of toxins originating thousands of miles away contaminating their food sources. Clearly there does have to be a concerted effort to confront this culture and get it to change.
We’re going to start with the most tepid actions, those still within the range of what most consider “reasonable” or “realistic.” This chapter is for the vast majority who don’t have huge bank accounts to draw from and who aren’t willing to risk breaking major laws. Other possibilities will be considered later.
Let’s look at the types of protests that are common now. Protesting against Monsanto, the fossil fuel industry, austerity policies, wars, and animal cruelty are all good things. And fighting for a higher minimum wage, equal pay for equal work, a fairer tax rate, easier access to education and legalized cannabis all show that their hearts are in the right place. However, by focusing on one specific concern and ignoring the root causes that all these problems share they’re missing the opportunity to consolidate into a more powerful movement. Working separately and focusing only on the symptoms, there isn’t any real chance to achieve what they want.
What would things look like if the types of protests going on now were successful? Imagine that the tax burden increases for the rich, the wealth gap narrows a bit, enough jobs are created for everyone to stay employed, minimum wage is raised proportionally to inflation (which is the least any worker should accept considering that if adjusted to match worker productivity as well would be around twice that), renewable energy is subsidized and the price of emitting carbon is raised closer to its “true cost” giving incentives to businesses to create more energy efficient products and to consumers to buy them, employers are required to pay women as much as men, farms become organic, wars cease, and everyone has access to free healthcare and higher education and permission to buy medical marijuana if a doctor gives the ok.
First off, if growth is ignored wars will continue. Better recycling and more efficient and durable designs will never be good enough to allow the first world to provide everything their standard of living requires. And "reduce and reuse", of course, are totally inimical to any growth economy. But imagining that everything else actually happens, that same outcome could be explained like this: the upper class is now funding the corruption that the lower classes were before, more money goes to people who spend it quickly as opposed to those who have more than they know what to do with (those who hoard most of it), more products are produced and consumed stimulating the economy, women are further encouraged to pursue a career in the same dispiriting and destructive industries that mostly men have been subjected to so far, more people attend brainwashing universities and over-medicate themselves to a zombie-like state, anyone can buy small amounts of an easy to grow plant at exorbitant prices and anyone who accidentally burns their house down while trying to secretly grow it inside (it’s still expensive enough for people to kill each other for it) won’t have to flee the scene for fear of arrest.
I can’t say that wouldn’t be an improvement. It’s kind of like taking the long, winding route to the dentist’s office. And even that might be too kind an analogy. It might be more like taking the normal route while receiving fellatio from the passenger and listening to a New-Age mantra repeat itself on the radio the whole way. “I am a great person. I am a great person. I am a great person…..” Basically you feel better even though you’re headed for the same outcome. The easiest way to elucidate what I mean is to point out that a thriving green economy as envisaged by mainstream liberals is basically just consumers buying twice as many gadgets that each waste half as much energy. It’s hardly worth the effort. What they’re missing is that a society which depends on growth is inherently unsustainable, and unjust, no matter what the energy sources are or how equally wealth is distributed, or even how happy and nice everybody is within that society. Limits still apply and exploitation is still necessary somewhere. Rather than stop the plunder, the best anyone can do without ending growth is get a fairer share of the spoils. Therefore, if you’re protesting ANYTHING you should stop what you’re doing and switch your focus to the economy’s growth imperatives.
I’ve already covered the problems with growth in some detail. To summarize, we have a dangerously stressed ecosystem that the world economy pretends it can live without. The natural resources that become our products are diminishing and pollution and greenhouse gases are threatening our habitat. Our money system, which necessitates growth by loaning money into existence as interest-bearing debt, and our business model which encourages growth by rewarding those who are most productive, have to be drastically changed. This needs to happen for any of the other changes that protesters focus on to have any real effect. That means that this needs to happen first. Yet, hardly anybody even dares to bring the idea up for discussion. As a result, the majority of protests are just congregations of people delaying the damage of problems that they will ultimately fail to stop. This is because even they still depend on these problems existing. Remember all the iPhones in Occupy? And look at me, typing something on a computer and posting it on the internet to be read by other computer users.
You can’t have less consumption, less pollution, and less military conflicts with a perpetually growing economy providing more jobs, high-tech medical procedures and a higher standard of material wealth for everyone every year. Therefore, the first target of virtually every movement should be the growth imperative itself. Whether that means focusing on fractional reserve banking or capitalism, the idea that growth isn’t desirable just needs to be drilled into the majority’s heads. I was actually hoping that this would be what the Occupy Movement decided to focus on when they started trying to limit their demands. It never really became the focus of more than a few fringe groups though. The emphasis remained on things like student debt, corporate personhood and increasing taxes on the rich. Again, all good things but without addressing the root problem these changes won’t really save anything.
I can’t honestly say that I believe a new or updated form of the global industrial economic model can be made sustainable. I’m trying to focus on what I think can be accomplished with protests though. Charles Eisenstein, David Graeber and others have some alternative economic ideas worth looking at, most with rosy names like Sacred Economics, The Economics of Happiness and The Circular Economy. Transitioning to one of these models, or more likely some perversion of one, could at the very least make more radical changes a little easier to accomplish, allowing us to at least get a few pillows in front of the brick wall we’re racing towards.
One pillow that I think could soften our crash, and the least controversial of the few I want to propose in this chapter, would be an improved education system. Yeah, not exactly a new idea but let me be more specific. I’m not concerned with buying a computer for every desk, new football fields or the like. What we need are new ideas. We need to stop treating education like job training for office work and industries that have no future. This could be as simple as adding a permaculture class to the curriculum or teaching history in a way that doesn’t glorify technological progress and globalization over everything else (even dictionary definitions are currently biased. Compare what you get with words like white and civilized with black and savage). I’d rather see high school education greatly improved and businesses required to provide their own training than college education more affordable. For the vast majority, there shouldn’t be much need for college. Like I said before, most of the industries kids are being trained for have no future and would never have existed in the first place if our culture actually had respect for anything. The future depends on people being more frugal and self-reliant, meaning able to provide more of their necessities without money, so that’s what kids should be prepared for. Without addressing the growth imperative though, good luck bringing this change about in a world that wants the complete opposite.
Second, I recommend putting more pressure on the current agricultural system. Protests need to go beyond labeling GMO’s and switching to organic. Organic agriculture has been eroding soil and emitting carbon into the atmosphere for thousands of years. It’s the main cause of many of the world’s deserts. This is an issue as vital as stopping the use of fossil fuels and, like degrowth, it rarely comes up. We can’t afford to let so much land desertify, which is exactly what will happen if we keep this dying system on life support with chemical nutrients and water from depleting aquifers. Transitioning to a perennial polyculture model will require many more workers on farms but trying to sell the idea as a way to create jobs would be kind of disingenuous. Creating these new jobs threatens those who are currently employed producing and selling chemicals. So again, degrowth is a prerequisite.
Third, and without a doubt the most controversial proposal for protesters, is land redistribution. We need to reverse the trend of urbanization. There’s no such thing as a sustainable city. When people live in population densities higher than what local resources can feed, clothe, heat and shelter they have to use extra energy to import those resources from far away. They require extra infrastructure that isn’t necessary for those in lower population densities, such as sewage treatment. They also disconnect themselves from the impact they have on the land that those resources come from and therefore lose the ability to make good decisions. There needs to be incentives and opportunities for people to leave cities. The perennial polycultures that farms must transition to in order to survive are the infrastructure that make a truly sustainable existence for the human race possible. They make it possible for us to get our food, building materials, heating fuel and clothing fibers locally. I’ve already gone through some statistics on land and populations which should have made it clear that if farmland was parceled out to those in cities they could all provide for themselves with less land than we use now. This is due not only to the distance between resources and consumers but also to high consumption lifestyles and the inefficiency of large-scale farming. It’s unlikely that most people would choose to live that way themselves and there are some good excuses, like the toxicity of the chemical residues currently underfoot, but they should at least have the option. The way things are now, self-reliant people are a threat to corporate profits and growth. However, people who support economic growth are a threat to all life on this planet. With how hard it is to get people to change, when someone wants to give up their high-tech crap and give the simple life a try, it should be seen as a blessing. It should be encouraged and facilitated. At the very least, it should be allowed! Similar to religious groups, there should be places we can go where certain building codes and safety violations can be ignored, and where people can be exempt from paying taxes into a system they want nothing to do with. Realistically this would start as workers living on the land that provides their necessities in exchange for doing more labor than they need to do just to take care of themselves. This wouldn’t have to resemble the exploitation of feudalism where people gave the bulk of the crops they produced to their lords while keeping hardly enough to survive for themselves. If the “lord” is switching to a more self-sufficient lifestyle as well, then even giving just 10% or so should be plenty, and that would likely be easier for people than what they’re currently doing to pay bills. I’d like to imagine that someday farms will have transformed into self-sufficient eco-villages that aren’t required to provide for anyone else or pay taxes to the state. That may sound like wishful thinking but I honestly don’t think it’s that outrageous an idea. We may not have such an easy time getting there but if humans exist in even half the numbers they do now a couple hundred years from now, they are going to be living this way and they’ll only exist because of our struggle for land reform.
Without the pressure to grow there will be less of a need for those in positions of power to prevent their subjects from escaping. There will be less effort to brainwash consumers and people are more likely to have honest conversations about things. This doesn’t mean that they automatically will, of course. Our beliefs and habits are deeply ingrained. I’m not expecting some magical transformation overnight just because changes in the economy make degrowth without a crash a possibility. It just makes those other changes much more likely. This is about as much as we can hope for from typical protests. The main point I want to make is just how much more we can accomplish if we identify a common goal. There is already a ton of energy being spent on activism, just on separate projects. Better planned out we could accomplish so much more without much increase in effort at all.
Protests, if they make escaping the status quo a little more acceptable, can also turn towards secession. I know when most of us hear “secession” the first image that pops in our heads is a bunch of white racists pissed off with their country being run by a black guy. If we want localized economies though, a nation the size of the United States is a serious hindrance. I would urge anyone reading this to look into bioregionalism and some of the sensible, non-bigoted secession movements around, like Cascadia and the Second Vermont Republic. Find out what bioregion you’re a part of and if there isn’t a secession group for it, start one. There’s also “transition town” movements that are working to make their communities more self-reliant without attempting to withdraw from their countries. These could potentially facilitate secession and bioregionalism, acting like a first step that sounds a lot less radical, so even though I usually look at them as too little too late, supporting them still seems like a good idea for those of us who are advocating for more.
Other than protests there are other things that can be done even by those who find peaceful activism too radical. These are the things that most radicals hate to even label as solutions but they have to be mentioned. Frankly, the fact that most people still won’t even do these things shows how deeply ingrained growth’s programming has become. Most of these things aren’t even sacrifices. With the same typical logic most people are already following, that they want to save money, have less chores to do, make their homes prettier and more valuable, having no real concern about climate change or social injustices these options still make more sense than what they usually do. One of the most obvious examples is passive solar houses. Without increasing material use or the cost of construction it’s possible to get the bulk of your heat for free from sunlight simply by orienting your windows differently. This isn’t some new experimental concept that home-builders should be wary about. It’s a time-tested and proven technology. It should be the norm. I’d say as long as people are using windows it should be a legal requirement even. The only reason it’s not is because free anything is “bad for the economy.” That’s also the only reason anyone thinks it will hurt resale value, because people are taught what houses should look like by people whose livelihoods depend on selling crap that nobody really needs. Despite the advice of "experts", the idea that people will still prefer the types of houses that are currently considered normal ten years from now is actually pretty unimaginable to me.
I’d obviously rather people not use windows at all since they require industry, at least if made anywhere near the quality that a sunlight-heated house would require. Rocket stoves and mass heaters are probably a better option. They still use some metal but since those parts can be made with things that can be found in junkyards, like old 50 gallon drums and piping, they’re great for the transition phase, heating much more efficiently than normal woodstoves. Long-term some efficiency will be lost when people start relying entirely on earthen materials to build them with but even those are still pretty good, certainly more efficient than fireplaces or open hearths.
The obsession with lawn grass is equally ridiculous. I already mentioned that the space the United States uses for lawns could potentially produce all our food, which would allow us to leave hundreds of millions of acres of abused farmland alone to rewild. But even just considering the amount of work, and how mind-numbingly boring that work is, what is the point? How much time does anyone even spend on their grass? And why does it have to all be grass anyway? Allowing things like clovers, dandelions, plantain, wild strawberry, wild onions and purslane to coexist doesn’t make it unusable for football games or lawn chairs, is safer and less expensive than spraying chemicals, way less work than weeding by hand, and I would argue even looks better. Plus clovers add fertility, purslane and dandelion greens and flowers are great in salads, dandelion roots can be used to make a medicinal tea that tastes like coffee, plantain fights allergies better than any pharmaceutical I’ve ever used, and hopefully anyone reading this already knows that strawberries and onions are edible. Even if you grazed animals on your grass instead of mowing it, they can eat this stuff too. There’s really no good reason to ever prefer a carpet-like lawn. This is just what people have been trained to desire by lawn care companies.
Now let’s discuss the way these lawns are used. For the most part, they’re not. 9 times out of 10 if you see someone on their grass, it’s just to mow it. The other 10% of the time is usually some bored kid playing alone. Why not just have one shared lawn for every dozen or so houses where the neighborhood kids can meet up and neighbors can barbecue together. That would be one twelfth the work for a more enjoyable result. Personal plots could be used mostly for gardens instead. And why not grow more than ornamentals in these? It absolutely kills me seeing the plants people choose to grow. Poisonous yew trees and inedible flowers, decorative crab apples, all given 5 feet of space between them and with alien mulch covering plastic sheeting…. So ridiculous! Using dwarf pine nuts, Jerusalem artichokes, groundnuts, and real apples instead wouldn’t be more work or higher expense, and considering that humans are programmed to like the sight of plants that are actually useful to them, wouldn’t look worse, so why is this the norm? Even more insane, why do some areas actually prohibit edibles? Of course people talk about concern for insects and rats, which is pretty ridiculous to claim when people growing inedible species are still using tons of pesticides or have a bunch of pet cats anyway. Infestations are usually only a problem when food is left to rot instead of harvested, and that’s not more work than pushing a lawnmower around, especially if using perennial species.
We can easily do away with the materials and contamination of septic systems with simple composting toilets. The cost of these isn’t even a fraction of what’s paid for septic systems. You could literally just use a bucket or trash can. Of course most will want a little more than that but even stylish composting toilets don’t need to cost anywhere near what people pay for the “normal” setup.
Then there’s swimming pools. The common plastic, chlorine-treated pool does not look better than natural pools. They’re usually not less expensive. They’re certainly not less work to maintain. They can’t usually be used to grow edible plants or raise fish. They won’t teach your kids anything about nature. But we’re taught to think that without being lifeless and sterile, water must be dangerous. However, lifeless and sterile usually are signs of danger themselves. If there’s no life someplace it’s usually because something hazardous is preventing anything from surviving there. Again, we’ve been trained to ignore our instincts by those who profit off of stupidity. And like lawns, is it really necessary for every single house in a neighborhood to have its own pool when most hardly ever use them?
I think we can all agree that access to drinking water is kind of important. So why is it so rare to see hand pumps or those classic water bucket wells anywhere? Even after Hurricane Sandy devastated the northeast, forcing a lot of people to drive hundreds of miles in search of bottled water, people still put their faith in electricity to provide their number one necessity. An extra well is a significant expense but to not even consider putting one in for every dozen houses as an emergency source of water after being given such a clear warning is absolutely unbelievable. This is the level of insanity we’re dealing with though. It’s not really all that surprising considering the type of person you need to be to make enough money to buy a house these days. Like I’ve said a bunch of times already, this economy generally does not reward responsible behavior.
It’s amazing the amount of work that goes into beautifying these neighborhoods when given time off from work even those living in them would rather be someplace else. We’re supposed to want to go away on vacations though. “Staycations” don’t sell plane tickets, hotel rooms, souvenirs or overpriced drinks at lame attractions. We don’t need to be hermits to live responsibly but for the most part we should be spending more time making the places we live better than looking for better places to go, except for those in cities of course. I consider all energy put into greening cities to just be energy that should have been spent on getting people out of cities. Maybe it would be better to say that we should be putting our energy into setting up communities that people actually want to spend their time in.
Probably the most often cited “solution” is responsible shopping. Buy “green,” look for the organic, fair-trade, “follow the frog” and dolphin-safe labels on the container. “You make the world a better place when you buy our products.” Green shopping, despite the constant praise, is only slightly better than nothing. The ads would be more accurate if they said “you cause a little less damage to the world when you choose our products over the products of our competitors.” Less destructive is not the same as good for the planet. Even not buying anything, deciding to forgo the sugar rush or whatever it is they sell for that moment, wouldn’t make the planet a better place. There really isn’t any way to help things that involves participating in this economy. But then again, with a lot of people, reducing the rate of destruction is probably all we can get them to do. It’s really incredible how many of them are still refusing to even switch brands. As long as we are in living arrangements that depend on buying things from companies we should be trying to keep track of which companies are least bad. Just don’t forget that it’s the dependency that’s the real problem.
Some lifestyle choices are a little riskier than growing Jerusalem artichokes in place of black-eyed Susans or buying your daughter a chicken instead of a Chihuahua. Choosing to refuse orders at work can make a huge difference if you’re a cop, soldier, lawyer, doctor, politician, teacher or even something like an artist who might get away with sneaking some hidden messages into illustrations or public sculptures. There are enormous pressures keeping cops acting like dicks, politicians and lawyers like scumbags, teachers like squares and artists like prostitutes. Outside of work there’s still the risk of losing friends or getting complaints from neighbors but more are willing to risk these things than getting fired. Men can question the point of drinking 24 beers in a night and having hot dog eating contests, maybe letting their friends know that the concern goes beyond “faggy” personal worries about waistline and colon cancer. They can let their gearhead buddies know that they don’t give a shit about their new paintjobs and obnoxiously loud engines, and tell their douchebag jock friends that it’s stupid to fight over which millionaire ball-thrower does the best ball-throwing. Women can tell their friends they think shoe shopping is a stupid hobby and that they’d rather get their hands dirty than their nails “did.” When asked which curtains a woman thinks would look best in a friend’s living room, she could simply say something like “who gives a fuck?” These are things that actually do make a difference. All the little reassurances people give each other every day with their fake “I’m good, how are you?” conversations are what make such stupid behavior seem like “just the way it is.” Offending people isn’t always a bad thing. Criticizing touchier subjects, like how wasteful someone’s funeral arrangements are, should be handled a little more delicately but still shouldn’t be totally shied away from.
There’s not really much else worth wasting paper on with this category of “activist.” Anyone who won’t even consider these things either is in too precarious a situation to take any extra risks or they’re just too hopeless to bother with. Either way, these changes are all pretty tepid considering the problems we’re facing. Next we’ll get into the things those who aren’t in precarious situations, and who have the means to make significant changes, can do.