The Future

A Good Place: Learning to live off the land with the Bob Ross of primitive technology

John Plant’s ‘Primitive Technology’ YouTube channel helps you build everything you need for a life survived simply.

The Future

A Good Place: Learning to live off the land with the Bob Ross of primitive technology

John Plant’s ‘Primitive Technology’ YouTube channel helps you build everything you need for a life survived simply.
The Future

A Good Place: Learning to live off the land with the Bob Ross of primitive technology

John Plant’s ‘Primitive Technology’ YouTube channel helps you build everything you need for a life survived simply.

The internet is too much,
but this place is just right.

Staring down climate change’s encroaching disasters has taken on the feeling of receiving a terminal diagnosis. While there’s certainly a chance of recovery through drastic action or the discovery of a breakthrough treatment, modern civilization’s collective life expectancy doesn’t look too great. Lately, I've found myself working through the Kubler-Ross stages of grief accordingly, and while no one is ever firmly situated in one emotional state, the Kübler-Ross’s last step, acceptance, has definitely been on my mind.

This trajectory has been mirrored in my escapist worry-watches, beginning with disaster porn like Doomsday Preppers — a show which encourages its own kind of denialism — and has recently moved on to a meditative, far less dramatic online series that is distinctly, if unintentionally, at odds with the generally pessimistic prepper culture. Situated among YouTube’s Boomer QAnon ramblings and fame-hungry Gen Z daily vlogs is Primitive Technology, a channel that celebrates living a life, however basic, versus callously clinging to survival no matter the cost. Such videos give me a wonderful feeling of acceptance — not “acceptance” in the sense of a defeatist resignation, but in understanding there are limits to any one person’s role in what can be done to reverse our course.

There are countless video entries in the how-to subgenre sharing the “Primitive Technology” name, but the channel itself is undoubtedly the most popular, with over 9.5 million subscribers and a collective video view count pushing 750 million since its debut a little over four years ago. It’s the work of one man, an Australian born and raised in Queensland by the oddly appropriate name of John Plant, who can be seen in every video shirtless, mute, and hard at work on fashioning basic necessities, tools, and shelters using only what he finds around him in the outback. There’s no plotzy music to soundtrack his construction, no mugging for the camera while telling us at home how it’s done, no reminding us which link we should click to subscribe, only the sounds of the forest around him—its birds, streams, insects, and the occasional thwacking of a stone-age axe against a tree sapling. He’s a Bob Ross for the anthropocene, creating art that’s not only reproducible for everyday viewers, but potentially spiritually vital to them, as well.

There is no explicit agenda to Primitive Technology’s few dozen videos so far. Plant isn’t necessarily even conveying anyone should go out and learn to live off the land at all. The videos’ attraction lies not in any apocalyptic proselytization or ominous hints at future utility, but its concern for the present, and how to better understand both one’s limits and surprising potential.

Primitive survival hobbyists don’t construct their thatched-roof shacks in some obscure corner of the internet, they are doing so in front of a growing viewership thanks in no small part to Plant’s channel. But it is Plant’s minimalist approach that somehow makes his videos seem that much more personal, almost private. Primitive Tech is by no means the first YouTube series to tackle this particular form of survival tutorial, but it’s the best at practicing what it silently preaches. Plant never speaks a word in the videos, and while the segments are edited for the sake of time, there are no dizzying flash-cuts, gratingly peppy EDM soundtracks, or frenetic time-lapses so prevalent in most YouTube personalities’ work. Instead, we simply watch as Plant constructs the day’s project, ranging from building a fire using only sticks and moss, to constructing an entire clay hut with kiln-fired tiled shingling. If one wants, he does provide tutorial closed captioning for most of his work, along with a sporadically updated Wordpress blog with more detailed entries on the ins and outs of each video, generating a kind of ASMR response from watching someone simply exist in a specific, rudimentary space.

As long as the concept of a “modern society” has existed, there has been the pull to return back to the nebulous “before.” Thomas More first coined the term “utopia” in 1512 from the Greek ou-topos, meaning nowhere or no place, an intentional pun on eu-topos — which, fittingly enough for the name of this column, means a “Good Place.” His book of the same name, ostensibly the first English fantasy novel, detailed a harmonious communal society across the sea within the recently “discovered” New World featuring collective ownership of goods and property, the right to divorce, as well as both married male and female priests of various faiths living in harmony. Despite its apparent critique of monarchical reign and the concept of private property, More was a staunch Catholic known for his zealous prosecution of Protestants later in life while serving as Lord Chancellor. Scholarly debates still continue as to whether More intended his original Utopia as a society to genuinely strive towards, an unattainable pipe dream, or possibly some mixture of both.

More’s work is an important contextualization for Plant’s videos, reminding us there are no halcyon days for humanity. Thinking Primitive Technology’s depictions are what we as a species need to return to would be a mistake. It’s important not to fetishize “primitive” cultures, especially when Plant, after all, is a white man travelling into the forests claimed long ago through imperialist machinations. In one of his few recent interviews, Plant is very clear that this is not an all-consuming way of life for him. “I went to university and got a bachelor of science, but didn’t do anything with it… Instead I mowed lawns for a living (self-employed) while doing Primitive Technology on the side as a hobby only,” he told CNBC via email in a previous profile.

Plant’s videos aren’t a renunciation of the modern world, merely a pause on it. In doing so, the audience gains a better appreciation of where we come from, where we are now, and where we are heading. More importantly, it serves as a reminder for why we should continue fighting to preserve what we as a society have built so far, and that even our most rudimentary achievements are wonders in themselves.

Climate change’s repercussions are overwhelming and emotionally paralyzing, often for the simple fact that we are not designed to comprehend the enormity of its effects. Our species received the sobering diagnosis a long time ago for modern society, but unfortunately it’s something many are only recently beginning to admit, much less process. We can never return to our distant past, nor should we, and our utopian dreams will almost undoubtedly remain fantasies, but Primitive Technology still allows us to resituate ourselves in place and time by reminding us how humans first began, and how that pure drive to innovate, improve, and live can still be put to positive use.

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