Trying to sell scenarios based on degrowth or frugal living is like trying to sell your Elvis collection of 8-track tapes.
In The World Until Yesterday, Jared Diamond ticks off all the great things about modern society — things like vaccines, ambulances, labor-saving kitchen appliances, electric light, air conditioning and refrigeration that most of us take for granted now. Most teens would find it hard to do without WiFi or Wikipedia. Diamond says few of us would care to go back to an era before any of that.
The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?
The bestselling author of Collapse and Guns, Germs and Steel surveys the history of human societies to answer the…
When something happens to revert a society to suddenly far more primitive, such as currently being experienced in Puerto Rico or Dominica following Hurricane Maria, we can barely conceive how it is possible to live like that. And actually, given present population density and generalized lack of survival skills, it may not be.
For those toiling at the fringe trying to design a future that would be even conceivably sustainable in the face of climate change and peak everything, the prospect of trying to sell scenarios based on degrowth or frugal living is like trying to sell your Elvis collection of 8-track tapes.
It is even more risqué when we begin to talk about the benefits of infanticide, genital mutilation and wife strangling.
Diamond told NPR:
“[There’s] an island near Bougainville called New Britain, where among the Kaulong people it was customary that if a man died, his widow was strangled, and not against her will. She expected it.
“She would call out to her brothers to strangle her. If the brothers were not around, she would call out to her son to strangle her, because she had seen this happen to other women, and now she expected it for herself.
“To us it sounds horrible, and I have to say I don’t see any benefit to it. It again underscores the point that there are wonderful things we can learn from traditional societies, and there are also things where we can say, thank God we’re past that.”
Diamond says he sees no benefit from wife strangling. We do. Moreover, human civilization may not be past the need to have it.
Thomas Malthus did the math in 1798. While he is often derided because he could not possibly foresee the Green Revolution or nuclear power, his theory remains essentially correct.
The Green Revolution and nuclear power turned out to be hooey.
In An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), Malthus decreed that population is necessarily limited by means of subsistence. Because population invariably increases, the means of subsistence must keep pace. Unless prevented by some very powerful and obvious checks (abortion, infanticide, prostitution, war, gay marriage, gender switching, plague, famine, and disease, for instance), humans will be on a treadmill to produce more food, fuel and humans, whether by expansion into neighboring lands, enslavement and starvation of other humans, or other means. Artificial foods, artificial livelihoods, artificial energy supplies (hydrogen, fusion, fracking) and other long-sought salvations are just what the name suggests: artifice. The requirement, meanwhile, is absolute.
Malthus said that the worst that could befall us would be what we generally think of as the best case scenario: all people everywhere provided with sufficient subsistence, all checks on growth removed — war, water supply, food supply, land degradation, political or social oppression and the rest — banished to the history books. Witness: the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
Prescription filled, the relief would be very short lived.
In those conditions, the increase of marriages and birth would soon produce human population far in excess of food supply. The ability of the Earth to absorb pollution and many other natural boundaries would be traversed. The inevitable result would be a population crash with — given the degree of systemic erosion — a strong likelihood for human extinction.
Our great powers of fecundity were a survival strategy. We’re not that different from rabbits or house flies. We didn’t need hundreds of offspring, a few would do, but if each female were to be repeatedly fertilized, allowed to bear, and the offspring nurtured until it could fend for itself, our upright naked ape population would soon outgrow its hunting range.
Sure, we could get knocked back by conflict, famine, natural disaster, or epidemics of disease, but we would always rebound because in any given generation, grandparents would live to see their seed quadruple and possibly even multiply 20-fold or 40-fold.
The arithmetic is inexorable. Albert Bartlett said the greatest failing of the human species was its inability to understand this exponential function. Wars and plagues barely make a dent. A few years pass and the growth curve is as shiny as new, picking right up where it left off.
Unlike Diamond, we see the clear benefit of wife-strangling. We imagine Bartlett does too, even though he denies it. Hunter-gatherer societies are acutely aware of the importance of placing limits on their fecundity. They know that they can work one area of a forest for game only so long, and then either the game will catch on and go away, or they will deplete the easy catches and wild plants and get trapped by EROI — burning more calories to gather their food than the food they can gather provides.
Well before that happens they move to a new camp, but what if their population was larger? The effort and frequency of those moves increases. The rate at which hunting grounds deplete accelerates. The need for more hunting areas over greater distances rises. Sooner or later there is a point of diminishing returns.
One way to cope with this is to adhere to the underlying biological drive to reproduce by adopting agriculture, and all that entails. The other way would be to go against genetic predisposition and self-limit your population.
Among the San speakers of the Kalahari Desert in Namibia and Botswana, 60–80% of the diet came from non-meat sources, especially nuts and roots. Since women provided most of the vegetable foods, they were responsible for the majority of the calories that were consumed. Men mostly provided the most desirable food, which was meat. The San way of life was remarkably efficient. While they had few days that were free of subsistence activities, the ratio of labor expenditure to production was low. The ethnographer Richard Lee discovered that adult San spent only about 2½ days of 6 hours each week hunting and gathering. Young people did not fully join the workforce until around 20 years old. The 60% of the society that were healthy adults provided the food for everyone by working only 15 hours a week. Foragers have rightly been referred to by Richard Lee as the most leisured people. In the United States today, less than 1% of the population produces all of the food for the entire society. Given this remarkable efficiency, it is worth asking why the rest of us work 40–50 hours a week, often with considerable psychological stress.
— Dennis O’Neil, Foraging
The lifestyles of foraging societies should not be quickly dismissed in our quest for creature comforts.
For instance, the average time devoted each week to obtaining food is only 12 to 19 hours for one group of Bushmen, 14 hours or less for the Hadza nomads of Tanzania. One Bushman, when asked why he hadn’t emulated neighboring tribes by adopting agriculture, replied, “Why should we, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?”
While farmers concentrate on high-carbohydrate crops like rice and potatoes, the mix of wild plants and animals in the diets of surviving hunter-gatherers provides more protein and a better balance of other nutrients. In one study, the Bushmen’s average daily food intake (during a month when food was plentiful) was 2,140 calories and 93 grams of protein, considerably greater than the recommended daily allowance for people of their size. It’s almost inconceivable that Bushmen, who eat 75 or so wild plants, could die of starvation the way hundreds of thousands of Irish farmers and their families did during the potato famine of the 1840s.
One straightforward example of what paleopathologists have learned from skeletons concerns historical changes in height. Skeletons from Greece and Turkey show that the average height of hunger-gatherers toward the end of the ice ages was a generous 5' 9'’ for men, 5' 5'’ for women. With the adoption of agriculture, height crashed, and by 3000 B. C. had reached a low of only 5' 3'’ for men, 5' for women. By classical times heights were very slowly on the rise again, but modern Greeks and Turks have still not regained the average height of their distant ancestors.
Besides malnutrition, starvation, and epidemic diseases, farming helped bring another curse upon humanity: deep class divisions. Hunter-gatherers have little or no stored food, and no concentrated food sources, like an orchard or a herd of cows: they live off the wild plants and animals they obtain each day. Therefore, there can be no kings, no class of social parasites who grow fat on food seized from others. Only in a farming population could a healthy, non-producing elite set itself above the disease-ridden masses. Skeletons from Greek tombs at Mycenae c. 1500 B. C. suggest that royals enjoyed a better diet than commoners, since the royal skeletons were two or three inches taller and had better teeth (on the average, one instead of six cavities or missing teeth). Among Chilean mummies from c. A. D. 1000, the elite were distinguished not only by ornaments and gold hair clips but also by a fourfold lower rate of bone lesions caused by disease.
We have explored here previously how humanity could restore the carbon balance of atmosphere and oceans by developing a new form of silvoculture and silvopasture we call climate ecoforesty, but how best should we limit our population size to sustain a shift of that type? Clearly we are going to hit a wall at 9 billion that will be every bit as catastrophic as the wall that comes down at 2 degrees. The wall we hit at 7 billion and 1 degree is already catastrophic.
Why do we recoil at the traditional ways for addressing this? In parts of eighteenth-century Japan, couples raised only two or three children. Those who killed their babies saw themselves as responsible parents.
Until brought under the sway of modern laws, the Inuit practiced infanticide as well as the killing of elders. The males within the tribes also had a higher mortality rate because of occupational hazards as hunters and ice fishers. Female-biased infanticide kept equilibrium by balancing sex ratios, keeping daughters when the local sex-ratio is male biased and killing them when girls were overabundant.
These traditional practices did not say that Inuit have less compassion for their children, nor less respect for human life; it says they had come to grips with a hard truth — that murder is sometimes needed to ensure that the whole tribe, and now the species, does not become extinct.
Of course, it is less anguishing just to get vasectomies. Then you can kick back and listen to 8-tracks and not have to feel guilty.
Albert Bates is an Emergency Planetary Technician, founder of Global Village Institute for Appropriate Technology (GVIx.org), and Chief Permaculture Officer for eCO2, a COOL DESIGN services company focusing on climate recovery strategies with high returns on investment.