Book Review: Affluence Without Abundance

Affluence Without Abundance:  The Disappearing World Of The Bushmen, by James Suzman

There are a host of issues with this book, none of which prevent the book from being enjoyable as a sympathetic (perhaps overly sympathetic) guide to the Bushmen in their contemporary existence, but which keep it from being as insightful a book as the author thinks this is.  This book takes the complaints that the civilized peoples of the world have had for hunters and gatherers and simply looks at things from the other side of the picture, with the essential stereotypical picture intact.  So rather than castigating the Khoisan people of Southwestern Africa for being lazy, the author celebrates them for it.  Instead of blaming them for short-term thinking and the inability to refrain from present pleasure for the sake of future benefits, as farmers and capitalists and the like have to do, the author praises this tendency as being possible if one has a nomadic hunter and gatherer lifestyle with the commensurate low amount of population density allowed for minimum burden on a given particular area.  The author notes that hunters and gatherers and farmers made very different choices with very different consequences, but in light of that, can hunters and gatherers like the Khoi and San the author lovingly chronicles be considered civilized at all?

This book is three parts and eighteen chapters long and is about 250 to 300 pages in length.  The book begins with an author’s notes, some comments on names and clicks, and some maps that show the limitation of the Khoisan range due to Bantu expansion.  The first six chapters explore old times and the author’s attempts to interview people who might have some understanding of those times so as to provide a picture of how life was like before the expansion of populations of whites and Bantus in Southern Africa constricted the range of the Bushmen to such an extent that it was impossible for them to live as free nomads (I).  After that the author gives a picture of the beneficent relationship between the Bushmen and their environment given low population densities and low demands on that environment (II).  Finally, the author closes with five chapters that provide a look at the contemporary experience of the Khoisan peoples as small and oppressed minorities in Namibia, struggling to be respected and find a place in a world that seems to have no more room for them.

There are at least two levels that a critique of this work can take.  For one, is the author being fair-minded to the people he is discussing?  The author certainly makes himself a friend of the Bushmen and a partisan for their cause, such as it is, but at the same time the author admits that he simply does not understand the approach of them and is at best a friendly observer and chronicler of their ways and not an insider in their culture.  As a result, this book and others like it, which serve to use the Bushmen as a means of critiquing the attitudes and behavior of contemporary Western culture, are inherently dishonest because what we are getting is not an account by the subjects themselves, who have their own opinions and their own insights, but rather an agenda that uses the subjects as a means by which to promote an agenda about anti-capitalism, anti-agriculture, pro-drastic family planning to lower the population, and so on.  This fundamental dishonesty makes a book like this greatly suspect, because if it could be enjoyed as a clueless white man visiting the bush and seeking insight, as cliched a view as that would be, it most certainly cannot be respected as a guide to how it is that contemporary Westerners could and should live ourselves.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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