Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Spot the flaw...

In one of those esoteric-seeming arguments about why our world is the way it is, a recent "Good Eats" episode touched off a rollicking debate on Think Progress about hunting/gathering and farming.  Alton Brown alleges "man had shifted to ranching and farming as an alternative to hunting for food because hunting was time-consuming and labor-intensive."  And the debate took off:
Even modern-day hunter-gatherers, who in the nature of things don’t inhabit the most promising land, work shorter hours and enjoy happier lifestyles than do the poorest of modern-day subsistence farmers. The problem with the hunter-gatherer lifestyle wasn’t — and isn’t — that it’s too labor intensive, it’s that it was too land-intensive. A hunter-gatherer lifestyle can only support a small number of people on a given parcel of land. If people somewhere start engaging in a more settled lifestyle, what happens is that population density can go way up. That facilitates the division of labor and the creation of specialized warrior castes and so forth. Consequently, a settled society will probably be able to conquer a hunter-gatherer population and/or drive them off their land. Thus, once this quality-of-life-destroying innovation comes into being it tends to spread inexorably. The higher level of inequality agriculture permits allows some people to be better-off than any hunter-gatherer, but average living standards plummet even as pure quantity of people alive goes way up, a la Derek Parfit’s repugnant conclusion. It’s only with the coming of the industrial revolution that societies with higher average quality-of-life than those enjoyed by hunter-gatherers come into existence. And over time, that circle of beneficiaries of industrialization has tended to spread. [More - best stuff in the comments]
One commenter pointed out the necessary flaw in the positive picture of hunting/gathering: just how exactly such societies managed to keep their population low.  The answer was starvation, disease, and very low infant survival.  To be sure those who made it to adulthood may have had better lives and diets, but that's a survivor benefit, not a universal positive.

Sedentary (as in staying in one place - not couch-potatoing) agriculture raised populations by generating more and storable calories and raising survival rates. In fairness, it also made serfs and slaves a good idea until the industrial revolution drastically lowered labor requirements.

Regardless, we're past that now, we understand the costs of our food choices and instead of arguing which relatively miserable past was better, we should be applying our understanding to shaping an agricultural system that raises human well-being in better ways than simply available calories.

The fastest way to do this is via consumer decisions at the marketplace.  The fact this debate is occurring could be an indicator of slow changes in public views about our work.

No comments: