A word that comes up often in European descriptions of “savages” is “lazy,” as in, “The bushmen hunt too much, they are lazy and dirty and their dogs must be shot,”1 or “The redskinned Indians are naturally lazy and vicious, melancholic, cowardly, and in general a lying, shiftless, people,”2 or that Africans are “leud and lazy to excess,”3 or Bowes’ characterization of Australian Aborigines as “too stupid and indolent a set of people” to hunt kangaroo. Of course, such characterizations today often draw ire, and rightly so, as racist stereotypes. But the common theme of “laziness” attributed to hunter-gatherers does reflect an important point: the greater liesure enjoyed by hunter-gatherers, and the perverse cult of labor enshrined by European civilization.
A common theme in the stereotype is that of the savage too lazy, and often equally compelled by stupidity, to embrace the wonders of agriculture. The Bushman fascination with the mongongo nut led Richard Lee to conclude that foragers everywhere lived primarily on vegetable food sources, a notion Loren Cordain later overturned. But the place of the mongongo nut in Bushman life is easy to understand. European observers frequently justified their identification of the Bushmen as lazy with the evidence of all the mongongo nuts they left simply to rot on the ground, even after they’d eaten all they’d wanted. Why not store the excess away? And why not begin farming, like their neighbors? One Dobe Bushman famously replied to that question, “Why should we, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?”
In Missionary in Sonora: Travel Reports of Joseph Och, S.J., 1755-1767, Joseph Och also justified his racist stereotypes by referencing Native Americans’ disdain for agriculture.
By nature Indians are very lazy and sworn enemies of work. They prefer to suffer hunger than to fatigue themselves with agriculture. Therefore, they must be forced to do this by their superiors. With six industrious Europeans one can do more in one day than fifty Indians.
On the island of Tahiti, J.M. Orsmond, “believing that ‘a too bountiful nature on Moorea diminishes men’s natural desire to work’, ordered all breadfruit trees to be cut down.”
By this time the population of Tahiti had been reduced by syphilis, tuberculosis, smallpox and influenza from the 200,000 estimated by Cook to 18,000. After thirty years of missionary rule, only 6,000 remained. Otto Von Kotzebue, leader of a Russian expedition into the Pacific in 1823, long before the decline had reached its terminal phase, wrote: “A religion like this which forbids every innocent pleasure and cramps or annihilates every mental power is a libel on the divine founder of Christianity.”4
Of course, as Richard Manning wrote in Against the Grain, “Gamboling about plain and forest, hunting and living off the land is fun. Farming is not.” To gather everything they needed, foragers worked much less than we do today. Richard Lee’s initial assessment of the !Kung work week is neatly summarized by Sahlins:
Despite a low annual rainfall (6 to 10 inches), Lee found in the Dobe area a “surprising abundance of vegetation”. Food resources were “both varied and abundant”, particularly the energy rich mangetti [a.k.a. mongongo] nut—”so abundant that millions of the nuts rotted on the ground each year for want of picking.” The Bushman figures imply that one man’s labour in hunting and gathering will support four or five people. Taken at face value, Bushman food collecting is more efficient than French farming in the period up to World War II, when more than 20 per cent of the population were engaged in feeding the rest. Confessedly, the comparison is misleading, but not as misleading as it is astonishing. In the total population of free-ranging Bushmen contacted by Lee, 61.3 per cent (152 of 248) were effective food producers; the remainder were too young or too old to contribute importantly In the particular camp under scrutiny, 65 per cent were “effectives”. Thus the ratio of food producers to the general population is actually 3 :5 or 2:3. But, these 65 per cent of the people “worked 36 per cent of the time, and 35 per cent of the people did not work at all”!
For each adult worker, this comes to about two and one—half days labour per week. (In other words, each productive individual supported herself or himself and dependents and still had 3 to 5 days available for other activities.) A “day’s work” was about six hours; hence the Dobe work week is approximately 15 hours, or an average of 2 hours 9 minutes per day.5
This is the oft-quoted “two hours a day” statistic, but it has come under fire from critics who point out that Lee did not add in other necessary activities, such as creating tools, and food preparation. So, Lee returned to do further study with these revised definitions of “work,” and came up with a figure of 40-45 hours per week. This might seem to prove that hunter-gatherers enjoy no more liesure than industrial workers, but the same criticisms laid against Lee’s figures also apply against our “40 hour work week.” It, too, does not include shopping, basic daily chores, or food preparation, which would likewise swell our own tally. Finally, the distinction between “work” and “play” is nowhere nearly as clear-cut in forager societies as it is in our own. Foragers mix the two liberally, breaking up their work haphazardly, and often playing while they work (or working while they play). The definition of work which inflates the total to 40-45 hours per week includes every activity that might be considered, regardless of its nature. Even the most unambiguous “work” of foragers is often the stuff of our own vacations: hunting, fishing, or a hike through the wilds. Sitting Bull expressed it quite well:
White men like to dig in the ground for their food. My people prefer to hunt the buffalo as their fathers did. White men like to stay in one place. My people want to move their tepees here and there to the different hunting grounds. The life of white men is slavery. They are prisoners in towns or farms. The life my people want is a life of freedom. I have seen nothing that a white man has, houses or railways or clothing or food, that is as good as the right to move in the open country, and live in our own fashion. … The white men had many things that we wanted, but we could see that they did not have the one thing we liked best—freedom. I would rather live in a tepee and go without meat when game is scarce, than give up my privileges as a free Indian, even though I could have all that white men have.
Rather than laziness, the choice of hunting and gathering over agriculture was simply good sense. But what of the notion of “laziness” itself—that the avoidance of labor is a question of moral standing? Rationally, we would think of work as an investment to obtain what we want, so that if it had any moral value at all, it would have to be as a function of what that thing is we’re working for. By the same logic, it should be virtuous to pay $100 for a stick of gum. Our deification of labor is fundamentally irrational—the Protestant work ethic the logical result only from the assumptions of a cruel and capricious god ruling over a clockwork universe. Calvinism removed grace from anything a human being could secure, so emphasis shifted to evidence that one was among the elect. The Protestant work ethic emerged from the view that constant activity in building up the kingdom of G-d reflected the fact that one had recieved grace; idleness, evidence that one had not. The result was nothing short of asceticism, and the glorification of work for its own sake as evidence of G-d’s grace.6
Such an approach is obviously at odds with the basic nature of the world, but similar themes were nonetheless picked up by Darwin, who set the tone for our view of nature “red in tooth and claw.” Darwin saw his theory of natural selection arising from the incredible lethality and ruthlessness of the natural world. This narrative has remained in place, even while the evidence to support it has eroded completely away.
This war of nature was perhaps Darwin’s most enduring contribution to the theory of evolution. What had been seen, until then, as a harmonious natural order, became a bloodbath. And in the rest of Origin, Darwin rams home the image of struggle, war, murder, extermination.
It is not particularly hard to see where this idea comes from. Given more mouths to feed than the limited amount of food available, the image is easily conjured of hungry, jostling, struggling animals, wedged together, biting and tugging and trampling over each other to reach that food. And, given this image, it is clear that the strongest, fastest, and most aggressive are likely to come out the winners. And, indeed, that an animal would increase its chances of survival if it took to actively exterminating its competitors.
But hidden in this vision of competition is an unstated supposition that the natural world provides its bounty in a concentrated and localized form—as if Nature, like a farmer, feeds the creatures by unloading its produce in one great pile, in a particular place and a particular time, before the hungry livestock. In this artificial circumstance, as they all rush in, direct competition is inevitable.7
Darwin, growing up among the farms of Shropshire, projected the dynamics of agriculture onto the natural world, and conjured up the image of nature as an eternal war, the Hobbesian bellum omnium contra omnes that we still hear echoed in the language of nature documentaries. Idleness could have little place in the daily struggle for survival in such a situation—but this model is a question of projection, of domestication onto the undomesticated world. In the real world, resources are not hoarded in a single location, and so competition is rarely an issue. Instead, resources are spread out, and individuals likewise spread out to gather them. The Darwinian “survival of the fittest” speaks as much to the mythical daily struggle for survival as to the process of natural selection itself; in contrast, “Idle Theory” presents “Survival of the Idlest.” It provides little challenge to the basic notion of evolution or even natural selection, but it does overturn the Darwinian model of life as a constant war. Instead, animals that spend the least energy providing for their survival are the most likely to survive.
We’ve all seen the relative idleness of wild animals, and their proclivity for long naps, sleeping any time they’re not eating or looking for food. Biologists have often seen in this evidence of a constant, and somewhat desperate, search for food. Of course, much the same could (and has) been said of hunter-gatherers, as well, because they also take long naps and sleep for very long periods of time. But if we instead take the view of Idle Theory, we can see that hunter-gatherers had actually done quite well—the mystery of how humans survived into the Neolithic disappears. In fact, what becomes most astonishing is how much civilization has lost in terms of evolutionary fitness.
The development of technology has had an effect on liesure time typified by Jevons Paradox. Agriculture was meant to increase liesure by providing a constant, steady food supply, but the complete reliance on a few, fickle, closely-related cereal grains grown in a completely unsustainable context meant that farmers traded in the relative ease and security of hunting and gathering for back-breaking labor to get disease, malnutrition, regular famine and an early grave. More recently, computer technology has accelerated the trend: a piece of software meant to cut your work time in half will simply raise your boss’s expectations that you accomplish three times as much. No one in the industrialized world works as long as people in the United States, with work-weeks now regularly stretching into 60 or 70 hours or longer.
So, why are American workers becoming workaholics? The culprit is technology, according to Peg Buchenroth, vice president of human resources, Hudson North America. “Modern technology makes staying connected to work while on vacation easier than ever and helps to blur the line between work and personal time,” she says.8
Workers in the United States recieve some of the least vacation time in the Western world, yet they increasingly don’t even take that. The perverse Protestant work ethic has a good deal to do with this kind of masochistic behavior, but so does fear—a kind of Prisoner’s Dilemna where each worker fears that if they take time off and the others around them do not, that they will miss a promotion, a key opportunity, or worse, their very job. Such fears are regularly fanned, from stories about declining job security to the trumped-up “issues” of immigration by barely-closeted racists like Lou Dobbs, who cultivate that fear by reminding workers how absolute commitment is the only way to avoid being replaced.
Fear and a strong cultural focus on work are largely responsible for behavior in regard to their job and leisure time, says Helen Friedman, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice in St. Louis. “Fear is the motivator—fear of falling behind in work, fear of being replaced if you don’t give 110%,” she says. “As a culture, we’ve evolved to value doing rather than being.”
In this country, just being means being lazy as there’s no time to just be, Friedman adds. The emphasis is less on character and personality, but more on the job at hand. As an example, upon meeting, one of the first things people ask each other is: “What do you do?”
Halcyone Bohen, PhD, a psychologist in independent practice in Washington, D.C., echoes Friedman’s view. “In our culture, work is so highly valued that people are rewarded for it from preschool on, for doing ‘a good job,’” she says. “Less value is often put on play and relaxation.”9
In Europe, mandated minimum vacations eliminate that Prisoner’s Dilemna, and the increased efficiency of happier, less-stressed workers keeps European production comparable to that of the United States—and puts U.S. workers in the position of working still longer, and becoming even less efficient, to keep pace.10, 11 One could hardly ask for a clearer example of the Prisoner’s Dilemna pushing a system beyond the point of diminishing marginal returns. Were the psychological toll not enough, there is an environmental cost to such mindless devotion to labor, as well.
The report, written by researcher David Rosnick and economist Mark Weisbrot, warns that if Europeans worked the long hours that Americans do, it would boost their energy consumption rates by 30 percent. This would boost the international demand for fuel, as well as Europe’s overall carbon dioxide emissions.
“There is an important political debate in Europe over whether Europeans would be better off economically if they moved towards a U.S.-style economic model, most importantly in their labor markets,” the authors write. “But aside from the economic and political implications, there are some potentially large costs to the environment if European countries were to move to a U.S.-style economic model.”12
Even those who seek out a more primitive way of life often bring the cultural baggage of the cult of work with them.
Today many of us westerners find ourselves fascinated with these simple cultures, and a few of us really dive into it to reproduce or recreate the primitive lifestyle. In our typical western zeal we get right into it and produce, produce, produce. We work ambitiously to learn each primitive craft, and we produce all kinds of primitive clothing, tools, containers, and art, and just plain stuff. True hunter-gatherer cultures carried all their possessions on their backs, but us modern primitives soon find that we need a pickup truck just to move camp! In our effort to recreate the primitive lifestyle we find that we have ironically missed our mark completely—that we have made many primitive things, but that we have not begun to grasp the true nature of a primitive culture. To truly grasp that essence requires that we let go, and begin to understand the art of doing nothing.13
The key to hunter-gatherer success was their willingness to live in the world, to get by and be happy, more than the material ambition to have a lot of things. Today, we recognize the “type A personality” as one destined to high stress and, in all likelihood, an early grave. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States—beyond the automobiles that claim a Vietnam War’s worth of dead every year, or the cancers that overwhelm us from poisoned air, water and food. Beyond even these causes, the stress of our own cultish devotion to slavishness is killing us in droves.
But if we can let that go, and live with the world rather than trying to remake it in our own image, we might find some time for liesure, some time to be idle, and we might even find a healthy, happy way to live. Of course, calls to such a life are not new in our culture; while the “Protestant work ethic” emerged from Calvinism, the Savior they ostensibly worshipped took a different view:
Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature? And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? (Matthew 6:25-30)
As the sagacious title character of Ishmael asked of this passage, “Did you think your god was joking?”
Or consider a more recent story of unknown provenance, often cited online:
An American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.
The Mexican replied, “only a little while.”
The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish?
The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs.
The American then asked, “but what do you do with the rest of your time?”
The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine, and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life.”
The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually New York City, where you will run your expanding enterprise.”
The Mexican fisherman asked, “But, how long will this all take?”
To which the American replied, “15 - 20 years.”
“But what then?” Asked the Mexican.
The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions!”
The American said, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siestas with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”