Hunter-Gatherer Vs. Agrarian: A Comparison of Disaster Coping Strategies

First off, thanks to everyone who expressed concern for me and the boat in the hours before and after the tsunami. We’re both 100% fine. The dock my boat is tied to consists of several sections, mine being at the end of the first. The other sections (and boats that were attached) were washed away with the tsunami leaving nothing but a tangled mass of metal and splintered wood. If anyone’s been thinking of taking a long walk off a short pier, I’ve got just the spot for you!

The only tricky thing for me at this point is that I was supposed to return to the boat more or less full-time last Sunday, and am not able to do so because of the lack of electricity and the recovery efforts related to sunken boats and destroyed docks. It could be months before things are back in order, but that’s just an inconvenience in the grand scheme of things. It’s obviously orders of magnitude worse in Japan. Natural disasters aren’t zero-sum games so I’m not going to allow the comments to turn into the kind of “it’s worse in Japan so nobody in the U.S. can talk about it” nonsense I’ve seen in YouTube video comments regarding local tsunami damage.

Competing Philosophies

In the hunter-gatherer corner we have a strategy that emphasizes mobility and simple efficiency. Flexibility, ingenuity, and skill are utilized to integrate with a range of environments; allowing a flow from one environment to the next based on opportunity and necessity. Underlying all of this is the implied assumption that nature is something to be moved with in concert rather than taken on in confrontation.

The agrarian perspective takes the opposite approach. Rather than investment in individual adaptability and skill, resources are sunk into specific parcels of land. The agrarian mindset embraces ideas like “my home is my castle.” Extending the fortress mentality, walls and fences are built. A culture of defensibility of space and confrontation with all who seek to challenge the claim. This defensive stance is agnostic to threat, whether it be from microbial infestations of crops to animals who don’t cognitively analyze real or imagined borders and legal structures to humans wishing to control the resources to the full force of nature. The moment seeds are sown and overtures toward permanence are erected, conflict and defense are the fundamental concerns of the agrarian mind.

When Disaster Strikes

Leading a life of mobility isn’t going to save one from disaster per se. If a tree falls in the forest and lands on your head, you’re not going to contemplate whether it made a sound. If a blob of molten lava is hurled your direction, it’s not going to inquire as to your philosophical bent. However, there are risks in our modern way of living that are essentially outgrowths of agrarian life. Living in a multi-level dwelling increases risk whether it’s a 2-story house or the penthouse of a high-rise. To my mind, the physical risks of civilization aren’t even the most important consideration.

What really sets the hunger-gatherer and agrarian at opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to “loss” in a disaster scenario is the relationship each has to things and places. The mobile lifestyle lessens the importance we place on things – things are transitory as places are transitory. On the other hand, disaster scenarios are filled with loss for the agrarian even if one should come through with body unscathed. Investments in things are susceptible to total loss, and investments in place are equally vulnerable.

An Exercise in Futility

As is demonstrated on a daily basis across the planet we call home, setting oneself up in a relationship of conflict with nature is a losing battle. Assuming control over nature requires an existence somewhere on a matrix of arrogance, luck, and delusion. We can spend our lives on the razor’s edge of fear or irrational notions of security whilst bolstering defenses of places and things, or we can choose to relate to the world and the things in it as they really are – constantly changing, full of excitement, and bigger than any and all of us. If you’re not sure which approach to take, ask someone from Atlantis, Pompeii, or Saito. And you might want to hurry that up; it’s hard to change your relationship with things after they’ve been sucked out to sea.

How might you apply the hunter-gatherer concept of mobility and simple efficiency within the context of our modern world?

18 Comments
  1. David Csonka 4 years ago

    I read a wonderful article the other day that suggested the reason that the Japanese handle these disasters with relatively little rioting or looting, or any of the many things we might expect if this happened in the USA, is that their culture has deep-seated recognition (resignation perhaps) that "shit happens".

    The Japanese phrases for the concept are much more eloquent but I think it kind of amounts to the same thing. For them, hardship is supposed to be a part of life. Crazy natural disasters is a part of living in Japan, and their culture reflects that.

  2. Jamie 4 years ago

    Spot on post. As someone who has recently been in, and is still in the midst of, a natural disaster, mobility is the key. I don't own a house and never really hope to… I enjoy having a home that is "my" space (as much as one can lay claim to owning space), but having a home does not require ownership. I have remarked before when watching the likes of Australian floods and firestorms, at the futility of standing your ground against a wall of water or flame simply on the basis that one "owns" whatever it is that is about to be destroyed. Sure I have creature comforts – TV's, lounge suites, etc. But I also have insurance so that I can walk away from them if need be. My focus for the last few months (since our September Earthquake), has been on mobility – what I need to have to sustain myself (and if need be, a cat). Increasingly, I have that down to less that 50L.

    At some point, one will want to set up again, so it is important that in that case, I can simply grab a small external hard drive that contains important documents on it, for example. But witnessing people recently and their attachment to large inanimate objects, underscores to me the point you are trying to make in your post here. I think it is a good challenge for all those paleo-minded people to ask the question, if disaster strikes and you can only grab what you can carry, and may have to carry it efficiently for extended periods, what would you take?

    • Author
      Andrew 4 years ago

      Your hybrid approach seems like a good blend of both strategies. Does NZ have a significant cultural pressure toward home ownership? Of course, that's one component of the "American Dream" we're fed over here.

      I didn't get into this in the post, but the level of population control that's afforded by proliferating this idea of sedentism via "ownership" is interesting. People with a mortgage and a vested interest in "property" tend to fall into line and stay there.

      • Erik 4 years ago

        Maybe I should head to NZ. It's unbelievable how much sh*t I get over here for choosing to live on a bicycle with no permanent address…

        I've come to expect that the US will see much more serious financial woes sometime in the next few years. Should that come to pass while I'm still over here, hopefully that nomad adaptability will work in my favor!

  3. @PapaSwamp 4 years ago

    Tribes that survived the indian ocean tsunami. The hunter gatherer tribes seemed to have faired much better than the large agrarian.

  4. @White_Kris 4 years ago

    Glad you are ok! Great article as usual. I've been waiting for your posts.

  5. Kevin Holbrook 4 years ago

    I agree that mobility is inefficient. The closest I've lived to mobility was traveling rather quickly through Europe for three months. I would walk all day and eat sparingly and cheaply most of the time — much like a hunter-gatherer in execution. It was fun and busy, but incredibly tiring. In that way, I would certainly prefer an efficient 'settlement' of my own for the long term.

    This fits in with the rejection of mimicry as the basis of the lifestyle, and I'm glad that you adress it here in logical terms. The system we've developed can be efficient when manipulated correctly. But at the same time, what are those inherent compulsions we retain from our 'mobile' past, and at what point are they worth pursuing? That's the question we face individually in order to draw the line, I think.

    (Relieved to hear that you and yours are OK.)

    • Author
      Andrew 4 years ago

      I'm not sure that I mean mobility in the sense you use it, but let's assume I do. One of the dilemmas in your example of backpacking is the fact that most of the land you traverse is owned, legally restricted, or otherwise controlled. As such, you're forced to pass through at a pace that wouldn't have been necessary in H-G bands.

      I noticed a distinct difference in my own psychology when traveling through Central America versus the U.S. Basically, the lack of regulation on beaches and other open spaces allowed my mind to feel a different sort of freedom than the "No Camping, No Breathing, No Sideways Glances" signs that dominate private and government spaces in the states. In other words, imposed (de facto imposition in this case) mobility is very different from voluntary or opportunistic mobility.

  6. Don Matesz 4 years ago

    Hey Andrew,

    I like this post, and since I'm in the process of letting go of a business location, it got me thinking about how I could make my business (acupuncture clinic) mobile. No answers yet. I suggest that H-Gs were semimobile/semisedentary most of the time, i.e. relatively stable winter hunting grounds in south or in plains, and relatively stable summer grounds in north or mountains. I think I might be able to work this out for myself in AZ.

    BTW, just to reflect on how the mind can see what it expects, not what is: Look at the title of this post. I think you meant "hunter-gatherer" not "hunger-gatherer." At least I hope they weren't gathering hunger :-)).

    • Author
      Andrew 4 years ago

      Agreed, "mobile" is a little bit too sloppy because of the implication of constant motion. I'm referring more to the ability to move easily and opportunistically versus agrarian entrenchment. Business location can definitely be tricky. Since market economies are an outgrowth of the agricultural revolution, it makes sense that some vestiges will persist despite attempts to re-engineer the principles with H-G insights.

      I totally spaced-out on "hunger-gatherers". Paging Dr. Freud! Thanks for pointing that out.

  7. Victoria 4 years ago

    Can I take the middle ground and make the case for a pastoral lifestyle? I see the ideal as somewhere in between the unpredictability of hunter-gatherer and the burdens of agriculture. To me, the pastoral lifestyle has it right- stock to keep you fed and clothed, but portable. Caring for a flock or herd isn't the body-breaking work that crop production is, and is relatively low input for a pretty good output.

    Obviously a pastoral lifestyle doesn't jive with the current the US culture, but I think bears considering when you want to talk mobility and efficiency. You may not outrun a tsunami with a herd of cattle (though you'd probably be better off on a horse than on foot!), but you'd have food to keep your family and yourself going if you did!

    • Author
      Andrew 4 years ago

      If I remember correctly (from The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia?), pastoral cultures suffer from many of the same property (land and slaves) problems as agrarian cultures. I think the argument goes something along the lines of higher levels of sedentism than H-Gs, despite the apparent portability. Cattle are almost synonymous with fences. Further, early goat husbandry also seems to have been supported by similar pens as we'd see today. Pastorial lifestyles get tangled in my head easily because feeding herds so often goes hand-in-hand with agriculture.

      That said, I can also think of at least one contemporary Siberian culture that remains rather mobile (though their name escapes me). But… the more I think about it, they may use reindeer more as pack animals in service of hunting seals which would blur the line even further. It's definitely blurry to begin with, because they also transport and sell seal meat for cash. So… maybe nevermind that digression. :)

  8. Karen 4 years ago

    I've never thought of a pastoral lifestyle as being in between agrarian and h-g. I remember learning in anthro classes that pastoral cultures typically arose only in places that couldn't support agriculture well. I imagine there is a large difference between sedentary and nomadic pastoralism. Now I can't help thinking of cowboys as a precursor to paleo.

    • Author
      Andrew 4 years ago

      Animal husbandry/pastorialism definitely isn't a "precursor" to hunter-gatherers in any of its iterations.

      • Karen 4 years ago

        I wasn't saying it was.

        I was thinking of cowboy lifestyle as a precursor to modern paleo lifestyle. Not that it was exactly, I was just imagining correlations that may or may not be correct. I have to admit I don't know much about cowboys that I didn't learn from the movies. But I imagine there was a great deal of traveling and not much thought for private property.

  9. ravi 4 years ago

    a timely post for my partner and i who are making decisions to leave a self-built home on a property we partly own and venture back to her homeland where we feel there's a good chance a better time awaits us raising our 3 year old daughter –

    a tough decision cause we have to leave a property, house, greenhouse that supports us and a dear friend who will stay on the property – but our hunter-gatherer selves seem to be ready for the game –

    what's security anyway but a great big fat illusory lie?

  10. Ryan 4 years ago

    I'd like to start this comment with first saying that I love the underlying idea not only of this article but of your writings in general.

    With that said, in this article I think you're glancing over some pretty major ideas. Perhaps you're aware of them and left them out for space's sake, or maybe you just hadn't come across them yet. I'll leave it to one topic given that this is a comment section and not my own personal blog 😉

    While in a Utopian situation hunter/gatherers would come up Milhouse in a natural disaster, it's not the case in what we've found in the archaeological record. Natural disasters are just as devastating to hunter-gatherers as they are to agrarian societies. While they don't generally park down in one spot they do have what could be called a "home range". The size of this range depends on the resources at hand (i.e. a group in a resource rich area won't move nearly as far as those in a resource poor area), but if that range is destroyed in a natural disaster they're just as screwed as a group that plants crops. Just as an example of how small these ranges can be; in the Mississippi Valley Woodland Cultures moved as little as 2 miles during their seasonal migration. Anyways, a h/g group could move to another range, but all of the palaeo-economic and archaeobotanical/archaeozoological findings have shown that the population density problem we have now existed with hunter/gatherers as well; at least in the areas of the Americas, Europe, and Near East that I've done reasearch in. In fact that's one of the theories on why we became agrarian. Too many people, not enough wild resources, someone figures out how to plant crops, temporary win. Moving on, while no one had fences up most of the land (again in the areas where I've worked) was some group's territory. So if a group's range is flooded for instance, and the plants are destroyed, and the wild life shifts to another area, you have to move to survive. And chances are you're moving into another group's range. If archaeological findings are any indication that doesn't turn out well for the new comers.

    Anyways, with that being said I really enjoy your writing and theories. Keep them coming!

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