Tuesday, April 7, 2015

MUSINGS FROM PRIYADARSHINI KARVE: Agriculture made us sustainable... or did it?

Over the last few weeks, I have been sharing some of my thoughts about humanity's perpetual quest for sustainability, and how it has driven lifestyle changes in the past. I am going by the assumption that history always has valuable lessons for the future - if we know where to look for them! These musings are my interpretations based on what I know, read, and see. Please feel free to share your views too! 

I have so far argued that the transition from Hunter-Gatherer lifestyle to Agriculturist lifestyle was driven by the situation that the human population increased to a level that made hunter-gatherer lifestyle unsustainable. I have also elaborated on how the change brought about a shift in values and created a new culture. But did the shift succeed in making us more sustainable? 

Recall this picture that I used in a previous post. It sums up the situation as far as hunter-gatherer lifestyle is concerned, for our reference. 

With agriculture, we put in additional inputs into the piece of land controlled by us. For example, substantial quantities of water, fodder, fertilizers, etc., were brought in which were over and above what the occupied land naturally contained, and that is what allowed the productivity of the land to increase. Because of the additional inputs, it was now possible to sustain 50 people over 10 sq km area, instead of just 1 person. If you do the math (refer the calculation in: http://samuchitenvirotech.blogspot.in/2015/03/welcome-to-sustainable-life.html), you will see that this increased the carrying capacity of the earth theoretically to about 750 million people - the human population crossed this threshold somewhere around the middle of the 18th century. 

However, there is a fallacy in this argument. Remember, that we need EXTRA inputs to increase the productivity of the land. So, this will work only if we KEEP some land from the total area of the earth as a 'warehouse' that would supply those additional inputs to the rest of the land! Combine this with the facts that the natural resources are not spread evenly around the globe, and also that every sq km of land is not habitable for humans. So obviously, the actual increase in carrying capacity of the earth is much smaller than the theoretical estimate. It is a bit difficult to predict exactly how much the actual carrying capacity would be, because the calculation depends on a number of assumptions. So, let's not get into that, but I am sure you get the general idea of this direction of thinking. 

So, yes, agriculture did make us sustainable - for a while. But then a combination of things happened... let's talk about these next week! 

Priyadarshini Karve
Director, Samuchit Enviro Tech

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