Ideas that add up #224

Due to drought and disruption by national boundaries of the traditional cycle of movement, the Ik live in such a food- and water-scarce environment that there is absolutely no advantage to reciprocity and social sharing. The Ik, in consequence, display almost nothing of what could be called societal organization. They are so highly fragmented that most activities, especially subsistence, are pursued individually. Each Ik will spend days or weeks on his or her own, searching for food and water. Sharing is virtually nonexistent. Two siblings or other kin can live side-by-side, one dying of starvation and the other well nourished, without the latter giving the slightest assistance to the other. The family as a social unit has become dysfunctional. Even conjugal pairs don’t form a cooperative unit except for a few specific purposes. Their motivation for marriage or cohabitation is that one person can’t build a house alone. The members of a conjugal pair forage alone, and do not share food. Indeed, their foraging is so independent that if both members happen to be at their residence together it is by accident. 

Each conjugal compound is stockaded against the others. Several compounds together form a village, but this is a largely meaningless occurrence. Villages have no political functions or organization, not even a central meeting place.

Children are minimally cared for by their mothers until age three, and then are put out to fend for themselves. This separation is absolute. By age three they are expected to find their own food and shelter, and those that survive do provide for themselves. Children band into age-sets for protection, since adults will steal a child’s food whenever possible. No food sharing occurs within an age-set. Groups of children will forage in agricultural fields, which scares off birds and baboons. This is often given as the reason for having children.

The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph A. Tainter 

A people of Northern Uganda, written about in the 1970s by anthropologist Colin Turnbull (The Mountain People). Wikipedia reveals that Turnbull’s methods and conclusions were later called into question: his study of the Ik was limited to a period of famine brought on by a two-year drought, and he over-relied on informants from a rival grouping.

Nevertheless, there is enough that’s credible in Tainter’s retelling of Turnbull’s findings to chill you to the marrow. Tainter’s point is that the Ik hadn’t always lived that way. Clan surnames and village cohabitation indicated a former level of social organization that had collapsed – whether lost or abandoned. 

It’s a familiar trope. Strip away the veneer of civilization and what remains is the Hobbesian war-of-all-against-all. The dystopian destiny of The Road. There’s a Lord of the Flies in all of us, by this way of thinking. It’s simply who we are. Thank goodness we have the modern world to keep a cap on all that.  

But maybe we’re not doing ourselves justice. The boys in Lord of the Flies are exemplary little mid-Twentieth-Century Brits, crudely replicating the hierarchies and violence of empire in which they’ve been schooled. The Road is peopled by survivors of a nuclear winter who also happen to be remnants of an arrogant, rapacious civilization overrun with soulless weapons and machines. And the Ik who Turnbull encountered were in the midst of a holocaust, with no-one to nurse them back to health. In each case, victims-turned-malefactors, equipped for a hazardous new environment with the wrong skills and values – skills and values developed for their formerly complex, sick society. 

The Kalahari Bushmen who in the 1950s were still living in what Elizabeth Marshall Thomas called “the Old Way”, clung to an apparently precarious existence on arid terrain among lethal predators. But they were not sick and there was no war of all against all. Theirs was an interdependent way of life, honed over hundreds of generations and tailored to the available environmental niche. A way of life which, if Marshall Thomas is right, long pre-dated humankind’s sideways step, via settlements and farming, into civilization. 

The Bushmen devoted much energy to establishing and maintaining harmonious relations, both locally and across a dispersed web of kith and kin. The necessities of life were shared, and there was a constant traffic of long-distance visits, facilitating the spread of news and the circulation of little gifts, handmade hairclips and the like. Qualities or advantages in an individual which might manifest as arrogance, or trigger envy, were downplayed. Discord was discouraged, with the whole community on hand to pacify and reassure disputants. Violence was rare. There were no stockades and no Lord of the Flies-style brutality. Children were not cast out to fend for themselves.  

 The Ju/wasi [Bushmen] were unfailingly good to their children. An infant would be nursed on demand and stay close to its mother, safe in the pouch of her cape, warm in cold weather, shaded in hot weather, complete with a wad of soft grass for a diaper. Ju/wa children very rarely cried, probably because they had little to cry about. No child was ever yelled at or slapped or physically punished, and few were even scolded. Most never heard a discouraging word until they were approaching adolescence, and even then the reprimand, if it really was a reprimand, was delivered in a soft voice. At least the tone was soft, even if the words weren’t always. 

We are sometimes told that children who are treated so kindly become spoiled, but this is because those who hold that opinion have no idea how successful such measures can be. Free from frustration or anxiety, sunny and cooperative, and usually without close siblings as competitors, the Ju/wa children were every parent’s dream. No culture can ever have raised better, more intelligent, more likable, more confident children.

The Old Way: A story of the first people by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Those confident, likeable, intelligent children grew into accomplished, collaborative, self-assure adults. But it’s gone now, the Old Way. The Bushmen were evicted from their ancestral lands to make way for pastoralists, farming settlements, and safari-style game reserves. They were thrust into the cash economy on its bottom rung, exposed to the ravages of extreme poverty just as they were struggling to accommodate complete cultural dislocation. Yet the Old Way, the memory of it, was their culture’s parting gift. An ancient code for living relatively peaceably, relatively in balance with nature, without the prop of modernity.

That capacity for harmonious living in challenging circumstances must be deeply rooted in all of us, beneath those more recent codes and values we rely on to function in this bewitching, troubled world. Amid relentless pressure to compete and consume, the rest be damned, we do still find ways to support and encourage one another, and nurture our habitat to boot. Perhaps the fate of the Ik, in their time of crisis, doesn’t have to be the only future that awaits. 

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Ideas that add up #223

I use that phrase, you know, “I was the girl who wanted to learn” because that’s what I kept being told while I was at school. I kept being told that I would do well anyway, like I didn’t need the institution of school in order to do well because I was naturally swotty. Um, and I never felt this to be entirely true, I think all of my schoolmates were all of equal intelligence and all had equal desire to learn about the world, it’s just that it was expressed in a different way, and it was characterized at school through not wanting to learn. … I think one of the reasons I had such a poor experience at school, and many of my peers did as well, was because we were, well I didn’t personally, I was a very obedient child, you know, not always for the better, I think there were a lot of things that needed to be reacted against, and a lot of my peers really reacted against the institution of school.

Lynsey Hanley, author of Respectable: the experience of class speaking on Start the Week, BBC Radio 4, May 9th, 2016

For every person that the school system endorses, pointing them towards society’s glittering prizes, at least one classmate gets the message that they’re not good enough. And kicking back against the institution only makes it worse. 

As winners in this shake-out, it’s not something we question. It’s simply the hierarchy of human value, as natural as gravity.

On the other hand, if we’re the ones who don’t square with school parameters, then we learn eventually that we’ve been screwed over, in a game that was rigged. But we still internalize that message about being people of lower value. Getting screwed over tends to become the keynote experience in life.

Hanley reminds us of what I think must be obvious to us all before schooling (aided and abetted by our own dear families) and other social forces induct us into the artificial hierarchies of an institutionalized world: that we’re all of equal worth. 

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Ideas that add up #222

When I was a child I watched my father make arrows. When I make one I always think: this is how my father brought us food.

In the old days we hunted near our village. Now the government won’t let us. We still have our bows and arrows, but at home we can’t use them. When I’m not hunting I feel sick. I miss it a lot.

In the old days these trees would be covered in dried meat. Now we buy cow meat in the shop.

Yotoma in ‘Lion People of the Kalahari‘, an episode in Tribes, Predators & Me, BBC2, March 2016

From a TV programme which takes a breathless look at Bushmen sharing territory with Kalahari lions. Four or five of them hunt for antelope without luck, then successfully drive a lioness off her kill with nothing more than thin sticks in their hands. It appears that for the sake of the cameras they have been conveyed to a particular corner of the desert where they are permitted to hunt.

The programme doesn’t mention that one reason Bushmen are banned from hunting on their own land is that their presence interferes with the illusion of pristine wilderness established for the safari industry. Telephoto-lens-lugging big-game spotters, deep in lion country, don’t appreciate it when a couple of grinning characters in shabby clothes emerge from the scrub and knock on the window of the Landcruiser, motioning for a cigarette. So hunting, proper hunting, essential part of the old ways of all of us, is denied the people who more than any of us have a right to it. 

Yotoma feels sick. I think deep down we all do.

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Ideas that add up #221

When the faults are ready, earthquakes can be triggered with a force of no more than a handshake. That’s all you need, and climate change can provide a lot more force than that.  For instance, there are earthquakes in Japan that are linked to increases in snow. Similarly, there have been earthquakes in Taiwan linked to low-pressure storms that cross over. These are small earthquakes, but the fact that atmospheric pressure can have an effect 5-6 km deep is staggering. There’s loads of evidence of how very small weather-related or climate-related changes can trigger geological activity.

Global warming won’t just change the weather—it could trigger massive earthquakes and volcanoes in Quartz, May 14th, 2016. Interview with Bill McGuire, professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London. 

Climate change affects patterns of pressure in the Earth’s crust. The sea and the land warm, and expand. The Himalayas and Andes and Alaska are relieved of the burden of their glaciers (and sooner or later Greenland and Antarctica of their ice-sheets), and the ground beneath springs upwards. Sea levels rise, and vast new masses of water weigh down on the continental shelves. Similarly with unprecedented dumps of monsoon rainwater onto plains and basins.

Accelerating change among finely balanced stresses in the Earth’s crust means more frequent ruptures among those stresses. More seismic and volcanic activity. Hey presto: geological mayhem!

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Ideas that add up #220

… the other thing I would say is, that if you feel safe in the area that you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth, and when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.

David Bowie in 1997, interviewed on inspiration and the creative process

Flashbacked to this slice of Bowie at the allotment this afternoon, while hacking away at an eruption of comfrey and stinging nettles on a little patch of earth at the back of the plot where I envisage picnics and lingerings in the summer months ahead.

The purpose of an allotment is not picnics. The purpose – the council are particular about this – is to grow things. Things other than stinging nettles. Things edible, mainly, and things of horticultural appeal. But things like that won’t grow for me. The sweetcorn shoots, so lovingly nurtured at home in peat-packed eggboxes before graduating to individual plastic flowerpots on a rack in the greenhouse, get uprooted and scoffed by an after-hours visitor who arrives by tunnel. Everything with any kind of edible leaf that I plant outside in the ground, is consumed by slugs and snails. Or maybe rabbits. Birds take the seeds I sow, and bugs get the berries. I rot roots by over-watering, or forget to go to the allotment for two weeks during a heatwave and return to parched and lifeless vegetable beds. Once again crushing my confidence as a would-be provider of fresh, cheap, self-grown produce.

I go through this every year in return for a small haul of potatoes – and even more than that because I simply enjoy being out in the fresh air, grubbing around amid wildlife while the day unfurls.

But we live and learn. To my surprise I’m getting a feel for soil, and a sense of what kind of thing popping up from the ground might be a nascent weed and what’s not. I still step backwards onto the young plant I just bedded into place, but maybe not so often. I pledge, this year, to water frequently and responsibly. 

It’s like going from being disastrously, pointlessly out of my depth in this growing-things game, to being just a little out of my depth. Suddenly a lot more seems possible. Hence Bowie. And by the way, it’s probably also true of every endeavour I’ve ever tried. Good advice for artists too, no doubt.

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Ideas that add up #219

In 2008, Global Financial Integrity estimated that flows of illicit money out of developing countries into tax havens were running at about $1.25 trillion per year, roughly ten times the total value of aid given to developing countries by the rich world. Shaxson [Nicholas Shaxson, author of Treasure Islands] himself originally came to be interested in tax havens whilst investigating the illegal West African oil trade. As he explains: “I began to see how the terrible human cost of poverty and inequality in Africa connected with the apparently impersonal world of accounting regulations and tax exemptions. Africa’s supposedly natural or inevitable disasters all had one thing in common: the movement of money out of Africa and into Europe and the United States, assisted by tax havens and a pinstriped army of respectable bankers, lawyers and accountants.

…Tax havens are facilitating the plunder, by the London banks, of African wealth. And they are doing so because this is what they were designed to do – to continue the extortion of colonialism, just at the moment Britain was forced to give up the bulk of its formal empire.

Dan Glazebrook: ‘Britain is the heart and soul of global tax evasion‘, Counterpunch, April 8, 2016

Maybe I don’t know the facts but I do buy this interpretation: a pipeline of plunder from South to North – that gigantic sucking sound we sleep and wake to and yet conspire to ignore. Colonial predation 2.0, with the City of London as its clearing house.

How better to explain the UK economy’s persistent levitation up here in the rich club?

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Ideas that add up #218

And Viva? A dingo, Viva was like a dog, but more so. What the dogs did inconspicuously, Viva did dramatically. As a result, like the early anthropologist’s best informant, she showed me many unexpected things I might otherwise have missed – for instance, the fact that dogs feel differently about their front feet and their hind feet. Once when water from a hose flowed around her, she picked up her front feet one by one to shake them while ignoring her hind feet, which stood in water to the ankles. Viva also used her hind feet like hands to manipulate things. 

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas in The Hidden Life of Dogs

Reminds me of my dog a few years back, a mongrel foundling who developed a reddish-gold coat as she grew, a luxuriantly feathery half-curl tail and a properly wolfish snout – and coincidentally came to be named Dingo. She was plucky and opportunistic, and as quick-witted as any other Taiwan street dog, and her caution in the presence of the untested was exemplary. Like Viva, above, she was fastidious about what she touched with her front paws. As she cantered about on or off the leash I never once saw her tread on a manhole cover or anything resembling one on the surface of the road or sidewalk.  

Dingo was devoted to me, I assumed, but I probably misunderstood her. What she wanted more than anything was surely the company of other dogs, a crew to run with and to doze with. As the available human, I was what Elizabeth Marshall Thomas calls “a cynomorphic substitute”. (Think “anthropomorphic”, in doggish equivalent.) In their enthusiastic, optimistic way, dogs make the best of their compromised position amongst us, but to be at their best they need other dogs.

Dogs who live in each other’s company are calm and pragmatic, never showing the desperate need to make known their needs and feelings or to communicate their observations, as some hysterical dogs who know only the company of our species are likely to do. Dogs who live in each other’s company know they are understood.

Marshall Thomas describes how her eight dogs, mostly huskies in a community three generations deep, settled into a convivial social equilibrium, and as they did so gradually lost interest in humans and their concerns. They had each other, and were apparently fulfilled, and there was no longer any need to work on that fiction of the special relationship with some or other primate, herself included. Which conjures up the image of another dog I knew a little: a high-born Catahoula named Handsome who headed a pack of hounds tasked with driving feral bulls down from the lava-strewn slopes of Mauna Loa. On one occasion I watched him, deaf to the commands and pleas of his humans, as he downed tools and jogged off into the distance at a quarter slant, following his nose and probably on the trail of a wild boar. Duty called and compromise was out of the question. He didn’t return for several hours.  

Marshall Thomas also relates how, one autumn, she began spending time among the dogs in the extensive pen at the back of the house – learning to live among their kind just as they had once learned to live among hers, and for the first time experiencing immobility as peace, not boredom. 

When dogs feel serene and pleased with life, they do nothing. So there on the hillside, nothing was what we did. There we were, within fifty feet of my house, yet in a world that had nothing to do with my house, nothing to do with my species, and nothing to do with my life. 

In the late afternoon sun we sat in the dust, or lay on our chests resting on our elbows, evenly spaced on the hilltop, all looking quietly down among the trees to see what moved there. No birds sang, just insects. Off in the silent, drying woods a tree would now and then drop something – a pod perhaps, or a leaf – and we would listen to it scratching down. While the shadows grew long we lay calmly, feeling the moment, the calmness, the warm light of the red sun – each of us happy enough with the others, unworried, each of us quiet and serene.

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