Agriculture: villain or boon companion?


#41

I slept on it, Peter, and decided to use the word cultivation for all the various modes of cultivation, good, bad and indifferent. I did not mean to sow confusion.

Bereal and Peter: how does horticulture enhance succession? The picture I have in my mind is people burning down a forest section, planting stuff in the ashes, and letting it grow for a few years. Also planting some fruit and nut trees. Then the soil becomes exhausted and the band moves on… to return in say 20 years when the trees planted are bearing fruit, and the soil has replenished itself – and again burning it down and planting etc. – a cycle of clearing, growing, and leaving alone, and clearing again. (?)

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?

Definitely. That is the turn around we must make. Great paragraph, btw.

Perhaps we would profit by thinking of helping foods grow, encouraging foods to grow, helping our favorite plants, helping the forest or prairie thrive… yah, co-adaptation. Mutual aid, not just among humans, but with the rest of livingness as well.


#42

Thanks vera, and everyone. :slight_smile:

I’ll post a nice response here this weekend about the horticulture thing. Swamped at work for the next couple days. :frowning:


#43

Well duh, not all strategies work in all places. But the difference is that some forms of horticulture can be sustainable in some places. Agriculture (monocropping) is not sustainable. Period.


#44

Monocropping worked for the Egyptians. The Nile replenished the soil every year, and their plow and monocrop cultivation went on for 3000 years.


#45

Hey All,

I like the point that you make Vera, about agriculture working well for the Egyptians. It plays into the discussion really well. They are a great example of how civilizations start. Also, it can show you how agriculture could be less destructive, if used in places like the Nile Delta, and if limited to not full-time agriculturalists. The problem with agriculture is more then just the soil depletion though. Population dynamics play a large role in agriculture’s destructiveness. Because agriculture creates an easy-to-store food source, and because it is very fragile, agriculturalists have insane amounts of food storage. I know lots of horticulturalists did this too. I’ve read the Iroquois had 7 years of food stored at any time for example. I think that food storage, like agriculture, is a slippery slope of population growth problems. Depending on your region, some cultures could not survive without food storage or caches. The problem with agriculture is that it promotes grain storage specifically. Also, grain calories increase fertility. Agriculture, or rather, full time agriculture creates an artificially inflated population. “artificially inflated” meaning, beyond sustainable carrying capacity. Its a short term population increase, followed by a collapse. So when a population, like the Babylonians for example, begin to crash, they take what is a less destructive to the land practice like river basin agriculture and move it outside of its origins to a place where it does not “work”. It’s like Asian civilizations doing the same thing with rice paddies. They build damns to flood areas to create more rice paddies. But it’s not a replenishing flood like a river flowing out of a mountain range, so it doesn’t replenish the soil. This is why we have to use Petroleum as fertilizer; this replicates what the river would have done.

Taking agriculture out of the river basin was inevitable in a way. When the population crashed, rather then recognizing that it doesn’t work full time, the exported the practice out of the river in an attempt to curb the population crash. This is why Stanley Diamond said, “Forests precede us, deserts dog our heels.” We’re recreating a flood plain or field or river delta, where there is none. This creates an exponential growth problem of population and deforestation.

Let’s talk about Horticulture. The Natives of the Northwest had ridiculously large populations for “hunter-gatherers”. Anthropologists says this is because there were so many salmon here and the population didn’t have to do much or move. So you had sedentary cultures of hunter-gatherer-fishermen. This isn’t exactly true. They lived here for 10,000 years or so. They relied heavily on Western Red Cedar for their daily survival. Cedar is not a food source. When we think of “increase in food production” or managing the land for “food production” we often do not hear about all the other forms of life that are not direct food, but are used in the production of food. For example, Cedar canoes were taken out for fishing. Cedar boxes stored food. Cedar bark was used to make baskets to collect food. Cedar wood was used to make all of their longhouses. Cedar is a late comer in terms of succession in the Northwest; a cedar forest is the climax of succession here. Old growth Cedars today pale in comparison to what the white people were clear-cutting 200 years ago. We’re talking about trees that were over 2000 years old. These trees were so large and so old that the natives here harvested wood out of them in a way that didn’t kill the trees. In a very real sense, they tended these forests and perhaps even created them with routine fire maintenance. If your objective is growing old growth forests of Cedar, you’re not going to destroy the soil from under yourself; you’re going to build it. “Forest gardening”, “Permaculture” or “Horiticulture” are example of subsistence strategies that are heavily engaged in land management in a way the builds soil and biomass. It might mean more people in dense areas, and that leads to more social problems, but not environmental ones.

I really recommend these three books:

Tending the Wild by M. Kat Anderson
The Earth’s Blanket by Nancy Turner
Keeping it Living (edited by Nancy Turner)

They basically cover how this is accomplished.


#46

Hey Pete,

How about the role of birth control and family planning in that population thing? I’ve come more to thinking that the biggest influence agriculture has is cultural, in that it seems agricultural societies get rid of a lot of womens’ abilities to control their own fertility. I think it has something to do with the myth and mores, in that agricultural societies tend to objectify people around them (particularly non-human peoples). Civilization is based on slavery for a reason, mostly because it takes force to get people to practice some of these back-breaking tasks. When women and people in general become objects to be owned and controlled, it becomes in the interest of those that own to have more people and not let women control their own bodies.

Not to mention that monocropping is inefficient. The food per acre ratio is too low, and the nutrient density is even lower.

Something to muse over.


#47

Related to what Peter said… Any time you monocrop you’re taking habitat directly away from other species. Then add the problem of food-surplus/population-growth, and the consequent spread of more agriculture, and you have ongoing, spreading destruction of habitat.

There may be an unresolved problem concerning the same food surplus issue with horticulture (EDIT: though the point Peter made about about grains softens it somewhat). Beyond some limit, that growth certainly can create ecological problems. But at least some horticultural approaches to do a much better job of preserving or even nurturing habitat.

To me, an unsettled question is how horticulturalists can know they are improving an ecosystem. I would think it might be too complex to know that. (But I have some reading to do, so…) And sometimes it seems too readily taken as a given. Still, it has to be a whole lot better to do things that, as far as we can tell, are improving ecosystems rather than things we know are obviously destroying them.


#48

JohnF,

Maybe it’s hard for us to understand how horticulturalists and foragers could see/understand their effects because most of us don’t have cultures that have been living in place for a dozen or more generations (or since the “beginning of time”). Just a thought. Six Nations peoples talk about planning seven generations in advance. I’m willing to bet they have some clues to at least attempt to discern that.


#49

Dan, Yes, actually I was thinking about how it’s more contemporary, civilization-based permaculturists who leave me questioning when they say, “We’re improving the land.” My sense it they do it without having as much to base it on. I’m definitely more open to such an assertion from someone from a culture with a long tradition of living in relationship with the land. I mean, I’m still a little questioning because, you know, time is mighty long. ??? But that said, yeah…


#50
...you know, time is mighty long

Then again, that’s me stuck in that civilization-centric linear time thing, so… :o


#51

JohnF: there is a great deal of hype in permaculture. Wise to be wary of the claims.

Any time you monocrop you're taking habitat directly away from other species.

Well, that is relative. Birds, rodents and grazers love to feed off a field. And until recently, even fields of grain were full of other species, I myself remember fields of wheat ablaze with wild red poppies. The chemically-nuked fields are a very recent phenomenon.

And when the Indians burned swaths of eastern forests, weren’t they taking habitat away from certain species, while favoring others?

Peter, thank you, I am thinking it through.


#52
Any time you monocrop you're taking habitat directly away from other species.
Well, that is relative. Birds, rodents and grazers love to feed off a field. And until recently, even fields of grain were full of other species,

So you completely destroy an area of habitat, taking it completely away from all the interacting inhabitants that have come to depend on it, and sure, later some other species come into the now monocropped area. But that is completely altering what the area would be naturally, without this huge human intervention, not to mention the unnecessary taking of all those lives for human purposes in the first place. Biodiversity is almost surely reduced. Ecosystem health is severely damaged.

And when the Indians burned swaths of eastern forests, weren't they taking habitat away from certain species, while favoring others?

Of course. That’s one of those things I do question about some kinds of horticulture. (Remember, I’m pro-immediate-return. I not 100% convinced on anything else. ???) It’s probably considerably better, though, in the long run, for an ecosystem. The argument seems to be that it will lead to a basically healthy, though different ecosystem. I don’t think many people would contend that a monocropped field is a healthy ecosystem, despite some species favoring it. Take a look at Iowa. No way you could call it an example of healthy ecosystems. Very, very little biodiversity, everything kept at the initial level of succession… Sure, the chemical nuking makes it even worse, but by definition monocropping depends on reducing biodiversity.


#53

Vera, I feel I’m losing the big picture in this focus on details of cultivation techniques and their effects. Let me back up. Aren’t you actually questioning the assertion that any particular kind of cultivation (that is, plowing/monocropping of grains) led to civilization. You’re speculating that something else may have been the real villain, right?

I do think it’s important to consider some of those other possibilities – like language etc. that Zerzan discusses. But would you not agree that agriculture (by which I think he means plowing/monocropping grains) made civilization possible? I mean, I think Zerzan sees it as “These other things probably led to agriculture, which in turn was the major factor enabling the rise of civilization.”

Am I understanding you? (I did read your blog post and this thread, but it’s easy to lose track. :slight_smile:


#54

Thank you, John! Maybe I am losing track too… I wuz beginning to feel that arguing with you guys is like arguing God with the atheists… ;D

Ok… so here is the trail I am on. I noticed, a while back, that forager societies, some of them, already went astray. In other words, there were peoples like the Kwakiutl, who inhabited a rich foraging territory… and a while down the road, we see elites, slavery, high population, economic warfare (potlatches) and ostentatious destruction of wealth. Yikes! You don’t need ag to go astray…

Yet on the other you have Tolowa and coastal Yurok, same environment, same subsistence techniques, and yet… egalitarian sanity.

How does your model explain it?

So I reached past the ag explanation. Does that make any sense?


#55

Oh and to your question, did plowing/monocropping grains make this civ possible? Sure. But there were other civs. Norte Chico (Caral) was based on fish-orchards-veggies. No grains. They did have irrigated fields… and did not ruin the land.

See? There is no pat answer to either the question of how to get food out of the ground sustainably, or what exactly was the root of the nastiness we have inherited.

I am sniffing past ag… into surplus-based intensification, and beyond.

Kwakiutl intensified. Yurok did not. Why?


#56

Sorry. Trying for clarity and missing pieces.

Aren't you actually questioning the assertion that any particular kind of cultivation (that is, plowing/monocropping of grains) led to civilization.

I am questioning the assertion that any particular kind of subsistence is immune from the pull toward the evils for which we know this civilization.


#57

Peter, I think I will have to take your advice and read the books you recommend. There is much we can learn from those who tweaked the landbase in different and sometimes saner ways than we.

"Forest gardening", "Permaculture" or "Horticulture" are example of subsistence strategies that are heavily engaged in land management in a way the builds soil and biomass. It might mean more people in dense areas, and that leads to more social problems, but not environmental ones.

None of these ways are proof against negative environmental impacts. And too many people adds up to an environmental problem in the long run, no?

You have pointed out one thing to look out for that I think is really important. Not cultivating (or I would add foraging) full time. But does that not point back to intensification as the culprit? (Cultivation of any kind is not, per se, a backbreaking task… unless, of course, you do it from dawn to dusk.)


#58
I am questioning the assertion that any particular kind of subsistence is immune from the pull toward the evils for which we know this civilization.

Ah okay, so the evils, not necessarily civ itself, eh? The hierarchy, slavery, war-making, treating women like crap, and such. Well, that is a very interesting question! From what I’ve seen, the best bet would probably be immediate return hunter-gatherers.

But I believe there are exceptions. The Hiwi (in the region of Colombia and Venezuela) are said to be nomadic hunter-gatherers, but fairly violent. But I’m always a little leery of descriptions like that because it frequently turns out there are factors involved that aren’t mentioned in the basic assertions. (e.g., their culture has been heavily impacted by civilization, or encroaching agriculturalists, or, in this case, they seem closely related to folks who are agriculturalists and I don’t know how that might have tied in historically, or whatever) Another Godesky essay you may have seen is pretty good at sorting through some of that:

http://rewild.info/anthropik/2008/01/noble-or-savage-both-part-1/index.html

I guess to the extent that no subsistence method can completely immunize against inhumane behaviors (and I’m not sure just what that extent is), you’d have to build in cultural norms. I would think that would be easiest if you don’t have elites controlling the food and all the developing hierarchy that seems more typical of more complex, sedentary societies, especially civilizations. (I’ve seen it said that horticultural societies are general a lot more egalitarian than civ. But the “art of nothing” hunter-gatherers seem to have the best reputation of all in that regard.) But of course nothing will be perfect.


#59

Yup, very true, the immediate return folks are really the only ones who are proofed against the evils… mostly, IMO, because elites are an expense they can’t afford… :slight_smile:

Trouble is, though, that immediate return societies are easy prey to those who intensify and go through the whole “more food, more people, more weapons” crap. You know, the whole Parable of the Tribes dilemma. (A horrible real life example were the Moriori, off New Zealand.)

If subsistence were our only problem to solve, then immediate return people would lead the way. But we also gotta deal with the problem of power.

Yeah, the evils. Civ… I think of it as the final culmination of all those evils.

I am reading Jason’s essay #10, very interesting, I had not seen it before. I think a lot of what I have been fishing for is right there. He also goes into intensification, btw.

Well, Toby Hemenway has claimed that hortis are more egalitarian, but frankly, all of Oceania was settled by hortis and they were not really egalitarian at all. People make all sorts of claims, and then you look into it, and it does not pan out.


#60
Trouble is, though, that immediate return societies are easy prey to those who intensify and go through the whole "more food, more people, more weapons" crap.

Very true. It’s something future rewilders will have to be aware of. As you probably know, there’s good archeological evidence that agriculture spread not through foragers deciding to make the switch, but through the population growth and spread and domination of agriculturalists. The post-civ future could be mighty interesting.