Agriculture

A central and repeatedly stated assertion of the two Quinn books I read is that at some time humans lived in a stable equilibrium. That is not a worldview, that is an assertion of fact. A particular fact that is problematic in proving, yet Quinn claims to know it is true. He actually waters it down at one point and says that human population did grow steadily before some arbitrary level of agricultural innovation, but that it was slower than in recent times. My question is: Why should I believe that modern humans ever existed in a stable equilibrium? I believe that the growth rate has not been constant, yet how could I know that the early history of humans is fundamentally different from exponential growth in which growth is relatively slow for a long time early on?

In Jared Diamond’s excellent book Guns, Germs, and Steel, he addresses the question of the origins of agriculture at some length and concludes that food production developed independently in at least seven places – the Fertile Crescent, two different areas in China, New Guinea, Mesoamerica, the Andes, and the Eastern present-day U.S. – and possibly as many as eleven. Furthermore, in at least five of those places agriculture could have been characterized as “totalitarian” – prompting large alterations to landscapes, supporting of a large social hierarchy, and yielding aggressive expansion into lands inhabited by non-agriculturalists (either killing or converting them). Diamond also points out that the areas that did not develop intensive food production were the areas where it was not possible to do so given the existing local wild edibles. He also argues that many of the regions that “received” agriculture from elsewhere did so through trade, not necessarily through expansion of existing Taker societies. So yes, the actual course of events turns out to be much more mottled and complex than the theory. My question is, doesn’t all this somewhat undermine your basic notion that the rise of intensive agriculture took place in just one or two small locations and then expanded everywhere else through population growth and conquest? Doesn’t it strongly imply that the momentum of people more or less everywhere was towards food production? If Mr. Diamond is to be believed, the number of societies that willingly gave up Leaver lifestyles for Taker ones is far, far greater than the number for whom it went the other way around.

I am currently researching the evolution of various hunter gathers to the point of sedentarisation, where agriculture becomes the predominant method of subsistence. I was wondering if you knew of any hunter gatherer groups that have evolved past the “leaver” philosophy into an agrarian culture and then did a complete 180 back into their indigenous lifestyle. Also, do you think the recent whaling situation of the Makah people in the Northwest coast is representative of this move “backwards” or is it more likely these people are generating a pseudo-hunter-gatherer society?

Even if we live tribally (in the sense you use the word in Beyond Civilization), aren’t we still going to crash just as fast as if we work for a hierarchical corporation? We’re still dependent on agriculture. What is to stop the new tribalism from damaging the planet just as much as civilization, provided that we’re still dependent on growing all of our own food?

By the time we “discovered” America the continent was fully inhabited by Native Americans. Their population growth is much slower than ours, but it grows too. They still had enough of room to grow slowly without being a real danger for this world. But what if they have had another hundred thousand years? Their growth is slowed down by the way they live, but there’s no proof that it is really limited. Or is there a proof? Finally, my best argument is: they DO have a population control that works until now, which is more than we can assert. And it would be better to have a control that presumably works than to have NO control at all. But would it work if they would have our technology? If we don’t have to give up technology, and if the Leavers have the only known mechanism to control population, what would happen if you combine these components?

While I understand the theory that vegetarianism tends to aggravate the population explosion, I find it morally reprehensible to consume the product of a cruel and unnatural factory farming system. My reasons for vegetarianism are not because I value a cow’s life over a carrot’s, and I know that both the meat and vegetable industries practice totalitarian agriculture. Both industries kill, but this is a “natural” way to get food. The problem, in my eyes, is that it is clear that cows are vastly mistreated during life, whereas carrots are not. My vegetarianism is a boycott of an industry that treats life as no more than capital. I want this industry to change. Are my morals unfounded in your opinion? Do you think vegetarianism is an ineffective way to bring about change in the meat industry? If so, what would be more effective, or what should I do instead?

The USDA is going to license a patent to Monsanto for genetically altering plants so that they cannot reproduce. This may well result in the bulk of our food supply relying on plants which cannot reproduce naturally. This is by far the most blatant, and frightening, manifestation of “locking up the food supply” to coerce behavior. With this development it seems time just grew allot shorter for us to come up with solutions to our current way of doing things. Do you (or does anyone) have any ideas as to how we can fight these kinds of developments? How do we come up with a more sustainable way of living if the very foundation of nature is so radically altered by geneticists such that our food supply itself is no longer self-sustaining? This scares the hell out of me, and I’m really short of bright ideas at the moment.