Years ago, an aboriginal New Guinean asked Jared Diamond, “why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”
By cargo, he meant stuff. He had very little in the way of stuff, as did everybody he had ever known until white folks showed up on the island with a whole bunch of it.
Diamond, a professor at UCLA, set out to answer the question and many years later, published a book titled Guns, Germs, and Steel, which was supposed to be revolutionary, a novel new idea answering the burning anthropological and social questions – explaining the origins of the differences between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”
Because I’m a history buff I enjoyed the book, but his premise seemed fairly self-evident to me; those who had guns, germs, and steel won. Go figure.
We enjoy so much abundance and prosperity because we had guns, steel, and a genetic immunity to certain diseases. We thrived, they didn’t, and that, in a nutshell, is Dr. Diamond’s answer to the question, “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”
But the question haunts me in a different way than it had the professor. He wanted to explain how those poor, poor people came to be so poor, and we so rich.
What I want to know is; are they the poor ones? Or are we?
Were natives in New Guinea unhappy? Did we make them happier by bringing them trucker-style baseball caps, second-hand t-shirts, and chainsaws?
It’s agonizingly obvious that primitive civilizations touched by western culture have been detrimentally affected. Cargo doesn’t help people; it hurts them.
Primitive peoples are not poor, they simply enjoy a different lifestyle.
I recently had a conversation with neighbors who enjoy life without electricity. Husband, wife, five year old boy and two year old girl seem content to be “off the grid,” which, in certain circles is avant-garde, chic even, evoking images of solar panels and grey water systems.
My neighbor’s version is a we-can’t-afford-to-buy-the-meter-and-pay-the-hookup-fee kind of “off the grid,” which, in my eyes is no less noble. Nobler, perhaps. And definitely cool.
We take comforts for granted, but only through the lens of our own experience. If necessary, I could and would survive and thrive without electricity. At the moment I couldn’t tell you how, but I’d figure it out as I went along. I’d adapt.
Before they did so, my neighbors probably couldn’t have told you how they would survive without electricity either, but they figured it out anyway.
Looking around at my so-called simplified existence, I think of all the modern conveniences I take for granted and wonder if I’m better off than my “off the grid” neighbors.
I’m certainly no happier than they are. They smiled contended smiles and laughed easily. Their faces were fresh, bright, vibrant, and obviously healthy.
They didn’t have the furrowed brows of people I see at the supermarket, stressed and worried looks on the faces of people whose shopping carts are full of processed, frozen, microwavable food, packaged meat, and bags of deep-fried corn derivatives.
My neighbors don’t have hot showers. They can’t just turn a knob to cook their food. They don’t even have a refrigerator in which to keep their food. And yet, they’re happy.
But, are they poor?
I don’t think so. I’m jealous, actually. They’re burdened with a lot less cargo than I am. What if I we weren’t dependent on utility companies? What if our family was truly self-sufficient? How sustainable would we be then? How tiny would our footprint be?
More importantly, if we had to live without electricity, could we still be happy? I think yes.
I might even test the theory – after my shower.