In May 2017 I was interviewed by Alan Kohler, one of Australia’s most experienced and appreciated business commentators. Topic is the importance of investing in resilience and faith in the future when times are uncertain.
No urban achievements without agricultural achievements. On 14 December 2012 we saw how this was true for the Egyptians and Maya. Now let’s take a look at the Greek, the Romans, the Asians and the Northern Europeans.
Greece has never been blessed with a lot of fertile soil. In Ancient times, less than 20% of the land could be used for farming. So, as soon as the Greek had figured out how to follow the Phoenicians in building reliable ships (around 800 BC), they started sailing the Black and Mediterranean Sea, establishing some 500 colonies in fertile areas. This marked the beginning of a flourishing civilization with city states building a powerful culture on food that was shipped from other places.
Like the ancient cities of Greece, there would not have a been a big and powerful Rome without a steady stream of food supplies from other parts of Europe. According to the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus, North Africa supplied Rome eight months of the year, Egypt the other four.
So, feel free to build your metropole anywhere you like, just make sure you have some friends that are able and willing to feed you on a daily basis.
In Asia we see a pretty clear pattern: cultivate rice and empires arise. Behind the power and cultural achievements of the Gupta dynasty in India (320-535), the Tang dynasty in China (618-907) and the Silla dynasty in Korea (668-935) lies a massive investment in new rice fields. The same can be said about the powerful states of Java and Sumatra in the same period.
It wasn’t much fun being a farmer in Northern Europe before the heavy plough arrived in the Middle Ages. Until then, ploughs couldn’t plough deep enough to turn over the heavy clay soil. But the heavy plough made it possible, and around 1000 AD the land between the Loire and the Elbe had become a patchwork of grain fields. And as clay soil was more fertile than the lighter soil types of Southern Europe, this caused a major power shift from the south to the north. Professor Thomas Barnebeck Andersen of the University of Southern Denmark:
The heavy plough turned European agriculture and economy on its head. Suddenly the fields with the heavy, fatty and moist clay soils became those that gave the greatest yields.
The economy in these places improved and this sparked the growth of big cities with more people and more trade. The heavy plough started an upward spiral in new areas.
My point may be clear: no urban achievements without agricultural achievements.
No urban achievements without agricultural achievements (13 May 2012). Let’s take a closer look at the civilizations of the Egyptians, Maya, Greek, Romans, Asians and Europeans, and see how they managed to feed their many cities.
Few peoples on earth could so easily build a stable and prosperous life as the ancient Egyptians. Imagine this river Nile, flowing calmly through the deserts of Egypt, flooding its shores every year in a fairly predictable way. If you need to travel north, float along. If you need to travel south, take a sailing ship and the trade wind will push you along. Every time the river floods, in August and September, it waters the shores and leaves behind fertile soil (silt) from the Ethiopian Highlands.The only thing you might want to do is lead the water into basins so that it can stay a bit longer than it would have naturally stayed, allowing the earth to become fully saturated for later planting. You might also want to use these basins to lead the water away from cities and gardens. After the flood, in October, you can then start planting your grains, vegetables and fruits.
This is what the Egyptians did. And it is quite an ironic fact that Egypt is nowadays the world’s biggest wheat importer, for with the abundance of wheat they produced in the last 5,000 years, they not only built an impressive civilization themselves, they also played an important role in enabling later civilizations to feed their urbanites. Rome, for example, could only prosper with a lot of wheat from Egypt (21 December 2012).
Fame starts with a lot of food in history. And few kings in history could so easily control and take advantage of their people’s food production as the pharaohs (starting with Menes around 3100 BC). Imagine all your subjects living in villages and cities on the shores of one river, producing an abundant amount of wheat and using the one Nile to exchange goods and build a rich culture. The only thing you need to do as pharaoh, is to control that one river and make sure that part of the food and goods is heading your way every now and then. Fast desserts form a natural protection against invasions of massive armies, so you don’t need to spend a lot of your income on maintaining an army of soldiers. What will you do with your wealth? How about feeding an army of workers to build a pyramid?
The Maya are also known for their awe-inspiring pyramids, but unlike the Egyptians they had to cope with tough environmental conditions by developing ingenious methods to grow crops in jungle and wetland areas. The Maya civilization first emerged sometime before 1000 BC and reached its peak in the “Classic Period”, between 250 and 900 AD. In this last period, millions of people lived in cities with tens of thousands of urbanites on the Yucatán Peninsula in current Mexico and Guatemala, making it one the most densely populated areas in the world. There are no rivers in this area, so how on earth did they feed the urbanites?
Many of the cities in Yucatán were built around cenotes, being their only permanent source of water. A cenote is a deep natural pit, or sinkhole, that exposes groundwater underneath. The sacred cenote of Chichén Itzá was by far the most important one. The rain god Chaac was thought to live at the bottom of it. Many humans were sacrificed to appease him, especially young males, presumably because they represented strength and power. Where the Maya couldn’t rely on cenotes, they built cisterns to catch and store rainwater.
Then there was the impressive way the Maya managed to produce a healthy diet of different crops in the midst of jungles and swamps. In his book “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus” (2005, p. 197), Charles C. Mann describes the milpa agriculture of the Maya as follows:
A milpa is a field, usually but not always recently cleared, in which farmers plant a dozen crops at once including maize, avocados, multiple varieties of squash and bean, melon, tomatoes, chilis, sweet potato, jícama, amaranth, and mucana. (..) Milpa crops are nutritionally and environmentally complementary. Maize lacks the amino acids lysine and tryptophan, with which the body needs to make proteins and niacin (..). Beans have both lysine and tryptophan. (..) Squashes, for their part, provide an array of vitamins; avocados, fats. The milpa, in the estimation of H. Garrison Wilkes, a maize researcher at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, “is one of the most successful human inventions ever created“.
Corn (or maize) was the most important and sacred crop of all. For every detail of planting, sowing, and harvesting there was a ritual. These rituals not only turned farming into a highly social and spiritual event, they also ensured that the cultivation of corn was done at the right moment and in the right way, from generation to generation.
Equally revered by the Maya was a drink worth more than gold: chocolate. It took no less than 3000 years after its first discovery by the Indians, before it started to seduce and comfort the rest of the world.
Once, we were all hunters and gatherers. Then we started developing agriculture and domesticating animals. Some of us turned into pastoral nomads, moving livestock between pastures. Others turned into farmers, cultivating fields. Then the urbanites appeared, doing everything but producing food (13 May 2012).
Those who ended up in cities had to organize themselves in new ways, as the old ways of running society didn’t suffice any longer. Innovations occurred with a profound impact on people’s spirituality. Here are two of these revolutionary changes in society:
Conflict control – from nomadic blood ties to urban law enforcement
As all the members of a nomad group belonged to the same tribe, it was in their common interest to end internal conflicts as soon as possible. Any revenge or escalation of violence within the group would only diminish their own survival chances. Most issues could therefore be resolved quite peacefully. The traditional Indian approach was to discuss the issue until consensus was achieved.
In sharp contrast to this stood the city with its many different tribes. When these tribes clashed, blood ties could no longer inhibit the escalation of violence. In order to resolve urban conflicts, a third party was needed, one with the authority to adjudicate and with a monopoly on violence. The judge appeared, and to avoid controversial verdicts that would only provoke new conflicts, laws were carved in stone. Whoever violated these laws would face another urban invention: law enforcers.
All very understandable, even unavoidable, these urban innovations. But the fact remained that the communal self regulation of tribes was replaced by laws and law enforcers. Relational solutions had to make way for legal solutions. And it wasn’t always obvious that laws and rulers served the interests of the entire community. Endless fights occurred between those who thought it right to enforce the law and those who thought it right to break the law. New forms of spirituality were needed to enhance the arrival of righteous laws and law-abiding citizens. And it still took many more centuries before one powerful idea, the idea of democracy, would finally convince sufficient citizens to combine the necessity of laws and rulers with the good of communal self regulation.
Solidarity – from family duty to religious and legal duty
Some quotations from Stephen Sachs about leadership and solidarity in traditional Indian tribes:
Leaders (who have mistakenly been called “chiefs”) functioned primarily as facilitators, consensus builders, and announcers of decisions. In general, they had little or no decision making power of their own, though usually they had influence. They were chosen for positions of leadership on the basis of their high moral character and ability to represent the people and lead in the long term interests of the community as a whole. (..) Culturally, people believed in, and related on the basis of, mutual respect, identifying with the band or tribe as an extended family, in which members supported each other in their individual endeavors to the extent that they did not contradict the common good, while they collaborated out of mutual interest and a strong sense of shared consensus. (..) At the same time, economically, as well as socially, the structure of living caused people to need each other’s support, while economic power was at least not so concentrated as to upset egalitarian relations, and was most often broadly dispersed in economies based upon reciprocity (..). Thus, by developing cooperation and a sense of unity through honoring diversity on the basis of mutual respect, these communities usually maintained a very high quality of life.
What a contrast between this servant leadership, solidarity and mutual respect among the members of nomadic tribes, and the oppression and exploitation that seems almost inextricably connected to the rise of urban societies. But let’s not rush towards moral qualifications. Let’s first recall that cities became the habitat of many different tribes. As these tribes were focused first of all on their own survival, conflicts would usually end with winners and losers – meaning that one family would turn into a dynasty of rulers and the others would have to settle with being subjects or slaves. New forms of spirituality were needed to rediscover and redefine the value of brotherhood, of equality, solidarity and mutual respect beyond ethnic borders. And it still took many more centuries before one powerful idea, the idea of human rights, provided a legal basis for egalitarian relations and community-based leadership.
We city-dwellers can easily marvel at the social and natural harmony of nomadic tribes. Romantic Hollywood productions like “Dances with Wolves” (1990) and “The New World” (2005) make us sometimes yearn for that which we lost in the city and never fully found again. Urban life has put us on a long journey towards a new understanding and embrace of brotherhood and solidarity. And yes, we did make progress, thanks to the idea of democracy and human rights. But it seems the search isn’t over. Precisely in the most democratic societies, loneliness and individualism have become major issues. It seems we need more than democracy and human rights to fully enjoy brotherhood again.
Let’s start with taking a look at the traditional features of a city:
- Cities have a temple (religious centre).
- Cities have a palace (administrative centre).
- Cities have a market (trade centre) and industry
- Cities have barracks (military centre) and walls
- Cities have granaries (food centre) and water supply.
If you have any aspiration of building a city like this, the first thing you’ll have to deal with is feeding the urbanites. For as you know, it is quite typical for city-dwellers that they usually don’t produce their own food. So if you want a lot of them in one place, make sure there are other people who can produce a lot of food on their behalf. Then collect this food surplus, store it, and distribute it among the urbanites.
At this point, a couple of questions need to be answered:
- Who can produce a lot of food, much more than they need for themselves?
- Who produces food that doesn’t rot but can be stored for a longer time?
- Why would these people be willing to give you their extra food?
- How will you collect this food and distribute it among the urbanites?
In the first civilizations, these questions were answered in the following way:
Ad 1. Hunters and gatherers didn’t collect enough food to feed a city or even a village. It was only after the arrival of agriculture that people started producing so much food that they could also feed a substantial amount of other families. The first centres of agriculture appeared in the Middle East, China, New Guinea, Ethiopia, West Africa and in North, Middle and South America.
Ad 2. The Papuans in New Guinea didn’t need the rest of the world to develop agriculture. But the food they produced (sugar-cane, carrots, banana’s) couldn’t be stored for a very long time. This made the rise of cities impossible. Wheat can be stored very well and became the basis for new civilizations in the Middle East, China, Ethiopia and West-Africa. The America’s were blessed with cassava, corn, potatoes and beans. These storable crops laid the foundation for civilizations like that of the Inca in South America and the Maya in Middle America. Rice gave rise to a lot of civilizations in southern Asia. But that took a bit longer as it takes quite an effort to establish “wet-rice cultivation” (requiring a constant supply of water).
Ad 3. It didn’t take long before farmers saw the benefit of exchanging their extra food for all kinds of goods or services. So, there was trading way before the arrival of the first civilizations. Already in the 10th century BC the first walled cities, like Jericho and Damascus, appeared. It took, however, until 3500 BC before cities became so big and complex that they became known as the first civilizations. The difference was that one particular group had moved into the centre of society and gained the authority to collect food and spend it on activities that was believed to serve the common good. Which group? Priests. Which activities? Rituals to please the gods. Why was this a common good? Because the lives of farmers and settlers turned out to be much more vulnerable than the lives of hunters and gatherers. Farmers could lose their harvest due to hail, insects, drought, floods or looting. People could also fall victim to ugly diseases their domesticated animals were carrying. As the farmers and settlers couldn’t control these factors, they turned to those who claimed to know the will of the gods and how to gain their protection. The power of priests increased. At first they performed simple sacrificial rituals at the fields, but gradually these rituals turned into refined and complicated ceremonies in one particular place. Statues and temples were raised for the gods, with ritual meals and dances several times a day. In order to make all of this possible, the priests collected food from the farmers and stored it in granaries. The food was used for sacrificial purposes and to feed all the priests, craftsmen, cooks, dancers, tailors, administrators etc. who were involved. As the food production increased and improved, more and more people settled around the temple, all spending their time on other things than producing food.
Ad 4. Close to the religious centre and granaries appeared an administrative centre, focussing on collection and distribution of food. It soon developed into the centre of social and political power. Priests did not only pull the string because of their astrological knowledge, helping them to discern the will of the gods. They also knew when to sow and when to harvest because of their astronomical knowledge. They literally had a powerful sense of time. Through a number of rituals, accompanied by myths, they set the rhythm of agriculture and made sure the consumption of the food was spread over the year.
As the city grew, more and more products were also traded outside of the temple context. Markets started flourishing. And the more the temple, granary, palace and market became concentration points of valuable goods, the more the settlement had to be defended against looters and criminals. Soldiers were needed, trained in barracks, and thick walls had to be build around the houses and public buildings. From then on, it would only be a matter of time before the priest-king would be replaced by a general-king.
This is how many complex urban societies developed in history, carrying the 5 well-known features cities have had since the very first civilization.
Five options are at your disposal:
- You will work less as you don’t need that amount of food.
- You will eat more as you have more to eat.
- You will have more kids as you can feed more kids.
- You will feed the hungry as you have something to share.
- You will trade your food for all kinds of goods or services.
Please take a moment to decide which option appeals the most to you.
Now let’s consider each option.
1. You will work less as you don’t need that amount of food.
Well done, you know how to be satisfied! Others may think you are lazy, but they probably belong to the group that thinks life can always be improved. You know how to temper your ambitions and needs. At some point you are able to say what some others can’t say: enough is enough; it is good as it is!
2. You will eat more as you have more to eat.
So you are one of those who will eat chips until the bag is empty? Others may call it excessive behaviour, and you will probably have to watch your weight, but at least you have come to know the joy of abundance. You know how to postpone your worries and seize the moment of physically experiencing and celebrating that there is more than you need.
3. You will have more kids as you can feed more kids.
Great, you are a family person and have a lot of love to give. Your desire is to build and sustain a family that is characterized by life long commitment and care. And you know that families have always been the core units of society. So, more food and sufficient love also means: being able to nourish and equip more kids who can make a positive contribution to society.
4. You will feed the hungry as you have something to share.
Let’s celebrate your solidarity with the poor! You have more than you need and so you want to share it with those who have less than they need. You are also a family person, but your focus is on the ‘extended family’, including every one you are, or feel, related to. Your solidarity can be local and global, with humans and with nature. Wherever your solidarity is expressed, it is living proof of your ability to prioritize the well-being of others.
5. You will trade your food for all kinds of goods or services
Congratulations, you are the one standing at the cradle of civilization. If we mean by civilization a complex urban society, and if urban society is characterized by people who are fed by others to deliver certain goods or services, then you are the one making it possible. By trading food you are giving others the opportunity to specialize in making clothes, bread, pottery, houses, administrative tasks, military tasks, etc. And the more time these people can focus on their speciality, the more they can improve their skills and tools and eventually the quality of life. That is probably what you had in mind from the start: feeding others so that they can improve your life or the life of people you care about.
So there you have it: five ways of dealing with your own overproduction. Pick your favorite one. Don’t worry about civilization if you prefer one of the first four options. It is quite commendable to choose the option of 1) being satisfied with what you have, 2) enjoying abundance, 3) expanding family life, and last but not least: 4) sharing your resources with the poor! Only remember that if you limit yourself to one of these four options, the overproduction will not be spent on creating time for people to develop skills and tools to overcome difficulties and improve the quality of life. So, if you chose to help the poor, you may not be able to improve your way of helping the poor. And if you chose to be satisfied, you better stay satisfied!
Obviously, you can spend your extra food in more than one way. But choices have to be made, and they have been made in history and are still being made today. Satisfaction can keep people away from making progress, and seeking progress can keep people away from being satisfied. Being busy with making progress can go at the cost of helping the most vulnerable in society, but being busy with helping the vulnerable can also go at the cost of making progress. Those are the tough choices, of individuals and entire societies. And needless to say: what counts for extra food, also counts for extra money…
By the way, there is a 6th option I didn’t discuss, one that is actually quite popular in modern societies: if you produce more food than you need, you can also waste it.
Civilization is a video installation created in 2008 by CRUSH and artist/director Marco Brambilla for the elevators of Standard Hotel in NYC. It’s comprised of over 400 video clips and it takes elevator passengers on a trip from hell to heaven as they go up or from heaven to hell as they go down. It took a team of around 8 people roughly 6 months to complete this video installation. Pictures of the installation and Q&A with Brambilla and Crush are posted here: glossyinc.com/civilization.html.