General · 3rd January 2016
Humanity is very proud of its agriculture, an invention about 10,000 years ago that moved us from being lowly hunter-gatherers to sophisticated farmers. With agriculture came changes to our human condition that scholars have described as revolutionary. A supply of food from fixed locations meant we could build villages and towns, then expand them into cities, states and even empires. Such huge improvements allowed us to evolve complex cultures with increasingly advanced technologies. Indeed, the success of modern civilization has been built upon the foundations of agriculture.
But this complimentary assessment of agriculture is made only from a human perspective. Considering Earth's ecologies, agriculture has been a disaster. About 40 percent of the land on the planet is now adapted or engineered for agricultural purposes, a process that has displaced species, decimated forests, depleted soils, dammed rivers, drained aquifers, poisoned biosystems, created ocean dead zones, abetted global warming, and replaced diverse and complex ecologies of amazing resilience with vulnerable monocrops.
In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari writes that “modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history.” Not only has it inflicted ecological planetary trauma, but it has committed billions of farmed animals and birds to suffer in the appalling conditions of factory farming. Living beings with some known measure of sentience are treated as cogs in the machinery of impersonal production. This industrialization has distanced us from our spiritual fellowship with other creatures and from the authenticity of food itself.
Agriculture has made nature abstract and alien, placing our awareness in an ethical void of disconnection. The processed “product” supplied to us in the sterile boxes and bags of supermarkets is far removed from the intimate connection to the meat, fish, berries and roots we once knew as hunter-gatherers. The result is our separation from nature and the grounded intimacy that sustained us for so long.
And all this has occurred in the last few moments of human history. Compared to the 2,500,000 years we survived as hominids, the distance we have travelled with agriculture has been phenomenal. And now technology has accelerated the speed. Just a few hundred years ago the advances in farming were so slow that we could anticipate for generations the agriculture we would be practicing; today, the advances are so dramatic that the future has become entirely uncertain.
Once upon a time, before agriculture, we lived in a timeless present, in a kind of biblical Eden. It had the semblance of stillness in its slow passing. We existed in a balanced and sustainable relationship with the surroundings that contained us. The animals, fishes, berries, nuts and fruits arrived and passed with their seasons, while we moved in harmony with the great and sonorous chords of an unheard symphony. We played our part within a music that was patterned, endless and mysterious. We cooperated and survived as members of a complex and moving system that continually renewed itself. We belonged. Humanity was part of a whole, rhythmically birthing and dying together with our fellow creatures as part of a grand design that must have seemed eternal.
Next week, Part 2 of 2.