Affluence Without Abundance Summary
8 min read ⌚
The Disappearing World of the Bushmen
Do you know who the Bushmen are?
Of course, you know – especially if you’ve watched “The Gods Must Be Crazy.”
Well, you want to learn more?
James Suzman’s “Affluence Without Abundance” is here to teach you practically everything about them!
In addition to few things about you!
Who Should Read “Affluence Without Abundance”? And Why?
If you have ever wondered,” writes Wade Davis, Canadian anthropologist and ethnobotanist,”how it might be to measure wealth not by material possessions but by the strength of social relations between people, read this book.
Read it if you’re interested in anthropology as well, especially in the lives of the Bushmen, since this is the best book on the subject you’ll ever find.
About James Suzman
James Suzman is a South African anthropologist based in Cambridge, UK.
The great nephew of famous anti-apartheid activist Helen Suzman, and the nephew of Janet Suzman, a great Shakespearean actress, James Suzman received an MA in Social Anthropology from the University of St. Andrews in 1993 and was awarded a Ph.D. from Edinburgh University three years later.
In 1998, Suzman was appointed as the leader of a landmark study on the Bushmen population, The Regional Assessment of the Status of the San in Southern Africa.
Since then, he has written numerous articles on the Bushmen.
“Affluence Without Abundance” is his first book.
“Affluence Without Abundance PDF Summary”
Have you ever watched “The Gods Must Be Crazy”?
If not – you should!
We, for one, have found it to be riotously funny: it’s a story about a Bushman who tries to return a bottle of Coca-Cola to the gods at the end of the earth in order to save his community.
Sounds funny already, right?
It gets even funnier:
The problem with the film, however, is that nobody took it seriously.
As we’re soon to find out, the narrator’s words at one point – the Bushmen “…must be the most contented people in the world. They have no crime, no punishment, no violence, no laws, no police, judges, rulers, or bosses” – are actually pretty much true.
Everything else isn’t.
In fact, most of the other works about the Bushmen (or the San people as they call themselves for some time) – usually use the tribe as a canvas on which their authors project our most primitive visions and fantasies.
In the eyes of James Suzman – who has studied the San people thoroughly for over two decades – this is one of the worst things a man can do, because, eventually, he ends up with a “stereotypical, two-dimensional, almost dehistoricized view” of who someone is.
So, he decided to right the wrongs, and he wrote “Affluence Without Abundance,” a majestic book which, though essentially a portrayal of the Bushmen, is also a portrayal of us.
And a revelatory juxtaposition of what it probably meant to be a human some time ago as opposed to what it means to be a human today.
And what it may mean to be a human in the future.
In fact, when asked by “The New York Times” to recommend his book in fifty words or less, Suzman gives the following reply:
If we judge a civilization’s success by its endurance over time, then the Bushmen are the most successful society in human history. Their experience of modernity offers insight into many aspects of our lives, and clues as to how we might address some big sustainability questions for the future.
And we are the ones who need to learn from them?
Are you sure that we’re talking about the same people?
Yes, we’re pretty sure!
The book abounds with information about their ways of life – including intimate portraits of several Bushmen – but we’re not going to bother you with the technical information anthropologists usually drool over.
So, straight to the main point:
The Bushmen – and the ancient so-called primitive societies – probably know more about what happiness and leisure mean than you do!
Because, unlike you, they are not a child of Adam and Eve.
Bear with us for a moment.
Most of the ancient civilizations believed in the idea of an original Paradise (a Golden Age, a Garden of Eden, an Arcadia), which humans have lost due to some serious sin against God.
The punishment for it?
Or, in the archaic words of God to Adam: “cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground.”
Well, about half a century ago, Marshall Sahlins and Richard Borshay Lee started propagating to the world that this should be taken quite literally.
Namely, that hunter-gatherer society wasn’t at all a primitive society.
On the contrary, they were “existentially more secure” than the farmers and the herders, who had no option but to start teaching their children that work is the only important thing in life.
Which is, essentially, what you still believe.
And which is, once again essentially, far from the truth.
That’s the first thing Suzman realized while analyzing the habits of the Bushmen.
Simply put, they didn’t care about work as much as we do, a luxury the farmers couldn’t afford because if they didn’t work that much and stored and guarded the surpluses, they would be left with no food whatsoever:
The agricultural revolution was sort of an accidental one, and once we developed it, we became hostage to it. The population became hostage to its own growth, and this has shaped a huge amount of the economic and intellectual architecture of our modern culture. We’re still obsessed with growing, even when there’s not much room left to grow in.
Hostages to hoarding and growing. Hmmm… That kind of reminds us of Jonathan Swift’s predictions in “Gulliver’s Travels.” Have we essentially already evolved into Yahoos?
In that case, are the Bushmen the smarter Houyhnhnms?
They basically already have 4-hour-workweek – or something along those lines – and spend most of their time resting.
They are absolutely uninterested about things such as surpluses, since they believe, with Diogenes and the turtles, that they should be able to carry everything they own with themselves.
And they are absolutely unafraid from the future, since to them the concept of time is basically pointless.
Either way, experience has taught them that the land would provide enough food for them to survive, so why should they worry about what happens next?
Another thing: they are fiercely egalitarian. And they have remained that way for over 150,000 years!
Over and above their extraordinary longevity, genomic evidence reveals that not only were the Khoisan the most populous human population on the planet until a little over 20,000 years ago, they also remain the most genetically diverse. This tells us that over their long history, Khoisan populations have suffered far fewer of the catastrophic population bottlenecks that are the result of famine, war, and disease as other human populations elsewhere.
Do you still think that we are so much better than the San people?
Key Lessons from “Affluence Without Abundance”
1. The Most Successful Society in Human History
2. The Original Affluent Society
3. The End of the Bushmen?
The Most Successful Society in Human History
In case you jumped straight to the “Key Lessons” section, we guess that you expect to read here few words about our glorious nation or, possibly, Singapore.
However, not if you ask James Suzman.
In his opinion, the most successful society in human history is the Bushmen society.
And he has a point!
Unlike Singapore’s – which is thriving for few decades – or United States’ – which is the world’s most imitated society for about a century – the Bushmen are living in basically the same society for over 150,000 years.
No one but them has endured that much.
And on top of that: they don’t want to change it for the world.
The Original Affluent Society
In case you know anything about the Bushmen, you may be already wondering what is so good about their society that they wouldn’t want a computer or an Internet connection.
After all, they are just a primitive society!
Well, in 1966, Marshall Sahlins, at a symposium entitled “Man the Hunter,” proposed a solution to the conundrum.
Simply put, they are not at all that primitive. True, they don’t have cars and millions, but they also don’t have to work 8 hours a day or worry about their future.
The earth gives them as much as they need, and they don’t want anything more.
Meaning: no hoarding, no surpluses.
Also – no envy, since there are no such things as rich and poor Bushmen.
They share everything they own.
And are, altogether, happy.
The End of the Bushmen?
Unfortunately, for the first time in 150,000 years, the Bushmen’s way of living is under threat from agricultural societies and modernity.
The Bushmen are basically forbidden to hunt – and the young don’t even know how to hunt anymore. Are we facing the end of humanity’s oldest society?
And is James Suzman’s book just an elegy?
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“Affluence Without Abundance Quotes”
True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have… (via Seneca) Click To Tweet
(Mockery) was one of the many social leveling mechanisms Ju|’hoansi used for enforcing the fierce egalitarianism that enabled their ancestors to make such a good living for so long in this desert. Click To Tweet
The love of money as a possession… is a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease. (via Keynes) Click To Tweet
Sahlins characterized hunter-gatherers as the gurus of a ‘Zen road to affluence’ through which they were able to enjoy ‘unparalleled material plenty—with a low standard of living.’ Click To Tweet
We are on the cusp of a new age in which we will no longer be hostage to the economic problem and in which the productive mindset that the Neolithic Revolution nurtured will no longer be fit for purpose. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
Affluence Without Abundance,” writes Yuval Noah Harari, is ” an insightful and well-written book, describing the hard transition of foraging communities in Namibia from relative affluence during the Stone Age to contemporary poverty and misery.
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas shares the same opinion: “This book has truth on every page and is filled with important insights that range from hunting and tracking to how we think about time, money, value or success.”
And while learning the bushmen’s tracking and hunting ways may interest just a small number of people, learning what is important in life certainly interests everybody.
Who knew that you could learn it from some of our planet’s earliest human inhabitants?
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