Climate, class, and the Neolithic revolution

Climate change helped make human civilisation possible. Does it now threaten its existence?

This is the first in a series of articles about food under global warming. This article takes a long view of the relationship between climate, agriculture, and class society.

When people think of the impacts of climate change, sea level rise is often the first that comes to mind. Two recent studies have concluded that the loss of large parts of West Antarctica is now a question of when not if, with sea level rises of around 3 metres as soon as the next couple of centuries. New research also suggests that both East Antarctica and Greenland are more vulnerable than previously thought. The prospect of coastal cities, like Norfolk, VA, abandoned to the sea stirs the apocalyptic imagination, but the timescale is centuries to millennia. Food may turn out to be a much more pressing issue.

The latest IPCC report suggests that climate change will reduce agricultural yields on average by up to 2% per decade in a context of demand rising by 14% each decade.1 With higher amounts of warming – business as usual could mean 3°C or more by 2100 – the prospects for agriculture get worse. And regional climate change can diverge quite significantly from the global average. With warming, things also get far less predictable, since anything above 2°C is unprecedented in the last million years (human agriculture has existed for around 10,000 years).

IPCC AR5 WGII wrote:
Under scenarios of high levels of warming [business as usual], leading to local mean temperature increases of 3-4°C or higher, models based on current agricultural systems suggest large negative impacts on agricultural productivity and substantial risks to global food production and security.

The future of food production therefore faces much uncertainty due to climate change. For many, the go-to common sense is Malthusian - overpopulation. There's simply too many of us, so someone [black, brown, poor, elsewhere] has to go hungry. For others, the solution lies in the extension of capitalist property regimes through the privatisation of agrarian commons, and the accelerated application of biotechnology to agriculture. For the peasant international La Via Campesina and their Western NGO allies, the solution lies in 'food sovereignty', empowering subsistence producers on the land. To address the future of food, it will first be helpful to consider the past. A long historical view offers important perspective on the relationship between climate, agriculture, and class society.

Ancient history

The genus Homo emerged around 5 million years ago, while the species Homo sapiens, our own, the sole extant species of the genus, emerged around 200,000 years ago. Agriculture emerged only around 10,000 years ago. This transition, which took place independently in at least six global centres, is known as the Neolithic revolution. What relevance does ancient history, or strictly speaking, prehistory, have to today?

We think there are two main points of relevance. First, the Neolithic revolution represents a dramatic, and ultimately global transformation of the mode of (social re)production, induced in part by climate change. As we face even bigger climate change, we think there are some important lessons about how such transitions take place. Second, there is a common association between the spread of agriculture and the rise of class society. We wish to challenge the 'common sense', promoted by popular writers like Jared Diamond, that we can have agriculture or egalitarianism, but not both.

For the avoidance of any doubt, we do not discuss the transition to agriculture out of any desire to return to a hunter-gatherer mode of subsistence. Historically, such a mode of subsistence supported only around 5 million people, far short of the 10-11 billion likely to populate the Earth by the end of the century.2 A return to pre-agricultural living is neither possible nor desirable. But a long historical view puts contemporary questions of climate, food, and class society into the proper perspective.

The rise of agriculture

Jared Diamond's bestseller 'Guns, Germs, and Steel' tells the story of the emergence and spread of agriculture from the fertile crescent, the region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern day Iraq and the Nile of modern day Egypt. However, there were at least six independent centres of agriculture. The near east centre (Syria-Palestine) emerged around 9-10,000 years ago; the central American centre (southern Mexico) about 4-9,000 years ago; the Chinese centre (Yellow River) about 8,500 years ago; the New Guinean centre (Papua New Guinea) about 10,000 years ago; the south American centre (Peruvian-Ecuadorian Andes) about 6,000 years ago; and the north American centre (Mississippi basin) between 2-4,000 years ago.3

The question is then, why did agriculture emerge independently in so many distant centres in a relatively narrow window of time? Anthropologists and archaeologists disagree on the details. There is no disagreement however that climate change played a major role. 12,000 years ago marked the beginning of the Holocene epoch, and the end of the last ice age (the glacial-interglacial cycle is a natural climate variation driven by variations in the Earth's orbit known as Milankovitch cycles). For example, in the near east centre (‘the fertile crescent’):

Mazoyer & Roudart, p.76 wrote:
...the post-glacial warming up of the climate entailed a progressive shift from a cold steppe ecosystem, characterised by the dominance of artemisia to a savanna ecosystem characterised by the dominance of oaks and pistachios, rich in wild grains (barley, spelt, emmer wheat, etc) and also other exploitable plant resources (lentils, peas, vetch, and other legumes), as well as various game animals (wild boars, deer, gazelles, aurochs, wild sheep, wild goats, rabbits, hares, birds, etc) and in some places fish.

However, this abundance created only the potential, but not the necessity for a transition to agriculture. In fact, it is believed that agriculture would have initially meant longer and harder work than hunter-gathering. For hunter-gatherers, there was no distinction between work and play, and in fecund environments at least, only a few hours hunting or foraging each day was sufficient for a band to reproduce itself. For this reason, hunter-gatherers have been dubbed 'the original affluent society', since leisure was abundant and the work-play distinction absent. So why did they take up agriculture?

It would be a mistake to generalise, since this process happened independently in widely dispersed places. Candidate factors include population growth exceeding the capacity of the environment or coercion. However, it would also be a mistake to dismiss agency, that is, choices to live differently. Agriculture did not emerge immediately following the post-glacial warming. The weakness of deterministic accounts is stressed by Mazoyer & Roudart, who insist that "as necessary as this revolution appears after the fact, nevertheless it cannot be explained by nor is it reducible to this necessity."4 Furthermore, the knowledge, tools, and capacity for agriculture were present far before it was widely adopted. As David Cleveland writes, "it seems unlikely that a lack of basic knowledge prevented humans from taking up agriculture earlier."5 In this respect, the Neolithic revolution was a break which occurred through the recombination of existing knowledge, tools, and social organisation into new forms of life.

Surplus calories and class society

Jared Diamond's popular account links the calorie surpluses made possible by agriculture with the emergence of non-producing social strata, that is to say, the stratification of society into classes. For Diamond, “with agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence.”6 However, calorie surpluses were possible even in hunter-gatherer societies, and as one critique of Diamond points out, "there are certainly many non-state horticultural and agricultural societies."7 Diamond's determinist account is probably the most influential, but it also has strong similarities with many Marxist ones (via Engels and Mumford), as well as primitivist or anti-civilisational perspectives (which accept the equation of civilisation with class society, and thus oppose both).

A powerful critique of the Marxist version of stagism is set out by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.8 They draw on the work of anthropologist Pierre Clastres to reject the idea of history as a linear development from primitive to advanced stages.9 Deleuze and Guattari's critique rests on three points: (1) development seems to 'zigzag' back and forth rather than pass gradually through successive stages; (2) the archaeological record and anthropological theory supports the existence of sudden breaks and discontinuities, i.e. the emergence of a state or city without passing through all the supposedly intermediate stages, and; (3) what they call 'reverse causality', that is, the ability of something which does not yet exist to exert causal force on the present.

It is this last point which is most original, but also, which requires the most explanation. The example they give is Pierre Clastres’ concept of society against the state. For Clastres, non-state societies are not pre-state, that is they’re not lacking in some way, or failures at linear development. Rather, egalitarian societies recognise the potential for the centralisation of power and stratification of the society – state formation – and develop material-cultural practices which ward off this potential. Thus even before it exists, the state exerts causal force on society.10

Together, zigzagging, breaks, and reverse causality make a linear, stagist account untenable. Consequently, Deleuze and Guattari also make a distinction between the rise of agriculture and settlement, and the rise of the state: “the ‘urban revolution’ and the ‘state revolution’ may coincide but do not meld.” Rather there are simultaneous processes towards nomadism and settlement on the one hand, and social stratification and levelling on the other. Agriculture does not necessitate class society. This conclusion is supported by the more mainstream literature:

While centralized control may be necessary for irrigation systems to function, it does not necessarily need to be in the form of social hierarchy (...) groups of users working co-operatively can successfully fulfil the same function.11

We can extend the notion of anticipatory causality to the present. Just as the state haunts non-state societies and must be continually warded off, the dissolution of hierarchy haunts state societies. It too must be warded off, if the state is to reproduce itself. The modern state is the capitalist state: guarantor of private property and a major agent of capitalist development. The state is haunted by communism – stateless, non-market self-organisation. This helps to explain the violent repression of seemingly harmless public square occupations and disaster communities, as well as the constant xenophobic demonization and repression of migrants and the hyping of terrorism, among other things, as existential threats to the national body. The state is never established once and for all, it must continually ward off the threat of communism which haunts it.

Conclusions

The emergence of agriculture, and civilisation itself, was made possible by climate change at the end of the last ice age. A few degrees of warming dramatically transformed ecosystems. Agriculture emerged in at least six independent centres, and cannot be explained by a linear, stagist account. Societies chose to revolutionise their mode of subsistence, albeit under circumstances not of their choosing. This revolution made use of knowledge and tools already present in hunter-gatherer societies, but recombined them in a new mode of (social re)production. The emergence of settled agricultural civilisations and class society was sometimes contemporaneous, but these were distinct processes.

The earth only supported around 5 million hunter-gatherers and there is no going back. The challenge is to organise agriculture in a sustainable way to feed 10-11bn people. By sustainable, we mean a way which doesn’t undermine its own conditions of production, for example by driving climate change, making pollinators extinct, or depleting the soil. Ecological science is indispensable here. In future posts we will look at the emergence of specifically capitalist agriculture through enclosures, colonialism, and plantation slavery. Then we will be in a position to look at the current problems and future possibilities for feeding the world under unprecedented conditions of climate chaos.

A return to pre-agricultural living is neither possible nor desirable. But a long historical view puts contemporary questions of climate, food, and class society into the proper perspective.