- Author's Introduction
- In the seminar I teach about hunter-gatherers, I often ask my students whether they think life was better in the past or today. There are, of course, always a few people who insist they couldn’t live without a flushing toilet. But more and more I’m seeing students who opt for a life of prehistoric hunting and gathering. To them, the advantages of modern life – of safety and smartphones – do not outweigh its tangled web of chronic indignities: loneliness, poor mental health, bureaucracy, lack of connection with nature, and overwork. Learning about the lives of hunter-gatherers confirms a suspicion that our modern lives are fundamentally at odds with human nature, that we have lost some kind of primordial freedom. For a generation who came of age with Instagram and TikTok, this is a striking – albeit theoretical – rejection of modernity.
- Author's Conclusion:
- ‘[I]t is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toil of any human being,’ wrote John Stuart Mill in Principles of Political Economy (1848). Indeed, our lives today are the Jevons Paradox in microcosm. Frictionless technology at our fingertips leads to the paradoxical situation of our smartphone screens becoming crowded with apps, our days increasingly divided into small things, and our attention shattered. Things that were meant to make our lives easier simply tempt us to put more things on our plates, increasing the amount that we work, and wreaking havoc on our wellbeing.
- And yet, when we consider work from an evolutionary perspective, it is hard to be optimistic about technological efficiency delivering us to the promised land of Keynes’s 15-hour working week. In this age of unprecedented burnout, it may give some solace to consider that the Jevons Paradox has been with us since time immemorial. Our industry is the blessing and curse of our species, a mindset and cultural force shaped by the evolutionary process, and stamped into the very fibre of our being.
- Vivek V Venkataraman is assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the University of Calgary, Canada. He is also assistant director of the Guassa Gelada Research Project in Ethiopia, and the co-founder and co-principal investigator of the Orang Asli Health and Lifeways Project in Peninsular Malaysia.
- I've not had time to read this paper, which is probably important. It's in the queue.
- See Wikipedia: Jevons Paradox.
- There are 50 comments which I've printed off and saved for future analysis.
- I suspect there's a lot of 'having your cake and eating it' in the nostalgia for more simple societies.
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