London Food Forest
How Permaculture Can Save Humanity and the Earth, but Not Civilization
by Toby Hemenway (2013)
Below is another great video on the history of horticulture by permaculturist and ecologist Toby Hemenway. Hemenway’s main premise is that agriculture – even non-industrial agriculture – is unsustainable. He approaches the issue from an anthropological perspective, by examining prehistoric cultures that became extinct as a direct result of transitioning from horticulture to agriculture.
Hemenway defines horticulture as food production using small garden and food forests that incorporate and support existing ecosystems. Agriculture, in contrast, destroys ecosystems to create vast clear cuts dedicated to single crops. The archeological record reveals that agriculture first developed in the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) around 10,000 BC. At the time it was lush forest and bush. However after 3,000 of artificial irrigation, the soil became too salty to support life. The land, which became a desert, still hasn’t recovered. The same thing happened in ancient Egypt and Greece.
Archeological evidence reveals that all agricultural civilizations follow a typical pattern of soil depletion after an average of 1,000 years. Then they either die out or moving to new land via conquest. According to Hemenway, the Oil Age was a great boon to our current agricultural civilization. Farm machinery and petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides provided an immense burst in world food production. Unfortunately this only hastened soil degradation. At the same time a steep price increase (related to oil a natural gas scarcity) and made them unavailable for a growing number of farmers, especially in the developing world.
Hemenway also asserts that the prehistoric importance of horticulture has been greatly underestimated owing to three myths widely promulgated over the last two hundred years.
Myth one: food surpluses produced by agriculture are essential to produce the leisure time and specialization required for culture to flourish.
New archaeological evidence reveals human beings engaged in cultural activities such as basket weaving, art, and music for hundreds of years prior to the development of agriculture.
Myth two: horticulture was merely a brief transition between hunter gather and agricultural societies.
Fossil and other evidence suggests that Native Americans planted and maintained most of the East Coast, Mississippi, and Amazon as food forests for more than four thousand years before Europeans destroyed their horticultural societies.
Myth three (thanks to English philosopher Thomas Hobbes): horticultural cultures are made up of savages who live short, nasty, brutish lives.
Anthropological and archeological evidence suggests exactly the opposite. Hunter-gatherer and horticultural societies devote far less time to securing and producing food than farmers. The former spend an average of three hours a day harvesting a day’s worth of food for their families; whereas pre-industrial farmers spent an average of two to three days to producing one day of food. This excluded crops they sold to pay rent.
Skeletal remains suggest people in horticultural cultural societies were healthier, taller, and lived long than people in pre-industrial agricultural societies. Moreover the advent of agriculture introduced a host of degenerative diseases, including arthritis and deadly viral epidemics (influenza, small pox, measles, polio, etc) that people caught from domesticated animals.
Worst of all, the introduction of agriculture led to the advent of class society, military conquest, and famine. As Hemenway points out, war and famine are virtually unknown in hunter gatherer societies that migrate to follow their food source. Likewise it’s virtually impossible for a marauding army to steal the perennials out of a food forest.
Permaculture to the Rescue
Hemenway views our current food production system as a major culprit in the current ecological and resource crisis the planet faces (e.g. climate change, ocean acidification, mass species extinction, and fossil fuel, fresh water and topsoil depletion). He estimates that without drastic change, our species will survive another fifty years at most. If, however, human species could navigate a successful return to a horticultural society, they could potential persist for millennia.
He sees the widespread adoption of permaculture as a first step in a return to horticulture. Permaculture is an 80 year old branch of ecological design that produces sustainable buildings and self-maintained food production systems by modeling them on natural ecosystems. The movement already has several million adherents worldwide, through the Transition Town and comparable relocalization movements.