Briefly Noted

Things Read, Seen or Heard Elsewhere

Progress is great except when it traps you. Which is how an interesting theory about the origins of agriculture begins.

Here’s a concept I wasn’t familiar with: The Progress Trap. It was developed and explained by Ronald Wright in his book, A Short History of Progress. It essentially says that humans often create near-term solutions to long-term problems that eventually screw us over. 

Cars move us faster than horses. Oil moves trucks and ships so we transport mass quantities of goods around the globe. Petrochemicals, more generally, are used in 6,000 products and devices. PROGRESS! 

The trap, of course, is the environmental mess this created.

Here’s a theory about about progress traps and the origins of agriculture I was never exposed to. 

Via a fascinating essay by Paul Kingsnorth in Orion Magazine:

The earliest example [Wright] gives is the improvement in hunting techniques in the Upper Paleolithic era, around fifteen thousand years ago. Wright tracks the disappearance of wildlife on a vast scale whenever prehistoric humans arrived on a new continent. As Wright explains: “Some of their slaughter sites were almost industrial in size: 1,000 mammoths at one; more than 100,000 horses at another.” But there was a catch:

The perfection of hunting spelled the end of hunting as a way of life. Easy meat meant more babies. More babies meant more hunters. More hunters, sooner or later, meant less game. Most of the great human migrations across the world at this time must have been driven by want, as we bankrupted the land with our moveable feasts.

This is the progress trap. Each improvement in our knowledge or in our technology will create new problems, which require new improvements. Each of these improvements tends to make society bigger, more complex, less human-scale, more destructive of nonhuman life, and more likely to collapse under its own weight.

Spencer Wells takes up the story in his book Pandora’s Seed, a revisionist history of the development of agriculture. The story we were all taught at school—or I was, anyway—is that humans “developed” or “invented” agriculture, because they were clever enough to see that it would form the basis of a better way of living than hunting and gathering. This is the same attitude that makes us assume that a brushcutter is a better way of mowing grass than a scythe, and it seems to be equally erroneous. As Wells demonstrates, analysis of the skeletal remains of people living before and after the transition to agriculture during the Paleolithic demonstrate something remarkable: an all-around collapse in quality of life when farming was adopted.

Hunter-gatherers living during the Paleolithic period, between 30,000 and 9,000 BCE, were on average taller—and thus, by implication, healthier—than any people since, including people living in late twentieth-century America. Their median life span was higher than at any period for the next six thousand years, and their health, as estimated by measuring the pelvic inlet depth of their skeletons, appears to have been better, again, than at any period since—including the present day. This collapse in individual well-being was likely due to the fact that settled agricultural life is physically harder and more disease-ridden than the life of a shifting hunter-gatherer community.

So much for progress. But why in this case, Wells asks, would any community move from hunting and gathering to agriculture? The answer seems to be: not because they wanted to, but because they had to. They had spelled the end of their hunting and gathering lifestyle by getting too good at it. They had killed off most of their prey and expanded their numbers beyond the point at which they could all survive. They had fallen into a progress trap.

We have been falling into them ever since.

The essay in well worth your time if you sit confused or overwhelmed by the social, political and environmental state of the world and our place in it. Kingsnorth is a thoughtful critic with a clear-eyed view what it means to be standing at the edge of (or in) our various global upheavals. We’re not going to solve our crises, he suggests, but that doesn’t mean we need to fall into nihilism or despair.

Thoughts? Ideas? Comments?

Send me a note or reach out on Mastodon.

Date Noted: