Would we be happier as hunter gatherers than farming?

[ Someone posted an article in facebook from the New Yorker titled “The case against civilization. Did our hunter-gatherer ancestors have it better?”  And the author’s answer is a resounding “yes” backed only by bullshit.  I was so annoyed I dashed off this post.

Alice Friedemann   www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

The hunter-gatherer Bushmen of Botswana are always trotted out as what a life in paradise we once lived in (as well as the Pygmies occasionally).

Why don’t these people who idolize hunter-gatherer trips ever bring up Napoleon Chagnon’s experiences with the Yanomamo?

As a balance to unthinking noble savage admiration, I highly recommend his book “Noble Savages: My life among two dangerous tribes – the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists”.  Like the Bushmen, they are one of the last tribes living the hunter-gatherer lifestyle today.

But in the Yanomano, Native American, and other tribes all over the world, we know a constant fact of life was that up to a third of men died in an ambushed or ambushing others.  The goal was to get a new wife, and slaughter or enslave her children.  If you don’t believe it, take a vacation to Hawaii and read the tourist boards at historic sites – it was a god damn bloodbath most of the time.

Farming was inevitable, no matter how onerous. Any society that adopted agriculture gained enough surplus population to win wars against hunter-gatherer tribes, and so farming inevitably expanded.

Another big reason wheat and other grains were the basis of civilization besides taxation is that they can last for 7 years, important when a crop failure meant starving to death, and long enough to last beyond several years in a row of bad harvests.  Grains also pack a lot of calories and nutrition per unit weight.

And grains are light-weight. Napoleon partly won wars because he put really good bread bakers on the front lines.  Soldiers can more easily carry and eat a loaf of bread than a giant sweet potato.  And a loaf of bread is what John Muir took with him to the high country while he tended flocks of sheep.

Slavery is not due to literacy, farming, and civilization. Illiterate Africans and American natives enslaved each other.  Human nature is responsible for slavery.

Humans have always imagined there was a Golden Age in the past.  Today, many idealize the time between the Civil war and early 1900’s.  If you’re one of them, the book “The good old days, they were terrible!” will quickly put an end to that idea!

Nearly everyone except the bottom 2 billion are living better and longer lives than any civilization before us, which is entirely due to fossil fuels.  The most privileged can travel all over the globe while before fossils few traveled more than 10 miles.  We have comfort at the flick of a switch and so on.

I think many of us who are aware of the miseries of the past were hoping to wake people up to peak oil so we could be more thoughtful about designing ways to retreat to the past and create a better society than those in the 15th century. The end of fossil fuels means retreating centuries into the past.  We should be thinking about ways to prevent a feudal system and instead one based on small farmers and merchants.  Though human nature being what it is, I don’t know if that’s possible.

I don’t see any hope of going back to the so-called idyllic hunter-gatherer past. The agricultural cat is out of the bag.


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4 Responses to Would we be happier as hunter gatherers than farming?

  1. Agriculture is a ratchet technology. Even after a 99.99% die-off, it will be here to stay. That doesn’t mean it is better. We were designed to be meat eaters. We can live on wheat but it isn’t the optimal fuel. Each system has its good and bad points. The hunter-gatherers were at over population and seeing their food diminish, and so at that time ag was better. And ever since but only because the hunters got pushed back to the most marginal land such as the Amazon. I understand we can never go back, but I think if there was a choice many would prefer a better diet and a better occupation ( hunter-warrior ) as opposed to a peasant. Which is what most folks remain as farmers. Not free holding Yeoman. Today’s illusion of farmers is not historically valid. You dislike the illusion of the hunter-gatherer, yet most hold an equally invalid image of farming. Which you touch on stating you don’t think slavery will be abolished. Also, let’s not forget there isn’t always a surplus of grain for those famines. By the end of the soil fertility cycle, there is hunger and violence to match the hunter-gatherers. This is the classic case of giving up freedom for security and ending up with neither in the end. I’ll stick with nomadic herding as my strategy for the collapse. It might be brutish and short but I won’t be leg-iron’ed to the lords land either.

  2. Ozquoll says:

    What is the latin for ‘enslavers’? It would be more apt than the mocking ‘sapiens’ that we append to genus Homo.

  3. Gregg Senne says:

    There’s a cute video on the web about why we settled down and started agriculture. It was the beer. Barley was probably the first grain to be domesticated or perhaps just gathered and planted. Anyway, you sprout the barley, roast it, grind it, ferment it, decant it, and party. Civilization may have gotten started just to keep a regular supply of beer for all those festive occasions like the solstice, equinox, the big harvest, or I found a shiny stone. I doubt we’re going to turn our back on agriculture.

  4. Jeorge says:

    I thought the New Yorker article quite well written. It’s easy enough to find examples of slavery and warfare in the various hunter-gathers but that’s the thing, there were lots of them living lots of different ways in lots of different environments; the Modern Way is everyone lives the same wage-slaving dead-end consumerist culture – yay. Incidentally, there are still a surprising number of indigenous groups living a largely hunter-gather lifestyle, even in ever-crowded India, and they are largely egalitarian as the New Yorker article states.

    I don’t think we moderns need to view this as a binary choice; it’s completely possible to adopt a blended version. What is definitely needed is a change in the narrative we’ve been telling ourselves about ourselves, how we got here and where we’re going. There has got to be a better long-term goal than trying to see how much of the planet’s biomass can be converted into humans before it collapses.