This is an excerpt from the beginning of a National Geographic article on the Hadza, a small hunter-gatherer tribe in northern Tanzania. Reading this challenged the usual assumptions I’ve had celebrating civilization. As I read about the strange, austere life described in National Geographic, I also felt an odd sense of longing, despair, and hope. This wasn’t the first time I’ve felt this way. In my anthropology and sociology classes in college a lot of my assumptions about the “progress” of civilization was challenged and I became more sensitive to the pervasiveness of these assumptions in Western culture’s mythology.
I remember spending a summer in Swaziland and having a conversation about how, in spite of all the negative effects, colonialism was ultimately a good thing because it saved Africans from their unprogressive culture. Just recently, I heard the argument that, in spite of the oppression that resulted from the hierarchy formed in the patristic period (in church history), it was ultimately a good thing because it saved Christianity from remaining a “folk religion.” This disturbs me, and despite many of my concerns about sometimes ideological nature of “primitivism”, I nonetheless think it presents an important challenge to civilization that needs to be wrestled with. Consequently, I will (with a hesitant mistrust of labels) come out now as an advocate of the primitivist critique. I say that simply meaning that I think our love affair with the civilization needs to be questioned, and so far I’ve enjoyed the depth of questioning that results when we are willing to go so far as to engage the idea that a pre-civ lifestyle is the healthiest alternative.
One reason this perspective is attractive to me is because there seems to be a correlation of increased oppression, environmental damage, and illness with the advent of agriculture and rise of civilization. At the same time I found many of the qualities attributed to a hunter-gatherer lifestyles to be much more utopic than I had expected. As Finkel reports of his experience with the Hadza:
“The Hadza do not engage in warfare. They’ve never lived densely enough to be seriously threatened by an infectious outbreak. They have no known history of famine; rather, there is evidence of people from a farming group coming to live with them during a time of crop failure. The Hadza diet remains even today more stable and varied than that of most of the world’s citizens. They enjoy an extraordinary amount of leisure time. Anthropologists have estimated that they “work”—actively pursue food—four to six hours a day. And over all these thousands of years, they’ve left hardly more than a footprint on the land.”
Furthermore, though gender-roles are distinct in many hunter-gatherer tribes (and among the Hadza), they are in some ways less distinct than within most “civilized” cultures. For example, men and women among the Ibo almost evenly share childcare and women are treated in an egalitarian manner, without the kind of forced subservience we find in our culture. Women also have the freedom to leave men who mistreat them, a “luxury” only recently granted women in our country.
Why don’t I think this is possible without dismantling civilization? First of all, since highly stratified, ecocidal societies are directly related to the advent of agriculture, differentiated labor, and the building of cities, I don’t believe that the positive qualities of primitivism can be achieved on a large scale. We must begin organizing ourselves in smaller communities in order to facilitate unalienated experiences that can break down prejudices and hierarchical assumptions. Of course living in small communities won’t automatically break down oppressive structures and habits, but I believe this is the best environment for doing that kind of work.
This is because small intentional communities (aka: “tribes”) make non-hierarchical forms of decision-making and accountability possible. [Based on the size of the human neo-cortex, one anthropologist even presented a possible biological reason why we do not maintain order without violence on large scales (more than about 200 people).] Within small communities, authority can be based on relationships and granted willingly by members of the communities, as opposed to institutionalized authority, based in violence and/or wealth, which exists in all our current nation-states. There are methods for non-heirarchical decision-making on larger scales, but even these are based in smaller communities.
Specific forms of sustenance also play a much larger role in oppressive practices and environmental damage than many like to admit. As Mark discussed in his recent article, globalization and the monolithic agricultural complex has provided us with a wide variety of foods, but at the expense of many of our neighbors. Historically, the development of large scale agriculture lead to specialization in labor, which supported increasing stratification and (as predicted by sociologist Emile Durkheim) increasing levels of alienation in highly specialized societies. It also lead to the development of cities, population growth, and increasing cases of infectious disease.
It didn’t necessarily do great things for our nutritional health either, as an emphases on growing only a few crops (the ones that easily took to domestication) lead to a decrease in health. Some of us, presumably the most privileged, eventually recovered from the effects of agriculture on our health, but that took at least 8000 years. On the other hand, the Hadza still have a healthier, more varied diet than most of their neighbors.
I hope that intentional communities will play a greater role in a rejection of civilization and move towards primivitism (this is one of the reasons I moved into one). Though still existing in a civilized context, I would love to see our sustenance move further into the “foraging” style. Dumpster diving, gleaning, and salvaging food left over from soup kitchens (believe it or not even they often have a surplus!) shouldn’t simply be about getting free food or “downward mobility.” Its an opportunity to learn how to live according to our needs, re-orienting our tastes in the process. One of the other upside-down qualities of hunter-gatherer groups is that they live as if they have abundance (not storing up food and easily discarding items) though we often assume they must live in scarcity.
One perspective on this is that hunter-gatherers have adopted a “Zen road to affluence” believing “that human material wants are finite and few, and technical means unchanging but on the whole adequate.” In this article, Marshall Sahlins simply argues that hunter-gatherers have learned to live on less. Sahlins roots our continual disastisfaction (or sense of “not enough”) within our culture’s acceptance of capitalist principles, founded on notions of scarcity and great need (in our case, ever increasing created needs). On the other hand, hunter-gatherers tend to have a remarkably different view of their economic situation, eerily similar in my view, to Jesus’ discussion on economy in Matthew 6:19-34.
Just to be clear, I’m not arguing against any domestication of plants and animals (though, I think, we even need to begin to think about how domestication can equal domination in a way that is unhealthy for both us and the rest of creation). I’d agree with Mark, viewing gardens as a healthy alternative to agriculture as pre-agriculture, pre-civ horticultural societies tended to avoid the problems related to agriculture. In general though, I believe that learning to submit to what we can forge (even in a city) and what we can grow to feed our small communities would help us overcome our over-consuming tendencies. Obviously in frigid Minnesota this would require some food preservation, but that would certainly be a step in the right direction.
There are implications of this perspective that are troublesome. If we did move in a primitivist direction, people would presumably have shorter life-spans, infant mortality rates may rise (the natural desire to produce more children than we can actually sustain is probably related to higher rates of infant mortality), the human population would certainly decrease (but it would probably have to decrease if we completely switched over to organic, family run farms as well, and our population isn’t sustainable anyway), and some areas would have to drastically depopulate (as mentioned in the comments under Mark’s article). I personally am not sure if these are actually problems or if we just need to re-evaluate our perspective on life and death.
Does valuing life mean extending life-spans, increasing the population, and avoiding death at any cost? Or is it more related to the quality of life that can be sustainably supported? In-spite of our ever-increasing population and long life-spans, our destructive life-styles (built on human suffering, violence, and the degradation of the environment) seem to indicate an ironically suicidal and pathological fear of death, not a healthy value of human and non-human life. If an ethical, sustainable, life-giving life-style means that people will naturally have shorter life-spans and higher infant mortality rates, then maybe we need learn to live with death in a healthier way. Clearly an earlier natural death is preferable to lives built on oppressive, unsustainable practices.
I keep referring to civilization as alienating, and I think this is connected to our relationship to death. In my understanding, this all comes back to the way we use technology as a mediator between ourselves and creation. Civilization is built on one principle, foundational level of alienation and increases from there, primarily built on the alienation of humans from the rest of creation.
Agriculture alienates us from the spontaneous production of our landbase. City-dwellers supported by agriculture are further alienated. Instead of living off the work of our hands we rely on the work of people (who we don’t know) to provide us with creation’s fruit. Then, the wage system alienates us further. If we work for a corporation our work is owned and distributed by an abstract entity that we manufactured (I prefer to delineate between what God does, i.e. “create” something from nothing, and what we do, which is making things from creation, by calling it “manufacturing”).
The level of our alienation from God’s creation is evident in the way we meet our basic needs. We rely on technology we manufactured. If we need water, we turn on the tap. We rely on light produced by electricity. Our dependence on the landbase is not any less than it ever was, but our relationship with it is less intimate, and consequently we don’t relate to it in a healthy way. We pollute and waste the God-given water we need to drink, relying on the things we make to provide for us, and our technological ingenuity to save us.
Education, eating, drinking, the fruits of our labor, relationships we have within society, all of this things are mediated by civilization (or technology and cultural forms that arose in and supports a civilized context). Death should be included in this list. Wendell Berry’s short story Fidelity illustrates this well, when a young man takes his father from a local hospital so he could peacefully die in their family’s woods. This is followed by a state investigation of the “kidnapping.”
At the end of this story, the small town’s lawyer is approached by the state investigator for information. The lawyer refuses to comply and questions the state’s and the officer’s right to involve themselves in the situation. He says that people belong to each other, and to the land and the people they’ve come from. He says that they don’t belong to the hospital, or the state; that they aren’t the property of any organization. But we have made ourselves the property of organizations.
We’ve sold ourselves to corporations, and we’ve put our children and elderly and dying under the stewardship of schools and nursing homes and hospitals. We’ve done this because civilization requires it of us. It demands our service, mediates our relationships, and squanders our resources. This is the primary problem I have with civilization, it’s a complex form of idolatry that we’ve ensnared ourselves in. As a result, I hope that we can be challenged to resist our culture’s love-affair with progress, technology, and “development.” If we are going to move towards and embody Shalom, we need develop new eyes and values that will look for ways to challenge this system of death and domination.
Sarah Lynne Gershon is a former member of the Mennonite Worker in Minneapolis and recently moved to Colorado with her partner Brett and son Alasdair. She has her BA in Anthropology and a minor in Human Rights. She is particularly passionate about issues of freedom of gender and sexual expression. Sarah went on to practice massage and aromatherapy and is currently a member of a healing co-op which promotes a holistic model of health.