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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly], Philosophy

Now that Cavemen Have Conquered the Earth…

By Ooi Kee Beng; Penang Monthly Editorial September, 2018

When we were cavemen, we lived in caves.

And in the thousands of years since then, we have lived in everything else – from lean-tos to tents to log cabins to mud huts to houses and to condominiums.

But in essence, we have remained the same. We have always needed shelter to retreat to, and to keep wild elements at bay and dangerous beasts at a distance.

Man’s Great Innovation

It has not been given due credit, but the idea of constructing shelter wherever we went was one of the greatest innovations that humankind had ever made. Mobile caves were indeed a great idea. It made it possible for us to expand into territories that were once beyond our reach. We could now conquer all the spaces on Earth – to the detriment of most other species, of course. (That’s why we still like to say that we “conquer” extreme terrains and last frontiers like Mount Everest, always thanks to the mobile home, be it a tent or something else)

Unlike hermit crabs that occupy discarded shells as their homes as they grow in size, we humans learned to incessantly build shelters of our own in order to house ourselves as we migrated in search of seasonal or permanent resources. We no longer had to return to our natural caves when night fell.

As hunter-gatherers, we survived on this mobility. We could now begin penetrating, step by step, temporary abode by temporary abode, into new terrains, new lands. We could now harvest Mother Nature’s fruits and roots further afield, and invade lands where other predators once held sway.

This mobility was enhanced tremendously once the horse was tamed. The amazing and far-reaching power exercised for millennia by the horsemen of the steppes of Central Asia and of the desert lands of the Middle East. The horse was to these terrains what the ship would come to be to the oceans.

But where humans turned to agriculture, the mobile home stopped being mobile. We began building permanent homes. And these became like caves again, albeit artificial ones. Homes also became a symbol of wealth and stature, and the piece of land it stood on and its surroundings became something to be owned and defended.

But defended against whom? Well, often against those who had remained mobile.

The Innovation of Ownership

Agriculturalists began to treasure “homes”. We began to “own” them, and we began to imagine “homelands” and “holy lands” and, finally, “nation-states”. Because our artificial caves were static and no longer mobile, we started crowding, and our cave-homes now had to be planned, however haphazardly. And so we had villages, towns and cities, and it became ever more important that one could lay claim first to a piece of “real estate”, before anyone else. (This is in contrast to the “virtual estate” that the mobile human deems himself to possess, nowadays often in cyberspace, or in finance).

As an interesting side comment, when the European settler colonialists of the last few centuries expanded into the New World and elsewhere, they could “claim” territories where the human populations were still mainly hunter-gatherers, and in time they would consider original peoples to be without the concept, the special (as belonging to a “species”) status or the right to “claim” anything. Settlers had rights and not hunter-gatherers. Where there were already settled peoples, colonialism took on more complicated forms and was often exercised through effective indirect rule.

But let’s go back to the advent of the concept of “home”. We are now homeowners and home-makers. The home is our castle, and it is sacred. Within the home, certain functional spaces have needed to be demarcated. So we came to have a place for sleeping, a corner for preparing meals, a spot for eating, a room for receiving guests, and so on and so forth. Toilets were often kept outside the main quarters when possible, as was the dumping ground. The home became complex, comfortable and complete.

The Crowded and Crowding Species

The cave-dweller has gone full circle, from being sedentary to being mobile, back to being sedentary again. The difference is that he has conquered the Earth, and he now lives in crowds. Yet, he longs to be mobile, so he has bicycles and cars, and he has trains and aeroplanes. He even has spacecraft. He now traverses cyberspace.

Simply put, the human situation is a crowded and a crowding one. We have conquered more space than is good for us, and we continue to overwhelm whatever remnant space that is still not ours. We now stack our caves on top of each other into high-rises, and we connect our countless cave-home communities with tarred surfaces to ease our mobility.

The ecology is of little concern to a species haunted by crowds, by lack of space and by fear of scarcity. That day, that problem. Right now, he grabs what he can. Carpe diem has taken a vicious turn.

And so, the plague of cave-homes continues to spread as our only real home, the Earth, slowly caves in.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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