Is Oil to Arabs as Bison Were to Indians?
Reading the Handwriting on the Wall
BY JOHN BADEN
Americans born in the post WWII period quite naturally believe ever increasing wealth is normal—for it has been. And most economists assume that due to the complementary forces of technology and productivity, wealth and well being are on a continuously upward trajectory.
If we’ll grow ever richer, why sacrifice for wealthier descendents? Perhaps economists are correct and current travails are only minor corrections.
We may experience a continued expansion of wealth covering our actuarial and infrastructural deficits, which amount to about ten times our annual GNP. After all, while average folks in 1800 were materially no better off than those 10,000 years earlier, we wallow in comparative luxury. The average American in the bottom quarter has far more material goods, in both quantity and quality, than those in the top quarter in 1950. Perhaps this will go on.
Alternatively, we may be the beneficiaries of an odd conjunction of events, endowments, and forces. Consider the Plains Indians, they were a small, disparate, and impoverished collection of subsistent peoples until, quite suddenly, their economy exploded with wealth. Their neglected story holds lessons for today.
The storied Plains Indian nomadic culture and economy didn’t emerge until the middle of the eighteenth century. Until they acquired powerful means to exploit their environment—specifically the horse, gun, and steel knife—Indians on the plains were sparsely populated, a few bands of agrarians hovering on the margins of subsistence. Their primary foods were maize, squash, and beans.
Hunting bison on foot was a sorry proposition and incidental to crops. It couldn’t support a substan-tial population. When the occasional bison was killed, it was used in its entirety. Skins provided houses, garments, and ropes; sinew made thread for sewing; bones made awls; and bladders became jugs. Buffalo supplemented their vegetable diet.
Horses fundamentally transformed this life. Indians obtained their first horses from the Spanish in 1598, and by 1800 horses had spread north to the Shoshone in Wyoming. They were no longer impoverished and weak. They could confront their traditional enemies, the Crow. Most importantly, they had the bonanza of the bison.
As horses and horse culture spread, the disparate tribes surroun-ding the plains from Texas to Alberta poured into it. These groups were diverse: Athabas-kans, Comanche, Arikara, and perhaps 20 others representing five language groups.
By 1800, their obvious cultural differences were melded into a common Plains Indian culture. All oriented their lives around the buffalo hunt. Herds could now be pursued on horseback and only the best, not the sick or lame, bison were taken. The entire animal was no longer utilized. Indians suddenly had the luxury of waste.
This economy was so powerful that nomadic bison hunters displaced farmers. Plains Indians came to rely on traders for clothing, firearms, and cooking utensils.
They didn’t have time to evolve a culture to accommodate their eco-nomic revolution. Elaborate rituals emerged and status depended on wealth and martial prowess. Permanent villages disappeared, and with them farming. With rifles more effective than bows, an armament race ensued.
Theirs was a cultural crescendo lasting but a few generations, effectively ending shortly after our Civil War and the Indian wars that followed. We suffer the results today. Independent of the cause or blame for failure, one fact stands out: cultures maladapted to changed circumstances won’t thrive.
The Arab countries with large oil and gas deposits offer a parallel. Until 1973 when their crude brought $2.00 a barrel, the now immensely wealthy Arabic countries were poor indeed. Decades ago reading ethnography, I recall this observation, probably by a British anthropologist writing before 1960: if the Arabic societies become rich, their cultures will rupture.
Both they and the Plains Indians experienced sudden huge economic expansions. Both developed undiversified economies with one primary product, bison and BTUs. A single focus creates huge societal risk; knowledge of earlier means of production soon dissipates and cultural constraints on excess erode.
Of course neither example quite represents America today. Our danger arises from institutions enabling politicians to distribute present benefits to the detriment of future taxpayers. This is ethically wrong and unsustainable. The reality checks of finance will inevitably emerge exposing opportunistic political promises, our democracy’s dominant expression.