The slavery of agriculture

Something changed about 25,000 years ago.  A once proud and free people were dominated. Their descendants were shorter and weaker with each passing generation. Their children contracted illnesses with increasing frequency. As they grew older, they developed chronic conditions unknown to their parents.  Lives spent enjoying the company of others and creating art were traded for endless toil under a burning sun. Wild humanity was domesticated by the slavery of agriculture.

It wasn’t a choice or a great leap forward as we have been led to believe. Agriculture was adopted for one reason alone, control. Non-perishable foods were a rare commodity in the ancient world. In many cases they were used as a form of currency. Obtaining large quantities of these goods could result in great wealth for the individual capable of producing it. Therein lies the problem. No one person is capable of the work necessary to produce vast reserves of grain crops without automation. It was necessary to employ people in backbreaking work for long hours to achieve this goal of commodity control.  The challenges our budding feudal lords faced was a population of wild humans who were fiercely independent and mostly capable of caring for their own needs. Without a way to voluntarily encourage participation in this new enterprise known as agriculture, slavery was adopted.

The anthropological record seems to indicate a time of peace and prosperity for humankind leading up to a dark time beginning around 25,000 years ago when agriculture was adopted on a large scale.  We fell from grace, and we can see what we lost by examining the lives of modern tribal cultures. An article in Discover Magazine takes a look at modern hunter-gatherer tribes who are surprisingly peaceful people living a life of leisure and abundance:

“Scattered throughout the world, several dozen groups of so-called primitive people, like the Kalahari bushmen, continue to support themselves that way. It turns out that these people have plenty of leisure time, sleep a good deal, and work less hard than their farming neighbors. For instance, the average time devoted each week to obtaining food is only 12 to 19 hours for one group of Bushmen, 14 hours or less for the Hadza nomads of Tanzania. One Bushman, when asked why he hadn’t emulated neighboring tribes by adopting agriculture, replied, “Why should we, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?”

While farmers concentrate on high-carbohydrate crops like rice and potatoes, the mix of wild plants and animals in the diets of surviving hunter-gatherers provides more protein and a better balance of other nutrients. In one study, the Bushmen’s average daily food intake (during a month when food was plentiful) was 2,140 calories and 93 grams of protein, considerably greater than the recommended daily allowance for people of their size. It’s almost inconceivable that Bushmen, who eat 75 or so wild plants, could die of starvation the way hundreds of thousands of Irish farmers and their families did during the potato famine of the 1840s.”

So, contrary to popular belief, resource security is much easier to achieve in a hunter-gatherer society. Additionally, a study by (Ember and Ember, 1997) found less incidences of internal and external violence on foraging societies. According to this Yale article hunter-gatherers societies also had less social stratification and lacked an exploitative political system:

“Based on the ethnographic data and cross-cultural comparisons, it is widely accepted that recent hunter-gatherer societies

  • are fully or semi-nomadic.
  • live in small communities.
  • have low population densities.
  • do not have specialized political officials.
  • have little wealth differentiation.
  • are economically specialized only by age and gender .
  • usually divide labor by gender, with women gathering wild plants and men fishing and almost always doing the hunting.

Some cross-cultural findings are less widely discussed:

  • Compared to food producers, hunter-gatherers are less likely to stress obedience and responsibility in child training. On the other hand, hunter-gatherer cultures that emphasize hunting are more likely to stress achievement in children. (Barry, Child, and Bacon, 1959; Hendrix, 1985)
  • Compared to food producers, hunter-gatherers show more warmth and affection toward their children. (Rohner, 1975, pp. 97-105)
  • The songs of hunter-gatherers are less wordy and characterized by more nonwords, repetition, and relaxed enunciation (Lomax 1968, pp. 117-28)
  • In contrast to food producers, hunter-gatherers are less prone to resource unpredictability, famines, and food shortages. (Textor 1967; Ember and Ember, 1997:10)”

Sounds like an okay life, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t you prefer to work about 4 hours a day and spend the rest of your time enjoying life?  Wouldn’t it be great to eat a large variety of foods and enjoy excellent health well into old age? That’s what we gave up when we adopted the master-slave paradigm of agriculture. Specialization dulled our minds and overuse of a single food source weakened our bodies. Over time, we were easier to control as we lost the skills of self reliance, hunting, and foraging. Far from a revolution or a great leap forward, agriculture brought about slavery and dominance.

25,000 years later and the systems of control are still in place. We still toil away for the benefit of others, but automation and the interconnected nature of modern communications are loosening the shackles. Unfortunately, the practice of agriculture has devolved into an exploitative nightmare that treats the soil as a resource to be strip mined. In fact the #1 export by raw tonnage out of the US is…wait for it…TOP SOIL! It’s not like we are loading up our farmland on barges and shipping it to China. No, thanks to the techniques of modern industrial agriculture, our farms are literally blowing into the Atlantic Ocean with prevailing winds. It takes nature around 1,000 years to create an inch of topsoil. At this rate, it won’t be long before the industrialization of agriculture completely fails. We will be left scrambling to feed a population incapable of independently thinking and acting on the problem. I don’t think this will happen overnight, and you shouldn’t panic or take rash measures. What you should do is work to build your own resiliency by learning skills and producing some of your own food. There are steps we can all begin taking today to avert this disaster. We all need to start small, and rewild ourselves over time:

  1. Grow your own food. Even if it’s a conventional vegetable garden, you are producing healthier food than anything in the store and reconnecting with natural systems
  2. Learn to hunt and forage
  3. Identify edible and medicinal plants in your region
  4. Learn everything you can about Permaculture and Regenerative Agriculture. We will have to rebuild soil if we want to survive
  5. Learn a broad variety of skills. Specialization is great from an economics standpoint, but we are about to turn those tasks over to the robots. Humans create! We were never made to do the same thing over and over like insects.

If we reconnect with natural systems and learn to produce a variety of food, we can take the first steps towards breaking our bondage to the agricultural model.  Start small and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.



Ember & Ember, 1997




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