The Price of Industrialisation

Here’s an interesting comment on modern industrial society. Have we really made progress? In some ways no doubt, but there has been a price to pay.

I do not have the title, (for some reason I did not note it and now cannot track it down), but here are some extracts from an article in Green Magazine-Sept 93 on the work of Marshall Sahlins, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and of Social Sciences at University of Chicago.

Since this time Sahlins has published more along the same lines. There is a more current comment here —


“Sahlins used field research to argue that ‘primitive’ societies enjoyed a great amount of leisure time, satisfied material desires and survival needs with little difficulty, did not work very hard, and consciously chose subsistence economics. They deliberately did not accumulate surpluses.

Sahlin found that aboriginal communities in Australia (studied for several months) worked three hours 45 minutes per day average. The Adobe bushmen of southern Africa work on average a fifteen hour week. Only 65% of the population worked at all. ‘One man’s labour among the bushmen will support will support four or five people.’

Today in the US only 5% of the population feed the rest of the country thanks to technology. But in primitive societies those who provide food free the rest of society to not work at all. In our own society, in which there is virtually no sharing, the non-farming 95% are not freed from work; they are strapped to some economic machine other than farming to produce the money they need to pay for food.

A common misconception is that primitive societies survive at only the bare minimum of existence. …Aboriginal and Bushmen hunters keep bankers hours, notably less than modern industrial workers. They eat as much for pleasure as for sustenance..

In primitive societies the people choose not to produce at maximum levels. Incredible as it may seem to us ‘there is a conscious disregard for the notion of maximum effort from a maximum number of people’. ‘Labour power is under-used, technological means are not fully engaged, natural resources are left untapped. The work day is short. The number of days off exceeds the number of work days’.

The immediate environments of many hunter-gatherer communities could easily support triple their populations, but deliberate control of population growth, and deliberate underuse of the environment’s full economic capacity has kept the ratio of people to resources very small. Rather than using up the productive potential of the environment, stone age communities choose to let some fruit fall to the ground and some animals exist in peace. The people, meanwhile, hang out sleep, dance, flirt, and engage in rituals and relationships that have meaning within these societies. ‘Maximum effort’ indeed.

Stone age cultures are vulnerable to food shortages but no more vulnerable than any other society. Today more than one person in three living on the planet goes to bed hungry every night. ‘This is the era of unprecedented hunger’ says Sahlins, ‘the amount of hunger increases relatively and absolutely with the evolution of culture’.

In the US today the average work week is 47 hours. More than one third of the male employed population works longer than the average. Official figures reveal that nearly six million men and more than one million women work more than 60 hours per week at paid jobs. This does not include the unpaid domestic work of most women. Heads of corporations average more than 60 hours of work per week.

In the Middle Ages urban workers had 130 days of no work – holy days, vigils, Sundays and some Saturdays. Rural workers had only 180 days of real work. As for Roman times, there were some 150-200 public holidays per year.

‘Those of us who enjoy the fruits of the technological juggernaut have more stuff in our lives. We are cleaner living and live longer. Yet our devotion to gathering and caring for commodities has created an extraordinary modern paradox: a scarcity of time, loss of leisure, and increase of stress amidst an environment of apparent abundance and wealth. A decrease in the quality of life and experience.’

‘It seems quite obvious that native cultures that have lived successfully in one place for millennia have been abiding by successful economic practices, including wildlife and resource conservation. But if we listen to our Western scientists and governments we would think that native societies can barely manage another day without computers, quotas, satellite mapping, and ‘maximum sustainable yield analysis’. How, I wonder, do scientists rationalise how natives have survived for thousands of years? Instinct?

The assumption that out modern system of wildlife and resource management is more efficient – despite the fact that we ‘manage’ without any understanding of the environment or the way the people have managed prior to our arrival – is not only hubristic, but racist.

When native societies decide to employ Western-style wildlife management techniques we tend to consider them to be acting rationally. American institutions become willing to invest. The World Bank offers development funds. And yet the Western mode, by failing to include the more holistic dimensions of native thought and practice, may ultimately be the less rational approach. It is surely less rational in the long run for native people.

Capitalist management systems emphasise numbers and individual gain. Native management emphasises relationships among human and animals, believing that balance is what feeds people and helps animals thrive. There is no such thing as ‘maximum sustainable yield’ in the native economic outlook.

One example (from Milton Freeman – University of Alberta) concerned caribou hunting on the Ellesmere Islands of Arctic Canada. Wildlife managers told the Inuit that they should hunt only large and-/or male caribou, and only a few animals from each herd. The Inuit argued that the practice would destroy the caribou herds, but their pleas were ignored. The result was as the Inuit predicted. Though their new limit was far less than the Inuit had hunted before the formerly abundant population dropped sharply because older/larger animals are important to the survival of the group, for they have experience and the physical strength to dig through snow for food.

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