Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. and Christe A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2019-20: Mondays and Wednesdays, 6:00 - 7:30 p.m. Eastern Time
“Resources” really doesn’t so much name one thing as serve as a handy label for all the different kinds of things that people interact with. They can include the elements of nature, other people, and even ideas or our collective historical heritage. They become more interesting to historians (and to people in general, however) in proportion to two variables: utility and scarcity. Things that are immensely useful but not rare (air, for example) are seldom considered resources—at least until they become rare, as may over the course of time happen. Things that are rare but not useful, similarly, like uranium ore in the fourteenth century, tend to be disregarded—at least until they become useful, as also may happen over time.
The most fundamental resource, and the one that most prominently defined the growth of civilizations of all sorts from the very beginning, was the earth and its features. Geography—not the analytical discipline, but the lay of the land itself—was of such enormous importance to the earliest civilizations that one may fairly conclude that there were certain geographical criteria that effectively controlled where a civilization might arise. There are exceptions to most of these rules, but they are few.
Second—and probably the first one to demand the attention of anyone, especially primitive man, on a day-to-day basis—is food. At least in a material sense, people (and any other living creatures, while you're at it) are made of food. That's a crude but effective way of looking at it, and while there are doubtless many higher aspirations for humans in the long history of our planet, none of them can be pursued over the long haul in the absence of adequate food to nourish our animal natures. From the earliest manifestations of human culture, food, food sources, and the methods of gathering, storing, and preparing food dominate in the archeological record. This continues without interruption to our day. Even now, our methods of producing and distributing food say vast amounts about our culture and society.
Third in this category would be those things we consider “natural resources” in the broader vocabulary of the twentieth century, such as arable land and water, together with the weather phenomena that these things tend to engender, and then the ingredients that make possible the development of a material culture: supplies of things like wood, stone, and metal ores. These ingredients are always in the background of global economics, whether we’re talking about the rise of the Bronze Age cultures or about the presence of petroleum in the Middle East today. Humanity consumes resources. They may do so responsibly, and (ideally) in some sustainable way, or they may do so recklessly. It will never be the case that it doesn’t happen, however.
Fourth, we may consider humanity itself as a resource. Virtually every business of any size nowadays has a “human resources”department. The category seems a little dehumanizing to some—considering people as means rather than as ends is vaguely disturbing on a certain view—but the reality is that we are all necessarily means as well as ends. If we do not aid in accomplishing something, we’re of very little value to the rest of the world.
Fifth, there are the things that are human creations: supplies of various goods, as well as services or the capacities to perform certain tasks. Those are not resources in the same way as a supply of timber or metal ore, but they are resources all the same. They are means to ends.
As a sixth category, we might insert one of humanity’s most enduring and fascinating inventions—and one of its most troublesome: money. Money is posited as a medium of exchange—or so we’re told. That’s entirely what it is. It is a way of normalizing value. How people go about normalizing value—that is, making so many bushels of wheat equivalent in value to that many automobile tires or so many hours of janitorial service—is what it’s for. The interesting thing about money, of course, is that people seem so eager to get it, and yet it has in and of itself (qua money) no real value. That is, there may be some practical use for the gold in a gold coin, but that’s not a function of its money-ness—insofar as it’s money, a paper dollar bill has worth of an equivalent sort, but it’s not actually worth much. As paper to write on, it’s mostly wasted, since the surface is covered with ink already, and it’s hard to see what other good it could provide. And though most people seem eager to acquire money, its only conceivable value is in the spending of it. There’s a conundrum here that we might try to work out, though one expects that it won’t be easy.
As Douglas Adams said: “This planet has—or rather had—a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which was odd, because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.”
And as Jesus said, “The love of money is the root of all evil.” This has often been rendered inaccurately as “Money is the root of all evil,” and it’s not entirely clear that it means that every evil the world has experienced is descended somehow from money or the love of it (which seems unlikely) but merely that the love of money—misplaced as it is—could lead to every known sort of evil.
In either case, however, money has been problematic and fascinating since its invention, and it shows no signs of becoming suddenly irrelevant to our condition.
Finally, there are the most intangible of resources (of which money may be a special case), namely the intellectual ones. These are the ideas we have, and on which we build. To catalogue them or assess them in any very disciplined way is probably impossible, but they include the ideas that so largely frame our day-to-day existence—such as our ideas of the state, of family structure, of right and wrong, good and evil. Virtually all our institutions and all our laws are in fact nothing more than ideas. (This is not to deprecate them or dismiss their value; it’s merely to see how they fit in with the rest.) Language is possibly the most complex base tool—it’s the currency, so to speak, of intellectual exchange of every sort. It underlies and gives shape to every culture; there has never been a culture that has not had a language.
As noted, resources come in for our special attention when they are both valuable and when they are subject to some degree of scarcity. Once these conditions are met, however, the movement, acquisition, and distribution of these resources becomes a matter of enormous moment. Some people have viewed the entirety of history along this axis alone; while I am generally unwilling to concede that point, it’s beyond a doubt of considerable importance. Money is only one of the things that comes into question, though it can often serve as a kind of mask for others. But with money also comes a degree of power—potestas, one might say, though it is usually dependent at least indirectly on the ius and imperium of the state or body that issues the money.
“Culture” is almost a catchall term used to signify a range of things, but usually those things representing a society or group of people acting collectively upon itself. There are no clear boundaries to what we might call culture, but there are a few important clusters of meaning within the term that we can analyze and examine in a variety of social contexts.
One of the first things identified by anthropologists and archaeologists is what we call material culture—namely, those things that we create and use in our daily lives. For the archaeologist examining prehistoric culture, this will consist of primitive tools and any other artifacts that the people have created either to improve their lives or to amuse themselves. In later cultures, this remains relatively constant, though the range of artifacts and tools certainly explodes, and some of these become themselves vehicles for other kinds of culture. The invention of the book, for example, had a momentous influence on human history, and its implications have yet to be fully understood.
Under this heading we must subsume virtually all that we identify as technology. That ranges from the simplest chipped stone arrowheads to today’s supercomputers and networks. We can ask of almost any society what it has invested in its technology, and how much the tool has become an autonomous force for shaping its society in its turn.
Certainly one of the earliest distinguishing characteristics of humanity, separating it apparently from most other forms of animal, is the capacity for articulate speech. This is certainly an area in which a great deal of investigation has been done; the human capacity to communicate complex ideas and relations between ideas is itself foundational to virtually all other human activity, especially such activity as people engage in collectively. It would be hard to overestimate the significance of language as a determiner of human cultures; language has been used to exalt and to degrade, to enlighten and to obfuscate, to persuade, to move, to dominate, and to instruct. It remains perhaps the most versatile tool we have ever had at our disposal, and it is one that is constantly undergoing evolution and alteration.
Language is in some ways the vehicle through which most other human activities are pursued. Language and its use lie at the core of our religious institutions, our civic institutions and laws, and virtually every other undertaking that requires collaborative effort or mutual assent.
We will look somewhat at language and its origins—both the evolution of speech and the remarkable invention of written language, which has allowed voices of people long dead to remain active and persuasive across long distances of time and space.
From some intersection of our capacity for language and our inner lives have emerged speculations and revelations about what is important, what is good, and what is true beyond what we might make of them. These encompass aspects of our lives that do not always submit easily to linguistic definition, since they range from the self-negating reflections of the mystic to well as the pragmatic philosophies of social utilitarians. They are, however, necessarily among the most important pieces of our makeup. At various times and places throughout the range of human cultures, people have placed great stock in or reliance upon these things; at others, less. We will investigate these, and look at how they emerged and transformed societies into which they came.
Finally we find floating atop all this the layer of human creativity that often comes under the name of “culture” without further modification. Here we would include all human forays into the arts—plastic or pictorial art, music, poetry, storytelling, and so on. There seems to be little limit on the extent to which human ingenuity will go in pursuing these arts; some have written them off as negligible ornaments to a culture that has more serious business at hand, while others have considered them the fruit and essential highest achievement of humanity. Whatever one concludes about them, it seems to be the case that they are and will be with us for as long as we are human: we have artistic products and representations surviving from the earliest cultures we know. They seem to express collectively our aspirations, wishes, conflicts, doubts, and uncertainties back to ourselves in a way that lets us examine them and consider them fruitfully. These so-called objects of “high culture” themselves engage all the other layers we have discussed: material culture, language, and intellectual culture. How each society has chosen to deal with its art tells us a great deal about the society; how we choose to deal with the art of our own culture and of other cultures may yet teach us a great deal about ourselves.
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