Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels

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* Book: Ian Morris. Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve. Princeton University Press, 2015



Margaret Atwood:

"Anthropologist, classical scholar, and social thinker Ian Morris, (in his) book, Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve, (which) has just appeared from Princeton University Press. Like Barry Lord, Morris is interested in the link between energy-capture systems and the values associated with them, though in his case it’s the moral values, not only the aesthetic ones — supposing these can be separated — that concern him. Roughly, his argument runs that each form of energy capture favors values that maximize the chance of survival for those using both that energy system and that package of moral values. Hunter-gatherers show more social egalitarianism, wealth-sharing, and more gender equality than do farmer societies, which subordinate women — men are favored, as they must do the upper-body-strength heavy lifting — tend to practice some form of slavery, and support social hierarchies, with peasants at the low end and kings, religious leaders, and army commanders at the high end. Fossil fuel societies start leveling out gender inequalities — you don’t need upper body strength to operate keyboards or push machine buttons — and also social distinctions, though they retain differences in wealth.

The second part of his argument is more pertinent to our subject, for he postulates that each form of energy capture must hit a “hard ceiling,” past which expansion is impossible; people must either die out or convert to a new system and a new set of values, often after a “great collapse” that has involved the same five factors: uncontrolled migration, state failure, food shortages, epidemic disease, and “always in the mix, though contributing in unpredictable ways–- climate change.” Thus, for hunting societies, their way of life is over once there are no longer enough large animals to sustain their numbers. For farmers, arable land is a limiting factor. The five factors of doom combine and augment one another, and people in those periods have a thoroughly miserable time of it, until new societies arise that utilize some not yet exhausted form of energy capture.

And for those who use fossil fuels as their main energy source — that would be us, now — is there also a hard ceiling? Morris says there is. We can’t keep pouring carbon into the air — nearly 40 billion tons of CO2 in 2013 alone — without the consequences being somewhere between “terrible and catastrophic.” Past collapses have been grim, he says, but the possibilities for the next big collapse are much grimmer.

We are all joined together globally in ways we have never been joined before, so if we fail, we all fail together: we have “just one chance to get it right.” This is not the way we will inevitably go, says he, though it is the way we will inevitably go unless we choose to invent and follow some less hazardous road.

But even if we sidestep the big collapse and keep on expanding at our present rate, we will become so numerous and ubiquitous and densely packed that we will transform both ourselves and our planet in ways we can’t begin to imagine. “The 21st century, he says, “shows signs of producing shifts in energy capture and social organization that dwarf anything seen since the evolution of modern humans.” (