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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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A friend has asked me to write my thoughts on the Green Party’s recent Economic Democracy Motion. Specifically, what I thought about this paragraph:

“We will grant employees the legal right to buy out their companies and turn them into workers co-operatives. Buy-outs would be funded by a Green National Investment Bank and contingent on the co-ops following green and ethical policies. These co-operatives would localise economic decision-making and give employees incentives for greater productivity.”

I think that the proposers of the motion had their hearts in the right place, however I can see many potential problems which could come from such a policy, some of which I will outline here. Please bear in mind that this is not a detailed analysis of this policy, but just some initial thoughts.

Ultimately, the aim of this blog post is to help bring forward a better motion in the future as well as to encourage more reading, thinking and discussion within the Green Party on this subject.

Before continuing, I need to let you know that I have a lot of love for workers’ co-operatives and I really want them to grow in the UK. I studied them during my Masters and wrote a few papers about them at the time (see the papers Are workers’ co-operatives schools of democracy? A case study of two UK workers’ co-operatives as well as Power in Utopia? Analysis of two UK workers’ co-operatives through Steven Lukes’ three-dimensional lens). I have also volunteered in a community bike co-operative, helped set up a small eco-village run on co-operative principles and just before I became unwell, I was starting to set up a workers’ co-operative with a few others.

During this time – through exploring theory, ideals and what actually works in practice – I have discovered several things which are relevant to the Green Party’s Economic Democracy Motion.

Co-operative education

Firstly, the level of knowledge in the UK about co-operatives is very low, especially when compared to many other countries. Most people don’t even know what a workers’ co-operative is and how they work in practice. People are not used to – or trained – to work in a co-operative way. Almost everything in our society, from school to multinational corporations, teaches us to work in another way. I’ve written about this before in other blog posts (See here and here). As Professor Anderson has written about schools:

“For centuries, leading educationalists have advocated learning by doing, instead of by listening passively to confusing dry abstractions. Even very young and unschooled children can understand complicated aspects of democracy, rights, justice and respect, through their activities and achievements.

“Democracy is practical and pervades all relationships. We cannot avoid either ‘doing’ democracy or else being actively undemocratic; there is no middle way. Undemocratic schools powerfully teach, by example, lessons of intolerance, mistrust, disrespect, repression and fear of change. If they preach democracy, they teach duplicity.” (see more here)

Unfortunately most people in the UK go to undemocratic schools. Most people work in undemocratic workplaces. Most people do not currently have the democratic skills necessary to successfully run a workers’ co-operative.

So, just granting people the legal right to buy out companies as is proposed in the motion, without any previous co-operative training, whether in school or elsewhere, could potentially be disastrous.

In the UK, many are just plain alienated from each other and very far from having the skills necessary to make decisions together in a co-operative workplace. This is not to say that it isn’t possible. Just that you need a lot of support and training, preferably from a young age (The organisation Young Co-operatives does great work in this area. Please read a previous blog post I have written about them).

In this country, workers’ co-operatives often start out small with a few people who are dedicated to the cause, who are knowledgeable about the co-operative ideology, who do research on what works and what doesn’t. They experiment and, if they do well, expand and add new members, often with a trial period so that they don’t introduce people who wont fit within the co-op ethos.

If workers just decide to buy-out workplaces and turn them into co-ops, they sidestep this whole process, with all of the learning that comes with it. That makes it much more difficult for it to function. If workers just buy-out a company and turn it into a co-operative it will take a lot of time and effort for everyone to learn how to run it and make decisions together – this doesn’t really fit in with the capitalist system we live in, where there is a lot of pressure to produce and get good returns. It takes time for people to develop:

– financial management skills (e.g. working with budgets),
– skills related to meetings (facilitating, minute taking, working to agenda, consensus or voting methods, the self-confidence and ability to speak in public meetings, the ability to work towards a common goal),
– conflict resolution skills
– community organisation skills (working with and supporting local communities),
– knowledge about laws and political systems that affect the workplace and co-operatives
– and much more besides.

If workers buy-out an existing company, it would also make it much more difficult to exclude people who do not fit in to the co-operative ethos as there would be no initial trial period for all of the workers who buy into it.

Again, it is possible for people to do this and to make it work, as some examples in Argentina, Venezuela and elsewhere around the world have shown. However, it is more difficult and needs real determination – and ideally a lot of support from experienced co-operators – for it to succeed.

Cultural questions

One of the reasons why co-operatives have done so well in other countries or regions is because of very specific cultural, economic and social circumstances. It is not just about granting employees the legal right to buy out companies.

The best book that I know of which explores these specific circumstances is:

La Lega: The making of a successful cooperative network by P. Ammirato (1996) (see the first 10 pages of this book here)

It discusses the development of co-operative networks in Italy, Spain and the UK and is well worth a read.

Other insightful books include:

The Anarchist Collectives: Workers’ Self-management in the Spanish Revolution 1936-1939 by Sam Dolgoff (find the .pdf of this book here)

Making Mondragón: The Growth and Dynamics of the Worker Cooperative Complex by William Foote Whyte and Kathleen King Whyte

The Myth of Mondragon: Cooperatives, Politics, and Working-Class Life in a Basque Town by Sharryn Kasmir

I am not going to expand in this blog on the specific circumstances which enabled co-operatives to flourish in some of these regions. For more information read some of these books.

In 2012, Co-operativesUK estimated as part of their co-operative review that there are approximately 493 worker owned and controlled co-operatives in the United Kingdom which employ 78,500 people (see page 21 – these workers’ co-operatives vary in size, ownership and management structure). (please also see this document which has a much lower – and likely more accurate – estimate of the size of the UK co-operative sector which states there are around 3,000 employees in 431 workers’ co-operatives. It all depends on how you measure the sector.)

If the Green Party wants to have a much larger worker co-operative sector in the UK it must seriously engage with the history of how co-operatives have developed in other countries, and look at why co-operatives have succeeded in some regions and not others. The economic democracy motion, as it is currently written, does not reflect that kind of serious analysis.

Economic questions

Moving on to the economic question, how much would this economic democracy motion cost? What would happen if lots of people suddenly wanted to buy-out multinational corporations? Would the Green National Investment Bank be lending the entire amount the corporations are valued at, therefore effectively transferring ownership to the state bank until the workers pay the loans back? Or would the workers put up part of the money so they shared initial ownership with the state?

Also, who decides the value of these corporations? Would this policy massively decrease the value of corporations as they would know that they could potentially be bought out? What effect would that have on the wider economy? Also, how would this policy practically work, when some of these companies have hundreds or thousands of employees? What kind of infrastructure would need to be introduced for this to work?

And what would happen if lots of these new co-ops failed because the workers didn’t have adequate training on how to run a co-operative or couldn’t compete against existing corporations? Would the Green National Investment Bank then go bankrupt? Then what?

I’m sure there are many more economic, costing and organisational questions which could be asked about this motion.

For this to even begin to work, there would have to be massive knowledge sharing between the UK and countries with much bigger co-operative sectors. There would also have to be co-operative training, ideally from a young age, on a very big scale.

It would be easier – although not as far reaching – for the Green Investment Bank to focus on lending to new start-up and existing workers’ co-ops. If it wants to go further than this much more detailed proposals need to be put forward on how this would practically work.

Final thoughts

There are examples of the state trying – and failing – to use the co-operative model to save British companies in the past, for example  Scottish Daily News and the Meriden Motorcycle Co-operative (click on the link to see a good report on this). The state can help the co-operative movement expand, however it must be done in a way which learns from the mistakes of previous governments.

It is very important that the Green Party gets it approach right in regard to co-operatives. As I wrote in one of my papers, “because workers’ co-operatives demonstrate unique opportunities for work reorganisation, democratic management structures, economic self-governance and even a redefinition of work and property, as Adams et al. put it, “Worker-ownership offers a vision of what ought to be.””

Some people within the Green Party have studied co-operatives in-depth, such as Molly Scott Cato (see here for some of her work on co-operatives). I hope that they can put forward more detailed – and thought out – economic democracy proposals in the future which learn from the lessons of other countries and from the past.

Source of picture: Made – and promoted – by Calverts workers’ co-operative

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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Power illlustrated

First published in 2007

(see full size diagram here)

Above is a diagram from page 13 of Making Change happen: POWER – Concepts for Revisioning Power for Justice, Equality and Peace that I mentioned in one of my blog entries.

It clearly shows how the academic theory of Stephen Lukes’ three dimensions of power (the book is not an easy read) can be taken and used to explain power to everyone. Many will already be aware of the ideas presented above, but most will not have articulated or discussed them clearly with each other. The trick is to talk to people about these different dimensions of power so as to, as Haugaard puts it, convert “practical consciousness into discusive consciousness.” (p.101)

Haugaard outlines the benefits of this:

“The conversion of practical consciousness into discusive knowledge is not a matter of truth and falsity, rather a question of recognition. When we read Foucault’s description of the Panopticon, it is not the case that truth is revealed to us but that we recognise the patterns of modes of thought which we have internalized in school or possibly the workplace. When knowledge remains merely tacit, it is not confrontable but once rendered discursive it becomes something which we can distance ourselves from, recognize and evaluate.” (p.102) [my emphasis]
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Christmas Folklore

First published on 2006-12-20


(Image: illustration of the sun god comes from Splendor Solis, a 16th century alchemical work)

Instead of talking about how Christmas has turned into a consumerist dream (or a environmentalists nightmare, with people buying more and more energy intensive gadgets for each other and rooms across the land being filled with dead, pulped trees), I thought that I would delve into the history and traditions of Christmas. Many people – including myself – cynically describe Christmas as a time when shoppers buy each other presents they don’t need with money they don’t have. However, I thought that I would try and be a little more positive this time round and explore the Folklore Myths and Legends surrounding Britain and Christmas.

Many of these stories stretch across both thousands of years and kilometres. Often, they go far beyond the Birth of Christ. Every holiday or day of celebration contains as many meanings and constructions as the people who have lived and interacted with it. Who gets to tell the story – and how they tell it – matters greatly. Through conquest, new rulers have often removed and corralled the original inhabitants and imposed new cultures on the old. New stories and mythologies emerged to give greater justification to these acts. One set of ideas about December – and Christmas – was replaced by another. As is shown below, the modern Christmas story was imposed on ancient pagan traditions.
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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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