Tuesday, March 31, 2015

MUSINGS FROM PRIYADARSHINI KARVE: How our values have changed!

In the last couple of posts, I have been talking about the changes involved in shifting from hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agriculture based lifestyle. Let's now talk about how the value system changed with the change in lifestyle. 


Studying the still-surviving hunter-gatherer communities in some corners of the world, we infer that hunter-gatherers generally followed egalitarian principles. Contrary to popular belief, both men and women participated in hunting and gathering, depending on their skills and inclination. Irrespective of who succeeded in getting how much resources, at the end of the day, everyone in the group got an equal share in the day's collection. The group listened to the advice of elders, but the decision making was collective, and consensus based.


Agricultural societies are on the other hand, hierarchical, with the person or group controlling more land (and therefore more resources) calling the shots regarding who gets how much importance in the society, and share of the produce. 


The hunter gatherers had no 'emotional bond' with the land. If the going in a particular location got tough, they simply picked up and left in search of greener pastures. Since they were constantly on the move, not having too many personal needs meant less personal belongings to carry, and therefore greater mobility and higher chances of survival in case of unexpected disasters. In other words, for hunter-gatherers keeping their own 'backpack' light was a survival instinct.


With settling down, it was no particular benefit to being minimalist. On the other hand, there was power and prestige attached with ownership of more land than anyone else, a bigger house than everyone else, and so on. The emotional bond and sense of 'ownership' of land emerged after humans settled down in one location. We can blame all our land-ownership related family feuds on the shift to agriculture 10,000 years ago! 


Another important factor of hunter-gatherer lifestyle was living in the moment. Every day you focused on providing for yourself and your band just for that one day. Every night you went to bed, with either all the needs fulfilled, partially fulfilled, or unfulfilled, for that day. Tomorrow was another day, and a fresh start. One learned from past experiences, but didn't worry about the future beyond a day. 


An agriculturist has to plan his/her activities for a season at least, and then has plans for what to do with the produce at the end of the season. If s/he is putting a lot of effort in cultivating the land, the planning doesn't stop with a season, but extends to an year, several years, and so on. As a result, loss of a crop in one season, can have adverse impact on the plans for the next few years... leading to a lot of stress and anxiety. 


If you were toiling just to fulfill today's needs, the 'work' part of the day in an abundant ecosystem would not be more than 3-4 hrs. Rest of the time was available for leisure - to practice your skills through games and play, chat with your friends, draw paintings in the caves, spend time with your kids and your partner, and so on. 


On the other hand, an agriculturist, very conscious of the possibilities of a crop failing, or a flock of cattle dying in an epidemic, toils harder to reduce the odds against 'Plan A' and also to put in place a 'Plan B'... resulting into a work day of 8-10 hrs, leaving very little time for socialising, creativity and so on. 

A hunter-gatherer actually lived a more healthy lifestyle because there was automatically a great variety in food items consumed, the body got plenty of exercise, and so on. Of course, the life was full of more risk - of being hunted by other predators, of consuming something poisonous, of falling prey to calamities in unfamiliar lands, etc. Children being the weakest members of this harsh society, were more prone to die before reaching adulthood. The combination of low average life span and high child mortality kept the population stable, or allowed it to grow at a very slow rate. 


Agriculturists lived relatively safer lives, the survival rate of the children went up as they could be nurtured into adulthood in protected environment, however the life was less healthy due to the reduction in the variety in the food, large periods of food scarcity (and therefore malnutrition) in case of crop failures, etc. But one of the consequence of increased life expectancy, and increased lifespan was the spurt in population. 



So, to sum up, while shifting to agriculture solved the main problem of sustainability by increasing the carrying capacity of the land, it also transformed the human society in a number of other ways creating an entirely new culture. Ironically, it is this value system that has again put the sustainability of human population in jeopardy. How did that happen? Let's talk about that next week! 


Priyadarshini Karve
Director, Samuchit Enviro Tech