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Primitivism: Singularitarianism turned upside down March 7, 2011

Posted by Summerspeaker in Anti-imperialism, Primitivism, Technology, The Singularity, Transhumanism.

Last night I watched END:CIV and participated in a question and answer session with the filmmaker, Franklin Lopez. The movie lays out Derrick Jensen‘s ideas in compelling visual form. Other associated activists, such as radical feminist, environmentalist, and vegan bête noire Lierre Keith, also feature prominently. They make the customary arguments against civilization as inherently unsustainable, inherently oppressive, destined to soon collapse, and a threat to life on this planet that we should resist by any means necessary. In an echo of Steven E. Jones and company, I argue these thinkers form the mirror for Ray Kurzweil’s movement because they hold a similar conception of technology as this unitary autonomous force and envision an end to history in the return to the hunter-gather lifestyle (Philippe Verdoux calls this the “primitivist singularity”). I will respond to a few of Jensen’s premises outlined in the film and suggest an alternative path forward that rejects the monolithic view of human innovation.

Jensen’s ideology centers on the impossibility of sustaining civilization, particular industrial civilization. Ey claims dependency on finite resources such as oil dooms the city. While current reckless and wasteful practices indeed won’t last, there’s no fundamental shortage of energy or mass. Scarcity only exists in relation to human needs and desires. The mind-boggling power output of that big fusion reactor in the sky demonstrates the theoretical plausibility of maintaining or increasing human energy consumption indefinitely. Appealing to finitude in the abstract indicts any form of existence; even the Sun will burn out sooner or later, with disastrous consequences whether you live on watts or deer meat. History makes a solid case against enduring civilization, but it’s profoundly presumptuous to dismiss the potential for both a radical transformation toward sustainability and a prolonged extension of the frenzied system of extraction presently in place. Nobody knows the future. The machine may well grind on for more time than I care to imagine.

This brings us to the assertion of inevitable collapse to essential to primitivist morality. During the screening, Lopez mentioned how there has to be a die-off. Predicting if not longing for the gruesome Malthusian demise of millions or billions requires robust rationalization. Jensen and friends don’t believe we can avoid this horror. Civilization will fall regardless of what we do, so we might as well make it quick. This entails a steely level of certainty utterly beyond my capacity. I strain to conceive of evidence sufficient to convince me to accept such a catastrophe. As long I can conceive of an option that doesn’t include untold suffering, I’ll take that option. If the crash comes, it comes. I acknowledge industrial implosion as a real possibility, but I cannot ethically promote it. Were I enamored with hunter-gather society, I would advocate a gradual transition that permitted the slow and reasonably pleasant death of the majority of the population.

Jensen’s second and third premises on the violent foundation of industrial civilization merit careful consideration from transhumanists in particular. Lopez shows the historical and continuing brutalization of indigenous peoples for resource extraction in stark relief; the coercive essence of labor in the global economy receives a comparatively brief treatment. Much as primitivists view human die-off as an unavoidable step on the way to our reunion with the land, Singularitarians view the heart-wrenching agony involved in existing production relations as a mere bump on the progress superhighway. Kurzweil, for instance, says we just have to stay the course with entrepreneurial capitalism and advanced technology will magically abolish poverty of its own violation. Whether even the Singularity will provide a measure of egalitarianism and undo hierarchy remains unclear in eir conception. For now, the oppressed masses across the planet should presumably shut up, get to the office on time, and hope for 2045.

Extrapolation, however well-founded, should never become a basis for atrocities. Rational uncertainty operates in every direction. No utopian or dystopian vision, whether premised in technology or nature, can justify harming the living. Anyone who demands blood and pain as necessary should pause and rethink. Smashing useful machines in order to hasten return to our primeval roots makes no more moral sense than upholding imperialistic resource extraction to speed to Singularity. The primitivist critique resonates emotionally and intellectually. Modern society comes out of a context conquest and dispossession. Even in the rich West we experience exploitation and alienation of industrial capitalism on a daily basis.  I respect the green anarchist movement’s adherents as much as I oppose their proposed solutions.

When I asked Lopez about the prospects for collaboration between primitivists and the traditional left, ey expressed skepticism at cooperation with folks who want keep the factories running under worker control. This disappoints me. I favor a radical pluralism that supports the wide rainbow of resistance (unicorns optional). We all struggle for genuine individual and community freedom: meaningful decision-making power over our lives. I suggest we unite on this point. None of us knows exactly what will result from liberation. Each factory, farm, forest, mine, or river and its associated humans have a unique logic and circumstances.  If free people categorically refuse to operate industry without coercion and the whole thing crumbles, I’ll happily starve or eke out an existence on berries.  But I expect diversity and believe we’ll find the capacity to make space for myriad lifestyles.  We disagree on far too much to abandon the principle of peaceful coexistence.


1. sofias. - March 7, 2011

oh great, let’s propose a lifestyle that is so unefficient that it can never even sustain the human population! let’s be hunters and gatherers!
just let the other fuckers die, because at least wie have solved the problem of… what was it again? oh yeah, civilization or some shit…

do these people even realize that in ‘nature’ there are thousands of species whose entire energy is gained by the worst form of exploitation? (aka hunting)
and guess what’s regulates their numbers: starvation and desease.
and there is no way enviornmental desasters could happen without human intervention, i mean ‘real’ (human-made) desaters. because dying is much worse when it’s for human-made reasons…

primitivism is just an extreme form of conservatism: it relys entirely on forgetting of how much the past sucked. and it totally ignores the cost of ‘going back’ to an earlyer stage, where it delusionally projects some kind of paradise…

i guess primitivists would see that as an utter misrepresentation, but so far, this is the most sense i can make of their movement. correct me if you know better…

2. Andrew - March 8, 2011


When you say that hunting and gathering is inefficient because it can’t sustain the human population, that’s presuming that the current human population is at a level that must be sustained. Hunting and gathering is quite efficient from an ecological viewpoint because population stays at a level that can be supported by the local landbase, and usually even under that level.

Contrast that with the current human population, which can only be sustained by mining energy, in the form of coal, oil, wood, topsoil, and so on. Saying that this population isn’t sustainable is not a value judgment placed on the people currently living, it’s just math. More people isn’t better, it’s just more people. A global population of half a billion would be just as happy and fulfilled as one of twelve billion.

I disagree that the worst form of exploitation is hunting. Being enslaved for a lifetime is worse. Having your means of subsistence destroyed and being forced into global capitalism is worse. Everything dies, everything.

Civilization does not somehow negate the game of life, which does involve hunting, eating other creatures (animals) or their remains (plants and fungi), starvation, all those things. That’s reality. That hasn’t changed.

You say the past sucked. For most people and most of the more-than-human world, the present sucks mightily. China is a good example.

Primitivism sees the past as practical, not as paradise. And it’s not even past – many indigenous cultures continue to willingly live without civilization, and simply wish to be able to continue to do so, free of the predations of the global economy. It’s a extremely viable way of life.

sofias. - March 8, 2011

ok this will be a long one… first the efficiency stuff:
how much area do you need to sustain a human life with a hunter/gartherer lifestyle? to make a very uneducated guess i would way it’s about 1000 m^2, propably more.
to make another uneducated guess: i think an area of 2 m^2 would be sufficient to grow, say, algea to feed a human sufficiently.
that would be 14000 km² for 7000000000 people.
the fertilizer for the algea and the vital chemicals that the algea don’t offer should be not that hard to sythesize out of the waste products of human metabolism (poops) and a rather small extra source, the soil below the 14000 km² algea farm should be more than sufficient.
i also assume that this huntering and gathering takes about 10 hours a day, which is quite a generous guess.
which means that is doesn’t even offer more free time than todays incredible wasteful cunsumerist statism. (which has the declared aim to “create jobs” meaning to waste time)

and, how long does it take to eat some deliciously synthetic-flavoured robot-made algea-sandwitches? 20 minutes if you are lazy. animal corpse flavour is availabe too 😉

if course you can go much further in harvesting solar energy and feeding it into brains (or other substrates for cognition) i just illustrated a way that seems somewhat feasable and that doesn’t deprive humanity of it’s own lifesource.
facing this problem, humanity could make a far better job than my crude fantasies…

3. Summerspeaker - March 9, 2011

In my estimation, past and present both thoroughly suck. I favor transhumanism because I see no other way out of this mess. The undeniable sustainability of the hunter-gather lifestyle does not necessarily make it desirable. I dislike pain; abandoning technical innovation enshrines suffering forever. On the other hand, pursuing technology consistent with the principles of liberty and equality by no means assure a positive outcome. It might not even be possible; whether technological society can exist without horrific oppression remains dubious. The uncertainty involved prompts me to promote pluralism and circumspection.

4. Summerspeaker - March 12, 2011

This blog entry argues primitivists commit they classic Marxist error and suggests a revolutionary pluralism. Good stuff.

5. A_ANDREW - March 19, 2011

It is funny how positivists toekinize the Zapatistas without addressing the way their society actually runs,Organization, democracy, medical science and all.

funny the past has shown workable options.The primos don’t like any of them. The fact that they don’t lead by example on federal land or in communes shows the level of B.S posturing that is going on here. Most of them wouldn’t last a month.

People are making real money whipping up controversy about going back in time. Taking the benefits of industrial civilization as a means to an end…

6. Summerspeaker - March 19, 2011

Who is making real money? The primitivists I know certainly aren’t. (I wish they were; maybe they’d share.) I guess Jensen and/or eir publishing company does okay, but I doubt there’s a whole lot cash flowing because of the ideology.

7. Andrew - March 21, 2011

sofias is talking about everyone eating algae, or something, so I’m just going to ignore that.

A_ANDREW, yes the past has shown workable options. Who are you to say what “the primos” like and don’t like? Who are you talking about here? The people whose writings happen to be available online? And there are way easier ways to make money than to write about one of the least popular points of view on the planet.

sofias. - March 22, 2011

sofias is talking about everyone eating algae, or something, so I’m just going to ignore that.

yeah, answering would be way to civilized, wouldn’t it?

of course my illustration isn’t too elaborated. but it sounded workable enough to compete with “just throw 6.5 billion people away and hope they never come back”.
you offer almost nothing besides people dying, and the rest would be under permandent thead from the envoinment.
i guess you don’t value scientific progess much either, do you?
you cannot even make sure that another civilization will emerge after the (hypothetical) catastrophe that you find so acceptable.

awating the apocalypse is so incredible dull and unrewarding. you won’t find any (non-suicidal) solutions this way
the current state of civilization is still pretty wasteful and repressive. i think it’s because we are much of the predatory monkeys that aren’t used to make segnificant change in their envoinments.
but monkeys with computers and robots are far better in solving problems than monkeys that have grown up in an envoirnment that either took care of the problems itself or made these problems a deadly trap.

i wanted to adress this “there are worse things than death” statement too. but i was kinda tired of this nonsense.
you propably have some religious fiction to defend that, but as far as any evidence goes humans need to be alive to do anything. or to take any hyothetical benefit or relief from their death. being dead cannot help someone, because dead people cannot be helped anymore.
you can argue that there can be cognition without a living embodyment, but in a primitivist society all that is left are anecdotes that are currupted beyond recognition after about 4 generation maximum.

but btw, i’m a pluralist too.
if you manage to live without anything that you call civilization _and_ without hurting any somewhat intelligent being (that includes far more than just humans), it’s ok.
i wouldn’t recommend it, and i will continue to point out any flaws that i see in your ideology, but i wont support violence against anything that doesn’t thread more violence itself…
because i’m an anachist. how about you?

oh and btw, i’m not too much into algea in any way, but because of their simplicity they are easier to manage than most things other food sources i can think of and they are already used as a food supply…
it was merely an example of how to approach the problem of sustain the human population in a less wasteful way.

Summerspeaker - March 22, 2011

That worse things than death exist hardly implies the supernatural. The painless state of being dead strikes me as decidedly superior to extreme suffering.

8. sofias. - March 23, 2011

well, i guess you may not exactly need the supernatural to believe that death is preferrable to something. i just think it’s very hard to justify it with reasonable.

choosing death to avoid pain a little ironic too, since pain has emerged to prevent us from dying. but death cannot ease pain, there is just nothing good you can expect.

it’s probably because death resembles sleep in some way, that it’s romanticised in our culture.
but sleep is an active process in wich the body regenerates and the mind actively reshapes.
death is just the permanent loss of about all possibilities.

of course the constant fear of death could be a problem, too. but from my experience i’m not noticably more fearful since this realization, i’ve only stopped considering suicide, which is a great emotional gain.

Summerspeaker - March 24, 2011

Being queer suffers from the same irony in rigid evolutionary terms. Who cares? Natural selection is nothing to base morality or lifestyle on.

These quibbles aside, I agree with and appreciate the bulk of your critique.

sofias. - March 24, 2011

Natural selection is nothing to base morality or lifestyle on.

i fully agree, although i don’t really see the parallels to being queer in that case (being a pansexual genderqueer transgirl myself…)

Summerspeaker - March 24, 2011

The narrative of nature and naturalness has been employed against queer folks across history. I’ve briefly written about this in the past, though amusingly enough in the opposite context with relation to death.

9. Andrew - March 23, 2011


Sorry for being dismissive. I just had no idea what you were talking about, and it seemed like you just threw out some example that had no relation to the real world.

I value increased understanding of the world around us. In this society, I see that understanding largely used to control and exploit nature. Early scientific figures like Francis Bacon were extremely clear about this being the purpose of science. There’s a lot of good work being done in the name of scientific exploration, don’t get me wrong, but it’s happening within a society that prioritizes domination and control.

I said that I disagree that the worst form of exploitation is hunting. I said there are worse things than that, not there are worse things than death. So I’m not going to respond to your comments about that, because I didn’t say it. I personally would prefer becoming food for something that caught me in a fair chase than being someone’s slave my whole life. Of course, that’s totally speculative, since I don’t see myself in either situation any time soon.

I’m not suggesting that we throw 6.5 billion people away. But that’s what humanity is being set up for, since most people alive right now are alive because of fossil fuel inputs into agriculture, and the people who are running the world are showing no interest in dealing with the rapidly approaching end of affordable fossil fuels. They’re the ones who will be throwing 6.5 billion people away, by not addressing the inherent unsustainability of our current situation.

Industrial civilization is going to collapse under the weight of its own unsustainability whether or not anyone does anything to stop it and to heal the damage it has created and continues to create. Saying that is not advocating genocide, it’s looking at current trends and extrapolating them into the future.

I’m not sure what you’re getting at with living without anything I call civilization without hurting any somewhat intelligent being. Civilization as it stands now hurts plenty of somewhat intelligent beings. It sounds like you’re asking me to live in a way that’s not more damaging than what is currently happening, as if what’s currently happening is not damaging. Forgive me if I’m misunderstanding.

10. Summerspeaker - March 24, 2011

Industrial civilization is going to collapse under the weight of its own unsustainability whether or not anyone does anything to stop it and to heal the damage it has created and continues to create. Saying that is not advocating genocide, it’s looking at current trends and extrapolating them into the future.

This, however, conflicts with extrapolation from other trends, such as solar power efficiency/growth, nanotechnology research, and computer processing power. Predicting the future remains a messy and speculative process whether you see the Singularity or the global collapse of industrial civilization.

11. Andrew - March 24, 2011

Summerspeaker, can you explain what you mean by exxtrapolation from other trends? The basic principles remain – complex societies historically collapse, and there is no reason to believe that this one, much more technically complex than any other and much more reliant on nonrenewable inputs, is any different.

Summerspeaker - March 25, 2011

I mean the rate of advance in the fields/technologies I listed. Folks like Ray Kurzweil claim accelerating progress will automatically resolve current societal contradictions. (I do not share such privileged optimism.) However, even assuming complex societies collapse as a historical law – a proposition that can be criticized from a variety of angles – that doesn’t necessarily tell us anything meaningful about the relevant future. Innovation or sheer luck might still enable industrial civilization to endure for hundreds or thousands of years.

As I stress in this blog piece, certainty has no place in conceiving of the future. I critique both Singularitarians and primitivists for putting too much faith in their projections. Extrapolation at best serves as rough guide. Trends continue, halt, reverse, and fluctuate. Moral action in the present must account for this uncertainty, as well as our active role in constructing tomorrow. Beware inevitabilities!

Andrew - April 7, 2011

In my understanding of history, stable and enduring societies are those that take less than what’s available from their surroundings in order to provide for their needs. The Australian Aborigines have been practicing a sustainable stone-age culture for maybe 40,000 years.

Chaotic and transient societies are those that take whatever they’re able to from their surroundings in order to provide for ever-increasing levels of complexity and energy and material use. I don’t know of any complex society that’s not collapsed within a few hundred or thousand years. Often the pieces of those societies return to however they had been living previously.

I think that all the technologies that the singularity people are banking on are still backed up by simpler technologies that remain unsustainable: mining, etc. I don’t see this as being overly predictive. “Primitive” subsistence cultures are just the best bet in an uncertain world, instead of relying on increasingly more complex and fragile technological systems.

Summerspeaker - April 7, 2011

Again, trends only continue until they stop. Judging possibilities by the past precludes novelty. History includes enough surprises to warn against certainty. There’s no question that the hunter-gather lifestyle has a better record of sustainability than industrial civilization, but that doesn’t tell us the former will necessarily collapse – much less whether it will collapse anytime soon.

12. jae-hyun - April 6, 2011

“i also assume that this huntering and gathering takes about 10 hours a day, which is quite a generous guess.
which means that is doesn’t even offer more free time than todays incredible wasteful cunsumerist statism. (which has the declared aim to “create jobs” meaning to waste time)”

is this person joking? it sounds like a good parody of a very ignorant person. a lot of hunter-gathers are estimated to work about 20 hours a week gathering food, spending much more time socializing than the isolated, passive ‘free-time’ of industrial society.

“and, how long does it take to eat some deliciously synthetic-flavoured robot-made algea-sandwitches? 20 minutes if you are lazy. animal corpse flavour is availabe too ”

seals the deal, too hilarious

13. bodhidharma - May 1, 2011

It seems to me that just hoping for some amazing scientific solution to the horrors being created by overpopulation, resource depletion, and environmental degradation while the problems become ever more dire is just irresponsible. The corporate power structure isn’t interested in making solar powered nanobots to save us. Apparently they aren’t even interested in saving their own children. As a species, we seem to be unable to confront the reality of our situation.

No, I don’t want to abandon technology and live in a hut without modern medicine, etc. Probably a little less than a billion people would be required to maintain a technological society that is semi-sustainable. But Jensen and Lopez are right that in order to salvage much of anything, radical action is required now.

Summerspeaker - May 1, 2011

Well put. I don’t know about an impending point beyond salvaging anything becomes impossible – maybe, maybe not – but empathy, experience, and morality demand radical action now.

14. Patrick - January 20, 2012

Industrial minerals will be exhausted within 50-60 years. That means game over for industrial civilization as they can’t be recycled.

I like industrial civilization. I am as much a product of my environment as anyone else. I like cars, video games, movies, air conditioning, packaged foods, etc, etc. This doesn’t prevent me from being honest when it comes to the future.

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