Primitivism: Singularitarianism turned upside down March 7, 2011Posted 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.