When the ship starts to sink


When the ship starts to sink

There are a series of points on which I disagree with Ted Kaczynski. The most fundamental point I disagree with is his thesis that it is desirable for us to try to instigate the collapse of civilization. There are a variety of points to raise against this thesis. The most important point I would offer in opposition to Ted Kacynzski is that an uncontrolled collapse of civilization has more catastrophic consequences than a form of controlled degrowth.

I am ultimately a deep ecologist. When it comes to the question of what is the prime good in life, I would argue that the prime good is nature. The natural world predates us and it gives us a sense of insight into the character of that fundamental principle that led to our own existence. There is a higher order that gave birth to us and it is ultimately in our own interest to seek to align ourselves with that order, rather than to rebel against it and pursue our own salvation.

For this reason, I am quite willing to entertain the idea that we should instigate the collapse of civilization, even if it leads to billions of deaths. I don't look forward to the prospect of billions of deaths, but I can see why one would consider it an inevitable outcome to pursue a higher goal. After all, there's no fundamental reason to believe that a world population of billions of people is desirable. The population explosion is a catastrophic event that leads to vast unprecedented suffering, for humans and non-humans alike. It's an anomaly, both in our own history and the history of this planet as a whole.

However, my willingness to entertain an idea does not always mean I'm willing to embrace the idea. Obviously, if there's a way to achieve a similar outcome without billions of deaths, the alternative way would be desirable. However, I fear that the anarcho-primitivists who actively seek to instigate a collapse of civilization will fail to achieve the goals they claim to aspire to through such a route. In the end, a form of controlled voluntary degrowth would lead to a higher quality of life, but more importantly, would allow more of the Earth's biological diversity to remain intact.

Consider first and foremost, the struggles an anti-technology movement will face in its project to bring down civilization. As Ted Kaczynski demonstrated through his own actions, the Achilles heel in the industrial system are human beings. Human beings can be infected with contagious pathogens, can be terrorized, manipulated, threatened and converted to various competing schools of thought. For this reason, Ted didn't spend his days trying to take down the power grid, he sent mailbombs to various individuals.

The problem I see first and foremost here is that terrorism only very rarely accomplishes its desired objectives. It often enough succeeds in maiming or destroying a society, but it only very rarely succeeds in replacing said society with a societal model of its own. In the few cases where terrorists managed to seize power after their campaign of terror, their societal model has tended to implode. The Soviet Union, revolutionary France under the Jacobins, the Islamic state in Syria and Iraq, none of these utopian projects has lasted very long. Things that have to be forced upon the general public through threats of violence by a militant minority rarely last very long.

The same principle applies to the anarcho-primitivist project. Whereas Islamic fundamentalism can expect to find at least some sympathy among the Sunni Arab population, the anarcho-primitivist anti-technology ideal is a very niche phenomenon indeed. The idea of progress is very widely held in the general population. It's very difficult to get people to abandon the idea of economic growth, but a critique of progress takes the idea of degrowth a step further. Communism and Islamic fundamentalism are, at least in theory, directly in people's own interest. The anarcho-primitivist idea requires us to expect people to embrace the prospect of death for most of their relatives, in exchange for the well-being of non-human organisms. It's simply unrealistic to expect it to find broad appeal.

You might argue that the anarcho-primitivist project doesn't need broad appeal, it just needs support of a small and dedicated minority of the public. Could 1,000 dedicated people bring down industrial civilization? I don't consider this likely, for a simple reason: We already have numerous people at work trying to bring down Western civilization for various reasons, all of whom have accomplished very little. If it was relatively simple to create a bioterror epidemic or some computer virus that brings down everything to its knees, someone would most likely have accomplished it by now.

Keep in mind that I am not arguing here against all direct action per definition. Sometimes sabotage, when properly thought through, can be ethically justifiable and successful in the objectives it seeks to achieve. Paul Watson with the Sea Shepherd have booked great success against whaling. Similarly, Greenpeace has dropped massive boulders in parts of the ocean where fishers illegally engage in bottom trawling. These kinds of actions are ethically justifiable and can accomplish the pursued objectives. On the other hand, mutilating someone with a mail bomb really doesn't accomplish anything other than giving critics of technology a bad reputation.

But let's say you can in fact bring this monster to its knees. What happens next? The answer is that it begins to sacrifice long-term projects in an effort to ensure its short-term survival. As an example, politicians like Trump who come into power during periods of crisis choose to withdraw from plans to combat global warming and cut down on policies meant to reduce human population growth. Would the Norwegian government continue paying Brazil to stop cutting down the rain forest if it found itself faced with a sudden budget shortage due to incidents of sabotage? I don't believe so.

In fact, history shows us that periods of disorder are associated with an increase in ecological damage. The civil war in Congo has led to a dramatic decline in the country's gorilla population. It's similarly worth noting that the poverty and isolation caused by civil wars tends to prohibit access to contraception, with the consequence being an increase in fertility rates. Compare Afghanistan's fertility rates to surrounding nations for a good example. It's possible for us to accomplish meaningful objectives through international cooperation. As examples, consider the resolution of the ozone layer problem and the ongoing recovery of the global whale population.

The climate change crisis will be much more difficult to resolve because it involves our use of energy. It's central to our economy, rather than being on the periphery. The implication of this is that we have to strive for a further reduction in international hostility and competition, to avoid falling victim to a tragedy of the commons type situation. The main thing that had me enthusiastic about the prospect of a Trump presidency is a normalization in relations between Russia and the United States. When these pointless great power conflicts come to an end, the world can move towards addressing our real problems.

Unfortunately, a president doesn't just need to desire peace to address the big problems of our era, he also needs to be competent. Hillary Clinton is reasonably competent but desires to aggressively impose her neoliberal values on the whole world. Trump is incompetent and blind to the big problems we face, but appears to desire peaceful relations with other nations. The message that Americans sent to the world by electing Donald Trump is one of hope: They were willing to elect an idiot if it meant that Russia and the United States could bring an end to this pointless conflict.

This brings me to the biggest problem I have with Ted's manifesto, which is that it inverts the myth of progress. Rather than progressing to the stars, we're depicted as metastasizing over the universe. At the time Industrial Society and its Future was published, our civilization hit its peak. America no longer has the kind of monopoly on power to impose its will on the world with that it had in the 90's, while its rural working class that's supposed to form the backbone of a nation has degenerated into drug addiction and pervasive misery. We have now found ourselves at the right hand side of the curve, those of us young today will have to learn to deal with a world that has less wealth and luxury to offer every year. Rather than imagining we can make it all end today and prepare ourselves for a future scouring through the ruins, we have to accept that we have a responsibility to preserve the things we value during this era of decline and to take that responsibility serious. There is still a lot that can be salvaged.

As an example, I have talked your ears off at this point about the fact that climate change can still be addressed. Some of the damage has already been done, but the worst excesses of the climate crisis can still be averted. Climate change is more than just an excuse to pull the plug on industrial civilization, it's a problem we're going to have to work on resolving, whether we like it or not. It's important to avoid falling into the trap of avoiding geoengineering just because it carries undesirable side-effects, as the man who first described the problem notes here. We're dealing with the prospect of an Earth that's going to be habitable solely at its fringes, if avoiding that outcome requires acid rain or shifting rain patterns, that's a price worth paying.

More important however is the fact that the only thing that stands in between many endangered species and a horde of hungry locusts are people who are willing to make a sacrifice. There's a literal war going on right now to preserve the world's last elephants and rhino's, many rangers lose their lives as a consequence. These are not men motivated merely by a meager salary. They have found a higher calling in life. What we have to understand is that when this ship we are on starts to sink, not everyone will bother fighting to get to the exits. Some people are willing to go down with the ship. There are goals to pursue in life that are higher than merely saving one's own skin. This isn't just true for the men who stand guard for the world's last wild animals. In Syria, Khaled al-Asaad was murdered because he wouldn't abandon the remains of Palmyra.

If we bring the whole thing down, then it's pretty easy to see what follows. Hoards of plunderers move in and in an orgy of brutality and violence destroy everything we cherish. We've seen it in Syria, in Congo, in Angola and most other places in the world. Japan is descending in a dignified fashion, without the kind of torture and mutilation that characterizes Syria today. If we take the effort, we can avoid such pointless suffering. In fact, we can preserve far more nature with far less suffering than we would if civilization were to fall apart at this point in time.

The simplest method of food production when you have zero regard for the world around you is to simply take a plot of rainforest, torch it down and to let a herd of cattle graze in the ruins. That's what humans happily regress to doing in many different places around the world where control has broken down. In contrast, when we're willing to take effort to avoid regressing to the lowest common denominator, we are capable of growing mushrooms on manure, seaweed and shellfish in the ocean, or to cultivate mighty chestnut trees to nourish ourselves with. To produce food in such a manner requires so little land that most of the Earth's surface could be given back to nature.

And keep in mind, the changes I am suggesting here are in fact happening. The seaweed industry has started producing 8.13% more seaweed every year between 2003 and 2012. There's a similar explosive growth in the cultivation of mushrooms and shellfish. You know what's dying? McDonalds is dying. In fact, all fast food restaurants are doing poorly. The collective efforts of people who wish to see a catastrophe averted are beginning to pay off. I have seen the change in attitude towards vegetarianism between when I was a child and today. Now the time has come for the next step.

When we look at Brazil today, the average woman gives birth to 1.79 children, fewer than the Americans. Change the diet of these people towards one based on sustainable food sources as I have described to you many times before and the rain forest can rapidly begin to reconquer the cattle plots that have ruined the landscape. "But the Brazilians will simply expand to their carrying capacity!" Apparently not. If they did, we would see a fertility rate more similar to that in Congo and a forest that is rapidly destroyed. In fact, it is quite clear that stable economic conditions allow the Brazilians to move from exponential growth towards a manageable form of decline. And keep in mind that the Brazilians today do not even have access to abortion. We could watch them shrink their population the same way Eastern Europe has, if we witnessed the right reforms implemented.

If you understand this, you might understand why I have started working at a startup, rather than simply NEETing until the domino stones start to fall. If we bother taking the effort to fix our societies, then we contribute to lives worth living and preserve a beautiful planet in the process. Of course, a fair argument can be made that our beliefs and decisions ultimately derive from psychological factors. I won't deny that I do seek a sense of purpose to my life. However, I genuinely have come to believe that the right decisions can do wonders to cushion the fall that lies ahead of us. Consider the simple fact that self-driving cars would allow us to get rid of an estimated 99% of cars. Can you genuinely argue that working on developing self-driving cars won't help address our problem? I think the stars are aligning to allow us to pursue a form of sustainable degrowth.

What collapse looks like can be seen in Greece today, where one in three refugees has witnessed someone kill himself. It can be seen in rural America today too, where people die of drug overdoses and politicians celebrate the suicides of their constituents. I'm not looking forward to any of that. I don't know how much can be salvaged, but I want to be able to tell myself that I tried. Moral purists like Ted Kaczynski who withdraw from society ultimately don't solve anything, they become ballasts on the ship.


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