Thursday, September 9, 2010

Inhabiting Paradise - 5

Jared Diamond is a professor of geography AND physiology at UCLA. Like Peter Salonius, Diamond considers the unintended consequences when agriculture superceded foraging.

Diamond’s article, “The Worst Mistake In The History Of The Human Race," appeared in 1987:

Recent discoveries suggest that the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered. With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence.

Are twentieth century hunter-gatherers really worse off than farmers? 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 twelve to nineteen hours for one group of Bushmen, fourteen 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?"

There are at least three sets of reasons to explain the findings that agriculture was bad for health. First, hunter-gatherers enjoyed a varied diet, while early farmers obtained most of their food from one or a few starchy crops. The farmers gained cheap calories at the cost of poor nutrition. (Today just three high-carbohydrate plants - wheat, rice, and corn - provide the bulk of the calories consumed by the human species, yet each one is deficient in certain vitamins or amino acids essential to life.) Second, because of dependence on a limited number of crops, farmers ran the risk of starvation if one crop failed. Finally, the mere fact that agriculture encouraged people to clump together in crowded societies, many of which then carried on trade with other crowded societies, led to the spread of parasites and infectious disease.

Besides malnutrition, starvation, and epidemic diseases, farming helped bring another curse upon humanity: deep class divisions. Hunter-gatherers have little or no stored food, and no concentrated food sources, like an orchard or a herd of cows: they live off the wild plants and animals they obtain each day.

Had enough yet?

Therefore, there can be no kings, no class of social parasites who grow fat on food seized from others. Only in a farming population could a healthy, non-producing elite set itself above the disease-ridden masses.

-excerpts from “The Worst Mistake In The History Of The Human Race," by Jared Diamond, Discover Magazine, May 1987


Anonymous said...

Thanks for a wonderful series of articles on this. So where do we go from here? How do we roll this out?

Laurence Holden said...

Jared Diamond is not the only one to have pointed out the deleterious consequences of intensive agriculture to human civilization. Marshall Sahlins' 'Stone Age Economics' (1972) does too. An anthropologist, he makes the case for the healthy, rich lives of so called "primitive" societies, and in so doing calls into question our 'business,' 'entrepreneurial,'and individualistic conception of 'economy' in our bourgeois society.

Laurence Holden said...

Imaginatively? I don't think any "strategy" we can up with will really suffice. Gulahiyi pointed to a personal spiritual path. Our future holds great trauma. We will have to work through that trauma - thru the shock, pain, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, aggression, mourning, accepting the loss of great parts of nature, surrender, admitting guilt, and finally creating a new common history that binds us together and with this negotiating local solutions day by day.

GULAHIYI said...

Amen to that!

GULAHIYI said...

In response to the first question, education is a must-do item. Of course, one has to look beyond the education establishment, to find much in the way of equipping people to deal with the (seemingly?) inevitable future resulting from our overpopulating the planet and laying waste to its treasures. But some people are attempting to provide that sort of training...far beyond the "academic-industrial complex" that dreams up doozies like Charlanta and the Camp Lab School strip mall in Cullowhee. "What do you want to drink with that Bloomin' Onion (tm), Sir?"