Anti-Fragile Living Part-III: Affluence without Abundance

Happy New Year! I write this at the tail end of two weeks without working. As someone who has been (is?) addicted to work/goals/achievements, it can sometimes be hard to let myself slow down and just exist. Nevertheless, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time off, and this relaxed state has inspired this article.


Going Paleo

Over past few months, several people have told me that they have changed/plan to change their diets. The two most common methods of diet change have been 1. Intermittent fasting and 2. Use of non-processed whole foods, especially non-grain-based foods. The philosophical stance underlying these changes is that our human diet should match the one we spent most of the last 200,000 years consuming: the hunter-gather diets of the paleolithic era (the old stone age).

I have a lot of respect for this dietary philosophy, although my own diet, sadly, does not quite live up to these standards. Pretty good research shows that episodes of calorific rest aids cell repair. I do notice however, that many people who wish to paleo-ise their diet do so in the service of a very un-paleo idea: to optimise their personal growth. Why? Perhaps to outcompete their peers. To look slimmer or more taunt. To have better focus and concertation so that they can work harder and smarter. Eat healthy so you can grow like a tumour!

The Domesticated Human

Early last year I read a book which left a profound impression on me. Affluence without Abundance, by the anthropologist James Suzman, argued that the hunter-gather peoples of Southern Africa until recently lived lives free from wants and needs whilst only working on average 15 hours per week. They did this by having “mastered the art of not obsessing about whether the grass was greener on the other side”.

Recently (10,000 years ago), when the first humans grew crops and domesticated animals, they also enslaved themselves. They became chained to the field and pasture. Their master? The surplus. Surpluses meant certainty. Family sizes expanded. Despite early agriculturalists shorter height and shorter lifespan, they inherited the earth. Most of us now are the descendants of early adopters to the human domestication project.

Affluence without Abundance

But what can we do? We can’t just rock up to work tomorrow and demand a 15-hour week. We’ve already signed mortgages and car loans; too late to re-wild ourselves. Living off the grid seems dismal, dirty, dangerous. All our friends and family are living in the matrix-reality of growth and abundance, who are we to defy the zeitgeist?

What we can do is reframe our current material circumstance. Almost all of us have enough already. Anything more is surplus. Instead of asking yourself what you can do for your surplus, ask what your surplus can do for you. Maybe you can forgo some of your surplus in order to create some slack.

What we can do is reprioritise our lives. If we create some slack we can prioritise relaxation, rest, leisure, connection, curiosity, joy. The intermittent faster forgoes calories for certain periods in order to foster cell repair. We can have periods where we forgo work and growth, in order to replenish our souls. Have a rest day, a sabbath, a mental health day, work a four-day week.

What we can do is reassure the anxious and envious parts of ourselves. Envy was key part of our domestication – tell yourself – what is important is that I have a good life, not that I outcompete others. Anxiety will arise – tell yourself – I am safe, I will be able to cope if disaster strikes.

Be happy with what you have, and you’ll never be poor. This year instead of just the paleo-diet, why not try the paleo-philosophy. Embrace affluence without abundance.

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