Agriculture as wrong turn
The following is an excerpt from my new book, “The Failures of Farming and the Necessity of Wildtending,” available here.
The news here is that the lives of most of our progenitors were better than we think. We’re flattering ourselves by believing that their existence was so grim and that our modern, civilized one is, by comparison, so great. — John Lanchester
The “Agricultural Revolution” is lauded as one of the greatest achievements in the history of the human race, proof positive of “Progress” and of our own exalted status “a little lower than angels.” Doubtless, it is among the most momentous changes that our species has experienced, on par with the utilization of fire, the development of language and the splitting of the atom. However, a closer look, based on research and scholarship, reveals that the adoption of farming led to declines in human health, caused sharp social inequities, started a war on the environment, and put us on a road that’s headed towards extinction.
But wasn’t life before farming miserable? Notoriously “nasty, brutish and short? Weren’t hunters and gatherers always on the edge of starvation, constantly focused on survival, and never able to enjoy free time? According to experts who study history: No.
Among those who investigate the Agricultural Revolution are archaeologists, anthropologists, paleopathologists, sociologists, geneticists, linguists, primatologists, botanists, climatologists and even economists. A survey of their literature from the last half century exhibits near consensus on the big picture: the Agricultural Revolution caused clear, measurable declines in quality of life, individually, communally and ecologically. That this knowledge has not filtered out into mainstream culture is hardly surprising since these findings contradict cherished cultural beliefs that have religious origins and political value, to say nothing of personal appeal.
The fossil record reveal that life for agriculturalists was harder than it had been for hunter-gatherers. Their bones show evidence of dietary stress: they were shorter, they were sicker, their mortality rates were higher. Living in close proximity to domesticated animals led to diseases that crossed the species barrier, wreaking havoc in the densely settled communities.
The diets of wildtenders and other gatherer-hunters were very diverse and their lifestyles were highly mobile. The variation in food, in kind and in season, supplied complete nutrition and lessened the chance of going hungry. Living in small, migratory groups virtually guaranteed that individuals were in good physical condition and disallowed certain diseases from becoming widespread. Of course, gatherer-hunters were themselves diverse, and their diets and lifestyles differed with geography, but altogether they were more like each other than they are like the agricultural societies that largely replaced them.
The Agricultural Revolution radically reoriented the fundamentals of human culture. Some of its inventions were cities, property, writing, taxation and in the Near East, monotheistic religion. The transitions were not immediate. First, humans settled into sedentary villages based on horticulture (aka, “stick agriculture”), which brought one set of changes. Then, after a few thousand years, agriculture proper emerged, driven by the plow and fed by irrigation, spurring more drastic transformations.
In most gatherer-hunter societies, the majority of the diet was the part that was gathered. Such was comprised of roots, seeds and nuts, berries and fruit, greens, and in some places, grubs and insects. All of these had their own seasons, stages and habitats that varied annually depending on natural cycles, the weather and other circumstances. But food was not the only thing being gathered; the botanical world also provided fibers for weaving clothes and containers, colors for painting and dyeing, and teemed with medicinals for treating injuries, easing pain, tending to hygiene, improving vigor and — last but certainly not least! — controlling fertility. Altogether, gatherers had knowledge of hundreds of plants and thousands of factors. This encyclopedic understanding was shared generationally for millennia through an oral tradition that conveyed not merely information but also wisdom. As a result, the practice of gathering was a highly consistent endeavor that dependably provided sustenance, crafting materials and medicines throughout the year.
Hunting meat, by contrast, yielded erratic results. Even when game was predictable — such as during an annual Salmon run or a Reindeer migration — the pattern of hunting as an activity was “feast-or-famine.” In some cultures, meat was preserved by smoking or drying it, but the amount that could be conveniently stored or carried was finite. In some parts of the world, gatherer-hunters would never have been daily meat eaters, and during particular times of the year, would have had a predominantly vegetarian diet.
According to the archaeological and anthropological evidence, gathering was predominantly the sphere of women and hunting that of men. This division makes sense, since babies or small children could accompany gathering activities, but were likely to disrupt hunting. This division was also voluntary, says Gerda Lerner, author of The Creation of Patriarchy:
“The earliest sexual division of labor by which women chose occupations compatible with their mothering and child-raising activities were functional, hence acceptable to men and women alike.” [emphasis in original]
So, since Paleolithic survival depended on the contributions of both sexes, egalitarian societies were the norm. Roles within a group were based on “linking rather than ranking” and relationships focused on cooperation rather than competition. These balanced forms of culture have also been called “partnership societies” as opposed to “dominator societies,” the latter of which are patriarchal.
The image of the caveman dragging his woman around by her hair is a mythical view of the past, although it’s a telling expression of our present day misogyny that this is what we project back in time. Clearly, we are trying to justify what we know is bad behavior.
From the contemporary viewpoint it seems impossible to imagine, but property — besides one’s personal articles — was a concept new to the Agricultural era; no one had owned land, animals or other humans in preceding times. But the first written records (dating to ~5100 years ago) are mostly comprised of lists of property, primarily grains, slaves (tracked by sex) and heads of animals. For its first five centuries, writing’s exclusive use was accounting, not art.
Art, it has often been claimed, flowered with the Agricultural Revolution because of extra leisure time, although, in actuality, such time was actually in shorter supply. Some scholars have suggested that art suffered from the transition. Says John Zerzan:
The pre-Neolithic [pre-Agricutlural] cave paintings, for example, are vivid and bold, a dynamic exaltation of animal grace and freedom. The neolithic art of farmers and pastoralists, however, stiffens into stylized forms; Franz Borkenau typified its pottery as a “narrow, timid botching of materials and forms.” With agriculture, art lost its variety and became standardized into geometric designs that tended to degenerate into dull, repetitive patterns, a perfect reflection of standardized, confined, rule-patterned life… And where there had been no representation in Paleolithic art of men killing men, an obsession with depicting confrontation between people advanced with the Neolithic period, scenes of battles becoming common.
Deeper still were shifts in how humans looked at themselves in relation to the natural world. James Suzman writes:
Where hunter-gatherers saw themselves simply as part of an inherently productive environment, farmers regarded their environment as something to manipulate, tame and control. But as any farmer will tell you, bending an environment to your will requires a lot of work. The productivity of a patch of land is directly proportional to the amount of energy you put into it. This principle that hard work is a virtue, and its corollary that individual wealth is a reflection of merit, is perhaps the most obvious of the agricultural revolution’s many social, economic and cultural legacies. [my emphasis]
Here, then, are the roots of the “Protestant work ethic” and of the over-production that techno-industrial capitalism has taken to such ecocidal extremes.
No discussion of the Agricultural Revolution in the Near East would be complete without mentioning monotheism, which Gore Vidal called, “easily the greatest disaster to befall the human race.” This religious dogma was a logical expression of the agricultural lifestyle. The new god was a man, entirely independent of women, with no mother, wife or daughter, a sharp contrast with gods in the existing pantheons. He did not live on the earth and was not present in its life, its form, or its elements, except on special occasions, e.g., when taking the form of a cloud or a fiery shrub. He declared that the planet and everything on it was the “dominion” of humans, for them to treat as they would like. Clear hierarchies existed: God over humans, human men over human women, all humans over nature. Last but not least, humans themselves were born flawed, inherently unable to find true happiness in living.
By whatever justification, religious or otherwise, and through whatever mechanism, intentionally designed or not, during the Agricultural Revolution, men took the majority of social power from women and it has never been returned or retaken. Or even honestly acknowledged. Modern liberal feminism has won only very minor reforms; the fundamental mode of oppression remains unshaken. That mode — patriarchy — is the domination not only of men over women but of those characteristics considered masculine over those considered feminine. Dualism and domination are two of its hallmarks: the division of everything into opposites and the subsequent subordination of one to the other. On the grand scale, patriarchy is an expression of humanity splitting itself from nature and setting itself counter to it.
As domination over nature was exerted, respect for nature declined. How could it not? You cannot at once lash something and love it. That some people believe you can just shows how far down this “nasty, brutish” road we’ve traveled. But no: respect and domination don’t go together. Can not. They are mutually exclusive.
Ultimately, the breaking of our conscious, intentional connection with nature was the worst outcome of agriculture. Not content to merely abuse ourselves and each other, we extended our desecration to everyone else — animal, vegetable and mineral — and to the planet itself. Currently, our survival is no less connected to nature and the world than at any other time, but we are now less aware of that connection than ever before. The cost of that break–of over fifty centuries of intense exploitation — is now weighing on us heavily.
Environmentally, the damage done to the planet by agriculture is severe and far-reaching.
First, farming’s footprint is enormous, taking up fully 40% of the earth’s land. Every acre of that started out as wildlife habitat but is now disturbed to one degree or another. On ranchland, many of the original animals and plants might still live there, albeit with limitations. But in a field of corn, a rice paddy, or an almond orchard, nearly all other life has been wiped out, often completely. City tourists might take a drive to admire the rolling hills of “wine country,” but what they are looking at is a former wilderness that was once home to flora, fauna, fungus and previous human populations, all since decimated. It’s no pretty picture at all. It’s a vision of ecocide.
You can’t farm without soil (hydroponics notwithstanding) but soil is the first casualty of agriculture. For abusing soil, nothing beats the plow, from the original ox-drawn and human-led tool of the Neolithic Era to the contemporary fuel-powered and unmanned GPS-coordinated behemoth of the 21st Century. As it turns out, forcibly breaking down a soil’s structure with blades and removing the vegetative material that holds it together results in quite a lot of it eroding into waterways and blowing away in the wind. The remainder rapidly loses its inherent fertility as irrigation washes out minerals and pesticides wipe out vitalizing micro-organisms. Currently, “a third of the planet’s land is severely degraded and fertile soil is being lost at the rate of 24bn tonnes a year.”
Onto the cleared, drained and levelled lands of agriculture are applied poisons, hundreds of kinds, few of them tested and of these none of them thoroughly. Fertilizers taint the water, from aquifer to river to sea. Dead zones expand in the oceans, all over the world. Writes Jonathan Watts, in the Guardian:
The increased use of chemical fertilizers by the industrial agriculture sector over the past several decades… has prompted large-scale run-off of sewage and other byproducts entering ocean waters, causing deoxygenated dead zones to quadruple in size since 1950 — now covering an area roughly the size of the European Union…. Low-oxygen dead zones make the ocean less inhabitable for marine life, suffocating creatures and reducing the area where they’re able to thrive.
Pesticides are a nightmare.By dint of their particulate nature when sprayed, they are easily carried away by the wind and end up contaminating soil and water and poisoning other creatures. Only 1% hit their intended target. 1%! Subsequently, at the large scale they are used, they degrade habitat, reduce biodiversity and magnify extinction rates. Ironically, pollinators required for food production are frequent victims. As with war, one can question whether non-target damage can honestly be described as “collateral” — “being aside from the main subject, target, or goal; tangential” — when it is inevitably, one could even say characteristically, a “subject” of nearly every attack, never truly “tangential.” But nature can be resilient, and targeted plants can and do develop herbicide resistance over time, meaning they survive being sprayed. Unfortunately, the agriculture industry’s response is to jack up the amount of herbicide and develop new poisons.
Irrigation damages the environment from the points of source to delivery, and the bigger the project, the worse it is. Anytime water is diverted from one place to another, there is always at least one loser: the immediate locale from which it was taken. Whether it is a spring, river or lake, the effects of use will make their mark, sooner or later. In many cases, the crop being irrigated isn’t even be food. In northern California, rivers have been running too low for the Salmon because of the wine and Cannabis industries. In other words, we are prioritizing getting drunk and high over the lives of other creatures. Such trade-offs are emblematic of agriculture. That these acts are not considered theft or assault is demonstrative of mere cultural creed, not the honest administration of logic.
Dams built for agriculture are their own disasters. They drown entire areas, block fish migration, and interrupt previous patterns of seasonal flooding that brought fertility to the soil.
Agriculture is a major contributor to Climate Change due to the significant amount of greenhouse gases it produces. The majority of these gases come from four different sources:
- Deforestation for land-clearing. Forests are “carbon sinks” — that is, they store carbon dioxide (CO2) — so when the trees are cut down, much of the CO2 dissipates into the atmosphere. Tilling cleared land produces additional CO2, which the soil releases when it is disturbed.
- Rice cultivation. The customary flooding of fields causes anaerobic decomposition, which produces methane (CH4). CH4 produces about 20 times more warming in the atmosphere than CO2 in the short term (a timeline of less than a century).
- Enteric fermentation by cattle. CH4 is a natural byproduct of the digestive process of ruminant animals such as cows, who number in the millions.
- Fertilizer application. Nitrous oxide (N20) is created when synthetic fertilizers react with the soil. 60–80% of all anthropogenic N20 emissions are agriculturally sourced. N20 is about 300 times more warming than CO2.
Farming is killing us. That’s no exaggeration. And we must stop doing it. That’s undeniable.
Of course that means drastic collective changes on a global scale, but in the service of survival, we must do what’s necessary. Drastic is not the same as “impossible.”
Unsurprisingly, the agricultural mind rejects the idea of ending agriculture, but its arguments deserve no hearing. The track record of the last 11,500 years is clear. Farming has been a failure.
“What else are we supposed to do?” is the wrong question. It’s not even a question, really. It’s a statement of insistence disguised with interrogatory punctuation. The false claim being made is that “there is no alternative.” But without supporting evidence, this assertion of dogma has to hide behind a question mark. Beware those who speak this way. If you hear yourself saying it, stop and give yourself a sharp look.
The real question is: “What can we offer?”
What we have forgotten in agricultural societies is that life is all about reciprocity.
In an interview included in my new book, Jayesh Bear said: “It’s two different worldviews. One that is in fear of the natural world and one that strives to understand it and respect it and live in symbiosis with it.”
Inherent in wildtending, and in other gathering-hunting lifestyles, was such striving. Wildtending is reciprocal. Its actions, collectivity, and scope all exist as endless exchange.
Agriculture is the opposite: extractive; taking without giving. There’s only so long that can go on, and if the Americas hadn’t existed, it might very well have ended already. As it is, the monster was able to feed itself for another 500+ years, and has swollen into a bloated mess of tremendous size and ugliness. We’ll see how much longer it goes if left unattended. At some point it either runs out of fuel or is suffocated by its own toxic excretions.
Which returns us to the question: “What can we offer?”
Ultimately, reciprocity must again be our collective way of life, and by “ultimately” I mean today. Isolated, individual choices will not suffice. While there is nothing else to do, we will make them, and should make them as consciously as possible, of course. But what that means, in part, is never forgetting that lifestyle choices are made primarily for ourselves, and the best they can do is to help us see and live more clearly. Gaining clarity is essential, of course, but we should not mistake it for significant material change. It is not.
Living in reciprocity with the other beings on this planet — human and non-human — is a necessity regardless of planetary outcome. The act of nurturing is a salve for all parties involved, even if we are merely comforting the dying.
 Lanchester, John. “The Case Against Civilization: Did our hunter-gatherer ancestors have it better?” New Yorker, September 18, 2017.
 Sahlins, Marshall. Stone Age Economics (Chicago and New York: Aldine·Atherton, 1972), p. 27.
 Lerner, Gerda. The Creation of Patriarchy (New York Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 42.
 Eisler, Rian. The Chalice and the Blade (New York: HarperCollins, 1987), p. 27.
 Wikipedia “History of Writing”
 Zerzan, John. “Agriculture.”
 Suzman, James. “How Neolithic farming sowed the seeds of modern inequality 10,000 years ago” Guardian, 5 December 2017.
 Owen, James. “Farming Claims Almost Half Earth’s Land, New Maps Show” National Geographic (Dec. 9, 2005).
 Conley, Julia. “New Study: Big Ag, Climate Crisis Key Drivers of Ocean ‘Dead Zones’ Quadrupling in Size Over Last 60 Years” Common Dreams, January 05, 2018.
 Watts, Jonathan. “Third of Earth’s soil is acutely degraded due to agriculture” Guardian, 12 September 2017.
 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “IPCC Special Report on Emissions Scenarios” section 3.5. “Agriculture and Land-Use Emissions,” 2000. | International Union for Conservation of Nature and World Business Council for Sustainable Development. “Ecosystems Facts and Trends,” 2008, p. 6. | Earth Journalism Network. “Climate Change and Agriculture” (9 June 2016).