It has become increasingly fashionable to assert that humanity's big mistake was forming settlements and raising crops, instead of running around being groovy hunter-gatherers. This is completely ridiculous and betrays an absurd romanticism about humanity's deep past. A bracing antidote to this fuzzy thinking is provided by Rachel Laudan in her new article for the Breakthrough Journal.
"The anti-grain consensus, ostensibly focused on the improvement of diet, equality, and environment, rejects in theory if not in practice the very notions of progress and civilization. That the turn to grain-based agriculture transformed the healthful, leisured, and carefree life enjoyed by hunter-gatherers into the dull drudgery of peasant society is a theme promulgated by prominent scholars, notably the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, who termed hunter-gatherers “the original affluent society,” and the biologist Jared Diamond, who declared agriculture “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.” The historian Yuval Noah Harari takes a similar tack in his bestselling Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2015). Underlying each of these criticisms is a rejection of the old idea, implicit in the foundational myths of the first civilizations and explicit in Enlightenment conjectural histories, that the postulated passage through the stages of hunting and gathering, herding, and farming constituted progress: an improvement in the quality of human life.
In 2017, James C. Scott, the Sterling Professor of Political Science at Yale University, joined the anti-grain chorus with his widely praised Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States.....
[T]he logistics of feeding growing numbers improved as steam, then diesel, then containerization lengthened the grain chain, linking the huge silos on what had been the world’s grasslands in the United States, Canada, and Argentina to the elevators in London and Liverpool, Mexico City, Yokohama, and Cairo. Famines declined. Cities of 20 million could be provisioned by a small number of farmers and processors, leaving the majority free to engage in a vast range of other activities, something that would have been impossible without grains. It’s something of an irony, then, that Scott and others of his persuasion — who can explore non-state societies, write books, and teach at universities because neither they nor the university bureaucrats, airline pilots, students, or book publishers who support their work have to spend their time provisioning — should argue against the grains....
For all the people now in the world and the three billion more still to inhabit it, grains remain the best bet. It’s time to resist the deceptive lure of a non-agrarian world in some imagined past or future dreamed up by countless elites. Instead, we might look to the story of humanity’s huge strides in using these tiny seeds to create food that sustains the lives of billions of people, that is fairly distributed and freely chosen, and that with its satisfying taste contributes to happiness. If we are to anticipate more progress in the future, it’s not against but with the grain that we must work."
So....pass the bread (or rice or whatever) and onward with civilization!
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