Some further thoughts on anarcho-primitivism

My article on anarcho-primitivsm, written in May, has of late sparked some quite interesting debate. In particular, a commenter called Cecil Curry has posted a lengthy response which has also appeared on his blog, Mysidian Dreams.

Especially as it claimed to put forward an argument I had failed to address, I thought that this deserved a post of its own in response.

The core of Curry’s reply is that, apparently, my blog “fails to address the core tenet of the critique of industrial civilization: namely, that industrial civilization is inherently unsustainable.” Thus, in rebutting me, he goes into some detail attempting to demonstrate that “unsustainable structures collapse, often catabolically” and that “this civilization, even were it sustainable, is not immune to collapse.”

That last point appears moot. Surely, nothing is immune to collapse? Empires and cities fall, religions die, species go extinct, and whole worlds eventually cease to be. Nothing is immutable or eternal. However, this is pure philosophical abstraction. It proves nothing of note.

The meat of Curry’s argument is this;

Population growth is a function of available energy. This is as true for reindeer and petri dish-delimited bacteria as it us for us. We are not, despite our concomitant capture of exogenous energy (esp., fossil fuel), exempt from finite limits to growth. We are constrained by the ecological superstructure supporting the manufactured infrastructure of industrial civilization. We are bounded by thermodynamic laws and exigencies beyond our ken – certainly, beyond our control. Ecology is the exoskeleton of the economy. Without ecologies, there are no economies. To wit:

  • Homo sapiens enjoyed a fairly stable global population of approx. 300 million individuals from our first speciation 2.2 million years ago up to about 300 years ago.
  • Circa the mid 1700s, European Homo sapiens initiate the inevitable Industrial Revolution, unlocking hitherto unnoticed stores of hydrocarbon energy: first coal, then natural gas, then crude oil, then most recently syncrude (e.g., algal biodiesel).
  • Things went exponential.
  • Things went exponential very quickly.
  • Homo sapiens now doubles its population each half century.
  • And the rate is increasing.
  • Exponentially.

This trend is unlikely to continue.

Extraction of both available energy and available materials (esp., lumber, phosphorus, silver, and rare earth elements) appears to have “passed peak” sometime circa the early 2000s. Quantifying a peak for global oil production is fairly rote, due to the ubiquitous publication of production-reserves data (excluding Saudi Arabia of course):

  • Global oil production peaked on an annual basis in 2005 at 74.30 million barrels of oil per day (mbd).
  • Global oil production peaked on a monthly basis on July 11th, 2008 at 74.82 mbd.

In either case, global oil production is past peak. Other resources are more difficult to quantify, but equally telling. Some authors suggest global coal extraction is also past peak. A few suggest global uranium extraction is, as well. Due to the hungry nature of exponential growth, we needn’t wait long for a global peak in extraction of all remaining non-renewable resources.

But population growth is a function of available energy. So, it stands to reason that human population growth will probably backpedal into population decline at some nearby (but still future-flung) inflection point.

But scarcity in available energy and materials is just the crux of the fulcrum. Accelerating global declines in so-called “ecosystem services” (as a consequence of anthropogenic deforestation, erosion, biodiversity loss, et al.) suggest that such a decline could be more pronounced than it otherwise need be. Humanity is not simply embattled against an absence of raw resources or the “means of production.” Humanity is in battle against destruction of the material basis for life itself.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that it assumes “industrial civilisation” to be synonymous with capitalism. In making this assumption, it offers the non sequitur that pre-industrial humanity was “stable” in terms of population and that nature will thus drag us back to this apparent ideal. On both counts, this is erroneous.

Before I go on, it is important to clarify that by capitalism I do not mean not the economic mechanism of the market. “Capitalism” isn’t just the “free” market but the entire social order in which we live, where the monopoly of violence enjoyed by the nation-state is part of the system attuned to the accumulation of capital for the ruling class.

This social order, largely, fits into Curry’s critique. It is built upon exponential growth, with short-sightedness all but built into it. Artificial scarcity fuels unsustainable levels of consumption whilst a very real surplus sees vast inequality and obscene wealth standing alongside grinding poverty.

However, capitalism as described above is not the same thing as industrial civilisation. Indeed, in a variety of forms, it existed long before the industrial revolution.

Capitalism evolved from feudalism, wherein the system of class domination and the link between state force and wealth accumulation was far more explicit. The foundation stone for both systems is the notion of private property. That is, the idea that somebody can claim to own that which he neither occupies nor uses. Indeed, it is the idea that they can own what others occupy and use, and thus claim a right to wealth which they did not produce.

This social order, already exploitative and destructive, became genuinely unsustainable with the industrial revolution and the advent of truly global imperialism.

With wars fought for the control of strategic markets and resources, weapons poisoning and killing even the descendants of combatants – as in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Vietnam, and now Fallujah – and corporate profit destroying communities and ecosystems, the primitivst argument might appear to have weight.

With anthropogenic climate change, their apocalyptic vision seems almost inescapable.

This year is the hottest since records began, and it has kept getting hotter even with a decline in heat from the sun. Moscow has been consumed in the smog of uncontrollable wildfires. Pakistan is drowning. Giant mudslides have afflicted China. The cost of bread is soaring due to a heat-induced wheat shortage. The acidification of the oceans is killing 40% of the phytoplankton at the base of the oceanic food chain. And this is just the beginning.

However, this is not due to the technological level our society is at, but how we use it. As an editorial for Shift Magazine pointed out, “industry doesn’t create carbon emissions, working people do, because they are paid to do so and see no viable alternative.”

The point shouldn’t be to shout from the sidelines that we’re all doomed, but to offer that viable alternative.

Curry makes the implication that, even reordered from capitalism to anarchist communism, technological society would remain inherently unsustainable. This belief that technology can never be sustainable is inherent in the primitivist worldview. But it is a belief that ignores the role of capitalism and profit built upon artificial scarcity.

Take, as one example, housing. It is commonly said that one requirement of population growth is ever greater encroachment on green land to accomodate all of the newcomers as society expands.

Now, this may be true if the human race continues to grow exponentially for another couple of thousand years, although I see no reason why it would outside of a capitalist social order. In the present, though, this is clearly not the case.

Look around any major city in the world, where there will undoubtedly be many people without a home, and you will find a great many abandoned and derelict buildings. You will find dead land with no practical purpose, and the same one business or franchise occupying several buildings even within one tiny area. This is not a problem of technology or industrial advancement – it is down to the “right” of private property ownership.

The problem is not that sustainability is out of the reach of a technological society, it is that it doesn’t fit into the ideology and socio-economic structure of capitalism.

As a side note, it is worth pointing out that the human population was never “stable.” Though it is certainly true that our numbers have increased exponentially (PDF) since the end of World War II (not since the 1700s as Curry asserts), they have been creeping upwards since 1,000 BC. The human race took 2,000 years to climb from 1 million to 300 million, but in the year 1100 the rate of growth increased to 50-100 million a year.

Thus, it is a falsehood to claim that “Homo sapiens enjoyed a fairly stable global population of approx. 300 million individuals from our first speciation 2.2 million years ago up to about 300 years ago.”

Curry finishes his argument thus;

In closing, I should say that the claim of primitivist nihilism is just that: a claim, with as little or as much evidence as most. Primitivists are not anti-human. Primitivists are not anti-family, anti-community, or anti-society. Collectively, primitivists do not seek, aim for, or otherwise desire the blood-rimmed extermination of 6.8 billion humans.

Given the failure of industrial civilization to develop sustainable alternatives not predicate on infinite growth schemas, however, they do expect it.

The first observation to make at this point is that, if indeed primitivists do not want civilisation to collapse but only expect it, then they are nihilists. They are naysayers, predicting calamity from the sidelines whilst offering no constructive solution.

How does industrial civilisation “develop sustainable alternatives not predicate on infinite growth schemas?” They cannot or will not say.

As for the point that “primitivists do not seek, aim for, or otherwise desire the blood-rimmed extermination of 6.8 billion humans,” I answered this in my original post. Nobody is suggesting that primitivists are looking to kill people off, and so to refute the idea is to argue against a strawman. Our point is that a mass die-out is necessary to reach a primitivist scenario, whether primitivists themselves “seek, aim for, or otherwise desire” such a thing or not.

Both John Zerzan and Jason Godesky – indeed, Curry as well – state that such a thing is inevitable. Population growth “is no more a natural or neutral phenomenon than its technology” and, though they claim not to relish it, they expect the violent self-destruction of civilisation. So much so, in fact, that “genocide might be the kindest method.”

Thus, my conclusion about anarcho-primitivism stands. It “has no merit either as an abstract critique or as a recipe for revolution. In the former sense, it lacks any significance. In the latter, it is a recipe for misery, suffering, and death.”

Comments
2 Responses to “Some further thoughts on anarcho-primitivism”
  1. Tommacg says:

    - “The foundation stone for both systems is the notion of private property…Indeed, it is the idea that they can own what others occupy and use, and thus claim a right to wealth which they did not produce.”
    Do you not see that this is very much a vindication of the anarcho-primitivist line of reasoning? Private property and commodification (of land especially) arose with the transition to agriculture. Suddenly, this land is mine, that land is yours, and other species are welcome to none of it (having now been designated as “weeds”, “pests” etc.)

    -”This social order, already exploitative and destructive, became genuinely unsustainable with the industrial revolution and the advent of truly global imperialism.”
    I’d disagree and posit that this viewpoint is ahistorical in extremis. No civilization has proven itself sustainable in the medium- to long-term, even before the industrial revolution.

    - You point to climate change as a transgression of capitalism but the evidence is increasingly pointing out that it is in fact a transgression of civilization itself. The reputable climate scientist William Ruddiman, as well as James Lovelock, have pointed out (including in Ruddiman’s book Plagues, Plows and Petroleum) that climate change really finds its genesis in the agricultural revolution and consequent deforestation. These are facts which anarchists fail to deal with.

    - “How does industrial civilisation “develop sustainable alternatives not predicate on infinite growth schemas?” They cannot or will not say.” What does that point even mean? The commenter was remarking that civilisation has never been sustainable (using the term industrial civilisation is a distraction) and I’d add that the reason it’s not is that the fundamental constructs of it, the fundamental sense of self (as Charles Eisenstein would put it) is that of extraction, separation, exploitation, hierarchy and anthropocentrism.

    Again, the primitivist critique does anything but lack significance. In fact, it has been revolutionary in deepening anarchists arguments and identifying the true bars of the cage that constrains us all. It’s time anarcho-syndicalists and others relinquished their ideology and started taking on board the profound points of Zerzan and others.

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