AN ENVIRONMENTAL HISTORY OF FOOD AND FARMING

Kerry Woods
BIO2204, Spring 2021; hybrid format

Mon. and Thurs. 10:00-11:50 (Room TBA)


farmscape

squash

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

NOTE: THIS IS THE 'LIVE' SYLLABUS; check it for changes from static version on populi


Opening thoughts:

Here's the course description from the Curriculum: 

"Modern Homo sapiens has been around for about 200,000 years and for about 95% of that time, our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers. Around 10,000 years ago, several distinct sets of our ancestors came up with agricultural technology (active ecosystem management for enhanced food production), and immediately began changing their world irreversibly. Long‐term feedbacks triggered by adoption of food production have transformed climate and local and global ecosystem properties; they have also shaped human population dynamics and cultural and economic systems. These potent feedbacks must be addressed in any consideration of the human condition and how we understand ʹnatural statesʹ. Deep historical perspectives and context from ecological science are both essential for understanding relationships between agriculture and food production and, ultimately, for understanding and addressing issues concerning conservation, sustainability, and human well-being. Such perspectives are likely to call for reassessment of basic assumptions and beliefs about the nature of nature, what constitutes sustainable behavior, and how human well-being might be reconciled with protection of natural systems. We will begin with simple but challenging questions. Why did (some) people take up farming? Why at particular times and locations and not others? Were collapses of agricultural civilizations driven by internal/cultural or external/environmental factors (or interactions between them)? These explorations will motivate analysis of how the adoption of agriculture changed humans (both biologically and culturally), their domesticated plants and animals, and global system function.

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 arena for advocacy or a platform for promoting agendas. It is a place for argument -- but I the arguments must be driven by clearly articulated questions, 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 cultural norms and our own emotions and agendas.  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 that confrontation has to be in formats and forms appropriate to the inquiry described.  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 both books listed below and a wide variety of readings from primary literature in various fields (ecology, history, etc.).  There will be substantial reading for each week, and it is essential that reading be completed before classes where it's to be discussed.

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 important contributions, the last two in regional context, though they've all aroused controversy.  There will be assigned reading from each, but we won't be 'going through' any of these in their entirety; assigned reading will amount to around half or a bit more of each (and some of that will be for background rather than focused discussion), but they're all engaging books and you may find yourself compelled to read the rest!  It's up to you whether you buy them for yourself, share them, download digital versions, etc. -- but you MUST have free access to them to do the relevant reading and to make notes towards class discussion.

Written Work
There will be written assignments averaging approximately one per week.  Some will be more conventional essays; some will be more journal-like and involve interaction and commentary. 
- 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 further details, dates. 

Academic Honesty/Plagiarism

The legitimacy of all scholarly work hinges on honesty of the scholar.  This means, among other things: 1) Honesty about sources of ideas and information, with appropriate/explicit acknowledgement and citation; 2) Doing your own work as called for (I will try to be clear what sorts of collaboration and cooperation are okay) and always acknowledging collaborative work.  'Plagiarism' is not just unacknowledged use of other people's words. We will talk more about these standards in class, but legitimacy of scholarship generally, and of science in particular is completely dependent on their observance.  Failure to observe them appropriately can have significant impact on your evaluation.

Statement on Inclusivity and Accommodations

Bennington College is committed to fostering the intellectual growth of all students, and to creating a learning environment where human cultural diversity is valued and respected. Students can expect a respectful, welcoming and inclusive classroom environment. I hope that all students in this course will openly share their own perspectives and respect the perspectives and contributions of other students and guests. If you feel that this goal is not being met, please donít hesitate to see me, or speak with a college officer from The Office of Diversity & Inclusion, Student Life, or Academic Services.

At Bennington College, we understand that basic needs (food, housing, and wellness) have a direct impact on academic performance, all aspects of health, and overall success of students. If you have a personal circumstance or need that will affect your learning or performance in this course, please let me or your faculty advisor know so that we can direct you to available resources to help support you during the term. If you are

experiencing mental or physical health challenges that are significantly impacting your academic work I encourage you to speak with your faculty advisor or a member of Academic Services (academicservices@bennington.edu or 440-4400), and to connect with health and psychological services (440-4426 or 440-4451).

Bennington College provides reasonable accommodations to students with documented disabilities when such accommodations are requested and necessary to ensure equal access to College programs and facilities. If you believe you are entitled to an accommodation speak with Katy Evans, the Academic Services and Accommodations Advisor, about disability-related needs. If an accommodation is approved, you will receive a memo detailing specifics. It is your responsibility to provide me with the memo and discuss the implementation of accommodations. I will not be aware of your needs if you do not share this memo with me. Accommodations are not retroactive, and can't be implemented until you have discussed your needs with me.


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.

I. Setting the stage:  a brief introduction to humans as ecosystem engineers and agriculture as (global) ecosystem management, and thinking briefly about purposes and goals of ecosystem management. (WEEK 1)
    - People and food in ecosystem-function terms.  Trophic structure and nutrient cycling: global carbon cycle and energy flow
    - Defining motivating questions: what do you think about food and agriculture, and why do you think it?

II. Back to beginnings: origins and spread of agriculture (Diamond); causes and effects of when, where, why.  (WEEKS 2-4)
    - 12,000 years ago: humans in the pre-agricultural global ecosystem
    - Domestication, natural selection, and agricultural origins; who domesticated whom?
    - 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?

III. Case studies from a long time ago: the decline and fall of practically everybody (WEEKS 5-7)
    - Potential stories: Greece/Middle East, Mayan American, Anasazi, New Guinea
    - Summary, classical agriculture: fertilization, irrigation, and trade in ecosystem perspective

IV. More modern perspective and regional context, New England as case study (Donahue and Cronon): how humans created modern agricultural landscapes when food was a local affair. (WEEKS 8-11)

V. Agriculture in the last hundred years; ecological globalization, motives and consequences. (WEEKS 12-13)
    - Return to ecosystem perspective; materials cycling, resource limitation, global ecosystem function
    - Context in population dynamics and economic growth (Malthus, Ostrom, Borlaug)
    - industrialization, demographic transitions and food
    - New(??) approaches to crop development
    - modern agroecosystems and alternatives: ecological consequences and constraints

VI. Onward (THE END)
    - 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, Jan 2021