Abundant Evidence

From Europe a week ago, Flemming wrote on the subject of “Original Affluence.” Quoting Marshall Sahlins, who, in The Original Affluent Society, described what Ming calls “gift economies and how pre-historic economic systems weren’t as miserable as they’re commonly believed to be“. In addition to the current assumption that wants are always greater than the means to satisfy them, Sahlins says:

“But there is also a Zen road to affluence, which states that human material wants are finite and few, and technical means unchanging but on the whole adequate. Adopting the Zen strategy, a people can enjoy an unparalleled material plenty – with a low standard of living. That, I think, describes the hunters. And it helps explain some of their more curious economic behaviour: their “prodigality” for example- the inclination to consume at once all stocks on hand, as if they had it made. Free from market obsessions of scarcity, hunters’ economic propensities may be more consistently predicated on abundance than our own.”

Flemming goes on to say,

“Sahlins explains how typical hunter-gatherers work 3-5 hours per day on acquiring food, and they have plenty of time for leisure. For that matter, they have a schedule that most civilized people would be sort of envious about. The more ‘civilized’ we become, the harder we tend to work, and the less time we have for leisure. He also makes some interesting distinctions between primitive living and poverty. In hunter-gatherer cultures starvation would be pretty much unthinkable.”

“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 civilisation. It has grown with civilisation, 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.”

Call Me Ishmael

This was well depicted in Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael which described the life of a Mountain Gorilla as a little like living in a candy store, where the gorilla would absent-mindedly stretch out his hand and it would rest on some delicious green shoot. Quinn suggests that the Garden of Eden is a primordial species memory of how life was before the few locked up the food to sell it to the many and called it the miracle of agriculture.

So pervasive is our presumption of primordial want and brutality compared to modern wealth and satisfaction that we can’t recognize what is obvious. In a hunter-gatherer society, whether foxes or gazelles or people, the resources are in perfect balance with the populations. Unless the ecosystem is undergoing one of its rare rapid changes, the population fluctuates a little around its ability to find food. Like a thermostat, a little excess leads to a little adjustment, which may not even be noticed. These are animals and people who have lived their lives bundled up in winter and sweating in summer with a stomach rarely as full as ours is three times a day. So they do not expect, or want, anything else. Every one of them kills a lot of creatures during a lifetime, but is only killed once. Without a highly developed sense of the future or social entitlements. That single death may have little sting.

Could we ever hope to regain a hunter-gatherer mentality and affluence model? I’ve often fantasized that Xpertweb might be in some ways a parallel. If your reputation is your marketing and guaranteed satisfaction a way to close more sales, you may find customers guided to you by your excellent ratings in your area of specialization. That would make you more a gatherer than a hunter. Like Amazon, orders would come in at a rate close to what you can handle, because if it’s less, you’ll master other skills better suiting your talent. Or if you get too busy, you’ll tap your skill at finding Xpertweb help to subcontract work to, confident in their proven ability. And you may train others to help you fill the enthusiastic market.

Consider Flemming’s conclusion:

“I’m not sure what we can learn here, other than that it is possible to successfully live very simply and modestly. There must be some kind of point that applies also to a technological civilization. A just-in-time kind of thinking. We could very well arrange our world so that nobody ever has to starve and so we only work a few hours per day. From what I hear, only 2-3 percent of our work relates to actual production, and from my own observation, the majority of human work is inefficient or unnecessary, just arranged to keep people busy. So, why can’t we have a an efficient and productive, but leisurely and relaxed, high tech society, where it would be unthinkable that basic needs wouldn’t be filled?”

A Lever Long Enough to Move the World?

Ming’s got Xpertweb on his mind as much as I do, so perhaps he’s glimpsed the same possibilities. He’s clearly noting that most people don’t work for a living, but hold jobs for a living. If we’re less than 10% on task, what happens when we’re 20% on task for each other and spend the rest of our time off the meter? A cornucopia never really dreamt of. Interesting that 20% of a 12 hour day is close to the 3 hours that hunter-gatherers like to put in.

Of course that cornucopia won’t deliver us to the Zen state that Flemming and Marshall Sahlins and I admire but have not achieved (well, one of us hasn’t). However, it opens the possibility of release from the expectation of deprivation and want. And there’s nothing more Zen than letting go of fear.

Have you noticed that the peace protests and more enlightened seeking happens in affluent areas? Maybe you consider those expressions too new age for your taste, but there are a lot of people working out a new reality so dramatic that it’s been called, collectively, the second superpower. Like the ancient Athenians, the common ground of people seeking a better world is relative affluence, not scraping by. Instead of slaves, we’ll have each other, amplified by elegant electronic levers that Archimedes could never imagine.

12:27:49 AM    comment [commentCounter (119)]

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