Chapter Eight–Why Domestication?


Ch 8 Why domestication?

The domestication and cultivation of plants came with so many downsides that it seems almost a wonder that the practice ever got a foothold among our wild ancestors. Certainly the life of an agriculturalist required more time and physical labor than earning one’s living by hunting and gathering. And just as certainly, the nutritional value of cultivated crops was inferior to what might be procured within natural ecosystems. And, too, the settled lifestyle, living in cramped, smoky quarters where there was no good way to dispose of accumulating wastes, cannot have seemed like an improvement over the nomadism of those following the migrations of birds and mammals and the seasonal ripening of the land. All these considerations have led historians and paleoanthropologists to puzzle over the whys and wherefores of this dramatic shift in lifeway. I have my own theories about this, as will become evident, but I will here drop a hint in a single word: Power.

The institution of private property dramatically changed the social structure within those communities that came to adopt agriculture as their main source of livelihood. The transformation of the egalitarian social order found among immediate-return hunter-gatherers, to the hierarchy, patriarchy, and totalitarianism that came to later characterize civilization, was not the revolution of a day, a century, or even a millennium. And, even before agriculture, certain groups of hunter-gatherers (called delayed-return hunter-gatherers) were already edging toward inequality by practicing the preservation and storage of food. At whatever point food ceased to be totally communal, but was guarded and hoarded by particular individuals, and dispensed at their pleasure, a new power dynamic began creeping in. It is likely that those groups who chose agriculture as a way of life were of this delayed-return variety, where egalitarianism had already been eroded.  And in those early days it was not an all-or-nothing situation: hunting for meat and gathering of fruits and berries continued to round out the diet of the early adopters of agriculture, whose cultivated crops provided limited nutritional value.

As time went on and land under cultivation expanded, the hunting and gathering grounds diminished accordingly, and people became more reliant on what they could grow, and the animals they could herd and confine. This tendency toward expansion was built into agriculture from the very start, and initiated a self-reinforcing positive feedback loop that started small but has grown so overwhelmingly immense that in my own time land dedicated to agriculture now dominates the globe. Several factors are involved in this growth imperative of agriculture. One of these involves the relationship between food and population. It seems to be a principle of population dynamics that when you expand the food supply, humans tend to produce more offspring, so as not to let the food go to waste. As the population expands, so does the need for more living space, along with more agricultural land to provide for these new mouths to feed. More food leads to more people; more people leads to expanded food production, which leads to more people.  And so the cycle goes.

Another factor affecting the will-toward-expansion is what happens to soils under cultivation. As crops are planted and harvested, the soil’s fertility is depleted. In swidden (or slash-and-burn) agriculture, as practiced in the tropics, the soil’s fertility is usually played out in just two or three years– and the people then move on, leaving waste land behind. In more temperate regions, soil exhaustion takes longer–especially if the soil is amended with animal manure or other fertilizer—but eventually the soil’s fertility is lost, or poisoned by the accumulation of salts from irrigation. Much soil loss is due to the breaking of the ground when it is tilled, which leaves the unprotected soil vulnerable to being washed away by rains and blown away by winds (as in the American Dustbowl of the 1930s). When looked at in historical perspective, it becomes obvious that agriculture has always depended upon the mining of topsoil, mining being an activity that depletes a resource faster than it can regenerate. In my time, in America, topsoil is eroded at the average rate of three tons per acre per year, while topsoil builds at the rate of one inch per 500–1000 years—making agriculture a short-term boom and a long-term bust.

The imperative for expanding agricultural operations in order to exploit uncompromised topsoil, and the need for more living space for a fast-growing population, comes with an accompanying imperative for violence. If, in the earliest days of agriculture there was still some land unoccupied by humans, violence was required to transform a natural ecosystem into cropland. Forests had to be felled, and root-wads burned, displacing all the inhabitants of the former forest. This is a form of violence, and a loss, that the people of our culture almost never consider.  Among the more mobile animals, being displaced from one’s natural habitat means trying to compete for habitat and something to eat with others of its kind in territory already occupied and filled to its own carrying capacity. For the less mobile animals and forest plants death comers even more quickly. And it is not only random individuals of various species that are destroyed in this way, but a whole suite of reciprocal relationships among the species, and the synergistic functioning of the ecosystem as a whole. And something else is lost, too, something few of the people of our culture ever bother to consider, and that is the violence committed upon Mother Earth herself. In the natural world, specific ecosystems tend to evolve exactly where they are best-suited to be. Often, it is not just a case of evolution, but of co-evolution, with plants and animals co-evolving to be well-matched to one another and to their geo-physical and bio-physical environment. Clearing land for agriculture without regard to what is being erased from the world is an act not only of violence, but of flagrant disrespect of Mother Earth and her 3.8 billion year Project of Life—and, I would say, a defilement of the sacred.

At some point in pre-history pretty much all available territory where people could make a living had been claimed, and the agriculturalist’s growth imperative bumped up against territory that was already claimed by others—and that meant conflict: human on human violence.

Under the new regime of private property, once land started producing agricultural surpluses, those foodstuffs had to be stored and guarded. The person who claimed ownership of the land and the crops it produced now had to protect his investment with hired guards. When it became time to expand into new territory, these guards easily morphed into soldiers to go up against those who were defending their territory against invasion. And thus began the structural violence that has been a hallmark of civilization ever since: the institution of ongoing war. This is not to say that Paleolithic hunters never got into violent disputes over hunting grounds; but these were limited skirmishes with few fatalities—not “civilized” warfare at all. Partly, this is a matter of scale. When everyone was living in small, scattered, mobile groups, there was simply no incentive to risk one’s own small group in an all-out conflict with another band. Warfare might occasionally be the outcome of chance encounters, but war as an institution made no survival sense. Groups that are mobile work best at a scale of twenty to thirty individuals. When a group becomes unwieldy in size, or dissention arises, some part of the group goes off on its own, and thus maintains a group size that is optimal for the hunting and gathering lifeway. In other words, there are no imperial designs built into nomadism , as there are in built into serial sedentism, and the claim to private “ownership” of land.

The structural violence inherent in the synergistic combination of agriculture and private property is of course not limited to the destruction of other species, the dismantling of ecosystems, and rise of militarism—ordinary citizens of agricultural communities also suffer under this regime. The new social order, based upon the ownership and non-ownership of land and other property, establishes a hierarchy unknown among immediate-return hunter-gatherers–and this stratification only intensifies as the disparity between classes of people widens. When those who have wealth, privilege, and power lord it over those who do not, a new authoritarianism creeps into the relations among agrarian peoples; and when history takes a sexist turn, patriarchy bursts on the scene. In this new way of life, the rich exploit and dominate the poor, while men of all classes dominate and exploit women.

There is more to this story of power and domination: a story of how climatological trauma led to social trauma, which in turn was enshrined in culture–but that revelation will have to wait its turn.

Meanwhile, I hope you can appreciate that my understanding of how things got to be this way was not easily come by, and certainly is not the mainstream view of the genesis of patriarchy, war, classism, sexism, and a world where the rich parasitize the poor. The dominant narrative will tell you that agriculture is the greatest thing that ever happened to humans, and that civilization is the highest and best form of social organization in the history of the world. Developing a counter-narrative within this context of cultural self-congratulation and anthropocentrism has required a disciplined course of self-directed research, and, I would have to say, a particular kind of personality and way of apprehending the world. There is so much more I want to share with you about what led up to the broken world you have inherited, but I feel that I should first give you some sense about how my particular worldview was shaped by early childhood experience.