THE DEVIL’S BARGAIN: CATASTROPHIC AGRICULTURE

Fig.1
Figure 1

Richard Manning’s book Against the Grain is a remarkable work — succinct, well-researched, solution-oriented and mind-altering. It’s an absolute must-read. Please don’t settle for the synopsis below, and don’t assume that because it’s about the history and economy of agriculture it’s a dull read. It’s riveting. The issues that Manning describes in the book were first raised in his Harper’s Magazine article last winter called The Oil We Eat. But the book goes much further.

In my earlier root-cause analysis of what ’caused’ us to invent civilization, to abandon our joyful hunter-gatherer cultures, the cause-and-effect went like this:

  1. Ice age OR Overhunting -->Scarcity of food. After millennia of easy hunting of big, slow game, man suddenly had to start really working for a living…
  2. Scarcity of food-->Invention of agriculture. …So he invented agriculture; if there wasn’t enough food, he’s ‘make’ his own…
  3. Agriculture-->Civilization. …But agriculture required division of labour, instruction, hierarchies, and constant fighting with ‘pests’…
  4. Civilization-->End of Virtuous Cycle (Fig. 1 above) and Start of Vicious Cycle (Fig. 2 below). …And brought with it all kinds of unintended consequences.

But Manning has a more intriguing theory of the first two steps:

  1. Fire, Floods & Ice-->Grain monoculture. After natural catastrophes, hardy grains are often the first plants to reappear …
  2. Grain monoculture-->Agriculture. …Man in areas victimized by these natural catastrophes merely ‘discovered’ this, and then by creating continuous ‘catastrophes’ (clearing land with fire, flooding land through irrigation) exploited nature’s own regeneration mechanism, which we call ‘agriculture’…

The third and fourth steps are the same under both theories. Manning therefore calls what we now practice ‘catastrophic agriculture’ to differentiate it from the simple tending of ‘wild’ plants and animals as a secondary source of food by hunter-gatherer cultures without interference with natural cycles. The irony, he says, is that it wasn’t scarcity of food that compelled us to invent agriculture, but rather the discovery of over-abundance of food in areas of natural catastrophe that seduced us into it.
Fig. 2
Figure 2

The ‘discovery’ of grain monoculture in areas of recurring natural catastrophe (like floodplains) was only possible where man was already settled, which only occurred in areas where fish were plentiful, which is where all agricultural cultures began (the birthplaces of civilization) before they expanded and merged into the single civilization culture we know today. Sedentary life, and soft grain gruels, also allowed a higher birth rate, since babies no longer had to be carried for four years until they were weaned — and the population explosion began. The ability to store food also allowed the provisioning of armies, and the need to keep people from going back to their instinctive hunter-gatherer ways and abandon the farms required the use of force, which required hierarchy and government. The provisioned armies conquered the remaining hunter-gatherers (most notably in Africa and the Americas) and made them slaves on the farms. To keep unnatural hierarchy1 from crumbling, the governors bribed subordinates with extra resources, larger homes, and their own ‘private’ land, as long as the subordinates kept the slaves and peasants in line2. Wealth, and its inevitable partner poverty, were born. Dependence on monoculture, which failed often, gave rise to the first famines. Average human heights plummeted due to disease and poor, unvaried diet, bone deformities from constant stooping became commonplace, and grain monoculture and crowded villages allowed previously rare diseases to flourish: anemia, arthritis, malaria, syphilis, and tuberculosis, and, finally, plague, all of them unknown before agriculture. And the high-carb diet of grain monoculture also brought with it other new and unnatural phenomena: tooth decay, obesity, diabetes, lactose tolerance, and alcoholism, which devastated many hunter-gatherer cultures when they were suddenly exposed to this deadly and seductive diet. So agriculture was irresistible to man, the ultimate devil’s bargain.

By doing so, man threw in his lot with a host of life forms that co-evolved with man and grain monoculture: this ‘coalition’ included the rat, insect pests, weeds and parasites as well as the aforementioned diseases and a handful of animals suited to domestication, all of which thrive with monoculture. In fact much of the ‘conquering’ of the hunter-gatherer world by ‘civilized’ man was really accomplished by our coalition partners: it was our diseases, to which hunter-gatherers had no exposure and hence no resistance, that killed most of them, not our weapons or their years of subsequent slave labour. The introduction of our domestic animals likewise altered the New World’s terrain, since these animals had few natural predators and exploded in population, literally eating the natural flora to extinction. Like us, these domestic animals paid the price of civilization — they are smaller, sicker and poorer than their wild counterparts, but the ultimate test of evolution is endurance, and our unholy coalition has passed that test with flying colours. Humans, members of the six domestic animal groups and the big five monoculture grains, and the rodents, insects, weeds and disease parasites that come with them have all flourished, at least in numbers, together, and together they now constitute a huge and growing proportion of Earth’s biomass, while the millions of non-coalition creatures almost all face extinction.

Although our diseases did most of the dirty work, Manning argues that our civilization culture committed systematic genocide against every hunter-gatherer culture on the planet, from the Cro-Magnon man in Eastern Europe (whose language, intriguingly lives on only in the tiny Basque community whose culture is still under siege), to the First Nations of the Americas and Oceania. The result was what anthropologists have called “remarkable cultural homogeneity” and “pathological conventionality”. Its sustained hallmark has been ever-increasing famines, the “very badge of civilization”. The worst famine ever, and one of the most recent, in Mao’s China, killed 80 million people. The second worst, in Russia, was also in the past century. Famine, a sudden and severe shortage of vital resources, breeds hunger, and that always breeds imperialism in turn. The alternative, common and legal in China for millennia until quite recently, is an invention called “Swapping Children / Making Food” — in times of famine you exchange your children for your neighbour’s, and then kill them and eat them and use their bones for fuel. Modern mythology would have us believe that famine is a political problem — a consequence of bad distribution of food and bad government — and while this is in part true, famine is ultimately an inevitable consequence of our fragile monoculture and massive overpopulation. This quote, describing one such famine in Ireland, where potato blight in one year eliminated 90% of the monoculture potato crop and hence 90% of the food, has given me nightmares:

In the first hovel, six famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearances dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw, their sole covering what seemed a ragged horsecloth, and their wretched legs hanging about, naked above the knees. I approached with horror, and found by a low moaning that they were alive, they were in fever — four children, a woman, and what had once been a man. It is impossible to go through the details. Suffice it to say that, in a few minutes, I was surrounded by at least 200 of such phantoms, such frightful specters as no words can describe.

All of this because we threw ourselves out of the Garden of Eden, seduced by the lure of uniform plenty. Why and how did we get into this mess, and who is to blame? Manning recaps: “A population explosion generates the need to grow more food, but agriculture is the cause of that population explosion, and agriculture creates the need for government. The hierarchical, specialized societies that agriculture builds are wholly dependent on the smooth operation of their infrastructure, on transportation, on stability. Dams must be built, canals must flow, roads must be maintained and government must be established to order these tasks. Government leaders emerge from the social hierarchy that agriculture’s wealth makes possible. Failures are human and inevitable. To hold agriculture blameless and government responsible for famine is like holding a lion blameless for a child’s death on the grounds that it was the lion’s teeth that did the damage. Poverty, government and famine are co-evolved species, every bit as integral to catastrophic agriculture as wheat, bluegrass, smallpox and rats.”

Our solution, of course, was not to blame agriculture, but to try to make it more efficient. Although we now produce a massively excess amount of monoculture food, famines, starvation and poverty remain commonplace. So lately we developed the Green Revolution to increase efficiency of grain production, to increase yields and edible mass per acre and per plant. The theory was that these high-yield crops could be grown closer to the starving. But fifty years later this has not solved the problem, and it has in fact increased the fragility of the system. Plants are now patented, and GM now threatens existing plant species and diversity and their utter homogeneity exposes them to new vulnerabilities as nature evolves new pests and diseases to try to bring back into balance this massive, ecologically unsustainable and undifferentiated surplus. And these higher yields come with a huge price tag. Whereas a calorie of your home-grown carrots requires less than a calorie of non-photosynthetic energy to produce, a calorie of grain requires ten calories of energy to produce3, mostly in the form of Mideast-oil-based, highly processed nitrogen fertilizers poured onto severely and evermore soil- and nutrient-depleted land. Ironically, that fertilizer replaces animal manure, which is no longer economical to truck from the new concentration-camp factory farms (also developed to improve ‘efficiency’). So most of the oil-based fertilizer runs off into the water supply, along with massive amounts of pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics and other by-products of ‘efficient’ agriculture and the mountains of shit from the factory farms, which no longer has commercial ‘value’. And if the smell of that shit makes living in the area unbearable, that’s fine, too, because Archer Daniels Midland and the other handful of companies that run this entire system can then buy up and concentrate the farms more cheaply. Besides, we don’t want nosy ‘eco-terrorists’ and news media poking around and seeing what really goes on in those factory farms anyway. The cost of this is so phenomenally high that government subsidies now exceed the entire ‘commercial value’ of the food produced. It’s a massive corporate welfare scheme originally designed to keep families on farms and now accruing primarily to the few corporations that control the industry. Taxpayers pay for these corporations to produce and process an absurd excess of bad food and to finance governments who pursue Middle Eastern wars to get the oil needed for fertilizer. And in return the taxpayers get cheap, tasteless, unhealthy, polluted food, monstrous animal cruelty, massive pollution of the air and water, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, tooth decay, alcoholism, ruined land, and unemployment. And still there is famine.

So what are we to do? Manning starts by pointing out what not to do — try to get government to change the system. “The political system cannot be counted on to reform agriculture because the political system is a creation of agriculture, a co-evolved entity”. Of course we should try to end agricultural subsidies, but Manning says we are unlikely to succeed. Vegetarianism can help, but not much: As long as the vegetables come from the same commodity system, they’re still causing massive environmental and social damage and animal cruelty. And we couldn’t go back to hunter-gatherer culture, at least not in our current numbers, even if we wanted to. But reducing human population is a necessary condition: “I do not take human population as a given; if we accept six billion as inevitable, we are doomed”. Beyond that, Manning’s solution is the same one that a rising chorus of radicals and revolutionaries is calling for: A walking away from this system and its products, and the creation of a new, healthy culture and economy. To Manning, focused on the food economy, this means:

  • Eating better: Selecting and eating a wide variety of exclusively organic, fresh, local, delicious, unpolluted, quality, unprocessed, non-factory foods.
  • Eating less: Since these good foods are unsubsidized and hence more expensive, eating less is economically advantageous, and, for most of us, it is also healthier.
  • Preparing and cooking your own: Not using processed or packaged foods even if they’re organic and/or vegetarian.
  • Natural gardening: Personally producing your own food without use of any fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides or other unnatural products. Nothing more invasive than a fence to keep out the bunnies. On a larger scale this is called permaculture, and it’s growing in popularity.
  • Supporting small, local farms: Going to farmers’ markets, and challenging the vendors and operators to allow only local, unprocessed4, organic, small-farm products and free-range, grass-fed meats.

I am writing a book on Natural Enterprise, and its recipe is perfectly suited to small, local, responsible farms. I think we all know that such foods are better for us, and better for the environment and the society we live in. We need some pioneers to start, and teach others to start, Natural Enterprises that can break our deadly addiction to catastrophic agriculture. And the rest of us need, in more ways than one, to go back to the (natural) garden.

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  1. In nature there are pecking orders and specialized roles to organize and reduce conflict in communities, but no hierarchy that allows the alpha male, the ‘queen’ bee, or the bull moose to hog a disproportionate amount of the resources of the community.
  2. Manning hypothesizes there is more reason to believe the Great Wall of China was built to keep the stooped slaves in the rice paddies in, than to keep the hunter-gatherer ‘Mongol hordes’ out.
  3. A calorie of beef requires over 100 calories of energy to produce, despite the ‘efficiencies’ of factory farms.
  4. Exception: labour-intensive processed foods are OK if they use only local and organic ingredients e.g. artisanal bakeries, microbreweries
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13 Responses to THE DEVIL’S BARGAIN: CATASTROPHIC AGRICULTURE

  1. Peter Bailey says:

    Hi Dave, Another interesting read as always. Just picking up on a couple of points relating to the culture of food. The first of course is permaculture – invented/discovered here in Australia by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. Permaculture is a fantastic practice for considering design at all levels, although its emphasis is on local (as in home/small farm) food production. To the best of my knowledge, it does not readily scale to any larger form of production. This certainly fits well with your Natural Enterprise model. There are many aspects of the permaculture theory/practice that stick with me – perhaps the most illuminating is the observation and working with nature, and the minimisation of energy. For example, locating your compost heap (if you don’t have chickens) much closer to your back door than the back fence. Or planting a herb spiral right next to the kitchen, so you can get herbs for your dinner with less effort.I think you might find biodynamic farming (based on Steiner’s lectures on agriculture) also interesting. I like to characterise biodynamic (BD) farming as “organic farming with theory”. The fascinating thing about BD farming, at least as practiced in Australia by people like Alex Podlinsky, is that it is primarily broadscale. Simplistically, BD theory addresses the root cause of plant sickness through improving the soil. If the soil is not healthy (and this is predominantly where plants live, even though we don’t see it), then the plants cannot thrive. Interestingly, BD farming doesn’t proclude fairly limited choices of crops, and indeed works highly effectively for cereals and grains. This of course does not argue that we should follow stupid practices of restricting our varieties of any particular grain to only a handful, due to the dangers of such practices in the face of major and ineradicable disease. The intriguing thing is the argument that higher prices for BD crops are not because it’s more expensive to produce them – in fact, itmay be substantially cheaper to produce them! They require substantially less inputs, there is usually only one form of primary crop conditioner (a preparation called 500), and it’s used in homeopathic quantities (e.g. 1kg can cover many acres), is kept deliberately cheap, and there is no use of herbicides or pesticides – the natural systems in place with soil microbial activities, birds, insects and such like take care of diseases. The reason why they’re more expensive is primarily because people will pay more money for them, as they’re better for us. Capitalism at work. (The same may not apply for organic farming more generally, partially because it tends towards more and thus higher labour costs, and more hit and miss with the application of organic fertilizers.)Fukuoka is a good source to read on maintaining different crop varieties (in his case, rice), due to their increased productivity as adapted to local environments. Also things like the Seed Savers Network (started by Jude and Michel Fanton here in Australia) are performing great work in saving seedbanks of different varieties of heritage seeds, and spreading them around the country/world.In all cases, people practicing these forms of food culture are working with nature, rather than beside/against nature, as conventional farming practices tend towards. Food culture isn’t inherently evil – spend time with a contented cow to see what I mean. And as you remark, food culture begins at home.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Peter: Very interesting — BD was invented by the same guy (Rudolf Steiner) who invented the Waldorf schools that take a similar holistic approach to education that BD takes to agriculture — Waldorf Schools were discussed at length in one of my recent discussion threads. I’ll have to do some more reading on this. Also interested in hydroponics and indoor gardening — what if we used some of the wasted space in homes to grow food organically? Might this not only reduce our dependence on catastrophic agriculture, but also make our homes into valuable educational sites for our children, laboratories for innovation, and healthier, oxygen-rich environments?

  3. Peter Bailey says:

    Hi again Dave, I didn’t read the Waldorf school discussion thread – maybe I subscribed afterwards, so I’ll have to chase that one up. In Australia, I think they’re just called Steiner schools. I worked with someone several years ago who had been to a Steiner school, and was definitely very impressed at his life perspective. And my sister-in-law has been a teacher at several Steiner schools, so have some more perspectives on it from the teaching, rather than the learning, angle.Hydroponics is interesting, but I think suffers from (at least, when viewed from a BD philosophy) the approach to plant-as-machine – i.e. if we feed it sufficient nutrients, then it must grow. While this is true to an extent (i.e. with sufficient nutrients and light etc, it does grow), it fails to acknowledge the plant’s nature. Plants (other than floating water based plants) have evolved to be rooted in the earth (or the sea bed), and to extract their nutrients from the humus in the soil. Podlinsky talks about why hydroponics (and for that matter, any form of dissolved salts/nutrients) are problematic for plants. Basically the theory is that by being dissolved, the plant is unable to limit/control the uptake of these nutrients into their organism, as they take it in through the transpiration process. This leads to cells which are over-full with water – which they then have to take up even more of to try to balance out the excess nutrients. The consequence may be colourful looking food, but tending towards the tastless due to the abundance of water. BD food by contrast tends to have a kind of “essence-of” taste – concentrated with the spirit of the plant in question.By starting to look for these signs in our food, you can see the effects. A good example is a paddock that has been sprayed with super-phosphate or similar. It tends towards a slightly hyper-real green, not a natural green. Podolinsky’s lectures (or here) on this are instructive. He says you need to start to look to find the correct form of a plant, which tends towards an upwards form, as if it is reaching for the sky. He has photos of this, but again, it tends to be something you really have to see with your own eyes, and to compare farms which are using BD practices and ones which aren’t.On the indoor gardening front – I couldn’t agree more. This is where permaculture design practices come into their own in my opinion, as they teach us to look for edge interaction spaces. Just about any space can be taken up with growing food, and we can produce food for ourselves, for our family, in the smallest of spaces, such as an apartment’s verandah. Nothing beats having your own parsley or basil with dinner, or shredded mint with pineapple! I think Mollison’s book on Permaculture provides some great examples of this. My favourite recollection of how effective this can be was a friend’s apartment’s verandah, which was literally solidly packed with plants – in pots and in polystyrene containers (great for growing salad crops like lettuce and rocket). Growing flowers is also fun, especially for improving the environment around our homes. Vertical space in particular is a much under-utilised resource – grow vines up walls.Another bonus about growing food at home is that it helps to reduce our fossil fuel dependence, not just on us going to buy the food, but on the transport and delivery of the food to our cities, from surrounding regions, or often from across the world.Just to finish with one last recollection, I remember reading several years ago a question asked of Steiner. The question was on the issue of why people/society were sick. Steiner’s answer was that because the food itself was not being grown to be full of good spirit, and because we ate this sick/poor spirited food, there was little wonder that we were becoming progressively more sick as a society. And that to improve people, we had to grow better food in the proper way, which would then nourish people correctly.

  4. Rob Paterson says:

    Hi DaveTwo points – My Nieces and nephew go to a Waldorf school. The more I learn about Steiner the more intriguing he becomes. Waldorf schools are the fastest growing set of schools in the world and they focus on spiritual development. May a large part of the way home be through a different model for education? Is not our educational model part of the reason why we cannot “see’ the world?Second – is not the system by which we feed ourselves, the governor for our social systems? HG food system = a type of society and culture. Hydraulic systems another and so on.Now we live in a not only an agricultural society but a “corporate” ag society. hence we live in a corporate culture.So what is the way out? i fear that no work on our part will shake this system It will collapse as all corporate food systems and hydraulic systems have in the past. Look at babylon, or North Africa, the grain belt of the classic world. When you visit Ephesus, you will wonder it its preservation and find it odd that a port should be 5 miles inland. Ephesus failed because all the topsoil from N Africa ended up there pushing the port inland and causing it to fail as a port. The people just walked away.So what will happen? The Ogafalla aquifer will run out in less than 20 years = the end of the corn belt. Ag in California will salt up as all hydraulic systems do about the same time. Corn = meat in the US and there will be a crash. Rome in 400 ad had 2 million inhabitants. By 500 there were 20,000. A city that depends on local ag can only support about 20-30k people. No ancient or medieval city was larger than this as it seems to be a system limit to the amount of food that can be grown and shipped in locally using simple methods.So what do we do? Get behind Waldorf as a Trojan Horse that may shift mindsets. Live as you and I do out of town and learn how to feed ourselves from the local system.

  5. Johnny Nemo says:

    Uh … “spirit of the plant in question”? Mr. Bailey, you can’t use your religious beliefs as a justification for why something is better; that’s not an answerable claim. There is no proof — and, by the nature of the claim, can *be* no proof — that plants have a “spirit”. You are of course entitled to believe it, but it supports your thesis as much as “God condemns homosexuality” works as a legal argument against same-sex marriage.Mr. Pollard, when you examine our current societal woes, your criticisms are pointed, clear, and — I think — accurate. Your proposed solutions, however, smack of the romantic neo-primitivism that infects too much of the West Coast.I can feel the longing in your writing, reminding me too strongly of conversations with my friends on Vancouver Island.These romantic intellectuals want to return to a hunting-and-gathering Eden that never existed, pointing to fringe anthropologists and Starhawk or Carlos Castaneda in equal parts. They want to return to a primitive state, yet somehow keep our modern consciousness. They confuse result with intent; but nature *is* in balance, it doesn’t *seek* a balance, and that balance is caused by tension, not stasis — the tension of multifarious elements pulling in different directions. Invariably, discussions with these people end with them opening their hands wide and saying some variation of, “Nature will provide!”Have you read Charles Reich’s THE GREENING OF AMERICA? His “Consciousness 1 and 2” criticisms still hold up, but his proposed “Consciousness 3” is an embarassingly mystic, adolescent, wishful-thinking mush. I’m still seeking someone who moves beyond Mr. Reich, but I’m afraid I haven’t found it here.But as I said, your critical insights are sharp, and your writing is always enjoyable. If I find your solutions inadequate, it is because I recognize how desperately solutions are needed.

  6. Av says:

    Very interesting and thought provoking post. It is true that there have been many problems associated with the evolution of agricultural civilization and society, but are we forgeting the benefits? In most of the world, even the poorest have a longer life expectancy, lower child mortality, more leisure time, and more luxaries than our stone age ancestors. Of course, this is due to science and technology that evolved thanks to food surplus.

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    Peter: That’s very useful info — thanks.Rob: Another answer may lie in the anticorporatist movement in general. I’m blogging on that on Thursday (I think), based on the prescription in Joel Bakan’s book ‘The Corporation’. The key in defeating any system, as your Trojan Horse analogy demonstrates, is to attack its vulnerabilities, and corporatism has many, which is why it’s such hard, expensive work to maintain.Johnny: Hope my future posts will alleviate some of your concerns. I confess to being an idealist, but I’m told it’s curable ;-)Av: What you’re describing is a widely-held myth. While it’s true that, compared to medieval, industrial or early agricultural age man, and even compared to modern, damaged hunter-gatherer cultures, our quality of life is, on average, better. However, in absolute terms there is probably more poverty, famine and suffering today than there has ever been. And recent research suggests strongly that pre-civilization man (excluding those who were eaten by predators) had a long life expectancy, less disease, less deformity, and much more leisure time than we have today — read Peter Jay if you don’t believe me on this. We have been brainwashed by revisionist ‘history’ since the dawn of agriculture to believe ‘stone age’ man lived a short brutish life, because if we knew the truth we would all have walked away from civilization millennia ago. We needed the now exploded myth to keep us in line.

  8. Peter Bailey says:

    Hi Johnny, (sorry Dave for using up more of your comments space!)Apologies that my language led to a misunderstanding. I don’t happen to be particularly religious at all; and one of the many nice things about BD farming practices is that it is also heavily evidence-based. Farmers are expected to very carefully observe their farms, their plants, the interaction with the local environment, and the changes over time. Steiner certainly came from a religious background, and draws on the theosophist tradition. However, one does not need to become a theosophist to practice BD farming. Nor to appreciate BD food.English is a frustrating and limiting language at times – I’m sure all languages are. When I use the term “spirit”, I’m trying to capture a sense of the essence/form/nature/peculiar individuality of the thing in question (e.g. a plant, an egg, the fruit of a plant). My own training is as a scientist, and like you perhaps, was somewhat skeptical about BD before I had more experience with it. I have read and listened to several of Podolinsky’s lectures; I’ve observed, and thought critically about the crystallisation tests reported, especially in Vol 2 of these lectures; I’ve seen BD and non-BD farms, plants, soil; I’ve eaten BD and non-BD food. Everything I’ve read, observed, and seen tells me there are differences.To tell a story, the turning point for me came when eating BD eggs (eggs from hens raised on a BD farm and fed BD grains). It’s hard to describe in words exactly what “essence-of” egg should be, but I’ll try. The yolk should be thick and creamy almost viscous, a pleasing rich yellow in colour. There should be almost a solidity to the yolk so that it doesn’t tear or split when dropped into a bowl. The albumen should be translucent, but bind tightly around the yolk; there should be very little watery parts to it. If you poach one, the white should stay closely with the yolk while it cooks, and not disintegrate in the cooking water. The shell should be firm with no weaknesses. When eaten, the egg should taste rich and very “eggy”. Having eaten an egg like this, it’s very difficult to find any other egg that compares, even fresh free range eggs from healthy hens fed a balanced diet, tho they come close. It’s a bit like a friend of mine from Canada, who lived in Australia for a couple of years, and always complained that the bagels in Sydney just weren’t “real” bagels. I could never really understand what he meant, until on a trip to Canada, he took me to his favourite bagel store in Montreal, and I got to eat fresh baked bagels that were thick, dense and chewey, but sweet as well. I finally understood why he had always complained, and he’s right, there are no bagels that I’ve ever tried in Australia that taste anywhere near as good.So to summarise, it really is an evidential-based approach. You have to eat BD foods and non-BD foods and compare them. You have to use your senses (taste, vision, smell) to determine the differences. You have to observe the plants that live on BD farms and compare them to the same kind of plants on non-BD farms. I certainly found a clear difference. Maybe you will too.

  9. Dave, the rise of government may have another explanation. A “big man,” chiefs, and central ideology actually arose out of necessity: to stop humans from killing one another. When hunter-gatherers meet strangers, their first job is to establish whether or not they shared a common ancestor, so that they didn’t have to set upon and kill one another. We’re very territorial, paranoid creatures in the wild. When we developed agriculture and our societies grew like yeast, the chances of knowing everybody encountered during the day were greatly lowered; a centralized leader or ideology was necessary to give people a common reason for peaceful cooperation. This has been demonstrated in many in semi-sedentary hunter-gatherer societies, as well as in larger agricultural ones. My main source is Jared Diamond, who’s most recent book as really gone a long way to popularize anthropology.While I agree with your solutions, I’m not so sure about the course of the evolution of early governments.

  10. Dave Pollard says:

    Renee: Here’s how Daniel Quinn explains all this: Early hunter-gatherer communities were completely segregated and buffered from each other. There was a point to this: it ensured significant heterogeneity and genetic diversity, so that diseases wouldn’t spread easily — it’s Darwinian. It also avoided imperialism, and hence kept population down to what the immediate area could support. When someone from one tribe/community encroached on the territory of the next, there was a brief violent skirmish to rebuff the trespass. So, Quinn would say, we’re very territorial, yes, but not paranoid.

  11. Don Dwiggins says:

    Excellent post and discussion! Re your last comment, Quinn’s explanation leads me to wonder: aside from an upper “carrying capacity” limit on a population in an environment, there’s a lower limit to the number of individuals in a viable isolated community. Below this limit genetic drift sets in and leads to a downward population spiral (this is from memory; I may have the mechanism wrong, or oversimplified). If I remember correctly, Bill Mollison estimated the lower limit for humans to be about 300, and even at that level it’s still dicey.For this reason, I’d expect that an area populated by small hunter-gatherer communities would see occasional “get-togethers” or interchanges among communities that would lead to genetic mixing. I seem to remember reading about such things in nomadic societies.

  12. Dave Pollard says:

    Don — that’s interesting. In Conrad’s famous ‘Game of Life’ simulation groups die of other overcrowding or isolation, and systems with such ‘rules’ tend to achieve equilibrium, but not total stability, quickly. In his study of corvids, Bernd Heinrich notes that beyond the ‘breeding pair’, there are both ‘bachelors’ that stay faithfully with the pair and the community, and others that range widely and interact with and sometimes join other corvid communities. It may be that natural communities have ‘core’ and ‘halo’ components, like subatomic particles. It’d be interesting to find out whether these lower limits have risen since tribal cultures got exposed to our homogeneous culture with its epidemic diseases. If you find more, please send me links!

  13. J.G. says:

    Thank’s to all for this enlightening thread. I came to this site by way of a program on my Sirius radio form the CBC, Ideas-The Massey Lectures, a talk by Ronald Wright about his thoughts leading up to his book, Collapse. This study of anthropological analysis of our current scociety is of great interest to me.I have become increasingly concerened about factory farming, the ethical, ecological and economic horrors it creates. This and an essay by JM Kunstler http://www.kunstler.com/ about his upcommming book have led me here. Many of you including our host Dave Pollard have made numerous book reccomendations. I will read them all.If any of you have specific book or website reccomendations an e-mail is welcome. Thank you to all who know vastely more about this subject and resources in which to study it than I. Also I’d assume from reading this blog that thwe horror scene that Kunstler predicts, that he is not alone nor a crackpot.I have long been concerned about living through and the immense economic and cultural change that the demise of the petro economy would bring. Until recently I believed it would take twenty years or more. Some imply that it be may immenent, months rather than years. Do any of you beleive we are this close to to the precipice? Correspondence is welcome.

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