In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
When I set out to write it, I was thinking more in terms of doing a corrective on popular literature on the Bushmen. Historically the Bushmen have been a canvas that people have projected their primitivist fantasies on, and you end up with this stereotypical, two-dimensional, almost dehistoricized view of who they are. And I kept thinking, someone ought to do something better. I thought people might use it as a way to look at themselves from the perspective of a hunter-gatherer. In a sense, it was a more lighthearted thing, though there’s very little lighthearted about the Bushmen story.
As it evolved, it became more about big ideas: the origin of money, our sense of equality, our sense of time, and how these all integrate to create quite a sophisticated coherent view of our world, and in some ways quite a critical view. It shifted from being a far more localized book, an intimate insight into their world, and more into something that looked in a bigger way at some of the things that shaped our world.
Who is a creative person (not a writer) who has influenced you and your work?
It’s not so much a single person. Documentary photographers. I suppose the first one who ever got me thinking was Leni Riefenstahl, who was Hitler’s big propagandist. But she then went off and did this amazing photo series in southern Sudan on the Nuba. They’re some of the most intimate and extraordinary pictures. By then she was a disgraced little old lady.
To take a good photo, people have to be well at ease with you. You have to have a certain temperament. Which is why Riefenstahl is so surprising, this former Nazi sympathizer who got along with these Nubians and was let into some extremely intimate spaces.
And other photographers, particularly in the predigital era — the war photographers, like Don McCullin. They produced such vivid stuff, and there’s such skill in it. Everyone’s a photographer now. But in terms of proper reportage, documentary photography, there’s very little that comes close to the standing of the classics.
Persuade someone to read “Affluence Without Abundance” in less than 50 words.
If we judge a civilization’s success by its endurance over time, then the Bushmen are the most successful society in human history. Their experience of modernity offers insight into many aspects of our lives, and clues as to how we might address some big sustainability questions for the future.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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