An Interview with Kirkpatrick Sale
by David Kupfer
Culture Change, Summer 1996
Kirkpatrick Sale has written a book on the Luddites titled Rebels Against the Future, released in paper-back in 1996 by Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., U.S. $13; 320 pp.
DK: From where was your desire to write this historical interpretation of the Luddites born?
KS: If you locate the problem as being the industrial system, it's simple to say: "Well, let's go back to the industrial revolution, the big industrial revolution."
And after you make that identification, the next one is to say: "Well, did anybody ever object to this?" And you find the Luddites there.
At the beginning of the industrial revolution (about 1785), they rose up in resistance. They made a brave effort that, although it failed, was so powerful that it embedded their dream in the language.
So I decided to study the Luddites in a positive light, which had almost never been done before. The two other books on the Luddites, written in England, essentially were saying these were foolish and misguided people.
Do you think the Luddites are misunderstood today?
Of course. Everyone assumes they were bad people who were against all technology and were fools to resist it. In general the Luddite image today is negative. People will say, "Well you don't want to use a computer, then you must be a Luddite," meaning a social outcast. Or they'll say, "Well I'm no Luddite, but I can't reset the clock in my VCR," meaning "I don't want to be thought of against technology, mind you..."
The connotation of Luddism is "taking us back," while it is human nature to progress, to build on and go forth.
To believe that what has happened to humankind in the last 200 years is "progress" is to fall into an industrialist trap of: "Anything new is better and everything is better tomorrow than it is today because we have more material advantages and more ease and speed in our life and this is good."
The Luddites did not want to turn the clock back. They said, "We want to cling to this way of life; we don't want a life in which we're forced into factories, forced onto machines we can't control, and forced from village self-sufficiency into urban dependency and servitude."
A modern Luddite is also trying to hold to certain elements of the past to resurrect the community. A modern Luddite would say that, of the array of technology around, we should choose what we want and what we don't. And we will do so in a democratic basis within this community and within this bioregion on the basis of the economic, social and environmental costs. Neo-Luddites wish to resurrect some values of the past such as communitarianism, non-materialism, an understanding of nature, and a meshing with nature. These things have been largely taken from us in these last 200 years and we must fight to preserve them.
Do you think that the Luddites today are one of the last positive minorities?
I do. And I wonder how much of a minority they are — sometimes I'm persuaded they're a majority. Millions of people believe that this new industrial revolution is, as Newsweek said in February, "outstripping our capacity to cope and shifting our concept of reality."
People feeling this way range from those who simply don't like these new technologies, to people who have lost their jobs because of them, to people who understand that specific technologies — such as asbestos or nuclear power or pesticides or silicone implants that were sold to them as great benefits of technology — have turned out to hurt us. Then there are philosophical opponents of these technologies.
If you put them all together, I think we have many tens of millions of people who at least understand the dangers of this technological revolution and wish they knew how to resist it.
Do you think these neo-Luddites see themselves as such?
Not for the most part. They have come to their positions often by happenstantial ways. What I hope is that we could get a movement going by saying to them, "Yes, there are a lot of other people like you — you are not alone." They might come to proudly say, "I am a Luddite, and I have millions like me who are proudly saying they are Luddites." If it happens to be a word like Quaker or Queer that started out as insults, but for people who were insulted that way said, "I'm proud of being a Quaker," and will take that. "I'm a Quaker, I'm a Queer, and will defend proudly what that means." And that same thing may happen to the word "Luddite."
Looking at your past works, they seem to outline a path to return to some sort of tribal mode of existence.
Yes. And by "tribal" I mean small-scale and communitarian and nature-based, which is what tribal societies have always been and always will be. This is why they were so successful, the reasons they have survived for a million years and remained the form of our society for the greater part of our time on Earth.
You've written that the term "post-industrial" is a misnomer. Where did it come from? Do you think the purpose of its introduction into the lexicon was to mislead people concerned about social/technological change?
"Post-industrial" was invented by the proponents of the computer revolution to suggest that all the bad things about industry were left behind and you're now in a new age where there's nothing but good things. We don't have those belching smoke stacks anymore; we have modern, suburban, glass-walled buildings in which we use computers; this is post-industrial. But that's sleight of hand. The industry that used to belch smoke is still an industry, even if it's using computers.
Why do you think there are so few images in the popular culture for sustainability?
"Sustainable" is essentially the opposite of "industrial." Sustainability implies a non-exploitive relationship with nature and a basic self-sufficiency in life. Well, industrialism can't allow that to exist because that kind of living would not create, manufacture, use or consume. Sustainability, community and self-sufficiency are antithetical to industrialism.
Yes, they have come up with this idea now called "sustainable development," but it is actually the most odious oxymoron going around. Development of the kind that is meant in industrial civilization is destructive of communities, people's lands, and eventually, of people's livelihoods. Sustainable development is a convenient industrial myth. It really means that corporations try to get people in the great world south to become consumers so they can keep this Ponzi scheme of industrialism going.
That's the con game of taking from one investor and paying off another. It's a con game, this industrialism. It needs the constant creation of different needs and finding different populations to force into consumptive ways. So the industrial system tries to make these people in the less developed world think there's nothing more wonderful than having a car. Thoughts, such as that there are a billion Chinese who might drive cars, are what sustains the entire industrial economy.
Finding new markets has always been the industrialist's necessity. But if a billion Chinese drove cars, or even a half a billion, the resulting pollution would cause the air to be unbreathable around the world. This seems to have escaped the notice of these people, or they don't care as long as they can make their profits in the short term.
It is seldom realized that 5 percent of the world's population here in North America uses up between 35 and 40 percent of the world's resources to sustain our way of life. If you then have another 5 percent at this level, then 70 to 80 percent of the world's resources would be used up. And if you have 15 percent of the world's population living at this level, that would use up 120 percent of the world's resources, which means global destruction and we all die. The logic of industrial progress is therefore the logic of global destruction.
In its attempts to oppose this destruction, what do you think is the environmental movement's greatest strength?
I don't think the environmental movement is proving to be very strong or imaginative these days. I think the mainstream environmental movement — the Washington lobbying kind of environmentalism — has reached a kind of dead end.
That the mindset of 20th century industrial society is the problem has to be drilled into the minds of environmental movement — but I don't see that happening. It's a profound realization, and very difficult to realize because it's like fish being able to say that the water that they swim in is polluted when fish don't even know that they're swimming in water.
It's a profound thing for people to say that this Western Civilization, which is all they know and all they ever have known, is itself polluted and that it needs to be dispensed with. But we have to understand that the enemy is much larger than what we've ever identified it to be before.
It does harken back to the appropriate technology movement which emphasized the need to recreate all our basic political systems ...
Except there was a sense back then that technology was the answer. I think that we have come beyond that because technology so often led into this mindset of science and technology providing solutions for us. A dangerous way to think.
But we still have leaders such as Paul Hawken saying we need to work with the corporations, convert them and make them sustainable.
Unless we start with the presumption that the corporations, and the legislatures that protect those corporations, are the enemy and the problem, there will never be hope for environmentalism. Even though there are good people, perhaps, in the corporate system — who are not themselves evil — it is the nature of the corporation to be evil because that's how it survives. Its task is to use up the resources of the earth in the swiftest and most efficient way at the greatest profit. And it has developed technologies that enable them to do that in a spectacular way.
I grant you that there is a certain liberal tradition that says we will compromise and we'll let them have this over here if they will let us stop them from building a dam here. There have been certain modest victories from working with the legislatures and corporations. But this is a dead end because you never win the victories. They can always put the dam in and always decide that they're not going to preserve that forest. They're going to cut it down, and you're not changing the mindset that allows them, this society, to have its assaults on nature.
Environmentalists also must realize the true glories in life are in nature, and that we must get ourselves back into nature in a communitarian way. Far from being a difficult and repressive kind of future, that is the most enlightening, liberating kind possible. This is not a common way of thinking among mainstream environmentalists, or even the grassroots. But it must be part of the vision if there's going to be any kind of sustainable future.
David Kupfer is a long-time environmental activist and journalist, semi-nomadic but now based in Selma, Ore.
environment, environmentalism, human rights, ecoanarchism