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?