Agriculture as wrong turn

Agricultural field in southern California and a meadow in eastern Oregon

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[1]

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.[2]

“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.”[4] [emphasis in original]

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.[8]

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.[9] [my emphasis]

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.[12]



Writer, photographer, tree-hugger, animal-lover, dissident.

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