Agriculture refers to a specific type of intense cultivation focused on planting fields (the name comes from the Latin for “field culture”). This necessarily brings with it a focus on early succession plants like wheat, rice, and maize. Agriculture first developed in subtropical river valleys with regular annual floods in the Agricultural Revolution between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago. These floods provided the regular catastrophes that would favor the growth of these annual grasses. Tools like the plow allowed farmers to replicate natural disasters, which provided the niche for these crops. Fields of cereal crops created much more dense food sources, in terms of calories found per acre, allowing for much more dense populations, including the rise of cities and civilization. However, the process of emulating repeated natural disasters over time degrades the soil. This led most agricultural societies to choose one of two strategies: expand or starve.
Expansionistic agricultural societies had to make sure that they expanded faster than the soil degraded. After several centuries of agriculture, for example, the Fertile Crescent — one of the areas where agriculture began — had become a desert. The Meander River in Greece did not always follow the course that gave us the English word “meandering,” but the build-up of eroded soil from centuries of farming eventually formed that path. If these societies could not keep up the necessary pace of expansion (as Europe did in the Middle Ages, before the discovery of the New World and its era of “Columbian exuberance”), these societies would default into the other approach, that of simply starving. These societies would have to accept regular crop failure and famine — and the resulting waves of disease and death — as simple facts of life. In fact, most agricultural societies sought some balance between these two strategies, sometimes expanding and sometimes accepting the suffering and death that naturally came with their way of life.
In the last century or so before collapse, the “Green Revolution” offered a new strategy, by leveraging fossil fuels in a number of ways to increase agricultural production, allowing the human population to reach its zenith at around 10 billion between 2050 and 2100. However, as this relied on unsustainable fossil fuels, this did not prove a viable solution for agriculture in the long term.
#How agriculture ended
Despite the fact that unhappiness and disatisfaction seem endemic to life in agricultural societies, most considered it a fundamental part of the human experience, and would not give it up willingly. Agriculture ended because it ceased to work. The Green Revolution had already shifted most agricultural production to a system that relied completely on fossil fuels and an industrial infrastructure, tying its collapse to that of civilization’s itself.
Many people tried to return to more “traditional” agricultural methods, and while they could slow the degradation of soil with such methods as crop rotation, these could only slow it down. Few pockets of good soil remained after ten millennia of agricultural production, and many of them degraded quickly when people focused their farming efforts on them, giving rise to several of the kingdoms of the Rusting Age.
Ultimately, though, climate change dealt the final blow to agriculture. A warmer, wetter world made it harder to keep open the ecological niches in which domesticated crops flourished. Regular storms and other such events introduced more chaos than agriculture could really deal with. Always a fairly precarious way to make a living, with calories invested very nearly equalling those harvested even under the best of circumstances (even during the brief period when those calories were largely burned as fossil fuels), this level of uncertainty made it very difficult to survive as a farmer. Many refused to give it up to the very end, and eventually starved to death rather than change.
Some people in the Fifth World might insist on referring to their gardens as “farms” and their practices as “agricultural,” though no modern farmer would recognize it as such. These people often count among their ancestors people who practiced regenerative agriculture. Ultimately, these methods dovetailed with others, including permaculture, which ultimately came to resemble the gardening or “horticultural” techniques used by indigenous people for millennia, distinct from the use of fields planted with a single crop, and reliance on early succession species, that marks agriculture as a distinct form of cultivation.
- Manning, Richard. Against the grain: How agriculture has hijacked civilization. New York: North Point Press, 2001.