Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Not So Hot

It’s another evening hunkered at my office. Power is still out at my home, which means there has been no light, heat, or water (I’m on a well) there since the 29th of October. Snow is falling tonight as is the temperature. This poses a threat to my pipes in which some water no doubt lingers. Though I’m NJ born and raised, I’m increasingly aware of the advantages of the Southern states – the sky high real estate taxes in NJ, which I paid today, are at this point just a secondary issue. Yet, long before central heating – even before property taxes –  NJ was a populated land. The Lenni-Lenape lived here. What were they thinking?

I suppose they were thinking that, on balance, it was worth shivering through a few months. By the time of the Dutch arrival, the Lenni-Lenape were not quite sedentists, nomads, farmers, or hunter-gathers. They were a mix of all four. They planted crops in the spring, traveled to the Jersey Shore in the summer for the fishing and clam bakes, returned to harvest in the fall, and then hunted through the winter. To outdoorsy types, this probably sounds pleasant. Even if I wanted to, though, I couldn’t really emulate their cold weather lifestyle by hunting the area around my abode (numerous though the deer are): the neighbors would complain.

The toughest part of their lifestyle surely was the planting and harvesting.  That they bothered to do it suggests their numbers already were taxing the environment. Anthropologist/historian Jared Diamond commented that settled agriculture was "the worst mistake in the history of the human race." The Lenni-Lenape were halfway to making it.

Why did Jared say that? Because hunter-gatherers have easier, healthier, and more relaxed lives. Most of the handful of surviving hunter-gatherer peoples live in extremely marginal environments. Yet even in the Kalahari Desert the !Kung spend between 12 and 19 hours per week collecting food. The Hazda nomads in East Africa spend 14. They have a two-day work week and can spend the rest of their time as they like. In temperate regions, rich with game and edible plants, the task would have been much easier. Hunter-gatherer diets are more varied and nutritious. So much so, that, based on skeletal evidence, between 14,000 BC and 3000 BC, as farmers superseded hunter-gatherers, average height fell by 6 inches (15cm) and life expectancy dropped by 7 years.

No one knows for sure why, despite the disadvantages, people settled down after so many thousands of years as nomads, but the most convincing hypothesis is “by accident.” The one advantage to farming is productivity: 25 people can live off 25 acres instead of 25,000 acres (or more). Nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples are careful about their births since they have to carry everything with them, including small children. Still, such control is never perfect and numbers can grow. If population ticks up enough to overtax a reasonable foraging range (while neighboring tribes limit the option of moving), it makes sense to supplement wild foods with some planted crops. The resultant surplus then allows population to tick up some more. At some point it simply isn’t possible for all the people to live off the natural wildlife. They are dependent on the crops and have become sedentary farmers in spite of themselves. Oops.

As soon as there were full time farmers producing surpluses, there were full time politicians and their goons to take the surpluses away from them; the politicians then enhanced their own power by  re-gifting the food as though it were theirs to soldiers and other retainers. They never have stopped doing that. Toss in some bean-counters who figure out a way to scratch down records of the leaders’ swag, and we have civilization.

Now that I describe it, civilization isn’t sounding like a very good idea either… All the same, lacking the skills to live off the land in NJ (much less the Kalahari), I’ll be happier when my lights are back on.

(PS -- All I’ll say about the election is that I vote third party. To steal and remold a line from a more mainstream partisan, voting for major party candidates just encourages them.)

Steve McQueen in Papillon (1973). Papillon escapes from Devil’s Island and discovers the simple life. Why does he leave here again?

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