The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? is a massive book that gently reminds us of how we can look at non-Western societies to help us handle the many areas of life where technology cannot make a difference and where our needs may not be so different from those in traditional societies.
There are some gems in this book. I thought the ideas around creating connections, rendering justice, and healing rifts were particularly interesting. We almost instinctively try to find common ground with strangers, and it is indeed a way to create a connection, just as effective in traditional societies where everyone knows everyone else as in today’s anonymous metropolises. And we would probably do well to use mediation and restorative justice rather than the rather ineffective forms of legal action.
Other ideas are less successful. Life in many traditional societies is short and brutal. Many, for instance, allow or order older people to walk away or let themselves die when they become dependent; while we could treat older people better today, these traditional practices seem simply horrifying. And if raising children in a traditional way requires mothers to live within arm length of a child for several years, I can think of a few modern women who may object to that wisdom, however successful traditional mothers may be… Finally, the overall organization of the book seems rather sloppy, with a blow-by-blow account of the Deni wars in Papua New Guinea (yawn!) and numerous repeats throughout the book. Could have used a ruthless editor!