Donald J. Boudreaux
Recently I watched a nature show on TV about Zanzibar. The narrator described the humans who first arrived on that Indian Ocean archipelago 20,000 years ago as having lived “a simple life” – a simplicity of life that persists to this day for some Zanzibarians.
At one point in the show viewers saw film of two young Zanzibarian men paddle a wooden canoe out to sea, where they threw a fishing net into the water. These fishermen later hauled up a nice catch of fish. Just before journeying into the water, these young men were confident they’d net a good catch because, after gazing for some time from shore out into the ocean, they finally spotted a whale shark – a good indication that lots of fish are in the vicinity.
As I watched these young men paddle out into the water, haul in their nets, and paddle back to shore, I said to myself: “Simple?! Those two guys endure much more difficulty and complexity getting fish than I do.”
And I’m unquestionably correct. When I want fish for dinner – which I often do – I drive at my leisure to a restaurant and order fish. I arrive at the restaurant safely and in comfort, and my meal quickly appears on my table already filleted, seasoned, and cooked. Alternatively, I sometimes walk a few steps to a nearby supermarket and buy some fish, fresh or frozen (or already cooked) as I please.
Getting fish is much simpler for me and other denizens of modernity than it was for our pre-modern ancestors and for those persons today who still haven’t had the benefits of modernity.
Of course, what’s true for fish is true for nearly every aspect of life. Despite incessant contrary claims, life for us humans has never been simpler than it is today. It is us, not our long-ago ancestors, who live “a simple life.”
Imagine what life was like, say, for a typical New England farm family a mere 200 years ago. Waking up on a frigid winter morning, a fire had to be started in the fireplace. This task was done in an as-yet-unheated home because, well, the fire had yet to be started. The home had no thermostat-controlled HVAC unit. And the person starting the fire had no automatic lighter – or even safety matches – to ease the task of igniting a flame. Nor was there available any easy-to-light artificial logs.
The kitchen stove, too, had to be lit – and, also like the fireplace, kept lit – manually.
Without indoor plumbing, running water, and antibacterial soap, relieving oneself was more onerous, more unpleasant, and less hygienic than is the corresponding routine today. The cows had to be milked – a task, I confidently guess, that was not remotely “simple” during the pre-dawn hours in sub-zero temperatures. And it’s certainly never as simple as going to the supermarket to purchase milk.
Transforming a live animal into meat for the table was also not “simple” back then – at least not compared to the manner in which nearly all of us today get meat for our tables. I’m willing to believe that, were I to slaughter my own cattle, pigs, and chickens, the resulting meats would be tastier than the beef, pork, and chicken that I buy at restaurants and supermarkets. But I’m unwilling to believe that the improvement in taste would be great enough to compensate for the magnitudes-greater difficulty I’d endure to get meat in the old-fashioned way.
What about bathing? Two centuries ago in rural America, bath water had to be heated over an open flame before being poured into a tub. (Forget showering.) Bathing was far less simple back then than it is today.
Want to visit Uncle Josiah who lives 180 miles away in Providence? You can’t travel faster than a horse if you’re going by land, which you likely are. Making that journey back then was, by the standards of today, anything but simple. Nor was it comfortable.
If anthropologists today are in search of that group of human beings who lived the simplest lives in history, they merely need look at themselves and their neighbors.
Most of us today awaken and spend all of our time indoors in homes and facilities kept toasty warm in winter, and pleasantly cool in summer, by automatic-powered HVAC systems or other modern appliances. To get food – from literally around the world – we simply go to the supermarket and to restaurants. Sometimes we go to farmers’ markets – itself made simple by our and the farmers’ use of automobiles, paved roads, and refrigeration, and by the fact that many of the farmers today accept as payment credit cards.
Compared to our ancestors, we today have a much simpler time communicating with people out of earshot. Indeed, for most of our ancestors, such communication in real time was impossible – the polar opposite of “simple.” And it’s much simpler for us today to entertain ourselves, what with television, satellite radio, streaming videos and music, overnight delivery of books and board games to our doorsteps, smartphones, laptops, YouTube, and the Internet.
How much simpler is it today to summon urban or suburban transportation by using Uber or Lyft apps instead of hailing or calling taxicabs? Answer: much.
Or consider the cleaning of clothes. We simply toss our dirty laundry, along with dashes of detergent, into electricity-powered machines that do nearly all the work for us. Easy-peasy.
How about banking? We simply have those payments that are due to us deposited electronically into our accounts, and we then submit what we owe through various electronic means of payment. Bye-bye to the ‘complex’ dance of going to banks physically, and to writing and mailing paper checks.
My 24-year-old son not long ago told me, off-handedly, that he used DoorDash to order a package of paper towels that were delivered within 20 minutes to his doorstep. He saved himself the complex chore of personally driving to a supermarket to fetch and buy the towels. When my son isn’t in the mood to cook, or to leave his apartment, he simply orders pizza to be delivered, piping hot, directly to him.
The advance of modernity can be described very accurately as the march toward ever more simplicity. Compared to the lives of our pre-industrial ancestors – and, in fact, compared even to the lives of our literal grandparents – each of our lives today is simple beyond the imagination of those who lived a few generations or more ago. Compared to in the past, feeding ourselves is much simpler – as is hydrating ourselves, clothing ourselves, housing ourselves, cleansing ourselves, curing ourselves of illnesses and injuries, keeping ourselves comfortable and safe and informed and amused, and transporting ourselves hither and yon.
Simply put, if you’re reading these words, your way of life is the simplest that humans have ever lived.