Economics and Subsistence

Hunter-gatherers exhibit economic behaviors that are every bit as fascinating as those in the foregoing chapters. The modern notion in academic economics of "economic man" falls woefully short of accurately describing hg individuals and societies. Hgs are not "naturally" acquisitive, and they do not place much value on material possessions at all. Theirs is a system of generalized reciprocity, in which essentially everything is shared -- without a "please" or "thank you." Not only that, but hgs in some groups only work, on average, roughly three hours per day(!). Clearly the picture is quite foreign to our own, and our models and expectations for how humans ought to behave in economic situations break down completely when we try to apply them to hgs. That said, I shall now begin exploring how hgs went about things so differently than we do on an economic basis.

          Western society has evolved to have a set of beliefs or organizing principles that serve to justify our (questionable) material relationship to nature and to each other. Our culture sees class divisions as inevitable -- even desirable -- and views nature as a collection of "natural resources" to be exploited to fuel the engine of economic growth and technological progress. Economists have developed a kind of belief system to explain and justify the world of commerce we see all around us, and they call the primary actor in that system "economic man." This man clearly is naturally acquisitive, competitive, rational and calculating, and is always looking for ways to improve his material well-being (Gowdy 1998). He works toward getting an education and a specialty, and uses his training to earn an income, which he spends on the dizzying array of goods and services available to him in the marketplace.

          The vast majority of westerners do not regard this notion of economic man as a cultural belief, but rather a universal, objective truth, in part because it describes us and everyone we know so well. Most of us believe that to want more and more things is a natural and positive human attribute. We value competition and expansion over cooperation and stability; this is how our world functions. We are all economic persons: we each have limited incomes and a long list of things we would like to buy.

          Modern economic theory contains more than just a set of beliefs about human nature; it is also an ideology which justifies our economic organization, resource use and the distribution of wealth (Gowdy 1998). Those individuals with more possessions and money are given higher status in market societies. The strongest social force is a billionaire. "Success" means a higher income and a higher rate of consumption. And those who are successful are deemed to have proven their worth. Economic theory describes not only how resources are allocated, but provides a justification for wealth, poverty, inequality and exploitation.

          This view of man is anomalous and microscopic compared to the rest of history and prehistory. The basic principle of our market economy -- that humans are driven by greed and that more is always better than less -- represents an insignificantly small percentage of all the tens of thousands of cultures that have existed in the last hundred thousand years. As we have discussed, the Hadza have elaborate rules to ensure that food is equally shared; hoarding or unequal shares are unacceptable; there are sanctions against accumulating possessions -- indeed, with all the mobility, possessions are a nuisance, anyway (Woodburn 1982). Hunter-gatherers do not represent "economic man." And they show us that there is more than one way to live.

          According to Gowdy, there are some important messages to be learned from the descriptions of hgs: "The economic notion of scarcity is largely a social construct, not an inherent property of human existence; the separation of work from social life is not a necessary characteristic of economic production; the linking of individual well-being to individual production is not a necessary characteristic of economic organization; selfishness and acquisitiveness are not natural traits of our species; and inequality based on class and gender is not a necessary characteristic of human society (1998)."