Each of the following beliefs are merely possibilities. Which one improves our lives?
There is only one right way to live. Civilization is the most evolved and best way of living. Other ways of living are backward.
There is no one right way to live. We each live as we want and allow others to live as they want. Our differences make us each equally unique, and this encourages diversity (the spice of life). Humans have lived well in many other ways. Paleolithic peoples generally experienced joy and security we never know in civilized life.
The belief in the superiority of civilization tells this version of human his-story: Throughout history and prehistory, we lived a life doomed to darkness in tribal barbarianism and poverty, warring with each other, stealing, slaving, and living in terror of the next attack or food scarcity. But the agricultural revolution delivered us from that fate. With the development of farming, we had food surpluses that enabled us to develop militaries and effective governing structures to ensure our basic security. Since then, we have progressed farther and farther into the light of civilization. Our weapons became increasingly sophisticated, we increased the division of labor and developed elaborate governmental structures. This enabled us to create ever greater works of art, architecture, literature, and technological innovation which made life more beautiful and comfortable right up to the present day. Our culture and way of life provide a security net, allow us to live longer and fuller lives than ever before and avoid the early death and unnecessary suffering of our primitive ancestors.
Embedded in this view is the idea that our civilized way of life is the only and best way forward for humanity, and that the lifeways of our ancestors and other primitive peoples are outdated, barbaric, stupid, and wrong. The very word civilization came into the English language in the 18th century, to describe the process of bringing [people] out of a state of savagery, ignorance, and undeveloped culture. For much of the past 10,000 years, we have been involved in the project of civilizing the world, which equates to dominating or exterminating people we presume to be inferior or contrary to the inevitable progress and growth of our way of life.
For example, take Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the Americas. His main objective was to colonize new lands for the Spanish, which he accomplished by enslaving the indigenous peoples he encountered under the Spanish encomienda system. In this system of “trade” with Native people, Spanish colonists offered protection from warring tribes in exchange for assimilating them into Spanish culture and demanding “tribute” from them in the form of hard labor and gold. Columbus’ assessment of indigenous peoples in his journals mainly involved judging whether they were fit to be servants and how easily he could conquer them and put them to work building the Spanish colonies. Columbus is commemorated and celebrated in our culture as a great voyageur and discoverer of the Americas, yet his primary mission was to gain possessions and power for himself and for the Spanish crown through enslavement and forced assimilation of indigenous peoples.
Our current culture’s version of his-story assumes that indigenous peoples’ way of life was more violent, fearful, dangerous, hungry, or simply undeveloped than ours (Columbus, for example, commented about some indigenous peoples that they seemed to have no religion), but this is not necessarily the case. Paleolithic and cooperative peoples have done what works for them, and it has worked for many thousands of years – much longer, in fact, than we have lived the “civilized” life.
It is important to distinguish between civilization and agriculture. Agriculture is not inherently civilizing. Many peoples outside of our particular cultural lineage have developed agricultural ways of life (some people of the Americas, for example, cultivated corn, beans, squash, and potatoes) while maintaining cultural values in line with the law of life (that there is no one right way to live). Agriculture is a gift and a valuable co-creative process. What distinguishes our particular version of “his-story” is not agriculture itself but our particular cultural variation of it. The foundation of our current paradigm is a totalitarian agri-“culture” rooted in the values illustrated here – namely, that human life is more valuable than other life-forms on earth (we are superior), that more human life and more food for humans is good (more is better), and that our particular form of agriculture is the best and only way people should live (everyone else is backward).
What our culture belittles as tribal barbarism was a way of life that worked for many thousands of years. “Primitive warfare” was for the most part a series of rites of passage and games played between neighboring tribes as a testing ground for adulthood. It wasn’t usually about murder, but more often about proving one’s prowess and strength. Most consequences/ punishments were humiliating, not lethal. For example, among some of the peoples of the eastern United States, young men were expected to occasionally be caught trespassing or raiding their neighbors. The consequence for a young man should he get caught was to “run the gauntlet,” in which all the women of that group lined up with sticks to beat the man as he ran past.
Our “civilized” culture is the only one, in contrast to tens of thousands of “primitive” cultures, which practices systematic annihilation, genocide, and mass imprisonment. We are the only one in which the social diseases of crime, famine, and vast inequality wreak havoc upon our sense of safety in daily life. And although slavery has been prevalent throughout all of human history, in general slaves in indigenous cultures were adopted or allowed to escape after a few years (pacific northwest coastal peoples being one notable exception) rather than forced to remain indentured permanently. In contrast, our civilized economy relies upon a large pool of unskilled, impoverished workers who will toil their entire lives away for starvation wages.
Many Paleolithic and indigenous cultures have created much more viable and long-term health care and retirement systems than our culture does. The elderly are cherished for their knowledge and depended upon to teach and spend time with the young as well as to advise from experience about major decisions and ceremony. Whereas in our culture, if a person can’t work for others (be productive), they are quickly cast off to fend for themselves or segregated away from most of society in nursing homes or special care facilities.
Most indigenous and Paleolithic peoples also spend/spent far less time each day “working” to feed themselves and no time working on anything which didn’t benefit their community directly – a mere 2 hours a day by some accounts, in comparison to the common 8-hour “work day” in our culture, which doesn’t even include the work we do to prepare our own meals and wash our own clothing. In many cooperative cultures, the daily work goes directly toward the sustenance and harmony of the group. In modern civilization, we only consider it “work” if we do it for money, and most paid “jobs” involve work which is unrelated to our own needs and the needs of our family. The daily labor of cooking, cleaning, and maintaining our own lives doesn’t count as “work” because it is not paid. It is no wonder that collectively we find little time and energy to play with our children, pursue our passions, or get together to celebrate or meet our neighbors when we are so tired from just paying the bills and scraping by.