Tuesday, April 14, 2015

MUSINGS FROM PRIYADARSHINI KARVE: Where has agriculture taken us?

I have been talking about the lifestyle change that humans underwent in the quest for sustainability nearly 10,000 years ago. The following pictures more or less summarises the key points of the musings so far.


Even assuming that the actual carrying capacity of a simple agricultural lifestyle is far less than the theoretical number of 750 million persons (refer the calculation in last week's musing:http://samuchitenvirotech.blogspot.in/2015/04/musings-from-priyadarshini-karve.html), we still did not face much of a resource crunch at least till the 16th century. It is no coincidence, that the industrial revolution, whereby humans started to shift some of their resource base from agriculture and manual labour to machines, started in Europe in the 1600s, and literally exploded after the discovery of petroleum in 1800s. However, we all know that a lot of the problems that humanity faces today are linked with social and economic inequity and environmental degradation. 

The seeds of industrialisation were sown by the agricultural society itself. 

Imagine an era of simple agriculture. Whether it was farming or animal husbandry, agriculture being a labour intensive activity, a land owner always faced a dilemma. If he wanted to increase his farm output, he needed more hands to work the land. But more hands to work also meant more mouths to feed! So there was a clear incentive to reduce the labour input while increasing the farm output - by inventing machines that allowed a single worker to do the work of two... or ten... or more! 

Agriculture is also heavily dependent on weather and climate - and both of these changed unpredictably. As hunter-gatherers, if a band did not find any resources on a particular day, it meant starvation for one day. As agriculturists, if a season's crop failed or if a herd of animals died, the settlement had to starve for one full year. There was therefore an additional incentive to control as many natural parameters as possible, in order to reduce the uncertainty in agriculture. This gave an added impetus for technology development (e.g., irrigation systems, fertilizers, etc). 

The catch however is that with the machines and technological infrastructure coming into play, agriculture no longer remained 'simple'. While the labour input declined, the resource input went on escalating. The corresponding gains in terms of output of the farm produce may have been substantial for a few years, but as the land got more and more 'exhausted', the inputs continued to escalate, with little or no increase in the output. 

As the technologies became more and more sophisticated, as well as popular, some people had to engage themselves totally in manufacturing, some had to engage in mining, and processing and transporting, etc., to support the manufacturing industry, some had to focus on research, education and management to create and manage the workforce required to keep the wheels of industry turning... and so on. The responsibility of growing food for these people too fell on those who remained in agriculture, which in turn became more and more dependent on the industrial inputs... till agriculture lost its prime status in human society. 

This is the picture of the industrial society that we are living in for the past 300 years... more about this next week!  

Priyadarshini Karve
Director, Samuchit Enviro Tech

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