First off, I have to remind everyone reading this that this chapter is NOT a serious proposal. This is just a thought experiment. I do not advocate that anybody, no matter how wise or sincere, be given total authoritarian control over all of humanity, especially not me. Imagining that everyone is basically following one mind and is in total agreement about what needs to be done, and that there’s therefore no reason to waste time with things like military intimidation or a propaganda campaign, just helps us simplify things and gives us a good starting point for discussion. I am aware that we live in the most complex society ever devised by humans and that complexity obviously complicates things. Thousands of organizations will slow each other down, all they’ll know how to do is create even more unnecessary organizations and all of them will waste the bulk of their energy trying to justify their own existence so they can keep getting paid. I get it. We will talk about these things, just not right now.
So if given the opportunity to command every hairless creature that walks on two legs, and imagining that I wouldn’t just spend my time coming up with sadistic torture devices for the hosts of Fox News or picking out famous actresses for my harem, what would I do? What are my priorities? Typical dictators generally have only one real priority, and that’s power. Every decision they make is based on whether or not it leads to them acquiring more of it. Normal people, on the other hand, generally prioritize their own happiness, then their family’s happiness, followed by their friends’ happiness, their community’s happiness, their country’s happiness, and sometimes they will at least claim to care about the happiness of all humanity. There’s also the rare breed of human, the type I’d expect to have not given up on this book yet, who extend their concern to other species and future generations of humans and animals. Even compassionate people tend to put their own on top of the list though. It’s just how evolution has wired our brains. To be a benevolent leader, to be truly selfless, one needs to be able to reverse this list. If I’m most concerned with the long-term big picture then the planet comes first, followed by regions, communities, those I actually know, and I guess it’d be cool if I could still afford to be happy myself once in a while. I know the argument that I’m supposed to make is that doing what’s best for others is what’s best for yourself and that you can’t exist to be happy in the first place if you don’t take care of the planet you live on. I consider both ideas to be good advice but they’re not really true. Technically, if everyone was following this logic the world would be a better place and most individuals would be happier further into the future. That doesn’t change the fact that consequences tend to be paid by those who had nothing to do with the selfish behavior that caused the problem. Selfish people get away with murder all the time and many generations of parents have lived great lives while leaving their children with no chance for happy, fulfilling lives. Primitivists tend to use a lot of these sort of half true arguments and, although I can appreciate the sentiment, I’d rather avoid them. They write entire books trying to prove that indigenous people were happier, less violent, never exploited their environments or treated women unfairly. You can make that argument for many of them but not for all indigenous people.
In his book Endgame, Derrick Jensen makes a pretty big deal about Pleistocene overkill theory, trying to make the case that early Native Americans couldn’t have wiped out whole species of megafauna on the continent. Personally, I think they probably did based on my own research but that doesn’t change my opinion about simple living. Of course these people made mistakes, especially when adjusting to life in a new land. That doesn’t change the fact that modern high consumption lifestyles are destroying the world or that it’s possible to live well with less stuff. We don’t have to pretend that indigenous people were all perfect to appreciate certain elements of their cultures. It’s the lifestyles that developed from centuries of trial and error that we should be learning from anyway, not who they were when they first invaded their bioregions. Although humans are clearly capable of causing great damage to the natural world even with simple technologies, the fact that ecosystems changed when humans arrived doesn’t mean that we’re a species that’s inherently incapable of sustainability. It just means that ecosystems with humans won’t be the same as those without them. I don’t understand why so many advocates of simple living think they have to prove that indigenous people never caused any damage to their environments. Why even waste the time fighting about these things? Why risk your credibility focusing on questionable ideas when there are so many undeniable ones to choose from? That’s why I won’t be making these types of arguments.
So back to my priorities, if I put the planet’s long-term health on top and I consider the biggest threats to be the economy’s growth imperative, climate change, ecocide, resource exhaustion, inequality and irrational beliefs, what do I demand that my followers do about it? For starters they need to lose their dependence on fossil fuels, lower their rates of resource consumption and share what they do use more equally. How can we accomplish that? Degrowth economic models would be the best place to start, and I’m pretty sure that doesn’t require much of an explanation. Basically, society remains functional (meaning that nobody starves or feels a need to offer blowjobs for money) when people decide to buy less stuff. If we want to be using less then we’ll be producing less and relying on simpler technologies. This means deindustrialization. If we use less energy then we need to get our resources from close by, so we localize. If we’re getting things from close by, we’ll need to be more evenly spread out, so we’ll ruralize. And in order to make sure that we can all handle such drastic changes, we’ll need major reskilling programs, adjusting school curriculums from training for office work and performing specialized, tedious tasks all day to learning how to be more self-reliant in a country setting. So to put that in one neat list, we have degrowth, deindustrialization, localization, ruralization and reskilling.
In the real world, some countries have already experimented a little with degrowth, subsidizing businesses so they can pay the same salaries to their employees for less working hours and hire more to lower unemployment rates. This isn’t anywhere near as extreme as what I’m advocating, especially in this chapter, but it is at least a baby step in the right direction. There is plenty of work that needs to continue so such methods would be necessary during the transition phase. The things that we still depend on, like farming, delivery, transportation, medicine, education and communications can’t just be shut off over night without alternatives in place. We also need people to safely power down nuclear plants and store their wastes. Simply left to crumble, many of the industrial world’s projects would be a major threat. It’s actually pretty amazing how much needs to be considered when dealing with things that remain toxic for 100,000 years. At Onkalo, a nuclear waste repository site in Finland, they’ve considered using scary statues instead of warning signs because they don’t know if today’s languages will still be in use that far into the future. This leads to debate on whether the statues would work as warnings or just incite curiosity. Maybe it’s better to leave these sites inconspicuous and just hope that no one ever finds them or has the high-tech equipment necessary for extracting their contents. It’s more complicated than just deciding that we don’t want nuclear power anymore and therefore those who are doing decommission work would need to keep at it for a while.
Many other jobs I would cut instantly. These would be things completely unnecessary to our survival, such as amusement park maintenance, space exploration, production of junk food, plastic toys, military weapons and the like. Those currently employed in these industries won’t be left to starve. They’ll just be given something more beneficial to do. Even letting these people be bored for a little while is better than keeping them working in such industries. I have no problem giving people food and shelter even if they’re not contributing anything. If it’s up to me, people will commute, transport, produce and consume as little as possible. More likely, people would just be sharing jobs, as mentioned above, so that everyone works less but is still doing something. If nothing else, they have plenty to learn and can focus more on training for the new lifestyle that I’m forcing them into. Without being able to rely on corporations and supermarkets, we have a lot more to learn than just how to grow food. We’re practically infants again. We’ll need education on even the most mundane things, like how to keep our teeth clean and how to wipe our asses. This can start in classrooms but eventually living will be learning. What sense does it make to separate students from firsthand experience? Just consider how many times you’ve spent over an hour reading through an instruction manual that still wasn’t making sense to you then suddenly got what it was trying to describe after 30 seconds of just watching someone show you. Education shouldn’t be considered separate from work or even recreation either. It’s crazy how the modern world separates everything into their own categories, as if we should do nothing but think while in school then totally shut our brains off the second we get out of school. We should always be learning.
Bringing all the separate elements of modern life back together will help with more than just education. Think about how stupid it is for people to drive 50 miles to a job where they earn the money to pay for their car, food, membership at a gym and sessions at a tanning salon when we could just do some physical labor growing crops in our backyards with our shirts off. In the future that I see, there won’t be much distinction between work, exercise, education and even play. Traditional cultures were very inventive at turning chores into games, like using dances to tamp down the dirt floors of their dwellings. We should take inspiration from such things. Nature should be the amusement park, the grocery store, the shopping mall and the bank, our true store of wealth. This is what a sustainable culture looks like and that is what I aim to create.
Localization is already gaining some support, although a more tepid version of localization. A pretty good portion of people understand the benefits of supporting local businesses and keeping wealth in their community. Walmart hasn’t exactly gone out of business yet but even a lot of the people who shop in stores like that tend to have some understanding that they should stop, if only the small mom and pops could offer more competitive prices. The desire to decrease fossil fuel use also leads people to stay a little more local, even if only to save money rather than to prevent climate change. However, the need for ruralization is still ignored even by a large portion of supposed radicals. Many still tout cities as the more sustainable habitat for humanity, mainly because of the decreased need for personal cars. According to their logic, public transportation, walkable communities and concentrated settlements allow urbanites to live with less fossil fuels per capita. There is truth to this based on how non-urbanites are currently living. However, urbanites have the least potential for lowering their current fossil fuel requirements. The population density of cities makes it impossible to survive without importing food, building materials and fuel from outside. Their large buildings and sewer systems require constant maintenance and there isn’t much chance of them living without those. Areas with lower population densities, and that actually have soil, on the other hand, can make adjustments that potentially allow them to live without any energy sources besides their local firewood. This is exactly what we need.
In my opinion, so many people give in to the green city concept because so many people currently inhabit cities. People have an interesting habit of believing what they want to, which usually coincides with whatever justifies their lifestyles. Let’s go through some statistics to show how obvious this should be. Using New York City as an example, their population is approximately 8 and a half million in an area of 195,000 acres. That means the average population density is about 43.5 people per acre. For them to provide their own needs is pretty unimaginable. Sustainable agriculture methods can’t feed much more than 10 people per acre (this is Martin Crawford’s estimate for potential production from “maximum-yield” permaculture gardens). I’ve seen some ridiculously exaggerated estimates for urban food production, claiming to feed over several hundred per acre. When you consider all the inputs involved, there’s no way that they can be done sustainably, if they can be done at all. Some, such as vertical farms (skyscrapers full of hydroponics and LED grow-lights) although being experimented with, still mainly exist only in the imaginations of techno-utopianists. It takes more energy to use artificial substrates and lighting sources inside enormous buildings than it does to grow things naturally. Wind needs to be simulated with fans, rain with water pumps and drip irrigation lines and so on. Bringing the food closer to those who eat it makes sense if there’s land nearby but for modern cities the idea is just completely ridiculous. Advocates for vertical farms also point out that they’re more efficient with water, but they leave out how much water is used and polluted in manufacturing and maintaining the infrastructure so even this isn’t true, especially when compared to how outdoor farming could be done instead of the stupid way that it’s currently done. They also point to the decreased land surface needed since layers are stacked on top of each other but again, this ignores the impacts of the industries needed to build these layers.
Some urban farming techniques are more realistic than others though. Will Allen’s Growing Power in Milwaukee claims to produce over a million pounds of food annually, including 10,000 fish, on just 3 acres. This is supposedly accomplished by using intensive aquaponics in greenhouses. It doesn’t require grow-lights and, instead of artificial fertilizer, the nutrients come from the used fish tank water. It’s admittedly an impressive setup and will be usable for some time but it still can’t be maintained without fossil fuels and an industrial infrastructure. Producing the glass, steel, plastics and other materials is too energy intensive to be sustainable. And cramming so many fish into such a concentrated area isn’t exactly ideal from an animal rights perspective. Even for our own sake, making creatures live in stressed conditions promotes disease, necessitating treatment with antibiotics and other medicines that affect our own health. Most of the plagues of the past were results of our own inhumane practices. It’s basically the world’s way of letting us know that it doesn’t approve of torture and subjugation. But compassion for tilapia aside, how many people can this feed? It’s hard to say considering that “pounds of food” doesn’t exactly tell us what proportion is staple crops, the things that actually provide calories. Assuming that there’s more than just fish and salad greens, that his numbers aren’t exaggerated, that the average person needs 2 pounds of food per day minimum and that his crops are proportional to a balanced diet, even though they’re probably not, this would be a little less than 500 per acre, which seems impossible to me, literally being less than 9’ by 10’ per person. Even if we assume 4 pounds of food per day instead that’s still claiming that a 10’ by 18’ space can produce everything somebody will eat for a year.
Let’s really think about how unlikely that claim is for a second. A full grown Chinese chestnut tree with a 30’ diameter canopy can potentially yield over a hundred pounds of nuts in a season (on average they don’t). Hazelnuts can supposedly produce 3,000 pounds per acre, or about 60 pounds in a 30’ by 30’ space. Potatoes, on an amazing year, can yield 800 pounds in that same amount of space. The highest estimate for aquaculture production in a 30’ by 30’ space that I could find anyone claiming was 2,000 pounds of fish (most estimates were less than 100 pounds). So let’s imagine we have a large chestnut tree, hazelnuts in the understory, all at maximum production (even though hazelnuts aren’t shade-tolerant) and underneath them is potatoes (also not shade-tolerant). Somehow the trees stay the same size every single year and the soil never loses its fertility despite producing the same crops every year. We have a few chickens roosting in the hazelnut trees and living off the unbelievable abundance of worms this fantasy plot provides, giving us a couple hundred pounds of eggs every year. Somehow there’s a pocket of subterranean water directly underneath our trees and it’s supporting fish at the same densities as intensive aquaculture, which will never happen in a low oxygen, low light situation but let’s just go with it for now. I guess we can just assume the fish feed entirely on algae and insects that find their way inside. Doing the math, this ridiculous scenario would yield a total of around 3,160 pounds of food, or a little bit more if you ate your chickens at the end of the year too. Will Allen is claiming 6,887 pounds of food in 900 square feet (1,000,000 pounds divided by 3 acres and divide again by 48.4 since that’s how many 30’ squares will fit in an acre). That’s more than double! Sorry but there’s just no way in hell that I can take claims like this seriously. Something is obviously wrong here.
Using only sunlight, you can’t grow much more than one layer of potatoes over one layer of fish, and even with the highest estimates I could find that would only produce 135,520 pounds of food per acre. One million pounds from 3 acres would be 333,333 pounds from each acre. 135,520 is less than 41% of 333,333. You would need another 5 layers of potatoes to even get close to that. And if we used reasonable estimates instead of the highest numbers we could find, the number of layers necessary would be more like 15 to 20. Good luck doing that without artificial lighting.
Even if I did find his numbers plausible and believed that his setup could produce enough calories for 500 people per acre, in order to feed New York’s population would require 17,000 of their 195,000 acres (almost 9% of the city) to be covered with these huge greenhouses. To add some perspective to this number, central park is 778 acres. I’ve heard optimists try to argue that converting central park, and other bits of token nature in New York, into a food forest would allow the city to provide all its own food. Clearly these people aren’t doing any math at all because, as the above numbers show, you would need 22 central parks dedicated solely to food production to feed everyone even with such a clearly exaggerated level of productivity. Considering that high estimates for truly sustainable food production are 50 times lower, it seems fair to say that such high population densities are inimical to localization. Yet we still have environmentalists extolling things like “window gardens” which allow apartment dwellers to grow “a full salad per week” and using rooftop space which at best will only allow the city to produce its vegetables since they take less than 2% of the space of total crop production. Most estimates for rooftop space suitable for any sort of food production in New York are around 3,000 acres, so even just for vegetables that’s a challenging number to work with. Nobody would buy these claims if they treated the things that they want to believe with the same skepticism as those they don’t.
Here’s one more way to look at it. Imagine an Eden, a perfect human paradise the same size as New York, 195,000 acres. It’s completely devoid of concrete. There are no buildings, no roads, nothing. Imagine every tree is producing edible fruits or nuts. Chickens and goats wander around converting the things people don’t eat into fertilizer, meat, milk and eggs. All water flows clean and full of fish. The weather is perfect. There’s no need for heating or even clothing. The canopy of any tree provides sufficient shelter from the elements. Pushing this even further still, the inhabitants are the least industrious on Earth. They feel no need and no desire to produce anything. They’re perfectly content listening to the birds and napping most of the day. They produce no art or jewelry or ornamentation of any kind. They eat the bare minimum to survive and don’t even cook their food. They play no games and waste no unnecessary calories. What I’ve just described is a 195,000 acre piece of land sustainably producing as much human resources as any piece of land that size can, and it’s inhabited by a group of people with the smallest footprint human beings are capable of. How many of these truly economical people could this paradise support indefinitely? The number of people it can feed, which is about 10 per acre, or 1,950,000. That’s less than 25% of New York’s current population. Sorry to those of you whose identities are tied to cities but land can never sustain a population density higher than the amount of people per acre that it can feed. The number could be pushed up slightly if we count ocean fishing but the disparity is so enormous that I don’t think anyone will argue too much, especially when you consider the current state of our oceans (90% reduction in large fish populations) and how mercury contamination makes eating more than a couple meals of fish per week a bad idea. Also, don’t forget that we’d need to account for the extra resources used when building the boats and nets and things.
Urbanites generally don’t realize how serious a problem this is because they can’t see their full impacts. Living in a 100 square foot apartment doesn’t mean that you effect only 100 square feet. It just means that you don’t have any land to grow your food and fiber or to gather your heating and cooking fuel, and that somebody else has to waste energy to do these things for you and waste even more to deliver them to you. This is why the most sustainable living arrangement will always be to live directly on the land that provides your necessities. When you see your own impacts and are the one most affected by them, it’s impossible to ignore carrying capacity and limits the way that they’re ignored now. It’s that simple.
Now for a few statistics about rural areas. In the United States there are around 400 million acres cultivated for crops and another 600 million acres used for grazing livestock. That’s approximately a full billion acres in total, which is more than 3 acres per person in the country. I mentioned before that small-scale food production can potentially produce enough to feed 10 people per acre so we’re not exactly using this land very efficiently. According to Geoff Lawton, 3% of the energy used by industrial agriculture is all it would take to produce the same amount of food with small-scale methods. In other words, the 10 calories of fossil fuel energy that are used to produce 1 calorie of food could be replaced by less than a third of a calorie of human muscle power if things are reorganized in a way that actually makes sense from an ecological perspective. Without reorganizing before fossil fuels get too “expensive” (either in monetary terms or what we calculate as causing too much damage) people will either try to keep this system going by replacing machine labor with human labor, which results in starvation since they’d burn 10 calories for every calorie they get back, or the system will just be abandoned, again resulting in starvation for all those who still depend on it. Considering how much damage agriculture has caused the planet (the single most destructive human impact), we should decide to change it right now rather than wait until it has to be changed. Loss of soil fertility and deforestation from agriculture both reduce the planet’s ability to sequester carbon, which is part of the climate change problem that deserves the same attention as fossil fuels.
The United States also has over 40 million acres of lawn grass and over a million acres of golf courses, and probably over a million acres of cemeteries but I won’t go there. It is amazing how we can’t even die without causing more damage though, and how we continue having a negative impact long after death. That’s a whole other subject we could get into. Staying focused on lawns, they alone could potentially produce enough to feed the current population in the U.S. Some suburbs are better than others but many of them could be totally self-sufficient if retrofitted. A good portion of rural land could be left to rewild, or be ecologically restored, and the rest of it could easily support the population currently in cities. Contrary to the pro-city argument that if we want to protect nature we need to stay out of it, leaving cities could actually decrease the amount of land used to provide for our needs. I know that sounds counterintuitive but if small-scale farming yields more per acre sustainably and if simple lifestyles decrease the need for big farm machines, transportation infrastructure, oil drilling, mining, manufacturing, and destructive forms of entertainment, then turning each large-scale farm into thousands of small-scale ones will allow the same number of people to produce their necessities with less land. The math is not complicated.
I’m sure most people reading this are now thinking “you can’t just force that many people to move!” To that I respond, “why not?” How many people were forced into cities by development projects? How many people have fled their homes as a result of the war on drugs and NAFTA, and how many of them were later forced to go back to those “homes”? Do the words “trail of tears” mean anything to you? This isn’t anything new. It’s just your turn to realize that the leaders of the world don’t give a shit what you prefer. I have an agenda and I’m going to make it happen. Also, coastal cities are going to be experiencing some serious flooding issues in the decades ahead. If we ignore the need for relocation then tons of resources will be wasted trying to hold back the rising waters and this will only make urbanites even more utterly dependent on technology and the continuation of industry. Even a benevolent ruler has to make people hurt a little bit unfortunately. But then again, we are pretending that everyone agrees to go along in this scenario so we don’t need to get too into this argument yet.
I present this information not in an attempt to call “shenanigans” on the doomers but to show what it would take for our current population to be sustained, which, despite what the rest of my aspiring primitivist ilk say, I believe is still a slight possibility. I certainly don’t consider a population over 7 billion to be ideal. And it is true that we are greatly over carrying capacity for the planet in its current condition. However, as I’ve shown, U.S. lawn space alone has the potential to produce enough for as many people as what I’ve heard many primitivists claim the entire planet can support. It’s actually questionable whether intentionally reducing the human population enough for everyone to live as true hunter-gatherers would even be ideal. A lot of permaculturists try to make the case that since the land is so damaged and so much work is needed to restore it, having more humans around could actually be better than just leaving damaged landscapes alone to heal on their own. I would say that I at least agree with that logic when it comes to farmland. A lot of wilderness probably should just be left alone though. Most countries don’t have as much land per person as the United States but when you actually look at the numbers there still are more acres of land being used to produce food globally than there are people on this planet, and even a lot of desertified land has been shown to be restorable with enough effort, so there could be even more of it without encroaching on wilderness. If we lower our material requirements and improve the land’s productive and carbon sequestering capabilities, which are both very possible, I see no reason why a population of at least a few billion can’t be sustained. We have to at least admit the mathematical possibility and present the option. Everyone just needs to understand what it would take, be allowed to do it, and be willing, or forced, to make the sacrifices.
So having hopefully presented a pretty good case for ruralization, let’s get back into my kingdom and see where things are going. I’ve shut down pointless businesses and extravagant science projects, commanded the powering down of nuclear plants, and kept farmers, truck drivers, and some others working while everyone else is trained in permaculture and sustainable living skills in general. Suburbanites are on their way to self-sufficiency, retrofitting existing structures with rocket stoves, hand pumps, trombe walls, rainwater catchments, compost toilets and the like. Existing solar panels have been allocated to help with the transition but people will know that they have to learn to get by without electricity as things break down since industry is gone for good. When using technologies that don’t fit the definition of a democratic technic, people need to keep in mind what that technology is giving them and how, or if, they’ll keep getting it when the technology breaks down and can’t be repaired. If you can’t produce the quantities of glass, metal and especially plastic needed to maintain the technology then you want to be sure your population density doesn’t depend on it. This is one area where I think the permaculture crowd falls short. Some of the things they advocate, like annualized geo-solar heating, plastic pond liners and drip irrigation, trompe air compressors and biogas, although all huge improvements, just help sustain higher population densities that couldn’t otherwise be sustained. Existing homes are definitely a problem too but they’re already in place so we need to work with them. Holes in walls or broken windows that can’t be replaced can be patched up with cob, damaged roofs covered with thatch or tree bark if need be, half of the rooms left without heat in the winter, etc. The same goes for things like eye glasses, lighters, cooking pots and artificial clothing like polyester, nylon and synthetic leather. The relics of industrial civilization aren’t going anywhere for a while and it’s going to take a long time to relearn the skills we’ve lost. There’s no reason to ban these things immediately. As long as people are aware that these things won’t be replaced, and act accordingly, it makes sense to keep using them for now. If we were to tear down our current buildings and throw out all our clothing, replacing them immediately with tipis and deer skins, the impact would be much worse than just replacing these things with sustainable alternatives as they fall apart over the years. It’s clearly unsustainable to keep building houses the way Americans are used to but leaving the ones that are already built standing doesn’t hurt anything, unless it leads people to burn a lot more heating fuel than they otherwise would have anyway.
The lawns of the suburbs are transformed into food forests and paddocks for livestock. A lot of property becomes shared to allow animals to migrate in herds around the neighborhood, using a different yard each day in a planned grazing system. Those with pools can stock them with fish. Those without pools can dig ponds. Machines can be used to help speed this up but again, nobody can rely on them for new projects in the future.
All farmers transition from their chemically treated large-scale annual monocultures to organic perennial polycultures. There are many who have made this transition already and have shown that farmers can plant trees and shrubs in their fields without sacrificing several years worth of crops while they wait for the first perennial yield. This is commonly done using a method called alley cropping, where the perennials are laid out in rows, usually following the contours of the landscape, leaving “alleys” between them where the annual crops or pasture can remain. Over time the perennials take over, making it more challenging for farmers to harvest with machines on a large scale. This is the best time for those from the cities to move in and start harvesting their own food. The crops from the polycultures are diverse enough to support balanced diets, even providing fuel, building materials, and fiber for clothing. The new inhabitants bring more diversity with their vegetable gardens, flowers and small livestock like chickens. They can build simple dwellings directly on the land and start living self-sufficiently, assuming they’ve had excellent training and pretty much know what they’re doing. Although the farms are now organic, they’ve been sprayed for decades and the ground water won’t be safe for some time. Rain water catchments will be necessary for a while. They’ll have to be built durable enough to last however long it takes for nature to detoxify. It’s a huge adjustment for everyone and many struggle to adapt but my people believe in what they’re doing and the vast majority eventually acclimate.
On the next page are 4 images to help readers visualize the transition from current farming practices to smaller-scale management. Number 1 shows how land is plowed in straight lines with no regard for hills and valleys, which leads to erosion. Imagine this represents a large farm, something over a thousand acres. Since this obviously can’t be drawn to scale, imagine that this is only showing about 20 acres of that farm and that there are a couple dozen plowed rows between each line, all basically planted with a single crop. Since it’s so much land being managed by so few hands, it requires heavy use of big machines, pesticides and fertilizers. Since it’s so far away from consumers, this food will be transported thousands of miles before being eaten and those nutrients won’t return to the land where they came from. Number 2 shows the land plowed on contour. The land is still managed on a pretty large-scale, probably only broken up into a few slightly smaller farms, each one being a few hundred acres at this stage. The decrease in acres farmed makes switching to organic more feasible. There can be a little more variety of crops but it’s still pretty simple for harvesting with machines. Imagine that the contour lines shown are swales and that they’re planted with trees and shrubs, mostly nuts and nitrogen-fixers but also 5% or so being fruits, probably a mixture of one to two dozen species. Between those swales would still just be annual crops. Number 3 shows the perennials starting to take over a decade or two later, depending on whether the perennials were planted from seeds or saplings. The trees haven’t totally shaded out the ground underneath them yet but without applying fertilizers you wouldn’t be able to keep growing annuals every year for 10 to 20 years, even with polycultures that include nitrogen-fixers. Maybe farmers are still applying fertilizers at this stage but it would be better to either just plant perennial grasses after a few years of annuals or to have perennial rows closer together with every other row just growing shrubs since shrubs would start producing food at about the same time you’d want to stop growing annuals. Number 4 shows these organic farms being broken up further into small homesteads, probably less than 10 acres each. The red lines represent boundaries. Diversity increases as the new inhabitants plant vegetable gardens and flowers. They would also clear a small percentage of their trees each year, probably somewhere between 1% and 10% depending on how long a cycle they want to use, planting annuals in those open patches mixed with widely-spaced perennials so they can grow back into food forests again. Since they can use hand tools to harvest on such a small scale, the cropland used for annuals can be diversified as well. They can also dig ponds wherever it’s easiest to collect water. Now with the food being produced where it’s eaten, most of the nutrients stay in the same general area.
With the farms now parceled out into small-scale homesteads, basically transformed into eco-villages, and the suburbs supporting themselves, all of humanity (except for the indigenous groups who’ve managed to survive this long, who I basically plan to just leave alone to manage their land how they always have) is living in the ideal population density. I consider ideal to be around 1 person per acre in most areas. That should be low enough to help buffer the effects of any bad harvests caused by inclement weather or personal mistakes, and still high enough to allow for an extension of untouched wilderness. I prefer that they remain simple communities with limited specialization. In my opinion there shouldn’t be farmers and scientists and students and teachers and construction workers, just people who grow food, experiment, learn, teach, and build as needed. Rather than a species of experts at almost nothing, humans will once again be a species that is pretty good at everything they need to do to provide for themselves. At that point my job is basically done. Unlike other dictators, I don’t want to remain in charge. I want each locality empowered to make their own decisions and then I want to join one and live like everybody else.
That’s basically what I would do. It’s worth thinking about this fantasy world in a little more detail before getting back to the real world though. A lot of people reading this probably aren’t too familiar with how permaculture works and might only know as much about simple living as they’ve seen on survivalist TV shows. There’s so many of them now, where adventurous wilderness experts try to live a month in the woods and they end up suffering horribly because there’s no human infrastructure in place to help them survive. Then they usually leave the audience with a message like “this really makes me appreciate what I have at home” instead of something like “this really made me realize how little I need to live happily.” Primitivism does not have to look like that.
There are different variations for how such communities can be arranged and we’ll get into this more in the next chapter. What I’ve described in this chapter so far has been sort of individualistic, what might appeal to people who like having their own property and privacy, giving each family a few acres to produce for themselves, probably only making grazing land a commons so that good sized herds of a hundred to a thousand animals can move together. Grazing animals have been shown to cause the least damage, and can actually benefit the land, when they’re only in one area for a day or two at a time. Even very dense herds moved frequently are better in most situations than lower densities that aren’t moved. A family doesn’t really need more than one dairy cow so it just makes sense for there to be a shared grazing area for all families of each community, even when their houses are so spread out. Most farmers who use grazing systems like this, called intensive rotational grazing or mob grazing, rely on easy to move electric fencing to migrate their animals where they want them. Electric fences obviously aren’t democratic technics. If they use normal wood fences or stone walls, that’s a ton of work to build and maintain, it’s imposing on the landscape and it’s not very reliable at keeping their animals in and predators out. For those who want to incorporate grazing animals into their communities, there’s the possibility of some people living as grazing specialists, acting sort of like the Samburu in Africa who herd their cows without fences and just personally guard them against lions and things, but since part of the idea is to get people out of cities, there is something I think could be more appealing to them.
First a couple caveats. Although being extremely averse to cities, clustering houses together can have some serious benefits regarding security, less building materials to house the same number of people, having a more communal feel, etc. You can’t get too carried away with it though. There are still the problems of spreading disease easier, house fires becoming more catastrophic, too many people living together to know each other, loss of personal accountability, and when you start building vertically it defeats the purpose of saving materials because walls need to be thicker and stronger anyway. Also, the larger the project the more sedentary life has to be. It becomes too solid a structure to take down and move with you, although this is true of even the smallest cob, stone or adobe structure. Most preindustrial, non-civilized humans avoided totally permanent buildings. When overrun by ants, fleas or other pests in a world where you can’t just call an exterminator, it’s generally a better idea to just accept defeat and set up someplace else, and it happens everywhere eventually. Also, to build or reconstruct houses regularly helps keep the knowledge of how to build alive, so building permanent complexes isn’t necessarily the best way to go but it is one option worth considering.
Clusters of a dozen to a hundred houses, enough for 50 to a few hundred inhabitants, what primitivists generally consider to be the range of a functional community, hardly compares to the insanity of modern cities. For New York City to provide an acre of nearby land to each of their 8 and a half million inhabitants, it would require 12,500 square miles, roughly the size of Connecticut and New Jersey combined, and those states already have twelve and a half million of their own people to provide for, which means even that land is already too crowded to provide an acre for each of its current inhabitants.
But since clustering has some benefits, let’s look at how a more clustered community could be set up. One thing that I think can work is to use the houses themselves as a perimeter barrier for the grazing commons. The general idea that I came up with is to elongate the houses (making them more wall-like) and then arrange them in a circle, or at least as close to a perfect circle as is reasonable for that piece of land. Circles have the lowest perimeter to area ratio of any shape, meaning the least number of houses would be needed to enclose the most land. You may be thinking “but then wouldn’t it be a more efficient use of building materials to make each individual house round instead of elongated and wall-like?” If we were comparing individual round buildings to individual rectangular ones then that would be true. By piecing them together though, they’ll have some shared walls, which should make them almost as efficient as round buildings, and when using the buildings as a barrier, round buildings aren’t long enough to enclose as much land without extra walls being built between them to fill in the gaps. That means that for this scenario there would actually be less building material needed for rectangular buildings. Another thing to consider is that the rectangular buildings don’t actually need to be partitioned. The complex could actually resemble more of a donut-shaped longhouse instead. This would be even more efficient per square foot than using individual round houses that don’t have extra walls built for enclosing land. Technically, the most efficient use of building materials is always to just build one enormous round dwelling that’s large enough to house every single member of the community. Is that practical though? When all things are considered, I just think that the benefits of piecing smaller rectangular houses together to form a reliable barrier between predators and livestock makes it one of the better options. It’s not just better for livestock but also for those predator species that nearby ecosystems depend on since it gives people less reason to worry about them. It also cuts back on the need for paddock fences significantly.
Something like 50 reasonably sized houses (probably each between 600 and 1200 square feet) could enclose 40 quarter acre paddocks (10 acres total) and probably another 2 to 4 acres of ponds. 40 paddocks is what most recommend for rotational grazing so if It sounds like way more than necessary, it’s not. Arguably, you may be able to get away with as few as 10 paddocks if the animals use them for a couple days at a time but that would put the animals at higher risk of disease and the land at higher risk of degradation. The ponds are there for the animals to drink from and can also be used for aquaculture, stocked with fish, edible plants like cattail, lilies, lotuses, wapato, water chestnuts and watercress, and they can also provide habitat for ducks. The paddocks should be arranged so that the grazing animals go from one pond to the next and not back to the first one before visiting all of them. This way the ponds have animals using them for about a week or two at most, then get something like 30 days without the animals before they come back. Otherwise you could run into issues with water getting contaminated from too much manure or the banks could erode. Lining shorelines with stone and trees can help prevent erosion as well but it’s still best not to let the animals drink from the same spot too often. Because of the possibility of contamination, you should also keep each paddock sloped towards the pond that animals drink from while they’re in that paddock so the manure from that paddock doesn’t flow into a different pond when it rains. When the ponds are dug out, the dirt can intentionally be piled up between ponds before planting the grass to prevent this.
Paddock fences wouldn’t have to be too substantial, especially if using smaller livestock like sheep. If the buildings are used as the perimeter barrier then predators can’t get in and if the animals break into a different paddock that’s not as big of a deal as them escaping the entire system. The ponds will cut down on the need for fencing too, acting as a barrier themselves on one side of each paddock. For animals that like to swim, you’d only need a simple deterrent like rafts tied together since swimming animals can’t generate as much force as running animals. And these rafts could be moved each day to block whichever paddock the animals are in. One possibility for paddock fencing that I think is worth trying is sort of a compromise between living fences and normal fences. Basically, they’d use living trees as the posts, which are usually the bulk of the work with fencing, and the trunks would be weaved with dead branches pollarded from the trees every few years. It’s actually better to have a light tree canopy casting some shade for the animals anyway. Grazing under trees is called silvopasture and it can produce more protein per acre than either grazing or nut orchards alone. Pollarding is a technique similar to coppicing, where trees are cut down and allowed to regrow from the stumps, but the cut is made high enough on the tree to prevent animals from grazing on the regrowth. So the trees would be cut at that height every 5 to 10 years allowing the fence to be rebuilt. It seems to me like the least work for the best result but you could just use typical stone or wooden fences as well. If the trees don’t grow fast enough to provide for all the fencing material you could just make movable panels from the branches that get tied to the tree trunks and moved with the animals every day. That would be more work but if each house is only In charge of one paddock that’s less than a once a month chore.
On average, dairy cows produce 6-8 gallons of milk per day, about 75% of which is available for their human parasites after feeding their calves. Hardier breeds that can survive winters outside and that are only fed grass would give significantly less but still should provide at least a gallon per day for most of the year. Sheep can be more efficient at converting biomass into milk and over the course of their lives their wool can provide more clothing than the hides from cows. Either way, having a flock of sheep or small herd of cows, or a mixture of ruminants, followed by a hundred or so chickens (rotational grazers do this because the chickens scratch through the manure, breaking it down faster, and eat the insect larva that can become pests) plus some fish and ducks, each ring of 50 houses or so (maybe less if some buildings are used as barns instead of homes) should have all the meat, milk, eggs, wool and leather they need without much hassle. I wouldn’t even expect the smell to be too bad once they get used to it. It might sound kind of gross to have so many animals in your backyard but they’re only close by for a few days per month. It actually is a pretty sanitary set up. It should feel more like a park than a farm most of the time. And contrary to what we’re told about animal agriculture by animal rights activists, it can be done sustainably and humanely.
For the houses themselves, I’m not recommending earthships or what they’re currently building in “green” suburbs. They should be truly simple dwellings. People in the Kalahari have thrived in shelters no more formidable than bird nests while surrounded by lions and hyenas. People in the subarctic survived in shelters of whale bones and seal skins, using snow as their only building material on hunting expeditions. In the temperate zone, most people used tree sapling frames covered in strips of tree bark. We don’t really have any good excuse for getting much more lavish than longhouses. Things like tipis and yurts wouldn’t be solid enough for a livestock barrier but they’d be fine for the more individualist farms. These complexes for ex-urbanites would need to at least be made as solid as cob, wattle and daub or adobe, which, conveniently enough, can all be fortified with cow manure. They wouldn’t need things like water heaters, plumbing and sewage treatment. Septic tanks are actually one of the most ridiculous things humans have ever invented. All you need is a designated place to do your business and sawdust or wood chips to mix in after you’re finished. Use this spot for a while, then leave it alone to compost while using another spot and in a year or two, empty it and start using it again. For the more spread out families, even this wouldn’t be necessary. They could just pick a different spot every day and bury it in a small hole if they feel inclined. The “humanure” isn’t recommended for fertilizing crops that grow directly in the soil but it’s perfectly safe for trees and shrubs.
The outside of the complex would be surrounded by food forests in different stages of development, and that are always in different stages of development. There should be close to a full acre of food forest per person since this takes up the bulk of the space and since I decided that I want most of humanity at about a one person per acre density. The Native Central Americans used what they called the milpa cycle, clearing land with fire and planting it mostly with corn, beans and squash but mixing in long term perennial crops that grow for decades. It’s basically what Eric Toensmeier and Dave Jacke call a rotational mosaic in their book Edible Forest Gardens. The early annuals could also be things like wheat, potatoes and hemp. You could mix in herbaceous perennials like Jerusalem artichoke, groundnut. jinenjo yam and skirret, and there are a lot of options for staple tree crops. Where I live, my best options are chestnut, hazelnut, walnut, hickory and, depending on how much warmer it gets here, maybe hardy almond and northern pecan. In other parts of the world there’s macadamia, pistachio, cashew, Brazil nut, bunya pine, pinyon pine, date palm, plantain, sago, breadfruit, carob, mesquite… as far as I know, everyplace that trees grow has at least one staple tree crop. In most cases you don’t really have to be too picky about guilds (plants that grow well together), just mix in nitrogen-fixing plants in each layer and don’t plant long stretches of the same species that would make it easy for pests to exploit them. Doing a little research beforehand is still a good idea though. Walnuts and hickories are the most difficult to work with where I live because of an allelopathic chemical secreted by their roots called juglone. Even with them in the overstory, there are still plenty of plants to choose from. The simplest thing to do would be to just graze animals under black walnuts on juglone-tolerant grasses like blue grass, timothy and fescue mixed with white clover for nitrogen. That way you basically only plant once and don’t have to do any research for future plantings. When the trees are less than 10 years old you could actually use just about anything but after they’ve grown, even after coppicing large trees and starting over, you need to stick with juglone-tolerant plants. Annual crops you could use with walnuts are sunflowers, corn, beans, squash and pumpkins. A good perennial crop would be Jerusalem artichoke. Understory shrubs could be elderberry, black raspberry, and both goumi and Siberian pea shrub can be used to fix nitrogen. Understory trees could be white mulberry, black cherry, staghorn sumac (which can be used to make a beverage that tastes like iced tea and is a good source of vitamin C) and pawpaw. Black locust works well as a nitrogen-fixing tree and hazelnut, beech, sugar maple and sycamore (which can also be tapped for syrup) act as good buffers between juglone and juglone-intolerant plants. So even with that complication there’s still a ton that you can do.
Others that don’t work so well in an orchard setting, due to how long it takes them to start producing, but that could be used in wilderness strips or along the edge of nearby forests or something are pine nuts, beech, sugar maple and sycamore. Low-tannin oaks and horse chestnuts are also worth having around even though they’re not usually thought of as human food. In my opinion it’s actually good to have some of these less-desirable food sources around because in most years people won’t bother eating them and the population will stay slightly lower than if every square foot was planted with chestnuts or anything else that tastes good. Then in the event that something causes a crop failure, there’s an extra food source to resort to. People can technically keep their populations down even while growing way more good-tasting food than they need though, either by encouraging rational planning or just by tricking people into believing really stupid things. In Marvin Harris’s book Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches he talks about the logic behind seemingly irrational cultural taboos. I don’t buy into all of his theories but the general idea that there were social and ecological reasons for some really bizarre behavior seems correct to me. I would rather not have to invent my own weird taboos or some sort of new religion if I can avoid it though. I’d much rather that people just plant some stuff that they don’t really like to eat or that they find annoying to process. Things like acorns and horse chestnuts are a lot of work for flavors that range from barely edible to not too bad.
Anyway, getting back to describing how rotational mosaics work, by a section’s fifth or sixth year of succession it would basically be all perennial crops. A lot of permaculturists prefer using short cycles where after a decade or two of growth (a decade or two from the last coppice, as opposed to from seed which would take significantly longer) the trees and shrubs are coppiced and the next year the cycle starts over again with a new planting of annuals. Indigenous groups that lacked metal tools tended to use longer cycles where they’d burn away underbrush and girdle the trees, killing them and leaving the ground underneath their dead leafless branches sunny enough to plant with annuals and new trees. The dead trees would be allowed to stand until weak enough to be taken down by storms a few years later. Anyone who’s ever tried cutting down a thick tree with stone tools, or even a dull axe, will tell you that the slight loss in yield per acre is preferable to spending so much effort trying to remove them. For this reason, in a primitive setting you’re also not likely to use board wood for building. You’d want to plant a lot of extra trees that can be harvested young for thin poles instead. Larger trees would probably be used more for their bark than their wood.
There’s much debate over the harms and benefits of using fire to clear land but most can agree that it at least won’t ruin your land if done only once every decade or two. Some indigenous people would let the forest grow to be over a hundred years old before clearing it again, which obviously helps limit the damage of fire. Another benefit of that is that smaller sections of forest are cleared on any given year. A compromise between those two approaches that’s worth considering would be to still use shorter cycles but clear a bunch of smaller patches that are separate from each other every year instead of one large patch. With the shorter cycles it’s probably better to incorporate animals so that the extra manure can help the soil recover faster. In fact, it’s probably always better to have animals graze under your trees after a few years of growing annuals but with longer cycles you wouldn’t actually need them. Native Americans didn’t domesticate grazing animals. Wild deer, and other animals that occasionally wandered through, were enough to fertilize their land. However, best case scenario for restoring fertility to the land after a few years of growing annuals would probably be to plant grasses, use silvopasture for several decades, then let the food forest overgrow and shade out everything in the understory long enough for things to start rotting before girdling the trees and starting the cycle over. Whether using 10 year cycles or century-long ones though, if done right this rotational mosaic method of food production can remain fertile essentially forever.
The images on the next page show what these circular complexes could look like. Both show a ring of connected houses enclosing a grazing circuit. The red arrows show the direction grazing animals would migrate. Surrounding the complex are food forests. The dotted lines represent the separations between different years of succession. On the top is the “ideal” version, imagining perfect symmetry and totally flat land to work with. On the bottom is what a compromise could look like. In the real world, things need to follow the contours of the land and allow for some inconsistencies. Ponds won’t always want to form where we want them, paddocks won’t be the exact same size and so on. Even the realistic version may seem kind of idealistic but eco-villages are already being designed with flowery mandala shapes that are a lot more complicated than this. Instead of picking out some pretty pattern to work with and then making up some bullshit justification for why it’s practical, I advocate starting with the most practical shape and worrying about making it look pretty later. For the New Age crowd, they can always sculpt their butterflies and naked pregnant women into their walls if they want to but there’s no reason to do all the extra work of laying things out so complicated just to end up with a community that isn’t practical to live in.
It’s also worth pointing out that the way communities cluster together can make a difference as well. If it’s decided to leave 1 or 2 acres as untouched wilderness for every acre used for production then you could either have each community surrounded by an equal or double amount of wild land or you could keep most “used land” together and most of the untouched wilderness together in larger clumps. A lot of wildlife, particularly apex predators, need vast connected territories. Leaving strips of token wilderness therefore wouldn’t be as beneficial. Technically, with permaculture landscapes the cultivated land is still tolerable to most animals but I still think this is the way to go if we have any choice in the matter. It would also help keep communities from getting too isolated so that would be a benefit as well.
Below are a few more images I put together to show “ideal” and realistic communities organized in clusters to keep wild lands as large as possible. On top is ideal communities perfectly spaced apart, in the middle is ideal communities perfectly fitting together and on bottom is a more realistic example of communities clustered together. I made the grazing cells yellow just because it’s too small to see the buildings and I thought it’d be helpful to see where the complexes are. I also used solid lines for each community’s boundary to separate it from the food forest divisions within each boundary. For the ideal, I decided to use honeycomb shapes for the boundaries just because it keeps everything about as even and perfect fitting as I could figure out. The realistic one works with my made up land contours and allows for variation in sizes, layouts, etc. It also shows that, realistically, some areas within the cropland would likely be too steep, rocky or swampy for cultivation and therefore just left wild. I don’t show any paths/roads or other buildings or recreational activity spots just to keep things simple. I’d imagine that paths can flow pretty easily with the boundaries shown since they follow contours. Remember, the idea is a network of communities who basically only use Stone Age technology and depend as little as possible on trading, so any roads wouldn’t need to be too substantial. I’d hope that it wouldn’t take too long before all that’s needed are dirt or stone footpaths.
According to Toensmeier and Jacke, the rotational mosaic isn’t necessarily the best way to do food forests but when dealing with a world of generalists who can’t focus on one little field of study their whole lives, and with them managing hundreds of acres collectively, I think simplifying things a little bit is probably the best way to go. Remember, these people won’t have the internet or even books at some point in the not too distant future. If we need to understand every micro-organism in the soil to maintain the system then it’s not going to survive. The alternative is what some have taken to calling an “ignorance-based worldview”, basically an acknowledgement of our cognitive limitations and a more humble approach to problem solving that doesn’t inevitably lead to further complexity.
Of course, this is a pretty nebulous concept. The desired level of “ignorance” (or the maximum amount of information that can be learned and taught without the aid of unsustainable and immoral practices) is certainly open to debate. The way I look at it, much of our information and our “accomplishments” are inherently destructive to hold on to. Think not only of the maintenance required for our industrial infrastructure but even our collection of books, artwork and historical artifacts that we continually reprint and try to keep from decaying. Think of what it takes to keep our supposedly accurate history lessons going, all the materials, training and coordination required. It actually necessitates the repeating of the mistakes that the history is supposed to warn us against. Isn’t that ostensibly why we make such a big deal about this stuff? If the importance of history is to learn from the mistakes of the past such as slavery, imperialism and environmental negligence, what’s the point in using an education system that contributes to those very problems? Producing so much paper, building enormous universities that are large enough to shelter thousands from the elements (and that most of the time are just empty) and producing the excess needed for specialists to dedicate their lives to study and teaching is a brief experiment in human learning and I don’t see it lasting much longer.
There’s a reason no cultures did these things before the age of cheap fossil energy. They couldn’t. It takes too much to support these things. It requires more than any local landbase can provide. This is why they used songs, stories and other mnemonic techniques to remember what we store in volumes of textbooks and hard drives. And this is why we should start considering a resurrection of this type of education. It would be a good idea for us to pick out our most important lessons, leave out the trivia and start translating these ideas into easy to remember myths and jingles, something closer to fairy tale type stories than the dogmas that people have been encouraged to take literally. I already mentioned that, even in the fantasy world that I’m imagining myself ruling, I’d rather not have to resort to inventing my own religion. There are some ideas about it worth discussing though. Most religions were sort of scientifically designed in their inceptions, meant to perpetuate certain desirable behaviors while warning against others. Teaching the origins of the universe was never really their purpose, at least not as much as getting people to stop worrying about such pointless things. I’m not trying to say that the ideas are scientifically valid. As a tool for social coordination however, it does exactly what was intended (which wasn’t necessarily to promote peace and happiness, obviously). This puts religion in kind of a gray area since some, while not necessarily making sense, do promote beneficial behaviors, even if just by sheer coincidence. Others create obligatory rituals that must be performed at any cost, even if say cutting down a tree or sacrificing some animals isn’t “affordable” at that particular time. Anyway, how to keep the valuable lessons we’ve learned from our scientific endeavors without a massive industrial infrastructure is something we need to start considering and there will be a little more discussion about it later.
I’d love to think that the type of land use described in this chapter becomes what we mean when we say “sustainable development” and that the whole country turns into a network of self-sufficient communities and abandoned cities with vast stretches of unoccupied wilderness. In the real world, I can’t say that I’m holding my breath for the total revolution but the idea of at least a significant portion of humanity starting up these totally primitive eco-villages isn’t so unlikely. While the more hardcore rewilders won’t be satisfied even if the majority did convert to this lifestyle, I don’t see any chance for anything more than a tiny portion of the current population to rely on hunting and gathering for their sustenance. Even in the most productive environments it takes at least 10 times the space to support a hunter gatherer as it does a horticulturalist. In the more extreme examples, such as the Kalahari, it took 6,400 acres (10 square miles) per person. In America 500 years ago, before it was America, chestnuts accounted for nearly half the trees in some areas (thanks to Native American management) and rivers were full of fish and safe to drink from. Even back then, when the forests and waters were producing much more human food than they are now, the population of human beings living here was still nowhere near what it is now. The idea of living like a wild human animal appeals to me but it’s not something I’m going to see in this lifetime. We can help steer things in that direction if we decide that it’s best for future generations but no significant number of ourselves can be sustained that way. We just need to accept that.
Anarchists I expect won’t be totally satisfied with what’s been said so far either. Even acknowledging that the whole dictator thing is just a ridiculous example that I used for the purpose of simplification, I don’t condemn private property or rules or even rulers to a certain extent. Anarchists are kind of an interesting bunch, or I guess I should say they’re a bunch of interesting individuals. None of them really agree on anything. I’ve been back and forth with anarchy quite a bit over the years. The only ones that I consider to be true anarchists at this point are those who advocate small-scale, simple lifestyles. It doesn’t make any sense to me how so many other anarchists can expect to abolish governments and all hierarchies while operating mines and manufacturing plants, running long distance trade smoothly and maintaining cities. It doesn’t seem possible that the global infrastructure needed for these complex technologies can be maintained without strict universalized rules and coercive policies. I also think that anarchism is most practical when treated more like socialism at a very small scale than like extreme individualism. On the more nihilist end, it doesn’t seem likely that total personal freedom for everyone to do whatever they want could result in anything other than everyone just pissing each other off. Even the simplest of human cultures had to accept that there were limits to what they could do at any given time. Rules were enforced more by angry neighbors than by authority figures but, whether officially stated or not, there were still “rules.” And for people who claim to be about individual freedom, these anarchists certainly have a lot of specific demands about how everybody should live. Of course they rarely elucidate these demands because they don’t want to sound “authoritarian.” Instead they just attack you when you advocate something else. All the time wasted listening to anarchists over the years has caused me to think a lot about the question, when does “not ideal” become “morally wrong?”
The sustainable cultures of the past that primitivists and anarchists tend to emulate demonstrated some gray areas of their own. Aboriginal Australians systematically burned the landscape to promote the fresh growth of grasses that kangaroos preferred. This essentially allowed them to drive their game from field to field in a manner nearly as reliable as shepherding. Writer Bill Gammage describes pre-contact Australia as “a farm without fences.” The animals were managed by the human inhabitants while retaining an illusion of freedom that farm animals lack. You could argue that Aborigine hunting techniques were just a more subtle and humane way of keeping livestock, or a surreptitious form of domestication. If so, does that mean that the admiration of their culture is undeserved?
When you really think about it, is anything truly free? All creatures are obligated to search for food, stay near water, keep warm or cool, foster their offspring and avoid predators. They all follow a genetic programming and are at the mercy of the whims of their environments. This is what “we are all connected” really means. Everything influences everything else. When you think about why we behave as we do, it’s almost undeniable that free will is just an illusion. I know primitivists hate this analogy but we’re basically just organic machines, born with programming that’s constantly updated by our experiences, and no matter how it seems, only doing what is easiest. Of course, the “easiest” thing can be very hard work when your values make it unbearable to sit around and allow what you consider to be an injustice to continue. Our reactions are complicated but they are still just reactions, no different than a plant responding to stimuli from light or wind. One way this has been described is “the butterfly effect” where the flapping of a butterfly’s wings on one side of the world can trigger a chain of events leading to a hurricane on the other side. A more realistic example might be something like a butterfly that distracts someone while they’re driving, which causes them to crash their car and kill some kid who would have otherwise become president in 40 years and prevented a nuclear war that, without him, will now take place. These are just ways of saying that our lives are never truly separate from anyone else’s. Any little change in your influences would result in a completely different life decades later. We’re not really making our own choices when you think about it but this shouldn’t be interpreted as life is pointless or that there’s no reason to try fixing things or that there’s no reason to punish criminals or anything. It’s just a different way of looking at things, one that should lead to more focus on root causes and rehabilitation to solve problems. Misinterpreted, or oversimplified, people can come to some screwy conclusions about it but many cultures have believed in fate and destiny without treating life as if it didn’t matter. Saying that everything that has happened had to happen and that what’s going to happen is inevitable shouldn’t justify our past atrocities or our present negligence.
This may seem to have gotten a little off topic but a lot of people have been thrown off by the idea that free will is only an illusion. For those without much ambition, it’s led to nihilism and apathy. For those who are ambitious, it’s led to some horribly irresponsible and selfish behavior. If whatever’s going to happen is inevitable then why try to change anything, right? And why worry about how you effect the world if the future is already decided? Then there are others who are thrown off in the other direction. These are people who interpret the idea similarly but have such strong convictions that they feel a need to deny its validity. Even the idea that there could be any correlations between certain social conditions and certain bad behaviors tends to be treated like a threat to their values. To them, the idea is just a way for the bad guys to justify their crimes, which is sort of true at least, as I mentioned above. These are the people who cherry pick from New Age science experiments looking for reasons to believe that we are all in control of our lives. Personally, I don’t see why so many people are reacting like this. Life is too complicated for the human mind to fully comprehend. We can’t actually predict what’s inevitable. Therefore there’s no good reason for the acceptance of fate to make us all apathetic. Sure, our “decisions” don’t actually change our fate, but they do fulfill it, whatever it is. If we want enjoyable experiences, we still have social responsibilities. We all have to respect the opinions and needs of those around us to some degree if we want to avoid reprisals. If we act like a bunch of irresponsible dicks then we know the future is going to be hell. If we don’t want to experience hell and we don’t want our kids to experience hell then why not live our lives in a way that reflects that? Free will being an illusion just means that something is inevitable, and as far as any human knows, that something can be anything.
So with that out of the way, let’s get back into the argument about freedom and what limits on it are acceptable. Techno-utopianists are another group with strong opinions on the subject, and they also won’t like much of what I’ve said. To them, it would be a horrible injustice if all our accumulated wisdom didn’t lead to a world without work. They demand that robots be designed to build, clean, manufacture and maintain everything for us so we can be free to pursue our passions. They expect that this will allow us to evolve into scientifically enlightened, artistically masterful super beings or something. Well, I clearly don’t see that happening but even without jobs there would always be obligations of some kind. We’ll never be rid of all chores. There will always be things we have to do in addition to those that we want to do. However, the two can be made to align with each other so that what we have to do is what we want to do. In a lot of ways that’s what my imagined dictatorship set out to create. I want to see humans walk away from a destructive culture inundated with shallow thrills and build many new ones where we can enjoy and take pride in our daily chores. In my opinion, nothing else will ever make us more free.