Primitivism/Tribalism and Deep Ecology are important concepts to the sustainability movement in addressing rapid climate change, promoting a “back to the earth” naturalist lifestyle. But should low-tech lifestyles be mandated to of all humanity, and is “low-tech” always beneficial and ethical? This article is a dialogue sparked from the following articles on primitivism and social change. These authors, and many deep ecologists and tribalists alike denounce unchecked technology usage, and support a future with limited electronic power.
Green-washing, one of the primary concerns within the above articles, is defined as a producer falsely branding a product for the purpose of marketing for profit to gullible environmentalists; while green technology is a concept that is far more broad. One issue within “The False Promise of Green Technology” is the apparent conflation of green technology with “green-washing”. While presented as the same thing, these are very different concepts. The following essay explores why conflation of green engineering and green washing does not support general human and environmental rights, and instead promotes further risks to social and ecologic health.
Green tech may be comprised of a combination of (yes, occasional green-washing), but also prototype technologies that are still in development, tech that fails when it is poorly built with skewed priorities which could be re-purposed, redeveloped and technology that could become more viable with greater popularity and investment of time and resources. Green technologies should not be evaluated as “finalized” in their current states, since the ethos of this concept is extremely new, and nearly all recently developed tools to address climate change internationally could be considered to be in “proto” stages currently. Green tech is in our context extremely new, and it is also a broad term that is simply not the same as corporate attempts to profit from social movements.
An important task for deep ecology and a foundation for defining what we see as hazardous technology is firstly understanding how the technology in question works (and not vilifying technologies in a blanket-form because we don’t understand and therefore feel we cannot trust them, or supporting non-sustainable corporate propaganda by vilifying less successful early attempts in switching over). Engineers should carry the burden of proof -of the effectiveness of their green technologies. This could be a bit of a social paradox but the solution is for everyone to be well educated in many fields, including the sciences and engineering. The best scientists working with engineers will do a lot of work testing to increase their certainty that their technology will do more good than harm. And many green projects so far are now indeed beneficial or benign (or the environmental benefits may be more substantial than the costs).
One example of the use of technology to support sustainability, is the research of Ilana Stout from University of Hawaii at Hilo who works with seed distribution and to create an image map of all Hawaii ecosystems and associated native seed species that would thrive in these specific microclimate areas. The system is called the Seed Variety Selection Tool–which if developed and followed by many would aid in speeding up reforestation a lot more quickly and effectively. She is not using technology for corporate “green-washing” and the information is as accurate as possible based on her own research and those pooled from the scientific community –often funded by the public.
It could even be feasible to connect this tool with others like the Liko Na Pilina, Hybrid Ecosystems REST program which uses a scientific process called plant trait analysis to pair species together in ways that promote more successful reforestation with native species that cuts back on carbon in the atmosphere and requires less maintenance. The system also helps to ensure greater success of new plant recruitment. This is a computer program that can be linked to a web-based global database that one day could apply as a tool for any and all climate areas. The REST program allows for planning species combinations (like a scaled permaculture program) to choose for certain goals -such as drought resistance or native plant rehabilitation. REST application may assist with getting people more food and a stable climate with less labor efforts through implementing research-based, restorative planting designs.
There is a misconception I feel, within some schools of tribalist and deep ecology movements, that all technology is bad and the future of the climate rests on us largely abandoning most or all energy usage. There is also a complimentary movement of large, oil and coal-reliant corporations that thrive off such groups and others naysaying of prototype technologies. I believe the fear of higher level technologies is based more on emotions than fact, and that those with incentive to profit against the conversion to a green economy benefit from such fears. As an ecopsychologist I absolutely understand the burning desire most “in tune” beings might feel for returning to naturalist lifestyles, –or the political savoy some may feel in “calling out” a not so green company when lame attempts are made– however the dogmatism that all tech should be challenged, or that all green tech is a farce, is not only false but threatens important progress toward climate and ecosystem rehabilitation; it ultimately threatens lives.
Neither of the above tech-based restoration tools mentioned are being promoted only for profit, and without these tools restoration is a much slower and more painful process. Without forest and seed restoration at a massive global scale, we will likely see more hunger and death of the lower classes. This isn’t technology that is “green washed” like a Pepsi commercial —these are scientists and engineers that often either work for free or hustle grant funding to support their research who do so out of an intent to save and improve lives. If successful, they likely will.
On the subject of climate rehabilitation, we may also run out of time. I think these false concepts must be partly backed by the vision Peter Gelderoos proposed in his article on global warming: that Co2 is dissipating and we should all just “settle down” and leave bad energy consumption alone for awhile while earth simply re-calibrates itself.
This is most likely not the reality. Not only that but suggesting plans like this (unplug and wait it out) could even be dangerous to present to people as alternatives to using skills and knowledge to reverse climate change –almost a close ideological cousin of climate denial. We likely are in a much more complicated situation. Unplugging electronics and trashing our car use will probably not be adequate to reverse the effects of climate and habitat change that we have already entered. In fact by a lot of people’s counts we have already surpassed that tipping point, we are well into the 6th planetary mass extinction, and such extinctions have a domino effect of causing other species reliant on the former to go extinct also. For every species we loose we threaten the system of those who remain including ourselves, and we are continuing to loose species at rapid rates. We have already have lost unprecedented levels of earth’s genetic stock: 90% of seed diversity, and unprecedented animal extinctions.
It is likely that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has already triggered really catastrophic changes as yet unseen. One estimate at a climate talk by Hawai’i State Supreme Court Justice Michael Wilson is that our atmosphere without major systemic change could become like that of Venus: extreme temperatures, acid rain and an absolute inability for the planet to support any known life ever again.
We’ve already passed the 350ppm tipping point a few years ago (we are now at 400 now), which would have “stopped climate change”. So, to clarify, the opportunity to stop it -passively- has likely past, it is already here. Gelderloos description on page 7 “…every year, the world heals a little more… Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are actually declining” is probably just plain rosy in context. There were a few articles saying it declined a little in 2015, but looking at graphs the dip appears to be negligible compared to the major spike we are recovering from since the industrial era. It’s too optimistic, too easy, and probably dangerously inaccurate.
It is also seems likely this information is being popularized by fossil fuel companies and corporate interests to maintain status quo monopolies and prevent people from panicking or changing.
(What this article describes, for example might reveal a “dataset version” of green-washing.)
The hurricanes like Sandy, tsunami’s like Fukushima, and “hottest years on record” we’ve experienced consecutively for the last decade are all signs we are well beyond just turning the lights off and waiting it out. –And that’s even if we could stop fossil fuels yesterday without a big fight. Most of us are still entrenched in energy consuming lifestyles, even those who suggest this simplicity is the answer often are not living immaculately sustainable lifestyles themselves. Additionally the statistics I’ve found (hoping the CO2 scare had gotten people into being more sustainable) were a bit shocking: by some accounts we have actually increased exponentially our levels of waste and consumption.
Technology addition, pollution, and abstractions from reality are very real, but one of the reasons I don’t support global, mandatory deep ecology (technology fasting and primitivism) is that taken to the extreme as these authors suggest would ultimately be most likely inhumane. Without technology to support the population our world has blossomed, without green tech to counter the effects of industrialization and climate changes on the earth, we may see far more population collapse and ecologic genocide than if we trust and support those knowledgeable in science and engineering to continue green technology research and implementation (and become these types of people ourselves).
We have to learn to see through green-washing, without labeling it as everything that calls itself green.
Waiting for the earth to heal itself might turn out to be lot like waiting for singularity robots or aliens or God to save us… it isn’t a sure bet, and I believe we have power and responsibility to address these issues without sitting back and waiting it out. We did this, we f***ed up [with a lot of fancy tech], the f*** ups are so monumental this time, we will probably use a lot of fancy tech again to resolve some of them.
We also use tech for a lot of basic, good things: organizing movements, dental and medical care, machines for farming and agriculture that allow large populations to eat. It’s all on a spectrum, and definitions of what technology itself represents aren’t really so black and white.
On Nuclear Spills – Case Studies Against Extreme Primitivism
Let’s say everyone decided to go ultra sustainable as individuals, retreated into the bushes, relinquished their laptops to spend their days eating berries and banging on bearskin drums…. Okay. Instead of a few of us remaining in the technologically advanced paradigm to engineer CO2 scrubbers and solar panels, we all reverted back to our primitive ancestor ways… (stoked! -this is much psychologically healthier).
But would the Earth’s systems really be better for it? Yes and no… While it’s true deep ecology lifestyles would create a lower carbon imprint and we should be striving to all adopt to these changes, if no one remained to engineer green technology, it is likely the world’s ecosystems would still rapidly collapse. Multiple reactors could likely melt poisoning air, land and soil primarily across the continental United States, potentially leaking out to other continents. We currently have about 400 nuclear reactors on the surface of Earth that could potentially collapse without maintenance, 1/4th of which are contained in the U.S.. These could destroy all land and life in ways we can’t really predict –since nuclear mutations can also effect generations through damaged genetic information.
As icecaps continue to melt we will see potentially several feet of sea level rise, this is enough to displace millions, if not billions of people, not to mention the environmental effects of shoreline nuclear power and urban waste leaking into the acidifying ocean. With 1/2 of our population in cities and most cities being coastal, that equals a HUGE amount of potential climate refugees in the next 50 years that would most likely die without climate atmosphere reversal and levy technologies (and/or preemptive massive relocation –dismantling or damming whole cities so they too do not slide into and pollute oceanic habitats).
It could be that without engineering to stabilize atmosphere all known species could die. Super storms, super tsunamis, exponentially exposed toxic runoff and acidified oceans are all very real potentialities that we shouldn’t risk as a planet. Stopping energy consumption likely will not be enough to avoid these outcomes at this point in time… not when ice is already melting, ecosystems are already collapsing and unprecedented storms and refugee migrations are already upon us.
An interesting film related to Gelderloos idea of natural re-habitation: Chernobyl animals were previously endangered and have now moved in to the restricted area. This is interesting because although they are not kept out they can bring nuclear effects back into larger areas of land through genetic mutations and perhaps other modes of nuclear fallout disbursal. We don’t really know what nuclear poisoning looks like generations down the line. Today’s Chernobyl victims are often the children and grandchildren of the victims who reproduced after. Often the offspring are quite sick, sometimes much sicker than some of their ancestors who were exposed initially in their lifetimes.
It is interesting to see these endangered animals bounce back because of humanity’s absence, but what happens if and when their reproduction and consumption of toxins harms their DNA? And could they unknowingly carry such contaminants to non-restricted areas and other populations as well? Is this really a revival of species or just a weird earth-happening that could collapse after a few broken generations? Only time, and research, will tell.
This film Chernobyl Heart gives a good sense of the genetic aftermath few people talk about. We speak about this spill as if it is over, when the genetic effects have really just slammed through to the next generation. Nuclear technology is an example of a technology that can’t be left undeveloped and undisturbed, our survival rests on tending to -and probably dismantling- it.
Nuclear spills like these are often related to greed and war, but it isn’t exactly the fault of technology that such human catastrophes happen. I believe it is not the inventions themselves, but the ideologies behind why we create them in the first place that truely matter.
On Society & Ethics
On insuring a social ethos of conservation Anon writes “Households that greatly exceed the recommended quota for water usage are publicly shamed” (Pg. 4, Anon, 2010)
There is a lot to unpack on the concept of “public shaming”, but first why not just have warnings and an automatic shut off if you needed to implement community rationing? Systems can be created regulate themselves without causing social strife.
And on the subject of rationing, the sun hitting the earth makes thousands of times the amount of juice our energy-guzzling, human-infested planet currently consumes. We don’t really need rations if we design systems intelligently and switch to renewable energies –and use these to assist with restoration and rehabilitation. We could run ocean desalination systems based off solar energy –technologies that have been getting more sophisticated every year, and additionally restore watersheds through permaculture. Why plan for social harm of limited resources, when we are able to literally engineer a greater sense of system-wide abundance? Perhaps it is the fear of what we have seen in the past: advanced technology primarily benefiting the West, while often harming lower classes.
We have to remember that modern technology often sucks because it’s been polluted by capitalism and greed: green energy patents bought and stored by coal and oil corporations for a more desperate day, GMO self-district seeds, war and hierarchy solidifying machinery, Nazi gas chambers…. we wouldn’t do this stuff if the ideologies we fed ourselves with didn’t allow for it. We wouldn’t make bad tech, with conflict minerals and wasteful input-output systems, if we didn’t also share beliefs that were socially predatory and lack global foresight and empathy.
We don’t need long term plans for food and energy rations if we pour resources into better crop designs. To mitigate inequality, we need to examine our sociological beliefs and what we see as acceptable, rather than simply pulling the plug. It’s good to manage resources, but planning for long-term scarcity for the sake of it may cause unstable economies –prone to social conflict and wars which can catalyze further oppressive hierarchies. Why “publicly shame” people who accidentally leave the water on, rather than designing habitats where water becomes more plentiful, and where the social system (non-judgmentally) regulates itself.
Some of the best parts of (Gelderloos, 2012) article are descriptions of what the future world looks like through the authors eyes and diversity among cultures, as well as a good description of anarchist-communist public vs. private “property” and the definition of sharing economies. It is also refreshing to consider the authors concepts of both organized and dignified labor –labor that does not exceed the human body’s healthy levels of contribution, –unlike current capitalist systems which akin some human lives to disposable parts within machines.
While new tools for work incentives have always been important for “selling” communist and anarchist worker communities (without “forcing” anyone into anything), the “hazing” method of getting people to work is ethically unacceptable. It negates the reality of physical disabilities and neurodiversity. It would instead be better to just calculate the social/work survival minimum for a society and what people there are capable of and ask people contribute a set -equal- few hours per day to scrubbing toilets, fixing machinery or weeding community gardens on a rotating schedule of community needs (and encourage community members to spend the rest of their free time in recreational individual interests that also give back). These jobs systems could be calculated and semi-automated also, registering variables like a persons skillsets, interests, preferences and abilities against a matrix of community needs based on tasks of importance and/or urgency.
A semi-automated system reviewing a societies skillsets against a societies needs, that selects the lowest amount of compulsory work may help to avoid a workers coop popularity contest and inhumane treatment of the vulnerable (as described in the worker incentive plan (Anon, 2012)). Often for example men, attractive people, and/or Caucasians may do less work but are seen within society as doing more (for really dumb psychological reasons, like being taller, standing up straighter, or having higher levels of the hormone testosterone). Such “privileged” individuals are seen by flawed human perception as more productive and valuable members of society even if they in actuality aren’t, while conversely less charming, socially awkward, homeless or neurodiverse people may be doing a lot for their community given what tools they have, but may still be seen as “dead-weight” by those who are discriminatory. Therefore, given that we are flawed humans with flawed perceptions, “hazing people” is not an adequate social motivator for securing a social workforce. The elderly, children, disabled, and neurodiverse people would not deserve to be hazed for not working or not working hard enough when it is a human tendency to often mistake a disability for a lack of charm or an “attitude” problem.
“So we won’t worker-haze disabled or elderly people,” you may say. But there are also issues with the binary analysis of what constitutes “sane” or “insane”, “abled” or “disabled”, as these exist on a spectrum with a lot of stigma where people tend to keep this information about their own place on the spectrum to themselves. Age is also relative as is maturity and stamina. Social exile is generally extremely abusive –one of the most psychologically harmful experiences– as we see in homeless and prison populations, social isolation it is not conducive to social functionality or rehabilitation in people. Those who are apparently not contributing “enough” should be evaluated for social services and greater support for self-actualization, not publicly shamed.
A more human and effective way to regulate alternative economic systems for socialism would be –you guessed it– though conscious use of technology designed for it.
On E-Waste, Cleanups and Recyceling
For developing future electronics, it would be best perhaps to design a few excavating and recycling robotic fleets to have them mine, sift, and recycle all landfills including the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. All materials retrieved that can be safely cleaned would become the new production materials for future items. This would have the dual benefit of ending consumption process of mining “conflict minerals” (often done by children in impoverished countries exposed to high levels of toxicity)–while also removing dangerous ewaste from our oceans and soil. This would be a job for robots specifically because these areas are inhumanely toxic. We shouldn’t leave them be, and no biological organism should be forced to clean them either.
While I don’t agree with the overall thesis of the False Promise of Green Technology, it has a good definition of true sustainability. I think it’s a worthy argument redefining what things are simply “less unsustainable” –and questioning their current contextual labels as “sustainable” (a tactic of green-washing). I think we should still also honor things that are not perfect but markedly improved (like the first solar panels that were made poorly which then became prototypes for much more efficient ones, that in the long run will be very useful). Engineering and science are about a lot of trial and error, and new tech is almost unfailingly rocky and poorly made at first. That doesn’t mean all green tech success should be based on the earliest prototypes. This is actually a tool of the fossil elites to dismiss progress– saying what we’ve tried so far isn’t “green enough” so we should give up. We do however need language to make this distinction between notable improvements (I recycled/composted something!) and the goals of where we really want to be (I landfilled nothing!).
On metals and plastic tech waste (Pg. 6, Anon, 2012) addressing this is a solid point, but we also have corn and other plant based alternative plastic products now that can be composted if disposed of in the right facility. Additionally if we make all future tech from recycled old tech we should be fine (if not in better shape getting that s*** out of the land and soil– while incentivising a massive global recycling project).
We probably have enough plastic and e-waste to produce electronic toys for 10x the worlds population, thanks to all our landfills and computer upgrades. We will also probably have a space program in the future. Between space resources and intelligent use and reuse of earth “waste” and renewable resources, we could probably continue to make whatever we want– so long as input-output regulations are pretty strict and intentions are right.
All conflict minerals for electronics that are toxic could probably be revisioned and replaced. Just as much as we have “green washing”, there are also legitimate, well developed, sound green technologies that have likely been suppressed for profit. Let’s look at these as well, before assuming all technology supports elitism, waste, and/or oppression. Sometimes suppression of certain technologies can support these same ills, and it is up to all of us to develop more and bring them back.
To effectively purify our biosphere, would need to do a few things in conjunction:
-Replace toxic materials in our current products with less or non-toxic ones
-Recycle things in better facilities, (with less or no waste output or chemical processes)
-Quarantine items that cannot be safely recycled and forbid their future production except in extenuating circumstances
Sadly quarantining certain waste products like bad chemicals and nuclear meltdowns will also be a part of the future tech we will need to build a healthy planet. Chernobyl for example is still leaking and was housed in a metal covering to protect nearby life from continued radiation, a mega storm hitting it or the current melting down of that structure’s slow but steady decay could be an issue if we do not design other systems to neutralize and contain things like this for the future. There may be some toxic waste we shoot out into space, or spend years in chemistry labs figuring out how to neutralize and break down safely. Leaving it to melt down or leak out of landfills however, probably isn’t a preferable alternative to updating and improving our own methods of recycling and processing.
On the Myth of Universal Simple Living
(Page 12, Anon, 2015), on wild fruit and foraging being better as it is less susceptible to blight: this is really true and near and dear to my heart. We’ve lost 90% of seed species diversity so we can wager our remaining foods are far more susceptible to blights now. The solution to this we can all agree on is bringing heirloom seeds back into our yards and boycotting mono-cropping practices and entities.
It’s true, people should live simpler lives and are happier when they do, but if those of us who brought about massive pollution and climate change do not fix it, it is actually the African deserts that become barren first threatening 3rd world food supplies and abilities to grow crops. It is the poorer nations that are hit first and hardest by environmental catastrophes like storms without releif and rising seas. So, although the natural, simple way of life is one we should all adopt, I’m not sure that we will all be able to do that as simply as our ancestors did without also implementing massive scientific intervention.
In the end, what the (Anonymous, 2012) author describes is a shaky plan to get us out of this mess (after admitting the dismal picture they have painted). A plan that is admittedly incomplete without modern technology. To enact such change ultimately would involve a lot of scientific research and engineering. It’s nice to really highlight permaculture, and I personally envision a world where permaculture can be scaled a lot faster and more effectively throughout the globe with the aid of green technology. Perhaps even with some tools like Ilana Stout’s seed selection map and the Hybrid Ecosystems Project.
At the end of the day, the best solutions to stabilizing our climate will likely be a synthesis of both strategies: going back to the earth, simplifying our individual and social lifestyles, while simultaneously embracing new -ethical and sustainable- technologies to expedite climate rehabilitation.
Some Interesting Resources