Thursday, April 24, 2014

Does honoring our past preserve our future?

Over the many millenia of our existence, humans have become adapted to a certain way of living.  When we follow that precedent, we're happy and healthy.   When we stray from it, our physical and mental health declines, and our society suffers.

The industrial revolution, driven as it has been by human wants and desires, would seem as if it should follow this pattern and enhance our lives.  It has certainly enhanced many aspects of them, but like everything in life, it came at a cost.  While it's allowed many of us a temporary reprieve from our old nemeses of disease and starvation, it has also deprived us of the meaningful existence we once had.

Two critical elements of the human experience were all but destroyed by the industrial revolution, and need to be reclaimed if we're to again be a healthy society with a bright future.

First and perhaps foremost, is community.  Humans did not travel large distances on a daily basis, but remained in a relatively small area, aside from seasonal migrations.  I would think that a "home range" with a radius of perhaps 10 miles would have been the norm.  The people you grew up with were the people you grew old with, fostering a familiarity with everyone in your limited range.

Studies I've seen suggest that people are most comfortable in groups of up to about 150 individuals.  Beyond that we have difficulty remembering faces and names. People become anonymous, and concern for the well being of anonymous people is much reduced. The sense of community diminishes the more we travel, and the more people we interact with on an impersonal basis.

It's the protection of this all-important community that has driven the Amish culture to eschew the ownership of cars and tractors.  It's at the core of their success as a culture, and has nothing to do with a rejection of modern technology as most Americans assume.  The use of buggies instead of cars limits the possible distance for any travel, forcing their community to remain physically close together.  The rejection of tractors for field work (some districts do allow them for barnyard and stationary tasks) has had a similar effect because it limits the amount of work which can be accomplished by a single farming family.  This, in turn, keeps farm sizes small, which in turn allows neighbors to remain near each other.

The second element which I think is critical to human health is the ability to directly meet the needs of our own existence.  Don't get me wrong;  people have always been social creatures, and nobody ever provided *all* of their own individual needs.  Until recently, however, we have been able to provide much of what we needed on our own, and those needs we couldn't meet ourselves were invariably met by others within our family or tribe who could meet them.  We are producers by nature, not consumers.

Our efforts were tangible and had direct effect, whether hunting and gathering or growing our own food, making our own shelter, clothing, medicine, or entertainment.  Why is it important that we have this close and direct connection with providing for our own needs?  Pride.  A sense of accomplishment and empowerment. Traits that have all but vanished in the consumer society.

Perhaps of even greater importance, is the fact that such activities tie us to the very foundation of life, and thus ensure a reverence for that which sustains us.  "Nature" isn't a place you visit, or Disneyland's competition for your next vacation.  It's your life support system.  The fact that most Americans value the economy more than the preservation of life support systems represented by nature is nothing short of asinine.

I suspect that millions of Chinese people are now discovering this truth the hard way, as their air is no longer breathable, their food contaminated, and their water undrinkable.  On the bright side, they do have the worlds fastest growing economy though, eh?

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