Friday, September 12, 2014

Progress and Morality

Last time we talked about how the economic idea of “progress” is implicitly wrapped up with morality in the modern conception of societies. I just happened to find this old link which reviews Thom Hartmann’s book The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight (which would have made a kick-ass title for a dystopian post-Peak Oil science fiction novel, but oh well…), and I think this excerpt from the review relevant to the topic:
“The story of the Toradjas tribe is a good example, and fairly typical. The Dutch had “conquered” the Celebes Islands (now known as Sulawesi), and there lived in the Poso district of these islands a hilltop-dwelling people known as the Toradjas. They grew a dry variety of rice, and hunted, gathered, and lived tribally. Their economy had no money or other means of exchange beyond social courtesy and obligation, and hunger was unknown to them.

They were quite happy with their lifestyle, which they had maintained even thousands of years before Holland first was occupied by dominators from Rome, and they had no particular interest in planting crops for export to Holland or in working for the Dutch lowland owners on their coffee plantations. “This situation was intolerable to the Dutch, who observed that under such circumstances development and progress were impossible; and unless something was done quickly these tribal people were bound to remain at the same level of primitive lifestyle.

“So in 1892, the Dutch governor sent in missionaries to destroy tribal culture. This effort, however, was a total failure. Even offering ‘free education’ in the mission schools for the Toradjas’ children wasn’t enough to convince them that they should give up their religion or way of life. They simply had no interest in buying goods from the Dutch-owned stores, or in planting and growing coffee or rice for the Dutch export business, or in worshipping the gods of the Dutch. Without cheap native labor, the local Dutch industries were hardly as profitable as they could be. “

After thirteen years of diligent effort by the church, the Dutch government implemented Plan B. They brought in the army, and forcibly moved the Toradjas from their ancestral lands on the hilltops and redeposited them in the lowlands. They took Toradjas men for slave labor (they called it ‘conscription’) and used them to build roads, then imposed a head tax on each of their citizens. In order to pay the tax, the Toradjas had to go to work in the coffee plantations, and by 1910 they were ‘converted,’ sending their children to the mission schools, buying western clothing and appliances, smoking tobacco and drinking alcohol, and adopting Christianity.

Although their mortality rates had soared, and they’d exchanged the healthy, leisurely life that was lived by their ancestors for ten thousand years for one of frantic and grinding poverty, they were now, the Dutch government pronounced, ‘civilized’.”

I haven’t picked up a copy of the book even though it’s at my local used bookstore. It’s probably worth it, but from the reviews I have a major, major problem with the book.

The problem is his division into “older cultures” and “younger cultures” This binary way of categorizing cultures into simplistic buckets of “good” of “bad” is so culturally ignorant and naively simplistic that it ruins the entire book for me. The vast array of thousands of human cultures across time and space don’t fit neatly into these boxes. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of anthropology has to be balking at this. The fact is that there were many different ways that cultures have related to their environments and to each other, and these have existed side-by-side for millennia. The idea that we used to be in this perfect Eden and then came the fall with this monolithic “newer” culture (which one?) is straight out of Judeo-Christian thinking. Simplistic drivel like this drives me nuts:
“In the Native American Older Cultures (cooperative cultures), it’s perfectly acceptable (in fact, it’s desirable) to be tribally/genetically different, and to retain that separate identity….
Really? All Native American cultures are older cultures (older than what, exactly)? Is he aware that many large mammals were hunted to extinction by the Clovis People? Or that many native American cultures were centered around agriculture (corn, beans and squash) and built mounds to bury their leaders? What about the Anasazi of the Southwest whose civilization collapsed due to drought after building cities on the side of cliffs? What about the Mayans?
“Our Younger Culture is an absorptive one, eating everything in its path (as Malcolm X identified) and turning everything and everyone to not just its own use but, in particular, to the use of those who control it.”
Our "younger" culture? Which one is that? The Minoans? The Classical Greeks? The sixteenth century Dutch?
He compares the structure of the city-states of civilization with the structure of primitive tribes. “Tribes are characterized by five primary traits: (1) political independence; (2) egalitarian structure; (3) get their resources from renewable local sources; (4) have a unique sense of their own identity; (5) respect the identity of other tribes.”

“A member of a tribe is born into that tribe. The tribe defines his or her identity. Tribes do not evangelize (go out trying to get others to convert to their ways), and do not accept ‘converts’ or ‘new residents,’ and are convinced that their way of life, their stories of the world, and their gods are the best for them.”
All tribal cultures are characterized by those five traits. Really, all of them? Both the Celtic and Germanic peoples were once tribal cultures. Are they Older or Younger or both? There were no tribal cultures that took slaves for example? In fact, the Toradja themselves had slavery.

It’s maddeningly frustrating, because I so often see this tendency to lump all “primitive” cultures together into this simplistic “Noble Savage” idea of peace and harmonious living and make a simple binary comparison with our own unsustainable course. But given the vast majority of cultures throughout time, this naive view is just wrong and undermines the point. Yes, there is much to learn from the way other cultures dealt with their environment and each other, and yes there were cultures that lived more or less in harmony with their surroundings and had more egalitarian social structures. These are people like you and me and there is much to learn from them. But these sweeping generalizations just make the whole book impossible to take seriously on what is a very important subject.

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