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Modes of production and minke whaling: The case of Iceland
by Gísli Pálsson
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The Hunter And The Primitivist Fallacy
  A longstanding tradition in Western discourse classifies hunters and gatherers as 'food collectors' operating outside society. Thus, Marx and Engels argued that humans 'begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence' (cited in Ingold 1988: 270). From this perspective, hunters and gatherers are not 'producers' of food, as they simply consume what nature provides, unlike agriculturalists who really transform their means of subsistence. By extension, hunter-gatherers are permanently in the state of nature.
  Few people nowadays may subscribe to such a view. And yet many people are committed to a view of 'simple' societies that logically seems to lead to a similar conclusion. Some anthropologists and many environmentalists assume that the members of simple societies are above all 'rational' beings who always find the right solutions to their problems. This notion is reflected in the primitivist fallacy of ecological functionalism which assumes that simple societies are closed systems in perfect harmony with their environment (see Ellen 1982: 73). 'They' adapt and ensure the sustenance of renewable resources while 'we' ruin the environment and drive the ecosystem out of balance and control. Given such assumptions, in 'simple' societies people always develop sound analyses of ecology and environmental problems, unable to make mistakes. As McGoodwin remarks, this is 'practically a cliché in the litearature concerned with preindustrial peoples' (1990:56). The behaviour of hunters and gartherers, especially, is assumed to be responsive to ecological relations.
  To some extent, perhaps, this view was necessary to redress the balance, to contest the earlier, ethnocentric view of Tylorian intellectualists, for whom 'primitives' were disadvantaged, badly informed, and generally seriously misguided in their efforts to understand the world (Kuper 1988). The image of hunters and gatherers as lay ecologists, then, has replaced their image as primitives (see Bettinger 1991). However, the model of the lay ecologist is equally simplistic. It, too, assumes that material context largely accounts for what hunter-gatherers do. They are no longer, perhaps, regarded as fossils from the remote past, but they clearly adapt to the ecological conditions that prevail. They are no longer at the 'edge' of subsistence, but unlike us they are permanently in the state of nature.
  Such an idea is illustrated by Mauss's work (1979[1906]) on the coastal economy of the Inuit, an early work that to some extent anticipates the modern model of the lay ecologist. Mauss's analysis hinges on the simple ecological observation that the Inuit as well as the animals they hunt disperse and concentrate according to season:
  In summary, summer opens up an almost unlimited area for hunting and fishing, while winter narrowly restricts this area. This alternation provides the rhythm of concentration and dispersion for the morphological organization of Eskimo society. The population congregates or scatters like the game. The movement that animates Eskimo society is synchronised with that of the surrounding life (Mauss 1979:56).
  During the summer, the Inuit are isolated and fragmented. According to Mauss, 'there is no religion' since the myths that 'fill the consciousness of the Eskimo during the winter appear to be forgotten during the summer' (p. 75). 'Life', he adds, 'is that of the layman'. During the winter, on the other hand, when the population congregates, there is a 'genuine community of ideas'. The contrast between summer and winter, then, parallels that between individual and society. In the individual mode, during the summer, the Inuit are 'lost children, as it were' (Mauss 1979:52), providing for themselves as individuals. The isolated hunters or fishermen keep their kill to themselves without having to consider anyone else. During the winter, on the other hand, individuals become social beings. The producers become subject to strict rules concerning the distribution of food. Food is collectively shared within a settlement rather than being limited to the individual or nuclear family. This suggests that the Inuit are perennially split between the individual and collective, the natural and social. In winter there is a lot of society in the individual; in summer, much less. Given such distinctions, hunting must take place in nature. The appropriation of nature only becomes social when the resources extracted from nature enter relations of sharing or exchange among groups (Pálsson 1991: Ch. 1).
  The idea of subsistence hunters as lay ecologists or 'noble savages' operating ouside, or on the margin of, society in an isolated world of their own has often appeared in recent debates on animal rights. While animal rights activists like to think of themselves as the spokespersons for indigenous hunters, they often misconstrue the hunters' thinking and way of life, as anthropologists have recently pointed out. Animal rights activists share the hunters' respect for animals and their concern with environmental problems, but in many other respects the two groups are likely to disagree. Trapped in objectivist, Western discourse on science and the Other, animal rights activists make a fundamental distinction between 'them' (indigenous hunters) and 'us' (Euro-Americans), between nature and society, and between animals and humans. This contrasts sharply with the ways in which hunters themselves often represent their relations with society and the animate world. Thus, Inuit and Cree think of themselves as being in communion with nature, animals, and fellow humans (see Wenzel 1991). In their view, there is no fundamental distinction between nature and society, animals are regarded as social persons, and to kill them is a sign of responsibility and not a criminal act, at least as long as certain technical and ritual conditions are met.
  The environmentalist view may express charitable and humanitarian motives. However, it is not an objective account of the real world but an ethnocentric statement grounded in the historical realities of particular groups of Euro-Americans. Humans, whatever their mode of production or subsistence, are simultaneously part of nature and society.
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Modes of production and minke whaling: The case of Iceland, by Gísli Pálsson.
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