I was recently talking with a friend about whether or not the hunter-gatherer lifestyle has the least environmental impact and is overall the best way for humans to live. I’ve heard a lot of people make that argument, but ultimately I don’t think that it is.
The reason that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle seems to have such a low environmental impact is because it necessitates a low population. Since it is immediately apparent that resources are limited, hunter-gatherers understand that they must keep their populations low. The practice of infanticide is common among hunter-gather tribes. Any large population living this way would deplete an area of its resources.
The view that hunter-gatherers are not responsible for environmental degradation is mistaken. It is widely believed that they were responsible for the extinction of the woolly mammoth, large land tortoises, and possibly even neanderthals (see “Overkill Hypothesis”). It is not necessarily a peaceful way of life, it encourages tribalism and competition over resources with other humans and predatory animals.
It has been argued that hunter-gatherers did not seek to control their environment as the later agriculturalists did. I really don’t see any good reason to believe that. It is a small step from a nomadic lifestyle following wild herds to simple pastoralism. Animal agriculture encourages the restriction of populations of predatory animals that threaten livestock. Hunter-gatherers have also hunted predatory animals, such as wolves, when their numbers became too large and threatened their access to wild herds. This is ultimately a deficiency with both animal agriculture and hunting-based lifestyles.
A more realistic alternative, I think, is plant-based subsistence farming. It is especially true for our current situation, taking into account the present world population. The only way to impose a significant shift to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle would be either through mass murder, forced or voluntary sterilization, voluntary celibacy or the increased use of contraceptives. Whereas the use of contraceptives is steadily increasing worldwide, it is a choice that I think should be left up to individuals, along with celibacy and sterilization. I am not even remotely prepared to advocate any coercive form of population control.