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Harris“Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture”

by Marvin Harris

1974 Random House

Why do Jews and Muslims refuse to eat pork? Why were thousands of witches burned at the stake during late medieval Europe? These and other riddles are explored by famous anthropologist Marvin Harris, and his conclusions are simple: people act within social and ecological contexts that make their actions meaningful. Put another way: cultural ideas and practices that seem strange to us may actually be vital and necessary to the people of those cultures.

Harris is especially good at explaining how societies create elaborate rituals to avoid harming the natural ecosystems they depend on, which clarifies the Middle Eastern ban on pig products. It turns out the chubby animals compete with humans for the same foods. Raising them in large numbers would place great strain on a land made fragile by thousands of years of deforestation and desertification. Better to ban them entirely and not risk further ecological damage.

This logic is then extended to elucidate why the institution of warfare probably first arose as a way to limit population pressure on the environment. In Harris’ words, “In most primitive societies, warfare is an effective means of population control because intense, recurring intergroup combat places a premium upon rearing male rather than female infants.” Since the rate of population growth depends on the number of healthy women, privileging males by making their larger bodies necessary for combat is a way of reducing the need to “eat the forest.” Not that male supremacy and violence is the BEST way to curb population growth, but it’s one ritual that societies have adopted to meet that goal.

This discussion of patriarchy leads to an exploration of class. The emergence of “big men”, chiefs, and finally the State is explained as a cascading distortion of the original principles of reciprocity into the rule of redistribution. “Big men” work harder than anyone in their tribe to provide a large feast for their community – with the only goal being prestige. Chiefs similarly pursue prestige, and plan great feasts to show off their managerial skills, but they themselves harvest little food. Finally “we end up with state-level societies ruled over by hereditary kings who perform no basic industrial or agricultural labor and who keep the most and best of everything for themselves.” At the root of this construction of inequality is the impetus to make people work harder to create larger surpluses so that greater social rewards can be given out to show off the leader’s generosity. But only at the State or Imperial level is this hierarchy enforced not by prestige but by force of arms, to stop the poor and working classes from revolting and sharing the fruits of their labor.

The most provocative sections of the book deal with revolutionary movements that fought for this liberation, within the context of the religious wars of Biblical Judea and Late Medieval Europe.

First, Harris tackles the Messiah complex Read the rest of this entry »

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“The war on population always has been, and will continue to be, a war on women’s bodies.”

After reading this article by Betsy Hartmann rebutting recent psuedo-environmental hysteria surrounding overpopulation, I wanted to investigate further how fears of overpopulation facilitate sexist, racist and imperialistic policies by Western countries and NGOs against poor women of color in the Global South.

As Hartmann states with clarity:

“The population controllers have blinders on their eyes when they attribute the cutting down of forests, the polluting of water supplies, and the extinction of species to too many poor people, rather than the unchecked power of large corporations to monopolize resources and ravage the land. Missing from the picture is the question of technological choice: for example, reducing the population of automobiles and investing in public transport worldwide would do much more to curtail climate change than imposing limits on family size.”

This seems to me fundamentally correct. It’s clear that human civilization has overshot the capacity of the Earth to provide for it, that’s not in question. The question is about what forces are responsible for this, and what can we do about it?

For Hartmann and myself, the number of people alive is not nearly as important as the structure of the economic system in which we live. The planet could support 6, or maybe even 9, billion people living a low-impact lifestyle, based on community subsistence and a diet full of fruits and vegetables. But the planet cannot possibly support 6 billion people living like Americans, with their cars, and their computers, and their wars.

As with all things, the debate on “overpopulation” is a political debate, because its a question about who has power and who doesn’t. Placing the blame on poor women is just a way of ignoring the real power-holders: Large multinational corporations and Western capitalist governments.

Below are excerpts from an article that I found helpful in explaining this more clearly. [alex]

10 Reasons to Rethink “Overpopulation”

By the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College

Fears of overpopulation are pervasive in American society. From an early age we are taught that the world is overpopulated and that population pressure is responsible for poverty, hunger, environmental degradation and even political insecurity. If we don’t get population growth under control now, the argument goes, our future is in danger.

Conventional wisdom, however, is not always wise. Placing the blame on population obscures the powerful economic and political forces that threaten the well-being of both people and the planet. It leads to top-down, target-driven population control programs that undermine voluntary family planning and women’s reproductive rights. It reinforces racism, promoting harmful stereotypes of poor people of color. And it prevents the kind of global understanding we need in order to reach across borders to work together for a more just, peaceful and environmentally sustainable world.

Here are ten reasons why we should rethink ‘overpopulation.’

2. The focus on population masks the complex causes of poverty and inequality.

A narrow focus on human numbers obscures the way different economic and political systems operate to perpetuate poverty and inequality. It places the blame on the people with the least amount of resources and power rather than on corrupt governments and economic and political elites. It ignores the legacy of colonialism and the continuing unequal relationship between rich and poor countries, including unfavorable terms of trade and the debt burden. It says nothing about the concentration of much wealth in a few hands. In the late 1990s, the 225 people who comprise the ‘ultra-rich’ had a combined wealth of over US $1 trillion, equivalent to the annual income of the poorest 47% of the world’s people.

3. Hunger is not the result of ‘too many mouths’ to feed.

…There is enough food for every man, woman and child to have more than the recommended daily calorie intake. People go hungry because they do not have the land on which to grow food or the money with which to buy it. Read the rest of this entry »

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