Is solarpunk compatible with wanting to live a low-technology kind of life?
Terminology can create a lot of confusion. Two people could argue endlessly about the same term, weighing the merits and demerits of it, only to realise that they each were going by two different meanings of the word. Such a thing happened to me recently.
After I had a lengthly exchange with somebody in response to my claim that “primitivism” was antithetical to solarpunk, and they in turn said this was an authoritarian prescription on how everybody ought to live their lives in an ecological society, it transpired that by “primitivism” they just meant living a more low-tech, off-grid lifestyle, while allowing everybody else to live however they chose.
A number of things should be clarified in the wake of this.
Firstly, by “primitivism” I didn’t mean anybody who favours a more low-technology or Luddite way of living – away from cities, computers, and with a closer connection to the natural world.
That’s a perfectly fine way to live, temporarily or permanently, for anybody who finds fulfilment in it; and in fact could be seen as an understandable reaction to the trappings of industrialist society.
By primitivist, for those who don’t know, I refer very specifically to a branch of thought a great deal more extreme, which (unfortunately) gained a following among self-described anarchists in the 1980s, 90s, and 2000s; associated with people like John Zerzan and more recently Derrick Jensen.
Such primitivists not only want to live closer to the natural world, but regard all forms of “technology” (defined in nebulous terms) as inherently authoritarian and something no one should take pleasure in unless they’re deluded and a slave to machines.
They regard not only the industrial revolution as a mistake, but even the agricultural revolution.
Yes, the one that happened 10,000 years ago.
To them, the only solution to the trappings of the capitalist state system can be a worldwide abandonment of all cities and technology, and a mass return to a hunter-gatherer way of life. They also regard clothing, art, writing, spoken language, counting in numbers, and even acknowledging the passage of time as authoritarian and worth abandoning.
In many ways, the way of life they seek is less like that of the real hunter-gatherers they venerate/romanticise and more akin to non-human primates like bonobos or cervine species.
It would be one thing if primitivists just wanted everyone to voluntarily abandon technology and civilisation through a kind of popular exodus or great reformation. Though that’s not what they have in mind.
Instead, they claim that “civilisation” itself is innately doomed to self-destruct, gradually culminating in a rapture-like process called the “collapse”, leading humankind to be left with no feasible alternative but to become hunter-gatherers again.
There’s a bunch of obvious problems with the above which contradict their own objectives – such as the nuclear catastrophe that would happen without anyone to monitor waste or reserves – but I won’t go into those here.
What’s clear is that in seeking total civilisational collapse for the whole human species, the aims of these primitivists are not compatible with the values or aims of solarpunk.
Solarpunks, by and large, do not reject all technology as inherently authoritarian, but only centralised/hierarchical forms of technology which are more coded for dominating or destroying things than helping anybody.
To a solarpunk, problems arise less from technology itself and more from how technologies are used. Just as the capitalist state system creates hierarchical and violent technics, a more liberated, egalitarian, and ecological kind of social system would create and maintain more liberatory kinds of technics.
That’s why solarpunks seek to use certain forms of technology in a responsible and ecological manner to make life better for both humanity and the natural world (humanisphere and biosphere, second nature and first nature), restructuring our technological infrastructure along decentralised and horizontalist lines, so as to re-harmonise the relation between humans and the Earth they live on.
The long-term aim would be to create a different kind of high technology than the kind associated with the capitalist state system. A world powered entirely through renewable energy, with decentralised eco-cities replacing congested metropolises, automated machinery and artisanal craft replacing industrialist mass production; with liberatory technologies like 3D printing, vertical farming, open-source hardware, and the cornucopia of a copyright-free Internet enabling a high standard of living with a minimum of human labour – and with localisation of production/distribution allowing us to stay within ecological boundaries.
This is a vision which chimes well with a number of technological thinkers such as Lewis Mumford, Peter Kropotkin, and Murray Bookchin; people associated with (or close to) the social anarchist tradition.
But in this non-hierarchical and decentralised world of technological abundance, would there be room for those who personally disliked being surrounded by even decentralist eco-technology? Would there be space even for those who wanted to be hunter-gatherers and live as most primitivists want to live?
The answer is not only yes, but of course.
Just as there’s no one type of person, there should be no one type of living arrangement that everyone should be expected to like. The general solarpunk vision of post-scarcity eco-cities is only an overall hub, around which many different kinds of life could be made possible.
We might have living areas which are more congested and industrial-looking for those who like that feeling of hustle and bustle, pastoral Amish-like communities for those who prefer the simple life away from urbanity, and even reserves for those who wanted to live as hunter-gatherers, just like what the John Zerzans of the world see as their ideal.
The difference is, while a Luddite or even primitivist way of life would be possible within a solarpunk world, a solarpunk way of life would not be possible within a primitivist world. As the imagined “collapse” would make it impossible for anyone who likes high technology and city living to exist in a way that pleases them; if they even survive the apocalyptic transition to such a state of affairs.
So to sum up, when I criticise primitivists, I don’t refer to those who want to voluntarily lead a more low-tech existence while respecting others’ lifestyles, but to those extreme anti-technology/anti-civilisation ideologues who seek the kind of collapse which would make a diversity of lifestyles impossible.