Change Of Seasons
Our ancestors may have shifted back and forth between different work routines and social structures, often in tune with the seasons. Would that be a better way to live?
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From where I’m sitting right now, I can see out across the San Francisco Bay, past Angel Island, all the way to what would have once been wetlands bordering the edge of the East Bay. Through the morning haze, I can vaguely make out the industrial refineries that are now part of Richmond, and a hint of the Berkeley campus rising in the hills just south of them. Three hundred years ago, the wetland zones at the base of those hills would have been dotted with a series of villages, with small huts and sweat lodges constructed out of matted tules or redwood. The villages belonged to the Ohlone people, the Native American society that occupied most of coastal California from the Golden Gate down to Monterey for thousands of years, until the Spanish arrived in the 1700s.
I’ve been thinking about the Ohlone recently because I’ve been reading David Graeber and David Wengrow’s new opus, The Dawn Of Everything, which devotes much of its argument to the history of human societies much like those of the early Californians. It’s a fascinating book, one that I imagine will show up in a number of future Adjacent Possible posts down the line. As it turns out, approaching its argument from the vantage point of the “adjacent possible” is actually quite helpful: in many ways Graeber and Wengrow are making the case for a renewed sense of possibility in the way human societies were organized in the past—which leaves open the idea that they can be organized in radically different ways in the future, that we’re not stuck forever in the current configuration.
Much of that argument revolves around the adoption of agriculture—followed by cities and states—which has generally been presented as what you might call an “adjacent inevitability.” The canonical story is that once humans stumbled across the innovation of farming—and the surplus grain it produced—we were pulled into a trajectory that led, inevitably, to runaway population growth, administrative elites, private property, urbanization, and the abandonment of earlier hunter-gatherer lifestyles. You can see that agricultural transition as a first, crucial step in the march of progress, or you can see it—as Jared Diamond once put it—as the worst mistake in the history of our species, given the shortened lifespans and terrible famines that characterized the first few thousand years of agricultural living. One of the core arguments of Dawn is that this transition was, in fact, not inevitable, that many humans dabbled in farming without exclusively embracing complex, hierarchical city-states or abandoning earlier ways of living.
This part of Dawn’s argument was not exactly news to me, because last spring I happened to read James C. Scott’s equally insightful book, Against The Grain, which covers similar terrain, albeit in a less flamboyant style. (Scott’s earlier Seeing Like A State had been a big influence on my book Future Perfect many years ago.) In Against the Grain, Scott has some riveting passages describing some of the first town-like settlements, many of which emerged in wetlands and alluvial flood zones around rivers. This was partially because the soil was amenable to proto-farming, but just as much because the border zone of estuaries created pulses of animal and botanical life that could be easily exploited. (Rivers brought migrating flocks after the rainy seasons; tides opened up a world of shellfish and mollusks to be plundered.) In these wetland settlements, like the ones the Ohlone created on the shores of the Bay, humans began experimenting with putting down roots, literally and figuratively. Some of them began planting crops — cereal grains most famously, but non-grains like tubers as well. But they kept up a portfolio of energy-extraction strategies, shifting from one to the other as the seasons and the climate changed.
In our modern language, those early settlements were a kind of mixed-use neighborhood. They were part-time farmers who happily shifted back to being foragers or hunting tribes depending on the time of year. In short, humans got a taste of agriculture during this period, but they didn’t enslave themselves to it. And nothing in that way of living inevitably compelled the creation of a state. The key point—in both Against The Grain and Dawn of Everything—is that this interim mode lasted for four thousand years, maybe more—longer than the time that separates modern capitalism from some of the pharaohs. In fact, the period is so long that it’s really not accurate to think of it as an “interim” mode at all—a transition on the inevitable path to agriculture. The Ohlone communities, for instance, appear to have remained in this mixed-use wetlands mode until their first contact with the Spanish in the 1700s. We tend to ignore that stretch of our history because those early townspeople didn’t leave much residue behind in the forms of pyramids or stone tablets or irrigation projects. But it seems to have been a stable strategy, and probably quite a pleasant way to live.
One thing that Graeber and Wengrow emphasize more than Scott is the fascinating idea of “seasonality” in social organization. Societies like the Ohlone would shift back and forth between food acquisition strategies based on seasonal patterns—dabbling in farming when the flood waters of the rainy season retreated, hunting in the style of their ancestors when migration patterns made that mode viable. Graeber and Wengrow suggest that there were also shifts in the organization of society that followed those seasonal rhythms, potentially dating back tens of thousands of years:
In the highly seasonal environments of the last Ice Age, our remote ancestors… shifted back and forth between alternative social arrangements, building monuments and then closing them down again, allowing the rise of authoritarian structures during certain times of year then dismantling them – all, it would seem, on the understanding that no particular social order was ever fixed or immutable. The same individual could experience life in what looks to us sometimes like a band, sometimes a tribe, and sometimes like something with at least some of the characteristics we now identify with states.
I was particularly struck by the idea that these seasonal variations in social arrangements and the patterns of labor have persisted into the modern world, albeit in greatly reduced form:
Seasonality is still with us – even if it is a pale, contracted shadow of its former self. In the Christian world, for instance, there is still the midwinter ‘holiday season’ in which values and forms of organization do, to a limited degree, reverse themselves: the same media and advertisers who for most of the year peddle rabid consumerist individualism suddenly start announcing that social relations are what’s really important, and that to give is better than to receive. (And in enlightened countries like… France, there’s also the summer grandes vacances in which everybody downs tools for a month and flees the cities.)
These seasonal variations are maybe the most striking example of a macro point that Dawn keeps returning to: that if there is any “innate” or “inevitable” property to human social arrangements, it lies in our creative flexibility, our appetite for experimenting with different modes of living.
I find this whole part of the argument deeply resonant, for both personal and political reasons. On the personal level, one of things that is somewhat unusual about what I do for living—or at least the part of it dedicated to writing books—is that my work really has two completely different patterns to it. When you are actually in the weeds researching or writing a book, it is one of the most solitary jobs you can imagine, and also one with an exceptional level of individual autonomy: you set your own hours and goals, and mostly spend days on end effectively talking to yourself. Occasionally, depending on the project, you might interview people as part of your research, but mostly it’s just you, alone in your workspace, reading and writing and thinking. (And, more often than not, procrastinating.)
But then there’s a second phase, that slowly builds up over time, once you hand in the initial manuscript: immediately the solo project becomes a kind of duet between you and your editor—or a choral piece, if you have other people read the book in that stage. Then you’re collaborating with copy editors and designers, and if you’re lucky, publicists and social media planners who are crafting the book’s launch. And then the book comes out and what had been about as private an occupation as you could imagine suddenly becomes almost terrifyingly public, exposed: hundreds or thousands of people are reading your words, evaluating their merit in public forums. If you’re lucky you’ll find yourself doing events in front of audiences, answering questions, defending or explaining your work. And then—for most writers at least—that whole wonderful but intense circus packs up and leaves town and you’re back in your little room, reading and writing and procrastinating again.
And here’s the thing: I think I’ve said a thousand times to people over the years that if my job were all one mode or the other—all solitary or all collaborative and public—I wouldn’t like it nearly as much as I do. In fact, I’ve always used the same language to describe it that Dawn uses: that it feels like a change of seasons shifting from one mode to the other. But what had never occurred to me before reading Dawn was that this thing I love about my work might be an echo of that older way of life, the ebb and flow of varying societal and labor patterns, sometimes literally tuned to the ebb and flow of rivers and bays themselves. Maybe I loved it because—as the evolutionary psychologists like to say—it was a distant trace of our ancestral environment, a seasonal variation in work that has mostly been stamped out and standardized by the 9-to-5 monoculture of the Industrial Age.
I think there’s a political lesson here as well—a practical, immediate one beyond the larger project that Graeber and Wengrow are ultimately arguing for, which is a radical reimagining of what human society could look like in the future. That practical lesson is the political value of leisure time or other extended departures from a single-track work calendar. Some of this is already in the progressive agenda today: think of the paid parental leave programs in the Build Back Better plan. (What is more seasonally life-changing than being able to immerse yourself fully in the experience of being a new parent?) But other, more radical ideas should be considered. Sabbatic leave has always been one of the great perks of academia — an opportunity to go off and read/write/procrastinate without any of the normal interruptions and responsibilities of teaching, for months at a time. “Gap years” are becoming increasingly commonplace for affluent college students, but they could be liberating for adults as well, people who want to develop a new skill, or help their spouse launch a new business, or just check out for a while and reset. (Australia has a program somewhat along these lines called “Long Service Leave.”) You can measure social progress by how much people are paid for their labor, but you can also measure it in how much freedom they have to experiment with other kinds of work, how much “seasonal” variation they are afforded.
What I like about these ideas as policy positions is that they are at once concrete and immediately beneficial—here’s six months to go do something completely different, maybe be your own boss for a while—but they’re also tied to a longer-term vision of change and social possibility, one that has deep roots in the history of our species. And thanks to COVID, we are already in a phase where people are rethinking a lot of assumptions about the routines of work—most obviously in the massive increase in people working from home, a trend that I suspect will outlive the pandemic.
Marx has a famous line in The German Ideology where he writes about the way capitalism locks each worker into “a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape.” But in a utopian society, Marx argued, workers might be free to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner.” It’s a lovely slogan, though it’s also a pretty hectic day if you think about trying to do all that in reality. But if you imagine those activities as seasons of work, not slots in a single day, it starts to make more sense. It might even be a possible future worth fighting for.
[Illustration: Ohlone Indians in a Tule Boat in the San Francisco Bay 1822, by Louis Choris.]
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having once read all the Jared Diamond books I am thrilled there is more to read on a similar subject. Thanks for pointing this out.
On a different note, you can compare the social conventions in US/Canada and Europe with respect to off-time, paid parental leave, summer breaks winter breaks. The necessity for a change in policy is mainly a US challenge. In Europe, it is the challenge is to protect those cultural items against influences coming prediminantely from US and also from China in combination with the thread the European economies will fall behind. I never had the impression that German employees are less productive than US employees in spite of 14 public holidays and 30 days of inpaid vaccation per year.
Just completed Against The Grain yesterday with new respect and renewed fascination for the deep past. Strangely the book seems to end very abruptly.