A few months ago we saw this interview with James Suzman, but delayed linking it until we had an opportunity to get ahold of the book. Our interest was caught by his explanation for why the topic was important:
…If we judge a civilization’s success by its endurance over time, then the Bushmen are the most successful society in human history. Their experience of modernity offers insight into many aspects of our lives, and clues as to how we might address some big sustainability questions for the future.
And then we neglected to post it until today, reminded about the book by the folks at National Public Radio (USA) in a new interview with the author on the same topic:
There’s an idea percolating up from the anthropology world that may make you rethink what makes you happy.
The idea is not new. It surfaced in the popular consciousness back in the late 1960s and helped to galvanize a growing environmental movement.
And now several books are bringing it back into the limelight.
The idea is simple: Perhaps the American and European way of living isn’t the pinnacle of human existence. Humanity hasn’t been marching — in a linear fashion — toward some promised land. Perhaps, Western society isn’t some magical state in which technology free us from the shackles of acquiring basic needs and allows us to maximize leisure and pleasure.
Instead, maybe, modernization has done just the opposite. Maybe the most leisurely days of humanity are behind us — way, way behind us.
“Did our hunter-gatherers have it better off?” James Lancester asks in a recent issue of The New Yorker.
“We’re flattering ourselves by believing that their existence was so grim and that our modern, civilized one is, by comparison, so great,” Lancester writes.
This idea surfaces, over and over again, in the fascinating new book by anthropologist James Suzman, called Affluence Without Abundance.
Suzman has spent the past 25 years visiting, living with and learning from one of the last groups of hunter-gatherers left on Earth — the Khoisan or Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert of Namibia.
A study back in the 1960s found the Bushmen have figured out a way to work only about 15 hours each week acquiring food and then another 15 to 20 hours on domestic chores. The rest of the time they could relax and focus on family, friends and hobbies.
In Suzman’s new book, he offers rare glimpses of what life was like in this efficient culture — and what life was like for the vast majority of humans’ evolution.
What we think of as “modern humans” have likely been on Earth for about 200,000 years. And for about 90 percent of that time we didn’t have stashes of grains in the cupboard or ready-to-slaughter meat grazing outside our windows. Instead, we fed ourselves using our own two feet: by hunting wild animals and gathering fruits and tubers.
As people have diverged so widely from that hunter-gatherer lifestyle, maybe we’ve left behind elements of life that inherently made us happy. Maybe the culture of “developed” countries, as we so often say at Goats and Soda, has left holes in our psyche.
Suzman’s experiences make him uniquely qualified to address such philosophical questions and offer suggestions on how to fill in the gap. So we spoke to him about his new book.
What do you think of this idea that the hunter-gatherer way of living makes people the happiest they can be? Is there anything that suggests this to be the case?
Look, the Bushman’s society wasn’t a Garden of Eden. In their lives, there are tragedies and tough times. People would occasionally fight after drinking.
But people didn’t continuously hold themselves hostage to the idea that the grass is somehow greener on the other side — that if I do X and Y, then my life will be measurably improved.
So their affluence was really based on having a few needs that were simply met. Just fundamentally they have few wants — just basic needs that were easily met. They were skilled hunters. They could identify a hundred different plants species and knew exactly which parts to use and which parts to avoid. And if your wants are limited, then it’s just very easy to meet them.
By contrast, the mantra of modern economics is that of limited scarcity: that we have infinite wants and limited means. And then we work and we do stuff to try and bridge the gap.
In fact, I don’t even think the Bushman have thought that much about happiness. I don’t think they have words equivalent to “happiness” like we think of. For us, happiness has become sort of aspirational.
Bushmen have words for their current feelings, like joy or sadness. But not this word for this idea of “being happy” long term, like if I do something, then I’ll be “happy” with my life long term…
Read the whole interview here.