For a long time, human development was considered a success. Scientists like James Suzman however, they warn that we should stop devoting so much of our lives to work as soon as possible.
Sure, hunters and gatherers on the moon from the stone age of course they didn’t fly. And a smartphone with integrated navigation and a flashlight didn’t make their lives any easier either. On the other hand, our ancestors were spared a lot: assembly line work, the stress of delivering parcels, the time pressure of typing and clicking on a computer. “Do I have to work to live or do I live to work?”. This question is on the minds of many people today.
Few people will immediately question the entire social system. However, James Suzman did. This anthropologist has analyzed the history of work and believes that it is time to create a world in which the ideology of growth and consumption will no longer drain our lives and our planet. However, to achieve this, people need to rethink their relationship to work.
Do I have to work to live or do I live to work?
“Why are we working more and more even though we are producing more than ever before?” asks Suzman, director of the Anthropos think tank and Research Fellow at Robinson College at Cambridge Universityin his book “Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time“. And further: “Why do we dedicate such a large part of our lives to work? Is it in accordance with our nature?” After all, Homo sapiens he worked only a fraction of his existence. Because before humans switched to agriculture roughly 11,500 years ago, they weren’t farmers, office workers, or app developers. “Our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers for at least 95% of their 300,000-year history,” Suzman finds.
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This only changed with the Neolithic Revolution, when nomads increasingly switched to agriculture and became settled. From this time, Homo sapiens made a steep demographic career and laid the foundations of the modern world. So a success story? Scientists are increasingly questioning this story. The latest research on the beginning of the Neolithic they show that human history, at least, has not proceeded as a continuous rise.
“For a long time, science wanted to sell us the transition to agriculture as a great leap forward for humanity, telling us a story of progress and intelligence. But these are just old wives’ tales,” states historian and futurologist Yuval Noah Harari from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in his world bestseller “Sapiens – A Brief History of Humanity“. Agriculture did not bring an era of better life, quite the opposite: it brought disease, malnutrition and above all: more work.
Historian and futurist Yuval Noah Harari considers the agricultural revolution “the biggest hoax in history”. In his bestseller “Sapiens – A Brief History of Humanity”, he challenges the idea of the continuous success of humanity.
From dawn to dusk, people planted seeds, tended cows and sheep, or weeded fields. “At some point it got so far that sapiens all over the world did almost nothing but tend to their wheat from dawn to dusk,” explains Harari. Although this allowed people to produce food surpluses, it did not lead to better nutrition. Wheat, wheat, and wheat again could not replace the varied diet of hunter-gatherers. Civilization diseases and epidemics only appeared after humanity settled down.
For example, the skeletons of women from early agricultural settlements show characteristic deformities of the toes – the result of arthritis, which was probably caused by grinding grain in which the women sat on their toes. “The Homo sapiens body is completely unsuitable for this kind of work,” says Harari. It was made for climbing trees and chasing gazelles – not for picking up rocks from the ground and hauling buckets of water.
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However, the population grew rapidly at that time and living space became insufficient. Since then, people have lived in close proximity to their livestock. This was proven, for example, by a Columbia University study that analyzed urine salts from the Asıklı Höyük settlement in central Turkey: scientists were not even able to distinguish between human and animal tracks.
If hunter-gatherers survived childhood, they reached the age of 68 to 78
It was precisely because of this close proximity that disease agents were quickly and repeatedly transferred from animals to humans, and the first epidemics swept the settlements. Genomes of the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which causes the plague, are at the center of attention of scientists. For example, an international team of scientists published a study in the journal Cell focusing on a 20-year-old woman who died approximately 5,000 years ago in Sweden. In DNA data sets from tooth and bone samples, scientists have found the oldest strain of the disease to date and the genes that caused pneumonic plague to die.
Scientists led by Danish biologist Simon Rasmussen from the University of Copenhagen believe that this particular pathogen may have led to the abandonment of some European mega-settlements with 10,000 to 20,000 inhabitants at this time. “People, animals and stored food were very close together here, and the sanitary facilities were probably poor,” says Rasmussen. “It’s a textbook example of what it takes to evolve new pathogens.”
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The transition from a nomadic lifestyle to a farming one meant not only more work and a poorer diet for people, but also diseases and armed conflicts, which significantly shortened the average life expectancy. According to ethnologists and biodemographers Michael Gurven and Hillard Kaplan in the professional journal Population and Development Review the average age of hunter-gatherers who survived early childhood was between 68 and 78. In later millennia, only a few people lived to this age. Harari’s conclusion: “The agricultural revolution is the greatest fraud in human history.”
It can be countered that today’s knowledge, modern medical care, many conveniences and an abundance of goods and food would be unthinkable without the Neolithic revolution. After all, the creation of the first cities laid the foundations of modern civilization. Even Harari and Suzman realize this. However, as little as Stone Age humans flew to the moon or used a smartphone, they destroyed little. They lived in harmony with nature. They probably did quite well at it.
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“For the longest period of human history, the idea of scarcity did not exist,” says James Suzman. Stone Age people who hunted, fished and gathered berries had plenty of free time, according to new research. And they didn’t think to trade him for a stock organization to secure their future. It seems that Homo sapiens lived then in the same way that stressed people are taught in mindfulness seminars today: in the present.
“It is not true that hunters and gatherers lived constantly on the brink of starvation,” explains Suzman. They knew hundreds of edible plants and fruits. They roamed the forests and savannahs in small groups, fishing, hunting game – and moving on when the environment no longer provided them with enough food. Even in years of drought, farmers stayed by their fields and animals and defended them to the death. As a result, hunters and gatherers lived longer and healthier lives than later farmers. And they worked far less than all the generations after them: around 15 hours a week. Suzman also draws on his own field research among today’s indigenous people: he lived among the Khoisan for a total of 25 years in southern Africa.
We would have been fine with 15 hours of work a week long ago, if only we didn’t have such high demands
Political scientist James Scottprofessor and director of the Agricultural Sciences Program at Yale University, a similar conclusion is reached. In his remarkable book “Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States” (Czech: Against the tide: Deep history of the oldest states) leaves no one in doubt about his conviction that people today would be better off if they remained hunters and gatherers. For nomadic nomads, property was nothing more than a ball on the leg.
They shared what little they had and seem to have lived egalitarian lives. There is hardly any evidence of a ruling caste in their graves. According to Scott, greed only became institutionalized in the cities because proximity to wealth intensified envy and fear of want. To the numerous conquests of cities, states, writing, the division of labor, politics and culture, Scott counters concepts such as “conscription”, “taxes”, “forced labour” and “inequality”.
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There is no going back to this sustainable way of life. After all, there are 7.8 billion people on the planet, each of whom consumes approximately 250 times more energy than a hunter-gatherer. And the population is still growing. Between 8000 and 5000 BC, the world population grew by a good 300 individuals per year. Today it takes two minutes. Only modern, highly efficient agriculture can support such masses of people. So if there is no way back: what might the way forward look like?
The answer is not to create even more abundance, Suzman points out. “We know we have a problem”, he warns. “There’s the environmental aspect and the human suffering aspect.” Not everyone benefits from the abundance produced. Digitization and automation could make it worse.
These fears are at odds with the optimism of many thinkers who, after the Industrial Revolution they strongly believed that automation could lead to economic prosperity. These include people like Adam Smiththe founder of economics, or the British economist John Maynard Keynes, who predicted in 1930 that at the beginning of the 21st century, 15 hours of work per week would once again be enough to survive. So why did things turn out differently?
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Suzman assures us that we could have made do with 15 hours of work a week for a long time if we didn’t develop such limitless demands. People no longer have enough of what Keynes called “absolute needs”, i.e. food, water, warmth, comfort, friendship and safety, as well as “relative needs” such as a career, a nice house or clothes. The house must be even bigger, the fashion more expensive, the car faster. And further: in Keynes’s land of milk and curds, there was no man-made climate change, ocean acidification and species extinction. “Now we need to seize the opportunity to explore new approaches to organizing capital,” notes Suzman. This includes the idea of a universal basic incomebut also the realization that less work is better – for people and the planet.
“In just six months, the coronavirus has shown us a lot of what is wrong with our working world and created opportunities for change,” explains Suzman in an interview with the British newspaper The Guardian. Precisely because the crisis has driven many people out of work, there is reason to think about it. Do we really need it for self-realization, status, lifestyle and fulfillment? How about more free time without the stress of free time? After all, many people have already forgotten how to do nothing and be inactive, that is, what Homo sapiens spent most of their existence doing before the agricultural revolution. But perhaps humanity will one day return to the working time models of our ancient ancestors, Suzman adds. “It is quite possible that we are on the way to realizing Keynes’s utopia.”