Formulating a Future: The Case for Anti-Modernism, Part I

Sharon April 12th, 2009

One of the best things about life is the strange bedfellows you find in it.  It makes for one heck of a slumber party.

I was thinking about this recently, because I happened to follow out the links that people have been putting in to my posts one afternoon when I had time to kill, just out of curiosity.  I do this periodically, but I’d never done so systematically, or sat down to really sort through them.  And the juxtaposition, say of the black women survivalists with the urban Catholic distributist nuns,  the anarchist social critics and the right wing ones, the Belizian Mennonites, the Mormon food storage people,  the Pagan Fiber artists,  the Baptist farmers, the socialist Baptist farmers,  and the guy who occasionally sticks my pieces in with his essays on South African poetry made for a truly engaging collage.  And it got me asking - what do all of us have in common? 

We certainly don’t share a primary political bond, or religious faith - or at least most of us don’t.   After my post recently on the role of religious communities in the future, I got emails from members of 27 distinct religious groups, not to mention plenty of athiests and agnostics.  My readers cross the political spectrum.

National bonds, cultural ones, racial and ethnic ones - all of these are too variable to provide primary common ground.  Even common belief about climate change, peak oil or the financial situation isn’t sufficient - I have quite a few readers who are climate change dissenters, but who share my perspective on other grounds, and plenty who think peak oil is a hoax, but have agrarian priorities.  And while I disagree with them, I’m truly glad they are part of my readership, since being agreed with all the time is bad for my intellect, not to mention dull.

In the end, there is a common ground, however, and it is simply this - most of my readers come to this blog with a pervasive sense that what industrial society seems to promise them either has not arrived, or is not coming.  They see no future for themselves in the path we’ve been on.

And they are not wrong.  The whole premise of modernity as we practice it now is that future generations won’t mind the fact that we are using resources they will require, polluting and destroying the future capacity of the earth.  The whole and most fundamental premise of modernity is this - that because progress always goes forward, there is no need to consider the future.  And thus we create a culture that reverses the ordinary human desire to pass down to one’s posterity more than one already had - now we arrange life so that the future serves the present - children as yet unconceived will pay our debts and clean our messes.  The future is always and inevitably enslaved to the present, and since we do not wish to acknowledge this, we do not enjoy looking at the moral consequences of this, there is no reason to think much about the future at all.  Thus, modernity at one blow disposes of any future that doesn’t look like a science fiction movie.

I think it is important to realize that we cannot separate out the failures of industrial society in the present from the failures in the future.  That is, peak oil and climate change (and the food crisis, overpopulation and the financial crisis and any other problems you want to pile on to the list up to and including waxy yellow buildup) are fundamentally, symptoms of a larger societal problem - industrial modernization.  I don’t think that the root cause is energy depletion or the side effects (ie climate change and pollution) of energy use - that too is a symptom of a larger mindset that says that all we have to do is pour more and more resources into technologies and “development” and we can create paradise.

I don’t, thus, want to speak, as some people do, of energy as the master resource in this.  Energy is extremely valuable - but the roots of our fossil fuel dependence go deep into our colonial past, and our dependence on the energy of human labor in slavery and colonialism. 

And ultimately, it is this that my readership has in common - anti-modernism, a fundamental skepticism that economic growth, more energy, more technology, more shiny things, minor economic social change and other incremental variations on the same basic themes can resolve the deeper problems.  Fundamentally, most people have either made a leap to the belief that some new model is required, or they are on the cusp of such a leap, struggling to balance the fact that our society views the price of modernity, even the costs to (and of) the future as a reasonable one, a mere side effect of a progress that is simultaneously inevitable and necessary to keep us all from an endless misery and suffering. 

It would be easy to reject the idea of anti-modernity - after all, one could make the case that many positive and noble ideas and advances from longer lifespans and the germ theory of disease to voting rights for women are a product of modernity - reject modernity, the reasoning goes, and we’re back to wallowing in our own filth.  Nor is it particularly politically realistic to imagine a wholly agrarian society, in a world of nearly 7 billion people.  And this is a reasonable point, to a point.  This is one of the reasons I don’t call this agrarianism.

And this would be a fair critique were anti-modernity purely retrospective, the nostalgic longing for a golden past - in that case it would be easy and right to correct it with the reminder that the past was not golden.  That’s the cartoon version of anti-modernism, in which it is simply a longing to go backwards.  But backwards is a direction not available to us, even if we wanted it.  Anti-modernism begins from modernism, from an industrialized society with the germ theory of disease and depleted farm land, civil rights laws and toilet paper.  The idea is to go forward towards a future, not to find another futureless image, in which nostalgia is all.  There are legitimate debates about what of the good of modernism can be carried with us into the future without compromising our future, but as I point out in _Depletion and Abundance_ there are much less modernized cultures that have lifespans as long as ours, literacy rates that are similar and political power for women. 

The progressive industrial worldview, combined with the habit of a false dualism (ie, that there is nothing between apocalyptic misery and the technological perfection of the future, what I often call the “Klingons vs. Cylons” fallacy), and between “techno future” and “regression” is very hard to shake off.  Thus it is quite remarkable that as many people have done so as have.  In fact, there are encouraging signs, I think, that the society as a whole is beginning to do so - consider the recent poll data that suggested that just about half of all Americans think socialism either might be better than capitalism or don’t know if it might be.  While I suspect most Americans don’t really know what socialism (or capitalism) are, this is all the more astounding because Americans are taught to believe in capitalism, not as a fully comprehended thought, but as the “home team” that you root for win or lose.  The idea that most Americans are ready to abandon their home team is pretty astonishing.  The poll represents not a reconsideration of socialism, I suspect, but a longing for another choice outside the one that has failed them.  As usual, the only choice presented are a false dualism - other economic possibilities aren’t even mentioned.   But this is no accident - industrial modernity, capitalist or socialist (and both are fundamentally industrial and modernist) is a totalizing worldview, which doesn’t merely affirm one choice, but strives to eliminate alternatives.

And this, perhaps, is what makes me affirm my identity as an anti-modernist, and to think that this might be the right way to think about the common ground that I have with people who I would not ordinarily know or meet, and in many cases, with whom I would ordinarily be discouraged from working.  That is, it is all very well for me to wax rhapsodic about the “diversity” of my readership, but our society, which uses enlightenment political categories as weapons, is very clear in its message that I shouldn’t actually try and work with people (and get them to work with each other) who commit the deep sin of standing on the other side of those political and national barriers from one another.

And there are real reasons to wonder whether people who, say, believe that population is the root problem of modernity and should be constrained at all costs and people who believe that reproduction is a blessing and a gift to be welcomed can work with one another on creating a sustainable future.  There are real reasons to wonder why those who believe that abortion should be illegal and those who believe it should be a private matter for women and their doctors can ally even tenuously on other matters, and how strong those alliances might be.  There are reasons to wonder whether climate change activists and dissenters can work well together on agrarian issues, or how the Global South and North views of ecology might come together.  It is not my claim that anti-modernist ties are sufficient to obviate all other political categories.  But I would claim that they are sufficient to build something upon.

Of course, this has been done before - the agrarian movement is an entertaining mix of aging Hippies and conservative Christians already, the anti-globalization movement has Pat Buchanan and George Monbiot, and any world climate conference will present fascinating alliances between nations that before had little in common.  I’m hardly suggesting anything new. 

But ultimately, what I would suggest is that, without overly eliding essential differences, it is possible to imagine that anti-modernism, that is,  a commitment to and belief in the future both in the abstract and the real bodies of our real posterity, is sufficient to carry the weight of a movement.  If that is not sufficient to bear political fruit, what else is, after all?

I would expect the many and varied debates that are already going on between disparate views of what society should look like to be both engaging and contentious.  I think that if such an anti-modernist identity could collectively arise, and a political rubric be created for at least some alliance, we would have to decide what future vision we all collectively stand in favor of, rather than simply opposing the totalizing vision of modernity.  I suspect hybrids and factions will arise in fascinating and troubling ways.  I don’t know that I will always like what such alliances achieve.

And yet, I think it is necessary.  Agrarianism alone, peak oil awareness alone, eco-village culture alone,  traditionalism alone, anarcho-agrarianism alone,  crunchy conservativism alone, anti-globalization alone, climate activism alone,  survivalism alone, distributism alone, radical homemaking alone, or any of the complex personal identities we create for ourselves alone are insufficient to stand against to the totalizing message of modernity, the one that erases even the possibility of our existence.  All of these identities alone ultimately leave us…alone, too few to make an impact, without sufficient density of culture to draw others together under our rubric.  If we are not to be small outposts alone, dissenting from modernity as it devours our future, our only hope is a unified case to preserve it.


33 Responses to “Formulating a Future: The Case for Anti-Modernism, Part I”

  1. Areophany says:


    First time poster here. I’d like to dissent from your perspective somewhat but first specify my own assumptions and biases. In my political beliefs I’m highly left wing, kind of a weird amalgam of ecological radicalism with democratic West European style socialism; I accept the physical reality of climate change and peak energy/resources; I believe they will be far more drastic in their impacts than most mainstream decision-makers currently acknowledge; I’m an atheist.

    My dissent from your perspective goes like this.

    1) Industrial civilization and its values (economic growth, shiny new tech, etc.) are indeed ecologically destructive; they unjustly centralize economic power in the hands of an unaccountable elite; and in many ways they are psychologically destructive and spiritually alienating.

    2) That being said, it can plausibly be argued that industrial civilization has several distinguishing features that are not wholly awful, including:

    - the spread of democratic, egalitarian political ideals and (imperfect) institutions to a larger portion of the human population than any time prior to ca. 1750;

    - the first widespread, systematic attempts in human history to abolish slavery, institute equal rights for women, recognize equal rights for all ethnicities and nationalities, and respect the right of all humans to be free of coercion;

    - unprecedented expansion of education, literacy and means of communication among the human population;

    - the creation of a vast trove of scientific data (distinct from the institutions that gathered it) providing reliable knowledge of the natural world, surpassing in kind and degree that of any prior human society;

    - the implementation of public health and medical innovations providing a longer, healthier life than at any time since the evolutionary emergence of modern human beings in East Africa, 200,000 or so years ago;

    3) I would argue that these less horrifying features of modernism are worth preserving in whatever societies emerge from the period of collapse we are now entering. Accordingly, I prefer thinking of the mindset we will need for this new world not as “anti-modernism” but simply as “whatever -ism comes next.” It will be the next step in the evolution of human culture and society. As with any evolutionary process, experimentation with new forms will, or at least should, draw freely and productively on the best elements of what came before. I hope that the agrarian societies of AD 2500 will have elections, law, literacy, equal rights for all, knowledge of viruses and bacteria, dentistry, and other aspects of the industrial age long buried and dead.

    Thank you for a wonderful blog and for all the knowledge and experience that you share!

  2. Sharon says:

    Areophany, I think I sort of answer you comment in the piece, when I say this:

    “It would be easy to reject the idea of anti-modernity - after all, one could make the case that many positive and noble ideas and advances from longer lifespans and the germ theory of disease to voting rights for women are a product of modernity - reject modernity, the reasoning goes, and we’re back to wallowing in our own filth. Nor is it particularly politically realistic to imagine a wholly agrarian society, in a world of nearly 7 billion people. And this is a reasonable point, to a point. This is one of the reasons I don’t call this agrarianism.

    And this would be a fair critique were anti-modernity purely retrospective, the nostalgic longing for a golden past - in that case it would be easy and right to correct it with the reminder that the past was not golden. That’s the cartoon version of anti-modernism, in which it is simply a longing to go backwards. But backwards is a direction not available to us, even if we wanted it. Anti-modernism begins from modernism, from an industrialized society with the germ theory of disease and depleted farm land, civil rights laws and toilet paper. The idea is to go forward towards a future, not to find another futureless image, in which nostalgia is all. There are legitimate debates about what of the good of modernism can be carried with us into the future without compromising our future, but as I point out in _Depletion and Abundance_ there are much less modernized cultures that have lifespans as long as ours, literacy rates that are similar and political power for women.”

    But perhaps that’s not sufficient to cover your critique. And I have a couple of other answers as well - for example, I wrote a piece that is going to be partly appearing in _A Nation of Farmers_ that argues that in fact, the proportions of enslaved or effectively enslaved people in the world today aren’t actually that different from the proportion of enslaved people in many parts of the world in antiquity - when you calculate in trafficking of women and children, virtually enslaved “company store” workers and conscripted military people (many of whom are children worldwide) you end up with a percentage of slaves in the industrial world not dissimilar to parts of ancient greece, or the US as a whole before the civil war. We do not think of ourselves as a slaveholding society, but we receive economic benefits directly and indirectly from slavery. What has mostly changed is our unwillingness to acknowledge this.

    There’s a case to be made the democracy is an industrial institution. There’s also a case to be made that isn’t - certainly the first democratic nations preceed real industrialization, and many nations chose democracy before they became participants in modernity in any full sense. I’d be interested to explore the argument further on - but certainly both James Madison and Thomas Jefferson believed that democracy could be created and furthered in an agrarian society - Jefferson believed it was preferrable. I think you’d really have to convince me that democracy is a product of modernity - unless of course, by “modernity” you mean “the early modern period” which is a little different.

    As for the rest, they are all true to a degree. It is also true that all of the above exact a price - for example, literacy is great, as a former English teacher, I’m all for it. But the spread of Westernized formal education tends to divide up people into “educated” and “non educated” and increase class and cultural stratification. I’m not suggesting you are necessarily wrong, merely that I’m a little wary of present modernism’s goods, which we tend to exaggerate and praise ourselves for, without counting the costs of those goods.


    Moreover, and the second part of this essay is going to deal with precisely this point,

  3. Green Assassin Brigade says:

    I agree that there is a great deal of room to reach out to various factions on individual issues in some kind of rolling coalition.

    It is highly improbably that any one faction or mindset will acheive the perfect future model and its even more improbable that any one faction or mindset can brow beat all the others to follow their single vision. Instead we must exploit common ground where we can find it.

    Just recently I’ve been talking to an aquaintance who belongs to a splinter sect of the Mormons who do not do the food storage thing, yet as a preacher, elder or what ever they use for a title he agrees with that particular teaching of the main church. Despite my unease with religion in general and prophetizing from a hat in particular I’ve offered myself as a resource as he tries to get his church to form a community survial kit/food storage plan. Their beliefs give them no less right to survive and their community gives them an already existing organization I could not hope to create, why would I not work with them?

    Even in my own writing I’m getting cross over from my green/doomer blog to my gold and silver financial blog despite the hate Greens generaly have for pro mining types. We are constanly manipulated into right/ left , heathen/religious, north/south, in order to polarize and issolate us from cooperation and challenging modern corporatism. Perhaps that should be the new challenge for the spring, reach out to the “enemy” camp and find some common ground and a project that you can both work towards.

    As for the Anti Moderism, with the knowledge we have we can never go straight backwards to some form of primitism. We will always move forward in some areas while rejecting other mistaken paths so perhaps the “anti” title is too hostile to those who seek enless progress, and perhaps it should be sold as Nouveau, or Sustainable Modernism?

  4. Southernrata says:

    I get really annoyed with the “modern”/”medieval” dichotomy that is used to smear sustainability movements with. To me, the advances we have to carry forward with us and develop further are: scientific method and the knowledge it has generated; commitment to individual human rights and fairness ( a long way to go there, I admit); public health measures, and cost effective medical interventions; the capacity for cheap and instant communication across the globe.

    The last is especially important to me - I can tolerate my daughters living in another country, because I can communicate with them whenever I want to by a variety of methods - voice contact is especially important. I live in a country that has one fifth of its population overseas at any one time, and all of us grapple with that “love miles” problem. Being able to talk to our kids every week means we don’t feel pulled to visit them so often.

  5. Karen says:

    You could put me in the category of atheist, peak oil, climate change some times agnostic. What I love about this blog is that it reminds me of Braveheart. I loved the scene where William Wallace (Mel Gibson) was saying to Robert the Bruce, “Unite us”. He held out his hands to the possible leader of all the clans and said, “Unite us. We need a leader and I see strength in you”.

  6. Miles says:

    Sharon, Trenchant thoughts as always - I would hate to describe myself as “anti-modern.” Sign me up instead for post-modern, not in the lit crit sense, but in the sense that defines modernity in energetic terms and terms of the fossil fuel economy in particular and the relationship it has created between humans and the planet, and between humans themselves. I see post-modernity as the best name for the next energetic reality.

    I would think of the post-carbon future as a world dependent upon science and technology, with much of the technology, engineering and science devoted to the maintenance of biosystems that are compatible with human existence and global ecosystem survival.

    I would disagree that “…the roots of our fossil fuel dependence go deep into our colonial past, and our dependence on the energy of human labor in slavery and colonialism.” As I see it modernity is a very specific and recent thing, beginning in mid 19th century, and using new energy opportunities to take potentialities and proclivities for domination and imperialism to new heights… Taking fossil fuels out of the equation won’t take armies, sailing ships of war, or domination out of the equation. Taking fossil fuels out however will not necessarily return us to the 17th century or to the days of the Roman empire. Culture has changed. Telecom connects us. Science has changed the capacity of human beings to think and reason. While civilizational collapse or a regression to the Middle Ages (or worse) is possible, I think there is a reasonable “technological optimism” that we might move to a post-modern high technology high ecology balance.

    I think it is a worthwhile agenda to claim the “post-modern” label in the sustainability and post-carbon debate, explain that we mean by “modernity” largely “energetic modernity”, aka the fossil fuel economy, and that we are all working to the thing that comes after modernity, something that is really the very opposite of literary post-modernity, deeply focused on science and empiricism, and on justice issues too.

    It’s really a shame that “post-modernity” got defined as a form of radical subjectivism - it’s a good concept that we should claim, define and use.

  7. Clifford J. Wirth, Ph.D. says:

    Hi Sharon,

    I agree with what you say, but add that it is wise to take much useful technology to the “other side,” which is life after the last power black out. It is easy to make penicillin, IF you know how.

    According to a recent post by Richard Heinberg on “Timing” of the collapse , the collapse will come between soon and 2030. I estimate that it will come before 2020. This is a question I have studied all of my life. Self preservation is very important to me, and I’ve known about the oil age from age 10, in 1957.

    At one time in history, people believed that the earth was flat, and now people believe that renewable energies will save us. These beliefs can be called solarism — that the sun and wind (which is driven by the sun’s energy) will save us. After all, we get most energy from old solar energy, and the sun generates more energy than we could ever use. Unfortunately, there is no way to use new solar energy to run tractors/combines trucks and maintain 5.8 million miles of highway. Solarism is the main reason Peak Oil preparation is an oxymoron. Hey, not to worry, some technofixitupper thingy will save us, I even saw some electric truck on some blog today that will save us just in the nick of time, Whew! That was close. So goes the thinking of most. Beliefs in technology and modernism persist, even among many Peak Oilers.

    There is more information by googling: peak oil impacts, and there you will find research that you paid for in scientific and government studies, and also as I am a retired public servant, but still serving.

    Industrial modernization has facilitated a ramping up of the global population and put 1/2 of humanity in urbanized areas where they will not survive. But I have to admit, I am the problem — greed and the pursuit of stuff, that I wanted all of my life and still do, I am petro man. But before petro man came the desire for stuff. And here I must defer to the philosopher metallurgist, Chris Shaw, and his other articles are there too, good reading:

    But time grows short and this is what we must prepare for before 2020:

    With increasing costs for gasoline and diesel, along with declining taxes and declining gasoline tax revenues, states and local governments will eventually have to cut staff and curtail highway maintenance. Eventually, gasoline stations will close, and state and local highway workers won’t be able to get to work. We are facing the collapse of the highways that depend on diesel and gasoline powered trucks for bridge maintenance, culvert cleaning to avoid road washouts, snow plowing, and roadbed and surface repair. When the highways fail, so will the power grid, as highways carry the parts, large transformers, steel for pylons, and high tension cables from great distances. With the highways out, there will be no food coming from far away, and without the power grid virtually nothing modern works, including home heating, pumping of gasoline and diesel, airports, communications, water supply, waste water treatment, and automated building systems.

    Last June I took a trip to Albany, NY to talk to 3 audiences on Peak Oil impacts. In the group that invited me, the Capital Regional Energy Forum CREF), is a physicist who teaches energy at a well-known university, and he served in the Peace Corps.

    He has solar powered just about everything, including a solar powered canoe which we went for long ride in on a lake in the Adirondacks, and a PV solar powered house and pump for his well. He repairs about everything on his house himself and he heats much with passive solar. So the guy knows his stuff. He is no ivory tower academic.

    We talked for hours about survival in colder areas after the last power blackout.

    Survival looks difficult. Eventually batteries and even the solar panels deteriorate. He thinks that he could store dry batteries with the liquid stored in glass to thus get “new batteries” after they conk out. But eventually the batteries and solar panels give out.

    Cutting and moving wood without trucks, horses, and wagons will be hard and time consuming. There are not many horses around and it will take decades to breed enough horses to go around. Horses require food, care, vets, and medicine. No one is making wagons these days locally.

    Wood stoves break, just like everything else. You could keep 1 or 2 extras, but eventually you have none and can’t get more, as there will be no transportation on the highways.

    In many areas irrigation is needed and will fail. Irrigating land by manual labor is very difficult and time-consuming.

    Asphalt roof shingles need to be replaced, and houses need to be painted and maintained.

    Food must be grown in a short growing season, and all of the farm stuff that was once in an 1890 Sears catalog will no longer be available. Last summer I took a tour of a farm and saw how dependent farming is on oil — transportation and manufacture of plastic feeding bowls, containers to store grains/feeds, straw, roofs for animals and storage areas, wire, rope, wood boards, cement, fencing, antibiotics for animals, asphalt shingles etc. Seed and hardware will no longer be available at the local hardware store, no more. No more Mason jars, they were once made in Muncie, Indiana and transported by rail all over the U.S., No more Mason jars, unless they are made locally.

    Then there is clothing which is currently manufactured and transported from afar. Making cloth is a major operation from growing cotton to making cloth. I studied the textile mills of Lowell National Historical Park in Lowell, Massachusetts, as I used it as an example of the confluence of capital, technology, and labor for a course I taught on Global Urban Politics at the University of New Hampshire. I know that the parts in those factories were manufactured in many places with a vast transportation network. Those factories will not be built again. And there are not many sheep around, nor animals for making leather clothes. Eventually down coats and down comforters wear out, as do blankets. Keeping warm will be a major problem for survival.

    Potable water is another problem, and sanitation. When waste water treatment systems fail, sewage will be dumped into rivers and will spread intestinal and infectious diseases.

    And there will be no modern pharmacies and hospitals.

    After auto and air transport end (which could be next week if there is some “event” in the Middle East), there will be no way of getting here, or from here to there. Bus and train reservations will be backed up for years. You know the old Maine joke, “can you get there from here?” Well this time the answer will be “no you can’t.” I keep reading in the newspapers that some of the folks over there in the Middle East are tired of others (including the elites in their own country) getting most of the oil, and that they are trying to shut down the flow of oil to us.

  8. vera says:

    Woo-hoo! Sharon, please please write the anti-modernist manifesto! -> where do I sign? :-)

  9. Russ says:


    (and also to Areophany)

    From your comment above:
    There’s a case to be made the democracy is an industrial institution. There’s also a case to be made that isn’t - certainly the first democratic nations preceed real industrialization, and many nations chose democracy before they became participants in modernity in any full sense.

    Although we won’t have proof until descent really sets in, there’s a strong argument that everything we know as modern democracy, the extension of the franchise, the “rights” ideology, capitalist and labor trying to work together, are outgrowths of fossil fuels and growth.

    It’s a lot easier to have those things when the pie is continually getting bigger, and when the elite’s share is always increasing absolutely even if it allows its relative marginal share to decrease.

    But when the pie is getting smaller, and even maintaining your current share must necessarily come at someone else’s expense, where any gain requires a zero-sum fight, it’s difficult to see how all the alleged progressive political gains of modernity won’t be revealed to have been fossil fuel-enabled luxuries.

    I’m not aware of any large group which ever “chose” mass democracy and the wide bestowal of non-feudal rights, which was not already one of history’s economic winners at the time.

    I say “alleged gains” because I’m a complete skeptic regarding mass society, including mass “democracy”, which seems to have disenfranchised rationality and the intellect. What’s the “good” in extending voting rights where the system is fundamentally botched?

    (America’s winner-take-all system is by far the worst model imaginable. European parliamentarism comes far closer to real proportional representation.)

    It seems ironic in an essay on among other things “skepticism” and shaking off brainwashing, that the proposition that a mass of formally educated people who don’t understand what capitalism or socialism really mean are still qualified to have the vote, is implicitly considered unquestionable.

    I, on the other hand, regard that as the latest addition to a by now overwhelming mountain of evidence that mass democracy’s fundamental premise is false.

    So that’s one of several primary reasons for my complete rejection of modernity, even before I had ever heard of Peak Oil and resource depletion, or understood the real nature of exponential debt.

    And that’s why Peak Oil has been for me an idea full of hope. I always knew that size in itself, mass is the fundamental evil. Now I know that these things will not forever triumph, that they cannot.

    So now I see, through relocalization, a constructive way forward, a program for worthwhile action, and a way to redeem all the great ideals which mass society has done all it can to destroy.

  10. Rick says:

    I don’t like the label ‘anti-modernism’ either. How about ‘localism’? We don’t need to lose toilet paper.

  11. Greenpa says:

    Aha- I see others have already pointed out that “anti” has problems.

    Remember “Global Warming”! Endless misunderstandings and antagonism. Lots of folks tried to change that to Climate Change, very early on- but it was too late; the Warming tag was already out of the barn, and stuck.

    I likewise spoke up very early against “Energy Descent”. Really bad PR- you lose your target audience immediately.

    I have to argue the same for “anti-modernism” - you are instantly alienating the people you need to reach.

    Neutral language would be much better; something positive, better still.

    I don’t have the answer in my pocket; but something along these lines:

    Steady Futurist

    I’ve been in on such discussions multiple times- in fact I may have been there when the phrase “Sustainable” agriculture was born. At the time, I was pushing hard with some senior USDA officials for “Non-Corrosive Agriculture” - my idea- but I have to admit Sustainable is MUCH more salable.

    And anyway- you’re NOT “anti” anything. You’re pro-something. :-)

  12. Sharon says:

    Actually, I didn’t come up with the term “anti-modernism” for this analysis - it was a term already in use - you can check out wikipedia, for example. It is merely, I think, the best of the terms already in existence - the one that seems to cover the relevant ground. And while I agree that movements are eventually pro-something, the reason I use anti-modernist here is because I’m not sure “localist” or “agrarian” or any of the other choices actually describes everyone. The problem is finding something that doesn’t already carry heavy weight in another sense - that’s why I didn’t use (but considered) the term “post-modernist” (besides the “end of the future” implications in that term), and I don’t use futurist because of its associations with science fiction and technological progress.

    On the other hand, I actually think that being “anti” something works rather well at times - think how successful the “anti-abortion” movement has been, or anti-tobacco, for a couple of easy examples. In some ways it is much easier to do the primary work - the basic work of demonizing the bad guy, than it is to do the affirmative work - and in the case of something as totalizing as modernity, I’d say that while figuring out what you are for is important, making the case against something negative is equally important. So yes, I’m anti-modernist. And yes, I’m for a host of things. It isn’t an either-or choice.


  13. Greenpa says:

    Sharon- oh, you English Professor, you.

    I’ll make one more attempt to convince:

    “easier to do the primary work - the basic work of demonizing the bad guy”

    I think you’ve made my point: you are demonizing my neighbor- the corn, bean, and beef farmer- who is actually one of the folks you really want to reach. I know Gary well- and he will quit listening immediately. And my other neighbor, who works in the parts dept for John Deere. And they’ll take everyone in their churches with them.

    And don’t forget how much easy headway the anti-anti-abortion folks made, just by choosing the name “Pro-Life.”

    It’s not logic that rules here- but emotion, and first impressions.

  14. Hummingbird says:


  15. Linda S says:

    Sharon, very powerful post! And some great comments from your diverse readership. I don’t know if the term ‘anti-modernist’ would be synomous with ‘cultural creative’ (, but I do agree with Greenpa that if we are to make a stand on common ground, we need to find a positive label that reflects our “commitment to and belief in the future both in the abstract and the real bodies of our real posterity.”

  16. Sharon says:

    Fair point, Greenpa - as soon as I wrote it, I realized I didn’t want to use “anti-abortion” as an example ;-) . Again, I don’t claim we don’t need to do the work of coming up with what we’re for, but until we get there, this is a starting point. That’s all I claim it is, and it is a philosophical starting point - I’m not talking to anyone’s neighbor yet, in the sense you mean - the theoretical grounding of movements doesn’t matter to everyone, but it does matter to some people, and those conversations have to happen too. The point here is that I think all the people who care about theoretical movement groundings (possibly but not necessarily including your neighbor) can be accurately described as anti-modernist, while at the point, I don’t think that they can be described as pro-much, except “pro-future” which is worse.

    There’s no chance that by the time it gets to the churches, it will be called anti-modernism - but that doesn’t mean the term isn’t useful right now for the audience that I’m talking to.

    That said, however, and I say this realizing that it is a completely arrogant thing to say, but I betcha 50 bucks I could get your neighbors and their churches to like anti-modernism, or for that matter “Hitler-Tamponism” (points to those who get the movie reference) - well, maybe not “Hitler-Tamponism” but anti-modernism at least. As you say, it is about rhetoric and emotion, and I’m good at it, English Prof or no ;-) .

    Still waiting for a really good suggestion - I keep thinking of the term “posterity” but “posteriorism” seems like a bad choice ;-) .


  17. andy says:

    another great article - you seem to be using the term ‘modernity’ where we use ‘civilisation’.

    After a lifetime of reading, campaigning and philosophical & political musing, I came to a similar perspective. At some point our culture lost its way, and most of the examples of good things, that we don’t want to lose, have been developed in spite of modernity/civilisation or to try to put things right that were made wrong by ‘modernity/civilisation’. My belief now is that through permaculture we can, to some extent, rebuild a hunter/gatherer forest world for ourselves, and by encouraging community we can recreate various tribal forms of society.
    Thats not to say we should abandon all and every innovation invented over the past 10,000 years, but we would do well to take smallscale hunter/gathering tribal life as a sound basis for society.

    i fear that if people generally don’t consciously ‘de-modernise’ or ‘dismantle civilisation’ and start learning to live without all the modern appliances and global trade, peak oil and climate change may well push us all back to stone-age simplicity, without any hope of saving any of the useful byproducts of 10000 years of civilisation/modernity.

  18. vera says:

    Totally agree that anti-modernism is the best term right now. This is the time to make a stand! And the pro-lifers made that stand with “anti-abortion,” then the better term evolved over time.

    Folks, stop worrying about convincing people. That happens better with deeds than words anyway. THIS IS THE TIME TO MAKE A STAND AND BE HEARD!

    This is the time to find out where the easy allies are, those who already understand. This is the time to raise some energy and passion! This is the time to open up this conversation big time. Go Sharon go. You better than anyone I know. (And you will be heard. :-) Because you already “do.” You have credibility.)

  19. Hummingbird says:

    Post Tech?

  20. galacticsurfer says:

    The friend of my friend is my friend
    The enemy of my enemy is my friend
    The friend of my enemy is my enemy

    It’s ideas that we try to define our group values with. A “New stone age coalition” sounds cool :) . Very fragile. People hold together on geographic, racial, sex, religion, class, educational and income basis.

    But everyone has something in common. Internet is a wonderful thing to build on commonalities temporarily. Maybe this will become more.Lots of people are unhappy with what is. Can we make something nw and permanent as a basis for all of us?

  21. Miles says:

    Hummingbird, trans-modern is a good phrase, and less laden with previous meanings than post-modern.

    Of course all of this discussion of labels, much as I love semantics, advertising, propaganda, and poetry, is a little to the side of the point of what we are actually advocating for, and I think that the above commenters are pointing in several different directions and using different labels to do so.

    Sharon says the “whole premise of modernity as we practice it now is that future generations won’t mind the fact that we are using resources they will require”. I would translate that as modernity represents a shift in the collective discount rate.

    That’s an interesting premise! I’d argue that human being’s innate preference for future goods has always been low…. but the physical ability and knowledge to act on those high discount rates and disadvantage the future is what shifted… with, as we all know, the advent of the fossil fuel economy.

    I don’t think modernity has a “premise” - I think modernity is a blind brute that suddenly found a new supply of crank and mainlined it… in about 1870, enabling people and nations to do things they always wanted to do but were always resource constrained from doing. The science/technology (and wisdom?) that was spun off from that process is also part of modernity - the good side of the game.

    So modernity is this package of energy fueled violence against the world and each other, and energy fueled knowledge explosion. I doubt we could have had the knowledge without the violence. Now that we’ve got the package, can we keep the knowledge, and get rid of the violence?

    To me “anti” suggests a rejection of the whole. I don’t want to delete 150 years of human history in toto - I don’t even think it is possible. History only moves forward, and whatever comes next will be post whatever came before, or trans whatever came before.

    If we are anti-modern and defeat it… can modernity rise again? Are we caught in an internal struggle with modernity, the forces of modernity pushing to ignore the future, the forces of anti-modernity insisting that it be taken seriously?

    I want to historicize the “modern”, bound it, frame it, and in so doing point to the fact that it cannot be undone, only incorporated. The damage it has wrought, and the good that it has brought are forever. Whatever we build next will come on top of and in light of its horrors and achievements.

    Call it neo-modern, trans-modern, post-modern, supra-modern, demi-modern - the age of modernity will always be there in the past, and the name itself with its suggestion of the eternal present - the idea that we’ve reached the end and are now modern - is best attacked precisely by historicizing it, and with a smile saying “remember when people were modern? that was a long time ago, before they understood that the world doesn’t end in the present.”

    The word “modern” says “the end” - transmodern and postmodern and other words laugh at that idea and at the funny time in history when we thought we’d reached it.

    It’s no fun being anti anything. It’s better to be bigger and to laugh. Just ramblin’ now.

  22. freeman says:

    I don’t, and won’t, personally identify with “anti-modernity”. Waaay too easy for folks to misunderstand and/or utilize against those critical of modernity.

    I very much prefer Hummingbird’s “transmodern” suggestion.

    Scroll down to the “Features” portion of the entry. The term “globalism” used there throws me off a bit, considering how it’s often used. “Glocalism” seems preferable to me, considering how many aspects of existing globalism lack sustainability.

  23. freeman says:

    Oops, the link I included doesn’t show up for some reason.

  24. Southernrata says:

    I like transmodern, especially as it puns slightly off the transition towns movement in this context. Trans=across or through, anti=against.

  25. Hans Noeldner says:

    Hi Sharon

    I really appreciate what you have to say here about the range of Anti-Modernists. Speaking of strange bedfellows, I urge you and your readers to check out a new “traditionalist” forum called Front Porch Republic. As an example, here is a posting I really liked:

    Having emailed back and forth with one of the Front Porch Republic contributing editors - a big Kunstler fan, I might add, I know they are trying to reach out.

    I think this is mostly about scale: human-scale versus the ruling elite’s quest to build a globe-spanning super-organism…with themselves at the head, of course!

  26. steve from virginia says:

    There certainly is a lot of reappraisal going on all over the country and probably in the other developed countries. Questions about what really matters and why. Of course all this questioning starts with the assumptions that arise from having always one foot in the development culture. Looked at this way, the reappraisal is another in a long series of fads, like black dresses, Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ and Hanna Montana.

    This is because all of the ‘Big Decisions’ have been made already, the workup has also been completed and all that is left is for the market forces to process the inputs as they always have and things get back to normal, Tomorrow won’t be exactly like the ‘Jetsons’ but the future will arrive and it will be comfortably like yesterday. Do you want your coffee black or with a whitish, cream- like substance in it?

    Well … maybe things will work out, maybe not. I was discussing with a friend how things are in New Orleans since I am here for awhile. All the people in my little neighborhood are all growing vegetables and whatnot which is silly in a way. I told my friend that, ‘Gardening is the new shopping.” being aware that it takes thousands of pounds of food - rice or milled grain, beans, vegetables, animal products (eggs or milk or meat) to feed one person for a year. No backyard garden can supply this amount or an amount of surplus that would allow the gardener to trade for the staples needed.

    On one hand is the limited means left to eash of us and on the other is the industialized systme that has evolved over the past fifty years that puts those thousands of pounds in the supermarkets for each person to buy with money earned from toil in other parts of the same system. The different sets of means are far, far out of alignment.

    It is misalignments that matter, now. People in the money- shoveling business are obsissed with the past; the Great Depression is the gestalt - who cares about this business called ‘The Future?’ Let it take care of itself!. The financial markets are in disequilibrium which makes survival the immediately pressing matter. The West’s greatest and most powerful industry is repelled by the future - it is being destroyed by it! The ‘All’ or ‘Nothing’; feudal v. modern metric is already at the door, the small maneuvers and pointless gestures … the entire enterprise can go down the toilet … tomorrow. The words jump of the page; “Disaster’ ‘Collapse’ ‘Meltdown’ ‘Armageddon’. You don’t have to even read the articles!

    Can markets coexist with less ‘futurism’? I don’t know. Futurism was itself a fad. It never seemed to me to be a promise. I never visualized George Jetson, I always saw in my mind a man with a Kalashnikov.

    You are right, of coures about industrialization. It has failed over and over again to produce any othe benefits it has promised, with many iterations and alterations in practice and over large areas and with every assist from its promoters. That needs to be abandoned and a more craft centered approach applied. There are many idle people - the greatest of all shortages is not water, fuel, fertilzer, ores or any other thing … it is useful, interesting work for all the people to do.

  27. JackFromLiverpool says:

    Although I am an avowedly unreconstructed technophlie I find these arguments powerful and persuasive. I may have some serious reflecting to do and then perhaps some serious life-changing to follow.

  28. Clancy says:

    Anti-modernism is aestheticism. And it doesn’t begin with modernism, it ends with it.

    Good luck trying to create such a society along purely materialist lines. It can’t be done.

    Such a society would, by definition, require the locus of its being to be outside the physical world. And that makes it a religion.

  29. vera says:

    The label is not where it’s at. Sharon, I hope you focus on the core, whatever people want to call it at home:

    “a fundamental skepticism that economic growth, more energy, more technology, more shiny things, minor economic social change and other incremental variations on the same basic themes can resolve the deeper problems. Fundamentally, most people have either made a leap to the belief that some new model is required, or they are on the cusp of such a leap”

    That’s the crux. I would add the recognition that some of the old ways modernity dumped out thinking they wuz dead, need to be rescued and nursed back to life.

  30. Micheal says:

    A realization that something is disappearing is not synonymous with rejecting that thing. Seeking alternatives to a lifestyle that appears to be disintegrating does not constitute a rejection of that lifestyle.

    Surely, there have been anti-modernist movements in the past and there may truly be a few pockets still. However, what you are seeing could probably be better described in terms of the laws of thermodynamics and an innate human will to survive. But that would make for a boring yarn.


  31. Bill says:

    Thanks, Sharon, for a thought-provoking article, and thanks to all of you who responded so thoughtfully. My response is more emotional than thoughtful, however, because I would like to offer each of you a more personal point of view. Miles got me to thinking this way when s/he questioned “the relationship it [modernism] has created between humans and the planet, and between humans themselves…”

    The word “we” has always meant home and happiness to me — a person, not a place or a way of life. In 1989, my only son was killed, leaving my wife and I feeling very alone in a world that is, well, not very friendly most of the time. But he was dead and we were alive, and we had plenty of meaningful things to do with our togetherness, so we kept on keeping on. But in 2006, my wife died, leaving me alone again, but in a very different way.

    I’m happy to report, however, that today is brighter than yesterday, because survival is a powerful thing, and I was, well, lucky in love — again… :)

    What does this have to do with anti- or post- or trans-modernism?

    Nothing, unless you are willing to ask yourself, as I did, what you want from life, for yourself, your family, your friends, your community, America, the world.

    What do you want? What do “we” want? And what does “we” mean at the global, national, local, tribal and family levels? How much and what kind of “we” can we muster?

    Galacticsurfer said “The Internet is a wonderful thing to build on commonalities temporarily.”

    But it also compartmentalizes our differences, and perhaps that is the model for a post-modern world when millions of people discover, as history so richly demonstrates, that it is very very difficult and frequently impossible to get more than a dozen or so people to agree on even small things, let alone the future of this country or the world at large. My wife and I argue about which side of the medicine cabinet the toothbrushes should hang… :)

    Truth is, I care very little about what happens to the human race. Or France or Nebraska or people in the next county. Gee, I can’t even get up much enthusiasm for people living down the street. Except for the guy who gives me his extra apples for my horse — he’s cool, very cool… :)

    I’d like to care about more people. But only if I can. That is, my desire to be more inclusive, to make decisions that affect more people than just me and mine are somewhat dependent on my ability to do so. We all have different motivations for getting up every morning. Mine is to take care of myself and those I love. But I’ve never felt that I have much power or influence to affect changes at even the local level, so my version of tomorrow is still very very narrow.

    Steve from Virginia pointed out that “It takes thousands of pounds of food to feed one person for a year. No backyard garden can supply this amount or the surplus to trade for the staples needed.”

    Yes, and modernism is ingrained in all of us, so we still have to go to a grocery store in a car, pay the electric bill and so forth. If I had to cut it out of me, I wouldn’t know where to start. So any projections about what tomorrow will be like must include the decision to start building healthy, productive relationships with other, like-minded people. There’s the rub, of course, and perhaps some of you have read my take on that under Sharon’s article “The Party’s Not Over.”

    Did we create modernism or did it create us? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure that if we want tomorrow to be different than today, we should start with ourselves by getting in touch with what we really really want from life. Then look for as much agreement as we can find at higher and higher levels of community.

    My hope is that a “powerful” number of Americans discover that people are the center of their hopes and dreams for tomorrow, not gizmos and gadgets. Different strokes for different folks, of course, but you can’t really really know how important something is until it’s gone. I’d trade all the gasoline and groceries in the world for the ones I miss…

  32. Andrew says:

    Great article - I think you summarised much of what I ‘ve been wrestling with over the last few years.

    Now, back to “adapting in place” and getting new windows installed. Maybe this weekend will see the last frost so the gardens can be started.

    Hopefully next weekend there will be more great articles and comments from you all.


  33. SouthWind16 says:

    You can have up to ten text widgets. ,

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