Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Coming to Terms with Our Subsistence Future

The lifestyles of our tribal ancestors and our still extant but rapidly "disappearing" hunter-gatherer relatives can serve as a model, a trajectory. If we are to have any future at all as a species, it will involve a return to subsistence lifestyles more reflective of our Paleolithic heritage.

There is a powerful and pervasive myth, frequently caricaturized in the media, that the people alive during the Pleistocene were “primitive” in the sense of being incomplete or not fully human: the fur clad caveman carrying a thick club and dragging his woman around by the hair. This myth is informative with respect to the conceit and arrogance characteristic of Western culture, but has absolutely no bearing on reality. Perhaps the most famous articulation of this myth comes from Hobbes and his claim that life in a state of nature was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Nature is red in tooth and claw, and human existence would be a war of all against all if it were not for the protective walls of civilization.

The anthropological and archeological evidence against the Hobbesian view is overwhelming. First, life in a close-knit family-based tribal community is anything but solitary. In fact, it might be argued that our present degree of personal alienation, the autonomy, isolation, and loose and shifting social networks endemic in our corporate consumer society make life solitary beyond endurance from the perspective of our Pleistocene ancestors. Second, modern-day hunter-gatherers lead exceedingly rich lives, if the ability to freely pursue personal goals and the capacity to provide for material needs are used as metrics. And far from “nasty,” life in these subsistence communities can be extremely pleasant, filled with celebration, singing and dancing, and an enormous amount of free time. If by brutish Hobbes meant a lack of sophistication or culture, then his comments simply reflect his Eurocentric bias. And, of course he was entirely ignorant of the findings of modern anthropology and archeology with respect to life-expectancy as well. The evidence also suggests that our Paleolithic forefathers and foremothers suffered less from chronic disease, ate far healthier diets, were happier, were less aggressive, and were relatively more egalitarian—both in terms of gender equity and the lack of class distinction.

Stanley Diamond had this to say in his book In Search of the Primitive:

"The ordinary member of primitive society participates in a much greater segment of his social economy than do individuals in archaic civilizations and technically sophisticated, modern civilizations. For example, the average Nama male is an expert hunter, a keen observer of nature, a craftsman who can make a kit bag of tools and weapons, a herder who knows the habits and needs of cattle, a direct participant in a variety of tribal rituals and ceremonies, and he is likely to be well-versed in the legends, tales and proverbs of his people (a similar list could be drawn up for the average Nama female). The average primitive, relative to his social environment and the level of science and technology achieved, is more accomplished, in the literal sense of that term, than are most civilized individuals. He participates more fully and directly in the cultural possibilities open to him, not as a consumer and not vicariously but as an actively engaged, complete person."

But what about modern technology? 

Perhaps part of the misconception is that stone-age lifestyles were somehow inadequate to the tasks faced by stone-age people. They used very simple tools, for one thing. They did not have industrial technology to provide them with the sophisticated tools that we have. Given that a return to subsistence living implies a return to many of the same challenges faced by our Paleolithic ancestors, and that our Paleolithic ancestors addressed those challenges successfully for five hundred thousand years, we would be well advised to examine their tools rather closely. And we should also remember that most of our sophisticated tools are useful only because of our dependence on industrial technology.

What does modern technology actually do for us? Does it actually improve or enrich our lives? Most of the products of our technology are anti-human in that the ultimate ends they serve are those of exploitive nonhuman entities, corporations and central governments. Even the way that we define “advancement” in technology is usually based on corporate industrial goals such as speed, efficiency, and productivity, rather than on truly human goals. And many tools that appear superficially to be serving human ends are beneficial in the short term only, with long-term social and environmental costs that ultimately make things worse for us. David Watson, in his book, Against the Megamachine, makes a very cogent case against the industrial technology of corporate capitalism. Not only does this technology devastate natural ecosystems, but it alters the way we think about ourselves—it reshapes meaning, it creates a perception of time that trivializes the present moment, it changes our relationships with other people to the point that we become nodes in an impersonal network, standardized cogs in a global megamachine that is devouring the planet.

OK, but what about our advanced medical technology?

Any discussion of a low-tech future is bound to hit upon medical technology sooner or later. Clearly, this is one arena in which our modern technology serves truly human ends.

Or is it?

Not if you consider that the overwhelming majority of medical conditions that require treatment using advanced medical technology are themselves direct or indirect results of our dependence on technology (I owe a debt to John Zerzan for this insight). Consider diabetes, heart disease, depression, and most types of cancer (for years I have been intrigued by the irony behind exposing people to the carcinogenic effects of X-rays as a way of detecting cancer). Before anyone suggests that modern medical technology does more good than harm, they need to carefully weigh the costs and benefits—taking care to include the hidden physical and mental health costs associated with the corporate industrial infrastructure that serves as a precondition for modern medical technology’s existence in the first place. You don’t get MRIs or antibiotics without a toxic environment and a crowded, stress-filled, nutritionally-deficient modern lifestyle. The need for advanced medical technology is to a large extent a direct byproduct of the conditions that support its development.

It is a deep and informative paradox: the abandonment of industrial technology eliminates many of the reasons for its very existence.

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