Primitivism without catastrophe

Every good idea needs a selling point. The selling point of the all-encompassing ideology that can go by any name from “anarcho-primitivism” to “anti-civilization thinking” is that modern techno-industrial civilization is destroying the human race, and if we want to stop this destruction, we have to destroy civilization. It’s a matter of self-preservation. We must renounce technology, science, modern medicine, etc. in order to save ourselves. How do we know this? Well, technology, science, modern medicine, etc. tell us so. I am likely not the first one who has noticed the inconsistency in this perspective, but perhaps I am one of the first to say something about it.

“Anti-civilization thought” (for lack of a better term) has a “knowledge problem.” That is, it seeks to criticize the totality from the view of the totality. It seeks to dismantle the tools that have built everything that it despises using the same tools. This culminates in the idea of “catastrophe”: the cathartic collapse of its enemy and a chance for the restoration of a just order. For someone with a hammer, everything appears to be a nail, and for someone with an apocalyptic narrative, everything leads to the end of the world. Indeed, some could say that catastrophe is to the primitivist what the Resurrection of Jesus was to St. Paul: the sine qua non outside of which the message cannot not exist. If humanity is not damned via technology, if all life on earth is not endangered by the upstart selfish ape from Africa, then what are we doing here? We might as well just go home and enjoy the flat screen TVs and air conditioning.

Things of course aren’t really that simple. But the first question should be, “Are we doomed?” A few books have come out recently that seek to answer the question in the negative, even though they take the Cassandra-like science of climate change and resource depletion very seriously. Ronald Bailey’s The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-first Century is one of the stronger contributions to this eco-modernist genre. Though we will not have the time to review it all here, we can at least go over the strongest point in his book (at least from my perspective): the analysis of the ecological idea that “doing nothing” is better than “doing something.”

This concept is undoubtedly a trope in environmentalist discourse. Nature has been doing any given thing for millions of years, and thus, so the story goes, nature knows best. Bailey calls this, “the precautionary principle,” best formulated by the phrase after which he names his third chapter, “Never Try Anything the First Time.” Anything new is guilty until proven innocent, the burden of proof lies with the novel thing to demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that it won’t create more problems than it is trying to solve. It becomes evident that those who cling to the precautionary principle are paralyzed from performing any action because they don’t have complete metaphysical certainty concerning how a technological development will pan out. (Think here, for example, of genetically modified foods and the fierce debate around them.) Those who suffer because of this hesitation, Bailey argues, do not have the luxury of doubt: they need the cancer drug, cheap food, and other benefits that technological advancement can provide. As Bailey states:

Unfortunately, the precautionary principle sounds sensible to many people, especially those who live in societies already replete with technology. These people have their centrally heated house in the woods; they already enjoy the freedom from want, disease, and ignorance that technology can provide. They may think they can afford the luxury of ultimate precaution. But there are billions of people who still yearn to have their lives transformed. For them, the precautionary principle is a warrant for continued poverty, not safety. (93-94)

So here a knowledge problem is turned around and then turned around again. The anti-civilization neo-Luddite thinker has studied enough concerning techno-industrial society to know that it is a lost cause. He knows this through use of the tools that techno-industrial society has given him. He knows that there are no technological fixes for the quagmire that modern society has created. Yet, the eco-modernist like Bailey then turns the tables around and shows how this pessimism is based on an optimistic view of human knowledge supported by a technological infrastructure that enables study and reflection. If we don’t really know, and know that we don’t really know, aren’t we under obligation to try? Isn’t such ignorance an opportunity and not a roadblock? Is this not what the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution were all about?

In much of the rest of the book, Bailey shows time and again, on issues ranging from population to peak oil, to the supposed spread of cancer due to use of industrial products, that the Cassandras have been wrong, and very wrong, up to this point. Bailey concludes from this that homo sapiens is a crafty and cunning animal, able to pull victory out of the jaws of defeat time and again. Bailey has little doubt we will continue to do so, even if he concedes that some things, such as climate change, do appear to be real problems facing the entire human race

Ironically, accepting Bailey’s premises might be the most “primitivist” position of all. If we are ultimately animals who are helpless to save ourselves unless we get rid of the instruments of our own seemingly absolute power, how is it that we can totally damn ourselves to non-existence? Or rather, if we are too dumb to save ourselves, we may be too dumb to kill ourselves off. There is of course the principle of entropy, and the intuition that it is easier to break something than it is to fix it. But that analogy doesn’t really hold here, as we are talking about billions of individual animals all over the globe who have proven themselves to be resilient to the point of crowding everything else out.

So which one is it then? Are we saved or are we damned? Is catastrophe an inescapable reality or a masochistic wish? The long and the short of it is: we don’t know. And those who pretend to know are perhaps clinging to an odd bulwark of certainty in damnation or optimism wherein Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s black swans never occur. The future cannot be totally bleak, nor can we rest assured that disaster won’t happen just because it hasn’t happened yet. All that we have is the present.

So we return to the title: Can there be a primitivism without catastrophe? What if this society can work things out just fine? Do we all get to go home then? Do we give this techno-industrial capitalist order a pass, and at least acknowledge that, if we can’t be in the society that we want, we should love the society that we are in? After all, we’re all humans, we all share the same souls and bodies, the same intellect and feelings. We might as well work to save everyone, and who cares how we do it? Dreams of going back to an idealized hunter-gatherer simpler life become less appealing by the day.

Into this impasse, we add the thoughts from a recent interview with members of the Mexican eco-extremist tendency:

The main difference between what Kaczynski and his acolytes propose and our own position is rather simple: we don’t wait for a “Great World Crisis” to start attacking the physical and moral structures of the techno-industrial system. We attack now because the future is uncertain. You can’t create a strategy based on assumptions, thinking that all will go according to plan and with assured victory. We stopped believing in that once we grasped the enormity of the system itself, its components and its vast reach on this planet and even outside of it. If civilization collapses tomorrow, or within 30 to 50 years, we’ll know that we waged a necessary war against it from our own individuality…

We don’t know if there will be a global collapse of the system one day. The experts say that there will be, but we cannot know for certain. It could be the case and nature will rise from the ruins. But it could be that the system is always one step ahead of things, and could become self-sufficient and repair itself with ease. As we said, we don’t know the future. We would like to, but the reality is otherwise.[1]

With the eco-extremists, then, we can find our way out of the flawed position of “a better future by returning to the past.” Here, we would say that the future is our enemy. Every single proposed way out, whether it be from Bailey’s libertarian assurances or leftist techno-progressive schemes, is something that we refuse right out of the gate. We don’t want to cooperate, we reject saving the world. We refuse to offer up our lives or the lives of others for a better tomorrow. This is always promised, but it never arrives. And here, the knowledge problem enters again: it never arrives because no one can possibly deliver it. Things only “get better all of the time” because we have domesticated ourselves into thinking that the carrot is the goal and that we are getting closer, and the stick isn’t really there even when it strikes us right on the nose. Such is the essence of civilization, the foggy mythical past, and the constantly-deferred future.

Catastrophe is the catharsis that ends the cycle of suffering. But like the Buddhist version, it is also elusive and never happens in this life. Indeed, the real problem with “anti-civilization thought,” especially in its anarcho-primitivist form, is that it does not know what it wants, because what it wants is shaped by what it hates. It does not even know nature, really, because it refuses to acknowledge that humans cannot know it with any certainty, and thus constructs nature as an idol embodying all of its ambivalent desires. The idea of defending nature itself makes one aware that our knowledge of nature, especially the peculiarly North American concept of “pristine nature” is ill-founded. David George Haskell describes the plight of forest vegetation in the face of the recent resurgence of the deer population in his book, The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature:

Humans have eliminated some predators but have lately added three new deer-slaying creatures: domestic dogs, immigrant coyotes invading from the west, and automobile fenders. The first two are effective predators of fawns; the latter is the main suburban killer of adults. We face an impossible equation. On the one hand, we have the loss of tens of species of herbivores; on the other we have the replacement of one predator by another. What level of browse is normal, acceptable, or natural in our forests? These are challenging questions, but it is certain that the lush forest vegetation that grew in the twentieth century was unusually underbrowsed.

A forest without large herbivores is an orchestra without violins. We have grown accustomed to incomplete symphonies, and we balk when the violins’ incessant tones return and push against more familiar instruments. This backlash against the herbivores’ return has no good historical foundation. We may need to take a longer view, listen to the whole symphony, and celebrate the partnership between animal and microbe that has been tearing at saplings for millions of years. Good-bye shrubbery; hello ticks. Welcome back to the Pleistocene. (33-34)

So we must face the fact that there may be no “catastrophe,” and if there is, it won’t have the purifying effect that we expect. The definition of modern capitalism is crisis, and the good businessman makes crisis into an opportunity. Does that mean we don’t fight? That we lay down our arms defeated by quietism and agnosticism? Not necessarily, but it does mean we should define better why we oppose the present society even if it has the potential to last a million years, and even if it does, in some respects, make our lives “better.” Or at the very least, we should define why we oppose it, and why we do not think that it can follow through with any of its promises to bring all human animals out of misery.

First, let us start with nature. We cannot oppose catastrophe as a concept without nuance precisely because nature is a catastrophe, long-term. This is because nature is change, it is change that dwarfs human experience even at its most scientific and abstract. Modern humans have the pervasive problem of conceiving of their ideas as being consubstantial with reality, often when they have no reason to do so. They master incomprehensible things like time, space, matter, light, etc. in the abstract and thus think there is nothing more to them in the concrete, though they haven’t left the comfort of their chair or their space in front of the blackboard. Nature is catastrophe because nature disrupts, it breaks apart, it destroys all and births again: from the most distant stars to the cells of our body. Anti-civilization adherents have a hard time accepting that in the concrete, though they may mouth platitudes about it in the abstract. To that one can only say, “Physician, heal thyself!”

What is nature in relation to us, then? How do we get around the idea, often repeated by critics, that primitivists “reify nature.” Here, I will offer a crypto-Hegelian trope. Many “primitivists” (again, for lack of a better term) think of nature as being outside of us, and that it offers us our existence as a passive gift, and the real problem is that we have forgotten the freely-given aspect of this gift (recall here the Christian concept of grace). Just as man cannot earn salvation from Calvin’s God, so man is impotent to create his means of life without the assent of nature. Of course, this is an absurd formulation. Nature, or if we want to use James Lovelock’s much-maligned term, Gaia, is the product of billions of living things throughout the eons working together and sustaining each other: it is the act of living things. They are both formed by it and form it, in an elaborate mesh going from the smallest microorganism to vast complex ecosystems to the biosphere itself. We must keep that in mind whenever we look at “pristine nature.” As Haskell says elsewhere in his book cited above, nature is not a meditation room, and it is no Eden where fruit is picked effortlessly off the tree. There is struggle and strife, just as there is cooperation and mercy. The fact that it has persisted this long is evidence of that.

The sin of domesticated man is not resisting his passive human nature, as some primitivists would imply. It’s thinking that he is independent of nature itself, that he can go it alone, that he can firmly master it and leave nothing to the blissful shade of mystery. This is modern domesticated man, cut-off, ruthless, and self-absorbed. It is not what he does, but what he does too well, or so he thinks, that is the problem. That is why there is no “solution.” There is no human abstraction that absorbs the whole problem and makes it digestible. The world where there are solutions is a world that shouldn’t exist, or rather, the world that creates problems in the first place. Catastrophe as modern man understands it (final, devastating, purifying) is the necessary myth hanging over Utopia like the sword of Damocles. Some of us prefer falling swords to imaginary paradise.

The eco-extremist solution is thus brutal and pessimistic. There is no future, there is no new community. There is no “hope.” We state that not with Gothic glee, but with relief, like having a burden taken off of our shoulders. Human beings are meant to miss the mark, we are meant to fail more than we succeed. But in that, we form a part of a whole, we leave others behind us to win and lose, and to fight another day. Our ambition has no end, because it never achieves victory. And we look at past extinct societies that accepted their limitations (or so we think, for we cannot possibly know) with admiration; an admiration that knows that, if they weren’t “perfect,” it’s because there is something wrong with our domesticated expectations, and nothing truly wrong with them. All we can expect is to fight back and burn out in this existence where the part pretends that it can swallow the whole.

And that is indeed what primitivism without catastrophe, without a closed narrative, without a “happy ending,” looks like: the contentment of the eye and all of the other senses in the face of what we know to be nature, even if we don’t understand it, even if it seems mutilated and incomprehensible in the here and now. It is not something that we make (though we have a part in it) nor is it something we control (though we try our best). But mixed in the heart and the mind of man, it is truly something marvelous to behold: this whole, the vast field of stars, the song of the bird, the slithering slug, the new day, decay, death, life… or to end with the greater poetic voice of Robinson Jeffers:

To know that great civilizations have broken down into violence,
and their tyrants come, many times before.
When open violence appears, to avoid it with honor or choose
the least ugly faction; these evils are essential.
To keep one’s own integrity, be merciful and uncorrupted
and not wish for evil; and not be duped
By dreams of universal justice or happiness. These dreams will
not be fulfilled.
To know this, and know that however ugly the parts appear
the whole remains beautiful. A severed hand
Is an ugly thing and man dissevered from the earth and stars
and his history… for contemplation or in fact…
Often appears atrociously ugly. Integrity is wholeness,
the greatest beauty is
Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty
of the universe. Love that, not man
Apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions,
or drown in despair when his days darken.[2]


[1]See “Politically Incorrect: An Interview with Wild Reaction” (

[2] Robinson Jeffers, “The Answer,” in The Collected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, ed. Tim Hunt (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995).

Abe Cabrera Written by: