Posted by: Annabel Ascher | June 6, 2011

Reclaiming the Commons Part II


The Industrial Age

How did the treadmill of production and consumption begin and take hold?

Before thirteen thousand years ago, in the Upper Paleolithic, big game hunting was the only game in town, much as free-market capitalism is fast becoming today. Some anthropologists argue that is was economic overspecialization that caused the demise of the Neanderthals. If this is true it is likely that our direct ancestors the anatomically fully modern Homo sapiens would have met the same fate if it had not been for a lucky change in the weather.

This change led the nascent H.sapiens into the Holocene transition, and the greatest flowering of economic diversity in history. In addition to the original hunter/gatherers there were sedentary hunter/gatherers, as well as several types of plant and animal domestication, including pastoralism, horticultural and eventually agriculture. Up until this point, humans had been equal to every other animal in that they had no means to store the energy of the sun, which would give the appearance (though not the reality) of breaking the laws of thermodynamics. Like all the rest of nature the human could only use energy that had recently arrived, and then only for immediate needs. This is why the over-specialization of the Upper Paleolithic was dangerous for the big game hunters, but had very little lasting effects on the surrounding system.

With the advent of collective agriculture the human species gained its first experience in the use of what Thom Hartmann calls “ancient sunlight”. For the first time, we could store the energy of the sun for future use. But, as Hartmann points out, “…we were still using only about a year’s worth of sunlight-energy per year, and so even though we were eliminating some competing or food-species, our impact remained minimal at worst. We weren’t ‘dipping into savings’ to supply our needs, yet.”[i] However, the need for collective labor generated by the agricultural revolution generated the need for centralized control, and set humankind on the long slide towards economic monism and the treadmill of production. As Paul R. Ehrlich explains, “When further intensification of agriculture was needed to support a growing population that could not be supported by extended families…chiefdoms evolved.”[ii] Timothy Earle, professor of anthropology at Northwestern University sheds further light on the subject, stating that the evolution of chiefdoms “hinged to a large measure on the ability to control or direct the flow of energy and other basic resources through a society as a means to finance new institutions”[iii] Thus, the stage was set politically for the eventual emergence of the treadmill of production. However, the existence of a power based political framework was necessary but not sufficient for the next stage in the path towards our current situation. The treadmill needs a much higher level of energy than mere agriculture could provide. It required the next level in the harnessing of Ancient sunlight. It needed coal, and then oil.

[i] Thom Hartmann, The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, Page12

[ii] Paul R. Ehrlich, Human Natures, Page 250

[iii] Timothy Earle, Chiefdoms :Power, Economy, and Ideology, Page 71


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