Noble or Savage? Both. (Part 1)

by Jason Godesky

I have already had a few commenters direct me to “Noble or Savage?,” the article from the Dec. 19 Economist magazine. The article has not raised my low opinion of this periodical. As Kenneth Boulding so correctly assessed, “Anyone who believes that growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.” You may recall that The Economist teamed up with Shell some years back gave us the absurdist essay contest question, “Do we need nature?” (Derrick Jensen gave perhaps the best answer: “It’s insane.”) But this most recent offering presents precisely the kind of article I have, unfortunately, become all too familiar with—overblown rhetoric based in faulty evidence presented deceptively. Nothing new appears in the article that we haven’t spent pages debunking here in past articles, but we can hardly expect casual readers to have read that much of the Anthropik backlog. Since I have no doubt that many will continue to post links to this inane article mistaking its argument for a cogent one, I offer this piece. It has little new for regular readers; instead, I have simply collated my previous responses to the evidence misrepresented by The Economist article, so that it appears all in one place.

War

Noble or Savage?,” The Economist,” 19 December 2007:

Several archaeologists and anthropologists now argue that violence was much more pervasive in hunter-gatherer society than in more recent eras. From the !Kung in the Kalahari to the Inuit in the Arctic and the aborigines in Australia, two-thirds of modern hunter-gatherers are in a state of almost constant tribal warfare, and nearly 90% go to war at least once a year. War is a big word for dawn raids, skirmishes and lots of posturing, but death rates are high—usually around 25-30% of adult males die from homicide. The warfare death rate of 0.5% of the population per year that Lawrence Keeley of the University of Illinois calculates as typical of hunter-gatherer societies would equate to 2 billion people dying during the 20th century.

The Savages Are Truly Noble,” The Anthropik Network, 10 May 2007:

Lawrence Keeley’s War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage really represents the first work in this trend, and continues to provide the foundation for the later work of LeBlanc, Walker and Knauft. Much of Keeley’s evidence centers around archaeological evidence of fortified villages around the world. Of course, that merely proves that food producers engaged in warfare; Keeley’s farther-reaching assertion that warfare is endemic to human nature goes far beyond the evidence he provides of horticultural warfare, and his work has been heavily criticized on this point. Though we have cave paintings back into the Upper Paleolithic 40,000 years ago, it is only about 10,000 years ago, with the invention of the bow, that we see the first cave paintings of groups fighting. We don’t see paintings of people fighting with clubs or even atlatls, but we instead see them fighting first with bows and arrows. Some paintings even portray still-recognizable tactical techniques like flankings and envelopments. It is also at this time that the first skeletal evidence of warfare emerges, with bones showing evidence of violent death, arrow-heads in skeletal remains, and so forth. This is quite late in our history as a species, and once again correlates to the rise of food production.

Keeley tries to expand his case by looking at evidence of violence among modern hunter-gatherers, most notably the Plains Indians. “Keeley finds brutish behavior everywhere and at all times, including among the American Indian. If the number of casualties produced by wars among the Plains Indians was proportional to the population of European nations during the World Wars, then the casualty rates would have been more like 2 billion rather than the tens of millions that obtained.”1 Though anthropologists have learned that modern hunter-gatherers are not “living fossils” that necessarily preserve pre-civilized behaviors when such comparisons illustrate the basic economics of hunter-gatherer life and the pressures it places on sharing and social bonds, Keeley presents modern hunter-gatherers as precisely that when he needs evidence of prehistoric warfare. The Plains Indians are a particularly ironic choice, given the evidence Peter Farb gathers in Man’s Rise to Civilization, As Shown by the Indians of North America from Primeval Times to the Coming of the Industrial State. There, Farb shows that the Plains Indians we know did not exist prior to European contact. They descended from refugees from other Native groups destroyed by the various European epidemics that wiped out 90% or more of North America’s population in the years after 1492, with a new culture assembled around two important European introductions: the re-introduction of the horse as wild herds profligated and filled up the Americas, and guns traded from French fur trappers. The Plains Indians had a post-apocalyptic culture.

Given the trauma of what was essentially the end of the world for Native groups, a surge in violence would be expected. 90% or more of the American population died from epidemic disease. Groups were displaced, and a massive rearrangement of tribal territories racked across the continent like billiard balls long in advance of European settlers. When “the Pilgrims” came to Plymouth, they were aided in setting up their new colony by a Patuxet native named Tisquantum (better known to Europeans as “Squanto”). He was the primary contact for the Europeans on behalf of the Wampanoag Confederacy because he already knew English: he was captured by George Weymouth in 1605, worked for nine years in London, and returned to the New World with John Smith (of “Pocahantas” fame) in 1613, but was dropped off on the wrong part of the continent and kidnapped by Thomas Hunt, but escaped to London. He finally made it back home in 1619, to discover that his home village had been wiped out, probably by smallpox. When “the Pilgrims” arrived, they set up their colony on the ruins of Tisquantum’s home town. Tisquantum’s twisted tale illustrates the enormity of European impact on Native lives long before what we would normally consider the first point of European contact. By the time Europeans came, most places they arrived were already shattered. The archaeological record bears out a significant increase in violence in this post-apocalyptic era.

Researchers examined thousands of Native American skeletons and found that those from after Christopher Columbus landed in the New World showed a rate of traumatic injuries more than 50 percent higher than those from before the Europeans arrived.

“Traumatic injuries do increase really significantly,” said Philip L. Walker, an anthropology professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, who conducted the study with Richard H. Steckel of Ohio State University.

The findings suggest “Native Americans were involved in more violence after the Europeans arrived than before,” Walker said. But he emphasized there was also widespread violence before the Europeans came.

Nevertheless, he said, “probably we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg” as far as the difference between violence levels before and after. That’s because as many as half of bullet wounds miss the skeleton. Thus, the study couldn’t detect much firearm violence, though some tribes wiped each other out using European-supplied guns.2

Interview with Derrick Jensen concerning the violence inherent to civilization.

Of course, such an increase does indicate that violence occured prior to any European contact at all. That’s certainly true of the New World states in Mesoamerica and the Andes, but some level of violence should be expected at all times and places. Violence has a place in the natural world. Part of our civilization’s twisted view of the world is its inability to come to terms with violence in a healthy way. There is an inherent violence to animal life—a fact that philosophers have often commented upon. The chopstick has its origins in Confuscius’ notice that stabbing food with a knife is a violent act, and his desire to move away from that. Buddhist desire to do no harm finds its apex in some monks who wear shoes like short stilts, to minimize the possibility of stepping on a bug. Ethical vegetarians often eschew the eating of meat because they do not want to kill anything, so instead, they kill vegetables. Whenever and wherever we try to eliminate the harm we do, we find ourselves running into the essentially violent nature of animal life: we live because others die.

Shamanism is a hunter’s religion. The forager life does not afford the luxury of such self-deceit: it requires the predator to make his peace with his animal nature, including the inherent, inescapable fact of violence. No animal lives, except by the deaths of others. The mediation of life and death in a universe carefully balanced between them is at the heart of everything the shaman does. At the heart of agricultural philosophy, however, is a desire to escape this system: to have life, and never death; growth, and never decay; health, and never sickness. In the end, it is a fool’s dream doomed to failure, but the longer it goes on, the more death, decay, and sickness is needed to balance out the folly. Normally, the forager’s life balances these in small, manageable portions. Civilization distinctly amplifies violence in its unhealthy flight from it.

Keeley cites evidence that the wars of the Plains Indians were, per capita, as costly as the two world wars. He further cites evidence that the !Kung homicide rate rivals that of the inner city. Knauft3 points out that such violence comes from the changing nature of Bushmen life as their old way of life is shattered and they are settled into a new, sedentary lifestyle. Kent4 further points out that Keeley’s statistic is taken out of context. In addition to these criticisms, I would draw attention to the double standard applied to violence in our own civilization, versus how it is applied to “primitive” societies.

Keeley makes the argument that, because horticultural and forager peoples have such low population density, a single homicide could be a war. Of course, Keeley ignores the systematic violence of civilization: he lumps together all occasions of violence in “primitive” societies, and compares them to our own wars, or our own homicide rates, but never the combination. Neither does he take into consideration the toll of our violence professionals: the violence done by police, or incarceration (1 in 37 adults in the United States), or the essential violence of the market and tax system we’re forced into by civilization’s violence professionals. In civilization’s pursuit of a peaceful society, the “Monopoly of Force” has succeeded only in making every aspect of society violent. When we consider fully that the violence Keeley cites is that of an essentially post-apocalyptic society, and that he is comparing it to only a small portion of our own violence, it becomes clear that contrary to Keeley’s case, civilization has vastly increased violence. It has made violence ubiquitous, and it has changed the fundamental nature of it.

No society can ever be fully devoid of violence, but those that aspire to such a goal only become more violent by denying its place in the world. Primitive societies did engage in violence, and without a permanent class of professional killers, it fell to primitive peoples themselves to execute what violence became necessary. Perhaps that is in part why such societies also did so much to limit violence. Contemporary charges against primitive warriors rely on observations of a “post-apocalyptic” society decimated by European contact, ignoring the evidence that violence in these societies has been increased significantly because of the overwhelming impact of European contact. What we do see, however, is ample evidence of means to limit violence—emphasis placed on bravery and intimidation to avoid violence from breaking out, ritual approaches aimed at reconciling enemies, and alternative forms of contesting differences, such as song duels or counting coup. To properly compare the effectiveness of such approaches to our own, we need to take an honest accounting of violence in our own society—wars, murder, violent crime, incarceration, police brutality, and the full impact of our professional violence class. We need to look also to the ubiquitous violence inherent in our social system: the threat of violence that lies behind paying your rent, obtaining your food, and every other aspect of civilized existence. Primitive societies were not devoid of violence, but they did limit it, and it was a much rarer thing. Among them, violence was something that happened. For us, it’s a way of life.

Evolution of Violence

Noble or Savage?,” The Economist,” 19 December 2007:

At first, anthropologists were inclined to think this a modern pathology. But it is increasingly looking as if it is the natural state. Richard Wrangham of Harvard University says that chimpanzees and human beings are the only animals in which males engage in co-operative and systematic homicidal raids. The death rate is similar in the two species. Steven LeBlanc, also of Harvard, says Rousseauian wishful thinking has led academics to overlook evidence of constant violence.

Goodall’s Bananas,” The Anthropik Network, 27 April 2007:

Jane Goodall turned our understanding of chimpanzees upside down. From her unprecedented observations, we’ve taken the view of chimpanzees as violent and domineering, a view that’s been used to proffer up the perspective that humans, too, are by nature violent, and that dominance hierarchies are natural to us. But how did Goodall get such unprecedented access? By giving them food. I’ve not read The Egalitarians—Human and Chimpanzee: An Anthropological View of Social Organization, but I do think that Theodore Kemper’s review in The American Journal of Sociology (Vol. 97, No. 6 (May, 1992), pp. 1757-1759) is in need of a handy URL for future reference.

Essentially, Power argues that because human hunter-gatherers and chimpanzees in the wild share the same ecological niche, their social organization is remarkably similar. The qualifier, in the wild, is significant, inasmuch as the dominant paradigm in chimpanzee studies today derives from the later work of Jane Goodall, who reports that the animals are strongly territorial, aggressive, and dominance-seeking. Whereas Goodall’s analysis might support a theory of phylogenetic continuity for similiar, biologically inherent, agonistic qualities in humans, Power’s important contribution is to show that Goodall’s conclusions may rest principally on the “unnatural” environment that Goodall herself created for the apes in order to facilitate observation of their behavior.

When Goodall began her naturalistic studies of chimpanzees in 1960 in the Gombe National Park area of Tanzania, she was a distinctly non-participant observer. After some years of patiently tracking apes over large areas, Goodall discovered that she could lure animals into a more or less permanent prescence around her camp, thereby improving opportunities to observe social interaction, by baiting the camp with supplies of bananas. Indeed, this was an inspired notion. According to Power, it worked too well.

Power maintains that the change that Goodall engineered in the food supply warped the chimpanzees’ conduct and social organization more or less permanently. Power pursues the argument by examining the differences between Goodall’s observations prior to the artificial feeding regimen and the subsequent findings. Goodall herself does not rely much on the results of her early work.

Power argues that, like human hunter-gatherers, chimpanzees in the wild roam widely, rarely confronting each other in direct competition over food. Goodall’s artificial feeding, practiced from 1964 to 1968, introduced direct competition among the apes for the first time. Bunched around the feeding boxes and often frustrated by not obtaining the bananas (which were doled out according to specific schedules), the animals began to engage in more intense forms of competitive, aggressive, and threatening behavior than was known to occur in the wild.

Goodall’s work has been heralded for bringing observations of chimpanzees in the wild. It sounds like that was only made possible by taking away the “wild” part. We’ve discussed in depth elsewhere on this site how the hoarding of food allowed by agriculture allowed elites to emerge, with hierarchies and coercive force to maintain them. Goodall’s observation of chimpanzees have often been used to excuse this order as “natural,” but Power’s work suggests that instead, Goodall’s unconsidered civilized assumptions succeeded in civilizing chimpanzees. [Note: Goodall herself has admitted that this her method of observation biased her results; the shoe seems to fit the other foot: Hobbesian wishful thinking has led academics to overlook evidence of relative peaceful existence.]

The “Overkill” Hypothesis

Noble or Savage?,” The Economist,” 19 December 2007:

Returning to hunter-gatherers, Mr LeBlanc argues (in his book “Constant Battles”) that all was not well in ecological terms, either. Homo sapiens wrought havoc on many ecosystems as Homo erectus had not. There is no longer much doubt that people were the cause of the extinction of the megafauna in North America 11,000 years ago and Australia 30,000 years before that. The mammoths and giant kangaroos never stood a chance against co-ordinated ambush with stone-tipped spears and relentless pursuit by endurance runners.

Overkill, Overchill and Human Nature,” The Anthropik Network, 1 December 2005:

The standard rejoinder when discussing the ecological devastation wrought by civilization and the relatively benign existence of hunter-gatherers is to point out that hunter-gatherers caused extinctions of their own—the extinction of the megafauna at the beginning of the Holocene interglacial, including the mammoths, the cave bear, thee giant hyaena, the giant rat of Majorca, the American horse, saber-toothed cats, diprotodons (giant relatives of the wombats), and an Austrlian, leopard-sized marsupial lion, among many others. These, according to Paul S. Martin’s “overkill” theory, were hunted to extinction by ravenous, Pleistocene human foragers every bit as rapacious in their ecological exploitation as any modern civilization. This is ill-founded anachronism of the highest order.

Overkill theorists take their cues from the extinctions in New Zealand, which was once home to 11 different species of large, flightless birds called moas. Within a few centuries of human habitation, they were extinct. “We do know that human colonists caused extinctions in isolated, tightly bound island settings, but islands are fundamentally different from continents,” says Donald Grayson. “The overkill hypothesis attempts to compare the incomparable and there is no evidence of human-caused environmental change in North America. But there is evidence of climate change. Overkill is bad science because it is immune to the empirical record.”

Another quote from Grayson puts an even finer point on it: “Martin’s [overkill] theory is glitzy, easy to understand and fits with our image of ourselves as all-powerful … It also fits well with the modern Green movement and the Judeo-Christian view of our place in the world. But there is no reason to believe that the early peoples of North America did what Martin’s argument says they did.”

For one thing, while we can certainly understand the extinction of mammoths or bison in terms of human overhunting, what of all the other animals that died off at the same time? Were humans really hunting saber-toothed tigers, and in such numbers as to drive a robust and healthy species into extinction? Were aborigines overhunting the diprotodon, who likely became enshrined in their mythology as the demonic bunyip? We find plenty of mammoth bones at human habitation sites, but none of these other species.

In “Climate Change Caused Extinction of Big Ice Age Mammals, Scientist Says,” written for National Geographic News in November 2001, Hllary Mayell writes:

The overkill hypothesis, Grayson says, rests on five tenets: human colonization can lead to the extinction of island species; the Clovis people were the first humans to arrive in North America, around 11,000 years ago; the Clovis people hunted a wide range of large mammals; the extinction of many species of North American megafauna occurred 11,000 years ago; and therefore, Clovis hunting caused those extinctions.

Grayson disputes several of these tenets.

There is no proof, he said, that the late Pleistocene extinctions occurred in conjunction with the arrival of the Clovis people. “Of the 35 genera to have become extinct beginning around 20,000 years ago, only 15 can be shown to have survived beyond 12,000 years ago,” Grayson said. “The Clovis peoples didn’t arrive until shorty before 11,000 years ago. That leaves 20 [genera] unaccounted for.”

There is also no evidence that the Clovis people hunted anything other than mammoths, he said. Although numerous sites where large numbers of mammoths were killed have been uncovered, no similar sites for any other large mammals have been found in North America.

And while there is no evidence of widespread human-caused environmental change similar to that seen on island settings, there is evidence that animal populations in Siberia and Western Europe, as well as North America, were affected during the same period by climate changes and glacial retreat.

In addition, the primacy of the Clovis mgiration has itself come under serious assault, first with artifacts from Meadowcroft Rock Shelter in Pennsylvania with artifacts dating back 30,000 years. We now have several sites with artifacts dating back similarly to three times the age of Clovis, at Monte Verde, Chile, Cactus Hill, Virginia, and the Topper site on the Savannah River near Allendale, South Carolina. Mitochondrial DNA from Native Americans show a divergence from the Siberian population 20,000 years ago—again, significantly older than Clovis. This makes the idea that the Clovis were the first people in North America increasingly untenable—and if the Clovis were not the first people in North America, that means that people were living in North America well before the mass extinction began, shattering the “Overkill” hypothesis that humans wiped out these species when they entered North America.

That might reconcile Grayson’s point about earlier extinctions, but some genera were going extinct even before that. It appears that bison, at least, were on the decline already when human hunters made their entrance. A report from USA Today says:

A team of 27 scientists used ancient DNA to track the hulking herbivore’s boom-and-bust population patterns, adding to growing evidence that climate change was to blame.

“The interesting thing that we say about the extinctions, is that whatever happened, it wasn’t due to humans,” said the paper’s lead author, Beth Shapiro, a Wellcome Trust Research Fellow at Oxford University. By the time people arrived, “these populations are already significantly in decline and on the brink of whatever was going to happen to them in the future.”

The story written into the bison’s DNA is one of an exponential increase in diversity with herd sizes doubling every 10,200 years. Then, 32,000 to 42,000 years ago, the last glacial cycle kicked in, beginning a lengthy cooling trend. Bison genetic diversity plummeted. A significant wave of humans didn’t appear in the archaeological record at eastern Beringia until more than 15,000 years later, the authors write in Friday’s Science.

That evokes the alternative “overchill” theory—that the megafauna extinctions were caused not by human predation, but by climate change. The very same climate changes that revealed the Bering land bridge, that made it so easy for the first Polynesians and Australians to hop from island to island, and made it possible for humans to experiment with new niches, also created new conditions that some species adapted to better than others.

Humans were not ecological saints, either. We did cause extinctions undeniably, such as the moras of New Zealand. So does any alpha predator in a new ecology. Alpha predators like humans play keystone roles in any ecology, and introducing such a predator into any new ecology will cause cascades of change. Some species will prosper; others will adapt; still others will go extinct. Moving into a new ecology during a significant climate change meant that the new variable was more than many species could handle. Animals already in decline could not handle the extra pressure, and went extinct. This is not a distinctly human behavior: we can see much the same in Yellowstone:

Ripple points to some black-and-white photographs taken of the same spot in the Lamar Valley more than 50 years apart. “You can see that young aspen and willow were abundant in the early 1900s. By the 1930s the trees had stopped regenerating, and there are no young ones.

“I had a lightbulb,” he continues. He took core samples from 98 aspen trees and discovered that only two had begun to grow after the 1920s—around the time the last substantial populations of wolves were killed or driven off. And these two were in places that elk would be hesitant to frequent for fear of being attacked by predators. Ripple found big trees and tiny trees but nothing in between, because nothing new grew from the 1930s to the 1990s. It was the first concrete evidence of a “wolf effect.”

After human farmers drove the wolves from Yellowstone, the elk populations boomed. They stripped their food supply bare, eating the shoots of young trees as they came up. That began to change the ecology of Yellowstone, driving out songbirds, introducing erosion, and generally wreaking havoc. The re-introduction of wolves to Yellowstone in 1995 has been a smashing success. Elk numbers have gone down, trees have returned, songbirds have come back, and the effects of erosion are beginning to heal. Such is the kind of far-reaching relationship that any alpha predator shares with its ecology.

Given that understanding of an alpha predator’s role in any ecology, and the foregoing evidence, how can we conclude that all of these species were wiped out by a few African apes, without any input whatsoever from the changing ecology around them? No, there was no noble savage; but there was no murderous savage, either. Humans were not created good or evil—just human. Our entrance into the Americas, Oceania and the rest of the world was as harmless as wolves, lions or sharks. My words there are carefully chosen. We don’t normally consider wolves, lions or sharks particularly “harmless,” and neither were humans. But we recognize the place such predators have in the natural world. We recognize that they’re part of a bigger picture. We know that introducing them into a new situation will have far-reaching effects on that situation, but we also know that’s not a reflection of their own nature, but the nature of ecology itself. Just like humans.

Labor & Leisure

Noble or Savage?,” The Economist,” 19 December 2007:

What’s more, the famously “affluent society” of hunter-gatherers, with plenty of time to gossip by the fire between hunts and gathers, turns out to be a bit of a myth, or at least an artefact of modern life. The measurements of time spent getting food by the !Kung omitted food-processing time and travel time, partly because the anthropologists gave their subjects lifts in their vehicles and lent them metal knives to process food.

Thesis #25: Civilization Reduces Quality of Life,” The Anthropik Network, 11 January 2006:

[F]oragers work much less than we do today. Richard Lee’s initial assessment of the !Kung work week is neatly summarized by Sahlins:

Despite a low annual rainfall (6 to 10 inches), Lee found in the Dobe area a “surprising abundance of vegetation”. Food resources were “both varied and abundant”, particularly the energy rich mangetti [a.k.a., mongongo] nut—”so abundant that millions of the nuts rotted on the ground each year for want of picking.” The Bushman figures imply that one man’s labour in hunting and gathering will support four or five people. Taken at face value, Bushman food collecting is more efficient than French farming in the period up to World War II, when more than 20 per cent of the population were engaged in feeding the rest. Confessedly, the comparison is misleading, but not as misleading as it is astonishing. In the total population of free-ranging Bushmen contacted by Lee, 61.3 per cent (152 of 248) were effective food producers; the remainder were too young or too old to contribute importantly In the particular camp under scrutiny, 65 per cent were “effectives”. Thus the ratio of food producers to the general population is actually 3:5 or 2:3. But, these 65 per cent of the people “worked 36 per cent of the time, and 35 per cent of the people did not work at all”!

For each adult worker, this comes to about two and one-half days labour per week. (In other words, each productive individual supported herself or himself and dependents and still had 3 to 5 days available for other activities.) A “day’s work” was about six hours; hence the Dobe work week is approximately 15 hours, or an average of 2 hours 9 minutes per day.

This is the oft-quoted “two hours a day” statistic, but it has come under fire from critics who point out that Lee did not add in other necessary activities, such as creating tools, and food preparation. So, Lee returned to do further study with these revised definitions of “work,” and came up with a figure of 40-45 hours per week. This might seem to prove that hunter-gatherers enjoy no more leisure than industrial workers, but the same criticisms laid against Lee’s figures also apply against our “40 hour work week.” Not only is that increasingly a relic of a short era sandwiched between union victories and the end of the petroleum age as the work week stretches into 50 or even 60 hours a week, but it, too, does not include shopping, basic daily chores, or food preparation, which would likewise swell our own tally. Finally, the distinction between “work” and “play” is nowhere nearly as clear-cut in forager societies as it is in our own. Foragers mix the two liberally, breaking up their work haphazardly, and often playing while they work (or working while they play). The definition of work which inflates the total to 40-45 hours per week includes every activity that might be considered, regardless of its nature. Even the most unambiguous “work” of foragers is often the stuff of our own vacations: hunting, fishing, or a hike through the wilds.

Agriculture as Adaptation

Noble or Savage?,” The Economist,” 19 December 2007:

Agriculture was presumably just another response to demographic pressure. A new threat of starvation—probably during the millennium-long dry, cold “snap” known as the Younger Dryas about 13,000 years ago—prompted some hunter-gatherers in the Levant to turn much more vegetarian. Soon collecting wild grass seeds evolved into planting and reaping crops, which reduced people’s intake of proteins and vitamins, but brought ample calories, survival and fertility.

Thesis #10: Emergent Elites Led the Agricultural Revolution,” The Anthropik Network, 11 October 2005:

The hypothesis states that agriculture had to be adopted because of rising populations through the Mesolithic. Yet, for any given grain of wheat, there is a decision to be made. One can either eat it, or plant it, but never both. Planting wheat is an investment of food; it’s sacrificing food now, in order to have more food in the future. Investment is not an activity engaged in by people lacking resources; it’s something only people with resources to spare indulge in. Poor people aren’t very big in the stock market, and starving people who buried all their rice would never survive long enough to reap the harvest. We take it nearly without argument that the Neolithic began with increasing, hungry populations, but there are two questions left unanswered:

  1. Since human population is a function of food supply, where did this population come from? and
  2. Why did starving populations bury their wheat, instead of eat it?

The end of the Pleistocene fluctuated the climate, alternating between times of plenty and times of want. While starvation is rare and it would be a stretch to call the bad times “famine,” some years are undeniably harder than others.

In such uncertain times, “Big Men” emerge, providing some level of stability. In fat years, their lavish potlatches and mokas increase their own prestige and indebt neighboring groups–providing insurance against the hard years that will follow. These Big Men further bolster their position within the group, and cultivate a reciprocity network beyond the group, by using their power and influence to engage in long-distance trade. As a last resort, when all other possibilities are gone, they can call on neighboring Big Men to provide food.

These late Mesolithic foragers spend more and more time cultivating at more intensive levels, to produce enough food for the escalating competition of the Big Men’s feasts. It is hard, and they must sacrifice the freedom and leisure of their former life, but at least they have some security. Eventually, those Big Men have sufficient influence to make their followers stop thinking of themselves as hunters who farm, and begin thinking of themselves as farmers who hunt.

Big Men become chiefs, chiefs become kings, populations explode and civilization moves inexorably from that beginning to the present crisis.

In the years since 9/11, a quote from Benjamin Franklin has enjoyed renewed popularity in certain circles: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” The loss of civil liberties and freedoms suffered by the United States’ citizenry under the second Bush regime, though significant, remain small when compared to the freedoms lost 10,000 years ago when our forebears (memetically, if not genetically) took up civilization. Agriculture is a hard life, as we have already seen. Malnutrition and disease followed almost immediately; war, tyranny and poverty followed inexorably. By relying solely on domesticated crops, intensive agriculture becomes the only subsistence technology that is truly susceptible to real famine. The safety the Big Men offered was illusory; in fact, that ancient bargain put us in a more precarious position than we had ever known–or will likely ever know again.

Ten thousand years ago, our ancestors traded the bulk of that very real freedom that is our species’ birthright, for a little temporary safety. If there is an original sin, a fall of man, that was it. From that day to this, we have not deserved—nor have we had—either one.

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Comments

  1. I think you forgot to close a tag or something, right after your link to Keeley’s book toward the beginning.

    Comment by David — 12 January 2008 @ 5:20 PM

  2. Oh snap! This is a great collection/response. Thanks so much for posting this. I feel smarter when I read your work. Haha.

    Comment by Urban Scout — 13 January 2008 @ 1:17 PM

  3. Nice one! Good to have some analysis, I don’t think any of us are holding our breath for the Economist to put out a reasoned article on hunter-gatherers, but its best to have the data to back up the rebuttal. Thanks!

    Comment by Luke — 14 January 2008 @ 12:01 AM

  4. Obviously the author is intelligent and cares about Earth and Nature. However, I wonder how important it is to rebut a magazine entitled “The Economist” - whose editors are clearly delusional. It’d be like analyzing an article in a magazine entitled “The Fascist” or “The Nazist” - just responding gives the magazine a form of credence.

    Comment by Winona Ruiz — 14 January 2008 @ 2:57 AM

  5. Welcome back, Jason. Been ahwhile. Does this mark your return to regular blogging here? Hope so.

    Comment by Rob Bracken — 14 January 2008 @ 10:54 AM

  6. Jason’s back, and how! Thanks for taking on the biases of the Economist article.

    Primitive societies did engage in violence, and without a permanent class of professional killers, it fell to primitive peoples themselves to execute what violence became necessary.

    One reason we, like the fellow in Jensen’s video example, don’t recognize how pervasive violence is in our culture is that it has been both compartmentalized and redefined. We’ve sequestered violence into professional killing and coercion groups like the military, police, slaughterhouses, and such, where the average person doesn’t see the violence required to support them. Compartmentalization allows it to proceed, whereas if we all, say, had to do military service, there’d be a lot fewer wars (a lesson learned from the draft: give “college deferments” to the upper classes to quiet them since they have the most power) And we’ve been so indoctrinated that the implicit threat of violence—like what happens if you skip rent or drive too fast—is almost invisible. I suspect that the occurrence of violence in our culture would be far higher if there were not such hidden coercive mechanisms in place, such as status consciousness, a sense of duty, being brought up “right,” and all the other tools that ensure that the sheriff will never need to knock on your door. Putting the violence at the end of a long chain of events—like that leading from skipping rent to the final eviction, with chances to “return to the fold” at every step—is a powerful lever for controlling behavior

    the change that Goodall engineered in the food supply warped the chimpanzees’ conduct and social organization more or less permanently.

    Ever gone hiking with a pack of dogs that don’t know each other? They work out the hierarchy very quickly with a few light nips from the most assertive, and all is stable for hours. But when you break out the food, look out: serious fighting until dominance is really established. I suspect Power’s critique of Goodall’s work is spot on.

    Comment by Toby Hemenway — 14 January 2008 @ 7:45 PM

  7. Fair enough you can argue that “violence” has unappreciated/undefined edges in agciv societies. But shouldnt the same standard hold true in HG societies as well? They also operate under their own systems of customary laws and expectations, with those stepping outside the acceptable being exposed to a range of punishments. For example Sabine Kuegler’s story (thanks Jason) where she feared returning to her adopted tribe as they routinely killed women who had sex before marriage.

    Comment by Void_genesis — 14 January 2008 @ 9:47 PM

  8. great article, I quite enjoyed the last part while arguing with people over the phone @ my annoying callcenter job

    Comment by deelo — 14 January 2008 @ 9:52 PM

  9. “However, I wonder how important it is to rebut a magazine entitled “The Economist” - whose editors are clearly delusional. It’d be like analyzing an article in a magazine entitled “The Fascist” or “The Nazist” - just responding gives the magazine a form of credence.”

    …It does sound just like analyzing The Nazist or The Fascist. And um, in case you haven’t looked around, in spite of its insanity, The Economist does have credence among civilized people. It’s very important in my eyes, to rebut such a popular, albeit grossly grotesque, magazine.

    It also makes me, an anti-civ person, feel inspired to have a genius like Jason completely tear down that kind of bullshit. I just haven’t read enough to defend a piece like that where people claim information based on false and misinformation. Now I can do this. I was caught off guard by a few folks when the article came out and now I have a place to send them.

    Thanks again Jason!

    Comment by Urban Scout — 14 January 2008 @ 10:14 PM

  10. Also on megafauna mass extinctions, I think it is misleading to talk about species “already going extinct” at the time of presumed human arrival (though the human fossil record continues to creep back in time). Extinct is an absolute term. All species have gone through fluctuations in population density in response to climate change, and did so for millions of years without becoming completely extinct. The breadth of extinctions in the last tens of thousands of years is something unusual, and the only differing factor was the probable or proven presence of humans. The human ability to consume many organisms in a habitat makes them distinctly different to other carnivores like canids or cats. Shifting partly to smaller prey or more vegetable foods as larger prey species diminish is a mechanism for breaking the negative feedback loop that limits the ability of obligate predators like wolves or cats to drive their prey to total extinction.

    New Zealand is an island by some definitions, but anyone who has visited it wouldnt describe it as being “tightly bound” (as compared to Hawaii or Madagascar for example). Numerous other examples of human induced extinctions on islands are known, but the reason they are better evidenced and documented than those on continents is because the extinctions and human arrivals tended to happen in more recent history.

    Recent finds of Diprotodon bones in Australia bear the hallmarks of butchering apparently too. (though the article intelligently argues for a combination of climate change, hunting and forest burning as all being likely factors).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diprotodon

    It seems a bit inconsistent to argue that humans were incapable of driving large, slowly reproducing animal species to extinction in their thousands, while at the same time arguing strongly that other humans were responsible for the environmental degradation of the entire fertile crescent (mostly from killing off large, slowly reproducing trees in their millions). To me they seem like different manifestations of the same basic human potential- to shift niches and sow the seeds of the next crunch that triggers the next niche change. The human habit of setting fire to things is also probably integral to the unusual impact of all human societies on their environments. The last time a creature as metabolically weird as us came along was when photosynthetic cyanobacteria started filling the atmosphere with dioxygen, and that didn’t turn out too horribly in the long run (though perhaps you could argue that much of our disease is the result of oxidative damage and we would be better returning to an anaerobic lifestyle….tongue firmly in cheek).

    I do sense an increasing refinement and nuance in your position on the whole HG/agciv dichotomy over time. To me the two seem to be more alike that different the longer you look at them. And that brings up the much harder question- what do we (individually/collectively) do with our (evolutionarily relatively) new found humanity?

    Comment by Void_genesis — 14 January 2008 @ 11:21 PM

  11. Winona: The left have been saying for years that we should just ignore the rantings of right-wingers because they have no credibility. The end result was the Reagan Revolution because the Left didn’t try hard enough to hold on to public discourse. We have a responsibility to get our words out there and tell our side of the story, full stop. The Internet makes it even easier.

    Jason, awesome article.

    Comment by R.E. — 15 January 2008 @ 3:17 AM

  12. Couple more things–

    Void: Interesting that you compare the number of prey species for humans to the hunting behavior of cats. Larger cats indeed only have a small number of prey species they typically go after, but have you looked into how many critters the domestic cat hunts? You’d be amazed. Ol’ Garfield is one of the most dangerous hunters out there, bar none.

    The really strange part is that as human beings have become domesticated, we eat fewer species than we did before the Agricultural Revolution, and fewer still these days with the advent of industrial food. The Omnivore’s Dilemma was a real eye-opener there. I learned that scientists can tell what your main dietary staples are by doing gas chromatographic mass spectronometer analysis, and that if you look at a human being that way, what you get is mostly corn. Skeery shiznit. We’re supposed to be omnivores leaning toward carnivorism and now we act almost like frigging koalas, only with corn instead of eucalyptus. Or, hey, oil. We eat LOTS of oil.

    Also, the killing women who have sex before marriage thing? Surely does not occur in all tribes. Something I observed a long time ago from my readings about various peoples and where various religions come from was that people who live in violent circumstances often are violent themselves. If you live in a harsh desert or a harsh jungle you are likely going to be harsh yourself. I’m sure that doesn’t always hold true, but it does often enough to form a noticeable pattern.

    That’s what really makes the violence in agcivs so terrible. Especially now. We have all this wealth and all this food but we’re still beating one another up? WTF?

    Toby: Have you ever read Starhawk? She defines violence as “the imposition of power-over.” She says that someone who imposes a speedup on an assembly line in a factory is just as guilty of violence as someone who physically beats another person. Self-defense does not fall under that definition, but threatening someone with eviction sure does. I agree with her definition, so to me, the incidence of violence in this culture is really not invisible, even though we have set up violence classes to do most of the physical beating, shooting, etc. for us. Just the way we indoctrinate our children into mindlessly obeying authority is an act of violence. I’m not disagreeing with you, just carrying this a little bit further.

    I also don’t necessarily think having strict social rules always constitutes violence–sometimes it does, but not every time. If it’s a strict rule about a behavior that would endanger members of the tribe or the tribe itself, I think punishment’s justified in that instance. It’s interesting Jason talks about the Inuit so much because I just read about how they have a concept of sociopathy in their culture, and the traditional remedy for a man who displayed those characteristics was to “take him out hunting” to where there were no eyewitnesses, then shove him off the ice. But the alternative was to let him sit on his ass in camp, do no work, contribute nothing to the tribe’s wellbeing, and then on top of that bother the other men’s wives while the other men were off hunting–causing nothing but discord and strife, in an already harsh and unforgiving world. That’s something you just don’t do.

    Comment by R.E. — 15 January 2008 @ 3:38 AM

  13. Have you ever read Starhawk? She defines violence as “the imposition of power-over.” She says that someone who imposes a speedup on an assembly line in a factory is just as guilty of violence as someone who physically beats another person

    As much as I like Star and admire her work, that definition of violence seems to smear the meaning across a host of useful distinctions. It reminds me a bit of saying all sex is rape. (Oh, god, let’s not go there!) Violence is defined by the use of physical force, and resisting a work speedup won’t inevitably result in that. The power being applied there is ceasing to write a paycheck, which isn’t violence. Or is everyone who is laid off a victim of violence?

    If it doesn’t rain and I am forced to do the work of watering my crops or go hungry, am I a victim of violence? If my spouse says she won’t cook dinner until I’ve done the dishes, is that violent? Or if a better chess player forces me to choose between losing my rook or my queen? I think there is a difference between violence and power-over. The first is an action, the second is a relationship. It seems to me that a large number of reasonable situations fall in the “power over” category, like selling a house in a seller’s market, having a skill that is in such demand that you can’t accommodate everyone’s needs, and so on. I think the definition of violence needs to include the use of force (implied, threatened, or actual), and not mean simply having something that someone else wants, or it loses the core of its meaning.

    Comment by Toby Hemenway — 15 January 2008 @ 11:59 PM

  14. Coercion would be something “qualitatively commensurate with what one wants to achieve, and dependent of individual’s will”. So, there is no “power over” if you have to cook the meal first in order to eat, or to build a shelter to protect yourself from rain. Freedom is about satisfying your needs directly, without serving authority, real or imaginary - without the feeling of getting reward or being punished. Working 8 hours a day for money in order to buy a steak is coercion. Hunting deer in order to eat is not.

    I think the seriousness of psychological violence is often grossly underestimated. Threat of violence, be it physical or not, for example, doesn’t have to include the actual “suffering” if the “victim” is willing to fight the agressor, or simply to run away. In the situation of dependency/coercion, however, there is an overload of suffering, because one cannot actualise the “fight or flight” response.

    Domination always includes a feeling of helplesness. YOu have to comply someone’s will to achieve your goal. You don’t normally believe you have been subjugated by the laws of nature, by inanimate matter.

    Comment by John Doe — 17 January 2008 @ 12:20 PM

  15. Jason,

    Another excellent post. As a fellow who also traverses the primitivist milieu, let me say that for months now I have enjoyed your erudition and faith. While I have a good amount of knowledge about this field and milieu, there is never a time that I come to your site that I do not myself learn a great deal. Your ability to bring order and elegance to well-researched subject matter is astounding and admirable.

    This post I enjoyed very much as well. I hope I may be allowed to share some difference of views, within a friendly context of some shared overlap assumptions.

    I’m glad that you have made short shrift of the “Overkill Hypothesis”. I have felt that this has been an “Overdone” Hypothesis for a long time. Humans aren’t perfect, but as you point out, they’re no more imperfect at a non-civilized level than bears, sharks, or wolves. It’s excellent that you’ve dismissed the straw-man island phenomenon, which is in a different class.

    And the point about Goodall and the concentration of food sources is well put. I’ve been arguing that for a while. If I recall, Morris Berman in “Wandering God” cites some of this as well.

    But I don’t think that there needs to be angst between vegetarians and hunter-gatherers, nor does a rigid dichotomy need to be drawn up. In many cases, those we call “hunter-gatherers” are engaged in various mixed permacultures that include hunting. There is no reason that a mixed horticulture/gathering could not serve vegetarians. It would simply require a shift from the dependence on agriculture. A vegetarian could probably integrate themselves fairly well into a Californian tribe, for example, because acorns are such a ready source of carbohydrates and protein. If they could grow some beans in the vicinity of their wigwam, there’d be no reason why a bean-and-acorn diet,along with pinole, supplemented by prickly pear and edible greens, could not sustain a vegetarian in this context. In fact, it could be possible to integrate it as a minority option under a religious aegis. Various permutations of fasting and/or dietary restrictions are standard amongst holy people the world over. In fact, there are periods of time even amongst the rank-and-file of hunter-gatherers where there are food abstinences. A vegetarian would simply be extending these weeks-long periods into something more permanent ; and it is difficult to imagine anyone complaining — more meat for everyone else!! Moreover, there are totemic situations where an animal someone has a special relationship with is avoided as a food-source ; a vegetarian could simply syncretize with this as someone who has a special relationship with the animal kingdom in general.

    I need not disdain hunters in order to not want to participate in the slaughter of animals. I know that non-civilized hunters have special relationships with animals, and those also include the bittersweet acknowledgement of organisms eating organisms on the planet. I also have a special relationship with animals, and I enjoy the racoons, skunks, possums, coyotes, crows, redtail hawks, groundsquirrels, and others in my area, and have no desire to kill or eat them. I would rather be with them in a different way. Any one of these animals may be eaten by another animal, and I have to accept that. One of those animals may be a human being. But I don’t think any fast dichotomy needs to be created between me and these other humans. Within a primitivist setting, there need not be vegan vs. hunter wars ; there can be some kind of peaceful co-existence with understanding on both sides for different options.

    I also see the angle you are pursuing relative to the notion of “progress”. But while it may sound contradictory for someone traversing a primitivist milieu (amongst others), I don’t see an inherent problem with the notion of progress per se. It’s a matter of how it is defined. Ran Prieur has argued fairly coherently (I thought) that much of our modern progress is indeed a progress from the barbarisms of civilization, and a return to freedoms and enjoyments civilized people haven’t had since primitive times. And I think humankind is an experimenting animal. As Quinn points out, evolution provides a basic tribal model that works pretty damn well (even though it’s not perfect), but it’s clear this is a model or schema to be improvised upon, and that there are many possibilities for experimentation, and therefore for potential improvement. (Improvement and progress are relative to one’s values, but if we assume at the get-go a diversity of temperaments and values, we can postulate a decentralized spectrum of various tribal experiments, any of which might represent progress over others for a given individual.)

    And I must say that I am highly critical of Malthus. If I were in a binary mode and had to choose (which I don’t) between Malthus and Condorcet, I would choose Condorcet every time. I don’t buy Malthusian models, and therefore that of Quinn which partakes of Malthus (a good chunk, but there’s a great deal left over even when I subtract that) I disagree with. Even utopia is not necessarily problematic depending on how we define it. If it’s space-colonies with superadvanced robotics, ok, but the concept of a place/time of greater harmony that can act as an ideal to guide our actions seems perfectly respectable to me. I reject notions that tell us we’d better just “accept things as they are” and give up our dreams and ideals. That seems like bottom-line cynicism and giving up of hope to me. I’d rather seek a different context for those dreams and ideals.

    I’ve argued extensively with Derrick Jensen over this point, but even those dreams and ideals which arise in the midst of civilization must be given berth to find a new context to shape them within a naturalistic setting. Binary modes of thought are civilized habits of thinking, and we need to be careful about being too rigid in our predictions of the shapes that future human experiments may shape. The evolutionary-ecological environment places parameters on that experimentation, but it does not dictate one way. There is room for micro-progress, dreams, ideals, and spiritual relationships with utopias.

    Comment by Ziggy — 21 January 2008 @ 11:45 AM

  16. Thanks for your comment, Ziggy.

    On vegetarianism, I can see the possibility there, but I must confess that I still see that path laying down a great deal of difficulty, with no good reason. You have quite correctly pointed out the relationships of kinship animists note with the animal world, so a human of the Deer clan can no more eat deer than he can eat human flesh; the lines of kinship do not adhere to species divisions. But these relationships do not only include animals, but plants, fungi, even rocks and weather systems, anything that acts like a person. I can understand protesting the factory farming system and trying to abstain from it; my wife does that, too. But as an ethical proposition, I cannot reconcile the claim that animal persons have more value than any other kind of other-than-human person, with the animist perspective. At the end of the day, you have to eat something, and since “plants are people, too,” that means you’ll have to kill and eat someone to stay alive. That defines the existential dilemma of the animal kingdom, and we have no way of escaping it or diluting it. Even as a vegetarian, you still kill people and eat them in order to live. I see no ethical superiority there.

    Which really forces the question, since vegetarianism has no ethical or physical superiority, why live that way? As any vegetarian knows all too well, ensuring proper nutrition from plants alone requires a great deal of careful attention. It also generally requires a nearly absolute reliance on agriculture. You correctly pointed out that horticulturalists nearly always complement their diet with some degree of hunting and gathering; and, in fact, nearly all hunter-gatherers engage in some amount of horticulture, so I have generally described these as points along a spectrum, but generally comprising a single mode of existence. But none of them can generate the amount and kind of plant material necessary to support a vegetarian diet.

    On a more practical level, we have cultures that have existed solely on meat, like the Inuit; we have no examples of purely vegetarian societies, or even mostly vegetarian societies. The closest you might find would come from the !Kung, with their mongongo nut fascination, but even they get a great deal of their diet from hunted animals. Vegetarians have historically existed only inside of agricultural societies, and I strongly suspect that has happened because only agriculture can make vegetarianism viable.

    Progress provides such a tricky question precisely because it first requires us to define what we’d like to progress towards. Can we have progress, theoretically? I suppose, but more immediately, I think we can safely say that the modern use of the word can hardly count. We can progress towards something, but without that goal clearly defined, the word becomes the useless double-talk we see used today.

    As far as Malthus and Quinn, I actually consider Quinn’s model the opposite of Malthus. Neither do I find this at all “pessimistic,” as so many others do. It simply means that humans live in an ecology, and that we have limits.

    As far as cynicism, however, I largely agree. I think that people have extrapolated the ecological limits I’ve discussed to extend much farther than they actually do. That has provided me with one of my main inspirations to work on the Fifth World; I can tell people have not understood the kind of post-civilized future I have tried to point towards, so I hope that fiction can succeed where so far academics have failed. Surely rocket ships and interstellar conquest do not represent the only things we can hope for!

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 21 January 2008 @ 12:53 PM

  17. Hi Jason,

    Thank you for your reply. I hope I wasn’t trying to assert some kind of “ethical superiority”. Rather, let’s make this a matter of desire : I don’t want to kill animals and cut them up.Other people do. I want to respect them, but also to have some inclusion in the primitivist project despite the fact that I have differing desires. I would agree with you that most people are not trying to envision any kind of vegetarianism/veganism outside of an agricultural context, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be explored. Think of all the mongongo nuts that lay fallow! Think of all the acorns! Acorns, walnuts, and the three sisters (who definitely don’t have to lead to agriculture) can become the basis for a minoritarian vegetarian strata within the primitivist milieu. Obviously from an ethical level, I must take care for my plant brothers and sisters as well. But there is a respectable place for “eggitarianism” here, as the fruit of birds’ nests as well as the seeds of trees and grasses can provide bulk, accentuated by various trimmings of leaves. Roots and tubers do unfortunately require some sacrifice.

    Thank you for the link to your critique of Malthus, which I found interesting. I’m not sure how much weight, however, to give to “The Tragedy of the Commons”, because actual practice in the commons of the village-community was regulated, and therefore doesn’t follow that model. Modified village-communities could provide interesting models for post-civilized territorial arrangements.

    I have no problem with people limiting population relative to ecological limits and carrying capacity, as hunter-gatherers do. Some sort of regulation of this kind makes inherent sense.

    As far as oil-dependent agriculture goes, I am a permaculture optimist. There are practices that can build the soil and compete with oil-dependent agriculture. The problem here is not agriculture, but property models. So long as basic definitions of property go unchallenged, there will be a great deal of misery. Implement more Proudhonian notions of property, open up the Central Valley of California to permaculture gardens, and watch the soil grow as people are able to feed themselves. Civilized notions of property set the groundwork for much else of what occurs ; change those notions (which almost no one talks about), and much becomes possible that was impossible before. Some of our limits, we must remember, are ecological, while some of our limits are distinctly social.

    Comment by Ziggy — 21 January 2008 @ 2:26 PM

  18. I don’t want to kill animals and cut them up.Other people do.

    I find this perplexing. I wouldn’t say I “want” to kill animals, any more than I want to kill plants. I want to live, and that means eating, and that means killing something, so I do, and the price of that act really defines the rest of my life. It means I make a covenant to the land, to give back more than I take.

    But put in those terms, it does make me wonder, if you don’t want to kill animals, do you want to kill plants? Why do you feel so differently about plant people than you do about animal people? My wife had a very similar point of view, but when she examined it further, she found it riddled with internal contradictions and civilized assumptions. She still feels that way, but she also has recognized that it makes no sense; a kind of emotional hangover born from assumptions she no longer holds. Do you think that describes your feelings, too? I have never met a vegetarian who could really put forth a cogent case on this point, so if you can, I would genuinely love to hear it. I don’t mean to doubt that it exists or that you might have one, only that I have never heard one personally. Frankly, I would love to see that changed.

    I would agree with you that most people are not trying to envision any kind of vegetarianism/veganism outside of an agricultural context, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be explored.

    Certainly not on that account, no. But if it can’t work nutritionally, then that rather rules it out, don’t you think? I cannot prove that sustainable ways of life cannot support vegetarianism, but I strongly suspect it. In general, anything that people can do, someone will do, so if no one has done it, that usually provides some significant evidence that some solid reasons keep it from happening.

    Acorns, walnuts, and the three sisters (who definitely don’t have to lead to agriculture) can become the basis for a minoritarian vegetarian strata within the primitivist milieu.

    I don’t consider myself a nutritionist, so let’s assume for now that nutritionally, that could work. But if you can only eat those things, then you need to produce a very large amount of them. The real key to the success of sustainable lifestyles lies in the huge variety in their diet. We humans will always leave a big footprint, but the width of our footprint decreases its depth. Hunter-gatherers have enormous ecological footprints; the land it takes to support them covers enormous amounts of acreage. But they also live lightly on the land. Because they eat a little of everything, they don’t put an undue burden on anything. If you decide that you’ll eat plant people, but you won’t eat animal people, then you’ll need to eat a lot more plant people to make up for that. And that means you’ll need much larger yields. When yield per acre becomes a major concern, horticulture usually tips into agriculture, because you can always get more yield per acre if you simply compromise a bit and plant the plant people that you eat a little more densely. Agriculture really follows from a constriction of diet from a huge variety, down to just a few possibilities, and I think that alone gives me pause about vegetarianism.

    But I also keep coming back to the question, why? I could understand risking things like this if we had a good reason, something that made vegetarianism a goal that we should pursue, or at least that some of us should pursue, but I can’t understand the reason for it, and that makes risks like these very difficult to understand.

    I’m not sure how much weight, however, to give to “The Tragedy of the Commons”, because actual practice in the commons of the village-community was regulated, and therefore doesn’t follow that model. Modified village-communities could provide interesting models for post-civilized territorial arrangements.

    I think you may have taken Hardin a bit too literally; his model certainly applies quite well to many real phenomena in the world around us, even if the specific historical institution of the English commons deviated from the definition of the commons a bit to avoid that occurance.

    The problem here is not agriculture, but property models.

    “The problem here is not the chicken, but the egg!” I do not think that people develop cultures in a vacuum. We create cultures to adapt to our ecological niche. The concept of property, like hierarchy, appears in tandem with the rise of agriculture, as the cultural consequences of agriculture just as surely as cities arise as the demographic consequences of agriculture. They form the social and cultural ecology of human life. I do not think property models can take the blame for our whole mess; hierarchies, alienation from the other-than-human world (see David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous) and many other problems lie at the root of our predicament as well. But you can’t really separate them out, either; they really exist as different facets of the same problem of domestication and its consequences, played out in the land we inhabit, in our relationships with one another, in our relationships with the other-than-human world, and even inside our own minds and the way we think and speak. We should hardly feel surprise at such an assertion, either, since any significant ecological change will have consequences in all those arenas. We exist, fundamentally, as ecological creatures; changing our ecology changes everything about us.

    Civilized notions of property set the groundwork for much else of what occurs ; change those notions (which almost no one talks about), and much becomes possible that was impossible before.

    I think your prescription rings true, even if not for the reasons you state. Peeling back our notions of property would entail an all-out assault on the entire civilized mindset. People would have a very difficult time practicing permaculture and not recognizing the personhood of the plants they tend, the animals that interact with them, the soils they plant in, and so on, just like pet owners have a hard time not noticing the differing personalities and distinct personhood of their pets. Familiarity breeds animism, you might say. But precisely because these factors interrelate and really form a single, socio-cultural ecology, an attack on any part of it constitutes an effective attack on all of it.

    Some of our limits, we must remember, are ecological, while some of our limits are distinctly social.

    I would say that our social limits arise from our ecology; we conceived of those social limits because of our ecology. Changing our social behaviors would force us to either change our underlying ecology, or simply see those changes rolled back, and the old social order re-assert itself. Note that in your own scenario, permaculture (changing our ecology) must follow the abolition of property in order to make the change permanent.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 21 January 2008 @ 4:06 PM

  19. Hi Jason,

    You said, “But put in those terms, it does make me wonder, if you don’t want to kill animals, do you want to kill plants?”

    Well, as I addressed, I’d prefer to keep my core nutrition to seeds of plants, and thus not kill the plants themselves. As I said, some plants may be able to be trimmed for leaves, while obviously roots kill the plant. I have great amounts of feeling for plants, too, and I don’t deny their soul, but plants are differentiated from animals in terms of a developed nervous system that can scientifically be proven to generate experiences of pain for animals that there is no proof for with plants. That doesn’t mean that the soul and life of plants is insignificant. But it does mean that the palpable suffering that an animal feels is of a different kind, and worthy of my ethical attention. Again, these are personal choices, and I am not judging anyone else for their choice. You asked me, so I’m answering for myself.

    “Acorns, walnuts, and the three sisters (who definitely don’t have to lead to agriculture) can become the basis for a minoritarian vegetarian strata within the primitivist milieu.I don’t consider myself a nutritionist, so let’s assume for now that nutritionally, that could work. But if you can only eat those things, then you need to produce a very large amount of them. The real key to the success of sustainable lifestyles lies in the huge variety in their diet. We humans will always leave a big footprint, but the width of our footprint decreases its depth. Hunter-gatherers have enormous ecological footprints; the land it takes to support them covers enormous amounts of acreage. But they also live lightly on the land. Because they eat a little of everything, they don’t put an undue burden on anything.”

    Ok, but hunter-gatherers in California ate ALOT of acorns. And you don’t need to “produce” acorns. Nor walnuts. They just GROW. They “grow on trees” as the phrase goes. So do prickly pear pads as well as their fruit. Since a large amount of the nutrition of many hunter-gatherers comes from gathering, there’s not much of a problem already. In other words, assuming there was an intact California tribe, I could simply hang out and eat the gathered plant foods and have many of my nutritional needs met. That which was missing could be SUPPLEMENTED with the three sisters in a small garden around the wigwam that wouldn’t have to interfere with anyone. In fact, beans and squash could be sufficient (as far as I’m concerned) and we could leave the corn aside, as desired.

    “But I also keep coming back to the question, why? I could understand risking things like this if we had a good reason, something that made vegetarianism a goal that we should pursue, or at least that some of us should pursue, but I can’t understand the reason for it, and that makes risks like these very difficult to understand.”

    But I’m not trying to convince a majority here, but merely to provide a minoritarian option within our discourse and praxis. The reason is because I DESIRE IT. That’s reason enough, and if I can find an ecological manner to pursue my desires, it’s certainly a minoritarian option there’s no reason to have prejudice against. That doesn’t mean anyone else has to. But I personally do not want to kill animals. That is not the way I want to be in the world. I’m surrounded by all kinds of people who do want to be that way (in other words, as you say, they want to eat, and include meat as one of their choices), and I respect their choices.

    “I think you may have taken Hardin a bit too literally; his model certainly applies quite well to many real phenomena in the world around us, even if the specific historical institution of the English commons deviated from the definition of the commons a bit to avoid that occurance.”

    Ok, granted, but those phenomena lack the social controls the original commons had. If the model had been consistently applied (ie., if models of enclosure, etc., had been successfully resisted), we’d have much better models to work with. But if you’re suggesting that the model fits situations which have been allowed to escape social regulation, that seems reasonable.

    “The problem here is not agriculture, but property models.

    “The problem here is not the chicken, but the egg!” I do not think that people develop cultures in a vacuum. We create cultures to adapt to our ecological niche. The concept of property, like hierarchy, appears in tandem with the rise of agriculture,”

    I should have been more precise. I wasn’t trying to let agriculture off the hook. What I meant is intentional production utilizing the soil — any kind of “-culture”, not specifically agriculture. In other words, a permacultural model utilizing horticulture could solve soil-problems if property divisions didn’t work against them.

    Note that I do not have a problem with all kinds of land tenure or possession. Village-community property is very, very different than capitalist private property. Village-community property models as well as usufruct would allow for different possibilities. Some of this is in the mindstate. It’s not etched in stone.

    “I would say that our social limits arise from our ecology; we conceived of those social limits because of our ecology.”

    Well, here the chicken-and-egg model applies. Since human beings have choices about the number of babies they will produce, and since this is shaped socially, ecological considerations relative to carrying capacity of the land and so forth have a social aspect as well. But I think we’re both agreeing on this.

    Again, in general, I agree with much of what you’re stating. I’m just working for a model of multiplicity, and it sounds like from your RPG work that in a sense, you are aiming at the same thing. So thank you again for both your intelligent replies and all the hard work you put into this site. I for one greatly appreciate both.

    Comment by Ziggy — 21 January 2008 @ 5:02 PM

  20. So we are no better than any other animal, this is obvious. Good and Evil are just human ideas. But really all that means is that life is utterly pointless and mechanistic. Just like the mega fauna we exists at the whim of a whole impersonal, unthinking, uncaring world and will be wiped out when the next random climate change destroys our transitory ecological niche.

    Comment by bob — 22 January 2008 @ 9:33 AM

  21. Good and Evil are just human ideas. But really all that means is that life is utterly pointless and mechanistic. Just like the mega fauna we exists at the whim of a whole impersonal, unthinking, uncaring world

    uh… say what?

    i don’t understand why a world of deep, meaningful relationships requires either “Absolute Good (TM)” or “Absolute Evil (TM)”. in fact, it actually stikes me that the reverse is true: “Absolute Good (TM)” and “Absolute Evil (TM)” walk hand in hand with a life that is “utterly pointless and mechanistic” and lead to “a whole imperonal, unthinking, uncaring world”.

    am i misunderstanding something?

    Comment by jhereg — 22 January 2008 @ 12:01 PM

  22. Yes you are misunderstanding something. Perhaps I wasn’t clear in my comments. I merely said ‘Good and Evil are just human ideas’ as a follow up statment to my comment that humans are no different than other animals. We are not the first to live harmoniosly with nature and we are not the first the over exploit resources leading to a population crash. All I meant is that we are simply animals and ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are simply ideas we have that have no basis in nature, even if we choose to see one way of life as good or evil that is just our own interpretation.

    My larger point was that nature doesn’t care either way. Some random climate change or asteroid is going to come along sooner or later and wipe us out. Our ideas don’t lead to a ‘a whole imperonal, unthinking, uncaring world’ as you say. they world is a imperonal, unthinking, uncaring. It didn’t care about the megafauna, it didn’t care about the dinosuars, and it doesn’t care about us.

    Comment by bob — 22 January 2008 @ 1:01 PM

  23. Well, I wouldn’t say that the world “doesn’t care about us”. Wyrd grants everyone their time, and the fact that there are limits upon that tenure doesn’t indicate a lack of caring. It is still a wondrous gift.

    The idea that nature is an impersonal, unthinking, uncaring world it seems to me is a post-Cartesian product of civilized thinking, not something found amongst animist cultures. Gary Snyder points out that amongst some indigenous peoples, the world is compared to the edge of a knife, so they know how dangerous and perilous it can be, and the care that must be taken.

    To me this seems like a theological question that’s being blunted in terms of Western science. “How can there be a God if God allows extinctions to take place?”, with the proposed solution to this theodicy is simply Atheism : “God doesn’t exist”, with Gaia substituted for God in this particular case. (Since this is a more animist/pagan than monotheist question.)

    Comment by Ziggy — 22 January 2008 @ 2:02 PM

  24. My larger point was that nature doesn’t care either way. Some random climate change or asteroid is going to come along sooner or later and wipe us out. Our ideas don’t lead to a ‘a whole imperonal, unthinking, uncaring world’ as you say. they world is a imperonal, unthinking, uncaring. It didn’t care about

    this is the part where you’re losing me (that, or we’re looking at a fundamental difference of perspective).

    i guess, i’m wondering how you view “nature”. to me, both nature & the world aren’t just places or even just things, but also interactions & relationships. how can we say that the world didn’t care about the megafauna or dinosaurs? surely, both their lives and their extinctions had wide-ranging impacts on the world?

    is the world simply a place to be? or is it something to be a part of? and if we’re a part of it, why should we think that the world doesn’t care? don’t we care? don’t you care? and if animals & plants are people too….?

    i don’t know, this is probably one of those “irreconcilable differences of opinion”.

    Comment by jhereg — 22 January 2008 @ 2:35 PM

  25. this is probably one of those “irreconcilable differences of opinion” — Probably.

    I view nature as the physical world around me that I live in and the laws that govern it. My point is that it dosen’t matter to ‘nature’ whether we hunt and gather or build rockets to the moon. As far as nature is ‘concerned’ we are just another speices to be done away with after the next random climate fluctuation. Just as we came down out of the trees when the climate changed in the first place.

    Yes. If your species is going to be wiped out by forces completly beyond its control that does make life ultimatly meaningless, mindless replication of genes. Maybe that is sad and pessimestic or maybe it is the reason that we are the only animal that thinks about it.

    Comment by bob — 22 January 2008 @ 2:52 PM

  26. No, it doesn’t make life ultimately meaningless. Perhaps you need to reconsider what meaning is for you.

    jhereg said, “i don’t understand why a world of deep, meaningful relationships requires either “Absolute Good (TM)” or “Absolute Evil (TM)”. in fact, it actually stikes me that the reverse is true: “Absolute Good (TM)” and “Absolute Evil (TM)” walk hand in hand with a life that is “utterly pointless and mechanistic” and lead to “a whole imperonal, unthinking, uncaring world”.”

    This could equally apply to meaning itself. A world of Deep, Meaningful Relationships doesn’t require Absolute Meaning in order to not be Absolutely Meaningless.

    Comment by Ziggy — 22 January 2008 @ 3:31 PM

  27. My larger point was that nature doesn’t care either way. Some random climate change or asteroid is going to come along sooner or later and wipe us out.

    and

    I view nature as the physical world around me that I live in and the laws that govern it. My point is that it dosen’t matter to ‘nature’ whether we hunt and gather or build rockets to the moon. As far as nature is ‘concerned’ we are just another speices to be done away with after the next random climate fluctuation.

    Look, you either need to personify nature, or not personify nature, not both.

    If nature CAN care then it makes sense to say that it does or doesn’t care. But if nature CANNOT care then it doesn’t make sense to be concerned over the lack of caring of nature. Does the fact that your car doesn’t care what happens to you bother you?

    When you say that “we are just another species to be done away with” you are giving nature will and action, therefore you are personifying nature. If your personified nature doesn’t care you might want to look at why.

    In either case, it certainly DOES matter to nature what we do, in the sense that what we do affects nature. When the megafauna went extinct that certainly had a drastic effect on nature. Did nature care? Well, if you’re asking that question the implication is that nature CAN care (nature is being personified) so it looks to me like nature DID care. We all care about drastic changes in our condition and a personified nature is no different (in that sense) than a personified person.

    If your species is going to be wiped out by forces completly beyond its control that does make life ultimatly meaningless,

    Ummm..No. No, It doesn’t. The meaning of life is in the living of it.

    JimFive

    Comment by JimFive — 22 January 2008 @ 4:01 PM

  28. ‘concerned’ was just a word. That is the reason for the ”. I don’t actually think nature is concerend about anything.

    “The meaning of life is in the living of it.”

    I’ve always felt this was a bunch of hokey BS people tell themselves to not face the truth of life. But that is just an ‘irreconcilable differences’ of opinion
    as jhereg said.

    Comment by bob — 22 January 2008 @ 4:16 PM

  29. I don’t think life has a meaning. Especially anything as trite as ‘the maning of life is the living of it.’ I think that we as a speicies evolved a mind that can think about things like this as a survival mechanisim in response to random environmental change. Seeing as we are the only animal with this cognative ability we see an utterly randome phenomena (life) and try to ascribe meaning or purpose to it. Other animals are dumb enough not to be concerend with things like this.

    Sure you might as well have fun while you are here, but that is hardly a purpose. If life has any meaning at all I would say it is the perpetuation of your species.

    Comment by bob — 22 January 2008 @ 4:24 PM

  30. If you don’t think nature is concerned about anything then it is senseless to try to talk about what nature is concerned about. It is like talking about what your chair is concerned about.

    “The meaning of life is in the living of it.” does have that hokey aphorism feel to it. But the real thought is that it is up to you to give your life meaning. Nature, personified or not, isn’t going to do it for you. That is your job. There is no “meaning of life” in the broad sense. There is no one meaning for all life. Each life has (creates) its own meaning.

    You seem to be falling into the “it won’t matter in 100 years” trap. The fact “it won’t matter later” doesn’t matter now. What you eat today doesn’t matter next week, does that mean that you shouldn’t eat? That decision has consequences that DO matter beyond next week. All of your actions have the potential to affect the world far beyond your own private sphere. That affect may matter 100 years from now, but you can never know it.

    JimFive

    Comment by JimFive — 22 January 2008 @ 4:53 PM

  31. Everything matters because matter is everything. (hehe, joke)But seriously, the matter of finding a meaning to life boils down to these answers so far: “each creates their own”, “to worship GOD”, “there is no purpose”, “to escape the world (or some variation”, “to live”, and “to procreate”. But I propose a new and entirely utilitarian purpose: I propose that not just life, but the entirety of existence is based on the wish to be social with other beings. In a very animistic sence, all (or most) of the things and ideas that can be percieved, are beings that wanted to interact with others, and so, became incarnate in order to do so. This view of mine sees “creation” of the universe as a communal effort that is ongoing. I also think that life itself is just some of the more outgoing beings trying harder to have group interactions.
    Though this is mostly conjecture and my personal beliefs about a revelation I had while in the deeper part of a mushroom experience.

    Comment by notalone — 28 January 2008 @ 6:06 PM

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