St. Augustine local shuns technology

By Cal Colgan |
Photo by Cal Colgan

St. Augustine local Sumner Gray would rather live in a makeshift shelter in the mountains than have the latest technological gizmo.

Last November, I interviewed Gray at his West Augustine home. Sitting out by his patio in front of a burned-out fire pit, Gray, 34, said he is interested in getting to the root of social problems, and he is not new to grassroots politics. He is the co-founder of People United to Stop Homelessness and a former co-owner of Loose Screws, the now-defunct independent music and bookstore that also served as an activist meeting center.

“I’ve gone to protests, I’ve boycotted stores, I’ve talked to friends and signed petitions and on and on,” he said. But Gray said his approach to activism wasn’t getting him the desired results.

“I looked at a lot of these (causes) as ‘anti,’ like, ‘I’m anti- this corporation,’ and I wanted to find something that I was more ‘pro,’ something that I could really dig into,” he said. “And that is what primitivism has offered.”

Gray said primitivism is the idea that modern civilization is harming the Earth, and that people should go back to living simpler lifestyles that do not use up as many natural resources. He said that unlike some belief systems, primitivism does not have a rigid ideology.

“(It’s) not like, ‘Here’s a model, and everybody follow this,'” Gray said, “It’s more of an ideology where it’s like, ‘We know there’s problems.’ So a lot of these people in the (primitivist) movement are researching indigenous ways of living, from cultural to just practical, as far as tanning your own hide, to making clothing, to ways that you might live with other humans.”

But although Gray thinks that “there is no right or wrong way to go back” to living simply, he does think that people will have to learn to live without technology. He said he thinks modern civilization is so destructive that it will eventually collapse.

“If you read any of the literature on climate change, it’s not a matter of ‘if,’ it’s a matter of ‘when,'” Gray said. He said that although there is not a consensus amongst the scientific community as to when global climate change will cause such irreparable damage to the ecosystem that civilization will fall, most scientists agree that such a catastrophe will happen.

Gray’s opinions on the destructiveness of global climate change might not be too farfetched. In a recent interview with Democracy Now!, Brenda Ekwurzel, a climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that the record snowfall that hit the mid-Atlantic a month ago is linked to global warming. Ekwurzel said that global warming causes an increase in precipitation, which can cause “cold blasts” of extreme weather in certain areas in the U.S.

“(I)f we continue to release heat-trapping emissions from our cars, from power plants that burn fossil fuel, then we will only accelerate the warming, and we can bring more weather extremes to places that have typically rain and snow,” Ekwurzel said. She said that global warming has lead to wet climates getting wetter, dry climates getting drier, and has even caused weather-related deaths. “All these things are something that if we don’t plan our infrastructure and increase our understanding of climate change impacts in the United States, then it will be more costly to not take the factor of climate change into consideration,” she said.

But Gray believes that it is too late to plan our government and our economy around being more environmentally sustainable. Gray said that numerous companies’ recent campaigns to make their products more environmentally-friendly will not make any significant difference in helping the planet and preventing modern civilization from collapsing.

“We’re on the verge of industrial collapse, and corporations have created this mess, and sold it to the people that this is what they want and this is what they need,” he said. “Well, now they’re trying to sell it to us that they can get us out of this, but it’s like, ‘Change your light bulbs, and everything will be fine.’ That’s greenwashing — it’s trying to sell us these small changes (and tell people) that everything will be fine, and it definitely will not.”

Gray’s ideas are certainly not shared by everyone in St. Augustine’s green movement. While Flagler College junior Chuck Riffenburg said he agreed with the basic tenants of Gray’s beliefs, he does not think that American society can completely do away with modern technology. But, he said, “we’re going to have to integrate our technologies as far as sustainable food production.”

Riffenburg, 24, has already started to integrate modern society and agriculture in St. Augustine. The founder of Flagler’s Hunger Initiative and First Chair of the Student Government Association’s Green Committee, Riffenburg has been working with Flagler students and St. Augustine locals to build community gardens around the city. Riffenburg said he thinks it is possible for American society to become more environmentally sustainable.

“There’s already a number of people involved with community-supported agriculture all over the country, and just the fact that we’ve got one cropping in our backyard here shows me that people are concerned,” he said.

But Gray maintains that even so-called “green technologies” will not prevent an industrial collapse. He said that on a national level, the American economy is still heavily dependent on fossil fuels like oil, and that the supply of oil is running out. “If the oil does run out soon, if these experts are correct, then there’s nothing in place to replace that,” he said.

Gray said that although he has found that many people agree that modern civilization is hazardous to the environment, when it comes to changing their lifestyles, most people are reluctant. But Gray said that just because people are used to living with industrial society does not mean that they are living fulfilling lives.

“People think that they’re more in touch than ever with one another because you can constantly have access to people through e-mail and Facebook, but we are more detached than ever,” he said. “So I would question how happy they really are, or if that’s just something that they’ve been sold their entire lives.”

For his part, Gray said, it has been a slow process for him to live a more primitive lifestyle. Right now, he said, he is mostly educating himself about alternative ways of living.

Still, Gray’s house shows signs of his attempts to pull away from modern industrial society. His kitchen is filled with boxes of organic and non-processed food and drinks, and the remnants of a garden are in his front yard.

There are still some symbols of Gray’s attachment to technology. His house still has electricity, and there is a car parked in his front driveway. However, Gray said he rarely uses it.

“The only time I drive is with family,” he said. I haven’t driven a car for me personally in 6 or 7 years. I’ve gotten to the point with my first child that I can take her with the bike, to go to the store, to play.”

Eventually, Gray said, he would like to move away from St. Augustine and live in the mountains with his family. There, he said, he would like to forage and hunt for food, and to possibly even build his own shelter. Gray said he realizes that some people will never be persuaded to live a primitivist lifestyle, but he still thinks there are others that are open to the idea.

“I think it becomes a matter of people needing to see an alternative,” he said. “That’s why I want to move to the mountains. I’m confident that if (people) have these different models, if they have this different way to live, they can grow.”

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