Farmers conquered the world.
Not that many of us farm. Modern technologies allow us all to be fed even though less than 1% of the population still does the actual work of farming. But the food we eat comes from farms. Without farms, we couldn’t live as we do.
Indeed, the material luxuries of the modern world would make this place seem like a paradise to our ancestors. So much food, so easily procured! Soft warm clothes – you can buy great digs at Goodwill for a few dollars. Oracular pocket computers – my telephone can prophesize way better than ancient gods. I know when it’s going to rain. I know if the rain will be stopping in 35 minutes.
We have indoor plumbing, hot showers, scented candles – that’s awesome! Think about it: Victorian cities smelled so bad!
I mean, sure – with climate change and rising sea levels, sewers in places like New York City will back up more frequently, and I’ll get to that. But first, let’s take a moment to be grateful: the stuff we have access to is pretty incredible. All our technologies and toys.
Farmers really nailed it, didn’t they?
But before we reached our fabulous present (please continue to suspend your disbelief for a little longer; I understand that the present moment in history feels decidedly less than fabulous for many people), something strange had to happen.
Hunter-gatherers lived pretty well. They ate good food. They spent ample time socializing and relaxing. As best we can tell, their lives had a lot of potential for happiness.
By way of contrast, it was the pits to be an early farmer! You’d work all day; eat crummy food that left you gassy and bloated; die young. Also, you’d feel small – instead of believing that you were probably just as good as anyone else, you’d know that there were kings and such who lived way better than you.
Every now and then, their ruffians might come calling and haul away your food.
Just like the recently deposed leader of the United States, ancient kings were big on building walls. But there’s a difference. Because it was so miserable to be an early farmer – a cog in the gearworks of a glorious civilization! – early walls may have been built to keep people in.
In Against the Grain, James Scott writes of early states that, “Do what they might to discourage and punish flight – and the earliest legal codes are filled with such injunctions – archaic states lacked the means to prevent a certain degree of [population loss] under normal circumstances. … For China’s Mongol frontier, Owen Lattimore has made the case most forcefully that the purpose of the Great Wall(s) was as much to keep the Chinese taxpayers inside as to block barbarian incursions. … Precisely because this practice of going over to the barbarians flies directly in the face of civilization’s “just so” story, it is not a story one will find in the court chronicles and official histories. It is subversive in the most profound sense.”
The hunter gatherers had been happy, though! So how did we get from there to here? If early farming was so miserable, why did people do it?
In The Dawn of Everything, David Graeber and David Wengrow argue that a select few prehistoric farming communities were less miserable than the rest. Their arguments are based on sparse archaeological data – in the essay “Digging for Utopia,” Kwame Anthony Appiah presents several examples in which Graeber & Wengrow’s interpretations extend beyond the evidence – and yet, their central conclusion is almost certainly correct.
Many, many groups of humans formed distinct communities over the past ten thousand years. That’s a long time. These people didn’t have access to all the historical knowledge that we have, but they were no less intelligent or imaginative than we are. It would be naive to imagine that every single community followed the exact same political system.
Although Appiah’s review ends with a great line – “Never mind the dawn, Rousseau was urging: we will not find our future in our past” – I agree with Graeber & Wengrow that there’s benefit from showing that cooperation and mutual aid were the underpinnings of successful civilizations in the past. We needn’t be shackled by the choices of our ancestors, but it’s still nice to feel inspired by them. Even one single example of a stable ancient civilization organized around mutual aid would give credence to the idea that a radical reworking of contemporary civilization isn’t doomed to failure.
If prehistoric people did have a variety of political systems, though – some happy, some oppressive – why did we end up with a bad version?
Graeber & Wengrow write:
When people talk about ‘early civilizations’ they are mostly referring to [societies like] Pharaonic Egypt, Inca Peru, Aztec Mexico, Han China, Imperial Rome, ancient Greece, or others of a certain scale and monumentality.
All these were deeply stratified societies, held together mostly by authoritarian government, violence, and the radical subordination of women. Sacrifice, as we’ve seen, is the shadow lurking behind this concept of civilization: the sacrifice of our three basic freedoms, and of life itself, for the sake of something always out of reach – whether that be an ideal or world order, the Mandate of Heaven or blessings from insatiable gods.
Is it any wonder that in some circles the very idea of ‘civilization’ has fallen into disrepute? Something very basic has gone wrong here.
Presumably, some ancient cultures prioritized happiness (cooperation, sharing, art), while others prioritized growth (acquisition, extraction, war, and work).
I would rather live in the former sort; I assume most people, if given the chance to experience both, would make a similar choice. (Graeber & Wengrow include several examples of well-educated people who experienced both self-interested European-style capitalism and cooperative “savagery” preferring the latter. “By far the most common reasons … had to do with the intensity of social bonds they experienced in Native American communities: qualities of mutual care, love and above all happiness, which they found impossible to replicate once back in European settings. ‘Security’ takes many forms. There is the security of knowing one has a statistically smaller chance of getting shot with an arrow. And then there’s the security of knowing that there are people in the world who will care deeply if one is.”)
But the borders of a political system that prioritizes growth will steadily expand if able. Whenever there’s a meeting between a growth-valuing and a happiness-valuing society, the former is likely to attempt to commandeer the land and resources that had been used to support the latter.
North America was populated before Europeans arrived. The land was intensely managed: Graeber and Wengrow write that “What to a settler’s eye seemed savage, untouched wilderness usually turns out to be landscapes actively managed by indigenous populations for thousands of years through controlled burning, weeding, coppicing, fertilizing and pruning, terracing estuarine plots to extend the habitat of particular wild flora, building clam gardens in intertidal zones to enhance the reproduction of shellfish, creating weirs to catch salmon, bass and sturgeon, and so on. Such procedures were often labour-intensive, and regulated by indigenous laws governing who could access groves, swamps, root beds, grasslands and fishing grounds, and who was entitled to exploit what species at any given time of year.”
But the land was being managed according to ideals other than maximum short-term agricultural extraction and population growth. The original human inhabitants of this continent believed that it would be both morally and ethically wrong to extract everything possible from their surroundings – future generations and other animals also held valid claims to the land – and so their civilizations sought to thrive sustainably amid natural abundance.
When Europeans first arrived in North America, as Matt Siegel relates in The Secret History of Food, people “described great migrations of birds so numerous they were forced to roost on top of each other, downing giant oaks from their weight and covering the forest in four inches of droppings. John Audubon later described flocks so dense they eclipsed the sun, and estimated seeing more than a billion pigeons in a three-hour span.”
Despite this well-managed abundance, many Europeans still starved to death when they first arrived on this continent. They starved “not because of a lack of food, but because of a lack of skill and acquiring it. In unwillingness to heed the advice of the Natives, whom they saw as ‘uncivilized savages.’ Pilgrim John Smith recounts, for example, coming across waters so thick with fish that their heads stuck out above the water, but being unable to catch any for want of nets. ‘We attempted to catch them with a frying pan,’ he writes, ‘but we found it a bad instrument to catch fish with.’ ”
This sort of extravagant abundance is now gone, because the encroaching civilization prioritized extraction. Enough of the Europeans survived to gain a foothold on this continent, after which natural resources would not be managed, but consumed.
The rivers were sullied; the great flocks of birds were killed.
(The other day, my family was driving near a highway where a flock of perhaps a thousand starlings swelled and tumbled through the air – it looked magical. I cannot imagine what a flock of a billion birds would be like.)
The standard measure of our economy – the single magical number cited by politicians and talking heads to let us regular TV-watching folks know how our country is doing – is “growth.”
This magic number doesn’t assess how much we have – although politicians occasionally mention “per capita income” or “per capita output,” which could be rough proxies for that, as long as you neglect our slight (ha!) disparities in distribution – nor how happy we are. Instead, we boast or fret over the rate of increase.
But there’s a limit to growth. I loved the game Universal Paperclip, which I’ve discussed previously, because it elegantly depicts what goes wrong when we attempt ceaseless expansion.
We could prioritize something else – happiness, perhaps – but that would require a massive cultural shift. The ideals of growth are ingrained on both sides of our current political spectrum.
In On Freedom, Maggie Nelson discusses climate change and the conflict it presents: the freedom to do what we want now (chop down forests; extract & burn fossil fuels) versus our descendants having the freedom to do what they want later (visit old-growth forests; encounter wild animals; have a stable climate; survive). We now know that we can’t both have these untrammeled freedoms. Someone – either us or our descendants – has to make sacrifices.
Nelson discusses Naomi Klein’s interactions with people who are unwilling to change their current lifestyle: those who demand the freedom to eat lots of meat, crank their air conditioning, purchase & dispose of whatever plastic products they want.
Those people “are right, Klein says, when they say that climate change isn’t really an ‘issue.’ Rather, she says, ‘climate change is a message, one that is telling us that many of our culture’s most cherished ideals are no longer viable.’
These ideals – shared by people on both the right and left, Klein explains – involve a paradigm of civilization based on progress and expansion rather than one based on an apprehension of and respect for natural limits, including the limits of human intelligence, and the material, planetary parameters that make human life possible.”
But it does no good for you to personally refrain from extracting & burning fossil fuels if someone else goes ahead and does it. Our planet is interconnected: the politics of Brazil will affect us all. Clever people are prioritizing growth and expansion.
In The Beginning of Infinity, David Deutsch argues that the Earth was already a poor habitat for humanity; if climate change makes our planet less habitable, so be it. He believes that there’s no limit to the growth of knowledge – or, therefore, to the economic growth possible for a knowledge-bearing civilization – so why should we slow down now?
(Despite his background in physics, Deutsch ignores the hard limit imposed by entropy – all processes in our universe consume order and excrete chaos, There will be no possibility for further action – not even thought – once the initial order has been consumed. Believe me, I’m all for scientific research: if the lifespan of our sun is compressed into a twenty-four hour day, the current time is about 10:58 a.m., humans have been around since about 10:57 a.m., and the sun will become too hot and evaporate all our water by 7:36 p.m. For humanity to carry on, our descendants will have to find a way to leave this planet by then – but humanity won’t carry on infinitely. And we’ll be unlikely to carry on at all if we recklessly wreck the planet before 11 a.m. instead of giving ourselves the full day to work on solutions!)
If a subset of our population agrees with Nelson & Klein, and another subset agrees with Deutsch, those who agree with Deutsch will win – win, that is, in the sense of having done what they want to the world. Sprinting ahead during the first minute of what’s likely to be an eight-hour long marathon, overheating, and expiring at the side of the road.
As a running coach, that’s something I generally counsel people not to do.
Europeans arrived on North America. They prioritized growth. They took land from the previous inhabitants.
The vast flocks of pigeons are gone.
In The Dawn of Everything, Graeber & Wengrow make a persuasive case that many cultures intentionally avoided the emergence of severe inequality or permanent bureaucracy. “Sometimes indigenous property systems formed the basis for differential access to resources, with the result that something like social classes emerged. Usually, though, this did not happen, because people made sure that it didn’t, much as they made sure chiefs did not develop coercive power.”
Mutual aid and cooperation were intentional goals around which societies were structured.
Unfortunately, although this sort of political structure might be good at producing happiness, it’s inefficient. I volunteer with several organizations that operate on the principle of consensus decision-making; these deliberations can be quite arduous!
Over time, the cultures with more efficient political systems are likely to grow faster – even if they’re less happy – and gradually displace the others. This is the same logic of invasive species: the plants labeled as “invasive” in any habitat tend to begin their growing season earlier and spread more easily, allowing them to replace whatever had been there before.
Capitalism has a lot of flaws, and unfettered capitalism can certainly get stuck with massive inefficiencies through monopoly power or the like, but capitalism is typically more efficient than mutual aid.
Graeber and Wengrow write that:
Both money and administration are based on similar principles of interpersonal equivalence. What we wish to emphasize is how frequently the most violent inequalities seem to arise from such fictions of legal equality.
This equality could be viewed as making people (as well as things) interchangeable, which in turn allowed rulers to make impersonal demands that took no consideration of their subjects’ unique situations.
As anyone knows who has spent time in a rural community, or serving on a municipal or parish council, resolving inequities might require many hours, possibly days of tedious discussion, but almost always a solution will be arrived at that no one finds entirely unfair.
It’s the addition of sovereign power, and the resulting ability of the local enforcer to say, ‘Rules are rules; I don’t want to hear about it’ that allows bureaucratic mechanisms to become genuinely monstrous.
As money is to promises, we might say, state bureaucracy is to the principle of care: in each case we find one of the most fundamental building blocks of social life corrupted by a confluence of maths and violence.
I would have preferred for Graeber and Wengrow to continue this discussion of efficiency, which helps explain why we inherited a political system that produces less happiness than the cultures of many of our ancestors.
Hunting and gathering yielded ample calories for ancient humans to build stable, complex societies. But in these societies, little would have been interchangeable; people might engage in different activities each day, each season, each year. The food they ate might vary considerably from one day to the next.
(In Against the Grain, Scott writes “Evidence for the relative restriction and impoverishment of early farmers’ diets comes largely from comparisons of skeletal remains of farmers with those of hunter-gatherers living nearby at the same time. The hunter-gatherers were several inches taller on average. This presumably reflected their more varied and abundant diet. It would be hard … to exaggerate that variety. Not only might it span several food webs – marine, wetland, forest, savanna, arid – each with its seasonal variation, but even when it came to plant foods, the diversity was, by agricultural standards, staggering. The archaeological site of Abu Hureyra, for example, in its hunter-gatherer phase, yielded remains from 192 different plants, of which 142 could be identified, and of which 118 are known to be consumed by contemporary hunter-gatherers.”)
Farming produces equivalence. A farmer can specialize in a small set of actions, raising a small set of plants and animals. Bushels of wheat can be easily measured. There are definite losses in terms of health, happiness, and leisure time, but farming makes political organization more efficient.
Indiana’s forests are filling up with garlic mustard, not because it’s the best plant, but because it grows efficiently.
Among the superpowers of the modern world, some have vaguely democratic political systems (although perhaps it’s foolish to lump plutocratic representational systems like the U.S. into this category), and some use dictatorship (like China).
I’ve read a lot of opinion pieces suggesting that the Chinese political system can’t succeed over the long run because it stifles creativity; for instance, an article in the Harvard Business Review titled “Why China Can’t Innovate” claims that Ph.D. students in China receive an inadequate training because “the governance structures of China’s state-owned universities still leaves too many decisions to too few people.”
In the long-run, yes, free societies can produce more creative solutions to their problems. Graeber and Wengrow present compelling evidence that the indigenous free peoples of North America created a much greater variety of political systems than the oppressed peoples of Europe.
In the short run, however, dictatorships can be more efficient. (With the obvious possibility that a dictator might decide to do something counterproductive, as Vladimir Putin is demonstrating.)
Civilizations collapse – or devour each other – in the short run.