Sunday, December 6, 2015

Agriculture Ruined Everything

An optimist sees the glass as half full; a pessimist sees it as half empty.  Some would say that the arrival of agriculture allowed everything to flourish, bringing civilization and culture to primitive people; others would say that agriculture destroyed the Garden of Eden by creating social division.  The answer, as usual, probably lies somewhere in the middle, but there is definitely a strong argument that agriculture ruined everything.

Agriculture is the domestication and cultivation of plants (with a nod to animal husbandry). It became a thing about ten thousand years ago, a little over ten thousand years ago.  We are usually taught that it all began in the Fertile Crescent, but really it seems to have arrived in many places almost simultaneously. 

Some say that human populations became sedentary after the beginnings of agriculture, but I think it’s more likely that the sedentism came first, based on water supplies and the gathering of wild plants.  The climate was getting drier, and the plants and the humans were following the same water.  Under those circumstances, agriculture was a natural.  The fact that it all came about in places as remote from each other as the Middle East, China, and Mexico argues that there was an overarching ecological situation happening generally.

The worst part of it is that the dawn of agriculture was the dawn of politics, which is the thing that has actually ruined everything.  Before agriculture, the small bands of humans didn’t have anything worth taking, or owning for that matter.  There was not much difference between the chief and the oldest man with a limp.  Everyone in the group was important, every man, woman, boy and girl.  Everyone’s work output was crucial to the group’s success.  Anyone’s death impoverished the group.  Everyone had a role to play, a role dictated by strength, cunning and ability.  “Us” was all of us.

After agriculture, settlements got larger and more permanent and humans got more numerous and more prosperous very quickly.  There were crops, fertile fields, irrigation systems, infrastructure and defensible cities to protect or seize.  The sufficiency of food allowed for new types of craftsmen to be supported without having to hunt or gather, people that only made baskets, only wrote things down, only made bricks, only did math. Social classes needed to be created, to keep everybody straight in the new pecking order. This all necessitated the invention of money as a medium of barter, which led to income, which led immediately to income inequality.

Things got serious in a hurry.  Along with prosperity came greed, weapons, tactics, armies and self-aggrandizing elites.  Religion zoomed to the forefront, mostly as a way to justify the wealth and power of the elites.  Now “us” was the power elite. 

The new power elites made all of the decisions, and of course they always decided things in a way that favored their own interests.  This system is still with us today. 

Unwinding this power grab has been a daunting prospect for ordinary people over the centuries.  Sometimes “us” moves back in the direction of “all of us.”  This usually happens after some terrible calamity, like the Black Death or World War II. Then comes the push-back from the power elite, moving “us” back to just themselves.  We’re watching this all play out right now, as I speak. 

We’ll see how it goes. In the meantime, blame it on agriculture.  

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