Click here to return to the author's website:

The Human World is too Small to Contain Itself

The Human World is too Small to Contain Itself


BY You-Sheng Li, (9 November 2012)



The grave seemed too narrow for what it was to contain, and the human world is too small to contain itself. 

When I was sitting in front of my living room window, I often observed squirrels in the park beside my house. There are dozens of them, and they all are in a great shape, neither fat nor thin but healthy. Do they all live a healthy lifestyle? They spend a minor part of their life looking for food but the rest, idling around nonstop. If we call the former their working hours and the latter their spare time, they enjoy their spare time by physical exercise, exploring their world of grass and trees. As to food searching, they are apparently very picky.  When they have found something to eat, they examine it carefully at a leisurely pace. They throw the parts that are not delicious enough, and often than not, they discard the whole thing and then move around looking again.

Once I saw on TV a scene of native people who lived in the Amazon jungle and did not wear any clothes except their natural skin. It struck me that they were also uniformly in a great shape, neither fat nor thin. To an outside observer, they are indistinguishably the same. I have never seen a gathering of so many healthy human bodies except for soldiers and athletes who are apparently highly selected groups while the native people are not.

Before the invention of agriculture and stockbreeding some ten thousand years ago, our ancestors, the so-called modern home sapiens had successfully managed a life like squirrels by gathering and hunting. A minor ethnic people called the !Kung lived in South Africa until the 1960s when their homeland was transformed by modern industrialization. According to the anthropologists who visited and studied them, the !Kung were hunters and gatherers who lived a primitive but affluent life. They managed to provide themselves with a varied and well-balanced diet based on a selection from among the food sources available in their environment. They classified more than one hundred species of plants as edible, but only fourteen are delicious enough to be called the primary or major. Some 70% of this diet consisted of vegetable foods; 30% was meat. Women provided about 55% of the diet, and men provided 45%, including meat. To do this, the !Kung spent an average of 2.4 days or about twenty hours per adult per week, in food-collecting activities, most of it undertaken at a leisurely pace. They consumed about 2355 calories per day. About 10 percent of the !Kung people were over 60 years of age compared to 5% in contemporary agricultural countries such as Brazil and India. Medical examination showed them to be healthy. Their population was stable, neither increasing nor decreasing while the less healthy populations of India and Brazil were increasing rapidly.   They lived in small bands with an average of 31 persons each. Their leader was a powerless figure and could not force his will on others. When the anthropologists asked the !Kung people whether they had “headmen” in the sense of powerful chiefs, they replied immediately to show they had the concept in their minds already.

“Of course we have headmen! In fact we are all headmen…each one of us is headman over himself,” they said. This is the best illustration of how the word freedom is understood in a primary society setting.

Anthropologists believe that humans only began to work after the invention of agriculture and stockbreeding some ten thousand years ago, and only after civilization created an idle class to supervise other people’s work, did humans work as hard as today’s people, whose hours of working are much longer than the time for their recreation and relaxing. Is our working as healthy as the idling around of those gatherers and hunters? No way. I used to sit in front of the microscope for so long that I developed so-called frozen shoulders. Many of our work carry such hazards, since they often require us to repeat the same movement in the same position. Our picky habit at what I are eating has however remained the same from those gatherers and hunters to today. 40% of the food we bought from grocery stores ends in garbage cans for squirrels. Being picky on food, squirrels and the !Kung have to move around on their own while we move around in car without moving our legs. As a result, obesity has prevailed all over the world.

Worldwide obesity has more than doubled since 1980. In 2008, more than 1.4 billion adults, 20 and older, were overweight. 65% of the world's population live in countries where overweight and obesity kill more people than underweight. More than 40 million children under the age of five were overweight in 2010. The United States has the highest obesity rates in the developed world. 45% of adult Americans were overweight, and 33% of adult Americans were obese. The rates are as high as 50% among African American women.

If everyone on earth live their lives like Americans do, we need five earths. Inspired by the fact that our world is become too small due to recent population explosion, a popular estimation had been circulated around the world for decades, saying: 75% humans who have ever been born to Earth are alive today. Now we know, some 106 billion modern home sapiens were born and 7 billions living today. Half of the remaining 99 billion died at infancy, and a quarter was eaten by beasts including the ones created by civilization but instead of beasts, they are in another name, wars and related disasters. Apart from those who were too primitive to know burying rituals and those who practice cremation and so on, my estimation is that humans have dug the number of grave holes less than the living population today. But you guess what, one thing is certain: The graves humans have dug out are too narrow for what they are going to contain.

(This essay was written with the prerequisite that the essay has to start with the sentence: The grave seemed too narrow for what it was to contain.)