take it easy

January 27, 2006

When I joined the permaculture v primitive debate I was hoping to work toward a conclusion that answered the question of which approach would give greater survival chances in a post crash world. I think because the exponents of each approach were arguing their case so strongly it felt like I was going to have to figure out which one was correct. Even worse I worried that my future survival would depend on getting the answer right.

Not surprisingly it soon became apparent that a combination of the two might prove to be the best solution of all but what I wasn’t expecting was that it would turn out that both approaches already combine elements of the other to such an extent as to make the debate almost pointless. In fact, the opposing concepts of either being totally in charge of our food production or totally leaving food production to mother nature existed only in my head. In the real world it turns out that:

(a) Many of the cultures that we thought were hunter/gatherers were actively managing their environment to increase levels of natural food production and…
(b) The aim of permaculture is to create an environment where food can be ‘grazed’ at leisure.

Put like that I can barely tell the difference between the two and given the infinite continuum of possible combinations the only significant difference between the primitivist hunter/gatherer approach and permaculture may well be whether your tribe stays put or goes walkabout.

I’ve had another visitation from Toby Hemenway who left recommendations for further reading on the idea that indigenous cultures actively managed their environment. They are his own “Garden in the Jungle” and “1491” by Charles Mann, an article originally published in the Atlantic magazine.

‘1491’ suggests that large parts of the American continent has been shaped by a large population of Indian people 95% of whom were wiped out early by contact with European diseases. This sudden loss of people affected the ecology greatly and populations of previously hunted animals suddenly boomed which is why the main wave of settlers who arrived a hundred years later found astounding populations of buffalo and flocks of pigeons that blotted out the sun. It is from this period that most of the information about pre European life came from which could mean that the ‘untouched’ wilderness that environmentalists hanker for may have actually been the result of an ecosystem that was actually going through a period of great disruption.

I am worried that there is a kind of worship of the untouched wilderness concept. For some it does indeed seem to be a religion. Environmentalists have been bitterly opposed to the idea that indigenous people managed their environment because it might lend power to the arguments of our development-culture that we have the right to alter the ecology as we see fit.

It’s a very odd place here at the peak of our civilisation’s toxic and alienating existence. Our view of non-civilised cultures is hopelessly distorted by the distance of time and cultural disparity and for those of us who are desperate for some other way to latch onto I think there is a tendency to worship what we find – especially when what we know and understand of these other cultures is so vague that we can’t help but see what we want to see.

Christians tell me that people have been made to worship and that if we don’t worship God then we are destined to find something else to worship. I’m starting to think they might have a point because I definitely see in the environmental and anti-civilisation movements a tendency to worship the idea of untouched wilderness. I’m fully supportive of these movements but given the wanton destruction wrought by our current hands-on approach to planet management it is no surprise that people have taken their beliefs as far in the other direction.

As a comparison, and hopefully I can get away with referring to Christianity again, what I have noticed, coming from a country where the Christians are not nearly so prone to extreme fundamentalism is that the anti Christian feeling here is equally less extreme. From outside the U.S. it would appear that the fundamentalists, (who certainly appear to be bonkers) have so distorted the religious/spritual landscape that non-believers seem to have equally distorted and extreme views. Or maybe that’s just part and parcel of a culture that is subject to so many stresses. In either case I’m starting to wonder if many people haven’t now entered into a religious worship of the concept of untouched wilderness. It’s reached the point that some people say that they are happy to see the demise of humanity so long as the planet survives. Now I know that humanity is to blame for the state the planet is in, no doubt there at all, but to wish for the demise of your own species is surely a strange thing and just one more example of the corruption of civilisation. (The loathing of humanity is probably an outward expression of personal self loathing but that’s another posting). I’ve already tried explaining how I feel about this and despite the newness of this blog I still managed to confuse at least one reader who thought that by saying I didn’t like the idea of putting the planet ahead of humanity I must want to put humanity ahead of the planet.

Firstly, I just assume that we’re all agreed the planet needs saving – anything else is ludicrous. What I was trying to say was the I want to save both humanity and the planet EQUALLY. I don’t have a hierarchy of who I think deserves saving the most, to me the application of hierarchy is the result of bringing civilised thinking to environmentalism and totally unnecessary.
The next level down from wanting to see humanity banished from the planet is the worship of ‘untouched’ wilderness where the only acceptable means of human habitation is the hunter/gatherer tribe that ‘allows’ nature to provide sustenance as it sees fit. OK, I’m probably over-simplifying but I still maintain that for some there is a semi-religious aura around this idea. Again, I don’t mean to belittle, I’m looking for something to hang my hat on too.

And to be totally fair I have noticed that when permaculturists talk about their first experience of permaculture it is often in the same terms that people would use for a religious conversion. Even this telling of my own experiences seem to have that air about it. Again, we shouldn’t be surprised that people are attracted to something that seems to provide a genuine alternative to our current lifestyle of squalid consumerism.

I think this desperation for a knew way (now heightened by the impending collapse) is behind the primitive v permaculture debate, a debate that I now feel is pointless. We never needed that ‘V’ in there.

I also think this is what is behind Aric McBay’s appalled response to Toby Hemenway’s Rural v Urban article. As previously noted I think the fact that he sniped around the edges attacking what was essentially a different political perspective whilst ignoring the central vision of the article was an attempt to stamp out an alternative ‘doctrine’. It’s interesting to note that Toby Hemenway has written a response where he removes any inadvertent political implications and just focuses on strengthening the vision – with some success too.

Personally I agreed with Aric McBay about many of the details because they ran contrary to my political beliefs too, but I didn’t think this made the vision any less worthwhile, probably because it didn’t run contrary to any of my other deeply held beliefs.

So what does this all mean?

Maybe we should just chill out a bit. Given that there appears to be no model upon which we can base a return to untouched, pristine wilderness and given that the earth is going to need our help to get there quickly, and given that the indigenous cultures who we are looking to for guidance often actively managed their wilderness AND given that we need to start repairing the earth now….umm, remind me again what the problem is?

As William Koetke reminds us what life needs is good quality soil, air and water, whether the ecosystem upon which these are based revives through the earth’s natural processes or whether it comes about because we have converted the world into a giant food forest probably doesn’t matter.



I don’t assume that “the planet needs saving”. What exactly do you think the planet needs saving from? (Human destruction?) And who exactly do you think can or should perform this “saving”? (Humans?) Hmmm….

Just to be clear, I don’t loath humanity; I loath the vision and resulting behavior of civilized humanity–the vision/worldview that says humans were pre-ordained to be the rulers of the planet, and now that we’ve screwed up that impossible task, we must maintain the illusion of control as the saviors of the planet.

Since civilized humans see themselves as separate from the world, and now see themselves as possible saviors of the world, isn’t that still a heirarchy with civilized humanity at the top?

If we accept that we have evolved from the web of life, that the planet has created us, one species among millions, perhaps it would make more sense to wonder if the planet will choose to save US.

Posted by: mark | 01/27/2006

Diana – Thanks for your comments, The capabilities of the website are determined by Blogspirit who made the software and host the site. The software lets me put a picture but I don’t think it has a shoutout facility

Mark – you seem to take my posting very personally. Don’t you think it’s possible to want to save the planet for genuine reasons? I have said that the world can save itself but it will take a long time. If it is to happen quickly it will need intervention from us. I want us to interven so that I don’t have to watch my children and my friends (and myself) suffer through ecological collapse

Posted by: Aaron | 01/27/2006

Great work. I think at issue are two competing world views. The first says humans are apart of nature. The second says humans are a part from nature. Written down the difference seems small when in fact the divide is vast.

Posted by: nulinegvgv | 01/28/2006



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: