Why I'm Debating an Anarcho-Primitivist Philosopher About the Future

What happens when two fundamentally opposite philosophies clash.

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Nov 14 2014, 11:00am

Image: NASA Goddard/Flickr

Zoltan Istvan is a futurist, journalist, and author of the novel The Transhumanist Wager. He writes an occasional column for Motherboard in which he ruminates on the future beyond natural human ability.

Imagine if you woke up one morning and nearly all technological advancement developed over the last few millennia was gone from the Earth. For starters, your bed in your cave would likely be an uncomfortable pile of hay and dried animal skins. You'd smell pretty bad too, since there wouldn't be much incentive to bathe without hot running water, shampoo, or clean towels. And if you were elderly at all, it's likely some place on your body might hurt, such as a tooth with a cavity—and because you don't have aspirin and antibiotics to get through an infection, you might die from it.

Does all this sound crazy? Anarcho-primitivists—"people who advocate for a return to non-'civilized' ways of life through deindustrialization," according to Wikipedia—want you to embrace it. They say technology and progress are increasingly a downer, which only serves to alienate us from… well… just about everything in the post-Caveman era.

If you think I'm going to bash anarcho-primitivists, you're wrong. As a transhumanist, I totally agree with their overarching point that technology and progress is fundamentally changing the human being for the worse. If you're a human and want to remain a human, then technology and civilization has gotten way out of control and is not only going to drive you nuts, but also destroy your way of life. I see it happening all the time to people—especially older conservative people—and it's no fun for them. Human brains and bodies were not made for so much radical technology, for the concrete mega-cities many of us live in, or for the busy labor-intensive social schemes we participate in. However, transhuman beings—those who like to drive cars, fly on jet airplanes, surf the internet, go scuba diving, climb Mt. Everest using oxygen tanks, live in skyscrapers, and use a flushing toilet—the world is getting better for them. Much better.

Transhuman means beyond human. And frankly, transhumanists are people who are just not interested in being humans anymore. We are not fans of our fragile flesh, of our mortal bodies, or of our flawed organs, such as our eyes which can see a mere 1 percent of the light spectrum of the universe. We are not interested in dying from cavities, in sleeping in caves, in throwing spears at wildlife, and in worrying about the survival trifles that have affected the species for hundreds of thousands of years. We aim to leave humanity behind and embrace a tech and science-dominated future, full of cyborg body parts, digital environments, indefinite lifespans, and new social philosophies.

Robot caveman. Image: Jill Allyn Stafford/Flickr

The fundamental conundrum with anarcho-primitivism versus transhumanism is that people tend to believe we are still human—that we are still mammals, and primates at that. Such a simplified description of us may be helpful when teaching a third-grader in elementary school, but it's quickly loses its relevance when discussing a person wearing an exoskeleton suit, possessing a tracking RFID chip, taking Viagra, and wearing Google Glass. Are we human? Not so much anymore. We started crossing that bridge a long time ago when we received our first vaccine, or made a phone call, or watched an astronaut walk on the moon.

This weekend at Stanford University I have the honor of publicly debating the world's leading anarcho-primitivist philosopher John Zerzan. The idea of the debate began with The Telegraph journalist Jamie Bartlett's new nonfiction book The Dark Net. The closing chapter of the book is called Zoltan vs. Zerzan, and Barlett juxtaposes our two rival philosophies in it.

Just before the book was published, Bartlett suggested that a public debate might be a good way to put a finger on the pulse of progress in the world from two polar opposite views. Zerzan and I agreed, and the Stanford Transhumansit Association—one of the largest student futurist associations in America—kindly signed up to host the debate. The event, which is in the Geology Corner Auditorium (320-105) this Saturday night, November 15th, at 7 PM, is free and open to the public.

Naturally, as civilization evolves into greater technological complexity, the conflict between anarcho-primitivism and transhumanism grows every year, too.

Recently, Hollywood released the blockbuster film Transcendence, starring Johnny Depp. Part of the movie highlights an anti-technology organization against transhumanist scientists. Transhumanists wish it were only fiction, but the conflict occurs in real life, as well. Recently, Italian and Mexican anti-technology groups mailed bombs to scientists and technologists in Switzerland and Mexico. Thankfully, John Zerzan appears not to be connected to these groups, but his past history as a public confidant of the Unabomber and someone possibly involved with helping to orchestrate the Seattle Riots has made me cautious. If I look a little uncomfortable during my debate, it's because I might be wearing a bulletproof vest, which unfortunately will occasionally become a part of my new dress code as the 2016 US presidential candidate of the recently formed Transhumanist Party.

Up until recently, I believed it was religious fundamentalists who were the main obstacles to getting society to embrace transhumanism and the coming radical technological change that is sweeping over our species. However, over the last two years I've come to realize that anarcho-primitivists are also formidable foes to the transhuman future. I still worry more about religious conservatives wanting to stop progress (as George W. Bush did with stem cell research during his time in office), but eco-friendly activists & "Occupy" supporters also have power and large numbers around the world. And they must be considered as being potentially disruptive to transhumanism and its growth.

The fundamental conundrum with anarcho-primitivism versus transhumanism is that people tend to believe we are still human

The big issue with anarcho-primitivists is that they have ties to various other fringe groups, which collectively might put their supporters in the millions. The Earth Liberation Front (ELF), various anarchist organizations, and the Occupy movements all hold various philosophies that can to some extent be linked with anarcho-primitivism. The danger here is that the greater coalition of anarcho-primitivists end up convincing the public that in order to save the Earth, tackle overpopulation, and address environmental issues—certainly some of the most hot-button topics of the year—we must take big steps backward with progress and civilization. Environmentalists taking up the banner of anti-technology would not be good recipe for a successful, forward-thinking society.

The support that anarcho-primitivists bring to green issues is the most important point they have in their arsenal of influence. Moderate anarcho-primitivists advocate for a major slowdown of technological development and capitalistic systems that care more for profits than they do for people or the planet. On the surface, this seems like a sound point. However, the flipside is that by slowing down technology and commerce, you would inevitably also be shortening and harming the lives of people, including some of the most vulnerable in society. For example, the BBC reports that girls and women were hit hardest by the recent global recession, causing higher rates of abuse, starvation, and infant mortality.

A recent report from Henry Blodget at Business Insider points out that today people all around the world are living better than they ever have. Poverty rates are lower. Lifespans are longer. Fewer people on average are starving to death. More opportunity for jobs exist. Violent war deaths are declining. Twenty-first century science, technology, and globalization are responsible for these improvements in the world. Transhumanists strongly condemn those who advocate halting the very things that have helped give people more food, longer lives, and better health.

Furthermore, as much as most people care about the environment and the Earth, people care more about how long and well they live, especially when it concerns their loves ones too. To stop technological innovation today would ultimately harm the lives of all people in all countries. Transhumanists advocate for green-friendly use of technology and the creation of technological fixes to help the world's growing environmental issues. These are the actions that will help the world find the proper balance with Earth and its environment.

In 1995, I journeyed far into the mountains of Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu and became the first foreigner ever to visit the tribe of Mareki. It was a truly traditional village living as some of the tribes had done for centuries before. In 2002, I returned to Vanuatu to film that same tribe for the National Geographic Channel. While both my stays in the village were amazing and magical, much of my experience was tempered with sadness. With no medicine or technology, villagers often died young from disease, malnutrition, and infection. People in the village told me little more than half of the children born survive to adulthood. Communities like that are in a constant state of mourning for their lost loves ones and a constant state of survival for their own lives.

I worry that anarcho-primitivists romanticize lifestyles like that of the Mareki tribe. While there are beautiful moments to be had in all ways of life, a journey into anti-civilization ways would quickly morph into a desperate and exhausting quest of survival. Our species has come way too far to abandon progress and go backwards. The future is forward, and it's a transhuman future, filled with health, well-being, and techno-optimism.