Fighting the Last Revolution

In this case the neolithic revolution. The neolithic revolution is the term that’s used to describe the long, slow process by which human beings abandoned wandering around and scrounging up their food (“hunting and gathering”) to staying in one place and taking a more active role in producing their food (agriculture). This process started more than 10,000 years ago and continues right down to the present day.

It probably all started something like this. Long, long ago a band of human beings happened upon a patch of melons or some other equally delectable morsel, stopping long enough to eat up all of the melons, toss the leftover seeds and rinds around, and maybe even leave some of their excrement on the site. The next year, remembering last year’s feast, the band returned to the area, hoping for a repeat. Eventually some enterprising person noticed that the more they spread the seeds around the more melons there were the next year and decided to try dispersing the seeds even farther. Maybe they even noticed that the melons prospered more where they’d left their excrement the year before so they decided to spread that around a bit, too.

They may also have started deliberately choosing the tastiest and largest melons and preferentially selecting their seeds to spread around. Other innovations might have included tilling the soil a bit to improve the likelihood of germination or putting up barriers to prevent other critters from getting in on the feast first.

If they were successful enough, they eventually decided to stay around and tend these gardens to improve their yields and protect them from competitors. First horticulture, then agriculture was born.

Nowadays most human being live from the products of agriculture but there is one major exception to this: fish. We still catch vast amounts of wild fish from the rivers, lakes, and oceans. Unlike 10,000 years ago there are innumerably more of us trying to get in on the catch and we’re tremendously better at it than we used to be. Huge factory ships ply the oceans sucking practically every living thing out of a patch of ocean, processing them right there on the ships, and moving on.

I used to think that the obvious solution to this environmental degradation was aquaculture, extending the agricultural revolution to fish and crustaceans. Then I learned how inefficient aquaculture was and that it takes between 2 and 15 pounds of wild caught protein to feed one pound of cultivated seafood. Obviously, that’s no solution. It might be someday or it may never be. It’s certainly no solution right now.

Over at OTB Robert Prather, noting an article in the New York Times Magazine, comments:

Only time will tell if tuna is a “mile marker” or not, but it’s never too soon to begin treating overfishing as a tragedy of the commons, which it is, and begin handling it accordingly. No doubt a mixed approach will be necessary that will contain market mechanisms and some instances of command and control. As for market mechanisms, I would prefer a system of tradable fishing quotas. In essence, there would be a permit that entitled existing fishermen to catch a certain amount of fish each year in an area and the permit would be tradable, creating a transferrable property right that would have value, much like the medallion system for taxi cabs in New York City (though that’s not a commons problem).

That would certainly be an improvement over the status quo but, unfortunately, this is such a political hot potato I doubt that we’ll put it into place while there are still substantial stocks of wild food to protect. To understand how serious this issue might be consider the top five largest tuna-catching countries (estimated):

Country Catch (in tonnes)
Japan 600,000
China 400,000
Republic of Korea 400,000
Mexico 400,000
Indonesia 200,000

The U. S. catch has been stable at about 200,000 tonnes for decades.

The key point here is that Japan, China, and Korea have a tremendous amount to lose in the near term in controlling tuna catches. Whatever the mechanism they’ll pay more. And so much for the foresightedness of the Confucian cultures.

Additionally, controlling the catches of wild fish (by any mechanism) will interfere with the policy of food independence that all three of these countries have put in place. Rather than arguing with Japan about their catching a few whales we should be negotiating with them and with the Chinese to curb their harvesting of wild fish, an enormously larger problem.

2 comments… add one
  • Brett Link

    If they were successful enough, they eventually decided to stay around and tend these gardens to improve their yields and protect them from competitors. First horticulture, then agriculture was born.

    That’s one possible theory, but it’s not unchallenged. There’s some evidence that agriculture first occurred in hunter-gatherer groups that were already semi-sedentary due to the abundance of wild food in an area (Mesopotamia was like this thousands of years ago).

  • I doubt there’s a single way that agriculture developed. There’s extremely good evidence worldwide for the hunter/gatherer to horticulture to agriculture path.

    The key thing to remember is that except in the case of fishing and in isolated areas the transition to agriculture took place long, long ago.

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