Agriculture and Civilization

I won’t beleaguer this point for too long, but there is (I believe) a growing critique of 1) Propaganda and misinformation techniques 2) Capitalism and 3) Civilization. In martial arts, these would be the three ranges or gates of the enemy. I’ve addressed two of these, but not the third. I don’t believe that it is solvable because it is so hard to see whether it is even an issue or not and also because we a species have already bought into it so much. I also don’t think civilization is ALL bad (I am, after all, writing this on a laptop and you are reading this on social media, so there were some benefits). But it should be at least addressed. In order to address civilization, we must discuss agriculture. Agriculture is the beating heart of civilization.

It’s strange, I was listening to a Freakonomics podcast a couple of weeks ago and totally unexpectedly the interviewee said her goal was to revisit the Agricultural Revolution to understand why they made that choice. She tied the pre-Agriculturalists to a more egalitarian, more peaceful existence. There are levels of contention, academically speaking, over the truth of these claims, but there are definitely some immediate connections as to the ill effects of agriculture and the rise of civilization.

The thought goes that the first agriculturalists happened out of necessity because agriculture, compared to hunting/gathering at that time (time is important, can not ever happen again in my opinion), was time intensive and exhausting. But agriculture lead to a surplus of food which allowed small scale conflicts to become wars of attrition, to which an agriculturalist would win out because of the excess resources. This forced other non-agricultural societies to adopt agriculture. Farming and husbandry is relatively complex and thus required stricter forms of organization which eventually evolved to government and civilization.

In addition to sustaining longer conflicts, other critiques of agriculture include decreasing biodiversity by farming only monocultures, the associated increased impacts of diseases (Swine flu, Mad Cow, etc), and the sheer energy intensity of the act. Of course, there is also pollutants from fertilizers, water runoff, and supply chain issues. See Jared Diamond and other associated anthropologists. Again, I just ate an orange that was probably shipped from California, in Michigan, in early April. There is a lot of hypocrisy in even making this claim, I am well aware.

So what to do? Again, I am not optimist that there will be any change mostly because we all like being fed, but I think there are opportunities for interesting paradigms on agriculture. One is Wes Jackson’s attempt to make, essentially, and edible version of the Great Plains. He wants to plant diverse perennial, as opposed to annual, herbaceous crops so that some of the issues tied to limiting biodiversity (disease, resilience) are mitigated. I think this idea takes biomimicry and rewilding into an interesting area, and probably could be extended into permaforest-ing orchards (maybe with Robert Hart’s 7 layer system?).

I also think a lot about vertical farming. Generally VF is introduced as a solution to world hunger, but I think that’s the wrong way to think about it. We produce enough food, we don’t have very robust supply chains. VF is an interesting supply chain solution because the quick turn around and proximity allows a tighter push-pull supply chain model as opposed to push model (or subsidies providing a pull with a delayed push). VF also provides a good solution to the water conservation issue, especially in distressed areas like Southwestern US or Central Africa.

Neither of these proposed solutions currently does anything for energy intensity nor do they address the key issue: growth. But such is life, I guess…


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