Lots of free time, for family, fierce social egalitarianism, and a strong sense of community – would these be better for our souls than the way we live in the U.S. today? What can anthropology teach us, about how to live our lives? Historically, the Kalahari Bushmen lived with humility, and took a Zen-like approach to life, living in the moment, meeting their most immediate needs and trusting that the land would continue to provide for them.
“If the ultimate measure of sustainability is endurance over time, then hunting and gathering is by far the most sustainable economic approach developed in all of human history, and the Khoisan are the most accomplished exponents of this approach.” (Affluence without Abundance eBook 805)
History, Anthropology, Economics and Human Psychology come together in James Suzman’s Affluence without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen. My non-fiction book club tackled the book, in print and eBook form, this March. Our reading was supplemented with articles by and about the author, as well as audio interviews and video recordings of Suzman recounting his experience, and sharing the lessons he has taken from the Bushmen. For a month, I felt transported to the desert.
Reviews label the book as part-ethnography & part memoir; descriptive prose; insightful and well-written; delightful and full of perceptiveness and understanding. Peter Godwin, author of Muklwa: A White Boy in Africa, writes “James Suzman has spent his adult life studying the first peoples of southern Aftica and it shows in this beautiful, heartfelt paean.” (Things From the Bush) That’s makes it a song of triumph, expressing enthusiastic praise.
The book is a comprehensive study of the hunter-gatherer society – its historic beginning, transitional period, and its very small, present-day presence. There’s debate about how long homo sapiens have walked the planet, but new archeological and genetic discoveries have pushed the number of years from 200,000 to perhaps closer to 300,000 years. To put that into perspective, Suzman explains that the Americas first saw humans only 30,000 years ago.
The vast, semi-arid land of the Kalahari Desert, in Southern Africa, was impenetrable for so very long, due to the lack of water to grow crops and graze cattle. Colonization was impossible; the desert stopped those who tried, and hunter-gatherer society, to the south, remained very isolated. This went on until the eventual arrival of white colonials, made possible by the technology of borehole (deep well) pumps, and water dredging machines, which gave access to water.
Suzman lived among the Bushmen, interviewing and photographing, filming and participating in their daily tasks. He became family. Learning the language was complicated, with varied clicks and tonal changes. He describes himself as less gifted, with languages, than many other accomplished anthropologists, always struggling with the language. He would lose skill quickly, when he spent time away, and was good-naturedly teased, by the Bushmen, for his poor linguistic performance. (Nightlife)
One member of book club compared the way Affluence without Abundance was written to a Ken Burns documentary film. Burns is known for the use of archival footage and photographs, coupled with vivid storytelling, in his numerous documentary series, including: “The Civil War,” “Prohibition,” and “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.”
In Affluence without Abundance, the author’s “lens” zooms in, to tell the intimate story of one family, or a single individual. Personalities are revealed based on decades of first-hand studies of these individuals, their family groups, and the community structure. One reoccurring character, throughout the book, is Old /Engn!au, who told stories of the Old Times, and smoked Suzman’s cigarettes.
“His insistence that he was lucky and in good health did not match his appearance. With no teeth left, he could eat only soft food and was nearly blind. He also had lost his right leg just above the knee in an accident that could only be considered extremely unlucky, and in a community plagued by tuberculosis [his] hacking and wheezing was always the most horrifying.” (eBook 1276)
Anu was a toddler, who sat around the old man with her friends, to listen to his tales, help him around the village, and act as his eyes. When Anu was grown, and had her own family, Suzman visited again, and she insisted that they go out gathering in the bush. She wanted Suzman to photograph her. She dressed in a traditional leather apron, as her ancestors had for so many years. It wasn’t uncommon for gatherers to return with a full bag after just a couple of hours, due to their keen eye and knowledge of the edible plants in the area.
Suzman describes feeling a sense of nostalgia on that trip, photographing Anu. He says this was because the whole notion of hunting and gathering is fading away, as the Bushmen lose their land, and are pulled further and further away from how their ancestors lived. Interestingly, the Bushmen did not define themselves according to who their ancestors were – “in a world where the past and future have so little importance, the dead were also soon forgotten.” (eBook 1399) Perhaps Anu did not want herself, or her ancestral way of life, to be forgotten.
Then the author’s lens zooms out, to examine what was going on socially, economically, and environmentally, in the larger geographic territory. Territories were fluid, and individual bands of bushman might change location six or seven times a year, leaving their grass shelters behind, with no real concern, anxiety or regret. Throughout the book, the more intimate accounts, of families and individual Bushmen, alternate with the wide-angle view, of the historical and political context the bushman live (and lived) in.
They conceived of time divided into 3 Eras: First Times (when Gods walked the planet and animals and people were one and the same); Old Times (a transitional period during which animals separated from humans, and the humans formed Tribes); and New Time (unpredictable, and full of constant worry and change).
“Ju/’hoansi were not captive to an interminable food quest and were content to expend no more effort than was strictly necessarily to meet their basic short-term needs even in the toughest months/” (eBook 2059)
“The Ju/’hoansi people of the Kalahari have always been fiercely egalitarian. They hate inequality or showing off, and shun formal leadership institutions. It’s what made them part of the most successful, sustainable civilization in human history.” (Bushman Banter)
I couldn’t help but make comparisons between the way the Bushmen conceived of the world, and each other, and how my contemporaries look at the world today. The internet in abuzz with ancestral searches, and Ancestry.com is the first item that appears (as a paid advertisement) in a Google search for “ancestry”. Moving to a new home, or city is considered a major life stressor, right up there with divorce, job change, or a death in the family. We tie so much of our identity into the side of town we live in, the “vibe” of the neighborhood, its resources, and our access to the many (too many) things we need.
The experience of the Bushmen couldn’t be more different. Their needs were quite basic and focused on survival and immediate reward. The fluidity of their territories resulted in a certain detachment to any particular place, though they knew their environment and its resources well. Their sense of time, of what the future will bring, and their understanding of the insignificance of the past just doesn’t match up with modern day U.S.A.
“How they experience time. . . unique to hunger-gatherers. They lived in an Immediate Return Economy. Hunt and Gather for that day! Also, things didn’t change a great deal, so they knew what to expect. . . things are predictable. No worry about the future or the past. We today (and farmers too) live in a Delayed Return Economy. We are hostage to future aspirations.” (Nightlife)
The Bushman lived lives of plenty, when they had the freedom and the land to hunt and gather daily. They had few needs, and those needs were easily met. Perhaps this is the biggest takeaway from the book. A life of simplicity, using only the resources necessary, and sharing amongst the community, can meet the needs of all, most of the time, and is generally sustainable.
I mentioned earlier that Suzman considers endurance over time to be the ultimate measure of sustainability. The Bushmen lifestyle endured for an unimaginably long time. How long can we endure, in a modern culture that convinces us that we need every latest technological gadget, the newest fashions, and home décor that changes with the seasons?
Modern advertising strives to create need, real or imagined, in our lives. Despite all that I have, I’m told, through visual, print and audible media, that I don’t have enough; I’m told that I myself am not enough, because of this lack of material possessions. If marketing fails to create a sense of urgency, a clear and immediate need, the campaign is considered a success if it creates a desire, a longing, a general feeling of lacking.
What a condition to be living in, and so at odds with how the Bushmen approached life. Marshall Sahlins, who wrote The Original Affluent Society, and whose work informed Suzman’s work, puts it this way:
“To accept that hunters are affluent is therefore to recognize that the present human condition of man slaving to bridge the gap between his unlimited wants and his insufficient means is a tragedy of modern times . . .There are two possible courses to affluence. Wants may be “easily satisfied” either by producing much or desiring little.” (The Original Affluent Society)
The Bushmen had, and still have, a low standard of living, but their experience of it is changing, with exposure to modern agricultural practices, and products of the industrial revolution. They are aware of, and puzzled by, the surplus in the world; they have been so confined, with the loss of their ancestral lands, that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle is becoming impractical.
When the Bushmen had access plentiful land to hunt and forage, they adopted a Zen-like approach, enjoying “unparalleled material plenty – [even] with a low standard of living. That, I think, describes the hunters.” (Sahlins) They engaged in no economic planning, and no behaviors to preserve or hoard their resources. Everything was shared, and they focused on immediate needs.
Suzman stresses that the current economic situation, which is fraught with poverty and famine, are not problems of production, but problems of distribution. We produce enough food to feed everyone – in fact we throw food away. It’s simply not distributed properly. With 7 ½ billion of us now inhabiting the planet, we may be in a bit of trouble.
He’d like to look at this most sustainable Bushmen society, examine it, and learn what we can from it, to transform our current economic stresses. The goal – to “take this question and see what we can take from their experience to reimagine our own economic future.” (Nightlife)
At the height of the Depression, around 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes published “The Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren.” In the essay he proposed that when we achieved a certain level of technological advancement, we would be able reduce our work down to a 15-hour work week, and enjoy much family and leisure time.
“Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem — how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.” (Economic Possibilities website)
Modern American society has met Keynes’ measure for economic success, much sooner than forecast, and yet the 40-hour work week is standard. Some employers may create a position that works only 35 hours, to avoid paying Full-time benefits, and others send hourly employees home as soon as they reach 40 hours, to prevent overtime. Generally speaking, however, we work, and we work, and we work in order to consume, and consume some more, then consume just a little bit more. We seem never to be satisfied.
Should we assume that this work ethic and drive for achievement is just part of being human? The Bushmen tell us this is not the case, says Suzman. So, “What can we do. . . in terms of seeking happiness, contentment, and the use of the resources that we do have, now that there are so many more people on the planet?” (Nightlife)
If you’re interested in traveling to the Kalahari to find out if the Bushmen have the answers we need, there’s a book I can recommend. . . . James Suzman’s Affluence without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen.
Join me on my next adventure,
Evonomics: How Hunger-Gatherers May Hold the Key to our Economic Future: we need to rethink our relationships with the workplace: http://evonomics.com/hunter-gatherers-may-hold-key-economic-future/
Things From the Bush: https://www.fromthebush.com/
Affluence without Abundance on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/afflubundence/
Why ‘Bushman banter’ was Crucial to Hunter-Gatherers Evolutionary Success: https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2017/oct/29/why-bushman-banter-was-crucial-to-hunter-gatherers-evolutionary-success?CMP=twt_gu
James Suzman on Nightlife with Sarah Macdonald: http://www.abc.net.au/radio/perth/programs/nightlife/the-writers—james-suzman/9050596
The Original Affluent Society (Marshall Sahlins): http://www.primitivism.com/original-affluent.htm
Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren – Will We Ever Get Enough?: https://www.mercatus.org/commentary/economic-possibilities-our-grandchildren