Technology

Do We Need to Work?

We have named the era of runaway climate change the “Anthropocene,” which tells you everything you need to know about how we understand our tragic nature. Human beings are apparently insatiable consuming machines; we are eating our way right through the biosphere. The term seems to suggest that the relentless expansion of the world economy, which the extraction and burning of fossil fuels has made possible, is hard-wired into our DNA. Seen from this perspective, attempting to reverse course on global warming is likely to be a fool’s errand. But is unending economic growth really a defining feature of what it means to be human?

For the longest part of our history, humans lived as hunter-gatherers who neither experienced economic growth nor worried about its absence. Instead of working many hours each day in order to acquire as much as possible, our nature—insofar as we have one—has been to do the minimum amount of work necessary to underwrite a good life.

This is the central claim of the South African anthropologist James Suzman’s new book, Work: A Deep History, From the Stone Age to the Age of Robots, in which he asks whether we might learn to live like our ancestors did—that is, to value free time over money. Answering that question takes him on a 300-millennium journey through humanity’s existence.

Along the way, Suzman draws amply on what he has learned since the 1990s living and dissertating among the Ju/’hoansi Bushmen of Eastern Namibia, whose ancestral home is in southern Africa’s Kalahari Desert. The Ju/’hoansi are some of the world’s last remaining hunter-gatherers, although few engage in traditional forms of foraging anymore.

Suzman has less to say in Work about his years as the director of corporate citizenship and, later, the global director of public affairs at De Beers, the diamond-mining corporation. He took that job in 2007. Around the same time, in response to a public outcry after the Botswanan government evicted Bushmen from the Kalahari so that De Beers could conduct its mining operations there, the company sold its claim to a deposit to a rival firm, Gem Diamonds, which opened a mine in the Bushmen’s former hunting grounds in 2014. It later shuttered the mine and then sold it in 2019, after reportedly losing $170 million on the venture.

Suzman’s employment with De Beers—a company that has spent vast sums on advertising to convince the world’s middle classes that diamonds, one of the most common gems, are actually among the scarcest—may have left its mark on Work nonetheless. “The principal purpose” of his undertaking, Suzman explains, is “to loosen the claw-like grasp that scarcity economics has held” over our lives and thereby “diminish our corresponding and unsustainable preoccupation with economic growth.” It is an arresting intervention, although one that reveals the limits of both contemporary economics and anthropology as guides to thinking about our era of climate emergency.

For 95 percent of our 300,000-year history, human beings have lived as hunter-gatherers on diets consisting of fruits, vegetables, nuts, insects, fish, and game. Ever since Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776, it has largely been taken for granted that staying alive was an all-consuming activity for our ancestors, as well as for the remaining hunter-gatherers who still lived as they did. Latter-day foragers appeared to have been “permanently on the edge of starvation,” Suzman explains, and “plagued by constant hunger.”

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