Agriculture: villain or boon companion?


#21

Bereal, they were not immune to intensification. It is said that North America was rather heavily populated at just pre-conquest, and that by the time the explorers went inland, the devastation European diseases left behind made the whole continent seem pristine and hardly inhabited. And of course nature was able to replenish itself tremendously.

On the other hand, you are right, in that many of those tribes, North and South, did not chose to intensify. That is the key.

You say: “Maybe, maybe not (depends on the place, the practice, and how it was “intensified”).” Can you explain, maybe give an example?


#22

Always a favorite topic for me. Just a couple of thoughts… Though I’ve only looked into it briefly, from what I’ve read archeologists trace the origins of horticulture (if they define it strictly anyway) to about the same time as the origins of agriculture:

http://www.hcs.ohio-state.edu/hcs/tmi/hcs210/hortorigins/Tech%26MatCult.html

(See the third to the last paragraph.) Now, obviously there was “tending the wild” of various sorts going on before that. I take that particular “origin” to refer to an intensification whereby some societies were relying for their subsistence primarily on horticulture. Could be wrong. I haven’t seen reference to very many of these primarily horticultural societies. But there were a few. I recall Toby Hemenway mentioning the ancient Oaxacans and some other group. But it seems these societies ultimately either turned to agriculture proper or otherwise merged with civilizations.

So, though clearly worth major investigation and consideration, compared to the history of humanity and “immediate return” hunter-gatherers, I think we have to admit these societies don’t have the mega-massive :o track record of sustainability. I mean, we have a baseline with simple hunter-gathers such as the San and the Hadza. I like to start there, figuring that’s absolutely established as sustainable. (Seems to me it has built in limits on intensification, no?), and then consider what kinds of horticulture, or what ways of cultivating if you like, would not likely threaten sustainability. Obviously the issue of surpluses is an important factor there as it seems to be linked with population growth.

Agriculture does seem a likely candidate for the “big bad turn” our species made, since it began 10k years ago (as usually defined), and since that was the point at which the human population began to grow. And then came civilization… But I know Zerzan does speculate about other interesting factors, perhaps seeing them as precursors to agriculture: some increase in hierarchy, shifts in human experience “as time, language, number and art won out.” Could agriculture (i.e., intensive grain cultivation, monocropping…) have been merely a product of some other factor or factors which evolved, well, who knows why. If so, then we have a problem, no? We have some evolved human traits which drive us toward unsustainable ways of subsistence. Hmmm… :-[

But aside from all that speculation, I do think Vera’s idea concerning intensification deserves thought. My question is where is that point of intensification where we cross the line? I’ve tended to see the agriculture/horticulture distinction as an effort to make that a little clearer. Still, questions remain.

Oh, one other thought. For whatever reason, I’ve always been most drawn to the immediate return hunter-gatherer approach. From that vantage point it seems as though most other rewilders and similar folks are always looking for ways to bring horticulture (or agriculture) into the picture in a big way. (I mean, I hear people say, “We don’t have to be nomadic. We can garden this way and that way…” I think, "Have to? Like it’s a bad thing??) Is it the desire for a fixed “home”? I just wonder. For me, I think it would be cool to just sweep my hand across the land and say, “This… this is my home.”


#23

Mmm… I am not good at being a gypsy. Though I keep trying… I think most humans used to be only semi-nomadic; they would circle around and come back to camps where they used to live, and still had some huts, maybe…

Anyways, will have to think more on what you say, John. Just wanted to post a bit that I learned tonight.

I just got hold of a paper that compares Tikopia and Easter Island. The striking finding is this: they did some computer modeling and found out that converting Tikopia into, basically, a permaculture island where all the land is “designed” by humans, is not enough to keep things sustainable in the very long term. Without an area that remains wild, even if the humans keep the population within limits, the land will be depleted and the humans will die out. Or so the model showed.

They think that nature must be allowed to recover its natural “stocks” for long term sustainability to be possible. In other words, the Tikopians would have to lower human population to a level where a part of the island could remain wild.

No matter how clever the horticulture, it cannot do the job without giving Mother Nature her due (both in the sense of wild land remaining wild, but also humans remaining foragers to a significant degree).

Erickson and Gowdy, Resource use, institutions and sustainability: a tale of two Pacific Island cultures. Land Economics, Aug 2000.


#24
Without an area that reminds wild, even if the humans keep the population within limits, the land will be depleted and the humans will die out. Or so the model showed.

That is very interesting to me. A while back I wrote:

On a large enough scale, even a major improvement such as permaculture would seem to suffer from a similar problem of turning the land excessively to human consumption.

I said that just because it seems logically to make sense. But it’s nice to see some support for it. Even land transformed by permaculture is, after all, still transformed.


#25

“My question is where is that point of intensification where we cross the line?”

Which line?


#26

Does the “permaculture” design have only domestic species or some kind of mix of local wild plants? Also, my permaculture certified brother sais that “zone 7” in permaculture design (the last zone) is untended wilderness. Did they miss that bit in the Designers Manual?


#27

I imagine that what they have is a mix of what their ancestors brought with them, and those of the species they found that were of use to them. The old forest is gone.

As for zone 7… I don’t think wilderness is compatible with carving up land into small private chunks and then setting aside some small amount for zone 7. And permaculturists do not specify percentage, do they?

So much to learn.


#28

Agriculture, if used in a “commonsensical way” confuses more than it illuminates. This is why Jason Godesky wrote “Why Words Matter”. Here it is again:

http://www.rewild.info/anthropik/2007/06/agriculture-or-permaculture-why-words-matter/index.html

Daniel Quinn did not use this anthropological definition of agriculture. In order to have a common language to discuss sustainable subsistence strategies, we use this definition. In order to have a conversation here that is on the same page, you need to use our common definition. Because anthropologists use this same definition, and we are inextricably linked to anthropological study, we use it too.

To post on here saying that agriculture is not inherently destructive makes for some serious confusion because you are redefining agriculture for your own purposes and not starting out by saying that. You’re using agriculture as a synonym for cultivation and that makes it very confusing to me, since I’ve never seen a rewilder say that cultivation is, in your words, “Bad”.

However, we have seen many kinds of cultivation and their long term effects on the environment and created a common language to describe these methods: agriculture, horticulture, silvaculture, permaculture, etc. This is where the conversations about subsistence have led us as an anthropological culture. Agriculture, in our rewilding language, does not mean cultivation. It means a specific kind of cultivation.

You seem to imply that intensification is “bad” not “agriculture” or cultivation. Intensification of food production does not always lead to collapse of ecosystems. Population growth does not always lead to collapse of social order. But they tend to. Agriculture (using the anthropological definition here) is different then the other cultivation strategies because, when used as the main cultivation technique of a culture, when intensifying agriculture, you destroy the soil which is the base of an ecosystem.

If you were to intensify horticulture on the other hand, you would end up with old growth forests. Because it’s succession based, not field based like agri (field) culture (cultivation).

There are many more modern factors to agriculture or field cultivation that make it worse. For example, if you were to use fire to maintain fields as natives have did in the prairie, that would be a form of agriculture. However, the plants growing in the field wasn’t their main staple of food, it was the buffalo, deer and elk. So they didn’t have to be too specific about the plants or rather, too controlling. The other thing that really drove our civilization’s agricultural methods over board was the plow. the invention of the plow really fucked things up, and then even more with the intention of the steel plow.

Agriculture is just another method of cultivation, but when intensified to “full time” or “full blown” agriculturalism, you’ve got a serious problem for a zillion different reasons.

It seems like there are three premises behind what you are saying:

  1. Agriculture is a synonym for cultivation

  2. Agriculture (cultivation) is not inherently ‘bad’

  3. “bad” means destructive to the land

  4. Intensification is “bad”

Agriculture, anthropologically speaking, is not a synonym for cultivation. It is inherently destructive to the soil. If used all the time in the same spots, without leaving it to replenish itself, it will destroy the soil. I rarely hear rewilders say cultivation is destructive. Intensification is not inherently destructive. For example, you might intensify the growth of old growth trees.


#29

[quote=“vera, post:27, topic:1581”]I imagine that what they have is a mix of what their ancestors brought with them, and those of the species they found that were of use to them. The old forest is gone.

As for zone 7… I don’t think wilderness is compatible with carving up land into small private chunks and then setting aside some small amount for zone 7. And permaculturists do not specify percentage, do they?

So much to learn.[/quote]
What if the land set aside were combined from, say three to ten families’ areas at a place and the space between forest was 20-40 percent native plantings? What if it sometimes was domestic orchards between the forest stands? Does the study take into account only the cultural practices of the actual inhabitants or do they also think about other peoples’ methods for erosion control, propagation of wild plants, ect?
As far as I know there is no specified ideal wild/domestic ratio in Permaculture (capitalized to signify official writings of the founders, teachers, etc), though the amount of work you put into what you have planted/tended should decrease the farther away from the house (or other dwelling) they are.


#30

@Vera

"My question is where is that point of intensification where we cross the line?"

Which line?

I just meant the line at which we cross into the unsustainable. Though I like the simplicity of trying to boil the whole thing down to intensification, I think it must make it hard to identify the level at which problems develop. To me, the horticulture/agriculture distinction helps with that by identifying specific techniques which usually do or usually don’t cause problems.

@Peter and all

If you were to intensify horticulture on the other hand, you would end up with old growth forests. Because it's succession based,
edit: [1]

This is really interesting. Hadn’t thought of it quite that way, and I’m still mulling it over. But does it make sense then to distinguish between “intensification” and “spread”? That is, is it perhaps okay to intensify horticulture all you want within a given area, but potentially problematic if you cover too much of the land with it. I’m still stuck on the idea that however we might transform the land, it’s still not going to duplicate nature exactly. (because whatever that land would have been had we not stepped in is what nature would have produced) Assuming it’s done to suit human needs (promoting food and other plants humans use), is there not, at some point, a risk of taking too much away from other species as we try to meet our own needs?

This all goes as well to the issue of surplus and its seeming link to population growth. Toby Hemenway has said permaculturists have not come to grips with the problem of surplus. (See his “Is Sustainable Agriculture an Oxymoron?” article.) But that doesn’t mean some indigenous cultures didn’t work it out somehow. Do we know any particular approach to horticulture that has, built in, some way of avoiding unnecessary surplus? Or, at this point, should we assume that would have to come from cultural norms? Just thinking “out loud”… ???

[1] I’m not sure I get how this would work. Example?


#31

I’m not sure what you’re getting at here. I define intensification as a process of change, of growth or increase, and from everything I’ve learned about the first peoples of America, before European contact (i.e. before the apocalypse of smallpox, invasion, and genocide) the subsistence practices of the cultures of North America were stable - in other words, not in the process of intensifying (growing, increasing, etc). I’m sure various cultures had intensified their practices at some point in their history, maybe hundreds or thousands of years ago, before they figured out the level that kept their culture sustainable over the long haul.

I’m finding this discussion about sustainability to be interesting, because I’m realizing that I don’t like it’s basic premise. Namely, humans “designing” the part of land for human consumption, and leaving another part of the land “wild” (untouched by humans). The mindset behind this is humans existing outside of nature (the “wild”), and that we either leave land alone “wild” and don’t live there or interact with it at all, or we totally alter the landscape to serve us and only us (“our” land). The book “Tending the Wild” presents a radically different view, that of humans being a part of the landscape the same as any other animal, and like any other species, altering the land in fundamental ways by our very presence. In other words, totally demolishing the dualism of humans vs. nature.

According to this latter way of existing in the world, humans wouldn’t “design” certain areas and leave other areas untouched, but would instead have a true relationship with the land the way all other animals do, having an impact on the wider landbase through various horticultural practices, while respecting the wants and needs of the land and the other living beings that also live there. In other words, working alongside the rest of the community of life in the process of both taking from and giving back to the land.


#32

This is an interesting side point. What I’ve read about nomadism in various cultures is exactly what you described of cyclical migrations. From this perspective, the whole landbase, the region within a community moves, would be considered “home”. This is totally different from what I think of as being a “gypsy”, in the sense of always moving from random place to another, never feeling connected to a particular place as “home”.


#33
The mindset behind this is humans existing outside of nature (the "wild"),... "Tending the Wild" presents a radically different view, that of humans being a part of the landscape the same as any other animal,... humans wouldn't "design" certain areas and leave other areas untouched, but would instead have a true relationship with the land the way all other animals do, having an impact on the wider landbase through various horticultural practices,...

Yes, absolutely. A key, maybe the key to all of this! Yet it leaves me with a big question. (I have, but haven’t yet read, “Tending the Wild.” Hmmm, maybe that would clear it up for me?) Through most of human history we were clearly living within nature, a part of it, just as any other animal. Certainly that would be true if we look all the way back to when we were mainly scavenging and gathering plant foods. It would seem true as well once we began hunting. Things like scattering seeds, a little pruning, etc. seem like they could still fall into that. But as we get more and more complex in our horticulture, creating forest gardens, seriously transforming a landscape such as the Amazon rainforest (much of this sort of thing appearing, I think, only in the last 10k years or so), can we still say, “Yeah, we were still living as a part of nature, just like any other animal, as clearly as we were when we were scavenging.”?

But the phrase “tending the wild” does create an image of something with clear limits. It wouldn’t support absolutely any and all horticultural techniques, would it? Sounds much less transformative, more just nurturing. Okay, yeah, I gotta crack that book. ::slight_smile:


#34

Bereal, to be fair to gypsies, :slight_smile: I think they cycled too in the old days, before the states began to crush them. I remember that where I come from (central Europe) gypsies would show up to help with the harvest and such, and it was more or less the same people, already known to the villagers.

Yeah, cycling makes much more sense than just wandering…


#35
I just meant the line at which we cross into the unsustainable. Though I like the simplicity of trying to boil the whole thing down to intensification, I think it must make it hard to identify the level at which problems develop. To me, the horticulture/agriculture distinction helps with that by identifying specific techniques which usually do or usually don't cause problems.

John: Well, see, and for me, that’s exactly the reason why I abandoned the horti/ag duality because it is not specific techniques, but how those techniques play out in various climates, soil types, water availability, whether prone to salinization or not, natural fertilizers (volcanic ash), and other local characteristics. (Ok ok, I make an exception for the moldboard plow. Baaad shit!)

Aha… the line where we cross over into unsustainable. I am assuming that’s the point where the land becomes degraded, comparing “yesterday” and “today.” What else could it mean?


#36

John, there were tons of primarily horti societies. All of Oceania that I know of, for example. New Guinea too. And many stayed that way. To me, it does not really matter, because if they got into ratcheting intensification of food production, who cares what exact techniques they used? They began to go against the well being of the land.

You are right, surplus gets into it too, and as far as I know, the only people not into surplus were the immediate return folks, and the more simple delayed return people who only kept small surpluses to tide them over the winter and such. Like you say, the immediate return people have built-in limits. Now maybe it will all crash, and immediate return more or less will be the path. But I have set myself the task to imagine a way that would be good for the earth that does not simplify/primitivize all the way. Could be there is none. But I am working on it.

Zerzan goes all the way to language, and I have begun to wonder if he does not have a point… But I don’t feel fatalistic about it, just wondering if we have not been trapped into a language cul-de-sac where it’s mostly become a way to overwhelm and exploit. A different thread!

Sorry everybody, by intensification I mean economic intensification (which is built on top of intensification of food production).


#37

Oakcorn, I have also fantasized about families getting together to set apart larger zones 7. But basically, private land ownership gets in the way of permaculture, IMO.

Bereal:

from everything I’ve learned about the first peoples of America, before European contact (i.e. before the apocalypse of smallpox, invasion, and genocide) the subsistence practices of the cultures of North America were stable

Not what I have been hearing. For example the book 1491 goes against that older hypothesis.

You make a great point about living with the land rather than apart… I guess there are at least two approaches… one is to set land aside, and even call it tabu, as some cultures have done, and then the other model, of tending it in its wild state. I think both can work. I have a hard time imagining the latter working with us afterculture folks. Takes far more skill than the first method, don’t you think?


#38

[quote=“JohnF, post:33, topic:1581”](I have, but haven’t yet read, “Tending the Wild.” Hmmm, maybe that would clear it up for me?)… more and more complex in our horticulture, creating forest gardens, seriously transforming a landscape such as the Amazon rainforest (much of this sort of thing appearing, I think, only in the last 10k years or so), can we still say, “Yeah, we were still living as a part of nature, just like any other animal, as clearly as we were when we were scavenging.”?

But the phrase “tending the wild” does create an image of something with clear limits. It wouldn’t support absolutely any and all horticultural techniques, would it? Sounds much less transformative, more just nurturing. Okay, yeah, I gotta crack that book. ::)[/quote]
Tending the Wild is pretty awesome. Im already planting three species of corms (all in the book) and two species of wild onions. All are delicious and grow bigger if left in the loosened soil for next year. I also grow several varieties of domestic onions and at least two varieties of garlic, but those arnt in the book. :stuck_out_tongue: IMO the California native plant with the greatest potential for short-term ramp-up in staple foods is Hooker’s Evening Primrose (Oenothera elata). This plant can be an annual, biennial, or short-lived perennial, depending on conditions. The first-year plants’ taproot can be used like a small carrot, though not raw. The young leaves, flower buds, and very young seedpods are edible boiled and the seeds are small and oily, having omega-6 fatty acid. The flowering stems are somewhat woody and can reach from 3 1/2 to 8 feet tall. The large yellow blossoms are adored by medium to large bees and humming birds. At least that has been my experience.


#39

Peter, when I opened up this topic, I said my take goes against one of Jason’s theses. That is why I respectfully placed it in the manure pile. Please feel free to place it there again. I did not open the topic to argue against Jason or to debate definitions which people do until the cows come home (a recent anthro paper listed 10 different definitions of horticulture!).

I figured folks here would be interested in my take on things, and understand what I am talking about, and help me think it through further. And I wuz right! :smiley:

Indeed, why would anyone argue that cultivation is bad? Except perhaps the most adamant theoretical primitivist. But people feel free to say ag is bad, because they first define it as destructive (e.g. intensive grain growing on lands other than those replenished naturally, like with the Nile). I am trying to take a different angle than Diamond did, and see if we can gain some understanding from it.

If you were to intensify horticulture on the other hand, you would end up with old growth forests. Because it's succession based, not field based like agri (field) culture (cultivation).
This part, I don’t understand. What do you mean you would end up with old growth forests? Ratcheting economic intensification – pushing the land to produce more and more – will eventually lead to a severe problem. And indeed, traditional horticulturists, when pushed to intensify, begin to shorten fallow periods and burn more and more forest… with predictable dire consequences. So you must be thinking in a different way. How?

I did not mean to imply that intensification of food production is inherently destructive. I am saying that for those of us looking for the key to what went wrong in late Paleolithic into Neolithic and eventually ripened into the monster of “this civilization”, intensification points in the direction of greater understanding. Or in any case, that is the hypothesis that I am trying out.

Here is another way to look at my logic:

  1. Hoticulture is a subset of cultivation
  2. Horticulture is not inherently good
  3. Good means beneficial to the land
  4. Horticulture will do damage if the land is pushed beyond what it can bear (via ratcheting intensification of food production)

#40

Hmm. Again, I think that I am using a different definition of “intensification” than you are, Vera. I’m thinking of it in terms of increasing the use/frequency of a particular cultivation practice (or set of practices). Thus, if one’s practices enhance succession (according to the anthropological definition of horticulture, as Peter said), then intensifying them would lead more quickly to the most mature stage - i.e. old-growth forest (for forested landbases, at least).

Your term “economic intensification” seems to have a very different definition - as you said, pushing the land to produce more and more food, presumably for exclusive human use. Looking at it that way, it makes sense that any increase of food production would eventually become unsustainable (damaging to the land), regardless of the particular cultivation methods used. Thus, intensification (as you are defining it) becomes the cause of unsustainability, and not necessarily the methods used - although I would argue that it is increasing + methods that makes food production become unsustainable (in other words, they can’t be separated).

Although I do see a clear difference in cultivation methods between civilized cultures, who act in an adversarial way to the land, and nature-based cultures, who act in a reciprocal, respectful way to the land, I think that underlying those lies a fundamental difference in attitude. I think this is important to recognize, because changing our practices while still holding onto a civilized mindset will prevent us from figuring out a truly sustainable, harmonious way of life. In other words, both aspects are necessary. I think that difference in perspective lies in how we view the act of cultivation. Do we see it as us, humans, “growing” food - thus implying that we are the only beings taking action (that the plants, soil, etc are just objects that we act on), and also implying that the food “we grow” is “ours” (that we are entitled to exclusive use of it, if we wish)? Or do we see it as us participating in the cycle of life (which would happen with or without us, just maybe in a different way), along with many other beings in a wider community of life? That we are helping the plants to do what they are already doing? That the food we take from the land is a gift given to us by the plants & animals (assisted by many other beings), and that we are not at all entitled to it but actually incur a debt in the taking of it, in that we are obligated to give gifts in return? That our cultivation practices are actually a service that we perform, as a way of giving back? Etc etc (this way of thinking is a road that we could continue traveling down, for ever I suppose).

Hence the problem I have with agriculture and permaculture, and the very concept that we can “grow” food at all (much less the concept of “food production” :o).