There’s been a longstanding debate in ecological circles and that is: “When did we go wrong?” It’s based on the idea that at this moment, we are at a lethal point in history that, in the best case scenario is causing a mass extinction and in the worst, the extermination of the human race.
I’m going to dismiss two premises first. One is that we never went wrong; this is what progress looks like and we will achieve technological ‘godhood’ and practical mastery over reality in the near-ish future. I like to call this Mankind Ascendant and consider it ever bit as realistic as Christian mythology.
The second is that we were always going to go wrong; that no animal can have a brain like ours and not completely, totally fuck it up in the long run, leading to their own extinction. This is Mankind Descendant and it ignores the scientific evidence of man’s four hundred thousand years (plus) of not fucking things up and actually positively impacting environments across the world.
What the hell happened?
So if we’re not Mankind Ascendant or Mankind Descendant, what the hell happened? Some point at the discovery and adoption of oil, and the Industrial Revolution (especially the “Green Revolution” of the 1970s). Others go for the cities. Or the use of iron. There’s even one acclaimed author that went for ‘symbolic thought’ (like… language) and a few that went for a combination of psychedelic consumption plus meat-eating (leading to the “killer gene” hypothesis. <rolling eyes here>).
Yes, at the end of that chain of thought, it starts to get pretty weird.
I tend to stand with Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael (1992), that the issue began with the agricultural revolution. The rest, to me, is symptoms, not root cause. Beyond the distinction of the durable Stone Age and the following Bronze, Iron, etc. and copious amounts of evidence regarding the negative effects of hierachy/farming on human health, there’s a couple of stories that stand out: the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden and the Sumerian creation myth.
I’ve covered both elsewhere but the summary is: the Garden of Eden is the Jewish tale of how their farming neighbors went batshit crazy (I got that version from Quinn); the Sumerian version is the first major story where humanity conquered their environment, farmed it, AND enslaved their neighbors to keep it all going.
There’s a number of my peers who accept this, but that leads to this question: what’s the difference between farming and gardening? There are farms that have perennials and annuals mixed in; there are gardens that are monocultures. The more monocultured they are and the larger they are scaled up, the more they are likely to tip into negative behaviors but what tips them over into the other category?
The words that spell it out
For a while, I thought it came down to a widescale trauma, with accompanying famine effects that led to physical and psychological changes. It still likely is the start.
However, thanks to the weird joys of etymology (study of words), there might be an answer.
Here’s the thought: while a word can change dramatically over time, its current usage can reflect how we perceive its original state. With that let’s look at the words “garden” and “farm”.
“Garden” comes from the same root word as “guard”. The word “guard” implies something that you grasp or enclose; it could be a treasure or it could be a child. Farm, though, comes from the root that means a fixed rent, a payment. You guard something you value; you farm to get something you deserve.
Human’s greatest innovation is our ability to define things as relationships over time. Our attentiveness, our communication skills, create an ability to notice issues within a system long before they become toxic. And we’ve used this to spread out to environments which should be thoroughly hostile to us.
Take, in mythology, the Norse creation, where Odin recognized that by laying the metaphor of a body onto the landscape, he and those coming after him could navigate and thrive in an lethally cold land.
The term “farm” speaks to an inherently abusive relationship where the power lies with the farmer, not the land, and if the land doesn’t give it up, it deserves to be treated any way they see fit to exact their due.
This explains why a number of farmers can claim they live close to the land and love it; they’re not lying. They’ve simply, unknowingly, abandoned the abusive relationship for a healthier one. It also answers why an equal number torture the hell out of their landscapes and shove all the waste into the rivers and oceans. The land “owes” them.
Why is this significant?
It means that the difference between a farm and a garden is a social technology. It means that it’s repairable under two conditions. (1) that the relationship between the land and people must be repaired. And (2) the garden can NOT be the sole source of nutrition for the human unit. A garden must be part of a system that includes other gardens and ‘wild space’ for when something happens to the garden.
Why is wild space important? It’s deceptively simple. You can’t imagine every scenario. No one can. Having an uncontrolled environment that you help gently shape can only be beneficial for generations to come, if not for you. How do you gently shape an environment? You walk in it, live in it; weed where you can, or slow burn, or spread seeds and cut out some deadwood. Not intense, like a garden or a farm, but just part of moving through that space.
This can be started now, under any environment. For the worst off, cities, folks could treat them like desert, or like coral reefs, and plant accordingly. For toxic spaces, mushrooms and certain other plants (like spinach of all things) would push things towards more viability.
It’s possible to do this. It’s the direction we need to move in. Create a garden, visit your surroundings, nurse them to health. They are your family. The world is our life.
And they are you.