Hell in a breadbasket

I had a dream about the scratch plow last night, the point of which was that agriculture had destroyed the world. I was watching the first man plow the first field, with a curious sense of foreboding, knowing all the evil that would befall the human race because of his ingenuity.

Our entire way of living is based on agriculture and the ideal of storing food beyond today or tomorrow or next week. We live in cities because of it. We have cliques, clubs, civilization, jails, crime rate and wars because of it. The first village was the first nation, the first challenge to the next village, the next nation. When you can store, you can steal. When you can dream of more than your daily bread, you can murder and envy. And, granted, there were murders and wars even in nomadic hunter-gatherer tribal societies. But nuclear holocaust was an impossibility, and in a tightly-knit community where everyone contributes to the survival of the group and ostracization can be fatal, I imagine murder is relatively rare.

Even for those of us who don’t participate in holocausts (as far as we know), things have progressed to the stage that we use our bodies in ways they were never intended, feeding them on pure white flour with complex chromosomes so we can work by sitting for 12 or 14 hours at a time. We get diabetes, hypertension, osteoporosis, even cancer, because of our sedentary lifestyles and bizarre ways of eating.

All this, and nobody would really wish that world history had not transpired, that we aren’t all hunter-gatherers, all one million of us living spread-out, short lives among the animals and the fruit trees. All one million of us, because despite the lack of birth control, every woman has only a few children who live beyond infancy. And without baby food, surviving kids aren’t weaned until age four or so, which means fewer children over the course of a woman’s natural 35 years or so anyway (and with puberty hitting at around age 15, since everyone has zero percent body fat, that leaves a smaller window of opportunity, especially when it’s so dang hard to get any privacy around here). Not all is harsh, though; we have culture and stories and oral traditions, and we learn to tell tales in great style around the fires as we cook the day’s kill. We have fashion and craftsmanship (of our leather garments, wooden spoons and flint weapons) and we take pride in our handiwork. We have macho talk, and woman’s talk, and romance and laughter. Hitler and Stalin were bratty little punks who got gored by wild pigs. The Vikings never raided anyone, because they were too busy hunting elk. The Romans never took over anywhere, any more than the English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Germans, Japanese or Americans. Instead, we live like prides of lions or flocks of geese, with only as many possessions as we can carry on our own backs.

And this did not happen because we cannot live this way. We dream. Of abstractions, of intellectual impossibilities. We envy the lion his majesty and the birds their flight, and we set out to emulate them. We can no more blame agriculture for the state of our world than we can blame science or religion or capitalism or communism. We are the state of our world. Here, in our own hearts.

4 thoughts on “Hell in a breadbasket

  1. Sounds like Oppenheimer after seeing the first a-bomb flash…”I am become death, the shatterer of worlds”
    but you learned early on that one may create a small bit of paradise with love and a few sticks, for you built your little huts on the path that winds its way to God’s rest. But even sticks and happiness can be pillaged by a jealous neighbor – you need not be storing corn.

  2. How different would a species need be from our own to maintain a stable primitive equilibrium instead of clambering up the tree of knowledge to reach for the stars? It’s a tantalizing question – and one which may offer a shot at addressing the classic “why do we seem to be alone in the cosmos” Fermi paradox. Given a social organism with relatively-high-level Intelligence and meta-consciousness, is exponentially increasing technological prowess a foregone conclusion?

    “We are the state of our world”. Well said!
    Even if – as Bill Joy once put it – “The future doesn’t need us”, there’s no reason we can’t fully embrace the present. As recipients of the greatest cultural and technological legacy our galaxy has seen to date – health, wisdom, and the attendant blessings of resource abundance are ours to steward and enjoy beyond the wildest dreams of our forebears.

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