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Broaching the subject of demon agriculture

A 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 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.

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