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. 


  1. Jensen and Keith both call for militant actions that would disrupt the infrastructure of industrial civilization in the name of defending the planet. What do you think of this since this would indeed speed up the collapse which could kill millions or even billions of people? I'm not trying to be a smart ass, I'm genuinely curious what you think.

  2. I think Keith and Jensen have found a way to exploit a niche market for book sales (and I am only partly being a smart ass)

    I agree with Keith and Jensen that the system needs to be taken apart as quickly as possible. The longer we wait, the worse things will be. We owe it not just to the planet but to the preservation of what is left of our human nature as well. Where I start to become uncomfortable is when the emphasis is placed on the "militant" part. What we don’t need is an anti-civ militia complete with command structures and field generals.

    But more to your question, we are in a double-bind. If civilization is allowed to continue, people (and everything else) will die. But the sudden end of the corporate industrial infrastructure means that people (and lots of other things) will die. Does the end have to be sudden? How sudden? Can we plan ahead? What if we first eliminate the "corporate industrial" part?

    Ideally I think we should be talking about "intentionally dismantling" civilization rather than forcing it to collapse. I am not exactly sure what all that would entail.

  3. I've heard Zerzan and Tucker claim that Jensen and Keith are more interested in selling books, but I'm not so sure that's completely true. It seems like some of the stuff they (Jensen & Keith) are saying wouldn't go over well with most people so I don't know how that would sell books. However it does seem like Jensen has watered down his critique of civilization in an effort to pander to liberals.

    I also think the way that Zerzan and Tucker are framing the whole Deep Green Resistance thing a little unfair. From what I can tell they're not calling for a Marxist style revolution, but rather targeting critical infrastructure that is required for industrial civ to continue. So it isn't like they're going head to head with the US army like I heard Tucker suggest. I agree that some of the language that Keith uses is off putting, but I think it's more of a poor choice of words rather than a glimpse into her supposed authoritarian tendencies. That said, I wish Jensen and Keith were more willing to talk about these kinds of things like Zerzan has suggested. Honestly, I don't buy into the whole DGR thing yet either, but I think there are a lot of us out there frustrated that what we've been doing hasn't been effective. If we really care about life on this planet and if we are serious about ending the suffering of all the marginalized and oppressed people out there, we need to figure out what does work.

    Thanks for your thoughts! I'm glad I came across your blog.

  4. Completely agree, Old Dog. The author says that to go back to a pre-agricultural way of living "we’d need to kill about 5 billion people." She doesn't seem to understand that the human population will inevitably decline by more than that regardless of what we do. That's just how far into overshoot we are.

    And as you say, there are humane, voluntary ways of bringing down our numbers without killing anyone. It happens through attrition if fertility rates come down far enough that death rates simply exceed birth rates. It may be too late to avert a large die-off, but we could certainly soften the blow.

    Authors who dismiss the notion of returning to pre-agricultural living on need to understand overshoot and its consequences.

    @Anonymous, I think the argument in response to your observation that hastening collapse would indeed kill billions of people is that dragging it out by doing nothing would kill even more people and far more non-humans. Not that that makes for any easy answers. As Old Dog suggested, it's a huge bind, maybe the biggest philosophical bind in history.

  5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Begging_the_question

  6. I agree with John F that its probably too late to avert it, but this is no reason to prepare to soften the blow and surprise

    I really like this blog and have added it to my blog-roll at http://futurewilderness.tumblr.com

    keep up the good work :)