A review of Affluence without Abundance “In the Kalahari, rain is the great creator and drought the great destroyer.”
Author James Suzman has a way with words that engages immediately and easily with a lay readership. His book Affluence without Abundance appears at first sight to be a discussion about how Bushman society in southern Africa holds a key to living in a world where resources are ever scarcer. Anthropological tomes are rarely page-turners, but Suzman tells a wide-ranging story with a simplicity that holds the reader’s attention throughout.
Suzman started his research work with the Ju/’hoansi Bushmen in Nyae Nyae and Omaheke in the early 1990s, and had the opportunity to engage intimately with Bushmen who still practiced hunting and gathering, and with others at Skoonheid, a re-settlement farm.
For those who prefer the term San to Bushmen, Suzman deals swiftly and accurately with political correctness and de-mystifies Khoisan history and society. The origins and practice of hunter gathering in Africa is dealt with in some detail, using well-documented archaeological evidence. And the local history of the displacement of hunter-gatherers by farmers is a welcome addition to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel.
What makes the book such a good read is Suzman’s ability to write with flair and to tell – or retell – stories. How jackalman tricked some Hereros out of a thousand Rands with a flatulent donkey is a classic, but Suzman’s ability to tell his own stories as /Kunta, the name given to him by friend and mentor Chief Langman, and to bring Ju/’hoan society to life, helps us to better understand how Bushman society can teach us to reconsider the problems of our materialistic society.
It was John Maynard Keynes, the distinguished economist, who wondered whether modern industry would usher in a new age of leisure, in which man would work a maximum of fifteen hours a week, and anthropologist Richard B Lee who demonstrated that some societies managed just that: filling their needs with an average of fifteen hours a week of hunting and gathering, and relaxing for much of the rest of their time.
Enjoying Suzman’s retold stories about the Old Times in which people and animals shared identities, about fat Afrikaner farmers and stupid politicians, and about the immense cruelty metered out to the Ju/’hoansi, I wondered if the author was not missing the plot and failing to explain how modern people can, perhaps, be affluent without an abundance of goods.
But the anecdotal evidence, organized into chapters reflecting different aspects of Bushman history, society, and interactions with the rest of the world, serve very well to explain a way of thought and a culture that most of us have long since lost contact with. Then, towards the end of the book, economist Keynes reappears and there is an enlightened discussion of his concepts of “absolute” and “relative” needs.
Suzman is no idealist recommending a communal and de-industrialized way of life for us. He is an academic who points out what WWF and ecologists are making increasingly clear: that the Earth’s resources are finite. He adds that “our absolute needs are almost universally met and that [many of us] expend our productive and creative energies in the ever more expansive service sector, leaving some to wonder whether there is any point at all to what they do.”
I guess that book reviewing falls into that category, but telling stories, and hearing or reading them, is indeed a precious form of affluence. If we can find a way to reduce our work hours, to make “our productive instincts secondary to our spiritual ones” and to use our leisure to share a smaller, but more carefully nurtured abundance, surely we will be happier people.
Affluence without Abundance is published by Bloomsbury