Monday, May 23, 2011

Living a contradiction

Two FAQs:

“How can you call yourself a primitivist and post on the internet (use a cell phone, drive a car, etc., etc.)?”

And the related question:

“How can you call yourself an anarchist and work for a paycheck (pay a mortgage, obey traffic signals, etc., etc.)?”

People who ask these questions are usually convinced that they have me backed into a logical corner in which the only escape is for me to confess hypocrisy (as if hypocrisy has some kind of magical power of invalidation).  Of course their real motivation is to avoid scrutinizing their own unanalyzed perspectives—and the massive cognitive dissonance that would emerge from wading into their own contradiction swamp.  A good offense is often the best defense (or defense mechanism).

Nevertheless, both questions are grounded in the same erroneous assumption: that I am somehow free to choose. 

The whole point is that I am not free to choose: I reject the system precisely because it forces me into an inauthentic lifestyle that is not of my choosing.  How is that contradiction?  Is it a logical contradiction for a plantation slave to categorically reject the institution of slavery and yet continue to pick cotton?  Is it hypocrisy for a prison inmate to strongly oppose her incarceration and yet continue to eat prison food?  

We are offered only two kinds of choice: the trivial and the Hobson’s variety.  We are free to choose the color of our shackles.  I can choose whether to continue as an indentured wage-slave or to live under a freeway overpass and scavenge dumpsters (or some equally disagreeable option).  Yes I can choose from among trivial options, whether I use Facebook or Skype or a cell phone, but unless I am willing to sever all contact with my granddaughter who lives on the other side of the country I am forced into mediated communication.  And note that it was a series of Hobson’s choices that put my granddaughter 2000 miles distant to begin with. 

I call myself an anarcho-primitivist as an attempt to reference the source of my inability to choose the life of an authentic human being.  I am an anarchist because I don’t recognize, respect, or voluntarily acknowledge the legitimacy of power or authority.  I am a primitivist because civilization is the systematic application of power and authority.  Some days I am an anarchist because I am a primitivist.  Some days it is the other way around.  That a person could be one without also being the other doesn’t make sense to me: a true contradiction?

Perhaps it is possible to reject civilization and still embrace power and authority.  But the reverse seems incoherent.      

Friday, May 20, 2011

The domestication bulldozer

Several people have made note of the fact that civilized life is rarely if ever adopted willingly. The history of Western colonial expansion abounds with examples of members of the invading culture “going savage,” but few if any documented cases of the opposite.  Civilization is imposed on the uncivilized through coercion and direct force, with genocide frequently employed to smooth out the bumps in the initial transition. This is true not just on a historical scale, but on the scale of the “development” of the individual person as well.  Children have to be “colonized,” every child needs to have all that is natural and uncivilized within them tamed, caged, quashed—beaten out of them if necessary.

Despite this, the myth persists that civilized life represents the deepest longing of those who remain in the penumbra of the global machine: the few remaining Bushmen and their subsistence farming neighbors in central Africa pine for a life with a television and a factory job.  There is not a single indigenous male in the entire Amazon basin who would not be willing to sell his mother into slavery to be able to spend lazy afternoons sipping latte and surfing porn on a smartphone.  Civilization is obviously such a great idea that anyone who is given the option would be a complete idiot for not jumping on the techno-industrial treadmill.   

There is a closely related myth that relates to the spread of large-scale domestication during the Neolithic.  The agricultural lifestyle is obviously such a great idea that once exposed, hunter-gatherers instantly dropped their spears and started planting seeds.  But Daniel Quinn’s gorilla tells a different story.  Ishmael talks about the conflict between “leavers” and “takers” in terms of conquest, annihilation, and extermination—where nomadic pastoralists and others living subsistence life-ways were pushed further and further to the periphery in terms of both geography and population.   The agricultural revolution, at least according to the cryptic homilies of one fictional telepathic lowland gorilla, was brought about through displacement and genocide—mostly genocide.

An October 2009 article in the journal Science reports the results of a study comparing mitochondrial DNA from skeletons of the first European farmers, from skeletons of late European hunter-gatherer people, and from modern Europeans.  The DNA differences support Ishmael’s contention.  The first farmers in the area were not descendants of local hunter-gatherers but came from someplace else, and the hunter-gatherers in the area at the time were not absorbed into the farming culture, nor did they decide to take up farming as a result of exposure to agricultural practices.  The emergence of large-scale domestication was not a happy bandwagon with everyone jumping onboard.  Like the emergence of civilization a few thousand years later, it was a bulldozer.


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Technological nature and environmental generational amnesia

A 2009 article by psychologists at the University of Washington provides a brief summary of some research exploring “technological nature,” defined as technologies that in some way simulate, modify, or mediate our experience with the natural world (e.g., nature webcams, videos, virtual environments, robotic animals).  The specific question their review addresses is whether there is a difference between exposure to technological nature and exposure to actual (natural?) nature in terms of potential impact on our physical and psychological wellbeing.   

The seven studies they mention suggest an affirmative answer.  For example, one study found more rapid heart rate recovery following low-level stress when a person was in an office with a window that looked out on a natural landscape than when a person was in either an office equipped with an HD plasma screen displaying a real-time image of a similar landscape or an office with only a blank wall to stare at—no recovery differences between the plasma image and a blank wall.

The article is worth the quick read for the concise description of Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis if nothing else.  In addition, there are a couple things the authors said that I think are worth noting.  First, they begin their abstract with the claim that “Two world trends are powerfully reshaping human existence: the degradation, if not destruction, of large parts of the natural world, and unprecedented technological development.“  They say this as if these things were parallel but entirely unrelated phenomena.  

Also, and perhaps more noteworthy, they talk about something called environmental generational amnesia.  It is unclear whether they coined the term, but the idea is pretty straightforward: because the quantity and quality of engagement with the (actual) natural world is decreasing with each subsequent generation, children growing up today will have reduced awareness and understanding of features of nature that their grandparents understood intimately.  Environmental generational amnesia is an insidious side effect of the progressive substitution of technological nature for actual experience with the natural world:

“The concern is that, by adapting gradually to the loss of actual nature, humans will lower the baseline across generations for what counts as a full measure of the human experience and of human flourishing.”

Makes me wonder about how far my own baseline has shifted as I stare into the computer screen in front of me.  I suppose it could be worse.  I could be playing Farmville.

I came across another set of studies not too long ago showing that an adult’s level of environmental concern is highly correlated with the amount of contact he or she had with the natural world as a child.  Add that to this idea of generational baseline shift, and we could be looking at a very environmentally apathetic future.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Anti-civilization mythology

A nice critique of Lierre Keith’s anti-vegetarian book here, although it was written by an anarchist who is an obvious civilization apologist.  We can’t go back to the days before the agricultural revolution, she says, because there are just too many of us now.  Killing 5 billion people is simply not an option.

I know I’ve ranted on this before, but it is worth repeating: the massive die-off argument is a straw man—and a very weak one at that.       

It is true that best solution (for humans and for the rest of the planet) is for us to find a way forward to something resembling life prior to agriculture.   And it is true that the planet will probably comfortably support fewer than a billion people living subsistence gatherer-hunter lifestyles.   But it certainly doesn’t follow that 5 billion people will need to be killed first.  It took us 9 thousand years to get this far off course.  It’s not like we have to fix everything by tomorrow, and start by immediately eliminating 80% of the population.  There are numerous ways of reducing population over time that don’t require any existing person to die.

An interesting aside: to say that 5 billion people is too many begs the question of how many fatalities would be acceptable?  Is there some threshold of, say, 300 million? 900 million? A billion?  And of course one can always ask the counter question: how many billions are guaranteed to die if we continue with business as usual?        

The one thing that we surely can’t do is continue with business as usual.  And there is no manner of tweaking the current system, rearranging the power structures, or refashioning the political or economic topography that is going to change the ultimate fact that civilization is unsustainable. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The relevance of disengagement

When I told her that I haven’t owned a television since the late 90s, I killed my Facebook account last year, I've never tweeted (bleated?) in my life, and although I have a cell phone, I don’t carry it with me and only use it to talk to my daughter and granddaughter who live 2000 miles away, she said I was just being stupid and making myself irrelevant.

And she is right, I suppose—about making myself irrelevant, that is. People have relevance only in terms of their role within the machine of civilization.  From inside the machine, the machine is the only frame of reference from which to assess relevance.  It is the only frame of reference, period. 

But to resist technology is to begin to disengage in the most mechanical sense of the word, to separate from the flywheel, to uncouple from the gears.   And something very interesting happens to your frame of reference in the process.  A redundant and easily replaceable sprocket has very little relevance while its cogs are neatly embedded in the chain.  But pull that same sprocket off its bearings and twist it a little sideways...

OK, stop with the bullshit.  It isn’t enough to reduce your personal dependence on technology.  I think some level of disengagement is probably necessary in order to get a glimpse of what is really going on.  But personal enlightenment is not going to change anything.  It is not enough to refuse to play the game.  We need to smash the game table and burn all of the pieces.        

Monday, May 2, 2011

Civilization is a Black Swan

I’m reading through Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, Black Swan. As soon as I finish, I am going to read it again.

Black Swans are extremely low-probability, highly consequential events that are entirely unpredictable beforehand but easily accounted for after the fact.  A nuclear meltdown caused by a tidal wave generated by a record-breaking earthquake is a paradigmatic example.   Specific Black Swan events are exceedingly rare by definition, but the occurrence of Black Swans as a general phenomenon is ubiquitous.  Every major event in history and every major feature of industrial society is a Black Swan.  Even our personal circumstances as individuals turns out on close inspection to be a result of numerous Black Swans. 

Our expectations for the future are driven by prior experience.  Because of this and the fact that Black Swans are readily “explained” after the fact, we grossly overestimate our ability to successfully predict and plan for the future.  We are lethally overconfident.  And paradoxically the more specific information you have about the past the less prepared you are for what actually happens.

Taleb reworks a cautionary tale used by Bertrand Russell: 1001 days in the life of a turkey.  The story goes something like this.  Suppose you are a turkey, and for the last 1000 days, your entire life to this point, the humans in your world have gone to great lengths to see that your needs are taken care of.  Someone is always there to help you down when you get stuck in the apple tree.  You always have enough food, your water trough is regularly cleaned, and you are given shelter from the cold and a fine strip of pasture in which to stroll during the day.  When you wake up on that crisp 1001st morning, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, you have every reason to expect more of the same.  There is nothing in your past experience to prepare you for what is about to happen to you. 

Civilization is a Black Swan.  

Civilization’s end will be a Black Swan.