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Stone Age Economics

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First published in 1974, Marshall Sahlins' Stone Age Economics challenges that Western societies are more conducive to leisure and prosperity than traditional stone-age cultures. Using evidence from primitive cultures in Africa, Australia, and Asia, Sahlins argues that these hunter-gatherers live a more fulfilling life because they are not concerned with material possessions. While Western societies view scarcity as the basis of unhappiness, scarcity in stone-age societies is precisely what drives hunter-gatherers to live an abundant and "affluent" life.

Sahlins claims that an affluent society is one where "people's material wants are easily satisfied." How, then, in a culture of unlimited wants can Western society be deemed affluent? Western cultures desire everything, yet means are limited leaving the average person perpetually unsatisfied. If there are fewer items to desire, there is a smaller gap between what a person wants and what he can have. This is how hunter-gatherers operate.

Constantly on the brink of starvation, hunter-gatherers spend each day in search for food to satisfy the day's needs. Aware that there is an abundance of food, they will only spend time acquiring sustenance for the day, because they know that there will still be plenty of food tomorrow. Thus, the hunter-gatherer spends only three to four hours per day finding food, and spends the rest of the day resting, playing games, and socializing.

Resting and socializing is precisely what Western cultures aim to receive in exchange for long hours of work. If a person works hard, he will get paid. If he gets paid, he will have the means to have leisure time. Yet the average American works 40-50 hours per week, leaving him little time to relax. Even in his spare time, he is consumed by everyday obligations that distract from leisure time such as shopping, paying bills, and keeping up the household. The excess of things in Western society takes away from the leisure time Western society is supposed to produce.

Because scarcity is defined differently in different societies, scarcity as a "cultural artifact" also changes. Over time, scarcity changes in what it represents and how it affects the culture. The hunter-gatherer is adequately fed and aware that he is surrounded by an abundance of food. Food scarcity is not an issue in his every day life: if one type of berry is out of season, there will always be another type of berry to find. Only when mass amounts of land and vegetation are eradicated, such as through fire or a storm, does the hunter need to be concerned about his next meal. Scarcity, in essence, is a non-issue for hunter-gatherers.

In Western society, though, scarcity drives our everyday life. Yet, scarcity



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