Hunter-gatherers: insights from a golden affluent age

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Date: Winter 2009
From: Pacific Ecologist(Issue 18)
Publisher: Pacific Institute of Resource Management
Document Type: Report
Length: 4,064 words
Lexile Measure: 1390L

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Hunter-gatherers have few possessions and are the lowest energy consumers, reports Marshall Sahlins, yet they are the original affluent society with material needs easily met in a few short hours a week. Paradoxically, in the 21st century's market economy, an era of the greatest technical power, a billion people are starving and people struggle to bridge the gap between unlimited wants and insufficient means. Scarcity and anxiety define our economy, while the hunters' confident trust in nature's abundance signals their success.

Hunter-gatherers consume less energy per person yearly than any other group of human beings. Yet the original affluent society was none other than the hunter's, where all people's material wants were easily satisfied. To accept hunters as affluent is also to recognise the tragedy of modern times in the current human condition with people slaving to bridge the gap between unlimited wants and insufficient means.

There are two possible courses to affluence. Wants may be "easily satisfied" either by producing much or desiring little. The familiar concept, the Galbraithean way, based on market economies, states man's wants are great, not to say infinite, whereas his means are limited, though they can be improved. Thus, the gap between means and ends can be narrowed by industrial productivity, at least to the point where "urgent goods" become plentiful.

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

Misconceptions about hunters

Average anthropological opinion on hunting and gathering runs like this: "Mere subsistence economy," "limited leisure except in exceptional circumstances," incessant quest for food, "meagre and relatively unreliable" natural resources, "absence of an economic surplus," "maximum energy from a maximum number of people." The low opinion of the hunting-gathering economy is not just neolithic ethnocentricism, it is also bourgeois ethnocentrism. The existing business economy will also promote the same dim conclusions about the hunting life.

Is it so paradoxical to contend hunters have affluent economies? Modern capitalist societies, however richly endowed, dedicate themselves to the proposition of scarcity. Inadequacy of economic means is the first principle of the world's wealthiest peoples. The market-industrial system institutes scarcity, in a manner without parallel. Where production and distribution are arranged through market prices and all livelihoods depend on getting and spending, insufficiency of material means is the explicit, calculable starting point of all economic activity.

The entrepreneur is confronted with alternative investments of finite capital, the worker (hopefully) with alternative choices of remunerative employ. Consumption is a double tragedy: what begins in inadequacy will end in deprivation....

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A205567724