Hunter-Gatherer Economics and Sustainability

To many environmentalists, sustainability means leaving the world the way you found it. I think that this may reflect the instincts of a hunter-gatherer.

If you are a hunter-gatherer, how much you can eat is limited by the natural rate of replenishment. If you eat game or plants faster than they are replenished, your tribe will die.

Modern human welfare is not governed by replenishment. We use knowledge to add value to our environment. Cultivation of crops means that we can grow more food than we could obtain by gathering. And we apply ever-increasing ingenuity to this cultivation.

Sustainability of modern life is thus much more complex than sustainability of hunter-gathering. Our modern ancestors have left us the gifts of their ingenuity, so that what they took out of nature has not hurt our welfare. And we are likely to do the same for our descendants.

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6 Responses to Hunter-Gatherer Economics and Sustainability

  1. Daublin says:

    Sustainability is a great topic to delve into, and it is just as poorly understood by the general public as supply and demand. There’s room in today’s world for a sort of Carl Sagan of economics, and I would nominate those two topics as ones worth emphasizing.

    On sustainability, one angle I find helpful is to focus on is how wasteful a lot of “reusable” systems are if you look at the total amount of resources involved. A stark example is the U.S. space shuttle. A major design requirement of the space shuttle was that it would be reusable. However, despite that, the shuttle uses an order of magnitude more resources per launch than does the Russian Soyez.

    The answer to the puzzle is that only the external shell of the shuttle is reusable. You get much better overall resource usage–and thus a more *sustainable* space program–if you let that shell be disposable. Calls for sustainability make this error all over the place.

  2. mike shupp says:

    A major design requirement of the shuttle was that it have a large cargo bay to deliver boxcar-sized KH-series spy satellites to orbit.

    A major design requirement of the shuttle was that it have a 1200 mile cross range capability so it could deliver top secret Air Force payloads (think stolen Soviet satellites) to US Air Force bases.

    A major design requirement of the shuttle was that its design cost had to be cut to 3.3 billion dollars, even though this would boost operational costs considerably, so the Nixon administration could claim a surplus with the 1972 federal budget.

    Don’t you think you should have mentioned these?

  3. Jeff says:

    It’s a nice thought, that sounds reasonable but I would file this one under highly highly speculative.

  4. Curt says:

    I know you are skeptical of climate models, etc. But in regard to these lines:

    “Our modern ancestors have left us the gifts of their ingenuity, so that what they took out of nature has not hurt our welfare. And we are likely to do the same for our descendants.”

    Let’s just hope that all the fossil fuel we’ve pulled out of nature and burned does not create too much damage… or that we figure out ways to mitigate it.

    • Andrew' says:

      I can see 3 main sources of damage. 1 is the release of stuff like mercury. 2. Is the depletion of the resource. 3. Is the global warming.

      So far 2 and 3 have basically caused no damage whatsoever. In fact they offset somewhat. If we never run out then 1 I see as more important than 3.

  5. Jeff R. says:

    I’ve had more or less the same thought. I’ve had the suspicion that this affects people in other ways, as well. The human brain, having been wired for living in small tribes of closely related individuals, might find modern society pretty weird, what with its large cities full of millions of strangers and its emphasis on trade and private enterprise as opposed to communal activities and sharing. I wonder if people aren’t alienated by this and find it psychologically comforting to tell themselves that it can’t last and it’ll all fall apart someday soon. Thus, on the left you get Marx’s contradictions of capitalism and apocalyptic rhetoric from environmentalists about resource depletion and climate change. On the right, it’s breakdowns in social order due to irrelogiosity, gay marriage, etc.

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