The Primitivist Critique of Civilization (1995)

Richard Heinberg


1.      Was civilization a mistake?

         a.      Most find this silly question: After all, what person who has grown up with cars, electricity, and television would relish the idea of living without a house, and of surviving only on wild foods?

2.      Two reasons critique of civilization is unavoidable

3.      One: We are killing the planet (env degraded )

         a.      By most estimates, the oceans are dying, the human population is expanding far beyond the long term carrying capacity of the land, the ozone layer is disappearing, and the global climate is showing worrisome signs of instability.

         b.      Unless drastic steps are taken, in fifty years the vast majority of the world's population will likely be existing in conditions such that the lifestyle of virtually any undisturbed primitive tribe would be paradise by comparison.

                   i.       Some argue that the lifestyle of the world’s current 2 billion poor would be better off if they lived as primitive people did

4.      Objection: Not fault of civilization itself, but our modern industrial type of civilization?

         a.      Reply: There is evidence that other civilizations have collapsed due to ecological ruin too: Roman, Mesopotamian, Chinese


5.      Two: Civilization’s impact on human beings (humans degraded)

         a.      As civilized people, we are also domesticated

                   i.       We are to primitive peoples as cows and sheep are to bears and eagles

         b.      Many primal peoples tend to view us as pitiful creatures

                   i.       Though powerful and dangerous because of our technology and sheer numbers.

         c.      They regard civilization as a sort of social disease

         d.      Civilized people act like addicted to drugs

                   i.       Drug of money, factory-made goods, oil, electricity

         e.      Helpless w/o our drugs

                   i.       Any threat to supply of these drugs is threat to our existence

         f.       So we are easily manipulated by desire/fear

         g.      Commercial/political interests orchestrate these desires/fears for own profit/control

                   i.       A common theme of many of the writers we have read that ordinary people’s fate is determined/controlled by self-interested corporate and political (moneyed) interests


6.      Critique of civilization important because: The future is going to be different (ecological devastation) and we need to chose our path deliberately and a critique of civilization should be part of this deliberation


7.      Definition of primitivism: The perennial belief in the necessity of a return to origins

         a.      The superiority of a simple life close to nature

         b.      Admiration for the spiritual and material advantages of the ways of life of the world's most "primitive" societies

         c.      Sentiment that civilization has gone too far in its domination of nature, and that in order to survive--or, at least, to live with satisfaction--we must regain some of the spontaneity and naturalness of our early ancestors

                   i.       For our survival and happiness, humans must control the world less


8.      Definition of civilization

         a.      Since “civis” means city, define it as "urban culture"

         b.      Civilization also seems to imply writing, division of labor, agriculture, organized warfare, growth of population, and social stratification

         c.      Also history suggests civilization involves kingship, slavery, conquest, overpopulation, and environmental ruin.

9.      Perhaps not always the case that all these traits necessarily go together, but they generally do

         a.      Evidence early urban culture did not have social stratification

10.    Perhaps focus critique of civilization on “Empire Culture

11.    Note: Civilization is only one of several possible forms of social organization (culture?)


12.    Civilization child rearing methods lead to domesticated self:

         a.      Civilizations child rearing techniques, unlike primitive societies more natural child rearing and rites of passage (wild self), leads to a domesticated self, with insecurities and need of property and power

         b.      People can improve psychological health by accessing the “wild man or woman” within.


13.    Analysis of health

         a.      Civilization affect on health and quality of life has been a “mitigated” disaster

         b.      Pre-agricultural peoples enjoyed a generally healthy way of life

                   i.       Pre-agricultural lifestyles showed a clear superiority in diet and exercise to those of agricultural and civilized peoples

         c.      75 percent of all mortality in industrialized nations due to cancer, heart disease, strokes, diabetes, emphysema, hypertension, and cirrhosis– are caused by our civilized lifestyles.

         d.      Increased longevity due to improved sanitation (necessary due to crowding) and reduction in infant mortality

         e.      Importance wonder drugs overblown (other than antibiotics which saved many lives)

         f.       Argues for “natural healing”: Use of herbs (which are often as good as drugs but less profitable), massage, meditation


14.    Religion

         a.      Spontaneous spirituality becomes regimented, dogmatized, even militarized, with the growth of civilization

         b.      Religion can be liberating, enlightening, and empowering when it holds consistently to primitivist ideals; or deadening and oppressive when it is co-opted to serve the interests of power


15.    Economics

         a.      In the most primitive societies, land, shelter, and food are free.

                   i.       Everything is shared, there are no rich people or poor people

                   ii.      Happiness has little to do with accumulating material possessions.

                   iii.     The primitive lives in relative abundance (all needs and wants are easily met) and has plenty of leisure time.

         b.      Civilization

                   i.       Technology: means to more efficiently extract resources/energy from nature

                            (1)    The elevation of efficiency over other human values is epitomized in the factory--the automated workplace--in which the worker becomes merely an appendage of the machine, a slave to clocks and wages.

                   ii.      Marketplace: equates dissimilar things via medium of exchange; the value of everything is reduced to money

                            (1)    “To the degree that we believe that such values have meaning, we live in a world that is desacralized and desensitized, without heart or spirit.”


16.    Government

         a.      Primitive societies

                   i.       There are no leaders, bosses, politics, laws, crime, or taxes

                   ii.      Little division of labor between women and men, and where such division exists both genders contributions are often valued more or less equally.

                   iii.     Many foraging peoples are relatively peaceful

                            (1)    “the !Kung [Bushmen of southern Africa] hate fighting, and think anybody who fought would be stupid".

         b.      Modern civilized societies

                   i.       With agriculture usually come division of labor, increased sexual inequality, and the beginnings of social hierarchy.

                   ii.      Priests, kings, and organized, impersonal warfare all seem to come together in one package.

                   iii.     The state as a focus of coercion and violence has reached its culmination in the 19th and 20th centuries in colonialism, fascism, and Stalinism.

                   iv.     Democracy? Even the democratic industrial state functions essentially as an instrument of multinational corporate-style colonial oppression and domestic enslavement

                            (1)    Citizens only have a choice between candidates whose agendas advance corporate power.

         c.      He supports anarchy: No government

                   i.       “Core idea of anarchism is that human beings are fundamentally sociable; left to themselves, they tend to cooperate to their mutual benefit.

                   ii.      E.g., the New England town meetings of the 18th century

         d.      Heinberg an “anarcho-primitivist?” One who brings anarchism and primitivism together.

Questions and objections


17.    Isn’t civilization inevitable expression of evolutionary urge?

         a.      Tech innovation and social stratification brought on not by innate urge by crises brought on by overpopulation and resource exhaustion

18.    *Wasn’t primitive life horrible and wouldn’t it be horrible to live w/o modern comforts and conveniences

         a.      Yes, put a modern person out in woods w/o convenience, be miserable

         b.      But we can evolve, over time, to do fine and be happy w/o all our stuff.

         c.      Argues for gradual return to practices that enhanced freedom, naturalness and spontaneity that we traded for civilizations

19.    “Instead of going back, we should get back on track.”


20.    We can’t all revert to hunting/gathering; What practical design for living can primitivism offer?

         a.      Primitivism gives no easy answers, but suggests alternative direction or set of values

         b.      There is a limit to our continued movement in direction of artificiality, control and domination

         c.      We must choose to readapt ourselves to nature

         d.      Not insisting on absolute rejection of every aspect of modern life

                   i.       Need to better understand tradeoffs we are now making


21.    *Don’t need to give up important knowledge and abilities gained by civilization, even if enterprise as a whole was skewed

         a.      Criteria to decide what is worth keeping

                   i.       Eco Sustainability: what activities can be pursued across many generations with minimal env damage

                   ii.      The activities that promote rather than degrade human dignity and freedom


22.    Acknowledges “civilization’s good face

         a.      Mumford: “The invention and keeping of the written record, the growth of visual and musical arts, the effort to widen the circle of communication and economic intercourse far beyond the range of any local community: ultimately the purpose to make available to all [people] the discoveries and inventions and creations, the works of art and thought, the values and purposes that any single group has discovered.”

         b.      Worries: Globalization of economic intercourse–something many see as a problem

                   i.       Not small scale

                   ii.      Undermines local self-sufficiency

                   iii.     Puts people at risk for what happens in markets over which they have no control

23.    Possible we are standing on edge of cultural transformation toward more contentment, creativity, justice and sustainability than any human society ever known

         a.      If so, and follow through, then if the word applies, civilization would be a resounding success

         b.      Note the optimistic ending and compare with Kingsnorth’s “Dark Ecology”

Study questions for Heinberg Primitivist Critique of Civilization

1.      What are the two reasons Heinberg gives for thinking a critique of civilization is unavoidable? Do you think those reasons are valid?

2.      Explain and evaluate from your own perspective Heinberg’s definition of primitivism. Is this a good definition. To what extent do you embrace or reject the ideas suggested?

3.      How does he characterize “civilization?” Can there be human culture w/o “civilization.”

4.      What is his response that modern civilized democratic societies have governments that respect the individual?

5.      What is “anarchy?” What does Heinberg claim is core idea of anarchism? Do you agree with this idea?

6.      Does Heinberg propose giving up all dimensions of civilization? How does he propose to determine which dimensions to keep? How does he (and Mumford) characterize “civilization’s good face?”

7.      Does Heinberg thinks we should go back to being hunter-gatherers?