The title of this essay might seem strange. After all isn’t farming the land the most noble of all professions in almost all world cultures? Well, I don’t mean colonial plantations and corporate-industrial agriculture. Just the small, innocent peasant living in harmony with the seasons as he nurtures the bountiful soils of the all giving Earth. From Confucius to Tolstoy we have had any number of thinkers who’ve celebrated the simplicity of the peasant’s life. Then, a life of leisure in the country is almost everybody’s romantic ideal. Not Jared Diamond’s though. He of the ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ fame.
Agriculture, Diamond says, is possibly man’s greatest mistake. Why? For the simple reason that agriculture is – that dreaded word which is the favourite of ecologists everywhere – unsustainable. I think we could all agree that in our times agriculture is by far number two when compared to industrial production as the nemesis of the ecosystemical balance everywhere. But not quite. Firstly, the capacity of agriculture to transform/transmogrify ecosystem is huge. Moreover, agriculture is the foundation on which the whole industrial edifice rests, the anthropologist would argue. Yes, we would say, but not just industrial production – we agree there are problems there – but civilisation itself! If we were to accept that agriculture was a mistake then, by extension, civilisation itself shouldn’t have been. Exactly! That’s the point.
Jared Diamond’s argument is this then. Our civilisation which is born from our agricultural capabilities is not the best kind of civilisation we could have had. We could have had an alternate kind of civilisation, call it that if it seems alright, even if it is hard to imagine. Let me try, though, to hint at some possibilities.
The first thing that comes to mind is that without agriculture we wouldn’t have had anywhere close to the human population that we have today. The most obvious forms of political organization would then have been kinship based bands or small scale tribes. Then, without agriculture, we can say, we would have had no state. Since the most popular understanding of the state is that it is an entity which monopolizes violence we would then have no monopolies over violence.! So, a Hobbesian state of war of all against all? Not exactly. Two reasons why.
First, war is by its very nature motivated by the uniquely human phenomenon of political territoriality – in other words, property. Or – the primary purpose of war is large-scale property theft. The whole idea of political territory/property comes into being only when human beings begin to actually invest their labour in land and, thus, develop a claim to it. John Locke, I believe, calls this man’s mixing of his labour with land. So, our jigsaw political map of today – the lines and colours that separate us – have their genesis in agriculture. Without agriculture, no political state.
Secondly, the whole idea of war cannot be separated from the political organization, extractive ability and organizational capability of the political state – even a nascent state, say a tribal organization. War is different from what we would call in normal parlance fighting. We fight to prove a point. And then we get on living happily if we do and sulk around if we don’t. War is the total mobilization of one society to totally dominate, subjugate and even destroy another society. The motivation is never personal/emotional even though the justification most often is. War, Clausewitz said, is politics by other means. Without a political state then, no war.
What do we have then? A noble civilization of the noble savage? I don’t know. Maybe.
In this essay my implicit assumption is that war is the greatest of human ills. Robert Fisk, a British journalist with some guts, says about war that it is the total failure of the human spirit. I agree. The existence and persistence of war is also a permanent question mark against our claim to the benign nature of this our human civilisation. It is argument enough against our ways of life.
One could argue that there have been so many advances in human knowledge and list out the fruits of our progress, like medical science for example. But aren’t most of our so-called advances only necessary due to the problems that our progress itself has created in the first place? Take heart attacks and all the number of things that cause them – the so-called life style issues. Would we have these problems if we were hunter-gatherers still? I think not!
Returning to Jared Diamond’s observation on agriculture. Is it so way off the mark as it might seem at first? Is it too pessimistic to agree with him? Or should we continue to hope for better time in the future despite all the odds? Well, the ability to hope is one of the gifts of civilization that will probably keep us going for a long time yet. I hope.
Who is to say that hunter-gatherers would have remained content in their sustainable lifestyles? Maybe they would have developed such deadly weapons of destruction that would have wiped out entire populations of animals identified as game. Technological advancement should not be seen as the prerogative of agricultural societies. After all, the first real technological leaps in human pre-history were successive inventions of more and more effective weapons. Maybe the shift to agriculture was actually a blessing in disguise for many species which would have shared the fate of the Mannies. Sorry, Mammoths. And by example we know that wiping off two or three key species from the food chain can be a huge catastrophe for entire eco-systems. So, maybe agriculture is noble after all.