Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Worst Mistake

I think it is very human-centric to think that the currently most practiced model makes it the pinnacle of our specie's achievement. To be able to examine other plausible motives and outcomes requires a more objective ability to examine our biases.

Personally, I had the experience of growing up in a suburban environment, encouraged to use technology and revel in our human experience, getting back to our primitive roots camping in the summer at camp grounds boasting electricity, hot showers and washing machines. Oh, and did I mention the incredibly hot premed intern at the nearby fish hatchery? I digress...

A recent topic on Garden Rant got the most comments posted in a long time; the controversial comment was whether the act of gardening was "natural" or not. Many people contested that they felt closer to nature, and even suggested that the best gardens, with plants best suited to the soil and climate needs, could outcompete weeds, etc, once established, thereby not defying mother nature, but working in tandem.

I commented that as a species developed and shaped by natural selection, any actions we take is therefore "natural'. Our choices for selection in domesticable plants and animals stem from our very greed that is human-centric, and reflects very little on giving back to the world around us. The better we have become in our ability to breed for desired traits (GMO's, computer programming) using our heritage of tool use, the less we seem to look at the larger picture of the consequences.

As small hunter-gatherer forces, even using some light ag practices such as limited burns and dividing perennial plants to encourage more growth, had limited affects on an areas ecology. Allowed to be "fallow" for 1-2 decades could replenish the system. The current intensive use of our resources allows for no rest, and we resist strongly the attempts of nature to curb our abuse of our current system. In previous years, epidemics and famines controlled the population, but advances in hygiene, food production and preservation, and medicines mean that fewer die from previously normal causes.

Relying on just a few crops for the majority of our calories can still have devastating consequences - just review the statistics of the Irish potato famine in 1848 and subsequent years as just one common example. If asked if it is better to place all of one's future in one crop, or to diversify into many crops, most people don't need to think about the answer. So why literally change to an all eggs in one basket attitude?

In Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, he warns against exaggerating "people's readiness to accept better crops and livestock, and the constraints imposed by locally available wild plants and animals. Neither that readiness nor those constraints are absolute." (154)
For example, he also suggests that the move to agriculture in the Fertile Crescent was more a result from hunter-gatherers who had overexploited the local herds of gazelle, and had limited access to aquatic resources with limited rivers and a short coastline. Therefore, "the food production package quickly became superior to the hunter-gatherer package" and the switch occurred in as little as 3000 years. (142)

In other words, a turn to agriculture may have been directly related to relatively decreasing resources in the face of population growth. Sounds familiar...

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