The Universe is Expanding

It takes a peculiar kind of mind–a highly civilized mind to be sure–to actively worry about the fact that the universe is expanding. The same could be said for worry about what will happen when the sun burns out. I say “civilized” because such anxiety seemingly stems from a perceived lack of control and the civilized, perhaps by definition, aspire toward complete control.

Only the civilized could interpret the fact that the universe is expanding as a problem which requires a solution rather than simply as a brute fact about existence. Indeed, refusal to accept things as given is both virtue and vice of the civilized mind.

In any case, rarely are such facts as the eventual burning out of our sun cited as grounds for accepting or rejecting a given political theory. Yet in a recent interview with John Zerzan, a VICE Magazine interviewer made the following observation:

One thing I wonder about—and Stephen Hawking has brought this up—is that life on Earth will eventually be destroyed by either a meteorite or finally the sun burning out. [Hawking] has suggested that our only hope of survival is to colonize outer space…

The implication being that anarcho-primitivism cannot provide the tools necessary for adequately responding to an expanding universe; it doesn’t place humanity in a position to colonize space and outlive the sun…consequently it must be rejected. The interviewer overlooks climate change, overlooks species extinction, overlooks how life on Earth is being destroyed right at this very moment in ways that are much more local and immediate than astronomical and distant.

An astute reader could point out that Hawking and the VICE interviewer are also concerned about meteorites and that the threat of meteorites cannot confidently be placed billions of years into the future. Perhaps meteorites are the reason that anarcho-primitivism should be rejected? Could The Argument from Meteorites be the silver bullet argument that renders primitivism implausible: we simply must prepare to obliterate any incoming meteor before it obliterates us–and primitivists are soft on meteorites.

In an article titled “We Can Survive Killer Asteroids–But it Won’t Be Easy” appearing in WIRED in 2012, Neil deGrasse Tyson explained that “[o]nce in about a hundred million years…Earth is visited by an impactor capable of annihilating all life-forms bigger than a carry-on suitcase.” A most interesting metric to be sure!

Tyson elaborates:

If humans one day become extinct from a catastrophic collision, we would be the laughing stock of aliens in the galaxy, for having a large brain and a space program, yet we met the same fate as that pea-brained, space program-less dinosaurs that came before us.

We cannot make the same mistake as the dinosaurs or be the butt of any alien jokes! And so Tyson would have us enter a space race with hypothetical aliens who are hypothetically in the lead.

At this juncture, I can only point out that the limits of anarcho-primitivism are precisely what make it compelling. An anarcho-primitivist society could not manage a nuclear power plant, rely on satellite communication, drop bombs from airplanes, etc. Likewise, as Stephen Hawking- and Neil deGrasse Tyson-inspired critics point out, they also could not chart the path of asteroids far into the future and actively avoid or destroy a devastating meteorite.

It is my position that the steps necessary to create a civilization capable of diverting meteorites would impose a worse cost on itself and its members than the meteorite could inflict.

There is a reason why anarchists tends to run things like coffee shops and bookstores rather than space programs. Anarchism does not scale up very well; to be plausible it must be primitivist.

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Domesticated Animals & Us

Note: This article first appeared in the current issue of Fifth Estate (#391 Fall/Winter 2014)

creatures of empire

Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America
Virginia DeJohn Anderson
Oxford University Press, 2006, 336 pp., $19.95 paperback

 

 

Civilization is a lie. Its images mask violence and its logic is that of genocide. Even the most banal scene of grazing cattle, while seemingly serene, portrays a weapon a war.

Virginia DeJohn Anderson’s Creatures of Empire is an important work for many reasons. It restores agency to domesticated animals and recognizes their vital role in a key period of American history; by recognizing the role of livestock Anderson’s work contributes to a more complete understanding of the European invasion of North America. It also provides a compelling case study of how civilization has been spread and genocide carried out; while tactics may have shifted according to convenience and circumstance, the goal was always to eliminate Indians as such either by transforming individuals into pseudo-English Christians or simply through physical removal and extermination.

Anderson focuses on seventeenth-century releations between English colonists and two groups of Algonquian-speaking Indians: Indians of southern New England and Indians of the Chesapeake region of colonial America. Animals—both wild and domestic—often served as the intermediaries between colonists and Indians prompting both short-term cooperative efforts to minimize disputes as well as intense violence. Animals became tertiary targets of violence often being killed simply to send a message from one group to another. Anderson argues that toward the end of the seventeenth-century the fact “that animals could help incite a war between human combatants was eminently clear” (p. 232).

Even before direct contact between colonists and Indians, the two groups often encountered animals that would challenge their conventional understandings of human-animal relations. Indians would encounter domesticated animals such as cattle and pigs brought by colonists from Europe; animals that were deemed property. For people with a comprehensive and intimate knowledge of the landscape, encounters with unfamiliar animals must have been incredibly shocking. Furthermore, virtually all animals in the Indians’ experience were wild and no living animal was considered an individual’s property. Likewise, colonists would encounter wild animals who would prey on their livestock, destroy their crops, and generally make highly-controlled, English-style agriculture close to impossible.

Both groups—colonists and Indians—would regularly encounter feral animals that blurred conceptual categories. For Indians, feral livestock most closely resembled wild animals that could legitimately be hunted. And yet to the English, “livestock could no more become [wild] than colonists could become Indians” (p. 138). For the English, any animal that was deemed property would necessarily always be property regardless of how far the animal wandered or uncared for the animal was; any resemblance to a wild animal was superficial and for another to kill that animal would invite harsh sanction.

Initially, when Indians were in a dominant position and colonists were simply struggling to survive, the colonists’ civilizing agenda took a superficially cooperative or ideological approach. It was not only prudent to preserve peaceful relations with valuable trading partners but the English believed that they could distinguish themselves from Spain by adoption of “an ideological approach [to colonization] that advertised their nation’s moral superiority (p. 78). It would be a way to make up for the fact that Spain was farther ahead of England in the race to secure colonies.

Furthermore, “[c]olonists took it for granted that Indians would recognize the superiority of an English agrarian regime once they saw how it worked,” and so violence may not even be necessary (p. 171). The effort was not only to turn Indians into sedentary agrarians but into Christians as well. For the English, owning livestock was strongly invested with a normative component; indeed, it was deemed a hallmark of civilization. The fact that native populations had failed to domesticate animals was considered clear evidence of a serious deficiency on their part. To English eyes, the landscape was made for livestock and awaiting improvement. But in fact, as Anderson points out, there was little benefit to be gained from domestication and the species on the North American continent were not of the sort that would readily submit to domestication.

This “ideological approach” was evident when in 1656 the Virginia colony adopted a policy of rewarding Indians who killed a sufficient number of wolves by giving them a cow. The heads of eight wolves could be exchanged for one cow. It was a plan intended to eliminate wolves which threatened English livestock while simultaneously introducing the concept of livestock ownership to native peoples. Similarly, an effort in Rhode Island involved taxing colonists’ cattle to raise funds to assist Indians in building fences around their cornfields. This was to minimize disputes involving animal intrusions while shifting the burden onto Indians rather than animal owners. Once fences were built, Indians would be required to maintain them if they were to have their grievances heard and be considered for compensation.

But by the middle of the seventeeth century, the civilizing agenda shifted from a strategy of assimilation to outright aggression and “depredations against livestock came to be seen as…acts of war” (p. 178). The fences that Indians were pressured into building were on several occassions burnt down by colonists who then proceeded to let their cattle roam through Indian cornfields; “roaming livestock acted as the advance guard of English settlement.” (p. 243) It was thought that such routine harassment could compel Indians to simply leave and cede the land to colonists. Disputes that would have previously been treated as delicate diplomatic issues to be navigated with caution—when the colonists were weak—were now simply regarded as a matters of law enforcement and handled with force.

Anderson’s concludes by saying that “livestock enabled the English to extend their dominion over the New World with remarkable speed and thoroughness” (p. 242). Livestock would advance, Indians would retreat, colonists would move in, and then the process would repeat itself as many times as necessary.

For anyone looking to better understand the specific mechanisms by which civilization encroaches and genocide is carried out, Anderson’s Creatures of Empire should be treated as required reading.