The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Partial Transcript of My Talk

On Hunter-Gatherers and the lessons for our own society and for improving our societies, courtesy of the Hipcrime Vocab, who has some smart thoughts you should read:

Jay Ackroyd: What it’s really coming down to is we’re discovering the carrying capacity of the earth is for humans under our…

Ian Welsh: Under our particular toolset…

JA: Under domestic [sic] agriculture…

IW: Under domestic agriculture, under industrialization. The carrying capacity varies. It’s not a fixed number, and people who say it is irritate me. But under the current way that we run things and under our current technology and social [organization], we’re past our carrying capacity.

JA: The history of this is that when we were hunter-gatherers up until about eight to ten-thousand years ago, the carrying capacity was much less at that agricultural technology. In fact, it wouldn’t even make sense to say agricultural technology; at that level of resource utilization. The densest population that I can think of are in the southeastern islands like New Guinea and around there where people were rubbing up against each other and quite violent conflict emerged even in a hunter-gatherer environment.

IW: Well, what you see in the late hunter-gatherers is actually a pile of violence. I mean, they’re very violent societies and about a third of all adult male deaths are by violence. If they’re not pushing up against their carrying capacity, then they’re not violent at all pretty much. It is a phase change that happens as they become close to it and it explodes.

JA: Right. There turns out to be not enough available resources for the population of two different subsectors of people and they brush up against each other and start killing each other, and New Guinea is a perfect example of that.

IW: Yeah, I mean, in general yes. Some societies are just more violent period. But again when we look at the archaeological record what we see is, as they reach the carrying capacity you start seeing a lot more violence. So, yeah, the New Guineas and so forth.

JA: And the triumph of domesticated agriculture is you get a lot more people per unit of land mass, so it’s going to be a bigger society, so they march their way through.

IW: Well, it looks like a couple of factors. One is the population. The population is only a small part, because you see nomadic cultures that are 1/100th the size of civilized cultures and they just roll over civilized cultures until firearms, and until fairly late firearms at that. One major thing in the early part also seems to be, and this is something Stirling [Newberry] noticed, or at least brought to my attention, is disease pools. Because, to put it simply, agriculturalists shit where they eat.

JA: Unavoidably, because the population density is so high.

IW: Yeah, so you start getting parasites, you know, that’s when you start needing cats, that’s when you start having rats follow you around. So they basically become these huge disease pools, and what you see from the evidence is that the hunter-gatherers try and stay away from them, right?

JA: Well, as the Native Americans said about the arriving Europeans, they just smell bad.

IW: They smell bad, yeah, the milk smell. They smell and they’re diseased. And because you don’t live that way, because you don’t live near parasites, because you don’t shit where you eat, you don’t have the resistance, you haven’t gained the resistance. So you go near these people and from their point-of-view, bad spirits attack you and you get sick and die, right? So you get these taboos against being near them. And as they expand themselves, they just keep pushing the hunter-gatherers back. Hunter-gatherers do tend to lose the violent confrontations, but part of it is that they get weakened by the disease as well. And again, what happened in North America is primarily that ninety percent of the population gets wiped out by disease. If that doesn’t happen, we, the Europeans, don’t conquer North America.

Again the main thing about hunter-gatherers that I emphasize in a separate post, is that for most of history…being a hunter gatherer is, until you reach the carrying capacity, is about the best it ever gets for human history. It’s far better than being an agriculturalist. I mean, you have a better lifestyle. You’re healthier. You live longer. It’s just, overall, unless you’re a noble in the agricultural society, you’d far rather be a hunter-gatherer.

Even in North America you see a lot of people running away to join the Indians. People talk about running away to join the Indians, even today. That was a thing, that was a big thing, because the Indians lived better. It was a more enjoyable thing to be an Indian that to be a dirt farmer in 17th century Pennsylvania.

And you can see it in the skeletons. They’re taller, they’re healthier, they have less disease, they live longer up until, there’s a few peaks, but basically…Greek civilization for a brief period lives longer than hunter-gatherers and then it dies back down again; there are some other peaks… one thing for example is that the hip ratio on women has never recovered. Hunter-gatherer women have wider hips than even modern women do. And, of course, that’s actually a thing of health, especially when you have to have your kids. They have better dentition, et cetera, et cetera. And they have heck of lot more free time in most cases.

One of the problems that we have is that we look at modern hunter-gatherers, and they aren’t…you can’t just do that. You learn something from them, but the hunter-gatherers of the old days weren’t forced into marginal areas. They were living off the fat of the land in the best areas in the world, killing mammoths and so forth, even in the Ice Ages and so forth. So they were living in the highest carrying capacity areas in the world. I mean you read about the hunter-gatherers in the Nile. I mean, this is a good life, man! You go in there, and you gather, and there’s so many fish, and there’s so many birds, and there’s so many animals that they practically fall into your hands. People have no idea how lush the world used to be. You read about, um…

JA: The English arrival, the darkened skies of passenger pigeons, the enormous cod…

IW: …The Grand Banks. You drop a bucket into the water, pull it out, and it’s full of fish. I mean, the fat of the land, right? It’s just not that hard to live. Especially if you’re one of the groups living in one of the better areas. I mean, life for the Inuit was always pretty nasty, but if you’re living in one of the breadbaskets…

JA: The Pacific Northwest for instance. They competed by giving each other presents.

IW: Because they were so rich. I grew up in BC [British Columbia]. One of my uncles, and this is in the thirties, he used to in live in, oh I forget the town, but one of the towns in the Northwest. And to make money he would just grab a piece of fish line, put a hook on it, and go out and hook salmon. And he didn’t own a boat or anything, he just walked along the shore, threw it in, got himself some salmon, and took it back to town. And this is within living memory. You can’t do that anymore.

JA: Now there are farms. [intelligible] was making a common reply to this, and it says that low density populations, low specialization, it doesn’t really fit the way the world really works. And of course, that’s a mistake. I’m sorry Lou, but that’s a mistake. Because the time that we’ve spent in this extensive monoculture/agriculture is a very short time in human existence.

IW: The thing is, we can’t do that now. It’s a way of life that is gone, and we can’t live that way now. Clearly we can’t. But it’s worth looking at how people once did live because that’s what we grew up in as a species. And also to remind ourselves that life doesn’t have to be shit. And also that the winning technology…this is the key point I want to make, is that the winning technology and the winning social organization doesn’t have to be the society that is better for ordinary people. If you had to choose, you would rather be a hunter-gatherer than live in most agricultural societies. It’s a better life.

JA: For 90 percent of the population. The one percent still live much, much better.

IW: Oh, of course, if you’re a winner, right? But for most of the population, you’d really rather be one. But the problem is that they lose fights and they don’t handle disease. And so in the end they wind up losing out, and they get shoved into the margins of the world, right? So just because something is new, just because you have a new technology doesn’t mean that it’s going to make the world better. The stirrup did not make ordinary people better off. The stirrup made ordinary people far worse off because feudal knights are not who you want to be ruled by. People who can afford horses being able to beat up people who have to fight on foot is not a good position to be in. So just because a technology is new and superior doesn’t mean that it’s going to make the world a better place.

And also:


IW: I do want to talk about there’s less violence and we live longer. There’s a lot of confusion over how long people lived in the historical stats because everybody talks about averages. The thing is, if you made it out of your childhood, the odds of making it to 60 or 70 weren’t all that bad. But you weren’t likely to make it out of your childhood. That’s part one.

JA: I’m sorry, when are you saying, what societies are you saying that’s true of? For example, France in 1780, you had a very, very small chance; you were 1 in 4, 1 in 5, getting out of childhood. Numbers like that.

IW: It was very bad. But if you were part of the elites, you know, your odds of making it to 60 or 70…take a look at the Founding Fathers of America. Except for the guy who got run through by a duel, they pretty much all made it didn’t they? Historical stats on aging are always a little deceptive. It’s just something I want to point out.

The other thing is that in hunter-gather societies, you don’t get the massive genocides that we see. Now you do get them once you get up to agriculture; agriculture and nomads, right? But you don’t see them in the hunter-gatherer things, and they didn’t have the ability to destroy the world, which we do. So…

JA: Right, and destroy the world even as known. Somebody referred to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. But his later book that talks about collapse of civilizations – those are always civilizations. It’s not the bushmen of the Kalahari. They didn’t die of collapse and famine, they didn’t die by genocide, they simply got smaller.

IW: Well, they sort of got pushed out of the good areas…

And this part is particularly interesting considering what’s going on in China today: [45:45]:

IW: It’s worth noting for example that pre-World War Two most of the American population is still out on the farms. You have World War Two and they start moving into the cities, and they move in because they get a better life in the cities. So at that point, and this is a Stirling point, is that consumerism has to produce a better life than living on the farm produces or these people won’t come to the cities, and if they do come, they won’t stay. But once you lose the secondary option, once that option is no longer available, once you can no longer go back to the land or a different lifestyle, they don’t have to treat you well anymore.

JA: This is almost a microcosm of the hunter gather versus domesticated agriculture thing you’re talking about here.

IW: Well, one thing to bear in mind is that early agriculture is very different than hydraulic agriculture. And while there is a decline in health, they’re actually more egalitarian than late hunter-gatherers. So in certain respects there is an improvement in lifestyle. It’s still an overall down but there are some upsides. Whereas by the time you get to Pharaonic agriculture, I’m sorry, but being a peasant to the Pharaohs is worse in every single way. So once you can’t run away to the Indians, once you can’t go back to the farm, they don’t have to be nice to you anymore. Once they don’t need you to fight their ideological enemies anymore, a.k.a. the end of the Soviet Union.

JA: Or if you like, post Black Death Europe.

IW: Well post Black Death Europe is mostly about a population collapse. If you lose a third of the population, there just aren’t enough people to do all the work.

JA: The labor/capital bargaining situation changes.

IW: That’s the thing. If you want to have a good economy in this sort of economy, you just have to have a tight labor market. It doesn’t matter what else you do, everything comes down to the labor market must be tight. And they have done everything they can over the last thirty years to make sure the labor market has not been tight. I mean this has been deliberate Fed policy. Every time you hear “labor push inflation,” what you heard was, “we don’t want labor to get any raises.” Because one person’s inflation is another person’s pricing power, and for labor what pricing power means is, “raise.”

You can listen to the entire Ian Welsh interview with Jay Ackroyd here.


The 90/10 rule as applied to medical practitioners


Extinction is Guaranteed if We Do Not Colonize Space


  1. Celsius 233

    Interesting; this transcript isn’t what I actually heard. Was it cleaned up?

  2. Ian Welsh

    Not by me. He’s taken out some of the repetition and cut some of JA’s stuff, but it’s pretty close to what I remember.

  3. CH

    Thanks for the link. Yes, I did clean up a bit, and cut just a small aside about agriculture in South America, but it’s pretty much accurate as far as I know.

  4. Bruce Wilder

    One thing I wished for, when I heard the talk, was some highlight of how the sinking of productivity in congestion costs makes the Malthusian slope steeper, for better or worse.

    This point was central to the hydraulic civilizations thesis: that is, at the point, where crowded but still hunter-gatherer river valley cultures discovered irrigated agriculture, it was initially experienced as a huge advance, a huge relief for most people from increasingly desperate circumstances. There was a big jump in productivity in farming and a big jump in the potential for generating the agricultural surplus necessary to enable urban, artisanal activity and, of course, religion and government. But, generations later, productivity begins to sink under the weight of crowding, bad crop rotation practices, salting of the soil from irrigation, the weight of hierarchies extracting the agricultural surplus by oppression, etc., etc.

    Or the story of Black Death and the impetus it gave to the rise of the modern world: the slight climactic warming that began in the northern Europe in the 8th century CE set off an increase in agricultural surplus, which enabled a growing population and a revival of government and urban civilization, as well as the population explosion that led the Vikings to take to the boats. The ruling classes of the Dark Ages were nomads, wanderers. Charlemagne didn’t have a fixed capital, because there was no area, that could feed his court for an extended period, without exhausting itself. But, the vast majority of people remained sustenance farmers, and as the population increased, more and more people were trying to eke a living from a limited area of land. When the warming ended at the end of the 13th century, things became desperate. There are congestion costs in agriculture; more intensive agriculture can quickly became less, not more productive agriculture as crop rotation is not maintained, for example and the soil loses fertility, or a lake or stream is fished so intensively the fish population collapses, or a forest is cut down faster than it can regrow, livestock is slaughtered as there aren’t crops to feed them, etc.

    The Black Death killed so many people, because so many people were near starvation. And, when the population was reduced, land lay fallow, and the survivors inherited proportionately more capital stock. Agricultural productivity and surplus was soaring at the end of the 14th century. The English victory at Agincourt is a significant blow against feudalism, in part because it is won by English yeoman archers, using long bows, a weapon that requires incredible strength to wield effectively. Henry V had invested in a huge stock of arrows and bows, and training healthy young men to use them. Healthy young men.

    Finding ways to limit the amount of labor with access to land as a way to preserve agricultural surplus became a key factor in the industrial revolution. This is an obverse of “tight labor markets”, which has particular relevance as we push against the carrying capacity of the earth, and find the Malthusian slope made steeper by incipient collapse of the ocean ecology, dust bowls as we exhaust aquifers, etc. The enclosure movement, which drove so much population off the land in England into the 17th century cities, aided the British Agricultural Revolution, which created the modest surplus that fed the early industrial revolution. The agricultural reforms of the New Deal found ways to remove resources — mainly population mired in hopeless poverty — from the farm as part of an industrial policy of vast investments in electricity, fertilizers, hybrid seeds, etc., that hugely increased productivity and surplus. Yields per acre soared steadily for many years after 1935 across a broad range of crops.

    Agriculture becomes bad for human health and welfare; it starts out great, when the “fat of the land” can be harvested for free, but keeping it going requires more and more effort, effort which yields a diminishing return under population pressure. Southern China discovered the most fantastically productive agriculture ever: three-crop, wet-rice. The huge surplus fed the most impressive civilization of the pre-modern world, but the Chinese never worked out a way to limit the population on the farm, and per capita productivity eventually fell to very low levels, the surplus necessary to keep the cities going, extracted by an oppressive hierarchy.

    Right now, I think our global elite seems to be fumbling toward restraining consumption, by high unemployment among other policy measures. But, what we need to do is constrain production from the natural world, and build an infrastructure that isn’t crippled by constraints on energy use and food production. We need homes that don’t need furnaces and transportation means, like railroads and canals, that don’t need much energy to operate, and a cuisine that doesn’t need much meat or pesticide use, doesn’t need to overfish the oceans or drain fossil water aquifers.

    The Malthusian slope is steeper than it looks to be, from a distance, because of the effects of congestion costs and resource exhaustion undermining productivity. Restraint, if we can manage the politics of it, can pay off big. But, failure to restrain effectively, will, at best, mire human civilization in a terrible stagnation, and at worst, collapse into a dark age.

  5. Ian Welsh

    Excellent comment.

    Quick note: the enclosure movement increased production a LOT less than the common histories assert. A historian went back and compared yield data and found that commonly held fields were increasing production almost as fast as enclosed ones (about 80%) and in some crops (where nitrogen fixing is important) they actually outperformed enclosed fields.

    Enclosure is primarily important, imo, for driving people off the land so they can be forced to work in factories, because no one sane with an option would work in an early industrial factory.

  6. David Kowalski

    Pol Pot killed about 38% of the population of Cambodia, he was a one man Black Death.

    Yes hunter-gatherers lived better and longer. In the US in 1900 the average life expectancy was 42, about equal to that of a hunter-gatherer and required much more hard work and more squalid living conditions for many, almost all living in city slums and some other city neighborhoods.

    The signers of the Declaration of Independence average a life span of 65. The oldest, John Carrol of Carrolton (Md), lived to a robust 95. That’s about equal the life span of the oldest players today from both baseball (102) and football (101). The football player (Ace Parker) also played in major league baseball (he played for the Brooklytn Dodgers in both sports). The baseball player, Conrado Marrero, has lived in Cuba for the entire period of Castro rule. He is, as most likely, white. Black players were in the majors in increasing numbers in 1947 (Jackie Robinson), 1948 and 1949 but they were still relatively few and far between.

  7. ralph m

    Thanks so much for posting this, Ian!

    I’m an occasional listener to Virtually Speaking (I tune out quickly when the subject is beltway political bullshit that is mostly irrelevant for me), and especially when you or other guests get on subjects like these where radical, newer information is being discussed, a transcript or partial transcript is really helpful.

    Since you mentioned Sterling Newberry, this was my frustration when he introduced a subject last year, that he is reading in newly published plant and anthropological research indicating that the early farming settlements were the end result of a long, gradual process of hunter/gatherers domesticating grains and other favored seeds with them – scattering seeds in various locations to return later for harvest. But, when I got online to search Newberry’s site and relevant links, all I got was brief abstracts of research behind pay walls. Newberry also mentioned information about new discoveries at Gobekli Tepe (which unfortunately has been put on hiatus because of the civil war in Syria) and new stuff about the ancient Harappan cities of the Indus Valley (Mohenjo Daro) which I hadn’t heard of before, and couldn’t find…likely because most of it is also behind pay walls and the usual pop science journalists haven’t covered the story yet.

    Many people I know wonder why I have been spending so much time over the last couple of years reading about subjects like paleoanthropology and the few remaining hunter/gatherer societies; but, as I see it – when it comes to all relevant social issues today, who has any standing to give expert commentary on what’s natural, or how people should live, if they don’t understand anything about how we lived during most of human history!

    *That Hipcrime Vocab link includes to the Joe Rogan podcast (one I have avoided). But this time, Joe interviews Christopher Ryan, a psychologist who has done extensive field work with anthropologists all over the world…assisting them with their research, and a lot of his findings and views on a range of social issues are included in his book “Sex At Dawn,” apparently the subject of at least part of Rogan’s 3 hour show….which I haven’t listened to yet.

    Ryan would be a good subject for a future VS interview, as he does have strong personal views about what his research means for the way we live today. I hope Rogan gave him the space to explain what Sex At Dawn is not advocating: a return to the “promiscuity” and what could be described as group marriage relationships of many immediate-return hunter/gatherers. But, the critical evaluation of marriage and monogamy are usually the only thing that interviewers want to focus on their audience will see as salacious or at least controversial. So, my advice is – read the book, and pick up some other sources for comparison.

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