Eugene Volokh of the Volokh Conspiracy cites approvingly to the following quote:
Pre-Columbian peoples lived simply, to be sure, but let’s stop mistaking ignorance and poverty with harmony. It’s an utter myth –- we might say an urban myth -– that primitive peoples lived with nature harmoniously.
Nature devastated them. Nature battered them into early graves. Their ignorance of nature prevented them from achieving much material wealth. To dance to imaginary rain gods or to chant and pray for a child dying of bacterial infection is not to live harmoniously with nature; it is to live most inharmoniously. Nature is doing its thing -– failing to water the crops, growing bacteria within a child’s lungs -– while human beings who are as ignorant of nature as nature is of human beings, moan, chant, pray, dance, build totems, burn leaves and twigs, all in fruitless, inharmonious efforts to solve the problems. . . .
This is as ignorant as pretending that hunter-gatherers were a bunch of peaceful naked hippies. First, it's not clear that Volokh or the original author had a clear idea of what "primitive" peoples they're talking about - the pre-Columbian Incan and Aztec empires weren't primitive and weren't living simply. If we're just referring to hunter-gatherers, wherever and whenever they can be found, then their lifestyle beat agricultural and industrial lifestyles all the way through the early part of the 20th Century. Hunter-gatherers were healthier, better-nourished, and had longer adult life-spans than farmers and city-dwellers with their restricted food range and constant epidemics. Jared Diamond makes this very clear in Guns, Germs, and Steel. What hunter-gatherers did NOT have was numbers - farming could support ten times the population density, and ten malnourished farmers can outfight one healthy hunter-gatherer. Hunter-gatherers couldn't compete because of numbers, not because their lifestyle was inferior.
As for whether they understand nature, I will bet that a typical hunter-gatherer's understanding of how to hunt animals, where to find edible plants, and how to construct a shelter from natural materials far exceeds Eugene Volokh's understanding of natural sciences. Just a guess, but my money's going on the tribesman.
Saying "while human beings who are as ignorant of nature as nature is of human beings, moan, chant, pray, dance, build totems, burn leaves and twigs, all in fruitless, inharmonious efforts to solve the problems" includes a weird statement (nature is ignorant of human beings?). More relevant, it applies to our oh-so-modern society. Totems are every gigantic church and temple in American cities, sticks and leaves are what incense is made from, and the moaning etc. can be seen on cable television faith-healing channels any hour of the day.
This isn't intended to glorify hunter-gatherers, who could only maintain their low population density through inter-tribal violence and infanticide, but Volokh's post is not a different perspective - it's just wrong.
keywords: Volokh Correction, history