Noble or Savage? Both. (Part 2)

Yes, this has taken significantly longer than *The Economist* needed for “Noble or Savage?,” but really digging into the evidence usually *does* take longer than a superficial analysis, bald assertion, or an assemblage of half-truths. As before, I haven’t written anything original in response to this article, since it doesn’t present anything new—everything here quotes articles you’ve seen here, answering these claims, over the past two, sometimes even three, years.

The Myth of Progress

Noble or Savage?,“ The Economist,” 19 December 2007:

Incessant innovation is a characteristic of human beings. Agriculture, the domestication of animals and plants, must be seen in the context of this progressive change. It was just another step: hunter-gatherers may have been using fire to encourage the growth of root plants in southern Africa 80,000 years ago. At 15,000 years ago people first domesticated another species—the wolf (though it was probably the wolves that took the initiative). After 12,000 years ago came crops. The internet and the mobile phone were in some vague sense almost predestined 50,000 years ago to appear eventually.

“[The Age of Exuberance](),“ [The Anthropik Network](), 9 October 2006:

In ecological terms, Columbus’ discovery increased the carrying capacity for Europe’s population. There is no such thing as an absolute limit of what constitutes overpopulation; several million may provide underpopulation for a continent, but represent massive overpopulation for your living room. Overpopulation is always relative to the resources available. The plagues, wars, and mortality of the Middle Ages were the ecological responses to overpopulation. The situation was not ended with significant losses of population, but before that could happen, a vast expansion of resources.

Discovery of the New World gave European man a markedly changed relationship to the resource base for civilized life. When Columbus set sail, there were roughly 24 acres of Europe per European. Life was a struggle to make the most of insufficient and unreliable resources. After Columbus stumbled upon the lands of an unsuspected hemisphere, and after monarchs and entrepreneurs began to make those lands available for European settlement and exploitation, a total of 120 acres of land per person was available in the expanded European habitat—five times the pre-Columbian figure!

Changelessness had always been the premise of Old World social systems. This sudden and impressive surplus of carrying capacity shattered that premise. In a habitat that now seemed limitless, life could be lived abundantly. The new premise of limitlessness spawned new beliefs, new human relationships, and new behavior. Learning was advanced, and a growing fraction of the population became literate. There was a sufficient per capita increment of leisure to permit more exercise of ingenuity than ever before. Technology progressed, and technological advancement came to be the common meaning of the word “progress.”

But the aura of limitless opportunity had another effect: further acceleration of population growth. To go into some details not shown explicitly in Table 1, between 1650 and 1850, a mere two centuries, the world’s human population doubled. There had never before been such a huge increase in so short a time. It doubled again by 1930, in only eighty years. And the next doubling was to take only about forty-five years! As people and their resource-using implements became more numerous, the gap between carrying capacity and the resource-use load was inevitably closed, American land per American citizen shrank to a mere 11 acres—less than half the space available in Europe for each European just prior to Columbus’s revolutionizing voyage. Meanwhile, per capita resource appetites had grown tremendously. The Age of Exuberance was necessarily temporary; it undermined its own foundations.

Most of the people who were fortunate enough to live in that age misconstrued their good fortune. Characteristics of their world and their lives, due to a “limitlessness” that had to be of limited duration, were imagined to be permanent. The people of the Age of Exuberance looked back on the dismal lives of their forebears and pitied them for their “unrealistic” notions about the world, themselves, and the way human beings were meant to live. Instead of recognizing that reality itself had actually changed—and would eventually change again—they congratulated themselves for outgrowing the “superstitions” of ancestors who had seen a different world so differently. While they rejected the old premise of changelessness, they failed to see that their own belief in the permanence of limitlessness was also an overbelief, a superstition.0^

The Enlightenment followed the Age of Discovery, and with it, the notion of human history as a tale of “progress.”

Columbus’s voyage of discovery also had another important result: it contributed to the development of the modern concept of progress. To many Europeans, the New World seemed to be a place of innocence, freedom, and eternal youth. Columbus himself believed that he had landed near the Biblical Garden of Eden. The perception of the New World as an environment free from the corruptions and injustices of European life would provide a vantage point for criticizing all social evils.0^

From Winthrop’s “City on a Hill,” to equally utopian endeavors, the New World was romanticized by Europeans as a chance for a fresh start, an opportunity to reclaim the Edenic existence that humans had enjoyed in the Golden Age, before the troubles that defined medieval life. From this unbounded optimism, a new picture of human history began to emerge: one defined by progress, rather than degradation. Robert Nisbet highlights the pre-modern roots of this notion.

As I have shown, the Western idea of progress was born of Greek imagery, religious in foundation; the imagery of growth. It attained its fullness within Christianity, starting with the Church Fathers, especially Augustine. Central to any genuinely Christian form of religion is the Pauline emphasis upon hope: hope to be given gratification in this world as well as the next. Basically, the Christian creed, its concept of Original Sin notwithstanding, is inseparable from a philosophy of history that is overwhelmingly optimistic about man’s estate in this world and the next, provided only that due deference and commitment to God are given.0^

Yet the prevailing ecological reality of European agriculture promoted the primitivist tendencies in Greek and Christian thought—the notion of the Fall or the Golden Age, and the conviction that humanity’s present state is inferior to its past. For the Middle Ages in Europe, there was significant truth in this assessment. By contrast, the Enlightenment was a philosophy born of the new ecological reality, the Age of Exuberance that Columbus’ journey had created. The Enlightenment defined humanity as unique for its faculty of Reason, and celebrated that Reason as the seat of mankind’s “redemption” from its state of ignorance and savagery. The Enlightenment promised an optimistic future, where humanity triumphed over every obstacle in its way thanks to the unstoppable power of Reason.

Inevitable progress is an idea that has survived Condorcet and the Enlightenment. It has exerted, at different times and variously for good and evil, a powerful influence to the present day. In the final chapter of the *Sketch* [for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind], “The Tenth Stage: The Future Progress of the Human Mind,” Condorcet becomes giddily optimistic about its prospect. He assures the reader that the glorious process is underway: All will be well. His vision for human progress makes little concession to the stubbornly negative qualities of human nature. When all humanity has attained a higher level of civilization, we are told, nations will be equal, and within each nation citizens will also be equal. Science will flourish and lead the way. Art will be freed to grow in power and beauty. Crime, poverty, racism and sexual discrimination will decline. The human lifespan, through scientifically based medicine, will lengthen indefinitely. (Wilson, 1999)

We hear many of these same promises even today, and they remain unfulfilled. Yet such idle dreams were not simply baseless. They served a purpose.

During the Age of Exuberance, Utopian thinking was adaptive, to use ecologists’ jargon: it encouraged people to think big at a time when imperial expansion, technological progress, and soaring availability of fossil fuel energy made explosive growth pay off. As the Age of Exuberance ends around us, the equation is reversing. In a world of political and economic regionalization, technological stasis or regression, and dwindling supplies of all nonrenewable resources, those who move with the curve of industrial decline will be just as successful in the future as those who rode the waves of industrial growth were in the past. It’s time, and past time, to learn again how to think small—and that process will be much easier if we say farewell to Utopia and focus on the things we can actually achieve in the stark limits of time and resources that we still have left.0^

We have mistaken as permanent the transitory consequences of Columbus’ discovery. Today, our higher level of complexity allows us to bear even denser populations than Europe could in the Middle Ages, but the basis of all our complexity remains irrevocably unsustainable. The ecological reality has changed again. The Age of Exuberance is over, and our idle fits of technophilic fantasy will not serve us any longer. This case seems to illustrate the way in which our philosophies are functions of our environment. Nisbet highlights the pre-exuberant roots of the notion of “progress,” yet they remained buried until the ecological reality shifted to support such an idea. Today, the ecological reality is shifting again, as we run up against new limits to growth, limits that are far harder to escape than simply finding more land to plow. As it shifts, so will our philosophies, and ways of understanding the world that are today scorned will become accepted truths.

“Forests Precede Us and Deserts Dog Our Heels”

Noble or Savage?,“ The Economist,” 19 December 2007:

There is a modern moral in this story. We have been creating ecological crises for ourselves and our habitats for tens of thousands of years. We have been solving them, too. Pessimists will point out that each solution only brings us face to face with the next crisis, optimists that no crisis has proved insoluble yet. Just as we rebounded from the extinction of the megafauna and became even more numerous by eating first rabbits then grass seeds, so in the early 20th century we faced starvation for lack of fertiliser when the population was a billion people, but can now look forward with confidence to feeding 10 billion on less land using synthetic nitrogen, genetically high-yield crops and tractors. When we eventually reverse the build-up in carbon dioxide, there will be another issue waiting for us.

“[A Short History of Western Civilization](),“ [The Anthropik Network](), 6 September 2007:

For most domesticated people, the suggestion of civilization’s fundamental unsustainability seems as preposterous as trying to disprove gravity. All of recorded history falls under the heading of civilization, and besides, have we not seen its spectacular growth and progress, even in our own lifetimes? How could we possibly call something like that unsustainable? Of course, a closer look at that history reveals a very different pattern; not the 10,000 year tale of progress we’ve normally heard, but a desperate 10,000 year race to stay ahead of the consequences of our own, unsustainable way of life.  *Western* civilization seems particularly apt, because we descend from the people who went west, and ever since then, west has always seemed pregnant with hope and opportunity. “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country,” as the famous quote misattributed to Horace Greeley admonished as late as the nineteenth century. A simple ecological fact created that attitude. As Derrick Jensen put it, “Forests precede us and deserts dog our heels.” Only in the West could we find land that we hadn’t killed off yet.

We can hardly escape the unsustainability of agriculture, cultivation by means of catastrophe. Tilling, the act from which the word “agriculture” etymologically derives, acts as an emulation of natural catastrophe. In his classic article, “The Oil We Eat,” Richard Manning provides an excellent summation of how agriculture began.

Domestication was also a radical change in the distribution of wealth within the plant world. Plants can spend their solar income in several ways. The dominant and prudent strategy is to allocate most of it to building roots, stem, bark—a conservative portfolio of investments that allows the plant to better gather energy and survive the downturn years. Further, by living in diverse stands (a given chunk of native prairie contains maybe 200 species of plants), these perennials provide services for one another, such as retaining water, protecting one another from wind, and fixing free nitrogen from the air to use as fertilizer. Diversity allows a system to “sponsor its own fertility,” to use visionary agronomist Wes Jackson’s phrase. This is the plant world’s norm.

There is a very narrow group of annuals, however, that grow in patches of a single species and store almost all of their income as seed, a tight bundle of carbohydrates easily exploited by seed eaters such as ourselves. Under normal circumstances, this eggs-in-one-basket strategy is a dumb idea for a plant. But not during catastrophes such as floods, fires, and volcanic eruptions. Such catastrophes strip established plant communities and create opportunities for wind-scattered entrepreneurial seed bearers. It is no accident that no matter where agriculture sprouted on the globe, it always happened near rivers. You might assume, as many have, that this is because the plants needed the water or nutrients. Mostly this is not true. They needed the power of flooding, which scoured landscapes and stripped out competitors. Nor is it an accident, I think, that agriculture arose independently and simultaneously around the globe just as the last ice age ended, a time of enormous upheaval when glacial melt let loose sea-size lakes to create tidal waves of erosion. It was a time of catastrophe.

Corn, rice, and wheat are especially adapted to catastrophe. It is their niche. In the natural scheme of things, a catastrophe would create a blank slate, bare soil, that was good for them. Then, under normal circumstances, succession would quickly close that niche. The annuals would colonize. Their roots would stabilize the soil, accumulate organic matter, provide cover. Eventually the catastrophic niche would close. Farming is the process of ripping that niche open again and again. It is an annual artificial catastrophe, and it requires the equivalent of three or four tons of TNT per acre for a modern American farm. Iowa’s fields require the energy of 4,000 Nagasaki bombs every year.

Could this annual, man-made catastrophe continue sustainably? Does a year of growing crops heal the land? No. Monocropping poisons the soil for the very same reasons that running a car in a sealed garage will kill you. With all the plants of the same species taking the same things out of the soil and putting the same things back in, the soil becomes useless for that kind of plant. Moreover, the constant disturbance leads to erosion. In the case of the Fertile Crescent where Western civilization began, salinization also contributed, due to improper irrigation. As permaculture founder Bill Mollison wrote in “Introduction to Permaculture“:

For every head of population —whether you are an American or an East Indian— if you are a grain eater, it now costs about 12 tons of soil per person per year for us to eat grain. All this loss is a result of tillage. As long as you are tilling, you are losing. At the rate at which we are losing soils, we don’t see that we will have agricultural soils within a decade.

William Koetke put it even more starkly in The Final Empire, as he argued that we can see the soil as the basis of all life on earth:

In 1988, the annual soil loss due to erosion was twenty-five billion tons and rising rapidly. Erosion means that soil moves off the land. An equally serious injury is that the soil’s fertility is exhausted in place. Soil exhaustion is happening in almost all places where civilization has spread. This is a literal killing of the planet by exhausting its fund of organic fertility that supports other biological life. Fact: since civilization invaded the Great Plains of North America one-half of the topsoil of that area has disappeared.

When agriculture began in the Middle East, the Fertile Crescent didn’t sound like a cruel joke, as it does today. In fact, we know now that at that time, Iraq was covered in an old growth cedar forest so thick that the sunlight never touched the ground. These giant evergreen trees could grow as tall as 130 feet, with enormous trunks 45 feet in circumference, and 4, 5, or even 7 trunks sprouting from the same, gigantic base. When the authors of the Bible looked for a metaphor for the glory of G-d, they could not help but come back to those cedars. Around 2700 BCE, the first civilized myth—the Epic of Gilgamesh—described vast tracts of that cedar forest in what we now call southern Iraq. It tells how Gilgamesh defied the gods, who told him that they kept the forest as sacred to themselves. They warned Gilgamesh that if he cut down their forest, they would punish his people with fire, or possibly drought. But Gilgamesh defied them and cleared that forest to make way for cities and agriculture. By 2100 BCE, soil erosion and salt buildup had turned the “Fertile Crescent” into the desert we know today. The centers of civilization moved north, to Babylonia and Assyria, where the soil remained viable, but they continued cutting down the forest as well, and the same thing happened again. In time, the old growth cedar forest vanished (the celebrated “cedars of Lebanon” are the only remaining portion), and the land turned into a desert by a few thousand years of agriculture. The blasted wastelands we see on the nightly news in Iraq did not happen naturally; they show us the legacy of the Agricultural Revolution.

That was how the race began. Farmers needed to expand into new territories, before their old lands gave out and died. We have no reason to believe that this expansion happened peacefully. The idea that agriculture spread peacefully, as hunter-gatherers recognized the ease it brought, seems preposterous given what we know now from the archaeological record. Finds like those at Dicksons’ Mounds show that agriculture led to severe and sudden malnutriton, disease, and a much abbreviated lifespan. It involved a great deal more labor, far less leisure time, and significant compromises of health. Even modern primitive peoples make the same points. When asked why they won’t farm, one Ju/‘hoansi in the Kalahari replied, “Why would we farm, when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?” Or, as Sitting Bull put it:

White men like to dig in the ground for their food. My people prefer to hunt the buffalo as their fathers did. White men like to stay in one place. My people want to move their teepees here and there to the different hunting grounds. The life of white men is slavery. They are prisoners in towns or farms. The life my people want is a life of freedom. I have seen nothing that a white man has, houses or railways or clothing or food, that is as good as the right to move in the open country, and live in our own fashion. … The white men had many things that we wanted, but we could see that they did not have the one thing we liked best—freedom. I would rather live in a tepee and go without meat when game is scarce, than give up my privileges as a free Indian, even though I could have all that white men have.

The historical trend that no wild human would willingly give up their way of life for farming, but would fight to the death rather than become civilized, does not seem like a recent one, either. As Richard Manning writes in his book, Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization:

The same group of anthropologists concluded that this culture’s [*Linearbanderkeramik* or LBK] sweep through Europe took no more than three hundred years, a blitzkrieg by the standards of the day. And it is appropriate to employ the war metaphor here, in that the record suggests, contrary to conventional ideas about rational and peaceful cultural diffusion, that there was almost no intermixing among the wheat farmers and the salmon-eating, cave-painting Cro-Magnon already resident.

The curious part of this is that there was probably not an inherent ecological reason for conflict. That is, the LBK people didn’t blanket the region, at least not at first, but tended to cluster in villages where loess soils were concentrated, leaving the river-valley bottoms and mountains untouched. That would have left a viable niche for hunter-gatherers. A coexistence with mutually beneficial trade could have developed between the two cultures, but the record says it didn’t. There is almost no record of Cro-Magnon artifacts in LBK villages and vice versa. Cro-Magnon sites seem to cease being occupied at about the time of LBK arrival. In fact, the record seems to show that the Cro-Magnons maintained a sort of buffer zone between themselves and the newcomers, leaving even in advance of the advancing farmers.

The exception to the absence of artifacts from one culture in settlements of the other is evidence that the two sides swapped spear points, probably not as trade goods. “All these artifacts are weapons,” note Price, Gebauer, and Keeley, “and there is no reason to believe that they were exchanged in a nonviolent manner. … The evidence from the western extension of the LBK leaves little room for any other conclusion but that the LBK-Mesolithic interactions were at best chilly and at worst hostile.”

Genetically, the demic diffusion model has gained ground, reinforcing the archaeological evidence (*see* ”Tracing the Origin and Spread of Agriculture in Europe” by Pinhasi, Fort and Ammerman, “Genetic evidence for the spread of agriculture in Europe by demic diffusion” by Sokal, Oden and Wilson, “Y genetic data support the Neolithic demic diffusion model,” by Chikhi, Nichols, Barbujani and Beaumont, and/or “Clines of nuclear DNA markers suggest a largely Neolithic ancestry of the European gene pool” by Chikhi, Destro-Bisol, Bertorelle, Pascali and Barbujani). Linguistic evidence offers further suggestive evidence; the linguistic isolation of the Basques reflects their genetic isolation, suggesting that today’s Basques may descend from the same hunter-gatherers who painted the caves at Lasceaux. But all of this suggests that today’s Europeans do *not* descend from pre-agricultural natives; they descend overwhelmingly from Neolithic invaders. “Demic diffusion” gives us an academic term for violent conquest and near-on genocide. Agriculture did not spread peacefully into Europe as savages grasped its superiority; it spread into Europe as part of a genocidal wave of conquest, as farmers expanded to find new lands where they had not yet killed off the soil.

But always, agriculture felt the deserts on their heels. After the genocide and the expansion, the new lands would ultimately fail, just like the old. Already 2,300 years ago, Plato wrote about the impact of such “sustainable” agrarian methods in southern Europe:

What now remains of the formerly rich land is like the skeleton of a sick man. … Formerly, many of the mountains were arable. The plains that were full of rich soil are now marshes. Hills that were once covered with forests and produced abundant pasture now produce only food for bees. Once the land was enriched by yearly rains, which were not lost, as they are now, by flowing from the bare land into the sea. The soil was deep, it absorbed and kept the water in loamy soil, and the water that soaked into the hills fed springs and running streams everywhere. Now the abandoned shrines at spots where formerly there were springs attest that our description of the land is true.

In “The Oil We Eat,” Manning comments on this passage:

Plato’s lament is rooted in wheat agriculture, which depleted his country’s soil and subsequently caused the series of declines that pushed centers of civilization to Rome, Turkey, and western Europe. By the fifth century, though, wheat’s strategy of depleting and moving on ran up against the Atlantic Ocean. Fenced-in wheat agriculture is like rice agriculture. It balances its equations with famine. In the millennium between 500 and 1500, Britain suffered a major “corrective” famine about every ten years; there were seventy-five in France during the same period.

By 500 BCE, Greek coastal cities had become landlocked due to deforestation, which lead to soil erosion, which filled in bays and the mouths of rivers. The Meander River became so silted that its course changed, weaving back and forth, giving us our word “meandering.” Greece suffered from massive soil erosion that degraded agricultural quality over the few centuries of the city-states.

As Manning noted, the grand strategy of agriculture worked for a few thousand years, until, during the Roman Empire, it reached the Atlantic. Western civilization ran out of “west” to expand into. Gilgamesh’s Sumerian culture had failed, and Babylon and Assyria succeeded it; then they failed, and Greece, to the west, succeeded them; then Greece failed, and Rome, to the west, succeeded them; then Rome failed, and the western provinces—Britain, France, Germany and Spain—succeeded it as the major powers of the Middle Ages. But once Western civilization reached the Atlantic, it became much more difficult. Rome collapsed, the dark ages ensued, and medieval Europe struggled on the brink of collapse. Even as early as the Roman Empire, enormous birth rates became necessary just to keep society afloat in the face of such catastrophic mortality. As Peter Brown wrote in The Body & Society:

Citizens of the Roman Empire at its height, in the second century A.D., were born into the world with an average life expectancy of less than twenty-five years. Death fell savagely on the young. Those who survived childhood remained at risk. Only four out of every hundred men, and fewer women, lived beyond the age of fifty. It was a population “grazed thin by death.” In such a situation, only the privileged or the eccentric few could enjoy the freedom to do what they pleased with their sexual drives. Unexacting in so many ways in sexual matters, the ancient city expected its citizens to expend a requisite proportion of their energy begetting and rearing legitimate children to replace the dead. Whether through conscious legislation, such as that of Emperor Augustus, which penalized bachelors and rewarded families for producing children, or simply through the unquestioned weight of habit, young men and women were discreetly mobilized to use their bodies for reproduction. The pressure on the young women was inexorable. For the population of the Roman Empire to remain even stationary, it appears that each woman would have had to have produced an average of five children. Young girls were recruited early for their task. The median age of Roman girls at marriage may have been as low as fourteen. In North Africa, nearly 95 percent of the women recorded on gravestones had been married, over half of those before the age of twenty-three.

The High Middle Ages restored much of the complexity of the Roman Empire after the brief reprieve of the “Dark Ages.” This came about because of two primary factors that both conspired to greatly increase the energy available to medieval society. The first we call the Medieval Warm Period, a climatological increase in the energy available to Europe—at its most basic level, in simple terms of heat. This became available to human society in a number of ways.  Wikipedia notes:

The Medieval Warm Period, the period from 10th century to about the 14th century in Europe, was a relatively warm and gentle interval ended by the generally colder Little Ice Age. Farmers grew wheat well north into Scandinavia, and wine grapes in northern England, although the maximum expansion of vineyards appears to occur within the Little Ice Age period. This protection from famine allowed Europe’s population to increase, despite the famine in 1315 that killed 1.5 million people. This increased population contributed to the founding of new towns and an increase in industrial and economic activity during the period.

On an interesting side note, William Ruddiman’s “Early Anthropogenic Climate Hypothesis” suggests that humans may have altered climate as early as the Agricultural Revolution, as a result of the same deforestation that caused so many effects already noted. The Holocene interglacial, Ruddiman argues, should have ended some time ago, but deforestation and the raising of livestock counter-balanced that natural trend by warming the atmosphere; in that case, modern global warming shows us a change in degree, rather than kind. But the end of the Medieval Warm Period, marked by the Little Ice Age, certainly lends credence to Ruddiman’s hypothesis: the Black Death led to a dip in Europe’s agricultural productivity, which led in turn to a sudden dip in temperatures, as if with less agriculture to warm the atmosphere, the earth seemed to tend naturally towards a return to ice age conditions.

The other element came from technology. The import of the horse collar from China allowed medieval farmers to use horses rather than oxen to pull their plows—one of the greatest technological advances in agricultural history. To quote Manning again from Against the Grain:

Arguably the biggest technological leap of the era was the invention of the horse collar about 1,500 years ago in China. Before this, tillage in both Europe and Asia had depended heavily on oxen and a throat-and-girth yoke that suited those ponderous beasts. The same harness was used on horses, but was so inefficient that it greatly limited the load and mobility of these much faster animals. A smaller horse collar allowed a quantum leap in the load a horse could pull, so fields became larger and more widespread almost immediately. This invention traveled quickly from China to Europe.

The complexity of the High Middle Ages renewed the misery of the Roman Empire; pestilence, plague, and famine provided the ecological counter-balance to keep society in balance.

France—“by any standards a privileged country,” according to its great historian, Fernand Braudel—experienced seven nationwide famines in the fifteenth century and thirteen in the sixteenth. Disease was hunger’s constant companion. During epidemics in London the dead were heaped onto carts “like common dung” (the simile is Daniel Defoe’s) and trundled through the streets. The infant death rate in London orphanages, according to one contemporary source, was 88 percent. Governments were harsh, the rule of law arbitrary. The gibbets poking up in the background of so many old paintings were, Braudel observed, “merely a realistic detail.”

The High Middle Ages by no means became sustainable thanks to this misery, however; it merely slowed their descent, as they ran into the hard, ecological limits Rome never quite reached. The crisis of the High Middle Ages seems very similar to our own “peak oil” problem, what we might call “[peak wood]().” As Richard Cowen writes:

The situation was different in England and France. Much land had been cleared for agriculture in Roman and again in medieval times, and the population was much denser than in mountain Germany and Bohemia. Although metal mining was never on the enormous scale of the Central European strikes, many small mines exploited tin, lead, copper, and iron deposits. All these ores were smelted with charcoal, and with heavy demands on the forests for building timbers for castles, cathedrals, houses, and ships, for building mills and most machinery, for barrels for storing food and drink, and fuel for the lime-burning, glass and brewing industries and for domestic fires, the English and French found that they were approaching a major fuel crisis.

A fuel “crisis” implies a lack of supply, and the other factors involved are supply and transport. Overland costs of transport were very high except for the highest-value goods, and it was simply not economic to carry bulky material like wood for very far on a cart. So thinly populated areas in forest land had no fuel crisis at all, whereas large cities soon felt a crisis as woodlands close by were cleared.

The discovery of the New World changed everything for Europe. With the colonization of the Americas, the sharp contrast of agriculture’s toll left clear evidence in the comparative heights of Europeans vs. Americans. Richard Manning, again from “The Oil We Eat”:

The new lands had an even greater effect on the colonists themselves. Thomas Jefferson, after enduring a lecture on the rustic nature by his hosts at a dinner party in Paris, pointed out that all of the Americans present were a good head taller than all of the French. Indeed, colonists in all of the neo-Europes enjoyed greater stature and longevity, as well as a lower infant-mortality rate—all indicators of the better nutrition afforded by the onetime spend down of the accumulated capital of virgin soil.

But the discovery of a new world to plunder did not suddenly make the strategy sustainable. The same pattern played out again, as farmers expanded westward to find soil they had not yet turned to desert, and committed a genocide against anyone they found who got in their way. Once again, we can hardly point to the expansion of agriculture as a peaceful process of cultural diffusion. As Benjamin Franklin noted, “No European who has tasted Savage life can afterwards bear to live in our societies.” Or, as J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur wrote in Letters from an American Farmer:

There must be in the Indians’ social bond something singularly captivating, and far superior to be boasted of among us; for thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become Europeans! There must be something very bewitching in their manners, something very indelible and marked by the very hands of Nature. For, take a young Indian lad, give him the best education you possibly can, load him with your bounty, with presents, nay with riches, yet he would secretly long for his native woods, which you would imagine he must have long since forgot; and on the first opportunity he can possibly find, you will see him voluntarily leave behind all you have given him and return with inexpressable joy to lie on the mats of his fathers.

Indeed, the very first English colony in the New World—at Roanoke—promptly abandoned civilized life, leaving a sign: “Gone to Croatan.” The example of Indian freedom, and the distance from European centers of power, created a new dynamic in Western civilization. In his article, “Founding Sachems,” Charles C. Mann writes:

Not every European admired this democratic spirit. Indians “think every one ought to be left to his own opinion, without being thwarted,” the Flemish missionary monk Louis Hennepin wrote in 1683. “There is nothing so difficult to control as the tribes of America,” a fellow missionary unhappily observed. “All these barbarians have the law of wild asses—they are born, live, and die in a liberty without restraint; they do not know what is meant by bridle and bit.”

Indians, for their part, were horrified to encounter European social classes, with those on the lower rungs of the hierarchy compelled to defer to those on the upper. When the 17th-century French adventurer Louis-Armand de Lom d’Arce, Baron de Lahontan, tried to convince the Huron, the Iroquois’s northern neighbors, of Europe’s natural superiority, the Indians scoffed.

Because Europeans had to kowtow to their social betters, Lahontan later reported, “they brand us for slaves, and call us miserable souls, whose life is not worth having.” Individual Indians, he wrote “value themselves above anything that you can imagine, and this is the reason they always give for it, that one’s as much master as another, and since men are all made of the same clay there should be no distinction or superiority among them.”

Influenced by their proximity to Indians—by being around living, breathing role models of human liberty—European colonists adopted their insubordinate attitudes. Lahontan was an example, despite his noble title; his account highlighted Indian freedoms as an incitement toward rebellion. Both the clergy and Louis XIV, the king whom Lahontan was goading, tried to suppress these dangerous ideas by instructing French officials to force a French education upon the Indians, complete with lessons in deferring to their social betters. The attempts, the historian Cornelius J. Jaenen reported, were “everywhere unsuccessful.”

In the most direct way, Indian liberty made indigenous villages into competitors for colonists’ allegiance. Colonial societies could not become too oppressive, because their members—surrounded by examples of free life—always had the option of voting with their feet.

What we today consider the greatest mark of Western civilization—democracy—came not from Western civilization, but from the example of the sustainable societies that Western civilization had to destroy, genocidally, in order to maintain its existence. It seems noteworthy that as that genocide has progressed and native influence has waned, the “democracy” of Western civilization has become increasingly symbolic, with a steady erosion of civil liberties dating all the way back to the contests of Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans vs. Hamilton’s Federalists, immediately following the Sullivan Campaign in 1779 that did so much to break the Haudenosaunee.

If the “Founding Fathers” of the United States seem prescient, that surely follows from the predictable, ecological pattern they could already observe. George Washington considered soil exhaustion from monoculture co-equal with slavery as something that would lead the U.S. to disaster. The practice of cotton farming in the south quickly ran through the soil, pushing cotton farmers westward once again. The contest over western states entering the Union represented a wall that this pattern ran up against; that made cotton farmers desperate, and ultimately contributed greatly to the United States Civil War.

After the war, the same ecological pattern pushed the country’s westward expansion into the Great Plains. In short order, farming turned the prairie into a desert, becoming the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, a distinctly faster progression than had occurred in previous expansions. The website “Managing Wholes” puts the problem in perspective quite well:

Massive erosion during North America’s Dust Bowl years (1931-1938) has been blamed on inappropriate use of technology (ploughing the prairies), overpopulation in the affected region, and lack of rainfall. Many people believe that the problems related to the Dust Bowl have been solved—by resettlement of some of the remaining population, the establishment of National Grasslands and the Soil Conservation Service, government spending and regulation, and the return in most years of “normal rainfall.”

Yet the United Nations reports that Texas and New Mexico are some of the fastest, most severely desertifying areas of the world. We have lots of names for this problem: droughts and floods, weeds, overgrazing, wildfire, endangered species, and the chronic downtrodden state of the agricultural economy (in spite of massive subsidies, enormous technical improvements, and overseas markets). These are problems for that tiny sector of the economy known as agriculture. We have separate government agencies in charge of each of the symptoms.

In “The Oil We Eat,” Richard Manning observes that underneath the imported, petrochemical fertilizer, America’s breadbasket, source of so much of the world’s food, may have already become a desert.

Iowa is almost all fields now. Little prairie remains, and if you can find what Iowans call a “postage stamp” remnant of some, it most likely will abut a cornfield. This allows an observation. Walk from the prairie to the field, and you probably will step down about six feet, as if the land had been stolen from beneath you. Settlers’ accounts of the prairie conquest mention a sound, a series of pops, like pistol shots, the sound of stout grass roots breaking before a moldboard plow. A robbery was in progress.

Does this sound like the history of a sustainable system? With the conquest of the Americas, the strategy has reached its end. In 1960, we ran out of arable land. Since then, cropland per capita has steadily dropped, even while food per capita has risen. That phenomenon comes from the last chapter of Western history, the Green Revolution. Suffice to say, while it provides a new twist, it does not deviate very much from the established pattern, and it certainly does not make the system any more sustainable.

The history of Western civilization, when we look at it in ecological terms, could hardly fall into the narrative of progress, and the expansion of an idea because of its recognized brilliance. Rather, it better fits the narrative of a desperate attempt to escape, with brutal genocide as its hallmark. Kirkpatrick Sale offers an excellent summation, by looking at some of the other examples of where this strategy has led.

And here’s the kicker: in the end, agriculture always failed. It was an environmental assault on the earth that was almost never sustainable for much more than a few centuries without disruption and devastation: in the long history of empires dependent on agriculture and irrigation (Babylonia, Sumeria, Assyria, Carthage, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Inca, Aztec) we may read the story over and over again, of the exhaustion and salinization of the land, the destruction of forests, the overgrazing of fields, the compaction of soils, the extinction of wild animals, the silting and salting of rivers, the alteration of climate, erosion, desertification—and, as agriculture and its attendant systems began to fail, the revolt of the underclasses, or the collapse of the imperial systems, or the invasion of outsiders, or often all three. Nature always ended up having her revenge: of all the places where agriculture started, only one, central China, remains a productive agricultural area today; the rest are deserts or jungles.

Works Cited

Wilson, E.O. (1999).  Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. New York: Vintage.