“John Jacobi is a conservationist and student at UNC Chapel Hill. He founded and edited the student magazine The Wildernist for two years, and now he edits the newsletter Hunter/Gatherer, outlining the eco-radical philosophy of “wildism.””
1. What was the catalyst for your initial interest in politics and subsequent radicalization?
With only a handful of others I call myself a wildist and a conservationist, and sometimes people refer to me as an “eco-radical.” In short, I want the world to have less human and technical control, or more wildness, and I do not think that the continued development of industrial civilization is conducive to that. But I also believe that rewilding at a large-scale social level is possible. That is, usually we only rewild by removing human influence and technologies like dams, but large scale rewilding would require the removal of civilization from large regions. Historically the kinds of thing that would allow for that have been called “insurrections,” “revolutions,” etc. So I advocate an anti-industrial reaction to the industrial revolution. This means industrial collapse.
Since I was trying to find anarchists, I followed news stories about Occupy to Chapel Hill, where I eventually did find anarchists, lived as a homeless person for a while, and eventually made it into the university. There I contributed heavily to an anarchist group we called the “UNControllables,” but I had to leave that later because of how progressivist the membership had become. After that I started a student conservation magazine called The Wildernist, a publication student and friend of mine is going to restart soon.
Also, shortly after meeting anarchists in Chapel Hill, I was given a text entitled “Industrial Society and Its Future.” As I read it I was very much surprised by how well it explained the unease I felt with modernity and the rational arguments it offered to support the conclusion that the technical environment itself was the problem. But then I figured out it was written by Ted Kaczynski, or the Unabomber. That freaked me out for a while, especially since I was an information science major, but the arguments were ultimately very convincing, and Kaczynski is known for being a “crazy genius,” so I decided to critically engage in the manifesto anyway. I also read a paper by the founder of Sun Microsystems, Bill Joy, entitled “Why the future doesn’t need us.” It was published in nerd-Bible WIRED and in it Joy describes a story almost exactly parallel to my own. Other articles like the New Yorker’s “Defending the Unabomber”; The New York Time’s “In Search of Madness,”; Orion’s “Dark Ecology”; Michael Mello’s USA vs. TJK; and some articles by David Skrbina ultimately revealed that I wasn’t alone in being impressed with the arguments.
Since then, I’ve developed ideas very similar to Kaczynski’s, with help from the man himself and some of his associates in Spain, and I’ve studied several scientific fields and environmental ethics for a better empirical and moral understanding of the problems of industrial society—and what we can do about them.
2. What do we do to combat sectarianism?
Factionalism between who? Environmentalists, anti-civvers, conservationists? I think we can agree that if differences are stark, factionalism can actually be quite helpful. The “big tent” approach might help for temporary goals or reformist movements, but for radical political movements a unified small population is arguably better than a broad but disunified one. So I don’t exactly work against factionalism. I’m fine with breaking off from a larger movement if a handful of us disagree on a few fundamental, unresolvable points.
3. What are your thoughts toward preventing near term human extinction and ecocide?
I’m not sure if “preventing” is the right word in reference to “ecocide.” Depending on what you mean by that, ecocide is already happening. Scientists have pointed out that we are living in the sixth mass extinction in geological history and the first one caused by humans. There may be a way to end it, but we’re past the point of preventing it.
To answer your question: I write about this extensively in “The Foundations of Wildist Ethics” and “The Question of Revolution,” and the best response to our current ecological problems is to remove industry from the equation. Forget about feasibility for a second, which is always the next question and which I will address in a moment. The extinction crisis, carbon emissions, and so on are all directly caused or exacerbated by the industrial mode of production. Other modes of production, even the agricultural one, contain hard limits to the amount of domination that humans could possibly hold over nature, so ending industry, even if it does not solve all environmental problems or reach any ideals, would be a major step forward. Since it is possible, and since the ecological crisis is so great, and we who value nature are obligated to do as much as we can to conserve and rewild it, we ought to work toward the end of industry.
Furthermore, people need to understand that physical environmental damage is a problem, but it is not the root of the problem. The root of the problem is human and technical control, or a loss of wildness. The physical degradation that results is just an indication and result of the loss of wildness and also possibly a reason to value wildness. But the very act of human domination over nature is what is in question. The reasons for this are many, but they essentially have to do with the trap that this catapults societies into. Once humans attempt to engage in control over nature through agriculture, for instance, they must then devise states, police forces, etc. This is because we humans attempt to replace a wild process with an artificial one, we then need to support that artificial process with our own labor and technologies in order to maintain it.
To give a humorous example: if we poop in a forest in the wild, the natural processes deal with the poop. But if we want a toilet, we then need a state to manage resources, plumbing infrastructure to manage waste, transportation infrastructure for production, divisions of labor, police forces to enforce and protect all of this. We need artificial energy input to “fill in the gaps” that nature can no longer fill. There’s no way out of this except through simplification, and historically technical simplification happens through decline and collapse.
And at the very least it is possible on regional scales. Consider Hurricane Katrina, which caused enough turmoil that if an anti-civ group had actually spent time beforehand gaining some strength or legitimacy, then the actual events that transpired would have paved the way for a potentially successful Reaction. And the organization that would be required to make something like that happen has historically already been achieved. The Bolsheviks had only 8,000 members when they took over all of Russia during the second revolution, for instance. With such weak and fragile infrastructure as we currently rely on to sustain our industrial way of life, this is possible.
It just requires courage.
4. What are your thoughts on the Green Party?
The Green Party is an example of green convictions becoming perverted by progressivist values, something that I’ve always argued we should avoid. Conservation is not compatible with progressivism; it is a profound challenge to it. That said, I have no doubt that many involved in the Green Party do love nature and the wild, and I am not against working with them.
“The collapse” may not be quite so appropriate, since we’re likely talking about a series of collapses, plural. But no, when there is industrial collapse, it means we will have to go without industrial amenities. This includes industrial hospitals, libraries, and schools, which you can’t have without industrial states, police forces, and transportation and communications infrastructure. Civilizations advance, more or less, as a single unit: you can’t have the good without the bad. So if the bad is bad enough to get rid of, the good unfortunately must go too.
That said, I understand that the implications for medical infrastructure in particular are unsettling to people. I address this issue extensively in “The Question of Revolution.” Essentially, I argue that medical values are the heart and soul of progress, and I often measure the legitimacy of wildist values by the willingness of people to question medical ones.
I quite like several paintings, but my favorite is “Der tod des Ikarus” (The Death of Icarus) by Bernhard Heisig. The absolute agony in the face of Icarus is just unsettling, and I find it to be prophetic.
I also listen to quite a bit of classical music, especially the cello. I like melancholy art, and the cello captures that feeling beautifully. In fact, I listen to so much cello that I am often distracted from work I ought to be doing instead, school-related or political. It reminds me of a Lenin quote: “If I keep listening to Beethoven’s appassionata, I won’t be able to finish my revolution.”
No one actually knows what “post left anarchism” means, but if we accept it to mean the kind of anarchism that arose in the latter half of the twentieth as a rejection of Marxist and syndicalist ideas, then I would say that some individuals in the tendency have value. Overall though, it is too amorphous and unserious to be an actual threat. It’s hard to even talk about it, because it’s the sort of thing that means something different to everyone.
They are also only post-left in the sense the New Left was post-left. By that I mean that they didn’t actually abandon humanist values, they just rejected the organization methods, scientific analysis, and class-based focus of the Old Left. And although some tendencies within post-left anarchism appear to reject technological civilization, it is only because they believe that technological civilization doesn’t actually live up to their humanist values. In other words, instead of noting the loss of wildness inherent in Progress, they note things like the threat nuclear bombs, concentration camps, and other things are to life and human solidarity. But we already have many humanist NGOs fighting against modern versions of these threats, like autonomous weapons systems or “killer robots.” Sure, I’m against those things, but not on the basis of humanism—I’m against them on the basis of wildism.
Automation and transhumanism are very different things. I’ll address transhumanism first.
Transhumanism has been touted as this shiny, very new philosophy that came from Silicon Valley subculture, but its philosophical roots are really quite deep, its core desires not uncommon at all. Charles Rubin has an excellent critique of the philosophy in his The Eclipse of Man, in which he also names old thinkers with proto-transhumanist ideas, like Condorcet or J. D. Bernal. The reason for these deep historical roots are actually pretty clear: transhumanism is just another progressivist ideology, an outgrowth of humanism, which was an outgrowth of Christianity, and it is gaining popularity because it seems as though it will be the most appropriate progressivist ideology for changing technical conditions.
But it’s implications, while more far-reaching than other progressivisms, are essentially the same. I cover these implications in my essay, “Misanthropy,” explaining that although conservationists are often called misanthropes, wildness-centered conservationists are dedicated to preserving the whole of man, and progressivism, a sort of “civilized misanthropy,” wishes only to modify him to make him a more suitable cog for the civilized machine. Humanists sometimes argue that this is merely encouraging the “better angels” of human nature while discouraging the “inner demons.” But this is just a nicer way of saying that humanists wish to cultivate human nature in the same way they use agricultural technics to cultivate the land.
Transhumanism is so appalling because it makes this more explicit with more materially affective technics like genetic engineering. With genetic engineering you are not just changing faces; you’re also changing minds, and with them the values and ideologies that they produce. As a result, what is called “Progress” is actually changing the standards by which Progress is measured. As Rubin put it,
It becomes harder and harder for our authors to imagine what will be retained, hence where change will start from. And if the rate of change is accelerating, that simply means we are headed the more rapidly from one unknown to another, while the recognizable old standards for judging whether the changes are progressive are overthrown with our humanity.
In reality this has been going on for a while. Media, the state, and material conditions as a whole determine social values much more consistently than the other way around. But people have yet to openly recognize that their natures even now are being dominated, simply because this is the present, and transhumanism is a future threat, a little radical, not yet accepted.
As for automation, I think radicals need to pay attention to it, because at least for the first two generations after it happens there will be unrest that may be exactly what we need to conduct large-scale rewilding. Now, I don’t think it will be apocalypse or anything, but there are indications that employment in the immediate aftermath of an automation revolution will be destabilizing, especially at the present time when there is so much political inertia in our governmental and other institutional structures. For instance, one study predicts that automation will leave around 47% of the workforce unemployed. The Great Depression only had unemployment at around 23%.
The ways that this will eventually settle out are through technical innovations: efficient production will allow something like a guaranteed basic income, and entertainment technics will become more absorbing and ubiquitous. I’m talking Netflix, video games, Oculus Rift, huge mass sports games, etc. These will function as proper distractions, and it’s an open question as to whether they’ll work, but the markets, at least, indicate that they quell boredom well enough. But in that short bit of time before these technics are developed enough and the unemployment that will result from automation, you’ll have many bored and probably angry people who will be ready to explode. This is especially true if radicals can (1) slow down the development of the technical solutions; (2) encourage populations of technical refuseniks with whom the solutions would then be impotent. We’ll see.
So far the most I’ve written about strategy can be found in “The Question of Revolution,” and I will soon be publishing an essay entitled “Organization” that goes even more in-depth. Not long after I will publish a full-length text on the topic, so interested parties should like our Facebook page or join our mailing list to get a notification when it is out.
Put generally I think that we should form a small, focused, disciplined, unified group of wildist individuals and cadres who interact with various groups of people, especially the conservation movement, in order to allow anti-industrial Reactions when and where they are possible. This interaction should consist of several lines of work:
(1) Encourage conservation and rewilding wherever possible and according to The Rewilding Program devised by The Wildlands Network.
(3) Build, link, and radicalize “the tactical spectrum.”
The “tactical spectrum” refers to the gradation of elements within a movement, from moderate to radical. The whole spectrum is necessary, but they need to benefit each other. For instance, riots by black nationalists made MLK more legitimate and helped both achieve their goals. Earth First! made Sierra Club look reasonable and allowed for better conservation demands, and it also revitalized the conservation movement. David Brower put it this way:
The Sierra Club made the Nature Conservancy look reasonable. I founded Friends of the Earth to make the Sierra Club look reasonable. Then I founded Earth Island Institute to make Friends of the Earth look reasonable. Earth First! now makes us look reasonable. We’re still waiting for someone else to come along and make Earth First! look reasonable.
In other words, the goal is to build a whole spectrum, to link the various elements together toward a common goal (The Rewilding Program), and to radicalize the movement as a whole—not so much and so quickly as to delegitimize the movement, but enough so that when circumstances allow, what needs to be done will be done.
Tactics for achieving this goal are ubiquitous, so I advocate a cadre structure and the creation of a “combat party” to properly train dedicated wildists in strategies. We see some examples of this, for instance, at the Earth First! Rendezvous (or at least we once saw examples of this). There are also plenty of books that teach strategy. Alinky’s Rules for Radicals are helpful; Selznick’s study of Bolshevik strategy in The Organizational Weapon is indispensable; Hoffer’s The True Believer gets to the heart of psychological motivations; David John’s A New Conservation Politics is quite good and specific to our cause; and Kaczynski’s upcoming book, Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How is also useful.
But whatever tactics we use—mob psychology, entryism, reading groups, monkeywrenching, whatever—the actual moral imperative is to rewild, which requires a disciplined focus on the value of wildness. This means throwing out any contrary values, like progressivist ones, and resisting organizational drift and inertia, which often leads to powerseeking and opportunism. Regarding this point, the combat party and properly disciplined cadres are vital.
I am very happy to announce that my previous publication, The Wildernist, is being restarted by a friend, student, and fellow wildist, Jonah Howell. He will be posting his editorial greeting soon, and I very much look forward to seeing the project stand on its own two feet.
Another wildist who has been working with me for a while, Jeremy Grolman, is running two projects: a blog aptly entitled Blog for Wild Nature; and a Facebook page entitled Memes for Wild Nature. I encourage people to keep up with both.
We are also going to be putting out a podcast soon, hosted by two fellow wildists, and I hope to finally transform Hunter/Gatherer from the newsletter of my own writings that it is now to something more diverse. These are longer-term developments, but again, people should keep up by liking our Facebook page and joining our mailing list.
Thank you very much for taking the time to interview me, and thank you readers for paying attention. Live wild or die!