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April 30th, 2008


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11:51 am - Worst Mistake? I think not.
My husband sent me a link to a web page this morning, with the comment "Thoughts on this article?" The web page is a link to an article by the Pulitzer-prize winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond.

The article's title is "The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race," and was published in the May 1987 issue of Discover magazine. I think his own Guns, Germs, and Steel, published in 1997, is a pretty clear refutation of this article, which basically says:


. . . the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered.


I think the key sentence in this article is "It’s not that hunter-gatherers abandoned their life style, but that those sensible enough not to abandon it were forced out of all areas except the ones farmers didn’t want." Even if farming is worse for individuals (which I do not grant), it totally kicks ass over hunting/gathering for societies.

On the other hand, some of his points are flat-out bogus. "Are twentieth century hunter-gatherers really worse off than farmers? [Many] so-called primitive people, . . . support themselves [by hunting and gathering]. It turns out that [the hunter-gatherers] have plenty of leisure time, sleep a good deal, and work less hard than their farming neighbors." And how hard is that? "The average time devoted each week to obtaining food is only 12 to 19 hours for one group of Bushmen, 14 hours or less for the Hadza nomads of Tanzania."

Yea? So what? H/G's don't live where the farming is good (according to Diamond, as quoted above), so of course their farming neighbors are working harder than they are. Let's compare the most successful modern H/G's (presumably represented by the figures quoted above) with the most successful farmers. That would be . . . um . . . us! Specifically, the populous of the United States of America.

OK, so how much time do we spend obtaining food? Note, it is not about "leisure time." It's about hours spent "creating food" vs. hours spent not creating food. Whether we're slaving away "creating non-food" or just lying in bed watching television, only the hours required to actually feed ourselves are the ones that count.

Well, the average American spends basically zero hours creating food. Instead, they trade non-food (usually via money) with the people who do: farmers. In 2000, the U.S. population was 280 million ("281,421,906"). How many were farmers?

According to the 2002 U.S. Census of Agriculture, there were 3,115,172 "operators" of farms, of which 1,791,874 said that farming was their "primary occupation." So 57% of them are not primarily farmers. Also, about 500,000 farms had "hired farm labor," of which 1 million laborers worked "150 days or more", and 2.1 million worked "less than 150 days." (If these numbers seem low to you, it's also worth noting that 45% of the farms in the survey (415,000 farms) were less than 50 acres in size.)

So 1.7 million full time farmers working (let's say) 14-hour days 350 days a year, plus 1.3 million part time farmers working 14-hour days 200 days/year (picking admittedly somewhat arbitrary numbers), plus 0.5 million hired hands (at 150 days or more) working 14-hour days for perhaps 300 days/year, and 2.1 million hired hands (less than 150 days) working 18-hour days for, oh, 120 days/year, means U. S. agriculture is spending 18,606,000,000 (18 billion) hours a year creating food. (Yes, a lot of our food comes from other countries. And a lot of our production is exported. If you don't like the estimates I'm using, feel free to research the import/export info. Also, it doesn't include time/money spent manufacturing fertilizer and tractors, but I also think my hours/day numbers are pretty pessimistic, so I'm not too worried about it.)

With a total U.S. population of 280 million, that's 66 hours and 27 minutes of farming per person per year. So at the turn of the 21st century, Americans were, as a whole, spending less than 1.3 hours per week "obtaining food." That's ten times better than what the modern H/G's spend. Even if you throw in another million hired workers because you think the farmers lied to the census takers, and include truckers, grocery store owners, and other peripheral workers, we still will be spending less time making food than those H/Gs, and I definitely don't think the addition of grocery store workers can be justified. We could all be eating a healthy but far more monotonous diet by "eating locally," and eliminate most of the packing, processing, shipping, and administrative hours currently consumed. The modern megamart has 20,000 different things to eat from all over the world because we want it to, not because it has to.

As a way of double-checking this, let's look at the question from the other side for a minute. Let's take the familiar 40-hour work week. According to the USDA, the percentage of disposable income spent on food in 2000 was 9.9% (5.8% at home, 4.0% dining out), which would be, on average, 4 hours per week. That figure does include all the overhead for 20,000 items at the modern megamart, plus the overhead from that 4.0% of restaurant dining, but it does not include the fact that not everybody works 40 hours a week. As it happens, it's very hard to nail down a total per capita number for work hours per week; most published figures are only applied to able-bodied people between the ages of 16 and 65. I did find a research paper about the topic, which included data based on Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers. Their number for "civilian non-institutional population ages 16 and over" was 18 hours/week in 2000. Using that number, we get 1.78 hours per week per person spent on feeding ourselves. That's pretty close to the 1.3 number from above, and definitely nowhere near the 10–14 hours a week that hunter-gatherers spend.

So if we're only spending about one and a half hours a week feeding ourselves, how come we don't have more "free time?" What are we doing with the rest of our time? Building and living in houses, giving ourselves an enormously wider array of foods than H/Gs have (we may not be eating as healthily, but that's by choice, not necessity), curing diseases that H/Gs often don't live long enough to develop (as well as many self-inflicted ones, yes), and just generally carrying on in a way that H/Gs *cannot,* because they spend way too much time just feeding themselves.

Depending on your criteria, you might feel that hunter/gatherers are "better off" than you, or better off than society in general. If so, it's not because farming hasn't made our society fabulously more wealthy than any hunter/gatherer society in the history of the world. It's because we didn't spend that wealth as well as we might have. A modern American complaining that they're worse off than a hunter-gatherer because they have to work 40 hours a week and an H/G only has to work 14 hours a week is like somebody wearing a Rolex and an Armani suit complaining about not being able to afford bus fare.

That's what I think.
Current Mood: pensivepensive

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[User Picture]
From:robespierrette
Date:April 30th, 2008 08:58 pm (UTC)
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OK, so I haven't read the article. :)

But I'll throw in my 2 cents, anyway. The reason modern people spend so very little time creating food (the typical Iowa corn farmer spends only a few weeks working his land each year, to produce vast quantities), is because of industrial agricultural practices, that are dependent on fossil-fuels. When we eat corn (and other big-ag products), we're pretty much eating oil. But we can do sustainable agriculture, which does - admittedly - take a lot more effort, but has a much healthier result for the soil, people and general environment.

But yeah, calling agriculture a "mistake"? Sounds pretty loopy. I like having variety in my diet, and I like it that there's enough surplus production in the world that I get to not spend my time on creating/getting food!

Hopefully, he just being provocative, to get people thinking about how we get fed, and how we spend our time. That, at least, would be somewhat defensible.

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