Vegetarianism, Anarcho-Primitivism, Permaculture, Sustainability, and Ted Kaczynski

As you can probably tell from the title, this post is going to be a clusterfuck.

I don’t know where to start, so I’ll just talk about a book I’m currently reading, that got me back on some of these ideas I’ve been introduced to before, and go from there. The book is titled The Vegetarianism Myth by Lierre Keith. You can read the first chapter from her website here.

This book is chock full of both good arguments, and full out bat-shit nonsense. The main point of the book is that a vegetarian diet is unsustainable and unhealthy (at least for veganism), and that if you really want to save the world and so on, we should switch to an anarcho-primitivist style of living: either by going back to hunter-gatherer lifestyles, or using permaculture type farming. I believe (although she hasn’t used the term yet) that this type of diet is similar to the the paleo diet.

The part that I like about this book is in its discussion of sustainability and the problems with mono-crop agriculture, and the benefits of permaculture farming. Within that discussion, I do see her points that mono-crop agriculture is terrible for the environment (they require lots of resources and essentially deplete the soil of its nutrients but don’t put them back in (I first learned about this from Jared Diamond’s book Collapse)), and that a permaculture type farming, including raising and killing animals for food and being part of the whole farm ecosystem, is something that can be within the ethical domain of treating animals humanely. I’m not sure about the details of how to feed the world based on permaculture farming, but that could potentially be answered through urban/city/green design and agriculture, and by reducing (not eliminating) meat consumption (which requires so much grain and water and so on). [for a really cool look at this kind of idea, see Garbage Warrior (Mike Reynolds). Trailer:


I’m not sure about her claims that a vegan diet will necessarily lead to debilitating health. I do know that if you eat a vegan diet and are not careful about how you do it, it can be seriously bad for your health. At the same time, I’m also not sure how I feel about claims that animal protein is necessarily bad for you either (see Forks Over Knives documentary (below), and this response.

Just so I’m clear about this: I think it’s possible to eat a healthy/full diet on a vegan diet (with B12 and other necessary supplements (Tryptophan?)), but I don’t necessarily think it’s the healthiest diet (fish! Speaking of fish, I’m also now REALLY interested in Aquaponics).

Some of the things that I believe Lierre Kieth is bat-shit crazy about is her terrible scholarship and her claim that plants are (and most living things for that matter) are self-aware.

For her scholarship, as an example (for a full review, see here), she claims that hunter-gathers on average work 15 hours per day, which she cites Sahlins, Marshall (Stone Age Economics. Piscataway, NJ: Aldine Transactions, 1972.) When I tried looking up criticisms of anarcho-primitivism, since I had been introduced to this idea of romanticizing hunter-gatherer societies based on politics and not sound science (see Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate and his new book The Better Angels of Our Nature), I came upon an article written by Ted Kaczynski of all people (yes, the Unabomber), written in 2007 (so yeah, turns out he’s still alive and writing). Check it out here, in case you think it’s pure nonsense, but I actually read it first, not knowing the author, and felt his criticisms were sound, and only then, upon finding out who wrote it, thought twice. Well, don’t take my word for it, here’s an excerpt (he goes on to write more about this claim too):

Characteristically, the anarchoprimitivists usually fail to cite their source for this supposed information, but it seems to be derived mainly from two essays, one by Marshall Sahlins (The Original Afluent Society[2]), and the other by Bob Black (Primitive Afluence[3]). Sahlins claimed that for the Bushmen of the Dobe region of Southern Africa, the “work week was approximately 15 hours.” [4] For this information he relied on the studies of Richard B. Lee. I do not have direct access to Lee’s works, but I do have a copy of an article by Elizabeth Cashdan in which she summarizes Lee’s results much more carefully and completely than Sahlins does. [5] Cashdan flatly contradicts Sahlins: According to her, Lee found that the Bushmen he studied worked more than forty hours per week. [6]

In a part of his essay that many anarchoprimitivists have found convenient to overlook, Bob Black acknowledges the forty-hour work-week and explains the foregoing contradiction: Sahlins followed early work of Lee that considered only time spent in hunting and foraging. When all necessary work was considered, the work-week was more than doubled. [7] The work omitted from consideration by Sahlins and the anarchoprimitivists was probably the most disagreeable part of the Bushmen’s work-week, too, since it consisted largely of food-preparation and firewood collection. [8] I speak from extensive personal experience with wild foods: Preparing such foods for use is very often a pain in the neck. It is far more pleasant to gather nuts, dig roots, or hunt game than it is to crack nuts, clean roots, or skin and butcher game — or to collect firewood and cook over an open fire.

The anarchoprimitivists also err in assuming that Lee’s findings can be applied to hunter-gatherers generally. It’s not even clear that those findings are applicable on a year-round basis to the Bushmen studied by Lee. Cashdan cites evidence that Lee’s research may have been done at the time of year when his Bushmen worked least. [9] She also mentions two other hunting-and-gathering peoples who have been shown quantitatively to spend far more time in hunting and foraging than Lee’s Bushmen did, [10] and she points out that Lee may have seriously underestimated women’s working time because he failed to include time spent on childcare. [11]

I’m not familiar with any other exact quantitative studies of hunter gatherers’ working time, but it is certain that at least some additional hunter-gatherers worked a great deal more than the forty-hour week of Lee’s Bushmen. Gontran de Poncins stated that the Eskimos with whom he lived about 1939–1940 had “no significant degree of leisure”, and that they “toiled and moiled fifteen hours a day merely in order to get food and stay alive.” [12] He probably did not mean that they worked fifteen hours every day; but it’s clear from his account that his Eskimos worked plenty hard.

[If you’re confused as to why Ted Kaczynski is writing against Anarcho-primitivism, know that he identifies as an Neo-Luddite. {Please note: I’m not someone who supports Ted Kaczynski or his actions (mailing bombs to people and killing them), nor Neo-Luddhism. For a humorous example of someone reading The Unabomber Manifesto (aka Industrial Society and Its Future) see Chuck Klosterman’s article/chapter FAIL in his book Eating the Dinosaur.}

Her claim about plants being self aware I will simply quote:

In The Lost Language of Plants, Stephen Harrod Buhner presents page after page of detailing what plants do. They defend themselves. They protect each other. They communicate. They call out to other plant species, asking them to join in forming a resilient community. They sometimes sacrifice themselves for the good of all. They respond. They talk. They have meaning and they make meaning. They are capable of agency and courage and self-awareness.

…My entire point is simply that, although this woman is crazy, it’s been good to read a book against vegetarianism, since it keeps me thinking openly and critically. It has at the very least introduced me to the problems of sustainability and permaculture (although she may be wrong about a lot of those details as well). Finally, if her claim that a vegan diet is necessarily bad for you turns out to be wrong, she may also be wrong that permaculture cannot exist without animals: see Forest Gardening for example, and other solutions to sustainable vegetarianism (look ’em up, I’m about to).

Now I really want an aquaponics pond and forest garden 😦


About dontdontoperate

28 year old originally from Barrie, Ontario, Canada. H.B.Sc. from UofT with a major in chemistry and a double minor in philosophy and math. M.Sc. from UofT in physiology and neuroscience. Finished my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at McMaster in the fall of 2013.
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