In his recent book, The World Until Yesterday, author and professor Jared Diamond explores “what we can learn from traditional societies.” Being a new dad, I picked it up mainly because there is a chapter on parenting. I figured it would have tips on how children have been raised through the ages, rather than modern tips that are so often shaped by marketing and product pitches (just think of Baby Einstein). And I did find some useful points—about child autonomy, about multi-age playgroups and how that facilitates learning, about “allo-parents” (non-parental caregivers who have been mostly commodified in western societies, in the form of nannies, babysitters, and daycare providers).
But in reality, I found the book even more useful for its exploration of the challenges of life in traditional and modern societies. The leading causes of death in traditional societies are infections, falling from trees, predators, and getting wounded from hunting weapons and tools (poison arrows and axes, for example). Many of these dangers stem from the fact that to survive, traditional peoples have to take more-frequent risks. To get enough calories, trees must be climbed, scratches from brambles must be endured during foraging efforts, poisonous arrows must be shot, and predators must be confronted when claiming the antelope that the tribe just hunted down.
Modern society has its own daily-endured threats, of course. Busy streets must be crossed, cars must be driven (with accidents being a real and significant risk), and dangerous factory work must be done. But caution will help increase the odds of surviving these. And the risks of dying from these dangers are often significantly smaller, which is one reason that populations abandon traditional lifestyles for modern ones (even if other risks come with this transition—soda and fried foods bring new dangers of chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes).
Shavante Indian using the fiber from the Buriti tree to make cordage (much more sustainable than buying rope at Walmart). (Photo from United Nations)
But the difference between these two models is not just what leads to the end of life. It’s that modern livelihoods, unlike traditional ones, are rapidly undermining the Earth’s capacity to sustain 7 billion human beings. So, it’s worth asking the question: rather than facilitating the transition to modern lifestyles (as international development schemes often do), how do we enable those living traditional lifestyles to sustain their lifestyles in ways that they embrace, and also encourage more modern people to adopt these types of lifestyles?
As Jennie Moore and Bill Rees note in their chapter in Worldwatch’s State of the World 2013, “Getting to One Planet Living,” in order to live within the planet’s biocapacity, people on average will have to own 0.004 cars per person, fly 125 kilometers per year, have an average of 8 square meters of living space, and so on. Of course, some will still live far beyond that threshold, so finding ways to enable traditional lifestyles for those who choose to live this way will be an essential part of getting to a sustainable future.
As Diamond notes, the average lifespan of traditional peoples and Europeans 400 years ago was about the same. Only when a centralized state became able to prevent mass famines, implement public health and sanitation measures, and provide antibiotics did the average lifespan of Westerners grow significantly.
So providing public health measures—basic sanitation (knowledge on hand washing and how to safely compost human waste), a traveling field medic, training for traditional healers on how to deal with infectious diseases and providing them a basic store of antibiotics and antivenins—could be a major step in sustaining traditional societies and keeping their members healthy and rooted.
Providing basic safety gear (or even better, the knowledge on how to make this gear) to facilitate safer tree climbing might help, too. And perhaps some basic permaculture knowledge that offers a complement to traditional agricultural knowledge to increase the range of calories available (if offered in ways that communities embraced, rather than in ways that came across as neo-colonial). These, too, could reduce mortality, morbidity, and emigration from these lifestyles.
Two 17-year-old Heiltsuk girls beating their deer-hide drums before a cedar totem which is protecting an ancient midden on Calvert Island. (Sacralizing the land could be a key way to ensure a sustainable relationship between people and nature.) (Photo by United Nations)
Granted, not all governments want traditional societies to be sustained, particularly those communities that may be situated atop rich mineral deposits (just look at U.S. history to see how readily movable native populations are when they are in the way of ‘development’). But globally, there is an ecological benefit not simply to sustain, but to increase, the number of people living traditional lifestyles—not just because they consume fewer resources, but because they can be good stewards of their lands (as Chapters 18 and 19 in State of the World 2013 discuss).
Maybe it’s even time to make land in national parks available to those who wish to live more traditionally. I dream of the day when national governments offer land grants for small communities wanting to live off 500 acres of national forest—offering them that land in perpetuity if the community sustains the land, improving its condition annually by active management of the trees, understory, and wildlife. That would be a much cheaper way to protect that land than paying logging companies or forest services to manage it (or firefighters to deal with unmanaged land every few years as massive fires rage). Plus, it would reseed a diversity of knowledge and cultures that may be incredibly valuable as the climate warms up 2, 3, 4 or even 6 degrees Celsius over the next three or four generations. These communities could offer hundreds of small-scale experiments in sustainable conservation schemes and even serve as the front line in helping to transform today’s forests into ones that will survive a hotter future.
By facilitating traditional lifestyles now, we can make them into a driving force of the transition to a sustainable future. This may prove a more viable solution than incorporating these peoples into an ever-growing consumer class that will be ill-equipped to deal with the global disruptions that a warming world will bring.