AN ENVIRONMENTAL HISTORY OF FOOD AND FARMING

Kerry Woods
BIO2204, Spring 2017


farmscape

squash

largely post-agricultural landscape, northeastern U.S. (left); diversity in an eastern North American domesticate (right)

Opening thoughts:


Here's the course description from the Curriculum:  "Modern humans have been around for well over 100,000 years. Our ancestors came up with agricultural technology (active ecosystem management for enhanced food production) only about 10,000 years ago, and began changing their world irreversibly. The long‐term feedbacks triggered by adoption of food production on human population dynamics, socio-cultural systems, and local and global ecosystem properties are so potent that they must be addressed in any consideration of the human condition and what we mean by ʹnatural statesʹ. A deep historical perspective and context from ecological science are both essential for thoughtful address of modern concerns about food and agriculture as they relate to a wide range of issues concerning sustainability and human well-being. Such perspectives may call for review of basic assumptions and beliefs about what constitutes sustainable behavior. We will begin with simple but challenging questions -- Why did (some) people take up farming? Why at particular times and locations and not others? -- and use these to motivate analysis of how the adoption of agriculture changed humans, their domesticated plants and animals, and their economic and political systems. These explorations may have implications for current thinking and priorities about agriculture and farming."

NOW: an important thing to emphasize: This course is for analysis and understanding of the causal relationships among a set of historical phenomena -- adoption and development of farming, environmental conditions, global ecosystem function, human population dynamics, etc..  It's about understanding what has happened (and is happening), and why.  It is NOT an arean for advocacy or a platform for promoting agendas. It is a place for argument -- but I will insist that the arguments you make be evidence-driven, rooted in understanding of empirical principles and processes, and self-critical (in the scientific sense, where statements are treated as hypotheses, not truths).  Our class readings will not, generally, be partisan advocacies or 'how-to's, but the works of historians, ecologists, and others who are attempting to understand what has happened (and is happening) and why.  Think in terms of questions like: What really happened? Why? Could it have been anticipated? What do we need to understand to make predictions?  And, most importantly, why do I think that?

But, food is important to us at many levels; the fundamental problem of getting enough of it has shaped human nature, both biologically and culturally, and influenced the development of political and economic systems.  Individually, we see food and it's production and distribution through lenses deeply colored by social, ethical, and esthetic agendas.  So it's not surprising that the sort of study we're attempting here is fraught with biases introduced, consciously or not, by emotion and agenda.  Your mission is to separate such biases from your analyses.  

All that said, we'll inescapably end up confronting current questions and issues on which many of you will have strong personal positions -- as do the  historians, ecologists, etc. who we'll be reading.  The cartoon ideal of the impartial, objective scientist is never the reality.   What's important in advancing understanding is not total impartiality -- we're all motivated by something we want -- but the inquiry has to be based in a genuine effort to understand biases and assumptions and  to assess how they affect the inquiry.  So that's what I'll ask of you.  We won't avoid confronting some of the hot questions, issues, debates of the moment.   But I will insist that any claim about what should be done be supported with plausible, evidence-driven argument and a clearly stated context of purposes and assumptions.   And, most importantly, with acknowledgement and assessment of what we don't know and need to know.  I'm less concerned with what you think should be done than in the arguments you make for why and in your clear recognition of the assumptions and values you are applying.

READING ASSIGNMENTS: Check here regularly for updated reading assignments;. THERE WILL BE A LOT OF READING.

WRITING ASSIGNMENTS: Explanations of assigned work and due-dates (ALSO: make sure you read the attached document on citation and sources.)

RESOURCES: References, links, software, whatever.

The Formalities

Instructor:  Kerry Woods:
    OFFICE HOURS: normally 2-4 Tues and 10-12 on Wed, and Fri.  I'm in or near office many other times. If I'm not actually at my desk, I'm probably in the lab next door, or elsewhere in Dickinson; look around.
     Preferred communication mode is email is kwoods@bennington.edu.  It will help if you put 'AG HIST CLASS:' at beginning of subject line.
     Office phone: 802-440-4465 -- but I am not very dependable about checking voicemail right away!

Expectations and Evaluation
   -I expect regular, on-time attendance; absences and frequent latenesses can affect your evaluation and may lead to your failing the class
    - I expect you to be an active participant in the class.  That means doing assigned readings BEFORE class discussions, coming to class prepared to discuss topics and readings WITH NOTES, and generally taking the work of the class seriously.  MOST IMPORTANTLY, it means you taking initiative to explore and learn about the questions and topics that motivate you in the class; if you only do the assigned readings and listen, you're not really participating fully.
    - I expect assignments to be completed on time; it is your responsibility to examine assignments sufficiently in advance so that you can bring questions to me before it is too late.  Late assignments, without prior arrangement may not be accepted.

    Evaluation will be based on all aspects of your participation in the class, including attendance and contribution to classroom discussion.  However, successful completion of written assignments is essential for passing the course.  For those requesting letter grade, written assignments will account for approximately 70% of your grade.

    MAKE SURE YOU READ the notes on citation of sources in writing assignments

Books and Readings
Follow the link above for weekly reading assignments; these will evolve over the course of the term, so check frequently.  Readings will always be posted at least one week prior to expected class discussion.  I've listed three books for the class (all on Populi):

- Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel 
- William Cronon's Changes in the Land 
- Brian Donahue's The Great Meadow

All are considered classics (though with some controversy), and there will be assigned reading from each, but we won't be 'going through' either fully in class discussion; assigned reading will amount to around half or a bit more of each, but they're all engaging books and you may find yourself compelled to read the rest!

Written Work
There will be written assignments averaging nearly once a week.  Some will be more conventional essays; some will use a wiki vehicle and involve interaction and commentary; some will be more discrete, others more open-ended. 
- You MUST stay current with these assignments in order to stay in good standing.
- In all cases (including the more  informally structured), quality of writing matters as does evidence of serious intent.  Take this responsibility seriously
See the 'assignments' link above for details. 


Course Outline

This topical outline, along with most other things, is subject to change.  I have not assigned dates, but you should be able to follow along with where we are!  CHECK REGULARLY TO STAY ABREAST OF WHERE WE ARE IN OVERALL FLOW, and check READINGS link above for weekly assignments.

It may seem like we're starting in the middle a bit -- because we are!  One of our book authors -- Brian Donahue -- will be visiting campus in mid-March, and I've organized things so that you'll have read a good part of his book by then...

I. Setting the stage:  a brief introduction to humans as ecosystem engineers and agriculture as (global) ecosystem management
    - People and food in trophic and nutrient cycling terms: global carbon cycle and energy flow
    - Defining motivating questions: what do you think about food and agriculture, and why do you think it?

II. Early New England as case study (Donahue and Cronon): how humans created agricultural landscapes when food was a local affair.
    - Ecological context: ecosystem function, limiting resources, nutrient cycling
    - Population dynamics and economic growth  (Malthus and Borlaug)

III. Back to beginnings: origins and spread of agriculture (Diamond); causes and effects of when, where, why.
    - 12,000 years ago: humans in the pre-agricultural global ecosystem
    - Domestication, natural selection, and agricultural origins; who's in charge?
    - Interactions: ecosystem change, population dynamics, and rise of agriculture
    - Adoption, spread, and inevitability: choice, imposition, or replacement?
    - Global perspectives: early effects on carbon cycle and climate?

IV. Case studies: the decline and fall of practically everybody
    - Regional perspectives: case studies
    - Summary, classical agriculture: fertilization, irrigation, and trade in ecosystem perspective

V. Agriculture in the last hundred years; ecological globalization, motives and consequences.
    - Return to ecosystem perspective; materials cycling, rsource limitation, global ecosystem function

    - industrialization, demographic transitions and food
    - New(??) approaches to crop development
    - modern agroecosystems and alternatives: ecological consequences and constraints

VI. Onward
    - What's sustainable? Definitions and debates
    - What's to be learned from the past?
    - Tangled webs: food, population trends, biodiversity, fossil fuels, and climate change

- KW, Feb 2017