Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Wednesday 25 April 2018

Opinion: A tantalising glimpse of how we can live fuller lives with less

Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

There once was a widow named Mary who was milking 10 cows. Her advisor said to her,: "Do you know, Mary, on your acreage, you could be milking 20 cows". After a moment, Mary replied: "Why would I milk 20 cows when I can live off 10?"

This story may well be a rural myth, but it does prompt questions like why we work so hard and how much is enough?

An interesting take on these questions is contained in a book entitled Affluence without Abundance, by James Suzman.

Suzman is an anthropologist and the book is part memoir, part fieldwork report of his time with the Ju/'hoansi bushmen of Namibia.

Bushmen have lived in Namibia for at least 40,000 years and are possibly the genetic ancestors of us all.

Some people moved to other places and modernised in tandem with their changing societies. But the Bushmen remained isolated, so Suzman suggests that they are thus representative of how humans have lived for at least 95pc of our history.

Suzman discovered that the Ju/'hoansi could make a comfortable living by working only 15 hours a week at hunting and/or gathering (which they usually found very enjoyable) plus another 20 hours on domestic chores.

The standard working week in Ireland is 39 hours. Few farmers would get away with the colour of that.

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The Bushmen spent a lot of the rest of their time making art and music, visiting friends and playing with their children. They are highly intelligent but have few needs that are easily met. It is a freer, fairer, highly sociable, existence, lived in harmony with their environment.

They roamed with no more property than they could carry, they had no homesteads to defend, no surpluses to hoard and protect, and show an unconcern for the future that we would consider irresponsible.

While people today, especially us farmers, tend to see the agricultural revolution as overwhelmingly positive, Suzman questions this view.

He (like most readers of these words) grew up in a society that values work, being busy. But where does it come from? Obviously not from our hunter/gatherer ancestors who were content to work as little as possible.

Instead, he believes it is a result of the agricultural revolution; once it had happened, we became its "hostage". When there was more food, it could support more people. So more people were born and more food was needed.

He believes this mindset spread, to become a major factor in shaping today's economy.

An unquenchable thirst for more was created.

The questions I posed earlier are always dangling in front of us, but how often do we consider them. Who benefits most from our hard work - us or someone higher up the foodchain? Is what we do with our lives what we really want to be doing?

When considering them, we need to realise that everybody who seeks to influence our behaviour has an agenda, whether that is Mark Zuckerberg, the Pope or your farm advisor. So we need to listen to everyone and then make up our own mind.

Sadly for them, the Bushmen are dying out, as much of their traditional territories have been taken over by modern agriculture. However, Suzman's work offers a template for living a fuller life with less by "embracing the affluence already created and recognising value in things other than our labour."

He believes that this may well be led by Millennials (those who have become adults in the 21st century) "a group in the first world who have known nothing but abundance and who seem increasingly inclined to seek out work that they love rather than persuade themselves to learn to love the work they find."


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