Lessons from the world’s most successful civilisation

Image by 2630ben on Shutterstock

The idea that we could create a society that is fair, equal and non-hierarchical, in which most people are deeply materially satisfied and live in a way that is environmentally sustainable, seems a million miles away. These are goals that we might only get close to over many decades — or, more likely, centuries — of progress.

But this utopian vision was already achieved in hunter-gatherer communities, argues anthropologist James Suzman in his fascinating book Affluence Without Abundance. That is, until their way of life was rendered impossible by Europeans arriving and taking their land.

He gives the Ju/’hoansi of the Kalahari desert the accolade of being the world’s most successful civilisation, because there is evidence that they have lived in a similar way for as long as 320,000 years!

The book has questioned my whole notion of what progress is, and made me wonder if we’ve been going backwards.

Few needs, easily met

Imagine being so content that you weren’t interested in any of the greatest riches the world had to offer. Imagine only working 15 hours a week. Imagine living in the moment and always trusting that you would be provided for.

When the first European settlers came into contact with the Ju/’hoansi, they offered them spices and things that were of great value in their home countries, but the Ju/’hoansi weren’t interested. They didn’t see any use for them.

Centuries later, when the Ju/’hoansi were working on farms, the farm owners were amazed that there was no need to lock away their possessions. The Ju/’hoansi never stole anything. They had a different concept of what was valuable.

One of the chief causes of environmental destruction is that we are never satisfied. As the global economy grows, we consume more and more resources, and there is no sense of when it will be enough.

Scarcity is the foundation of the ‘essential problem’ of economics, which involves the allocation of limited resources to fulfil unlimited wants and needs. But the Ju/’hoansi have a culture based on a very different principle: having few material needs that are easily met.

In my article on greed, I argued that we are trying to meet our social and emotional needs through material consumption, and that will never work. Perhaps one reason the Ju/’hoansi have few material needs is that their social needs — for example, for community, play and connection — are consistently met.

Another key thing that drives us up material desires is jealousy. There is a joke claiming that the right salary is £5,000 more than your brother-in-law. It makes us feel unhappy to have less than the people around us. Collectively, as Wilkinson and Picket identify in their book, The Spirit Level, more unequal societies have higher levels of crime, suicide, violence, obesity and mental illness. They also argue that inequality negatively affects rich people’s wellbeing.

It seems the Ju/’hoansi realised this hundreds of thousands of years ago and set up the rules of their society accordingly.

Mocking the hunters

Tsumkwe, Bushmanland, Namibia — June 23, 2017 : The Ju’hoansi San demonstrates traditional culture to passing tourists. The Ju’hoansi now make an income from demonstrating their traditional culture. Image by 2630ben on Shutterstock.

The Ju/’hoansi culture has evolved to consider the equality of status and material things as being paramount to the health of society, and they have practices to enforce that.

One example is ‘insulting the meat’.

Meat is highly prized in Ju/’hoansi culture, both for its taste and nutritional value.

When a hunter comes back with a great big giraffe to feed the tribe, instead of praising him, they will tell him it tastes disgusting and is barely enough to feed their grandmother, so that he doesn’t get big-headed.

Also, the person who made the arrow that killed the animal is given the honour of distributing the meat, not the hunter. That person could be elderly or not physically strong, and yet share in the glory.

A Ju/’hoansi explained it once to an anthropologist:

“When a young man kills much meat, he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man — and thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can’t accept this … so we always speak of his meat as worthless. This way, we cool his heart and make him gentle.”

– Tomazo in Richard Borshay Lee’s article in Natural History magazine Eating Christmas in the Kalahari

Forced sharing

Another way that they enforce equality is to ‘demand sharing’. That means that if I’ve got more of something than you do, you can take a share of it from me to balance things out. It’s rude for me to refuse your request. As a result, no one accumulates more resources than anyone else.

These practices blew my mind, because they are the complete opposite of our culture, which glorifies high status and allows some people to become eye-wateringly rich while others don’t have enough to eat.

Trusting in nature

Another thing I found fascinating about the Ju/’hoansi is that they would rarely gather more food than they needed for that day. If they had killed an animal, it was considered unlucky to go hunting before all the meat was finished. So, even though the Kalahari Desert is one of the most inhospitable places on the planet, they trusted that nature would always provide.

In contrast, much of our culture only sees the natural world as providing if it’s being controlled and exploited. Many people’s ultimate fear is dying alone, and that they won’t be looked after by other people, let alone nature. The Ju/’hoansi saw that the world, as one, would look after them, and that they could trust in it.

Plenty of leisure

One of the unhealthy hallmarks of our society is our obsession with work. Even very wealthy people who don’t need more money often work very long hours. In contrast, the Ju/’hoansi men would spend about 15 hours a week working and have plenty of time and energy to devote to leisure and napping.

So, how did we end up working so hard in modern societies?

According to Suzman, what led to the radical reshaping of this way of living was the shift from hunter-gathering to agriculture. It brought with it inequality and a completely different relationship with the land. Instead of trusting in its diverse providence, there was an attempt to control what the Earth gave to us.

Modernity has brought the Ju/’hoansi food insecurity, alcoholism, increased violence, more hours of more boring work, having their land taken away and converted to private farms, and far more inequality.

And we call this development.

Bottom line

Both of our cultures recognise that humans are self-interested. But while their system is created to counterbalance greed, because it is seen as socially corrosive, our economic system assumes that greed is good.

Now that more and more people are acknowledging that over-consumption is wrecking the planet, and that enormous inequality feels morally wrong, maybe it’s time to change the rules. If the Ju/’hoansi can manage it, why can’t we?

My work is all about love. Loving yourself, loving other people and loving the earth. I do that through writing, podcasting, coaching, running workshops.