Beyond agriculture – the myths and the alternatives

Agriculture was the great leap forward for humanity, or so we’ve been told. but is it true? Toby Hemenway, in this compelling talk Redesigning Civilisation – with Permaculture, lays out a different picture and dispels the myths of agriculture as the great liberator from a life we are told was brutish and short.

At this point I feel compelled to assure you, this is not a casual criticism of agriculture or farmers. I have been one and I hold a deep respect for that culture, so if you are reading this article and have a background in rural activities, thank you for reading this far, and I welcome you to take this journey of discovery with me.

The essence of agriculture, which the origin of the word points to, is the cutting of trees to make way for open fields – to then grow large areas of a small number crops, or grass for animals. Given this suggestion the term sustainable agriculture, must surely be an oxymoron, as there are few if any areas of the earth where agriculture has been practiced for long periods of time, which do not show signs of degradation and loss of soil, water and human health. The origins of this open field approach can be traced back to thefertile crescent‘ in the Middle East - where years of grain agriculture has turned the land to desert and the soil to salt-laden sand.

In essence

We have taken, and continue to convert stable, resilient forest eco-systems into fields for agriculture. This has enabled the exponential growth in human population we have witnessed in the last 100 years – albeit a population with shorter life span, more degenerative disease, epidemics and remarkably regular famines.

As Hemenway puts it: “Agriculture is the process of turning eco-systems into people.” While the impact of peak oil is already being felt through rising food prices, and though we will continue to see our highly mechanised oil-dependent industrial food system struggle, in this talk he barely touches on it. The energy crisis is just another moment in the long-now of history that is at the foundation of his talk.

At about halfway Hemenway reaches out to connect with his audience. He knows he’s impacted people and confesses: “This was a difficult journey for me, and I didn’t enjoy finding this out.” He has by now brought his listener to an understanding of where we are, and how we got here.

Where to from here

The key to many of the issues which agriculture has brought us, is a conscious redesign of our civilisation, moving it closer to a horticultural society that tends perennial plants. “Permaculture is a branch of ecological design, ecological engineering, and environmental design which can help. Using its design principles we can develop sustainable architecture and self-maintained food systems modeled after natural ecosystems.” As we explore the possibility of growing food in forest-like eco-systems, it’s natural to also wonder: “Can a food forest system truly replace the tremendous outputs from our open field mechanised agricultural model?” I suggest not only that can it, but it must.

Around the world, soil is being swept and washed away 10 to 40 times faster than it is being replenished – Cornell Chronicle

Over the past 40 years, about 2 billion hectares of soil – equivalent to 15% of the Earth’s land area (an area larger than the United States and Mexico combined) – have been degraded through human activities, and about 30% of the world’s cropland have become unproductive - Peak Soil | The Guardian

Soils represent a short to long-term carbon storage medium, and contain more carbon than all terrestrial vegetation and the atmosphere combined – Wikipedia entry with copious references


I’m not proposing that we can, or should be trying to, replicate our predominantly grain-based dietthrough a food forest system. Rather, it is that very grain based diet and the concept of the storage of grain surpluses, that have been at the root of fundamental changes to our relationship with the earth and each other. We developed complex hierarchical systems in response to the need to secure and account for the distribution of the stored food.

What is more likely is that we will adapt to different types of food, and as a side-benefit, we’ll become much healthier through eating a more diverse diet.

If the material which Toby presents in this 72min video, was taught in schools, our society would soon take on a very different structure, and I am absolutely confident a more equitable and sustainable one.

This is a significant treatise on where we are, how we got here and what we can do about it. I hope I’ve given you sufficient teasers to whet your appetite to watch it, have some discussions with others, and then act and be part of building a new resilient food system and simultaneously reducing the impact of a changed-climate.

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Rimu's picture

Yeah, nah

Anarcho-primitivism is a step (or two) too far, for me.