From chapter "Agriculture"
Noam Chomsky, who is, again, one of the most important public intellectuals of the late twentieth century, also says, about agriculture and energy, “If agriculture is inherently destructive, we might as well say good-bye to each other, because whatever we eat, it’s coming from agriculture, whether it’s meat or anything else, milk, whatever it is. There is no particular reason to believe that it’s inherently destructive. We do happen to have destructive forms of agriculture: high-energy inputs, high fertilizer inputs. . . . So are there other ways of developing agricultural systems which will be basically sustainable? It’s kind of like energy. There’s no known inherent reason why that’s impossible.”
Once again, he’s not alone. He has an entire culture for company. At this point, nearly all writers and historians and scientists share this worldview, even those who are revolutionary and/or radical in other ways. It’s depressing as hell.
I guess my question would be, if the entire history of agriculture— six thousand years of destroying every biome it has touched—doesn’t constitute “reason to believe” that agriculture is inherently destructive, what, precisely, would constitute evidence? What will be our threshold to finally acknowledge this? Seven thousand years? Eight thousand? The complete destruction of the biosphere? I doubt if even those will suffice.
Here’s a particular reason to believe in agriculture’s destructiveness: black-skinned, pink-tusked elephants in China.
You’ve never heard of these? That might be because they were exterminated by agriculture. Not modern agriculture. Agriculture.
Here’s another reason: Mesopotamian elephants.
You’ve never heard of these either? That might be because they, too, were exterminated by agriculture. Not modern agriculture. Agriculture.
Carolina parakeets. Prairie dogs. Bison. The (formerly) Fertile Crescent. Iowa, which was once one of the most biologically diverse places in North America. The Everglades. Monarch butterflies. All devastated by and for agriculture.
Dead zones in oceans.
The Mississippi River. The Colorado River. Every river on the planet who has significant agriculture within its watershed.
Every Indigenous nation on the planet decimated or exterminated by the conquest that necessarily accompanies agriculture and consequent overshoot and conquest.
How much evidence do we need?
Agriculture destroys more nonhuman habitat than any other human activity. This has been true from the beginnings of agriculture. This destruction of habitat is not a by-product of agriculture. It is the point of agriculture: to convert land specifically to human use, and then to impede succession, that is, to stop the land’s attempts to heal itself. And the fact that the central acts of agriculture—destroying habitat and disallowing it from healing—are harmful to the natural world is not a reason to believe that agriculture is necessarily destructive?
Agriculture destroys soil, the basis of terrestrial life. One way it kills soil is through causing erosion. It is the leading anthropogenic cause of erosion. What do you expect to happen when you remove from soil the protective covering of plants? The plants were there for a reason (oh, that’s right, I forgot, there is no purpose or reason or function or intelligence in nature). Removing groundcover, which is the function of the plow, one of this culture’s greatest achievements (and yes, plows have function while plants don’t), is the equivalent of flaying the biome who is being converted to cropland. Would anyone say there’s no reason to believe that flaying someone harms them?
Agriculture destroys water quality. Erosion hurts not only the land being eroded, but the waters choked by more sediment than they need or want. Of course irrigated farmland takes water, water that was, until it was removed from the river, lake, or ground, someone else’s home. Primarily because of agriculture, a full 25 percent of the world’s rivers no longer reach the ocean or sea. This includes such once-huge rivers as the Colorado, the Indus, the Amu Darya, the Syr Darya, the Rio Grande, the Yellow, the Teesta, the Murray, and so many others. The dewatering of these rivers destroys the rivers, the wetlands, the estuaries, the seas and oceans who need these waters. What percent of the world’s rivers would have to be murdered before we can consider this evidence of agriculture’s destructiveness? Forty percent? Sixty? All of them?
Right now 115 percent of the water in the Colorado River is allocated for “beneficial use,” primarily agriculture. Yes, 115 percent. And governments are building more pipelines to take yet more water.
Would allocating more water from a river than the river carries, and then building more pipelines to carry away even more water, be considered a sign of intelligence?