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Several years ago I gave guided walks to hundreds of people around the meadows of Moulsecoomb wild park, the hedgerows and farmland of Rottingdean, along the Brighton seashore and in Stanmer woods. Very sadly since then my poor health has prevented me from giving them again. In the spirit of spring, with new life everywhere, I’m sharing the general introduction speech to these plant walks. At this time of year I’d especially recommend picking nettles, ground elder, lime tree leaves and elm tree seeds because they are tasty and highly nutritious.

One of the posters for the walks

Thanks very much for coming today. My name is Ed, and I’ve been fascinated by plants for a long time. I lived in the forest in Sweden for a year, and then helped set up an eco-village there – in both places I used wild plants extensively as part of my diet. In the UK, over the years, I have foraged, used and eaten a very wide range of plants, so what I will teach you today comes from a lot of lived experience and trial and error.

Before I begin talking about plants, I want to give a bit of background about why learning about wild plants is important.

Around 1% of the population in the UK works in the agricultural sector, which uses over two thirds of the country’s land area, while around 80% of people live in urban areas. We are more disconnected from nature than ever before during a time which many scientists are calling the Anthropocene – a period where human activities have significant global impact on the Earth’s ecosystems, including the mass extinction of other species, climate change, soil depletion, pollution, and much more.

My first plant walk to a select few

Very few of us now know the wild plants and wildlife around us – when we walk in the countryside we can just see a sea of green and other colours around us. It’s important to try and reconnect with nature, not just to learn what we can eat or not, or because it’s fashionable, but so we are more connected with the land and so are more likely to defend it from unnecessary and destructive development.

As Derrick Jensen points out:

“It’s no wonder we don’t defend the land where we live. We don’t live here. We live in television programs and movies and books and with celebrities and in heaven and by rules and laws and abstractions created by people far away and we live anywhere and everywhere except in our particular bodies on this particular land at this particular moment in these particular circumstances.”

Wild plants and nutrition

Wild plants are often very nutritious. Many wild plants are perennial, which means they live for more than two years. Because of this they can contain higher levels of mineral nutrients than the common short-lived or annual plants grown as vegetables, in part because they have larger and permanent root systems and thus can take up more nutrients from the soil.

Figure 1: Mineral content of some annual/biennial and perennial vegetables

The above and below figures are taken from pages 16-17 in How to grow Perennial Vegetables by Martin Crawford. The data for the figures comes from the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference and from Cooking Weeds by V. Weise. Please note that different sources have different figures on mineral, vitamin and protein content of plants – see, for example, a table based on Dr. Duke’s Phytochemical and Ethnobotanical database. Also note that there are different mineral and vitamin contents in different parts of plants – the seeds, leaves, flowers and stalks. Finally note that the same plant grown in different ecosystems, with different soil types, exposure to sunlight, and many other factors, will have varying figures.

Vitamin levels in perennial plants are variable, but can be as high or higher than those in short-lived annual vegetables.

Figure 2: Vitamin content of some common annual/biennial and perennial vegetables.

Protein levels in green perennials can be high, and frequently higher than that of biennials and annuals.

Figure 3: Protein content of some common annual/biennial and perennial vegetables

Modern diets are very limited – with many of our needs coming from a small number of plant species. During certain periods in the past – and in many still existing hunter-gatherer societies – we ate a much wider array of plants. We co-evolved with many of these plants, and some of them can be delicious as well as nutritious.

Dangers of nature

It’s important not to be overly romantic about nature. There are dangers – some of which I have experienced – which are very real. Some plants are poisonous, with some even being deadly (e.g. eating poison Hemlock and certain mushrooms can kill you). Please only eat plants you are absolutely certain what they are – there are many people who have eaten misidentified wild plants and ended up in hospital.

Also, in areas of long grass and bracken, ticks exist which carry several diseases which can be very dangerous – including Lyme Disease, Babesiosis, Anaplasmosis and others – not all of which are easily diagnosable or treatable. Ticks are the most serious threat to humans in the British countryside. If you spend a lot of time walking in the countryside, make sure you take precautions against being bitten by ticks, such as tucking your trousers in and spraying your clothes with permethrin. I’d recommend doing tick checks soon afterwards so that if you are bitten, you can remove the tick as soon as possible, reducing the likelihood of transmission of various diseases.

The above image shows one of the most effective tools to remove ticks, as well as instructions how to use it. For more info, including prevention tactics to stop from being bitten from ticks in the first place, please read this guide

Medicinal properties of plants

One of the walks along the seafront

During this talk I will not talk about medicinal properties of plants, or how they are used by herbalists. If you read a traditional book about herbal medicine, and even some of the new ones, many of the medicinal claims have been proven to be wrong or misleading. Many plants have been scientifically researched, and some of the ones which have been found to be effective form the basis for some of today’s medicines that can be prescribed by a Doctor (e.g. Docetaxel, which is used to treat a wide range of cancers, originates from Yew trees). However, herbalists can still advocate plants which have been insufficiently researched or have not been proven to be effective.

If you have health problems, I would absolutely recommend you go to your GP. We are very lucky to live in a country with a universal and evidence-based healthcare system, free at point of use paid for by taxation, so do use it if you need to (even if it is increasingly privatised, underfunded and it excludes some people). Please don’t experiment on yourself with plants medicinally or rely on what you read on the internet – it can be very dangerous! If you do want to use plants to treat yourself, I would strongly recommend you at the very least see a medical herbalist who has some kind of meaningful qualification.

Looking at plants

I want to encourage, when we look at each plant today, for us to take it turns to look and describe the plant. We are often not used to looking in detail and describing plants aloud in this way, and it will help you develop identification skills as well as remember what I have taught you. Try to take your time in describing everything that you see, including:

Speaking to a crowd on the seafront

  • the shape, patterning and texture of the leaves,
  • all features of the stem or bark
  • whether any part of the plant has hairs or not,
  • the smell when you crush the plant
  • the colours
  • anything else that you notice.

Throughout the walk I will focus on a few different plants. If people feel I have missed anything out, please feel free to contribute. Also, if people have any questions, please ask and I’ll try to answer!

There are many different types of leaf shape, arrangement, edge (margin), and vein arrangement (venation). Source: Glossary of leaf morphology

Important things to remember when picking wild plants

  • Only pick wild plants if you are absolutely certain of what they are, identifying them ideally by four different means (e.g. shape, size, colour and texture). Poisonous plants exist, and some look similar to non-poisonous plants. If you are uncertain, don’t risk it!
  • Make sure you pick plants far away from roads, sites of pesticide use and other sources of pollution.
  • Already humans have a very destructive effect on wildlife, through cities, monoculture agriculture, industrial animal farming and the spraying of pesticides, so it’s important to treat remaining semi-wild spaces with respect. There is no wilderness left in the UK – only semi-wild places. It’s important not to think about picking wild plants like going shopping at the supermarket. Many of these plants are habitats and/or eaten by a long list of other species, so only take what you can eat or use. If everyone in the local area collected wild plants, semi-wild spaces would be decimated and it would be completely unsustainable.
  • With many plants, try to only take the leaves and tops, instead of pulling out the roots. Many plants will send out new shoots if do that.
  • Plastic waste is a massive problem – if you see any trash on the walk, please pick it up. If all of us did this, we would have a large positive effect.

Further reading

If you want help identifying plants, there are many facebook groups where experts help each other identify plants, such as the Herb, Plant and Foraging identification workgroup, The Wild Plant Group UK & Ireland, and Wild Plant Guide: Britains edible and medicinal plants. The Plants for a Future online database also provides an invaluable resource for identifying and finding out the uses of different plants. There are also lots of mobile apps which now exist which can help you identify plants.

Plants Guides.

There are hundreds of different plant identification books – below are just a few I have found useful:

Food for Free – Richard Mabey
Wild Flowers of Britain – Roger Philiips
The Wild Flowers of Britain and Northern Europe – Richard Fritter, Alastair Fritter and Marjorie Blamey
Trees and Shrubs of Britain – Readers Digest
Mushrooms & Toadstools Of Britain & Europe – Edmund Garnweidner
The illustrated Wild Flower Finders Calendar – David Lang
Wild Flowers of Chalk & Downlands – J.E.Lousley
Plants for a Future – Ken Fern

A couple of books on how to read the landscape

The Living Landscape – Patrick Whitefield
Freedom to Roam Guide to the Brighton Downs – Dave Bangs

Permaculture books which give insight into plants and understanding the landscape

Earth Care Manual – Patrick Whitefield
Permaculture One – Bill Mollison
Permaculture Two – Bill Mollison
Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual – Bill Mollison
Creating a Forest Garden – Martin Crawford
Perennial Vegetables – Martin Crawford

On understanding the medical uses of plants

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre gives a nice introduction to how medical science works.

For in-depth research into the medical research of plants, we’re very lucky to be living in an age when we can search the world’s scientific/academic research on the internet. We can search the latin names of plants in sites like Pubmed and Google Scholar to find the medical research on each plant. And while there is an increase in open access journals, if you want to read research which is behind a paywall, go to Sci-Hub, which has free access to more than an estimated two thirds of all scholarly articles.

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NOTE: Because there are quite a few footnotes in this article, I am also attaching it here as a .pdf to make it easier to read. Please feel free to leave comments below.

Thoughts from the forest, ecovillage and sickbed on our beliefs about nature and anarcho-primitivism

canoewild(A friend and the author canoeing)

After living in the forest for a year, helping set up an eco-village, co-organising wilderness gatherings, meeting many people with, or supportive of, anarcho-primitivist (or indigenist)(1) belief systems and then ending up very ill from a countryside-associated disease, I want to share some hard-learned thoughts.

In particular I explore how it can be dangerous when people advocate belief systems when they have not fully explored their practical consequences or applied them to their own lives. This is especially true when those belief systems – as I try to show with anarcho-primitivism – advocate a very radical break from society, which can alter every aspect of our lives.

An introduction to belief systems

All of us have belief systems(2)(3) through which we interpret – and understand – the world around us, which in turn guide the actions that we take. Belief systems are a framework of ideas, knowledge and experiences that we hold at any one time and which we use to make decisions. They may be religious, philosophical or ideological, and they underpin what we value and what we think is right and wrong.

These belief systems often change throughout our lives as we are exposed to new ideas and experiences through reading, discussing, working, loving, losing, struggling,raising families or having many other life experiences. These ideas often change if we try to put them into practice and find that the reality is different from what we expected.

All of us have been born into an incredibly complex world and experience it very differently. We are all part of different ecosystems, surrounded by species which are often interdependent in ways we do not realise. Scientific knowledge is advancing at an unprecedented rate, leaving many of us behind and yet influencing so much of how the world around us works. We are often surrounded by human or machine-made products, of which we have little idea where or how they are made (or what happens to them when they are thrown away). We are governed by incredibly complex political, economic and legal systems – developed over hundreds or thousands of years – which are local, national and international, and which only a small percentage of people really understand. We are all born into families with different professional backgrounds, amounts of wealth and education. Throughout our working lives many of us have highly specialised jobs, where we are often only exposed to narrow groups of people, ideas and tasks. We are bombarded with information, some of which we choose based on our existing belief systems, which can in turn perpetuate them. This information often has known – and unknown – vested interests and biases behind it and is ultimately trying to influence our actions.

In light of all of this we try to understand the complex world around us through different belief systems based on our very unique experiences and knowledge. We develop frameworks or belief systems which try to explain what is going on and offer solutions to the problems we face.

The environment or mother nature

Over the years I have been especially fascinated by the different belief systems that people have on “the environment” or “mother nature”, because it is the life system we are all a part of and are dependent on. This is partly why I went to live in the forest and helped set-up a small eco-village – I wanted to practically explore these belief systems.

In the last few decades “the environment” has been increasingly on our minds because the impacts of Western lifestyles have become ever more apparent:human-caused climate change, the depletion of natural resources on which our current way of life depends, the melting of the ice caps, widespread pollution, extinction or depletion of various species, deforestation and much more.

Various people have tried to explain the root problems behind this. Some believe that it is the fault of a growing human population which is using ever more resources. Others argue that our excessive production and consumption is the problem, especially because of the overwhelming focus on economic growth and profit of the state corporate capitalist system in which we live. Some say that it is the discovery of fossil fuels such as oil which has led down this path or that the fault lies with the energy intensive technologies that humans have developed, particularly since the start of the industrial revolution. Others say that it is the increasing urbanisation of our species, which requires increasing amounts of resources to import goods into urban areas and which fundamentally disconnects us from the land where these goods are coming from (and going to when we throw them away). Some give more class based explanations, arguing that those who own and control most of the world (the very rich or 1%) make the rest of us work and produce much more than we need to so they can benefit from the profits of our labour. Yet others give psychological reasons, looking at historical – and current – human behaviour patterns to explain human desires to consume ever more goods. There are many more theories trying to explain the environmental crisis.

Similarly, depending on peoples’ belief systems and what they think to be realistic, there has been a long list of solutions proposed to counter these problems. These range from technological solutions which claim that we can carry on living as we do but replace our fossil fuel energy supplies with renewable and/or nuclear energy. Others think that our economic and political model is at fault and needs to be fundamentally reformed, including severely regulating or even banning corporations and changing our priorities away from economic growth. Some propose relocalising our economies and even promote eco-villages, going back to the land, permaculture, forest gardening and organic agriculture as solutions.Others think we are stuck in an unstoppable system which is doomed to collapse so we may as well enjoy our time on earth while we have it.

A good example of this range of opinions is given by Jonathan Porritt in the book Capitalism as if the World Matters, where he outlines the importance of belief systems for environmentalists when it comes to determining what actions we should take in relation to the dominant economic system – capitalism:

“If, as a politically active environmentalist or campaigner for social justice, one’s answer to the question is they are, indeed mutually exclusive (that capitalism, in whichever manifestation, is in its very essence inherently unsustainable), then one’s only morally consistent response is to devote one’s political activities to the overthrow of capitalism. If one’s answer is that they are entirely compatible (that there are no structural, inherent characteristics within a capitalist system that would make sustainability an unattainable goal), then it is morally consistent to pursue sustainable development (as the path that leads to that goal) within and through that capitalist system. And if one’s answer is that they are only compatible under certain conditions (it isn’t capitalism per se that is at issue here, but which model of capitalism), then the transformation of those aspects of contemporary capitalism that are incompatible with the attainment of sustainability becomes both a moral and a political precondition of being an effective environmentalist or campaigner for social justice.” (p. 87)

As Porritt points out, what we believe about capitalism and sustainability can determine where we focus our energies. Do we try and reform capitalism or overthrow it? Belief systems guide what we think is the right thing to do and in turn our actions.

Anarcho-primitivism

A few years ago I was fascinated by one belief system which has influenced a lot of people – anarcho-primitivism. This is one of the reasons I went and lived in the forest – to practically explore some of its ideas as well as just wanting to learn more about nature first-hand. Within the environmental movement there has always been a strand of thought which questions the wisdom of much of modernity. However, writers such as John Zerzan and Derrick Jensen go further and question not just technology and capitalism, but the benefits of civilisation itself.(4)

Rather than misrepresent their ideas and arguments I’d recommend you read their books or watch them speak if you really want to understand what they have to say (they have many videos on the internet).(5) One good place to start is an interview of John Zerzan by Derrick Jensen.(6)

I summarise some of their ideas in this article, albeit in an incomplete way. Both Jensen and Zerzan argue that humans have lived as hunter gatherers for most of humanity and civilisation has risen relatively recent in human history. According to Jensen and Zerzan, hunter gatherer tribes were – and still are in some places – relatively egalitarian, relaxing and peaceful societies whose way of life was/is genuinely sustainable.

They argue that the rise of agriculture – around 10,000 years ago – led to food surpluses in hunter-gatherer tribes. These surpluses introduced higher levels of inequality into the tribes as some looked after – and controlled – the food supply. These surpluses also enabled greater division of labour within society as some people could pursue (voluntarily or involuntarily) activities other than food collection.They also argue that the rise of agriculture fundamentally shifted our attitude to the rest of nature as we tried to domesticate and control it for our own means, rather than just taking from – and being a part of – wild nature. Ultimately, the rise of agriculture enabled the rise of cities and civilisation as we know it. To be clear, Jensen defines civilisation as:

“a culture—that is, a complex of stories, institutions, and artifacts— that both leads to and emerges from the growth of cities (civilization, see civil: from civis, meaning citizen, from Latin civitatis, meaning city-state), with cities being defined—so as to distinguish them from camps, villages, and so on—as people living more or less permanently in one place in densities high enough to require the routine importation of food and other necessities of life.” (7)

For both Jensen and Zerzan, the rise of civilisation was the beginning of many of our environmental and social problems. As cities grew they required more resources to be imported into them which led, for example, to forests being chopped down for building supplies, fuel or to provide land for farming. Nowadays around half the world’s population live in urban areas, with around 80% of people in Northern European countries living in urban areas.(8) What is needed to sustain our current way of life in those cities is well documented. We can, if we want, visit the clear-cuts, mines or factories spread across the planet which sustain cities and see first-hand the devastating impact they have on many different eco-systems.

ku-xlarge
Ekati Diamond Mine, Nothwest Territories, Canada – Source: When Earth is Scarred Forever  – website has a collection of photos and information about some of the world’s biggest open cast mines.

Jensen and Zerzan believe that our current state capitalist industrial civilisation is completely unsustainable and will eventually collapse. They point out that humans are using up non-renewable finite resources, such as oil, at an ever increasing rate to sustain our current way of life and that this can not continue. Jensen quotes a friend of his, George Draffan, in his book Endgame as saying:

“(…) the only sustainable level of technology is the Stone Age. What we have now is the merest blip—we’re one of only six or seven generations who ever have to hear the awful sound of internal combustion engines (especially two-cycle)—and in time we’ll return to the way humans have lived for most of their existence. Within a few hundred years at most. The only question will be what’s left of the world when we get there.”(9)

Jensen and Zerzan go further than this. They want people not just to wait for the collapse of civilisation, which they think may take hundreds of years and cause massive destruction of eco-systems and other species, but for people to actively work to bring about its downfall, by whatever means necessary,as soon as possible before too much damage happens. They want humans to revert to Stone Age technology and return to the land to live a more genuinely sustainable existence. They advocate that people go through a process known as “rewilding” to overcome human domestication and return to behaviour supposedly inherent in wild humans.

Knowledge based on experience?

Over the years I have come to most respect knowledge gained from a combination of theory and practice. For example, if I want to really learn about agriculture I read books and journal articles about it as well as trying to grow plants myself. I learn through trial and error as well as speaking to people who have more experience than me. Once I gain sufficient practical and theoretical knowledge, I can then teach other people, which deepens my knowledge on the subject as new issues come up, which in turn further embeds it in my mind. This whole process can throw up lots of new ideas and insights at different stages over several years, especially when coming up against unexpected challenges when trying to turn theoretical knowledge into what practically works in reality.

I have met many people who consider themselves teachers, whether in academic institutions or other places. Some of these teachers have a good balance of theoretical knowledge and practical experience on the subjects they are teaching, while others are more one-sided towards either theory or practice.

One of my main problems with anarcho-primitivism is that it is often advocated by people who have a lot of theoretical knowledge gained from the written word, but little practical knowledge. To give an example, I met John Zerzan a few years ago and asked him: “Have you ever lived in the forest or with hunter gatherers?” He said he had been at a wilderness camp for a few weeks.

At the time this really shocked me. This is a man who has written several books and gives speeches around the world advocating a certain belief system– and is influencing many people – and yet has very little personal, practical experience of what it would really be like to live as a hunter-gatherer. If he had more personal practical experience he would probably have more nuanced and complex belief systems about civilisation and hunter gatherers.Depending on whether his experience in the forest (and/or with hunter gatherers) is positive or negative, his theoretical knowledge would be shaped by the experience. He might not even survive the experience, as he might be killed by accident, disease, starvation, the weather, wild animals or one of the many other challenges the wilderness holds. Thus we might not even hear his new point of view.

Countryside associated diseases

One of the other problems I have with Zerzan and Jensen is that they often underplay or ignore the dangers of living in the countryside and going back to the land. They regularly write and speak about the illnesses and diseases that living in cities and our modern way of life give us. This may in part be due to Derrick Jensen’s personal experience of having Crohn’s disease, which he calls a “disease of civilisation.”(10) This is one of the justifications he uses to access industrial evidence-based healthcare while simultaneously speaking against it (to clarify here: I am in no way against Derrick Jensen receiving healthcare).

However, what about the many diseases that humans can catch from the countryside, some of which can kill or disable us? Depending on which eco-systems we are living in, and what exactly we are doing in those eco-systems, we can catch a wide range of diseases from insects, animals, plants, soils and water.

The American Veterinary Medical Foundation publishes a general guide about diseases that hunters and their hunting dogs may encounter in the United States.(11) This gives a good introduction to some of the many diseases associated with the countryside, including:

• Anaplasmosis
• Avian Influenza
• Babesiosis
• Brucellosis
• Campylobacteriosis (Campylobacter jejuni)
• Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD)
• Cryptosporidiosis
• Deer Parapoxvirus
• Hydatid Tapeworms (Echinococcosis)
• Ehrlichiosis
• Equine Encephalitis Viruses
• Escherichia coli Infection (E. coli)
• Giardiasis
• Hantavirus
• Leptospirosis
• Lyme Disease (Lyme borreliosis)
• Plague
• Q fever
• Rabies
• Raccoon Roundworm (Baylisascarisprocyonis)
• Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (tick-borne typhus fever) and other spotted fevers
• Salmonellosis (Salmonella species)
• Sarcoptic mange
• Toxoplasmosis
• Trichinellosis (trichinosis)
• Tuberculosis
• Tularemia
• West Nile Virus

I can’t help but wonder if Jensen or Zerzan had a disabling countryside associated disease, would they still think in the same way?Unless they go through it themselves, they will not know how it feels to be ill in that way or how it will affect how they think about the world. I also wonder if they spent less time writing books and giving speeches, and more time living on the land, whether they would contract more diseases and therefore have a different perspective?

I have learnt this lesson the hard way.

Living on the land, becoming seriously ill with a countryside associated disease and having ongoing medical treatment has made me think about the countryside and civilisation in very different ways. Meeting and speaking to several people who have contracted chronic, debilitating illnesses, from living in – or visiting- the countryside has also further changed my opinions. I have also read of families moving to the countryside in the United States to give their children a better way of life, only for the entire family to contract diseases and become chronically ill from insects, such as ticks, and then move back into the city to try and get away from further countryside associated illness.(12) A similar problem exists in many parts of Europe, as this tick species distribution map shows:

tickmapIxodesRicinus tick species distribution map. European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, Source: http://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/activities/diseaseprogrammes/emerging_and_vector_borne_diseases/pages/vbornet-maps-tick-species.aspx

Both the countryside and the city have a long list of illnesses and risks associated with them. If they are going to advocate returning to the land, then it would be better if Zerzan and Jensen gave a more balanced view of the risks and diseases associated with that way of life. Their belief systems can be very influential, and it would be better if they gave a health warning to people who want to practically explore them.

Practically applying anarcho-primitivist ideas?

One of the main problems I have with the anarcho-primitivist belief system is that it often does not work if we try to apply them practically in our real lives. For example, I use condoms when I have sex to prevent unwanted pregnancies and from catching Sexually Transmitted Infections. Similarly I would recommend other people to use contraception, unless they want to have children. If my friends or family contract a disease I would recommend that they go to a doctor for examination and treatment (if possible). I would be surprised if anyone reading this genuinely does not agree with these statements.

If you agree with the above statements, then you want an industrial healthcare system. You would also want the healthcare system to use treatments which are based on very strong scientific evidence, for example through double-blinded placebo controlled trials, so doctors know which treatments work.(13) You may even want an industrial healthcare system which is free at point of use, paid for by taxes, like the National Health System in the UK.(14)

The problem is that there are big environmental trade-offs: an industrial healthcare system requires factories, mines, fossil fuel extraction, chemicals and plastic waste disposal to exist. Most humans want access to industrial evidence-based healthcare if we contract a disease, including many people from hunter-gatherer tribes.(15) Some ascribing to anarcho-primitivism say that they don’t want to be treated by industrial evidence-based medical care. However, we do not know what they would think and do if they became very ill.

Industrial evidence-based healthcare

Another problem I have with anarcho-primitivism is that people advocating it often ignore or leave out what would happen if industrial evidence-based healthcare did not exist. We can look at different moments in history to think about this.

When the Black Death (bubonic plague) hit Europe in the 12th Century it killed between 30-60 per cent of Europe’s population. Some cities and villages in England and Italy were hit especially hard and had an estimated death rate between 70-80 per cent.(16)

I can’t even begin to imagine what it would have been like to live through those times; to be surrounded by so much death, disease and despair.

One modern description of the bubonic plague, drawing on medieval texts, is particularly gruesome:

“Tumors covered the body — some of them as big as an egg or apple, Boccaccio wrote. A large neck tumor might permanently cock a person’s head in the opposite direction. Purplish splotches also covered the body. These were nicknamed “God’s tokens,” because God usually took the sufferer soon after they appeared. The sick even smelled like they were going to die. Bad breath and odors indicated they were rotting from the inside.

“Medieval writers tell us that the fevers resulted in delirium — madmen wandered the streets, shouting wildly. The sick vomited incessantly or coughed up blood. Pus and blood oozed from sores. Once the symptoms started to appear, the victim was a ticking time bomb and died within days. No one knew what to do. There wasn’t enough space in the graveyards, so the bloated bodies were left in the street. Dogs ate corpses while babies cried hungrily beside their dead mothers.”(17)

I would not want us to return to this kind of reality and do not know anyone who would. Nowadays, the plague is much more under control, although it does still resurface from time to time. If it is caught early and treated with antibiotics, it can be cured.

Throughout history, many epidemics have swept through human populations:

mortalityepidemics(Source: Austin Alchon, Suzanne (2003) A Pest in the Land: New World Epidemics in a Global Perspective. Page 21 )

If industrial evidence-based healthcare did not exist, many different diseases would spread more rapidly through human populations. Even now, especially where healthcare systems are limited, diseases like tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and Malaria are having devastating impacts on human populations.(18) Many diseases are already mutating and evolving drug resistance and scientists are working to develop new drugs to combat this.

Jensen and Zerzan rarely discuss the health consequences if civilisation were to collapse and we did not have access to industrial evidence-based healthcare. The consequences would be horrific.

Collapse?

Jensen and Zerzan often underplay what would actually happen if they got what they wished for: the collapse of civilisation. Just imagine if the electricity, telecommunications and transportation networks shut down. Just imagine if the factories stopped producing and the tractors stopped ploughing. Just imagine if the hospitals had equipment shortages and no power.

Food shortages would occur very quickly. Diseases would start spreading more rapidly through the populace. Nuclear reactors could meltdown. People would start dying on a massive scale, including maybe even ourselves, our families and our friends. It is impossible to know how people would react and whether we would turn on each other or if we would try to work together and organise (or, most likely, both). Would riots erupt? Would governments try and enforce their power over the people? There are many unknowns of how such a future would turn out, however the transition would most likely be horrific

Noam Chomsky has famously described such a transition:

“Hunter-gatherer societies, which were all there were for most of human history, may well have had pretty relaxed lives, as Sahlins and others argue. That doesn’t change the fact that going back to such a state would mean instant mass genocide on an unimaginable scale.”(19)

If anarcho-primitivists understood the full consequences of their belief systems, I suspect that many of them would not be organising to bring down a system which we are dependent on for food, power and healthcare, especially if it would result in “mass genocide”.

I sometimes wish that Jensen and Zerzan spent more time exploring what could happen if civilisation collapsed. If they did, their audience would get a more balanced perspective, and understand the pros and cons of anarcho-primitivism. Instead, anarcho-primitivists often try to convince people with strong ideological beliefs which are not grounded in the reality of what it would be like if their ideas were actually realised.

The positive sides of civilisation?

I have rarely seen, heard or read Jensen or Zerzan discussing the positive sides of civilisation. Science has been a very mixed blessing for humanity. It has brought nuclear weapons but also amazing medical developments. It has brought gas chambers but also given us the knowledge of bee’s complex navigational systems. It has also given us the anthropological history of those hunter-gatherer tribes that Jensen and Zerzan cite in their work.

I am glad for certain things that civilisation has brought us, such as the development of the written word and that I can read. I am glad that past scientists proved that the world is round, rather than flat. I am glad that I can read – and think – about evolution, rather than being force-fed the idea that the world was created by an omnipotent being. I am glad I can access healthcare based on science.

Simultaneously, I acknowledge there are many negative sides to our civilisation, such as the destruction of eco-systems to fuel and feed it, and the widespread pollution that it creates.

The picture is complex and it is unfortunate that Jensen and Zerzan often do not present this complexity.

The negative aspects of hunter-gather cultures?

Another aspect that Zerzan and Jensen often underplay is the negative aspects of hunter-gatherer cultures.They sometimes provide a one-sided and unbalanced viewpoint which can romanticise certain ways of living and being. While there are many great things about hunter-gatherer tribes – and they are often much more environmentally sustainable than civilised cultures – they also have many dark sides. I have never lived with hunter-gatherers (so be wary of what I write about them), but I know people who have done so for several years as well as reading written accounts of anthropologists living with them.

I do not want to make generalisations as each tribe has its own culture and traditions. Putting aside the effect of diseases and personal injury, tribes can be severely affected by extreme weather conditions. Inter-tribal warfare, human sacrifices and cannibalism have all occurred in some tribes. Some tribes have ostracised members because they did not fit in with the social norms of the tribe. These people sometimes ended up living alone in difficult conditions, and some die alone.

There is not space in this article to give detailed accounts of peoples’ different experiences with tribes. Some are very positive, while others are mixed or even negative. I do not want to idealise hunter-gatherer tribes and underplay the negative aspects of some of their cultures. Either way, there are some tribes which I have heard about in which I would definitely not want to live.

Belief systems and action

Because belief systems influence how we interpret the world and what actions we take, it is crucial that we question the ones that we hold. I have seen how anarcho-primitivist belief systems can affect people. At the extreme I knew two people who killed themselves, at least partly influenced by anarcho-primitivism.(20) Another person I know has disappeared while exploring Alaska by himself, and sadly it looks like he has died.(21) Several other people I know, as well as myself, have become very seriously ill by contracting diseases when practically exploring anarcho-primitivist ideas or just by living and working in the countryside.

Jensen and Zerzan often do not acknowledge the power of their ideas and how their belief systems can negatively impact people.

Final thoughts

The way we interact with the environment and civilisation changes the way we feel and think about it (and vice-versa). I recommend that people question everything that is written here, read more deeply about it and discuss it. It is important to be open to new ideas, while also being sceptical of them.

I have tried to show some of the problems I have with anarcho-primitivism, focussing on the work of John Zerzan and Derek Jensen. I think it is often advocated by people who do not have that much practical experience of living it and who provide a one-sided perspective. When we try and practically apply it to our lives, it is often impractical or inconsistent with common sense andcan lead to serious health or other problems. Also, if taken to its logical conclusion – the collapse of civilisation – it would have absolutely horrific consequences on the human population.

However, while I am very sceptical of anarcho-primitivism as a belief system, I would still recommend that people experiment in interacting with the environment in different ways, as long as you research the risks of doing so, including taking maximum precautions against the diseases you can contract in those environments. Grow some vegetables, visit some clear-cuts and old-growth forests, try to save a species or area from being destroyed, study the plants, animals, insects and diseases that exist in an area. Do not just think about these things in your head, but see how you think and feel when you do them in real life.

Some further reading which will give you a good spectrum of thought within the environmental movement

* Endgame – Derrick Jensen
* Against Civilization – John Zerzan (editor)
* 5 Common Objections to Primitivism and Why They’re Wrong – Jason Godesky
* Fire and Ice: Disturbing the Comfortable and Comforting the Disturbed While Tracking Our Wildest Dreams – Laurel Luddite
* Capitalism as if the World Matters – Jonathan Porritt
* Green Economics – Molly Scott Cato
* Small is Beautiful – E.F. Schumacher
* Green History: A Reader in Environmental Literature, Philosophy, and Politics – Derek Wall
* Babylon and Beyond: The Economics of Anti-Capitalist, Anti-Globalist and Radical Green Movements – Derek Wall
* The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth Is Fighting Back – and How We Can Still Save Humanity–James Lovelock
* Walden – Henry David Thoreau
* Which Way for the Ecology Movement? Essays by Murray Bookchin
* How Much is Enough? The Love of Money and the Case for the Good Life – Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky

Two essays on belief systems and how they impact our actions

* In Doubt We Trust – Cults, religions, and BS in general – Robert Anton Wilson
* Left and Right: A Non-Euclidean Perspective – Robert Anton Wilson

Footnotes

(1) In this article I use the term ‘anarcho-primitivism,’ only because I wanted to use one term throughout the article. However, I do recognise that Derrick Jensen has rejected  the term “primitivist” because, in his words, it’s a “racist way to describe indigenous peoples.” He prefers “indigenist” or “ally to the indigenous,” because “indigenous peoples have had the only sustainable human social organizations, and … we need to recognize that we [colonizers] are all living on stolen land.” Source: http://www.zoeblunt.ca/2011/03/20/uncivilized/
(2) For more on belief systems, see these articles by Robert Anton Wilson: ‘Left and Right: A Non-Euclidean Perspective’  and ‘In Doubt We Trust – Cults, religions, and BS in general
(3) Timothy Leary has called them ‘Reality Tunnels’.
(4) In this article I focus on Jensen and Zerzan, however I acknowledge that there are many other anarcho-primitivist writers who have different views on a wide range of subjects.
(5) Throughout my life I have often seen peoples’ ideas misrepresented to suit personal – or organisational – interests, so I always recommend others to go back to what people actually said in source texts or speeches.
(6) An interview with John Zerzan & Derrick Jensen, December 5 2010.
(7) Jensen, Derrick (2006) Endgame. Quote is from this chapter.
(8)  World Urbanization Prospects – The 2011 Revision, UNDESA.
(9) Jensen, Derrick (2006) Endgame. Quote is from this chapter.
(10)  Transcript of a six part video interview with Derrick Jensen
(11) ‘Disease precautions for hunters ‘, American Veterinary Medical Foundation:
(12) For stories of people and families going through this experience, have a look at Cure Unknown by Pamela Weintraub.
(13) For an interesting introduction to how double blinded placebo controlled trials work, have a read of Bad Science by Ben Goldacre.
(14) The NHS is becoming more and more privatised at the moment, so it is uncertain how long it will exist in this way.
(15) See, for example this from Survival International and this article from the BBC entitled ‘Brazilian indigenous groups demand better healthcare
(16) Austin Alchon, Suzanne (2003) A Pest in the Land: New World Epidemics in a Global Perspective by Suzanne Austin Alchon. Page 21 gives a table with ‘Mortality Associated with Epidemics in the old world before 1500’:
(17)  ‘How the Black Death Worked’ by Molly Edmonds
(18) For more on this, look at the Global Fund: http://www.theglobalfund.org/en/about/diseases/
(19) ‘Comments on Moore’ by Noam Chomsky, Social Anarchism, February 8, 2006
(20)  The reasons behind suicide are often very complex, so I do not want to simplify these people’s deaths. However, I do think that the belief systems those people held probably contributed to the reason why they killed themselves.
(21)  For a series of articles about him see here: http://www.alaskadispatch.com/search/site/%22Thomas%20Seibold%22?solrsort=ds_created%20desc

Final thanks

Many thanks to the people who proofread this article!

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First published September 2008


Image source

My friend, Lisa Lewinsohn, has just written her thesis at the Planning Policy and Low Impact Developments – What are the planning barriers to low impact developments in rural areas in Britian and how might they be overcome? (.pdf 1.4MB).

I’d recommend anyone interested in affordable and environmentally low impact self-built housing, agriculture, land, sustainability, planning, policy and how they are all interconnected in the UK to have a read. She focuses on a few case studies in Pembrokeshire (including Lammas and The Roundhouse at Brithdir Mawr). Pembrokeshire is only one of four local authorities in the country at the time of writing to have a Low Impact Development Policy. She then goes on to look at how Low Impact Developments could be made more widespread in the UK and what a national policy for them could look like.
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First published in 2007.

Before you read this please bear in mind that I am not an expert on Survival International. This blog just reflects my thoughts after going to one lecture about them. I have heard that Survival International do many great things all around the world and you should bear in mind that this blog is probably not representative of Survival International or what they do in the real world. It is as much a reflection on what I was thinking about at the time – as well as my state of my mind – as what Jo Woodman was talking about. Jo also did not get a chance to answer some of the issues I have raised here. Please look elsewhere for more detailed analysis of Survival International or get involved with them yourself and see what the experience is like.

I recently went to a talk by Jo Woodman from Survival International on “‘Development’ and the health of tribal peoples”

Find the slides online here. They are very direct, powerful and thought provoking. (Warning: the slides are 13MB). I would recommend people have a read. Here is a sample:

Jo also distributed a short cartoon book at the talk which satirises development (and development studies). You can watch the 2 minute slide show of the book, There you go! online.

I realised while listening to her talk that Survival International’s position reminded me of the Communist Manifesto. These sections in particular came to mind:
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First published on 2007-06-26 13:20

(The Fairtrade shop at Pentrehafod School is run by a student workers’ co-operative – Source: Times Educational Supplement)

At the recent co-operative congress, I went to a fringe meeting hosted by the UK Society for Co-operative Studies on ‘Where are the co-operators of the future to be found?’ Kevin McGrother (Young Co-operatives), Kirsty Palmer (Woodcraft Folk General Secretary), Mags Bradbury (Membership Diversity, Co-op Group) and Pam Walker (East of England Co-op Education Dept.) all spoke about their experiences in this field.

This was one of the most eye opening events of the Congress. I had not realised that co-operative educators had been teaching kids in schools across the country how to set up their own workers’ co-operatives. Kevin McGrother talked in detail how Young Co-operatives had been advocating the worker co-operative model in schools. They help small groups of young people to set up their own workers’ co-operatives to sell Fair Trade products. Apparently, they have been involved to some extent in around 350 schools.
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First published on Mon, 2007-05-07

(Source: here – a picture of the protests between November 29, 1999 and December 3, 1999 when the World Trade Organization (WTO) held its ministerial meeting in Seattle)

Below is my paper on the possibility of a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) tax within the current World Trade Organization (WTO) framework. The first section is semi-plagiarised from one of my other papers on ‘The negative development impacts of a “food miles” approach to agriculture‘ (I had to write two extremely complicated 5000 word papers in one month and needed to self-plagiarise), but the rest is new. I ended up getting an A- grade for the paper. The comments that I received from the two professors who were marking it are at the bottom of the page.

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First published on Sat, 2007-01-27

Please find below the notes on the relocalisation and deindustrialisation of agriculture from my recent term paper. In the end, I had to cut few thousand words of arguments surrounding the potential positive impacts of relocalisation from the paper. Therefore, I have put them below. I must warn you that not only are they in note form but that almost all of the points made below are extremely contested within their respective literatures. I have not presented the arguments from the other sides here.

Introduction

There is a vast literature that states that a relocalisation and deindustrialisation of agriculture is needed to reduce carbon emissions. For the purposes of this blog, I will touch briefly on the work of Dr. Vandana Shiva, Jules Pretty, Via Campesina, Tim Lang, Caroline Lucas and Mike Woodin. I will also outline some of the authors other arguments used, many of which are similar, for a relocalisation and deindustrialisation of agriculture. I will only be able to mention a few different areas which these authors cover: environment, concentration of power and ownership (and the importance of local communities), output efficiency of smaller farms, protection against fluctuating global prices, domestic food security and reconnecting people with land and nature.

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