Societal tradeoffs

For some reason, we place so much value on modern societies, yet in some way, they can be considered “antihuman”.

Western society is built on respect for individual rights. Very few things are as highly valued as the freedom to pursue our own goals and ambitions without outside interference.

As a modern society, we’ve traded affluence and safety for freedom and independence. Property made us live individually, yet alone. We enjoy unprecedented levels of wealth, comfort, and independence. Yet we lack freedom — something tribal societies know something about.

Our financial independence enabled solitary lives, which in turn led to higher rates of unhappiness, depression, and suicide. Rugged individualism often looks better on screen than it does in reality. We sometimes forget that the “me” needs a “we” to thrive. And that’s the cause of all sorts of problems.

We can go on an entire life mostly encountering complete strangers.

There are examples of societies built around an entirely different set of principles. Take the Kung nomads of the Kalahari Desert worked no more than 12 hours a week to support their lifestyle. They took turns to hunt and gather food. Once they returned to camp, they divided the spoils equally among themselves. Nobody had very much, but everyone had enough. Compare it to a Western lifestyle: the average office worker spends more than 40 hours a week at the office. While we might be a lot richer than the Kung, we enjoy far less leisure time and personal freedom.

On top of that, from an evolutionary perspective, we haven’t evolved for the individualist lifestyle. It takes at least 25.000 years for a species to genetically adapt to a new environment. Material wealth allows us to lead independent lives, true, but we crave the kind of communities our ancestors lived with. Although we live in industrialized and technologically complex societies, we’re still hardwired to be hunter-gatherers.

Consumerism has created an overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight deficient, sleep-deprived, inequitable, competitive, and socially isolated society.

There’s a high price to be paid for this mismatch: pathological loneliness. Western societies are afflicted by the highest levels of mental illness in the history of humanity.

There are some extreme occasions, however unfortunate, where chaos wipes out the societal constructs and our communal roots take over. For example, natural disasters bring us together. They tend to simplify things and return people to a more natural way of living. On the other hand, modern life destroys the social bonds that used to glue humans and their societies together.

When a natural disaster strikes these bonds reappear. People realize that their survival depends on cooperating with others. Divisions based on wealth and race suddenly become insignificant.

Justice and dishonesty

It’s easy enough to condemn wars from the safety of a couch thousands of miles away, but experiencing them for yourself is a different matter altogether.

Wars and natural disasters — counterintuitive as it might sound — can also have positive social and psychological effects. Communities come together and forget their differences in trying times. People are often happier and more purposeful. That’s because extreme events simplify life and revive the social bond. But that doesn’t last once peace is restored. Individualism replaces solidarity, and many suffer the effects of loneliness and isolation.

I haven’t covered this end of the book at all, but the author goes deep into PTSD. It illustrates how some traits are anything but helpful when it comes to life in modern Western society. That’s something soldiers returning from conflicts often learn the hard way. Readjusting to normality can be a daunting task.

Related to the societal “resets” we experience in extreme situations, wars create special bonds, and that makes returning to normal life especially hard for veterans. Tragedy and war cement deep bonds and bring people together in a way that modern society can’t match.

Curiously, almost five years ago, on a radically different note I went about how harsh environments can promote strong fellowship:

I used to take these relationships for granted until somebody unexpectedly told me the reason why: the harshest and rough environments become the catalysts for the strongest relationships to develop. In my story, sailing in the ocean.

The book takes “harsh” to the extreme with war context. Take soldiers, camaraderie defines their experience of the army. Their bond with fellow soldiers makes them members of a tribe. For many of them, it is the first time in their lives that they collaborate as equals rather than competing against one another. It turns out, that’s one of the things soldiers love about the army.

Constant danger from a common enemy creates a degree of intimacy between people that’s unusual in other contexts. Survival means trusting others with your life.

The absence of tight social bonds also makes returning home hard for soldiers. There’s a stark contrast between their lives in the army and everyday life back home. They suddenly find themselves in a society divided into small and isolated family units lacking a communal spirit.

First published on May 14, 2021