Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Ian Welsh on hunter-gathers versus agricultural civilization

“I think it was Edward Abbey who said growth for its own sake is the ideology of the cancer cell.  It’s also the ideology of corporations, of agricultural societies. We talk about growth, right? Oh, this year’s growth rate is whatever. Everything’s always got to be about growth… the whole idea of progress stops making sense if you’re going in the wrong fucking direction. If you’re going the wrong way the last thing you want it progress. You want regress. We don’t want growth. We gotta contract, get fewer people using fewer resources.” 
Christopher Ryan on the Joe Rogan podcast

Here’s a partial transcript of part of an excellent interview with Ian Welsh on a podcast called Virtually Speaking with Jay Ackroyd (Dan’s brother?). Welsh’s writing has been so good lately, it’s not only difficult to excerpt, but even to link to a single post because they’re all so good and worth reading: http://www.ianwelsh.net/

Often times, some of you may be thinking to yourselves, “what does all this talk about hunter-gathers have to do with us today?” But this discussion below illustrates that understanding how we got here is essential in understanding the dynamics of history and what will unfold in the future. The point Welsh makes is critical and one I've tried to repeatedly make: that these new technologies don’t necessarily make everyone better off. In fact, “progress and technology” might, in fact, make most people worse off.

The Internet and iPhones are seen as an untrammeled harbinger of progress and enlightenment, but now we are literally at work 24 hours a day thanks to the digital tether. The Internet has meant that U.S. corporations can now hire workers to do their work anywhere in the world rather than here. The government can track everywhere you go thanks to the cell phone in your pocket. Face recognition scanners are on CCTV cameras on every streetcorner. They can listen in on all your telephone calls, read all your correspondence and keep track of every purchase. Automation means less and less jobs for people and more and more desperation as money becomes concentrated. Thanks to ubiquitous computers, elites can get a little cut of everything you buy or sell, as well as the interest, and generate money for themselves without limit. This is leading to a dystopia of almost total control by elites. What will happen when they can eliminate undesirables or subversives via drones with the click of a mouse and engineer their offspring for “superior” talents, and when unemployment is upwards of fifty percent? Will that make your iPod and Kindle worth it?

To the interview:

Jay Ackroyd: What it’s really coming down to is we’re discovering the carrying capacity of the earth is for humans under our…

Ian Welsh: Under our particular toolset…

JA: Under domestic [sic] agriculture…

IW: Under domestic agriculture, under industrialization. The carrying capacity varies. It’s not a fixed number, and people who say it is irritate me. But under the current way that we run things and under our current technology and social [organization], we’re past our carrying capacity.

JA: The history of this is that when we were hunter-gatherers up until about eight to ten-thousand years ago, the carrying capacity was much less at that agricultural technology. In fact, it wouldn't even make sense to say agricultural technology; at that level of resource utilization. The densest population that I can think of are in the southeastern islands like New Guinea and around there where people were rubbing up against each other and quite violent conflict emerged even in a hunter-gatherer environment.

IW: Well, what you see in the late hunter-gatherers is actually a pile of violence. I mean, they’re very violent societies and about a third of all adult male deaths are by violence. If they’re not pushing up against their carrying capacity, then they’re not violent at all pretty much. It is a phase change that happens as they become close to it and it explodes.

JA: Right. There turns out to be not enough available resources for the population of two different subsectors of people and they brush up against each other and start killing each other, and New Guinea is a perfect example of that.

IW: Yeah, I mean, in general yes. Some societies are just more violent period. But again when we look at the archaeological record what we see is, as they reach the carrying capacity you start seeing a lot more violence. So, yeah, the New Guineas and so forth.

JA: And the triumph of domesticated agriculture is you get a lot more people per unit of land mass, so it’s going to be a bigger society, so they march their way through.

IW: Well, it looks like a couple of factors. One is the population. The population is only a small part, because you see nomadic cultures that are 1/100th the size of civilized cultures and they just roll over civilized cultures until firearms, and until fairly late firearms at that. One major thing in the early part also seems to be, and this is something Stirling [Newberry] noticed, or at least brought to my attention, is disease pools. Because, to put it simply, agriculturalists shit where they eat.

JA: Unavoidably, because the population density is so high.

IW: Yeah, so you start getting parasites, you know, that’s when you start needing cats, that’s when you start having rats follow you around. So they basically become these huge disease pools, and what you see from the evidence is that the hunter-gatherers try and stay away from them, right?

JA: Well, as the Native Americans said about the arriving Europeans, they just smell bad.

IW: They smell bad, yeah, the milk smell. They smell and they’re diseased. And because you don’t live that way, because you don’t live near parasites, because you don’t shit where you eat, you don’t have the resistance, you haven’t gained the resistance. So you go near these people and from their point-of-view, bad spirits attack you and you get sick and die, right? So you get these taboos against being near them. And as they expand themselves, they just keep pushing the hunter-gatherers back. Hunter-gatherers do tend to lose the violent confrontations, but part of it is that they get weakened by the disease as well. And again, what happened in North America is primarily that ninety percent of the population gets wiped out by disease. If that doesn't happen, we, the Europeans, don’t conquer North America.

Again the main thing about hunter-gatherers that I emphasize in a separate post, is that for most of history…being a hunter gatherer is, until you reach the carrying capacity, is about the best it ever gets for human history. It’s far better than being an agriculturalist. I mean, you have a better lifestyle. You’re healthier. You live longer. It’s just, overall, unless you’re a noble in the agricultural society, you’d far rather be a hunter-gatherer.

Even in North America you see a lot of people running away to join the Indians. People talk about running away to join the Indians, even today. That was a thing, that was a big thing, because the Indians lived better. It was a more enjoyable thing to be an Indian that to be a dirt farmer in 17th century Pennsylvania.

And you can see it in the skeletons. They’re taller, they’re healthier, they have less disease, they live longer up until, there’s a few peaks, but basically…Greek civilization for a brief period lives longer than hunter-gatherers and then it dies back down again; there are some other peaks… one thing for example is that the hip ratio on women has never recovered. Hunter-gatherer women have wider hips than even modern women do. And, of course, that’s actually a thing of health, especially when you have to have your kids. They have better dentition, et cetera, et cetera. And they have heck of lot more free time in most cases.

One of the problems that we have is that we look at modern hunter-gatherers, and they aren't…you can’t just do that. You learn something from them, but the hunter-gatherers of the old days weren't forced into marginal areas. They were living off the fat of the land in the best areas in the world, killing mammoths and so forth, even in the Ice Ages and so forth. So they were living in the highest carrying capacity areas in the world. I mean you read about the hunter-gatherers in the Nile. I mean, this is a good life, man! You go in there, and you gather, and there’s so many fish, and there’s so many birds, and there’s so many animals that they practically fall into your hands. People have no idea how lush the world used to be. You read about, um…

JA: The English arrival, the darkened skies of passenger pigeons, the enormous cod…

IW: …The Grand Banks. You drop a bucket into the water, pull it out, and it’s full of fish. I mean, the fat of the land, right? It’s just not that hard to live. Especially if you’re one of the groups living in one of the better areas. I mean, life for the Inuit was always pretty nasty, but if you’re living in one of the breadbaskets…

JA: The Pacific Northwest for instance. They competed by giving each other presents.

IW: Because they were so rich. I grew up in BC [British Columbia]. One of my uncles, and this is in the thirties, he used to in live in, oh I forget the town, but one of the towns in the Northwest. And to make money he would just grab a piece of fish line, put a hook on it, and go out and hook salmon. And he didn't own a boat or anything, he just walked along the shore, threw it in, got himself some salmon, and took it back to town. And this is within living memory. You can’t do that anymore.

JA: Now there are farms. [intelligible] was making a common reply to this, and it says that low density populations, low specialization, it doesn't really fit the way the world really works. And of course, that’s a mistake. I’m sorry Lou, but that’s a mistake. Because the time that we've spent in this extensive monoculture/agriculture is a very short time in human existence.

IW: The thing is, we can’t do that now. It’s a way of life that is gone, and we can’t live that way now. Clearly we can’t. But it’s worth looking at how people once did live because that’s what we grew up in as a species. And also to remind ourselves that life doesn't have to be shit. And also that the winning technology…this is the key point I want to make, is that the winning technology and the winning social organization doesn't have to be the society that is better for ordinary people. If you had to choose, you would rather be a hunter-gatherer than live in most agricultural societies. It’s a better life.

JA: For 90 percent of the population. The one percent still live much, much better.

IW: Oh, of course, if you’re a winner, right? But for most of the population, you’d really rather be one. But the problem is that they lose fights and they don’t handle disease. And so in the end they wind up losing out, and they get shoved into the margins of the world, right? So just because something is new, just because you have a new technology doesn't mean that it’s going to make the world better. The stirrup did not make ordinary people better off. The stirrup made ordinary people far worse off because feudal knights are not who you want to be ruled by. People who can afford horses being able to beat up people who have to fight on foot is not a good position to be in. So just because a technology is new and superior doesn't mean that it’s going to make the world a better place.

And also:


IW: I do want to talk about there’s less violence and we live longer. There’s a lot of confusion over how long people lived in the historical stats because everybody talks about averages. The thing is, if you made it out of your childhood, the odds of making it to 60 or 70 weren't all that bad. But you weren't likely to make it out of your childhood. That’s part one.

JA: I’m sorry, when are you saying, what societies are you saying that’s true of? For example, France in 1780, you had a very, very small chance; you were 1 in 4, 1 in 5, getting out of childhood. Numbers like that.

IW: It was very bad. But if you were part of the elites, you know, your odds of making it to 60 or 70…take a look at the Founding Fathers of America. Except for the guy who got run through by a duel, they pretty much all made it didn't they? Historical stats on aging are always a little deceptive. It’s just something I want to point out.

The other thing is that in hunter-gather societies, you don’t get the massive genocides that we see. Now you do get them once you get up to agriculture; agriculture and nomads, right? But you don’t see them in the hunter-gatherer things, and they didn't have the ability to destroy the world, which we do. So…

JA: Right, and destroy the world even as known. Somebody referred to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. But his later book that talks about collapse of civilizations – those are always civilizations. It’s not the bushmen of the Kalahari. They didn't die of collapse and famine, they didn't die by genocide, they simply got smaller.

IW: Well, they sort of got pushed out of the good areas...

And this part is particularly interesting considering what's going on in China today: [45:45]:

IW: It’s worth noting for example that pre-World War Two most of the American population is still out on the farms. You have World War Two and they start moving into the cities, and they move in because they get a better life in the cities. So at that point, and this is a Stirling point, is that consumerism has to produce a better life than living on the farm produces or these people won’t come to the cities, and if they do come, they won’t stay. But once you lose the secondary option, once that option is no longer available, once you can no longer go back to the land or a different lifestyle, they don’t have to treat you well anymore.

JA: This is almost a microcosm of the hunter gather versus domesticated agriculture thing you’re talking about here.

IW: Well, one thing to bear in mind is that early agriculture is very different than hydraulic agriculture. And while there is a decline in health, they’re actually more egalitarian than late hunter-gatherers. So in certain respects there is an improvement in lifestyle. It’s still an overall down but there are some upsides. Whereas by the time you get to Pharaonic agriculture, I’m sorry, but being a peasant to the Pharaohs is worse in every single way. So once you can’t run away to the Indians, once you can’t go back to the farm, they don’t have to be nice to you anymore. Once they don’t need you to fight their ideological enemies anymore, a.k.a. the end of the Soviet Union.

JA: Or if you like, post Black Death Europe.

IW: Well post Black Death Europe is mostly about a population collapse. If you lose a third of the population, there just aren't enough people to do all the work.

JA: The labor/capital bargaining situation changes.

IW: That’s the thing. If you want to have a good economy in this sort of economy, you just have to have a tight labor market. It doesn't matter what else you do, everything comes down to the labor market must be tight. And they have done everything they can over the last thirty years to make sure the labor market has not been tight. I mean this has been deliberate Fed policy. Every time you hear "labor push inflation," what you heard was, "we don’t want labor to get any raises." Because one person’s inflation is another person’s pricing power, and for labor what pricing power means is, "raise."


  1. Good stuff. But as I keep repeating, the truth is not black and white... it's not foragers vs agriculturists. Many societies were a mix, and in my mind, this is the most pleasant and successful way to live. Hunting and gathering and some gardening and tinkering with fruit and nut trees and spreading them around as the Amazonians did. Incredibly, they also grew more fertile soil. That's my kinda life!

  2. True, but it was just a conversation between two people, so of course it can't really go into depth, since that wasn't the main point of the discussion. I included a post today featuring ana article that I enjoyed that can fill in some of the blanks.

    That Amazonian way of life is the promise of Permaculture, and I wish more people would be turned onto it, rather than figuring out how to outfit ten billion people with cybernetic implants and fly drones everywhere.

    1. Heh. Indeed. Seems to me humans are splitting into two subspecies... the wired ones, and... the others. Luddites unite!


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