I not infrequently run across articles, like this recent one from The Age, promoting the concept that some particular premodern society had a more humane relationship to nature than modern/western society does. The Age article, for example, cites professor of archaeology John Parkington, who notes the prevalence of representations of particular animal forms in rock art dating back 200 to 10,000 years, and argues that the representations:
reflect the way the hunter-gatherers saw nature and their place in it, and include elements of shamanism.
With the domestication of plants and animals, humans started “moving ourselves out of the ecosystem … that was the beginning of the process that took us to the position of being outsiders”, he said.
“That’s why we unbelievably and inexplicably are failing to recognise the threat of global warming, because we’re outside it,” he said. “We’re going to carry on manipulating it, as apparent owners of it, until it’s too late.”
Parkington says the hunter-gatherers placed themselves inside the ecosystem, rather than outside looking in. “So they see animals as other beings who know the world in a different way … and sometimes in a very valuable way, and sometimes they want to take on that knowledge.”
The animal that occurs most often in Cederberg rock paintings is the eland, a large antelope that Parkington said was revered by the Bushmen as “a beautiful sentient being”. He said they developed rules for hunting, “a guiding ethos”, as a way of justifying their pursuit of eland and of behaving “sustainably and responsibly in the world … as a species that actually shares the landscape and vegetation with other beings”.
I remain agnostic on the particular human community whose history Parkington studies – their culture may, in fact, have expressed a highly developed sense of sustainability, and their practices may indeed hold lessons for the contemporary period. I would sound one small note of caution, in that it sounds from the passage above that the eland are a primary object of the hunt and, in that context, it would at least be possible to suggest that there might be different psychological motivations – aside from, or in addition to, some deep commitment to sustainability – that might underlie repeated ritual proclamations about how beautiful and sentient these creatures are. But Parkington is the expert on the culture he studies, so I won’t second guess.
If Parkington has been quoted correctly, however, he is making far grander, and more mystical, claims than would apply to one culture alone: he argues (again assuming the news account is an accurate representation – and I do understand that nuance is not the strength of the journalistic medium…) that what accounts for the cultural emphasis on sustainable values and practice is the fact that nomadic forms of existence in general are more “inside” nature – involve a less mediated relationship to nature – than settled existence. Settled agricultural societies, by contrast, have apparently removed themselves from this embeddedness in nature – and their cultural values therefore adopt a more instrumental, less sustainable, orientation to nature.
I find this notion empirically and theoretically questionable – and am also a bit unnerved by its normative implications: is the claim that sustainable management requires a regression to nomadic existence? If this isn’t the normative claim, then shouldn’t this cause us to reflect critically back on the original relationship posited between cultural values and living “inside” nature???
If this were an isolated position, I wouldn’t be too concerned. Unfortunately, I don’t find it that unusual for people – including academics – to valorise pre-modern peoples (sometimes understood, as in this example, as nomadic, sometimes encompassing earlier agrarian societies, sometimes extended to modern indigenous societies, as well) on the grounds that, in a very general way, such people held more sustainable values than are expressed in modern societies. I’m happy for this issue to be explored as an empirical question – as an investigation of how particular premodern societies actually lived, and as an exploration of how they articulated their practices culturally. What worries me is when these sorts of claims start to be made in an undifferentiated and apparently universal way – as though all human societies before a certain historical era, or all contemporary societies that have been materially disenfranchised to a certain degree, have certain moral qualities in common.
Politically, I worry because this position seems at best essentialising – in the guise of offering deep respect, it “others” people by rendering them magical and mysterious and beyond our normal ken – a position that, I suspect, serves to flatten and channel mainstream receptiveness to indigenous political claims in particular ways… (I’ve discussed this issue previously <a href="here and at Savage Minds.)
Analytically, I worry because I suspect that, at least in some cases, this position involves drawing an invalid deduction from objective limitations to cultural beliefs: premodern societies were more likely to live in some kind of “balance” with nature for “material” reasons, quite independently of cultural norms, because they simply had fewer resources to mobilise against their environments – the long-term persistence of this kind of balance might well have come to be articulated in cultural norms, or cultural norms might well have made achieving balance with the environment a comparatively easy task; equally, though, cultural norms might have diverged strongly from anything we would regard as “sustainable”, and yet Malthusian forces might have held the population in balance with nature nevertheless…
Ethically, I worry because I feel that academics have the leisure and the training – and therefore the responsibility – to break away from a fixed orbit around our own cultural tropes (in this case, I can’t help but worry about the way in which this common valorisation of premodern cultures seems to channel the romantic vision of the Noble Savage) and examine the best evidence at their disposal, so that we can actually be prepared for the sober decisions we may need to make, if we wish to confront a complex problem like global warming.