** Chris Maser “Re-learning” what we’ve forgotten


Richard Moore

The !Kung Bushmen of southern Africa, for example, spent
only twelve to nineteen hours a week getting food because
their work was social and cooperative, which means they
obtained their particular food items with the least possible
expenditure of energy. Thus, they had abundant time for
eating, drinking, playing, and general socializing. In
addition to which, young people were not expected to work
until well into their twenties and no one was expected to
work after age forty or so. (3)

Original source URL:

"Re-learning" what we've forgotten

Written by Chris Maser

Editor's note: This is Chris Maser's Part Three of his series for 
Culture Change. I ate this one up, because ever since I read a 1987 
article in Discover magazine by Jared Diamond, about 
hunter-gatherers' working only a few hours a day a few days a week, 
I've been aware that our modern way of life is not what it's cracked 
up to be. In Maser's article there is solid anthropological insight 
applicable to our current challenge as a dysfunctional society facing 
extinction. In his 18 maxims, he concludes with "Placing material 
wealth, as symbolized by the money chase, above spirituality, nature, 
and human well-being is the road to social impoverishment, 
environmental degradation, and the collapse of societies and their 
life-support systems." - Jan Lundberg

If we all treat one another with the best principles of human 
relationships, it is analogous to complying with Nature's biophysical 
principles by taking responsibility for our own behavior. In other 
words, if I want to become acquainted with you, it is incumbent on me 
to determine how I must treat you in order to allow, even encourage, 
you to reciprocate in kind. Thus, for me to receive the best service, 
it is my responsibility to initiate a good relationship with the 
person serving me. Likewise, to have an adequate supply of quality 
resources in the form of ecoogical services from Nature to run our 
cities, we must take care of the land in a way that perpetuates the 
natural capital we require for a quality life. Here, the bottom line 
is that, by treating one another-as well as the land-with respect, we 
are uniting the two disparate entities into a single, 
self-reinforcing feedback loop of complementary services that can be 
perpetuated through time.

To bring this about, however, we need to view one another and 
ourselves differently, which necessitates a brief, generalized visit 
to the hunter-gatherers of olden times. If you are wondering why we 
need to visit the hunter-gatherers, the answer is simple: to 
understand what we have forgotten-how to live in harmony with one 
another and the land.

What the hunter-gatherers knew

The hunting-gathering peoples of the world-Australian aborigines, 
African Bushman, and similar groups-represent not only the oldest but 
also perhaps the most successfully adapted human beings. Virtually 
all of humanity lived by hunting and gathering before about 12,000 
years ago. Hunters and gatherers represent the opposite pole of the 
densely packed, harried urban life most people of today experience. 
Yet the life philosophy of those same hunter-gatherers may hold the 
answer to a central question plaguing humanity at it enters the 21st 
century: Can people live harmoniously with one another and Nature?

Until 1500 AD, hunter-gatherers occupied fully one-third of the 
world, including all of Australia, most of North America, and large 
tracts of land in South America, Africa, and northeast Asia, where 
they lived in small groups without the overarching disciplinary 
umbrella of a state or other centralized authority. They lived 
without standing armies or bureaucratic systems, and they exchanged 
goods and services without recourse to economic markets or taxation.

With relatively simple technology, such as wood, bone, stone, fibers, 
and fire, they were able to meet their material requirements with a 
modest expenditure of energy and had the time to enjoy that which 
they possessed materially, socially, and spiritually. Although their 
material wants may have been few and finite and their technical 
skills relatively simple and unchanging, their technology was, on the 
whole, adequate to fulfill their needs, a circumstance that says the 
hunting-gathering peoples were the original affluent societies. 
Clearly, they were free of the industrial shackles in which we find 
ourselves as prisoners at hard labor caught seeming forever between 
the perpetual disparity of unlimited wants and insufficient means.

Evidence indicates that these peoples lived surprisingly well 
together, despite the lack of a rigid social structure, solving their 
problems among themselves, largely without courts and without a 
particular propensity for violence. They also demonstrated a 
remarkable ability to thrive for long periods, sometimes thousands of 
years, in harmony with their environment. They were environmentally 
and socially harmonious and thus sustainable because they were 
egalitarian, and they were egalitarian because they were socially and 
environmentally harmonious. They intuitively understood the 
reciprocal, indissoluble connection between their social life and the 
sustainability of their environment.

Sharing was the core value of social interaction among 
hunter-gatherers, with a strong emphasis on the importance of 
generalized reciprocity, which means the unconditional giving of 
something without any expectation of immediate return. The 
combination of generalized reciprocity and an absence of private 
ownership of land has led many anthropologists to consider the 
hunter-gatherer way of life as a "primitive communism," in the true 
sense of "communism," wherein property is owned in common by all 
members of a classless community.

Even today, there are no possessive pronouns in aboriginal languages. 
The people's personal identity is defined by what they give to the 
community: "I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am" is 
a good example of the "self-in-community" foundation that gives rise 
to the saying in Zulu, umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu: "It is through 
others that one attains selfhood." (1)

Hunter-gatherer peoples lived with few material possessions for 
hundreds of thousands of years and enjoyed lives that were in many 
ways richer, freer, and more fulfilling than ours. These nomadic 
peoples were (and are) economical in every aspect of their lives, 
except in telling stories. Stories passed the time during travel, 
archived the people's history, and passed it forward as the 
children's cultural inheritance. (2)

These peoples so structured their lives that they wanted little, 
required little, and found what they needed at their disposal in 
their immediate surroundings. They were comfortable precisely because 
they achieved a balance between what they needed and/or wanted by 
being satisfied with little. There are, after all, two ways to 
wealth-working harder or wanting less.

The !Kung Bushmen of southern Africa, for example, spent only twelve 
to nineteen hours a week getting food because their work was social 
and cooperative, which means they obtained their particular food 
items with the least possible expenditure of energy. Thus, they had 
abundant time for eating, drinking, playing, and general socializing. 
In addition to which, young people were not expected to work until 
well into their twenties and no one was expected to work after age 
forty or so. (3)

Like the hunter-gatherers of old, the sense of place for the 
self-sufficient, nomadic Bedouins ("desert dwellers" in Arabic) is a 
seasonal journey. With respect to socializing, however, Bedouins have 
long had specific meeting places. In the desert of Sinai, an acacia 
tree still serves as a landmark and meeting place that offers shelter 
and social contact to travelers. The "makhad" (which means "the 
meeting place around the acacia tree") is a traditional Bedouin 
meeting place, where, according to their customs of friendship and 
hospitality, all who pass through the desert are welcomed. In fact, 
there is a particular acacia tree in the Sinai desert at the oasis 
garden of Ein-Khudra (an oasis mentioned in the Bible) that has been 
cultivated continuously by the same Bedouin family for over a 
thousand years.

These "oasis gardens" are remarkably fertile and filled with 
abundance, which reflects the Bedouin's love of and respect for their 
desert home. The makhads are a socially recognized commons in that 
they help to sustain the nomadic lifestyle-acting as a fixed point 
around which the nomadic journey revolves. (4)

Hunter-gatherers also had much personal freedom. There were, among 
the !Kung Bushmen and the Hadza of Tanzania, for instance, either no 
leaders or only temporary leaders with severely limited authority. 
These societies had personal equality in that everyone belonged to 
the same social class and had gender equality. Their technologies and 
social systems, including their economies of having enough or a sense 
of "enoughness," allowed them to live sustainably for tens of 
thousands of years. One of the reasons they were sustainable was 
their lack of connection between what an individual produced and that 
person's economic security, so acquisition of things to ensure 
personal survival and material comfort was not an issue.

In the beginning, nomadic hunters and gatherers, who have represented 
humanity for most of its existence, probably saw the world simply as 
"habitat" that fulfilled all of their life's requirements, a view 
that allowed the people to understand themselves as part of a 
seamless community. For example, the Apache word "Shi-Ni," is used 
for "land" and "mind," an indication of how closely the people were 
united to the land. With the advent of herding, agriculture, and 
progressive settlement, however, humanity created the concept of 
"wilderness," and so the distinctions between "tame" (equals 
"controlled") and "wild" (equals "uncontrolled") plants and animals 
began to emerge in the human psyche. Along with the notion of tame 
and wild plants and animals came the perceived need to not only 
"control" space but also to "own" it through boundaries in the form 
of corrals, pastures, fields, and villages. In this way, the 
uncontrolled land or "wilderness" of the hunter-gatherers came to be 
viewed in the minds of settled folk as "unproductive," "free" for the 
taking, and/or as a threat to their existence.

Agriculture, therefore, brought with it both a sedentary way of life 
and a permanent change in the flow of living. Whereas the daily life 
of a hunter-gatherer was a seamless whole, a farmer's life became 
divided into "home" and "work." While a hunter-gatherer had intrinsic 
value as a human being with respect to the community, a farmer's 
sense of self-worth became extrinsic, both personally and with 
respect to the community as symbolized by, and permanently attached 
to "productivity"-a measure based primarily on how hard a person 
worked and thus produced in good or services.

In addition, the sedentary life of a farmer changed the notion of 
"property." To the hunter-gatherers, mobile property, that which one 
could carry with them (such as one's hunting knife or gathering 
basket) could be owned, but fixed property (such as land) was to be 
shared equally through rights of use, but could not be personally 
owned to the exclusion of others and the detriment of future 
generations. This was such an important concept, that it eventually 
had a word of special coinage, "usufruct." According to the 1999 
Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, "usufruct," is a noun 
in Roman and Civil Law. Usufruct means that one has the right to 
enjoy all the advantages derivable from the use of something that 
belongs to another person provided the substance of the thing being 
used is neither destroyed nor injured.

So the dawn of agriculture, which ultimately gave birth to 
civilizations, created powerful, albeit unconscious, biases in the 
human psyche. For the first time, humans clearly saw themselves as 
distinct from and-in their reasoning at least-superior to the rest of 
Nature. They therefore began to consider themselves as masters of, 
but not as members of, Nature's biophysical community of life.

To people who lived a sedentary life, like farmers, land was a 
commodity to be bought, owned, and sold. Thus, when hunter-gatherer 
cultures, such as the American Indians, "sold" their land to the 
invaders (in this case Europeans), they were really selling the right 
to "use" their land, not to "own" it outright as fixed property, 
something the Europeans did not understand. The European's difficulty 
in comprehending the difference probably arose because, once a 
sedentary and settled life style is embraced, it is almost impossible 
to return to a nomadic way of life, especially the thinking that 
accompanies it.

We, as individuals, may therefore despair when we contemplate the 
failure of so many earlier human societies to recognize their pending 
environmental problems, as well as their failure to resolve 
them-especially when we see our local, national, and global society 
committing the same kinds of mistakes on an even larger scale and 
faster time track. But the current environmental crisis is much more 
complex than earlier ones because modern society is qualitatively 
different than previous kinds of human communities. Old problems are 
occurring in new contexts and new problems are being created, both as 
short-term solutions to old problems and as fundamentally new 
concepts. Pollution of the world's oceans, depletion of the ozone 
layer, production of enormous numbers and amounts of untested 
chemical compounds that find their way into the environment, and the 
potential human exacerbation of global climate change were simply not 
issues in olden times. But they are the issues of today.

There are lessons we, as a society today, can re-learn from the 
people who once lived-and the few who still live-a hunter-gatherer 
way of life. I say, "relearn" because, as writer Carlo Levi once 
said, "the future has an ancient heart."

What we must "re-learn"
1. Life's experiences are personal and intimate.

2. Sharing life's experiences by working together and taking care of 
one another along the way is the price of sustainability.

3. Cooperation and coordination, when coupled with sharing and 
caring, precludes the perceived need to compete, except in play-and 
perhaps in story telling.

4. The art of living lies in how we practice relationship-beginning 
with ourselves-because practicing relationship is all we humans ever 
do in life.

5. Leisure is affording the necessary amount of time to fully engage 
each thought we have, each decision we make, each task we perform, 
and each person with whom we converse in order to fulfill a 
relationship's total capacity for a quality experience.

6. Simplicity in living and dying depends on and seeks things small, 
sublime, and sustainable.

7. There is more beauty and peace in the world than ugliness and 
cruelty. 8. Any fool can complicate life, but it requires a certain 
genius to make and keep things simple.

9. For a group of people to be socially functional, they must be 
equally informed about what is going on within the group; in other 
words, there must be no secrets that are actually or potentially 
detrimental to any member of the group.

10. Separating work from social life is not necessary for economic 
production-and may even be a serious social mistake.

11. By consciously limiting our "wants," we can have enough to 
comfortably fulfill our necessities as well as some of our most 
ardent desires-and leave more for other people to do the same.

12. Simplicity is the key to contentment, adaptability, and survival 
as a culture; beyond some point, complexity becomes a decided 
disadvantage with respect to cultural longevity, just as it is to the 
evolutionary longevity of a species.

13. The notion of scarcity is largely an economic construct to foster 
competitive consumerism and thereby increase profits, but is not 
necessarily an inherent part of human nature. (We need to overcome 
our fear of economically contrived scarcity and marvel instead at the 
incredible abundance and resilience of the Earth.)

14. Linking individual well-being strictly to individual production 
is the road to competition, which in turn leads inevitably to social 
inequality, poverty, and environmental degradation.

15. Self-centeredness and acquisitiveness are not inherent traits of 
our species, but rather acquired traits based on a sense of fear and 
insecurity within our social setting that fosters the perceived need 
of individual and collective competition, expressed as the need to 
impress others.

16. Inequality based on gender and/or social class is a behavior 
based on fear disguised as "social privilege."

17. Mobile property, that which one can carry with them, can be 
owned, whereas fixed property-such as land, which may be borrowed-is 
to be shared equally through rights of generational use, but can not 
be personally owned to the detriment of future generations.

18. Placing material wealth, as symbolized by the money chase, above 
spirituality, nature, and human well-being is the road to social 
impoverishment, environmental degradation, and the collapse of 
societies and their life-support systems. (3)

So, where are we today? We are the exact antithesis of the 
hunter-gatherers in many respects: (1) who we are, (2) how we obtain 
resources, (3) what we own, (4) our connection with Nature, and (5) 
who benefits and who pays. I am, however, going to focus on our 
connection with Nature, because, in a sense, the others are embodied 
in the characteristics of that relationship.

The hunter-gatherers knew themselves to be an inseparable part of 
Nature and therefore did their best to honor Nature by blending in 
with the seasonal cycles of birth and death, of hunter, gatherer, and 
hunted. Through their spirituality and myths, they sought to 
understand the "Nature Gods," appease them, and serve them so they 
might continue to be generous in the future.

We city folks, on the other hand, have all but lost our conscious 
connection with Nature, in part because a number of modern religions, 
such as Christianity and Judaism, consider humanity to be separate 
from and above all other life on Planet Earth. In addition, we live 
in protective "boxes" of one sort or another wherein our daily 
necessities are transported-including our experience of the outer 
world via television. Consequently, we rarely experience the night 
sky, the seasonal flights of migrating geese, or the wide-open spaces 
that are as yet uncluttered by the trappings of humanity. And those 
city folks who do hunt, normally do so with high-powered rifles that 
make their game into the abstractions of sport and trophies - not 
lives taken with reverence for the necessity of food.

The hunter-gatherers lived lightly upon the land, honoring its 
cycles, being patience with Nature's pace, taking only what they 
needed, and thereby allowing the land to renew itself before they 
took from it again. In this way, generations passed through the 
millennia, each tending to be at least as well off as the preceding 

Because we have a propensity to see Nature as a commodity to be 
competitively exploited for our immediate benefit, we are, at best, 
short-changing the generations of the future by passing forward 
unpaid environmental bills and, at worst, blatantly stealing their 
inheritance and thus setting all generations on a course toward 
environmental bankruptcy. The first is irresponsible, the latter 
unconscionable. While the hunter-gatherers lived an effective life, 
we are focused almost totally on efficiency. And they are not the 
same thing!

1. Barbara Nussbaum. 2003. Ubuntu. Resurgence 221:13.
2. Sally Pomme Clayton. 2003. Thread of Life. Resurgences 221:29.

3. The foregoing discussion of hunter-gatherers is taken from: (1) 
the Foreword, Introduction, and first eight chapters of the 1998 book 
"Limited wants, unlimited means" edited by John Gowdy and published 
by Island Press, Washington, D.C. The authors are as follows: 
Foreword by Richard B. Lee, Introduction by John Gowdy, Chapter 1 by 
Marshall Sahlins, Chapter 2 by Richard B. Lee, Chapter 3 by Lorna 
Marshall, Chapter 4 by James Woodburn, Chapter 5 by Nurit Bird-David, 
Chapter 6 by Eleanor Leacock, Chapter 7 by Richard B. Lee, and 
Chapter 8 by Ernest S. Burch, Jr.; (2) Rebecca Adamson. People who 
are Indigenous to the Earth. 1997. YES! A Journal of Positive 
Futures, Winter:26-27; (3) Gus diZerega. 1997. Re-thinking the 
Obvious: Modernity and Living Respectfully with Nature. Trumpeter 
14:184-193; (4) Richard K. Nelson. 1983. Make Prayers to the Raven: A 
Koyukon View of the Northern Forest. University of Chicago Press, 
Chicago, IL. pp. 214-215; (5) Stephanie Mills. 2001. Words for the 
Wild. Resurgence 208:38-40; and (6) Roderick Frazier Nash. 2003. Wild 
World. Resurgence 216:36-38.

4. The foregoing discussion about the nomadic Bedouins is based on: 
Will Cretney. 2000. A Nomadic Journey. Resurgence 203:24-25.

* * * * *

This essay is condensed from Chris Maser's 2004 book The Perpetual 
Consequences of Fear and Violence: Rethinking the Future. Maisonneuve 
Press, Washington, D.C. 373 pp.

Chris has written several books that are showcased on his website, 
chrismaser.com. Chris lives in Corvallis, Oregon. He is a consultant 
on environmental land-use development, sustainable communities and 

Further Reading:

"Ancient innovations for present conventions toward extinction" by 
Jan Lundberg, Culture Change Letter #161, June 10, 2007: 

newslog archives:

Escaping the Matrix website: http://escapingthematrix.org/
cyberjournal website: http://cyberjournal.org

How We the People can change the world:

Community Democracy Framework:

Moderator: •••@••.•••  (comments welcome)