The breakthrough idea

Steven Welzer
4 min readAug 30, 2020


There have always been some people, a small minority, who wondered if perhaps the simpler lifeways of the aboriginals is better — or, at least, in some ways better. Rousseau, Thoreau. Maybe Benjamin Franklin wondered why when he noted:

“Our every attempt to civilize the Indians has failed. In their present way of living, almost all their wants are supplied by the spontaneous productions of nature, with the addition of very little labour, if hunting and fishing may indeed be called labour when game is so plentiful. They visit us frequently and see what we call the “advantages” that our culture and social organization procure us. They have never shown any inclination to change their manner of life for ours. When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and participates even briefly with them, there is no persuading him ever to return. On the other hand, when white persons have been taken prisoner at a young age by the Indians, and lived a while among them, if we attempt to bring them back — and treat them with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English — yet in a short time they become disgusted with our manner of life. They can see how burdensome it is, and they take the first good opportunity of escaping again into the woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them. One instance I remember to have heard: The person was brought home to possess a good Estate; but upon realizing the care necessary to keep it together, he relinquished it to a younger brother, reserving to himself nothing but a gun and a match-coat, with which he took his way again to the wilderness and the Indian community.”

* * * *

Nonetheless, among the vast majority of Europeans the idea had been: The Indians (and aboriginals in general) lived as they did because they were not (yet) able to ascend to the civilizational level of development. Left unattended they probably would, eventually, get there, but, when encountered during the sixteenth century, they were far behind us — and so, if we can help them take two steps “up” at a time rather than one, they’ll get there faster and be better off.

A breakthrough, radically contrary, viewpoint about this is found in the writings of twentieth century writers like Stanley Diamond, Marshall Sahlins, Helena Norberg-Hodge, Pierre Clastres, Fredy Perlman. They broach ideas like:

(a) The simpler lifeways were superior. They were communitarian, egalitarian, and ecologically sustainable.

(b) Aboriginals lived the way they did not because they were “primitives” or “savages” or “unable to advance” or “unable to envision advancement.” Rather: there was an intentionality that was sagacious and profound.

It’s not that they had a sense to compare their simplicity to civilized complexity. It was just that their lifeways were natural, ecological, sustainable, and satisfying enough. The way they lived seemed to be, was felt to be, the appropriate human way to live.

The breakthrough idea for us civilized moderns is: Perhaps it is, in fact, the appropriate human way to live.

Under the influence of that idea, a new avenue of inquiry among anthropologists and other social scientists and theorists was to consider an intentionality. For example, when looked for, there is evidence that they intentionally controlled their population levels.

When looked for, there is evidence that they sensed the social toxicity of Power. There were, of course, tribal leaders, valued roles, authority based on expertise, etc. But the idea that a person or a select group would attain any coercive power over others was anathema. It’s a sagacious mindset to sense that it’s a toxic phenomenon and should be resisted.

When looked for, there is evidence that such was resisted.

It’s not that they reasoned it out. It was the natural sensibility, the natural inclination — to keep things small, local, and simple. A case can be made that that is, indeed, the natural way, the obvious way, the straightforward way: Resist going in the direction of power, wealth accumulation, social stratification, expansionism, “development.”

The breakthrough new idea sees their way as superior rather than inferior.

Quite a paradigm shift:


First published in 1992, The Way is Edward Goldsmith’s magnum opus. In it, he proposes that the stability and integrity of humans depend on the preservation of the balance of natural systems surrounding the individual, family, community, society, ecosystem, and the ecosphere itself. Portraying life processes and ecological thinking as holistic, Goldsmith calls for a shift away from the reductionist approach of modern science and development. The basic belief in the whole was at the heart of the worldview of traditional, earth-oriented societies, as manifested by the Tao of the ancient Chinese, the R’ta of Vedic India, the Asha of the Avestas, and the Sedaq of the tribal Hebrews. The Way was the path taken to maintain the critical order of the cosmos. Goldsmith presents an all-embracing, coherent worldview that promotes more harmonious and sustainable practices capable of satisfying real biological, social, ecological, and spiritual needs.



Steven Welzer

The editor of Green Horizon Magazine, Steve has been a movement activist for many years (he was an original co-editor of DSA’s “Ecosocialist Review”).