Friday, March 19, 2010

On Primitives and Progress

The meme of cultural progress surfaced during a casual conversation I was having with a biologist the other day.  The biologists made a disparaging comment about primitive lifestyles, specifically referring to them as “non-advanced”.  I responded by suggesting that it depends on how you define advancement, and that to say that tens of thousands of years in relative harmonious symbiosis with the environment seems quite advanced compared to the approach taken by modern industrial civilization.  His retort—attack, actually—honed in on the idea of symbiosis and harmony.  He made reference to the mass extinctions that accompanied the appearance of humans in the Americas as evidence that humans have always exploited their environment in ways that caused problems. 

I wonder whether I can adequately articulate all of the ways his response bothered me.  First, it is still an open issue whether the large mammal extinctions seen about the time that humans crossed the Bering land bridge were caused by humans or merely coincidental.  Let’s allow for the sake of argument that there was in fact a causal relationship.  If so, then you have a clear example of what can happen when an invasive species is introduced into an ecosystem.  This has no relevance to the question of whether Paleolithic lifestyles were superior lifestyles to ours.  What about Africa?  There have been hunter-gatherer peoples living in Africa since the beginning of people, right up to the present day—hundreds of thousands of years of unflinching environmental support for the tribal lifestyle.  It was only with the advent of agrarian lifestyles that the interaction with regional environments became unsustainable.  What about tribal Native Americans?  In areas where agrarianism was limited, harmonious sustainable lifestyles were maintained until the arrival of Europeans.

Maybe his response can be understood in terms of differences in our definition of “harmonious.”  When I think of harmoniousness or symbiosis with the natural environment, I don’t mean to infer that life was all peaches and cream.  When a local human population decimated the local sources of food (as many surely did), they suffered starvation and death, and bloody conflict with neighboring tribes over depleted resources.  Eventually balance was restored.  The general lifestyle was sustainable and maintained in check by a natural give and take—that’s what I mean by harmonious.  Such a lifestyle can exist indefinitely.  The shift from tribal subsistence to agriculture is not an advancement when you consider it brings with it (1) a linear exploitation of the environment that is ultimately unsustainable, (2) division of labor accompanied by the hierarchical distribution of power (read: access to the resources necessary for survival), (3) a three- or four-fold increase in the amount of work for the majority of the population (defined as time devoted to the provision of necessities—hunter-gatherers spend roughly three to four hours a day “working,” and rarely if ever make a clear distinction between work and other kinds of activities).   I’m not sure I could even begin to elaborate all of the specific ways that industrial society represents an additional (exponential) deterioration of the human state of affairs on top of that seen with the shift to agrarian lifestyles. 

The entire (absurd) notion of progress is itself merely a by-product of industrial civilization.

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