Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Cultures

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Harris, Marvin. Cannibals and Kings: The Origins of Cultures. New York City: Random House, 1977. 2nd edition, New York City: Vintage Books, 1991.

Historical anthropology; at least as of early 2023, classified by Penguin/Random House under "Psychology | History."[1]

"Cultural contingencies: A review of Marvin Harris's Cannibals and Kings" by Ernest A. Vargas in the Journal of Experimental Analysis of Behavior 43.3 (May 1985): 419-428 is (as of date) available w/o charge in at least two formats from the US National Library of Medicine of the NIH, at link here.[2]

In general, looks at the pattern over human history of new technologies coming in — "technology" in a broad sense of techne or "technique" — allowing increase in human population, which in turn requires intensification of production, which, if successful, at least mitigates decreases in standards of living and allows further increases in population, and so on, for a variation of what others have called a Malthusian trap (Harris knows his Malthus, of course and Marx: see p. 185 of first edn., and Index).

In the latter chapters, Harris brings up issues more directly useful for background for SF writing of the period, especially of the dystopian sort where overpopulation, environmental issues, and/or despotism are featured. Quotations are from the first edition of 1977.

On the "Hydraulic Theory" of Karl A. Wittfogel and others, which we'll mention finds in history the folk motif of despotism through the hoarding of the waters (note MAD MAX: FURY ROAD): 

What Wittfogel's theory suggests [...] is that when certain kinds of state-level system of production undergo intensification [as in controlling irrigation], despotic forms of government may arise which can neutralize human will and intelligence for thousands of years. This implies further that the effective moment for conscious choice may exist only during the transition from one mode of production to another. After a society has made its commitment to a particular technological and ecological strategy for solving the problem of declining efficiency [of utilizing remaining resources], it may not be possible to do anything about the consequences of an unintelligent choice for a long time to come. (p. 163; ch. 13)

Note decisions against storing grain among the Riding Women in Suzy McKee Charnas's Holdfast Chronicles[3] and the broader issue of choosing technologies in Ursula K. Le Guin's Always Coming Home.

From Ch. 14 "The Origin of Capitalism"

Like the "big men" [of smaller cultures], entrepreneurs accumulate wealth by making their followers — now called employees — work harder. But unlike Solomon Island mumis, entrepreneurs did not have to beg, cajole, and entice. Possessing capital, the entrepreneur could buy "help" and hire "hands" (plus backs, shoulders, hands, feet, and brains). [...] The "help" assisted the entrepreneur not so they could all have a feast, but simply to keep from starving. In sum, the "big man" entrepreneur was free at last to regard the accumulation of capital as an obligation higher than the redistribution of wealth or the welfare of his followers.

Capitalism, then, is a system that is committed to an unbounded increase in production in the name of an unbounded increase in profits. Production however, cannot be increased in an unbounded way. [...] It has been the burden of this book to show that intensification inevitably leads to declining efficiencies [...., leading to] adverse effects upon the average standard of living [..., including "environmental depletions"]. (pp. 175-76)

For "hands" and intensification as industrial speedup, note METROPOLIS, for entrepreneurs and environmental depletion, see Pohl and Kornbluth's The Space Merchants.

The classic entrepreneurial response to a fall in the rate of profit is exactly the same as under any mode of production that has been over intensified. To compensate for environmental depletions and declining efficiencies [...], the entrepreneur seeks to lower the cost of production by introducing labor-saving machines. [...]

Thus a system that is committed to perpetual intensification can survive only if equally committed to perpetual technological change. Its ability to maintain living standards depends of the outcome of a race between technological advance and the relentless deterioration of the conditions of production. Under the present circumstances, technology is about to lose that race. (pp. 176, 177)

From Ch. 15, "The Industrial Bubble" (last chapter before the "Epilogue and Moral Soliloquy")

To sum up: We can now see how technology got the upper hand in the race against intensification, depletion, and declining efficiency. The industrial world tapped an enormous fresh supply of cheap energy at the same time that it was able to apportion this bonanza among a population that was increasing far below its reproductive potential. But the race if far from over. [...] We are slowly beginning to comprehend that a commitment to machines that run on fossil fuels is a commitment to depletions, declining efficiencies, and decline in rates of profits [...]. Coal and oil cannot be recycled; they can only be used up at a faster or slower rate. [...]

[Harris's warning is centrally for depleting supplies of relatively-easily accessed oil and coal; he doesn't mention natural gas on the one hand, but, understandably, misses climate change on the other.] How fast and how low standards of living in the industrial nations will fall depends on how long conversion to alternative energy sources sources is delayed. [....] In the face of inevitable and imminent shortages of fossil fuels, we are not yet cutting back on the rate at which we are squandering these resources. In fact, we are still rapidly expanding the scope of fossil fuel technologies and attempting to compensate for rising prices with more and more lavish injections of fossil fuels into "labor saving" machines and production processes.

Food production, to take the most critical example, has now become totally dependent on our oil supply. [... The "green revolution"] is an oil revolution in which higher crop yields per acre have been made possible by continuous injections of vast amounts of fossil fuel energy into the production of plant varieties specially bred for their ability to respond to petroleum inputs.

[...] If the rest of the world were suddenly to adopt the energy ratios [of calories needed to produce the calories grown/raised] of U.S. agriculture [and meat production], all known reserves of petroleum would be exhausted in eleven years. Or, to put it in a slightly different form: the faster the under-developed world industrializes, the sooner the industrial world must develop a new mode of production. (pp. 188-89)

Again, see for environmental SF, e.g., much of the canon of Kim Stanley Robinson.[4]

RDE, finishing, 21Jan23