By Dave Hurteau & Chad Love
While perusing the energy website The Oil Drum recently, this story caught my eye.
It is a lengthy and at times dry read, but a fascinating one nonetheless, especially for those of us who believe the true natural state of man is found in the hunt. The gist of the post, written by a Canadian soil scientist, is that the Earth's human population has basically been in overshoot mode ever since early civilizations put down their bows, atlatls and spears in favor of hoes and plows.
The bulk of human history has been that of a culture of hunter gathers or foragers. They did not plant crops or modify ecosystem dynamics in any significant manner as they were passively dependent on what the local environment had to offer. They did however domesticate dogs as early as 100,000 BCE (Vila et al. 1997); these animals were useful as hunting aids, guardians, and occasionally as food during times of scarcity. Hunter gatherers maintained social organization and interdependence, and prevented the loss of food to spoilage by sharing the harvest among community members. These people lived in harmony with their supporting ecosystems and their ability to unsustainably stress and damage their environment was limited by the fact that if their numbers exceeded the carrying capacity of the complex, self-managing, species diverse, resilient terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems from which they gained their sustenance, then hunger and lower fertility exercised negative feedback controls on further expansion.
So take that, all you tofu-eatin' herbivores! We're the ones who lived in harmony with nature, at least until those dirty farmers came along.
Diamond (1997) suggests that the development of plant cultivation agriculture was a ‘trap’ that precipitated massive changes in the way we feed ourselves and in the social organization that is a natural product of land ownership and control of stored foodstuffs. The thinking with regard to this ‘trap’ is that, as populations rise to utilize the increased food supplied by cultivation agriculture, it is very difficult to revert to less productive food producing systems without incurring hardship and starvation.
The egalitarian food-sharing social organization systems of hunter-gatherers, pastoralists and shifting agriculturists, based on kinship, gave way to the class stratification of societies that rely on intensive cultivation agriculture. The stratum of society that controls the means of food production, and the land required for it, develops a hierarchy of property owners and leaders who are rich enough to thrive during periods of severe food shortages, while the less powerful, who are employed by them, suffer famine much more directly.
Eventually this social stratification and evolution of complex labor division proceeds to the point where merchants, craftsmen, military, clergy, bureaucrats, politicians and royalty occupy urban areas where food from the countryside is used, but not produced. A rich and politically powerful stratum develops absolute property rights that are accumulated as wealth and transferred to its descendants; this stratum, often doing very little labor, becomes more numerous and difficult to support as the ratio of elites to producers increases (Costanza et al 2005).
So not only did farming permanently alter the environment, it gave us bureacrats, too. Thanks a lot, farmers. No wonder most modern hunters have an innate distrust of "The Man." We can't help it, it's in our DNA.
But don't rush down to the local Starbucks and start heckling the soy latte drinkers just yet, because there's one wee little problem: It doesn't matter because we're all doomed, anyway.
Humanity has probably been in overshoot of the Earth's carrying capacity since it abandoned hunter gathering in favor of crop cultivation (~ 8,000 BCE) and it has been running up its ecological debt since that time.
Translation: There are too many damn people and quite frankly, a lot of you folks are going to have to die. But don't be gloomy, because once most of you have died things will be a lot easier for the rest of us.
The attractive aspect of moving toward sustainable co-existence with self-managing ecosystems is that the hit-and-miss process of evolution has already established how to make them work. Our responsibility (after our numbers have fallen to sustainable levels) will be to learn to live within the regeneration capacity of these restored ecosystems. The penalty for exceeding their regeneration capacity will be hunger and privation, as it was for our hunter gatherer, forager and pastoral ancestors.
So should we start stockpiling ammo now or learn how to whittle a boomerang?