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The Right of Nonuse$

Jan G. Laitos

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780195386066

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195386066.001.0001

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Era I—The Age of Human Survival

Era I—The Age of Human Survival

Chapter:
(p.17) 3 Era I—The Age of Human Survival
Source:
The Right of Nonuse
Author(s):

Jan G. Laitos

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195386066.003.0003

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses the Age of Human Survival—which occurred tens of thousands of years ago during the Pleistocene Epoch. The first few early humans struggling to exist then were rather sparsely distributed and had little aggregate impact on the use component of resources. Our ancestors exploited easily accessible natural resources in order to gain a toehold in an environment that was harsh and threatening to this new species. Small groups of hunter-gatherers eked out a tenuous existence in highly variable environments and climates. The human relationship to resources during Era I can be understood by reference to individual decision theory. A fundamental principle of economics is that individuals maximize their own welfare. With the assumption that individuals were rational decision makers who chose actions regarding resources with the aim of furthering individual interests, the limited resources during Era I meant that individual decisions revolved around basic human survival.

Keywords:   Pleistocene Epoch, early humans, individual decision theory

MODERN HUMANS EMERGED during a time called the Pleistocene Epoch, roughly tens of thousands of years ago. The first few early humans struggling to exist then were rather sparsely distributed and had little aggregate impact on the use component of resources.1 Our ancestors exploited easily accessible natural resources in order to gain a toehold in an environment that was harsh and threatening to this new species.2 Small groups of hunter-gatherers eked out a tenuous existence in highly variable environments and climates. The earth’s natural dimension proved to be a two-edged sword. On the one hand, resource stress was so frequent and dramatic that these populations constantly had to alter their behavior and locations to survive.3 On the other, their very survival depended on nature’s ecosystem services and benefits that provided them with the essentials of life.4

(p.18) During this time, humans depended upon group cooperation for individual survival. Because competition for resources was maladaptive, hunter-gatherers emphasized resource sharing between and within groups.5 The social rule among these hunting and gathering societies was egalitarianism, so as to ensure that no individual or group appropriated a disproportionate share of food. However, nomadic societies living in scattered small groups with limited cooperation could never enjoy the level of resource reliability and population organization necessary to create stable, complex social institutions with relatively minor, dispersed environmental impacts.6

At the end of Era I, roughly 11,500 years ago, the climate became much less variable, permitting agricultural subsistence systems to emerge over a large fraction of the earth’s surface.7 This marks a major transition point in human social evolution. The formation of institutions had previously been impossible because of dramatically changing climate conditions. With climate stability came resource reliability, domestication, and agriculture, as well as human cooperation, coordination, and division of labor.8 The greater efficiency of agriculture also meant that agricultural populations competed with, and eventually overwhelmed, hunter-gatherer populations.

As agriculture and plant-intensive resource strategies became dominant in all but the most marginal environments, human population densities rose and more complex social organizations developed.9 Because resources needed for survival seemed plentiful, these communities tolerated, for the first time in human experience, status competition, wealth control, and social ranking.10 Humans no longer lived in small, atomized egalitarian groups where resources were shared. Instead, new social institutions evolved, and resources for the most part were allocated by barter and trade, and commodity money, which reflects value inherent in the good itself.11

The human relationship to resources during Era I can be understood by reference to individual decision theory. A fundamental principle of economics is that individuals maximize their own welfare. With the assumption that individuals were rational decision makers who chose actions regarding resources with the aim of (p.19) furthering individual interests, the limited resources during Era I meant that individual decisions revolved around basic human survival.12 The crux of most Era I decisions was that an individual chose only one action toward a resource—for example, to plant crop A or crop B, to harvest now or delay until later, or to completely deforest the land or halt timber cutting. The choice had to be made in light of the consequences of alternatives and the chances of these consequences occurring. Typically, Era I humans did not need to take into account the actions of other humans. Over time, humans could successfully predict the likely immediate outcomes that would play out when decisions were made to use and exploit resources.13

During the Age of Survival, early humans had little understanding of and only limited control over nature’s production processes. There existed a huge stock of relatively untouched natural resources, but humans still lacked the skills to tap the use potential of these resources. The discount rate was very high—humans were necessarily more concerned about their survival in the moment, rather than maintaining resources for future use. With a seemingly endless supply of resources, forests were burned to increase grazing areas,14 turf was stripped to remove peat,15 and soils were exhausted, degrading the natural nutrients of the soil system.16 There were no laws or legal institutions to regulate these resource use decisions, or their impact on future uses.17 But a new organizing institution, the market, was slowly beginning to emerge.18

In Era I, bartering was a common means for transactions to occur, but other basic market transactions also evolved, including the recording and repayment of debts through various forms of accounting, commodity money, and fiat money such as shells and beads.19 The market eventually became the chief mechanism influencing the resource use decisions of growing numbers of people who formed egalitarian communities, and who enjoyed the returns that followed from agricultural subsistence. These populations, with their agriculture and their complex, market-based social organizations, increasingly settled many parts of the world, overwhelming native populations with less efficient subsistence and less complex social institutions. A new era arose, lasting thousands of years—the Age of the Market.

Notes:

(1) See generally Peter J. Richerson & Robert Boyd, Built for Speed: Pleistocene Climate Variation and the Origin of Human Culture, in 13 PERSPECTIVES IN ETHOLOGY 1 (Francois Tonneau & Nicholas S. Thompson eds., 2000).

(2) Catherine Delano Smith, Late Neolithic Settlement, Land-Use and Garigue in the Montpellier Region, France, 7 MAN 397, 404 (1972) (addressing forest clearance and vegetation degradation); Coralie M. Mills et al., Neolithic Land-Use and Environmental Degradation: A Study from the Western Isles of Scotland, 78 ANTIQUITY 886, 892–93 (2003) (discussing stripping of turf for shelter insulation and removal of peat for fuel).

(3) Brian Hayden, Research and Development in the Stone Age: Technological Transitions among Hunter-Gatherers, 22 CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY 519, 520 (1981). This cultural instability meant that larger, more organized and cooperative societies could not yet arise.

(4) The ecosystems that were not yet affected by human use built the planet’s biomass (vegetation and wild-life) and abiotic resources (soil and water) that supported the sustainability of human life. See generally Norman L. Christensen et al., The Report of the Ecological Society of America Committee on the Scientific Basis for Ecosystem Management, 6 ECOLOGICAL APPLICATIONS 665 (1996).

(5) Hayden, supra note 3, at 527, 542.

(6) See Peter J. Richerson & Robert Boyd, Institutional Evolution in the Holocene: The Rise of Complex Societies, in THE ORIGIN OF HUMAN SOCIAL INSTITUTIONS 197, 197–204 (() W.G. Runciman ed., 2001), available at http://www.des.ucdavis.edu/faculty/Richerson/evolutioninstitutions.pdf.

(7) BRUCE D. SMITH, THE EMERGENCE OF AGRICULTURE 19–20 (1995).

(8) See generally Harvey Weiss, Beyond the Younger Dryas: Collapse as an Adaptation to Abrupt Climate Change in Ancient West Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean, in ENVIRONMENTAL DISASTER AND THE ARCHAEOLOGY OF HUMAN RESPONSE 75 (Garth Bowden & Richard Mortin Reycraft eds., 2000). Richerson & Boyd, supra note 6, at 197; Hayden, supra note 3, at 523, 530.

(9) See generally RICHARD MANNING, AGAINST THE GRAIN: HOW AGRICULTURE HAS HIJACKED CIVILIZATION (2004).

(10) PETER A. CORNING, THE SYNERGISM HYPOTHESIS: A THEORY OF PROGRESSIVE EVOLUTION (1983). See generally MANNING, supra note 9.

(11) Leonard Zobler, An Economic-Historical View of Natural Resources Use and Conservation, 38 ECON. GEOGRAPHY 189, 191 (1962) Richerson & Boyd, supra note 6, at 202.

(12) See MICHAEL D. RESNIK, CHOICES: AN INTRODUCTION TO DECISION THEORY 4 (1987); J. MORGAN JONES, INTRODUCTION TO DECISION THEORY 2, 5 (1977).

(13) See generally DAVID RINDOS, THE ORIGINS OF AGRICULTURE: AN EVOLUTIONARY PERSPECTIVE (1984).

(14) Hayden, supra note 3, at 519.

(15) Mills et al., supra note 2, at 893, 894.

(16) Leendert P. Louwe Kooijmans, Archaeological Approaches to the Long-Term History of the Landscape, in EXPLOITATION AND OVER-EXPLOITATION IN SOCIETIES PAST AND PRESENT 63, 73 (Brigitta Benzing & Bernd Hermann eds., 2003).

(17) See MARSHALL SAHLINS, STONE AGE ECONOMICS 1–39 (1972).

(18) See generally Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Kathryn Sutherland ed., Oxford University Press 1993) (1776).

(19) See generally Rafael Gasson, Quiripas and Mostacillas: The Evolution of Shell Beads as a Medium of Exchange in Northern South America, 47 ETHNOHISTORY 581, (Summer-Fall 2000).