In order to understand the destructive nature of agriculture you must understand the phases of ecological succession. Ecological succession refers to the phases of growth from barren rock to a climax forest. The loss of biodiversity that creates a blank slate generally occurs through a disturbance such as fire, flood, volcanic eruptions, etc.
Primary succession refers to the earliest phase of ecological succession, characterized by the growth of “pioneer plants,” such as fungus, grasses and annual wildflowers. These plants love sun, barren rock and/or disturbed soil and serve to create quality, life-giving soil for secondary succession to grow in. Secondary succession refers to the later phases of ecological succession, marked by the growth of larger perennials such as shrubs and trees that need established soil that the primary succession forms. These phases work towards creating the final stage of succession, a stable ecosystem, referred to as a climax forest.
Agriculture refers to a process of cultivation that simulates natural catastrophe (i.e. burning, flooding, tilling) to inspire (mostly) annual pioneer plants, specifically grasses (i.e. corn, wheat, rice). From its foundation agriculture causes a loss of biodiversity; agricultural subsistence means keeping the land in a fixed state of primary succession. Agriculturalists have a fondness for mono-cropping. Mono-cropping sets up the perfect environment for insects who love to eat that particular plant. Slowly but surely tilling the soil to create continuous primary succession exposes soil to wind and rain until the soil erodes away entirely. So much so that in order to grow crops, our fields require the importation of mineral resources known as fertilizer.
Ecological succession show us that plant growth naturally progresses to climax forests. Agriculture involves working against this natural progression rather than working with it. Trying to stop insect populations when you have provided them the perfect habitat involves a lot of work. Making fertilizers that you would not need if you followed the flow of succession, involves a lot of work. Not only does this form of subsistence destroy the environment, it also requires a ton of labor (which characteristically comes in the form of a slave class).
These problems make agricultural subsistence easily open to crop-failure from large insect infestations, disease, climate change, etc. which leads inevitably to famine. If you put all your eggs in the agriculture basket, you die. In order to combat this agriculturalists invent food storage; aka the Granary. Initially this looks great, a little more work on their part, but in the end they don’t starve to death during crop-failures. Unfortunately, food surplus effects the population growth of a species inspiring it to grow.
Any animal population that has a surplus of food, grows to match that surplus. Humans included. A population cannot grow without an increase in food availability, usually made available through an increase in â€œefficiencyâ€ in food production. Therefore, a population explosion implies more food production. Full time agriculturalists with a food surplus create a positive feedback loop of growing more food to feed an ever expanding population. Eventually, the soil underneath agriculturalists degrades and washes away and they either cease practicing agriculture (as we have seen with many civilizations), or they (as in the case of our civilization) expand into neighboring forests and keep growing.
Civilization, a way of life characterized by the growth of cities, works as an ecological phenomenon occurring when agricultural peoples reach a certain population density due to their food surplus-induced population growth positive feedback loop. Though not a catastrophe in the “natural” sense (fires, floods, volcanic eruptions, comets), in ecological terms you can literally call civilization a catastrophe. Perhaps a “cultural” catastrophe would serve as the best description.
It feels worth noting that many first nations peoples and other indigenous peoples around the world heavily cultivated the lands they lived with in a manner very different than agriculture. These methods have many names but I prefer the term horticulture.
Horticulture refers to cultivation by means of secondary succession; perennial shrubs and trees; aka forests. This still involves burning, selective harvesting/rotation, pruning, transplanting, minor tilling, weeding. These methods can also lead to population growth but they do not lead to over all loss of biodiversity and soil as agriculture does. This also does not mean to say that horticulturalists never used agricultural practices, but that agricultural foods never formed a staple of their diet.
Many people have a difficult time understanding the differences between horticulture and agriculture. This may occur because some agricultural strategies cross over into horticultural strategies. Linguistically the term agriculture comes from the combination of the Latin words agri (field) and cultura (cultivation). Horticulture comes from the combination of the Latin words hortus (garden) and cultura. Cultivating a field vs. cultivating a garden. We can see the implications of agriculture’s mono-cropping primary succession plant obsession in its very origin. We can also see the implications of horticulture’s diversity of plants and smaller-scale style through its origins.
The real determining factor involves the results of how the strategy affects the land; does it create more biodiversity or less? Does it strengthen the biological community or weaken it? It seems like a good idea to create a list of horticultural and agricultural strategies and reveal how and why you can use them to create more life, or misuse them to create less.
Agriculture uses strategies of cultivation such as transplanting, seeding, tilling, burning, pruning, fertilizing, selective harvesting, crop-rotation, etc. But the main difference between agriculture and horticulture involves agriculture’s focus on using these tools to create one habitat; the meadow or “field.” Horticulture uses the same strategies of cultivation to promote ecological succession and diversity of landscapes. Let’s go through and find out for ourselves.
Catastrophe; Burning Vs. Tilling
When I hear the word “tilling,” the classic image of a farmer and his plow pop into my head. I can see the deep trenches it has cut into the land in pretty rows. I can smell the sweetness of the upturned earth. Tilling works as an artificial catastrophe. Burning also works as a catastrophe but frequent, small-scale burns return nutrients to the soil without killing roots of desired species, eliminates succession and prevents large-scale fires from occurring.
Soil Aeration; Sticks Vs. Steel
Gophers and moles dig holes and aerate the soil. Even foragers use digging sticks for forage roots, tubers and rhizomes. This breaks up the earth making it easier for the roots to grow as well as aerates the soil. The plow on the other hand, goes too deep and destroys the mycorrhizal network of fungi that distributes nutrients to plants. It also aerates the soil, but it goes too deep and causing the soil to dry too much, which leads to soil loss and erosion.
Irrigation; Sticks Vs. Stone
Beavers build small scale dams with sticks that create flood plains, wetlands and marshes that provide habitat for aquatic life. Humans too have replicated this on a small scale. Civilization builds insanely large dams of stone that destroy the rivers life by draining too much water and drying it out.
Any squirrel will tell you; if you want to ensure that you have more to eat year after year, plant a few more seeds than you’ll dig up to eat during the winter.
Transplanting looks the same as seeding to me. Do you consider a seed a plant? What about seeds that germinate into plants and than grow through rhizome? Some willow trees can loose a branch, only to have that branch drift down stream and grow into a whole new plant! Wait, would you consider it new if it came from a pre-existing tree? Do they share the same soul? Have I gone too deep for a chapter about horticulture and agriculture?
Fertilizing; Poop vs. Petrol
Shit. We all do it. Poop turns into fertilizer. Controlled burns also work as fertilizer by quickly breaking down dead wood and making their nutrients bio-available. Agriculturalists just import nutrients from other areas, and in the case of oil, from under the ground!
Foragers and horticulturalists also used burning to keep down insect populations. Civilization uses toxic chemicals that poison not only bugs, but the ground, the water, the birds, and our own bodies.
Pruning & Coppicing;
Beaver pruning stimulates willows, cottonwood and aspen to regrow bushier the next spring. Black bears break branches. Hunter-gatherers prune trees too, to encourage larder yields and materials for making tools like baskets.
Horticulturalists don’t use this technique. It exists uniquely to agriculturalists. Probably the larger symptom of control and domestication. No weeds in my field!
Selective Harvesting; Strength Vs. Weakness
Every animal uses this technique. Wolves thin out the sick and week deer. Sometimes you take the weak so the strong survive. Sometimes you eat the strong so your poop will fertilize the seed. Selective harvesting shows us that systems evolve to work in cooperation; if we look closely we can see the outcome of our decisions. Domestication also works as a form of selective harvesting, only rather than strengthen the plant or animal it weakens it. I go more into this aspect in Domestication Vs. Rewilding.
Aside from building strength through selective harvesting, seasonal rotation of lands and food sources, and even yearly rotations allows an area to restore itself from the temporary impacts of the harvest.
Many people also make the assumption that people who practice horticulture long enough eventually begin to practice agriculture. I’d like to suggest the perceived continuum from foraging to agriculture does not exist. I’d like to suggest that a continuum between foragers and horticultural peoples exists, but agriculture appears as a completely different beast. It goes against the fundamental restorative principles that shape the continuum between foraging and horticulture. Therefore, although it uses mostly intensified horticultural practices, it disregards the most basic ecological principles.
Foragers, Hunter-gatherers and Horticulturalists used (and still in some places use today) the methods above to build soil, create varying habitats of succession, creating more ecotones and increasing biodiversity. Agriculture does not do that at all. If a continuum existed, we would see a decrease in biodiversity in each new phase of the continuum. Because we don’t see this, we can guess that agriculture sits outside of that subsistence continuum as a completely different beast all-together.
I would like to note that many people use the term agriculture too loosely. Terms like “sustainable agriculture,” make no sense linguistically and from the word’s origin. We need to remember to differentiate between agriculture (the field/mono-crop) and horticulture (the garden of forest succession) if we want to see how to live sustainably.
This doesn’t mean that anything labeled “horticulture” falls under a sustainable practice. On the contrary, most fruit bearing trees these days come in the form of clones. One plant spliced onto the rootstock of a similar plant and pruned to encourage the graft. A perfect clone of the original. Generally these plants have no fertility on their own which means they rely completely on their human caretakers. I can’t think of a worse fate, nor a better example of domestication.
The next difficult part obviously involves how to translate this knowledge to practical use. The question remains; how can we change our subsistence strategies from agriculturaling-supermarkets to horticulturing/hunting/gathering villages? How can we go from stupid-civilized-urban-dweller to rewilding-horticultural-hunter-gatherer-hot-shot?
The core of rewilding involves dismantling and walking away from the destructive lifestyle of agricultural subsistence that we all act as slaves to and creating a new way of life using such techniques as horticulture and permaculture as a transition to or to supplement a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
The Tribe of Anthropik’s 30 theses by Jason Godesky
Against The Grain by Richard Manning
Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations by David Montgomery
Food and Population Growth (DVD) by Daniel Quinn and Allen Thornmill
1491 by Charles C. Mann
Keeping It Living edited by Douglas Deur & Nancy Turner
Collapse by Jared Diamond