Monday, July 27, 2009

College For Free 5: The Drawbacks of Farming

I know, already, you are just so excited to hear about farming. What could possibly be more thrilling than a blog dedicated to how exactly farming came about? Nothing, I think, could be.

The reason that I think this kind of thing is interesting is that we, as a society and as a race in general, take a lot of things for granted. Technology as new as the automobile and the airplane exist as a sort of background to our daily lives as the accepted, expected, norm. However, when you really start to look at specific moments in history not as history but as a time and place that existed with real people in it, everything starts to take on a more bizarre connotation, in my opinion. So, as we are at a point in history in which we take amazing feats of science and technology for granted, it goes without saying that farming is something that most often goes without saying. It's just not that exciting, which is why I feel that this blog could get boring really fast if I didn't have these two points to dwell on:
1. Farming was not a conscious design or invention, and was in fact a complete accident.
2. Farming may have been the most dangerous thing ever invented by man and could be the death of us all.

While it seems that farming was just a natural, logical step for mankind, it actually happened completely by chance due to the suspiciously convenient environment of what is known as the Fertile Crescent. This area includes Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Jordan and to a lesser extent, Egypt. It is not surprising that farming started here, because the area was so god damn full of everything you need to eat to stay alive, no one ever had to move to get food. See, the whole point of hunting and gathering was to move with herds and travel to different areas where different plants grew throughout the seasons. Hunting and gathering wasn't so much a random chance wandering sort of system, but more of a very calculated path around a continent in order to get all the best foods and let everything regrow and live in harmony with nature. However, in the Fertile Crescent, it was like living inside of a grocery store. These people never had to go anywhere because something like 45 of the world's 60 large-seeded grasses (things like wheat and barley and rice) grew naturally there and 10 of the world's 11 large domesticated mammals (such as cows and horses) lived there. In short, it would have been stupid of these people not to farm, because they had everything they would ever need to survive growing in their backyard. Conversely, it is to the credit of Native Americans that they did not farm until much, much later, because they didn't have anything good to farm. In the way of large-seeded grasses, they had things like goosefoot, which you've never heard of, because it's gross and we don't eat it. And as for large domesticated mammals, those were all imported later. The only one we had on this side of the ocean until European intervention was the llama, which while cool, isn't really something you can base your farming community around.

Now, onto the drawbacks of farming. In a way, you can base all of the world's human related problems on farming because farming directly caused civilizations to form. As you may have heard, civilization hasn't been great for the planet's health so far.
One thing that has been severely disrupted by farming is our diet. As a species, we are hard-wired to eat a lot of variety because of millions of years of the whole hunter-gatherer thing. In fact, hunter-gatherers are more accurately gatherer-hunters because they were much more involved with plants and berries and things that they could find easily than they were with meat, which, you know, can run away from you and hide. We're not supposed to eat as much meat as we do now, and it's just no good for us in general.
Also, because farming creates large populations of people that don't have to go anywhere, it also creates a lot of human waste that has to be put somewhere. As hunter-gatherers, this wasn't a big deal, but as a sedentary population, this became a problem. It became a rapidly expanding problem, on top of that, because sedentary cultures were able to reproduce much more often than traveling cultures. If you're moving around all the time, you can only have one kid that can't walk at a time, but if you're settled down into a swanky new farming community, you can have as many kids as you want.
With population growth and the beginnings of civilization, you also have a new niche in nature, and whenever there is a niche nature fills it because that's what nature does. Unfortunately, this particular niche was filled very quickly with diseases. Diseases do very well in large populations. As my teacher put it, "If chickenpox and the common cold and the measles and Ebola were all hanging out at a bar, everyone would be making fun of Ebola and saying 'Oh Ebola, you're a stupid disease, you kill your people much too quickly and you can't spread.'" The thing about diseases is that they don't want to kill you, they don't even want to make you sick, all they want to do is live. In hunter-gatherer culture, there could never be an epidemic because everyone was so spread out. So if a disease kills people very very quickly, the disease itself would die out because it would run out of hosts. In a large population, this is not the case, as there is always someone new to infect.
Farming is also a ton of work. Have you ever farmed? I know I haven't, because that shit looks really hard. While farmers toil in the fields, engaged in back-breaking labor for eighteen hours a day, hunter-gatherer cultures are lounging around eating berries and shooting the breeze with one another because they only have to work about 25% of the time, and all the work was divided evenly throughout the group.

So that's the story of how an accident resulted in a life-style change that swept the globe and started humanity on the war path of civilization, which will eventually kill us in nuclear holocaust or global warming. While not my most fascinating blog, I think it's interesting that something as small as farming has all this information behind it, and I wanted to share it with you loyal few who read this thing.


  1. I actually think this was one of your most interesting blogs! thumbs up!

  2. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.