Monday, June 16, 2014

A Better Way is Possible

My wife Alma and I traveled up to Calabasas over the weekend to take a guided walking tour of the King Gillette Ranch. The ranch, situated on some 400 acres of mountainous desert chaparral, was one of the tribal areas of the Chumash peoples before Spanish colonizers arrived in the16th century.

Our guide for the tour explained how the Chumash lived intensely integrated lives with Nature. The Chumash did not have domesticated agriculture but did rely heavily on the products of the wild, among them acorns from the desert oak (used to make a kind of flour), the various varieties of sage, wild berries, and the Yucca plant (used for its sharply pointed stalks which made a type of needle).

During the walk, the guide produced from his knapsack a string of beads that he said were replicas of beads used by the Chumash. These beads, as it happens, were used as a form of currency. Most of the Chumash economy was transacted as 'barter.' For those items for which barter trade could not be arranged, beads were used to exchange value. When 'wealthy' Chumash died, the guide noted, their beads were buried with them.

When the guide said this, it came as a shock to me. Because with beads buried, the productive assets the beads as currency represented remained available for all to use.

Such a foreign way of thinking, to bury one's 'wealth' with one at death. Most Americans are unaware that the principal source of wealth in this country is not 'hard work,' or even 'chicanery.' Instead, the principal source of wealth is 'inheritance,' the passing along of accumulated assets from one generation to the next. What if, instead of that wealth being passed along, it were 'buried with its owner'? The assets that produced the wealth would still be here, still producing the stuff we want and need. But the accumulation and concentration of that wealth would last only for a single generation.

Chumash were not real big on 'owning' land, either, as I understand it. Although their tribes had an economic and social structure, organized around guilds and clans respectively, with a priesthood handling interactions with the spirit world and a tribal Chief providing executive direction, they were not a capitalist culture in any sense of the term. They were, in fact, a form of primitive communalism where the means of production were publicly controlled and where the produce of the society were shared according to tribal members' needs. (The guide related how tribal members each had their individual stores of acorns but the Chief's hut retained a larger granary from which tribal members could make withdrawals on an as-needed basis.)

I do not wish to romanticize the Chumash. No doubt they lived lives of hard work and privation. But I do think their example shows us that other ways are possible. Better ways perhaps. Einstein once famously remarked that he doubted whether modern man is any happier than his predecessors of 400 years earlier. Sure, we have more technology. We have more control. But with that technology and control comes alienation and spiritual decadence. I'd wager the average modern man or woman is no happier and indeed probably a lot more unhappy than his Chumash predecessors.

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