In 1932, Lionel Robbins defined economics as “the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.” Scarcity forms economics’ fundamental axiom: we have limited resources, but apparently unlimited wants. Science fiction authors and futurists have speculated on the ramifications of a “post-scarcity” society, where technology provides infinite resources capable of fulfilling our infinite desires. Most of these speculations merely shift focus to a different scarce resource, though, with economies built instead on a scarcity of esteem, respect, or dignity.
In the 1960s and 1970s, however, anthropologists found — generally to their great surprise — that real examples of societies without scarcity actually existed. They did not discover anything like the “post-scarcity societies” of technocratic fantasy, of course, but they did begin to realize that a sort of “pre-scarcity society” may have formed the original evolutionary context that shaped us as human beings.
“Having equipped the hunter with bourgeois impulses and paleolithic tools, we judge his situation hopeless in advance,” Marshall Sahlins wrote in his famous 1972 essay, where he called hunter-gatherers the original affluent society. “[S]carcity is not an intrinsic property of technical means,” he wrote. “It is a relation between means and ends. We should entertain the empirical possibility that hunters are in business for their health, a finite objective, and that bow and arrow are adequate to that end.” (1972)
Hunting and gathering changes the relationship between people, land, and material wealth, of course. In most contexts, hunter-gatherers quickly deplete an area. The strategy relies on regular, nomadic movement to new areas. This regular movement complicates hunter-gatherers’ relationship to material goods. Each thing they own becomes one more thing that they must carry. Hunter-gatherers who do not have to travel regularly — like the Kwakiutl who relied on the salmon runs in the Pacific Northwest or the Paleolithic hunters at Sungir who relied on regular mammoth migrations — illustrate this by counter-example. They show much less ambivalence about material wealth, accumulating as much of it as any sedentary farmer or chieftain might.
Sahlins emphasized this “Zen road to affluence,” overcoming scarcity by limiting wants rather than providing infinite means. This can make hunter-gatherers sound a bit like ascetics, but it may simply show less confusion about the real sources of happiness. In the United States greater income correlates with greater emotional well-being up to an annual income of about $75,000, at which point more income has very little effect on emotional well-being (Kahneman & Deaton, 2010). Below that threshold, lack of money becomes a stressor, if not routinely, then at least contributing to major life events like divorce, ill health, or loneliness. Money does not make Americans happy, though not lacking money makes them feel less stressed. Once we have satisfied our needs, experience, not material wealth, has a much more significant impact on our happiness. Material wealth can still make us happy, but only as a means to provide a particular experience (Hamblin, 2010).
Because of the conflicted relationship they have with material wealth, hunter-gatherers accumulate wealth of a different sort. Paul Le Jeune, a French Jesuit missionary in New France, wrote about his time with the Innu:
“In the famine through which we passed, if my host took two, three, or four Beavers, immediately, whether it was day or night, they had a feast for all neighboring Savages. And if those People had captured something, they had one also at the same time; so that, on emerging from one feast, you went to another, and sometimes even to a third and a fourth. I told them that they did not manage well, and that it would be better to reserve these feasts for future days, and in doing this they would not be so pressed with hunger. They laughed at me. ‘Tomorrow’ (they said) ‘we shall make another feast with what we shall capture.’ Yes, but more often they capture only cold and wind.” (cited in Sahlins, 1972)
Similar accounts occur frequently throughout ethnographic records past and present, though more modern anthropologists have recognized what the Jesuit missionary decried as wasteful imprudence as an investment. Even the most skilled and experienced hunters will frequently “capture only cold and wind,” but by establishing sharing as their primary social principle, hunter-gatherers can mitigate that risk. While a single hunter has a very good chance of coming home empty-handed, they risk a much smaller chance that every hunter will do so. While the lack of food storage technology may play a role here, we can also see that hunter-gatherers generally lacked food storage technology for the same reason that they have such an ambivalent relationship with material wealth more generally: stored food becomes another thing they’ll have to carry. Better to store food in one another, in the form of goodwill and social bonds, so that when the circumstances change — as you know they will — they can do the same for you. Futurists often speak about such a gift economy in a “post-scarcity society.” It played a crucial role in the functioning of the “pre-scarcity societies” that humans evolved in.
This social wealth also provided the sort of experiential wealth that recent psychological research has shown to have such a greater impact on emotional well-being than the material wealth that hunter-gatherers approach with such ambivalence. Notice how often, as in Le Jeune’s example, the investment in social bonds takes the form of providing an experience, like a big party. We should note here, too, the nature of work among hunter-gatherers: hunting, hiking, fishing, canoeing, picking berries, or gathering leaves or fruits. We find these activities innately rewarding. Many people in WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) societies undertake what we call “work” among hunter-gatherers as recreation.
In a response to Sahlins’ essay, David Kaplan cited Truswell and Hansen, who described the !Kung hunter-gatherers in the Kalahari Desert as a “clear case of semi-starvation.” (2000) Richard Lee, an ethnographer who worked with the !Kung for many years and wrote some of the work that Sahlins relied upon most, disagreed with Truswell and Hansen, but many other ethnographers have noted that the !Kung themselves often complain about hunger, and often express frustration and anger about that situation. Kaplan cited one such ethnographer named Nancy Howell, who concluded, “It is likely that hunger is a contributing cause to many deaths which are immediately caused by infectious and parasitic diseases, even though it is rare for anyone simply to starve to death.” (Kaplan, 2000)
Kaplan employs this as damning evidence against Sahlins’ claim that hunter-gatherers live in “the original affluent society,” even though “it is rare for anyone simply to starve to death.” Starvation and famine have played a regular part in agrarian life since its inception. People in WEIRD societies imagine this as a part of their past, as something they have mercifully moved on from. They often point to optimistic trends showing a diminishing number of malnourished and starving people as evidence that technological and economic progress will soon eliminate the problem altogether, but as Mark Nathan Cohen notes:
“[T]he popular impression that nutrition has improved through history reflects twentieth-century affluence and seems to have as much to do with class privilege as with an overall increase in productivity. Neither the lower classes of prehistoric and classical empires nor the contemporary Third World have shared in the improvement in caloric intake; consumption of animal protein seems to have declined for all but privileged groups.” (Cohen, 1991)
The !Kung may often complain of hunger, and that may contribute to other health problems, but they do not starve to death, as people in agrarian societies so often do. Cohen notes that “[e]ven the poorest recorded hunter-gatherer group enjoys a caloric intake superior to that of impoverished contemporary urban populations.” (1991) When we compare hunter-gatherer societies to others, we see that they experience significantly less famine (Berbesque, 2015). Hunter-gatherers move away from a local flood or drought, where farmers must simply endure it. When bad conditions for a certain favorite food afflicts hunter-gatherers, they must turn to less appetizing foods, like pine nuts or grubs. When similar conditions destroy a crop of wheat or rice, agriculturalists experience famine and many die of starvation. Cycles of famine and starvation play an endemic role in agriculture. Hunter-gatherers may experience hunger, and this may complicate other health problems. They may have to get by on foods they don’t like, and not even enough of that, but “it is rare for anyone simply to starve to death,” as they do in agricultural societies with such regularity.
Even so, the comparison remains quite unfair. We compare the world’s richest industrialized societies, a global elite that exists only thanks to a much larger, poorer population that we exclude from consideration, against hunter-gatherers living in the world’s most inhospitable environments, where no one else can live at all. Sahlins noted that “the anthropology of hunters is largely an anachronistic study of ex-savages, an inquest into the corpse of one society, [George] Grey once said, presided over by members of another.” (1972) Yet, even with this clearly slanted comparison, we see that hunter-gatherers manage to provide for themselves at least as well, and in many ways better. How much more abundance and prosperity might we see among hunter-gatherers fortunate enough to live in more productive environs? The glimpses seem tantalizing, as Cohen notes:
“Whenever we can glimpse the remains of anatomically modern human beings who lived in early prehistoric environments still rich in large game, they are often relatively large people displaying comparatively few signs of qualitative malnutrition.” (Cohen, 1991)
Sahlins goes so far as to call hunter-gatherers “uneconomic man,” because of the way these forces shape their behavior in such different ways compared to the “economic man” guided by the assumption of scarcity. Instead, as accounts like Paul Le Jeune’s of feasting with the Innu, they seem to often live with an assumption of abundance. A trust that the world will provide everything they need or want guides them on as deep a level as the assumption of scarcity and the need to plan for that guides Le Jeune and his modern, WEIRD descendants. Calvin Luther Martin argues that here lies the essential ideological innovation of the Neolithic Revolution. “The real issue lies in what physicists call the problem of measurement: whether we start, as premise, in our very genesis, by measuring the world in fear or in trust. The decision, and it is ours alone, appears to usher its bearer inexorably into one realm of reality or another, mutually exclusive of one another.” (Martin, 1999)
The assumption of scarcity, the first axiom of economics, seems to the people of WEIRD societies not just an inescapable part of human nature, but the essential truth of all life in this world. From this perspective, the abiding faith that hunter-gatherers display in the world’s generosity and abundance seems absurd, even childish. Yet the data clearly shows us that while our way engenders starvation and want, theirs does not. They may not have more material wealth than us, but they do have greater experiential and social wealth, which we know relate far better to real happiness. WEIRD societies “accumulate knowledge about what works well for things,” where hunter-gatherers “accumulate knowledge about what works well for people.” (Quinn, 1993)
The assumptions underpinning these views add a very real dimension to them as well. The assumption of scarcity casts a pall of fear over one’s entire life. It warns that the world promises danger and privation, that it will not provide enough for you, and so, of course, you must fend for yourself. While specific circumstances might allow you to do otherwise, in general, scarcity tells you to provide for yourself first, that sharing will only diminish what you have for yourself, that you must balance “doing the right thing” against your own survival and prosperity, because the two stand in opposition to one another. Abundance, though, tells you that the world will provide everything you will need. While specific circumstances might sometimes make selfish actions tempting, abundance tells you to share freely and generously, because then others will share just as freely with you. “Doing the right thing” means acting in favor of your own survival and prosperity, because the two usually align. To live in the sort of trust that abundance inspires truly does make one’s life more prosperous and abundant in real ways, while living in the sort of fear that scarcity implies really does take its toll on us. Archaeologist and poet Loren Eiseley saw the contast between these two “realms of reality” in stark terms. “Fear,” he wrote. “Europeans smelled of it like pine smoke, like a forest burning. A fear that devoured its beholders like a wildfire.” (Martin, 1999)
As Sahlins put it, “The world’s most primitive people have few possessions. but they are not poor. Poverty is not a certain small amount of goods, nor is it just a relation between means and ends; above all it is a relation between people. Poverty is a social status. As such it is the invention of civilization. It has grown with civilization, at once as an invidious distinction between classes and more importantly as a tributary relation that can render agrarian peasants more susceptible to natural catastrophes than any winter camp of Alaskan Eskimo.” (Sahlins, 1972)