cultural myths and misery

John Schinnerer eco_living at
Mon Dec 3 19:29:47 EST 2001


Arguments that all humans before the industrial world saved us had
short, brutal, miserable lives filled with rot and disease and so on
seem just too convenient as excuses/propaganda for the status quo. 
They also have plenty of "scientific" counters.

Speaking of science, it's as political as anything else.  The
perversion of the "ideals of science" for political/social purposes is
the norm, not the exception.  Look into the struggle between the
medical theories of "germs as invasive causes of disease" vs. "systemic
health of the person as preventer of disease" for one big example (the
systemic view lost in the political arena...and is still the
underdog...).  Anyhow...

Try "Changes in the Land" by William Cronon for one alternative
perspective on native lifestyles in New England and the co-evolutionary
changes as Anglos arrived.  It doesn't quite follow the noble savage
myth and it also doesn't follow the ragged savage myth.  Perhaps some
truths are somewhere in between.

There's also anthropological evidence from various parts of the world
(South Seas for one) indicating some darn healthy and apparently pretty
hapy people lived here and there, off and on, for thousands of years.

Anglo history looks to me to be a poor reference point, since Anglos
(such as my distant N. Euro. ancestors) seem to have been pretty slow
to catch on to problems brought on by density without simple
sanitation, basic hygene, etc. etc.  Most of the health/lifestyle
depredations they suffered have not been "solved" by "science" and the
industrial world, merely masked or offloaded somewhere else within the
planetary system.  Plenty new ones have meanwhile been created.

The there's quality of life - thirty years of vigorous life close to
nature's patterns and relatings, in a good case (this is a PC list,
after all... ;-), or sixty years of "life" chained to a desk, in a not
so good case?  Who among us has ever had the actual life experiences of
any of these peoples we make such sweeping assumptions about?

It's just not so simple, and how could it be in such a complex place as
our world?  Some good, some all accounts of early contact,
starting with Cook, who was a "scientific" explorer much more than a
"conqueror," Hawaiians were stunningly (to Anglo eyes... ;-) strong,
robust, healthy, vigorous, happy/serious people.  Then they succumbed
to, or had forced on them, dietary and other cultural changes that at
present puts them at the top of quite a few major U.S. health problem
lists (heart disease, etc.).

At the same time they were so vigorous and healthy, they had an
increasingly despotic monarchy that was probably making life more and
more intolerable for all but themselves; they were probably also well
on the way to overpopulating, as they were beginning to clear what most
of us here would probably consider unsustainable amounts of upper
watershed forests for field crops.

hi ho,

John Schinnerer, MA
- Eco-Living -
Cultural & Ecological Designing
Food - Shelter - Community
john at

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