I like reading about history, and I particularly enjoy those grand, ambitious histories that sweep up the whole human race into a single narrative. It’s all very well to learn exactly how many troops assembled at the Battle of Brandywine Creek in 1777, but that’s such a tiny part of the human story, a footnote to a footnote. I like to contemplate the whole picture. It puts our present obsessions, in perspective.
The first such mega-narrative that came my way was H.G. Wells’s “Outline of History.” More recently I’ve read the highly successful book “Sapiens” by Yuval Noah Harari. The title refers to our particular species, labelled by anthropologists as Homo sapiens or wise man. We do need to find a more accurate name for ourselves.
The least wise thing we humans ever did was to take up agriculture, and subsequently gardening. We all know in a general way that early humans lived as hunters and gatherers. They moved constantly from place to place, subsisting on what the land provided.
About ten thousand years ago a great change happened. People began to settle in one place, to grow crops and raise animals. They became farmers. This agricultural revolution sounds peaceful and bucolic, but in fact it was a change from a free life to a very restricted one. Farmers can’t roam, they are tied to their land and the limited diet that it can produce, and guaranteed a lifetime of backbreaking toil. They are highly vulnerable to attack from stronger tribes, while hunter gatherers can always move on.
Nevertheless agriculture remained the common way of life for thousands of years, and we may assume that nothing has changed. But of course everything has changed! Only 2% of the population now works in agriculture. Ask yourself why the highways of Long Island and Connecticut are packed with traffic even in the middle of the working day. The drivers are obviously not working. The fact is that everyone has gone back to hunting and gathering. We call it shopping, and it is our central, absorbing life activity, just as it was for Homo more-or-less sapiens ten thousand years ago. Even food is still collected in the old, haphazard way by grazing from one fast food joint to another, reproducing the varied diet of the ancient hunter gatherers: fried chicken one day, tacos the next.
Hunting and gathering may sound like an uncertain way of life, but shopping is worse. There’s so much more stuff to gather – no longer just roots and berries but plastic trees and musical toilet seats and decorative socks, and a million other made-in-China treasures. It may be that, with our strange human genius for getting things wrong, we have created the worst of both worlds: trapped by our real estate like farmers, but forced to be constantly on the move looking for stuff, like hunter gatherers.
The only consolation is that history moves in circles. When the fuel runs out, and there’s nothing left in the shops to hunt or to gather we may find ourselves living the simple life, back on the farm.
Copyright: David Bouchier