Agriculture Didn’t Plow Under the Hunters

By Robert Dello-Russo

In, "The Planet of No Return," Erle Ellis contends that "hunting-and-gathering was not displaced for lack of wild animals and foods, but due to the superiority of agriculture."

I disagree. Ellis's view of the rise of agriculture is a classic myth that has been propagated by non-archaeologists for generations -- the "better mousetrap" theory of agriculture. My own archaeological research suggests the opposite.

Take the commitment to agriculture in North America. We have good evidence that maize arrived in the American Southwest about 3,800 years ago. Yet, in the archaeological record, we do not see the sustained development of maize-based communities until about 1,500 years ago. If agriculture was so much better than hunting-and-gathering (H&G), what was everybody doing in the intervening 2,300 years?
 

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Dr. Pangloss, I Presume

Erle Ellis begins his essay, "The Planet of No Return," with a worshipful paean to humanity's powerful ability to exploit the natural environment:

We have seen what we can do, and it is awesome. In just a few millennia, humanity has emerged as a global force of nature -- a networked system of billions of individuals creating and sustaining an entirely new global ecology. We live longer than ever, and our average standard of living has never been higher. These unprecedented achievements clearly demonstrate the remarkable ability of our social systems and technologies to evolve and adapt.

 

In Ellis's view, there can be no question that on average, and in the aggregate, the past, present, and future deserve to be conceptualized as thoroughly positive, claiming that "human societies are likely to continue to thrive and expand, largely unconstrained by any hard biophysical boundaries to growth." In particular, he expresses blithe confidence in our ability to indefinitely increase food production.

But his claims are historically blinkered. In fact, the last "few millennia" have not seen a continuous uninterrupted expansion of agricultural productivity. Until about 1800, all agricultural civilizations, from Babylon to Rome to the Maya to China, were fated with repeated crises of production that resulted in massive famines and catastrophic collapses in political order.

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The Ponzi Scheme of Perpetual Growth

In his hubristic essay, "The Planet of No Return," Erle Ellis argues, "The perennial concern that human civilization has exceeded the carrying capacity of Earth's natural systems and may thus be fundamentally unsustainable" is a notion that "rests upon a series of assumptions that are inconsistent with contemporary science." Yet Ellis fails to identify this series of assumptions or present well-articulated arguments against the validity of what they might claim. Indeed, Ellis takes issue with only one widely shared assumption: he apparently disagrees that there are any "natural" or "biophysical" limits that could ultimately constrain "the human enterprise." Ellis's overall argument, crudely put, seems to be that we've so far gotten away with our increasingly frenetic human activities and the toll they are taking on the biological systems of the planet, so we will surely continue to do so in the future.

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Erle Ellis’ Cheap Fantasy

I found Erle Ellis's piece, "The Planet of No Return," badly overblown, even on points where I'm in basic agreement. For instance, I've written a good deal about the huge challenges posed by corporate overfishing to the earth's marine resources. But his claim -- one of the few quantifiable facts in the piece -- that "wild fish and wild forests have almost disappeared, receding into the depths of our ancestral memory" -- is simply not true. The most recent figures I can find are for 2005, when the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations reported that 93.3 million tons of fish were landed as a result of commercial fishing in wild fisheries, compared with 48.1 million tons produced by fish farms. It's true that that number is off the peak of 96 million tons set in 2000, but "almost disappeared" is typical of the airy disregard with which Ellis treats actual data. (He cites three papers in a footnote after his sentence about fisheries, but none contain numbers supporting his claim that they've disappeared; in fact, the latest FAO data indicates 260 million human beings employed in this phantom pursuit). If this seems picayune fact-checking, it in fact reflects a problem for his more fundamental argument, since it indicates that we're still mostly living off the fat of the incredibly fecund land we were born onto, even as we trash it.

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When Worlds Collide

By Francisco Seijo

Anthropogenic climate change represents one of the greatest and swiftest transformations the earth has experienced. Some scientists argue that since the advent of the industrial era, humanity has caused enough biotic, sedimentary and geochemical changes to the planet that we have left the Holocene and entered a new geological phase: the Anthropocene. The implications of this geologic event for the future of life on earth are unclear. Understandably, some scientists have interpreted this wholesale transformation of the planet's climate and biosphere systems as a sign that humanity is reaching, or has already exceeded, the limits of the planet's carrying capacity.

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Paradigm of No Return

Erle Ellis, who authored "Planet of No Return" for Issue 2 of the Breakthrough Journal, replies here to responses from Bill McKibben, Nils Gilman, Robert Dello-Russo, Ronnie Hawkins and Francisco Seijo.

My goal with "Planet of No Return" was to explain the emergence of the Anthropocene and its implications for the future of humanity.1 It seems that the brevity and provocative nature of my essay have managed to inspire remarkably diverse criticisms.

Ronnie Hawkins likens my thinking to that of "a sentient bacterial culture confidently asserting" that "perpetual growth" is possible "while sucking dry its petri dish." In transferring this textbook biological metaphor (the inevitable collapse of exponentially growing bacteria populations) to the dynamics of human systems, we see a perfect example of the failures of old-school environmental thinking.2

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Debate Abstract

Has humanity crossed a so-called "planetary threshold"? Will the Earth soon be no longer capable of supporting humanity? Or do such limits even exist?

As a growing consensus among scientists has recognized the onset of the Anthropocene -- in which humans have become the dominant ecological force on the planet -- some have expressed concern that human civilization is fundamentally unsustainable. In his Breakthrough Journal essay "Planet of No Return," environmental scientist Erle Ellis argued that this view was at odds with science and human history -- it has been human limits, not natural ones, that have shaped human development.

Not everyone agrees. Now, in a new Breakthrough Forum we publish today -- featuring responses from Bill McKibben, Nils Gilman, Robert Dello-Russo, Ronnie Hawkins, and Francisco Seijo, as well as a reply by Ellis -- the debate over what the Anthropocene means, and how we ought to respond in the coming decades, takes center stage.