Monday, October 30, 2017

"What Happened To 'Enough'?"

The recent New Yorker article this extrapolation emanates from was blandly entitled, “How Civilization Started”, though it made a provocative comeback with the subtitle, “Was It Even A Good Idea?” 

On second thought, maybe it wasn’t that wonderful.   I mean, those notorious “Question ‘Billboards’” on the local news, like:

“Big tornado – Is it headed our way?”

They withhold that worrisome tidbit till the end of the broadcast, making us sit through the sports, the weather, the returned puppy story and the inane banter.  Then finally, they answer the question, “Big tornado – Is it headed our way?”:


Of course, “No.”  If there was an actual big tornado heading their way, they wouldn’t pose it as a mere, speculative query, they’d say, “Get in the basement or you’ll wind up in Oz!

Still, in the context of civilization, “Was it even a good idea?” is an admittedly tantalizing enticement, even if the inevitable answer is “Yes.”

Or is it?

Oh, no.  Now, I’m doing it. 

Oh, man!  I am so impressionable.

Anyway (and I hope this is worthwhile)…

The gist of the New Yorker article is that when society morphed from a hunting and gathering society – the latter pursuit relegated to “Second Position” because it’s… “gathering” – anyway, when hunting (and gathering) transformed into “Planting and Cultivating”, we generally saw this as an anthropological “upgrade.”

But is it?  Meaning, “Have we mistakenly gotten it backwards, and the so-called “primitive” society was actually the superior one?”)

There is this song in the musical Oliver! entitled “Reviewing the Situation”, in which the miscreant Fagin contemplates abandoning his nefarious proclivities.  In one verse, considering one change in his larcenous lifestyle, Fagin ponders the possibility of marriage.  Ultimately, however, his connubial ruminations lead to a strategic reversal.

The verse goes like this:

“And a wife would cook and sew for me
  And come for me, and go for me
 And go for me, and nag and me
 The finger she will wag at me
 The money she will take from me
 A misery she’ll make from me…
 I think I’d better think it out again.”

You see what he did there?  Upon further examination, the prospect of “marital bliss” becomes substantially less appealing than it was original considered.

That is, analogously, what happened with society, the New Yorker article asserts, triggering the provocative question about civilization:  “Was it even a good idea?”

To which, their researched reaction, mirroring Fagin’s, is:

“Yes.  But…”

And here’s why.

Hunters (and gatherers) exhibit a tripartite cultural arrangement:

“We find it.  We bring it home.  We eat it.”  

Next day – they do exactly the same thing.  

By contrast, the “more advanced”, subsequent agricultural societies:

“We plant it.  We grow it.  We form settled communities.  We elect representatives to administer those communities.  They impose taxes – crops and property being more assessingly visible than digested food already in hunter-(gatherers’) tummies – the tax revenues providing for roads, bridges, universal health care if it’s not here, but they also potentially open the door to dictatorial dominance, corruption, exploitation, and an accelerating unequal distribution of wealth.  Among other unwelcome consequences.”

“We find it.  We bring it home.   We eat it.”

You see the difference?

The hunter-(gatherers’) approach is simpler, less corruptible and more inherently equitable, thus, as with the fleeing “Ringo” and “Dallas” in Stagecoach, described by the drunk doctor, sparing them “…from the blessings of civilization.” 

Let’s focus on one element.  (Because otherwise, I have to keep writing and miss lunch and my work inevitably turns grumpy because I’m hungry.)

The Hunter-(Gatherer) Credo:

“We find it.  We bring it home.  We eat it.”

The Result:  Full bellies, and no surplus.  Everyone eats everything, and everything is gone.  Leaving nothing to hoard.  Nothing to brag about.  Nothing to produce rising material inequities.  Nothing to tax, or tax evade.  The hunter-(gatherers) were effectively liberated from those nasty shenanigans.

PREHISTORIC HUNTER:  “Once, I killed three animals, figuring to take a couple of days off from hunting and eat the two other animals the next day and the day after that.  Hey!  Don’t mock me; I’m a Neanderthal with the grip of a gorilla.  But, yeah.  The next day comes, I had to throw the two other dead animals out because they literally stunk up the cave.  That sure showed me: 

“You cannot ‘bank’ dead animals.” 

For obvious practical reasons – which became their societal M.O – every day, the hunter-(gatherers) acquired only what they required. 

And then they stopped.

No dead meat savings accounts.  (Nor dead meat, secreted in mattresses.)  No discretionary dead meat invested in the stock market.  No dead meat, buried in overseas accounts, to avoid taxes.

SWISS BANKER:  “This vault – forgive me – has a detectable aroma.  And I do not mean of Swiss chocolate!

Because they now could, agricultural society – and, subsequently, industrial society – sufficiently provided for their personal needs.  But then, they voraciously kept going, jettisoning the leveling philosophy of “enough.”  People now accumulated for the sake of “accumulating” itself, amassing, as it were, more meat than they could consume in a thousand lifetimes. 

And they kept on amassing.

PREHISTORIC HUNTER:  “I don’t get that.  Why don’t they stop when they have enough and take it easy in their caves?”

An interesting question.

From an ancestor whose brain was purported smaller than our own.

Was “civilization” a good idea?

Yes.  But keep an eye on the bad stuff. 

Because it is really, really bad.

I don’t know,

Maybe, like the musically deliberating Fagin,

We ought to (seriously, wisely and quickly) think it out again.

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