A Hunter-Gatherer’s Guide to the 21st Century
IN 1994, WE SPENT OUR FIRST SUMMER IN GRADUATE SCHOOL AT A
tiny field station in the Sarapiquí region of Costa Rica. Heather was studying dart-poison frogs; Bret homed in on tent-making bats. Every morning we did fieldwork in the rain forest, where it was green and lush and dark.
We remember a particular afternoon in July. A pair of macaws flew overhead, silhouetted against the sky. The river was cool and clear, and trees full of orchids crowded the bank. It was a perfect antidote to the sweat and heat of the day. On beautiful afternoons like this one, we would walk across the paved road that went all the way to the capital, onto a smaller dirt road, and cross a steel bridge that spanned the Río Sarapiquí, to take a swim at the beach below.
We paused on the bridge to admire the view: the river wending its way between walls of forest, a toucan flying between trees, the distant calls of howler monkeys. A local man whom we did not know approached and began talking to us.
“You are going to swim?” he asked, pointing at the sandy bank where we were headed.
“Today there was rain in the mountains,” he said, pointing to the south. The river’s source was in those mountains, in the cordillera. We nodded.
Earlier, we had seen the thunderclouds above the mountains from the field station. “Today there was rain in the mountains,” he said again.
“But no rain here,” one of us said, laughing lightly, not knowing how to make small talk in a language we weren’t fluent in, while standing on a bridge, eager to swim.
“Today there was rain in the mountains,” he said a third time, more emphatically. We looked at each other. Perhaps it was time to take our leave, to walk down to the river and get in the water. The sun was now directly on us. It was desperately hot.
“Okay, see you later,” we said, waving, moving on. We were barely fifty feet from getting in the water.
“But the river,” the man said to us, now with some urgency.
“Yes?” we asked him, confused.
“Look at the river,” he said, pointing. We looked down. It looked like
the river always did. Running fast and clean, smooth and . . .
“Wait,” said Bret. “Is that a whirlpool? That wasn’t there before.” We looked at the man again, questions in our eyes. He pointed again to the south.
“Today there was a lot of rain in the mountains.” He moved his focus back to the river. “Look at the water now.”
In the moments we had been looking away, the water had come up visibly. It was moving chaotically, roiling. It had changed color, too—from dark and calm, it had become pale and filled with silt. In short order, it was filled with more than that.
The three of us stood transfixed, as the river rose spectacularly, many feet in just a few minutes. The beach disappeared under a huge volume of rushing water. Anyone on it would have been swept away. Debris, including several logs, began to hurtle past. Anything that hit that new whirlpool disappeared, then shot back up beyond the bridge.
The man turned around and began to walk off the way that he had come. He was a campesino, a farmer, but we didn’t know where he was from, or how he knew that we were there, about to descend to what could easily have been our deaths.
“Wait,” Bret called, then realized that we had nothing to offer him but gratitude. We literally had nothing on us but our clothes. “Thank you,” we said. “Thank you so much.” And Bret took off his shirt and gave it to the man.
“Really?” the man asked, as Bret held out his shirt.
“Really,” Bret confirmed.
“Thank you,” he said, accepting the shirt. “Good luck. And remember
to think about the rain in the mountains.” With that, he left.
We had been living by that river for a month, swimming in it nearly every day, sometimes alongside local people. Suddenly, we felt like strangers. We’d mistaken our few experiences swimming in the river for the wisdom of actually knowing a place. How could we have been so wrong?
At no other time in history has it been possible to think that you are a local but to be so lacking the deep knowledge of a place that keeps you safe during rare events. We moderns struggle to grasp this gap in our knowledge for many reasons. For starters, we no longer rely on tight-knit communities or a deep understanding of local terrain like humans did until recently. Given how easy it is to move from place to place with relative ease, many people tend not to stay in one locale for long at all. The facts of our individualistic lifestyles and transience tend never to strike us as odd, simply because we’ve neither seen nor can imagine an alternative to the world we live in right now: one where abundance and choice are ubiquitous, we rely on global systems too complex to understand, and everyone feels safe.
Until they don’t.
The truth is, safety too often proves to be a facade: products on supermarket shelves turn out to be dangerous; a frightening diagnosis reveals weaknesses in a health-care system too focused on symptoms and profits; an economic downturn stresses a disintegrating social safety net; legitimate concerns about injustice become excuses for violence and anarchy while civic leaders offer pablum rather than solutions.
The problems that we face today are both more complex and simpler than experts make them seem. Depending on whom you’ve asked, you may have heard that we are living in the best, most prosperous time in human history. You may have also heard that we are living through the worst and most dangerous time. You may not know which side to believe. What you do know is that you can’t seem to keep up.
Over the past few hundred years, developments in technology, medicine, education, and so much more have accelerated the rate at which we are exposed to change in our environments—including our geographic, social, and interpersonal environments. Some of this change has been wildly positive, but hardly all, and other changes appear positive but have consequences so devastating that, once discovered, we struggle even to conceptualize them. All of this has encouraged the postindustrial, high-tech, progress-oriented culture we live in now. This culture, we propose, partially explains our collective troubles, from political unrest to widespread failing health and broken social systems.
The best, most all-encompassing way to describe our world is hyper-novel. As we will show throughout the book, humans are extraordinarily well adapted to, and equipped for, change. But the rate of change itself is so rapid now that our brains, bodies, and social systems are perpetually out of sync. For millions of years we lived among friends and extended family, but today many people don’t even know their neighbors’ names. Some of the most fundamental truths—like the fact of two sexes—are increasingly dismissed as lies. The cognitive dissonance spawned by trying to live in a society that is changing faster than we can accommodate is turning us into people who cannot fend for ourselves.
Simply put, it’s killing us.
In part, this book is about generalizing this message to all aspects of our lives: when it rains in the mountains, stay out of the river.
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|October 13, 2021|