One of my favorite anecdotes ever is from a book on alternative economies called Sacred Economics.
The linguist noticed that when a Pirahã hunter returned with a large kill, he would throw a big feast.
This surprised Everett. Why didn’t the hunter dry and store the meat for later use? Why was he giving all of the meat away?
He questioned the Pirahã hunter on why he didn’t store his meat. The Pirahã hunter replied “I store meat in the belly of my brother.”
In order words, the Pirahã man relied on the generosity of his community for when he was in need.
This is not unique to the Pirahã. All over the world, hunter-gather societies function on “gift economies“, where goods and services are exchanged with no immediate expectation of something in return. It’s like doing work for someone, but with no expectation of pay.
But how is this behavior possible? Surely, in the harsh conditions of tribal life, it would be more reasonable to store as much as possible?
We were all hunter-gatherers
For an explanation, I want you to think back to when we were all hunter-gatherers like this Pirahã man.
During that time, there was little wealth differentiation among your tribesmen and women. Social ties were strong. Everyone knew everyone else from cradle to grave. In that life, meeting a stranger was the exception rather than the rule.
Most importantly, you were either semi-nomadic or completely nomadic. Moving and traveling was the norm. You couldn’t have a lot of stuff. Having a lot of stuff was a burden. Not just metaphorically – a lot of stuff was literally a burden to carry.
You therefore only owned things you needed or absolutely loved – perhaps some pieces of handmade tribal jewelry. Anything more was just a heavy load straining your back during your next inevitable move.
So how did people protect themselves against difficult times? What if you got sick and weren’t able to hunt or gather? Who would support you?
As long as you had given during your time of abundance, your tribe had your back. Giving created sacred obligations to ‘return the favor’ among your community. The more you gave, the more your community was obligated to give back. That was the social contract. A safety net in exchange for generosity.
In tribal societies, it was poverty to hold on to excess possessions you didn’t immediately need. Being a miser destroyed your safety net and severed bonds with people you had known your whole life. Besides, you couldn’t carry that much on you anyways.
What has changed today
Things today are completely different.
In our world, it makes sense to hoard as many possessions as possible. There is no social or political contract to guarantee that you will be assisted when you are in need. Safety does not come from the community around you, instead it comes from how much you’ve accumulated.
You gotta save up for a rainy day. Be independent. You don’t want to be a beggar, right?
Wealthy people in our society are not those who are the most generous, as in tribal societies. On the contrary, they are those who have been able to accumulate the most money and possessions, often far beyond what they would use during their entire lifetimes.
This isn’t to say that tribal life is better than modern life. But it is to say that the state of never-ending accumulation isn’t a human being’s natural state. It isn’t the state that we’ve experienced over the majority of our evolution.
We evolved as travelers, as social creatures depending on our communities.
People will speak of the “lightness” and “relief” they feel when they downsize their homes. They’ll comment on how good it feels to have finally let things go.
Why is that?
Because it’s our natural state.
And even though we don’t really move around a lot anymore, we are still nomads on this earth. We are travelers staying temporarily on this planet until we need to take off, leaving everything we’ve ever owned behind.
And just like the hunter-gatherers, traveling light is always best.