Enslaved by the Promise of Economic Security
“When I’m watchin’ my T.V.
And that man comes on to tell me
How white my shirts can be
But he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke
The same cigarettes as me
I can’t get no, oh no, no, no
Hey hey hey, that’s what I say”
— Satisfaction, by The Rolling Stones
It’s another fine day here in South America. Or at least, it looks that way from where we sit.
Outside our office window—on the fifth floor of an old, French-style apartment building—we can see across the street to the neighboring balconies. They are stacked like little stages, one atop the other. Vignettes play out on each of them.
On one, a pretty young mother teaches her daughter—about one year old, we guess—how to walk. Every day a few more steps…and a few less tumbles. We follow her progress with keen interest; our own daughter is only a few months behind. We want to know what we’re in for…
On another balcony, a maid dutifully scrubs the handrail and waters the plants. She whistles as she works. The sun creeps slowly along the warm red tiles underfoot. After a time, the owner comes out to sit on the little chair by the door. She opens a book and begins to read. The maid brings her a cold drink. They smile at each other.
And on another stage, a larger terrace a few floors up, a full-scale renovation is underway. We’ve lost count of how many men are on the job. Some chisel away at the concrete. Others saw planks of timber or hammer together framework. A few lean over the edge, smoking cigarettes, drinking mate and watching the world go by below.
In towns and cities around the world, human beings are playing out their own stories on their own stages. Most of them we will never know.
As regular Truth & Plenty readers know, we’ve been meditating of late on the idea of collective narratives. Today, we offer some closing thoughts on the subject. Then we’ll move on…promise.
The idea that you might live a few meters from someone else and not know them by name is somewhat of a recent phenomenon.
Not long ago…say, 10,000 years BC…you would have known virtually everybody you ever met. Of course, you might have only met a few hundred people.
These were simpler times, you see. When social networking meant shaking hands, not “liking” someone’s Facebook post. When tablets were made of stone, not silicon and circuitry. When tweeting was something only the birds did…
This was a time when most of the world’s people wandered about on two legs. No balconies. No wooden window frames. No warm red tiles underfoot. We’re talking about the days of the simple forager…the hunter-gatherer.
The common assumption is that these were cruel and brutal times…before a great enlightenment led us to set down roots—literally—in what came to be known as the Agricultural Revolution.
But there’s a kink in that story.
Fossil records show that Forager Man (as we’ll call him) lived longer, was prone to fewer diseases, enjoyed a better diet and worked far less than did Agro Man.
How can this be?
For starters, Forager Man enjoyed a much wider variety of food. He moved about on foot and was, therefore, exposed to plants and berries from different areas. He trapped and ate an array of animals, depending on what was available at the time. He grew to know a variety of landscapes and, importantly, how to survive in different conditions.
Contrastingly, Agro Man was almost wholly reliant on one or two types of crops and a small number of animals. Llamas and potatoes in South America. Rice, millet, and pigs in China. Sugarcane and bananas in New Guinea.
As a result, Agro Man was particularly vulnerable when it came to natural disasters like floods, earthquakes, or pestilence. A single crop failure could mean mass starvation. A single disease could wipe out entire herds. You could say Agro Man had but a few eggs…all in the one proverbial basket.
Moreover, while Forager Man worked a few leisurely hours a day (experts guess no more than 30 hours a week), Agro Man shackled himself to his farm tools. He had to rise early and work backbreaking hours under harsh conditions, hoeing his rows, tending to his animals, and harvesting his crops.
The result of the Agro Man’s toil and effort was, in some ways, a boon for humankind. Populations exploded in and around townships as more and more people were pulled in to settle and work the land. But on an individual level, the outcome was less than optimal.
As Yuval Noah Harari explains in his book, Sapiens (which patient Truth & Plenty readers may be happy to know we’ve now finished)…
“Sadly, the diligent peasants almost never achieved the future economic security they so craved through their hard work in the present. Everywhere, rulers and elites sprang up, living off the peasants’ surplus food and leaving them with only a bare subsistence.
“These fortified food surpluses fuelled politics, wars, art and philosophy. They built palaces, forts, monuments and temples. Until the late modern era, more than 90 per cent of humans were peasants who rose each morning to till the land by the sweat of their brows. The extra they produced fed the tiny minority of elites—kings, government officials, soldiers, priests, artisans and thinkers—who fill the history books. History is something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.”
Clearly, the deal was not a good one for individuals slogging it out in the fields. And yet, the Agricultural Revolution came and went. And virtually everyone alive at the time, and for thousands of years since, took part in it.
There’s little doubt that we’re—collectively—better off for it today. The hard work of our ancient forefathers has delivered us into an era of luxury such that we are more at risk of dying from obesity than from starvation.
But what benevolent angel would knowingly lash himself to a life of drudgery and hard labor so that, 12,000 years into the future, some unknown ingrate with an iGadget could complain about the slow WiFi signal on an airplane as he jets over the Atlantic Ocean en route to his summer vacation?
What makes us go along with these collective narratives? Why do we behave the way we do…even when doing so is self-evidently against our own best interests?
Are we so busy, so concentrated on earning an extra dollar, so focused on chaining ourselves to a life of debt and drudgery, we can’t look up for a moment and imagine another way?
What is beyond our own private balcony…outside our own little vignette?
Fire in the Hole: Make Your Own Earth Oven
The earth oven—essentially a hole in the ground filled with hot rocks—is an ancient cooking technique used to bake, smoke, or steam food. These days it works well as an alternative to an open campfire, and is surprisingly simple to make.
Dig a hole: The size of your hole will depend entirely on how big your dinner will be (this technique can be used to cook anything from a salmon to a pig to a whole cow). The pit should be one foot larger in every direction than what you want to cook.
Line the pit: Line your pit with flat stones—round stones will do in a pinch but take up more room. Avoid using stones that have come from a river or the sea (these have a nasty habit of exploding when heated). Build a small fire on top of the rocks and get them nice and hot—hardwood twigs and branches will produce the best bed of coals, but barbecue charcoals work fine if you feel like cheating a little.
Wrap it up: To prepare your meat or veggies, season and wrap in wild leafy plants or aluminum foil (die-hard hole diggers claim you miss out on the natural flavors of your environment if you use foil). At this point you can remove the hot coals from the hole or simply cover them with an extra lair of foil to protect your food. Place the food in the hole, pour a cup of water over everything, and cover with about four inches of soil and forget about it. After about 3 hours dig it up and enjoy!