dooms day devices 2: agriculture

I’d like to go back to an idea that I wrote about some long time ago, the idea of a doomsday device. One of the questions I find it interesting to ponder is, what are the doomsday devices in the modern world, that we have set in motion for ourselves. Perhaps there aren’t any but I tend to think there are.

Back then, I was thinking about the attack us and die doomsday device (as in Dr Strangelove) and the keep me happy and fed or die doomsday device, and I made the observation that money might well be a doomsday device of the latter kind.  At some point, perhaps I’ll try and get a colleague in Economics to suggest this as a dissertation topic to one of their students.

I think that agriculture is another one, though I don’t think it fits into either of these two categories.  I wasn’t thinking at the time that this would be a complete characterization of types of doomsday devices, since there are clearly others, such as the musical chairs, as long as the music plays doomsday device, which I think agriculture might be.

And I have to say at this point, this is not a new idea to me. It is one that’s been explored by a number of authors. These are the stories of civilizations collapsing and dying because of environmental collapse, whether brought on by climate change or the environmental effects of large scale agriculture, the repercussions of war, or something else entirely.

But what I am offering here is a slightly different interpretation of these stories of agriculture and the consequences of agriculture leading to the environmental collapse that then led to the collapse of these old civilizations.

Because what are some of the consequences of agriculture. Agriculture, the structured cultivation of crops and animals (if we want to use a wide definition), led to the establishment of cities, of governments, writing and reading for the purposes of administering and governing. But one of the main consequences of agriculture is that it led to the increase in population size.

I remember the population bomb as a topic of conversation in the 1970s and it is not my intention to revisit that debate, because I think the world is capable of sustaining quite a large population, with appropriate shepherding and conservation efforts, and some amount of restraint on our part.

But I think that agriculture has become a musical chairs, as long as the music plays doomsday device, because I don’t see how it would be possible to undo the growth in population that agriculture has allowed.  And it is this impossibility of undoing that I think is a defining feature of doomsday devices.

We, the whole of humanity we, will find ourselves under pressure over the coming century, as population increases, as the climate changes and patterns of cultivation change in response, and as people around the world quite reasonably aspire to live well.  How we, the whole of humanity, cope with this pressure will define us.

There has been a vast amount of science fiction written on this general topic, how we will cope with some of these pressures going forward into our future, and it will be interesting, in all senses of the word, to see how those speculations stand up going forward, and what we are able to learn from them in terms of seeing ourselves through.

~ by Jim Anderson on 7 June 2014.

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