From Wilderness to Wilderless: Has Agriculture Become Too Civilized?
In my dad’s kitchen, he has a set of plates with farm animals on them. One has a pig, one a sheep, one a cow and one a chicken. When we sit down to eat, we often make a joke about which plate we have, “Looks like you’re the pig” or “Who’s the sheep tonight?”
It occurred to me on one of these evenings that the names of many domesticated animals are also derogatory terms. If you’re a sheep, you’re a follower. If you’re a cow, you’re obese. If you’re a pig, you’re a glutton. If you’re a chicken, you’re a coward. If you’re a dog, you’re ugly. If you’re a pussy, well… you’re a chicken.
Yet ‘wild’ animals typically don’t seem to garner the same level of disrespect - at least not in the way that we personify them. Instead we say more complimentary things like clever fox, wise owl, pool shark… you catch my drift.
Domestication is often thought of as a weaker state of being, whether we’re talking about animals or people. Yet this attitude seems odd when you consider that it’s commonly believed domestication is what gave rise to human civilization - a major turning point in our growth of power.
Loosely-speaking, from hunters / gatherers / foragers scouring the wild, some people started to cultivate land to make it more favourable for growing food. Domestication arose when they began to selectively breed different types of plants and animals for specific traits. Et voilà, agriculture was born.
“Agri”, derived from the greek world agros, translates to field. In other words, we created a culture around fields of plants and animals. This required abandoning a nomadic life to stick around one place. Human settlements turned into villages. Villages grew into towns and cities. I am grossly oversimplifying history here, but the point being as people moved away from hunting, gathering and foraging in the wild, their existence became more sedentary and yes, more civilized.
Nowadays, however, humans are anything but sedentary. We are constantly on the move. All. The. Time. Technology has made it possible to be pretty much anywhere in the world within a matter of hours. And for those unique few who don’t globe-trot, but just stay put in their home town, village, or city, we marginalize them as uneducated, uncultured, naive, narrow-minded...
Isn’t that funny that very definition of culture came from becoming more sedentary and domestic, yet these days traveling the globe is what makes you cultured?
In a recent-ish article, I was disturbed to read the staggering fact that over 75% of the earth’s ice-free land has been altered by human existence, with less than a quarter remaining as wilderness. When I read that, I immediately felt a wave of sadness and fear wash over me. As I kept reading this article, these feelings grew stronger. It explained a growing body of evidence that while natural systems were once shaped by climate and geology, human forces now outweigh them in terms of influence. Because our behaviour can alter the atmosphere, we don’t just impact the land we touch, but we disproportionately alter areas the least touched, such as deserts, polar ice caps and mountain tops. We’ve heard plenty about the war on drugs and the war on terror, but have we heard enough about the war on wilderness? I say nay.
In what wilderness that remains is the land least appropriate for agriculture. It raises the question, in giving birth to human civilization, did domestication and agriculture also give rise to environmental destruction?
It seems our existence is moving not on a ladder that’s climbing to a higher state of evolution, but on a pendulum swinging between two similar yet opposing states. At one end, where the pendulum dropped, we have the primitive hunter / gatherer / foragers living within wilderness, moving from place to place to obtain food sources. At the other end, on the upward swing still, we have the advanced technological beast, still hunting, gathering and foraging resources, but at unsustainable rates leaving behind barren land and lifeless waters; what I refer to as the wilderless. And somewhere in the middle is the more sedentary state of living in villages where, for the most part, we stay put; where we manage our impact by finding a balance between feeding ourselves while allowing all else deemed wilderness to feed itself too.
For wilderness to regenerate, perhaps we need to relinquish the civilized paradigm of agriculture.
While domestication arose from selective breeding of plants and animals, perhaps the answer to decreasing environmental degradation comes from hybridizing our ideas of what it means to grow food and conserve nature. The selective integration of wilderness back into food production may be the key to striking a balance in the tame and domesticated versus wild and untamed dichotomy.
A remarkable example of this has been discovered in the pre-Columbian farmers of Bolivia. Through the modification of savannahs and forests, they created dense, highly structured, engineered, cultural landscapes. These landscapes incorporated earthworks of raised fields, settlement mounds, fish weirs, reservoirs, causeways and canals, and forest islands.
Through combining wild and domesticated species of plants and animals they developed complex, biodiverse systems that are thought to have supported dense, massive populations of people beyond subsistence alone. They were not walking on eggshells, sacrificing their needs to avoid harming nature. They were living in what the author refers to as a “cultural agroscape”. In fact, the richly biodiverse landscapes of the Amazon that we know today are because of, not despite, these farmers.
If you’re like me and you felt that wave of fear and utter helplessness wash over you, don’t despair.
In spite of all the destruction that has taken place, some things are getting better. Stones are being overturned. More than ever, corporate takeover is being exposed for what it is: incessant abuse of power and control. Technology now allows us to connect to other parts of the world from the comfort of our kitchen table, which may reduce the need for constant travel. If agriculture did give birth to environmental destruction, it is agriculture that holds the weight required to send that pendulum swinging back to a more balanced way of living.
This is why I believe wholeheartedly that small, diversified farms can save the world.
It’s not news that a food revolution is underway. If you’re reading this, you’re clearly a part of this movement. Small farms are popping up all over the world. People, like me, who didn’t grow up on a farm are trading in their decent-paying office jobs to live a life centred around growing and/or foraging food locally and sustainably. We have a long way to go, but we’re waking up. This is the first part to solving anything: shedding our coat of denial to get to the raw truth of the matter.
To you, the food revolutionist that doesn't farm, my unsolicited advice is this: go home and stay wild.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with traveling (I love traveling myself), but the idea that a domestic home life is boring, uninteresting and mundane has got to go. I’d venture to guess many people still have a lot to learn about the wildness outside their front door.
As you sit down for dinner tonight and you look at the food on your plate, remember: You are not a sheep who follows. You not a pig who over-consumes. You’re not a cow that lazes about. You’re not chicken that scatters in fear. Like all these animals, you came from the wild. Inside you, a wildness still exists. Feed it.