How Hunter-Gatherers May Hold the Key to our Economic Future

Lambert here: If Walmart parking lots had a hundred species of edible plants growing, we might be in pretty good shape. (On “edible forests,” see NC here and here.)

By James Suzman, who has been working with the Bushmen of Botswana’s eastern Kalahari for more than 25 years. He is the author of Affluence Without Abundance (Bloomsbury Publishing), and heads the Cambridge-based research and support organisation anthropos. Originally published at Evonomics.

This Canaan is no promised land. But understanding the long the history of its impoverished Ju/’hoan Bushman residents may help us to map a path to the economic promised land, in which no-one need work more than 15 hours per week that John Maynard Keynes famously predicted would be realised within our lifetimes.

Canaan is a sprawling squatter settlement on the outskirts of Gobabis, a small town that services Namibia’s vast Kalahari cattle ranches. It is now home to around 4000 people. More than half of them are Ju/’hoansi, the most famous of the Kalahari’s hunting and gathering “Bushmen” peoples.

I began working in the Kalahari in 1991. Since then I have lived and worked among almost all of southern Africa’s San “Bushmen” peoples from the war ravaged !Kung and Kxoe as they dodged bullets during the last brutal phases of the Angolan civil war to the G/wikhoe forcibly removed from Botswana’s vast Central Kalahari Game Reserve in 1997.

But it is only in Canaan that I have ever felt any sense of real helplessness. And this is not just because whenever I visit the predatory gangsters who lord over Gobabis’ underbelly throng vulture-like round my truck and eyeball the cameras, camping equipment, GPS’s, tools and other treasures packed into the back. Nor is it because perennial hunger and despair in Canaan find their expression in distended bellies, wounds that never seem to heal or the deep wet tubercolutic coughs that seem to hang in the air long after the sound has past—this happens in many other places too. Rather it is because Canaan is so obviously the product of a series of technological, social and economic forces that emanate from beyond Kalahari, forces that its Ju/’hoansi residents are powerless to affect even if, ironically, understanding how their parents and grandparents made a living as hunter-gatherers may well help us to manage them.

A century ago the Ju/’hoansi were undisputed masters of this desert land. But then white farmers and colonial police arrived with their horses, guns, water-pumps, barbed-wire and cattle. They soon crushed what little resistance the Ju/’hoansi offered and claimed this land for themselves. They also quickly learnt that farming in the Kalahari Desert was labour intensive. So they formed commandos to capture “wild Bushmen”, held the Ju/’hoansi’s children hostage to ensure their parents’ obedience and meted out regular beatings to teach them the “virtues of hard work”. Deprived of their traditional lands and regarded as “childlike-like creatures of the bush”, Ju/’hoansi soon became dependent on the farmers for a place to stay and food to eat.

When Namibia gained its independence from South Africa in 1990 technological advances meant that the farms were more productive and less dependent on labour than they had ever been before. And with a new government demanding that farmers provide proper pay and housing for their workers, they reduced their workforces to the bare minimum leaving many Ju/’hoansi and their dependents little option but to descend on squatter settlements like Canaan.

What happened on the Omaheke farms echoes broader trends transforming workplaces across the globe. Agriculture, manufacturing and, ever more, the services sector have been transformed by automation and, now, computerisation. And as a slew of recent reports make clear this trend is likely to accelerate.

For those not plagued by visions of a Terminator-style dystopia or in thrall to Jetson-like fantasies of hyper-modern convenience the most pressing challenge raised automation is the question of what people will do if there is not enough work to go around.

The same question also irked John Maynard Keynes when in the winter of 1929 he was contemplating the ruins of his personal fortune. Global stock markets had imploded and the Great Depression was slowly throttling the life out of the Euro-American economy. To remind himself of the ephemeral nature of the crisis, he penned an optimistic essay entitled “The Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”. In it he argued that within a century technical innovation and increases in productivity would usher in a golden era of leisure that would liberate us from the tyranny of the clock, and enable us to thrive on the basis of working no more than fifteen hours per week. Besides war, natural disasters and acts of God the only significant obstacle he saw to this Utopia being achieved was what he believed was our instinct to strive for more, to work and to create new wealth.

“We have been expressly evolved by nature — with all our impulses and deepest instincts –for the purpose of solving the economic problem”, he lamented. “I think with dread of the readjustment of the habits and instincts of the ordinary man, bred into him for countless generations, which he may be asked to discard within a few decades”.

By “mankinds’ traditional purpose” Keynes was referring to our urge to work and produce and by the “economic problem”, Keynes was referring to the axiom of economics the “problem of scarcity” which holds that we work to bridge the gap between our infinite wants and limited means.

But Keynes believed economics to be a rational science and people, on the whole, to be capable of making rational choices when presented with them. So he took the view that, save a few “purposeful money makers”, we would recognise the economic Utopia for what it was , slow down and “be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes”.

Keynes was right about improved productivity and technological innovation. They have been transformative, even more so than he imagined. According to Keynes’s reasoning, on the basis of labour productivity improvements alone we should not be working more than 11 hours a week now. But he was wrong about the golden age of leisure. Despite having the means to work much less, many of us now work as long and hard as we did before. Keynes’s grossly underestimated just how hard it would be to readjust “the habits and instincts” of “ordinary” people.

Keynes was also wrong in imagining that a golden age of leisure could only come about through advances in productivity and technology. Convinced that mankind had been on a journey of unrelenting progress since the beginning of history, he saw the 15-hour week as the culmination of hundreds of generations’ collective ingenuity and effort. What he failed to realize was that the fifteen-hour week was a reality for some of the handful of remaining tribes of autonomous hunter-gatherers, and that, in all probability, it was the norm for a significant proportion of the 200 000 year history of modern Homo Sapiens.

But Keynes can be forgiven for this. During his lifetime there was no evidence to suggest that hunter-gatherer life was anything but “nasty, brutish and short”. The idea that hunter-gatherers led an easier life than he did would have seemed too absurd to take seriously.

It was the few Ju/’hoansi that still lived beyond the reach of the white ranchers and hunted and gathered into the 1960s who torpedoed the idea that our hunting and gathering ancestors led lives of unremitting hardship. Anthropologists at the time considered the Ju/’hoansi to be the best living exemplars of how our hunting and gathering ancestors lived and so were chosen as the subjects of the first careful economic input/output studies of a hunting and gathering people. The results of these studies surprised everyone. They showed that despite the harshness of their environment the Ju/’hoansi made a good living on basis of only around 15-17 hours work per week. They spent the rest of their time on household chores, playing games, wooing lovers, crafting gifts, caring for children and telling stories.

Subsequent research showed how the Ju/’hoansi’s relaxed approach to work stemmed from their faith in the providence of their environment and their confidence in their ability to exploit it—Ju/’hoansi made use of well over a hundred plant species and were adept at hunting pretty much anything that was edible. Consequently Ju/’hoansi had an “immediate return economy” which meant they never stored foods and only ever worked to procure enough to meet their short term needs certain that there was always more to be had with a few hours of effort. This research also demonstrated how the Ju/’hoansi’s “fierce egalitarianism” underwrote their affluence by ensuring that resources flowed organically through communities so ensuring that even in the leanest times everyone got more or less enough.

The most compelling thing about this research was that it suggested that “economic problem” was not, as Keyne’s believed “the primary problem of the human race from the beginnings of time”. For where the economic problem holds that we have unlimited wants and limited means, Ju/’hoansi hunter-gatherers had few wants that were easily satisfied. It was for this reason that Marshall Sahlins, arguably the most influential American social anthropologist of the 20th century, redubbed hunter-gatherers “the original affluent society”.

Unsurprisingly, this simple idea briefly captured the popular imagination: “Imagine a society in which the work week seldom exceeds 19 hours, material wealth is considered a burden, and no one is much richer than anyone else”, gushed Time Magazine in an editorial about the Bushmen in November 1969, “The people are comfortable, peaceable, happy and secure…This Elysian community actually exists.”

But beyond the academy the idea of primitive affluence lost something of its broad appeal in the 1980s. The neo-liberal economic revolution and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe promised the world a new vision of capital driven prosperity that left little room for apparently whimsical alternatives. Starved of mainstream attention, primitive affluence was left to be appropriated in a crude form by “new-age” movements seeking legitimacy for radical alternatives to mainstream culture.

Just as importantly, life for the Bushmen had also changed a great deal by the 1980s. Civil wars, forced relocations and the systematic colonization of large swathes of the Kalahari by white cattle ranchers and pastoralist tribes had transformed this “Elysian community” into an underclass. Anthropologists that ventured to the Kalahari encountered a people traumatized by changes that were beyond their control, often enslaved by their neighbours and alienated from the lands that had nurtured them for thousands of generations. Their plight was too dire and their lives too squalid and bereft of hope for anthropologists to wax lyrically about “primitive affluence”. So they focused instead on the brutality of the Bushmen’s encounter with others, the racism that justified their marginalization and the social and political structures that now looked set to pinion them into perpetual poverty.

And because anthropology tuned into these other aspects of their lives, the idea of “primitive affluence” fell out of favour. Some branded it a romantic myth. Others raised questions about the accuracy of the some of the original data pointing out that hunter-gatherers suffered from occasional hardships, that the 15 hour work week didn’t apply equally to all hunter-gatherer groups and that the likes of Lee ignored time and effort domestic tasks like preparing food and fires.

But in focusing argument on these particular details they conveniently ignored the central cultural pillar of the argument which was that regardless of many hours the likes of the Ju/’hoansi worked they only worked to satisfy their immediate needs.

The early work on primitive affluence has recently been given new impetus by recent advances in genomics that have enabled us to map in increasingly greater detail the 200,000 year history of our species. These indicate that the northern Kalahari, rather than east Africa, may well have been cradle of modern Homo Sapiens. The data also suggests that this core group of Homo sapiens split into two around 150,000 years ago and while one branch restlessly expanded northwards gradually colonising the rest of the planet, the ancestors of the Bushmen remained where they were, so that by the time modern humans first set foot in South America eleven thousand years ago the Bushmen had remained in the Kalahari for 140 thousand years or more. Taken in tandem with a series of new archaeological finds it also suggested that for at least 70,000 years- and possibly considerably more, the ancestors of modern Bushmen lived in the same places and in a very similar manner to those that were still hunting and gathering midway through the twentieth century. Perhaps most importantly, the data also reveals that if we measure the success of a civilization by its longevity, then the Bushmen were by far the most successful civilization in all of human history. Given that a society’s ability to reproduce over time depends on its ability to feed itself then the key to the Bushmen’s success lay in their economic approach.

When Keynes lamented the “habits and instincts bred into us over countless generations” he invoked a vision of human nature that almost certainly had its origins in the Agricultural Revolution— probably the most important inflexion point in the history our species. For while agriculture was far much more productive than hunting and gathering and enabled periods of rapid population growth it also exposed these rapidly growing populations to a new range of catastrophic risks. These ranged from crop failure induced famines to a series of new and terrifying diseases that migrated from their livestock. As a result where hunter-gatherers like the Ju/’hoansi had an unyielding confidence in the providence of their environments, Neolithic farmers’ lives were fraught with fear of droughts, blights, pests, diseases, famines, and later raids by equally stressed strangers.

The need to mitigate these risks inspired a range of wondrous social and technological innovations from food storage techniques to systems of trade and exchange. It also conveyed a distinct advantage to those that were able to control the production, storage and distribution of resources thus giving rise to the problem of scarcity. At the same time it placed an unprecedented premium on human labour. As any farmer will tell you, how much food you get out of your land depends on how much energy you put into it. The difference now of course is that most of this energy is automated.

With the industrial revolution now having merged into the digital revolution there is a good case to be made to suggest that we have reached an inflexion point in the history of work as important as the agricultural revolution. Most of us in the world’s richest countries enjoy lives of unparalleled material abundance. We are now so well fed by the one percent of us who still work in agriculture that we throw roughly as much food into landfill every year as we consume. And with most of the rest of us working in the ever more amorphous services sector much of the work we do is aimed at keeping wheels of commerce rolling rather than ensuring that our essential needs are met.

This would be fine if we had no reason to worry that our continued preoccupation with growth and keeping everybody endlessly productive risked cannibalising our —and many other—species’ future. It also would be fine if, people like the Ju/’hoansi in Canaan had any realistic prospect of finding work. But with rural unemployment in Namibia sitting at 39.2% this is unlikely in the foreseeable future not least because as by product of increasing productivity and automation is an economy in which capital drives growth more than labour.

Yet most strategies proposed for dealing with problems like climate change and biodiversity loss aim to find more sustainable ways for us to continue to produce, consume and work as much as we do. Likewise most ideas proposed to manage automation’s impact tend focus mainly on the question of how to find replacement work for those nudged out by robots and AI.

But if our working culture is an artefact of the Agricultural Revolution and the economic problem has by and large been solved then we should take comfort from the fact that hunter-gatherers show that even if we are purposive we are more than capable of leading contented lives that are not defined by our economic contributions, that automation provides exactly the opportunity we need to rethink our relationships with the workplace, and in doing so wean us of our dangerous obsession with growth.

This is of course easier said than done as the Ju/’hoansi residents of Canaan know all too well. And if you were to ask those among them that still remember their lives as hunter-gatherers they would remind you that “their primitive affluence” depended on far more than just a willingness to make do with having few needs easily met. It also demanded a society in which people cared little for accumulating wealth and in which everyone played an active role in jealously enforcing their fierce egalitarianism.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Expat

    The hunter-gatherers of yore and the present bushmen share one common feature: they are small in number. The planet and the economy cannot support 7.4 billion hunter-gatherers whether in the workplace or in the traditional fields and valleys.

    Man decided or was trapped into an agricultural life. This has created misery and disease as well as stupidity and cupidity. But as a reward he has gone forth and multiplied. And so far looks as if to continue his numerical expansion.

    If we want a sane, healthy hunter-gatherer life, we need to…um…have a headcount reduction from 7.4 billion to 400 million.

    1. c_heale

      Is it possible the world can support more than 400 million hunter gatherers? I’m interested in where you get your figures from.

      The first people to go should be those that use the most resources, since they are the least well adapted to survive in a world of limits.

      In any case, if global warming is as apocalyptic as some predictions are saying it will be, we will be lucky if 400 million people survive.

      1. Lee

        Is it possible the world can support more than 400 million hunter gatherers? I’m interested in where you get your figures from….In any case, if global warming is as apocalyptic as some predictions are saying it will be, we will be lucky if 400 million people survive.

        Truly. I’ve spent enough time hiking, camping, and wildlife watching to know that I am bereft of the vast store of necessary knowledge and skills accumulated and past down through generations that would enable me to last very long out there without my modern gear and freeze dried provisions. I love wild lands and I have great admiration for hunter-gatherers but unlike them, I could not make a living from in them no matter how many hours per day I worked.

        1. Wukchumni

          You’ll often hear of folks that intend to head for hills if something wicked this way comes, and it’d be a miserable time for later-day argonauts in the higher climes of the Sierra Nevada, as far as hunter-gathering goes. Some thimbleberries & gooseberries in August, along with wild strawberries so small a big one is the size of your pinkie fingernail, and you’d only find those once in a great while.

          There are deer & non native trout for those desiring meat, and both would be hunted & fished out toot suite. The easiest animal to catch and eat would be marmots, as they among all of the denizens of the forest for the trees, are the only animal that approaches us, everything else tends to vamoose @ the sight of us. I sure wouldn’t want to eat a marm, but lots of other people starving wondering where the next meal is coming from would have no such qualms.

      2. Expat

        I made that figure up. I think it is a stark enough reduction from 7.4 billion to 400 milliion. You are probably right to query that. I don’t know how much territory a tribe of 25 hunter-gathers needs to survive. 400 million is probably excessive.

        1. Riders of the Storm

          The headcount reduction is coming through peak oil too. Taking out oil from the food production system (from fuel for irrigation & tractors to plastic packaging) earth can feed only 5 billion. Today we are a bit more than 7 billion. 2 billion have to go.
          I wonder what nations will just lie down and say “thanks for the ride, it was great while it lasted! we will just lie down here and die, but you, go ahead and enjoy!”

          1. Nancy E. Sutton

            When sharing my ‘three magic words’ * with clueless folks, I most often hear, “well I’ll just die, then… living without modern conveniences is not worth it.”

            * potatoes, brassicas and fowl – i.e., when the collapse (oil, resource, economic, etc) comes, remember that potatoes and brassicas are practically weeds (in my temperate climate).. plant/reproduce/raise themselves and survive our winters very well; chickens and ducks can go feral, and ducks will provide the third critical macronutrient… fat (others are protein and carbs). Yes, of course, if racoons eat all the fowl… we’ll just eat the racoons ;)

            So ‘suicide’ may solve the overpopulation problem. Voila!

          2. Allegorio

            Apparently that is why ethnic cleansing is such a popular meme the world over, driving war after war and what is fueling the “I got mine” culture we see in the suffocating materialism all around us. Nothing like other people’s loss and poverty to make “what’s mine” all that much more precious.

            Apparently, “I got mine, you get your own” was alien to the hunter gatherer culture. Taboo. Most of our modern economic woes are directly related to hoarding, hoarding wealth, keeping it out of circulation for apparently psychological reasons. “I got mine” God bless the child….

            If modern society can eliminate the possibility of catastrophic loss, as in Medicare for All, Food and shelter security, I do believe it would do much to curb the hoarding instinct, except possibly for the sociopaths among us.

            1. blennylips

              In My Ishmael, the sequel to Ishmael, Daniel Quinn has his gorilla guru instructing the hero in tribalism:

              “The people who imagine that I’m idealizing this life fail to understand that every single extant tribal culture is extant because it has survived for thousands of years, and it has survived for thousands of years because its members are content with it. It may well be that tribal societies occasionally developed in ways that were intolerable to their members, but if so, these societies disappeared, for the very simple reason that people had no compelling reason to support them. There’s only one way you can force people to accept an intolerable lifestyle.”

              “Yeah,” I said. “You have to lock up the food.”

        2. Tony Wright

          I once read that the human population of the pre-Columbian Americas was about 100million, which probably gives a rough idea of the sustainable human population of the planet at 300-400 million. And that was when there were so many fish in the Potomac that you could just about walk across it….
          Suffice to say we are very much living on borrowed time at these human population levels. So ,whilst belatedly transitioning to renewable energy will help, unless we massively reduce our population via some sort of pandemic we will continue to trash the planet until it is unliveable, except perhaps for rats, cochroaches and seagulls, and maybe Keith Richards…..

          1. Hank Dalton

            The Pre-Columbian Americas were nowhere near hunter-gatherers. The Aztech and Incas had elaborate farming techniques, and cities with high population density for standards of the time.

    2. Eustache De Saint Pierre

      I don’t think he purpose of the article is for us all to don loin clothes & go into the bush, but rather proposes a shift away from materialism or consumerism – bigger this, more of that etc which necessitates being stuck on a treadmill, increasingly so in terms of debt & the rising cost of living due to rent seeking etc.

      I do remember a time before the carrot of cheap debt, when most people I knew were happy enough with a much more basic existence, used public transport, had vegetable gardens & or allotments in what were for the most part in comparison to today, happy thriving communities.

      It was no Utopia & I very much doubt that one could exist, but on our present trajectory we are heading nowhere good, especially as the carrot turned out to be a large stick. No harm in looking for answers from the past that could at least help our children to cope with a situation that will likely be forced on them, which sadly is probably the only way a less wasteful philosophy will be adopted.

      1. Disturbed Voter

        Consumerism came about as a way of dealing with the excess production capacity of modern industrialism. WW II got us out of the Depression … and the Cold War kept us out, in part because of consumerism. Current militarism and materialism continue that solution … and will continue to work until it doesn’t. Short life disposable goods also helps. As an individual, if you want to go join a commune or a monastery, all well and good.

        1. Eustache De Saint Pierre

          I agree although it came later to the UK & my Father’s generation most likely grew their own because of rationing due to WW2 which did not end until the mid 50’s. Most of my extended family once had vegetable patches as they were called, & did not like debt, being what they called thrifty.

          My generation including myself, were the exact opposite & during the early 80’s when debt became ever cheaper, totally abandoned the above philosophy & due to low house prices mainly did very well out of it – but it has been & is increasingly a case of diminishing returns for the two generations who have followed them, something I am sure you are very well aware of.

          No veggie patches these days, although I have started by growing potatoes in tyres.

        2. John

          Keynesianism is a big part of this–its primary policy tool is government spending to stimulate economic activity (consumption) and increase the GDP. Its very nature is unsustainable; the only way in which we can live without pushing further on planetary boundaries is by drastically reducing consumption and the GDP, and that’s fundamentally at odds with Keynesian economics…or any other form of capitalism, for that matter. A low-carbon command economy is the only possible solution.

        3. Crap jobs

          There are also very good reasons to leave hunter-gather and the farmer life: it is hard, dangerous and oftentimes a really crappy job.
          Pig wanker is one of the jobs listed in the Idler Book of Crap Jobs.

        4. Jean

          “WW II got us out of the Depression…”
          IMHO industrial planning at the government level and high taxes spent on infrastructure and material did that. We had to defeat the competing economic systems that did the very same thing with great success so that we could return to debt finance capitalism after the war.

      2. Eustache De Saint Pierre

        I should probably add that the communities I mentioned were ones that comprised for the most part of industrial workers whose employment I believe was at the root of community spirit. Perhaps a part time job guarantee for the majority could work, as IMO UBI would just lead to the kind of apathy & despair described by Bill Mitchell in his essay ” When Austrian’s Ate Dog’s “, & those places where opioid’s, alcohol etc are devastating once thriving communities.

        A saving grace of early Thatcherism was what were called community programs, in which the unemployed were set to work on projects such as cleaning up canals, old industrial sites, tatty graveyards & the like, which did a lot of good work. Perhaps the idea could be adapted to projects which would include community gardens – dream on maybe.

        1. Amfortas the Hippie

          You mean like the CCC?

          My grandad was a part of that, learned a trade, saw the country, and felt like he belonged to something.(the effect of the war on him was similar,btw).
          While I have, it seems, no trouble inventing sh&t for me to do, I understand that others might need some kind of structure.
          self directedness is probably a learned behaviour.
          There’s sure plenty that needs doing, as was evident on both sides of the highway on our recent run to Roundrock, Texas.
          100 miles of a couple of really nice houses, always set back…and a bunch of run down and older and in more or less disrepair closer to the roadside. a few new(mostly LEO) public endeavors, but even that is fading, and the roads…once the pride of texas…are now chaotically maintained, or pay for play toll roads(which increasingly don’t take cash! only the rfid sticker)
          My infrequent trips that direction(1-3 times a year) provide context…because we remember the stretch over almost 25 years. as in the Doomer Thread the other day, it feels like Lord of the Rings, ruins and declining living standards all around(a curb poking out of the grass), and everybody telling stories about the good old days.In the near orbit suburb of roundrock, on the other hand,there was construction literally everywhere…a mad rush to catch up to the population boom with orange and white and flashing cones and those concrete barriers.
          The intercity areas are being left behind, and it’s starting to show.

          1. foghorn longhorn

            Also am dismayed by the current state of the roads in Tejas.
            Seemed to start in the younger bush the stupid reign and accelerated in the term of gov good hair.
            Abbott the moron is not helping matters at all.
            Roadside parks are also falling into disrepair.
            Used to be proud to be called a Texan, not so much anymore.

            1. crittermom

              foghorn longhorn:
              Hop over the border into New Mexico. The roads here are the worst I’ve encountered in any state I’ve lived. Could those in TX be even worse? Yikes!
              In one section here a “rough road ahead” sign was erected sometime last sumer, but that’s as far as the improvement got. (And we’re talkin’ paved roads)

              Streets near where I now live flood with any rain, & on a main thoroughfare is so patched & ‘roller coaster’, it’s impossible to maintain even the 35 mph limit.

              In some subdivisions that are dirt roads, there are months during which homes cannot receive UPS or FedEx (or any) deliveries because the trucks can’t get in there without getting stuck. My friends can’t even get propane delivered during mud season or in winter in their subdivision.
              Deliveries get dropped off at the little grocery store in town, 25 miles away, for residents to pick up when they’re able to get out & about.
              Mail is delivered to cluster boxes on the paved highways miles away.

              1. foghorn longhorn

                Hey crittermom, what a coincidence, happened to misspend my youth in the oil patch of s.e. nm.
                Moved to Texas in the great oil crash of the mid 80s.
                If they are letting the roads deteriorate in these times of plenty, for the oil patch anyway, you better invest in a jeep before the next crash.
                All of our money seems to be spent on shoddily constructed toll roads.

                1. Amfortas the Hippie

                  lol. ive been threatening for years:” my next vehicle is a mule and a buckboard”.
                  a crew came in a month ago here, tore up about 6 miles of what to me looked like perfectly fine highway…and then left.
                  Just packed up all their crap and went away.
                  I just assume they intend to return and resurface, or something.
                  as for the roadside parks…an LBJ Legacy, IIRC…Perry instigated their removal, and sort of replacement with “modern clean way stations” with groundskeepers and “attendants” and an attached cop shop right there. There’s an early model just west of Eden, Texas, and I never stop there because of the stage fright.(Homeland Cameras under every well appointed bush, and troopers glowering at all the “enemies”)
                  I can discern no official agenda in all these random observations at 65 mph…there is still plenty of road work out here, but it seems to have no purpose: fixing a good stretch, while ignoring the obvious potholed horror a few miles further.
                  in town, one is used to the rich folks on the hill(all is relative) getting more attention from the street dept than the Barrios(“Old” and “New” and the newer “Feedlot Barrio” which is mixed race(yay), but just as decrepit(with great clouds of flies).
                  …but what’s happening to the highways is beyond me, atm.
                  More data and time.
                  my spidey sense sez that the Core is pulling in and leaving the Periphery to it’s own devices.
                  …and there is a little evidence of this(the new city state movement I’ve noted before).
                  Part of me is happy to see it go….after all, I moved way out here to a dead end dirt road in the middle of nowhere for a reason,lol.
                  Part of me wonders what it will mean, long term, and from a sociological/politico-economic view.
                  we’re gonna hafta rethink things like Polity and Constituency and even “Regional Economic Development” to include these sorts of changes to the rootkit.
                  That’s going to be hard to do with all the noise and confusion(as in, how does one formulate a political movement for the Country(vs the City), in order to protect(or even identify) our interests out here, when everybody is all WWE over Team Blue and Team Red?)

                  1. foghorn longhorn

                    Pretty sure you are my long lost brother.
                    Got a one lane wooden bridge in front of our place and the people just keep on coming.
                    Tried to get away but they won’t allow it.
                    Good luck to you and crittermom.

                    1. Amfortas the Hippie

                      aye. I loathe hunting season.
                      there I am minding my own, and these suburban rednecks apparently have never seen an actual redneck…the hippie/hill people variety…so they slow down and turn all teh way around as they pass by.
                      It’s ridiculous.
                      sometimes I run towards them, or strip out of my clothes(if I’m wearing any), or both.
                      Unclear if it has any long term effect(operant conditioning)
                      I’ll be sure to report my findings, when available.

  2. PlutoniumKun

    A key point about resilient communities is diversity. Its not realistic to go back to hunting and gathering, but its perfectly possible, even in urban communities, for people to diversify their food and income sources. The problem is a massive deskilling of the population, driven by over specialisation.

    I remember back in the 1970’s as a child visiting my uncles farm, where my father grew up. It was a typical mid sized west of ireland farm (a little bigger than most). The house dated from the mid 1900’s. It had an orchard, a cabbage and potato ‘garden’, my aunt raised 2 pigs and chickens and turkeys, in addition to the main farm, which raised a mix of beef, dairy and sheep, according to land quality. The ‘main farm’ was my uncles patch, that was for money for the family – the ‘garden’ was for their own consumption, as were the pigs and poultry – the surplus used as gifts (we always got what would today be called an organic free range turkey for Christmas. In those days it was just called ‘a turkey’). Oddly enough, my country cousins found their city cousins fondness for picking blackberries and mushrooms and fishing and collecting shellfish for dinner somewhat perplexing.

    Sometime around the mid 1970’s, the ‘garden’ and pigs/chickens disappeared. This was the time of EU promoted high milk prices. Every farm in the area turned into a dairy monoculture, with maybe some sheep on the wetter more exposed areas. My mother was horrified – when she asked my uncle why he never bothered with the orchard and let the cows in, he just said ‘more money that way’, and he was probably right. I’ve often wondered why the farm women didn’t object more, as they lost a role (traditionally, the ‘garden’ and ‘house’ was the womans realm). Perhaps because it gave them more free time, or maybe they preferred to go look for part time work in the town to supplement their income.

    I still visit the area, and what strikes me is that if there was a significant problem meaning farmers could no longer depend on the complex supply chains which create year round demand for their milk and beef, I really wonder if they would be capable of returning to the old mixed farms. I suspect they would be desperately googling for pages on ‘raising chickens’ and ‘how to grow cabbages’. They would know no more than the typical city dweller. I hope that if (and maybe when) it happens, they will have time to transition back.

    1. Disturbed Voter

      Skills are more complex in primitive society. You have to have a long apprenticeship under an adult who already knows how, who got that skill in the same manner. Consider learning to knap flint into tools. You don’t learn that in a day, or a month. The last hunter-gatherer people have retired. Their children are now useless to that lifestyle, as much as a farming villager. S Africa put all the San people on reservations. You might as well expect modern Lakota to suddenly learn how to hunt buffalo. The gods are indeed, crazy.

    2. Eustache De Saint Pierre

      During my time in Listowel ( 2007 / 2009 ) there was if my memory serves me correct – much in the way of resentment aimed at the creamery due to a cut in the amount farmers received for their milk. Perhaps it was the reason that a local farmer punched a certain high ranked & very corrupt national politician whose name I forget, in the face at Listowel races.

    3. Karen

      This is a critical insight about over-specialization and de-skilling…and it’s getting much worse due to technology. John Michael Greer makes an important observation about tools that expand our skills vs. prosthetics that replace them. Labor-saving devices don’t really save labor at all, because people have to work so hard to afford them. This was the original insight of Ivan Ilych in describing the automobile…but it really goes back to Thoreau’s analysis of the cost vs. time involved in train travel.

      At any rate, we’ve thrown ourselves into a real predicament now, as people are becoming impoverished while losing the skills they need to support themselves. And all this automation is supported by non-renewable resources that are rapidly being depleted. Remember; the human brain is far more energy-efficient than all of the computers that are being built in an effort to replace it. I had a friend in the industry who used to joke that artificial intelligence is better than no intelligence at all…but this is the ultimate stupidity.

    4. J Sterling

      In the 18 Feb Links, Lambert links to an Irish article pointing to the fact that Ireland gets all its grain and flour from the UK, and what are they going to do after Brexit? I think the author leaps too quickly to autarky as a response (what about getting your grain from elsewhere in the EU, or elsewhere in the world, or, here’s a shocking suggestion, not slamming the tariffs up on the UK after Brexit?) But the basic point, about how our long distance trade networks are problematic, is sound.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Yes, that was an odd article. There are traditional links between Irish food production industries and British agriculture which will be very hard to unpick if Brexit goes really badly, but its not like Europe is short on grain. Running out of processed bread will be the least of everyones problems.

        Although oddly enough, when I was writing the above, I remember how my father used to talk about his loathing of the horrible rye bread they had to eat during the war years, when Ireland struggled to import grains. Irish wheat is high in moisture and low quality, so has to be mixed in with other grains to make a reasonable bread and only the coarser grains like rye and barley grow well. Nowadays of course such mixed grain breads can be found with exorbitant prices in your local upmarket deli or yuppie farmers market.

    5. Oregoncharles

      Rescuing those old skills and reteaching them is a major element of the Transition Town program. They assume they will eventually have to fall back on them.

  3. christine

    According to Weisman, in The World Without Us, the number for sustainability for modern life is 1.6 billion. Hunter/gatherer life might be as low as 400 million. If you go back and track global population figures you will see that the populations were very small in the past. Nonetheless, droughts and climate changes wiped them out in those times as well. The Anasazi of Colorado/N Mexico were a small population that grew too large, then came drought. The figure will be variable.

    1. Disturbed Voter

      During hostile climate conditions, say under the eruption at lake Toba 75,000 years ago, it may be that the total human population was reduced to , 1,000 – 10,000 breeding pairs, due to a 6-10 year long global winter caused by volcanic ash. Similar data is found in other species, such as tigers. Think Yellowstone caldera, only bigger. And that is with people who actually are adapted to hunter-gather lifestyle.

    2. Henry Moon Pie

      But the Anasazi were definitely not hunter-gatherers. They were growing irrigated corn in the Chaco valley. It also appears to have been a highly organized, even authoritarian society.

      1. Wukchumni

        The Anasazi were the most advanced of the indian tribes in the USA from a building standpoint, every other tribe’s effort seems like so many small potatoes in comparison. Chaco Canyon would’ve been their Washington DC, with trails emanating from it like the hours of a clock. If you haven’t been to Chaco Canyon, I urge a visit.

        When it was excavated in the late 19th-early 20th century, most of the 400 ‘apartments’ in Great Houses were full of ‘stuff’, not really living places, more of a “Darrell’s Storage” than anything else.

        Like us, they peaked as a culture and we’re on the downside when climate change came calling. After being forced to move away on account of a 50 year drought, the former farmers turned towards cannibalism, as nouveau ‘hunter-gatherers’. Christy & Jacqueline Turner’s “Man Corn” documented this over a period of many decades of research.

        I suspect the same thing will happen here, and all the Anasazi had was crude weaponry, largely made out of rock. Our modern weapons will make the work a lot easier.

        “Anasazi America” by Stuart, is a great read, if you’re interested.

    3. Carolinian

      Your excellent comment and the above are making the obvious point–that this lifestyle depended on low human to land ratios. While modern civilization may seem perverse it is a response to an even more fundamental instinct than simple survival which is to breed and multiply. Therefore, being a response to human nature, it is also “natural.”

      But surely it is time for a re-balancing as some of those hippies advocated back in the sixties (before they too began to breed and multiply). What we see at the moment among our too long in power ruling classes is a tremendous lack of imagination.

    4. Dirk77

      How did the Ju/’hoansi control their population? It’s hard to believe anything in this article unless that is answered.

      1. ambrit

        During the period when the Portugese were hunting down and enslaving natives in South America to work on their plantations, the natives are reported to have adopted a ‘one child’ policy. This allowed a pair of adults to move quickly. One infant could be carried easily by one adult while the other adult was capable of defensive actions. This was achieved through infanticide. Any child over the first survivor was killed. The ancient Egyptians are known to have used IUDs for contraception. An archaeological excavation of a Roman era brothel in England uncovered a graveyard behind the edifice filled with buried newborns. Finally, disease and accident caused deaths among youngsters were common and usual before the advent of industrial scale medicine. The present situation of most children surviving into adulthood is a new thing under the sun for human populations.

        1. Wukchumni

          In Guns, Germs & Steel, Jared Diamond compares the Maori of NZ to the Moriori of Chatham Islands.

          Both came from the same stock of Polynesian and arrived in NZ, and then the Moriori split for Chatham Islands about 500 years later. The difference being that NZ was a land of plenty and then some, and the Maori ended up being fierce warriors, while the Chatham Islands were a hard place to eke out a living, so every 5th male child was sterilized, and their society of 2,000 people was pacifist. And then in 1835, the Maori showed up in boats and killed almost every last one of the Moriori.

          “In 1835 some displaced Ngāti Mutunga and Ngāti Tama people, Māori from the Taranaki region of the North Island of New Zealand, but living in Wellington, invaded the Chathams. On 19 November 1835, the brig Lord Rodney, a hijacked European ship, arrived carrying 500 Māori armed with guns, clubs and axes, and loaded with 78 tonnes of seed potatoes, followed by another ship with 400 more Māori on 5 December 1835. While the second shipment of invaders were waiting, the invaders killed a 12-year-old girl and hung her flesh on posts.They proceeded to enslave some Moriori and kill and cannibalise others. “Parties of warriors armed with muskets, clubs and tomahawks, led by their chiefs, walked through Moriori tribal territories and settlements without warning, permission or greeting. If the districts were wanted by the invaders, they curtly informed the inhabitants that their land had been taken and the Moriori living there were now vassals.”

            1. Lee

              Cultural evolution has to a large extent freed us from some of the previous strictures of physical evolution. For awhile at least.

      2. Louis Fyne

        likely answers…..infant mortality, death during cchildbirth, death from bacterial infections following accidents. water borne pathogens,starvation.

        yup an idyllic Eden

      3. John

        While doing long term multiple trekking in Nepal a good while ago, it was noted among the female trekkers that periods stopped for the duration for some. We are so far removed from that lifestyle…walking every day, carrying a moderate burden of stuff, living in minimal shelter. We haven’t a clue how it works.
        But many days we used to wake up and say: Another day in paradise! I’m sure it would have been hell for many. It’s all quite relative.

        1. Dirk77

          Interesting. That was Thesiger’s observation of the Arab nomads: their lifestyle had everyone running at minimal life support, and the body behaves differently there apparently.

      4. Oregoncharles

        They may have had contraceptive technologies that are now lost. The Romans did, despite the brothel story, until the Church suppressed them.

        Or they practiced a lot of celibacy.

        1. ambrit

          In America, it being the culture I’m acclimated to, contraception was always unevenly distributed. As a rule, and I’m open to correction as usual, wealthier women had an advantage over their poorer sisters by virtue of having better educations, status, and resources. Basically, you cannot take advantage of a resource that you do not have access to. Hence, the majority of abortions or infanticides would happen at the lower end of the social spectrum. A brothel, the repository of the least advantaged women, would show a higher incidence of pre partum and post partum ‘abortions.’

    5. Lee

      I’m guessing, like the passenger pigeon, we’ve become a large-population-species. Our physical interdependence is fragmented and diffused among millions of individuals spread over vast geographic distances. That doesn’t mean we would not do better with a greatly reduced population and a reordering of our collective priorities.

      The passenger pigeon’s demise is attributed to genetics, ours to culture.

      Four billion passenger pigeons vanished. Their large population may have been what did them in

      Instead, the passenger pigeon’s huge population is what made it vulnerable, Shapiro’s team reports today in Science. The birds were able to adapt faster to their environment—and spread these changes quickly within their population—but this also caused all of them to be fairly genetically similar. And when a new threat—like human hunters and habitat loss—came around, they suddenly found their physiology and behavior were poorly suited for their declining numbers. Their population “went from being superbig to supersmall so fast they didn’t have time to adapt,” in part because they lacked the diversity to cope with this new way of living, Shapiro says.

      1. Gayle

        ?? The passenger pigeon, like the buffalo, was deliberately targeted for extermination with bullets. There was no adapting. The buffalo survived because people like James “Scotty” Phillip was able to keep a small herd.

        1. Lee

          The researcher believes that the species would have adapted to lower population numbers resulting from over-hunting but for its lack of genetic diversity— that its large population dependence was a genetically determined behavior and therefore that human hunting pressure and habitat loss were too rapid for genetic adaptation to occur. Species with a wider range of behavioral potential and/or greater genetic diversity are more apt to survive novel predators and habitat loss. Coyotes and crows are a good example. People have been trying to extirpate them for generations and yet they thrive. The band-tailed pigeon, a close relative of the passenger pigeon, is still with us. Wolves, bears, bison mammoths and dodos are less fortunate in this regard. It is important to understand the multiple factors, the very specific human activities and environmental conditions, the needs and vulnerabilities of a particular species’ contributing to their extinction if one intends to save them.

          1. drumlin woodchuckles

            I read once about the passenger pigeon some years ago. Its last big colony nesting attempt was sometime in the 1890s in Wisconsin. Hunters came by railroad from neighboring states to kill them all, just as these hunters had done to every big nesting for several decades previously.

            That seems like too fast a rate of killoff for any species to be expected to be able to “adapt”.

        2. Duck1

          Also a considerable amount of the mast of the original forest was lost as the farmers removed the trees, reducing the amount of food available for the flock.

  4. Henry Moon Pie

    I recently watched “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” a documentary about Chauvet Cave in France where 30,000+ year-old cave paintings were “discovered” in 1994. The film also examined other cultural aspects of the cave dwellers, including pentatonic ivory flutes. At one point, the narrator appeared dressed in what he said was these folks’ likely garb made out of reindeer garb. The clothes looked pretty cool, the kind of thing that would cost a few grand today.

    So let’s see: thirty thousand years ago our forebears were making extraordinary art, playing flutes, wearing cool clothes. It sure is great how far we’ve advanced since then, huh?

    On a more serious note, as I learn more about permaculture (in part, thanks to Lambert), it’s becoming clear that one goal is to create an enhanced environment for hunting and gathering. Logs inoculated with mushrooms, medicinal perennials and self-seeders scattered about, fruit trees and berry bushes. While we probably can’t supply all our caloric needs here in the city, we should be able to greatly increase our access to significant amounts of nutrient-dense, healthful foods.

  5. David

    Agree about the complex supply chains. We had ten centimeters of snow around the Paris area and everything ground to a halt. Within a couple of days the supermarkets were running out of Greek mushrooms and Spanish apples. When I was a child, living on the fringes of London, we had vegetables in our small garden and local produce in local shops. I shudder to think what some really serious weather would do.
    More generally, if you found the article interesting, check out the work of James C Scott, especially his new book “Against the Grain”, which is about how sedentary farming replaced hunter-gathering. Interestingly, the evidence is that few peoples made the change voluntarily, but that, from about 3000 BC, states arose that were based on the storage and control of grain supplies, and needed large sedentary workforces to grow the crops. The evidence, apparently, is that much of this labour was forced – extensive use was made of slaves and prisoners of war, and the death-rates from disease and overcrowding were horrifying. The Namibian bushmen survived as long as they did because no-one was particularly interested in subduing them. Further north, many of the African kingdoms were effectively slave states until they were overthrown by the British and French in the late 19th century.
    How far we can benefit from the economic and social ideas of these peoples today is difficult to say, but there has been a lot of interest in their lifestyle, and how it can help us. What is sometimes called the Ancestral Health movement, tries to adapt some of their practices to today. For example, hunter-gatherers walked long distances, lifted occasional heavy weights and sometimes had to run very fast for short distances. Exercise physiologists have found that such a combination is far more effective and far less damaging than heavy cardiovascular workouts. Likewise, it’s accepted that the diet of hunter gatherers (essentially whatever they could find) was much healthier than the cereal-based diet of sedentary populations, which, in its modern incarnation, has produced epidemics of obesity and diabetes. Maybe the lesson to take away – and this is Scott’s message – is that economic hierarchies, which have to be enforced by violence, are ultimately destructive of everything that is important in human life.

    1. readerOfTeaLeaves

      Wow, thanks for the book tip. (Just bought Against the Grain on US iBooks, $12.99 USD, and it looks like it probably dovetails with David Graeber’s “Debt: The First 5000 Years“, which Yves and Lambert highlighted some years ago on NC.

      With respect to food supply (in southern Africa), Dr. Tim Noakes’ “Lore of Nutrition” has a chapter late in the book about how white colonialists killed off the traditional cattle of South African tribes, thereby changing their food supply from mostly meat to crap carbs. Noakes is a doctor, distance runner, and exercise researcher born and raised in S. Africa. He’s become extremely alarmed by rapidly escalating rates of obesity and diabetes in his country, and he traces the roots to changes in food supply. His work dovetails with Ancestral Health, and its epidemiological implications. (And it’s not just South Africa; he points out similar health problems with Native Americans –who also lost their traditional meat-based food supplies due to white settlement.)

      It’s interesting to note that both books were published within the past year, and both distill decades of research and work.
      We definitely live in interesting times.

      1. Thuto

        For his troubles, Noakes is being subjected to vicious attacks by the orthodoxy, including his own fellow faculty members who wrote an open letter to him accusing him of peddling unproven science.

        1. Wukchumni

          When you look at photos or videos of crowds of Americans from bygone days say pre-moon landing, you have to look at a bunch of them in order to find an obese person, it was that rare.

      2. drumlin woodchuckles

        Those American Indians and Southern Africans just need to read the right vegan cookbooks and eat the right vegan food. I’m sure our vegan readers will agree with that statement.

    2. clarky90

      The Domestication of the Human Species
      Peter J. Wilson 1991

      Peter (RIP) is a Kiwi

      Prof Wilson talks about how we have become tame, docile. domesticated creatures. We domesticate ourselves from birth! (We are born wild).

      The reason? Agriculture and its demand that groups find and defend one particular spot, in order to grow crops and raise animals. Sedentary, rather than nomadic.

      Nomadic people view the world with short, medium and long gazes. They sleep/live in temporary encampments without fences, lights and walls to block/obscure (glass intermediaries) their day and night views. Modern domesticated human beings have had our vision blocked by the walls of our endless rooms. Windows frame our perception. Chairs are aiming devices to direct and control our eyesight.

      In my lifetime (!), “The Black Mirror” of our computers and phones are portable, electronic walls and attention grabbers, that we take with us when we go outside. God-forbid that we would have to even catch a momentary glimpse of Creation.

      For the last 10,000 years, since the appearance of farming, we have been retreating from the physical world of our hunter-gatherer forebears into a neo-fantasy world.

      I am a Deep Ecologist. IMO, Mother Earth is oblivious to what we do or do not do. One million or one billion years from now, Earth will continue to be swarming with abundant and diverse life, no matter what the climate does. Life will find a way…….

      Great post and comments! Thanks NC and NC commentariate.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Pre-Invasion, the Indian Nations quite carefully kept a combination of farming/gardening and hunter/gathering in balanced existence. How did they do that? How might we do a present day equivalent ( if possible)?

  6. Al

    Humanity is a cancer on the face of this beautiful plant and Mother Nature wants us dead. But Mother Nature isn’t trying hard enough. Reductio Ad Absurdum.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      You are confusing “industrial civilization man” with “humanity”. Is there any evidence that Nature wanted the hunter-gathering bushmen dead? Does Nature want the Congo pigmies dead?

  7. The Rev Kev

    I read of a book, which I stupidly neglected to note its title, describe life in England about two centuries ago where in average village life the people had lots of free time on their hands to do what they wanted to do. The hours they had to work per week was not that big a deal. What the book then described was the elites outraged over this, for “moral” reasons, when they needed a workforce for the new factories which people were not keen to go into. So that invoked all sorts of laws and the like such as destroying village commons so that the desperate villages were forced to flee and work in those factories. Real evil stuff.
    A point I wondered about. What do you do when you have a country of, say, 50 million people and through technology you only need a workforce of 5 million to run the whole shop? We seem to be heading in this direction. In a talk by Mark Blyth not that long ago ( he said that over the past 25 years the bottom 30% of income distribution were essentially told “We don’t care what happens to you. You’re now something to be policed. You’re now something to have your behaviours changed…They’re there to be policed and excluded in their housing estates.”
    If the result of this is things like Trump and Brexit as Blyth states, what will happen when it is the bottom 80% of income distribution that are in the same boat?

    1. David

      I think this was covered by Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class, but it’s pretty well attested anyway. The clearance of the countryside to force people into dangerous factories and stinking hovels was a deliberate policy, since no sane person would have made that choice voluntarily. The modern equivalent of course is making people “want” to work Sundays or unsocial hours or work in the gig economy. There’s always a big stick somewhere.

        1. Keith Newman

          E.P. Thompson wrote a seminal article on working time in the 1960s:
          In a nutshell, our wage slave world did not come about by itself. It was planned and the plan successfully executed by the ruling classes 200-300 years ago. It took many years but eventually everyone was forced into wage slavery. Until then people worked as little as they could get away with. The details are very interesting.

    2. J Sterling

      This is covered also in “The invention of capitalism” by Michael Perelman.

      It’s more about how peasants were forced off the commons and into the factories from the 18th century on, rather than how gatherers were forced onto the farms, but the status quo ante is similar: in the opinion of the owners of land, the workers were doing insufficient work.

  8. Steve Ruis

    It is quite apparent that people did not embrace agriculture with open arms. From its invention to its implementation wide-scale was a period of several thousand years. Why the lag? Wide-spread agriculture basically made slaves out of the people doing the labor. So, from being fairly egalitarian hunter-gatherers to forced laborers working many, many more hours per week, who would jump at that chance?

    This lead to an expansion of slavery, to the point that estimates were that over half of all humans were effectively slaves (serfs, etc.) for the vast majority of civilization. And who benefited from this? Certainly not the slaves. Civilization is built upon a foundation of human misery unfathomable.

    That people will never get to a 15 hour work week is completely understandable. In 15 hours people make enough to satisfy their needs but not their masters needs. Human labor is still coerced (work of die is the motto of the Republican Party) and the bulk of what is produced is still skimmed off by the elites. The elites will never be satisfied, which is why productivity and “the economy” are expect to increase forever.

    1. J Sterling

      Studies of mitochondrial DNA (which is passed down only from the mother) and Y-chromosome types (which are passed down only from the father) show that the ancestors of Europeans were middle eastern farming men and native European hunter-gatherer women.

      The picture seems to be that in the middle east, the land came to be held by a minority of men, who attracted more than one wife, leaving a surplus of landless, wifeless men. These then banded together to conquer lands to the west, kill all the hunter-gatherer men, and take the women to be their wives. After a few generations, the land around locally accumulated into the hands of just a few men, causing the westward cycle of settlement to repeat.

  9. Louis Fyne

    please don’t fall into the trap of over-romanticizing ‘primitive’ way of life—aka the ‘noble savage’ view of aboriginal people.

    from the documentaries i’ve seen on the original natives of southwest Africa [who were there before Bantu migration, then European colonization], they live a very hard-scrabble life, which should be respected but not condescendingly glorified.

    hunter-gatherers only ‘work’ cuz like someone said above. small numbers. which implies lots of premature mortality.

    first world civilization would work but again in small[er] numbers. breakthroughs in energy and material sciences. which cross fingers should be around the corner

    1. Wukchumni

      The Wukchumni tribe was here for many thousands of years, and they were classic hunter-gatherers who must not have suffered too much, as they had a reputation among other tribes as having an easy life in comparison to others. There were about 2,000 of them, the same number as Americans now. The object of their desire was largely the acorn, which supplied 2/3rds of their diet. It’s interesting now, in that not one of the millions of acorns that fall on the ground from oak trees are eaten by humans.

      1. foghorn longhorn

        Re: acorns
        Watched my dogs eat them for years so figured I would give it a whirl.
        Arghh horrible.
        Maybe if they were roasted or something. In the mean time let the deer and hogs eat them and then eat the deer and hogs.

          1. Dan

            Most acorns are very high in tannins – you have to grind them up and leach the flour for a long time to make it edible. Definitely not a food for beginners, but as Wukchumni notes there are millions of calories literally falling off the tree. Our biggish urban lot in Northern California produces enough acorn and buckeye nuts to feed our family many times over, but we don’t eat a one !

    2. readerOfTeaLeaves

      I spent several years in a Native Alaskan village, and before that was exposed to Australian Aboriginal life. I think the key point is not romanticizing anything, but the fact that both of those cultures and systems:
      — were far more egalitarian than urban cultures today,
      — gave people a very clear meaning and personal identity,
      — gave them work (fishing, mending nets, carving tools…)
      — kept them deeply connected to others, and
      — provided structures for what we in the west would call ‘life long learning’ is important to recognize.
      It is also important to recognize that Elders were respected; the experience of long life was respected. That in itself was socially cohesive.

      I used to be bitter about Hillary Clinton’s “it takes a village”, because despite the importance of that statement, it failed to distinguish some of what I’ve seen: if a village is cursed by alcohol, cocaine, speed, and sexual assault, it is a dysfunctional village that will only breed more and more dysfunction over time. The dysfunction escalates, as if on steroids, when you introduce fetal alcohol syndrome and drug-related neurological impacts into the mix. It doesn’t take ‘a village’; it takes figuring out what makes one village prosper with healthy villagers, while another village devolves into alcoholic stupor, rapes, murders, and suicides.

      The main point is, ‘how do we keep the village healthy enough to support new generations’?
      It’s starting to look as if egalitarianism is at the core of ‘village health’, which means that it is at the core of human health.

      This is all dovetailing with ‘The Spirit Level’, which Yves highlighted numerous times, including at this 2010 link:
      2010 —

    3. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      That’s a sound, sober reminder, to not over-romanticize hunter-gathers…as well as technology saviors.

      More energy efficiency has to be considered along with Jevons Paradox.

  10. Thuto

    “It is the mark of a primitive society to call regression progress” I once read. It is interesting to note that at various points throughout history, what we humans have seen as the forward march towards a “better” existence, aka progress, the industrial/technological revolution, the birth of the nation state, the advent of productivity boosting automation etc, all these things have come with attendant “dark sides” which the most malevolent among us appropriate for their own sinister ends, exacting a heavy toll on the rest of humanity. Pockets of humanity that have not embraced such wondrous inventions and the trappings of modernity they bestow have been labelled “backward” or their ways of life branded “frozen in time”, and in the best case, attract little more than fleeting attention from wide-eyed anthropologists, passing adventurers, or national geographic documentary makers. In the worst case, as in the case of the Ju/hoansi people, they’re forcibly catapulted into the lower rungs of modernity by having their way of life erased while being introduced to the capricious, precarious nature of existence that the rest of us call “modern life”.

  11. fat feller

    In a former life of “work”, there was presented to me numerous opportunities to observe the natural world which now has become somewhat elusive as things have changed.
    The basic gist of this observing nature is that everywhere we look there is something that is useful. Out in the field I was treated with teeth whitening agents, blood stopping salves and ointments, food flavorings and even food itself. In my opinion we have been separated from the natural world in which we could be self sufficient to a world where foraging for food means going to the “food” store. Walk to the park or other green space and you will be rewarded with all that you need and then some.

  12. diptherio

    As any farmer will tell you, how much food you get out of your land depends on how much energy you put into it.

    Unless you’re a permaculturalist with a food forest, amiright?

    1. Wukchumni

      We think of real estate as lengths, but here the Wukchumni indians idea of calculating ‘real estate’ was how many acorn bearing oak trees were in your food forest.

      1. Lee

        A corollary: Native Americans looked upon the land and saw resources; the Europeans saw marketable commodities. Or something to that effect, from Alfred Crosby IIRC.

  13. TG


    But one is reminded that Keynes was explicit in warning that his utopia could not come about if populations continued to increase. It’s right there at the end of The General Theory of Employment Interest and Money. However, today mass propaganda has made any intelligent discussion of demographics an untouchable taboo. And so the global population continues to be forced upwards (largely as a result of government policy), wiping out the gains of the industrial revolution, crushing workers into ever more savage zero-sum competition and giving ever more power to rentiers, and we can say nothing about it except impotently wring our hands that ‘oh why are things not getting better.’

  14. sharonsj

    I live in a rural area where a lot of people survive because they plant gardens. If you don’t want to do that, then you can buy in bulk from local farmers and preserve produce for future use. Also, I haven’t held a regular job in 30 years; there are plenty of ways to make money that don’t involve 9 to 5. But I won’t describe them because I don’t want the government to catch on….

  15. Pelham

    Good article but I’ll pose two questions:

    1) Clearly, these bushmen had no defensible perimeter. They had no way to defend themselves against horribly brutal and wasteful but nonetheless far more powerful interlopers. If we were to try to build a society much like theirs within, say, a certain nation’s boundaries, we’d also have to maintain some way of effectively defending ourselves from the challenge of ruthless outsiders. How would we do this and sustain what would be an extremely high-tech defense over many years in a radically egalitarian and perhaps somewhat less than ambitious society?

    2) Given a vast population bloated by rapacious capitalism and industrialization, would we have enough arable acreage and biodiversity to provide for all? Perhaps, or perhaps we could develop alternatives along these lines.

    1. Wukchumni

      It’s the rare commercial orchard in the Central Valley that has a fence around it, and i’ve always thought if push>met<shove, human locusts would descend upon them and strip them clean, but for now, so far-so good.

      1. kukuzel

        A fence won’t stop them if it comes to that.

        A horrible but true anecdote from the very recent past: in my hometown in Bulgaria in the early 90ies, the local gypsies, who were marginalized even before the cruel economic crisis that was underway, stormed the local zoo and killed, took away and ate most of the deer and some fowl. The zoo had a chain link fence around the area with the deer, which was a tiny forested area of a few acres on the outskirts of town. I think there was a guard… The deer were eaten. The zoo has recovered since but is much smaller and no deer.

        Prior to these years, we hardly locked our doors and everyone knew everyone else.

  16. Jeremy Grimm

    The industrial world is burning through the stores of cheap available energy stored through eons. Climate Disruption is shifting patterns of rainfall and the disrupting the regularity of temperature and humidity patterns in our local weather. Both these effects will soon impact the ability of 1% and less to feed the rest. The processes of automation and mechanization depend on energy. The processes of large scale warfare depend on considerable amounts of energy and will grind themselves down — assuming we can avoid tearing our societies to shreds entertaining the sociopathic and psychopathic desires of those who presently rule us. In short, humankind is nearing a cusp replete with uncertain futures. We still have a little time to shape some of our tomorrows.

    Are homo economicus, some version of the noble savage, a “war of all against all”, making the “Next Stop at Willoughby”, various Armageddons, or complete fantasies like life with the “Jetsons” really the best we can imagine for realities on the other side of the cusp? I believe answers to this question are crucial in shaping how humankind acts on this side of the cusp. How many people who refuse to look directly into the face of the decline of cheap energy or the frightening realities of Climate Disruption are swayed to act and change by these visions of future life?

  17. Scott1

    Keynes was making a prediction, not a plan.
    How we plan to live when there are so many people is the question.
    Capitalism does not allow for all that land to be available for hunting & gathering.
    When you are urbanized and without a job to get the money to pay for food the hunting is hunting for a job.
    What plan is there but a Federal Jobs Guarantee to solve the lack of game when the game is a job?
    Ghandi’s economic policies were to tell those of India to not want much.

  18. Susan the other

    Modern eco-homesteading could effectuate a not-too-disruptive transition away from the faux free market wherein participants can enjoy control of their little patch of land if they meet their obligations to the environment, etc.

  19. The Rev Kev

    I think that a relevant book that should be mentioned here is Dmitry Orlov’s “The Five Stages of Collapse” as the Ju/’hoan Bushman were mentioned here. It can get a lot worse and in Orlov’s final stage of collapse he mentions the dispossessed Ik people of Uganda. There is a brief article on them at but Orlov’s point was that what happened to these people could happen to any people when they hit the fifth stage and are thus a warning.

  20. VietnamVet

    The problem is that the human race won’t go into the great die off peacefully in a era of Hydrogen Bombs. Right now, due to the loss of family supporting jobs, Americans are reverting to their ethnic tribes and carnage by males is increasing. Stopping the hoarding of wealth and redistribution would avert calamity for a while; but, peace, conservation, a purpose in life, birth control and cooperation are antithesis to fundamentalists who are proliferating as human beings are placed under the stresses of endless wars and inequality.

  21. Abi

    Interesting, the bushman’s approach to life is not that different from the culture of many other African tribes/society. Our weather is very agreeable to the lifestyle and probably why we have a difficult time planning for the future.

  22. Expat

    Of course, we still have not addressed the fundamental question. Why? Why have 11 billion? Why have a hunter-gatherer society? Why have a sustainable planet? The answers seem obvious but I think you would be surprised by the answers people give.

    As an anti-theist, I have no expectations of an afterlife so as far as I am concerned life matters to me, my kids and probably my grandkids. After that, it’s all strangers about whom I don’t care at all. Much as I don’t care about my great-great-great grandfather who I never knew. So if humanity dies off later, it makes little difference to me. My genes struggle to make me care, but I don’t really.

    How about ardent Christians and Jews? God gave us this planet and told us to do with it what we want. Material life is irrelevant. Judeo-christian teaching makes no allowance for a fragile or ephemeral Earth because it was unknown at the time. Mormons care about ancestors (to the ridiculous point of baptizing people who died centuries ago!) but most christians do not to any great extent. Do Judeo-christians care about descendants? I am not convinced. Rapture and the Apocalypse figure in both religions so I can’t imagine they really care about the future of material humanity or of the earth.

    Buddhists and Hindus don’t care either, really. It’s just that they operate on a very, very long time scale so they would ideally like to keep the planet around for tens of bilions of years. Unfortunately, the sun has something to say about that in about five billion years.

    Muslims? I read the Koran but can’t recall. I don’t see any great Islamic Save the Earth movements, though. And Islam does not officially care about anyone but Muslims so we can write off humanity from and Islamic point of view.

    So why save the planet? Why not go out in an orgy of decadence and waste? Why not be as happy as possible in the here and now and to hell with tomorrow? I think these are valid questions and not as flippant as I make them out to be.

    1. Nancy

      Maybe because most (a lot?) of us humans are basically altruistic, and enjoy seeing other folks happy. (This has nothing to do with any religion.) Empathy and reciprocity are part of our animal nature – see Frans de Waal. Per Graeber, our earliest ‘economy’ was based on mutual obligation.

      So, as most of us know that we have been freely given the gift of this natural word, we feel ‘morally’ obligated to appreciate it, share it, and pass it on.

      Granted, the sociopaths among us have never felt either empathy or reciprocity…. perhaps we could designate sociopathy a dangerous mental illness, ala homicidal mania, etc., and isolate accordingly… ?)

  23. Nancy

    Re: John Michael Greer, some may find his novel, ‘Retrotopia’, and his look at past successful technologies, ‘The Retro Future’, interesting. (Not to mention the ‘Low Tech’ and ‘No Tech’ websites : )


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