Anarchism started to have an ecological view mainly in the writings of Henry David Thoreau. In his book Walden, he advocates simple living and self-sufficiency among natural surroundings in resistance to the advancement of industrial civilization. "Many have seen in Thoreau one of the precursors of ecologism and anarcho-primitivism represented today by John Zerzan. For George Woodcock, this attitude can also be motivated by the idea of resistance to progress and the rejection of the increasing materialism that characterized North American society in the mid-19th century." Zerzan himself included the text "Excursions" (1863) by Thoreau in his edited compilation of anti-civilization writings called Against Civilization: Readings and Reflections from 1999.
In the late 19th century, anarchist naturism appeared as the union of anarchist and naturist philosophies. It mainly was important within individualist anarchist circles in Spain, France and Portugal. Important influences in it were Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy and Elisee Reclus. Anarcho-naturism advocated vegetarianism, free love, nudism and an ecological world view within anarchist groups and outside them.
Anarcho-naturism promoted an ecological worldview, small ecovillages, and most prominently nudism as a way to avoid the artificiality of the industrial mass society of modernity. Naturist individualist anarchists saw the individual in his biological, physical and psychological aspects and avoided and tried to eliminate social determinations. Important promoters of this were Henri Zisly and Emile Gravelle who collaborated in La Nouvelle Humanité followed by Le Naturien, Le Sauvage, L'Ordre Naturel, and La Vie Naturelle Their ideas were important in individualist anarchist circles in France but also in Spain where Federico Urales (pseudonym of Joan Montseny), promotes the ideas of Gravelle and Zisly in La Revista Blanca (1898–1905).
This tendency was strong enough as to call the attention of the CNT–FAI in Spain. Daniel Guérin, in Anarchism: From Theory to Practice, reports how "Spanish anarcho-syndicalism had long been concerned to safeguard the autonomy of what it called "affinity groups". There were many adepts of naturism and vegetarianism among its members, especially among the poor peasants of the south. Both these ways of living were considered suitable for the transformation of the human being in preparation for a stateless society. At the Zaragoza congress, the members did not forget to consider the fate of groups of naturists and nudists, "unsuited to industrialization." As these groups would be unable to supply all their own needs, the congress anticipated that their delegates to the meetings of the confederation of communes would be able to negotiate special economic agreements with the other agricultural and industrial communes. On the eve of a vast, bloody, social transformation, the CNT did not think it foolish to try to meet the infinitely varied aspirations of individual human beings."
Anarchists contribute to an anti-authoritarian push, which challenges all abstract power on a fundamental level, striving for egalitarian relationships and promoting communities based upon mutual aid. Primitivists, however, extend ideas of non-domination to all life, not just human life, going beyond the traditional anarchist's analysis. From by anthropologists, primitivists look at the origins of civilization so as to understand what they are up against and how they got here in order to inform a change in direction. Inspired by the Luddites, primitivists rekindle an anti-technological orientation. Insurrectionalists do not believe in waiting for critiques to be fine-tuned, instead spontaneously attacking civilization's current institutions.
Primitivists may owe much to the Situationists and their critique of the ideas in The Society of the Spectacle and alienation from a commodity-based society. Deep ecology informs the primitivist perspective with an understanding that the well-being of all life is linked to the awareness of the inherent worth and intrinsic value of the non-human world, independent of its economic value. Primitivists see deep ecology's appreciation for the richness and diversity of life as contributing to the realization that present human interference with the non-human world is coercive and excessive.
Bioregionalists bring the perspective of living within one's bioregion, and being intimately connected to the land, water, climate, plants, animals, and general patterns of their bioregion.
Some primitivists have been influenced by the various indigenous cultures. Primitivists attempt to learn and incorporate sustainable techniques for survival and healthier ways of interacting with life. Some are also inspired by the feral subculture, where people abandon domestication and have re-integrate themselves with the wild.
Some anarcho-primitivists state that prior to the advent of agriculture, humans lived in small, nomadic bands which were socially, politically, and economically egalitarian. Being without hierarchy, these bands are sometimes viewed as embodying a form of anarchism. John Moore writes that anarcho-primitivism seeks "to expose, challenge and abolish all the multiple forms of power that structure the individual, social relations, and interrelations with the natural world."
Primitivists hold that, following the emergence of agriculture, the growing masses of humanity became evermore beholden to technology ("technoaddiction") and abstract power structures arising from the division of labor and hierarchy. Primitivists disagree over what degree of horticulture might be present in an anarchist society, with some arguing that permaculture could have a role but others advocating a strictly hunter-gatherer subsistence.
Primitivism has drawn heavily upon cultural anthropology and archaeology. From the 1960s forward, societies once viewed as "barbaric" were reevaluated by academics, some of whom now hold that early humans lived in relative peace and prosperity in what has been called the "original affluent society". Frank Hole, an early-agriculture specialist, and Kent Flannery, a specialist in Mesoamerican civilization, have noted that, "No group on earth has more leisure time than hunters and gatherers, who spend it primarily on games, conversation and relaxing." Jared Diamond, in the article "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race", said hunter-gatherers practice the most successful and longest-lasting life style in human history, in contrast with agriculture, which he described as a "mess" and that it is "unclear whether we can solve it". Based on evidence that life expectancy has decreased with the adoption of agriculture, the anthropologist Mark Nathan Cohen has called for the need to revise the traditional idea that civilization represents progress in human well-being.
Scholars such as Karl Polanyi and Marshall Sahlins characterized primitive societies as gift economies with "goods valued for their utility or beauty rather than cost; commodities exchanged more on the basis of need than of exchange value; distribution to the society at large without regard to labor that members have invested; labor performed without the idea of a wage in return or individual benefit, indeed largely without the notion of 'work' at all." Other scholars such as Paul Shepard, influenced by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, have written of the "evolutionary principle", which states that when a species is removed from its natural habitat, its behaviors will become pathological. Shepard has written at length on ways in which the human species' natural "ontogeny", which developed through millions of years of evolution in a foraging mode of existence, has been disrupted due to a sedentary lifestyle caused by agriculture.
Anarcho-primitivists view civilization as the logic, institution, and physical apparatus of domestication, control, and domination. They focus primarily on the question of origins. Civilization is seen as the underlying problem or root of oppression, and must therefore be dismantled or destroyed.
Anarcho-primitivists describe the rise of civilization as the shift over the past 10,000 years from an existence deeply connected to the web of life, to one psychologically separated from and attempting to control the rest of life. They state that prior to civilization, there generally existed ample leisure time, considerable gender equality and social equality, a non-destructive and uncontrolling approach to the natural world, the absence of organized violence, no mediating or formal institutions, and strong health and robustness. Anarcho-primitivists state that civilization inaugurated mass warfare, the subjugation of women, population growth, busy work, concepts of property, entrenched hierarchies, as well as encouraging the spread of diseases. They claim that civilization begins with and relies on an enforced renunciation of instinctual freedom and that it is impossible to reform away such a renunciation.
Anarcho-primitivists, based on several anthropological references, state that hunter-gatherer societies are less susceptible to war, violence, and disease. However, some, such as Jared Diamond, contest this, citing that many tribe-based people are more prone to violence than developed states.
Some authors have criticized the anarcho-primitivist argument that hierarchy and mass violence result from civilization, citing the example of dominance and territorial struggles observed in chimpanzees. Some thinkers within anarcho-primitivism such as Pierre Clastres offer an anthropological explanation of the necessity of a certain amount of violence, while embracing anarchy as the natural balance for primitive societies.
Some primitivists reject modern science as a method of understanding the world with a view to change it. Science is not considered to be neutral by many primitivists, but rather loaded with the motives and assumptions that come out of, and reinforce, civilization.
Modern scientific thought, according to primitivists, attempts to see the world as a collection of separate objects to be observed and understood. In order to accomplish this task, primitivists believe that scientists must distance themselves emotionally and physically, to have a one-way channel of information moving from the observed thing to the observer's self, which is defined as not a part of that thing.
Primitivists argue that this mechanistic worldview is tantamount to being the dominant religion of current times. Believing that science seeks to deal only with the quantitative, primitivists suggest that it does not admit subjective values or emotions. While primitivists perceive science as claiming that only those things that are reproducible, predictable, and the same for all observers are real and important, primitivists believe that reality itself is not reproducible, predictable, or the same for all observers. Primitivists also see science as promoting the idea that anomalous experience, ideas, and people should be cast off or destroyed like imperfectly shaped machine components.
Primitivists also see modern science as another form of mediation between humans and the natural world, resulting in further alienation from their environment. Instead, primitivists believe that individual knowledge should be based on individual experience, rather than accepting another's dogma as fact. For example, primitivists do not deny the theory of gravitation, as it is easy to observe everything in the world adhering to gravity in our day-to-day lives. However, when the theory of gravitation becomes dogmatic and handed down from generation to generation as a social dogma, rather than relying on individuals to grow and realize the facts about their environment in their own terms, it alienates people from coming to conclusions about their environment by themselves, and stunts the natural ability of humans to investigate and adapt to their own environment.
Primitivists denounce modern technology, but some use modern technology on the basis that civilization has destroyed other means of communication, leaving them with no other option. Primitivists see technology as a system involving division of labor, resource extraction, and exploitation by those who implement its process.
Modern technology is held by primitivists to be distinct from simple tools: a simple tool is considered a temporary usage of an element within our immediate surroundings for a specific task. Tools are not viewed as involving complex systems which alienate the user from the act. Primitivists claim that this separation is implicit in technology, which creates an unhealthy and mediated experience which leads to various forms of authority. Domination is said to increase every time a modern "time-saving" technology is created, as primitivists claim it necessitates the construction of more technology to support, fuel, maintain, and repair the original technology. Primitivists believe that this system methodically destroys, eliminates, or subordinates the natural world, constructing a world fit only for machines.
Anarcho-primitivists, such as John Zerzan, define domestication as "the will to dominate animals and plants", and says that domestication is "civilization's defining basis".
They also describe it as the process by which previously nomadic human populations shifted towards a sedentary or settled existence through agriculture and animal husbandry. They claim that this kind of domestication demands a totalitarian relationship with both the land and the plants and animals being domesticated. They say that whereas, in a state of wildness, all life shares and competes for resources, domestication destroys this balance. Domesticated landscape (e.g. pastoral lands/agricultural fields and, to a lesser degree, horticulture and gardening) ends the open sharing of resources; where "this was everyone's," it is now "mine." Anarcho-primitivists state that this notion of ownership laid the foundation for social hierarchy as property and power emerged. It also involved the destruction, enslavement, or assimilation of other groups of early people who did not make such a transition.
To primitivists, domestication enslaves both the domesticated species as well as the domesticators. Advances in the fields of psychology, anthropology, and sociology allows humans to quantify and objectify themselves, until they too become commodities.
For most primitivist anarchists, rewilding and reconnecting with the earth is a life project. They state that it should not be limited to intellectual comprehension or the practice of primitive skills, but, instead, that it is a deep understanding of the pervasive ways in which we are domesticated, fractured, and dislocated from ourselves, each other, and the world. Rewilding is understood as having a physical component which involves reclaiming skills and developing methods for a sustainable co-existence, including how to feed, shelter, and heal ourselves with the plants, animals, and materials occurring naturally in our bioregions. It is also said to include the dismantling of the physical manifestations, apparatus, and infrastructure of civilization.
Rewilding is also described as having an emotional component, which involves healing ourselves and each other from what are perceived as 10,000-year-old wounds, learning how to live together in non-hierarchical and non-oppressive communities, and de-constructing the domesticating mindset in our social patterns. To the primitivist, "rewilding includes prioritizing direct experience and passion over mediation and alienation, re-thinking every dynamic and aspect of reality, connecting with our feral fury to defend our lives and to fight for a liberated existence, developing more trust in our intuition and being more connected to our instincts, and regaining the balance that has been virtually destroyed after thousands of years of patriarchal control and domestication. Rewilding is the process of becoming uncivilized."
The industrial way of life leads to the industrial way of death. From Shiloh to Dachau, from Antietam to Stalingrad, from Hiroshima to Vietnam and Afghanistan, the great specialty of industry and technology has been the mass production of human corpses.
According to primitivists, a key component of modern techno-capitalist structure is industrialism, which cannot exist, they say, without genocide, ecocide, and colonialism. They further say that to maintain it, coercion, land evictions, forced labor, cultural destruction, assimilation, ecological devastation, and global trade are accepted as necessary, even benign. Primitivists claim industrialism's standardization of life objectifies and commodifies it, viewing all life as a potential resource. They see their critique of industrialism as a natural extension of the anarchist critique of the state because they see industrialism as inherently authoritarian.
The primitivist argument against industrialism is that, in order to maintain an industrial society, one must set out to colonize lands in order to acquire non-renewable resources, and that the colonialism is rationalized by racism, sexism, and cultural chauvinism. Additionally, in order to make people work in the factories that produce the machines, they must be made dependent on the industrial system.
Primitivists hold that industrialism cannot exist without massive centralization and specialization. Furthermore, they hold that industrialism demands that resources be shipped from all over the globe in order to perpetuate its existence, and this globalism, they say, undermines local autonomy and self-sufficiency.
Finally, primitivists contend that an engineeric worldview is behind industrialism, and that this same world-view has justified slavery, genocide, ecocide, and the subjugation of women.
Brian Sheppard asserts that anarcho-primitivism is not a form of anarchism at all. In Anarchism vs. Primitivism he says: "In recent decades, groups of quasi-religious mystics have begun equating the primitivism they advocate (rejection of science, rationality, and technology often lumped together under a blanket term "technology") with anarchism. In reality, the two have nothing to do with each other."
Andrew Flood agrees with this assertion and points out that primitivism clashes with what he identifies as the fundamental goal of anarchism: "the creation of a free mass society".
Primitivists do not believe that a "mass society" can be free. They believe industry and agriculture inevitably lead to hierarchy and alienation. They argue that the division of labor that techno-industrial societies require to function force people into reliance on factories and the labor of other specialists to produce their food, clothing, shelter, and other necessities and that this dependence forces them to remain a part of this society, whether they like it or not.
On the other hand, some do not think of industrialization as a coercive force, and merely advocate a primitivist lifestyle for environmental reasons.
Some anarcho-primitivists view the shift towards an increasingly symbolic culture as highly problematic in the sense that it separates us from direct interaction. Often the response to this, by those who assume that it means that primitivists prefer to completely eliminate all forms of symbolic culture, is something to the effect of, "So, you just want to grunt?"
However, typically the critique regards the problems inherent within a form of communication and comprehension that relies primarily on symbolic thought at the expense (and even exclusion) of other sensual and unmediated means of comprehension. The emphasis on the symbolic is a departure from direct experience into mediated experience in the form of language, art, number, time, etc.
Anarcho-primitivists state that symbolic culture filters our entire perception through formal and informal symbols and separates us from direct and unmediated contact with reality. It goes beyond just giving things names, and extends to having an indirect relationship with a distorted image of the world that has passed through the lens of representation. It is debatable whether humans are "hard-wired" for symbolic thought, or if it developed as a cultural change or adaptation, but, according to anarcho-primitivists, the symbolic mode of expression and understanding is limited and deceptive, and over-dependence upon it leads to objectification, alienation, and perceptual tunnel vision. Many anarcho-primitivists promote and practice getting back in touch with and rekindling dormant and/or underutilized methods of interaction and cognition, such as touch and smell, as well as experimenting with and developing unique and personal modes of comprehension and expression.
Because there are some primitivists who have extended their critique of symbolic culture to language itself, Georgetown University professor Mark Lance describes this particular theory of primitivism as "literally insane, for proper communication is necessary to create within the box a means to destroy the box."
In the United States anarcho-primitivism has been notably advocated by writers John Zerzan and Kevin Tucker. The anarcho-primitivist movement has connections to radical environmentalism, gaining some attention due to the ideas of Theodore Kaczynski ("the Unabomber") following his Luddite bombing campaign. Recently anarcho-primitivism has been enthusiastically explored by Green Anarchy, Species Traitor, and occasionally Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, and even CrimethInc. The current anarcho-primitivist movement originated in the journal Fifth Estate, and was developed over a series of years in the 1970s and 1980s by writers such as Fredy Perlman, David Watson, Bob Brubaker and John Zerzan. Vast theoretical differences between Watson's and Zerzan's forms of primitivism caused a split in the late 1980s.
During the 1990s, the UK magazine Green Anarchist aligned itself with anarcho-primitivism, although there are many green anarchists who are not anarcho-primitivists.
Anti-civilization anarchists also organize groups in Spain, Israel, Turkey, Sweden, Finland, and India.
Anarcho-primitivism is associated with and has influenced the radical tendencies within Neo-Tribalism.
Primitivists do not see themselves as part of the left (see post-left anarchy). Rather they view the socialist and liberal orientations as corrupt. Primitivists argue that the Left has proven itself to be a failure in its objectives. The Left, according to primitivists, is a general term and can roughly describe all socialist leanings (from social democrats and liberals to communists) which wish to re-socialize "the masses" into a more "progressive" agenda or the creation of political parties. While primitivists understand that the methods or extremes in implementation may differ, the overall push is seen as the same: the institution of a collectivized and monolithic world-view based on morality.
Some primitivists have been even more hostile towards modern leftism, with Ted Kaczynski's Industrial Society and Its Future dedicating whole sections to the problems with modern leftism.
As anarchists, primitivists are fundamentally opposed to government, and likewise, any sort of collaboration or mediation with the state (or any institution of hierarchy and control)—except as a matter of tactical expediency. This position determines a certain continuity or direction of strategy, historically referred to as revolution. By revolution, primitivists mean the ongoing struggle to alter the social and political landscape in a fundamental way. The word "revolution" is seen as dependent on the position from which it is directed, as well as what would be termed "revolutionary" activity. Again, for anarchists, this is activity which is aimed at the complete dissolution of abstract power.
Reform, on the other hand, is seen as entailing any activity or strategy aimed at adjusting, altering, or selectively maintaining elements of the current system, typically utilizing the methods or apparatus of that system. The goals and methods of revolution, it is argued, cannot be dictated by, nor performed within, the context of the system. For anarchists, revolution and reform invoke incompatible methods and aims, and despite the use of certain pragmatic expedient approaches, do not exist on a continuum.
For primitivists, revolutionary activity questions, challenges, and works to dismantle the entire set-up or paradigm of civilization. Revolution is not seen as a far-off or distant singular event which we build towards or prepare people for, but instead, a way of life, or a practice of approaching situations.
Notable critics of anarcho-primitivism include post-left anarchists Wolfi Landstreicher and Jason McQuinn, Ted Kaczynski (the "Unabomber"), and, especially, libertarian socialist Murray Bookchin, as seen in his polemical work entitled Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism.
Activist writer Derrick Jensen's wrote in Walking on Water that he is often classified as a "Luddite" and "an anarcho-primitivist. Both of these labels fit well enough, I suppose." Others, too, have designated his work with the latter term; however, more recently, Jensen began to categorically reject the "primitivist" label, describing it as a "racist way to describe indigenous peoples." He prefers to be called "indigenist" or an "ally to the indigenous."
A common criticism is of hypocrisy: that people rejecting civilization typically maintain a civilized lifestyle themselves, often while still using the very industrial technology that they oppose in order to spread their message. Jensen counters that this criticism merely resorts to an ad hominem argument, attacking individuals but not the actual validity of their beliefs. He further responds that working to entirely avoid such hypocrisy is ineffective, self-serving, and a convenient misdirection of activist energies. Primitivist John Zerzan admits that living with this hypocrisy is a necessary evil for continuing to contribute to the larger intellectual conversation: an "unavoidable contradiction" that he "just strive[s] to be transparent about."
Wolfi Landstreicher and Jason McQuinn, post-leftists, have both criticized the romanticized exaggerations of indigenous societies and the pseudoscientific (and even mystical) appeal to nature they perceive in anarcho-primitivist ideology and deep ecology. Zerzan has countered that the anarcho-primitivist view is not idealizing the indigenous, but, rather, "has been the mainstream view presented in anthropology and archeology textbooks for the past few decades. It sounds utopian, but it's now the generally accepted paradigm." Ted Kaczynski similarly criticizes anarcho-primitivism for portraying pre-civilized hunter-gatherers as innocent and pacifistic, yet one supporting example of his focuses on post-civilized Australian Aborigines and their mistreatment of women, a temptation that social anthropologist Douglas P. Fry warns of: using modern-day foraging societies, rather than the archeological evidence, to inductively argue about ancient foraging societies. Fry contends that all of today's existing tribal societies are post-civilized: influenced by global civilization—"irrevocably impacted by history and modern colonial nation states"—many for at least 5000 years.