Dougald Hine

Other times & places

We take the world as we know it for granted, the way a child assumes everyone's family must be like her own. Or when we think of the past, we treat it as a prototype of the present, a poor first draft.

To think carefully about the kind of historic change we are likely to live through, we need to decentre ourselves a little, to become aware of the strangeness of the ways in which people have lived in other times and places - and the strangeness of the way we live now. The aim is not to romanticize the past, but to learn from it.

A good starting point is the work of the anthropologist and activist Hugh Brody. This interview, 'The centre at the edge', gives a sense of his work. Of his books, The Other Side of Eden: Hunter-gatherers, Farmers and the Shaping of the World (2001) began as letters written to a friend, but grew into a survey of a life spent among tribal peoples, and a set of ideas about time, language and the relationship to land.

Maps and Dreams (1981) came out of Brody's work with the Dunne-Za people of British Columbia. The chapters alternate between two approaches: in one, he applies his academic skills to the history of land use and cultural interaction in the region; in the next, he switches to a personal account of how the people he is living with draw him into their ways of knowing. What sticks in my mind is his description of the time spent together before a hunting party sets out - it is so unlike any kind of decision-making process we have words for, and yet also familiar.

While we are thinking about Canada, David Rasmussen's 'Cease to Do Evil, Then Learn to Do Good' is a powerful counterpart to Illich's 'To Hell with Good Intentions' (and a blast against Paulo Freire). From an Inuit context, Rasmussen proposes "The Study of an Aberrant New Civilisation" - the Qallunaat, or "Europeans". (Another case of the power of reverse anthropology is the excellent Channel 4 series Meet the Natives, in which a group of men from Vanuatu visit the three tribes of Britain - "the middle class, the working class and the upper class.")

There is a path which leads back from Brody to Marshall Sahlins. His essay 'The Original Affluent Society' (1974) made the case that life for hunter-gatherers has tended to be less arduous than in most other human societies. (There are difficulties with the way in which he made this case, but Nurit Bird-David's 'Beyond "The Original Affluent Society": A Culturalist Reformulation' (1992) offers an interesting restatement of the argument in cultural terms. Meanwhile, there's plenty of fascinating stuff in Sahlins' collection, Culture in Practice.) On this theme, there's also Jared Diamond's 'The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race' - his verdict on the transition from hunting-gathering to agriculture - while Greg Wadley and Angus Martin's peer-reviewed paper, 'The origins of agriculture?' offers a fascinating theory about the drug-like qualities of agricultural foods and their political implications.

Once you set off in this direction, there is much more to be found - but before embracing full-blown primitivism, I recommend spending time with Ran Prieur's essay, 'Beyond Civilised and Primitive'. "Where did it all go wrong?" stories can awaken a sense of the strangeness of the present, but there are many different points in history we could describe as wrong turnings - and however screwed up our way of living surely is, tales of the golden age are unlikely to help.

Sahlins was himself a student of Karl Polanyi, whose The Great Transformation (1944) argues that modern industrial societies are the result of the disembedding of economic activity from within the wider social whole. I've written more about Polanyi in this blog post - and Illich's 'Vernacular Values' (1980) makes a closely related argument. The key idea is that there is a whole domain which lies beyond the state and the market - but which the state and the market combine to enclose or marginalise. Another account of the limits of what can be recognised and measured by the state or the market is Peter C Scott's Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998).

Staying with the roots of the industrial revolution, check out the historian EP Thompson's Customs in Common (1991) - and particularly the essay on 'Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism' (first published in 1967).

For a seriously long view, Steven Mithen's After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000 - 5000 BC is a tour through what we know about human existence during and after the last Ice Age. This is not a book which makes an overall argument about human history: rather, it is quieting in the diversity of stories it contains, set against a background of dramatic changes in climate.

On which subject, I am fascinated by the suggestion - made by Martin Palmer in this edition of In Our Time (21 December 2006) - that stories of an earthly paradise and early representations of hell as a place of fierce cold might both have roots in deep cultural memory of sudden climate shifts at the end of the Younger Dryas.

I also talk sometimes about the phenomenon of "cryptic northern refugia" - as described in John R Stewart and Adrian M Lister's paper 'Cryptic northern refugia and the origins of the modern biota' (2001). I find this tempting as a metaphor for the importance of seeming marginal pockets of sociable habits and practices in otherwise highly-monetised and unsociable environments.