One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally they reach a point where they can’t live without it. Let’s take another familiar example from our own time. Over the last few decades, we have invented countless time-saving devices that are supposed to make life more relaxed – washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, telephones, mobile phones, computers, email. Previously it took a lot of work to write a letter, address and stamp an envelope, and take it to the mailbox. It took days or weeks, maybe even months, to get a reply. Nowadays I can dash off an email, send it halfway around the globe, and (if my addressee is online) receive a reply a minute later. I’ve saved all that trouble and time, but do I live a more relaxed life?
Sadly not. Back in the snail-mail era, people usually only wrote letters when they had something important to relate. Rather than writing the first thing that came into their heads, they considered carefully what they wanted to say and how to phrase it. They expected to receive a similarly considered answer. Most people wrote and received no more than a handful of letters a month and seldom felt compelled to reply immediately. Today I receive dozens of emails each day, all from people who expect a prompt reply. We thought we were saving time; instead we revved up the treadmill of life to ten times its former speed and made our days more anxious and agitated.
Here and there a Luddite holdout refuses to open an email account, just as thousands of years ago some human bands refused to take up farming and so escaped the luxury trap. But the Agricultural Revolution didn’t need every band in a given region to join up. It only took one. Once one band settled down and started tilling, whether in the Middle East or Central America, agriculture was irresistible. Since farming created the conditions for swift demographic growth, farmers could usually overcome foragers by sheer weight of numbers. The foragers could either run away, abandoning their hunting grounds to field and pasture, or take up the ploughshare themselves. Either way, the old life was doomed.
The story of the luxury trap carries with it an important lesson. Humanity’s search for an easier life released immense forces of change that transformed the world in ways nobody envisioned or wanted. Nobody plotted the Agricultural Revolution or sought human dependence on cereal cultivation. A series of trivial decisions aimed mostly at filling a few stomachs and gaining a little security had the cumulative effect of forcing ancient foragers to spend their days carrying water buckets under a scorching sun.
- Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens