20 December 2010
The Neolithic Agricultural Revolution transformed human society in unprecedented ways, and created the world that we know today by creating the conditions that made the Industrial Revolution possible. One of the central features of the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution was what we may call the rationalization of the food supply for human societies. The hunter-gatherer institutions of our paleolithic past, although it obviously represents a highly robust form of social institution because it endured for better than a hundred thousand years (and therefore much longer than agriculturalism or industrialism), was a social milieu that sharply limited the size of human communities. Just as we know that predators usually have a range for their activities which constitutes their territory, because the land can only support so many predators, so human societies living by the predation of paleolithic megafauna would similarly have had territories. If the hunter-gatherer band grew larger than the territory that was their range, they would starve, or they would have to move on. Consequently, hunter-gatherer groups almost always practiced rigorous forms of population control. For example, mothers reduced their fertility by nursing for extended periods of time.
While most hunter-gatherer societies were transformed by the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution into settled agricultural societies, some hunter-gatherers chose a different approach to the rationalization of their food supply, that is to say, a different approach to asserting human control over the human food supply, which meant taking responsibility for the long term and ongoing supply of food for a community. This could be thought of as the pragmatic component of the emergence of historical consciousness. While we cannot excavate the history of consciousness, we can discover through archaeology the traces of behaviors motivated by such consciousness. and behaviors that indicate a concern for future food supply constitute an awareness of history far beyond the needs of the present moment.
I would like to take the opportunity of this discussion to recommend the set of Teaching Company lectures on Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations by Brian Fagan. Professor Fagan imaginatively describes the process of transition from hunter-gatherers to settled agriculturalism, suggesting gradual ways in which this might have come about, from revisiting particular locations on an annual basis for their gathering opportunities, to finding ways to encourage the growth of the particular plants for gathering, to assuming full control of planting and harvesting the plants in question.
I think that a very similar process, even more gradual and imperceptible to those who who took this alternative route to the rationalization of food supply, could be used in the explanation of the emergence of pastoralism, or, if you like, what I would call the pastoralization of hunter-gatherer societies. It is likely that hunter-gatherer bands followed the vast, thundering herds of paleolithic megafauna in their seasonal migrations, living at the edge of the herd, and taking animals as they needed them for food, shelter, and clothing, much like a pack of wolves. As the Younger Dryas stadial yielded to the current Holocene Interglacial, and the Ice Age landscape began to transform into the interglacial landscape we know and love today, hunter-gatherer bands would have been forced to adopt new methods of hunting and would have followed the herds into new regions. It is not difficult to imagine how, over time, this concern for the herds that the hunters pursued would be transformed into full pastoralism.
Just as agriculturalism comprehends limited pastoralism, so it is to be expected the pastoralism will comprehend limited agriculturalism. What defines a society (as I have repeatedly pointed out in relation to integral history) is how the greater part of the members of that society are living; there will always be exceptions, and some of these will be important exceptions, but it is the rule rather than the exception that defines the age.
While the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution (which was the more common response to changed climactic conditions and the rationalization of food supply) created something wholly new in human history — settled societies — the emergence of pastoralism did not culminate in the establishment of settled societies or the emergence of urban life from such settlements. This is a crucial difference that divides agriculturalism from pastoralism. Human societies can effect a rationalization of their food supply while retaining their nomadic traditions; there is nothing necessary or inevitable about the emergence of settled societies, although it could be plausibly argued that, once settled societies do emerge in history, that they enjoy an intrinsic advantage, since their way of life is the condition of the possibility of developing institutions (such as urbanism and warfare) that can ultimately displace or marginalize all other forms of human society.
There is a sense in which pastoralization was an alternative path of human society that might have defined the next integral paradigm after hunter-gatherer nomadism, in which case humanity might have experienced a sequence of nomadism to pastorlism to industrialism, or nomadism to pastorlism to agriculturalism to industrialism, or perhaps our development might have been arrested in a pastoralism paradigm that did not emerge in the pervasive and transformative way that agriculturalism emerged.
There is also a sense in which pastoralization could still take place, and could be the integral paradigm of our future. Let me emphasize that I do not think that this development is likely, but it certainly is possible, and since I have also emphasized on many occasions that we ought to expect to be blindsided by history, since we are always surprised by unprecedented and unpredicted developments, we cannot dismiss the possibility of pastoralization.
How could pastoralization come about as an historical process determining the future course of civilization? I can imagine a scenario based on the fact that it would be possible today to build cities that are self-sustaining and could largely grow their own agricultural produce. Early in the history of this forum I wrote The Future of Food, in which I discussed technologies of agricultural towers that could readily be built in urban centers. There is also been much discussion of how to use the open spaces in declining rustbelt cities like Detroit, and one obvious use for the open lots is urban farming. None of this requires any technological breakthroughs; it could be done anytime the capital and the motivation were there.
If we couple this possibility of urban agriculturalism with the relentless demographic trend of urbanization, discussed in The Urban-Rural Divide, it is possible to imagine a realistic, pragmatic future in which humanity was almost exclusively urbanized and agriculture was urbanized at the same time. A sustainable, self-supporting city would provide fresh produce to its citizens even while eliminating the costs and pollution associated with distribution networks as we know them today. Something like this occurred in Cuba when the Soviets withdrew their oil subsidies. Farming was brought close to the cities, so that diesel was not necessary to transport the food from farms to urban areas. This process could be pursued consciously and systematically.
If humanity withdrew into sustainable cities with their own ability to grow produce, the gradually depopulated countryside would be free to be returned to wilderness or to be at the disposal of pastoralists, or both. Wild game would be available in the wilderness for those who wanted to hunt, thus satisfying both a social need and dietary need, while nomadic pastoralists cold drive their herds seasonally from one self-sustaining city to another, selling a portion of their animals for slaughter in return for goods that they could no produce given their nomadic way of life.
As I said above, this is quite a stretch, and not something I consider likely, but it would be consistent with other cultural developments. I have argued in several posts that contemporary environmentalism is one of the few ideologies today that actively shapes the destinies of individuals and nations. In so far as the process of pastoralization realizes certain aspects of the ideal and aspiration of environmentalism (though I hasten to add that I know of no environmental groups whatsoever that have advocating what I have outlined above), the fact of environmentalism could push society in this direction.
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