Thanks to a couple long-time readers for attending today’s panel discussion, which I described briefly a couple days ago. One of you asked me to post the transcript, so I’ve cleaned up my notes and posted them below.
I was one of three panelists. The others were considerably more mainstream, as you probably could have guessed. Unfortunately, the small crowd was sedate. No fireworks here.
On April 6, 2008, the Arizona Republic ran a column with this line: “If you’re alive in a decade, it will be because you’ve figured out how to forage locally.” The writer thought — and still thinks, for that matter — that we were headed to the post-industrial stone age by 2018. At the time, the price of oil was about $100/bbl, but within two months it had spiked to $147.27/bbl. That event triggered the current recession and nearly brought the world’s industrial economy grinding to a halt when Lehman Brothers collapsed a year ago this week.
That writer was me, of course. And although you might think I’m insane — and trust me, you wouldn’t be the first — I will argue that the transition from egalitarian hunter-gatherer to commercial agriculture explains the complete misadventures of our species, beginning with the Fall as described in the biblical book of Genesis and going right through the current recession. Furthermore, although it seems unlikely we will voluntarily return to an existence based on knowledge of the landbase where we live, I strongly suspect reality will impose this existence on us.
But let’s start at the beginning, or at least the beginning of our species:
Evolution of the genus Homo occurred about 2 million years ago (i.e., there have been about 100,000 generations of “humans”). For about 2 million years, essentially all food was acquired via hunting and gathering, which required individuals to work a few hours each week. Every member of every group had knowledge of, and respect for, the landbase. Life was “sustainable” (i.e., durable) for the relatively small populations of people in each tribe Local sources of food met all nutritional requirements throughout the seasons, as indicated by persistence of groups for 100,000 generations
Fast-forward 1.7 million years: Homo sapiens sapiens arose about 300,000 years ago (i.e., there have been about15,000 generations of our species) (sapiens = wise). During this time, essentially all food was acquired via hunting and gathering, which required individuals to work a few hours each week. Every member of every group had knowledge of, and respect for, the landbase. Life was “sustainable” for the relatively small populations of people in each tribe Local sources of food met all nutritional requirements throughout the seasons, as indicated by persistence of groups for 15,000 generations (stop me if you’d heard this one).
Fast-forward again, this time only about 300,000 years, to the development of agriculture a mere 10,000 years ago (i.e., 0.5% of the time humans have occupied the planet, or 3% of the span of the “wise” humans). This event is documented in the biblical book of Genesis. The Fall was a transition to farming, from hunting and gathering (and to a lesser extent, gardening). This event led to specialization, perhaps most importantly including separation of work by gender. It also led to the storing of grains, and therefore large cities and empires (Cain founded the first real city). As such, agriculture led us away from an egalitarian existence to societies characterized by huge disparities in wealth. Much later, and quite briefly, it led to a middle class.
At this point, we have four disparate models from which to choose (although I strongly suspect the political and financial elite will not actually allow us to choose):
1. Status quo, which is neither desirable nor sustainable. But this is the option we seem to be choosing with every politician we elect and every purchase we make. I suspect this approach is not viable beyond a very few years because of the ongoing collapse of the industrial economy. In the wake of economic collapse, we will access to too few fossil fuels to sustain this model, which has never been sustainable.
2. Agrarian society in which we voluntarily return to a finely textured, life-affirming set of living arrangements characterized by self-sufficient family farms intermixed with small towns that provide opportunities for commerce, services, and culture. This approach will require us to immediately abandon large cities en masse, train 50 million additional farmers to support the 300 million mouths we currently need to feed, and return to a hard-working, close-to-the-Earth model. It also will require us to immediately cease almost all travel, for “business” or pleasure, therefore conserving precious fossil fuels for the business of feeding our children. I can imagine about 50 people in this country would vote for this model.
3. Voluntarily return to an egalitarian hunter-gatherer existence. I don’t think 12 people in this country would join me in voting for this model.
4. Let reality send us to the egalitarian hunter-gatherer existence. I’m guessing we’ll let reality do the trick because our hubris won’t allow a willing transition back to anarcho-primitivism. This is likely to occur far sooner than most people believe, because the ongoing collapse of the world’s industrial economy will be complete quite soon.
The collapse of the industrial economy will pose significant challenges because we have lost almost all the knowledge needed to forage locally. In addition, that knowledge is a moving target: Ongoing global climate change already is changing the distribution and abundance of plants and animals, and this trend is accelerating with every tank of gas we burn into the atmosphere.
I’ll finish with a paragraph from a recent post on my blog: “Any sentient animal should be able to understand the sheer lunacy of the living arrangements we’ve built for ourselves. Within the span of a couple generations, we abandoned a durable, finely textured, life-affirming set of living arrangements characterized by self-sufficient family farms intermixed with small towns that provided commerce, services, and culture. Worse yet, we traded that model for a coarse-scaled arrangement wholly dependent on ready access to cheap fossil fuels. Then we ratcheted up the madness to rely on businesses that use, almost exclusively, a warehouse-on-wheels approach to just-in-time delivery of unnecessary devices designed for rapid obsolescence and disposal.”