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An Island To Oneself

It's fun to imagine living life's extremes.  The archetype of the hermit or the brainwashed cult member have been well explored in the popular media. beach_sceneSo few people actually live these kinds of lives, that when we discover one, we often dismiss them simply as 'crazy'.

However, just as the Unabomber's Manifesto is surprisingly lucid, so is the life story of another man who left society behind.

In 1952, Tom Neale, a white man living in the South Pacific decided to go it alone on Suvarov atoll.

This is the story of the years which I spent alone, in two spells on an uninhabited coral atoll half a mile long and three hundred yards wide in the South Pacific. It was two hundred miles from the nearest inhabited island, and I first arrived there on October 7, 1952 and remained alone (with only two yachts calling) until June 24, 1954, when I was taken off ill after a dramatic rescue.
- Tom Neale

Part Robinson Crusoe, part every man, his story was available in a fascinating book An Island To Oneself. To see the pictures that go along with this book (and hold it in your hands), try Amazon.

A popular science fiction premise offers a society where people have co-evolved with their technology until they depend on it for survival but no longer posess the knowledge to maintain or repair it. These stories resonate not because they describe the a potential future, but because they describe our lives today. 

How many of us could build from scratch the technology we use to survive?  What does it mean to live without technology?

Naked from head to toe, wandering through the environment searching out food isn't easy. The most primitive Hunter gatherer societies are far more advanced.  Plants, roots, fruit, bugs and animals need to be obtained with bare hands. One must drink water from the local watering hole (Notice how animals can drink from contaminated water but we cannot?). One must sleep on the bare earth or, at best, on the branches of trees.

It's possible, given the proper climate, to survive using just your wits but, would you want to? Even in Amazonia or New Guinea, where stone-age level tribes exist, these people do not live alone. Unlike say, orangutans, who lead solitary lives except for mating, humans are social animals.

Rousseau's noble savages supposedly lived in complete harmony with nature. They take from it only what they need to survive. They don't destroy the environment unnecessarily. They live stress-free lives without concern for their next meal or the uncertainty of tomorrow.  Even if these people existed (and they don't), real hunter gatherers endure fragile lives we'd find hard to swallow: their children die from curable diseases, they must practice infanticide for population control, and they are continuously at war with other neighboring tribes. They are killed, en masse, by floods, fires, famine, drought, and disease.

These people seem to be in a stone age stasis - not developing new technologies and finding their existing community size, social structure, and survival methods to be sufficient for each generation's foreseeable future. But, when the human hunger for novelty and change is taken into account, these cultures appear stagnant.

The original 'march of progess' began when three events coincided in a single generation: The climate was cooperative so there was enough food for all. Populations grew large enough that tribal governance was no longer effective and a layered social hierarchy formed. Then, there was an 'idle class' which was, coincidentally, of an experimental mindset.  New ideas were valued and embraced.

This confluence occurred throughout history's cultures in a herky jerky start/stop fashion. Two steps forward, one step back. Eventually climate, disease, war, or other calamity put on the brakes until a new period of innovation arrived. Cultures readily borrowed from the inventions of their neighbors.

During the western Renaissance, a new awareness of progress appeared in western culture. No longer waiting for the return of God's kingdom on Earth, the growing wealth of the mercantile class was used to embed knowledge creation into a permanent cultural institution.  Academia was born.

Despite the wealth of knowledge and education at our fingertips, living alone and 'off the grid' isn't easy. How far will you get without raw materials? Many successful cultures have flourished because of dumb luck in being positioned close to crucial resources when they were needed.

Here's a simple thought experiment: Need metal? No problem. First, harvest clay from silted riverbeds. Dry it in the sun and build a smelter. Chop wood, harvest more clay and manufacture enough charcoal to fuel the smelter. A bellows made from wood and animal skins will be helpful here. Now, find ore bearing rocks and pick them by hand from the surface. Carry them from miles away into the smelter and process the ore. Use more clay and sand to design molds for your metal tools. Use these starter tools to forge more complex forms.

How do you find the ore? How do you feed yourself while you're looking?

Technology is a one-way ticket towards increasing complexity and this truth scares the bejesus out of survivalist types. I may be able to mine my own metals from the earth but, regardless of preparation, I'll have a hard time turning it into a spool of wire.

Stockpiling goods and tools, the 'natural resources' of our technological society, may help one to survive for a lifetime, maybe two. But then things fall apart.  Your grandchildren will be left with nothing.

Tom Neale, one of the few to really 'go it alone' was living in the ideal climate with no need for shelter. Yet, he brought amples stocks to his island:

Flour, sugar, yams, condensed milk, coffee beans, biscuits, tinned beef, beef drippings, rice, salt, tea, butter, tobacco, rolling papers, pepper, curry powder, crockery, cutlery, glasses, can openers, bowls, hurricane lantern, glass lamp, coffee grinder, coffee pot, dishclothes, tea towels, teapot, screw top glass jars for storage, iron kettle, linoleum flooring, wicks, matches, kerosene, volcanic fire stones, books, laundry soap, washing soap, malted milk powder, long trousers, shorts, shirts, pareus (a sort of native sarong), sandles, raincoat, razors, shaving brush, toothbrush, toothpaste, pocket knife, mattress, sheets, blankets, pillows, towels, needle and thread, sneakers, paper, ink, pen nibs, envelopes, calendar, barometer, flat iron strips, fishing pole, hooks, fishing line, spears, pick, shovel, tin containers, crowbar, chisel, hacksaw, carpenter's saw, axe, tomahawk, machetes, sheath knife, pliers, screwdriver, hammer, files, vice, paint, iron rod, bandages, bandaids, plaster, fever pills, antiseptic, sweet potato shoots, banana shoots, cucumber, cantelope, watermelon, runner bean and spinach seeds. Oh, and a cat to eat any rats.

Reading Tom's story one comes to realize that, despite nature's bounty (coconuts, fish, crabs, breadfruit, etc), we cannot survive (or wouldn't want to survive) without technology and the creature comforts it offers. Nor would we want to go it alone. To have any efficient technology, we must have a working society. There's simply not enough time to build it all from scratch.

At one point in Tom's book he describes how, despite ample food, it is difficult for him to maintain nutrition and a healthy weight. Tom wasn't getting too fat.  He was razor thin.  After his modern food stores run out, his island diet is too monotonous and predictable. He became so bored of the food, he stopped eating enough to survive.

I look at Tom as a reality check on Robinsoe Crusoe. Crusoe took his predicament as an opportunity to show himself how an enterprising capitalist such as himself could pull himself up from his own bootstraps.  Yet most of his advances came from collecting and repurposing the cargo of English shipwrecks!

As cogent as the Unabomber's Manifesto is on ideas of society, interdependency, and the dangers of technology, it is also irrelevant. You can vacation on a deserted island, but even Tom Neale couldn't stay there forever.

August 3, 2004 in Travel | Permalink