Although the present form of the book only began two years ago, my work really started two years before, in 2013, when, homeless after high school, I involved myself in ecological and antimodern factions of anarchism.
During this time, I ran across an essay, “Industrial Society and Its Future,” and it had a profound effect on me. For the first time a text had expressed what I had been feeling, and it did so in a compelling, fresh way — appealing to me, since the only radical political arguments that I had heard up to that point lacked nuance, were steeped in faulty theory, and seemed to be solving nineteenth century problems rather than assessing problems of the contemporary world. But “Industrial Society and Its Future” was written by Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber, infamous for his 1978–1995 bombing campaign in the name of anti-industrial revolution. I was young and hot-headed enough for this not to bother me as much as it should have, but it still bothered me enough to wonder whether agreeing with the manifesto was a bad sign.
But then I read a WIRED essay “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” a personal account of a well-respected scientist and programmer, Bill Joy, experiencing the same dilemma. As Joy wrote, he “could easily have been the Unabomber’s next target,” yet he found “some merit” in the man’s arguments. Again and again I read similar accounts, and it strengthened my resolve to admit that the problems Kaczynski was concerned with were real. For example, conservative social theorist James Q. Wilson wrote in the New York Times that the manifesto was “a carefully reasoned, artfully written paper . . . If it is the work of a madman, then the writings of many political philosophers — Jean Jacques Rousseau, Tom Paine, Karl Marx — are scarcely more sane.” Eventually, I decided that regardless of the man’s actions his ideas needed to be grappled with, an argument I lay out thoroughly in Dark Mountain’s “Ted Kaczynski and Why He Matters.”
So, I wrote the man. We exchanged a few letters until he broke from me because of some misunderstandings concerning restrictions on prison mail. But by the end I had learned enough of his current activity to carry on exploring the politic. I became moderately involved in Earth First!, a radical environmentalist organization that influenced Kaczynski; I researched the history of the ecology movement and its major figures; and, most importantly, I formed a coalition with some of Kaczynski’s political associates in Spain, Portugal, and Mexico.
The most important figure in the coalition was a Spaniard pseudonymously known as Ultimo Reducto (UR). UR was a lot like Kaczynski in some significant ways, which is eventually why I broke from him too. But he was an indispensable influence on my ideological development. Apart from “Industrial Society and Its Future,” and a few texts from the early history of Earth First!, UR more than anyone or anything else helped me carefully, thoughtfully, and rigorously articulate a wild-centered philosophy.
Kaczynski’s associates, whom rival groups have pointedly called “the Apostles of Kaczynski,” had a twofold mission during the time I worked with them. First, they were, to put it simply, performing an exegesis of Kaczynski’s manifesto. For example, in “Industrial Society and Its Future” he writes:
94. By “freedom” we mean the opportunity to go through the power process, with real goals not the artificial goals of surrogate activities, and without interference, manipulation or supervision from anyone, especially from any large organization. Freedom means being in control (either as an individual or as a member of a small group) of the life-and-death issues of one’s existence: food, clothing, shelter and defense against whatever threats there may be in one’s environment. Freedom means having power; not the power to control other people but the power to control the circumstances of one’s own life. One does not have freedom if anyone else (especially a large organization) has power over one, no matter how benevolently, tolerantly and permissively that power may be exercised. It is important not to confuse freedom with mere permissiveness . . .
But later, when Professor Skrbina worked with him to publish a collection of his writings, he added a postscript noting that some aspects of his manifesto were outdated or somewhat wrong. He specifically mentions his definition of freedom above:
Ultimo Reducto has recently called attention to some flaws in my work, [some] serious. . . . in the second and third sentences of paragraph 94 of ISAIF I wrote: [see above]. But obviously people have never had such control to more than a limited extent. They have not, for example, been able to control bad weather, which in certain circumstances can lead to starvation. So what kind and degree of control do people really need? At a minimum they need to be free of “interference, manipulation or supervision . . . from any large organization,” as stated in the first sentence of paragraph 94. But if the second and third sentences meant no more than that, they would be redundant.
So there is a problem here in need of a solution. I’m not going to try to solve it now, however. For the present let it suffice to say that ISAIF is by no means a final and definitive statement in the field that it covers. Maybe some day I or someone else will be able to offer a clearer and more accurate treatment of the same topics.
To resolve this problem, UR advocated dropping the term “freedom” completely and replacing it with the term “wildness.” Under his framework (not my own), there was capital-N “Nature,” all that is, the same way the physicists would use the word. Some of this Nature is dominated by humans or technics, called “artifice”; other aspects of Nature remain untrammeled by humans or technics, called “wild Nature.” UR argued that this framework was a better one to express the ideology, because “freedom” is too ambiguous: freedom from what, freedom to do what, and freedom for whom?
UR pointed out that Kaczynski already implicitly answered these questions in his manifesto.
183. But an ideology, in order to gain enthusiastic support, must have a positive ideal as well as a negative one; it must be for something as well as against something. The positive ideal that we propose is Nature. That is, wild nature: Those aspects of the functioning of the Earth and its living things that are independent of human management and free of human interference and control. And with wild nature we include human nature, by which we mean those aspects of the functioning of the human individual that are not subject to regulation by organized society but are products of chance, or free will, or God (depending on your religious or philosophical opinions).
184. Nature makes a perfect counter-ideal to technology for several reasons. Nature (that which is outside the power of the system) is the opposite of technology (which seeks to expand indefinitely the power of the system). Most people will agree that nature is beautiful; certainly it has tremendous popular appeal. The radical environmentalists already hold an ideology that exalts nature and opposes technology. It is not necessary for the sake of nature to set up some chimerical utopia or any new kind of social order. Nature takes care of itself: It was a spontaneous creation that existed long before any human society, and for countless centuries many different kinds of human societies coexisted with nature without doing it an excessive amount of damage. Only with the Industrial Revolution did the effect of human society on nature become really devastating. To relieve the pressure on nature it is not necessary to create a special kind of social system, it is only necessary to get rid of industrial society. Granted, this will not solve all problems. Industrial society has already done tremendous damage to nature and it will take a very long time for the scars to heal. Besides, even preindustrial societies can do significant damage to nature. Nevertheless, getting rid of industrial society will accomplish a great deal. It will relieve the worst of the pressure on nature so that the scars can begin to heal. It will remove the capacity of organized society to keep increasing its control over nature (including human nature). Whatever kind of society may exist after the demise of the industrial system, it is certain that most people will live close to nature, because in the absence of advanced technology there is no other way that people can live. … And, generally speaking, local autonomy should tend to increase, because lack of advanced technology and rapid communications will limit the capacity of governments or other large organizations to control local communities.
69. It is true that primitive man is powerless against some of the things that threaten him; disease for example. But he can accept the risk of disease stoically. It is part of the nature of things, it is no one’s fault, unless it is the fault of some imaginary, impersonal demon. But threats to the modern individual tend to be man-made. They are not the results of chance but are imposed on him by other persons whose decisions he, as an individual, is unable to influence. Consequently he feels frustrated, humiliated and angry.
Here is becomes clearer what kind of freedom Kaczynski is talking about: the ability for nature, including man’s nature, to function with relatively little domination from other men or their technical systems. In other words, he advocates wildness.
Point by point, UR et al. combed the same intellectual razor through the entire manifesto, eventually creating a glossary of theoretical terms like “progress,” “progressivism,” “humanism,” “leftism,” and “techno-industrial society.” They also formalized the moral foundations of Kaczynski’s critique by, intentionally or not, drawing on an age-old philosophical distinction between “natural” and “artificial” values. The specifics of the ideas are explained in UR’s untranslated dialogue, entitled Con Amigos Como Estos, with a neo-Luddite group in Spain. Though all this seems pedantic, these distinctions are precisely why UR’s work has been indispensible in helping me communicate a philosophically rigorous account of primitivism.
Kaczynski’s associates’ second task was translating ecoradical texts, especially Kaczynski’s, into other languages. The Portuguese version of Kaczynski’s manifesto finished up just as I had started corresponding with the group, which explains why the man requested a Portuguese-English dictionary from me several months before. But the Spanish version had been finished by UR long ago — and published right around the time that a terror group arose in Mexico: Individualidades Tendiendo a lo Salvaje (ITS).
At the time I had limited knowledge of the group. I knew only that they were heavily influenced by Ted Kaczynski, differing from him only in that they didn’t espouse revolution, and that they had produced eight communiques, which I had read. This and the timing of their appearance suggested that ITS was a direct, though unintentional, product of Kaczynski and his associates’ propaganda work. UR himself voiced these suspicions in his critique of ITS, written right around their fifth communique, and which marked a drastic change in their discourse, as one can observe by reading the sixth, seventh, and eighth communiques. Later, the suspicions were confirmed when ITS published their fullest critique of Kaczynski’s revolutionary strategy to date, “Algunas respuestas sobre el presente y NO del futuro.” They note that they were indeed influenced by UR and Kaczynski, and that they vigorously disagree with the idea of revolution, preferring instead to act now as terrorists. Only later would they explain the ideological foundations of this view, when they grew from a single terror cell to a terror network.
Kaczynski’s associates, especially UR, are not fans of ITS, and they do not want to be connected to them. Indeed, UR seems to view ITS as a thorn in his side, not a tolerable splinter group. Nevertheless, I noticed that the eco-extremists continued to use language and terms that the associates had been using and that I had made known through my popularizing them on the internet: progressivist, humanist, etc. In fact, many of these terms would appear very soon after their first appearance online, although I didn’t notice this until much later. I also became weary of UR. While brilliant, he is difficult to work with, sometimes naıve, unnecessarily incendiary . . . To illustrate, one might note that his critique of ITS — a terror group — began with a note on their grammatical inconsistencies. And in his critiques of my own writings, he would take great, exaggerated issue with phrases like “more or less” because of their ambiguity. It was getting to be a bit much, and I felt I could be more effective as an autonomous actor. So I broke away with a few American associates to pursue my own projects, primarily a journal entitled Hunter/Gatherer. As this project developed a flavor distinct from Kaczynski’s brand of primitivism, we used new language and concepts that, to our surprise, ITS then used as well. It seemed that even after the split with UR, ITS was paying attention to us, which even now puts me in a precarious legal situation.
These events had visible effects on the forms my philosophy took. For instance, immediately after becoming convinced that Kaczynski’s core ideas were right, 17- year-old me was recklessly supportive of political violence. I remain firm in my opinion that political violence can be justifiable, but the opinions are tempered now. And during my time with Kaczynski’s political associates, I conceived of the philosophy in a classical revolutionary manner, attempting in many ways to emulate Marxists. This resulted in several absurdities apparent in my early writings for Hunter/Gatherer. Finally, while the vast majority of communiques by ITS contain nothing new or, worse, terrible innovations on original primitivist ideas, some of their critiques of Kaczynski and his associates struck me as sound, such as their polemics against revolutionary strategies. Their focus on animist spirituality was especially influential — not because it was right or compelling or even nuanced, but because it reminded me that even if philosophical rigor is necessary to speak and make sense, it is not sufficient to speak and move. While Kaczynski’s associates tried to focus on devising a doctrine, ITS reminded me that a more fruitful path was articulating a mythology.
Along this path, because of my initial experiences with Kaczynski and his writings, I found the doors to a world entirely invisible to me before. I had known that Kaczynski’s ideas were not original. He has admitted as much, writing that he sought only to appraise revolution as a serious option in response to many thinkers’ insights about modernity. But I did not know until university the extent to which the ideas permeated anthropology, literature, biology, philosophy, art. The “Pleistocene paradigm,” or the idea that human nature is essentially Paleolithic, was especially ubiquitous. Crucially, this revelation meant that when I advocated primitivism, I would not be confined to the reasoning, approaches, and ideas in the manifesto. More importantly, it meant that I now had a niche to fill: there was a desperate need for a book that combined primitivist insights from the various sciences and books and pieces of art, one whose author name wouldn’t pose a stumbling block because of murder. So for four years, I studied as many relevant sources as I could, bettering the language I used to express the philosophy and finally writing that book.
The philosophy as I have written it here seems to be, more or less, where I’ve settled. I am not yet entirely sure what the political implications might be, something I outline in a larger, forthcoming text, From Conservation to Reaction. I am sure, however, of this much: a great clash of wills is raging, and I am on the side of the wild.
The purpose of this book is twofold.
First, I hope to provide what is to my knowledge the first philosophical framework for primitivism. Primitivism is an old philosophy, but its advocates have hitherto failed to articulate a coherent vision in one place, deferring instead to an amalgam of diverse and contradictory texts that leave advocates impotent in more ways than one.
My views, I believe, are especially suited to this purpose, because many extant primitivists continually fight on highly contested terrains that only distract from more core issues. I, on the other hand, often hold the positions that the enemies in these battles take, thereby demonstrating that the philosophy does not necessarily depend as heavily on these issues as some believe. I am a materialist where many primitivists contest materialism as a worldview that reinforces technoscientific dominance — they opt for cosmologies like animism instead. I believe that rates of violence decline as civilizations progress where many primitivists believe this eternally damns the value of the primitive. I believe that the Pleistocene extinction event was at least in part caused by hunter/gatherers, which is rejected for the same reasons as before. I believe that values are subjective, while most, probably because it seems to lend weight to moral arguments, believe that the value of nature exists independently of human beings. And I emphatically do not believe that primitive peoples exemplified egalitarianism, peacefulness to animals, or intentional conservationism the way some primitivists, particularly anarcho-primitivists, believe they do.
Nevertheless, I remain a primitivist, and that is if nothing else useful to a philosophy continually marginalized because, somehow, its advocates keep tacking on evermore-obscure positions.
My second purpose in writing this book is to provide for those unfamiliar a coherent text explaining values that will only play a greater role in world politics as civilization enters its twenty-first century crises. This is as important for any contemporary person to do as it was for the Romans to learn of the barbarians; the colonists to learn of the savages; the states to learn of the anarchists. Artificial intelligence, biotechnology, climate change, antibiotic resistance, mass surveillance, the sixth mass extinction — all are rapidly taking center stage in world politics, and with them the scientists and engineers, whom the general public is coming to realize have an inordinate amount of control over the circumstances of modern life. Likely some form of anti-technology populism will soon replace what was once an anti-government populism; whereas the main objects of disdain were politicians, the new objects of disdain will be scientists and engineers, as well as technology itself.
Already we can see this sentiment in action. In the past few years we have seen TV shows about wilderness and outdoor-living, often with a tinge of anti-technological sentiment, skyrocket in popularity: Mountain Men, Naked and Afraid, Duck Dynasty . . . Books like Wild by Cheryl Strayed or A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson push a similar message of freedom, a search for purpose and meaning, and spiritual renewal in a decadent, materialistic world. Complaints about ubiquitous technology are becoming popular as well. TV shows like Black Mirror convey a fundamental skepticism toward the idea of technical progress, and books like A Short History of Progress, Our Final Hour, and so on, are all questioning, to various degrees, the technologies
that dominate the modern world.
And it’s pushing into the political arena. Environmentalist sentiments are popular today, and young people feel the need to address problems like climate change and the sixth mass extinction. But because of the way the problems are being ignored, sometimes by economic necessity, radicalization occurs easily among environmentalists. In fact, the FBI lists environmental terrorism, not Islamic terrorism, as the top domestic terrorism threat in the US.
All this is taking place on a stage that is largely being determined and shaped by the problems that define ecological thought. One headline in the New York Times states “Researchers Link Syrian Conflict to a Drought Made Worse by Climate Change.” A headline in the Guardian reads “Global warming could create 150 million ‘climate refugees’ by 2050.” And the WHO has issued increasingly urgent warnings concerning antimicrobial resistance, which could, combined with modern transportation systems and densely populated city living, cause a global pandemic, or at least a formidable one.
Clearly, primitivists are right about a lot, and unless someone offers a good challenge and alternative to their core ideas, the notion of “freedom in wild nature” is only going to continue attracting adherents. Dismissing the philosophy as crazy, marginal, beneath consideration is not going to work for much longer.