Here’s a rather lengthy (OK, very lengthy) article on agriculture and human history.
I’ve been of the belief for quite a few years now that agriculture has been very bad for humanity. It is true that it allowed increased specialization into scientists and slaves, kings and serfs, executives and janitors, etc.
However, I would note that long before agriculture was invented, people were already producing impressive art in places like Lascaux. So, clearly, even at a time when there were far fewer humans on the planet, people were capable of some impressive culture.
Overall, has agriculture really been good for the individual members of the human species?
For some, certainly. But, on average? I don’t think so. Here are a few good quotes from the article.
Read and Leblanc (2003) suggest that humans, in areas of low resource density, tend to maintain generally stable populations, while high resource density, such as that produced by agriculture, decreases the spacing of births more rapidly than the increase in resource density, which results in repeating cycles of carrying capacity overshoot and population collapse.
Even though intensive cultivation agriculture did produce more food than subsistence food production on a specific area, severe local food shortages were not eliminated by the development of these techniques. Famine was caused by cyclic drought, climate cooling episodes and the natural propensity of humans to increase population numbers to meet then surpass any elevation of carrying capacity during benign conditions (Hopfenberg 2003).
Societies grew and prospered until soils were exhausted or as long as there was new land to cultivate, but they declined when they ran out of fertile soil options (Montgomery 2007). Temporary overshoot of carrying capacity has caused human numbers to fall back precipitously with some regularity throughout history (Stanton 2003), while less regular complete collapses of societies have been the norm since the advent of agriculture (Costanza et al. 2005).
I’m thinking we’re long overdue for another precipitous drop or complete collapse. I’m not saying I want this, merely that I’m worried it may happen very soon. Perhaps the global economic collapse that is in progress will be a large contributing factor. Let’s hope not.
Thomas Malthus (1826) predicted that agricultural production increases would not be able to meet the requirements of a steadily growing human population. However he was not aware that the depletion of soils by the agriculture, that was feeding less than one billion humans in the 1700s, was already unsustainable in the long term.
The Green Revolution produced the last major improvement in food production during the latter decades of the twentieth century as new crop varieties were created by plant breeders. These new varieties depended on large inputs of fossil-fuel dependent fertilizers, irrigation, insecticides and herbicides. William Paddock (1970) warned, at the time of the beginning of the Green Revolution, that the increased agricultural productivity would simply produce more malnourished poor people if curbs were not applied to the increase in human numbers that would result from increased food availability. Global population growth since the beginning of the Green Revolution has borne out the futility of increasing food availability in the absence of measures to control human fertility (Diamond 2002).
There’s lot’s more than this in the lengthy article. I hope at least a few people will read it in it’s entirety.
Please note that I expect to be in the minority here, but am really curious for other opinions. Also, if you have read the entire article, please say so.
Thanks to my friend Brendan for the link.