If, as I think, Paul Shepard was on target in giving credit to the hunter-gatherers for having invented a reasonable life style, the “vale of tears” we complain of may be assignable to mistakes we humans made in rationalizing subsequent life styles, those of agriculture and the free market.
Paul, one of the first human ecologists, took a Yale PhD under Paul Sears in the Fifties, taught atClaremont College in California, and wroteNature and Madness in 1982. He concluded that the hunter-gatherers, each in their own way, had fortuitously given their young a long, untrammeled introduction to the intricacies of the natural world, and thus fostered a sense of appreciation and respect that made them responsible adults. The small groups of their thinly dispersed tribes had modest technologies and essentially lived off Nature’s surpluses. They scattered across the whole planet while still pedestrians, marveled at the night sky, and expressed an aesthetic sense in rhythmic tempos, body decoration, and cave paintings. Though Hobbes would later call their lives “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short,” the more we learn of their accomplishments, the more compelling Shepard’s assessment seems.Not yet the vale of tears.
Agriculture changed all this, especially in the eastern Mediterranean some 10,000 years ago. We became sedentary, possessive of our land plots and their produce, calculatingly individualistic, divorced from Nature; and even saw Nature’s vagaries, like bad weather and climate swings, as inimical. Needing many hands for planting, warding off trespassers, weeding, and harvesting, the patriarchy imposed on women and the young. The new life style produced more food, thus initiating population growth, but life became more demanding, beset by new diseases contracted from that handful of mammals we domesticated and at first kept in sheds attached to our dwellings.
The West’s Christian religion was a byproduct of this new agricultural life style; part of its task was to rationalize it. We have too long neglected that the Church of Rome was instituted by Emperor Constantine 300 after Jesus preached in Galilee. The emperor’s assignment was to pacify Rome’s population, grown restive because it was even then pressing against the limits of the land. To do this The Church had to invent persuasive stories about origins and purposes for an illiterate society; and where these were resisted, it made them dogma by calling them revelations.
No easy task in a philistine environment. The emperor’s lawyers, we are told, insisted on several church councils to perfect approaches and speed compliance.It is tragic, then, that our innate dualism somehow led to an overemphasis on the spirit, and contention over sexuality.The Church sanctified only that sexuality devoted to reproduction; this for a regional society already suffering from too much reproduction!This inheritance became the central problem of the modern age, beginning about 500 years ago: agriculture fosters population growth, and population requires more agriculture, disrupting the planet’s natural systems and laying the ground for the disruptions of global warming.But this dilemma has remained almost completely absent from discussions of the problems of our day.Everythingelse, we will soon learn,is meretalk.
As a way of life, agriculture collapsed when it was industrialized in late 20th Century. In the U.S., less than 3% of the population worked the land after World War II.Worldwide, 50% of the became urban at the turn of the 21stCentury. Slum cities were born, and conflict increases.
The urban age’s central problem is a new version of the iniquitous disparity of income, now imposed by the “free market.”This occurred when The Church’s constraints on usury were abolished. Access to land once held in common, where people could eke out an independent existence, disappeared as these lands and their productivity were “privatized.”The take-over continues. The presumption that there is a natural scarcity of resources is an academic invention because at no time has it been acknowledged that it is this new economic system and the increased demands of population growth that dictates supply and demand relations.
Today’s overpopulated world of course presses on a diminishing resource base. We already consumeabout one third of the planet’s total basic productivity just for ourselves. Things are out of kilter becausethe dominant economy rationalizestransposingall natural products into exchangeable commodities.
Given this no-exit dilemma of our own creation, we can all go down the slippery slope together, or argue and agree to share existing wealth accumulations while we reduce human population by at least one half, perhaps more; and change life styles again, this time viewing ourselves as guests on spaceship Earth, not its lords and masters.
No easy task, given that our economic conventions foreclosed education for so many of us; but hopefully possible if we can meanwhile also put off global warming threats.