Saturday, June 11, 2011

We have our cake and it is killing us

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, ancient history, civilization

Pandora's Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization by Spencer Wells is filled with interesting ideas, but all are overshadowed by his Big Idea, that we have yet to adapt fully to the Neolithic invention of agriculture, from which followed cities and "civilization". As though those living hunter-gatherer lives, such as the Hadzabe in Tanzania, were somehow bereft of civil polity.

Looking at the anthropology as a historical flow, we find that the beginnings of "taking charge of the food supply" were followed by shorter lives caused by more infectious diseases, higher rates of mental ailments caused by overcrowding, and more frequent warfare. Looked at through such a lens, modern life is seen as an early stage in the adaptation of the species Homo sapiens to a kind of life that is a mere 10,000 years old. We haven't evolved enough in a mere 0.01 million years for our bodies and brains to be more than a little adapted, and even our cultural evolution is clearly not yet up to the task.

I have read of Daniel Boone, in old age, being encountered with most of his possessions in his pack, "Moving out," as he told his friend. Why was that? He had seen the smoke of a new chimney no more than two miles from his cabin. "Neighborhood's getting crowded. Time to move on." Then there are a couple of PBS videos of men living (mostly) solitary lives in wilderness settings, where they had to provide everything for themselves. Of course, in one case, the man had obviously accumulated enough money to purchase ammunition, flour, and certain tools via a pilot who made a supply run once or twice yearly. Now if he was smelting his own iron and brass, manufacturing his own black powder, and so forth, maybe planting and milling wheat, I'd be more impressed.

At the other end of the spectrum are people like my son and some of his friends, who love spending time in New York City, and those who love living there (I visit Manhattan once or twice per decade, whether I need to or not). Then in the middle, people a little more sociable than I am, people who get along comfortably in an urban or suburban setting, working at a sedentary job, shopping for all their needs, and as far as subsistence goes, maybe growing a tomato plant or two more for fun than anything.

But all this is in the Western world. In developing countries, where a family has to produce a lot more because there is so much less to buy, there is still a strong connection with others in a setting that is quite settled. The biggest element that defines "civilization" as the author means it in Pandora's Seed is land ownership, and by extension, private property of all kinds. Hunter-gatherer bands are communes by default. They take care of one another if they are to survive. A farm run by a single family may have strong communal elements, but communal living is quite antithetical to agricultural life (The experience of the Hutterites notwithstanding; they are communal by group law, not of necessity). Even more, urban life requires private property.

We are part way—may ten percent—through our transformation into a wholly "civilized" species. The domestication of nature is partway done. The "Pandora seed" of the title was either a grain of rice or wheat. Maize came later to complete the triumvirate of grains that now feed the world. These and other "staple" plants such as potato, taro and breadfruit have become total artifacts. When is the last time you went into the woods to collect wild berries to make jam, or gathered roadside asparagus or wild mushrooms? Wild plant foods make up a tiny fraction of a percent of most of our diets.

For the carnivores among us (most of us), the proportion of wild food is even less. I have known one family that hunted their entire meat supply. I, for one, think we ought to arm the population and add a lot more venison to our freezers; at least here in the midst of the Boston-Washington Megalopolis, most gardens are being devoured by deer! That's a species we have over-protected. Back to the point, the most common source of wild food for many, many of us is fish. And that too is changing.

I am a really bad fisherman. In the past nearly sixty years, I have caught and eaten no more than ten wild fish: trout, crappie and catfish. Many people I know love to fish, and have a fish fry regularly. We buy fish every week or two. But in the past ten years, the salmon in the supermarket has changed over from nearly all wild to nearly all farmed. Salmon is comparatively easy to farm. The next easiest it Tilapia. Only tuna, flounder and other "whitefish" are caught wild. I suspect in another ten or twenty years, there will be very little wild fish available to buy, and that at high prices. Maybe one day the fish will come back the way the deer have over the past century!

The side effects of all this civilization upon us are profound. Infectious diseases are largely diseases of crowding. We are near the end of less than a century of "miracle drugs". We will soon find out just what civilization without antibiotics is really like; it is why in the 19th Century the average life span in the West was about thirty. Cleaning up the water supply starting in the 1880s pushed it to about fifty by the time Sulfa drugs and Penicillin were discovered. It is likely to drop back towards fifty for our grandchildren, unless we discover a new kind of anti-microbial therapy.

Secondly, many of us are living on Prozac or Zanax or Abilify. Even those who are not on antidepressants are using large amounts of caffeine to stave off the ennui of the "hurry and wait" style of life. A symptom, a reaction, to this is the rise of fundamentalism, to which Wells devotes much of his last chapter. A modern, "civilized" life is a life based on logic and facts. The pre-agricultural life included much more story. We have replaced the nightly story circle with the movie theater, wall-size TV, and various personal screens (laptops, phones and PDA's, all of which are now entertainment centers for solo use).

A side point: I'd like to see Olympic-class events for poets, storytellers and songwriters. The coffee-shop environment tends to keep them out of the limelight.

Story brings in an element of myth. While the Christian and Islamic fundamentalists do no think of their scriptures as myths, the fact that they are primarily story cycles reveals that they use the tools of myth-building to convey their message. It is remarkable that the Christian Old Testament (the Hebrew Torah plus Prophets) is composed of story cycles based on the lives of herders who were making the early transition to citified life, while the Christian New Testament, though it has stories aplenty, is characterized by reasoned argument and logical analysis by a small number of very citified writers. These two collections illustrate the transition from story to essay.

As the book winds down (rather abruptly), Wells encourages us to seek "a new mythos", a new kind of story that will fit better into a world that is becoming more finite. We really have but one choice: we will most definitely reduce our consumption of energy and material, whether we do it willingly or by a supply-and-demand spiral that leaves "modern" civilization a tattered memory.

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