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Saturday, July 31, 2010

Agrarian Anxieties

by Steven Stoll

Harper's Magazine Notebook (July 1010)

While the moderns insure themselves by not thinking at all about the consequences of their innovations for the social order, the premoderns ... dwell endlessly and obsessively on those connections between nature and culture. To put it crudely: those who think the most about hybrids circumscribe them as much as possible, whereas those who choose to ignore them ... develop them to the utmost.

- Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (1993)

Whenever we seek control over our tiny scrap of the universe, we create hybrids - not fuel-efficient cars or cross-pollinated flora but composites of nature and culture that we stitch together, bring to life, and imagine serve us rather than stalk us. The warming atmosphere, our most spectacular hybrid, developed for a century without anyone noticing it, because we took for granted that the earth flourished under industrial progress. Pesticides and antibiotics offer another example, since they stimulate the evolution of chemical-resistant organisms. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico might look like a singular event, but the assumptions that led up to it have existed unexamined for decades. We invent these monsters without intending to and ignore them for as long as possible with the self-deceiving certainty that they cannot or will not harm us. Something peculiar about being modern, reasons the philosopher Latour, has led us to believe that the environment conforms to the social order as part of an elaborate pageant of progress.

It would be easy to argue, as many have, that Judeo-Christian religions, in their insistence that human domination of the planet is by, divine decree, have created these and other hybrids. But reservations about nature-culture hybrids go back to the very origins of this religious tradition. The Bible crackles with alarm over fratricide and genocide, over the violent assemblage of kingdoms as commanded by the warrior-god, and over the accumulation of wealth - all linked to the most destructive and socially transforming technology ever invented: agriculture. People with an oral history of that Great Transition feared that the imperatives of the plow would tear apart an older world or that they already had. This revolution, for centuries exalted as the necessary condition of modern civilization, without which there could be no great cities or accumulation of wealth, looked more like a weapon of mass destruction to people closer to its invention. In their cautionary tales and utopian laws, we moderns might find a way to recognize and control our hybrids before they devour us.

In Eden, that favored couple gather all they need without hunger or toil; they dwell in harmony with all Creation. Their abrupt expulsion from that kindly wilderness is an allegory of the Neolithic transition. No Arcadia awaits them; instead, they and their descendants will scrape, dig, and struggle for every meal. They will stoop with sweat on their faces.

The first couple moves from one allegorical space to another. They beget the material and political archetypes of the Bronze Age: Cain (or Kayin) the farmer and Abel (Hevel) the herder, who then contend over which one will spawn future nations. God loves Abel's burnt offerings but rejects Cain's. No reason is given, but it may well be that Abel's spotless lamb represents a more substantial portion of his good fortune - literally, a greater sacrifice - because it contains more energy and nutrients than a bundle of wheat. God tells Cain to get over it, but Cain broods, and then bludgeons his brother to death. The killing of Abel marks the beginning of the association of shepherds with peace and innocence and of farmers with violence. God knows exactly how to punish the first murderer: "When you wish to work the soil it will not henceforth give its strength to you; wavering and wandering must you be on earth!" Cain cries back that the sentence is more than he can stand. "Whoever! comes upon me will kill me!" But the voice from the void protects him.

Only a God with some pragmatic motive would have let Cain live. God knows that farmers become many and overwhelm hunters and herders with their numbers. The fearsome growth of agrarians - fueled by wheat, rice, and maize and driven by the need for fresh land - pushes them ever farther east of Eden and into bloody territorial wars. Genesis is all about population as destiny. Cain emerges as an ambiguous symbol of the victory of farming over herding. Cursed and indispensable, he wanders away to found the first city and his own branch of humanity - not merely by heredity but by the arts his progeny devises. A seventh-generation descendant, Yuval, invents music. Yuval's half-brother, Tuval-Kayin (who bears the name of his lineage), becomes a "burnisher of every blade of bronze and iron". Cain gives rise to the division of labor and to the agrarian economy that eventually takes over the world.

Then the agrarian God starts over by drowning everyone but the members of one family. His orders to them are unequivocal. As soon as the ark lands on firm ground and releases its smelly cargo, God tells Noah that sowing and harvesting will never again cease and that Noah has a new mission: "Fear-of-you, dread-of-you shall be upon all the wildlife of the earth and upon all the fowl of the heavens ... I now give you all". Seize it! plant it! rule it! "Swarm on the earth and become many on it!" The flood annihilated Cain's descendants but not his errand, which passes to Noah. According to one Jewish legend, Noah invented the plow, scythe, and hoe - the tools for appropriating the landscape. The flood did not just clear away the wicked; it made possible a more aggressive peopling.

Monotheism itself is impossible to separate from the agrarian possession of land. Abraham goes out from his father's house - goes out, that is, from a spiritual universe in which localized gods control rains and harvests to one in which all forces coalesce into an omnipresent power. No matter where Abraham walks, the voice goes with him. Upon his arrival in Canaan, Abraham begins to lay claim to the land by mixing himself with it - not by clearing trees and putting up fences but by performing rites. "Lift up your eyes and see from the place where you are", says God, "to the north, to the Negev, to the east, to the Sea: indeed, all the land that you see, I give it to you and to your seed, for the ages. I will make your seed like the dust of the ground."

With God's promise begins the story of the various ways the Israelites prepare for their takeover. One episode stands above all others for its metaphorical power: the interment of the first matriarch. When Sarah dies Abraham buries her in Canaan rather than take her back to where she was born. In the time before private property, the presence of ancestors' bodies established the closest thing to a legal land claim. Abraham negotiates for a cave in Hebron and then plants his wife (a different kind of seed), thereby turning the region into contested real estate.

The plow, the promise, and the law all come together in General Joshua. With Moses having spoken his last, the Israelites under Joshua cross the Jordan River. Modern interpreters strain to cast what happens next as metaphor, as the victory of the holy over the unholy or as a case of Joshua misunderstanding God's commands. It is no metaphor. Although we know it never happened (it is, by far, the weakest explanation of how Semitic people came to dominate the region), the book of Joshua reads like an eyewitness account. Joshua burns the city of Ai, turning it into "a heap forever, even a desolation, unto this day", then sends his armies to pursue and slay its fleeing inhabitants. The king of Ai hangs, and "at the going down of the sun ... they took his carcass down from the tree, and cast it at the entrance of the gate of the city". The Canaanites, the Hittites, the Hivites, the Perizzites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, and the Jebusites die in the same genocidal fury, to be replaced by a more ecologically intensive agrarian regime. Joshua does Cain's work on a grand scale. Centuries later, the prophet Isaiah echoed that conquest: "You will spread out to the right and left; your descendants will dispossess nations and settle in their desolate cities".

The gory passages in Joshua, in which an underfed, underequipped, and militarily undertrained people conquer a civilization of urban strongholds, are so embellished that they must have had a political purpose - the Bronze Age equivalent of a whisper campaign intended to intimidate possible rivals. But the conquest story also contains a moral about the ideologies of agrarians: Today's serfs may be tomorrow's conquerors. The Israelites did not learn empire-building in the desert but from their wheat-growing, monument-building, class-dominating former oppressors, the Egyptians. If the Israelites wanted to rule over their own fecund river valley, they would have to possess it as absolutely as the Egyptians did the Nile valley. The legacy of these former slaves, after all, was to swarm the earth.

The uses of farmers as God's instruments, however, runs into opposition in other parts of the Hebrew Bible. A herder, not a farmer, received the Ten Commandments and led the people through the wilderness. Having escaped from the Pharaoh's household, Moses lies low in the desert with a nomadic sheepherding family that includes Tzippora, his future wife. Moses helps his father-in-law by taking the herd to higher altitudes in search of green forage during the summer - just like all Eurasian pastoralists. Before heading back to the lowlands, Moses would have known to burn the meadow to promote vigorous growth for the next year. The burning bush, in other words, is a fire that Moses set himself. As he looks into the heat, the voice hits him - unmistakably real but impossible to grasp. "Put off your sandal from your foot", said the fire to Moses. "The place on which you stand - it is holy ground". The utterance meant that any place could be holy because the god in the fire existed everywhere. The two met again, atop another mountain, and Moses returned from that encounter with a law as peripatetic as himself and his sheep and that applied to everyone everywhere: a powerful tool for constructing religions that spread with their believers.

As the ritual laws develop, the Israelites invent various tough-on-crime measures intended to suppress their capacity for violence toward enemies, animals, and soil. To this end, Leviticus extends the commanded "Sabbath day of rest" as a precaution against the ecological destruction endemic to agrarian societies. In the sabbatical year not a grain or grape was harvested, or even gleaned from the weedy shoots that poked up in formerly planted fields. The inconvenience of spending a year gathering wild emmer wheat in the hills of Galilee had to be balanced against the very survival of the nation: the fallow period restored a degree of soil fertility, preventing starvation and the need to migrate. In a political sense, the sabbatical lived up to its peaceful principle, because a seed-planting people able to remain within their ordained territory had no need to go to war with neighbors.

The sabbatical year was a remarkable innovation. It acknowledges Canaan not as a fantastical vision but as an ecological space with biophysical limits. (Observance of the ritual is well documented between 700 and 163 BC, and some Israeli Jews observe it today.) There is no telling exactly how ancient Semitic farmers subsisted, but even a ritual embrace of gleaning and gathering suggests that they did not see these practices as primitive or backward but as practical strategies during drought and other adverse times.

Channeling God's voice, the authors of Leviticus then moved the sabbatical toward an even more radical confrontation with the cumulative tensions of a farming society. Following every seven sabbatical cycles not only would land lie fallow for a year but a half-century of property sales would be reversed, outstanding debts relieved, and all slaves released. The explanation reads as precisely as a tax code: "In buying [land] from your neighbor, you shall deduct only for the number of years since the jubilee; and in selling to you, he shall charge you only for the remaining crop years: the more such years, the higher the price you pay; the fewer such years, the lower the price; for what he is selling you is a number of harvests". The statute effectively abolished whatever notion of property the Israelites might have had. Instead, everyone owned a use right that could be bought and sold until the jubilee suspended the economic rules and reset the game. The jubilee mended social fissures by transferring all property to an indisputable trustee: "The land is Mine", says the voice, "you are but strangers resident with Me".

Although much is unclear about the jubilee year, it constitutes nothing less than the first land-reform measure. The upshot was a legal mechanism for preventing class differences, and breakaway city-states. As people changed over from gathering with a little planting on the side to planting almost full-time, the relationship between land and labor also changed. Slavery, dispossession, empire - all can be understood as rational adaptations to a new world in which the intensive occupation of land became the basis of wealth and sovereignty. The Israelites sensed the opportunity in and the dangers of that new order. They had observed much and learned a few strokes from the Egyptians, but they clearly did not want to set off a process of inequality that might turn them into Pharaohs. The Israelites recognized farming as a potentially devastating hybrid, a regime made from equal parts nature and culture, and they realized that the very thing that made them powerful also made them vulnerable.

We mix ourselves with the environment in everything we do, and not every composite is poised to annihilate us. Gardens represent perhaps the most optimistic example of a negotiated plenty in which we can do some things but not others. Yet this is just the kind of humility that is lacking throughout our own culture. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, now among the largest ever, covering (as of this writing) 10,000 square miles, looks accidental, rather than inevitable, only if we deny that technical complexity combined with greed and arrogance breeds catastrophe. As a survivor of the oil-rig explosion told 60 Minutes: "All the things that they told us could never happen happened". The only way to neutralize our most fearsome hybrid - our warming atmosphere - is to suspend the rules in much the same way the authors of Leviticus did. Think of a carbon tax as a kind of jubilee: like the sabbatical fallow, it would break a pattern that threatens the social order. Making it law demands that we reform our dependence on machines as well as our market behavior; it demands that we circumscribe this and other hybrids as much as possible. Setting an artificial price on emissions might not sound like the timbre of a ram's horn announcing the jubilee, but it would signal that we know how to stop feeding the monster we've created.


Steven Stoll is an associate professor of history at Fordham University and is writing a book about agrarian societies in the Western Hemisphere. His last article for Harper's Magazine, "Toward a Second Haitian Revolution" appeared in the April 2010 issue.

Bill Totten


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