Has the agricultural revolution sent storm clouds over our cities?

How Farming Wrecked the Modern World

Updated 4 weeks ago Sammy Lamb
Goats
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Photo: SusuMa / Pixabay / CCO Public Domain

The first thing we do is, let’s kill all the farmers…

You’re right. Shakespeare didn’t write it that way.

In Henry IV, Dick the Butcher wanted to kill lawyers, a sentiment some share today, but you have to assume he was unaware of how much worse farmers were or would become.

Yes, that runs contrary to common wisdom, our sentimental view of quaint family farms growing crops, cattle and fowl in gentle harmony with nature.

If you’re at all like me, you OD-ed decades ago on angst over the death of the family farm. Future farmers threw up their hands in defeat. Big Agra charged in with giant, heartless machines, throwing America’s halcyon days into ruin.

And, no, I’m not a foreigner in farm country. My Dad grew up on a farm that got handed down to my uncle, his brother, and I spent happy summers visiting, throwing bales onto wagons as we followed my uncle on his John Deere and following the Holsteins into the barn for twice daily milking chores.

As far as I know, none of us were aware of the disaster in which we were participating. The damages were not visible, but like poisons leeching into groundwater, they were there and extremely dangerous.

Quick Slip Back in Time to the Agricultural Revolution

The Neolithic or Agricultural Revolution, the time when mobile human hunter gatherers were shoved aside by sedentary farmers, isn’t easy to look at as a true revolution.

Revolutions don’t usually need 10,000 years to ravage the status quo.

Revolution is “Slam! Bang! It’s over!” isn’t it?

The domestication of plants and animals started some time before 10,000 BCE, according to archeological evidence. Exact dates are hopeless because farming preceded writing and, in fact, probably made writing both possible and desirable.

Agriculture spread slowly across the world until somewhere around 3,500 BCE when it began to dominate human communities.

Where we err most is in missing the devastation farming delivered along with its benefits. 

All progress isn’t in the direction of paradise.

Are the Benefits Enough?

When you look at the agricultural revolution in perspective, which of course the first farmers and the last hunter gatherers couldn’t do, you might scratch your head, wondering who the nut was who thought this was a good idea?

What were the early results?

  • Hours worked for survival increased dramatically for farmers. Best evidence says hunter gathers worked only about twenty hours a week. You can check your own schedule to see what farming’s won for you.
  • General health deteriorated, the average height of people decreasing significantly, according to the fossil records.
  • Average lifespans also took a dive.
  • Specialization in work took hold. No longer did everyone work in unison to hunt game and gather edible fruits and vegetables, roaming from place to place without depleting nature. The balance turned heavily to consumption. Class structures based on possessions were an inevitable result.
  • Communal life collapsed as stay at home moms were invented, without any choice, because farming really did make it possible to keep women barefoot in winter and pregnant in summer. Besides, Dad needed more free farmhands as crops came to equal capital.

At least immediately, the benefits must have outweighed the risks or seemed to, but since it took 10,000 years to win the game, the sedentary life could not have been an easy sell.

And if you’re beginning to suspect something sinister, you might be right.

If you expect a community that no longer hunts together, but farms instead, to decide its members own the land, valuable land where they previously only roamed, and are ready to fight for it, you may be on to something.

If you think the greatest fraud of all, that might makes men superior to women, was facilitated, you’re probably on the money there too.

The March of History

Make that his story because that’s what we got from then on. It’s why the fiction we call history is dominated by records of war and conquest, not community building or education.

It’s no mistake that most of the mythological gods were male or that, as civilization advanced, all of them were.

Females were relegated to something like Mother Nature, sweet, gentle and erratic as hell. She could give birth and raise children or she could rage like a monsoon. She was also smaller, dependent and vulnerable.

Changes instigated by the Agricultural Revolution were swift after 3,500 BCE.

The most radical change, inspired by the excess wealth farming generated, was the migration of people into cities, one that continues today. Today, 54% of the world’s population lives in cities.

What do people who live in cities do? Nothing essential really, except those things necessary to living in a city. Cities essentially are where we store the excess population and entertain it.

The emergence of cities was made possible by two converging factors. As farmers, we were usually able to produce all the food we needed with fewer laborers, and since culture now required them to stay at home and reproduce, women removed from the workforce began having many more children.

They all had to go somewhere.

What did urbanization give us?

  • Centralized government, authority consolidated by a few. Taxes were invented because the urban beast must be fed.
  • Disease. Tight quarters and poor sanitation were breeding grounds for cholera long before we knew what bacteria are or how germs spread. International trade that enriched agriculturalists and bankers and further consolidated people in cities nearly brought the end of human life once already. The bubonic plague, transported by rats on ships, killed an estimated 60% of Europe’s population in the fourteen century. Luckily, the Black Death had its own braking mechanism, pausing before it self-destructed from consuming everything on its plate.
  • Religion. Spirituality was consolidated too with a few grabbing control and enforcing standards of behavior under what they claimed were God’s commands.
  • Famine. Farming communities dependent on one or just a few crops starved when yields failed. The Irish potato famine, caused by disease, is one example and the devastation by drought in the American Dust Bowl is another.
  • Of the two most devastating developments, that of creating armies of professional killers may pose the greatest threat to our survival. Armies escalated from defenders of territory to forces expanding it and, finally, into what we have today — standing military establishments believed capable of killing all of us fast or making what life is left intolerable, all with the push of a button.
  • The gravest threat, however, is the overconsumption agriculture has inspired. Overpopulated human communities rarely set serious limits on what they consume, and it’s far beyond food now. Rain forests fall under the ax to support obesity in so-called developed countries while rampant consumerism devastates habitats with a demand for ever-increasing material goods. The environmental holocaust resulting from overpopulation and overconsumption is projected to make Earth unlivable within a hundred years, unless radical change happens to reverse current trends.

But that piece of news does not seem to have motivated anything like the kind of changes needed. Our environmental awareness seems to have been flipped into a weird kind of neutral position. We know but don’t do nearly enough about it.

To elaborate on the last point, history is littered with human communities that over consumed their way to oblivion. Well-known examples are Easter Island’s native populations and the Pueblo Indians of Chaco Canyon, both of which continued to destroy their own living environments until it was too late.

Those populations were lucky though. They had somewhere else to go. Ready to colonize Mars, anyone?

With our Twenty-First Century refusal to accept the need to reverse the environment devastation of global warming, continuing to drive SUVs and belch pollutants from burning coal, a rational observer from outer space might conclude that we’ve learned too little from a painful past.

Is Agriculture All That Bad?

The interesting thing is that, as part of our near universal denial, we’re convinced that science and technology will save us. New genetically enhanced crop yields will help us feed more, and technology will be there to invent tolerable living conditions.

Anyone familiar with the planet-wide environmental tragedy most easily recognized in global warming can tell you that it’s probably too late for either unless we 1) control population growth and 2) curtail consumption.

Both can be done easily and without sacrifice, but neither will be. Human nature always goes the other way.

If you think my conclusions about where the agricultural revolution will take us are extreme, consider this — I skipped the worst thing we’ve done on behalf of agriculture. 

That is, genocide.

Because American history, as we know it, is largely a fiction, you probably don’t know that both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, our revered founding fathers, favored American Indian genocide. 

The reason?

The Indians were primarily hunter gatherers who needed to be forced out of the territories they’d inhabited for centuries to make way for, guess what…? 

Farmers, like Washington and Jefferson.

A driving factor in American independence was the founding fathers’, many of them wealthy farmers, lust for Indian territory west of the Appalachians, which our British governors resisted, wanting to avoid expensive wars for which our patriot ancestors refused to help pay in taxes.

It wasn’t about tea, folks. Follow the money. It was about land, farmland.

And it wasn’t just here. How do you think European exiles took Australia away from the natives they found when they arrived? You can bet it wasn’t the democratic process. 

They did what farmers usually do when they encounter hunter gatherers or other “inferior” people. They killed them.

Conclusion

Most of us have had our ideas conditioned by a history sugarcoated for middle class consumption, but it’s time we stepped up the level of awareness. 

The truth is, our past has already happened. Only the downstream results can hurt us.

But we can limit the damage.

  • We can launch a robust push for environmental preservation. 
  • We can stop eating and otherwise consuming our way into oblivion. 
  • We can freeze or at least limit population growth to a number within which we can thrive.

We can’t do any of these things, however, until we acknowledge where we are and how we got here.

There are choices to be made. Do we want to leave our children and their children a heritage of environmental devastation? Do we want them to know nature and animals only by what they can find in zoos and a few isolated preserves?

Do we want to leave behind skies so full of pollutants that breathing is hazardous and where bathing in sunlight is risky behavior?

Should our grandchildren be forced to deal with overpopulation so extreme that starvation becomes epidemic? What shall we tell them when the wild habitats of the animals that fascinated us are ruined, the lions and monkeys and elephants all in zoos and limited preserves?

What’s your choice? And what are you going to do about it?

Can we reverse the agricultural revolution and make it a new one of environmental conservation and values?

We can, sure, but will we?

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