Agriculture: Essence of Civilization
Almost all John Zerzan essays feature accompanying introductions in which the word most frequently used to describe his method and conclusions is “provocative,” (see, for instance, Anarchy, Summer 1987). Some may think this only an ugly little term meant to distance a publication from the wild assertions that John so often makes in his writings (“wild,” by the way, is a word which I know he will not take as a pejorative). Realistically though, provocative accurately describes what is the common reaction to reading a Zerzan article—you are provoked, to anger or to thought.
Anger because he states everything with such a sense of certitude even when it does not seem entirely plausible to do so, i.e., liberation is impossible without the dissolution of agriculture, language is the original separation, etc. Indeed, a web of these certainties have come to form a Chinese puzzle foundation for his view of alienation and domination leaving his partisans and detractors arguing about how well it all hangs together. John sees the human collapse from our original paradisiacal state beginning when language, time, number and art entered human consciousness which then formed the basis of agriculture, itself the institutionalization of those earlier forms of separation.
But John provokes anger also because he steps on toes—he says you can’t hide from the leviathan of civilization with the expressiveness of words or the exquisiteness of art, for they are part of the body of leviathan.
However, whether one agrees with his assertions or not, John also provokes his readers to think; witness the substantive replies which have appeared in these pages alongside his previous essays (see “Beginning of Time, End of Time,” FE #313, Summer 1983; “Responses on Time,” FE #314, Fall 1983; “Language-Origin and Meaning,” FE #315, Winter, 1984; “Number—Its Origin and Evolution,” FE #321, Indian Summer 1985 and “The Case Against Art,” FE #324, Fall 1986, available from us at 75 cents each). He means to examine everything, but only on his terms—a sometimes maddening methodology of formulaic speculation and eclecticism; one that almost forces those who resist his conclusions to begin their own work on the subject under question.
John will allow nothing of this world to be taken for granted nor to be part of a new one, producing a revolutionary nihilism which many find hard to swallow. His vision of a world in which language, art, time, number and agriculture have disappeared led one friend who read his manuscript to charge that “Zerzan wants to return to the womb.” Maybe so, but it would be back to the womb of the planet in a distant epoch where perhaps an earlier species of humans communicated intuitively, gratification was instantaneous, and joy the character of existence—this before we bit into the apple of knowledge and began our descent into the “terror of history,” as Frederick Turner puts it.
John’s desire to shed the pain of modern consciousness and all of its institutions is understandable in a frightening and miserable world, but his approach in writing has led some to question whether it is critical theory they are confronting or sheer, unrealizable utopianism and psychic escapism. I am not sure whether such a distinction has to be made at a point where all we have to sustain ourselves is the stuff of our dreams. The value of John’s ongoing investigations is contained within his intransigent insistence that nothing be free of critical examination, even if it is of those qualities that some would contend make us human (we should remember that marxists insist that it is work which separates us from the animals). His fear that our desires will be corralled into a blind canyon by what society dictates as possible at this time is justifiable. When an authentic revolutionary movement is created, perhaps then it will begin to shape what a new world will look like, but at this point no speculation should be spurned.
In many ways, as he indicates, John is not telling a new story in his present essay. The era of the dawn of agriculture has always been seen by historians as the epochal watershed which produced the basis for civilization. Points of departure come over the affirmation of the Neolithic Age by bourgeois and marxist theorists (who view it within their mystified social schema as a “progressive stage” of history) and those who see it as John does, as a defeat for humanity which left its nomadic and wild status for one of sedentary domination. This newspaper, as well, has long affirmed the validity of hunter-gatherer society as one in which humans were better able to act out a balanced relationship to nature and each other than in the state societies which have followed.
Still, even among those who share a common hatred for this society and the desire for a new one some take issue with many of John’s conclusions and with some of his individual contentions; they will have their say in the next issue.
In the meantime, we should realize while reading this essay that all of the social sciences are highly ideologized with archeology perhaps being the foremost among them due to the scantiness and ambiguity of available evidence. For instance, the right-wing paleontologist Adrey could find a crushed skull and contend from that the confirmation of the Hobbsian dictum that life before the state was “nasty, brutish and short.” However, his findings are also used contradictorily to support the notion that modern violence—particularly interstate violence—is an extension of an inherent human quality.
Similarly, the more liberal Leakeys discovered Paleolithic era burial sites and concluded that prehistory was based on cooperative and caring values with the implication that it has been the modern world which has twisted basic human traits, and the species retains the capacity to return to them. Our acceptance of one interpretation or another depends mostly on our view of contemporary society, which is why I like the Leakey story better than Adrey’s. So, while reading what follows, perhaps think, what story do you want to be told, and maybe it will provoke you to act in terms of it.
— E.B. Maple
Agriculture, the indispensable basis of civilization, was originally encountered as time, language, number and art emerged. As the materialization of alienation, agriculture is the triumph of estrangement and the definite divide between culture and nature and humans from each other.
Agriculture is the birth of production, complete with its essential features and deformation of life and consciousness. The land itself becomes an instrument of production and the planet’s species its objects. Wild or tame, weeds or crops speak of that duality that cripples the soul of our being, ushering in, relatively quickly, the despotism, war and impoverishment of high civilization over the great length of that earlier oneness with nature. The forced march of civilization, which Adorno recognized in the “assumption of an irrational catastrophe at the beginning of history,” which Freud felt as “something imposed on a resisting majority,” of which Stanley Diamond found only “conscripts, not volunteers,” was dictated by agriculture. And Mircea Eliade was correct to assess its coming as having “provoked upheavals and spiritual breakdowns” whose magnitude the modern mind cannot imagine.
“To level off, to standardize the human landscape, to efface its irregularities and banish its surprises,” these words of E.M. Cioran apply perfectly to the logic of agriculture, the end of life as mainly sensuous activity, the embodiment and generator of separated life. Artificiality and work have steadily increased since its inception and are known as culture: in domesticating animals and plants man necessarily domesticated himself.
Historical time, like agriculture, is not inherent in social reality but an imposition on it. The dimension of time or history is a function of repression, whose foundation is production or agriculture. Hunter-gatherer life was anti-time in its simultaneous and spontaneous openness; farming life generates a sense of time by its successive-task narrowness, its directed routine. As the non-closure and variety of Paleolithic living gave way to the literal enclosure of agriculture, time assumed power and came to take on the character of an enclosed space. Formalized temporal reference points—ceremonies with fixed dates, the naming of days, etc.—are crucial to the ordering of the world of production; as a schedule of production, the calendar is integral in civilization. Conversely, not only would industrial society be impossible without time schedules, the end of agriculture (basis of all production) would be the end of historical time.
Representation begins with language, a means of reining in desire. By displacing autonomous images with verbal symbols, life is reduced and brought under strict control; all direct, unmediated experience is subsumed by that supreme mode of symbolic expression, language. Language cuts up and organizes reality, as Benjamin Whorf put it, and this segmentation of nature, an aspect of grammar, sets the stage for agriculture. Julian Jaynes, in fact, concluded that the new linguistic mentality led very directly to agriculture. Unquestionably, the crystallization of language into writing, called forth mainly by the need for record-keeping of agricultural transactions, is the signal that civilization has begun.
In the non-commodified, egalitarian hunter-gatherer ethos, the basis of which (as has so often been remarked) was sharing, number was not wanted. There was no ground for the urge to quantify, no reason to divide what was whole. Not until the domestication of animals and plants did this cultural concept fully emerge. Two of number’s seminal figures testify clearly to its alliance with separateness and property: Pythagoras, center of a highly influential religious cult of number, and Euclid, father of mathematics and science, whose geometry originated to measure fields for reasons of ownership, taxation and slave labor. One of civilization’s early forms, chieftainship, entails a linear rank order in which each member is assigned an exact numerical place. Soon, following the anti-natural linearity of plow culture, the inflexible 90-degree gridiron plan of even earliest cities appeared. Their insistent regularity constitutes in itself a repressive ideology. Culture, now numberized, becomes more firmly bounded and lifeless.
Art, too, in its relationship to agriculture, highlights both institutions. It begins as a means to interpret and subdue reality, to rationalize nature, and conforms to the great turning point which is agriculture in its basic features. The pre-Neolithic cave paintings, for example, are vivid and bold, a dynamic exaltation of animal grace and freedom. The Neolithic art of farmers and pastoralists, however, stiffens into stylized forms; Franz Borkenau typified its pottery as a “narrow, timid botching of materials and forms.” With agriculture, art lost its variety and became standardized into geometrical designs that tended to degenerate into dull, repetitive patterns, a perfect reflection of standardized, confined, rule-patterned life. And where there had been no representation in Paleolithic art of men killing men, an obsession with depicting confrontation between people advanced with the Neolithic period, scenes of battles becoming common.
Agriculture Rests on Symbolization
Time, language, number, art and all the rest of culture, which predates and leads to agriculture, rests on symbolization. Just as autonomy preceded domestication and self-domestication, the rational and the social precede the symbolic.
Food production, it is eternally and gratefully acknowledged, “permitted the cultural potentiality of the human species to develop.” But what is this tendency toward the symbolic, toward the elaboration and imposition of arbitrary forms? It is a growing capacity for objectification, by which what is living becomes reified, thing-like. Symbols are more than the basic units of culture; they are screening devices to distance us from our experiences. They classify and reduce, “to do away with,” in Leakey and Lewin’s remarkable phrase, “the otherwise almost intolerable burden of relating one experience to another.”
Thus culture is governed by the imperative of reforming and subordinating nature. The artificial environment which is agriculture accomplished this pivotal mediation, with the symbolism of objects manipulated in the construction of relations of dominance. For it is not only external nature that is subjugated: the face-to-face quality of pre-agricultural life itself severely limited domination, while culture extends and legitimates it.
It is likely that already during the Paleolithic era certain forms or names were attached to objects or ideas, in a symbolizing manner but in a shifting, impermanent, perhaps playful sense. The will to sameness and security found in agriculture means that symbols became as static and constant as farming life. Regularization, rule patterning, and technological differentiation, under the sign of division of labor, interact to ground and advance symbolization. Agriculture completes the symbolic shift and the virus of alienation has overcome authentic, free life. It is the victory of cultural control; as anthropologist Marshall Sahlins puts it, “The amount of work per capita increases with the evolution of culture and the amount of leisure per capita decreases.”
Today, the few surviving hunter-gatherers occupy the least “economically interesting” areas of the world, where agriculture has not penetrated, such as the snows of the Inuit (“Eskimos”) or desert of the Australian aborigines. And yet the refusal of farming drudgery, even in adverse settings, bears its own rewards. The Hazda of Tanzania, Filipino Tasaday, !Kung of Botswana, or the Kalahari Desert !Kung San (“Bushmen”)—who were seen by Richard Lee as easily surviving a serious, several years’ drought while neighboring farmers starved—also testify to Hole and Flannery’s summary that “No group on earth has more leisure time than hunters and gatherers, who spend it primarily on games, conversation and relaxing.” Service rightly attributed this condition to “the very simplicity of the technology and lack of control over the environment” of such groups. And yet simple Paleolithic methods were, in their own way, “advanced.” Consider a basic cooking technique like steaming foods by heating stones in a covered pit; this is immemorially older than any pottery, kettles or baskets (in fact, is anti-container in its non-surplus, non-exchange orientation) and is the most nutritionally sound way to cook, far healthier than boiling food in water, for example. Or consider the fashioning of such stone tools as the long and exceptionally thin “laurel leaf” knives, delicately chipped but strong, which modern industrial techniques cannot duplicate.
The hunting and gathering lifestyle represents the most successful and enduring adaptation ever achieved by humankind. In occasional pre-agriculture phenomena like the intensive collection of food or the systematic hunting of a single species can be seen signs of impending breakdown of a pleasurable mode that remained so static for so long precisely because it was pleasurable. The “penury and day-long grind” of agriculture, in Clark’s words, is the vehicle of culture, “rational” only in its perpetual disequilibrium and its logical progression toward ever-greater destruction, as will be outlined below.
Although the term hunter-gatherer should be reversed (and has been by not a few current anthropologists) because it is recognized that gathering constitutes by far the larger survival component, the nature of hunting provides salient contrast to domestication. The relationship of the hunter to the hunted animal, which is sovereign, free and even considered equal, is obviously qualitatively different from that of the farmer or herdsman to the enslaved chattels over which he rules absolutely.
Religion Emerges to Legitimize Culture
Evidence of the urge to impose order or subjugate is found in the coercive rites and uncleanness taboos of incipient religion. The eventual subduing of the world that is agriculture has at least some of its basis where ambiguous behavior is ruled out, purity and defilement defined and enforced.
Levi-Strauss defined religion as the anthropomorphism of nature; earlier spirituality was participatory with nature, not imposing cultural values or traits upon it. The sacred means that which is separated, and ritual and formalization, increasingly removed from the ongoing activities of daily life and in the control of such specialists as shamans and priests, are closely linked with hierarchy and institutionalized power. Religion emerges to ground and legitimize culture, by means of a “higher” order of reality; it is especially required, in this function of maintaining the solidarity of society, by the unnatural demands of agriculture.
In the Neolithic village of Catal Huyuk in Turkish Anatolia, one of every three rooms were used for ritual purposes. Plowing and sowing can be seen as ritual renunciations, according to Burkert, a form of systematic repression accompanied by a sacrificial element. Speaking of sacrifice, which is the killing of domesticated animals (or even humans) for ritual purposes, it is pervasive in agricultural societies and found only there.
Some of the major Neolithic religions often attempted a symbolic healing of the agricultural rupture with nature through the mythology of the earth mother, which needless to say does nothing to restore the lost unity. Fertility myths are also central: the Egyptian Osiris, the Greek Persephone, Baal of the Canaanites, and the New Testament Jesus, gods whose death and resurrection testify to the perseverance of the soil, not to mention the human soul. The first temples signified the rise of cosmologies based on a model of the universe as an arena of domestication or barnyard, which in turn serves to justify the suppression of human autonomy. Whereas pre-civilized society was, as Redfield put it, “held together by largely undeclared but continually realized ethical conceptions,” religion developed as a way of creating citizens, placing the moral order under public management.
Domestication involved the initiation of production, vastly increased divisions of labor, and the completed foundations of social stratification. This amounted to an epochal mutation both in the character of human existence and its development, clouding the latter with ever more violence and work. Contrary to the myth of hunter-gatherers as violent and aggressive, by the way, recent evidence shows that existing non-farmers, such as the Mbuti (“pygmies”) studied by Turnbull, apparently do what killing they do without any aggressive spirit, even with a sort of regret. Warfare and the formation of every civilization or state, on the other hand, are inseparably linked.
Primal peoples did not fight over areas in which separate groups might converge in their gathering and hunting. At least “territorial” struggles are not part of the ethnographic literature and they would seem even less likely to have occurred in pre-history when resources were greater and contact with civilization non-existent.
Indeed, these peoples had no conception of private property, and Rousseau’s figurative judgment, that divided society was founded by the man who first sowed a piece of ground, saying “This land is mine,” and found others to believe him, is essentially valid. “Mine and thine, the seeds of all mischief, have no place with them,” reads Pietro’s 1511 account of the natives encountered on the second voyage of Columbus. Centuries later, surviving Native Americans asked, “Sell the Earth? Why not sell the air, the clouds, the great sea?” Agriculture creates and elevates possessions; consider the longing root of belongings, as if they ever make up for the loss.
Sedentary and Servile Existence
Work, as a distinct category of life, likewise did not exist until agriculture. The human capacity of being shackled to crops and herds, devolved rather quickly. Food production overcame the common absence or paucity of ritual and hierarchy in society and introduced civilized activities like the forced labor of temple-building. Here is the real “Cartesian split” between inner and outer reality, the separation whereby nature became merely something to be “worked.” On this capacity for a sedentary and servile existence rests the entire superstructure of civilization with its increasing weight of repression.
Male violence toward women originated with agriculture, which transmuted women into beasts of burden and breeders of children. Before farming, the egalitarianism of foraging life “applied as fully to women as to men,” judged Eleanor Leacock, owing to the autonomy of tasks and the fact that decisions were made by those who carried them out. In the absence of production and with no drudge work suitable for child labor such as weeding, women were not consigned to onerous chores or the constant supply of babies.
Along with the curse of perpetual work, via agriculture, in the expulsion from Eden, God told woman, “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception: in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and that desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” Similarly, the first known codified laws, those of the Sumarian king, Ur-Namu, prescribed death to any woman satisfying desires outside of marriage. Thus Whyte referred to the ground women “lost relative to men when humans first abandoned a simple hunting and gathering way of life,” and Simone de Beauvoir saw in the cultural equation of plow and phallus a fitting symbol of the oppression of women.
As wild animals are converted into sluggish meat-making machines, the concept of becoming “cultivated” is a virtue enforced on people, meaning the weeding out of freedom from one’s nature, in the service of domestication and exploitation. As Rice points out, in Sumer, the first civilization, the earliest cities had factories with their characteristic high organization and refraction of skills. Civilization from this point exacts human labor and the mass production of food, buildings, war and authority.
To the Greeks, work was a curse and nothing else.
The name for it—ponos—has the same root as the Latin poena, sorrow. The famous Old Testament curse on agriculture as the expulsion from Paradise (Genesis 3:17–18) reminds us of the origin of work. As Mumford put it, “Conformity, repetition, patience, were the keys to this [Neolithic] culture...the patient capacity for work.” In this monotony and passivity of tending and waiting is born, according to Paul Shepard, the peasant’s “deep, latent resentments, crude mixtures of rectitude and heaviness, and absence of humor.” One might also add a stoic insensitivity and lack of imagination inseparable from religious faith, sullenness, and suspicion among traits widely attributed to the domesticated life of farming.
Although food production by its nature includes a latent readiness for political domination and although civilizing culture was from the beginning its own propaganda machine, the changeover involved a monumental struggle. Fredy Perlman’s Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! is unrivaled on this, vastly enriching Toynbee’s attention to the “internal” and “external proletariats,” discontents within and without civilization. Nonetheless, along the axis from digging stick farming to plow agriculture to fully differentiated irrigation systems, an almost total genocide of gatherers and hunters was necessarily effected.
The formation and storage of surpluses are part of the domesticating will to control and make static, an aspect of the tendency to symbolize. A bulwark against the flow of nature, surplus takes the forms of herd animals and granaries. Stored grain was the earliest medium of equivalence, the oldest form of capital. Only with the appearance of wealth in the shape of storable grains do the gradations of labor and social classes proceed. While there were certainly wild grains before all this (and wild wheat, by the way, is 24% protein compared to 12% for domesticated wheat) the bias of culture makes every difference. Civilization and its cities rested as much on granaries as on symbolization.
The Origins of Agriculture
The mystery of agriculture’s origin seems even more impenetrable in light of the recent reversal of long-standing notions that the previous era was one of hostility to nature and an absence of leisure. “One could no longer assume,” wrote Orme, “that early man domesticated plants and animals to escape drudgery and starvation. If anything, the contrary appeared true, and the advent of farming saw the end to innocence.” For a long time, the question was “why wasn’t agriculture adopted much earlier in human evolution?” More recently, we know that agriculture, in Cohen’s words, “is not easier than hunting and gathering and does not provide a higher quality, more palatable, or more secure food base.” Thus the consensus question now is, “why was it adopted at all?”
Many theories have been advanced, none convincingly. Childe and others argue that population increase pushed human societies into more intimate contact with other species, leading to domestication and the need to produce in order to feed the additional people. But it has been shown rather conclusively that population increase did not precede agriculture but was caused by it. “I don’t see any evidence anywhere in the world,” concluded Flannery, “that suggests that population pressure was responsible for the beginning of agriculture.” Another theory has it that major climatic changes occurred at the end of the Pleistocene, about 11,000 years ago, which upset the old hunter-gatherer life-world and led directly to the cultivation of certain surviving staples. Recent dating methods have helped demolish this approach; no such climatic shift happened that could have forced the new mode into existence. Besides, there are scores of examples of agriculture being adopted—or refused—in every type of climate. Another major hypothesis is that agriculture was introduced via chance discovery or invention as if it had never occurred to the species before a certain moment that, for example, food grows from sprouted seeds. It seems certain that Paleolithic humanity had a virtually inexhaustible knowledge of flora and fauna for many tens of thousands of years before the cultivation of plants began, which renders this theory especially weak.
Agreement with Carl Sauer’s summation that, “Agriculture did not originate from a growing or chronic shortage of food” is sufficient, in fact, to dismiss virtually all originary theories that have been advanced. A remaining idea, presented by Hahn, Isaac: and others, holds that food production began at base as a religious activity. This hypothesis comes closest to plausibility.
Sheep and goats, the first animals to be domesticated, are known to have been widely used in religious ceremonies, and to have been raised in enclosed meadows for sacrificial purposes. Before they were domesticated, moreover, sheep had no wool suitable for textile purposes. The main use of the hen in southeastern Asia and the eastern Mediterranean—the earliest centers of civilization—“seems to have been,” according to Darby, “sacrificial or divinatory rather than alimentary.” Sauer adds that the “egg laying and meat producing qualities” of tamed fowl “are relatively late consequences of their domestication.” Wild cattle were fierce and dangerous; neither the docility of oxen nor the modified meat texture of such castrates could have been foreseen. Cattle were not milked until centuries after their initial captivity, and representations indicate that their first known harnessing was to wagons in religious processions.
Plants, next to be controlled, exhibit similar backgrounds so far as is known. Consider the New World examples of squash and pumpkin, used originally as ceremonial rattles. Johannessen discussed the religious and mystical motives connected with the domestication of maize, Mexico’s most important crop and center of its native Neolithic religion. Likewise, Anderson investigated the selection and development of distinctive types of various cultivated plants because of their magical significance. The shamans, I should add, were well-placed in positions of power to introduce agriculture via the taming and planting involved in ritual and religion, sketchily referred to above. Though the religious explanation of the origins of agriculture has been somewhat overlooked, it brings us, in my opinion, to the very doorstep of the real explanation of the birth of production: that non-rational, cultural force of alienation which spread, in the forms of time, language, number and art, to ultimately colonize material and psychic life in agriculture. “Religion” is too narrow a conceptualization of this infection and its growth. Domination is too weighty, too all-encompassing, to have been solely conveyed by the pathology that is religion.
But the cultural values of control and uniformity that are part of religion are certainly part of agriculture, and from the beginning. Noting that strains of corn cross-pollinate very easily, Anderson studied the very primitive agriculturists of Assam, the Naga tribe, and their variety of corn that exhibited no differences from plant to plant. True to culture, showing that it is complete from the beginning of production, the Naga kept their varieties so pure “only by a fanatical adherence to an ideal type.” This exemplifies the marriage of culture and production in domestication, and its inevitable progeny, repression and work.
The scrupulous tending of strains of plants finds its parallel in the domesticating of animals, which also defies natural selection and re-establishes the controllable organic world at a debased, artificial level. Like plants, animals are mere things to be manipulated; a cow, for instance, is seen as a kind of machine for converting grass into milk. Transmuted from a state of freedom to that of helpless parasites, these animals become completely dependent on man for survival. In domestic mammals, as a rule, the size of the brain becomes relatively smaller as specimens are produced that devote more energy to growth and less to activity. Placid, infantilized, typified perhaps by the sheep, most domesticated of herd animals; the remarkable intelligence of wild sheep is completely lost in their tamed counterparts. The social relationships among domestic animals are reduced to the crudest essentials. Non-reproductive parts of the life cycle are minimized, courtship is curtailed, and the animal’s very capacity to recognize its own species is impaired.
Farming also created the potential for rapid environmental destruction and the new dominion over nature soon began to turn the green mantle that covered the birthplaces of civilization into barren and lifeless areas. “Vast regions have changed their aspect completely,” estimates Zeuner, “always to quasi-drier condition, since the beginnings of the Neolithic.” Deserts now occupy most of the areas where the high civilizations once flourished, and there is much historical evidence that these early formations inevitably ruined their environments.
Throughout the Mediterranean Basin and in the adjoining Near East and Asia, agriculture turned lush and hospitable lands into depleted, dry and rocky terrain. In Critias, Plato described Attica as “a skeleton wasted by disease,” referring to the deforestation of Greece and contrasting it to its earlier richness. Grazing by goats and sheep, the first domesticated ruminants, was a major factor in the denuding of Greece, Lebanon, and North Africa, and the desertification of the Roman and Mesopotamian empires.
Humans Were Long Lived
Another, more immediate impact of agriculture, brought to light increasingly in recent years, involved the physical well-being of its subjects. Lee and Devore’s researches show that “the diet of gathering peoples was far better than that of cultivators, that starvation is rare, that their health status was generally superior, and that there is a lower incidence of chronic disease.” Conversely, Farb summarized, “Production provides an inferior diet based on a limited number of foods, is much less reliable because of blights and the vagaries of weather, and is much more costly in terms of human labor expended.”
The new field of paleopathology has reached even more emphatic conclusions, stressing, as does Angel, the “sharp decline in growth and nutrition” caused by the changeover from food gathering to food production. Earlier conclusions about life span have also been revised. Although eyewitness Spanish accounts of the 16th century tell of Florida Indian fathers seeing their fifth generation before passing away, it was long believed that primitive people died in their 30s and 40s. Robson, Boyden and others have dispelled the confusion of longevity with life expectancy and discovered that current hunter-gatherers, barring injury and severe infection, often outlive their civilized contemporaries. During the industrial age fairly recently did life span lengthen for the species, and it is now widely recognized that in Paleolithic times humans were long-lived animals, once certain risks were passed. DeVries is correct in his judgment that duration of life dropped sharply upon contact with civilization.
“Tuberculosis and diarrheal disease had to await the rise of farming, measles and bubonic plague the appearance of large cities,” wrote Jared Diamond. Malaria, probably the single greatest killer of humanity, and nearly all other infectious diseases are the heritage of agriculture. Nutritional and degenerative diseases in general appear with the reign of domestication and culture. Cancer, coronary thrombosis, anemia, dental caries, and mental disorders are but a few of the hallmarks of agriculture; previously women gave birth with no difficulty and little or no pain.
People were far more alive in all their senses. !Kung San, reported R.H. Post, have heard a single-engined plane while it was still seventy miles away, and many of them can see four moons of Jupiter with the naked eye. The summary judgment of Harris and Ross, as to “an overall decline in the quality—and probably in the length—of human life among farmers as compared with earlier hunter-gatherer groups,” is understated.
One of the most persistent and universal ideas is that there was once a Golden Age of innocence before history began. Hesiod, for instance, referred to the “life-sustaining soil, which yielded its copious fruits unbribed by toil.” Eden was clearly the home of hunter-gatherers and the yearning expressed by the historical images of paradise must have been that of disillusioned tillers of the soil for a lost life of freedom and relative ease.
The history of civilization shows the increasing displacement of nature from human experience, characterized in part by a narrowing of food choices. According to Rooney, prehistoric peoples found sustenance in over 1500 species of wild plants; whereas, “All civilizations,” Wenke reminds us, “have been based on the cultivation of one or more of just six plant species: wheat, barley, millet, rice, maize, and potatoes.”
It is a striking truth that over the centuries “the number of different edible foods which are actually eaten,” Pyke points out, “has steadily dwindled.” The world’s population now depends for most of its subsistence on only about twenty genera of plants while their natural strains are replaced by artificial hybrids and the genetic pool of these plants becomes far less varied.
The diversity of food tends to disappear or flatten out as the proportion of manufactured foods increases. Today the very same articles of diet are distributed worldwide so that an Inuit Eskimo and an African native may soon be eating powdered milk manufactured in Wisconsin or frozen fish sticks from a single factory in Sweden. A few big multinationals such as Unilever, the world’s biggest food production company, preside over a highly integrated service system in which the object is not to nourish or even to feed, but to force an ever-increasing consumption of fabricated, processed products upon the world.
When Descartes enunciated the principle that “the fullest exploitation of matter to any use is the whole duty of man,” our separation from nature was virtually complete and the stage was set for the Industrial Revolution. Three hundred and fifty years later this spirit lingers in the person of Jean Vorst, Curator of France’s Museum of Natural History, who pronounces that our species, “because of intellect,” can no longer re-cross a certain threshold of civilization and once again become part of a natural habitat. He further states, expressing perfectly the original and persevering imperialism of agriculture, “As the earth in its primitive state is not adopted to our expansion, man must shackle it to fulfill human destiny.”
The early factories literally mimicked the agricultural model, indicating again that at base all mass production is farming. The natural world is to be broken and forced to work. One thinks of the mid-American prairies where settlers had to yoke six oxen to a plow in order to cut through the soil for the first time. Or a scene from the 1870s in The Octopus by Frank Norris, in which gang-plows were driven like “a great column of field artillery” across the San Joaquin Valley, cutting 175 furrows at once.
Organic is Mechanized
Today the organic, what is left of it, is fully mechanized under the aegis of a few petrochemical corporations. Their artificial fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and near-monopoly of the world’s seed stock define a total environment that integrates food production from planting to consumption. Although Levi-Strauss is right that “Civilization manufactures monoculture like sugar beet,” only since World War II has a completely synthetic orientation begun to dominate.
Agriculture itself takes more organic matter out of the soil than it puts back, and soil erosion is basic to the monoculture of annuals. Regarding the latter, some are promoted with devastating results to the land; along with cotton and soybeans, corn, which in its present domesticated state is totally dependent on agriculture for its existence, is especially bad. J. Russell Smith called it “the killer of continents...and one of the worst enemies of the human future.” The erosion cost of one bushel of Iowa corn is two bushels of topsoil, highlighting the more general large-scale industrial destruction of farmland. The continuous tillage of huge monoculture, with massive use of chemicals and no application of manure or humus, obviously raised soil deterioration and soil loss to much higher levels.
The dominant agricultural mode has it that soil needs massive infusions of chemicals, supervised by technicians whose overriding goal is to maximize production. Artificial fertilizers and all the rest from this outlook eliminate the need for the complex life of the soil and indeed convert it into a mere instrument of production. The promise of technology is total control, a completely contrived environment that simply supersedes the natural balance of the biosphere.
But more and more energy is expended to purchase great monocultural yields that are beginning to decline, never mind the toxic contamination of the soil, groundwater and food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that cropland erosion is occurring in this country at a rate of two billion tons of soil a year. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that over one third of topsoil is already gone forever. The ecological imbalance caused by monocropping and synthetic fertilizers causes enormous increases in pests and crop diseases; since World War II, crop loss due to insects has actually doubled. Technology responds, of course, with spiraling applications of more synthetic fertilizers, and weed and pest killers, accelerating the crime against nature.
Another post-war phenomenon was the Green Revolution, billed as the salvation of the impoverished Third World by American capital and technology. But rather than feeding the hungry, the Green Revolution drove millions of poor people from farmlands in Asia, Latin America and Africa as victims of the program that fosters large corporate farms. It amounted to an enormous technological colonization creating dependency on capital-intensive agribusiness, destroying older agrarian communalism, requiring massive fossil fuel consumption and assaulting nature on an unprecedented scale.
Desertification, or loss of soil due to agriculture, has been steadily increasing. Each year, a total area equivalent to more than two Belgiums is being converted to desert worldwide. The fate of the world’s tropical rainforests is a factor in the acceleration of this desiccation: half of them have been erased in the past thirty years. In Botswana, the last wilderness region of Africa has disappeared like much of the Amazon jungle and almost half of the rainforests of Central America, primarily to raise cattle for the hamburger markets in the U.S. and Europe. The few areas safe from deforestation are where agriculture doesn’t want to go; the destruction of the land is proceeding in the U.S. over a greater land area than was encompassed by the original thirteen colonies, just as it is at the heart of the severe African famine of the mid-‘80s and the extinction of one species of wild animal and plant after another.
Returning to animals, one is reminded of the words of Genesis in which God said to Noah, “And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hands are they delivered.” When newly discovered territory was first visited by the advance guard of production, as a wide descriptive literature shows, the wild mammals and birds showed no fear whatsoever of the explorers. The agriculturalized mentality, however, so aptly foretold in the biblical passage, projects an exaggerated belief in the fierceness of wild creatures, which follows from progressive estrangement and loss of contact with the animal world plus the need to maintain dominance over it.
The fate of domestic animals is defined by the fact that agricultural technologists continually look to factories as models of how to refine their own production systems. Nature is banished from these systems as, increasingly, farm animals are kept largely immobile throughout their deformed lives, maintained in high-density, wholly artificial environments. Billions of chickens, pigs and veal calves, for example, no longer even see the light of day much less roam the fields—fields growing silent as more and more pastures are plowed up to grow feed for these hideously confined beings.
The high-tech chickens, whose beak ends have been clipped off to reduce death due to stress-caused fighting, often exist four or even five to a 12” by 18” cage and are periodically deprived of food and water for up to ten days to regulate their egg-laying cycles. Pigs live on concrete floors with no bedding; foot-rot, tail-biting and cannibalism are endemic because of physical conditions and stress. Sows nurse their piglets separated by metal grates, mother and offspring barred from natural contact. Veal calves are often raised in total darkness, chained to stalls so narrow as to disallow turning around or other normal postural adjustment. These animals are generally under regimens of constant medication due to the tortures involved and their heightened susceptibility to diseases: automated animal production relies upon hormones and antibiotics. Such systematic cruelty, not to mention the kind of food that results, brings to mind the fact that captivity itself and every form of enslavement has agriculture as its progenitor or model
Project of Subduing Nature
Food has been one of our most direct contacts with the natural environment, but we are rendered increasingly dependent on a technological production system in which finally even our senses have become redundant; taste, once vital for judging a food’s value or safety, is no longer experienced, but rather certified by a label. Overall, the healthfulness of what we consume declines and land once cultivated for food now produces coffee, tobacco, grains for alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs creating the context for famine. Even non-processed foods like fruits and vegetables are now grown to be tasteless and uniform because the demands of handling, transport and storage, not nutrition or pleasure, are the highest considerations.
Total war borrowed from agriculture to defoliate millions of acres in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, but the plundering of the biosphere proceeds even more lethally in its daily, global forms. Food as a function of production has also failed miserably on the most obvious level: half of the world, as everyone knows, suffers from malnourishment ranging to starvation itself.
Meanwhile, the “diseases of civilization,” as discussed by Eaton and Konner in the January 31, 1985 New England Journal of Medicine and contrasted with the healthful pre-farming diets, underline the joyless, sickly world of chronic maladjustment we inhabit as prey of the manufacturers of medicine, cosmetics, and fabricated food. Domestication reaches new heights of the pathological in genetic food engineering, with new types of animals in the offing as well as contrived microorganisms and plants. Logically, humanity itself will also become a domesticate of this order as the world of production processes us as much as it degrades and deforms every other natural system.
The project of subduing nature, begun and carried through by agriculture, has assumed gigantic proportions. The “success” of civilization’s progress, a success earlier humanity never wanted, tastes more and more like ashes. James Serpell summed it up this way: “In short we appear to have reached the end of the line. We cannot expand; we seem unable to intensify production without wreaking further havoc, and the planet is fast becoming a wasteland.” Lee and Devore noted how fast all of this has come to pass and how, to “interplanetary archeologists of the future,” the probable fate of civilization would look: “...a very long and stable period of small-scale hunting and gathering was followed by an apparently instantaneous efflorescence of technology...leading rapidly to extinction. ‘Stratigraphically’ the origin of agriculture and thermonuclear destruction will appear as essentially simultaneous.”
Physiologist Jared Diamond termed the initiation of agriculture “a catastrophe from which we have never recovered.” Agriculture has been and remains a “catastrophe” at all levels, the one which underpins the entire material and spiritual culture of alienation now destroying us. Liberation is impossible without its dissolution.
“Comments on John Zerzan’s Critique of Agriculture,” FE #330, Winter, 1988–89