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AGRICULTURE: Ending the World as We Know It
By John Feeney
So how’s all that modern environmentalism working out for us -- the green living, the carbon credits, reduced consumption, development in the Third World, better solar pan­els? If it all seems hopelessly inadequate, even laughable in the face of today’s global ecological crisis, perhaps that’s because it’s rooted in denial of the origins of the ecological drama now playing out.
It’s a drama of which climate change is only a part. It goes back ten thousand years and farther into the human past, confronts us with how we relate to nature, and brings reminders of abandoned civilizations.
We turn away from this drama because it raises troubling questions going straight to the foundations of our way of life. But grappling with converging environmental crises and the specter of widespread ecological collapse, for the sake of the human future it’s time we face it. [1]
cess. Growing and storing food we could go on growing our food supply. The result has been predictable: more humans.
In publications ranging from peer reviewed journal articles to novels, analysts such as Russell Hopfenberg, David Pimentel, and Daniel Quinn have described a continuous cycle of human population growth followed by expanding agriculture to feed our growing numbers, followed in turn by more population growth. [8] [9] In less than one percent of our history our numbers shot from perhaps fve million to 6.7 billion, an increase of 134,000 percent.
The big switch
Pull back and consider the whole of human history. For perhaps 2.5 million years, well over 99 percent of our time on Earth, we lived in small bands or tribes, foraging and hunting for food. With baskets and tools of stone, bone, and wood we walked the bush, blending gracefully into Earth’s ecosystems.
Then around 8,000 BC we began the transition to agriculture, growing and storing our own food. That changed everything. Arguably, there have been only two fundamentally different phases of human existence: before and after agriculture.
Why the switch? Why quit something which had worked for us for thousands of millen­nia? We have only partially informed guesses. Perhaps changes in climate made hunting less productive or the domestication of grains in some areas more attractive. No one men­tions, though, that only a few people had to make the initial change for it to take over the world. Nor do many observers acknowledge that the adoption of agriculture was not as nice for us as we’ve been led to believe.
This cycle of growth explains how agriculture spread around the world. It was not a matter of hunter-gatherers observing farmers and eagerly adopting their practices. It was the spread of farmers themselves. [10] Their ever increasing food supply meant ever more agriculturalists who needed more land and took it, often violently.
At what cost?
Examine it closely, in fact, and agriculture emerges as a springboard for most of today’s environmental and social problems.
Yes, it made possible civilization with its cities, jet liners, and corporations. But at what cost? Its most immediate impact was the elimination of all who stood in its way as farm­ing cultures spread around the world. Part genocide and part culture killing, the process continues today as the handful of remaining hunter-gatherers on earth struggle for sur­vival. [2]
So how’s all that modern environmentalism
working out for us --
the green living, the carbon credits,
reduced consumption,
development in the Third World, better solar panels?
...it all seems hopelessly inadequate, even laughable
in the face of today’s global ecological crisis...
The resulting environmental impacts of human population growth are well known. From species loss and climate change to the global spread of chemical toxins and the death of coral reefs, human numbers fgure as a fundamental driver of nearly all environ­mental degradation.
Some insist those problems are mainly the result of excessive per person resource con­sumption. Population does multiply with per person consumption to determine total con­sumption. But individual levels of consumption only became a global issue as the number of consumers grew large enough to make them so. Agriculture made it happen. It links with human population growth to destroy the biosphere.
The sixth mass extinction
Chief among the destructive impacts of agri­culture are today’s alarmingly elevated extinction rates. Just as agriculture has crowded out hunter-gatherers, it has pushed out other species. Most biologists agree we are today in the midst of the sixth mass extinction event in Earth’s history, the ffth having eliminated the dinosaurs. This time one species -- our own -- is the cause.
Fossil evidence suggests an increase in extinc­tions even before agriculture. Anthropologist Paul S. Martin has championed the “overkill” hypoth-
With farming came a large increase in work and a steep decline in health, the latter discovered by archeologists examining the bones and teeth of people living in the same regions before and after agriculture. It brought social hierarchies, sexual inequality, fam­ine, slavery, time clocks, money, and a massive upscaling of violence. [3] Jared Diamond called it “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.” [4] More recently, anthro­pologist and geneticist Spencer Wells provided his own list of some of the costs of the shift away from hunting and gathering: “diabetes, obesity, mental illness, climate change.” [5]
Less publicized have been agriculture’s ecological impacts. History texts glorify civili­zation, based on agriculture, as the pinnacle of human existence. They don’t mention it required an end to living in harmony with nature as contributing members of local eco­systems. Author John Zerzan has said of agriculture, “The land itself becomes an instru­ment of production and the planet’s species its objects.” [6]
Trying to live apart from nature carries a price. Why don’t we take more seriously the many peoples, such as the Maya and the Anasazi, who adopted farming only to see their civilizations fall apart as drought, depleted resources, or too little arable land for a grow­ing population sent a recurring message from nature? Why don’t we hear about those who simply walked away and returned to hunting and gathering? [7]
esis, arguing the cause was the spread of human hunting out of Africa to continents con­taining large mammals unaccustomed to human predators. Other investigators such as Donald K. Grayson dispute his conclusions and point to evidence implicating changes in climate. What we do know is that extinction rates have accelerated greatly since the advent of farming. [11]
A primary cause of extinctions is habitat disruption. And what better way to disrupt, to destroy habitat than to level a piece of land, eliminating all life on it, then to plant a single crop exclusively for human use. That’s agriculture, and it has spread over more than a billion hectares of the earth. Indeed, any human-caused environmental damage prior to agriculture pales in comparison to what has come after.
The industrial age and our use of oil has meant yet another acceleration of the Sixth Extinction as far more land has been put under cultivation and the human population has skyrocketed, obliterating habitat to make way for cities, subdivisions, shopping malls, and highway systems.
We hear all about resource consumption, particularly energy consumption. Why don’t
Circumventing nature’s limits
The problem of agriculture is in part a problem of human numbers. Before farming hu­man population size had been regulated by the same process that works for black bears, dingos, bonobos, rainbow trout, and long-tailed parakeets. It works for all species, gener­ally keeping their numbers within carrying capacity. It’s simple: Population follows food supply. Normal oscillations in available food exert multiple small, cumulative, typically painless infuences on fertility and mortality. With agriculture we circumvented this pro-