I recently read Foragers, Famers and Fossil Fuels, which laid out the thesis that societal values are determined by a society’s method of energy extraction.
Currently, I’m reading Sapiens, a book that surveys human history.
This post was inspired by a conversation with Adam Hawf about these two books.
Was Foraging Life Better than Farming Life?
Yuval Harari, author of Sapiens, argues that foraging life was, for most people, much better than farming life.
Most foragers (as best as we can tell) lived in small, egalitarian bands of thirty or so individuals, worked around 30 hours a week, ate whatever they found (a variety of fresh foods), and then, presumably, spent the rest of the time gossiping, having sex, and playing low cost status games.
They did suffer from very high early childhood mortality rates, bouts of starvation, and elevated homicide rates, but they also had a reasonable chance of living to sixty if they survived childhood, as their lifestyle was less hospitable to infectious diseases.
In short: life was (presumably) good unless you were dying in childhood, starving, or being murdered.
Most people in the farming era, on the other hand, lived in hierarchical and unequal villages, worked in excess of 60 hours a week doing manual drudgery, ate processed grain products for most meals, and went through population boom and bust cycles based on starvation, warfare, and epidemics. Materially speaking, life was generally best right after a plague (assuming you survived).
In short: life consisted of near slave labor conditions (unless you happened to own the farm, castle, or pyramid) and was punctuated by major waves of death.
It’s not hard to see why Harari argues that foragers had it better than farmers.
Given the choice, I would probably choose to be a forager.
Was Foraging Life Better than Modern Life?
Harari also argues that forager life was in many ways better than modern life.
I’m less sold on this argument, but I’m open to it.
Most modern humans, increasingly: live in moderately unequal cities or towns, live a long-time, work 40 hours a week for small or large corporations, have access to sophisticated informational and entertainment technologies, support the rights of women and minorities, and have varied success in finding meaning and happiness, which is sometimes thwarted by anxiety, depression, alienation, and bad governance. And while violence seems to be down in the aggregate, in the early and mid 20th century we twice coordinated global slaughtering sprees.
On one hand, we live a long time, have more access to education and information, and enjoy great entertainment; on the other hand, our professional and social lives may be suboptimal due to the predominate economic and political conditions of our time.
Perhaps we’d be happier if we were gathering berries with our friends, even if we had shorter lives, less stimulating entertainment, and were less capable of abstract thinking.
It’s difficult to judge whether or not we’d have more meaningful lives, as most of our current constructs of meaning are intertwined with abstract thinking – making it hard to directly compare us to societies that did not think in the same manner.
Could We Have the Best of Both Worlds?
Is it possible that the future economy will deliver the best of both the foraging and modern world?
One could argue that being a yoga teacher or an Uber driver or a massage therapist – or any kind of service oriented independent consultant – offers you high levels of autonomy in jobs that generally involves humans hanging out with each other…. somewhat like being a forager.
And the kicker is this: instead of probably dying before you were five, having to suffer through bouts of starvation, having to worry about your buddy hitting you over the head with a rock, and having little capacity for abstract thinking, now you get free healthcare, wage subsidies, free police protection, and free education.
Yes, inequality will likely be higher in the New Forager world than in the old forager world, but absolute living conditions will be pretty great, which seems like a reasonable tradeoff. Also, wage subsidies could be introduced to reduce inequality to whatever society deemed fit.
My Experiences as a New Forager
I’ve lived as a New Forager twice in my life.
After college, I was a service contractor to a variety of restaurant corporations, moving from job to job either because I was fired or I quit. I was still on my parent’s health insurance and was not too concerned with building wealth, so I just made enough money to live on, hung out with my friends (who were also poor at the time), and saw a lot of live music. In short, I was poor but not really poor; the scarcity and stresses of deep poverty were absent from my life.
Now, as an independent consultant, I spend my days hanging out with people in different cities, writing power points that detail how we might better educate humans, and reflect on these experiences by writing abstract thoughts on the internet.
While I’m better compensated in my current iteration of New Foraging, it’s unclear to me that I’ve had a major bump in happiness or meaning (and what gains I’ve made I attribute more to wisdom than to money). That being said, all thing being equal, I’d rather be a higher income New Forager than a lower income New Forager.
Would I rather be a lower income New Forager or a middle-income worker at a boring job for a large corporation?
It’s hard to know without being forced to choose, but I think would rather be an Uber driver or a private tutor or a personal coach than having to work long hours doing repetitive and meaningless tasks. The autonomy, freedom, social interaction, and time would mean more to me than the money, especially if I could rely on government provided health care and education to ensure my family’s basic needs were met.
But who knows: perhaps the pressure to gain status or make money would have me showing up and grinding it out for a large corporation.
One last point: I’m not trying to deny that real poverty exists; rather, I’m saying that the New Forager lifestyle might be able to deliver a lot of happiness and meaning without high wages. People with access to high-quality education, health care, and safe communities will likely not suffer from the ills of those who currently live in deep poverty.
People bemoan the fact that we might be moving to a contractor based service economy that suffers from high inequality.
I can understand the risks associated with this future, especially if we cut back, rather than increase, government social nets.
But, when we survey all of human history, we should be open to the idea that this new economy might revive some of the best of the forager lifestyle, while also mitigating some of the worst aspects.