We Are Devo

The traditional notion that hunter-gatherers must carry on a solitary, unremitting search for food, that they supposedly wake each morning not knowing whether or not they will find the day’s supply, and that they usually die young from famine happens to be untrue. Hunter-gatherers, who are not solitary but live in small bands and observe many intricate social rules for the distribution of food, are far from impoverished. The San in the bleak Kalahari Desert forage for food for no more than a few hours a day on the average; moreover, the unmarried young people and those older than fifty do hardly any work at all. Medical examinations of the San have shown that their diet, both abundant and nutritious, has enabled them to escape many of the health problems associated with diets that are common in modern societies: obesity and “middle-age spread,” dental cavities, hypertension and coronary heart disease, and elevated levels of cholesterol. And far from being short-lived, many of the San live into their sixties and seventies. An important point made by studies of surviving hunter-gatherers is that their generally excellent nutrition extends to all members of the society and not just to a privileged few—simply because the prevalence of sharing insures that everyone eats the same way.

[I]t is a mistake to suppose that modern societies allow people to work less hard for their daily bread. Out of the 1129 hours worked by one Chinese irrigation farmer in a year, only 122 were needed to grow enough food to sustain that farmer. A blue-collar worker in the United States, on the other hand, spends 180 hours earning enough money to purchase a year’s supply of food. Notwithstanding Western notions of the Chinese peasant’s incessant labor, it is plain that they actually need to work less by a third than North Americans or Europeans to keep themselves supplied with food. Moreover, although a mechanized farmer in the American Midwest need put in an annual total of only nine hours of work for each acre to achieve an astounding six thousand calories for each calorie of effort, that figure ignores the enormous amounts of human labor that go into manufacturing and transporting the trucks, tractors, combines, fuel, fertilizer, pesticides, fence wire, and everything else used by the farmer, not to mention transporting the food itself. For every person who actually works on a Midwestern farm, the labor of at least two others off the farm is needed to supply equipment and services directly to the farmer—aside from the very many more whose labors contribute indirectly to the final product. Altogether, a total of 2790 calories of energy must be expended to produce and deliver to a consumer in the United States just one can of corn providing a total of 270 calories. The production of meat entails an even greater deficit: an expenditure of 22,000 calories is needed to produce the somewhat less than four ounces of beefsteak that likewise produce 270 calories.

In short, present-day agriculture is much less efficient than traditional irrigation methods that have been used by Asians, among others, in this century and by Mayans, Mesopotamians, Egyptians, and Chinese in antiquity. The primary advantage of a mechanized agriculture is that it requires the participation of fewer farmers, but for that the price paid in machines, fossil fuels, and other expenditures of energy is enormous. A severe price is also paid in human labor. Once the expensive machines have been manufactured and deployed on the farms, they are economically efficient only if operated throughout the daylight hours, and indeed farmers in the United States often labor for sixteen hours a day. The boast of industrialized societies that they have decreased the workload is valid only in comparison with the exploitation of labor that existed in the early decades of the Industrial Revolution. If the prevailing forty-hour work week of North America and Europe were proposed to the San, whoever did so would be considered to be exploitive, inhuman, or plain mad.

—Peter Farb, Consuming Passions

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When I Worked

October 2011
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