> technology : direction : from : stone age

this material, cited and uncited here, is drawn from Marshall Sahlins's book Stone Age Economics.

studying at least a single vision of life prior to the major technology of agriculture is important to understand what choices we have made, how we have shaped our lives since we left the savannah.

prior to the advent of agriculture, in hunting-gathering situations, production was limited sharply by environmental needs. population, food supply and ecological concerns were intimately wedded. in Stone Age Economics, Marshall Sahlins uproots the assumption that paleolithic (pre-farming) families slaved feverishly in the face of imminent starvation to exist in utter possessionless poverty.

instead, their daily activities, and their economics reflected a deliberate pacing - more balanced and closer to the earth. their levels of production closely matched the available resources, and their behaviour had a shorter effect-cycle. here Sahlins explains the tight relationships between locale and food supply:

"...the [stone age] economy is seriously afflicted by the imminence of diminishing returns. Beginning in subsistence and spreading from there to every sector, an initial success seems only to develop the probability that further efforts will yield smaller benefits. This describes the typical curve of food-getting within a particular locale. A modest number of people usually sooner than later reduce the food resources within convenient range of camp. Thereafter, they may stay on only by absorbing an increase in real costs or a decline in real returns: rise in costs if the people choose to search farther and farther afield, decline in returns if they are satisfied to live on the shorter supplies or inferior foods in easier reach. The solution, or course, is to go somewhere else. Thus the first and decisive contingency of hunting-gathering: it requires movement to maintain production on advantageous terms."
- page 33

paleolithic (pre-agricultural) families moved to keep in balance the cost/benefit ratio of food hunting and gathering. this motion was their geographic response to shifting stocks of ambient foodstuffs, which in turn fluctuated according to their consumption. it is a tight relationship, especially when considered in the light of our current day distended system of food distribution.

this movement, necessitated by shifting food supply, impacts other spheres of life, especially production and ownership of non-food items:

"The manufacture of tools, clothing, utensils, or ornaments, however easily done, becomes senseless when these begin to be more of a burden than a comfort. utility falls quickly at the margin of portability."
- page 33

he goes on to cite substantial housing, and more complicated equipments as unduly heavy, weighty, substantial for a people in relatively constant transit. food was leading these people around on a regular migration - hauling around a television and VCR, let alone the generator to run them, was not an option.

including the weight of a unsustainably populated community - Sahlins asserts that paleolithic hunter gatherers essentially applied a similar degree of criteria for possession portability to members of the community. the old, the young, those unable to move themselves along with the family, who unduly slowed things for the collective might be left behind.

this selective population trimming also reduced the general ambient impact on the environment, and accordingly the food supply. there was a practical utility sensibility to their calculations - they maintained a stable collective ecological impact in order to sustain their desired standard of living.

"The same policy of déebarassment is in play on the level of people, describable in similar terms and ascribable to similar causes. The terms are, cold-bloodedly: diminishing returns at the margin of portability, minimum necessary equipment, elimination of duplicates, and so forth - that is to say, infanticide, senilicide, sexual continence for the duration of the nursing period, etc., practices for which many food-collecting peoples are well known. The presumption that such devices are due to an inability to support more people is probably true - if "support" is understood in the sense of carrying them rather than feeding them. The people eliminated, as hunters sometimes sadly tell, are precisely those who cannot effectively transport themselves, who would hinder the movement of family and camp.
"More, these tactics of demographic restraint again form part of a larger policy for counteracting diminishing returns in subsistence.
"...rather than the sign of underproduction, the wages of poverty, this demographic pattern is better understood as the cost of living well."

- pages 33-34

more simply stated,

"Hunters and gatherers have by force of circumstances an objectively low standard of living. But taken as their objective, and given their adequate means of production, all the people's material wants usually can be easily satisfied."
- page 37

could we say the same about today? regardless of our labour level, we are stuck without the latest thing - technology is an inherent treadmill that gives us something to lack.

perhaps romanticizing the life of those that came before agriculture, Sahlins nevertheless makes an important point about sustainability, and the importance there of for quality of life:

"Hunting and gathering has all the strengths of its weaknesses. Periodic movement and restraint in wealth and population are at once imperatives of the economic practice and creative adaptations, the kinds of necessities of which virtues are made. Precisely in such a framework, affluence becomes possible. Mobility and moderation put hunters' ends within range of their technical means. An undeveloped mode of production is thus rendered highly effective."
- page 34

the contrast in lifestyles and sustainability begs big questions about our priorities. still, we must remember that eventually these folk craved something different; they did lead us here after all. they are us, and we crave things that keep us changing.

it is possible to survive, comfortably at a lower level of permanence, but we have chosen differently. how differently and why?

we have chosen a number of things

  • to remain where we are, expanding
  • to subjugate ourselves and nature and other people content to work less and move more
  • to sustain the health and lifespan of all possible humans

    essentially seeking to create and extend permanence; and medicine/death forestalling is a perfect example.

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