Monday, May 27, 2013

Nostalgia for the Primitive

Saturday Night at the Rain Dance
After a sojourn of several months last year in Nova Scotia, a province with severe poverty and all its consequences, living among people who have what is called an uneasy relationship with the law, I should have lost all interest in "going back to the land." I know, however, that the percentage of low-lifes in urban areas isn't much different from that in rural areas, and that the proportion will be the same for a while to come, so moving to a city doesn't mean an improvement in the neighborhood.

In terms of "going back to the land," though, or perhaps "remaining back on the land," I eventually made one curious discovery, after re-reading Geoffrey Blainey's Triumph of the Nomads. For years I'd worked on the basis of the fact that only 10 percent of the surface of this planet is arable. One would then think that the answer is to go back to foraging (hunting and gathering), since that would mean having access to the remaining 90 percent, the non-arable. I later began to think, however, that such a plan wouldn't be very clever, because foraging requires far more land per person than farming -- so there would be no real gain in the end, at least in terms of the ratio of people to resources.

But even later it seemed to me, after re-reading Blainey, that the second assumption of mine may have been unjustified. My present line of reason begins with the point that foraging, in that aforementioned 90 percent, works only for those who have a thorough knowledge of the subject -- i.e. an extraordinary knowledge of all the flora and fauna. But that is precisely what the average modern Caucasian deer-hunter does not have. How many once-a-year deer-hunters can also recognize a dozen species of edible wild fruit in their area, or know how to make and use a gill net? And how many so-called native people nowadays have such knowledge?

It might therefore be the case that if one could develop an excellent knowledge of primitive survival-skills, it would be possible to utilize that 90 percent, the non-arable land that nearly all people of today know nothing about. The non-arable 90 percent of Earth's surface would, of course, have to be studied as intensely if this were a new planet. In fact, because the Paleolithic was generally left behind about 10,000 years ago, the non-arable parts of Earth would now look quite "Martian" from the perspective of modern humans.

Having said all the above, though, I must emphasize that "returning to the land" would still only be possible for a few people -- if perhaps not not quite as "few" as I had once been assuming. Blainey's point about the non-arable being potentially accessible, even if only to those with the right knowledge, nevertheless strikes me as a useful observation.

Various caveats must be kept in mind. When traditional technology is lost, it cannot just be re-learned overnight at a later date -- because primitive technology is not "simple." Yet when native people lose their native technology, and they also lose modern technology, based on fossil fuels, modern metals, and so on (as they will fairly soon, along with all the rest of us), they are then left with nothing. The native population of Canada's north, for example, will have no way of making a living in the next few decades and will therefore have a population plunging toward zero.

My main point, however, is that anybody, native or non-native, who does manage to learn that ancient technology will have a chance of surviving in the world's huge non-arable environment. It all comes back to Blainey's basic statement that primitive technology long ago enabled the natives to occupy 100 percent of the land, whereas modern white people only have the technology to occupy a small percentage.

I started re-reading Blainey's book when I was doing one of many perusals of the manuscript for my Tumbling Tides. I suddenly remembered that my own last chapter, which at one point touches on some controversial questions of "re-wilding," was based in part on various comments by Richard B. Lee. One of Lee's theories, roughly speaking, is that the people of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa are remnants of a utopian Old Stone Age society, and that the life they live there has been basically unchanged for 10,000 years -- or at least it was until the 1960s.

I knew that Edwin N. Wilmsen had written a book called Land Filled with Flies, in which he says that Lee's theories are dead wrong, and that the Bushmen, or !Kung or San or whatever they should be called, are not the direct descendants of any ancient Stone Age culture, that they're just a bunch of "rural poor" (to use the term I later found on the last page of the body of his text). According to Wilmsen, these people simply got shoved out into the desert in recent times by the Bantu, who are cattle-raisers and who didn't want the Bushmen using the land. So I read Wilmsen's book, which is very persuasive. I then went into full panic, reading several other documents on this controversy, until I finally realized that it may be Wilmsen himself who is making mistakes with all the data. Still, it was good to do a careful study of all that. Far better than to have my own upcoming book reviewed at Amazon one day, get myself dismissed as an intellectual minor-leaguer, and find myself going back to delivering pizzas.

In any case, an important part of the solution to my own problem of finding "real" Stone Age people was to look again at Blainey's book about Australia. The advantage of considering the natives of Australia, vs. those of the Kalahari, is that there is no danger that the former are just losers in some sort of recent multicultural struggle. They arrived in Australia many thousands of years ago, and they lived there in almost complete isolation from the rest of the world.

In terms of the danger of getting roasted, as Wilmsen tries to do with Lee, I already have too many problems with people who think an earlier book of mine, Survival Skills of the North American Indians, is supposed to teach them how to play with rubber tomahawks or something. In fact, that book is not intended as a "survival manual," suitable for retarded Cub Scouts. I leave such nonsense to the many other texts prominently displayed on book-store shelves. My own book is a detailed cross-cultural analysis of material technology, and assumes that the reader is already beyond rubber tomahawks.

Peter Goodchild

Author of Tumbling Tide: Population, Petroleum, and Systemic Collapse (London, Ontario: Insomniac Press, 2014)

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