The Tragedy of Agriculture


I was watching a Tivoed episode of Alton Brown’s “Good Eats” yesterday and, before talking about how to cook crown roast of lamb he offered some general thoughts on the lamb. In the course of doing so, he mentioned that man had shifted to ranching and farming as an alternative to hunting for food because hunting was time-consuming and labor-intensive. This is commonly believed and seems to be common sense, but it’s actually mistaken. The transition to agriculture was, to the best of our knowledge, associated with a catastrophic drop in living standards — longer hours of work, worse health, and less happiness.

Even modern-day hunter-gatherers, who in the nature of things don’t inhabit the most promising land, work shorter hours and enjoy happier lifestyles than do the poorest of modern-day subsistence farmers. The problem with the hunter-gatherer lifestyle wasn’t — and isn’t — that it’s too labor intensive, it’s that it was too land-intensive. A hunter-gatherer lifestyle can only support a small number of people on a given parcel of land. If people somewhere start engaging in a more settled lifestyle, what happens is that population density can go way up. That facilitates the division of labor and the creation of specialized warrior castes and so forth. Consequently, a settled society will probably be able to conquer a hunter-gatherer population and/or drive them off their land. Thus, once this quality-of-life-destroying innovation comes into being it tends to spread inexorably. The higher level of inequality agriculture permits allows some people to be better-off than any hunter-gatherer, but average living standards plummet even as pure quantity of people alive goes way up, a la Derek Parfit’s repugnant conclusion. It’s only with the coming of the industrial revolution that societies with higher average quality-of-life than those enjoyed by hunter-gatherers come into existence. And over time, that circle of beneficiaries of industrialization has tended to spread.