Monday, October 26, 2009

The Hunter Gatherers Had a Few Things Right

Clearly not too many of us are interested in living in thatched huts, cooking over open fires and depending on the random bounty (or lack thereof) of nature for our survival. Mankind invented agriculture and domesticated animals for very good reasons. But our hunter gatherer forbears, and other early tribal cultures can teach us a lot about how society, even large industrialized civilizations, should treat its members.

First and foremost, every member of a tribal community is directly responsible for every other member of the tribe. If a member falls ill, the rest of the community cares for them. If they cannot participate in the hunt, or go out gathering fruits and vegetables, they are provided for. Those that have at any given moment care for those that don't. It's understood because in a small community, there are no superfluous parts. Each person has a function, a meaningful place in society, and that society's health is determined by the optimum functioning of each member.

Industrialized societies have forgotten that level of care. We've managed to create a very large community that can function even if not every member is participating. People have become marginalized, and there is a substrata of society that is, for all practical purposes, unnecessary. At least that's the perception. And while it's incorrect, the perception has dire consequences.

Take health care for example. From my perspective every human being on the face of the earth has the right to reasonable, affordable heath care. Is not one of the most basic functions of society to protect its own members? In tribal, hunter gatherer societies, affordable and available health care (even if it was witch doctors and herbal medicine) was a given. A blight on one member was a blight on the entire group. How are we any different? How can we consider ourselves to be an enlightened, humane society if we systematically deny and overcharge for live-saving care? It's absurd.

Humanity strives for meaning. Purpose. Everyone on the planet yearns for a "reason to be". Take that away from them and they can decay from the inside, and take society down with them. The old parable, "Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day, but teach a man to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime," has a secondary benefit. Teach a man to fish and he'll have something meaningful and useful to do with his life. And not only can he then catch fish for himself, he can catch fish for others.

I think if we tried to think of ourselves in tribal terms, life for all of us would benefit. Each member of a society is valuable. Each one has a unique perspective. A unique skill set which can, if given the chance, be brought to bear on problems. The more each member of our modern societies feels cared for, valued and respected the less problems overall we'll have to face. If we look at each other as tribesman instead of just neighbors, or worse, strangers, we'd see better the intrinsic value innate in each of us, value as measured by service to others. To our fellow tribesman, in the tribe called humanity.

It's not stupid. Drop five people in the middle of the forest, and watch how desperately each member depends upon the other four for survival. Increase the number to 50 and while the desperation subsides, the need for support remains intense. At 500 some people begin flying under the radar, mooching off of the work of others. At 5,000 the problem grows. At 50,000 you begin to delineate those with power and those without. People become cogs instead of family. At 500,000 and beyond you begin to fall into society as we know it today. Add technological advances and major labor-saving devices, and you've created a civilization stratified into the haves, the have-a-bits, and the have-nots.

I'd argue that people are most satisfied with their lives during the early numbers of the above demonstration, when each person is needed, sometime desperately. Life makes sense when it's lived in service to the survival of others as well as yourself. Otherwise selfishness and greed sets in. If we could work out a way to live in the 5,000,000 or 5,000,000,000 and above rungs as if we were still only 50, desperately working to claw out happy, meaningful existences for each other, societal problems would evaporate.

Seriously. They would just go away. Isn't that worth reevaluating modern thinking?

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