Category Archives: Primitivism

The Myth of Scarcity and Conclusion

The following is an excerpt (and rough draft) of a chapter I’m working on about sustainability. I have a limit of 2000-4000 words. As usual I’m trying to cram as much as possible into that limit. Much of this rehashes (and in some cases pillages) other writing I’ve done on the blog, but hopefully the synthesis brings out something new. I will be posting excerpts here for feedback and your reading pleasure as they are finished. My working title is “Why Recycling Doesn’t Matter”.

We have successfully segregated many disciplines and fields of study from each other. One of the most glaring cases of this is the division between environmentalism and economics. Politicians of various stripes can often be heard claiming that protecting the environment will cost jobs and hurt the economy. Those who argue for environmental regulation also buy into this myth by trying to argue that it will not hurt jobs, but potentially fuel a green technology revolution spurring economic growth. Both sides continue to base their arguments on the unquestioned belief in the necessity of economic growth. E.F. Schumacher explains this well,

“From an economic point of view, the central concept of wisdom is permanence… Nothing makes economic sense unless its continuance for a long time can be projected without running into absurdities. There can be ‘growth’ towards a limited objective, but there cannot be unlimited, generalised growth…The cultivation and expansion of needs is the antithesis of wisdom.”[1]

“The cultivation and expansion of needs” is at the very heart of our consumer economy. Advertisers and marketers are paid large sums of money in order to convince us that we “need” the products of the companies they represent. The problem of sustainability can be summed up as the modern confusion of the difference between “needs” and “wants.” Continue reading

The Myth of Technological Salvation

The following is an excerpt (and rough draft) of a chapter I’m working on about sustainability. I have a limit of 2000-4000 words. As usual I’m trying to cram as much as possible into that limit. Much of this rehashes (and in some cases pillages) other writing I’ve done on the blog, but hopefully the synthesis brings out something new. I will be posting excerpts here for feedback and your reading pleasure as they are finished. My working title is “Why Recycling Doesn’t Matter”.

If agriculture had been the only discovery that attempted to “free” us from nature, we as a species would have quickly run into the same problem as any other species which overruns its ecosystem. We would have destroyed the very things upon which we depend. More likely, we would have been forced to find a balance between the agriculture required to support settled human populations and the needs of the ecosystem to maintain wild game, domesticated livestock, topsoil and fertility.

What made it possible to temporarily overcome the limitations of ecosystems once more was the discovery of abundant hydrocarbons in the form of fossil fuels. This discovery mad possible innovations which powered automobiles and factories. Today the fingerprints of oil are everywhere. If a product has plastic in it, it is dependent on oil. The electricity that power our light bulbs and devices as well as what drives our vehicles, transports our products and mows our lawn are dependent on oil. Oil permeates our modern life. The process to create petroleum takes millions of years, yet our consumption of fossil fuels continues at a rate well beyond any possibility for renewal. The use of fossil fuels as the primary source of energy which makes our current global civilization possible is the very definition of unsustainable. Continue reading

The Myth of Control

The following is an excerpt (and rough draft) of a chapter I’m working on about sustainability. I have a limit of 2000-4000 words. As usual I’m trying to cram as much as possible into that limit. Much of this rehashes (and in some cases pillages) other writing I’ve done on the blog, but hopefully the synthesis brings out something new. I will be posting excerpts here for feedback and your reading pleasure as they are finished. My working title is “Why Recycling Doesn’t Matter”.

One of the things that distinguishes homo sapiens from other species is the degree to which we are able to manipulate our environment. Other species also manipulate their environment. Beavers build dams. Birds build nests. However, beavers and birds are not capable of destroying the ecosystem on which they depend. There are cases where a species overruns their ecosystem. For example, when natural predators are absent a species might become overpopulated and eventually deplete their food source. The difference is that in the case of non-human species they quickly find themselves subject to the laws which govern ecosystems and face disastrous results with massive die-offs and possibly extinction. In other words, non-human species have a limited ability to manipulate their environment and generally are subject to the restraints that make healthy ecosystems function properly with give and take between species and a balance between predator and prey, plants, fungi, animals, bacteria, etc. Continue reading

The Myth of Human Difference

The following is an excerpt (and rough draft) of a chapter I’m working on about sustainability. I have a limit of 2000-4000 words. As usual I’m trying to cram as much as possible into that limit. Much of this rehashes (and in some cases pillages) other writing I’ve done on the blog, but hopefully the synthesis brings out something new. I will be posting excerpts here for feedback and your reading pleasure as they are finished. My working title is “Why Recycling Doesn’t Matter”.

Sustainability is one of those words in our culture that have been so thoroughly abused as to almost lose all meaning. Like the words “green”, “organic”, “natural” or “eco-”, sustainable is often appended to a wide variety of terms such as “sustainable growth”, “sustainable development”, “sustainable design”, “sustainable travel”, “sustainable style” or even “sustainable websites”. This is particularly unfortunate as it is one of the words we most desperately need to understand, if we hope to have a viable future for the continuation of our species. Sustainability, most simply, is the state in which a process or system is able to continue indefinitely without depleting the resources on which the system or process depends.

Many of our problems related to sustainability stem from some basic assumptions about who we are as human beings and how we relate to the non-human world. Most of us in the Western world have been enculturated into some powerful myths that continue to prevent us from understanding sustainability and our place in the world. The myth of human difference, the myth of control, the myth of technological salvation and the myth of scarcity all conspire to keep us committed to a framework that has set us on a trajectory toward ecological disaster. In this chapter we will explore these myths and their impact on how we think about sustainability, who we are as human beings and how we relate to the non-human world. Continue reading

Toward A Living Economy: Self-Reliant Local Adaptation

I am exploring the tension between the conservation of natural systems and the need for development to improve the lives of people in poverty. Out of this tension arises the need to transition from our current model which pits these two against each other to another economic system that is not in contradiction to these systems. I am using some ideas from an article by David Korten in which he points to three rules or principles from nature that would shape such an economy: 1) Cooperative Self-Organization, 2) Self-Reliant Local Adaptation and 3) Managed Boundaries. This post will consider the second.

The second rule, “Self-Reliant Local Adaptation”, values adaptation and local wisdom and knowledge.

The biosphere’s cooperatively self-organizing fractal structure supports a constant process of adaptation to the intricate features of Earth’s distinctive local microenvironments to optimize the capture, sharing, use, and storage of available energy. Local self-reliance is a key to the system’s ability to absorb and contain most system disturbance locally with minimum overall system disruption. So long as each local subsystem balances its consumption and reproduction with local resource availability, the biosphere remains healthy and dynamic.”

This is one of the major implications of Darwinian theory. It’s not just that species adapt, but that they are adapted to very specific local conditions. It’s about the interaction between species and the environment in which they survive and thrive. An economy based on this principle would have to be decentralized, relying on the expertise of local people to make decisions about how they are organized, what changes to make and how to implement them.

Rather than attempting to control the economy from the top down, monkeying with interest rates at the Fed or passing federal legislation, this approach means that the rules must be made in a way that encourages innovation, adaptation, flexibility and change. Unfortunately history seems to say that this runs counter to the whole project of human civilization. The Founding Fathers of the United States wrote into founding documents the idea that the people should get rid of the government and/or change the system when it no longer functioned or served the people. We pretend that we do that every two or four years when we press buttons on a touchscreen or punch a ballot, but the truth seems obvious that rather than change, or revolution, the bureaucratic behemoth continues to gorge itself on the system we maintain by passing the political buck at the ballot box.

I think this principle is best summed up by the word “empowerment” which I have discussed at length in terms of development and my work in Bolivia. Empowerment has some problematic connotations of asymmetrical power relationships, but the idea is still right. If there exists an inequality of power, then those with more power must find ways, not only to relinquish it, but help others learn the proper exercise of it. The knowledge of local and indigenous people that has been devalued in practice for so long must become the most highly prized and important form of knowledge.

This is a major shift in values for the current system. When we begin to truly value local and indigenous knowledge, we will shift our priorities and rewrite the rules to reflect this. In order to live out this principle local communities need autonomy. They must have the power to make decisions for themselves without the intervention of outside forces. This sounds like a new form of tribalism, which is scary for some and hopeful for others.

Outside of the most dire collapse scenario (which I admit could still happen) we will not simply go back to the jungle and hunter-gatherer lifestyle. We will, however, be forced to learn, or re-learn, what they knew about how to live in balance with their environment. The reason these kind of communities were and will be stable and secure is their close relationship with their bioregion which makes local adaptation possible. For a civilization used to central control this shift toward decentralization take a huge amount of trust, because we have been sold the narrative that the strong central authority is the only way to hold it all together. The other option, which is what I’ve been describing here, is to stop trying to hold it all together and trust people and communities to know what’s best for them.