‘Affluence Without Abundance’


James Suzman, Bloomsbury, 297 pages, $29. Suzman, an anthropologist who has spent years studying the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, deftly weaves his experiences and observations with lessons on human evolution in “Affluence Without Abundance.” Life spent hunting and gathering was not a tale of constant toil and privation. However, the contrast with farming societies is stark. Farmed land is more productive, but it also meant societies depended heavily on a few staples, leaving them vulnerable to crop failure. That high productivity also took endless, mind-numbing work. Suzman argues that the shift gave rise to impulses that people in modern rich countries, regard as naturally human — especially the insatiable desire to accumulate. Farming teaches people to accept inequality and to valorize work. But for the vast majority of human history there was little point in accumulating, since most of what was needed could easily be harvested from the surrounding environment. Nor was there anything heroic about work; spending time getting more food than one could eat was a foolish waste. Modern San struggle to cope in a market economy, thanks to this heritage (and to anti-San bigotry). Employers struggle to keep them on the job: Offered higher wages, they work fewer hours rather than more. Suzman reckons there’s something to be learned from that. But having created countless problems by turning to agriculture, though, rich societies have little choice but to press on working, striving and inventing, even as this progress creates more problems in need of solving.