The Limits to Living Off the Land


Alastair Bland once took an Anthropology class at UC Santa Barbara.

Hunter-gatherers, I learned, live freer lives, with more leisure time, than agriculturalists. Twelve to eighteen hours per person per week is all time needed by the famous !Kung people of the Kalahari Desert, for example, to collect all the food they need. This leaves more time for reflection and relaxation than most people in our affluent society ever have—the !Kung don't need to work to pay rent.

So Bland tried a spicy experiment—live entirely off the land and sea, for 80 days and 80 nights of spear-fishing and fig-plucking. His account is fascinating, and contains some cautionary examples of how getting back to pre-agricultural life ain't all that:

I got some inspiring encouragement from a number of individuals during My Project. They marveled at how great it was and exclaimed that they would some day try to do something similar. They thought it was a good thing to boycott the American market and a shame more people didn't appreciate nature's bounty the way I did. These, though, were usually just acquaintances of mine. The people closest to me, more often than not, criticized what I was doing. They said I was becoming weird and that my obsession was taking over my life. They said that I was alienating myself and that all I ever did was gather, cook, and eat. And I think that if I had had more close friends I would have heard this kind of talk even more often.

The truth is, I almost agreed. Even now I don't believe what I did was very constructive. It was a memorable time in my life, to be sure, and it was a good thing to have tried. But to carry on like that forever would have been, for me, social suicide. To be an individual hunter-gatherer in America is to lead a lonely life. [?]

[E]ven when full and satiated and liberated from the physical desire for food, I couldn't relax, I was held captive by thoughts of food. I sometimes dreamed of figs and climbing around in trees.