Here is an excellent and provocative article in the UK Guardian, Were we happier in the stone age? Does modern life make us happy? We have gained much but we have lost a great deal too. Are humans better suited to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle?
The article takes us through "The Whig View of History" In America we might call this the Conservative or conventional view:
One common preconception – often termed "the Whig view of history" – sees history as the triumphal march of progress. Each passing millennium witnessed new discoveries: agriculture, the wheel, writing, print, steam engines, antibiotics. Humans generally use newly found powers to alleviate miseries and fulfil aspirations. It follows that the exponential growth in human power must have resulted in an exponential growth in happiness. Modern people are happier than medieval people, and medieval people were happier than stone age people.It wasn't just the transition to agriculture, however. Much of human history has consisted of the immiseration of the masses and increasing control by sociopathic elites. The conventional view that 'progress' is good continues despite the fact that it has been so thoroughly discredited by modern scholars:
But this progressive view is highly controversial. Though few would dispute the fact that human power has been growing since the dawn of history, it is far less clear that power correlates with happiness. The advent of agriculture, for example, increased the collective power of humankind by several orders of magnitude. Yet it did not necessarily improve the lot of the individual. For millions of years, human bodies and minds were adapted to running after gazelles, climbing trees to pick apples, and sniffing here and there in search of mushrooms. Peasant life, in contrast, included long hours of agricultural drudgery: ploughing, weeding, harvesting and carrying water buckets from the river. Such a lifestyle was harmful to human backs, knees and joints, and numbing to the human mind.
In return for all this hard work, peasants usually had a worse diet than hunter-gatherers, and suffered more from malnutrition and starvation. Their crowded settlements became hotbeds for new infectious diseases, most of which originated in domesticated farm animals. Agriculture also opened the way for social stratification, exploitation and possibly patriarchy. From the viewpoint of individual happiness, the "agricultural revolution" was, in the words of the scientist Jared Diamond, "the worst mistake in the history of the human race".
The case of the agricultural revolution is not a single aberration, however. The march of progress from the first Sumerian city-states to the empires of Assyria and Babylonia was accompanied by a steady deterioration in the social status and economic freedom of women. The European Renaissance, for all its marvellous discoveries and inventions, benefited few people outside the circle of male elites. The spread of European empires fostered the exchange of technologies, ideas and products, yet this was hardly good news for millions of Native Americans, Africans and Aboriginal Australians.They believe it because that's what they are taught to believe. Elites require us to believe it so that we will continue to throw away their lives in service of 'growth' and 'progress', which as the above illustrates, benefits predominantly elites at the top of the pyramid. Economics is the bible and economists are the high priests of this cult and must promote it at all opportunities.
The point need not be elaborated further. Scholars have thrashed the Whig view of history so thoroughly, that the only question left is: why do so many people still believe in it?
Why else do they believe it? Well, the modern world after the Industrial Revolution, with its automobiles, airplanes, washing machines and iPhones is given as the evidence. But note that nowhere in this narrative do fossil fuels occur. The Industrial Revolution is the one time in history where living standards advanced for the majority of the population. But I contend that this has nothing to do with increasing growth or population, or even some wooly notion of 'progress.' It was entirely due to the surplus resources and energy brought about by the plundering of the colonial world and the harnessing of a massive and unprecedented surplus of energy in the form of half a billion years of stored sunlight. Now that those resources are in decline, I contend, increasing growth will only lead to poverty and immiseration for most of us, despite the panacea of "technological innovation," which as the article out more more often leads to lower living standards rather than higher ones. As we'll see below the Industrial Revolution has been a very short period of time in human history, one which we take for granted as lasting forever without evidence, and one with significant drawbacks of its own.
The author contrasts the Whig view of history with the views articulated by people like, well, me (and Christopher Ryan).
There is an equally common but completely opposite preconception, which might be dubbed the "romantic view of history". This argues that there is a reverse correlation between power and happiness. As humankind gained more power, it created a cold mechanistic world, which is ill-suited to our real needs.However, the author himself mentions above that these diseases only became prevalent after the rise of agriculture and sedentism. Here's Spencer Wells in Pandora's Seed: "Most of the worst scourges of human health until the advent of vaccination in the eighteenth century were imports from our farm animals, including measles, tuberculosis, smallpox, and influenza...As far as we can tell from the archaeological record, none of these so-called zoonotic diseases...afflicted our Paleolithic ancestors--all seem to have arisen in the Neolithic with the spread of farming. [William H.] McNeill suggests that many of the plagues described in the Bible may coincide with the explosion of zoonotic diseases during the emergence of the urban civilizations of the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages."
Romantics never tire of finding the dark side of every discovery. Writing gave rise to extortionate taxation. Printing begot mass propaganda and brainwashing. Computers turn us into zombies. The harshest criticism of all is reserved for the unholy trinity of industrialism, capitalism and consumerism. These three bugbears have alienated people from their natural surroundings, from their human communities, and even from their daily activities. The factory worker is nothing but a mechanical cog, a slave to the requirements of machines and the interests of money. The middle class may enjoy better working conditions and many material comforts, but it pays for them dearly with social disintegration and spiritual emptiness. From a romantic perspective, the lives of medieval peasants were preferable to those of modern factory-hands and office clerks, and the lives of stone-age foragers were the best of all.
Yet the romantic insistence on seeing the dark side of every novelty is as dogmatic as the Whig belief in progress. For instance, over the last two centuries modern medicine has beaten back the army of diseases that prey on humankind, from tuberculosis and measles to cholera and diphtheria. Average life expectancy has soared, and global child mortality has dropped from roughly 33% to less than 5%. Can anyone doubt that this made a huge contribution to the happiness not only of those children who might otherwise be dead, but also of their parents, siblings and friends?
And here's anthropologist Mark Nathan Cohen:
Many major vector-borne infections may also have been less important among prehistoric hunter-gatherers than they are in the modern world. The habits of vectors of such major diseases as malaria, schistosomiasis, and bubonic plague suggest that among relatively small human groups without transportation other than walking these diseases are unlikely to have provided anything like the burden of morbidity and mortality that they inflicted on historic and contemporary populations...The increase in the transportation of people and exogenous diseases seems likely to have had far more profound effects on health than the small burden of traveler's diarrhea imposed by the small-scale movements of hunter-gatherers...There is also evidence, primarily from ethnographic sources, that primitive populations suffer relatively low rates of many degenerative diseases compared, at least, to the more affluent of modern societies, even after corrections are made for the different distribution of adult ages.And of course lowered infant mortality leads to increased population pressure causing competition for limited resources and a sicker population overall. And besides, there is a very realistic chance we will lose the use of antibiotics in the near future. So the author could have picked some better examples. Anyway,
Contrary to assumptions once widely held, the slow growth of prehistoric populations need not imply exceedingly high rates of mortality. Evidence of low fertility and/or the use of birth control by small-scale groups suggests (if we use modern life tables) that average rates of population growth very near zero could have been maintained by groups suffering only historically moderate mortality (life expectancy of 25 to 30 years at birth with 50 to 60 percent of infants reaching adulthood figures that appear to match those observed in ethnographic and archaeological samples) that would have balanced fertility, which was probably below the averages of more sedentary modern populations. The prehistoric acceleration of population growth after the adoption of sedentism and farming, if it is not an artifact of archaeological reconstruction, could be explained by an increase in fertility or altered birth control decisions that appear to accompany sedentism and agriculture. This explanation fits the available data better than any competing hypothesis.
A more nuanced stance agrees with the romantics that, up until the modern age, there was no clear correlation between power and happiness. Medieval peasants may indeed have been more miserable than their hunter-gatherer ancestors. But the romantics are wrong in their harsh judgment of modernity. In the last few centuries we have not only gained immense powers, but more importantly, new humanist ideologies have finally harnessed our collective power in the service of individual happiness. Despite some catastrophes such as the Holocaust and the Atlantic slave trade (so the story goes), we have at long last turned the corner and begun increasing global happiness systematically. The triumphs of modern medicine are just one example. Other unprecedented achievements include the decline of international wars; the dramatic drop in domestic violence; and the elimination of mass-scale famines. (See Steven Pinker's book The Better Angels of Our Nature.)Indeed, as we saw, for even the bulk of population in wealthy, industrialized countries, living standards only began to rise about 1870! Before 1850, people living in the industrialized countries actually lived worse lives than their ancestors. They had to be forced into factories by the elites:
Yet this, too, is an oversimplification. We can congratulate ourselves on the accomplishments of modern Homo sapiens only if we completely ignore the fate of all other animals. Much of the wealth that shields humans from disease and famine was accumulated at the expense of laboratory monkeys, dairy cows and conveyor-belt chickens. Tens of billions of them have been subjected over the last two centuries to a regime of industrial exploitation, whose cruelty has no precedent in the annals of planet Earth.
Secondly, the time frame we are talking about is extremely short. Even if we focus only on the fate of humans, it is hard to argue that the life of the ordinary Welsh coalminer or Chinese peasant in 1800 was better than that of the ordinary forager 20,000 years ago. Most humans began to enjoy the fruits of modern medicine no earlier than 1850. Mass famines and major wars continued to blight much of humanity up to the middle of the 20th century. Even though the last few decades have proven to be a relative golden age for humanity in the developed world, it is too early to know whether this represents a fundamental shift in the currents of history, or an ephemeral wave of good fortune: 50 years is simply not enough time on which to base sweeping generalisations.
Indeed, the contemporary golden age may turn out to have sown the seeds of future catastrophe. Over the last few decades we have been disturbing the ecologic equilibrium of our planet in myriad ways, and nobody knows what the consequences will be. We may be destroying the groundwork of human prosperity in an orgy of reckless consumption.
[D]espite what you might have learned, the transition to a capitalistic society did not happen naturally or smoothly. See, English peasants didn’t want to give up their rural communal lifestyle, leave their land and go work for below-subsistence wages in shitty, dangerous factories being set up by a new, rich class of landowning capitalists. And for good reason, too. Using Adam Smith’s own estimates of factory wages being paid at the time in Scotland, a factory-peasant would have to toil for more than three days to buy a pair of commercially produced shoes. Or they could make their own traditional brogues using their own leather in a matter of hours, and spend the rest of the time getting wasted on ale. It’s really not much of a choice, is it?…
Faced with a peasantry that didn’t feel like playing the role of slave, philosophers, economists, politicians, moralists and leading business figures began advocating for government action. Over time, they enacted a series of laws and measures designed to push peasants out of the old and into the new by destroying their traditional means of self-support…
This pamphlet from the time captures the general attitude towards successful, self-sufficient peasant farmers:
"The possession of a cow or two, with a hog, and a few geese, naturally exalts the peasant. . . . In sauntering after his cattle, he acquires a habit of indolence. Quarter, half, and occasionally whole days, are imperceptibly lost. Day labour becomes disgusting; the aversion in- creases by indulgence. And at length the sale of a half-fed calf, or hog, furnishes the means of adding intemperance to idleness."
Daniel Defoe, the novelist and trader, noted that in the Scottish Highlands “people were extremely well furnished with provisions. … venison exceedingly plentiful, and at all seasons, young or old, which they kill with their guns whenever they find it.’’That point about how short the timeframes are cannot be overemphasized. In the history of the human race, industrialism is a blip. One of the things I've pointed out repeatedly is that the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution are very tenuous things. We see the Enlightenment under siege from a million directions. Creationists in the heartland want to suppress teaching evolution and eliminate the separation of Church and state, encouraged by opportunist politicians. Large parts of the Middle East are governed by religious ideologies like Wahabbism and Sharia law, and these are very recent- go back to Libya or Iran or Syria or Afghanistan as late as the 1970's and they are tolerant secular societies. Not any more.
There are more slaves now than ever before in history. There are more black men in the penal system than there were slaves in 1850, and prisoners are forced to work for corporations (in prison, slavery is totally legal). I've argued that modern-day college is essentially indistinguishable now from the indentured servitude of the nineteenth century. Democratic governance has been replaced by an oligarchy of money and unitary individuals control more wealth than entire cities and decide how it is used based on nothing more than their own whims. By some measures, inequality is higher now than ever before in history, as is the power of elites. I could go on, but you get the idea.
So to people like Pinker, I would say that the Enlightenment may not be a turning point after all. It may turn out to be a fluke, an aberration. Enlightenment and scientific modes of thought are very alien to our "natural" modes of thinking, which are based on nepotism, raw emotion, status-seeking, self-serving biases, and so forth.
The author then makes a point I make often, that we have paid a terrible price with modern society for the things that actually give us joy and happiness - our relationships to other human beings:
Even if we take into account solely the citizens of today's affluent societies, Romantics may point out that our comfort and security have their price. Homo sapiens evolved as a social animal, and our wellbeing is usually influenced by the quality of our relationships more than by our household amenities, the size of our bank accounts or even our health. Unfortunately, the immense improvement in material conditions that affluent westerners have enjoyed over the last century was coupled with the collapse of most intimate communities.George Monbiot recently made many of these same points in another recent article in The Guardian, The age of loneliness is killing us:
People in the developed world rely on the state and the market for almost everything they need: food, shelter, education, health, security. Therefore it has become possible to survive without having extended families or any real friends...friends in the stone age depended on one another for their very survival. Humans lived in close-knit communities, and friends were people with whom you went hunting mammoths. You survived long journeys and difficult winters together. You took care of one another when one of you fell sick, and shared your last morsels of food in times of want. Such friends knew each other more intimately than many present-day couples. Replacing such precarious tribal networks with the security of modern economies and states obviously has enormous advantages. But the quality and depth of intimate relationships are likely to have suffered.
In addition to shallower relationships, contemporary people also suffer from a much poorer sensory world. Ancient foragers lived in the present moment, acutely aware of every sound, taste and smell. Their survival depended on it....Varied and constant use of their bodies gave them physical dexterity that people today are unable to achieve even after years of practising yoga or tai chi.
Today we can go to the supermarket and choose to eat a thousand different dishes. But whatever we choose, we might eat it in haste in front of the TV, not really paying attention to the taste. We can go on vacation to a thousand amazing locations. But wherever we go, we might play with our smartphone instead of really seeing the place. We have more choice than ever before, but what good is this choice, when we have lost the ability really to pay attention?
Yes, factories have closed, people travel by car instead of buses, use YouTube rather than the cinema. But these shifts alone fail to explain the speed of our social collapse. These structural changes have been accompanied by a life-denying ideology, which enforces and celebrates our social isolation. The war of every man against every man – competition and individualism in other words – is the religion of our time, justified by a mythology of lone rangers, sole traders, self-starters, self-made men and women, going it alone. For the most social of creatures, who cannot prosper without love, there is now no such thing as society, only heroic individualism. What counts is to win. The rest is collateral damage.The author then points out the biological impossibility of growth raising happiness levels:
British children no longer aspire to be train drivers or nurses, more than a fifth now say they “just want to be rich”: wealth and fame are the sole ambitions of 40% of those surveyed. A government study in June revealed that Britain is the loneliness capital of Europe. We are less likely than other Europeans to have close friends or to know our neighbours. Who can be surprised, when everywhere we are urged to fight like stray dogs over a dustbin?
Evolutionary biologists offer a complementary explanation for the hedonic treadmill. They contend that both our expectations and our happiness are not really determined by political, social or cultural factors, but rather by our biochemical system....Evolution has no interest in happiness per se: it is interested only in survival and reproduction, and it uses happiness and misery as mere goads. Evolution makes sure that no matter what we achieve, we remain dissatisfied, forever grasping for more. Happiness is thus a homeostatic system. Just as our biochemical system maintains our body temperature and sugar levels within narrow boundaries, it also prevents our happiness levels from rising beyond certain thresholds...If happiness really is determined by our biochemical system, then further economic growth, social reforms and political revolutions will not make our world a much happier place.Here's Monbiot again:
One of the tragic outcomes of loneliness is that people turn to their televisions for consolation...This self-medication aggravates the disease. Research by economists at the University of Milan suggests that television helps to drive competitive aspiration. It strongly reinforces the income-happiness paradox: the fact that, as national incomes rise, happiness does not rise with them.And the conclusion of this article seems to be an endorsement of E.F. Schumacher's Buddhist economics:
Aspiration, which increases with income, ensures that the point of arrival, of sustained satisfaction, retreats before us. The researchers found that those who watch a lot of TV derive less satisfaction from a given level of income than those who watch only a little. TV speeds up the hedonic treadmill, forcing us to strive even harder to sustain the same level of satisfaction. You have only to think of the wall-to-wall auctions on daytime TV, Dragon’s Den, the Apprentice and the myriad forms of career-making competition the medium celebrates, the generalised obsession with fame and wealth, the pervasive sense, in watching it, that life is somewhere other than where you are, to see why this might be.
So what’s the point? What do we gain from this war of all against all? Competition drives growth, but growth no longer makes us wealthier. Figures published this week show that, while the income of company directors has risen by more than a fifth, wages for the workforce as a whole have fallen in real terms over the past year. The bosses earn – sorry, I mean take – 120 times more than the average full-time worker. (In 2000, it was 47 times). And even if competition did make us richer, it would make us no happier, as the satisfaction derived from a rise in income would be undermined by the aspirational impacts of competition.
The top 1% own 48% of global wealth, but even they aren’t happy. A survey by Boston College of people with an average net worth of $78m found that they too were assailed by anxiety, dissatisfaction and loneliness. Many of them reported feeling financially insecure: to reach safe ground, they believed, they would need, on average, about 25% more money. (And if they got it? They’d doubtless need another 25%). One respondent said he wouldn’t get there until he had $1bn in the bank.
For this, we have ripped the natural world apart, degraded our conditions of life, surrendered our freedoms and prospects of contentment to a compulsive, atomising, joyless hedonism, in which, having consumed all else, we start to prey upon ourselves. For this, we have destroyed the essence of humanity: our connectedness.
Thousands of years ago Buddhist monks reached the surprising conclusion that pursuing pleasant sensations is in fact the root of suffering, and that happiness lies in the opposite direction. Pleasant sensations are just ephemeral and meaningless vibrations. If five minutes ago I felt joyful or peaceful, that feeling is now gone, and I may well feel angry or bored. If I identify happiness with pleasant sensations, and crave to experience more and more of them, I have no choice but constantly to pursue them, and even if I get them, they immediately disappear, and I have to start all over again. This pursuit brings no lasting achievement. On the contrary: the more I crave these pleasant sensations, the more stressed and dissatisfied I become. However, if I learn to see my sensations for what they really are – ephemeral and meaningless vibrations – I lose interest in pursuing them, and can be content with whatever I experience. For what is the point of running after something that disappears as fast as it arises? For Buddhism, then, happiness isn't pleasant sensations, but rather the wisdom, serenity and freedom that come from understanding our true nature.Taken in total, the above serves as a good summary of the ideas of those of us skeptical of the expansionist productivist philosophy of the capitalist modern world and why we believe that continuing to follow it like a secular religion will not only not lead to human flourishing, but rather to increasing social misery, destruction of the natural world, and loss of human freedom. We must change course soon, or else.
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