Posted by: terrapraeta | November 17, 2009


I don’t believe it!
There she goes again!
She’s tidied up and I can’t find anything!
all my tubes and wires
And careful notes
And antiquated notions
but – it’s poetry in motion
And when she turned her eyes to me
As deep as any ocean
As sweet as any harmony
Mmm – she blinded me with science
“She blinded me with science!”
She blinded me with …

Thomas Dolby, She Blinded Me With Science

Once upon a time, I had the mind of a scientist. As a kid, I loved geology and astronomy… hell, I wanted to be an astronomer when I grew up. (Eventually, I learned that what I really wanted to be was a cosmologist, but that was only after I had switched gears and become an english major). Even once I decided that my career wouldn’t be in the sciences I continued to study certain disciplines for the sheer joy of understanding. So I kept up with the latest ideas on the nature of the universe, I followed the various space probes as they headed out into the void, I discovered and absorbed everything I could find on quantum theory and, later, string theory. I simply found it all fascinating. And in the back of my mind, for many years, I had a slowly developing alternative to the Big Bang. It never quite became conscious and clear, but I was aware that I was trying to piece something together.

Once I changed gears and got interested in Ishmael-inspired themes, I dove full bore into evolutionary theory. I had always accepted its basic premise and pretty much assumed it was (mostly) correct, but I never took a biology course in school, so I had never delved too deeply. Now I did. As a result, I spent a lot of time in the ish forums educating various participants in exactly how evolution works and how we can understand, better, the complex processes involved. It was really good for me, as it gave me a specific focus of interest and expertise and, frankly, there is no better way to learn something than to teach it. And learn it I did.

Eventually, around the same time that I left Chicago, I began to move away from the sciences. Not because I think that they are wrong, but simply because I started to question one of the most basic principles that ALL science is based on: reductionism. How can I possibly understand the nature of a devil’s food cake by tasting a bit of raw flour? Yes, that is silly, but it is also a valid question.

A lot of these questions arose out my study of chaos theory. Well… that, and a few experiences with mushrooms of the psychedelic variety. No, not the way you think. You see, when I trip, and I close my eyes, I see fractals. Growing, evolving, changing behind my closed eyelids. And I remember a time, years back, when my ex had a computer program that generated fractals on the computer screen. I remember watching them and being fascinated – all years before I understood what a fractal really represented.

Let’s look at that… a fractal is a certain type of mathematical equation which you can only solve by running it through each iteration. In other words, you can project the final outcome in any way. You have to solve it repeatedly until it ends. Weather is a complex system – thus the cliché failures of weathermen the world round… the further in the future they try to predict the greater chance that they are completely wrong. Climate, on the other hand, is a merely complicated system, so expecting warm summers and cold winters (relatively) is almost always a safe bet.

But then there are those fractals that my mind generated inside my eyelids. And the patterns I watched, externally on the computer screen. I could never give you the mathematical solution for any of those equations, but the graphical patterns? Yes, I “knew” where it was going to go next at any moment. Simple pattern recognition, and intuition.

So this got me thinking about natural systems and the reductionism of science. Reductionism tries to separate the pieces of a system, to understand each piece before even looking at the relationships. But reality is in the relationships. It’s not the flour, the cocoa, the sugar… it is the way the components combine and alter one another that creates the devil’s food. As a decently accomplished cook, I can play with the relationships, adding other components or changing the quantities of each and generally I will still come up with a rather fine cake (always measure when baking bah!). Not because I understand the nature of a chocolate chip, but because I feel the potential relationship.

So why am I talking about baking a cake? I don’t even eat cake anymore. But it is a simple example that most of us can relate too – even those that have never baked intuitively recognize that adding chocolate chips to devil’s food would be yummy. (Obviously, its been done before 😉 ) That makes for a good, simple example that most people can relate to. But now, how about something a little more complex (pardon the pun).

Over the last few days, vera and I have been discussing the difference between agriculture and horticulture. Yesterday, she asked me about Polyface Farms and Joel Salatin. Joel and his farm were featured in Michale Pollen’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Joel is doing some really fabulous things. And more importantly, he is allowing himself to learn from his land, experiment with alternatives, explore possibilities. But he is still farming — he is still doing agriculture. I suspect if he continues on the path he is on, one day that will no longer be true. But how would you determine that?

In the other discussion, we were talking about diminishing marginal returns as the benchmark to separate ag from horticulture. From a scientific point of view (and therefore a civilized point of view) that is a relatively simple and straightforward way to identify the difference: it focus on numbers in and out. It focuses on bottom line. It is reductionistic. Useful when speaking to people that hold a civilized worldview.

Within that same worldview, you could break down all of the things he is doing in any given season, and come to the same conclusion based on the tools and techniques he is using. That would be the “proof” that the mathematical formulation works. Whichever side of the line he falls on in a given season.

But despite the fact that I introduced these terms and techniques into the discussion, when vera asked me if Joel was a horticulturalist, I did not do any of these things when forming my answer. I simply thought about what I know of Joel’s operation and I knew he was doing agriculture and fundamentally unsustainable. Systemic, complex, intuition. Likewise, if I turn my thoughts to traditional slash and burn “agriculture”, I know that it is truly horticulture and sustainable**.

So what is the point in all this? I guess at it’s core, I am suggesting that sustainability, at its core, is a function of developing relationships with your community; human and non-human. And in opposition to all of those people that tell us that we will be giving up science and technology and therefore, knowledge, I would like to suggest that we are giving up nothing more than the hubris that we know anything at all.

** Some years back I read an article on traditional slash and burn techniques in the Amazon. In opposition to the assumption that slash and burn is destructive, the article described the entire system once (and in some cases still) used: A plot of jungle would be slashed and burned, clearing land and simultaneously feeding the very poor jungle soil. After the rains, primary and secondary food crops would be planted. These would be followed by perennial food and fiber plants interplanted with annuals and tree seedlings (often fruit or nut trees). Over the course of several seasons, the perennials and trees would take over the entire plot. The fruit and nuts would continue to be harvested for as much as twenty years until larger, non-foodbearing trees took over the area. This same process would be used on multiple plots, each at a different stage of succession. I’m sure I am leaving out key points as I read this probably four or five years ago, but I cannot find a good online discussion of these techniques in the short amount of time I was willing to search.



  1. 🙂
    Appreciate your further thoughts! I like the relationship part a lot, and need to tinker with that. It definitely needs to be part of the whole sustainability paradigm.

    I am still chewing on the terms though…. Let me turn my question around. What about the cultivation on Easter Island? They had easy gardens (mild climate and fertile soil), chickens. They may have planted food trees when they were still doing well. They fished and foraged. They had a relationship with their island born of intimate knowledge. Was it horticulture?

  2. Hi vera,

    Easter Island was a chiefdom and horticultural, however that was not their problem… not exactly. They crashed and burned for the simple fact that they deforested their island. Can you imagine being there the day they took down the very last tree? (Jarod Diamond’s Collapse covers this and others very well)

    There are various examples of horticultural society that have grown to unsustainable proportions, as well as those that would have been unsustainable in most environments, but their place was so rich that they were not. Its all a scale… but you know that 😉


  3. So we are agreed that horticulture can lead to ruin too, yes? I am thinking the very ease (easy return on their energy) of their gardens is what got them into trouble… too much time on their hands to get insanely competitive and dogmatic…

    If large scale horti is unsustainable, then can small scale ag be sustainable?

    Yeah, the Easter Island story is just… horrifying. Diamond kinda argues, if I remember correctly, that they sort of didn’t notice. Bah. Of course they noticed. My latest hypothesis is that they became so crazed by their ideology they believed their enstoned ancestors would save them no matter what.

  4. Hey —

    I’d be more inclined to say that food subsistance strategy is not the only reason for a culture to be unsustainable. After all, the destruction of timber was not in support of cultivation, but rather for other, cultural reasons.

    In the case of island cultures (and many coastal ones as well, I would suspect), cultivation can be a relatively unimportant part of their subsistence strategy. After all, the ocean is (was) rich with food. So then what they DO with that richness becomes the bigger question.

    Small scale ag… back to that same question? Iraq, the cradle of civilization and the mythical garden of eden is now a desert. The great plains would be, also, were it not for oil. Other examples abound. If we invest enough energy into a cultivation system, that means we are *trying* to do mother natures work for her. And we suck at that. Why do you *want* ag to be okay so badly?


  5. I am trying to find common language. I think of ag = cultivation. Period. Like when people say… ag began 10,000 years ago.

    Iraq got ruined. Egypt didn’t. Both ags, no? The ruin of Egypt waited for Aswan dam. The Egyptians used same techniques, and grew grains too. The Nile washed out the salt and replenished the nutrients every year… still ag though. What does your intuition say?

    Seems to me that no matter how you eke out your food, if you overproduce and overbreed, you will run into problems. That was really the problem on Easter Island. They cut the woods in part to make more gardens for more people. Going nuts with the statues was their “fix” — magical thinking done to the hilt. As you say, what you DO with the richness… so the argument about ag vs horti is kinda pointless.

    I go with Quinn rather than Jason on this one. Ag as war is the problem. And you can turn gardens or foraging into war too. ?

  6. Hey —

    Egypt was one of those unique places that although they *looked* like they were practicing ag, mother nature did all the “work”… as you said, the Nile washed away the salt and deposited the nutrients. It would be interesting to see an analysis of diminishing returns on that one…. they may have *technically* been horticultural (at least by the defs I’ve been using) because of their unique place in space and time.

    On Easter Island I believe they cut the wood for boats and statues, not for gardens… that’s why I have been separating the de-forestation from the subsistence method.

    Ag IS war, is the point I am trying to make…. by whatever term you wish to use, if you are trying to take over mother earth’s job, you are gonna end up failing in the end. Ag as war began about 7500 years ago… cultivation began more like 15,000 years ago. (not including foragers casually helping along favorite plants…) The 10K thing is just convenient language.

    And of course the *real* problem is overproduction (consumption) and over population…. but the question is what *limits* are inherent in the system. There are places and times were foraging can lead to overconsumption and over population…. and there are places and times where even with agriculture you don’t have the means for either (at least in theory…. although agriculture may not really be feasible until you already have a certain amount of over population… that’s another facet)

    And then there is Jason’s inevitable back pedal… if you can call it that. Ag is NOT sustainable… horticulture *may not* be sustainable. As a cultivation system it is… but it *does* lead to population growth, so the question remains open as to whether the limits inherent to horticulture are sufficient enough to maintain thier own sustainability (Ie Easter Island… sufficient population may always lead to *other* actions that are destructive to the environment, even when the cultivation itself is sustainable).


  7. If Egypt is technically horti, then there is no hope of communicating with most folks. I think I will switch to talking about cultivation, subsuming it all. Sounds like this may work for both mainstream and Ish folk.

    I don’t think you can separate deforestation from cultivation. There is an area on Easter Island that’s been studied that got ruined several times in succession (with overuse, erosion and mud slides). First they cut the forest and built gardens. They were ruined. Then a hundred or so years later, when lesser cover reestablished itself and the soil was rebuilt, they again put in more gardens. The land got wrecked even more. Next time, only grasses grew. And so it went.

    I think where Jason got dogmatic … er, no, this may have been Toby Hemenway doing a riff off Jason… is with the claim that horticulture does not lead to evils, that it’s got limits built in. That’s complete hogwash.

    Those nice gardeners of the Amazon who left terra preta behind would have eventually over overproduced and overbred too, don’t you think? They just did not have enough time…

  8. One more thing. You say, “whether the limits inherent to horticulture are sufficient enough to maintain their own sustainability”. As far as I can see, there are no limits *inherent* in it. Can you explain?

  9. Hey —

    I think using “cultivation” is maybe the best way to go… then there are NO unspoken assumptions (I suspect.)

    On Easter Island… maybe I’m remembering it wrong… its been some years since I read Collapse, and my copy is still in Chicago so I cannot refresh my memory 😉

    Horticulture does have inherent limits… what those limits are depend on the specific system. For example… look at permaculture design. Part of the total system (percentage-wise) is always left “wild” because the system recognizes that the wild areas play a role in the system that is useful and impossible (or at least very costly and inefficient) to try and mimic. In some case hort is limited by the food plants used… in others it is limited by the relationships between the plants… and in yet others it is limited technologically.

    All that said, I think a more important question is whether any given hort system self-regulates to prevent a switch over to ag. Plant species *can* impose that limit. (New Guinea) Ecological gardening (PC and its native predecessors) *can* impose that limit by being non-conducive to automation, or even plowing/horse power. More basically, if a hort system regulates population sufficiently, then it should also prevent full blown ag… simply because those two factors are self reinforcing.

    As to El Dorado… I dunno. I don’t know enough about the culture as a whole to even try to make that guess. And on that note… you’ve inspired me into a new direction…. that post will be up in the morning 😉


  10. Actually, it may not have been in Collapse. When I read Collapse the whole Easter Island nightmare shocked me out of my socks. So I got a couple more books that dealt with it in more detail. I may have gotten that story from those.

    I am skeptical that “design” limits are real limits. Unless you are willing to kill extra babies like the Tikopia did, the push for more food will overwhelm design considerations. Plant species can impose a limit, good point… But, most hortis end up importing new critters at that point. Like New Guinea did with the yam. (And the couscous.)

    But it’s not only the willingness to curb the baby boom. The other side of it is the willingness to curb would-be elites. Elites are another factor in the push for ag=war.

    I tend to think that the only limits that work (apart from Mother Nature’s extreme limits) are limits that humans are willing to impose on themselves. Viz Tikopia with humans and pigs. (They exterminated the free ranging pig altogether, even though they loved the meat. They could have kept them in pens, but they recognized they’d become status food then, and damage their egalitarian system.)

    Looking forward to your next. 🙂

  11. I’m going to jump in with a couple of thoughts:

    1. A (relatively) easy way to determine if cultivation has gone beyond diminishing returns is the use of draft animals (or their technological equivalent). If you are beyond diminishing returns you MUST be using an external energy input. I don’t know if Egypt used draft animals, but if they didn’t it would be a sign that they were not agricultural.

    2. Any food production system that can easily/regularly produce surplus is unsustainable. Those surpluses will be produced and surplus leads to population growth. That system MAY have a sustainable level if food production has a hard limit (at which point is not easy to regularly produce surplus).

    3. Even cultivation brings to mind (mine at least) monocropped fields. Whenever I read technical discussions I must constantly remind myself of what the words really mean. I think it is important in these discussion to consistently remind ourselves, and each other, of what the terms mean in this context. It is difficult to keep your mind from giving the words their colloquial meanings even when you know they are being used technically.

    4. When people say “ag began 10,000 years ago” they don’t (or shouldn’t) mean cultivation. They mean farming: growing food as a lifestyle to the exclusion of foraging.


  12. Hey —

    Almost *all* primitive societies practiced infanticide to some degree (after, of course, practicing birth control first) — but that has nothing to do with willingness and everything to do with need. A woman with a two year old cannot care for an infant — not if she is foraging or practicing hort… how many children can *you* carry all day? Other species do it as well… if they have more children than they can care for/feed, then it is more (ahem) “humane” to kill one quick so the others can live, don’t you think?

    Elites only emerge as a function of population. If the total system maintains populations before this becomes an issue… then its not an issue. But it is true that generally hort supports more people than h-g.

    I don’t believe in human self-imposed limits. Sure, it happens on occasion, but more often you end up with a prisoners dilemma… someone will do X, so why not me?


  13. Hey Jim!

    How’s tricks 🙂

    Good points, all. I was trying to avoid using any specific technology to define ag or hort, simply because for every rule there’s an exception. But your point still stands.

    Surplus, on the other hand, is a big one. Thanks for dropping it in there.

    Reminding ourselves of the terminology is very much on point. I think that is exactly what prompted me to write the previous article… for myself as much as anyone else.


  14. Re: Specific technology

    I agree with not wanting to tie definitions to specific technologies, but if agriculture is beyond diminishing returns then there must be an extra energy input(*) or the population will die out (or give it up). That extra energy has to come from somewhere and in preindustrial societies that’s animal labor or some form of “alternative energy” capture (e.g. water mills, irrigation canals, etc)

    (*) Extra, as opposed to the normal energy inputs of sun, rainfall, and human labor.


  15. Yep and yep.

    That whole Egyptian question, tho… and this is where I am a little stumped… if they did not use animals and the “extra” input was simply in the form of the seasonal flooding… but in every other way they were ag… then what?

    exceptions within exceptions i suppose!


  16. Tidal forces seem to me to be a normal input that was taken advantage of. The Egyption scenario seems very similar to me to the scenario of the Salmon People in the Pacific Northwest. They take advantage of an ecological anomaly, but in the end, it isn’t an exception. Assuming that Egypt didn’t use animals, then they would be horticultural.

    However, I think you must add food distribution into the equation. The energy cost of food is the cost to get it into the bellies of the people. I presume that the Egyptians did use animals (and/or boats) to transport food to the populace.


  17. The Egyptians did use oxen to plow.

    At some point, that is. Before that, same thing, just humans plowing.

    When I said willingness, I meant Tikopia vs Eastern Islanders. One was willing to cut population and wove it into their cultural practices, the other refused. — (Contraceptive on the hip, I think of that as a hard limit, nature’s limit.)

    Elites emerging… ah, another fascinating topic! I disagree, but that will have to wait for another time! 🙂

    Jim, to my mind, cultivation means cultivation. Even when ants do it. Agree with all except #4. Exclusion of foraging happened only fairly recently. When people talk about first cultivation, they mean intentionally growing stuff… the first cultivated field of rye in 13,500 ya is considered the beginning of Ag Rev at the moment. And of course those people still depended mostly on foraging… and for many millennia after.

  18. Uh, that was me.

  19. Hey —

    Jim… point!

    Vera… thanks for the info…. disagree on the “elites” thing? This i gotta hear 🙂


  20. > At some point, that is. Before that, same thing, just humans plowing.

    I think my point is that this isn’t the same thing at all. When the humans are plowing then their energy is coming from the food that is being grown (and therefore, there must be enough energy in the food to maintain the plowers OR they are supplementing their food supply with enough forage to make up the difference e.g. they are practicing horticulture.). When animals are used to plow their energy comes from elsewhere (range land, unsuitable for human food).


  21. I guess that opens up that whole can of worms regarding “labor saving devices” which is a huge con as far as I can tell.

    Still though, how are you gonna tell people not to harness critters? I mean, cross country skiing is a lot easier when you can harness a pooch…

  22. vera —

    why would you cross country sky with critters? Isn’t the point of cross country skiing basically sport? And if it is for locomotion…. its still faster than walking, right?

    So, at the end of the day, what’s “easier”? doing it yourself, or investing a lot of time and energy into feeding a pooch to do it for you?


  23. On flat ground, you fly with a pooch! Then on the downhill, the pooch gets to bite your ankles! Wee!

    I think people originally had the critters around for other purposes, then it occurred to them to harness them… Same as putting a mill on a river… more work done. Gotta rethink the whole “cranking out more work is good” paradigm…

  24. When I said I disagreed, I was reacting to “Elites only emerge as a function of population.”

    Elites are a function of surplus.

  25. > Still though, how are you gonna tell people not to harness critters?

    Um…Why am I telling people this? I am just saying that if you (have to) use external energy (including animals) to grow your food then you are doing agriculture. If not, you are doing horticulture.

    > I mean, cross country skiing is a lot easier when you can harness a pooch

    Is it really? Not if you count all of the effort involved in maintaining the dog.

    > more work done. Gotta rethink the whole “cranking out more work is good” paradigm…

    True. But also the “fixed amount of work per day” paradigm. Getting work done faster should mean less work, not more.


  26. Problem is, if people are working like brutes harnessed to a plow all day, they’re gonna snatch the best chance to unload the work on someone else. The problem comes when they are working too hard, no?

    Yes on the getting work done faster…. exactly. What in the world happened that people lost track of it?… I know…. elites happened.

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