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October 4, 2009
I see no reason why I should not be able to use my cellular phone, my good sir.  You, my friend, are just a pesimist.

I see no reason why I should not be able to use my cellular phone, my good sir. You, my friend, are just a pessimist.

So things look bad—that seems pretty clear.  How do we save it all?

Well, I think I’ve illustrated that (a) we can’t and (b) we shouldn’t even want to.  It is in the nature of civilization, and especially its current deployment in the global modern society, to grow, and growth cannot be sustained.  Of course this isn’t the only thing wrong with civilization, as many authors have pointed out and can illustrate better than I can (Jason Godesky in his Thirty Theses illustrated a number of them, and these are linked in my sidebar), but I guess the fact that this way of life cannot endure is what I’m most interested in.

So if the system is broken and the system cannot last, then what?  Some say “Fix it,” but I would argue that it cannot be fixed.  It is in the nature of civilization to grow, just like it is in the nature of a tiger to hunt.  You cannot change its nature without changing its entire being.  If, as tigers continue to evolve (if there are any left after this century), their behavior changes enough that their descendants do not even hunt anymore, these descendants will be of a new species.

The question remains.  Throw out this system and replace it with something new, something that works.  But what?

This is a valid question.  To it, I have a simple answer: Replace it with a lifestyle that works, no matter what the new lifestyle is.  Daniel Quinn, in Ishmael and The Story of B, and even though I haven’t read his other books I would assume he makes the point in those as well, points out that the lifestyle of the Leavers has worked for three million years and continues to work to this day.  What is necessary is a lifestyle that will work indefinitely—and here’s the important part: whatever it takes.  If that means using stone-age technology, then fine.  If that means a drastic reduction in the scale of modern technology, then fine.

So you’re saying we should all go back to living like cavemen? No, not exactly.  But if I was?  So what?  Like or dislike has nothing to do with it.  You can like living a certain way as much as you want, but it doesn’t mean living that way will work in the long term, or that it’s good for you.  Addicts like the way their drug of choice makes them feel, but it often ruins their lives or kills them.  The fear of becoming “cavemen” is a knee-jerk reaction that comes from the belief that we are more “highly evolved” than cavemen.  This is an utterly ridiculous idea, of course, but that doesn’t even matter; this lifestyle cannot work, so it must be replaced by something that does—whatever it takes, whether we like it or dislike it.  Of course I would prefer to like this lifestyle—only a masochist would prefer not to, and even then in his preference for an unpleasant life he’d still be choosing a life he would enjoy—but whether or not it’s like-able is still completely irrelevant.

People often make a very interesting leap when criticizing primitivist philosophy.  Here is one quote I just came across while skimming reviews for a book by John Zerzan: “Zerzan thinks we need to dismantle our overly technological society. And I think that’s a very poor idea.”  I find this to be very representative of the views a lot of people have about a “primitivist” idea they don’t understand.  I haven’t read this book yet to know for sure, but usually these “primitivists” and anti-civ authors explain why civilization is unsustainable and take the position that they’ll take a life that is, no matter what that means.  The haters jump right over all the evidence showing  why it cannot be sustained and instead go to “I WANT MY COMPUTER COMMIE.”  I can restate this point again and again: You might want your computer, but if your computer can’t stay on because, maybe, for instance, you can’t pay your electricity bill, you won’t be able to use it.  Your preferences will not determine what does and doesn’t work. I don’t dislike having a computer in front of me right now, but if tomorrow I cannot use it, I will not be angry (unless it is stolen from me or destroyed by some asshole—but this is not the point).  The same goes for every technology; if its use can no longer be prolonged or justified, out it goes.

Finding a lifestyle that will work for modern humans will require a lot of hard work, will require tough decisions, and it will be a long and difficult fight, but whatever that lifestyle shall be, it shall be.  It will be what is, no matter what it is, because that’s what it’s going to take to make things work.  We can argue about it all we want, but ask yourself: Would you want to live in a world run by heroin addicts?  I wouldn’t, because that world would fall apart.

The world we live in now isn’t so different.  It is falling apart and eventually, one day, it won’t work anymore.  We can wait for it to stop working or we can work on building a better world now.  I say we do it now.  How about you?

(This post was intentionally somewhat vague.  With the hope that I can stimulate comments and discussions I’m trying to keep my posts shorter because I know people don’t usually want to read something really long.  Maybe this will work; maybe it won’t.)

10 Comments leave one →
  1. jakemoran permalink
    October 4, 2009 4:15 pm

    Daniel Quinn proposes an interesting solution in “Beyond Civilization” that suggests developing semi-tribal lifestyles (I think he calls it neo-tribal or something). I can’t really think of an articulate way to explain it at the moment though, rendering this comment mostly useless. You should read it though, it only takes a day if you really sit down to it.

    When I get back from dinner and look over the general idea again I will relate it to you.

    • October 4, 2009 7:45 pm

      I haven’t read it, but I’ll probably get to it. They don’t have it at the library so maybe I’ll start checking used book stores. I will probably tell my mom to get me a gift certificate to some book store for Christmas, too, because she always insists on buying me something. I’d rather have books than a bunch of junk I won’t use.

  2. thequantumbuddha permalink
    October 5, 2009 8:58 pm

    I think the solution as per the philosophy of Daniel Quinn is to allow the many civilizations that are self sufficient–tribal maybe–but possibly sustainable city states. There may be many ways to live sustainably, the “taker” culture has replaced and erased almost all of them. The greater independence of cities will lead to innovations.

    National Governemnts may still work and local authorities too. The mid level: State, Provincial, Regional governments need to go and be replaced with committees with specific mandates, deadlines and disolution dates.

    • October 5, 2009 9:20 pm

      If I follow you, and I think I do, you’re kind of getting at the point that many different kinds of societies of many different scales can coexist. Of course I agree with this and I believe you are right. This was actually going to be a (sub-)topic of the next post I’ll probably do, so without going into too much detail, I’ll say this: coexistence is fine if it’s possible, but any system built on principles that demand increase-only outcomes cannot, and will not, coexist with other systems.

      Another thing it seems like you’re suggesting is that there isn’t one solution. I guess this is why I kept saying “whatever it takes,” just to reinforce that idea. A total abandonment of civilization is obviously one “way out,” but a reshaping of modern society isn’t impossible per se. Of course that way out would have to be sustainable indefinitely and also safeguard against increased complexity (which also results produces increased entropy—the tendency toward instability, chaos, disorder, whatever you want to call it for any less-scientific folks who might read this).

  3. October 7, 2009 8:43 am

    Please ignore my response to your comment on my blog in light of this post — clearly you’re familiar with Quinn and his theories.

    Like Alan in “Ishmael”, I think this was the moment I had my head-slapping moment while reading that text. Everyone seems to have this idea that living, say, the way the Native Americans did for thousands of years (before we Europeans showed up and bumble-fucked the whole venture) would be somehow a regression, somehow “below” us. We put people on the moon — we explore the ocean floor with submarines — we have the Internet, for goodness’ sake, to say nothing of indoor plumbing and Starbucks. Why should we return to a life of stone knives and bearskins?

    You’re quite right in your response — because, maybe, it WORKS. Clearly what we’re doing now doesn’t begin to approach a semblance of “working”. Like Quinn says, six billion of us wake up every morning and start devouring the world. And while I agree with him in that I don’t think we’re capable of “destroying” the world, so to speak, we’ve certainly proven ourselves capable of destroying ourselves, and that’s simply counterproductive.

    I’m very impressed with your writing and the thought you’ve put into how you live your life (based on your About page), and I’m looking forward to perusing your archives and checking out your work as you feel inclined to post it. Thanks for making yourself known to me — it’s nice to know there are still thinking young people out there.

    Alex James

    • October 7, 2009 11:10 am

      First of all, thanks for the kind words and encouragement.


      We put people on the moon — we explore the ocean floor with submarines — we have the Internet, for goodness’ sake, to say nothing of indoor plumbing and Starbucks.

      This has to be the most common defense of modern society: Look at all of this technology! But the response to this defense is actually quite simple: We have all of this technology, and that’s great, but to what end is it good for?

      You’ll get answers that range from “it makes our lives simpler, better, more comfortable,” but that’s bull and no anthropologist has believed this for probably half a century. “Primitive” people have much more leisurely lives than modern civilized people. The other answer is basically that technology justifies itself, but this hardly makes sense.

      The real justification for more and more complex technology is for more and more production. But again: to what end? There really isn’t an answer. Technology serves a small fraction of society (as you cited in the comment on your post—”2% of the world’s population controls 98% of the wealth”) well and for everyone else it serves to continue serving that small fraction. It doesn’t provide extra leisure. It might provide some new things, but it also provides new ills.

      The “primitive” lifestyle, however, provides a very obvious (and very good) end: existing in a way that works forever, healthily and sensibly. Our lifestyle has a hard time justifying the means because there is no end.

  4. October 7, 2009 11:15 am

    Once again, agree completely. As much as I’d rather not have to shit in a hole in the ground, if it means I could be free from the constraints of having to work 40 hours a week just for the privilege of eating and having a roof over my head, I’d be first in line to dig the hole. Kudos to you for keeping yourself out of the rat race. There are only two ways out: throw away the whole system or find a way to make it work for you (not the other way around). Too few people have the balls to do the first or the motivation to do the second.

  5. ultimateunderachiever permalink
    October 7, 2009 11:59 am

    The best solution is to let modern “taker” culture, including the billions who exist within it, die off, leaving only the primitive indigenous cultures to roam the earth in equilibrium with the rest of the natural world. I am sure there are lots of folks who, after reading Ishmael and B, put their thinking caps on and try to figure out a way to get the whole world to adopt the “leaver” lifestyle. But in all reality, this will not ever happen. At least, not until the “taker” culture dies out in substantial numbers (extreme/drastic reductions in population with just about every artifact of modern technology destroyed) due to any number of events and conditions (war, climate change, pestilence, starvation, etc.) Thus, my main counterpoint to environmentalism: Why bother trying to save the planet when, in actuality, your efforts are just prolonging the inevitable day of reckoning?

  6. jleeger permalink
    October 8, 2009 6:05 pm

    I think we need to do it now. Not just talk about it.

    1. See through the veil of marketing that is force-fed to you at every turn.
    2. Stop doing things you were taught to do, and have continued doing without question.
    3. Get back to Nature, and your connection with the natural world. By this, I mean, learn about your body, pay attention to it, live in it, eat/drink natural foods from your local area, exercise regularly with other people (friends), stop eating/drinking processed crap, get dirty, learn about nature (take a Trackerschool, or local tracker group class, etc.)…goes on and on…
    3. Make friends with more people who are doing 1-3.

    Maybe 4. Get rid of STUFF.

    • October 9, 2009 1:49 am

      Of course we should do it now. Why wait?

      But changing the hearts and minds of the masses isn’t as simple as saying to everyone “Hey, we’re going to do X now.” And then if we all run off into the woods without changing some hearts and minds and without taking down the juggernaut—what then? Not much will change, most likely. That’s not to say we shouldn’t make changes to our own lives or that we shouldn’t turn people on to a different way that works.

      The depressing thing is that it’s unlikely any of us will witness the massive change required within our lifetimes. The upside to that, though, is that at least the groundwork can be done, and we all have roughly 70-80 years on Earth to at least find a life that works for each of us personally.

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