Good old days: What can the modern world learn from older societies?
The good old days. Despite all the undeniable benefits recent centuries have brought, you may have a nagging feeling that we’ve lost something in the process.
Jared Diamond (author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning must-read Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies) has a new book to reassure you you’re not crazy.
The World Until Yesterday answers the question “What can we learn from traditional societies?” looking at diet, family, child-rearing, religion, violence and more.
What made the good old days good?
It’s obvious why hunter-gatherers are joining modern society and not the other way around but what are the advantages of the traditional world that they leave behind?
Always being surrounded by loved ones. Low time pressure. Low stress. Low competition.
The most frequent and important observations involve life-long social bonds. Loneliness is not a problem in traditional societies. People spend their lives in or near the place where they were born, and they remain surrounded by relatives and childhood companions. In the smaller traditional societies (tribes and bands of just a few hundred people or fewer), no one is a stranger. While either girls or boys (in most traditional societies, girls) move from their natal group upon getting married, the move is usually over a sufficiently small distance that one can regularly visit one’s blood relatives.
In contrast, the risk of loneliness is a chronic problem in populous industrial societies. The expression “feeling alone in a crowded room” isn’t just a literary phrase: it’s a basic reality for many Americans and Europeans living in large cities, and working among people whom they barely know. People in Western societies frequently move long distances, their children and friends also independently move long distances, and so one is likely to end up far from one’s closest relatives and childhood friends. Most people that one encounters are strangers and will remain strangers. Children routinely leave their parents’ house and set up their own household on marrying or becoming economically independent. As one American friend who spends much time in Africa summed it up, “Life in Africa is materially poor and socially/ emotionally rich, while U.S. life is materially rich and socially/ emotionally poor.” Other frequent observations are the greater time pressures, scheduling constraints, stress levels, and competitiveness in Western societies than in traditional societies. I emphasize once again that there are respects in which features of the traditional world persist in many parts of modern industrial societies, such as rural areas, where everyone knows everyone else and most people spend their lives near their birthplace.
Diamond gets his point across powerfully by quoting the impressions of those who grew up in traditional societies and later moved to the United States.
- “In the U.S., people have to be entertained, and they don’t know how to entertain themselves.”
- “In Africa you share things. For example, while I was in school, I acquired a red inner tube of a rubber tire. Rubber was valuable to make slingshots. For a long time, I shared pieces of my valuable red inner tube with other kids for them to make slingshots. But in the U.S., if you acquire something valuable, you keep it for yourself and you don’t share it. In addition, nobody in the U.S. would know what to do with an inner tube.”
- “A frustration here in the U.S. is the constant pressure to be working. If you’re sitting around enjoying a cup of coffee in the afternoon, you should feel guilty because it’s a wasted opportunity to be making money. But if you are one of those people that are making money instead of enjoying a cup of coffee, you don’t save that extra money you made, you just live a more expensive life so that you have to keep working more and more. The U.S. has lost its ability (for the most part) to find the balance between work and play or relaxation. In New Guinea, shops close down in the middle of the day and re-open in the late afternoon. That is extremely un-American.”
What do we need to do? Diamond mentions many things, among them:
- Watching what we eat. Our diets have changed dramatically in the past few centuries. Our physiology has not.
- Knowing what to be afraid of. The news scares us with terrorism and plane crashes while what really kills us is car accidents, poor decisions and slipping in the shower.
- The importance of meaning. We discard religion because it’s not true, but we lose all the powerful things that came with it like social bonds, altruism, ethics and purpose.
While technology has helped us address many of the greatest problems our ancestors faced, it also created new ones. We must recognize this and compensate.
The societies to which most readers of this book belong represent a narrow slice of human cultural diversity. Societies from that slice achieved world dominance not because of a general superiority, but for specific reasons: their technological, political, and military advantages derived from their early origins of agriculture, due in turn to their productive local wild domesticable plant and animal species. Despite those particular advantages, modern industrial societies didn’t also develop superior approaches to raising children, treating the elderly, settling disputes, avoiding non-communicable diseases, and other societal problems.
I’m not giving up my air conditioner or Wi-Fi, let’s make that clear right now, okay?
But there were answers to life’s most serious questions long before there was Wikipedia.
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