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Civilisation, Primitivism and anarchism

category international | anarchist movement | feature author Thursday October 06, 2005 19:10author by Andrew - WSM (personal capacity) Report this post to the editors

Over the last decade a generalized critique of civilization has been made by a number of authors, mostly based in the USA. Some of these have chosen to identify as anarchists although the more general self-identification is primitivist. There overall argument is that 'civilisation' itself is the problem that results in our failure to live rewarding lives. The struggle for change is thus a struggle against civilization and for an earth where technology has been eliminated.

This primitivist critique of anarchism is based around the claim to have discovered a contradiction between liberty and mass society. In other words they see it as impossible for any society that involves groups much larger than a village to be a free society. If this was true it would make the anarchist proposal of a world of 'free federations of towns, cities and countryside' impossible. Such federations and population centers are obviously a form of mass society/civilisation.

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Civilisation, Primitivism and anarchism

Over the last decade a generalized critique of civilization has been made by a number of authors, mostly based in the USA. Some of these have chosen to identify as anarchists although the more general self-identification is primitivist. There overall argument is that 'civilisation' itself is the problem that results in our failure to live rewarding lives. The struggle for change is thus a struggle against civilization and for an earth where technology has been eliminated.

This is an interesting argument that has some merits as an intellectual exercise. But the problem is that some of its adherents have used primitivism as a base from which to attack all other proposals for changing society. Facing this challenge anarchists need to first look to see if primitivism offers any sort of realistic alternative to the world as it is.

Our starting point is that the expression 'life is hard' can always receive the reply that 'it is better than the alternative'. This provides a good general test of all critiques of the world 'as it is', including anarchism. Which is to ask if a better alternative is possible?

Even if we can't point to the 'better alternative', critiques of the world 'as it is' can have a certain intellectual value. But after the disaster of the 20th century when so-called alternatives like Leninism created long lasting dictatorships that killed millions, the question 'is your alternative any better then what exists?' has to be put to anyone advocating change.

The primitivist critique of anarchism is based around the claim to have discovered a contradiction between liberty and mass society. In other words they see it as impossible for any society that involves groups much larger than a village to be a free society. If this was true it would make the anarchist proposal of a world of 'free federations of towns, cities and countryside' impossible. Such federations and population centers are obviously a form of mass society/civilisation.

However the anarchist movement has been answering this very so-called contradiction since its origins. Back in the 19th century liberal defenders of the state pointed to such a contradiction in order to justify the need for one set of men to rule over another. Michael Bakunin answered this in 1871 in his essay on 'The Paris Commune and the Idea of the State"[1].

"It is said that the harmony and universal solidarity of individuals with society can never be attained in practice because their interests, being antagonistic, can never be reconciled. To this objection I reply that if these interest have never as yet come to mutual accord, it was because the State has sacrificed the interests of the majority for the benefit of a privileged minority. That is why this famous incompatibility, this conflict of personal interests with those of society, is nothing but a fraud, a political lie, born of the theological lie which invented the doctrine of original sin in order to dishonor man and destroy his self-respect. .... We are convinced that all the wealth of man's intellectual, moral, and material development, as well as his apparent independence, is the product of his life in society. Outside society, not only would he not be a free man, he would not even become genuinely human, a being conscious of himself, the only being who thinks and speaks. Only the combination of intelligence and collective labor was able to force man out of that savage and brutish state which constituted his original nature, or rather the starting point for his further development. We are profoundly convinced that the entire life of men - their interests, tendencies, needs, illusions, even stupidities, as well as every bit of violence, injustice, and seemingly voluntary activity - merely represent the result of inevitable societal forces. People cannot reject the idea of mutual independence, nor can they deny the reciprocal influence and uniformity exhibiting the manifestations of external nature."

What level of technology

Most primitivists evade the question of what level of technology they wish to return to by hiding behind the claim that they are not arguing for a return to anything, on the contrary they want to go forward. With that in mind a reasonable summary of their position is that certain technologies are acceptable up to the level of small village society sustained by hunting and gathering. The problems for primitivists start with the development of agriculture and mass society.

Of course civilization is a rather general term, as is technology. Few of these primitivists have taken this argument to its logical conclusion. One who has is John Zerzan who identifies the root of the problem in the evolution of language and abstract thought. This is a logical end point for the primitivist rejection of mass society.

For the purposes of this article I'm taking as a starting point that the form of future society that primitivists argue for would be broadly similar in technological terms to that which existed around 12,000 years ago on earth, at the dawn of the agricultural revolution. By this I do not claim that they want to 'go back', something that is in any case impossible. But rather that if you seek to go forward by getting rid of all the technology of the agricultural revolution and beyond what results will look quite like pre-agricultural societies of 10,000 BC. As this is the only example we have of such a society in operation it seems reasonable to use it to evaluate the primitivist claims.

A question of numbers

Hunter-gatherers live off the food they can hunt or gather, hence the name. Animals can be hunted or trapped while fruits, nuts, greens and roots are gathered. Before about 12,000 years ago every human on the planet lived as a hunter-gatherer. Today only a tiny number of people do, in isolated and marginal regions of the planet including deserts, artic tundra and jungle. Some of these groups like the Acre have only had contact with the rest of the planet in recent decades(2), others like the Inuit(3) have had contact for long periods of time and so have adopted technologies beyond those developed locally. These latter groups are very much part of the global civilization and have contributed to the development of new technologies in this civilization.

In marginal ecosystems hunter-gathering often represents the only feasible way of producing food. The desert is too dry for sustained agriculture and the arctic too cold. The only other possibility is pastoralism, the reliance on semi-domesticated animals as a food source. For instance in the Scandinavian arctic the Sami(4) control the movement of huge reindeer herds to provide a regular food source.

Hunter-gatherers survive on the food they hunt and gather. This requires very low population densities as population growth is limited by the need to avoid over hunting. Too much gathering of food plants can also serve to reduce the number of plants that are available in the future. This is the core problem with the primitivist idea that the whole planet could live as hunter-gatherers: there is not nearly enough food produced in natural ecosystems for even a fraction of the current population of the world to do so.

It should be obvious that the amount of calories available to humans as food in an acre of oak forest will be a lot lower then the amount of calories available to humans in an acre of corn. Agriculture provides far, far more useful calories per acre than hunter gathering in the same acre would. That is because we have spent 12,000 years selecting plants and improving agricultural techniques so that per acre we cram in lots of productive plants that put their energy into producing plant parts that are food for us rather then plant parts that are not food for us. Compare any cultivated grain with its wild relative and you will see an illustration of this, the cultivated form will have much bigger grains and a much larger proportion of grain to stalk and foliage. We have chosen plants that produce a high ratio of edible biomass.

In other words a pine tree may be as good or better then a lettuce at capturing the solar energy that falls on it. But with the lettuce a huge percentage of the captured energy goes into food (around 75%). With pine tree none of the energy produces food we can eat. Compare the amount of food to be found in a nearby woodland with the amount you can grow in a couple of square meters of garden cultivated in even an organic low energy fashion and you'll see why agriculture is a must have for the population of the planet. An acre of organically grown potato can yield 15,000 lbs of food(5). A a square that is 70 yards wide and 70 yards long measures just over an acre.

The estimated population of human on the earth before the advent of agriculture (10,000 BC) varies with some estimates as low as 250,000 (6) Other estimates for the pre-agricultural hunter gather population are more generous, in the range of 6 to 10 million.(7). The earth's current population is nearing 6,000 million.

This 6,000 million are almost all supported by agriculture. They could not be supported by hunter gathering, indeed it is suggested that even the 10 million hunter gathers who may have existed before agriculture may have been a non sustainable number. Evidence for this can be seen in the Pleistocene overkill(8), a period from 12,000 to 10,000 BC in which 200 genera of large mammals went extinct. In the Americas in this period over 80% of the population of large mammals became extinct.(9) That this was due to over hunting is one controversial hypothesis. If correct than the advent of agriculture (and civilisation) may even have then due to the absence of large game which forced hunter gathers to 'settle down' and find other ways of obtaining food.

Certainly in recorded history the same over hunting has been observed with the arrival of man on isolated Polynesian islands. Over hunting caused the extinction of the Dodo in Mauretania and the Moa in New Zealand not to mention many less famous species.

Living in the bog in winter

Another way of looking at the fact that primitivism cannot support all of the people of the planet is more anecdotal and uses Ireland (where I live) as an example. Left to itself the Irish countryside would consist mostly of mature oak forest with some hazel scrub and bogs. Go into an oak forest and see how much food you can gather - if you know your stuff there is some. Acorns, fruit on brambles in clearings, some wild garlic, strawberries, edible fungi, wild honey, and the meat from animals like deer, squirrel, wild goat and pigeon that can be hunted. But this is many, many, many fewer calories then the same area cultivated as wheat or potatoes would yield. There is simply not enough land in Ireland to support 5 million, the current population of the island, as hunter gatherers.

Typically hunter gathers live at a population density of 1 per 10 square km. (Ireland's present population density is around 500 per 10 square km or 500 times this). By extending this standard calculation from elsewhere on the planet the number that could be supported in Ireland would be less then 70,000. Probably a lot less as only 20% of Ireland is arable land. Blanket bog or Burren karst provide little in the way of food useful for humans. In winter there would be very little food to be gathered (perhaps small caches of nuts hidden by squirrels and some wild honey) and that even 70,000 people living off hunting would eradicate the large mammals (deer, wild goat) very quickly. The coastal areas and larger rivers and lakes would be the main source of hunting and some gathering in the form of shellfish and edible seaweed.

But being generous and assuming that somehow Ireland could sustain 70,000 hunter gatherers we discover we need to 'reduce' the population by some 4,930,000. Or 98.6%. The actual archaeological estimates for the population of Ireland before the arrival of agriculture is around 7,000 people.

The idea that a certain amount of land can support a certain amount of people according to how it is (or in this case is not) cultivated is referred to as its 'carrying capacity'. This can be estimated for the earth as a whole. One modern calculation for hunter gathers actually give you 100 million as the maximum figure but just how much of a maximum this is becomes clear when you realize that using similar methods gives 30 billion as the maximum farming figure.(10) That would be six times the world's current population!

But let's take this figure of 100 million as the maximum rather then the historical maximum of 10 million. This is generous estimate, well above that of those primitivists who have dared to address this issue. For instance Miss Ann Thropy writing in the US Earth First! magazine estimated, "Ecotopia would be a planet with about 50 million people who are hunting and gathering for subsistence." (11)

The earth's population today is around 6000 million. A return to a 'primitive' earth therefore requires that some 5900 million people disappear. Something has to happen to 98% of the world's population in order for the 100 million survivors to have even the slightest hope of a sustainable primitive utopia.

Dirty tricks?

At this point some primitivist writers like John Moore cry foul, dismissing the suggestion "that the population levels envisaged by anarcho-primitivists would have to be achieved by mass die-offs or nazi-style death camps. These are just smear tactics. The commitment of anarcho-primitivists to the abolition of all power relations, including the State with all its administrative and military apparatus, and any kind of party or organization, means that such orchestrated slaughter remains an impossibility as well as just plain horrendous."(12)

The problem for John is that these 'smear tactics' are based not only on the logical requirements of a primitivist world but are also explicitly acknowledged by other primitivists. Miss Ann Thropy's 50 million has already been quoted. Another primitivist FAQ claims "Drastic population reductions are going to happen whether we do it voluntarily or not. It would be better, for obvious reasons to do all this gradually and voluntarily, but if we don't the human population is going to be cut anyway."(13)

The Coalition Against Civilization write "We need to be realistic about what would happen were we to enter a post-civilized world. One basic write-off is that a lot of people would die upon civil collapse. While being a hard thing to argue to a moralistic person, we shouldn't pretend this wouldn't be the case"(14)

More recently Derrick Jensen in an interview from Issue #6 of The 'A' Word Magazine[15] said civilization "needs to be actively fought against, but I don't think that we can bring it down. What we can do is assist the natural world to bring it down..... I want civilization brought down and I want it brought down now." We have seen above what the consequences of 'bringing down' civilization are.

In short there is no shortage of primitivists who recognize that the primitive world they desire would require "mass die-offs". I've not come across any who advocate "nazi-style death camps" but perhaps John just threw this in to muddy the water. Primitivists like John Moore can therefore refuse to confront this question of die off by upping the emotional ante and by accusing those who point the need for die-off out as carrying out 'smear tactics'. It's up to him to either explain how 6 billion can be fed or to admit that primitivism is no more then an intellectual mind game.

My expectation is that just about everyone when confronted with this requirement of mass death will conclude that 'primitivism' offers nothing to fight for. A very few, like the survivalists confronted by the threat of nuclear war in the 1980's, might conclude that all this is inevitable and start planning how their loved ones will survive when others die. But this later group has moved far, far beyond any understanding of anarchism as I understand it. So the 'anarcho' prefix such primitivists try to claim has to be rejected.

Most primitivists run away from the requirement for mass death in one of two ways. The more cuddly ones decide that primitivism is not a program for a different way of running the world. Rather it exists as a critique of civilization and not an alternative to it. This is fair enough and there is a value in re-examining the basic assumptions of civilization . But in that case primitivism is no substitute for the anarchist struggle for liberation, which involves adopting technology to our needs rather then rejecting it. The problem is that primitivists like to attack the very methods of mass organization that are necessary for overthrowing capitalism. Reasonable enough if you believe you have an alternative to anarchism but rather damaging if all you have is an interesting critique!

Other primitivists however take the Cassandra path, telling us they are merely prophets of an inevitable doom. They don't desire the death of 5,900 million they just point out it cannot be prevented. This is worth examing in some detail precisely because it is so disempowering. What after all is the use of fighting for a fair society today if tomorrow or the day after 98% of us are going to die and everything we have built crumble to dust?

Are we all doomed?

Primitivists are not the only ones to use the rhetoric of catastrophe to panic people into accepting their political proposals. Reformists such as George Monbiot, use similar 'we are all doomed' arguments to try and stampede people into support for reformism and world government. In the last decades acceptance that the world is somehow doomed has become part of mainstream culture, first as the cold war and then as looming environmental disaster. George Bush and Tony Blair created a panic over Weapons of Mass Destruction to give cover to their invasion of Iraq. The need to examine and dismantle such panics is clear.

The most convincing form the 'end of civilisation' panic takes is the idea of a looming resource crisis that will make life as we know it impossible. And the best resource to focus on for those who wish to make this argument is oil. Everything we produce, including food, is dependant on massive energy inputs and 40% of the worlds energy use is generated from oil.

The primitivist version of this argument goes something like this, 'everyone knows that in X number of year the oil will run out, this will mean civilization will grind to a halt, and this will mean lots of people will die. So we might as well embrace the inevitable'. The oil running out argument is the primitivist equivalent of the orthodox Marxist 'final economic crisis that results in the overthrow of capitalism'. And, just like the orthodox Marxists, primitivists always argue this final crisis is always just around the corner.

When looked at in any detail this argument evaporates and it becomes clear that neither capitalism nor civilization face a final crisis because of the oil running out. This is not because oil supplies are inexhaustible, indeed we may be reaching the peak of oil production today in 1994. But far from being the end of capitalism or civilization this is an opportunity for profit and restructuring. Capitalism, however reluctantly, is gearing up to make profits out of developing alternative energy sources on the one hand and on the other of accessing plentiful but more destructive to extract fossil fuel supplies. The second path of course makes global warming and other forms of pollution a lot worse but that's not likely to stop the global capitalist class.

It is not just primitivists who have become mesmerized by the oil crisis so I intend to deal with this in a separate essay. But in summary, while oil will become more expensive over the decades the process to develop substitutes for it is already underway. Denmark for instance intends to produce 50% of its energy needs from wind farms by 2030 and Danish companies are already making vast amounts of money because they are the leading producers of wind turbines. The switch over from oil is likely to provide an opportunity to make profits for capitalism rather then representing some form of final crisis.

There may well be an energy crisis as oil starts to rise in price and alternative technologies are not yet capable of filling the 40% of energy generation filled by oil. This will cause oil and therefore energy prices to soar but this will be a crisis for the poor of the world and not for the wealthy some of whom will even profit from it. A severe energy crisis could trigger a global economic downturn but again it is the world's workers that suffer the most in such times. There is a good argument that the world's elite are already preparing for such a situation, many of the recent US wars make sense in terms of securing future oil supplies for US corporations.

Capitalism is quite capable of surviving very destructive crisis. World War 2 saw many of the major cities of Europe destroyed and most of the industry of central Europe flattened. (By bombers, by war, by retreating Germans and then torn up and shipped east by advancing Russians). Millions of European workers died as a result both in the war years and in the years that followed. But capitalism not only survived, it flourished as starvation allowed wages to be driven down and profits soared.

What if?

However it is worth doing a little mental exercise on this idea of the oil running out. If indeed there was no alternative what might happen? Would a primitivist utopia emerge even at the bitter price of 5,900 million people dying?

No. The primitivists seem to forget that we live in a class society. The population of the earth is divided into a few people with vast resources and power and the rest of us. It is not a case of equal access to resources, rather of quite incredible unequal access. Those who fell victim to the mass die off would not include Rubert Murdoch, Bill Gates or George Bush because these people have the money and power to monopolise remaining supplies for themselves.

Instead the first to die in huge number would be the population of the poorer mega cities on the planet. Cairo and Alexandria in Egypt have a population of around 20 million between them. Egypt is dependent both on food imports and on the very intensive agriculture of the Nile valley and the oasis. Except for the tiny wealthy elite those 20 million urban dwellers would have nowhere to go and there is no more land to be worked. Current high yields are in part dependent on high inputs of cheap energy.

The mass deaths of millions of people is not something that destroys capitalism. Indeed at periods of history it has been seen as quite natural and even desirable for the modernization of capital. The potato famine of the 1840's that reduced the population of Ireland by 30% was seen as desirable by many advocates of free trade.(16) So was the 1943/4 famine in British ruled Bengal in which four million died(17). For the capitalist class such mass deaths, particularly in colonies afford opportunities to restructure the economy in ways that would otherwise be resisted.

The real result of an 'end of energy' crisis would see our rulers stock piling what energy sources remained and using them to power the helicopter gunships that would be used to control those of us fortunate enough to be selected to toil for them in the biofuel fields. The unlucky majority would just be kept where they are and allowed to die off. More of the 'Matrix' then utopia in other words.

The other point to be made here is that destruction can serve to regenerate capitalism. Like it or not large scale destruction allows some capitalist to make a lot of money. Think of the Iraq war. The destruction of the Iraqi infrastructure may be a disaster for the people of Iraq buts it's a profit making bonanza for Halliburton and co[18]. Not coincidentally the Iraq war, is helping the US A, where the largest corporations are based, gain control of the parts of the planet where much future and current oil production takes place.

We can extend our intellectual exercise still further. Let us pretend that some anarchists are magically transported from the Earth to some Earth like planet elsewhere. And we are dumped there without any technology at all. The few primitivists amongst us might head off to run with the deer but a fair percentage would sit down and set about trying to create an anarchist civilisation. Many of the skills we could bring might not be that useful (programming without computers is of little use) but between us we'd have a good basic knowledge of agriculture, engineering, hydraulics and physics. Next time the primitivists wandered through the area we settled they'd find a landscape of farms and dams.

We'd at least have wheeled carts and possibly draft animals if any of the large game were suitable for domestication. We'd send out parties looking for obvious sources of coal and iron and if we found these we'd mine and transport them. If not we'd be felling a lot of lumber to turn into charcoal to extract whatever iron or copper we could from what could be found. The furnace and the smelter would also be found on that landscape. We have some medical knowledge, most importantly an understanding of germs and medical hygiene so we'd have both basic water purification and sewage removal systems.

We'd understand the importance of knowledge so we'd have an education system for our children and at least the beginnings of a long-term store of knowledge (books). We could probably find the ingredients for gunpowder, which are quite common, which would give us the blasting technology need for large-scale mining and construction. If there was any marble nearby we could make concrete, which is a much better building material then wood or mud.

Technology did not come from the gods. It was not imposed on man by a mysterious outside force. Rather it is something we developed and continue to develop. Even if you could turn the clock back it would just start ticking again. John Zerzan seems to be the only primitivists capable of acknowledging this and he retreats to the position of seeing language and abstract thought as the problem. He is both right and ludicrous at the same time. His vision of utopia requires not only the death of the mass of the worlds population but would require the genetically engineered lobotomy of those who survive and their off spring! Not of course something he advocates but a logical end point of his argument.

Why argue against it?

So why spend so much space demolishing such a fragile ideology as primitivism. One reason is the embarrassing connection with anarchism some primitivists seek to claim. More importantly primitivism both by implication and often in its calls wants its followers to reject rationalism for mysticism and oneness with nature. The are not the first irrational ecological movement to do so, a good third of the German Nazi party came from forest worshipping blood and soil movements that sprang up in Germany in the aftermath of world war one.

This is not an empty danger. Within primitivism a self-proclaimed irrational wing has developed that if not yet advocating "nazi-style death camps" has openly celebrated the deaths and murder of large numbers of people as a first step.

In December 1997 the US publication Earth First wrote that "the AIDS epidemic, rather than being a scourge, is a welcome development in the inevitable reduction of human population."(19) Around the same period in Britain Steve Booth, one of the editors of a magazine called 'Green Anarchist ', wrote that

"The Oklahoma bombers had the right idea. The pity was that they did not blast any more government offices. Even so, they did all they could and now there are at least 200 government automatons that are no longer capable of oppression.

The Tokyo sarin cult had the right idea. The pity was that in testing the gas a year prior to the attack, they gave themselves away. They were not secretive enough. They had the technology to produce the gas but the method of delivery was ineffective. One day the groups will be totally secretive and their methods of fumigation will be completely effective."(20)

This is where you end up when you celebrate spirituality over rationality. When the hope of 'running with deer' overcomes the need to deal with the problem of making a revolution on a planet of 6 billion people. The ideas above have only reactionary conclusions. Their logic is elitist and hierarchical , little more than a semi-secular version of gods chosen people laying waste to the unbelievers. It certainly has nothing in common with anarchism.

We need more not less technology

Which brings us back to the start. Civilisation comes with many, many problems but it is better than the alternative. The challenge for anarchists is in transforming civilization to a form that is without hierarchy, or imbalances of power or wealth. This is not a new challenge, it has always been the challenge of anarchism as shown by the lengthy Bakunin quote at the start of this essay.

To do this we need modern technology to clean our water, pump away and process our waste and inoculate or cure people of the diseases of high population density. With only 10 million people on the earth you can shit in the woods providing you keep moving on. With 6 billion those who shit in the woods are shitting in the water they and those around them will have to drink. According to the UN "each year, more than 2.2 million people die from water and sanitation related diseases, many of them children". Close to one billion urban dwellers have no access to sustainable sanitation. Data for "43 African cities .... shows that 83 percent of the population do not have toilets connected to sewers"(21).

The challenge then is not simply the construction of a civilization that keeps everyone's standards of living at the level they are now. The challenge is raising just about everyone's standard of living but doing so in a manner that is reasonably sustainable. Only the further development of technology coupled to a revolution that eliminates inequality across the planet can deliver this.

It is unfortunate that some anarchists who live in the most developed, most wealthy and most technological nations of the world prefer to play with primitivism rather than getting down to thinking about how we can really change the world. The global transformation required will make all previous revolutions fade into insignificance.

The major problem is not simply that capitalism has been happy to leave a huge proportion of the world's population in poverty. The problem is also that development has been aimed at creating consumers for future products rather then providing what people need.

Transport provides the simplest example. A variety of forms of mass transport exist that can move huge numbers of people from place to place at great speed. Yet in the last decade capitalism has concentrated on the form that uses the greatest resources per traveler both in terms of what goes into making it and what is required to keep it running. This is the individual car.

Across large areas of the most developed parts of the globe this is pretty much the only way to get around in an efficient manner. The car has created the sprawling mega city of which Los Angeles is perhaps the most infamous example. There a city has been created whose urban layout makes individual car ownership almost compulsory.

This form of transport is simply not a solution for most of the world's population. And it's not simply that most people cannot afford a car at the moment. The resources consumed in the construction of the 3 billion odd cars needed for every adult inhabitant of the globe are simply not available. Nor are the resources (petrol) to run these 3 billion cars available.

So taking hold of existing technologies and developing new ones cannot simply mean carrying on capitalist production (or production methods) under a red and black flag. Just as a future anarchist society would seek to abolish the boring monotonous work of the assembly line so it would need to radically change the nature of the products that are produced. At a simple level in terms of transport this would perhaps begin with greatly reducing the production of cars and greatly increasing the production of bicycles, motorbikes, trains, buses, trucks and mini-buses.

I'm neither a 'transport expert' nor a worker in the transport industry so I can do no more then guess at what these changes might be. But we should be aware that outside of the west the need for transport is often solved in far less individualistic ways. Only the wealthy can afford a car but the mass of the population can often move almost as quickly from one location to another making use not only of bus and rail but also of systems of long distance collective taxis and mini-buses that run between towns whenever they are full.

This is the challenge for anarchism. Not simply to overthrow the existing capitalist world order but also to see the birth of a new world. A world that is at least capable of delivering the same access to goods, transport, healthcare and education as is accessible to the 'middle class' in Scandinavian countries today.

It is that new society that will decide what new technologies are needed and how to adopt existing technologies to the challenge of a new world. It is quite likely that some technologies, if not discarded, will be very much downgraded. It's hard to believe we would happily decide to build new nuclear power stations for instance. GMOs would need to prove something beyond the possibility of GMO's meaning greater profits and monopolies for corporations, not least that the benefit was greater than the dangers.

As long as capitalism exists it will continue to wreak environmental havoc as it chases profits. It will only effectively respond to the energy crisis once that becomes profitable and because there will be a lag of many years before oil can be replaced this might mean worsening poverty and death for many or the poorer people in the world. But we cannot fix these problems by dreaming of some lost golden age when the world's population was low enough to support hunter gathering. We can only sort it out by building the sort of mass movements that can not only overthrow capitalism but also introduce a libertarian society. And on the way we need to find ways to halt and even reverse some of the worst of the environmental threats capitalism is generating.

Primitivism is a pipe dream - it offers no way forwards in the struggle for a free society. Often its adherents end up undermining that struggle by attacking the very things, like mass organization, that are a requirement to win it. Those primitivists who are serious about changing the world need to re-examine what they are fighting for.

Andrew Flood
June 11 2004

[PDF file][Castellano] [Italiano]

10 C003763/index.php%3Fpage%3Dterraform03+maximum+hunter+gather+population&hl=en&ie=UTF-8
(sorry for the long URL but the page is not directly accessible)
11 "Miss Ann Thropy," Earth First! Dec. 22, 1987, cited at
12 A Primitivist Primer By John Moore
13 http///
14 the Practical Anarcho-Primitivist: actualizing the implications of a critique -Coalition Against Civilization, online at
15 Issue #6 of The 'A' Word Magazine, this interview online at
18 For a reasoned critique of collapism from a Green anarchist perspective see
19 Earth First!, Dec. 22, 1987, cited at
20 Green Anarchist, number 51, page 11, a defense of these remarks was published in Number 52. The author Steve Booth was a GA editor (and the treasurer) at the time

author by prole cat - the Capital Terminus Collective (personal capacity)publication date Thu Oct 06, 2005 22:58author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I would agree that there is ample historical precedent to predict that, while an oil crisis might impose misery and death on millions, it will by no means mandate the end of capitalism or "civilization". I am not so sure we can say the same of global warming. The markets, and the will of the elites, which make decisions under the status quo, while quite capable of responding to the destruction of cities or energy supply crises (and turning them into profit making opportunities) may well see climate change spin out of control. This seems to be a threat that is not of the same nature, as the bombing of cities in WWII or an energy crisis. I don't see any real clear historical parallels.

Also, anarchism has no magic cure for overpopulation. Surely, better technological responses are possible (or are even already available) than those that are now in use, as this article cites. But the fact remains, human numbers cannot increase continue to increase exponentially, forever. I don't know what the limits are, and the exact number is dependent on technology. But there are limits.

Would a horizontally organized society be capable of making decisions that would stabilize our numbers at a sustainable level? I am not sure. But that is a far more likely scenario, than, say, the markets or bosses making these decisions for us. Anarchism is our best shot at survival as a global society. But it not a sure thing, imo.

author by Andrewpublication date Thu Oct 06, 2005 23:21author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Yes global warming is a different sort of threat than the Oil crisis but unless you believe in the very worst 'Earth becoming like Venus' case it is something that might kill millions or billions but is unlikely to overthrow capitalism never mind civilisation.

It also offers 'investment opportunities' both directly in terms of CO2 scrubbing and storage which is becoming quite significant but also in recovery.

What do I mean?
There is a chance that the verocity of Hurricane Kathrian was a produce to the greater energy pumped into the weather system by global warming. Not worth arguing about as you can't prove this one way or the other. But it provides an example of how capital turns disaster into profit - anarchos essay 'The real looting of New Orleans begins' on this site at gives examples.

On overpopulation - the evidence is already very clear that a rise in prosperity coupled with the education and empowerment of women results in a huge decrease in births. Across most of Europe - were in not for migration - the population would already be dropping drastically. Many of the most prosperous countries now have negative population growth.

That suggest that in an anarchist society where we would expect women to be empowered and everyone to be prosperous the 'problem' might not be population growth but the reverse.

author by olivier - individualpublication date Fri Oct 07, 2005 01:52author email anarkismo.5.olivierboennec at spamgourmet dot comauthor address author phone 07981733144Report this post to the editors

The fact that the end of the world is near is not a new thing, and it's been proved right before.
To the inhabitants of Easter Island, the end of the world as they knew it came to a stop. almost, that is 90% of the population disapeared.
It didn't only happen in small islands but also on mainland!.
Look at the greenland Norse, the Anasazi tribe in North America reduced to canibalism and starvation.
The Maya civilisation for example collapse and died through in parts overpopulation, environmental damage, lack of resources, etc...
Yesteryear population couldn't move their problems to other areas because of lack of transport or resources. Today callapses occur less frequently because of migration. But because problems get transposed to other regions of the World, we are evolving towards the collapse of the whole planet.
And no this time we won't be able to flee to another planet.
The other problem is that we can't recognise a problem of environmental / population collapse when it hits us in the face. How else to describe the Rwandan collapse? it has all the ingredients of overpopulation, lack of arable land, environmental destruction, breakdown of society, etc....
Please read Jared Diamon "Collapse". it makes for fascinating reading.

author by prole cat - ctc (per cap)publication date Fri Oct 07, 2005 17:23author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Yes, of course the reaction of the bosses may be predicted with some certainty. With regard to global warming, as with disasters and crises of all stripes, they will reap profit from death and destruction.

My point was that, where the rebuilding of European cities after WWII (like the reconstruction of tsunami or hurricane zones) could be safely predicted, we can't safely predict that capitalism will be capable of "repairing" damage done by global warming.

What are the implications for the anarchist project? Only that our efforts are more urgent than ever. We can ill afford to patently await some projected final crisis, whose outcome would likely be horrific. Or, to glibly ignore such a possibility. IMO, measurable changes in the planets temperature merit a greater degree of concern (and are more likely to be a harbinger of dramatic social upheavals) than such things as market pressures on energy prices.

author by Colin - NAFpublication date Sun Oct 09, 2005 15:13author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I like this article a lot. Its good to see some literature out there countering the blatantly authoritarian primitivists. Hopefully this will get to reach more people.

author by bobo - date Sun Oct 09, 2005 17:46author email bobo at enzyme dot org dot nzauthor address author phone Report this post to the editors

What I think would be much more interesting, would be an article on climate justice from an anarchist perspective.

I, and many other people involved in climate justice campaigns, do beleive that if we don't do anything soon we are going to be more than screwed by climate chaos.

What we should be talking about, is the likely response to increasing weather chaos by capitalists, reformists and the general public aswell as the real human and environmental effects it has (particularly those in the poorest countries with the least ability to deal with the consequences of something they didn't create.)

Storaging co2 underground is not a solution and carbon sinks and other neoliberal solutions like the Kyoto Protocol are making things worse.

What is our solution as anarcho-communists?

How are we going to combat the likely environmental rascism from spreading and is already starting to occur? Things like finger pointing at countries like China. They want to have 50 new coal stations in the next 20 years and to have a car for every family - which will obviously exacerbate the problem of climate chaos.

But what people forget is that the western capitalist societies have created the problem which we are now feeling. What we are only just starting to feel in our climate, is the result of 50 years ago. There is a lag effect. Our whole society and standard of living has been based on the fossil fuel economy and greenhouse gases.

When people point the finger at China and other third world countries (Which are quickly reaching our output of CO2s) they seem to forget what our society was build on. How are we going to pay this ecological debt? Obviously we need solutions and we don't want more coal power stations - but it is environmentally racist to suggest that poor chinese workers can't have coal fire powerstations when they don't have insulation etc etc.

I think one of the important questions we should be asking, is wether a society based on needs and not profit will still be environmentally damaging if we maintain our current standard of living (despite the redistribution of wealth from the capitalists.) We can not forget, that environmental collapse would occur despite climate chaos, and is likely to egacerbate it. (If we hadn't chopped down all the trees, erosion from flooding wouldn't be as big a problem for example.)

Is it desireable, for "Everyone in the world to have a toaster" as someone once saw our future society.

Is it possible to sustain our entire population with non-mono culture organic produce? Has the industrialisation of food production allowed us to maintain large populations? Would it be environmentally stable in our damaged ecosystem to have collectively owned non-exploitative farmicuetical production?

And how will the working class (And small revolutionary groups) deal with the dual onslaught of the capitalist class and climate chaos? (keeping in mind that many of the working class organisations are either non-existant or highly reformist or misorganised).

Someone once suggested that climate chaos and environmental collapse is making the need for a communist revolution even more urgent and will most likely play a key part in igniting world revolution.

i often see critiques of primitivism, sometimes they have quite good things to say, but i rarely find them useful. (Which is also my fault because i haven't gotten around to writing anything useful either although i've been involved in grassroots climate justice stuff... none of it popular or mass etc etc.)

SImilarly, some of the anarchist writing that I have recently read on environmental issues (or environmental racism) read like marxist writings on the same topic. They often pull out the anti-human kill all the people type arguements and leave it at that.

Looking forward any replies!

(Oh and I disagree that it's not useful to look at Katrina in the context of climate chaos. It is quite right that you can not look at one incident and say it is the result of climate chaos - the climate is too complicated for that. But what you can do, is look at the increasing frequency and the response by neoliberal forces and the devastation it has on people. Climate chaos will be worse and wider spread. There are lessons to learn.)

As the great IWW industrial organiser once put it:

"the earth is not dying, it is being killed. ANd those killing it have names and addressess."


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author by magonpublication date Mon Oct 10, 2005 14:16author address author phone Report this post to the editors

It's great to see critiques to primitivism, its association with anarchism is completely embarrassing.

author by bobo - date Mon Oct 10, 2005 19:14author email bobo at enzyme dot org dot nzauthor address author phone Report this post to the editors

btw.. i am a class struggle anarchists who organises low paid workers, and i am definelty not primitivist. i like the article, its just in nz/aotearoa here we have no primitivists, so it seems like a waste of breath worrying about them. although i know that its a different situation over thataways.


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author by Vegan Hobopublication date Tue Oct 18, 2005 15:33author address author phone Report this post to the editors

So what is you union going to do for the few remaining forests or coal reserves (industrial production does have to continue for you to have the working class to organize)? How are you helping the 200 billions animals slaughtered every year by organizing slaughter house workers to get better wages (must we really make murder a more comfortable job?) or helping UPS workers win the strike and get back to work while UPS support HLS (giant animal research lab). Your working class struggle is selfish and short sighted. Get a clue working class humans are not the only beings oppressed on this planet. Primitivism is a war of total liberation, human, animal, and earth. Primitive anarchy exsisted for nearly 3 million years. Many primintivsts have stated that the return to a naturally sustainable population level will be a process over many generations. No mass die-offs just lower birth rates. Primitivists dont need to explain how 6 billion can be fed because we dont intend to live in a world with that many people...POPULATION LEVELS IF GIVEN TIME CAN DROP WITHOUT DEATH CAMPS! Its called not having so many babies...can you handle that? lets start working on a way to convince people to stop having all those kids and find ways to distribute birth control info so that people can voluntarily lower the population....or do you thing that people could never do that of their own free will? Is it impossible that humans will realize that our population is out of control and think that maybe they should do something about it. You accuse primitivists of being heartless and possibly supporting the idea of mass die off while you defend a system of production that has created an epidemic of cancer, while you support industrial production that kills millions directly and indirectly (humans that is...for non-humans it would be in thew upper billions) A greater percentage of the population has starved under intensive agriculture than went hungry in H/G societies. Agriculture dosent prevent causes it. As population rises you have more mouths to feed so you have to grow more crops and then the population keeps expanding because there are non natural boundaries left soon you have to put alot of work into feel all those people and their survival becomes dependent on a good you put millions at risk of starving in a situation that would hardly phase a H/G band. A nomadic H/G band was far less susceptible to famine because they didnt rely on having a good harvest but rather the naturally occurring plants in the area. The climate change would have to be quite extreme to kill off all native foliage...and even then it is a natural cant blame its victims. With out being settled the nomadic bands were much more free to move about to avoid over gathering or hunting (which they didnt do alot of until much later in the paleolithic...early man was primarily a gatherer since you can get more calories per calorie expended from gathering plants and scavenging than from hunting)

But primitivism isnt a dogmatic ideology that say we must all live just liek H/Gs only that we must (for the survival of the planet and all life on it) we must recognize that we are just one animal among many and then begin to step down from our role as denominators of all that is wild and free and stop seeking to control nature for our own ends. Agriculture circumvents a vital natural population check. Unsanitary conditions in cities isnt caused by lack of technology but by the fact that urban environments exist at all. As our population increases we have to find more ways to feed the masses, protect them from disease that are created( or made worse) by industiral production and civilization ( ). We have become dependent on technology for our very survival...sure going cold turkey would collectively be quite painful...but what about slowly weening ourselves off of it. Move towards local organic gardens to feed the people while other obliterate their prisons and factories (or are they one and the same) to make way for wilderness to take back over. Over the period of several generations we could be on our way to global healing.

"We'd at least have wheeled carts and possibly draft animals if any of the large game were suitable for domestication." yeah cause its ok to dominate a sentient being just as long as its not human right?...damn speciesists

While primitivists seeks to overthrow all forms of domination wether man on man, man on animal, or man on the planet. While your moral sphere only includes those genetically closest to you...wheres the rationality in that? Other beings that die daily for the survival of our precious civilization have a capacity for pain and and emotional life (some even have self consciousness). I dont know of any anarcho-primitivist that has advocated imposing their will upon others while you certainly have shown you have no problem with mass killing or making slaves of animals and exploiting the land for you own good (taking away vital habitat and feeding ground)

author by robynpublication date Thu Oct 20, 2005 18:11author email gramscianrobyn at yahoo dot comauthor address author phone Report this post to the editors

i think this article is a well-written and long needed critique of primitivism and its offshoots.

i dont know why you put it on the sf bay area snarchist website though, it is controlled by primitivists aand postleftists, i try and do my mental health a favour and stay away from it.

just incase "vegan hobo" ever checks this site again i just have to respond to his outrageous comment.
i will comment on just the most ridiculous and ill-informed statements.

"Its called not having so many babies...can you handle that? lets start working on a way to convince people to stop having all those kids and find ways to distribute birth control info so that people can voluntarily lower the population....or do you thing that people could never do that of their own free will? Is it impossible that humans will realize that our population is out of control and think that maybe they should do something about it."

it has been shown that even when birth control is readily available, women continue to have children. there are muliple reasons for this including but not limited to the fact that capitalism and colonialism and 'globalization' has resulted in more than half the world living in poverty (the half that are most likely to die as the earth "balances itself out". this means that A) many families need more children so there is more workers bringing in income and more hands to help the mother with her unpaid labor and B) poverty- (i.e. capitalist)- causing illnesses result in high infant and child mortality so as a result women will have more children in the hopes that they will survive, c)women are all over the world oppressed on multiple levels, unless all these levels are addressed (and seriously, meat-eaters are not one of them) then control over reproduction will remain out of their hands (i.e. people "choosing" not to reproduce with their "free will" is an absurd assumption about how people experience oppression)

also, i have to point out the absolute obvious which is that it is the relatively "controlled" populations in the United States andWestern European countries that cause the most waste -and the even more obvious that capitalism as a mode of production is by DEFINITION wasteful and that working towards abolishing it (through workplace organizing, community organizing -things that you think are ignoring the real suffereing experienced by cows....) is working towards ecological sustainability.

my suggestion for you "vegan hobo" is to read Angela Davis' "Race, Class, and Women" and see how progressive (white)activists (activists that actually are a lot more progressive than you, i would say really that you are 100% reactionary...) that talk about "birth control" completely side step white supremacy's historical mission to destroy (through, for example as Davis mentions, forced sterilization) communities of color. my other suggestion is to read up on the eugenecist movement in the first part of the 20th century and see the problematic paths that "population control" arguments can take you down...

" Agriculture dosent prevent causes it."

this is also totally mis-informed. once again, capitalism and state corruption (ofcourse all states are corrupt...) causes famine. if you knew anything about famines you would know that usually, indigenous agricultural methods allow for surplus to be created in case of a bad season so as to prevent famine. it is the fact that capitalists are more concerned with making money off of starving people than allowing a minute decrease of profits by not allowing increased inflation under famines to make food prices sky rocket that causes famine. during famines, there is usually foood available its just that a little thing called CAPITALISM makes it impossible for poor people to afford to buy food.

in the end, i have to say that myself and most sane people think that human suffering is a million degrees more inhumane than cow and chicken suffering. while my personal LIFESTYLE choice is to be vegetarian, i certainly am not going to focus my energies trying to get slaughterhoue workers' wages reduced, or worse get them fired or killed (as you insinuate would be a postive move towards liberation of animals ). ill leave that for the capitalists and their unlikely supporters such as yourself and other primtivists and 'green' anarchists.

i apologize for the length but i cannot stand seeing this garbage on a website meant for meaningful discussion.


author by Andrew - Anarkismopublication date Fri Oct 21, 2005 00:04author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I'm working on responses to the replies this article has received here and elsewhere - but I've only posted it on infoshop and here - someone else is distributing it elsewhere. If you have a URL for the SF version I'd appreciate it.

author by robynpublication date Fri Oct 21, 2005 18:10author email gramscianrobyn at yahoo dot comauthor address author phone Report this post to the editors

heres the link to where they posted your essay. they like to cut and paste peoples essays there without telling them i suppose so peeople can just berate the person who wrote them without them ever being able to defend their arguments.

author by robynpublication date Fri Oct 21, 2005 18:27author address author phone Report this post to the editors

another thing i have to add, besides the eurocentric romantisization/exotification of the 'primitive' and the 'tribal' which andrew brought up in his pointing out the absurdity of privileged folks in eugene arguing for the end of technology when millions of people are suffering precisly because of a lack of access to technology (due to global capitalism's underdevelopment of the'third world') is the male chauvenism inherent in any philosophy which thinks i should spend fourteen hours a day picking berries (and, as has been proven often doing the hunting and the fishing as well) just so i can come home, go to sleep, wake up the next day and do it again (and maybe every once in while rear children). 'primitivism' is inherently against women's liberation , inspite of the twisted ways 'primitivist' women like to say otherwise.

for the revolution and the shortening of the working day,

author by nestor - Anarkismopublication date Fri Oct 21, 2005 20:40author address author phone Report this post to the editors

This article in Italian:

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author by Andrew Floodpublication date Thu Dec 01, 2005 22:17author address author phone Report this post to the editors

A follow up article dealing with some of the replies to this one is to be found at

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author by Christopher E. Gray - S.M.I.R.K.publication date Sat Dec 03, 2005 02:26author email rasputin at teleport dot comauthor address Pleasant Hill, CA USAauthor phone Report this post to the editors

If I eat cake I become it and it becomes me. Neither of "us" is the same afterwards. That act of transformation is fearless, based upon a non-dream: me and not-me becoming more than what we were. It's as the Native Americans who proceded beyond primitivism to see themselves as integral moment of universal life. Energy is made for transformation and that requires motion, action. That requires stepping beyond who you are to become more than that, quantitatively and qualitatively. Primitivism is species-guilt implemented. It sucks at the nipple of life and yet rejects life, basking in tantrumic guilt because it hates itself as "taking", never noticing what it gives back because it closes its eyes. Milk is for milking. So is the adventure that starts with the Milky Way.... Life begets life. It expands or dies. Period. Primitivism is a walk with dead time.

The point of fusion energy and the applied dialectical understanding of quantum physics is to learn to make things from their unperceived, from the dareful dream of what they are "not". Need is imposed and "necessity" seems quite dictatorial as prime mover. To jump through the views of dear M. Bakunin: if God exists then it will be desirable, useful, and exciting to transcend it - otherwise, boredom and slavery. "Cake" first of all and not merely taken metaphorically - is a human creation. We made it from what it was not. We create it through dimensions unfelt by daily existence trapped in the "primitive" moment of being: time and space. We become by reaching beyond our dimensionalized "realities". Better yet, "cake" always existed in the possible. Unless we innovate, it remains impossible. We remain less for the non-act. We remain primitive to and for ourselves. In fact our "selves" remain as external to us. Only through us does the universe's implied or potential for "cake" become real, become kinetic. I don't have a limited amount of "cake" potentials either. I don't need cake on other planets or in other universes. I only "need" my innovative direct (inter-)action. The whole notion of "direct democracy" is found interleaved with the notion of self-evolution and generalized self-management - with expansion of SELF. It is only by transcending the partialities, the fuller universe of selfishness - do we embrace all, do we become totality. To not reach such is to recuperate one's self into that abyss of a zero-sum universe wherein all quality is condemned by "what is possible" according to the lower-leveling of dumbifying quantity. Do we have enough imagination to go beyond a self-imposed unit of measurement? Surely we are more than ourselves and wait only to pull that newness from the universe within.

The rejection of science as a method of understanding and innovating - based on the current lack of its use by capitalism - is the anti-humanist tendency of primitivism. Here it finds its bedmate: religio-mysticism. If the bourgeoisie failed at eradicating the kernel of life within that sphere it is precisely also why they cannot achieve science via a flat and commercial "use". It is only by grasping all that is seeking the human that we become more than a blade of grass, cake, or animals with primitive consciousness of our possibilities.

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author by anonpublication date Thu Dec 22, 2005 21:21author address author phone Report this post to the editors

While I agree with many of your points about this juvenile and often ridiculous ideology, there is one part of the article that seriously undermines your argument and probably should be changed if your intent is to provide a factual debunking of the weak philosophies which underpin this small movement: while it may be true that tree fruits which can be gathered may not meet many peoples taste preferences, your statements regarding a field of corn producing more nutrition and caloric value than an acre of oak trees is actually incorrect. Corn is delicious and I wouldn't give it up for anything, but in North America, at any rate, the mast crop of a mature oak forest is relatively huge compared to the small yield of a corn field. Likewise with Chestnuts (before the blight, or with blight resistant hybrids), Walnuts, and a variety of other wild nuts found in North America. Moreover, a wide variety of low-light crops or wild plants can be planted in the understory, unlike in a corn monocrop. Perhaps the situation is different in the UK? You might could make a stronger case by talking about hunting for game animals, which many primitivists propose as an alternative to our current food production system.

author by Andrewpublication date Thu Dec 22, 2005 22:45author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Thanks for bringing this issue to my attention - however I believe your figures are incorrect (see below). Also I use the phrase 'available to humans' in the article in part to reflect that while harveting an agricultural crop will see a large percentage of calories going to humans a gathered crop in a natural setting will see a large percentage go to non human animals - in teh case of acorns 15% will be eaten before they even reach the ground.

Acorns certainly were used as a major foodstuff in parts of north American into historic times. In Europe because of the work involved in processing acorns into a palatable food stuff it appears they were more commonly feed to pigs who were of course eaten in turn. But acorns were one of tne major foods in Syria before the development of agriculture there.

The figures

David Bainbridge in Acorns: The Grain That Grows on Trees says "Corn yields range from 2,500 to 10,000 pounds per acre. In comparison, acorn yields in natural forest have been recorded as high as 2,000 pounds per acre from the live oak(Q.virginiana), and - in a good year - I've recorded black oak(Q.velutina) yields per tree that would amount to more than 6,000 pounds per acre in a pure stand." One pound of northern red oak acorns contains approximately 1,300 calories so high high figure he gives for natual forest would be 2000*1300 or 2.6 million calories - most of these would of course go to birds and squirrels.

David is clearly an acorn promoter but anyway lets use his lowest corn yield estimate of 2,500 pounds per acre. There are 1535 calories per pound of corn so this gives 3.8 million calories - already above the best estimate for natural forest. But take his high end estimate of 10,000 pounds an acre and you get 15.3 million calories or almost 6 times the raw calories output of a high yield natural acorn forest.

His figures are however a little suspect, the Forest and Forestry division say "Woodlands that attract and hold the greatest numbers of deer, turkeys and squirrels produce in excess of 100 pounds of acorns per acre per year." This would only be 0.13 million calories. I also found figures for the Turkey Oak of 278 lb/acre which would be under 0.4 million calories. It is hard to find other figures for yields but scaling up from the per tree figures that are availavle for various varities it appears David's yields are very high indeed.

I'd a difficult time finding other figures for corn as corn production is measure by volume rather than weight. However I found some conversion tables which suggest that a bushel of corn corresponds to between 56 (shelled) and 70 (ear) pounds. I'll take the lower shelled figure of 56 pounds per bushel. In terms of average yield an interesting one to use for this discussion are those given in a University of Minnesota study into how much corn production decreased using organic methods of cultivation. The organic method gave close to 130 bushels an acre or 7280 pounds. This converts into an actual calorie value per acre of 11.2 million.

When you compare these figures it appears that the total calories per acre from acorns may only be 3.5% of that from the same area of organically grown corn. Even David's best measured figure is only 23% of the average organic corn yield.

author by Difference Engine - Difference3nginepublication date Mon Dec 26, 2005 11:30author email difference_3ngine at yahoo dot com dot brauthor address author phone Report this post to the editors

This is very good, but sometimes I think the primitivists are just an illusiory gold mine for witty critiques. Short of a few sociopaths, none of them truly desire to off six or seven billion people. The doctrine is therefore simply incoherent, for the reasons noted, and as is well known, you can make anything of a contradiction.

The article could be improved by citing more recent academic studies of carrying capacities, but it would probably be overkill. The misreading of anthropology in green anarchist circles maybe deserves a separate article.

For my part, I find it amusing how the primitivist doctrine entails astonishingly difficult organizational problems, like convincing people not to have children...somehow. Well, how do we do that...without NGOs, states, large organizations to coordinate the human pruning, democratic feedback so that the numbers targeted are right and fair? How do we that with tiny little feralized clusters of horny of primitivists, and without the industrial production of contraceptives? It's very funny. They are reduced to praying for comets, since ecological destruction alone will probably take several hundreds of years. Who the fuck knows what will happen three hundred years from now?

I think there are valuable lessons to be drawn from primitivism, but they are mostly for other anarchists, especially the primitivists' mirror image, the insurgentists.

author by Bobby Humperdinkelpublication date Fri Jan 06, 2006 16:02author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I love the part where he compares pine trees and lettuce. He says that pines don't produce any food for us with the solar energy they capture. Looks like somebody needs to read up on his wild edibles. The inner bark or cambium of a pine tree is edible, tasty, and highly nutritious. And a healthy tea (high in vitamin C) can be made from the needles.

author by kpublication date Thu Mar 23, 2006 07:11author address author phone Report this post to the editors

if its speciesist to to only care about what humans do, then shouldnt we also be looking at non-human animals who are ememies of primitivism? not only are the civilizationists the enemies of primitivism, but so are the beavers and the ants! what right to they do to build dams just to give themselves a more comfortable home? and ants- what rihgts do they have to live in organized colonies which "farm" local resouces? speciesist bastards! only looking out for number 1! and while were at it, what right to all those murdering carnivores have to hunt and kills herbivores. death to the carnivores! murerers! and squrrels- nut storage is the first step towards division of labour.
lets start attacking all of the enemies of primitivism, not just the human ones. or else we are just speciesists outselves arent we?

author by Andrewpublication date Wed Apr 05, 2006 22:54author address author phone Report this post to the editors

I've just uploaded a new version of the PDF that contains both essays to

author by humanimalpublication date Sat Apr 15, 2006 23:27author address author phone Report this post to the editors

In reading this article I kept noticing your convenient neglect of one of the most basic points of primitivism. That point is the complete rejection of anthropocentrism, which means that we primitivists don't think that humans can be placed anywhere above any other living thing in the web of life. That is a far truer rejection of heirarchy that what you are putting forth here.

It is this kind of thinking that leads to your point about fields of corn. You only look at the natural world and see what you can make out of it for your own use. Well guess what, the trees that used to live in your monocrops of corn were pretty damn valuable in and of themselves and had just as much right to live on this earth as the rest of us. And that goes as well for any wild creature that has to put up with the murderous rampage that is civilisation.

Same goes for the vegan hobos comment about slaughter houses, where the liberation of the animals who are being exploited by agriculture is concerned, I cannot be concerned about the jobs of those who daily perpetrate this system. Try asking a dairy cow if it would rather feed its babies or have them taken away so humans can have her milk. Also, ask the baby cow if it would rather be with its mother or be slaughtered for its tender young meat.

Your argument is also extremely racist, you seem to think that everybody on the planet wants the civilised way of life and you also argue that that is the "natural" outcome of humanity. None of the indigenous cultures who actively resisted the encroach of civilisation and died trying to protect their way of life seemed to want your agriculture and "high technology", and neither do the indigenous folk still actively resisting.

so ya, I'm certainly valuing spirituality over rationality, since after all rationality is the excuse given daily for the destruction of everything sacred on the earth.

The scientists call it global warming or climate collapse or whatever. I'll call it Gaia, the earth, kicking the civilised the fuck out, and I'm here to help her.

author by gyhellepublication date Sun Apr 23, 2006 00:50author address author phone Report this post to the editors

french translation here :

author by djangalaang bozorgpublication date Wed Jul 26, 2006 04:47author address author phone Report this post to the editors

You said that none of the energy put into a pine tree is converted into food. Not true. The inner bark, or cambium, of pines is both edible and nutritious. It is very high in vitamin C and was used by several of the North American tribes as a source of food, especially during the winter.

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author by Andrewpublication date Fri Aug 04, 2006 05:58author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Actually this is correct, the surface layer of the many trees contain some nutrients and in times of famine are often stripped as a last resort food source. In the case of Pine you'll find the author of 'Hunting the wild asparagus' gives an account of how to do this but also reports that his experiments failed to produce anythin g he considered palatable. I don't think this famine usage is a significant contradiction to the original point in the article though - there is a huge amount more palatable food in the same acerege of corn.

It is also theoriesed that the name Adrondick (after the national park) originated in a derogatory term applied to a section of the Irioquis because they supposadely eat bark in winter because they were too weak to hunt.

author by Kipawapublication date Wed Nov 05, 2008 03:02author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Here is a response to Andrew Flood article (in french):

author by apophasispublication date Sun Feb 08, 2009 03:06author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Although there are many problems with the original essay/rant, I'll just take one example: The corn vs. wooded acreage. Flood asserts that an acre of corn produces more calories than an acre of trees. He is wrong for several reasons. For one thing, the issues of the acorns, wild edibles, and the contribution of wild land to the general health of a wider whole living ecology. For another, corn does not offer much habitat for animals that might be hunted, and normally farmers exclude animals from their corn, so as you gain corn output you lose other types of output. Man cannot live on corn alone... Also, monoculture is vulnerable to disease, and Flood optimistically assumes that not to be a factor. But those are minor issues. There are more similar issues that could be discussed, and I'm sure anyone so inclined can think of many.

The real point is that Flood is demonstrating a typically short-term, anthropocentric mindset in his post, and perfectly exemplifying the problems with this current culture. While perhaps we can grant that the field of monoculture organic corn will produce more output of calories for exclusively human use than the intact forest, for a short time, that is all we can grant.

In the longer timeframe, all agriculture is quite damaging to the soil, and corn cultivation is no exception. So the greater the yield in the short term, the greater the damage in the long term. Desertification and salination are the frequent historical results of agriculture. So if a patch of ground puts out more calories for a relatively short period of time, and then ends up depleted, devitalized, and perhaps desertified for a much longer period of time, the average caloric output of that piece of land has decreased, not increased. Unless we are thinking of the future in terms of mere months and years (or perhaps quarterly profits, as is so common now) rather than millennia or longer, it makes no sense to trade a brief short-term advantage for long-lasting losses. As Derrick Jensen says, "Forests precede us, and deserts dog our heels." On a finite planet, that is a recipe for eventual disaster.

And as we convert wild land and intact ecologies into domesticated farmland, we damage and kill the entire surrounding ecology. We can't just convert forest to farmland without widespread and long-term consequences. Focusing only on the caloric output of some acreage is a uselessly narrow measure of impact. To appropriately evaluate the impact of an action, we need to look at its systemic, total effects over a long span of time. This is the only sane way to decide which actions are good. If, as is so often the case, we cannot know in advance what the consequences will be, we should proceed very slowly, very carefully, and on a small scale. Of course, our present culture does precisely the opposite: We charge in at full force, with zero thought given to consequences beyond the immediate.

Personally, I'm not exactly a primitivist, (or an anything-ist) but I do think that primitivism offers and implies some important critiques that Flood seems to have missed. What good is it to create temporary booms when larger busts must always follow? Seems to me that with more wisdom and respect for the fact that nature does many things better than we can, even with all our vaunted technology, we could create a more stable-state global culture that would be more rewarding to live in and more ultimately sustainable- not that a culture could be much more unrewarding and unsustainable than this one... Seems to me that our pattern of extracting the most possible stuff for our exclusive benefit as quickly as possible is foolish, and consistently blows up in our faces. Until we get much wiser, my opinion is that we would do well to do less. Of course, one quality of fools is that they cannot discern wisdom, and thus cannot heed it. So the fools will continue to act foolishly, and reality itself will be the arbiter of results, as always.

I don't have all the answers, but I think a good question is "How can we live well in the long term?" I am not convinced that no technology past that of the upper paleolithic can be made to work, but we do know that this system isn't working, hasn't worked, and won't even continue on its dysfunctional trajectory much longer. Perhaps we would do best to return to what works, and work our way slowly and carefully from there. If we don't, I imagine that we will damage our environment to the degree that we become limited by "external" factors like declining access to foodstuffs. I suppose it'll be boom-and-bust until we either learn wisdom, or somehow manage to wipe ourselves out. Personally, I think we'll learn wisdom eventually. Hopefully when we do the world will still be healthy enough to heal.

author by Andrewpublication date Mon Feb 09, 2009 20:16author address author phone Report this post to the editors

" Flood asserts that an acre of corn produces more calories than an acre of trees. He is wrong for several reasons. For one thing, the issues of the acorns, wild edibles, and the contribution of wild land to the general health of a wider whole living ecology"

Your wrong on several points here
1. I don't assert anything. I provide some factual measurements that show there are more human consumable calories in an acre of corn. An assertion is when you just claim something is true without providing evidence, I actually spent quite a bit of time getting the measurements.
2. You are wilfully not understanding the point being made. I'm not making an argument about best agricultural methods, I'd demonstrating why a hunter gather lifestyle would require the deaths of billions of people because there are not the quantity of human consumble calories available in non-agricultural settings. It's been very interesting in the years since I wrote the piece watching the complete non response of the primmies and their hangers on to this fundamental point and instead lots of weird distractions as above being thrown in.
3. I actually agree on the usefulness of also having 'wild' land which is why I tend towards technological methods that would enable us to feed everyone and reduce the surface area of the planet we use in doing so., check out for a discussion around one possibility (vertical farms)

Not that is matters much but this statement "What good is it to create temporary booms when larger busts must always follow?" show the faith based nature of your argument. The statement is very obviously is not true. The busts have not been bigger than the booms. If they had been we'd see less availability of weath, food and as a consequence a shrinking population. We are not worse off for instance than we were in 1928. The problem with the boom periods is that under capitalism they are exhausting resources, not that a bigger bust follows!

I'm pretty amused when a follower of the cult guru Derrick Jensen accuses me of being foolish. I'm not sure how smart I am but I'm not dumb enough to fall for yet another preacher proclaiming how you should send him your money because the rapture is coming. Your emperor has no clothes. Jensen is making a good living out of his huckstering so I get why he is doing it, he doesn't care that he is writing nonsence, he only cares that the cash keeps flowing.

Finally the key issue here is that while there are large problems with the current system your alternative which would involve the death of 5.8 billion people (and you guru has admitted these would in particular be drawn from the global urban poor) is worse than any possible alternative. Only the blind followers of some faith could even try and peddle such muderous nonsence.

author by Jillpublication date Fri Aug 12, 2011 10:42author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Agreed, "vegan hobo" is an absolute embarrassment. Primitivism (and deep ecology) are racist and masturbatory fantasies of the privileged. Platitudes on the sentience of cows are incredibly unproductive, and the fact that there are a few people out there who look forward to mass human die-offs for the sake of snail and fish liberation is totally obscene.

But Andrew, your article does not address climate change. How could your article not address climate change? The potential effects (and potential is enough) of climate change are so horrifying they re-set the framework of pretty much everything that's been said here.

This is not expertise talking, but neither is it hysteria. Global warming is a very serious problem, possibly the most serious in human history. Jensen junkies are obsessed with it, but that doesn't make it less urgent. Serious anarchists need to wake up to this.

author by Andrewpublication date Sat Aug 13, 2011 04:07author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Yes I didn't get into climate change directly in that article although if you look at the related article I wrote in the same period on Peak Oil Panic you will see I do deal with it there

is that I've written on the topic and
is what I've done on the topic of energy struggles

I'd rather like to write a grand theoretical piece on Climate Change in general but rather suspect I don't have the knowledge base

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