How a north-western Kalahari Tribe exposes our obsession with scarcity and rapacity
Foragers of the Ju/’hoansi Tribe organized themselves economically, so that they were neither perennially preoccupied with scarcity nor engaged in a perpetual competition for resources. Why, then, are we always working towards bridging the gap between our insatiable desires and limited resources?
It was widely agreed upon that the Ju/’hoansi were the best modern exemplars of how hunter-gatherers must have lived; the longer sociologists studied them, the more it became obvious that their communal establishments offered insights into the past. However, it also provided clues as to how we might one day organize ourselves in an increasingly automated economy with a cannibalized labor market.
In a very fundamental way, we are born to work. All living organisms seek, capture and expend energy on growing, staying alive and reproducing. But even among living organisms, humans are conspicuous for the work they do. Whilst other living creatures are purposive when they expend energy, humans are uniquely purposeful; we go to work, and we usually do so for far more other reasons decided upon by our own independent selves.
Analyzing our species’ evolutionary trajectory reveals that natural selection molded us into master generalists, adapted to acquiring a varied range of skills during our lifetimes. It also suggests, with reference to Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs”, that the more purposeful and accomplished at securing energy our evolutionary ancestors became — by virtue of the simple tools they made — the less time and energy they spent fulfilling basic physiological needs. This motivates behavior that assigns more time for other purposeful activities such as making music, exploring, and socializing. Unlike our cousin Neanderthals, who would have had to spend up to 11 hours a day laboriously foraging, chewing and processing hard-to-digest foods, we were able to develop thorough cultures and languages with free time won by newly developed tools.
Consequently, the Ju/’hoansi were revealed to be well fed, content and longer-lived than people in many other agricultural eras, and by rarely having to work more than 15 hours per week had plenty time to devote to leisure. This turned established ideas of social evolution on their head by showing our hunter-gatherer ancestors leading off the exact opposite of “nasty, brutish and short” lives. Subsequent research revealed the extent to which their economy sustained a society that was at once highly individualistic and fiercely egalitarian and in which the principal redistributive mechanism was “demand sharing” — a system that gave everyone the absolute right to effectively tax anyone else of any surpluses they had. Individuals in possession of highly coveted resources (such as meat) are forced to share food with all other group members, including free-riding individuals who rarely hunt.
In such societies individual attempts to either accumulate or monopolize resources or power were met with derision and ridicule. Contrary to the assumptions about scarcity and resource management that underwrite our modern economic institutions, foragers worked so little because they had few wants, which they could almost always easily satisfy.
One important takeaway from this is that our obsession with scarcity and hard work is not part of human nature, but a cultural artefact with its roots originating in the soils of the first great agricultural civilizations. As any farmer will tell you, the fates will punish those who put off an urgent job like mending a fence or sowing a field in a timely fashion and reward those who go the extra mile to make contingencies for the unexpected. Yes, times are different nowadays, but on the backdrop of modern capitalism, consumerism, and an inevitable rise in desires alongside success, this bred a strong belief in the virtues of hard work and set us on a path towards constantly wanting to bite off more than we can chew.
The economic trauma induced by the pandemic has provided us with an opportunity to reimagine our relationship with work and to what extent we can continue to live such intensively demanding lifestyles within the capacity of our habitat. An underlying problem associates itself to how we may perceive achievements to be short-term doses of satisfaction yet inconsequential in the long run. Even if you’ve spent your whole life pursuing something, once you get it, you adapt to that new reality and it’s not exciting anymore. The solution to our inescapable yet insatiable desires does not come with simply lowering expectations, whereby if you don’t challenge yourself enough, you’ll inevitably feel unfulfilled, or that when you hold low expectations for yourself, you are thinking less of yourself and selling yourself short. Instead, we should practice detaching our happiness from the outcomes we seek to validate ourselves with; don’t live by comparisons, live by what’s true, and let knowing that you’ll adapt be empowering.
Rather than being preoccupied with scarcity, the Ju/’hoansi had faith in the providence of their desert environment and in their ability to exploit this. Let us do the same.