• damariszehner

Variety, Survival, and the Revenge of the Luddites

Updated: Jan 31, 2020

This essay previously appeared in Local Futures and Resilience.

Since human creativity will have to move in new directions as the Industrial Revolution runs down, you might wonder what kinds of technology are suited to a sane life. You may picture what is called nowadays a low-tech lifestyle. Despite its popularity among cutting-edge thinkers and designers, a low-tech lifestyle is hardly avant garde. The majority of the human population lives and has always lived with less advanced technology than most modern Westerners do. Many live a simpler life out of necessity, because they don’t have or can’t afford the luxuries that we think of as necessities; but some individuals and groups deliberately embrace a low-tech life.

Low-tech by necessity. Photo Andy Zehner

That’s not always easy to do. Adapting to the simpler technology may be no problem for these lifestyle pioneers, but coping with the people around them is.

Anyone who has ever lived a low-tech lifestyle, either deliberately or inadvertently, has had the same comments directed at them: “I wouldn’t know how to cook without my microwave,” or “I have my cell phone with me night and day – I can’t manage without it.” Many years ago, when I announced that I was leaving for Liberia with the Peace Corps, the high school students I was teaching exclaimed, “Seriously? I couldn’t live without TV!”

At first you might think that the comments are meant to be complimentary to you for managing with less, or at least self-deprecating, as they seem to be; actually, they are a type of insult (perhaps unconscious) directed at the backward people who don’t use favored technologies. The commenters are boasting of their helplessness as proof of two things. First, that they have higher standards – you can live like a caveman, they imply, but I aim for a more civilized lifestyle. Second, that they are invested in The Future: we’re on an upward trajectory, and people who claim otherwise are Luddite fun-suckers.

The future is fun!

I heard lots of similar comments before and after my years in Liberia and Kyrgyzstan, not all just from students. Oddly, many of the people who said those things to me were old enough to remember not having a microwave or a cell phone and grew up watching their parents manage without them. Somehow, though, it’s important for them to show how thoroughly they have embraced the god of Progress, whose worship involves the yearly purchasing of a new smart phone and anticipating self-driving cars. And it’s not enough that they worship progress; everyone around them must, too, or it just isn’t any fun.

I don’t mean to imply that everyone is overtly hostile to people who step out of the mainstream of so-called technological progress, although hostility certainly exists. There are those who are just dismissive of alternative technologies, whether it’s horse farming, heating with wood, fiber arts, intensive gardening, or movable-type printing. They see these “old-fashioned” occupations as quaint hobbies for the few nuts who enjoy them – harmless, but a bit odd and backward.

Quaint hobbies.

But skills, even old-fashioned ones, must be saved against an uncertain future. The best way to save them is to practice them and teach them – just as the best way to save heirloom vegetables for the future is to grow them every year. Even if most people are convinced that the beefmonster hybrid tomato is the best tomato and that using GPS is the most efficient way to navigate, we can’t give up variety in vegetables or navigation: what if blight strikes the beefmonster and Kessler Syndrome wipes out global positioning satellites? The people who had other means of gardening and navigation would be better adapted to those new conditions.

Or think of it this way: preserving a variety of skills is like preserving a variety of genetic material and will lead to successful adaptation to a changed environment.

Let me illustrate. We all know that species that have more variety in both genetics and behavior are better able to survive a change in environment. Early humans, for example, were able to move to and cope with high latitudes – because they developed technologies to make clothing and shelter, certainly, but also because they had variations in skin color. The lighter-skinned of the people who made their way from Africa toward the Arctic Circle had a selective advantage to absorb sunlight and manufacture vitamin D that they passed on to their children. The darker-skinned of the people who remained in the hot tropical sun flourished, getting less skin cancer. Without those variations, we would not have been able to expand as we did. If any species becomes too, well, specific, any change in environment becomes fatal. Think of pandas, who will only eat bamboo and are at risk of extinction, compared to rats or coyotes or sea gulls, who can adapt to altered surroundings and are doing just fine.

Doing just fine.

I use this analogy to justify my own and other people’s “nostalgic” and “impractical” insistence on retaining a variety of seemingly maladaptive, low-tech skills even when there are high-tech options available. In my case, the skills I practice – gardening, handicrafts – are hobbies and not currently essential to my survival, so they look impractical to others. These observers understand that I think those activities are fun, but they tell me it would be more “practical” to buy my sweaters and afghans and vegetables instead of taking so much time and energy making them. But even though I currently have many options for obtaining clothes and food, as we descend from the peak of the industrial age, we can expect to see more of our survival dependent on these impractical, low-tech skills.

Impractical, low-tech skills. Photo Andy Zehner

I observed an example of the desperate need for “nostalgic” skills during the years I lived and worked in Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz people had been pastoral nomads until the Soviets settled them in villages. During Soviet times they still raised sheep and other livestock, but they also had communal farms of wheat and potatoes in the mountain valleys. They grew to rely on their harvest and on the tractors and combines they had been given to produce it. Bread became the staple, and meat and milk played a much reduced role. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the machinery stayed on the farms, but parts and fuel got harder to find and ownership and responsibility were hotly disputed. As a result, too many crops were lost. I often heard villagers talk about their wheat being flattened beneath the first snow because the combine didn’t work or the man who controlled it was drinking or insisted on a bribe.

Yet in every field were horses that could have been used as practical, sustainable sources of power. The problem was few people had the skill to train horses to harness (although the Kyrgyz are masterful riders) or to rig up the appropriate technology to pull behind horses. It wasn’t their fault, but still the Kyrgyz had invested in the expectation that their circumstances would remain constant. When the circumstances changed, they had no back-up responses to meet them. If the rural Kyrgyz had been a species in an isolated area, they might have gone extinct. As it is, since they can import some foods and scrape by with poor yields, they just suffer economic disadvantage and malnutrition.

Kyrgyz horses. Photo Andy Zehner

If someone in a Kyrgyz village had known the skill of horse farming, there would have been less hunger and crop failure. He – or possibly she – would have been a local hero, putting the tractor drivers to shame and, after the initial skepticism, able to find work every day during the growing season. With horses, farmers could use land that was inaccessible to a tractor. Young people who had had no hope of ever getting a tractor – or keeping it working – would have clamored to learn how to handle a team and make the necessary machinery.

But the Soviets enforced an unnatural uniformity on the widely varied populations they controlled. Old skills were lost, often by firing squad, and the knowledge of different skills from different times and places was suppressed. So no one knew about horse farming. When I described it and said that there were still people in America who did it, I was met with disbelief and scorn. The Kyrgyz had been taught that the Communist Revolution inevitably led to the most advanced and effective lifestyle ever. They were a bit embarrassed on my behalf, that I admitted that there were Americans who held on to their counter-revolutionary ways. Even my Kyrgyz friends who were facing crop failure still wanted to believe in the gods of technology and progress touted everywhere by fading billboards and heroic concrete statues. Pride is such a large part of our attitudes toward technology.

It says, "Keep on progressing!" Photo Andy Zehner

Both Kyrgyz and Americans long for the shininess of the Jetsons future. The Soviets were overt about considering someone who rejected new technologies as an enemy of The Revolution; Americans are more subtle, but the attitude is the same. Talk about simpler technologies to many Americans, and immediately the Amish are invoked – not as a successful community with a practical and sustainable lifestyle, but as a backward, oppressive cult that serves as a reminder to all of us that we have to buy the latest smart phone or invest in a self-driving car. And people also don’t separate the low-tech practices from the culture that practices them. They assume that if you say, for example, it would be better to have smaller, less mechanized farms that therefore you are claiming that women have to cover their heads, schooling should be limited, and water has to be pumped by hand. For reasons of pride, fear, and a lack of imagination, modern people have a hard time separating unsustainable technologies from the wide variety of social options that are open to us in the future.

Ironically, life keeps growing more complicated for those of us who prefer a simpler life. Every year there are more things I can’t do because I refuse to use a smart phone, for example: parking spaces I can’t pay for, coupons I can’t take advantage of, group activities in meetings I can’t do. I and people like me, however, will persist in keeping more primitive technologies alive, because we know that they may mean survival in an unknowable future, and because we are driven by a dream. We dream that someday, somewhere, someone will recognize the unsustainability of our petroleum-based lifestyle and cry out, “Is there no one who can show me how to [insert skill here]?” And we, the legion of Luddite fun-suckers, will rise up with our canning jars, floor looms, and short-wave radios and respond, “Let me help.”

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