I have been a reader of Wednesday Journal for many of its 40 years. The Journal is a local institution that offers value of many kinds: news of local events, organizations, people and government, exchange of views between writers and readers on large and small issues in the community and the larger world, plus — a huge plus — some truly scholarly writing comparable to academic journals, written with an eloquence that touches on the poetic.
In his piece, “In praise of the primitive” [News Commentary, July 29], Michael Romain put all of these qualities together. Starting with a story of an exceptional high school student who reads print newspapers, he makes a case for newspapers as vital to a democratic society and then broadens the lens to speak of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
He introduces us to Christopher Ryan’s book, Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress. Now Romain really had my attention as this is a book I read last year. I had given little thought to the forager societies and would have settled for the stereotype of them as primitive with much harder, shorter, and limited lives than modern humans. That is, until I read Ryan’s book and also the work of ecological economist John Gowdy, who edited a book titled: Limited Wants, Unlimited Means: A Reader On Hunter-Gatherer Economics And The Environment.
As Romain summarizes so well, the consensus among anthropologists who have studied these societies shows that they were mostly egalitarian, with a strong ethic of sharing, and a sustainable relationship with the earth. Communal sharing of information as well as resources was essential to their survival. In an immediate-return economy, they took what they needed from day to day without destroying the environment and without accumulating possessions, which would have been a hindrance in their mobile way of life.
Free of material possessions, they had considerable leisure to develop a rich communal life. One scholar, Marshall Sahlins, famously called them “the original affluent society.” Their more humane social and economic systems were based on cooperation, an emotional bond with the natural world, compassion for others, and fairness. We look at them now and see the values and beliefs that we urgently need to guide us if we are to heal our relationships with the earth and with one another.
There are certain features in WJ that I make sure to read, such as Ken Trainor’s inspiring columns and Dan Haley’s stimulating commentaries. Now I add Michael Romain’s thoughtful and rich perspectives. I think he has taken up residence on page 3, and I will look for him there each week.
Thanks for the 40 years and best wishes for many more.
Stephanie Ferrera, a family therapist, is an Oak Park resident.