Agriculture: villain or boon companion?



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.

Before we keep going, I’d like to ask you to not use the terms “good/evil” or “good/bad”. Those terms are belief-based concepts, not real world action/reaction observations. It becomes hard to talk about shared observations of reality when they become obscured by ethics. If you think destruction of the environment is “bad” then please refer to it as “destructive” rather than “bad”. If you say “destructive” I see the action/reaction of something happening in the real world. If you say “evil” it comes across as a religious statement, which is not based on actions, but personal beliefs. We are building a common language with which to discuss shared observations of reality, and beliefs and concepts like good/bad/evil just get in the way. I don’t think civilization is “evil” or “bad” or “wrong”. They are destructive forces of nature that cause mass extinctions. Asteroids do that too. :slight_smile:

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?

The proof is in the pudding. There is little to no evidence of horticulturalists or hunter-gatherers that devastated their environments. Most of the classic examples like the Pleistocene die-off have been debunked. I can’t claim that this never happens, but we have little to no proof that they did. We do have proof that these cultures had population complexities and higher rates of conflict. No one has ever claimed that there is a perfect way for humans to live; there are just ways we understand had better impacts on the environment and our own communities.

Horticulture can mean “more people” but it doesn’t necessarily mean “too many people”. I think we have a hard time understanding horticulture and hunter-gatherer land management because we are so used to seeing that as a way of controlling the food supply only for humans. However, this is not true. Horticulturalists do not build fences. They do not take away the ability of others to reap the benefits of encouraging more growth. An increase is “food production” for horticulturalists also means an increase in food for all other mammals that eat in a similar fashion as we do. Horticulture is not necessarily labor intensive either. The point is letting nature do the work for you. Starting a fire and watching it burn is very different from chopping down all the trees in a region and then tilling the soil and irrigating it.

Horticulture either creates more biomass or more biodiversity while not destroying the soil, which all life is dependent. Horticulturalists can create more biomass, such as the 2000 year old cedar trees and runs of salmon so thick you could walk across the top of a river on them. More fish means more bears for example. This is not an increase in food production, it’s an increase in particular forms of biomass. Horticulture mostly uses fire to return nutrients to the land faster than if they were to break down without it. It’s not destructive, it’s an increase of the speed in which nutrients become bioavailable. Burning a field is similar to the flooding of a river in that regard. Horticulture is multi-habitat management. This means you’ve got fields, savannahs, woodlands, forests and climax forests. The most biodiverse places are where two or more habitats meet. Biodiversity requires these edges. Horticulture maintains these edges and encourages them.

The term intensification, meaning an “increase in food production/efficiency”, is a construct of a civilizational paradigm in which humans are thought to be the sole land managers of a landscape. This mentality is carried over into permaculture, which is why it is not worth the hype it gets. Horticulture is not about controlling the food supply for humans only. It’s about increasing the abundance for everyone; humans and other-than-humans.

This is not to say that horticulturalists haven’t or could not completely fuck up their environment. It’s just not very likely. This is not true of agriculturalists. With agriculture, it’s a given. Again, the proof is in the pudding. Agriculturalists (full-time agriculture) has proven to be destructive every time. A great book that expands on Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse” is called “Dirt: the erosion’s of civilization”.

But honestly, I think I know what you’re getting at. You’re talking about Empire and Daniel Quinns the “One Right Way” meme as the inspiration that took over agriculturalists into this unsustainable wreck. It took a ruling class to convince their slaves that agriculture was the one way that everyone should live. Is this what you are wanting to articulate? If so, I think we would all agree. I don’t think it was agriculture alone. And we certainly didn’t get to where we are with plain old agriculture. None of the other civilizations bounced back the way ours did. A great example of a horticultural society post-civilization is Martin Prechtel’s books about the Mayans. They didn’t “disappear” to a higher vibration of existence as the racist books of the Celestine Prophecy want us to believe. They just stopped full-time farming. Lol. And their spiritual concepts become such that building civilization’s were not possible. So there is something clearly different about our culture than other civilizations that came and went. However, full-time agriculture always leads to increase in population and always to a hierarchy. This doesn’t necessarily lead to the “One Right Way” mentality that our civilization has. In that regard, agriculture is not an inherent cause for the One Right Way meme. But while all other civilizations did not create a global mass extinction, they sure as hell created a localized one.

As a related aside:
The Northwest Coast horticulturalists had a hierarchy, but their potlatches and “slave” rank were not the way you described, or even Jason described. Nancy Turner covers a little bit about this in the “Earth’s Blanket”. The NW coast did not have a class system, but a ranking system. “Slavery” in a ranking system is not like the slavery we are aware of in the context of our own culture and in fact, “Slavery” is not an accurate term to describe the rank for which it stands. But that’s a complex discussion for another thread. The potlatches were actually a way of removing excess wealth. It was “Indian Christmas” where wealth was distributed to the people who needed it, and the rest was destroyed. This changed dramatically and turned violent with the encroachment of settlers. Think about it this way: Most of what we know anthropologically about the NW came in the form of Lewis and Clark’s minimal journals. 90% of indigenous people here died in 1833. Franz Boas, the father of NW Coast anthropology came here in the late 1890’s. 70 years after their apocalypse. Potlatches and Slavery at that time were heavily influenced by civilization and the collapse of the culture here. What most people know about those practices come from an apocalyptic native culture. We can’t really re-construct what things were like before, but there is evidence that alludes to things being very, very different than Franz Boas and others described. Also the so called “Big Man” or “Chiefs” had no say in any kind of military actions what-so-ever. This is directly opposed to our class system where the wealthy absorb it all and simultaneously control the military.

As another related aside:
Anthropologists are quick to say that NW Coast Indians had the concept of land ownership. This again, is a projection of our own cultural memes. They had families of “land stewards” who had more say than anyone else on who, how many people and in what quantity they could harvest from a particular piece of land. They didn’t “own” the land; they tended it. If the head of a family who “owned” a piece of land let too many people harvest and fucked it up in any way, if was considered a crime punishable by death. Contrast this with our culture, where you can completely obliterate a piece of land and make a million dollars in the process.

There are a zillion kinds of subsistence strategies and they can look very different and work differently in many places. What we can notice though, are tendencies in the subsistence strategies. Agriculture tends to destroy soil. Doesn’t mean it always does. Horticulture tends to encourage climax forests and build soil. Doesn’t mean it always does. I don’t think anything is as Black and White as our culture wants to think it is. The irony is that more and more these “immediate-return hunter-gatherers” are being relabeled as “hunter-gatherer-horticulturalists” when more closely examined. The lines are all very blurred.

I also think that rewilding is not about running away and trying to live as an immediate-return hunter-gatherer, but rather going backwards from where we are now. Planting forest gardens, burning instead of tilling. Raising cattle, free ranging them and rewilding all the things that we domesticated along the way. This means low-intensity agriculture as well (without a plow or irrigation).

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.

Many people claim that the NW Coast culture was a civilization. But again, this obscures a lot more about what we mean when we say civilization. These cultures had large populations and lived from fishing site to fishing site. They were still somewhat nomadic even in their sedentarianism. We reserve the term civilization specifically for agrarian-based cities. Villages are not cities. This I think shows us that we could have something similar to civilization in terms of large villages but not cities. I think it’s important to keep the definition of civilization to agrarian-based cultures for our purposes. In that regard, a fishing/orchards/veggies based horticultural society would not fall under our definition of “civilization”.


Thank you for focusing this discussion, Peter. I felt like it was starting to get muddled up with the discussion of cultures “going astray” (the good/bad thing), and I prefer to keep this one focused on the real-world impacts of agriculture & horticulture. I am interested in the discussion of the origins of civilization, of which I feel agriculture plays only a part (although a vital part), but I feel that would be better discussed in its own thread.

I also really really appreciate your clarifications about the indigenous cultures of the NW coast. This is a really clear example of how we can easily view other (non-civilized) cultures through a civilized lens, assuming that their system of “slavery” = civilized slavery, their status-ranking system = civilized hierarchy, etc. It’s like placing all other cultures within the civilized box, by assuming that that box is the whole of reality, rather than understanding that we need to look outside the box in order to see these other cultures clearly.

What you said about the anthropological view of American Indians being based on white people observing them in a post-apocalyptic situation holds true for all American cultures. Smallpox swept the continent well in advance of most white exploration, after being introduced by the first explorers in the 1600’s, and that combined with the subsequent genocidal expansion of white settlers completely disrupted the indigenous cultures in pretty much every way. Also, the white anthropologists viewed these cultures through a racist, civilized lens - with the result that most of modern anthropological opinions of native peoples are totally racist and inaccurate (or at least severely distorted).

While we shouldn’t idealize indigenous cultures as “noble savages”, when I express my skepticism of mainstream (white) views of native peoples I constantly am told (always by white people) that I am “idealizing” them. This really irritates me because the (unintended) consequence is that of reinforcing the racism that predominates mainstream anthropology (and modern society in general). But I suppose this is also a topic for another thread.


Peter, you make lots of good points there, and offer much to ponder. Just one quick item I want to respond to right now.

I also think that rewilding is not about running away and trying to live as an immediate-return hunter-gatherer, but rather going backwards from where we are now.

Why not either… or both? I mean, obviously few people will jump right into immediate-return foraging in the near future. But rewilding is in large part about a long term future as well. Long term, I see no reason a return (perhaps sometimes a long term process though stages) to immediate-return hunting and gathering would not be an option for some. Plus I think it’s somewhat bioregion-dependent, no?

Come on man, I want my immediate-return! :’( :stuck_out_tongue:


Lots to respond to. I feel I have been kinda hogging the discussion here, so this time I will respond briefly.

People who have a political ax to grind are eager to point out that Kwakiutl slavery was different from say Southern slavery. Well, yes, of course, but it was still slavery. If someone from a neighboring tribe hunted you down, brought you to his village to work for his family, permanently, and was free to kill you, if he so chose, at the next feast or other celebration, would you be in the mood to pick the fine points of slavery systems? This raises my hackles… apologetics for predatory behavior.

Yes, they were a ranked society, not a class one. I never did claim otherwise. The big men were elites with all sorts of special privileges (including keeping more slaves than others), and it is from such elites that stratification historically grew. Sigh. As long as people close their eyes to what really went on and paint it all in rosy colors… even slavery! then we are back to dogma, not real knowledge, eh? :frowning:



I’d like to remind you of the forums guidelines. Ask a question, tell your story, interpret generously. These guidelines are in place to have a discussion about rewilding as this site understands it. I’ve interpreted you very generously until now:

Sigh. As long as people close their eyes to what really went on and paint it all in rosy colors... even slavery! then we are back to dogma, not real knowledge, eh? :(

This passive aggressive comment aimed at me is, to be blunt, really fucking annoying. More annoying then you coming to this site using your own made-up definition of agriculture and then starting a thread telling us we are wrong (but not telling us you’ve got your own definition). It’s clear you’re not interested in engaging the community here, on our terms. You could have responded to my post respectfully. I’m well accustomed with all the aspects of the rank system here in the NW, or at least how it is commonly understood post-collapse of Native culture. Instead you resorted to passive aggressive comments of me “closing my eyes” because I was painting a broader picture then what narrow minded anthropologists have painted. Again, it’s clear you’re not interested in engaging the community here, on our terms. So I’m taking you off posting status. If you’d like to have conversations here with us at another point, once you’ve read a lot more here and understand our language and guidelines, you can request to rejoin.


Slavery, as a concept, was quite different in the confederate states before emancipation than the ancestors of the slave masters had had in their society: the old attitudes that were crystalized into written laws in ancient and medieval times gave less worth to the “thrall” class (a very small group, compared to freemen, consisting of heinous lawbreakers and captured enemies), but not none. Punishments existed for those who killed their slaves or injured someone elses slave. Not that their lives were that great, but at least some rights and protections for their welfare existed. The intensification of the idea of lower classes then coupled with christianity-backed racism to promote the idea that certain people were not “really” humans. The transition to intensification in hierarchy went hand-in-hand with the desire by european elites to push intensive agriculture of spices, textiles and tobacco. Anyone else seeing a pattern here?


A few tidbits:

Easter Islanders were most certainly more agriculturalists than they were horticulturalists. Even then, modern research is destroying the notion that the ecocide of their island was their “fault”.

Norte Chico were more like horticulturalists who used irrigation to create forests and forests gardens, not to water crops on deforested lands (agriculture). They had a population increase and collapse as well. Intensification of anything can lead to small bursts of population and then a decrease. The point is that there is still a thriving ecosystem to live from as the population stabilizes to the new amount of food that is sustainably available.

What anthologists call “Slavery” on the NW Coast is more accurately described as “Captivity”. There were not generations of slaves. Most people we call “slaves” were captured during raids. These captives were not members of a large labor class, they made up a very small percentage of the population. The rank system was not a culture of systemic slavery the way civilization is. Captives didn’t put in anymore labor than anyone else to procure food. I won’t label this behavior as “good” or “bad”. It is what it is, and still, you can’t compare minimal captivity to systemic slavery. Or rather, you can, but one will look 10x more desirable.

Why not either... or both? I mean, obviously few people will jump right into immediate-return foraging in the near future. But rewilding is in large part about a long term future as well. Long term, I see no reason a return (perhaps sometimes a long term process though stages) to immediate-return hunting and gathering would not be an option for some. Plus I think it's somewhat bioregion-dependent, no?

Of course! :slight_smile:

And yet, I have this impression that people think of “immediate-return” hunter-gatherers as not having to do much land management to get their food. The planet can support a ton of people if they tend the wild correctly. Rewilding to me, means learning to tend the wild to such an abundance that the crash is softer than it will be otherwise. This is why I don’t encourage people to run away to the wilderness, but to start cultivating the land towards more biomass/biodiversity. If everyone went back to hunting/gathering right now, they would most likely not understand how much is sustainable to take, or even how to take in such a way as to provide more later. Everything wild would be destroyed. I think learning to be an immediate-return hunter-gatherer starts with learning all the horticultural and land management practices there are out there so that you have all the tool necessary. Baby steps man! :wink:

And yet, I have this impression that people think of "immediate-return" hunter-gatherers as not having to do much land management to get their food.

Heh, I’m probably guilty of that to some degree. I’m becoming aware though that more “tending the wild” did go on than I once realized. (Of course it’s true, as you mentioned, that trying to pinpoint who is immediate return and who isn’t exactly, gets into blurry, grey areas.)

So one thing I’m just beginning to look at is how that plays out with different groups. My initial impression is that it varies quite a bit, both in amount and of course techniques used. I’m guessing bioregion is the main determinant.

Rewilding to me, means learning to tend the wild to such an abundance that the crash is softer than it will be otherwise.

This is a cool idea. 8) I’ve thought about what things might soften the crash, and have mostly zeroed in on supporting programs that humanely and voluntarily address population and any and all things that protect habitat and biodiversity. Tending the wild in the way you describe fits really well into that second category. And it gives people something tangible to do – rather than merely contributing to an NGO – that also builds in skills they can use into the future.


I’d just like to say I was sorry to see vera booted from the forums as I feel she has some important things to contribute (even if you have to get past an initial ‘spikiness’) and I was getting a lot out of this particular discussion which she prompted. I understand this isn’t the only place on the internet to host that discussion and respect the ‘my house, my rules’ approach taken here. I also agree that Peter’s summation, ‘It’s clear you’re not interested in engaging the community here, on our terms’ does seem fair, judging from vera’s posts so far. I don’t know… I guess I would request that she be allowed to continue posting to this topic if she apologises for the ‘close their eyes’ comment and agrees to reign in her ‘combative’ streak. I don’t know if I’m entitled to make that request or not, but there it is.

To me this feels like a very pertinent conversation to be having right now and excluding differing points of view seems to lead to an unnecessary handicap.



It just occurred to me that I had been interpreting the term “immediate-return” one way, but that in other contexts I interpret it another, and just wondering how we’re using it here in this conversations. I realize it could both refer to the activities of foragers and hunters as immediately having returns, and could also be referring to people making the efforts to immediately transition to hunter-gatherer-gardener lifeways.

And yes, I’m also kind of bummed that vera isn’t in the conversation or the forum now, but I personally don’t have patience for people unwilling to engage in honest conversation. That sort of passive aggression, which I think Peter rightly identified, isn’t the kind of communication we should encourage and practice both here and in our emerging cultures.

Coincidentally, vera’s claim of Oceanic horticulturalists being non-egalitarian reminded me of something I just read and posted on my Facebook, about the Batek people in what is now Malaysia. Okay, they might not be what is classically called horticulturalists, but they’re the epitome of egalitarian, and seem to tend wild yams and similar tubers in abundance.

The Batek also consider it a “crime/offense” to insult others or even hurt their feelings in some way, and perceive it to do real harm. Just throwing that out there.


Dan, I was using “immediate return” in the first way you mention, a reference to a certain broad category of hunter-gatherer (such as, say, the !Kung or Hadza). I think that’s how others above were using it too. Could be wrong. ???

I was interested as well in some of the topics Vera was raising. Clearly she did get a little mad, and expressed it in her post. I can also imagine that it’s hard to always stick with the forum guidelines. (Ask a question, tell your story, interpret generously.) I wonder if everyone understands them the same way. Would it would help to add a couple of examples of wording that “tells your story” – or something of the sort?

Of course Vera did start the thread in the Humanure section, so hell, I don’t know. :-\


Well, having followed her blog for a while, I think throwing out those provocative lines is her way of attempting to ‘engage in honest conversation’. Admittedly it doesn’t always make for a totally pleasant discussion, but I’ve found it helps me to tighten up my own thinking in the long run. Maybe that’s just me though… I agree with the general point about the health and well-being of the group taking precedence over the needs of individuals – the tribe feeds everyone after all. As long as it doesn’t devolve to the point where none of the members get their needs met (as in the current culture), only keeping the thing going through endless self-sacrifice…

Also, I see how this gets into a Jensen-style discussion of defensive rights outweighing offensive rights: what if the ‘need’ of one person’s self-expression comes at the expense of another person’s feelings? Yesterday our local conservation volunteer group played host to a man with some v. irritating, borderline antisocial habits. Opinion varies on whether there’s something ‘wrong’ with him in a medical or psychological sense, but he talks incessantly over everyone, listens poorly, imposes the topics he wants to talk about on every conversation, fails to respond to sometimes quite obvious negative body language in his listeners, and only seems to shut up after you’ve ignored or not responded to him for about five minutes. My experimental approach of listening and attempting to engage with him on his terms only resulted in my ‘taking one for the team’ as others took the opportunity to escape, while he went further & ever-more intensely down the rabbit hole of his own preoccupations and I slowly lost the will to live. Eventually I gave up and followed the others’ example of shutting down until he got bored and found somebody else to talk to. Not a very satisfying outcome from an NVC perspective, but I at least realised that my self-preservation came first!

Anyway, I guess that’s for a different topic. I’ll stop twisting and turning (‘like a twisty turny thing’) now…



So… This was the last sort of contentious thread on this forum from a couple year back. I kind of want to continue the discussion here. I do find it fascinating, particularly in terms of how we define “Agriculture”. To me, it specifically relates to tilling of the soil. But maybe there is more than just that? I would particularly like it if Jason Godesky weighed in here.


How about swidden, aka slash and burn cultivation? Still a field (ager) of sorts, but there’s a rotation system in place to allow high forest to make a comeback. It doesn’t even have to be grains (see: manioc) and there’s plenty of ‘unofficial’ crops to make use of while the area goes through the various fallow stages back to the climax ecosystem. Funnily enough Vera recently sent me an in-depth piece about the Karen people - rice farmers in the Thai highlands which might be of interest:

There’s some antagonism evident in their social rituals, many of which are about encouraging the rice plants and warding off incursions from wildlife or disease, but still they have strong animist perceptions and a great sensitivity to the ethics of their actions within the wider living community:

After the New Year is celebrated, the village chief begins to survey forest fallow for dry (upland) rice farming. All the villagers follow his lead and survey their new farm lands. There are many taboos regarding the choosing of forest fallow for cultivation. For example, people will not cultivate forest fallow that has caught fire, fallow that produces wild bananas, forest in mountain passes, forest in watershed areas (described as places where green frogs incubate their eggs, and so on). While surveying, fallow will not be chosen if the person hears deer barking, a "s'pgauz" bird singing, or sees a snake crossing the path. Moreover, in the night following the survey of the fallow, it is considered a sign of bad luck to dream about forest fire or the breaking of machetes that are used to cut down trees. In contrast, dreaming about elephants or about flooding is a good sign that means the surveyed fallow land should be cultivated. The Karen have many taboos regarding the selection of forest fallow for farming because they want to choose the best fallow, and also minimize impacts on the forest and the wild life.

It reminds me of Jason’s way of defining horticulture as a system that involves, at some point, moving away from the ‘ground zero’ of annual tillage and allowing succession to take place, even if this is limited or managed. Some kind of fallow, basically. The Karen make use of hundreds of plants and animals who move into their zones of cultivation, for food, medicine, building materials, clothing etc. As such, an appreciation of these other beings is built into their subsistence practice (and therefore into cultural practices and spiritual awareness). If they were to concentrate on rice full-time, all of that would go out the window and they would begin to view most wildlife with the extreme suspicion and hostility that’s so common among western farmers.


I think the crux of this whole conversation was in misinterpreting horticulture and agriculture (or redefining them).

To me, agriculture is a tool of horticulturalists, so in that was is “sustainable”, in that they don’t solely rely on it. To me, most of the cultures Vera mentions, and even the Karen appear to be horticulturalists. I may be mistaken but I really do think it’s important to make the distinctions. Perhaps its a particular kind of agriculture that is more unsustainable, like plowing fields instead of burning, etc?

I particularly enjoy their classifications of 4 styles, with the Karen using mostly “Short-cultivation, long fallow”.

Preparation of a dry rice field:
  • Branches of large trees are cut, the roots are not dug out
  • The soil is not ploughed
  • 28 rice species and 100 vegetable species are available for use
  • Usable wood is harvested for firewood

To me, that is more a horticultural practice of using agriculture, than full-blown agriculture like the Type 3 and Type 2. Very interesting classification system here! This is a great link.

It makes me wonder about population density and expansion. What happens when you can’t fallow fields anymore, but still need them to produce? Is this what created the need for the plow? To dig deeper for nutrients? Etc? Lots of great questions coming out of this.


Basically on topic, a factor I just read about in Beyond Geography: The Western Spirit Against the Wilderness, is that our definition of the terms “sedentary” and “nomadic” are kind of warped. “Nomadic” hunter/gatherers tend to have seasonal rounds, while basically living in the same general area, essentially forever. “Sedentary” peoples, such as European agriculturalists tend to constantly be moving on/expanding, never really developing a reciprocal relationship with the rest of the creatures that make up the landbase they’re occupying.

Also, this has been touched on somewhat, but I’d like to emphasize that I don’t think that there is necessarily one factor that we can point to as crucial at all times and places. Ecosystems are much more complex than that. Agriculture is obviously a huge one, though it is greatly exacerbated by a perception of time as being linear. Hunting/gathering is obviously going to tend to encourage biodiversity, though 7 billion hunter/gatherers will decimate the ecosystem we have now, just in different ways than 7 billion agriculturalists do.


All good points Ben.

I particularly like the nomad/sedentism perspective. I’ve thought that about Nomads for a long time now, but the ever-moving “sedentary” agriculturalist bit is great.


Here is an interesting article I came across today on new information about the origins of agriculture. There are some of the terms defined in here slightly differently than I have seen in the past. It’s a dense article I’m wading through it now.


Here is a link to the entire journal, which has many articles on the origin of agriculture and relate to this conversation.


just reading Jason Godesky’s essay on definitions, and here’s a question.

So here we have a workable definition: agriculture is cultivation by means of catastrophe. Tillage emulates catastrophe, and the plow is a catastrophe-emulating machine. By contrast, horticulture is cultivation by means of succession. Fallowing allows succession to advance; the lack of tillage and the plow is merely the lack of artificially-induced catastrophe to set back succession.

how does this fit in with the fire used in a place like the pacific northwest’s oak/camas prairies? it seems to me like those habitats are ones dependent on the catastrophe of fire, and that without it they would be succeeded by the douglas fir/redcedar/etc. forests, which seems to fit with the definition of agriculture. but this seems funny to me since the outcome is a very diverse ecology with hundreds of different plants (and the more mobile creatures that live with them, as opposed to say, a corn field…