I once drove through Peninsular Malaysia with an economist friend to visit the Batek [a small group of hunter-gatherers]. Along the way, we travelled through endless plantations of palm oil. Now and then, we came across gigantic tree stumps, poignant reminders of a former world. Palm oil plantations contain living and breathing trees but, in fact, they are just deserts of green, virtually devoid of life. I bemoaned the staggering loss of biodiversity. Then, to my surprise, my friend praised the oil palm industry. After all, she argued, it was an efficient crop, and it was bringing development to people out in these rural areas, giving them livelihoods, and raising their standard of living. In purely economic terms, she may be right.
But she didn’t know about the kind of life that people like the Batek had lost amid these sinister green ruins. The water is dirty, the forests are logged, and villages are isolated, surrounded by large tracts of oil palm where there was once forest. Over the past 40 years, some Batek have gone from nomadic foraging and living in palm-thatch huts to living in concrete houses and working at a nearby plantation or mine, the very industries that make foraging impossible. Some Batek alternate between the foraging and the wage-labour lifestyles, ‘engaging with modernity with the hands and minds of hunter-gatherers,’ as Suzman puts it. In their world transformed from richness to scarcity, it is a cruel twist of irony that these foragers of original affluence often spend the day doing nothing.
When I think of the Batek’s plight, I can’t help but think that we have lost some elemental part of our humanity in the industrialised world. Our society’s fetish for innovation and our faith in progress contains within it, according to the agrarian writer Wendell Berry, ‘a hatred of the past, of all things inherited and free.’ By turning our gaze toward the noble aspects of the forager life, the original affluent society teaches us that maybe, after all, there is much to love about the past.
Anthropologists have long emphasised the collective nature of foraging – of doing work – but we ought to consider as well how rest is a collective experience that has shaped our evolution. When ants do nothing, they really are just doing nothing. In contrast, leisure time in humans is not just an absence of work, but a form of socialising, organic if unpredictable, synchronised to the ebb and flow of the natural world. Rest is enjoyed in the company of others but is also the reward for work done in the service of others. And, like the Sabbath day of Abrahamic religions, forager rest is enforced by social norms. The anthropologist Jerome Lewis described a Mbendjele forager who would have made an excellent capitalist: this man worked hard, too hard. He hunted all the time. He hunted so much that it started to bother his campmates. By hunting so much, it was said, he was elevating himself above others. He was eventually ostracised from the group.
Rest allows the very things that make us special as a species: the capacity to listen and think and daydream. Living among the Batek, I was always impressed by the ability of people to simply sit there and seemingly do nothing. What a contrast to our own society, where people would rather be shocked by electricity than sit alone with their thoughts. [Continue reading…]