Sometimes it's a good idea to step back from the news for a while.
There will always be more. And it will rarely be good.
The other day I pulled a book called Back to the Garden off the shelf and retreated all the way back to the Paleolithic. The author, James McGregor, is a kind of expert on the relations between cities and their surrounding landscape, but he's less interested in aesthetics than in agriculture. To judge from the title, we might expect him to be offering one more serving of utopian fantasy, exploring the prehistoric past in an effort to locate precisely where human civilization went wrong, and offering advice as to how we can all return to the life of easy-going egalitarian bliss that we've lost.
In the mean time, McGregor spins a series of scholarly narratives about, for example, what the archeological record at Jericho, Abu Hureyra, and Çatalhöyük tell us about how agriculture developed. He rejects the theory that centralized power and vast irrigation systems lie at the heart of the story, arguing that small-scale floodwater farming played a crucial role. Carrying the point one step farther, he asserts that our widespread misunderstanding of these things is a reflection of biases ingrained in nineteenth century historiography.
"The narrative of state formation, which was a major political preoccupation of post-Napoleonic Europe, was further linked with the origins of the coercive power of the community—that is to say, with the origins of war. For theorists imbued with the thought of that era, three distinct theoretical concerns were inextricably blended together. The history of cultivation and domestication, the rise of the nation-state, and the story of warfare are distinct, but nineteenth-century historiography joined them in a way that contemporary theorists must struggle to undo."
The archaeological record tells a different story. The agricultural revolution, far from being the product of a single culture, was an accumulation of scattered practical insights bundled into an ensemble of seeds, herds, and cultivation techniques that could be, and was, adapted to a variety of cultures and habitats.
McGregor examines, and rejects, the nutritional theories of those who argue that the introduction of grains into the diet was a mistake. He finds the Neolithic revolution to be a mixed bag. People lived longer, and the landscape could support more of them, but they also suffered more often from diseases. He also finds the evidence in support of a matriarchal culture that was shattered by violent invasion to be inconclusive at best. Once again, contemporary political concerns are being projected onto the distant past.
A third fashionable argument that McGregor finds dubious is the one that pits civilization against wilderness. He writes:
"Heretical or not, there are good reasons to reject wilderness as the poster child for biological life. This is not to reject wilderness itself but only to reject its role as stand-in for the whole of nature. If we ask ourselves whether the wilderness concept, during its two-century reign, has done a good job of standing up for the natural world, the answer has to be a resounding “No!” During that short time, more damage has been done to the landscape than ever before in human history."
And McGregor thinks he knows the reason why: the concept of wilderness was the creation, not of biologists or ecologists, but of poets and philosophers. Man has no place in wilderness, by definition. Therefore, it cannot be improved. At best, it can be preserved, untouched.
One of my favorite sections focuses on water use practices in Libya during the Roman era. In those days North Africa (along with Sicily and Egypt) was the breadbasket of the Empire. Conventional wisdom has it that the Romans abused the environment, extracting from it whatever they could get to feed its urban population, and leaving behind a desert wasteland that has never recovered.
|A wadi in Libya|
According to McGregor, the evidence doesn't support that view. Almost the reverse. Archeologists have found olive presses throughout North Africa. Experts estimate the annual export of oil to Rome might have approached a million liters. How was this possible? It was due to a meticulous engineering of the seasonal rainfall through the wadis, which allowed farmers to increase their yields considerably and devote some of their attention to cash crops. But it required diligence to operate the dams, catch-basins, and canals and keep them in working order. Thus the conventional scheme of intensive cultivation leading to desertification must be scrapped. McGregor writes:
"This sequence does not fit the Libyan evidence, however. Intensive agriculture there led to soil enrichment, not depletion ... Roman North Africa did not fail in its job of producing food for the regional market. Just the opposite occurred: an international market failure brought on by invasion and fragmentation within the Roman Empire made export-based agriculture unsustainable. Political change, not environmental irresponsibility, led to the abandonment of productive infrastructure in North Africa.
I have been emphasizing here a few of the unorthodox positions that McGregor advances in the course of his ramble through history, but the greater part of the book consists of the historical material itself, which McGregor presents in a clear, studied, low-key tone that makes for easy reading. His interests range from the cave paintings of the Paleolithic to the romantic theories of Goethe and Kant, from the conflicting philosophies of Empedocles and Parmenides to the physiocratic and exchange theories of the Enlightenment.
In his analysis of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, McGregor draws our attention to the central role played by money as the medium through which the "invisible hand" does its work. We take that for granted, without considering that when the theory was formulated, it left out the world of agricultural exchange almost entirely.
"Modern economics, the “dismal science,” rests on the linked axioms that money is a means of exchange and that economic systems rely not on incalculable intrinsic values but on exchange values, established by markets. We think of these statements as noncontroversial descriptions of reality, but historically the universal use of money and the acceptance of exchange value over intrinsic value required substantial intellectual adjustment and often wrenching social change. It is no accident that the seminal eighteenth-century theorist of money was not a Frenchman but a Scot."
In light of McGregor's curious and even-tempered approach to his subjects, it should come as no surprise that his concluding remarks lack apocalyptic fervor. Having spread before us a rich tapestry of ideas and practices, it only remains to connect the dots, as it were.
"Market forces and the inexorable pressures of international competition are held up as the demons that drive farmers to work in ways that at least some find unwelcome. But what holds for the economics of energy production is true of farming as well. When the true costs are totaled up, the economic picture becomes strikingly different. Massive government subsidies, indirect benefits in the form of infrastructure, and protective isolation from liability and health-related costs make contemporary agriculture economically viable. The cost of addressing the obesity that modern crops create would itself be sufficient to tip the balance in favor of ecologically sound practices. Without subsidies and insulation from liability, agribusiness would have to be reconfigured in ways that are more responsible to land, labor, and consumers."
Ain't it the truth! Yet a more insistent advocate for change might have inserted the word "only" so that the sentence reads "ONLY massive government subsidies ... make contemporary agriculture economically viable."
But what makes McGregor's history so interesting isn't its conclusions so much the way-stations we visit as we follow its wandering path, from Bronze Age shipbuilding techniques to rice cultivation in the Po Valley to the Marshall Plan. It's a miniature Enlightenment compendium on the order of the abbé Raynal's History of the Two Indies, inspired by a rational concept of proper practice guided by past experience and an underlying concern for justice, both social and environmental. A good deal of it touches on agriculture only obliquely.
In fact, after finishing the book, I felt that I'd hardly gotten my hands dirty, and I turned to an old essay by Wendell Berry, "The Making of a Marginal Farm," to redress the balance.