Check this space for occasional updates and other items of interest.

Article - Hunter-gatherer land management in the human break from ecological sustainability

My second paper on hunter-gatherer land management is a deep dive into the origins of our ecological crisis. It examines how such land management may have fit into the progressive human break from ecological sustainability. Appearing in The Anthropocene Review, I hope it will prompt discussion of fundamental questions concerning the sustainability of human lifeways. For interested readers, my prior article provides helpful background material. (Once I prepare the alllowable version I'll make a PDF available here. Or feel free to contact me here for the published version.)



Evidence that human societies built on agricultural subsistence have been inherently ecologically unsustainable highlights the value in exploring whether any pre-agricultural subsistence approaches were ecologically sustainable or nearly so. The land management practices of some hunter-gatherer societies have been portrayed as sustainable, even beneficial. Research suggests such practices may fruitfully inform contemporary land management. As a human subsistence foundation, however, they may not have been ecologically sustainable. Figuring centrally in the late Pleistocene shift from immediate-return to delayed-return hunting and gathering, they enabled population growth, helped make possible the development of agriculture, and appear to have caused early environmental degradation. Consistent with this argument is research locating the origins of the Anthropocene near the Pleistocene–Holocene boundary, as societies were taking greater control of food production. It appears then that immediate-return hunting and gathering, which involved little or no land management, was the human lifeway most closely approaching ecological sustainability. Wider recognition of this idea would assist in understanding and addressing today’s ecological challenges.

Posted on Monday, July 29, 2019 by Registered CommenterJohn Feeney | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Article -- Land Management Among Hunter-Gatherers: Questioning the Ubiquity Claims

This is my first article in some time, though the topic is one I began researching several years ago. I examine common claims concerning the pervasiveness of land management practices among hunter-gatherer societies.

It appears in Hunter/Gatherer, a student-run radical ecology journal. I’ve become frustrated in recent years with the lack of substantiation and pervasive confirmation bias in the popular media, so I chose with this paper to return to scholarly writing.

This is the first in what may be a series of two or three articles on the topic of traditional land management.

Available as a PDF:

Land Management Among Hunter-Gatherers: Questioning the Ubiquity Claims (PDF)

Alternate PDF


Evidence that our industrial society, built on agricultural subsistence, is inherently ecologically destructive underlines the value in identifying which, if any, past human subsistence approaches have been ecologically benign. The traditional land management practiced by some hunter-gatherers is touted by some as a model of ecologically benign subsistence. In this paper I examine critically several broad assertions made commonly by proponents of this set of subsistence practices. These claims portray these practices as almost ubiquitous among human societies, in their impacts across land areas, and through time. Despite having been subjected to little scrutiny, these claims have contributed to the reputation, on the part of traditional land management, for ecological benignity. By analyzing them critically we can improve our understanding of traditional land management, laying a foundation for more effective examination of direct ecological impacts and long term consequences of this subsistence approach.

Brief film appearance

Brief appearances in the documentary Mother: Caring for 7 Billion.

Posted on Friday, December 30, 2011 by Registered CommenterJohn Feeney | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Article -- Agriculture: Ending the World as We Know It

[6/2014 - Note: I've long preferred an earlier working title I had used for this article: Agriculture: The Beginning and End of Civilization]

My first full article in a year and a half,  Agriculture: ending the world as we know it, is out today in the Canyon Country Zephyr. Published by Jim Stiles, The Zephyr, based in Southern Utah, has been taking independent, uncompromising stands on environmental matters for over twenty years. That makes it a good fit for this piece falling far outside the standard environmental thinking dominating the mainstream media.

The article looks at the unsustainability of agriculture and, therefore, civilization. It examines the human break from nature in the origin of agriculture ten thousand years ago and where we are headed as a result. We cannot avoid tough times ahead, though we do have options available for softening the landing. Ultimately, we need to acknowledge the obvious but fundamental point that hunting and gathering is the only human way of life we know to be sustainable.

The gist


[Please see the updates under this post. Until a likely article on horticulture and indigenous land management, they will serve as a first pass at the subject.]

[Revised 4/30/16]

Time for an update listing some simple, related points which underlie my thinking today.

A fuller version of these and other ideas will appear in a new article I've written. (Here's a link.)

So here's the gist...

Civilization is inherently destructive and unsustainable. A key reason for this is that civilization is founded on agriculture. Agriculture circumvents the natural processes which regulated human population numbers prior to its inception. It is the basic ecological factor which has caused our numbers to overshoot carrying capacity so enormously. Along the way, agriculture destroys topsoil and ecosystems, tearing down the web of life, our global life support system. Agriculture is therefore unsustainable. 

Civilization will therefore come to an end. Because the human population is deeply into overshoot, we know that ending will involve a tremendous decline in our numbers. Converging issues such as oil depletion, climate change, topsoil and groundwater depletion, and the human-caused sixth mass extinction event in Earth's history suggest this may occur not many centuries from now, but sooner. How much sooner, no one can say. Though this signals the potential for tough times ahead, it also means an end to what's killing the earth.

Immediate-return hunting and gathering (see below) is arguably the only human way of living proven ecologically sustainable. It thus makes great sense to study it to learn all we can.

In light of the progressive destruction of Earth's life support systems, we see the reason for calls for a resistance movement from writers such as Zerzan and Jensen. Every day civilization remains intact brings more destruction of the web of life. Yet the potential for unintended consequences of such resistance actions presents a thorny dilemma to would-be advocates.

An easier yet tremendously valuable option is to do what we can through established conservation measures to protect as much habitat and biodiversity as possible, helping to preserve those things for the future. One of the most important and ambitious conservation projects today involves "rewilding" by restoring, protecing, and connecting wildlands corridors containing large predators on a continental scale. That and other projects are represented in "organizations" page on this site.

If you're interested in this topic, see the "core ecological issues" page for relevant links.


Image source: David Barrie's photostream,, creative commons license

Broaching the subject of demon agriculture

In response to a recent opinion piece by anthropologist Donald Attwood in the Montreal Gazette, I wrote a letter to the editor. I wanted to nudge a general readership to begin thinking about the corner we've painted ourselves into via agriculture. It's what John Zerzan calls the "demon engine of civilization." Here's the letter (or read it at the Gazette):

I share Donald Attwood's concern that children not go hungry. But as an environmental writer, I suggest his argument ignores a fundamental ecological principle: Population follows food supply. This is the base mechanism that kept human population size within carrying capacity for most of our history. It works well for all species on Earth, regulating fertility rates with no particular suffering.

Ten thousand years ago, with the adoption of agriculture, we began to circumvent this natural process, slowly clearing land and tearing down the web of life (spurring the sixth mass-extinction event in Earth's history) to produce an ever-increasing global food supply. More recently we added fossil fuels to the equation, inflating the food supply even more. The result of these developments has been an explosion of human numbers of over 130,000 percent.

Other layers of influences do come into play as well, which is why many countries now have lower fertility rates. Social factors such as the education of women and the widespread availability of family planning options do appear to correlate with reductions in fertility rates. If we want to encourage lower fertility rates in sub-Saharan Africa, we should focus on those factors. This does not mean forgoing food aid. But we must begin to confront how we have short-circuited nature's normal mechanism for population regulation. Short term, the best suggestion seems to be one of tying food aid to increases in family-planning options (and media strategies encouraging their use) as well as increased education for women.

Slightly longer term, we need to take a hard look at the problem of large-scale agriculture. It won't be easy; agriculture is the very foundation of civilization. But it has pushed us into gross overshoot of human carrying capacity with the threat of a massive population crash looming in the future.

John C. Feeney

Boulder, Colo.

It is, in many ways, a key topic facing humanity. I doubt mainstream society will voluntarily confront it in any serious way, but there's value in people coming to consider the core problems which make civilization an unsustainable trap. It's essential knowledge for those interested in ecology and the human role on the planet.

A deeper understanding of carrying  capacity

[Revised on 8/30/10, 9/9/10, 9/20/13]

Lately it appears more people are beginning to consider the problem of human population size as it relates to carrying capacity. Nevertheless, misunderstanding abounds. Since my focus is elsewhere right now, and I have no plan to write on this topic for publication in the near future, I offer a few thoughts here. This is merely a quick sketch with much detail, some points of logic, and additional convincing evidence omitted. I may flesh it out sometime in the future.


Have we exceeded the earth's carrying capacity for humans? Many observers conclude there is no way to answer the question with any confidence. I believe their view stems from an assumption which fails to hold up to analysis. It is the common notion that, through human ingenuity, we've regularly been able through the course of history to increase carrying capacity.

This idea stems in part from the correct observation that the advent of agriculture and our later use of fossil fuels were central among those developments which allowed us to grow the human population as enormously as we have. It does not follow, however, that these developments increased carrying capacity.

The error here is in failing to account properly for overshoot. It is well established that animal populations sometimes overshoot or grow beyond carrying capacity. It is simple enough to demonstrate this has happened with the human population. Agriculture and fossil fuels have not increased carrying capacity; they have merely led to our overshooting it, our numbers supported entirely by what William Catton calls "phantom carrying capacity." It is not carrying capacity at all, and is only temporary. [1]

This is especially easy to see with regard to fossil fuel depletion. Fossil fuels are a finite resource. Relying on them, therefore, to support global food production can only be temporary.

But there are some less widely recognized observations which also support my point. (Recall here the definition of overshoot referenced above.) First, agriculture as we know it has always been unsustainable. It has brought with it soil erosion and an inevitable depletion of soil nutrients at rates far faster than their natural rates of renewal. This is comparable to our depletion of finite resources such as oil. It may have taken ten thousand years for us to see this, but that is barely an eye blink in human history. [2] [3]

Second, consider that none of the processes that have allowed our numbers to explode has come without progressive cost to the web of life. We know well enough about the environmental impacts of extracting and burning fossil fuels. Less discussed is the cost of agriculture to other species. Cultivation agriculture means the elimination of all life from a piece of land, turning it then exclusively to human use via one or a few crops. [4] [5] Multiply this by over a billion hectares and we see clearly how agriculture has been the primary driver of today's highly accelerated extinction rates. These extinctions are believed by many experts to signal a Sixth Mass Extinction of species in Earth's history. This is the direct destruction of Earth's life support systems. Indeed, it is well accepted that this extinction event began (or entered a new, accelerated phase) upon the human transition to agriculture.

Third, in all species population follows food supply. Natural limits on food supply hold population sizes within appropriate limits. (Under normal circumstances, this works, by the way, with no particular suffering.) But by adopting agriculture we circumvent this normal process, thereby inevitably growing our numbers far beyond carrying capacity.

This point is often misunderstood, perhaps because it has seldom been thoroughly explained. Additionally, many people have trouble accepting (a) that humans are subject to the same natural processes as other species, and (b) that those processes worked perfectly well for us for nearly all of human history prior to civilization's stepping in and interfering. [6]

Not only have we not increased carrying capacity, we have decreased it. It's simple ecology. We depend on the web of life for our own survival. When a species consumes resources faster than they are renewed, degrading the habitat on which it depends, it erodes carrying capacity.

The damage we have done to the biosphere and the web of life has temporarily allowed us to grow our numbers but has reduced carrying capacity. This may be hard to believe when we consider that for nearly all of human history, prior to exploding into the billions, our numbers never exceeded more than a few million. It underscores the shocking degree by which we've overshot carrying capacity.

No, there is no clear evidence we have ever increased carrying capacity. [7] Rather, basic principles of ecology reveal we have managed only to overshoot it by an incredible margin.


For some underlying fundamentals of carrying capacity please see the article Six Steps to "Getting" the Global Ecological Crisis.

[1] For much more see Catton's classic text, Overshoot.

[2] For more detail see Agriculture: Unsustainable Resource Depletion Began 10,000 Years Ago by soil scientist Peter Salonius.

[3] Note the interacting nature of factors involved in overshoot. For instance, also putting fossil fuel use in the category of "phantom carrying capacity" is it's direct link to life-threatening climate change.

[4] For an illuminating description of this process see Lierre Kieth's The Vegetarian Myth.

[5] On a large enough scale, even a major improvement such as permaculture-based horticulture would seem to suffer from a similar problem of transforming the land excessively for human consumption. It is intended, however, to be practiced on a scale small enough -- and with ethical constraints against large populations -- that it might prove sustainable under conditions of a much smaller human population. This is not to suggest it as an "alternative" to agriculture, without which humans did quite well for most of our history. As an approach to small-scale gardening -- something practiced by many hunter-gatherers -- it makes great sense. Once we begin to depend, though, on growing food as our primary means of subsistence, upping the scale by altering large tracts of habitat, taking control of our food supply by creating and storing unnecessary surpluses, the problems start. (I am aware of nothing concrete, by the way, built into the practice of permaculture which would prevent population growth. I welcome information to the contrary.)

That said, should today's civilization come to an end, it is plausible that there may be a transitional period when permaculture and related approaches to food production will be essential to many of those shifting toward true sustainability.

[For more recent thoughts on horticulture, see the updates under this post.]

[6] References include the journal articles available on Russ Hopfenberg's site where you can also view this slide presentation.

[7] Among the only arguable exceptions might be a few very limited, very early developments such as our learning to control fire (which may go back a million years or more) and the use of certain tools. Yet even these technologies may not strictly qualify as exceptions as they likely directly or indirectly did cause some damage to ecosystems. (Recall the definition of carrying capacity referenced above.) Of course this was essentially imperceptible compared to what came later.

It wasn't long ago

Once I moved about like the wind. Now I surrender to you and that is all. -- Geronimo

geronimo and band on ridge

This is a photo (slightly cropped to fit) of the last band of aboriginal people in North America to fight and resist the takeover of their landbase by the United States government. Numbering about 39 men, women, and children, this band of Apaches including Naiche, son of Cochise (on horseback) and Geronimo (standing in front of Naiche), evaded capture by a quarter of the US army and  three thousand Mexican troops, finally turning themselves in, ending a key chapter in human history.

The ending of lifeways apart from civilization among the aboriginal peoples of North America happened in about the same way it has happened worldwide. Central among proximate causes has been the growth of the population of those of us in civilization. The root cause has been civilization itself.

The people in the photo are standing on a spot in what is today southern Arizona. Twenty years after the photo was taken, my grandmother took a teaching job in a small town not far from that spot. She lived into the late 1980s. Indeed, it wasn't long ago that people still lived freely, as had their ancestors, in ways foreign to agriculture-based industrial civilization, right here where we in the United States live today. [1] [2]

Likewise, relative to the whole of human history, it has been only in the last instant that not everyone has lived in small bands, foraging and hunting for food, attuned to rather than trying to separate themselves from nature. [3]

Today as we puzzle over where we went wrong ecologically and socially, and scramble to find some way to fix things (prevented by those in power from taking meaningful action), we forget that for 3 million years we had many variations on a basic system which worked, made for fulfilling lives, and was sustainable.

I expect to focus much more on this topic in future writing.

For some insightful references see the section on core ecological issues and the relevant books in the book section. For an engaging source on the events surrounding the photo above, try David Roberts' Once They Moved Like the Wind.


[1] During much of their history, and certainly at the time of the photo, the Apache were not strictly hunter-gatherers. Owing to their roots, however, their surrender is an appropriate symbol for the loss of a way of life based not on agriculture, attuned to the natural world.

[2] While Geronimo's surrender marked the official end of the "Apache wars," reports suggest remnant bands of Apaches continued to live freely in the mountains of Mexico for years afterward.

[3] The period since the dawn of agriculture 10 thousand years ago to the present represents about one third of one percent of human history.


Posted on Wednesday, April 22, 2009 by Registered CommenterJohn Feeney in , , | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

BBC Green Room article - Population: the elephant in the room

This article was published today at the Green Room. It examines the taboo currently suppressing open, public discussion of human overpopulation. It introduces the Global Population Speak Out, a project designed to weaken the taboo.

One point I'd like to have made more strongly is that the taboo is especially visible in the failure of major environmental organizations to speak up about overpopulation. They need to be pushed until they do. Otherwise, they have no chance of playing a major role in solving the global ecological crisis.

Posted on Monday, February 2, 2009 by Registered CommenterJohn Feeney in , | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

The most underreported consequence of population growth?

From the GPSO blog:

A seldom discussed, tragic consequence of human population growth is the loss of tribal cultures and peoples. It is the loss, as well, of ways of life which persisted for nearly all of human history until our population exploded in the last fraction of one percent of our time on Earth.

If anyone participating in GPSO wants to to speak out on one of the most underreported consequences of the growth of the human population, this would be a good choice.

An excellent source of information is the site of Survival International.


I would add that Survival International seems to say little about the obvious, fundamental link between population growth and the loss of tribal peoples. I suspect it's a sign of how powerful the taboo against mention of overpopulation has been. I hope they'll feel freer in the future to talk about it. It's hard to imagine any hope for tribal cultures if the rest of the world's population grows much bigger.


Posted on Sunday, January 18, 2009 by Registered CommenterJohn Feeney in | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint
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