Thursday, July 21, 2016

Neanderthals, Bandits, and Farmers

Colin Tudge wrote Neanderthals, Bandits, & Farmers, a book that presents his theories on the dawn of progress and perpetual growth, focusing on how agriculture really began.  At the time, he was employed by the London School of Economics, an institution focused on capitalism, not ecological sustainability.
The book vibrates with cognitive dissonance.  Tudge has been studying agriculture for many years.  On one hand, it was a magnificent achievement that threw open the door to the wonders of modernity.  On the other hand, modernity has become a victim of its own success, with seven billion humans dangerously rocking the boat.  As Pandora once discovered, some magnificent achievements are best left in the box.
For most of the human journey, our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, whom Tudge likens to bandits.  They lived by their wits, snatched what the ecosystem had to offer, and had plenty of leisure time in their lives.  The prudent path was to live within the carrying capacity of their ecosystem.  If they had been ambitious and hard working, they would have wiped out their prey and starved.
Farmers were ambitious, hard working control freaks.  They manipulated the ecosystem to increase its carrying capacity, temporarily, via soil mining.  More work produced more rewards, and more food could feed more people.  Wild critters frequently molested their precious crops, so farmers responded with pest control — overhunting.  Eventually, the human mob got large, wildlife became scarce, wild land became cropland, and returning to hunting was no longer an option.
Agriculture emerged independently in at least six widely scattered locations.  It was not invented in Uruk by a demented genius.  It began maybe 10,000 years ago in the Middle East.  Tudge suggests that it developed gradually, as proto-farming, starting maybe 40,000 years ago.  Even primitive yokels could see that plants grew from seeds, and that clearing other vegetation away from food plants promoted their growth.  Proto-farming was done on a small scale, a pleasant hobby that left behind no enduring evidence for scientists to discover thousands of years later.
In Europe, Neanderthals had been big game hunters for hundreds of thousands of years.  While surviving a roller coaster of climate shifts, they lived within carrying capacity and did not wipe out the game.  Cro-Magnons were the Homo sapiens that later migrated into Europe, maybe 45,000 years ago.  Tudge theorizes that these foreign immigrants were proto-farmers.  Because they could produce their own food, they were less vulnerable to the consequences of overhunting.  Big game species began blinking out.  This eliminated the food supply for the Neanderthals, who were forced off the stage into oblivion.  (Stringer and Finlayson have other views on Neanderthals.)
By and by, proto-farming metastasized into a more virulent form, agriculture.  The economists leap to their feet with enthusiastic applause and cheering.  Civilization, here we come!  Whee!  The fuse was lit for a joyride of skyrocketing growth — onward to ten billion!  Well, this is the schoolbook version that everyone knows, and most believe.  (See Cohen on the shift to agriculture.)
Now, the plot thickens.  A growing number of scholars have been poking holes in the glorious myth of growth and progress.  Farming was miserable backbreaking work.  While hunter-gatherers benefitted from a diverse and highly nutritious diet, the farmer’s diet was the opposite, majoring in a few staple foods.  Farmers were shorter and less healthy.  In their remains, we find that “the toes and knees are bent and arthritic and the lower back is deformed.”
Tudge acknowledges the revisionists.  “People did not invent agriculture and shout for joy; they drifted or were forced into it, protesting all the way.”  Here’s my favorite line in the book: “The real problem, then, is not to explain why some people were slow to adapt agriculture but why anyone took it up at all when it was obviously so beastly.”
He believes that overhunting was the sole cause of the megafauna extinctions.  Native Americans had little self-restraint when it came to hunting mammoths and mastodons.  There is no evidence that climate change played any role in the die-off, he says.  But, at the end of the ice age, as the land warmed up, large areas of tundra were gradually replaced with dense forests.  This put the squeeze on species adapted to living on the tundra.
Did scruffy rednecks with homemade spears really hunt the speedy horses of North America to extinction — but not the bison, elk, and deer?  We’ll never know the full story, but I would be wary of dismissing the impact of radical climate swings, or the importation of Old World pathogens for which the American fauna had zero immunity.  (See Kolbert on extinction.)
Anyway, agriculture took root, because it worked more often than it failed.  Population gradually grew, which required more and more cropland and pasture.  Each expansion raised carrying capacity a bit, while soil depletion reduced it.  The growing mob had to work harder, and grow more.  In the cult of economists, “growth” is the god word.  Unfortunately, perpetual growth becomes a vicious spiral.  Tudge winces at the paradox.  “To condemn all of humankind to a life of full-time farming, and in particular arable farming, was a curse indeed.”  (See Montgomery, Manning, Dale, and Postel on agriculture’s drawbacks.)
Animal domestication, on the other hand, greatly benefitted the critters we enslaved, says Tudge.  For example, wild wolves are vanishing, but domesticated dogs have zoomed past a half billion.  Similarly, domesticated sheep can breed far more when well fed and defended.  If the population of a critter explodes, this is called biological success.  Dogs are a great success story, but their luckless wolf relatives keep smacking into bullets, stepping in traps, and eating poisoned bait.  Oddly, neither dogs nor sheep could survive in the wild, apart from humans.  (See Shepard on animal enslavement.)
It’s a great tragedy of history that the wild folks who adapted to their ecosystem, and lived within its carrying capacity, have been unable to withstand the constant pressure from growing mobs of farmers.  When Tudge wrote, we were approaching six billion.  The spectacular success of growth and progress was beginning to look like a Pyrrhic victory.  We might actually have real limits!  (See Bourne and Cribb on Peak Food.)
Clouds of doubt swirled in his head.  “Our earliest hunting ancestors must have been lazy, as lions are.  Perhaps we should learn from them.”  It’s touching and illuminating to watch the poor lad struggle with the conflict between powerful cultural myths and his growing awareness of reality.  This struggle is a necessary challenge on the path to growth and healing.  We must stand against the strong current.
The book is just 53 pages, and easy to read.  It would be a good text for courses in eco-psychology, environmental ethics, and critical thinking.
Postscript.  In a recent online video, Tudge reveals his grand solution, Enlightened Agriculture — small organic family farms raising a wide variety of crops.  By 2050, 9.5 to 10 billion will be coming to dinner.  Can we feed them?  “The answer is a resounding yes!”  We can feed them for decades, maybe indefinitely.  Profit-driven, energy-guzzling monoculture agriculture is fantastically unsustainable.  All we need is simply a total revolution in how we live, think, breed, and produce food — as soon as possible, please.
Tudge, Colin, Neanderthals, Bandits, & Farmers — How Agriculture Really Began, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1998.


Anonymous said...

What Is Sustainable said...

Hi Anonymous. Thanks for the link. I just spent the last 3 hours taking detailed notes on Scott's lecture. There is so much important information in less than 40 minutes. It's also on YouTube:
The Domestication of Fire, Animals, Grains, & Us.

Thom Hawkins said...

Science tells us that biological evolution generally proceeds slowly, incrementally over extended periods of time, but that certain organisms have evolved in fits and starts, some even relatively quickly. I suspect that political history might reveal the same pattern, and that sometimes it is in the best interests of a political organism to make a sudden change in course, a revolution as it were.

Can such a revolution occur with a minimal amount of violence? Possibly, but not common. There is historic precedent in the biological and social record for peaceful disruptive transitions. For encouragement I look to the recent and remarkable successes of today's burgeoning ecovillages and permaculture/regenerative farming communities that are thriving peacefully around the globe, pointing the way for those who are strong enough to follow. We can also look to the exponential growth of the digital revolution, although the results so far are a mix of good and not-so-good for society and nature.

Can we look to the Bernie Sanders' revolution to change the Democratic Party enough to lead us into a new era of climate responsibility? Stay tuned and don't hold your breath. Call me skeptical, yet undaunted.

What Is Sustainable said...

Hi Thom!

Obviously, genes aren’t the issue here. Isolated tribes in the Amazon, having the same genes as you and I, are not two-legged tornados. The issue is cultural evolution, which is capable of making significant changes fairly quickly. Jim Crow no longer dominates the main stage. The U.S. has a black president. Gay folks are gaining rights and respect. At the same time, neo-fascists have become hot items. So has religious fanaticism.

I have a hard time imagining humankind abandoning sprawling cities, moving to permaculture ecovillages, and living happily ever after — even if the climate change threat did not exist. I think we are going to experience revolutionary change in the coming decades, but this change is going to be driven by Big Mama Nature, not by brilliant human visionaries, teachers, leaders, and newly enlightened enthusiastic masses.

From a human perspective, there is no win/win alternative. The herd of 7.4 billion cannot continue on the same path for much longer. A herd this size requires energy-guzzling industrial civilization to keep it on life support. The clock is running out on this approach.

From Big Mama Nature’s perspective, there is a win/win alternative. Overshoot always self-corrects. When life as we know it disintegrates, the survivors are going to have to learn how to live outside the cage of industrial civilization, or slam into our expiration date.

Twenty years ago, I could imagine a surge of human intelligence inspiring a Great Healing. Today, I have too many info feeds. The infection is totally out of control. Not even Saint Bernie can save us. I can no longer envision beautiful miraculous transformations. There will certainly be a Great Healing, but…

Collapse is not unfair, unjust, or bad luck. It is simply reaping what we have sown. Cultural evolution has hurled us far, far, far from where we belong. Collapse might provide an important lesson. Are we smart enough to learn it? Or, is it time for us to join the spirits of the wooly rhinos?

Thom Hawkins said...


Below is a link to just one example of many that the Medea hypothesis (life destroys life) explains our behavior--it's what life does. How many people recognize the many ways each day they destroy life? That recognition is the beginning of limiting the destruction for a while, but our rhino horns are already growing long and few seem to notice.

What Is Sustainable said...

Hi Thom!

I don’t know enough about the Medea hypothesis to say anything. I haven’t read the book.

I spent about four hours today picking six gallons of blackberries, and three or four hours canning them. I biked maybe 15 miles making two round trips to berry heaven. I’m tired, and my mind is operating on maybe 25 watts. Foraging is always a pleasant way to spend a day.

You asked, “How many people recognize the many ways each day they destroy life?” I think that most people are so disconnected from the natural world that they aren’t very mindful of their relationship with it. Your question reminded me of Val Plumwood’s book, The Eye of the Crocodile. She came very close to being eaten by a huge crocodile in Australia. Here’s a paragraph from my review:

Ecological animalism was the realm of crocodiles, Aborigines, our wild ancestors, and the rest of the natural world. All life was food, including humans. In an ecosystem, “we live the other’s death, die the other’s life.” Our bodies belonged to the ecosystem, not to ourselves. The spirits of animate and inanimate beings had equal significance.

All the best!

What Is Sustainable said...

The YouTube video of a James Scott lecture mentioned above is fascinating. It is based on a far more complete, and far more fascinating 45-page essay, which is available HERE.