Human history in a nutshell, Part 2: Civilization

Previously I recapped our biological evolution. Now for civilization.

It’s a tale of two revolutions: agricultural and industrial. For around 95% of our existence we were hunter-gatherers. And for around 98% of the remaining time, mostly farmers.

About 10,000 years ago, butting up against the limits of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, we invented something different: growing food and domesticating animals. This was truly a revolution, humanity’s first declaration of independence — from nature’s cold mercies. Now we could exert some control, some mastery, over our conditions of existence.

Yet some view this negatively, as our “fall” from a prior paradise of harmony with nature, presaging our hubristic “rape” of the planet. Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens sees agriculture as a curse, that actually made life worse in many ways: harder, less healthy, less fair and egalitarian.

Some of this could not be evident to people at the time, or else they would not have embraced agriculture. Life’s key problem was sustenance, and agriculture (for all its vagaries) seemed to enhance food security.

Harari may be right that this was a mistake — during most of human history. Only in the last century or two have we really gotten the payoff (because we finally truly mastered the thing).

But meantime agriculture made possible civilization. Now we could settle down, and stockpile production surpluses. This soon led to cities, and division of labor, with some people able to become artisans and take on diverse societal roles. Hierarchies formed, with bureaucratic governments to administer things (and fight other societies). That too Harari deems a curse, and maybe again it was, for most of history. But the rich, complex civilization (with all its material comforts) we enjoy today could never have evolved without agriculture starting it.

Which brings us to the second revolution — the industrial one. It was mainly an energy revolution. At first limited by just our own muscle power, we then exploited animals (horses, oxen) to do much more work. That was pretty good. But nothing compared to how much energy and work is gotten out of a steam engine. And a single gallon of gasoline contains energy equal to about 49 horsepower hours, or 500 hours of human work (and I don’t mean paper pushing).

This obviously was propelled by a scientific revolution, as we grew in understanding nature and how to harness its forces. But a book by historian Joyce Appleby, The Relentless Revolution: a History of Capitalism, illuminates something else little understood: how the industrial revolution also depended upon what was really a second agricultural one.

The first introduced food growing, but it was still an economy of scarcity. It took almost everybody working in the fields to feed a population, and even then it sometimes failed, with devastating effects. This was captured by Thomas Malthus, writing in 1798 of the interplay between population and food supply. In fat times, population would grow (fewer children dying), but that would inexorably outstrip the ability to raise food production. Come a lean period and population would fall (more children dying).

That cycle had indeed long been repeating; as Appleby puts it, Malthus was an excellent prophet of the past. But he wrote just when the picture was changing.

The industrial revolution’s factories were something new, and great numbers of people flocked to work in them. Yet how was that possible if almost everyone was needed on the farm just to raise enough food? And if most people were thus barely subsisting, whence came the means to buy all the new goods spewed out by factories?

The answer lies in that second agricultural revolution. It was not a thunderclap, but a gradual process, beginning around the early seventeenth century, in the Netherlands and Britain. A key factor limiting food production was soil depletion, requiring fields to “rest” every third year or so. But by fiddling with different crops, the Dutch and Brits found ways around this. Other innovations too emerged, so that, over a couple of centuries, food output (relatively speaking) soared.

So no longer did we need everybody in the fields (today it’s down to almost nil). Many could work instead in factories. Of course, that was hellish — but not as awful as life stuck on the farm. Anyway, now we could produce sufficient food plus factory goods. That made society wealthier overall — with enough money in people’s pockets to buy the added stuff.

This did not unfold without a concomitant revolution in thinking. Previously fatalism was the prevailing mindset. People did believe history went in cycles. But now they could see not only change, but positive change. The word “progress” came into use. And as Appleby writes, it was more important to believe governing arrangements could be changed than that they should be.

Likewise, we take for granted the idea of striving to improve one’s life. But there was no such thing in feudal society. People worked just to exist, nothing more. They could not have imagined the kind of life we have today. Only with the revolutions into modernity did we begin to grasp the concept of proactive self-betterment. Observers were actually surprised to see ordinary folks attracted to unaccustomed consumer goodies. This sparked a virtuous circle, energizing people into the kind of industrious striving that, in turn, turbocharged our continuing agricultural and industrial revolutions.

Of course this too meets with censure. The market economy and “consumerism” that fuels it are condemned. Yet this was also a social revolution, creating a bold new idea of the individual. The word “individual” was never even applied to human beings before the seventeenth century. Now the social chasm between oligarchs and commoners was bridgeable. The egalitarian ideal that many today put in opposition to capitalism is in fact a product of that very thing.

Today we’re at the start of another great revolution. Just as increased agricultural productivity freed people to work in factories, now more efficient manufacturing frees us to create wealth in yet newer ways. How it works out, we’ll see.


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