What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies

The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

By Jared Diamond

Penguin Books (2012)

Book Review

In this book, evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond examines dozens of traditional societies that have persisted into the modern era. Diamond subdivides these societies into “bands” consisting of a few dozen hunter gatherers; “tribes” consisted of a few hundred farmers, herders or farmer/hers; and “chiefdoms,” consisting of thousands of farmers/herders ruled by a single chief.

All humans lived in hunter gatherer “bands” until the agricultural revolution 11,000 years ago. At this point, “bands” slowly evolved into “tribes.” Aground 5,500 BC, larger food surpluses caused “tribes” to evolve into “chiefdoms.” Most “chiefdoms” were held together by shared religious beliefs enabling strangers to trust thousands of people they didn’t know personally. Until the advent of colonialism, “chiefdoms” were still widespread in the Americas, Polynesia and much of sub-Saharan Africa.

In many regions of the world, “chiefdoms” evolved into states around 5,000 years ago. States were characterized by still greater food surpluses, increased technological innovation, economic specialization, standing armies, and bureaucratic governance.

Diamond draws most of his examples of contemporary traditional societies from New Guinea, the main focus of his field work. However he also includes numerous examples of traditional societies studied by other anthropologists.

He strongly advocates for the role of the state in reducing the violence human beings inflict on one another. From the statistics he offers, there seems to be a big drop in homicide and intertribal violence (ie war) when traditional societies come under state control. Unfortunately this view directly contradicts recent studies published in the American Journal of Public Health. They refer to 190 million deaths directly and indirectly related to 20th century wars – more than the previous four centuries combined. (See AJPHA Publications)*

At the same time, Diamond has has identified many features of traditional societies that could potentially benefit modern industrialized society. Examples include many aspects of traditional childrearing (including demand feeding**, co-sleeping***, reduction or elimination of physical punishments, and an increased role for alloparenting****). Diamond also identifies clear cognitive benefits from the multilingualism that characterizes many traditional societies, as well as strong health and social benefits from restorative justice,***** the paleolithic diet (see Mayo Clinic Paleo Diet), and systematic efforts to incorporate elder wisdom into community life.


*Unfortunately Diamond’s research is strictly limited to patriarchal societies. They include no matriarchal societies in which women’s prominent leadership role helps to reduce social violence.  See Oxford bibliographiesl  For example the Nagovisi in modern day New Guinea (Modern Societies Where Women Literally Rule).

**With demand feeding, infants are fed when they experience hunger, rather than at parental convenience,

***Co-sleeping is a practice in which babies and young children sleep in the same bed or close to one or both parents, as opposed to in a separate room. In New Zealand, co-sleeping is common in Maori culture and the Ministry of Health issues pepi pods (which eliminates the risk of a parent rolling over on a small infant). See Government to Fund Pepi Pods for Every Family That Needs It

****Alloparenting is a term used to classify any form of parental care provided by an individual towards a non-descendant offspring.

*****Restorative justice is an approach to criminal offending involving mediation between the victim and the offender, sometimes with representatives of the wider community.

How the Amish Preserve Community by Resisting Technology

The Amish: A People of Preservation

Directed by John L Ruth (2000)

Film Review

 Like social justice activists everywhere, many of us us openly mourn the destruction of community and increased social isolation under advanced industrial capitalism. As Charles Eisenstein describes in Sacred Economics,* many of us have become conditioned to rely on technology, rather than each other, to meet basic survival needs. The problem is clearly aggravated by the growing up take of social media (especially among young people) in preference to face-to-face contact.

Industrialized society has recognized too late that human beings have a powerful biological need for social interaction and interdependence. Watching this documentary, I was intrigued to learn that North American Amish communities are wary of technology, not because it’s sinful, but because they recognize its disruptive potential for their communities.

Skyrocketing land prices have forced many Amish communities to employ mechanization (combines, harvesters, milking machines, etc) to maintain the economic viability of their family farms. However most are careful to ensure that new technology doesn’t alter the collective character of farm work or preclude the continuing engagement of older family members. For example, using technology to process harvests is permissible, but not to propel farm vehicles. For this horses must be used.

Likewise nearly all Amish use pay phones for business reasons, but land lines and cellphones aren’t allowed within the home (they disrupt family life). Also the Amish are allowed to accept rides in neighbors’ cars – they’re just forbidden to own vehicles themselves.

Here the filmmakers agree with Eisenstein – collective work has always been one of the most enjoyable ways for human beings to interact. Engaging in collective farm work, such as harvesting, is a form of recreation for the Amish. Likewise when 30 or more men gather to build a house or barn, the Amish refer to it as a “frolic.”

According to the film, in 2000 there were approximately 200,000 Amish in North America in two dozen states and Ontario. Their religion originated from a Swiss Anabaptist sect formed in 1670 that subsequently split into Amish and Mennonites (who tend to be less conservative). Due to religious persecution, both groups migrated to Pennsylvania and Ohio in the 18th and 19th century. Amish parents raise their children to speak English and a Swiss dialect of German (commonly known as Pennsylvania Dutch).


*See Sacred Economics: Life After Capitalism

Anyone with a public library card can view this documentary free on Kanopy. Type “Kanopy” and the name of your library into your search engine to register.

 

Why We Want What We Don’t Need

The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need

Consumer Protection Hub (2018)

Film Review

This documentary, narrated by Juliet Schor (author of the 1999 book The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need), examines the political, economic and psychological forces responsible for compulsive consumption in all developed countries.

The most important factors Schor identifies are

1. The movement of women (starting in the 1970s) out of economically homogeneous neighborhoods into the workplace – exposing them to lifestyles  (cars, homes, clothes etc) of coworkers across the economic spectrum. This would lead to expansion into the working class of competitive consumption. Previously “keeping up with the Jones’s” was mainly limited to affluent neighborhoods.

2. The rapid increase in income equality that began in the 1970s. Corporations strenuously resisted efforts by workers to benefit (through increased wages and decreased work hours) from widespread productivity gains. Instead Wall Street helped fuel competitive consumption via usurious consumer credit (ie credit cards).

3. The tendency of TV dramas and sitcoms to portray $100,000+ annual incomes as average and normal. Schor offers the portrayal of Bill Cosby’s family as typical African Americans and Friends characters as typical mid-twenties roommates (there’s no way the characters depicted could have afforded Manhattan apartments).

According to Schor, the net effect of these influences has been growing demand for mcmansion-size homes, gas guzzling SUVs, brand name athletic footwear and casual apparel and niche coffee.

Satisfying these cravings has led to massive personal debt levels (approximately 50% of US GDP), grueling work schedules, virtual disappearance of family life and growing unwillingness of voters to be taxed for education, parks, libraries and other public services.

The self-help recommendations Schor gives for curtailing compulsive consumption habits are

1. Controlling your irrational desires by limiting mall visits, surfing Internet shopping sites and exposure to catalogues and fashion magazines.

2. Making a conscious choice to downshift to a lifestyle that reduces your consumption (eg Voluntary Simplicity*).

3. Demanding corporate and regulatory policies that allow people to work shorter hours.

4. Lobbying for a progress consumption tax (aka luxury tax).

5. Learning to recognize and question advertising messaging.

6. Learning to connect with people and community rather than competing with them.


*Voluntary Simplicity, or simple living, is a way of life that rejects the high-consumption, materialistic lifestyles of consumer cultures and affirms what is often just called ‘the simple life’ or ‘downshifting.’

 

The Importance of Economic Relocalization

Local Futures: Beyond the Monoculture

Local Futures (1998)

Film Review

This documentary concerns the early work of Helena Norberg-Hodge, founder of Ancient Futures (formerly the International Society for Ecology and Culture – ISEC) and author of the book Ancient Futures (1991). Her work is also featured in the films Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh (1993) and Economics of Happiness (see A Film About Economic Relocalization ).

The film recounts her work assisting the people of Ladakh in resisting globalization pressures that threatened to destroy Ladakhi culture, environment, livelihoods and health.

Norberg-Hodge maintains the effects of globalization are extremely negative for the vast majority of the world. Globalization’s emphasis on ever increasing production and growth destroys ecosystems, cultural diversity and livelihoods, as it drives poor people off their land and into urban slums.

What she and other members of ISEC have learned over the past three decades is that strengthening local economies can help young indigenous people resist psychological pressure (from continual bombardment with Western advertising) to discard traditional farming, production and cultural practices in favor of Western materialism. Without this support, young people become very susceptible to Western disinformation denigrating their traditional way of life. This, in turn, can lead to profound feelings of self-doubt, depression and even violence.

In 1995, Norberg-Hodge established a 3,000+ member network of Ladakhi women that focused on rejuvenating local culture and production methods, small scale renewable energy projects and a reduction in TV viewing.

With the help of ISEC, she also established local ecology networks that became involved in regional government and helped revive ancient Tibetan medicine.

Most importantly, ISEC has played a big role in organizing cultural exchanges between Ladakhi and Western sustainability activists. Sometimes it’s only in visiting the West that young Ladakhi realize how destructive globalization, industrial agriculture and ever increasing production and economic growth really are.

Norberg-Hodge’s work has had a major influence on the growing local food movement and the mushrooming of farmer’s markets throughout the industrialized world.

The Secret EU Drive to Privatize Water

Up to the Last Drop: Secret Water War in Europe

Al Jazeera (2018)

Film Review

Up to the Last Drop is about the role of the EU Commission in pressuring member countries to privatize their municipal water supplies. Although the UN declared access to water a human right in 2001, the EU continues to exert pressure on indebted nations (ie Greece, Portugal, Italy and Ireland) to sell their water utilities to repay the debt they incurred by bailing out their banks in 2008.

Water privatization almost always leads to massive price hikes for consumers, who are fighting back. Between 2000-2017, popular unrest against privatization and price increases led municipalities in 37 countries to oust private water companies* and resume municipal control.

In 2005, mass protests over skyrocketing water prices led Bolivians to overthrow their government.

In 2011, 98% of Berlin residents voted “yes” on a referendum for local authorities to resume control of the city’s water supply. Italy also blocked water privatization (with 95% voting no) via referendum.

Ireland blocked a wholesale water privatization scheme via mass protest, and Portugal ended it by electing a new left-leaning government.


*Two French companies Suez and Veolia monopolize nearly all private water schemes worldwide.

The film can’t be embedded for copyright reasons but can be viewed free at the Al Jazeera website: Secret Water Wars

Plenty of Money for Teachers’ Pay Claims

Guest Post by Don Richards

While there is sympathy for the plight of striking NZ teachers seeking better pay and conditions, the common belief is that there is no more money available. Nothing can be further from the truth if our Labour government followed the lead set by the first Labour Government in 1936.

Michael Joseph Savage’s Government used Reserve Bank Credit to finance the construction of state houses and vital infrastructure which injected millions of pounds into the economy and enabled New Zealand to emerge from the Great Depression sooner than most countries.

The Hansard record (page 157) of the parliamentary debate that introduced the legislation had the following quote from our then Prime Minister: “I was accused by the previous speaker of saying, during the election campaign, that we were going to increase wages, pensions, and the like. I plead guilty, and I want to know from the right honourable gentleman what else is worth living for?”

This 1930s election advertisement could almost apply to the current day as the then Labour Government built thousands of state houses with Reserve Bank Credit.

Returning to the 1930s, the injection of Government money into the economy put money in people’s pockets and freed up tax money to finance a Social Welfare system that became the envy of the world. Such a thing was unthinkable a mere three years prior to the introduction of the legislation.

While things have certainly changed since the 1930s, an IMF discussion paper titled The Chicago Plan Revisited, issued in 2012 endorsed a similar approach to that taken by our first Labour government. In fact, it went even further.

The IMF paper said that a system where the central Bank (our Reserve Bank) issued the currency would smooth out the boom and bust cycles, eliminate runs on the bank and dramatically reduce both public and private debt. In addition, it would provide productivity gains of 10% and steady state inflation would drop to zero.

We do not need to restrict the legitimate pay claims of our public servants. All that needs to be done is repeat what worked before and enable our Reserve Bank to issue credit for housing and infrastructure projects. A parliamentary petition, calling on the House of Representatives to consider such a move, is being circulated and you can access it at http://www.positivemoney.org.nz/Site/petition/.

Such a move will free up tax money for other purposes including providing our public servants with proper wages and conditions and stemming the tide of those leaving our shores in search of decent pay.


Don Richards is the National Spokesperson for Positive Money New Zealand which is part of the International Movement for Monetary Reform. The movement is committed to having a monetary system that works for society and not against it.

Corruption, Federal Farm Subsidies and the False Economy of Cheap Processed Food

Food Fight: How Corporations Ruined Food

Real Stories (2017)

Film Review

This is a documentary about the rise of the organic/local food movement in the late sixties and early seventies and the ongoing battle to end a corrupt federal food subsidy program. The latter plays a major role in the US epidemic of obesity and diabetes.

The film depicts the organic food movement as arising out of a 1960s hippy counterculture that viewed America’s growing system of industrial agriculture as intimately linked to the military industrial complex waging the war in Vietnam.*

Ironically the organic food movement began to take off just has the Nixon administration was repealing New Deal agricultural subsidies that supported small family farms and redirecting USDA subsidies to corporations producing the cheap commodities used in processed foods, such as corn, wheat and soy.

The activists interviewed decry the federal emphasis on cheap food as a false economy – we will never save enough to cover skyrocketing medical costs related to processed food diets.

Despite the rapid growth of small organic farms across the US, food activists face an uphill battle without major changes to the USDA farm subsidy program which makes cheap processed food the only affordable option for many low income families.

The high level of corporate-financed corruption becomes clear as the film follows Representative Ron Kind’s efforts to get his Fairness in Farm and Food Policy Amendment added to 2016 Farm Bill.


*Monsanto and Dow, the corporations producing Agent Orange and Napalm also produce the toxic pesticides and herbicides used in industrial agriculture.