Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Luxury Trap: The Multi-Millennia View

I’m reading a fantastic, eye-opening work of evolutionary and cultural anthropology called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. One of the controversial arguments the author, Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, advances is the conceit that the Agricultural Revolution, which allowed our hunter-gatherer ancestors to settle down into villages and cities and undergo a population explosion, was, in fact, a trap, a fool’s compromise that left us unhealthier and unhappier – more prone to disease, famine, war, and long work days. It was certainly great for the crops we tended to like wheat, which grew from an also-ran species to covering huge swaths of the Earth’s surface area. But the benefits for humans, who agreed to painstakingly care for wheat, are more ambiguous. Harari proposes that we didn’t domesticate plants; plants domesticated us.   
With time the “wheat bargain” became more and more burdensome. Children died in droves, and adults ate bread by the sweat of their brow. The average person in Jericho of 8500 BC lived a harder life than the average person in Jericho of . . . 13000 BC. But nobody realized what was happening. Every generation continued to live like the previous generation, making only small improvements here and there in the way things were done. Paradoxically, a series of “improvements,” each of which was meant to make life easier, added up to a millstone around the necks of these farmers.
          Why did people make such a fateful miscalculation? For the same reason people throughout history have miscalculated. People were unable to fathom the full consequences of their decisions. Whenever they decided to do a bit of extra work – say, to hoe the fields instead of scattering seeds on the surface – people thought, “Yes, we will have to work harder. But the harvest will be so bountiful! We won’t have to worry anymore about lean years. Our children will never go to sleep hungry.” It made sense. If you worked harder, you would have a better life. That was the plan.
          The first part of the plan went smoothly. People indeed worked harder. But people did not foresee that the number of children would increase, meaning that the extra wheat would have to be shared (among) more children. Neither did the early farmers understand that feeding children with more porridge and less breast milk would weaken their immune system(s), and that permanent settlements would be hotbeds for infectious diseases. They did not foresee that by increasing their dependence on a single source of food, they were actually exposing themselves even more to the depredations of drought. Nor did the farmers foresee that in good years their bulging granaries would tempt thieves and enemies, compelling them to start building walls and doing guard duty.
          Then why didn’t humans abandon farming when the plan backfired? Partly because it took generations for the small changes to accumulate and transform society and, by then, nobody remembered that they had ever lived differently. And partly because population growth burned humanity’s boats. If the adoption of ploughing increased a village’s population from a hundred to 110, which ten people would have volunteered to starve so that the others could go back to the good old times? There was no going back. The trap snapped shut.
          The pursuit of an easier life resulted in much hardship, and not for the last time. It happens to us today. How many young college graduates have taken demanding jobs in high-powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests when they are thirty-five? But by the time they reach that age, they have large mortgages, children to school, houses in the suburbs that necessitate at least two cars per family, and a sense that life is not worth living without really good wine and expensive holidays abroad. What are they supposed to do, go back to digging roots? No, they double their efforts and keep slaving away. 
-Yuval Noah Harari

I had a friend once who considered herself a radical reactionary, in a sense, because she wanted society to go back to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. She had the intuition that people were happier back then. I, a creature of hot showers in the winter and air-conditioning in the summer, would always dismiss her theories offhand. 

Maybe she was right all along. 

Speaking of human population explosions, here is a great illustrative video that I first saw in Slate.