Luddism in the New Millennium: An Interview with Kirkpatrick Sale
by David Kupfer

David Kuipfer: Was there one event which brought about the perspective you have?

Kirkpatrick Sale: No one single event. Just the accumulation of knowledge about the world around me. I started out some years ago with the sense that it was the American system that was wrong. Then I was led to a sense that it was the 20th century American system that was wrong, then that it was the capitalist arrangement that was wrong, then that it was industrialism that was wrong. Finally, broader than that, I came to see that it was the entire Western civilization that was wrong. But this didn't hit me in one day. This was a long process of understanding who the enemy is.

But at some point, I also got the beautiful sense of what to replace this with. That is when I came to fall in love with the mountain across from where I live on the Hudson River. I was observing it one day in kind of a detached way and it spoke to me. I felt this connection to it that I had never felt before with anything. And I understood that the feeling that I was feeling for that mountain was one of love, that it was a place that was special and holy and magical and precious and alive. All this washed over me. What we need to put in place of all that we have around us now, this industrial civilization, is not just a smaller society or one of alternative technology, but one that takes all of its understanding from nature. As Herbert Read says, "only a people serving an apprenticeship with nature can be trusted with machine." The kind of life that we want to live can be taught to us by nature if we will undergo that apprenticeship.

DK: So at what point was your social consciousness born?

KS: It may have been the time in 1958 when I led a rebellion against the Cornell University administration and we began what was the student power movement, although we didn't know to call it that at the time. Or was it a few years after that, in 1961, when we tried to sing folk songs in Washington Square and the police came and beat us up with their truncheons? Or was it the time in 1965, with the Vietnam War escalation, and the protests that followed and the failure of the country to respond? I don't know...

DK: Do you think the Luddites are misunderstood today?

KS: Of course. Everyone assumes they were bad people who were against all technology and were fools to resist it. I think in general the Luddite image is negative in most people's minds today--people who should know better. Today people will say "Well, you don't want to use a computer, then you must be a Luddite," meaning a social outcast. Or people will say, "Well, I am no Luddite, but I can't reset the clock on my VCR," meaning I don't want to be thought of against technology, mind you.

DK: The connotation is that Luddism is taking us back since it is human nature to progress, build on and go forth.

KS: If you have a view like that, and I think it is probably the view of our culture, then you are a perfect slave of the modern mindset and a great asset for industrialism. To believe that what has happened to humankind in the last 200 years is progress is to fall into the trap that industrialism has tried to lure you into which says that anything new is good and tomorrow is better than today because we have more material advantages and more ease and speed in our life and this is good. You buy into that and you've bought into their way of thinking. The Luddites did not want to turn the clock back. They wanted to stop the Industrial Revolution. They wanted to keep the ways of life they had enjoyed for centuries, based on the family and community, using some fairly complex technologies but the kind they had known for years. They said, "We want to cling to this way of life. We don't want a life where we are forced into factories, forced onto machines we can't control and forced from village self-sufficiency into urban dependency and servitude."

DK: Where do monkeywrenchers and ecosaboteurs fit in with your analysis of direct action?

KS: They are precisely Luddistic. What makes them different is they are operating on a wider scale and with isolated actions rather than having these compressed geographic outbursts that the Luddites did. But philosophically, they are right in the same line.

DK: In the context of today's direct action environmental movement, have you observed examples of radical actions similar to those that occurred in Nottingham, England, during the Luddite protests?

KS: No, that's why the Luddites are so firmly fixed in our minds as the anti-machine people, because there haven't been a lot of things like that.

DK: Can you project another similar such uprising?

KS: Protests have always gone on: Luddite-like violence in Europe in the 19th century, the burning of factories in America in the early years of the Industrial Revolution. Worldwide we see a lot of protests against biotechnology. The Cargill plant in India was burned down several years ago. There are protests like that all the time. French farmers are up in arms because of the effort in that country to do away with small farms and install agribusiness--the anti-McDonald's sentiment. The uproar throughout Europe about biochemically altered, genetically engineered food, all that stuff going on. But I don't see an uprising on the scale of the Luddites. The property damage in Seattle, the burning of the ski resort in Vail, ecotage actions across the country, these are absolutely in the Luddite tradition and represent the best kind of response, but it is not an uprising--yet.

DK: How has EF! shaped the environmental movement over the past 20 years?

KS: It has been there at the forefront as a reminder to all the liberal legalistic elements of the environmental movement--the Washington do-good parts of the, environmental movement--that they are making compromises, and EF! is not. They are playing legalistic games, but there's still somebody out there who is holding their toes to the fire and telling them that that's not good enough. To compromise is what Washington lobbyists and those liberal environmentalists do, and EF! is saying no! It is a badly needed message which must be repeated over and over, again and again. The whole world would be much poorer if we didn't have EF!, Sea Shepherd, and some other groups out there reminding us how serious this is and how taking direct action is necessary.

DK: What are your thoughts about those working to bring back imperiled species through breeding programs and reintroduction?

KS: Restoration of species or the land is a useful, legitimate project. It is a science now, and a lot of quite ordinary people are engaged in it. There is a quarterly magazine, textbooks, college classes devoted to it. It is far from a radical enterprise, but nonetheless, it is a legitimate attempt to make up for the disasters of the past. My notion of an Ecostery is built upon the environmental notion of restoration. That's what a small community of people can do on a small plot of land to restore, repair and protect it so that it has some resemblance to what it once was and what it should be.

DK: You have predicted an eco-catastrophe striking the world around 2020. Why 2020 and what is your projection?

KS: 2020 because it sounds good, and it is a fair approximation of when I think this disaster will accumulate and probably destroy much of surface life. My view of it is that it will be a combination of eco-disasters which will include rising sea levels due to the melting of the ice caps, particularly the Antarctic ice cap, increasing ozone layer loss so that there is what I call the "zapping" of people on Earth. Australia will be the first continent to go, and the birds will go blind. There will be all kinds of environmental disruptions triggering a lot of disasters and diseases. Plus there's the social decay--armed uprisings everywhere. It all seems about to happen in the next 20 years or so, and there is no sign that the corporate global juggernaut is going to halt this impending disaster. It is moving full steam ahead and the scientists can warn them over and over again and the protesters can take to the streets, but there is no sign that they are going to budge in any of their disastrous practices. That is why I think it will happen.

DK: What would you say to younger people to point them in a positive direction for their future?

KS: Ecostery! Ecostery! I would particularly say for young people to immediately learn to live in the kind of community that devotes itself to nature. There are Indian communities of this kind. There are the Amish. There are some bioregional groups of this kind. There are intentional communities that follow this. None of it is as perfect or persuasive as it ought to be. But they don't need that. For a young person, it's sufficient to have the analysis of the importance of community and the necessity of being nature-based. You don't have to have models. You don't have to have older people. All you need is to live that life.

DK: Finally, tell me of some positive signposts you've recently seen toward solving some of the problems we've been talking about.

KS: I don't see any solution to these problems. That's exactly the point. Because these problems are not going to be solved, they will go on to create this catastrophe that I suggest is going to happen to us. And the sensible response I am arguing is to turn our backs on this society and establish these small, nature-based communities which don't attempt to solve the problems, just ignore the problems and to create sustained communities in their own way wherever they are located. This is a basic principle of bioregionalism that people can learn, each in their own place, how to live in the right way. And that is a healthy thing to do, whereas believing you can solve these problems and change the system is not healthy. In the same way, this is the principle of the Ecostery--living the right way without regard to the governments and other institutions of the world.

Kirkpatrick Sale has quietly distinguished himself as the leading iconoclast writer in the movement to perpetuate the survival of humankind. The unstated goal of his 40-year activist-oriented writing career seems rather clear: influence people, public psychology and the sentiment of industrial society toward a saner, more sustaining future. His articles have appeared in the Nation, New York Times Magazine, Utne Reader, New Internationalist, Resurgence, and the Ecologist.

On a personal level, I know him as an atypical cynical realist visionary, a Deep Ecology wise guy who never ceases to challenge my thinking. His landmark books include SDS (1973), Power Shift: The Rise of the Southern Rim and Its Challenge to the Eastern Establishment (1975), Human Scale (1980), Dwellers in the Land: The Bioregional Vision (1985), The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy (1990), The Green Revolution: The American Environmental Movement (1992), Rebels Against the Future, the Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution: Lessons for the Computer Age (1996). Sale's next book, The Fire of His Genius; Robert Fulton and the American Dream, explores the darker side of the American Dream and the inventor, who in the early 1800s was the first to successfully run steamboats up the Hudson. We sat down in New York City's Greenwich Village last September to discuss the current state of his views.

© Earth First! Journal, February-March 2001