The Dark Side of Low Technology Utopias
There is a growing obsession with low-technology; or Luddite, utopianism in the blogosphere and elsewhere that should worry all thinking people. Lately a number of writers have begun singing the praises of off the grid eccentrics who have abandoned the rat race in search of the low-tech simple life.
A typical example is Mark Sundeen; whose book The Unsettlers praises groups like the Possibility Alliance in La Plata, Missouri, founded by a self-proclaimed “superhero” who refuses to use computers or fly in airplanes. Another is American Conservative writer Rod Dreher who admires Clear Creek Abbey in Cherokee County, Oklahoma, where families try to live a simple Catholic life.
There’s also Briton Paul Kingsworth who lives on a rustic farm in Ireland and promotes his Dark Mountain Project. His writings include such twisted thoughts as plumbing is symbolic of “a civilization that wants to wash its hands of its own wastes,” according to The Boston Review.
That’s right Kingsworth views plumbing as evil and selfish. He apparently thinks of sanitation; an advance that has saved untold millions of lives, as a bad thing.
There is also celebrity chef Matthew Secich who moved his family to an Amish community in Maine. The children of the man who used to cook at The Oval Room in Washington D.C. and The Alpenhof Lodge, in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, now take a pony to school, NPR reported.
A similar strain of thought was advanced by American Conservative Managing Editor Robert VerBruggen who wrote that the right level of technology might have been attained between 1835 and 1850.
VerBruggen praises the Amish for rejecting modern society in a blogpost on robots of all things. He also provides a YouTube clip from Family Guy to support his inane argument. Like most idealists, the neo-Luddites are also hypocrites they use the very thing they want to reject; technology, spread their silly message.
The Ugly Side of the 19th Century
The frightening aspect of this sort of thinking is that it ignores and rejects the reality of the 19th Century. The years 1835 to 1850 were hardly wonderful for the slaves on the plantations or the children working in Britain’s coal mines.
A return to 19th Century technology would probably mean a return to 19th Century values and standards of behavior. People like VerBruggen forget that slavery and racism were normal; and even acceptable, standards of behavior in the 1840s. Public hangings, whippings and dueling were everyday behavior in the 1840s.
Any attempt to reject technology on a large scale is liable to lead to exploitation, suffering and misery on a scale similar to that inflicted by the Communists or ISIS. This would occur because not all people are the gentle idealists profiled by the likes of Sundeen.
Many human beings are lazy, greedy, violent, arrogant, selfish and short sited. Deprive them of technology and they’ll revert to ugly older patterns of behavior such as feudalism and slavery.
Low-Tech Utopia or Primitive Nightmare
Instead of hoeing potatoes those people would pick up a gun; or a whip, and force their neighbors to do the work. Yes, there were plenty of hardworking pioneers in 19th Century America; but there were also masters sitting on the verandas watching the overseer whip the slaves.
Some ugly practices low-tech Americans might revive include debt peonage; or sharecropping, in which a farmer is always in debt to a landlord or storekeeper. All the proceeds of the farmer’s work go to pay the debt which never gets paid off.
Another disturbing possibility would be to force people who refuse to accept the low-tech lifestyle into forced labor to “reform” them. Such a horror actually occurred in 1970s Cambodia where Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge thugs forced people out of cities and into slave labor in the Killing Fields.
Beyond that there was the violence of 19th Century America remember a little thing called the Civil War. It claimed over 700,000 lives, and devastated large sections of the country. That was only the worst example of a century that included labor violence, lynching, race riots, genocide of Native Americans, attempted genocide of Mormons, organized political violence and much more.
What’s even more disturbing is that the United States got off easy in the 19th Century. India, Russia and Ireland all suffered terrible famines in that era. Over a million people died in Ireland’s Great Hunger or Potato Famine; which occurred between 1848 and 1852. Other parts of the world suffered genocidal wars; China’s 19th Century Civil War; the Taiping Rebellion, killed an estimated 20 to 70 million people between 1850 and 1864.
Is that the kind of world we want to return to? Most sane people would say no, yet it is celebrated by large numbers of so-called “intellectuals.” The vast majority of whom, probably have never done any physical labor in their lives.
Why the Low-Tech Utopia will not Work
The worst aspect of low tech utopianism is that like most idealists, its practitioners ignore human nature. Like the Communists and Libertarians the low-techers accept the delusion that human weakness can be overcome by simple idealism.
Set in a low-tech 19th Century environment most Americans would behave like Jefferson Davis; the slaving-owning Confederate President, not Thoreau. After all life on the veranda; sipping a mint julip, is far more comfortable than life in the fields.
Something that the low techers forget is that some of the best and brightest people in 19th Century America owned slaves. Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson; the author of the Declaration of Independence, and James Madison; architect of the Constitution, were slave owners. Jefferson; who claimed to want of a nation of independent small farmers, even enslaved his own children.
If men like Jefferson and Madison succumbed to slaveholding, what chance would the rest of us have in a low-tech environment? Their experience should be a cautionary tale to us. It proves a low tech environment like that preferred by the utopians would lead to massive human rights violations.
The low-tech utopia might be fine for the eccentric off-gridders; Sundeen admires but it is not a solution for society as a whole. If everybody was Thoreau, or Gandhi or Tolstoy it might work. Yet Gandhi, Thoreau and Tolstoy were exceptional people, they were far from normal which is why we remember them.
This brings us to the final danger from the low-tech utopia; like Communism it is a fantasy ideology. The pastoral paradise the unsettlers want to recreate never existed. The only place the world they want ever existed was on reruns of Little House on the Prairie.* History teaches us that low-tech societies are ones of toil, human rights abuse, oppression and quick death.
Everybody should fear the low tech utopia because any attempt to create it on a large scale will lead to widespread human suffering not simple joy. We need real solutions for our world’s problems not retreat to fantasy farms.
*For the sake of fairness I must note that Michael Landon; the showrunner on the classic 1970s TV version of Little House on the Prairie, went out of his way to try and portray some of the ugliness of 19th Century life on his program in a sanitized family hour television manner. The show featured such un-bucolic elements as racism, land-stealing robber barons, drug abuse, ruthless bounty hunters, genocide of Native Americans and in one bizarre episode; outlaws Jesse and Frank James, who claimed to be avenging crimes committed in Union concentration camps during the Civil War.