Subsistence Essay

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Subsiste nce usually refers to obtaining the primary necessities for survival that may include water, medicine, clothing, and shelter as well as food. Typically, subsistence societies are traditional, small-scale, self-sufficient, rural and nonindustrial. Although such societies concentrate on the basic needs of the individual, household, and community, they may also engage in limited trade.

Geographer C. Daryll Forde, anthropologists Clark Wissler and Julian H. Steward, and many others have studied traditional indigenous subsistence economies since at least the early 20th century. Classic cases include those by Steward on Shoshoni and Paiute foragers (hunter-gatherers) in the western desert of the United States, Richard K. Nelson on Koyukon hunters in Alaskan forests, Fikret Berkes on Cree hunters and fishers in the eastern subarctic of Canada, Bernard Nietschmann on Miskito coastal fishers of Nicaragua, William J. Smole on Yanoama foragers and farmers of the Venezuelan Amazon, Richard A. Gould on Yiwara foragers of desert Australia, Roy A. Rappaport on Tsembaga Maring farmers of New Guinea, William H. Alkire on fishers of Lamotrek Atoll in Micronesia, Richard B. Lee on San foragers of the Kalahari desert in southern Africa, Stuart A. Marks on Bisa hunters of the Zambian savanna, E.E. Evans-Pritchard on Nuer herders in Sudan, Robert M. Netting on Kofyar swidden horticulturalists of Nigeria, and Harold C. Conklin on Hanunoo and Ifugao farmers in the Philippines.

Much of this research follows the cultural ecology developed by Steward wherein field research proceeds with first identifying the natural resources used by local communities at the individual and household levels; next by examining the technology and organization of labor to extract, process, and distribute these resources; and finally through considering how these factors in turn influence other components of culture as a system of adaptation to the natural environment.

Such research documents the fact that subsistence does not necessarily mean simple technology in a struggle for bare survival in a harsh environment. Traditionally, many subsistence societies actually enjoy a fairly high quality of life that is satisfying socially as well as nutritionally and includes considerable leisure time for other activities. Societies may focus on subsistence instead of the market to frugally pursue needs rather than greed, thereby in effect practicing voluntary simplicity. Such societies seek holistic paths to development, health, and happiness that contrast sharply with predatory capitalism and its accompanying consumerism. Consequently, studies of subsistence present challenges to the Western economic assumptions that scarcity, competition, and the profit motive are human universals.

A concentration on daily interaction with nature to satisfy life’s basic necessities tends to promote a sustainable and green society that avoids irreversible depletion of the natural resources and degradation of the ecosystems in its habitat. This is motivated and guided by an ecocentric world view with its associated values, attitudes, and behaviors that are usually environmentally benign. Most traditional subsistence economies developed ways to relate society and environment that promoted relative adaptive success for centuries or even millennia. Thus, the contemporary world still has much to learn about developing a viable human ecology from such cultures.


  1. John Bodley, Anthropology and Contemporary Human Problems (Mayfield Publishing Company, 2001);
  2. Tim Ingold, The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill (Routledge, 2000);
  3. Gerald G. Marten, Human Ecology: Basic Concepts for Sustainable Development (Earthscan, 2001);
  4. Jim Merkel, Radical Simplicity: Small Footprints on a Finite Earth (New Society Publishers, 2003);
  5. Emilio F. Moran, People and Nature: An Introduction to Human Ecological Relations (Blackwell Publishing, 2006);
  6. Mark Q. Sutton and E.N. Anderson, Introduction to Cultural Ecology (AltaMira Press, 2004).

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