We understand how our civilised lifestyle is based on the idea of food production. We also understand how this leads to pyramidical hierarchies and exponential population growth. But why did we develop this lifestyle at all and why did we stick to it up to a point where we could go extinct because of it?
The first question seems to be an easy one, when listening to our textbook explanations. We switched to agriculture in order to defeat hunger. Or did we?
Think about it. If a person or a group of people goes hungry, would they take the time to domesticate plants or animals over several generations, hoping that their crops and herds would yield enough food before they are starving?
Would someone who is falling out of an airplane start sewing a parachute to save himself?
When a culture switches from hunting and foraging to agriculture it most certainly is not a reaction to hunger. In history it always appeared in areas with an abundance of wild plants and animals suitable for domestication.
For the first millennia after the first major crops had been cultivated in the fertile crescent, about 13000 years ago, life expectancy in agricultural peoples was much lower than in their neighbouring hunter-gatherer tribes. The average working hours per week on the other hand were twice those of a hunter or forager.
What then are the benefits a culture is getting out of an agricultural lifestyle? Two major traits indigenous to farming cultures come to mind. The division of labour and sedentarism. The division of labour enables people to construct permanent buildings such as temples and castles. It allows for specialist professions such as carpenters, smiths, soldiers, priests, politicians. It therefore gives a culture a political, economic, technological and military edge over neighbouring peoples.
Sedentarism allows for a considerably higher birth rate through shortening the waiting period of a mother before the next child. While in nomadic cultures parents have to wait until a child is strong and mobile enough to travel without the mother’s help, sedentary families are only limited by the availability of food for their offspring.
While it needs to be pointed out that neither division of labour nor sedentarism need agriculture as a precondition, they only occur in areas that offer large continuous food surplusses. The fertile crescent around 11000 BC was such a place. Not only did it offer huge populations of antilopes and other animals yielding big amounts of meat for hunters but it also was home to big populations of wild weeds, which became the ancestors of about 40% of our modern seed crops.
Thus it seems that agriculture seems to be a product of abundance rather than scarcity. The immediate advantages, namely the ones that come with division of labour, would only benefit the parts of the group that are not directly engaged in food production. It enables shamans to become priests, chiefs to become Kings. Builders and toolmakers can now perform their tasks fulltime and achieve bigger, more sophisticated results. Part-time warriors can become fulltime soldiers. All of them gaining status within the group, all of them consequently empowering their leaders as well as the whole group against real and potential enemies.
The vast majority of the population stays relatively powerless and is now not only working for their own survival but using a growing part of their productive energy for the benefit of others.
As a result they are putting in more effort and gaining less for themselves. Working hours go up, life-expectancy goes down and won’t go up again until the dawn of modern medicine. Therefore it stands to reason that a 100% agricultural lifestyle is not an improvement for a huge part of the population.
Suggesting that the immediate advantages it brings for the smaller specialized groups mentioned above do not explain why a culture would stick to the agricultural lifestyle rather than overthrowing the leaders and returning to hunting and gathering.
Something else needs to be at work. There has to be some other motivation.
To find an answer to that question we need to ask another one. Who profits from it?
As we pointed out earlier, when a culture depends on having a constant surplus of food, it is not only divided into specialized professions, but also into social classes based on the fact that now a few people decide about the distribution of food amongst the whole population.
Moreover there now is a group that has no other task but to oversee this controlled distribution. Thus both the ruling class as well as the executing class will inevitably get a bigger share.
Therefore, if anyone from the group that actually works the land to produce the food shows discontent or even open rebellion, they can easily be excluded from the distribution. The survival of the individual now depends on the will of the distributor. The survival of the ruling class is less dependent on the happiness of the ruled than ever before.
Still, if the producing class were to organize itself, excluding the rulers from access to food, they could come out on top.
So we are still missing a major reason why this has not happend, at least in our civilisation.
Lets have a look on other experiments with civilisation. There are quite a few examples that developed independently from the one that was born in the fertile crescent and eventually conquered the rest of the world.
The most popular of those is the mayan civilisation. They developed intensive crops, a pyramidical hierarchy, built big cities with standing armies, centralized worship, government offocials and even writing. North america, before the age of european colonization was full of complex agricultural societies, so was Africa. In Europe thhere was the celtic and the norse culture. Polinesian tribes settled all over the Pacific ocean from New Guinea to Hawaii. Often also forming civilisations such as the one that built the stone statues of the easter island. Despite the fact that some of these cultures were older than the one that rose in the fertile crescent, how did it come to pass that none of them ever came close to the overwhelmingly fast expansion of the latter?
Why did the mayans in the 12000 years of their existence as a civilisation only conquer a territory of the size of modern Virginia? Why did the Polynesians not spread onto the australian, Asian and American continents?
One reason seems obvious. The fertile crescent simply offered the biggest number of easy to domesticate wild plant species anywhere on the planet. While wild einkorn and buckwheat for example already carried seeds almost as numerous and big as their modern descendants, it took the people of the americas thousands of years to turn the seeds of corn and the roots of potatoes into anything even remotely close to their modern sizes and yields.
Jared Diamond’s Book „Guns, Germs and Steel provides fascinating insides into these game changing differences between early agricultural cultures.
Nevertheless, these insights do not entirely explain why the Mayan and other civilisations failed, especially since at the time of their downfall they had not yet come in contact with the descandents of the fertile crescent or the germs they brought with them, erradicating 95% of the american population before they even met a european.
There must have been another crucial difference that kept especially the american civilisations from growing out of proportion as rapidly as the one from the fertile crescent did.
And in fact there is. The mayans, while believing firmly in the superiority of their culture over those of their tribal neighbours, never allowed anyone that was not born Maya to become a part of that culture. While they probably firmly believed in theirspecific cultural truth, they also believed that no one except themselves should be allowed to know that truth. The same is true for all tribal cultures, past or present, that we know of. None of them is known to easily share their own ancient wisdom with outsiders. And none would ever get the idea to allow the cultural identity that comes with this wisdom to be taken up by others. Trying to be like them is mostly seen as an insult to their cultural identity and in the past often was a reason for wars between different tribal and even civilised cultures.
In the fertile crescent another mindset became the fuel that has driven the engine of our civilisation ever since. The idea that their lifestyle had to be the only one for all humans.
The idea that there is only one possible truth that applies to all of us is the underlying principle of all modern religions and political theories.
In the christian, jewish and muslim religion it is the very first commandment: I am the Lord, your god and you should not have any other gods beside me.
In fact, if you compare the commandments of the bible to hammurabian law, the oldest verified writings in history, you will find that they are exactly the same. Sure, in the translations of the bible it says ‚god‘ while the mesopotamian texts say ‚king‘, but in old mesopotamia these words were actually the same. Based on these laws historians believe that Hammurabi used this to proclaim himself God in order to shatter any possible truth that could rival his own.
More recent research suggests that the origins of these laws can be traced back even further, to Ur Namur III, the third king of the city of Ur, one of the oldest cities of the fertile crescent.
No historian ever doubted that these laws had the purpose of keeping the population from revolting against their rulers, of justifying their absolute power over the people that were feeding them. And of making sure that even in times of scarcity the ruling class would still be given the major share of all ressources produced by the other classes.
The idea of there being only one truth to the present day has not only justified all expansion of our civilisation, by either forcing other peoples into that culture or simply killing them off if they wouldn’t join, it is also the fundamental belief keeping us from searching for alternatives.
To the present day many if us believe that once all countries become democracies there will be world peace. Muslims believe that once all are believing in their mindset, all problems will be solved, vegans believe the same, almost all of us believe that if the world would just come to accept their individual truth, everything would turn out fine.
Yet it is exactly that belief that justified every single expansionist war in our history. It was that belief that justified the near-extinction of the native population of the Americas in favour of european settlenent. It justified shipping millions of Africans to America as slaves. It modern times it justifies both islamistic terrorism and western economic and political expansionism. It justifies China’s occupation of Tibet as well as North Korea’s nuclear weapons programm.
This seemingly small distinction between our civilisation and any other culture in history is in fact our most central belief. It is the one myth that has been driving the radical expansion of that culture all over the globe in only tenthousand years.
And, just as important, it is the one reason why we, seeing the signs of our imminent selfdestruction, remain unable to do anything about it.
If whe are doomed to kill ourselves through nuclear war or natural catastrophies or global diseases or depletion of natural resources or all of the above, well then that seems to be our fate. Because we are flawed beings, doomed to die in an apocalypse, rather than simply wrong in one single part of our belief system… .