Friday, August 26, 2011

Anti-primitivist memes that never die

Here is yet another one of those “anarcho-primitivism is dumb" screeds.  Absolutely no new ideas here—the same pseudo-arguments about how there are too many of us now to readopt hunter-gatherer lifestyles, and besides, life in the Pleistocene really sucked anyhow.

This claim in particular is becoming cliché:

“Estimates of how many people could live on the Earth as hunter-gatherers based on the amount of food that would be available to them suggest a carrying capacity of around 100 million [link removed]. How the global population would be reduced to this figure has not been adequately explained by any anarcho-primitivist, but I’m not sure that would be possible without starvation and suffering on an unheard of scale.”

OK.  What if we spent a couple generations of sharply negative population growth?  No, I don’t know how, practically speaking, it would be possible to convince 7 billion people to severely curtail their reproductive activities.  But, then, a few generations ago, I would not have known how, practically speaking, it would be possible to get 7 billion people to relinquish what little remained of their personal freedom and acquiesce to the permanent defacement of the natural world for the benefit of multinational corporations.  Every five-year-old eventually learns that just because you personally can’t think of an answer doesn’t mean there isn’t one.  

And then, of course, the “massive die-off” cliché assumes that there would be less of a massive die-off, less starvation and suffering, if civilization continues.  If we end civilization today, almost seven billion people will die.  If civilization is allowed to continue for another three or four generations, that number rises to over 10 billion.  Our inaction today sentences an additional three billion people to starvation and suffering—and that doesn’t include the billions who will suffer and starve anyway, as a function of the grossly unequal access to resources that is a defining feature of all civilization. 

And while we are on the topic of gross inequality, the author of this screed—who, to his credit, appears to have strong anarchist sympathies—claims that capitalism is the source of this inequality, and that our technology will save us once we direct it toward human ends:

“Only once scientific research and industry have been brought under the control of the masses can the technologies that we use be adjusted to meet human values.”

Statements like these demonstrate a complete ignorance both of what science is and how it works, and of the basic nature of the industrial process.  Both science and industry require division of labor; they involve specialization and expertise: the unequal partitioning, distribution, and isolation of knowledge—which is entirely at odds with even the most superficial kinds of “mass control.”    

But where this guy really takes the boat of the edge of the map for me is when he lists all of the disease vectors that hunter-gatherers, both past and present, have to contend with, diseases that the miracles of modern medical technology have either eradicated completely, or relegated to statistical rarities.  The meme being tapped here is that civilization has made life progressively better.  I have devoted several previous posts to dispelling this myth in its various forms.  It is probably sufficient at this point simply to suggest a cost-benefit analysis of modern medical technology that includes the prevalence of iatrogenic illness and other side-effects, as well as externalities such as the health-destroying features of the global industrial machine itself—the presence of which serves as a precondition for the very existence of modern medical technology. 

Technology is a zero sum game.  This is an empirical fact.  But the costs are sometimes hard to see, overshadowed by the proximal benefits because we focus narrowly on the specific problem(s) that a technological innovation is designed to address, and ignore the preconditions for that technology’s existence and the peripheral and long-term consequences.

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