Nobody really wants to be an outlaw and destroyer of the community of life. Yet we do it daily. We wake up and begin to devour the world.
— Daniel Quinn, paraphrased
When I don’t feel well, I often pick up one of Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael books. They don’t exactly cheer me up, but somehow, they keep me sane on a bad day. Last spring I decided to follow up on a small query of mine. Quinn spends a lot of his time disabusing his characters and readers of the notion that the Leavers are tribal foragers. At times, he positively jeers at the idea. But then, he never tells explicitly who they are. He further clouds the issue by blaming agriculture for civilized ills.
No wonder Alan Lomax is flummoxed. When the ape is “packing” for their exploratory journey, he gives Alan the choice of using the terms “civilized” vs “primitive” or, Takers vs Leavers. Later on, he charts the divergence of the Takers some 8,000 years ago, with the Leavers continuing their lifeways until the present – those few who still exist. That again points to tribal foraging and simple horticulture. No wonder Ish folk have become seriously confused, and left with the images of primitivism as the only alternative to this civilization.
All right, all right, I too consider primitivism romantic, charming, refreshingly skill-rich and down to earth. I am a tomboy, after all! Were I younger, I might even embark on some primitive adventure in a remote part of the world where it is still possible. But to imagine primitivism as a viable alternative to the Leviathan I must at this point leave such “mostly-fantasy” to young folks who still experience themselves as healthy and invincible. Since I try to be honest with myself, I have to admit that primitivism is not an option for me at this stage of my life. And there is another problem with primitivism, of course, one linked to the problem of power. Those who choose to step out of this civilization into primitive life turn themselves into vulnerable targets for civilized predators. There is a reason why primitive tribes have nearly all been exterminated. It’s the ol’ Parable of the Tribes. You can run but you can’t hide. The Leviathan gets you in the end.
So… the wise gorilla surely must have meant something else, something that can be of use to me as I am now, and others in similar situations (i.e. most of us)? I think the world of Ishmael, one of my mythical companions, and could no longer shrug off this niggling puzzle. After all, my very blogger identity depends on sorting it out! So I delved into Ishmael and My Ishmael for clues. Armed with many notes, I set out to cluster the various claims made about the Leavers. Here is what I have come up with:
- live by the Law of Limited Competition; food is freely accessible to all
- live in the hands of the gods; this is an easy, carefree, and satisfying way of life
- have a highly evolved social system that works well for humans as they actually are and places limits on disruptive behavior
- live without devouring the planet; their wealth is giving and getting support
- see themselves as belonging to the world
To restate what we already know about the Takers: they make war on the world and lock up food to be able to lord it over one another, work hard to control and manage the world which results in an anxious life full of cares and drudgery, have a scrambled social system they invent on the fly and which does not work well and produces vast amounts of disruption and damage from all classes of society, are busting the planet to pieces in their incessant push to make and get products, and see the world as theirs to use and abuse. But ‘nuff said about this sorry lot.
It was a bit of inspiration no doubt brought on by a mystical link to that cranky ape-philosopher living forever in the lowland jungle somewhere in Africa that got me past this frustratingly elusive list of “how the Leavers live” to fully grokking who they are. I think it comes down to this: Leavers are people who are both willing and able to live in co-adaptation with each other and the Earth. (Contrast that with the Takers, who are people who insist on controlling and dominating each other and the Earth.)
Once we say this, we must admit that not all primitive societies lived this way, and not all civilized failed at it. For example, some forager societies on the west coast of North America took far more salmon than needed for a comfortable existence, made slaves of their neighbors, and ostentatiously destroyed their wealth, while, on the other hand, the people comprising the pre-conquest Amazonian civilization knew how to turn the thin tropical soil into rich dark loam that still feeds forests and people today. It is fairly accurate to say, however, that all members of this particular civilization — rooted in ancient Mesopotamian plunder – are Takers. That means you and me, mates. Leavers by heart, dreams, and small caring actions we manage to weave into our daily lives, Takers by the daily damage we acquiesce to and survive by.
So when we neo-Leavers look back on the history of our ancestors, we do not see a line going back to foraging. We note with gladness the chain of peoples who lived by a very particular set of practical skills and cultural patterns that enabled them – whether they were using foraging, horticultural or agricultural forms of sustenance or a combination thereof – to live in co-adaptation with the world they had been gifted. Some of their wisdom still lingers in the world.
An interesting theory, this. It seems that at least some of the “primitive tribes” that have been recorded over the last 200 years or so have been refugees from civilization. Folks who said no to the civilized way of life, took to the hills and evolved their own culture away from takerism. Leach, Scott, and others have documented them extensively in Southeast Asia. These peoples went back to co-adaptation – made even more challenging by the intermittent low-level war waged against them by the lowland civilized – and to autonomy and freedom.
Our Leaver ancestors did not leave monuments or tomes behind, and their history cannot be traced easily. Mostly, you can tell them by excavations of modest dwellings that left only a light mark in the landscape, and an ecosystem that did not perceptibly suffer by their presence. A few clues provide a picture into how they treated each other. Invariably, Leavers have been sharers. Their economic lives are guided by the rule of thumb that says, Take the small stuff, share the big stuff. A hunter who caught a rabbit fed his own family. But a gazelle was shared around. And studies of recent Leaver tribes show people acutely aware of the dangers of power who keep a close eye on how it is used. Many readily available cultural means nip power abuse in the bud.
Being able to live simply, often as semi-nomads, with low overhead, within a generally plentiful Earth was a direct advantage to those who chose to keep on with the old attuned way of life. We neo-Leavers have a huge challenge ahead of us: how do we recapture the gist of co-adaptation in this particular world, riven by power and wealth, crowded and badly damaged by the excesses of takerism? What might it mean in the context we today are dealing with? How do we help one another enact this alternative cultural story? And how do we get from here to there?