It's not really necessary, you know. We don't actually have to have 2.5 million Canadians be food insecure each day. We don't actually have to have a billion or more food insecure persons in the world. We don't actually have to have Mike Davis' Planet of Slums. These are choices we've made or allowed to be made.
In the book of his Massey Lectures, A Short History of Progress, historian Ronald Wright spends a fair bit of time looking at the birth of pastoralism and agriculture and at the perfection of hunting. About hunting, he writes:
By 15,000 years ago at the very latest—long before the ice withdraws—humankind is established on every continent except Antarctica. Like the worldwide expansion of Europe, this prehistoric wave of discovery and migration had profound ecological consequences. Soon after man shows up in new lands, the big game starts to go missing. Mammoths and woolly rhinos retreat north, then vanish from Europe and Asia. A giant wombat, other marsupials, and a tortoise as big as a Volkswagen disappear from Australia. Camels, Mammoth, giant bison, giant sloth, and the horse die out across the Americas. A bad smell of extinction follows Homo sapiens around the world.Not all experts agree that our ancestors were solely to blame. Our defenders point out that we hunted in Africa, Asia, and Europe for a million years or more without killing everything off; that many of these extinctions coincide with climatic upheavals; that the end of the ice age may have come so swiftly that big animals couldn't adapt or migrate. These are good objections, and it would be unwise to rule them out entirely. Yet the evidence against our ancestors is, I think, overwhelming. [....] Upper Palaeolithic people were far better equipped and more numerous than their forerunners, and they killed on a much grander scale. Some of their slaughter sites were almost industrial in size: a thousand mammoths at one; more than 100,000 horses at another. [....]
In steep terrain, these relentless hunters drove entire herds over cliffs, leaving piles of animals to rot, a practice [sic] that continued into historic times at places such as Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, Alberta. Luckily for bison, cliffs are rare on the great plains. [....]So among other things we need to know about ourselves is that the Upper Paleolithic period, which may well have begun in genocide, ended with an all-you-can-kill wildlife barbecue. The perfection of hunting spelled the end of hunting as a way of life. Easy meat meant more babies. More babies meant more hunters. More hunters, sooner or later, meant less game. Most of the great human migrations across the world at this time must have been driven by want, as we bankrupted the land with our moveable feasts.
“The perfection of hunting spelled the end of hunting as a way of life.” Once we got really really good at killing things, we killed everything. “The archaeology of western Europe during the final millennia of the Palaeolithic shows the grand lifestyle of the Cro-Magnons falling away. The flint blades grow smaller, and smaller . Instead of killing mammoth they are shooting rabbits.” So what happened to the hunters? Many of them died, having, with the help of their ancestors, created a wasteland where a viable ecosystem had been. More managed to raise the stakes by herding goats and sheep, becoming pastoralists. Others took gathering way more seriously, and began to develop agriculture between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago.
Civilizations have grown, flourished, and died since the development of agriculture. Depressingly, they tend to fall into the same patterns where cities in the middle of fertile land (usually a valley by a river or a floodplain) begin to grow. Their growth pushes agriculture out from the city walls, which pushes the herders back into more and more marginal land. Goats and sheep begin to denude the hillsides and the hillsides begin to erode. Farming is eventually pushed out onto the now-near-useless hillsides and famine follows. And civilizations fall. And new ones arise.
Sometimes, in spite of their best efforts, civilizations survive. Egypt did, managing a good 5,000 years. Of course, the Nile floodplain was so clearly not a place to build a city that it saved the farmland from being built on. Also, the annual flooding essentially took advantage of environmental devastation upstream—erosion upstream swept fertile soil down to the delta, where the floods deposited it each year. This ongoing renewal of the soil continued until the building of the Aswan High Dam.
China has also managed the same kind of longevity, although their case involves loess, the soil eroded from the Eurasian landmass, blown in, and left in massively thick deposits for Chinese farmers to exploit. But even now, Chinese farmers are fighting a losing battle against desertification in the north, and the Chinese government is busy buying up million hectare tracts of land in Asia and Latin America to ensure that China will continue to feed itself.
But despite China and Egypt, Wright says “The lesson I read in the past is this: that the health of land and water—and of woods, which are the keepers of water—can be the only lasting basis for any civilization's survival and success”.
But what of the hunters that didn't destroy everything? Say, the Bushmen of the Kalahari, who lived for thousands of years in a balanced and integrated way with their environment. (An aside: one of my favourite stories about the Bushmen is from Elizabeth Marshall Thomas' book The Tribe of the Tiger: Cats and Their Culture, where she describes a small hunting party that tracked an antelope they had wounded into the middle of a small lion hunting party. The Bushmen simply walked into the middle of the group of lions, explaining firmly that the lions had made a mistake, that the antelope they'd killed was in fact theirs, picked up the antelope and left. And the lions grumbled, but let them go. Now that is integration into your environment!)
The Bushmen are (or, rather, were, until their lands were taken over for cattle production), a lesson for us all in environmental integration. There is only so much food, there can only be so many people. The Kalahari is a harsh place to live, and that harshness helps in maintaining the balance. But the Bushmen observed the primary rule of any parasite—don't kill off the host. A lesson that most agricultural civilizations have failed to learn: “ the health of land and water—and of woods, which are the keepers of water—can be the only lasting basis for any civilization's survival and success.”
But it seems that we may have perfected agriculture; yields seem to be maxed out, the conversion factor of energy into grain has topped out (meaning that the least possible energy goes toward growing any other part of the plant than the seed), irrigation (actually an agriculture killer in many cases, where it concentrates salts in the ground, reducing soil fertility) and breeding have reached their limits. The new genetically modified organisms (GMOs) being pushed into production (like alfalfa) don't actually improve yields all that much, and often increase herbicide and pesticide use. We're still reliant on about six foods (like wheat, barley, maize) that have come down to us from the first farmers, and we still don't take proper care of our soils.
But, as the Bushmen point out, it doesn't have to be this way. The Dietitians of Canada don't think it has to be this way (.pdf). Food Secure Canada doesn't think it has to be this way. In fact, a lot of people don't think it has to be this way. It is going to take work to change things, but it is work that can be done both institutionally and individually. Things are already changing in the UK, where Tesco is supplying carbon footprint information with their produce. Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon's 100 Mile Diet has made a big difference. And each of us can make a difference. Every time we get smaller, lighter, and more local, it changes things. And every time we talk about food security, it changes things. And every time we take on a politician, it changes things. And there's a lot to change.
All of the Ronald Wright quotes are taken from An Illustrated Short History of Progress. ©2006 Ronald Wright