Yes, I’m a Luddite

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But I don’t know how to get there from here.

The Dream

Many years ago, a friend and I got talking about what Utopia would look like to us.  I ended up producing a fairly extensive write-up on utopia according to me, dubbed “Jentopia.”

Jentopia turns out to be a very decentralized, low-tech society.  I sketched a vision of people living in a scattered network of mostly self-sufficient farmsteads.  They subsisted on agriculture, animal husbandry, hunting and fishing, or whatever combination of these best suited their immediate environment.  Government was local. Crimes were handled at the community level by a tribal or community council.  If a major military threat should arise from without, communities would get together and form a temporary militia to repel it.  All art was folk art, all music folk music.  Things that require a specialist, such as medicine, midwifery, and metalsmithing would be handled by local experts or by traveling specialists with whom gifted young people could apprentice if they chose.  Young people, when they came of age, could travel to other communities to find spouses or seek work.  Or they could simply go explore their world.  Because of the low level of technology, it was unlikely that any one group could completely wipe out another.  The low tech also limited the speed and range of travel.  The world was connected, but loosely so.  Families and communities were largely self-sufficient.

The only thing wrong with this cover illustration is the boots. Almonzo goes barefoot in the summer.

The closest I have ever seen historical conditions coming to Jentopia is the description of Almonzo Wilder’s boyhood in the book Famer Boy, written by his wife, Laura Ingalls Wilder.  I suppose that this book, plus the Noble Savage myth, is where my mental picture of Jentopia originated.

The Wilder family are prosperous farmers living in upstate New York in the 1880s.   They raise cows, sheep, pigs, and horses.  They have fields and a big garden.  The sheep produce wool, from which Mrs. Wilder weaves and then makes all the family’s clothes.  They have their own woodlot, from which they get (as needed) wintergreen berries, nuts, and timber. They have their own lake, from which they cut ice to store for the summer.  They achieve all this by working nonstop.  By the time he is nine, Almonzo is plowing all day in the early summer.  He makes up for it by eating his weight in food at every meal.

The Wilders are as near as a family can come to being completely self-sufficient.   Nevertheless, they are connected to the outside world.  A shoemaker and a tinker each make an annual trip to the area, selling the family what they need.  A buyer from New York City comes by once a year to buy Mrs. Wilder’s butter.  Mr. Wilder trains horses and sells them.  And they are not completely safe from crime.  A neighboring farm family is robbed and severely beaten in their own house one night.  Also, the Wilder’s whole lifestyle would vanish if one of them were to become disabled by an injury or a serious illness.

Mrs. Wilder weaving a boarding school uniform for her older son

We All Want It …

Despite not being perfect, the “Farmer Boy” lifestyle is very appealing to me in theory. And not only to me.  It appeals to many people for different reasons.  Some are survivalists who want to have more security by having more control over their food supply.  Others are environmentalists who would rather not contribute to the problems of pollution and industrial farming.

These are not unusual feelings.  I think most people, if you asked them, would rather be as self-sufficient as possible.  And nobody, if you ask them point-blank, wants to pollute or create huge piles of garbage or exploit other people in sweat shops or indirectly participate in cruelty to animals.  We all would like to live in an ideal world where we don’t harm anyone or anything else by our lifestyle. We are all trying to get back to the Garden.

The Resistance

So why is it that most people resist the call to suddenly enact a low-tech, environmentally friendly lifestyle?   As a fellow blogger put it, “people don’t like environmental rants.”  His theory is that we are all just too lazy and selfish to give up our luxuries.  But I don’t think it’s that.  I think most people resist “environmental rants” due to good, sound psychological reasoning. 

People are willing to do something if they believe it will provide them some kind of tangible benefit.  It’s best if they start seeing this benefit right away.  If we tried to plant a garden and nothing came up, we might try again next year, but we would certainly be discouraged and might give up.  This effect, by the way, is the reason that Dave Ramsey advises people who have a lot of debts to tackle their smaller debts first.  It would make more sense mathematically to start with the larger debts, which rack up more interest. But Ramsey has discovered by trial and error that people need the early sense of accomplishment that comes with seeing a debt vanish.  This gives them hope that paying off their debts is possible and further motivates them to keep saving. 

Occasionally you meet a person who is so disciplined and mature that they can work hard and sacrifice for a very long-term goal, sometimes for years before seeing any results. But this is not the norm.  In the real world, people give up if they don’t believe their efforts are having any effect. 

That is the problem with asking people to make changes in their lifestyle for an abstract environmental goal.  There is no obvious connection between our actions and the end result.  We are told that the world is ending and that it’s because of our lifestyle.  However, we are also told that even if we completely changed our lifestyle tomorrow, it’s possible the disastrous trend would not reverse.  And even if everyone in our city – or state – or country – managed to completely change our lifestyle, China would still be out there polluting.  Our actions wouldn’t make a dent in climate change, if it is even mostly human-caused.  If it is even worse than the alternatives.

In the end, the actions we are urged to take are so tiny that it’s hard to see how they could do anything.  Use a different kind of light bulb.  Produce less trash.  Don’t eat meat.  Whoopee.  I don’t take environmental end-times prophets seriously unless they ask us to move to the wilderness, go full Wilder, and stop using electricity altogether.

And some of them do.

The Hard Way

I hate to pick on the Green New Deal, but it’s out there, and I have heard people say that we are selfish, anti-science, anti-future dunderheads if we object to it.  So, let’s talk about it.

The basic premise behind the GND is to enact a sudden, universal switch to a sustainable, environmentally friendly lifestyle from the top down, by force. There are two problems with this.  One is the tyranny problem.  The other is the death problem.

The Tyranny Problem: The problem with enacting radical lifestyle changes from the top down is that this is, not to mince words, tyranny.  It is tyranny any time a government tries to force large segments of a population to give up their livelihood, move to a different place, raise their children in a certain way, have more or fewer children, or any other major changes to the elements of our lifestyle that are the proper domain of families.

Mao Tse Tung tried this in China.  It was called the Great Leap Forward.  He basically outlawed white-collar jobs and forced millions of city dwellers to move onto collective farms.  Millions died in the famines that followed.  (Top-down control of farming >>> crop failure >>> famine.)

Any time a government tries to force major lifestyle changes on its populace, whatever else the initiative may be it is also a power grab. 

Actually, the advocates of the GND admit that it’s a power grab.  They say that radical, tyrannical steps are necessary now just as they are (arguably) necessary during Total War, because we are all going to die unless we do something about this environmental problem.  They say tyranny is justified because they are saving us from death.

So let’s talk about the death problem.

The Death Problem: Besides the fact that it’s tyranny, there is another huge problem with trying to get an entire population to give up electricity, plastics, and motor vehicles essentially overnight.  The problem is that these modern luxuries have enabled us to build up and sustain a population that is much, much bigger than subsistence farming could support.

We all depend on electricity (hence coal) and on oil for things like our city sewer systems; our clean, processed water; our garbage removal; our heat in the winter; our healthy, abundant, affordable food.  We also depend on these systems for medical technologies that keep many of us alive.  Many people are dependent upon medicines that have to be refrigerated and that can only be produced with our current technology.

If we suddenly gave up petroleum and coal, all these systems would collapse.  This scenario has been explored – frequently – in sci-fi and dystopias.  It always ends in huge die-offs.  Often, the die-offs have an additional cause such as zombies.  But if you want to read a detailed exploration of what would happen if the lights simply went out, I recommend Dies the Fire by S.M. Stirling.  At the beginning of that book, all electricity, motor vehicles, and gunpowder (!) suddenly stop working.  There is no bomb, and there are no zombies.   Lights out is all it takes to kill off most of the population. If you don’t have time to read Dies the Fire (a doorstop of a book), try the much shorter One Second After by William R. Forstchen, in which gunpowder and motor vehicles continue to work, but the power goes off and communities no longer receive goods from the outside world via trucking. This is even closer to what the Green New Deal would bring us.

Anyone who seriously wants the United States to stop using coal and petroleum within the next ten years is asking at least 50%, probably more like 75%, of us to die in the cause of environmentalism.

I honestly don’t know whether the advocates of the GND realize this or not.  Maybe they think there would be a way to find another source of power, such that it would not cause massive die-offs.  Maybe they think the die-offs would be a good thing.  Or maybe they don’t actually expect the GND to be enforced as it is written.  In any case, I don’t think they’ve thought seriously about how bad it would really be.

The Possibly Not Fatal, But Still Extremely Hard, Way

The only nonfatal way that I can see for a Luddite dreamer to get from city life to Jentopia is to move there voluntarily.  Buy some land, build a chicken coop, plant a big garden.  Become a homesteader.  Have a generator or a wood stove or whatever you need in case the power goes out.  Dig a root cellar.  Stock up on any necessary medicines. 

This is good, as far as it goes.  It is something that I would like to do if so positioned.  That said, there are a few caveats.

Not everyone is in a position to take up the homesteading lifestyle.  Some people can’t afford to move or can’t afford to buy land.  Some are taking care of a sick child or elder.  Some are committed to an important, demanding career that ties them to a city.  (We don’t want all our doctors and firefighters to go full Luddite!)

Even supposing we do take up the homesteading lifestyle, it is going to be very demanding.  Farming is difficult to succeed in if you didn’t grow up in it.  (For example, you need a lot of wrist and hand strength that has to be developed in your youth.)   For most people, their homestead would end up being only partially self-sufficient.  They might have a large garden and keep chickens, perhaps even a cow … but a portion of their food, all of their medicine, and probably the bulk of their income would be coming from elsewhere.

Even to take up a partially self-sufficient lifestyle, here are the skills you might need: construction (fixing your house, and building barns, chicken coops, etc.).  Plumbing.  Gardening, including knowing what varieties of garden crops do well in your area and how to handle pests and plant diseases.  Animal husbandry (if you want your own milk) and butchering (if you want your own bacon).  Food preservation (canning, pickling, and maybe a smokehouse).  Water purification. Home cooking from scratch.  Camping skills such as how to start a fire in a fire pit or in a wood stove – and, not unrelated, fire safety.  Knitting, sewing, and – if you are hard core – spinning and weaving.  Sheep shearing.  Soap making.  First aid and possibly more advanced medical knowledge, if you are living in a place remote enough that it would be hard to get to medical care.  Home dental care (tooth extraction?).  Home haircuts.  Vehicle maintenance (or horse breeding).  How to maintain the road into and out of your place.  And finally, if you are preparing for the lawlessness that would follow a social or environmental apocalypse, you will need self-defense skills, shooting skills, and gun maintenance (or sword skills if you are living the world of Dies the Fire).

Obviously, living in an environmentally friendly way is going to be a full-time occupation and then some.  You will have no time for art or leisure.

Let me be the first to say that I do not have all these skills.  I do not have a green thumb.  I have a tiny yard that is not set up for chickens or gardening.  I have a modestly stocked pantry and one lousy rain barrel.  I have a fire place but no wood pile.  If the power went off in our city in the middle of the winter and stayed off for a month or two … maybe my family would survive.  That’s leaving looters out of the equation.

Maybe I should start calling myself a Hypo-Luddite.

It’s a really big club.

Sources

Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder, HarperCollins, first published 1933.  Shows the Wilder family’s lifestyle by following Almonzo through one year of his life.

The Quarter-Acre Farm: How I Kept the Patio, Lost the Lawn, and Fed my Family for a Year by Spring Warren.  Seal Press, 2011.  Warren decides she personally (only she, not her husband and sons) is going to eat only what she grows on her own property for one year.  (She has to exclude beverages from this, or she would have to give up all drinks but water.)  She works her tail off, but she does it.  Her learning curve is delightful to read.  Note that she lives in California, which has a good growing climate, and when the book starts her yard already boasts fruit trees.

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang.  Chang chronicles the life of her grandmother, her mother, and herself.  Her parents were both dedicated communists early in the movement.  Her family survived being separated and sent to collective farms during the Great Leap Forward.

See thesurvivalmom.com to get a sense of the range of skills that homesteading requires.

“The Green New Deal as America’s Great Leap Forward” by Clifford Humphrey, The Epoch Times, March 31, 2019

“The Climate Case of the Century” by Edward Ring on American Greatness. The web site is kind of annoying in terms of ads and pop-ups (sorry about that!), but in the section of the article called “Critical Questions,” Ring asks a series of great questions about the extent and nature of climate change and the relative harm and benefits of trying to switch to solar and wind power.

3 thoughts on “Yes, I’m a Luddite

  1. Benjamin Ledford

    Oh man, I sure sympathize. I really find myself idealizing the Wilders (and envying my farmer friends, like the Schroeders). As you note, though, while in one sense their livihood is more stable because have more control and aren’t dependent much on outside factors, on the other had it’s very fragile because it can be completely upended by drought, pests, illness, or injury. Our romanticization also took a hit last night while reading “Little Town on the Prairie,” when Laura realizes that Ma hates sewing. That’s one of skills we really admire and wish we still had, but if you hated it and then you realize that they are sewing virtually *all the time*, mmm, not so romantic.

    Another reason the Green New Deal is so horrible is that such massive, centrally-directed investments are not guaranteed to solve the problem, and they are *very* likely to cause serious problems. Because we’re dealing at such a large scale, the consequences of a small miscalculation or oversight are enormous. But by the time we realize we were doing something ineffective, the resources are spent and long gone, and the side effects remain. Centrally planning is just too complex a problem for anybody to do competently, but it’s easy to create major unintended negative consequences when trying to address problems on such a large scale.

    I really think that the only reason that people will make lifestyle changes and sacrifice their comfort at a large scale is desperation. If the social order collapses or the infrastructure and food supply breaks down, then we start doing without and conserving and learning to be more self-sufficient, because we’ll have to, just like the Wilders. But if that doesn’t happen, will power is not going to do it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Off-the-Grid August – Out of Babel

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