For a long time it was accepted in the supposedly developed world that life had been a constant battle against starvation back when we were hunter-gatherers. But in the 1950s and ’60s research turned established views of social evolution on their head. When in 1964 a young Canadian anthropologist, Richard Borshay Lee, conducted a series of simple economic input/output analyses of the Ju/’hoansi people of the Kalahari as they went about their daily lives, he revealed that not only did they make a good living from hunting and gathering, but that they were also well-nourished and content. He revealed the Ju/’hoansi managed this on 15 hours’ work per week. Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins renamed hunter-gatherers “the original affluent society.”
We are hunter-gatherers. We evolved as hunter-gatherers over hundreds of thousands of years. We led physically active lives intimately connected with nature. It is only very recently in evolutionary terms that most of us have lost this, but our needs, drives and physiology remain hunter-gatherer. We ignore this at our peril, and I am thinking not only of our need to exercise and be in contact with nature, but also of our cravings for salt, fat, sugar and animal protein, and our social needs. As far as the food cravings go, these make sense when such nutrients are hard to come by, but they are counterproductive when they are easily over-indulged in our agro-industrial, fast- and processed-food culture.
Research also revealed that the Ju/’hoansi were able to make a good living from a sparse environment because they cared little for private property and, above all, were “fiercely egalitarian,” It showed that the Ju/’hoansi had no formal hierarchies; men and women enjoyed equal decision-making powers. It was their egalitarianism that ensured that no one bothered accumulating wealth and simultaneously enabled limited resources to flow organically through communities, helping to ensure that even in times of episodic scarcity everyone got more or less enough.
If a society is judged by its endurance over time, then this was almost certainly the most successful society in human history—and by a considerable margin. New genomic analyses suggest that the Ju/’hoansi and their ancestors lived continuously in Southern Africa from soon after modern H. sapiens settled there, most likely around 200,000 years ago.
Egalitarianism prevented excess consumption and hoarding, and promoted what was effectively a social security system. It made for equality, social cohesion, and sustainability in every sense. Findings collated by anthropologist James Suzman relate to one of Earth in Common’s key policies, which we call ‘Restorative Climate Justice’, and which involves respecting and championing Indigenous peoples’ rights, knowledge and wisdom, and the principles of food sovereignty. Indigenous peoples are, by and large, wonderful custodians of nature and can teach us a great deal.
David Erdal, an expert on employee-owned companies compared three towns in Italy, differing only regarding the proportion of their residents working for employee-owned organisations. He found that where people worked for such businesses, residents lived a lot longer, they enjoyed larger and more supportive social networks, they perceived political authorities as being more on their side, more voted, they believed that domestic violence was less prevalent. Intriguingly, they didn’t bother buying big cars to show off their wealth, despite having higher disposable incomes! Employee-ownership, and the egalitarianism that goes with it, seem to restrain unsustainable consumption.
Bruce K. Alexander’s work resonates strongly with me, because he is an expert on addiction and my professional background is in addiction counselling. I became a counsellor specialising in substance abuse after having witnessed many of my generation in Leith succumb to drugs and alcohol. Alexander is famous for his ‘rat park’ experiment, in which he challenged the work of addiction researchers who claimed to have shown that rats became addicted to opiates. Their work was interpreted as support for theory – that substances, in and of themselves, can be overwhelmingly addictive.
Alexander noted that the supposedly addicted rats were kept in solitary confinement in tiny barren cages, whereas in nature rats live in rich environments and in communities. He constructed a sort of paradise for them: a rat park, in which the rats had plenty of scope for socialising, exercising and exploring. Alexander found rats stopped taking the drug when they were released into the rat park from solitary confinement. Alexander asked if this also applied to people, and compiled a huge body of evidence in support of his theory that substances, per se, are not the root cause of harmful addictions. Alexander argues that harmful addictions, whether this be to substances or behaviours (including the hoarding of material wealth), are due to what he calls ‘psychosocial dislocation’. He relates psychosocial dislocation to lack of community and lack of meaning or purpose.
I have to say that I did my own experiment, though it was not with opiate addicts, but rather with children from a difficult background whom I fostered. I converted a barren concrete backyard into a little green oasis. The children’s mental health improved. In fact, they flourished. This was, in fact, the genesis of the charity I founded which was to become Earth in Common.
In his inspiring book, The Globalization of Addiction, a Study in Poverty of the Spirit, he maintains that the biggest cause of psychosocial dislocation is what he calls ‘hypercapitalism’. He suggests the answer is ‘a galvanising alternative philosophy […] together with images, ceremonies, music and metaphysics that can give it life in human hearts and minds’.
Biospherism draws on, amongst other things, Earth in Common’s ‘Restorative Climate Justice’ concept, which informs our work in the Global South, our contribution to debate in, and our urban crofts campaign. The urban crofts idea is to set up a nationwide network of versatile community growing spaces and public areas with multiple integrated projects on them. The urban croft concept builds on Scottish Indigenous roots, especially the Gaelic concept of dùthchas, which is similar to many other Indigenous peoples’ philosophies, and which may be thought of as a community belonging to the land and being stewards of it. This concept was associated with the highly productive, sustainable and biodiversity-promoting agriculture which used to exist in the Highlands, and Earth in Common’s own also promotes amazing agrobiodiversity.
With regard to idea of a galvanising alternative philosophy or movement, if we are to build a truly socially sustainable society we’d have to supplant the massive siloes of agro-industry, filled with monoculture-crops doused in pesticides and weedkiller, produced with huge quantities of inorganic fertiliser and fossil fuels, then often shipped around the world to be fed in large part to livestock. Instead, we should be growing a diversity of healthy food locally and sustainably, for human consumption. Let’s supplant the silo mentality that pervades local and national government. Let’s promote egalitarianism, and set up alternatives to the financial services industry. The two-acre Leith croft is a microcosm of converging and integrated policy areas.
Give people a sense of agency and belonging, let’s foster real growth, in things that really matter to people and the biosphere, such as community, sense of belonging and purpose, quality of life and biodiversity, and create an alternative to GDP as a measure of success.
We can build a movement across race, culture, religion and nation, with solidarity and egalitarianism at its core. Think and act locally, but also think and act globally. We are all connected, and we are all part of the biosphere. Let’s take a lesson from nature, and become a global network of mutual support, spreading vibrant life and reaching everywhere. Let’s build a political force to be reckoned with.