Misjudging the Benefits of the Agricultural Revolution

My last couple of posts have been about the Agricultural Revolution and how it didn’t provide the benefits to early human farmers that we would imagine or expect it to have provided. The Agricultural Revolution helped propel humans toward our modern world, but it wasn’t an immediate upgrade in the lives and diets of most humans. It is perplexing how humans managed to settle into farming communities and agricultural villages given that the first humans to begin cultivating crops likely had a worse time (or very minimally marginally better time) than ancient foragers.
 
 
In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes about these challenges and why the reality of the Agricultural Revolution doesn’t match what we imagine the Agricultural Revolution to have been like. He writes:
 
 
“Village life certainly brought the first farmers some immediate benefits, such as better protection against wild animals, rain, and cold. Yet for the average person, the disadvantages probably outweighed the advantages. This is hard for people in today’s prosperous societies to appreciate. Since we enjoy affluence and security, and since our affluence and security are built on foundations laid by the Agricultural Revolution, we assume that the Agricultural Revolution was a wonderful improvement. Yet it is wrong to judge thousands of years of history from the perspective of today.”
 
 
We look at how we got to where we are and in some ways assume that the path that humans took was obvious and clear. We were once cavemen, then became farmers, then scientists, and now we can watch college football all day on Saturday on our flat screen TVs while eating pizza. The reality, however, is that early farmers and early foragers didn’t have any idea what the future would hold. It wasn’t clear exactly what would be a better step in the right direction. Advances came painfully slowly, and the Agricultural Revolution only looks like a revolution if you back out and look at the slow path of human evolution over tens of thousands of years. On the scale of a single human life, it was hardly a revolution and hardly clear that things were going in the right direction.
 
 
I think that part of what happens when we look back in time at the Agricultural Revolution and consider how it improved (or failed to improve) the lives of ancient humans, is that we substitute a hard question for an easy question. Instead of investigating what life was like for foragers relative to the first agricultural humans, we ask, “have I (and has humanity) benefitted from the Agricultural Revolution?” The answer is clearly yes, it was a good thing in the long run for us all individually. Retroactively we apply this good framing to the Agricultural Revolution and assume that it was always a good thing for everyone, judging history by our current situation and perspective. But as Harari writes, ancient farmers whose lives may have been worse off than the lives of ancient foragers certainly didn’t think that their transition to farming was always and unambiguously a good thing. They didn’t know what the future of humanity would become tens of thousands of years later, based on the system of farming and communal living that they were pioneering. By substituting how we feel about the Agricultural Revolution today for the lived reality of those who went through it, we get an incomplete and inaccurate view of what it really was.

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