The World Until Yesterday and Existential Boredom

Fight Club has long been a fan of both Jared Diamond and Papua New Guinea. Seven years ago, Diamond’s “Collapse” was our inaugural bout and later we read “Lost in Shangri-La” by Mitchell Zuckoff about a WWII plane crash in a remote valley of Papua New Guinea and first (or nearly first) contact with native tribes there.

In Diamond’s latest book, “The World Until Yesterday,” he argues that we can learn lessons from these tribal cultures such as better child-rearing, better treatment of the elderly, and how to avoid $300/hour lawyers. Diamond tells us “loneliness is not a problem in traditional societies…people spend their lives in or near the place where they were born, and they remain surrounded by relatives and childhood companions.” In other words, traditional societies, to the extent they still exist, know how to take care of each other.

Despite our warring 20th Century, a conflict-ridden first decade of the 21st Century, and America’s ridiculous number of guns, our society today is, in fact, less violent than tribal cultures. The highest war-related death rates for modern societies (Russia and Germany in WWI and WWII) are only a third of the death rates of tribal societies. Looking more broadly, Diamond shows us that modern societies average war-related death rates that are about one-tenth as high as tribal societies due to sustained conflict between clans.

Besides having lower body counts than traditional societies, another thing we moderns have going for us is that we generally live longer (watch Stephen Colbert chide Diamond on this point). According to Wikipedia, the average life expectancy in the world today is 68. In the US, it’s 78 (putting us 40th in the world) and in Papua New Guinea it’s 62 (153rd). But, average life expectancy within tribal settings tends to be less than 30, primarily due to high levels of infant and child mortality. As a result, only about 3% of tribal villages are over 65 (Other Ways of Growing Old). In contrast, 13.3% of Americans are 65 and older (2010 Census).

In perhaps one of the best arguments for living in a tribal society, Diamond tells us, is that people generally aren’t bored. This harkens back to our last Fight Club bout “America’s Best Essays of 2012” and Joseph Epstein’s wonderful essay on the current state of boredom in our culture, “Duh Boring.” Epstein observes: “Boredom is often less pervasive in simpler cultures. One hears little of boredom among the pygmies or the Trobriand Islanders, whose energies are taken up with the problems of mere existence.” He even postulates that the very reason for war in our modern society is the boredom in peace time armies. He quotes Lars Svendsen, the Norwegian author of “A Philosophy of Boredom,” as saying boredom is the major spiritual problem of our day.

So, maybe our problem is that we have too many bored retirees.

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