Hunter-gatherers consume less energy per capita per year than any other group of human
beings. Yet when you come to examine it the original affluent society was none other
than the hunter's—in which all the people's material wants were easily satisfied. To
accept that hunters are affluent is therefore to recognize that the present human condition
of man slaving to bridge the gap between his unlimited wants and his insufficient means
is a tragedy of modern times.
There are two possible courses to affluence. Wants may be "easily satisfied" either by
producing much or desiring little. The familiar conception, the Galbraithean way—based
on the concept of market economies—states that man's wants are great, not to say
infinite, whereas his means are limited, although they can be improved. Thus, the gap
between means and ends can be narrowed by industrial productivity, at least to the point
that "urgent goods" become plentiful. But there is also a Zen road to affluence, which
states that human material wants are finite and few, and technical means unchanging but
on the whole adequate. Adopting the Zen strategy, a people can enjoy an unparalleled
material plenty - with a low standard of living. That, I think, describes the hunters. And it
helps explain some of their more curious economic behavior: their "prodigality" for
example- the inclination to consume at once all stocks on hand, as if they had it made.
Free from market obsessions of scarcity, hunters' economic propensities may be more
consistently predicated on abundance than our own.
Destutt de Tracy, "fish-blooded bourgeois doctrinaire" though he might have been, at
least forced Marx to agree that "in poor nations the people are comfortable", whereas in
rich nations, "they are generally poor".
Sources of the Misconception
"Mere subsistence economy", "limited leisure save in exceptional circumstances",
incessant quest for food", "meager and relatively unreliable" natural resources, "absence
of an economic surplus", "maximum energy from a maximum number of people" so runs
the fair average anthropological opinion of hunting and gathering
The traditional dismal view of the hunters' fix goes back to the time Adam Smith was
writing, and probably to a time before anyone was writing. Probably it was one of the
first distinctly Neolithic prejudices, an ideological appreciation of the hunter's capacity to
exploit the earth's resources most congenial to the historic task of depriving him of the
same. We must have inherited it with the seed of Jacob, which "spread abroad to the
west, and to the east, and to the north", to the disadvantage of Esau who was the elder son
and cunning hunter, but in a famous scene deprived of his birthright.
Current low opinions of the hunting-gathering economy need not be laid to Neolithic