Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Primitivist Hypocrisy?

“So you call yourself a primitivist, rail against dehumanizing technology, and promote the complete annihilation of industrial civilization.  Yet you own a refrigerator and drive a car and use a computer and a cell phone and actively partake of the technological products of industrial civilization in a thousand ways.   Surely you are aware of the contradiction.  You are a nothing but a hypocrite, and your hypocrisy renders your words vacuous.”

Interesting.  So if a smoker preaches against the dangers of smoking, then tobacco ceases to be a carcinogen? 

I am forced to live a life of contradiction.  It is not a choice.  Failure to participate nominally in the system is lethal.    It is precisely this forced contradiction that I am railing against.   I could drop out of the system to the extent allowed, and live a solitary life pushing my shopping cart from alley to alley, or huddling in the shelter of a freeway overpass.  I could build a cabin in the mountains and survive by eating roots and rabbits.  But these options would only further alienate me from my humanity. 

Humans are social animals.  We find happiness and fulfillment embedded in a meaningfully woven social fabric.   Mass technology has usurped much of our social thread, and the bonds that connect us are becoming progressively thin and tenuous.  In many cases, the only connection we have to important people in our lives is through technological mediation.  Thanks to Skype, my granddaughter and I can talk to each other’s images in real time through the computer, but we cannot plant garlic together, or sit on the riverbank and throw rocks, or chase the dog through the house.    Mass technology endorses the former and mass marketing attempts to convince us that it is equivalent—or even superior—to the latter.  Years ago, a telecommunications corporation told us that long distance was “the next best thing to being there,” a tagline that at least acknowledged the superiority of face-to-face human contact.   Now we are told that the convenience of virtual conferencing renders actual human-to-human interaction superfluous.

Yes I own a computer (and a cell phone and…).  And I use it, fully conscious of how it along with the corporate infrastructure of which it is but a small part has wedged itself between me and the free expression of my human nature.   But it is not hypocrisy to own a computer and at the same time plot to bring about a world in which computers don’t exist.    

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Monkey on our Back (Part 3)

In the end, our addiction to civilization may not be the largest obstacle we will have to scale.  The “substance” of corporate consumer culture is not really all that powerful as an addictive agent.  Ultimately its power derives from the exploitation of our evolutionary hard-wiring for an entirely different kind of lifestyle. 

Our continuing consumption of the substance of consumer culture requires continuous distraction, the unrelenting input of persuasive marketing propaganda, and the distortion of our evolved psychological tendencies.  According to Benjamin Barber, one of the ways that our consumer civilization keeps us addicted to its life-draining products is through the cultivation and promotion of an ethos of infantilization, an “enduring childishness” in which our natural psychological development is intentionally stunted in order to exploit the gullibility, impulsiveness, and narcissism of youth.  Mature adults are able to delay gratification, and understand that things that are truly worthwhile take time and effort.  They prefer to work toward enduring happiness rather than seek out transient pleasures.  They are able to live with ambiguity and appreciate a plurality of individual tastes.  They emphasize public obligation over private entitlement and reasoned deliberation over emotion-driven impulse.  All of these qualities make mature adults poor consumers. 

Disengaging from the superficial, infantilized meanings of consumerism and returning to something more in line with our evolved adult propensities will be, in terms of potency, like switching from aspirin to heroin.  Actually, the drug metaphor makes for a poor comparison in this case.  The change from modern civilization to a lifestyle more consistent with our DNA will be like waking up from a suffocating nightmare to a deep breath of cool fresh mountain air.  Without a corporate system designed to keep us functioning like child zombies, without media and advertising constantly spoon-feeding us messages about how we need to furnish our lives with the latest products that promise but fail to deliver, without the continual and accelerating infusion from the global consumer machine our lifestyles will quickly revert to ones more resonant with the subsistence-living history of our species, our lives will shift rapidly in the direction of our evolutionary default.

We just need to find a way to pull the plug. 

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Monkey on our Back (Part 2)

Thinking about civilization as a kind of substance to which we have developed, both individually and collectively, a powerful addiction helps explain the sometimes very strident reaction people have to suggestions that we should change the status quo, and especially their reactions to the “radical” suggestion that we should be directing all of our energy and intelligence toward eliminating civilization altogether.  A similar reaction might be expected of a drug addict who discovers that his drug supply was going to be permanently cut off. 

Often the drug along with the activities that surround its procurement and use become such an intimate part of the addict’s daily life that it is difficult for the addict to imagine anything different.  The addictive substance becomes an organizing principle, providing an otherwise hollow life with purpose and meaning.  The addiction, despite its clearly negative consequences, provides a level of comfortable certainty and predictability.  To suggest life without the drug is to suggest a different life.  And it’s not just the drug itself, but everything associated with its use.  When heroin addicts run short, many will stab themselves with empty needles, finding some relief in the ritual itself.  In the same way, during an economic downturn many people find enjoyment in shopping for consumer items that they cannot afford to buy.  Buying, consuming commercial products and services, working in exchange for money to spend on commercial products and services, acquiring an education in preparation for a career in order to work in order to be in a position to continue to buy commercial products and services are what gives life its meaning.  We are consumers; it’s what we do.  To suggest that we need to put an end to the status quo and replace it with something radically different, is to suggest that we need to acquire an entirely new sense of purpose, that we find entirely different ways of giving life its meanings, that we abandon our comfortable consumer chains, that we embrace the uncertainty of a life of freely chosen goals, that we become entirely different beings.

That’s not what anyone wants to hear—especially this time of year when meaningless material consumption becomes a religious imperative.  

Viewing our problem as one of “civilization dependence” provides a way for us to understand the unyielding support of our dehumanizing and unsustainable civilization even as its malignant tendrils wend increasingly deep into the tissue of the biosphere.  The dependence metaphor also provides a potentially useful way of anticipating people’s reactions to the civilization-dismantling process and the dramatic life changes that will be necessary if we are to pull it off. 

A psychologist by the name of James Prochaska and his colleagues developed a theoretical model of the process of change, originally designed for use by addiction counselors.  The model has application beyond substance addiction to virtually any circumstances in which personal change is involved.  The theory views change as a five stage process: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance.  In the precontemplation stage, the thought of change is not being actively entertained.  During this stage the person does not recognize that there is a problem to begin with.  Or if the person does acknowledge that a problem exists, it is seen as something minor, not serious enough to do anything about.  This stage is marked by deep denial.  For addicts at this stage, the positive benefits of the drug outweigh any perceived consequences, or if there are perceived consequences, they are not seen as directly relating to the use of the substance.  For some addicts, the largest hurdle to cross is the transition from precontemplation to the next stage, the contemplation stage, to the realization that there is a problem and a need to take some action to change things.  Unfortunately, just knowing and accepting that there is a problem and wanting to fix it is not sufficient to bring about change.  And acquiring insight into the causes of a problem might be an illuminating experience, but insight by itself is not enough to fix the problem.  What is missing at this stage is a meaningful commitment to change.  During the preparation stage the person has committed to change and is in the process of putting together a strategic plan of attack.  Acceptance of the severity of the problem is accompanied by a willingness to do whatever it takes to change.  The action stage involves the actual enactment of the plan; this is where the “rubber meets the road” and the person begins to change his or her behavior.  The final stage, the maintenance stage, is one of continued vigilance following successful change.  The stages of this process are sequential and obligatory.  A person can’t jump straight from contemplation to action, for example.  And regressive periods in which a person “relapses” back to previous stages are typical and to be expected.  Also, the time course of each stage varies widely from person to person and situation to situation.  Some people can spend years in the contemplation stage, where they know there is a problem that they need to address, and yet never advance to the preparation or action stages.

As a society, we are collectively in the precontemplation stage both with respect to making changes necessary to deal with our addiction to global consumer culture and with respect to our civilization’s impending disintegration. 

Hmm.  Maybe what we need is a large-scale “intervention” in which the collective social consciousness is forced to acknowledge that there is a real problem.  What would such an intervention look like? 

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Monkey on our Back (Part 1)

People are willing to invest more energy and expense in maintaining the status quo, whatever the status quo happens to be, than they would have been willing to invest to bring those conditions about in the first place.  Psychologists call this lopsided valuation of our current circumstances status quo bias.   In its simplest form, status quo bias reflects a natural distaste for change, as if our present situation carries a kind of psychological inertia.  It’s easier to keep doing the same thing than it is to try something different—even if what we are doing isn’t working out so well for us.  So we put up with a job that is not entirely satisfying, or a marriage that is not entirely fulfilling.  Our willingness to allow the continuation of our present civilization, however, is something more than just an aversion to change.  It is something more closely akin to an addiction.  It’s as if we are addicted to civilization, hooked on consumption, and, as a result, entirely willing to ruin our personal health and the health of the planet in single-minded pursuit of our drug of choice. 

In his book, Consumed, Benjamin Barber suggests that addiction plays a major role in corporate consumer society.  Powerfully addictive substances and behaviors, tobacco, alcohol, sugar- and fat-saturated foods, television and movies, video games, are major consumer items whose use is supported by an enormous amount of corporate advertising.  In addition, the act of consumption itself has been turned into an addiction by corporate marketing, much of which is aimed at children, the most vulnerable segment of the population. I would go one step further.  It’s not just consumption, but the whole of our consumer civilization that we are addicted to. 

And to see that addiction in this instance is not just a metaphor, consider how professionals diagnose substance dependence, the clinical term for addiction, defined in the DSM-IV-TR (the diagnostic manual used by mental health professionals) as “[a] maladaptive pattern of substance use, leading to clinically significant impairment or distress […].”  There are seven criteria for substance dependence listed in the DSM.  The first criterion is tolerance, the need for more of the substance to produce the desired effect, or a diminished effect with the same amount of the substance.   We quickly develop tolerance for the material accessories of our consumer society.   And it doesn’t take long before we need more and bigger and faster.  The average size of new homes, for example, has grown dramatically in the last few decades.  And once we’ve actually attained more than we had previously, the positive psychological effects don’t last long.  Research on the change in life satisfaction reported by lottery winners, for instance, has found that the initial euphoria dissipates rapidly, and in a short time the person returns to pre-winning levels of life satisfaction.  Something similar happens following the purchase of expensive consumer goods.  And then there is the cliché of the power hungry corporate executive who is never satisfied with any amount of wealth and power.  Affluence and material wealth are easy to get used to, and the desire for more is proportional to the amount that you already have: the more you have the more additional it takes in order to get the same psychological boost. 

The second criterion is withdrawal, where the person experiences uncomfortable (in some cases life-threatening) physical symptoms when they stop taking the substance.  Force an adolescent to give up their cell phone or favorite video game for a week, and you are sure to see symptoms of withdrawal that would rival a hard-core junkie going cold turkey.  Pick any modern convenience and ask yourself how you would react if it were no longer available to you.  As victims of earthquakes and hurricanes quickly discover, the lack of running water is something more than just a minor inconvenience despite the fact that indoor plumbing is an extremely recent addition to the human experience.  And what about something as central to every facet of our civilized existence as oil?  What would happen if petroleum were suddenly unavailable?  Not only would most all transportation and industrial manufacture cease immediately, but we would also lose access to numerous products that are now necessities, many pharmaceuticals and plastic components used in the health-care industry, for instance, on which people’s lives quite literally depend.  The withdrawal symptoms of our oil addiction are in actual point of fact life threatening.          

The remaining criteria for substance dependence are equally easy to apply to the products of modern civilization.  The third criterion involves the person taking more of the substance than originally intended, or taking the substance for a longer period of time than originally planned.  To see how this criterion applies, we need look no further than that embodiment of a systemic inability to delay material gratification: the credit card.  Many people have managed to rack up so much in the way of personal debt that it is no exaggeration to say that they are living lives of indentured servitude to banking corporations.  The fourth criterion involves the person wanting to quit or cut down but being unsuccessful at curtailing the use of the substance.  Our inability to reduce carbon emissions fits here, as does our reluctance to transition away from gasoline powered automobiles.  The fifth criterion is that the person spends a lot of personal time engaged in activities involved in obtaining the substance or in recovering from the effects of using.  Shopping malls have become entertainment centers.  Buying things, thinking about buying things, shopping in all of its forms represents the primary activity of many Americans.  So much so that we no longer call ourselves citizens; we are consumers.  The sixth criterion is that the person has given up or reduced participation in important activities as a result of substance use.  What we have given up in our quest for ever-increasing consumption is no less than our freedom and our humanity.  We spend more time interacting with things, with our consumer products, with our cell phones and our automobiles and our games and our entertainment centers and our computers, than with the important people in our lives. 

And the seventh criterion—and this is a diagnostic clincher for many addiction counselors—the person continues to use the substance despite “knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by the substance.”  Our civilization is destroying the planet and us along with it.  The reckless pursuit of our number one drug of choice has is rendered a substantial proportion of the planet toxic to life.  Anthropogenic global climate change is more than likely already beyond anything we can do to reverse or even meaningfully ameliorate.  Global warming skeptics aside, we are very aware of the causes of the accelerating environmental degradation that is occurring all around us.  Our industrial civilization is vacuuming the planet of all of its irreplaceable resources while the polar ice caps melt and species after species disappears forever, and yet we do nothing.  It’s business as usual.  We drive.  We shop.  We consume.  We wage wars that indiscriminately kill men women and children by the millions and litter the environment with depleted uranium munitions to protect our access to oil so that we can continue to drive, to shop, to consume. 

With respect to consumer civilization, we appear to meet all of the criteria for substance addiction.  Moreover, it should be noted that for a person to be diagnosed with substance dependence according to the DSM, only three of the criteria need to be satisfied—any three.  We clearly have a dependence problem.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Keep America Fueled Campaign

I heard an ExxonMobil commercial on the radio the other day (note: the word ExxonMobil is included in the spellcheck dictionary for Microsoft Word 2010).  The ad was in the style of a public service announcement, and the gist of the message was that you and I could help conserve the world’s energy if we would only check the air in our tires on a regular basis.  Apparently, part of the reason for peak oil is that I’m running with a chronically underinflated left front tire.

This message is very clearly modeled after the Keep America Beautiful Campaign, one of the most successful corporate sleight of hand propaganda strategies of all time.   Now we all know that litter is a serious environmental problem, one that requires our continued vigilance.  And, no, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the over-packaging of consumer products, the accelerating propagation of fast-food chains, or the mass-production and distribution of soft drinks in single-serving containers that are destined for thousands of years in a landfill after they complete their three minutes of service.  During the 1970s, when the Keep America Beautiful Campaign was launched, we learned to direct our efforts toward disposing our wrappers and containers properly, while the factories that produced them continued to fill our air and rivers and streams and lakes with less visible but incomparably more hazardous material and Pepsi and Coke avoided costly state bottle-return legislation (note: Pepsi and Coke are also in Word's spellcheck).  

A very similar kind of redirection is being attempted by Exxon with their Keep Your Tires Filled commercials.  In addition, ExxonMobil comes across as a company that truly cares about the future of our natural resources.  If you have a few moments and are in a place where shouting obscenities Tourette’s-style at the computer screen is not likely to cause problems, check out the ExxonMobil company webpage—especially their section on “corporate citizenship” (I refuse to defile my blog with an active link to it).   You can learn all about such things as how extractive technology is actually good for the environment and how ExxonMobil is improving the lives of indigenous peoples in Canada.

Note: megamachine is not in Word’s spellcheck dictionary.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Biting the Silver Bullet

I have a difficult time wrapping my head around the “reasoning” of otherwise intelligent, educated, and thoughtful people, anarchists chief among them, who reject the primitivist agenda flat out—and usually in a patronizing and dismissive fashion as if those of us who hold anti-civilization views are infantile or delusional or both. 

Some of us are, but that’s beside the point.

Hasty reactions are frequently a sign of psychological defense, and I suspect that most rejections of primitivism are based more on an emotional response than on anything resembling a well-reasoned position.  And there are indeed several facets of primitivism as it relates to the need to eradicate civilization that can serve to trigger a dramatic emotional response.  For one thing, it would mean an end to techno-toys and the addictive distracturbation they engender.  No more HD television.  No more Game Boy.  No more iPhones.  It would mean a dramatic change of lifestyle and a redefinition—a rediscovery—of what it means to be human.  True freedom can be a terrifying thing for people who have spent their entire lives restrained in a box, where their every thought has been groomed to serve the machine.

But perhaps the most frequent and most visceral rejoinder that I have heard from anti-primitivists is that people will die.  The planet cannot support anything close to the current global population in the absence of the constant interventions and machinations of the institutions of civilization.   If the controls of the machine were removed abruptly, billions of people would die horrible starvation deaths in very short order.  And, further, the people who would die first would be those who currently occupy the bottom of civilization’s vertical pecking order: the poor, the oppressed.  Intentionally removing the controls of civilization would be akin to mass genocide (even Chomsky—of all people—has said as much).         

Let’s leave aside the fact that it is precisely the interventions and machinations of civilization that led to a planet filled with highly vulnerable people in the first place.  Let’s also leave aside the fact that it is not necessary to pull the plug all at once, and that we might find ways to prepare ahead of time for civilization’s imminent demise, ways that can serve to soften the landing.  Instead, let’s simply ask what happens if we allow civilization to continue unabated.  The number of dependent and vulnerable people will only increase with time.  When civilization eventually collapses—decline and collapse is the nature of all civilization and will occur regardless what we do—it will very likely be tens of billions of people who will die horrible starvation deaths.  People are going to die.  Primitivists don’t want lots of people to die—especially primitivists who also call themselves humanists don’t want lots of people to die! 

And of course, it’s not just people who are doomed to suffer for the sins of civilization.  The entire biosphere has already paid a price beyond all reckoning.

Those who reject primitivism are holding out for a good solution.  They want to both eat and have their cake, or at least save a couple choice slices.  But there is no good solution to the crisis of civilization.  There are only better and worse courses of action.   And the absolute worst course is to do nothing, to allow the continuation of the status quo.  Any action that is not directed toward dismantling and eventually eliminating civilization is in the wrong direction.  A return to the primitive is not a good solution.  It is quite possibly a horrible solution.  But it is the only solution.