Planning for the Future, Learning from the Past

I’ve just returned home after a lot of traveling around the country. I had the chance to spend a week hiking in the three gorgeous national parks of Washington, and I also got to check out Seattle and Portland while I was out there in the Pacific Northwest. After an additional week of family time in the Adirondacks of Upstate New York, I’d say right now my commitment to the planet is replenished and possibly overflowing with a love for wilderness, wildness, and all things “nature”.

Here’s a moment I captured at sunset on the Olympic coast of Washington:

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While on the road (not staring at spectacular sunsets) I was able to dive into a really intriguing book titled 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles Mann. I love learning about the pre-Columbian history of the Americas, so this book was the perfect eye-opener for me to many of the advanced societies that flourished here prior to European colonization. One topic this book really got me thinking about is the history of food and agriculture in the Americas.

The history of human societies, cities, and civilizations inevitably circles around the invention of agriculture. Without agriculture, we would be living as hunter-gatherers, and there would likely be no cities, complex governments, or advanced technologies. (Note: There are of course several groups of people who successfully maintain a hunter-gatherer lifestyle despite their neighbors’ ever-expanding and sometimes destructive modern world. Without agriculture human existence is certainly not “less than”). Agriculture has allowed people to stay in one place and to fulfill different roles in society, but it has also taken a toll on the surrounding environment, on wildlife, on “wilderness”.

The title of this blog is 12,000 Years Young for a reason: in order to restructure agriculture and food consumption so that they are more sustainable and better for human well-being, animal welfare, and environmental health, we must plan for the future by learning from the past. What can the several independent “inventions” of agriculture circa 12,000 years ago teach modern farmers, scientists, politicians, business leaders, and everyday consumers about how to grow and eat food more sustainably?

In 1491, Charles Mann outlines the major agricultural developments that allowed multiple civilizations to flourish in the “New World”. Mesoamerican societies such as the Mayas and the later Aztecs thrived off of maize, beans, and squash; early Peruvian societies such as the Norte Chico developed a complex economy based around cotton production, trading textiles from the inland for seafood from the coast; the subsequent Incas rapidly expanded and colonized the Andean region off of a surplus of potatoes, quinoa, and llama meat. One quickly gets a sense of how much of our modern existence is built off of these developments. Mann mentions in his book that about three-fifths of modern-day crops originated in the Americas: corn, beans, squash, potatoes, quinoa, tomatoes, chilis–all delicious foods we take for granted today.

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But beyond these specific staple crops, agriculture has advanced incredibly due to many of the techniques used by pre-Columbian societies. The most well-known example is the Three Sisters method of growing corn, beans, and squash together, replenishing the soil through legume cultivation. (Note: The story of the Plymouth Pilgrims learning to plant fish-heads around corn is possibly something Tisquantum–“Squanto”–actually learned during his time in Europe, but another interesting agricultural technique nonetheless).

I’m personally excited to learn more about the agricultural methods that allowed human existence to change so drastically beginning 12,000 years ago. I hope that in developing sustainable technologies and innovative solutions for modern-day agriculture, we can learn from those who came before us. This doesn’t mean we should regress to a local, minimalist approach to farming, which though an important movement is not sustainable or scaleable to feed our future world. We should instead learn from the economically and technologically complex food systems of the past to inform our own advancements. It’s difficult and perhaps impossible to preserve the wildness and wilderness that I’ve recently visited without planning for a better future, and I believe that future began 12,000 years ago.