First Post on Food Systems and History

Saturday, July 05, 2003

Many of us ask how best to change our industrial society. Many have an idea of what we need as a species to survive – a more networked world where we work with nature rather than against her. But we don’t know how to get there. Maybe we don’t need a plan but only to wait for what will happen.

My thesis is that we have endured a number of food/technology crises. Each time we this has happened, we have had to make a fundamental shift in how power is used and society is therefore structured.  I think that we are on the brink of such a crisis today. Let’s have a quick blog-like look at our history in this context and then look at what is coming in our lifetime.

Let’s revisit the breakout in 60-40,000 bc that I have talked about earlier today. Remember that we think that complex language was an adaptation to hunting on the savannah and hence was our start as homo sapiens – the tool maker. Our new ability to learn across tribes and across time, rather than only directly face to face in present time,  gave us the ability to adapt to changes in the environment by using culture not biology.

This ability to adapt via culture has given modern man a huge adaptation accelerator that we have been relying on ever since. Think about this for a moment, all other species have to make biological adaptations to environmental change. This is very slow. Humans can use culture or collective learning. Example – Modern man migrated north into the ice because he had clothing, fire and the culture to use weapons and boats in the hunt and tools in the preparation of food. A small ape could compete with a Polar Bear! This ability has given us a unique advantage in the acquisition of food. But this is also a poisoned chalice. Our ability to get food at a rate higher than a natural fit with the resource tends to lead us to over-exploit the resource. As with all systemic processes, the food system tends to collapse suddenly leaving man in a crisis that not only affects his stomach but his society.

Until the breakout, the world was full of large and slow animals. Giant sloths, giant tusked mammoths etc. They had evolved to be very large to make it to hard for the predators of the time. Large size was also an adaptation to cold weather. A large animal has a smaller surface to size area and can therefore hold heat better. Clovis man had the hunting tools, the social structures and the food processing capability, butchery, drying, cooking etc to devastate animals that had been immune from predation before. This lead to a population explosion. By 10,000 bc man had reached every corner of the earth.

Here is the beginning of the pattern that we need to understand. We find a technology for food production that is so successful that it leads to the collapse of the underlying resource. We then have to reinvent our society to take on a new technology. Which in turn leads to a population explosion and the destruction of the underlying resource and so on. Question – will we ever learn?

By 10,000 bc we had effectively wiped out the large animals. It was not just us. The coincidental & dramatic end of the ice age must have been a large factor, but we probably tipped the system. Hunter Gatherer man woke up one morning with nothing left to hunt and had to hand over power to the Gatherers. I bet the end might have happened in the life of a generation. A boy would have been born into plenty and died of starvation. The big game harried by man and failing to adapt itself to the change in climate must have gone like the bison or the carrier pigeon as if overnight.

What must this have meant socially? In short, the men became unemployed as they are a bit today. These were not Gatherer Hunter societies. They were Hunter Gatherer societies. There must have been a revolution in power as women became the prime food source. In many parts of the world, man stopped being a nomad and had to settle. What had been gathering quickly turned into gardening and animal domestication. We see this shift in power in the rise of the Goddess and the sacrifice of the son king every year to ensure the harvest. The idea of property emerged. In the era of the Goddess, property went through the female line. So power was held in a gynarchy – a hierarchy of women. In this time there are no walls and no evidence of much inter tribal warfare. It must have been a golden age unless you were the Son King – but even then you had a good year.

The shift to patriarchy and to the power system that we inherited, comes from the technology used in food preparation and from a different response in the east to the collapse of the large game source. .

Pottery is a key technology platform. Most of our transforming processes today are based on the idea of applying heat and pressure. Nature on the other hand uses water and enzymes. A new breakout for man came from learning how to use high temperatures to make pottery for food storage and cooking. This technology lead directly to the technology of metal working which in turn lead to advanced tillage tools, such as the plow and then to weapons. It also lead to the wheel. The first wheel was a pottery wheel. Some consultant of the time, an outsider, must have one day made the click and suggested that the wheel could be attached on a different plane to a sled and we would have a cart. With a cart and a plow you can have farming. With farming you can have a surplus. Until this time nearly everyone had had to work in food production. With a surplus, new occupations open up not directly related to food. With a cart and a surplus you can have a city. With a surplus you can feed priests, soldiers and civil servants. With the new tools and the domestication of oxen to pull the plow, we had a population explosion that is only today levelling out at maybe 8 billion in 2050.

In the east another process  unfolded. Here the men did not give up power to women and settle. Instead, they selected a small number of animals that could be domesticated, sheep, goats and horses and became herders. They developed a very extreme form of patriarchy. Gods were men and were cruel. This group migrated west.

The tipping point was when the Herders and their Gods met the Farmers and their Goddess. The herders, saw that stealing food and calling it taxation was a “good thing”. They saw that they could use the huge surplus populations as armies and priests and our modern world was begun. At first the Goddess married the God, Hera and Zeus. But then Yahweh, and later Allah, killed the Goddess off. Her ghost is Mary

There are many subplots along the way. Enclosures, the agricultural revolution and the advent of industrial farming and distribution. But we have been on an arc of the same system of exploiting the bounty of nature and using force and power to dominate those that grow food since Babylon. This at one level has been very successful. We have enjoyed a huge population explosion.

But we are near the end. We will see the end of wild fish in the sea in our lifetime. We, like Clovis hunters, will only have memories of fishing the ocean. Like Clovis men our ability to use technology and organization will have deprived the world and ourselves of a great bounty. We too will have overexploited the soil itself. But most importantly we will have overexploited fresh water.

In 50 years time it will not be possible to grow food in California. In 50 years time the Orgalla aquifer will have run dry and we will not be able to grow food in the mid west. In 20 years time China and India will have outstripped their water supplies. Maybe our world will be warmer as well and we will have droughts thanks to nature as Clovis man endured the great melt. In 50 years time our population will be about 8 billion just as our food system comes to a halt.

If we are smart we will use some hiccups along the way to start making some changes.

In 10 years borders will be shut to the transshipping of food as food safety scares such as mad cow, foot and mouth, wart etc are used politically to protect local food systems. The whole idea of mono cropping aimed at exports will die off. The farmers in the west will crack before the water runs out.

In 5 years, the outcry against processed food and its role in our obesity epidemic will start to change food habits in the mainstream. This month we have seen Kraft and Nestle begin to make changes. Pop and trans-fats will be seen like tobacco. A demand will rise for food grown in a new way.

Our children will have to reinvent how we get and process food. Vast cities with only 3 days supply of food will no longer be able to rely of an industrial complex to send them cheap food. I have seen this in Ukraine where every family in Kiev has a Dacha plot and ensures its food supply by gardening. In Havana, every family has an urban plot.

As with the end of the large animals or the takeover of the Gardeners by the Herders, all our power lines will shift. Vast agro-industrial enterprises will have no place in a such a a world. The process of cityfication, started in Mesopotamia 6,000 years ago will have to unwind.

It will not be the internet per se that will change how and where we live and who has power or not. It will be the end of our current food system. It may be the internet that will enable us to adapt more quickly to whatever we find as the alternative but be assured when power shifts it is not a fun time.

It may be likely that the balance of power will once again shift between the sexes. I suspect that the new food system will be local and will be closer to gardening than farming. Women are already in the vanguard in this field.

So what do we do? We can wait for the collapse. You say that it will not happen. It’s a matter of simple math, when you take more water over time than is recharged, it runs out. When you pollute your water systems as we are on PEI over time with nitrates, you tip at a point in the future and you have no usable ground water. If we do nothing, all this is only a matter of time. Or we can wake up and see that water and food are the key. We will not be able to save the western water shed, not the Orgalla nor India or China but we can save ourselves. All we have to do is to wake up and look at the trends. Then we do as man has always done we get together and find a new way!

The Breakout link –

The great leap: “60,000 years ago humans were on the brink of extinction. An evolutionary eyeblink later, there are over 6 billion of us. How did we do it?” [Guardian Unlimited > [ t e c h n o c u l t u r e ]] [Universal Rule]

More and more evidence is emerging that something unusual happened with humans about 60,000 years ago. I’m waiting for the movie. [A Man with a Ph.D. – Richard Gayle’s Weblog]

The breakout 60-40,000 bc is the tipping point where man left the world of animals. More and more the thesis behind this shift has been that complex language appeared at this time. A blind alley for research has been the search for a mechanical adjustment in the body – the throat/larynx area. Soft tissue does not last – hence “proof” of language as a product of mechanical adaptation cannot be found.

More progressive researchers think instead about mindset and culture as evidenced in rates of innovation in tools and art which can be observed. There is no doubt that the rate of innovation becomes exponential for homo sapiens at this time. Poor old Neanderthal has almost no innovation. Art appears to explode fully realized at this time “Lascaux”

The theory that appeals to me is that early man could speak even Neanderthal. But early language as with say highly evolved apes and monkeys was not merely vocal but used a wide range of visuals. Alarm calls, food calls, are all part of the language of many primates. This language is by definition trapped in the present. “Hungry” “Back off” “I want you” I’m sad” etc My mother in law still lives in this world of the emotional present. It is a language of self – we see the world only through our eyes and only in the now. There is no future. The driving force is emotion. This mindset does not allow us to imagine a future and hence there can be no speculative innovation. You can only learn by observing the work of another directly. It is very hard to to exchange ideas outside of a tribe.  I bet the vocal apparatus evolved in this prolonged era of mother in law world view. So the tools were ready for a different application.

So how did we speak in anew way that enabled us to think of a future and to learn indirectly?

Robin Dunbar suggests that complex speech evolved for man from the primate habit of grooming. All Primates groom. The reason is to keep up emotional health in a hierarchy. Grooming enables you to form and sustain your protective political alliances and community within the tribe that keeps you safe from internal aggression. You get the protection of some alphas and you support each other when you have been put upon by a higher person. We do this at the office but today we use words and we call it gossip. Human society like all primate society is highly political and hierarchical. Think of high school! The cool set – cliques etc.

This is Dunbar’s aha! As we moved onto the Savannah where we had to hunt in an organized manner – unit size had to grow so that there were at least 8 adult males. This drove a tribal size of about 40 with perhaps 8 adult females and 15 youths and children. As the unit size grew there was a conflict between the grooming time needed to hold the structure together and the time needed for other activities such as hunting and food preparation. You can only groom one person at a time but you can gossip with many – especially is you are a woman and you are sitting by the fire working on skins with the other women while looking out for the kids. So we started to chat! Getting my drift?

Might social software act as a chat/gossip amplifier? Might it be a driver for an extension of mindset and consciousness that gossip drove 60,000 years ago?


One response to “First Post on Food Systems and History

  1. Pingback: It’s our nature to be healthy as we age | The Missing Human Manual

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