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I feel deeply sad that the Scots decided to vote No to independence. Although Alex Salmond and the SNP definitely had their faults (especially with some of their policies), and I had more sympathies with the vision of the Radical Independence Campaign, Common Weal  and the Scottish Greens, what the YES campaign did was to inspire hope that another kind of politics could happen, as George Monbiot argued so well. That there could be an alternative to the last 30 years of neoliberalism, ramped up by Margaret Thatcher and continued by New Labour. An alternative to austerity economics, which has hit the poorest the hardest, has further entrenched inequality (of wealth, property, opportunity), foodbanks, homelessness and which has given the excuse to privatise the Royal Mail, large parts of the NHS, and much more. I wanted to see if Scotland could go down a different path

Although Salmond has at times been in bed with Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump, and had advocated lowering corporation tax if Scotland gained independence, there were signs that an independent Scotland could have gone a different direction. One of them was that Rupert Murdoch came out against some of Salmond’s allies and policies at the end, which meant the Scottish Sun didn’t support independence. Murdoch said on twitter:

Already in Scotland there are much more progressive policies in many areas. University education is currently free in Scotland, instead of up to £9,000 a year in England, which can end up as around £100,000 in repayments. They have a roadmap to generate the equivalent of 100% of Scotland’s gross annual electricity consumption with renewables by 2020 (although some of what they include as renewable is contentious, is reliant on exporting and importing energy to England during peak and trough times and it is uncertain if they will meet this ambitious target), instead of the situation in Westminster where a very large proportion of Conservative MPs still don’t even believe climate change is caused by humans, including the former Environment Secretary Owen Paterson. Much more of the NHS in Scotland is still in public hands, unlike in England, where New Labour and then the ConDem coalition have been privatising it like crazy. It’s got so bad in the rest of the UK that Doctors told Scots in The Lancet to vote for independence to stop it being privatised as well as the fact that doctors, nurses and other medical professionals have also gotten together to form their own political party to fight to protect the NHS – the National Health Action Party.  The Scots have also been discussing land reform, including from the 432 people who own 50 per cent of rural Scotland, and have made initial steps to implement it. They already have a more democratic and proportional voting system for the Scottish Parliament than the first past the post system used in the UK general elections. I could go on.

I had hoped to see how an independent Scotland would continue these many trends. If they gained independence, Salmond, amongst other things, had promised to:

Whether they would have done those things once independent is another matter, but it would have been exciting to see them try, and maybe that would have helped shift the debate in the rest of the UK as the Scottish led the way on what could be achieved.

So, why did they lose the vote?

Of the  84.15% of the Scottish population who turned out to vote, 45% voted YES for independence, while 55% voted NO. Unfortunately there were no exit polls, but an Ashcroft poll of more than 2,000 people showed how different age groups voted:

HowVoteInReferendum(Source)

This led to some saying: “The old have killed the hopes of the young”. However, when looking at the above data, it’s important not to make too much of the 71% of 16-17 year olds who voted for YES. As Full Fact pointed out:

Various media sources and Twitter users have today reported on the results of a poll by Lord Ashcroft, which showed that 71% of 16- and 17-year-old respondents said they voted Yes to independence. However, this figure (available in underlying data tables) is based on just 14 responses in this age group – that’s ten yes-voters. Such a small sample means there’s a huge range of uncertainty around the estimate, so it’s impossible to say whether this figure is representative of the actual proportion. The proportion of 16- to 24-year-olds that said they had voted yes (based on a more robust 98 cases) was 51%.

Even still, a majority of people from 25-54 voted YES, and those over 65 overwhelmingly voted NO.

Others pointed out that areas with more deprivation, unemployment, urban population and shorter life expectancy had bigger support for independence (although the small sample of 32 local authorities may be too small to be certain about that):

ScotVotingLifeExpectancy

(Source)

votedeprevation

(Source)

(For more graphs looking at the relationship between urban/rural population, percentage of those on unemployment benefits and more see this and this)

So, if you believe the above correlations as being significant with the limited data available, the old and the rich were much more likely to vote NO, and the poor and young were much likely to vote YES. There are many theories as to why that is, which I wont go into here.

It’s also interesting to look at what the main reasons which were given for voting NO. As Ashcroft pointed out from his poll:

By far the most important reason [for voting NO] was that “the risks of becoming independent looked too great when it came to things like the currency, EU membership, the economy, jobs and prices”. Nearly half (47%) of No voters said this was their biggest consideration. This was echoed in the more specific issues people said had played a part in their vote. The pound was the single most important of these, mentioned by more than half (57%) of all No voters. Nearly four in ten (37%) were concerned about pensions, and 36% cited the NHS (as did more than half of those who voted Yes).

So it wasn’t just about age and wealth.

Propaganda onslaught

To be honest, I’m amazed that 45% of the population did vote YES with the propaganda onslaught against independence. As Craig Murray, former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan and Rector of the University of Dundee, pointed out:

My heart is still bursting with pride that 45% of Scots – a people devoid of political autonomy for three hundred years – had the nerve, intellect and will to see through the avalanche of propaganda from the entire mainstream media, political establishment, banking sector and corporate world. I met numerous voters who had received letters from their employers – including Diageo, BP, RNS and many others – telling them to vote No or their job was in danger. I met the old lady in Dundee who was told by the Labour Party that independent Scotland would flood the country with immigrants, and a Romanian building worker in Edinburgh who had been told by the Labour Party that Independent Scotland would deport all East Europeans.

George Monbiot also pointed out that:

there is no newspaper – local, regional or national, English or Scottish – that supports independence except the Sunday Herald.

A team of academics even studied the BBC’s coverage of the independence referendum between 17 September 2012 – 18 September 2013, looking at 730 hours of evening TV news output broadcast by BBC Scotland and Scottish Television (STV), and found the BBC to be very biased against Scottish independence. This research was then stonewalled and mostly unreported by the BBC. The BBC then went above the researchers head to his Principal at the University of West Scotland to try (unsuccessfully) to discredit the research.

Other studies of the BBC, on other aspects of their reporting, have found similar results of bias, including:

On BBC News at Six, business representatives outnumbered trade union spokespersons by more than five to one (11 vs 2) in 2007 and by 19 to one in 2012.

So, bearing all this in mind, it really is amazing that 45% of the Scottish population voted for independence. Even though they didn’t win, it seems like a small victory for alternative media (Bella Caledonia, Open Democracy) and other information sources (Twitter, Facebook), which provided lots of analysis and facts supporting the case for independence. This is maybe a sign of hope for the future, as ideas not normally presented in the corporate media (whether due to the Manufacturing of Consent as described by Noam Chomsky or the Churnalism as described by Nick Davies) were able to be distributed and discussed through alternative channels. As the internet generation gets older, and hopefully less exclusively reliant on corporate media, maybe it will vote YES at the next referendum for independence?

The future in Scotland?

Even though Scotland voted NO to independence, there has been a massive shift in political consciousness. A facebook community has been created after the vote – We are the 45% – which now has over 160,000 people following it. The Radical Independence Conference has now had over 6000 people sign up to attend. Over 3000 people, since the referendum, have joined the Scottish Green Party (who supported independence), more than doubling its size:

While the SNP has experienced an even bigger surge of support:

The Scottish Socialist Party has also almost doubled in size.

Many are channelling their recent politicisation by the referendum into the political parties and movements which supported independence. Whether we like it or not, the state makes the rules and laws which govern our lives, so more active engagement with politics by a larger amount of people gives me hope for the future direction of Scottish politics and that better policies will be introduced. As Andy Wightman, author of The Poor Had No Lawyers: Who Owns Scotland (And How They Got It), recently said:

Meanwhile, in England, Jack Straw, the Labour MP who helped take the UK into the illegal war in Iraq, now wants to make it illegal to dissolve the union in the future unless a majority of MPs in Westminster parliament agree to it.  And many are questioning whether the ConDemLab coalition will follow through with the vow of further devolution promised if a NO vote happened.

Whatever happens, it is exciting times for Scotland ahead. The population has been politicised and will fight even more for change.

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The article below was originally published in Red Pepper in February 2014

Brighton & Hove’s council tax referendum: the pros and cons
Ed Jones looks at the rights and wrongs of a referendum on whether to raise council tax by 4.75 per cent in order to protect services

brighton-pierPhoto: dawarwickphotography/Flickr

Almost all government policies have pros and cons, winners and losers – and the proposed Brighton & Hove referendum to raise council tax by 4.75 per cent is no exception. This article looks at who would gain and who would lose from the plan.

Firstly we need to put the referendum in context. It is being held because of the austerity measures imposed by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, which have meant that Brighton & Hove’s council budget has to be cut by around £100 million over four years. The referendum on a 4.75 per cent council tax rise has come about because of a cap on council tax increases above 2 per cent imposed by central government. The only way to get a rise above that approved – to help protect the services which vulnerable people depend on – is a referendum.

Already, many poor, sick and disabled people are suffering as a result of austerity measures while taxes are being cut for the rich and corporations. There has been a soaring rise in homelessness, food bank usage and people choosing between heating their homes or feeding themselves. Further cuts would most likely continue this trend.

Council tax in Brighton

It is important to know that Brighton & Hove administrations of all political hues have previously raised council tax at higher levels than 4.75 per cent, and sometimes much higher, before the law changed on council tax rises. Here is a year-by-year breakdown of council tax rises in recent years. Red indicates Labour administrations, blue Conservative, and green Green.

tax-increaseFigures provided by the Green Group of councillors

The Greens are a minority administration, which means that Labour and the Tories have been able to team up and prevent previous council tax rises – this is why the 2012-13 rise was 0 per cent. This, taken alongside inflation, has made the funding shortfall for services even more serious.

So, what are the pros and cons of the plan?

Cons

1) The price of the referendum

Opponents of the referendum have argued it is an additional expense that the council can ill afford. There are a range of estimates of how much the referendum will cost. The Green group of councillors says the cost of holding the referendum at the same time as the European elections in May ‘is currently estimated at about £230,000, though this doesn’t include other costs such as dealing with an increased volume of residents’ enquiries about council tax’.

According to council figures, there are currently around 275,000 people living in Brighton & Hove, with around 120,000 eligible households which pay council tax, before taking into account discounts such as those available to those on low incomes and single person households. That means, if the above figures are correct, the referendum would cost around £1 per person in Brighton & Hove, or £2 per eligible household.

2) Residents can’t afford to pay more council tax

There is a cost of living crisis as the prices of housing, food, energy, water, transport and more skyrocket while wages continue to stagnate. In this climate, will people want – or be able – to pay more council tax, even if it is to protect services for some of the most vulnerable people?

Here are the projected figures for what a 4.75 per cent rise would mean across the council tax bands:

band-increases*entitled to disabled relief
Figures provided by the Green Group of councillors

Will the citizens of Brighton & Hove bear these extra costs? Informal polling by the local newspaper, the Argus, says that most people are currently against the idea, but so far there have been no scientifically conducted polls that have asked the citizens of Brighton & Hove the question. Only a referendum could tell us for certain. One of the biggest problems with council tax is that its bands are based on 1 April 1991 levels of value, not what property is worth today, however council tax rises would still be progressive with those at the top paying more.

One alternative idea that some members of the Green Party have previously suggested is the ‘progressive council tax’. This would lower council tax for 80 per cent of the population while raising it for the top 20 per cent – which would probably be more popular! It is currently being looked at by a Green Party working group to see if it is even feasible.

3) The referendum might fail

A council tax rise would be a difficult vote to win at the best of times. In Brighton, however, people might also vote No in the referendum to spite the Greens because there is bitterness about some of their previous decisions. The bin strike, in particular, was a disaster for Jason Kitcat’s administration.

However, they have done many positive things in the city, such as erecting shelters for homeless people, building council houses, and expanding the living wage as well as bringing down the ratio between highest earners and lowest earners in the council to 10:1. For me, on balance, the Greens have been a force for good in the city, especially given the constraints they have to work with. The referendum, though, risks being seen as a referendum not just on the council tax rise but on the Green administration itself.

Pros

1) It would fund services for poor and vulnerable people

Most of us will become old, sick and/or vulnerable during our lives and may need to access similar services. If they are not there any more, not only the current people using them will suffer but many of us in the future will not be able to access them.

According to the Greens, a 4.75 per cent rise in council tax would raise £2.75 million in additional funds. This would go towards key adult social care services, including home care, residential community care, day services and supported employment for disabled people, as well as grants to the third sector.

Further details will be revealed on 13 February, and the devil may be in the detail. However, some unions that traditionally support Labour, such as the GMB and Unison, have already come out in support of the referendum. Mark Turner, the city’s GMB branch secretary, has said: ‘This new budget would protect frontline services in adult social care and a disabled workshop where we have members. Cuts would have absolutely terrible consequences on people’s lives. It is only right that the public have a chance to vote on this proposal.’

2) Referendums promote local debate and democracy

Referendums educate people, getting them to talk about current politics and think about policy. Already councillors have addressed a GMB branch meeting about the council budget, three public debates have been organised about the referendum (on 6 Feb, another on 6 Feb, and 10 Feb), a multitude of articles have been written about it and people across the city are discussing it. Actively engaging people in politics makes them more empowered, less apathetic and more able to appreciate the complexities of political decision making. And all this, as we’ve seen above, for only £1-2 a person!

The Scottish will have a chance to discuss and vote in a referendum on their independence on 18 September. Referendums are regularly held in Switzerland, where they recently decided to curb executive pay (although decided against introducing a cap of top salaries at 12 times that of a company’s lowest-paid worker). The Swiss will be voting in 2014 on the country’s procurement of Saab Gripen E fighter aircraft, amongst other things, and at some point are even set to debate and vote on a national basic or citizen’s income.

If the Scottish and Swiss can have referendums over such wide-ranging and important decisions, I am sure the citizens of Brighton & Hove could vote on a council tax rise.

3) It would send a message

A Yes vote would be a clear signal to the Tory-Liberal coalition that the citizens of Brighton & Hove do not agree with their policies.

The media coverage would be immense and could help shift the frame of debate around austerity economics and politics. It would have ripple effects around the country, and would likely encourage other councils to think about more daring strategies to oppose the cuts.

Final thoughts

Overall, I hope that the referendum goes ahead. It will give citizens a chance to debate and decide on the future direction of the city (for good or for bad). I am disappointed that the local Labour Party has till now opposed the referendum and not tried to find significant alternatives to austerity.

If the residents of Brighton & Hove do get to have a referendum, the way the question is phrased will really matter. People would vote very differently if they saw the following two questions:

a) Do you agree to the council tax rise of 4.5 per cent? OR

b) Do you agree to the council tax rise of 4.5 per cent to protect services for some of the most vulnerable in the city, which are facing cuts as a result of austerity imposed by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition?

Also, the way this issue is reported in the media will make a big difference. The local newspaper, the Argus, is owned by Newsquest, which is in turn owned by Gannett Corporation – a giant multinational media corporation. There are many good journalists at the Argus, however they are under-staffed and under-funded and constrained by the structures which they work within. Not so long ago, workers at the Argus went on strike due to job losses.

These contraints drastically affect what issues are covered and how they are covered, and will affect how the proposed referendum is presented to the public. That is why, if nothing else, it is important we make ourselves aware of the facts.

The timeline

13 February: Budget policy & resources committee meeting. Final draft of budget proposals are published and agreed on at committee. It would require one or both of the opposition parties to support the referendum proposals, or abstain, for the decision to go to the budget meeting on 27 February.

27 February: Budget. Council budget for 2014-15 is set. Final decision on whether to freeze or increase council tax will be taken here by all councillors. If an increase above the referendum trigger threshold is set, a referendum would then be held in May.

22 May: Possible Referendum Date. If agreed at the budget meeting in February, this would be the date for a referendum on council tax – the same day as the European elections.

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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 Mon, 2006-05-08

I’m not going to go into detail about the contents of Saturday’s Power Conference. For that, you can look at Davide Simonetti reporting/blogging it here.

What I will say is that I got the chance to ask David Cameron whether he supported participatory budgets. My question was more or less as follows: “Mr Cameron, one of the main things that I took from the Power Inquiry is the lack of power that I have as an individual over decisions that affect my life. What do you think about participatory budgets, like the one in Porto Alegre, where citizens have control over 17% over their local budget? There have been initial experiments in the UK with participatory budgets, such as in Harrow. Do you support these in the UK?”

In typical politician fashion, he did not directly answer my question. He did not address the idea of communities and individuals having control over a portion of the budget, or the idea of truly giving power to people. Instead, he talked about the fact that police commissioners should be elected and that visionary civic leaders are needed. Bastard! I should have shouted out that he didn’t answer my question, like other people did later when he didn’t answer their questions. Oh well, I’ve learnt my lesson there. Instead I sent him an email, although I doubt he will respond.

Apparently the event will be covered this week on BBC Parliament, so people out there will be lucky enough to see me ask my question (and David Cameron’s rubbish answer).

Exploring Active Citizenship

I have just finished reading a book which I picked up from the Power Conference which has gone straight onto my list of favourite books of all time: Beyond the Classroom – Exploring Active Citizenship in 11-16 Education which is edited by Benjamin Linsley and Elisabeth Rayment.
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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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