Landscapes of Affluence

Edited on October 30, 2014

Man the Hunter and the “Slacker”

Our culture is not one without its own belief systems. These belief systems become our conventional knowledge and frame our perspectives on the world. Very often, these beliefs are not based upon reality.

The economic notion of scarcity is largely a social construct, not an inherent property of human existence [1]. Life before civilization was seen as “nasty, brutish and short” (one of Hobbes most notable ideas) and hunter-gatherers were often seen through the lens with in-built scarcity. But in 1968 a collection of field studies of living hunter-gatherers was published as a book called Man the Hunter, which began to change the view on the matter.

Marshall Sahlins calls hunter-gatherers “the original affluent society” [2] and Hole and Flannery (1963) found that “no group on earth has more leisure time than hunters and gatherers, who spend it primarily on games, conversation and relaxing” (as cited by [3]). Affluence can be obtained either by producing much or desiring little. Hunter-gatherers desire little and through these limited wants and unlimited means, Richard Lee concluded that hunting and gathering is a “persistent and well adapted way of life” [4].

Studies have found that many hunter-gatherers only spend three to four hours on economic activities per day and this work is often integrated with rituals, socialization and artistic expression [1]. There is no separation from work and social life. There is also no connection between the production by individuals and the distribution to individuals. The essence of affluence comes from the absence of a link between individual production and individual economic security. James Woodburn (1982) observed that some Hadza members did not work their whole lives [5]. The absence of scarcity through limited wants allowed for a single person to easily support several others through little work. Some statistics show that three hours of economic work can support three to four people in this mode of life. Disdain for “slackers” is a “culturally specific emotion”[1].

Knowledge is capital in hunter-gatherer society. Unlike physical capital that can be controlled, knowledge is accessible to all and benefits all if it is well-formed. Hunter-gatherers depend mostly on their own bodies and intelligence to produce their daily sustenance and take from flows rather than stocks. They are highly mobile to take advantage in harnessing flows which can be contrasted to civilized humans settling to control and manipulate stocks. This mobility tends to come with a lack of concern over ownership. Possessions need to be easily replaced as the nomad can only carry so much from one area to another [1].

Hunter-gatherer societies are often aggressively or fiercely egalitarian, that is they protect in-group cooperation. While we may see the world in terms of limited resources (our limited income) and unlimited wants, desires and human greed, hunter-gatherers protect the idea of limited wants for equality and individual freedoms in the context of group cooperation. You can find affluence at the bare-bones of wants and pulling the “lowest grades in thermodynamics”[2].

Plentiful Harvest Syndrome

Hunter-gatherers have extensive knowledge about the areas the live in. They are experts on the plants and animals they rely on. Our ancestors lived this way for around two million years with remarkably few changes in technology (Rolland 1990 as cited by [3]). In the essay Future Primitive John Zarzan argues that our hunter-gatherer ancestors had intelligence for greater technology and simply chose nature over culture. Although I disagree with this point and many others Zarzan makes, the increases of “conformity, repetition and regularity” in civilization in contrast to the freedoms of hunting and gathering is very agreeable.

Once you begin to manipulate the environment, fear-based actions always seem to follow. You plant your crop and become concerned with irrigation, fertilizer and pesticide. You set up a computer system and constantly have to upgrade, maintain and replace. Stocks in nature, material possessions and human beings become domesticated or civilized through “conformity, repetition and regularity”. Ownership and a sedentary lifestyle is hard work.

We’d like to think our hard work is going towards a plentiful harvest. Hunter-gatherers live within natural environments; nature works in flows and cycles. They claim little ownership and attempt to control very little. We can be incredibly intelligent and dedicated workers and still face a drought that destroys our harvest. I use this both as an example and a metaphor. We invest in manipulating and controlling our environments in hopes for a reward that is still dependent upon external factors and this feeds our anxieties. Once we get that plentiful harvest, we promise ourselves we will finally achieve affluence. Even after a plentiful harvest, we find new ways to control and improve efficiency, rarely getting to enjoy the leisure time we think we are securing.

“Consumption is a double tragedy: what begins in inadequacy will end in deprivation”[2].

Gender Relations: More than just Sex

Gene combination is one factor in creating another sexually successful organism. However, parenting is extremely intensive and significant in the human species to this end. What books like Sex at Dawn* and others that use evolution fail to acknowledge is that population is a major indication of reproductive success. The last time I checked there are a lot of people around. The societies that created the population explosion were not hunter-gatherers.

Cochran and Harpending argue that civilization accelerated the rate of evolution in their book The 10,000 Year Explosion [6]. The essence of domestication is in controlling nature. We control stocks and other values in nature as well as control the nature in ourselves. The traits that humans have selected for in dogs and crops have resulted in a quickening of phenotypic genetic changes as well as inherited behavioural changes. An example of this is predictable demeanour in a particular dog type. It is the “conformity, repetition and regularity” that have made this possible and it is not a stretch to see how this has accelerated our own evolution.

Humans are quick-adaptors. We needn’t wait for evolution to select traits based upon environment; we change the environment. Hunter-gatherers use tools to hunt animals or forage for plants and are just as predisposed as anyone to take up more efficient ways to do the economic portions of their day. We all are susceptible to plentiful harvest syndrome and we adapt to culture like we adapt to the environment.

Flexible, joint activity between hunting and foraging has been observed in hunter-gatherer groups. Women hunters have been noted in these societies throughout time- from Roman historian Tacitus, Procopius and anthropologists of modern times [3]. There is both greater sexual freedom and accounts of polygamy. An immediate-return economy with limited wants does not lend much consequence to these types of behaviours.

This is in contrast to a more elitist society. In an achievement-based society, one is enabled to own their achievements. Rank and status often follow and create more narcissistic individuals. At its core, narcissism is a protection of the importance of self and is in need of a supply of merit to secure privileges. Just like in the belief that hard work begets a plentiful harvest, beliefs are not based upon full reality and false-self is permitted to take more than is needed. These types of societies rely heavily on inequality.

The sexes have adapted to these societies in different ways and gain social power uniquely. Females have greater sexual-body-power and use it to passively attract resources. Males have greater economic power and use it to actively obtain resources. In rank and achievement-based societies, like the Chumash of California, the Nootka of Vancouver Island and the Chimbu of New Guinea as discussed in The Creation of Inequality by Flannery and Marcus [7], there is an increase in competition between men to obtain higher status. Higher status obviously leads to higher reproductive success in these cases as it leads to more wives and therefore offspring. Claiming ownership, asserting your personality and achieving more food than is needed to hold feasts of merit are some of the keys of success in male competition.

Women gain little reproductive success in gaining social or economic status. It is helpful to see this as women already deemed accomplished; anything that takes away from the energy that can be put into her body for reproduction is negative in a world of scarcity. Women are limiting reproductive resources with an inherently higher value than men. For example, early rank and achievement-based societies often raided neighbours and took women as slaves instead of killing them, as would happen with the neighbouring men.

“Slacking”, Going You Own Way and Promiscuity

Wilson (1988) saw hunter-gathers upholding “an ethic of independence” and Radin (1953) observed “no moral judgement [being] passed on any aspect of human personality as such” (as cited by [3]). Shame is a tool of human-control. If we view the world in terms of scarcity, we are more likely to be judgemental of those “slacking-off” and not following the rules. There are limited means, time and money, what are you doing being a “slut”, a “slacker” or a person going your own way? If you haven’t achieved your own affluence through hard work, you certainly are not allowed to consume the benefits of the group.

“Slacking-off” and becoming a traveller or someone indulging in more hedonistic behaviour (without the expected hard-work) are taboos enforced by shame. These social constructs are not based upon reality:

“By concentrating on the “margin” or on incremental changes, it is possible to ignore the fact that the capital, technology, natural resource endowment, and knowledge that make all economic activity possible is the result of tens of thousands of years of human cultural evolution. Why should this collective power, accumulated over eons, be expropriated by a few individuals living at a particular time? To argue that is “moral” and “natural” to distribute the product of economic activity based on each individual’s incremental contribution to output is to ignore history and context and, evidently, to ignore human nature.”[1]

The last thing I want to mention is the damages of sex-taboo. It is my belief that many members of our society are deprived of touch, especially non-sexual affection. Touching and embracing releases hormones (like oxytocin) that help us build trust and emotional bonds to others. John Prescott argues, in his 1975 article on Body Pleasure and the Origins of Violence [8], that the deprivation of body touch, contact and movement lead to emotional disturbances. Members of hunter-gatherer societies experienced sexual freedom and had little if any shame in sexual and non-sexual touch. Could our modernized fear of rape and paedophilia be based upon our shame and social judgements on human sexuality? I find slut-shaming towards males and females, homophobia and rape- and paedophilia-fear as especially damaging as it denies such a large part of our nature- not simply sexual nature, but parental affection and non-sexual touch between friends.

The simplest path to egalitarianism is on the individual level and a rejection of authoritative knowledge and superiority. A balance needs to be made between the human and animal in all of us. The animal, on an instinctual and emotional level, knows how to achieve affluence with limited wants. The human has the know-how to control and create more abundant means.

“The world’s most primitive people have few possessions, but they are not poor. Poverty is not a certain small amount of goods, nor is it just a relation between means and ends; above all, it is a relation between people. Poverty is a social status.” [2]

Decreasing desire is a common ideal in religious and spiritual paths to well-being. Minimalism and living with the idea of impermanence helps prioritize our energies. Limiting wants is a viable path to affluence and well-being.

References/Further Reading

[1] John Gowdy. 1998. Limited Wants, Unlimited Means. Introduction: “Back to the Future and Forward to the Past”.

[2] Marshall Sahlins. 1998. Limited Wants, Unlimited Means. “The Original Affluent Society” originally published 1972.

[3] John Zerzan.1998. Limited Wants, Unlimited Means. ”Future Primitive” originally published 1994.

[4] Richard Lee. 1998. Limited Wants, Unlimited Means. ”What Hunters Do for a Living, or, How to make Out on Scarce Resources” originally published 1968 in Man the Hunter.

[5] James Woodburn. 1998. Limited Wants, Unlimited Means. ”Egalitarian Societies” originally published in 1982.

[6] Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending. 2009. The 10,000 Year Explosion.

[7] Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus. 2012. The Creation of Inequality.

[8] John Prescott. 1975. Body Pleasure and the Origins of Violence.


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