Wednesday, 18 July 2007

The Other Side of Eden - Hugh Brody

Hunter-Gatherers, Farmers and the Shaping of the World

Another excellent book. Brody worked and lived with many Eskimo communities in Canada, and writes about his impressions of these people, and contrasts their ways of living with those of western civilisation. He writes here with first hand experience of how these hunter-gatherer people lived, and how perfectly valid their lifestyle is. He goes on to discuss various aspects of their lifestyle, and compares it to modern western civilisation, and shows that theirs is as rich a way of living as any other and lacks nothing. It is the modern civilisation's way of looking at the world that causes some people to think there is something lacking in these hunter-gatherer people, but really it is the other way around - modern civilisation lacks a lot that these indigenous people have had for centuries.

Brody starts out by describing his first work for a Canadian government social department. After a bit of a dry start he gets going describing life in the extreme north in Pond Inlet, and the people he comes across. This is full of wonderful detail of the lifestyle, and the ways of hunting for food. And the wonderful people he comes across - always friendly and warm hearted. And generally happy too - content with their place in the world.

He then moves on to describe some of the atrocities done by the Canadian government in the name of progress, and their devastating effects on the Inuit populations.

The bulk of the book is a series of chapters on different topics. In each topic he compares and contrasts the western viewpoint, and the hunter-gatherer viewpoint. In all cases he shows how the hunter-gatherer has an incredibly rich view of the world, with an associated culture and lifestyle. It is the extremely blinkered view of modern civilisation that stops it seeing the richness and appropriateness of this lifestyle. With civilisation and the takover of the American continent, it was always a case of 'my or no way'. And so the native people always suffered, and were made to conform.

The key point of categorisation by Brody is that the indigenous peoples were hunter-gatherers, living off a mix of hunting for meat and foraging for vegetables and other foods. Modern civilisation is based on farming and agriculture. It is these two opposite ways of living that Brody is contrasting, and the cultures that arise from them.

When modern civilisation enters a new territory it wants to wipe clean away the natural fauna, and import its managed ways of growing crops on the lands. This is the opposite of the hunter-gatherer who works with the land rather than against it.

And this leads to one of Brody's main conclusions: the hunter-gatherer is closer to the land and much more aware of it than the farmer is. The hunter-gatherer lives in one large area for many generations, and moves about within it based on seasons and food availability, in a sustainable way. They are truly aware of the interconnectedness of everything in the world. The farmer by contrast moves into a new area, enforces his way of growing crops and pushes out and away the local species, decreasing the biodiversity. After a while the farmer either exhausts the land, realises his crops will not grow, or it becomes overcrowded with other farms. Then he moves on searching for another place to start over again. Brody sees the hunter-gatherer as the one fixed in a landscape, and the farmer as the one who is the nomad seeking the final place to stay but never achieving it. While the hunter-gatherer has it all along and knows it.

The book is not academic in style, and Brody keeps to a personal tone. You come away with an impression of the richness of the hunter-gatherer peoples around the world, how much we have missed from our modern viewpoint, and how they have been pushed to the boundaries of the planet by the constant expansion of the farmer seeking ever more lands to exploit.

What is also clear is how civilisation has simply marched in, taken away from the indigenous people, and made them conform to civilisation's ways of doing things. Brody describes the bizarre scenario of Inuit people being forced to fight for the right to their land in a Canadian court of law, when the Inuit people were clearly occupying that land long before this law or court or government ever existed. But the court put the burden of proof of ownership and occupation of the land on the Inuit people, and expected some form of material evidence from them for it. Without sufficient proof the land would be deemed to be owned by the Canadian government, which could then sell it off to private concerns, such as logging and mineral companies. When the people tried to enter their traditional stories as a form of evidence there was much heated debate as to whether this counted as 'evidence' or just 'hearsay'.

This book explained some more detail to me of how hunter-gatherers live, the rich detail of their lifestyle which we are often so unaware of, and how valid their way of live is. No one should be saying that this is a backward way of live, or even primitive. They have a rich culture, and one with a strong sense of family and community.