books simple living

Book review: Affluence without Abundance, by James Suzman

Affluence without Abundance sounds like the kind of book I would read, but it’s not the Prosperity without Growth type of economics book that it might sound like. At least, not directly. It’s actually an ethnographic study of the Ju/’hoansi people of Botswana, better known as the Bushmen, though the sustainable economics sneaks in the back door.

The Kalahari desert doesn’t look like the most promising place to find “the world’s most successful civilisation”, as the book’s subtitle has it. But the bushmen have lived in more of less the same way – until very recently – for tens of thousands of years. “If the ultimate measure of sustainability is endurance over time, then hunting and gathering is by far the most sustainable economic approach developed in all of human history.”

The remote inland regions of South Africa, Namibia and Botswana are among the last places on earth to adopt agriculture and animal husbandry. Hunting and gathering survived as a way of life well into the 20th century, before giving way to incoming cattle herders, white farmers and the money economy. James Suzman caught the tail end of that lifestyle, spent 25 years among the Ju/’hoansi observing the changes, and has written up his observations.

The result is a fascinating book that explores Ju/’hoansi culture and beliefs, describing how they hunt and forage, how they track animals and how meat is shared out equitably after a kill. Suzman investigates how bushmen see time and live in the present, how they operate without hierarchy or any visible leadership structures. There are notes on gender equality, the gift relationships that build friendships between families, and their views on property and ownership.

As you’d expect, the contrasts are stark, and the most striking is the ‘affluence’ that gives the book its title. The bushmen have lived with very little and by modern definitions they are desperately poor. To government authorities they have been ‘primitive’ and in need of development. But the bushmen were happy and succesful by their own standards. They worked surprisingly short hours – like most hunter-gatherers, it took about 15 hours a week to meet their needs. There were lean times of course, but the Ju/’hoansi were resilient and adaptable, and didn’t attempt to store food from one season to the next. They operated an economy “premised on having few needs, which could be easily met.”

The book switches between describing the bushman lifestyle, and then drawing on the history of hunting and gathering elsewhere. This is how most of humanity has lived, after all. Agriculture only came along in the last 10,000 years of our 200,000 year story. And with agriculture came surplus and therefore wealth, inequality and hierarchy, technology, commodified labour, trade, organised religion, and many more aspects of life that we take for granted. The transition from hunting and gathering to settled agriculture changed everything, and Suzman suggests that by looking at hunter-gatherer people we can see what traits are universally human, and which ones are habits that we picked up with agriculture.

The book itself is richly descriptive, interspersed with personal stories of encounters or foraging trips. It’s a beautifully human book, with Suzman introducing a whole series of local characters. They recur through the book, lending their stories, their perspectives and their jokes. There’s a real sense of their individual personalities, and between them the culture of the Ju/’hoansi comes vividly to life. Suzman is also an accomplished photographer, so there are portraits of these characters in pictures as well as in words. With this firm grounding in real places and people, the book avoids romanticising a lost way of life.

And it is a lost way of life, making the book ultimately a rather sad one. This is a portrait of a lifestyle that doesn’t really exist any more. Conflict, cattle ranching and government land policy has disenfranchised the Ju/’hoansi people. After an estimated 150,000 years, ‘development’ and ‘progress’ has pushed the traditional bushman lifestyle to the margins and finally crushed it altogether. As the book describes, it is hard to argue that the bushmen are better off today.

I know it’s early days, but I suspect Affluence without Abundance will be among my favourite books of the year come the end of 2020. It’s a celebration of a culture, and an intriguing insight into what it has meant to be human. There is so much for us to note about how we measure success, what sustainability really means, and how fragile the long term prospects for our own civilisation might be.

  • Affluence without Abundance is available from Hive, Amazon UK and Amazon US.
  • In case you’re wondering, the ‘/’ in Ju/’hoansi is a click sound and I can’t pronounce it despite practicing to myself for an unreasonable amount of time this week in the shower, on the walk to school and on finding myself alone in a train carriage.

4 comments

  1. Dear Jeremy

    What a great review of a very good book! I read it about 18 months ago and it had a profound effect on me. I’m so pleased you have posted about it.

    I have been following your blog for some time now. It is really excellent!

    With best wishes

    Charlotte

    >

  2. This was one of my favourite books of last year – snap. You should also read The Old Way, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, for more insights on this way of life. It chews me up that we have brought this lifestyle to its death throes after so long, generation after generation of wisdom and social understanding and bush knowledge…

  3. Thanks – the Marshalls sounded like a very interesting family, and I may well find time for that recommendation. And yes, it’s tragic that this is supposedly primitive way of life has ultimately been undermined by such a false and shallow view of ‘progress’.

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