All discussions become murky and confused when concepts like nature and natural creep into them (which is why I bring them up in my books only to point out how useless they are). If agriculture is unnatural, then it’s obvious that we cannot feed six billion people except by unnatural means.
However, nothing compels me or anyone else to sort out things by whether they are natural or unnatural, and I according refuse to do it. What I point out in Ishmael (and more explicitly and forcefully in My Ishmael) is that not all agriculture is totalitarian agriculture. I point out that agriculture is fundamentally nothing more than encouraging the regrowth of the foods you like—and this is something that EVERY aboriginal people ever discovered has been found to be doing, to one degree or another, and there’s no reason to suppose that the practice isn’t hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of years old. (Thus what sense does it make to call it unnatural?) Once the situation is viewed in this light, the dilemma disappears.
The question should not be asked in the form Can six billion people survive living naturally? but rather in this form: Will this planet sustain a human population of six billion people? It simply doesn’t matter whether you give agriculture a nice name or a naughty name.
Beyond that question is this one: Can we continue indefinitely to convert the biomass of this planet into human beings? And of course most people know the answer to that QUESTION: We can’t. The instrument we’re using to convert the biomass of this planet into human beings is totalitarian agriculture. We’re not just sustaining 5.8 billion people through agriculture this year. Totalitarian agriculture is producing food for the 5.9 billion people who will be living here next year, with the result that there surely WILL BE 5.9 billion people next year. And if we continue to practice totalitarian agriculture next year, then we’ll be producing food for the 6.0 billion people who will be living here the following year, with the result that there surely will be 6.0 billion people living here in the following year. And if we continue to practice totalitarian agriculture indefinitely, then there will eventually be 8 billion and 10 billion (and almost certainly within the next fifty years) 12 billion people here.
By concentrating on the unnaturalness of agriculture, you miss the point that our particular style of agriculture is unsustainable. The reason our particular style is unsustainable isn’t that agriculture itself is unnatural. The reason our particular style is unsustainable is that it stimulates and sustains a food race between producers and consumers similar to the Cold War arms race. It is no more possible to win the food race than it was possible to win the arms race—and for the same reason: there was no finish line; every win for our side was inevitably answered by a win for the other side. There can be nothing but escalation in the food race, just as there could be nothing but escalation in the arms race. Like the arms race, the food race can never be won—it can only be abandoned. But, oh, what a voice crying in the wilderness I am on this point!
There’s a further point of similarity between the two races. There were people who imagined that the culprit to be blamed for the arms race was that unnatural thing called technology. In fact, however, it wasn’t technology that was driving the race, it was something Eisenhower called a military-industrial complex operating on both sides of the contest. In the same way, it isn’t agriculture (or as so many people imagine, our sex-drive) that is driving the food race, it is totalitarian agriculture. Just as the arms race couldn’t have gone on without being supported by each side’s military-industrial complex, the food race can’t go on without being supported by totalitarian agriculture. Totalitarian agriculture started and sustains the food race in exactly the same way that the military-industrial complex started and sustained the arms race.
DATE: 28 Mar 1998
UPDATE: 19 Apr 1998