Primitivism is insane
And maybe wrong
The hostage taker at the Discovery Channel headquarters posted a diatribe condemning modern civilization. The hostage taker saw humans as “filthy” and “parasitic” and considered the environment the only important value. In a warped re-reading of Daniel Quinn’s My Ishmael, his manifesto urges human civilization to dismantle itself before it takes the environment down with it.
Not long ago, there was another madman who embraced the collapse of civilization. He was a brilliant Harvard mathematician who convinced himself that, in order to truly be free, humans must satisfy a “power process” of challenge-and-reward cycles by eschewing industrial technology and struggling to survive. He also thought mailing bombs to people was a good idea.
Jared Diamond’s book Collapse provides a saner discussion of the demise of human civilization. Diamond argues that the depletion of resources has historically doomed isolated civilizations and may doom the entire human race in the near future. The solutions he suggests challenge things we take for granted, such as rising living standards and reproductive freedom.
Misanthropes and madmen like Lee and Kaczynski and the reasonably concerned like Diamond and Daniel Quinn have different bases for their views. They value, respectively, the protection of the environment for its own sake (Lee), an unusual notion of human freedom and well-being (Kaczynski), and bare human survival (Diamond and Quinn).
Lee was convinced that the creative power of humanity must be used to dismantle the trappings of modern civilization. Quinn and Diamond perhaps hope that it can be used to save it.
These different points of view do have a common implication. To some degree or another, they might all require that humans thin their numbers and embrace lower living standards.
Whether these kinds of measures will ultimately be necessary is still ambiguous.
The fates of the dodo and the great auk show how fragile nature can be. But the environment can be surprisingly resilient as well, as the Gulf’s recovery shows.
Technological progress has generally led to greater efficiency and miniaturization, from greater agricultural yields to smaller and handier computers. But, as the Economist notes, rising living standards often also mean that people will consume more resources.
And it is not obvious that higher populations are everywhere and always a bad thing. A mouth to feed is also frequently accompanied by a pair of hands to work and a mind to think. Dense and connected populations throughout history have produced dynamic and prosperous societies, even in the relative absence of resources –from ancient Greece to modern Hong Kong. Sparse or isolated societies –like Afghanistan or the Congo- have not.
Image by Flickr user icantcu used under a Creative Commons Attribution License