Tom Smith: It’s a common trope amongst what would seem to be the vast majority of people - from the woman on the street to the most privileged philosophy professor - that ‘there is no going back.’ Pierre Hadot mentions it in The Veil of Isis, Kirkpatrick Sale in After Eden, the list of exponents for this line of thought is a long one. We can’t go back to the past, to the Stone Age, to the Golden Age, to the Garden of Eden, to wherever.
If one thing’s certain though, it’s that we can’t go forward.
Since the inception of agricultural civilization, over half the world’s land area has been appropriated for grazing animals or growing crops, destroying over half the world’s forests in the process (Kareiva et al, 2007). The Fertile Crescent isn’t the only place that isn’t so fertile any more – the crisis is omnipresent and intensifying. Civilized humanity has, among other things, affected “an end to the evolution of vertebrates larger than a few kilograms” (Myers, 1997). Pathologies of civic health too are becoming the ever-pervasive norm (with, for example, half of all Americans knowing someone with an eating disorder).
Yet still, let the non-believers be damned if they ever suggest that we could possibly go back.
One commonly-posed argument is that it’s pointless to yearn for the return to a Golden Age which is mythological, which might be nice to imagine but, as we are so consistently told, never really existed. (Anarcho-)Primitivists are accused of manipulating and fabricating history for their own ends. (As an aside, the irony of such an accusation is telling. When was the last time that you were taught in school that the agricultural revolution was a disaster for human health, with people only making significant gains in lifespan (if we are to use that as an indicator of ‘health’) in the last 100 years? Why are the circa 9,000 years of starvation, malnutrition and war conveniently glossed over? Let’s be fair if we’re going to talk about re-writing history books).
Non-primitivists (including those on the political Left and Right) state that there never was a time when the state didn’t exist, when hominids lived embedded in nature, when private property wasn’t a sacred institution, and when social equality, participatory democracy and equality of the sexes was the norm. Well, without going into the plethora of archaeological and anthropological evidence which has been well examined elsewhere, here’s one to rewrite the record books with: such a time did exist and it’s called the Palaeolithic.
Aside from all this, the thought that we “can’t go back” is problematic in the first instance insofar as it misinterprets fundamentally what primitivists seek to achieve. The very lexicon of ‘going back’ buys into the same mindset of linearity and Progress which was born with the advent of civilization, and which primitivists rightly rail against as one of the roots of our present malaise. This is the same linearity that causes most people to worship the future and disdain the poverty-stricken past. As has been pointed out previously by writers including John Zerzan, with agriculture (and its accomplices of time-keeping and wealth accumulation) comes the banishment of humans from the present. Instead of ‘going back’, I would suggest that primitivists in fact mean that they wish to rejoin nature’s cycles, inhabit the present and simply go nowhere. Surely our aim is to stop rushing somewhere, whether that be some imagined past or an idealised futuristic utopia where we all have nuclear-powered flying cars and dress like the Jetsons.
Can’t we just be, be in-the-moment like our non-human animal neighbours, as present and conscious as the uncivilised hunter drawing back his bow-string before striking his quarry.
It’s highly convenient for people embedded in civilisation to be so dependent on the hand that feeds it that no alternative but continuation seems possible. That we can’t go back appears to be representative, not of the reality of our options, but rather the reality of civilisation’s stranglehold on the imagination.
Either way, if overcoming the separation between civilised humanity and nature, overcoming domestication and the division of labour, overcoming hierarchical social relations and the state, are all still just characterised as ‘going back’, then that decides the matter. Let’s get back, before the damage gets worse, and let’s start now.
Kareiva, P. et al (2007) Domesticated Nature: Shaping Landscapes and Ecosystems for Human Welfare, Science, Vol. 316, pp. 1866-1869
Myers, N. (1997) Mass Extinction and Evolution, Science, Vol. 278, No. 5338, pp. 597-598
 Who has stated that “Time's arrow--irrevocable, one-direction-only time--is the monster that has proven itself more terrifying than any physical projectile.”