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Now So Far Away: Our Self-sufficient Past

Now So Far Away: Our Self-sufficient Past
Once upon a time we were self-sufficient...Photo by Monica Volpin

We live in the era of Google and the super mart. Knowledge is just a fingertip away and you can buy sarees from Jaipur, ceramics from South Africa and asparagus from Chile, all under one roof. From a hunter-gatherer herder community we have come a long way into the modern civilization where the third molar has become only but an inconvenience. ‘Modernity’ seems to have replaced the barbaric/primitive life and beliefs of the past. However while contemporary civilization seems to provide all the luxuries of a fulfilling lifestyle, we continue to live increasingly a confined existence.

The evolution of modern humans is traced back to over 200,000 years ago in the African continent. Without the specialized attributes of most of the other species, it was the remarkable adapting ability of humankind which ensured not only its survival but its eventual dominance on the planet. Spreading to and inhabiting diverse places on earth from warm and cool to the very harshest temperate zones, the distinguishing feature of the evolutionary character of humanity was its cultural transformation. A history of humankind is also the history of the progress and change in the social organizational structure of civilizations. What changed from the primordial hunter-gatherer societies to the medieval feudal systems to the modern capitalist consumerist societies is not only an alteration in economic systems but also culture and way of life, with social and political consequences.

Archaeological studies of early humans indicate that they were largely a hunter-gatherer society depending on hunting and food gathering for existence. Pastoralism followed this stage of human history by the domestication of animals. Nomadic in nature, these communities had smaller number of individual members and were co-dependent on each other. A characteristic feature of these societies that seems quite radical by today’s standards is the collective and egalitarian quality they possessed. Human history during these epochs was unaware of class distinctions and social hierarchy. Labour was equally distributed between its members who took collective responsibility of the matters in their community from food gathering, animal husbandry to child rearing.

Modern civilization with all its pride in itself as having traversed the negligence and primitiveness of primordial communities, giving more secure, comfortable living standards to individuals, often fail to live up to its promise. Today we are living in societies that are increasingly becoming isolated, alienating their individual members. The collective identity and shared responsibility that bonded people to each other as a community is rapidly diminishing and giving rise to a sense of estrangement.

Self-sufficient in themselves, these communities provided their members not only protection and security but also a sense of belonging and togetherness as a mutually dependent social unit. They were participatory, each individual member having his or her role to play in the process of its sustenance and were not excluded from its making. What seemed to be a utopian social order was of course not without its limitations. Shortage of food and population growth lead to warfare and food raids against other communities. It eventually led to the beginning of settled agricultural practices and the emergence of private property.

The modern capitalist industrial societies are marked by their consumerist culture. Consumerism as the culture of acquiring material possessions as the bench mark of individual success has become the normative value of contemporary society. It is associated with freedom and personal fulfillment, creating an extremely individualistic materialist society. Consumerism promotes the cultural products of media, films and other artifacts of popular culture that play a vital role in maintaining the social status quo. It chains people to their mundane existence, propagating the notion that there is no alternative. Modern civilization with all its pride in itself as having traversed the negligence and primitiveness of primordial communities, giving more secure, comfortable living standards to individuals, often fail to live up to its promise. Today we are living in societies that are increasingly becoming isolated, alienating their individual members. The collective identity and shared responsibility that bonded people to each other as a community is rapidly diminishing and giving rise to a sense of estrangement.

A group of young Greeks who founded an island community in Evia, Greece, had attracted a lot of media attention some time ago. Dissatisfied with unrewarding modern life, these group of youngsters decided to form a self-sufficient society away from the alienating gaze of city life. While their radical move is in line with the stand taken by anarchists like John Zerzan who writes against modern civilization emphasizing on the need to go back to primitive modes of existence, what is important is to figure out an effective alternative; one that does not require a return to the primordial utopian society sacrificing all of modern comforts.

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