Berggruen Institute Publishes Book Critiquing Historical Fixation on Physical Stuff As Mark of Social Progress

Josh Berson examines how a reframing of scholarship, policy, and culture away from material technology is a prerequisite for solving climate change and other challenges

Christopher Eldred

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Christopher Eldred
Berggruen Institute
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In The Human Scaffold: How Not to Design Your Way Out of a Climate Crisis, historian and anthropologist Josh Berson argues that a successful path forward in the face of complex global challenges must run through a complete rethinking of the role of physical stuff in our civilization’s history and future. Published as part of the Berggruen Institute and UC Press “Great Transformations” book series—The Human Scaffold shows how tools, goods, and technologies are only a small part of the “scaffold” of strategic adaptations societies have historically used to survive and thrive.

The Berggruen Institute will host a virtual event series based on The Human Scaffold. The first event, entitled “Keeping Cool: Lessons of Low-Tech Thermoregulation for the Climate Change Era,” will take place at 9:30 AM PT on Wednesday, July 28, featuring Berson, artist and researcher Simon Penny, and Berggruen Institute Vice President of Programs Nils Gilman. Future events will include “The Politics of Breathing,” a discussion with designer Elizabeth Chin on the value of viewing breathing as a skillful activity on Thursday, August 12 at 10 AM PT; and “Fun and Games: Ritualized Exchange and Consumer Capitalism,” a conversation with entrepreneurship scholar Vaughn Tan on how economic growth depends on the mind games humans play with physical stuff, tentatively scheduled for the final week of August.

“Stuff is what’s prominent in archaeological assemblages, not to say our own everyday lives,” said Berson. “But that’s a recent phenomenon. If we look at the deep history of human adaptation to climate change, we see stuff playing a subsidiary role.”

The Human Scaffold uses the more than 50,000-year record of human presence in Australia to highlight human niche construction in the near absence of stuff. In aspects of life as basic and varied as breathing, body temperature regulation, sleep, motor experimentation, and the use of fire to shape landscapes, Berson argues that we overemphasize material technology’s role in adaptation and innovation. In the process, basic conceits in evolutionary anthropology and evolutionary game theory come in for revision.

“Things like social memory, emotional coping, and learning of skills do not fossilize,” said Berson. “But by attending closely to strategies of place-making that leave no durable residues, we can begin to imagine an expanded space of options for getting through the multidimensional crisis — ecological, epidemiological, and political — we are just now starting to reckon with.”

This discussion of how humans have historically adapted to their environments has an implicit connection with climate change, and Berson argues that a far greater emphasis on adaptive survival strategies beyond technology is crucial for progress on this challenge. But the book also makes a case for how a greater consciousness of the full human “scaffold” is essential for progress in other domains, as well, from politics to social justice.

“If the past year has demonstrated anything,” said Berson, “it is that breathing is a skillful activity, not to say a political one. The pandemic showed how fragile this most basic of animal activities, respiration, is in the face of capitalism. The nascent and long-overdue reckoning with the use of state-sanctioned terror in Black and colonized communities has shown that among the most basic questions a society must address is, ‘For whom is breathing a right — and for whom is it a rescindable privilege?’”

The Berggruen Institute sees The Human Scaffold as a part of its mission to apply deep, complex thinking to practical governance challenges. The book’s arguments can be applied to the Institute’s programmatic work on the Future of Capitalism, the Future of Democracy, and the Planetary.

“In debates on economic policy, we focus almost exclusively on stuff – how much of it there is and who gets what,” said Nils Gilman, Berggruen Institute vice president of programs, in one example. “But this misses the human dimension of how markets function and how people prosper. Future progress depends on shifting our fundamental thinking to incorporate the physical and behavioral context of stuff in our lives.”

The Human Scaffold follows Berson’s previous book, The Meat Question: Animals, Humans, and the Deep History of Food (2019). Berson is also the author of Computable Bodies: Instrumented Life and the Human Somatic Niche (2015). He has held research appointments at the Berggruen Institute and the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, among other places.

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About the Berggruen Institute:
The Berggruen Institute’s mission is to develop foundational ideas and shape political, economic, and social institutions for the 21st century. Providing critical analysis using an outwardly expansive and purposeful network, we bring together some of the best minds and most authoritative voices from across cultural and political boundaries to explore fundamental questions of our time. Our objective is enduring impact on the progress and direction of societies around the world. To date, projects inaugurated at the Berggruen Institute have helped develop a youth jobs plan for Europe, fostered a more open and constructive dialogue between Chinese leadership and the West, strengthened the ballot initiative process in California, and launched Noema, a new publication that brings thought leaders from around the world together to share ideas. In addition, the Berggruen Prize, a $1 million award, is conferred annually by an independent jury to a thinker whose ideas are shaping human self-understanding to advance humankind.

About Josh Berson:
Josh Berson is a barefoot runner, committed vegan, and anthropologist of science. When he was in graduate school, he often had to explain to guests that he had not moved out — he was simply not in the habit of keeping much furniture, or much of anything, in the house. In the years since, Berson has come to regard “living epiphytically” as a research practice: a way of exploring the role that stuff plays in our lives and a design fiction for a future where stuff has, as it were, receded from view. The Human Scaffold grew out of an experiment, ten years and counting, in reducing the stock of one’s worldly possessions to something that fits in a knapsack, becoming intimately familiar with the practical significance of stowage spaces, paring away redundancies, substituting a metronome for a gym — and seeking out places to unpack and hear silence.

Born and raised in New York, Berson earned his A.B. in Visual and Environmental Studies from Harvard University in 1997, and his Ph.D. in History and Sociology of Science from the University of Pennsylvania in 2009. In recent years he has lived mostly in nomadic orbit of a home base in Berlin, including stays in London, the Hague, Los Angeles, Melbourne, Shanghai, and Tokyo.