Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Telstar And Constant Battles

An interesting idea in Steven LeBlanc’s Constant Battles is that farmers are harder on a region’s carrying capacity than foragers. Foragers, like the Kalahari’s !Bang or Australia’s various aborigines range over the landscape, picking fruit and vegetables and hunting game. They do eventually exhaust an area, and move on, but the farmer lifestyle is more resource intensive, and farmer populations are larger.

Forager women give birth about every four years. Children nurse longer, nursing depressing fertility, and there are several incentives for limiting family size. Foragers are mobile daily, as they search for food, and groups move periodically. Several small children are harder to tend on the move than one. Beside the logistical problems, children aren’t knowledgeable to be genuine contributors, and are liabilities until puberty or later.

Farm crops require more processing and cooking, and a larger tool kit, so farmers need fuel and materials that foragers don’t. Staying in the same place for generations, farmers deplete soil. LeBlanc documents soil depletion with the history of the Mimbres Valley in the southwestern United States, beginning in the early Common Era, and ending with collapse in the thirteenth of fourteenth century. Farmer populations are larger. Since farmers are sedentary, and since they get more calories out of an area than foragers would, they can afford more children. Ground and cooked grains make good baby foods, so children nurse for less time. There are farm chores that don’t require a lot of knowledge and expertise -- ones that children could do -- so there’s an incentive to reproduce to get more workers. There's an incentive to reproduce, as well, so that someone can take care of you in your dotage.

It might have seemed to early farmers, rubbing shoulders with foragers, that they were the ones who used their resources better. After all, they were providing for more people, living better, and staying in the same place for a long time. In fact, they were mining their soils.

LeBlanc explains the sudden shift from foraging to farming (10,000 years ago in the Middle East, soon after in China, 6,000 years ago in America), not with some teleological inspiration, or people’s recognizing a good idea and embracing it. He says that farming spread because farmers warred on foragers to take their territories, when farmer populations had exceeded their territories’ carrying capacities.

Buckminster Fuller liked to say that we would succeed by “doing more with less.” He called it “ephemeralization.” One example he used was Telstar, the first commercial communications satellite. Fuller said that this quarter-ton sphere replaced thousands of tons of transoceanic cable. I always wondered about the infrastructure supporting the two communications devices: ship versus rocket, steel mill versus transistor factory. Which industries use more water, fuel, noxious chemicals? What changes in society did each communications device inspire, and what were their consequences for the planet’s carrying capacity. Was Fuller correct that Telstar did more with less?

If Telstar did use more of the world’s wealth, I recognize that it could still have been benign. For instance, widespread, rapid, global, electronic communication might be necessary in an Earth which had recently experienced World War II, in which the United States and Soviet Union aimed hydrogen bombs at each other, and in which global commerce was introducing us all to each other. It’s the old conundrum in which you wonder if polio vaccine was worth Madison Avenue.

I wonder if it’s possible for us to find our way to a forager lifestyle, informed by what we’ve learned along the way. The foragers weren’t able to control their populations and stay out of conflict, but they might have, if they’d had our biological and technical knowledge.

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