The Agricultural Apocalypse

29 January 2012

Sunday


The four horsement of the apocalypse -- war, disease, famine, and death -- constituted a traditional litany of the disasters to which humanity was subject, i.e., the familiar terrors of history.

There is more than one list of exactly those evils represented by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The Biblical passage from which the image is derived mentions the horses as being white, red, black, and pale. These have been interpreted as representing conquest, war, famine, and death, though in the Dürer etching above the four horsemen are commonly identified as war, famine, plague, and death.

If we take this latter litany of war, famine, plague, and death as the evils of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, it immediately becomes clear that these are not four evils of apocalypse, but one evil intrinsic to the human condition (death) and three evils intrinsic to settled agricultural civilization.

It is settled agricultural civilization itself that is the apocalypse; the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution was at the same time the Agricultural Apocalypse. For in so far as anthropologists and archaeologists have been able to determine, prior to the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution, there was no war, no famine, and no plague. There was, of course, death, since death is the human condition, but it was the change in the human condition brought about by settled agricultural civilization that added war, famine, and plague to the human condition.

I have mentioned in several posts that the Paleolithic is sometimes called the Paleolithic Golden Age. It is well known that our hunter-gatherer ancestors, before they settled down into agricultural civilization, had a more diverse and therefore a healthier diet. From this healthier diet followed a healthier life. Individuals were taller and lived longer.

It also seems to be the case that settled agricultural civilization made possible war, famine, and death. I have argued many times that civilization and war are born twins. Only the social organization provided by civilization can make organized violence on the scale of war possible. I have even suggested that instead of seeing war and civilization as a facile dichotomy of human experience, we ought to think of large-scale human activity sometimes manifesting itself as civilization and sometimes manifesting itself as war. The two activities are convertible.

With settled civilization and control of the food supply, our ancestors allowed family sizes to grow — both because it was now possible to raise more children than the parents could physically carry, and because more children meant more farm labor. The entire family could be impressed as a labor gang to work on the farm, which produced surplus food when conditions were favorable. However, when conditions turned unfavorable, there were now many mouths to feed, and they could not be readily moved to another location, having surpassed the numbers that can be realistically transformed into a roving band. The obvious result was famine.

Also with settled civilization came the concentration of growing populations in urban centers and in extending trading networks. These concentrations of human population effectively created disease pools in which both viral agents and bacteriological infections could be easily transmitted through a community in close physical proximity. The obvious result was plague.

While the Industrial Revolution allowed us to transcend many of the institutions of agricultural civilization, the pattern of settled life remains, and with it remains the possibilities of war, famine, and death, which now are part of the human condition, and having lived with them for so long they are also become constitutive of human nature.

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Fear of Death

3 February 2011

Thursday


Last night, for only the third time in my life, I experienced a vivid and visceral fear of death. This experience was markedly unlike my first two experiences, which were the results of carelessness and accidents. In one instance (I can’t say the first, as I don’t remember which preceded the other) I was falling a tree and things didn’t go quite right. The tree did what loggers call a “slab,” which is when the tree, instead of falling at the point where the undercut lines up with the upper cut, splits vertically up the center. This happens so quickly one has no time to react. Suddenly, matters are out of your control. However, it did not happen so fast that I was not able to experience a split second fear of death.

In another incident, I was mowing the grass on a steep hillside on a riding lawnmower. This will sound a bit ridiculous, but it was in fact quite frightening. I fell off the riding lawnmower on the downhill side in just such a way that the mower appeared to be heading directly for me. Once again, for a split second, I feared for my life. I was lucky, since I got out of the way in time. I have had many accidents that have left me physically injured, but only these two accidents made me fear for my life.

In an accident, one’s survival is largely a matter of luck. When the tree I was falling got away from me, I was simply lucky that I was not in the way. In the film based on the Ken Kesey novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, the Henry Stamper character is killed by a tree that goes slab. Once you’ve experienced it, it is all-too-easy to understand how such accidents can be fatal. In fact, logging is one of the most dangerous professions (and has one of the highest worker’s compensation insurance rates) in the world today.

Not all incidents in which the fear of death can be experienced are of this variety, and my experience last night was not of the split second kind. I was exercising in my usual vigorous fashion, using a speedbag, jumping rope, and doing sit ups on an inclined board. When I rested between sets at one point, my heart began to beat in an irregular rhythm. Of course, I have many times experienced an irregular heart rhythm following vigorous exercise. What was different about last night was that, as I felt my heart beating oddly, at the same time I felt a fear of death coming over me, increasing as time passed. It lasted perhaps a minute, which was much longer than my previous episodes of fear of death — longer by many orders of magnitude. I discovered that fearing death for an instant is a very different experience from fearing death for a minute or so.

My fear did not manifest itself intellectually or emotionally. I did not say to myself, “I may be dying.” Nevertheless, I am old enough to have experienced fear many times, so I know physically what it feels like, and this is what I experienced: the visceral symptoms of fear, coupled with an instinctive, intuitive knowledge that it was my own death that I feared.

It occurred to me later that, if I am conscious when I die, some future iteration of fear of death will not be followed by survival and relief at the consciousness of that survival, but by my death, a fading consciousness of the reality of my death, and finally the peace that surpasseth all understanding.

Tonight, instead of exercising, I took a brisk walk.

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Saturday


Everyman: O Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind; In thy power it lieth me to save, Yet of my good will I give thee, if ye will be kind, Yea, a thousand pound shalt thou have, And defer this matter till another day.

Everyman: O Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind; In thy power it lieth me to save, Yet of my good will I give thee, if ye will be kind, Yea, a thousand pound shalt thou have, And defer this matter till another day.

There is famous medieval morality play titled Everyman in which an ordinary man is made to face the meaning of his life. In the play, this confrontation comes in the form of a conversation with Death, as in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal it comes in the form of a chess game with Death. Yet existential soul-searching can come in many forms, and may be precipitated by life crises of many kinds.

Death playing chess with an unlucky mortal: we know who wins this game every time.

Death playing chess with an unlucky mortal: we know who wins this game every time.

We have all today heard the term “career suicide” to identify self-destructive stupidity that brings a swift end to one’s socioeconomic status. In the industrialized world, this is a kind of death — career death, which in some circumstances is brought about by career suicide, while in other cases it is brought about by career homicide (i.e., the politics of personal destruction). Since in industrialized society we are encouraged to invest our hopes and dreams in our jobs and careers, in the way that former ages encouraged the faceless mass of the peasantry to invest their hopes in a better world beyond this life, career death can be as traumatic and as devastating as any existential crisis.

Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal dramatized the existential crisis of death, who here visits a knight, one of the elites of the medieval world.

Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal dramatized the existential crisis of death, who here visits a knight, one of the elites of the medieval world.

At present I am listening to a rather trivial book, How Starbucks Saved My Live: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else, by Michael Gates Gill. It is difficult to justify this to myself, but it is easy to listen to and is something of a break from my usual fare. The book is essentially the story of the death of a career, the existential crisis occasioned thereby, and a re-evaluation of the author’s life in view of his altered circumstances.

Gill Starbucks front

Any story — even the story of a remarkably privileged life — can be animated and made interesting by a great writer, but Mr. Gill is apparently a very mediocre man, and (fortunately) aware of his mediocrity. He is the Everyman of the Industrial Age, and he does an honest and passably fair job of so portraying himself.

Gill Starbucks back

What happens when a mediocre man discovers his mediocrity and loses the privilege to which he previously believed himself entitled? Well, he presents himself as having improved as a human being as a result of this change in socioeconomic status. No doubt he did change for the better. However, he wishes to frame the things he learned from this change as universal human truths.

Having discovered, late in his life, the virtue and dignity of labor, he conflates this same virtue and dignity with a calling. While it is true that some people, perhaps many people, have a calling for service, and indeed some people define a calling in terms of service, not all callings in life are a calling to service. Mr. Gill obviously learned something about himself and about the world from his experience of service — viz. the service industry as represented by Starbucks — and I would not want to deny the value of this knowledge painfully acquired.

Forgive me, if you can, for quibbling, but it could be argued that service as a calling and the service industry are two starkly different things. The service industry is the industrialization of service, and one can reasonably ask whether that spirit which animates service and can transform it into a calling can be captured within the context of the service industry. I do not deny that it can be so captured; I only suggest that it is an open question if it can be captured. Having worked for a living my entire adult life but never having worked in the service industry or in retail, I cannot speak with first-hand knowledge of the experience of industrialized service.

I have personally known people who have come from a life of privilege and who have entered the working class late in life. It is not an unusual occurrence today. Many of them adapt well, even admirably. But some are so transformed by the ordeal of change that they think that everyone needs to engage in the kind of service sector labor in which they were able to find themselves. While I think it is a wonderful thing for a person to find themselves, even late in life, life is much more than labor and service, however virtuous, dignified, eye-opening or consciousness-raising.

The vast majority of people who fill jobs in the service sector don’t usually find these jobs to be very inspirational (even if they are good at what they do) because they have mostly known little else in their lives. Most people with jobs at Starbucks haven’t had the opportunity, prior to their career as a barista, to obtain an Ivy League degree in art history, to run with the bulls in Pamplona for the festival of San Fermin before they are twenty, to meet Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and other literary lights, and so forth. Thus for Mr. Gill, working an “ordinary” job at Starbucks was a new experience. Most people stuck in dead end jobs have known nothing else. The parallel to Mr. Gill’s life would be to take someone from the working class and then, late in life, to show them the world and expose them to a life a privilege. No doubt they would learn as much from this as Mr. Gill learned from joining the working classes.

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