Web dev at the end of the world, from Hveragerði, Iceland

The inefficiencies of joy

The following is from Joseph A. Tainter’s paper Social complexity and sustainability (2006):

Subsistence farmers also tend to underproduce, so that labor is underutilized and inefficiently deployed. Posposil (1963) observed Kapauku Papuans of New Guinea, for example, working only about 2 h a day at agriculture. Robert Carneiro found that Kuikuru men in the Amazon Basin spend 2 h each day at agricultural work and 90 min fishing. The remainder of the day is spent in social activities or at rest. With a little extra effort such people could produce much more than they do (Sahlins, 1972)


Even under the harsh conditions in which they lived, these Russian peasants underproduced. Those able to produce the most actually underproduced the most. They valued leisure more highly than the marginal return to extra labor.

Now, I’m normally a fan of Tainter’s thinking, more clearly than anybody else he has outlined how impossible a position our society is in regarding sustainability and energy use, but this quote highlights just how inhumane modern thinking has become.

Walk into your average pub and ask everybody in there if they’d be willing to accept a ten to fifteen years shorter life expectancy in exchange for a lifetime where you’d only have to work two to four hours a day, half of which is fishing.

I’d bet that most of the people in there would think you’re either describing a paradise or their ideal retirement plan.

And that’s if you buy into the idea that you’d have a much shorter life expectancy. It’s likely that the life expectancy of an adult wouldn’t be that different from that of an adult in the States, for example. What would probably skew the numbers would be a high infant mortality rate.

People want to ‘underproduce’ and lead a life of leisure.

This is what modernity and industrialisation has brought us: more work and less free time.

Of course technology and science has brought us a lot of joy, but the end goal should be to create a society where nobody has to work more than four hours a day and can spend most of their time at leisure, where being more productive means having more time for fun.

That’s what we should be aiming for, not a society that tries to maximise the productive value of every single person, where we’re treated like nothing more than cogs in the economic machine.

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