Humanity's worst invention: Agriculture

By radically changing the way we acquire our food, the development of agriculture has condemned us to live worse than ever before. Not only that, agriculture has led to the first significant instances of large-scale war, inequality, poverty, crime, famine and human induced climate change and mass extinction.
By Clive W. Dennis (winner of the Ecologist/Coady International Institute 2006 Essay Competition)

Whether despairing or merely philosophising, we humans often find ourselves trying to trace things back to a certain point in the past where the rot really set in, where it all started, where some innovation sent us spiralling into the noise and confusion of the present. Mobile phones, television, genetic engineering and supermarkets all draw a bit of flak, but those who really have problems with the world – the genuine connoisseurs of failure – prefer the grander scale of human history.

Some will say the nuclear bomb or the industrial revolution. Others will say capitalism, or money, or gunpowder. Still others will say that it is not inventions that cause problems, but the people using them; technology is neutral and it is up to us to ensure that it is used for good. Others counter that inventions really can be good or bad – some are designed with good intentions: others, not so.

But what matters here is not the intended consequences – what matters is real ones.

Nobel was convinced that his invention would make war too violent and horrific to be contemplated. Unsurprisingly, dynamite was actually used to kill lots more people in much less time. Our attempts at legislating in order to take control of nuclear arms, or any innovation allowing the better harnessing of power, whether military, explosive, political or otherwise, have always foundered, since no society can ever afford to say no to a power advantage. However, even the most disastrous technologies usually have some benefits; nuclear holocaust and nuclear entente, anthrax stockpiles and smallpox vaccines.

The difficulty lies in deciding whether the balance of costs and benefits falls in our favour. Does it always balance out? Might there be an invention somewhere in our history so cataclysmically bad that we could call it the worst invention in the history of the human race?

There is. Conventionally thought of as the greatest, most significant innovation ever produced by humankind, agriculture is the invention that opened the gulf that we see between ourselves and mere nature. But by radically changing the way we acquire our food, the development of agriculture condemned us to live worse than we ever did before: losing our leisure time; eating worse; losing health, and losing autonomy. Not only that, but agriculture led to the first significant instances of large-scale war, inequality, empire, hierarchy, poverty, crime, famine and human-induced climate change as well as mass extinction.

Where it all started to go wrong

In the 1960s and 1970s anthropologists, such as Richard Lee and Yehudi Cohen, noticed the strong correlation between how societies produce their food and how they are structured socio-politically. Years of accumulated anthropological research showed that those who live by hunting and gathering show a very strong tendency to live in egalitarian, consensus-based societies.

Hunter-gatherers depend on each other for food, and so co-operation and mutualism are institutionalised by necessity. A single hunter might only have a one in four chance of making a successful kill, but four hunters who agree to share whatever they catch have a much more reliable food supply. Moving around the landscape, from areas depleted in food to areas where the land is richer, hunter-gatherers allow nature to do the hard work for them and reap the bounty when it is ready. This mode of production means the Kung and the Hadza, who live in the most marginal habitats of southern Africa, spend a mere three to five hours looking after their daily food needs.

Even in a harsh desert environment such as this, the Hobbesian conception of the life of pre-civilised humanity as being nasty and brutish could hardly be further from the truth. Hunter-gatherers live healthy lives of plenty, and have been quite rightly described as the ‘original affluent society’. Unfortunately, the myth of the ‘war of all against all’, and the savage, condemned to a life struggling with nature red in tooth and claw, is still deeply ingrained in the civilised psyche.

When a nomadic society ends up settling somewhere, the first possibilities for coercion come into being. A group of nomads, finding itself unable to agree on an issue of importance, can always split into two or more groups, each of which can go its own way and implement the decision they believe to be the best. Farmers, however, are stuck where they are, and the best kind of democracy that a settled community can produce is the tyranny of the majority.

Too much

Once a settlement produces a surplus, things get even worse; certain people stop being food producers and begin to specialise in other trades. This specialisation creates the beginnings of significant material inequality – some skills are simply more valued than others, and attract more wealth as a result. Among nomads, property becomes a burden if it accumulates. A society of equals, which places little value on what material wealth it does possess, is not fertile ground for property crime. The material inequality of agriculture-based societies, however, does result in crime, and while some might specialise in metalwork, pottery or public relations, others come to specialise in violence, under the guise of crime prevention. These specialists in violence really spend their time maintaining the differentials in wealth that are appearing, and ensuring the security of another group of specialists – the nascent elite.

Archaeological digs at Neolithic sites neatly demonstrate the architecture of early hierarchy; the largest houses are always positioned next to the buildings used for storing grain. When the elite finds itself able to control the surplus in such a way as to have a monopoly on violence, for instance by paying off and arming the strongest and best fighters in a community, the transition is complete and a minority is able to hold power. Thus, when an elite is able to exercise violence with impunity within the geographical bounds of the society, tyranny ensues. When the same is done outside these bounds, war and empire ensue, since a food surplus also allows the fielding of a dedicated army, which can then be used to seize land and assets from neighbouring populations. Without a surplus of food, sustained military campaigns are simply not possible.

A food surplus also leads to higher, more concentrated populations. This causes increased incidence of disease. While in small populations a disease can die out once it has run its course, in a larger population there are enough people around for the disease to mutate into something new, and re-infect the population over and over again. Witness the common cold, measles, chickenpox and influenza – these diseases simply do not exist in non-agricultural populations. Even worse, farmers live in close contact with their animals, which serve as a continual source of new pathogens.

The relatively limited and unvaried diet of the agriculturalist causes further problems, since the immune systems fed on an unvaried agricultural diet do not function as well as do those of hunter-gathers, who eat a much wider variety of foods. Such an unhealthy lifestyle inevitably shortens the lifespan of the agriculturalist, and it is only in the last 100 years that medicine has raised the lifespan of agriculturalists back up to that of the hunter-gatherer.

When anthropologist Richard Lee visited the Bushmen of the Kalahari in the 1960s, he found that 10 per cent of them were over 60 years old. This compares well with the 20 per cent we now find in Great Britain, for example, especially considering the harsh environment the Bushmen inhabit. Unfortunately, the Bushmen of today cannot enjoy the lifestyle their parents could in the 1960s, since the Botswanan government is very keen to modernise them, by taking their land and giving them blankets, disease, alcohol and hopelessness in return – a procedure familiar to devastated hunter-gatherer populations the world over.

Beyond humans...

The repercussions of adopting agriculture reach far beyond the confines of the human societies practising it – not only do hunter-gatherers suffer from the impact of ravenous agriculturalists, so does the environment. As more and more land is brought into production, more and more effectively, the rich and diverse habitat of the hunter-gatherer is pushed further and further into the margins, until the ever expanding frontier of farmland runs into uncultivable areas such as deserts, tundra and ice.

When 10 billion hectares of wild nature is replaced by 10 billion hectares of wheat, soya or ranch land, the consequences are predictable. They become 10 billion hectares that are no longer producing food for bison, for bears, or for ibex. This is the ultimate cause of the mass extinction we are beginning to witness. Agriculture turns land that feeds thousands of species into land that feeds one. It literally starves other species out of existence.

Estimates made by ecologist Paul Ehrlich suggest that at present humanity is appropriating approximately 40 per cent of the earth’s terrestrial net primary productivity for its own uses. Compounding this devastation, research by Professor Bill Ruddiman suggests that the prehistoric burning of forests in order to create land suitable for cultivation released enough greenhouse gases to affect global climate, artificially maintaining the temperature of the planet at a level allowing the continuation of agriculture.

Office worker versus hunter-gatherer

However, if we are able to ignore the previous few paragraphs, and think only in terms of the pleasure we, personally, are able to derive from our modern lives, it is clear that things have improved for us farming types since the clumsy and unpleasant fumblings that constituted the beginnings of agriculture. We have specialised to the extent that we are no longer obliged to be mere farmers or soldiers – possibilities have expanded to include software engineers, office workers and toilet cleaners. There is a whole new world of experience out there. But how do we like it?

We are clearly better off than our early ancestors who first took up farming. However, history goes a lot further back than when the first plough bit into the earth. Instead, we should contrast the day-to-day life of the office-worker with that of the hunter-gatherer.

An office worker spends at least eight hours at work per day in a job that is invariably boring and lightened only by the human contact it brings. Wanting to make the best of what is left after the hours of commuting and shopping, the office worker buys ready-made meals, employs a cleaner and slumps in front of the television. Such an extremely sedentary lifestyle, quite apart from being unenjoyable, damages the health, and must be countered with medication and exercise. Stress and depression are the inevitable consequence of wasting life in the office, and wasting money trying to keep up with the Joneses. Should our office worker be unhappy with the life that society has prepared for him, and want to do something about it, his part in politics is that of an observer, with one useless vote in several million every four or five years. Meanwhile, hunter-gatherers work for three to five hours per day, often with friends, and are able to spend the rest of the day eating; visiting friends; making music; dancing; philosophising; playing with the children; relaxing and sleeping. This is the life we have lost.

Look back in anger

Agriculture has disinherited us from our hunter-gatherer heritage and made it impossible for us to live in the egalitarian, consensus-based societies of our ancestors. Instead, it forces on us a new set of social structures; structures of alienation and dominance which both support, and are supported by, the continuation and spread of agriculture. Our utopian visions of the future, freed from present problems by human ingenuity and technical competence, might be possible on paper, but they are unlikely in reality. We have already made the biggest mistake, and spent 10,000 years perfecting a disastrous invention, then making ourselves ever more reliant on it. However, the archaeologists who give us glimpses of our ancestors, and the anthropologists who introduce us to our cousins, have been able to show us why we dream what we do. What we yearn for is not just our imagined future; it is our very real past.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist October 2006

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