So said the sage Yogi Berra. Like all "Yogi-isms" , we know what he meant to say. But the subject of today's post goes a little deeper than that. Quite literally, humans have not always had a conception of the "Future". It required great thought and sophistication to produce enough food to last beyond the next day. Clearing this granted us the luxury tothink about the future beyond our next meal. Over the next few days, I plan to explore the relationship between surplus and future planning. Suffice to say, excess has many obvious benefits and some not-so-obvious perils.
Tonight I'll keep things relatively brief (both because it's late and also because I know that I'm going to touch on the subject of human evolution and will be scolded for glibness tomorrow by my mother, the archaeologist - corrections will follow). Tonight I'd like to make a simple, though interesting point - that the transition from hunting to farming transformed mankind's ability to think about the future. If we are interested improving our next 50 or 5000 years, we need to think hard about hunting, farming and our ability to create, manage and share our surpluses.
Our distant ancestors in the genus "homo", likely evolved out of Africa around 2.5 million years ago. Piecing together the story of our evolution, there is a clear relationship between our intellect/cranial capacity and the sophistication of our tools. As hunters, we honed tools to serve our needs from handaxes to spears to fishhooks.
I often imagine the painstaking process of chipping flint spearpoint, planning a hunt or peering breathlessly down at a baited hook -- and it clearly would be unfair to say the concept of the "Future" was nonexistent" for early humans. But they lacked one thing: the ability to store their food. This meant meat rotted and you were only as safe as your last kill.
Farming was the technology that changed everything. As the giant mammals humans had hunted during the Ice Age thinned out, gathering grains became more commonplace. By 8000 BC, farming methods arrived in the the Fertile Crescent and people figured out how to harness the power of animal and plant "husbandry". Civilization had begun.
Farming is far from easy (our friends run a 13 acre farm in Perkasie, PA and one summer during college I quit a summer job there after 5 days -- it was just too tough). Several things about farming make it interesting from a Future-focused perspective a) success requires long lead times and planning; b) correct predictions about weather, crop rotation, breeding etc. affect success greatly; and, c) sometimes, if you do a good job and store enough food it's possible to take the winter off, drink what you've fermented of the leftover fruit and grain, and dream.
All this sounds great, right? To sum up, in the past, we innovated and did a good enough job of it to see afford the ability to think about (and to an extent) determine the Future.
Yet here we are obese, indepted, addicted, depressed and bellicose. Occupy Wall Street's cries grow louder. And it's tempting to blame Wall Street as they have, to grab our pitchforks and torches and set the castle alight. In his now famous 2010 Rolling Stone article Matt Taibbi hit a zeitgeist artery, with a qote that's too much fun not to copy-paste'
"The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it's everywhere. The world's most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money."
Partially true perhaps, but only part of the story. At the other end of the spectrum is Michael Lewis who in the October Vanity Fair blames our woes less on predatory bankers than on society at large and us as frail, greedy humans. He writes:
"Human beings are neurologically ill-designed to be modern Americans. The human brain evolved over hundreds of thousands of years in an environment defined by scarcity." Lewis also interviewed UCLA neuroscientist Peter Whybrow who describes what I call the Surplus Paradox by saying “Human beings are wandering around with brains that are fabulously limited - We’ve got the core of the average lizard... We are set up to acquire as much as we can of things we perceive as scarce, particularly sex, safety, and food.”
Lewis explains, "The richest society the world has ever seen has grown rich by devising better and better ways to give people what they want."
And why do I call this the Surplus Paradox? Well, we're evolving ourselves rapidly into extinction. Not bloody good. Now's the time for some deep breaths - I promise this gets more hopeful.
Till tomorrow. . .