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New article in the Canyon Country Zephyr - 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

hunter-gatherers

[Until a possible further elaboration on these topics, newer than my "Agriculture: Ending..." article, this post will be a place for occasional updates on these subjects. If you have questions or comments going beyond what I've written here, feel free to email me. My thoughts are generally a few steps ahead of what I venture to post or submit for publication.]

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

A much fuller version of these and other ideas will appear in a new article I've written. I'll post a link once it's published. [Update: Expect a link in August late July to the new article.]

So here's the gist...

Civilization is inherently 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 peak oil, 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 some very tough times ahead, it is in the long run wonderful news. It means an end to what's killing the earth.

Hunting and gathering is the only human way of living proven sustainable. Fortunately, it is a rich, fulfilling way of life, not utopian but immune to many of the basic problems plaguing civilization and much less prone to others. It's natural for humans, the life we evolved living. Thomas Hobbes' speculation that life in a "state of nature" is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" is just wrong, a well debunked myth. Yet its endurance creates resistance to a way of life, for the long term human future, in harmony with the earth.

The value in rewilding thus becomes clear. "Rewilding" refers to reclaiming what we've lost with civilization, undoing domestication, returning to a more natural or wild state, a state typical of hunter-gatherers past and present. 

We see then, as well, 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. Resistance aimed at hastening civilization's fall might therefore preserve more biodiversity, more life, human and nonhuman, than a strategy of merely waiting and watching. We face hard choices.

An easier and still tremendously valuable option is to do what we can through conventional measures to protect as much habitat and biodiversity as possible for as long as civilization remains. That is the thinking behind the "organizations" page on this site.

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

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

Broaching the subject of demon agriculture

An recent opinion piece by anthropologist Donald Attwood in the Montreal Gazette created a good opportunity for a letter to the editor. I tried an understated approach, nudging 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 per cent.

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, the 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 rewilding.

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.

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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 which 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. [4] [5] Multiply this by over a billion hectares and we see clearly how agriculture has been the primary driver of the Sixth Mass Extinction of species in Earth's history, 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.

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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 multifaceted 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, there will surely be a transitional period, post-civilization, when permaculture and related approaches to food production will be essential to many of those shifting toward true sustainability, even prior to a full move into hunting and gathering.

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

[6] References include Daniel Quinn's books Ishmael and The Story of B, this slide presentation and the journal articles available on Russ Hopfenberg's site, and this video featuring Quinn and conservation biologist Alan Thornhill fielding questions on the issue. (9/13 - Unfortunately the video, perhaps the most useful reference, is for currently unavailable online.)

[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 slight 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 a band-living, non-agricultural way of life 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, apart from 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.

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[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.

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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

Newspaper proposes supplement on population in conjunction with GPSO

Here's the word from George Plumb, President of Vermonters for a Sustainable Population:

In conjunction with the the GPSO the weekly community newspaper of the state capitol of Montpelier, Vermont has proposed doing an eight page supplement on population. I think this will be pretty ground breaking. How many newspapers in the country have devoted a supplement to population? The only problem is Vermonters for a Sustainable Population, of which I am the president, needs to come up with $3,000 to help pay for the xtra costs. Unfortunately we have no major donors cpable of this kind of financial support in our thrity member organization. If anyone knows of a potential source I would really appreciate your ideas.

That would be a first wouldn't it? So if you know any source to help with funding please let me know and I'll forward your message to George, or go here to contact George directly.

Posted on Sunday, December 7, 2008 by Registered CommenterJohn Feeney in | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

GPSO in Science

A recent issue of Science contains a short piece on GPSO. If you're registered there, you'll find it here. It's in the "Random Samples" section of the October 31 issue, Volume 322, Issue 5902. From the piece:

At a time when some developed nations are paying citizens to bolster flagging birth-rates (Science, 30 June 2006, p. 1894), a grass-roots group of scientists and environmentalists is calling for a new push to limit human numbers.
Overpopulation is threatening life as we know it on the planet, say members of a movement called Global Population Speak Out (http://gpso.wordpress.com/), which aims to persuade at least 50 “respected voices” to “speak out in some way” about the problem for a month next year.

GPSO is bringing scientific voices worldwide to bear on the population issue. It's great to have the opportunity to alert a large portion of the scientific community to what we're doing.

Posted on Sunday, November 30, 2008 by Registered CommenterJohn Feeney in | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint

Global Population Speak Out: Make the pledge!

The GPSO letter (see the prior entry here) is now going out and we are receiving pledges. Note that you do not have to receive the GPSO letter to participate. Please go here, read the directions, and send in your pledge! Chances are you might fit in some way into one of the official categories of invitees. But that is not a necessity; we cannot cover every reasonable category. We will make every effort to document whatever action you take to speak out. So just pledge!

Be a part of this historic event. Send your pledge to GlobalPopulationSpeakOut [at] gmail [dot] com

Posted on Friday, October 10, 2008 by Registered CommenterJohn Feeney in | Comments Off | EmailEmail | PrintPrint
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