5. Historical trajectories

Empirical delusions?Summary: In their most energetic growth-periods societies had one eye on the past. At their peak they enjoyed the best of their natural traditions and their developing expertise. But each civilization lost its sense of where it came from, and its sense of future direction. We can see why societies can sustain their levels of development by maintaining contact with their richer, natural heritage. We may never know whether ingenuity is driven by curiosity or necessity, but we do know that it is sustained by the wealth of human culture.


    Yellen’s The Transformation of The Kalahari !Kung looks at a hunter-gatherer community whose customs were studied before contact with modern consumer culture, and after. Where the groups had been highly mobile and interactive, dwelling near each other in huts made of sticks without much privacy, they later built permanent stone huts further apart. The former nomads kept livestock and possessions reflecting ‘wealth.’ Where serious disputes were earlier resolved by joining another !Kung group, they came to refer to neighboring Bantu chiefs for arbitration. The loss of an important problem-solving method in this case is of key interest. We will later look at other challenged communities whose creativity and problem-solving abilities have been studied.

    The question that has motivated the present study is why, with development, we tend to lose our problem-solving abilities, and often do nothing, while catastrophe looms. In the environmental context, and taking recent history into account, research points to something ominous in human tendency: if we combine (a) resource scarcity, and (b) a talent for ingenious killing with (c) rationalizing skills, we are elaborating a deadly mixture. One day, when there might not be enough fresh water for the billions of thirsty people, the thickness of the ozone layer won’t matter much. We tend do nothing while life is going well, but then respond ferociously when it is too late. This paradox surely does not need to govern our survival. The ingenuity we employ under duress should also be used when pressure is low and alternatives can be planned.