Revival of Preindustrial Features of Life
Within my own life, I read all the beloved novels by lamps of vegetable oil; I saw the Standard Oil invading my own village, I saw gas lamps in the Chinese shops in Shanghai; and I saw their elimination by electric lights.
“Modern economy is a fire-breathing vampire of petroleum which is slowly cooking our planet.”
-Thio Bode, Executive Director, Greenpeace
There are still parts of the world where people live a pre-industrial life. For example take the case of Indonesian Borneo. Daily life in Borneo's upcountry is usually pleasantly dull, as chickens scratch around, the women fan rice on mats to dry it, thunderstorms roll through, the sun dries the muddy paths, flowers riot into bloom, and it all starts over again the next day. Pastoral Mongolia partially fits the category, too, with its world revolving around camels and sheep rather than rice and bananas.
Preindustrial life was easy on resources - both human and natural. Before capitalism, most people did not work very long hours at all. The tempo of life was slow, even leisurely; the pace of work relaxed.
Shifting away from this ‘primitive’ life has cost us a lot. In a vast number of ways and places, the biosphere of this planet has undergone a great deal of damage. Parts of the environment have been rendered uninhabitable through toxic wastes and nuclear power plant disasters, while systemic pollution, ozone holes, global warming and other disasters are increasingly tearing the fabric on which all life depends. That such damage is wrought overwhelmingly by corporations in a competitive international market economy has never been clearer, while the need to replace the existing society with a society with at least a few preindustrial features, has never been more urgent.
Modernization, the replacement of machines for muscle, is a universal social solvent. Even when resisted by traditional leaders, modernization erodes established social, economic patterns, and threatens ecosystems.
Peasants and tribal members ultimately succumb to mechanisms yielding enhanced productivity. They rapidly scrap traditional practices in favor of those more materially productive. But in the long run, all this progress comes with a heavy price tag.
Our ancestors may not have been rich, but they had an abundance of leisure. When capitalism raised their incomes, it also took away their time. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that working hours from the mid-nineteenth century onwards constitute the most prodigious work effort in the entire history of humankind.
Consider a typical working day in the medieval period in Europe. It stretched from dawn to dusk but work was intermittent - called to a halt for breakfast, lunch, the customary afternoon nap, and dinner. Depending on time and place, there were also midmorning and midafternoon refreshment breaks. These rest periods were the traditional rights of laborers, which they enjoyed even during peak harvest times. During slack periods, which accounted for a large part of the year, adherence to regular working hours was not usual. According to Oxford Professor James E. Thorold Rogers, the medieval workday was not more than eight hours.
The contrast between capitalist and precapitalist work patterns is most striking in respect to the working year. The medieval calendar was filled with holidays. Official - that is, church - holidays included not only long "vacations" at Christmas, Easter, and midsummer but also numerous saints' and rest days. These were spent both in sober churchgoing and in feasting. In addition to official celebrations, there were often weeks' worth of ales -- to mark important life events. All told, holiday leisure time in medieval England took up probably about one-third of the year. And the English were apparently working harder than their neighbors. The ancient règime in France is reported to have guaranteed fifty-two Sundays, ninety rest days, and thirty-eight holidays. In Spain, travelers noted that holidays totaled five months per year. The peasant's free time extended beyond officially sanctioned holidays. A thirteenth-century study finds that whole peasant families did not put in more than 150 days per year on their land. Manorial records from fourteenth-century England indicate an extremely short working year - 175 days.
An interesting observation of pre-industrialized India was made by Lord MCLau (a British officer), on February 2, 1835 : “I have traveled across the length and breath of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief, such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such caliber (of noble character), that I do not think we would ever conquer this country………..unless we break the very backbone of this nation which is her spiritual and cultural heritage.”
Each era of human civilization is marked with issues but industrial era is phenomenal as far as the scale of destruction is concerned, destruction of lives, destruction of environment and destruction of natural resources.
We must do much more research on sustainable energy, economic planning, and community planning. We shall not give up our knowledge of electronics, quantum theory, and higher math, but we had better begin to salvage what we can of the ancient wisdom that we will need to tread lightly on the earth like older civilizations living in harmony with nature. Thus, we had better begin trying to learn from the few surviving patches of older cultures. We must begin to treat them as valuable endangered resources. Clearly, our lives might be enhanced by scientific knowledge, but we had better stop using it to subdue Nature rather than to create a partnership with her.