Andreas Späth

Learning from savages

2010-06-30 08:10

I have an idea for a reality TV show. It’ll be called Survivor. The name’s taken?! OK, something equally catchy along similar lines then. In the programme, two smallish human communities will be left to fend for themselves on a pristine tropical island for, say, four or five generations. The one group will consist of members from a traditional, “primitive”, tribal community from, for example, the middle of the Amazon. The other group will come from the “civilised” developed world – a leafy suburb of Jo’burg, perhaps.

Their task is simply to live, survive and flourish as mini societies, but without degrading or destroying their beautiful new island home while doing so. “Not fair!” you say? OK, the civs get access to today’s technologies and tools as well as an internet connection to even out the odds.

The practical problems with my little scheme are obvious. Maintaining viable viewership ratings for several decades or even centuries would be tricky. People are more interested in swearing celebrity chefs and starlets prepared to flash their pantyless crotches at the world than in humanity’s prospects for long-term existence.

But the more important reason why nobody would watch my version of Survivor is that the final outcome would be obvious from the get-go. The primitives would win hands down. After a few decades our clan of suburbanites would have exhausted the natural resources of their habitat and polluted it to dangerous levels. Unless, that is, they adopted at least part of the mindset of their savage competitors.

“Stop with this silly and unrealistic TV show parable”, you complain. OK, let’s just call it a thought experiment then and scale it up by several orders of magnitude to a planetary level. If we, the members of the dominant, “civilised” societies on earth, simply continue with business as usual – think Gulf of Mexico, climate change, running out oil, gas, coal and uranium – what is our world going to look like in, say, 200 years’ time? Now contrast this with what it would look like if the planet was inhabited only by people pursuing “primitive” lifestyles. Again, the answer is obvious: on a finite planet, a way of living based on continuous growth can only lead to one thing – collapse.

I’m not saying that we should all revert to hunter-gatherer mode. I’m merely suggesting that we should acknowledge that the “civilised” path we’re on right now is not sustainable in the long run and that there are other cultures that have thousands of years of practical experience of living on this planet without running it into the ground. Is it so unreasonable to think that we could learn something from these savages?

Recent archaeological work shows, for instance, that in pre-Colombian times the Amazon provided a home for millions of people rather than merely small, thinly dispersed tribal clans. There are remnants of networks of towns and villages connected by surprisingly sophisticated roads, large settlements that are believed to have been inhabited by as many as 100 000 people and signs that the rainforest dwellers developed effective ways of enriching the relatively infertile soil for agriculture. Scientists believe that rather than representing virgin, untouched forest, as much as 15% of the Amazon was intentionally and sustainably managed and shaped to benefit the human population for millennia.

Perhaps it is time for us to seriously question some of the more basic assumptions that underlie our own system: that the main driving force behind homo economicus – you and me as modern, atomised producers and consumers – should be the maximisation of personal profit, that whatever natural resources we exploit to extinction can simply be replaced by others and that things in nature have no intrinsic value unless they are of use to humans.

It’s time to move from an ego-centric way of living for just today and tomorrow to an eco-centric one that looks much further ahead in time. The great Iroquois Confederacy of North America had a tradition that required them to consider the potential impact of any decision made in the present on seven generations into the future. Sounds reasonable to me. They would have watched my reality TV show...

- Andreas manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre.

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