The Idiocy of Rural Food

I’m sorry to be a downer on the whole peasant food discussion, but that’s part of my job as a historian. In very good times, peasant food was halfway decent. Very good times were also very, very rare.

European peasant food consisted overwhelmingly of bread, which was also far and away the single largest expense in any peasant’s yearly budget, at least until the introduction of the potato. We can measure the advent of modernity in part by measuring why people rioted: Did they riot over low wages? Or did they riot over the price of bread? Wage riots indicate a modern economic sophistication; bread riots happen when the rioters aren’t buying much of anything else.

Worse, their bread was awful. We’ve all had “peasant” bread from Whole Foods or whatever, but real peasant bread was a different creature. Real peasant bread was often adulterated with stalks, chaff (not bran, but chaff, which is inedible), as well as grass, tree bark, and sawdust. What little was left of the peasant’s caloric intake came from a very little butter, or cheese, occasional eggs, a few meager vegetables, perhaps a little preserved meat or meat broth on special occasions, and heavily diluted wine or beer. Spices were virtually unknown. If you lived more than a day or so from the coast, you never ate fish unless it was encased in salt — itself a precious commodity. Fruits were available only for a few days a year.

In a famine, the peasantry was reduced to eating lichens, moss, and dirt. They stopped adding flour to their bread almost entirely, and got by with little more than chaff, grass, and sawdust. In desperation, they ate their horses and draft animals. After that, they died by the thousands. And then they took up cannibalism. Significant famines happened dozens of times per century in the land area of any given European nation-state. Living to adulthood typically meant living through several of them.

There wasn’t any aboriginal good taste lurking beneath the blighted peasant diet, either. I think every grad student working on the Old Regime learns this story: A peasant was once asked what he would do if he were king. “I would eat nothing but grease, until I could eat no more,” he answered. In the old days, fairy tales didn’t end with a commoner marrying a prince or a princess, which would have been about as shocking to a commoner as marrying Jesus. No, the typical fairy tale ended with a peasant getting to eat his fill at a well-appointed table. The history of history is the history of starvation.

Until recently, that is, when a combination of free trade and new discoveries in agriculture and transportation changed everything for the better. Much of what we think of as “traditional French food” originated in the nineteenth century or even later. This “cuisine bourgeoise” is what a French grandmother might cook, or at least what she might have eaten as a child. But cuisine bourgeoise should never be confused with peasant food. Cuisine bourgeoise is what you find in Proust, and it is indeed glorious. Julia Child did a passable translation into the American idiom. Peasant food by contrast wouldn’t be worth feeding to your horses, if you had any, and if it were authentic, it certainly wouldn’t be worth a whole cookbook.

I can’t speak with confidence about the history of food worldwide, but if France is any indication, much of what we think of as local, “peasant” food is nothing of the sort. It’s the Cantonese or Bengali or Ethiopian equivalent of cuisine bourgeoise. It’s local, but not too local. It’s fresh because the nouveau riche can afford it, and now, so can we. And it’s really quite a recent development.

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98 thoughts on “The Idiocy of Rural Food

  1. Excellent point Jason. I think a lot of what we think of as “peasant food” from all cultures really turns out to be what peasants eat once they’re exposed to modern agricultural technology and free trade. Because that tends to be what they’re eating when we start talking to them, for obvious reasons.

    I do wonder if Europe had it a bit worse than elsewhere, though. Wheat is the least good of the three major staple crops – hyroponic rice and maize (even landrace maize grown at traditional intenstities) produce far more calories per acre. And Europe seems to have been unusually cold during the middle ages, at least compared with modern times and Roman records, such as they are.

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    • @Simon K, yeah. Our family’s versions of peasant food are the foods that my parents (on one side, grandparents on the other) ate as children before they realized how poor their family was.

      So cornbread and sop is considered comfort food. Mac and cheese. Oatmeal.

      Foods that do a great job of plugging holes in food insecurity.

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    • @Simon K,
      Well, wheat was hardly the peasant staple very far north of central France. Barley and oats were the staples in Brtian, and rye further east.

      Maize doesn’t grow that well in those areas, and rice needs more heat and sunlight, and it helps if your soil doesn’t drain, at least for rice.

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      • @Jim, True. Oats, rye and barley are even worse than wheat in calories/acre. My point was that Europe might have been disproportionately worse off than other equally-developed countries in the middle ages in this respect.

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        • @Simon K,
          Wll that’s true in one way and not in another. Calories/acre is not a measure of a healthy diet. In fact it leads to large populations of malnourished people. Those large populations are more successful than the smaller, better-fed populations of foragers, and foragers have generally switched to the agricultural model.

          However one advantage European peasants, Indian peasants too, had over a lot of others was access to animal protein and fat due to the availability of pastureland that Chinese peasants didn’t have. In China every last square inch is plowed.

          In fact just as forager populations tend to switch to agricultural models – the eastern part of the North America 1,00o years ago is an example – agricultural populations tend to adopt some aspect of pastoralism when they can. This is what happened in Europe at the end of the Neolthic.

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    • @Simon K,
      “And Europe seems to have been unusually cold during the middle ages”

      I thought it was the complete opposite (defining ‘middle ages’ as CE 1000 +/- 300 yrs), which is why Leif Erikson and the boys were able to do what they did, and thence the “Little Ice Age” that came along at the end of that period ended the Viking Settlements and set up (along with the Crusades and Black Death) the political upheaval that would bring a close to the Medieval period.

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  2. I agree.

    My mom is Italian, her parents were immigrants, they were poor… and she HATES a lot of the food currently passed of as rustic Italian. She hates polenta, especially, as that’s what “the poor Italians” ate. So they ate it when they had to, but went for something more American whenever possible.

    She always baked bread, though, and still does. We never bought it at the store. I have no idea why the thriftiness of polenta was embarrasing, but the thriftiness of home-baking was not. The more I think about it, the distinction seems completely arbitrary.

    But that’s how it goes. At any rate, the only real lesson we learned was that more money is better than less.

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    • @Sam M, I’m not sure of the politics, but maize in Italy is definitely poor people food. Wheat has higher status. Could be like Ireland where people ate potatoes but grew wheat to pay their taxes. Maize was so widely eaten in the north of Italy that many people had vitamin-B deficienies, since untreated maize meal and flour have no accessible vitamin B. That’s why mesoamericans grind the stuff with lime – the lime makes the vitamin B accessible.

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    • @Sam M,
      The standard question: What part of Italy. Polenta is from Lombardy. Everywhere else corn is considered cattle feed. Also you use butter in it, and that is pretty much restricted to Lombardy too.

      So is risotto. That’s why it’s such a groaner make it with olive oil.

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  3. Does Vietnamese pho count as bourgeois cuisine? I was under the impression that its origins were rural, and it also happens to be totally delicious.

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    • @Will, Ph? as a distinct dish is only about a century old, and is more similar to what Jason calls “cuisine bourgeoise” than to real Vietnamese peasant food, which was mostly just rice with occasional bits of meet or vegetable.

      From what I can tell, main difference between east Asian or Pacific culture and French culture, with respect to Jason’s points, is that rice replaces bread. There are other somewhat more subtle differences, in some areas, having to do with tribal cultures and the effects they have on the availability of food (those in hunter-gatherer societies tend to have hunted stuff and gathered stuff, e.g.), but for the most part, we don’t eat hunter-gatherer dishes, because “hunter gatherer dishes” is borderline nonsensical.

      At least, this is what I gather from the couple people I know who are historians of the far East.

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  4. A minor objection: I don’t think it’s helpful to single out “rural” food (if there is such a thing) as particularly idiotic. Surely the peasants ate no worse than the proletarian members of the urban underclass created by the economic system Jason praises.

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    • @Matthew Schmitz,

      The only urban famines in industrialized countries have been caused by war or by deliberate government policy. By contrast, famine was a way of life for the peasantry. The comparison in quality of life isn’t even close.

      Supposing that that were all we could say, it would still be decisive. We must add to it the fact that — after a short, admittedly horrible period of transition — living standards for the urban proletariat have risen continuously, unlike those of the peasantry in traditional societies. Even the transition period has shortened considerably for industrialism’s latecomers. I’m sorry if you don’t like industrialism, but the alternative is vastly worse than you imagine.

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      • Perhaps I failed to show sufficient gratitude for the rise of industrialization. Fair enough. Still, one need not oppose something wholesale to note its shortcomings. Your claim that industrialization effectively abolished famine — except for deviations from the true religion of free trade! — strikes me as incredible. Explain to me just how the hunters who exterminated the bison or leveled vast swaths of the rainforest — effectively annihilating local food sources and so inducing famine — veered from free-trade orthodoxy.

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        • @Matthew Schmitz,

          I think it was a nod to Marx’s comment on the “idiocy of rural life” in the Communist Manifesto. Interestingly, it’s a mistranslation from the German. “Idiotismus” doesn’t mean idiocy in the 19th century German, rather it’s a cognate of the Greek “idiotes”, so a better translation than “idiocy” would be “isolation”.

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        • @Matthew Schmitz,

          The near-extinction of the bison should not have happened, and would not have happened in a regime that respected property rights in bison. My sense is that you’re complaining about a theft… so why aren’t we on the same side here? I genuinely don’t get it.

          But in any event, it didn’t cause a famine. And even if it had caused a famine, I’m not prepared to call migrant Native Americans an industrial society.

          The same is true, point for point, on the clearing of the rain forest. Indeed, freshly cleared rain forest land is tremendously productive, and clearing it is one of the surest ways short of modern farming techniques to avoid a famine, which is why the locals (not outsiders) generally do it. The method is, of course, unsustainable, and based on migration across lands unowned by the migrants. The escape lies in rising living standards, and in high-intensity, non-clearcut farming.

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          • @Jason Kuznicki,

            Setting aside any merely superficial disagreements, I still am reluctant to sign on to the idea that free trade somehow protects us from famine.

            The 1989 liberalization of the coffee market led to a massive drop in wages in established coffee-producing countries. The resulting famine was caused, in some sense (though, I am quite ready to admit, not in all) by a liberalization in trade. Perhaps we could most fairly call this famine a disruption caused by the transition between more and less liberal equilibria.

            I think it’s worth noting that “free-trade” as Jason means it is an abstract principle that will never be free from distortion by actors public and private. Further, lest we construct a history that is blithely Whiggish, we should not assume that all hunger was banished with the advent of modernity and industrial capitalism. This is the system that is abetted by, but will never conform to, libertarian rhetoric about free trade.

            Now, I suspect Jason would agree with much of this (even if he finds my concerns somewhat superfluous), just as I agree with most all that Jason has said. So maybe there isn’t so much to argue over?

            Bonus question:
            I haven’t read Amartya Sen’s Poverty and Famine, but my understanding is that he believes democracy is a guarantee against famine. Does he also say a certain economic structure is required?

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    • @Matthew Schmitz,

      they ate much better because often a lot of their food was gathered form wild sources, which this post completely overlooks. In France people gathered chestnuts – no mention of that here. In Britain most “pot herbs” for the soup that went with the crappy bread were what we call weeds – dandelions, nettles and that kind of thing.

      But all those things taste a lot better with the kinds of things peasnats could rarely aford – pork fat, salt, onions… The diet sucked, and not just in Europe. You just have to look at the skeletons to see how inadequate it was. Agricultural diets are almost always inferior to hunter-gatherer diets.

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  5. In colonial coastal New England and Maritime Canada, lobster was considered poor man’s food. You were embarassed to bring it to school, because it meant you couldn’t afford anything else, and it was occasionally specified in contracts of indenture that lobster would be eaten no more than twice a week.

    How things change.

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    • @Ryan Davidson, Ah yes Lobster. My Grandfather fished for lobster. I can remember multiple occasions in my childhood where I heaved a heavy sigh, rolled my eyes and complained “lobster again??” God/Providence/Blind-chance has a wicked sense of humor.

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  6. Free trade and improved shipping helped a lot, but why leave out imperialism? There are a number of tastes that Europeans developed as a direct result of having colonies and coerced labor to supply them. It seems like a pretty important part of that story of the broadening of the European palate.

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    • @Rufus F.,

      That’s certainly how it happened, and while I’ll cheer for modern industry, I won’t cheer for imperialism. One could easily imagine a history by which these products became available peaceably, and I do wish we lived with that one as our actual past. Still, what are we supposed to do with this knowledge? Do I move back to Poland? Or to Germany, where the other branch of my ancestors live? Do I only eat authentic Polish food from now on? Even the Poles don’t live that way.

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      • @Jason Kuznicki, Well, you know, you can pretty much eat whatever you choose to eat, which is one of the boons of modernity. Which I guess leads to my question about this post and some of your comments about Kain’s ‘folkways’ post, which is why are you so vehement about this? I mean, sure, I agree that French peasant food was nothing great, and I’d not want to eat it on a regular basis. But you seem somehow offended by any romanticization of the past, as if we need to draw a line at the industrial revolution and never forget that everything before was shit.

        Like if I go to an antiquarian bookseller and dig up a book on 15th century peasant dishes and learn to cook them, what does that have to do with my personal feelings on industrial capitalism? I think it’s healthy to see past knowledge as having at least some latency- I’d not be reading the great books otherwise. But that doesn’t mean I’m opposed to modernity, although indeed one criticism I’ve read against reading Plato is that it’s ‘anti-modernity’, whatever that means.

        I don’t know. I just think it’s one of the real advantages of living in the modern world that I can eat traditional dishes from everywhere in the world, if I choose, or McDonalds every night if that strikes my fancy. I’d not choose to live in a pre-industrial society; but if I discover that one of them made really great breakfasts, I’m going to try one.

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          • @Scott, Again, I’m fine with pointing out the historical reality, while not understanding the vehemence. To me, people who romanticize the past are about as offensive as people who think that their cat is their good friend. It just doesn’t bother me.

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            • @Rufus F., Romanticizing the past all too easily segues into believing that the past actually was romantic – that the earth gladly gave forth its bounty, that the merry yeomen whiled away the hours in morris dancing before strolling out to the fields to pick abundant fruit from trees, that lions lay down with lambs, etc.

              And believing that – forgetting about the constant risk of starvation, the dirt, the disease, the threat of violence of feudal overlords and their enemies – is to lose track of why the present is better than the past. Its to forget why even the horrors of modern poverty (which are real) pale into insignificance compared with what our forbearers suffered. Its to pretend that we’ve acheived nothing, nothing has changed, or can every really changed, and we’d all have been just fine if we’d never bothered with technology/industry/agriculture/opposable thumbs. Or whatever the romanticist choses to blame the horrors of modernity on.

              Not that I think you’re doing that. But some people are.

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              • @Simon K, Right, but a rigid defense of the 100% superior modern world can easily turn into a rigid defense of whatever the status quo might currently be since we’ve “never had it so good”. Why complain? It’s not like the plague is a problem anymore. And can you see how attacking those souls who imagine modern poverty is anything like Medieval poverty can become a defense of modern poverty? I mean, it’s barely poverty at all compared to 14th century famines. What’s the problem?

                And patrolling the waters lest the people who churn their own butter start to forget that this is the best of all worlds thus far seems a bit unnecessary given that we’re not likely going back to subsistence agriculture and feudalism any time soon.

                Also you have to remember that I deal on a regular basis with people who’d rather not have to read Aristotle since our modern innovations have clearly proven him to be stupid, or so they assume.

                And isn’t it possible to see some things as being better in the past without forgetting that disaster relief, food distribution and medicine definitely aren’t in that category? Also, can’t we leave the poor guy who churns his own butter alone and not berate him for the fact that some hippies would rather live in the renaissance fair in their imagination?

                I also realize that you are doing none of these things. But I want to leave the door open to, essentially, ripping off ideas from the past, while keeping the penicillin and computers.

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              • @Simon K, Absolutely agreed that we should rip off things from the past. Aristotle for starters. I am in fact one of those hippies who churns his one butter – well, not really, but I do grow my own food, and now you mention it making butter sounds pretty interesting. But we should be aware of the huge gulf between choosing to churn butter, walk to the shops, grow vegetables, keep chickens, eat only local food, or whatever, and having to because there’s no choice. The former is a luxury we can choose because we live in the richest society ever. The latter is something you have to do or die. The same isn’t quite true of Aristotle, although I’m sure Aristotle saw some of the questions he was answering as urgent in a way we don’t see them now.

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            • @Rufus F.,

              It tends to reveal a deeply-held aesthetic that tends to be a lot less innocuous than thinking your cat is awesome. Blind reverence for the past is an unforgivable bias in a modern context. Nostalgia is poison to progress.

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        • @Rufus F.,

          Why am I vehement about this? Because the truth is important. Because it appalls me that the free market is blamed for poverty, when precisely the opposite is true. People need to know this, because it’s what keeps them from starving to death in the streets. The pose of the guilty, self-hating beneficiary of the modern market offends me because I look at such a person and I think that here’s someone who has never once thought seriously about the alternatives.

          As markets become more free — free of both state and private coercion — they allow people to become more wealthy. Specialization of labor and gains from trade, plus a good deal of ingenuity and the ability to profit from one’s own enterprise. It’s the only thing that has ever worked, with the exception of those disasters (like the Black Death in Europe) that leave the survivors better off for roughly a generation or so. These are a dubious bargain, and not one that we could ethically take up anyway.

          Now, you may find a few dishes from a fifteenth-century cookbook that make you happy, and that’s great. But it’s a mistake to think that everything back then was equally wonderful, and that if we could all just eat locally and in the traditional manner, the world would be a better place. It wouldn’t be sustainable, whether in ecological or in human terms. The traditional manner was starvation. Always was, always will be. Apply it on a scale that would feed billions, and the results would be both starvation and environmentally even worse than the mechanized farming we have today.

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          • @Jason Kuznicki,
            Why am I vehement about this? Because the truth is important. Because it appalls me that the free market is blamed for poverty, when precisely the opposite is true. People need to know this, because it’s what keeps them from starving to death in the streets. The pose of the guilty, self-hating beneficiary of the modern market offends me because I look at such a person and I think that here’s someone who has never once thought seriously about the alternatives.
            (applause)

            Well said.

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          • @Jason Kuznicki,

            As markets become more free — free of both state and private coercion — they allow people to become more wealthy.

            In that case, in pre-historic times when the markets were most free (no government there, right? — as opposed to the last 100 years — lots of government, more than ever before) people were most wealthy?

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            • @Dylan,
              In the absence of a state, ie, the pre-industrial subsistence societies, there was no property. You kept what you had only until someone bigger than you clubbed you over the head and took it. In the absence of property rights the concept of market fizzles. This would be what Jason was referring to as “private coercion”.

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            • @Dylan, Following on from what North and Jason said, pre-historical societies didn’t have either markets or government in the current sense. There was no group with a clear monopoly on violence hence no government. But its not a “free market” because absent any clear agreement on when violence could be used, whatever you had, including your life, could be taken from you at any time. All the evidence we have about these societies, including modern pre-literate societies, is that violence between and within groups is a constant threat. Endless effort is spent trying to establish the possible repercussions of violence in order to figure out whether you or your group might benefit from it, or whether you’re about to become a victim of it. The closest thing we have to it culturally is drug gang warfare. Think about it this way – hunter gatherer life is like being in a drug gang where the drug is food.

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            • @Dylan,

              No. There were no markets in pre-historic times – depending on what you call prehistoric.

              Anyway, without some level of government, you cna’t have markets ot much trade at all because everything gets ripped off by bandits befiore it gets much of anywhere.

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          • @Jason Kuznicki, I don’t disagree with you on this, but that’s not what I’m talking about. If you want to oppose the people who think we’d be better off in the pre-modern world, so be it, but I’m not defending them. That wasn’t my point.

            See my point is basically that the one (eating 15th century dishes) does not necessitate the second (rejecting the modern world). You can be appalled at those who adopt the pose of the guilty beneficiary of the gifts of the market all you want, and more power to you, but my point is that the guy next door who churns his own butter or goes to the Renaissance Fair might well not be making any ideological statement against modernity whatsoever. So condemning the guy who think that there might be some worthwhile knowledge that predates the late 18th century on the grounds that he’s thus rejected the gains of industrial capitalism is a bit like accusing the guy who’s taught himself to cook Indian food every night for being insufficiently patriotic.

            That’s my point. I’m someone who is perfectly happy living in a world with refrigerated food and penicillin and credit cards. But, indeed, I’ve occasionally been accused of being one of those reactionary assholes for things like reading old books and still listening to analog music instead of digital. What it has to do with, however, is seeing the past, as well as the rest of the globe, as a salad bar and grazing for the good stuff, wherever it lies. It’s not a political statement and, in fact, I’d be opposed to those who would politicize creative anachronism for or against their pet causes.

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            • @Rufus F.,

              We have more in common than you suppose. Surely you’re aware, though, that what you choose as an aesthetic or lifestyle option is indeed politics for others, and that the left is full of food trends pointing in this direction not just as an individual choice, but as an ethos with a profound normative dimension. I think that normative dimension is dangerous, and it would be a disaster if implemented politically.

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              • @Jason Kuznicki, Fair enough. I’m not really ‘up to date’ on the left’s arguments, to put it mildly. It seems like a lot of the responses have to do with how vehement this food argument is on the left and, to be honest, I’m out of touch with that.

                Also I’m not suggesting here that we’re terribly at odds. I guess I am at a loss as to why it’s such an important issue and I did, indeed, assume that there’s some libertarian dimension to this struggle that I’m missing out on as well.

                I guess my only real concern is that the struggle against romanticizing the past can take on a normative dimension as well. To be honest, I’d be more comfortable with 100 people trying to solve the food issue in 100 different ways than all of them trying to address it in one way, even if that way does turn out to be superior in the end.

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              • @Jason Kuznicki, I’m interested in the ways you think that normative dimension might be implemented politically. There is at least one way they might be implemented I can’t imagine you being opposed to as a libertarian: ending industrial agricultural subsidies.

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        • @Dylan, could we do a study of historical average height and call it good?

          If, for example, we can demonstrate that most folks in the 1600s were 5’4″ and most folks in the 1800’s were 5’8″ and most folks in the 2000’s were 5’10”, would that say something about historical nutrition levels?

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        • @Dylan, We could look at archeology. The worn down teeth, the tiny starved bones and the shrunken stature of pre-industrial skeletons tell a grim tale of the way that pre-industrial societies clung to the edge of starvation. The legions of dead infant skeletons speak to the horrific child mortality of those peoples. We don’t have written records of the era for the most part, probably because most of them were too busy trying not to starve to worry about writing about starving.

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          • @North,

            Exactly what I was going to say. Archaeological and demographic evidence from premodern societies is horrific. The record of malnutrition, of widespread (now easily curable) disease, and of shockingly high infant mortality is well-understood by historians, including the socialists, who did some of the best empirical work in this area.

            Preindustrial people only barely managed to subsist and replace the population under some really grinding conditions. Around the start of the nineteenth century, and a bit earlier in a few isolated cases, everything changed. Living standards rose in an unprecedented manner for almost everyone, even as the population grew. Prior to that, population growth almost always meant falling living standards.

            A reading list might be in order, but to do that properly I’d need access to my grad student books, which are mostly in boxes right now from a recent move.

            Also, I’d be interested to read more of Kevin Carson, as what I have read of him is very good. But the consensus about what happened demographically is pretty firm right now. I’m not saying anything terribly controversial here, except in the causes I give for the phenomenon. These are widely but not universally accepted. Carson might cause me to modify somewhat my understanding of what drove the demographic change of the nineteenth century, but I could hardly imagine a single article destroying all the evidence I’ve ever encountered for the fact of that change itself, which is overwhelming.

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        • @Dylan, Do you have a garden? Or have a friend who has? Because I quite enjoy gardening, and every so often I get this romantic idea that I’d enjoy being a farmer, and that self-sufficiency wouldn’t be that hard.

          And then I come to my senses. Only someone living in an urban environment in a modern society could possibly believe such a thing. Because farming is a constant war with nature. Doing it without technology would be about as easy as war without technology. Amateur gardening just gives you a taste of it, and while its fun, trying to do it for your very survival would be like the difference between rock climbing with a rope and harness and having to scale a cliff to get away from a pack of hungry hyenas.

          Because the thing about growing food is that everything else wants to eat it too. Slugs, squirels, powdery mildew, and yes, packs of hungry hyenas. The solution to that problem is that you kill or keep out those things – slugs. squirrels, powdery mildew, hyenas, and everything else. That’s what farmers spend all their time doing. That’s what farming is. Pre-industrial farming is doing that, with no technology. Pre-industrial subsistence farming is the same, except if you fail, your family starves.

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    • @Rufus F.,

      Coerced labor – for chocolate, maybe. Not for chilis, corn, potatoes, tomatoes and a whole list of other things, anymore than Mexicans enjoy pork, cheese, cumin, cinnamon and cilantro because of Europeans’ forced labor.

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      • @Jim, By Mexicans, you mean the indigenous, right? Not the descendants of Europeans. Admittedly, the conquistadors tended to use coerced indigenous labor more to mine for precious metals than to grow food, while the other European countries who came later tended to use slave labor, indigenous and African, for sugar and tobacco. It is good to remember that they grew their own corn and tomatoes. But it doesn’t convince me that coerced labor was a minor part of imperialism, or that that was peripheral to the industrial revolution.

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  7. food for thought. (sorry)

    I think the history of sufficient nutrition in the West is probably a little more complicated than the development of laissez-faire capitalism. While my knowledge of late 18th/early 19th century England is derived largely from the Aubrey / Maturin books plus other reading plus a distant college class or two, I think that at least two other major factors need to be considered. A. Technology, from seed development to crop rotation to the horse collar. B. Enclosure Laws, ie, the privatization and regularization of common lands. These laws largely diminished the freedom of the peasantry by forcing them into a cash economy as opposed to a largely subsistence- and barter- based system of old.

    But the larger point — that modern peasant cooking has as much historical merit as the modern Thanksgiving dinner — is a good one. That said, a good boeuf bourginonne is delicious.

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    • @Francis, Both good points Francis (I’ll forgive the pub) but the horse collar, seed development and crop rotation (I’m thinking primarily here about Townshend and his four crop rotation system rather than the earlier less efficient versions) were all products of non-subsistence surplus farming techniques and attitudes. Aka the beginning of modern farming.

      On B though I know very little so I have no quibble with it.

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  8. I know I’m late to the party, but I don’t see that anyone’s made the point that the system which allows us to eat better than the people of the past comes because we’ve mortgaged the ability of future generations to eat at all. Modern agriculture washes away our topsoil, depends on an ever-dwindling supply of fossil fuels, and greatly reduces the genetic diversity that can prevent the catastrophic spread of blight.

    If we don’t address issues of sustainability (which the free market is notoriously bad at doing), then we can expect the problems of the future to look a lot like the problems of the past.

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    • @Paul B, How do you work out what’s sustainable and what isn’t? It doesn’t seem like an easy question at all. I hear a lot of confident assertions about the carrying capacity of the Earth, but it all sort of reminds me of Malthus predicting that London would be buried in horse excrement by 1900. It may be correct given certain assumptions about technology, but how can it be accurate given technological progress?

      Lets consider one topic that you raise – nitrogen. Admittedly you didn’t say that, but you raised two concerns – topsoil washing away, and dependence on fossil fuels. Both of these are primarily concerns about nitrogen. Phosphorus and potassium are also important plant nutrients but they’re easier to get at. The main problem for all plant life on Earth is nitrogen – plants need nitrogen to make amino-acids, and there’s a very limited amount in the soil. Most nitrogen is locked up in the air in the form of very stable molecules. To get nitrogen out of the air and into the soil takes energy.

      That energy comes from one of a two places in nature. The first is lightning which oxidises atmospheric nitrogen to make nitrates – thats most of it. The second is bacteria – a few bacteria have a clever trick for fixing nitrogen, and a few plants (legumes) are symbiots of those bacteria. All of that nitrogen ends up in the top soil – that’s why top soil matters, otherwise its just dirt with dead plants in it. We’ve recently added another source – the Haber process for fixing nitrogen to make ammonia.

      There’s actually nothing fundamental about the Haber process that requires you to use fossil fuels for it. The power needed for the reaction can be obtained from other sources, and the hydrogen can be gotten from the electrolysis of water, again needing power. But the necessary power could be nuclear or solar thermal or whatever. Right now electrolysis is not cost-competitive with hydrogen from fossil fuels, but the possibility is there. There are other possible process for fixing nitrogen that similarly haven’t been explored much – those bacteria I mentioned earlier do a very good job. Can we extend their symbiosis to more plants? Or make them able to operate independently? Or just turn them into a gel people can add to their compost heaps?

      Who knows what we might do … but I don’t know how people account for these possibilities in sustainability calculations. Admittedly that’s just one problem and its possible solutions – there are other problems that require other solutions. That’s how technology works But what I rather suspect is that most estimates of sustainability are not done with future technological developments in mind, even when those are quite readily forseeable. So forgive me if I treat them with a little skepticism, especially when contrasting modern agriculture with methods (local food, organic farming, self-sufficiency – all admirable in themselves) which couldn’t possibly feed the world’s population now.

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      • @Simon K,

        Yes, I’m familiar with nitrogen fixing — but if you’re solving that problem with chemical fertilizers in lieu of cover crops, you’re likely to accelerate the problem of erosion. In the short term the runoff is creating oceanic dead zones which threaten fisheries, and in the long term it could lead to another Dust Bowl.

        And while I’m sure people are working on ways to speed up the creation of new topsoil, technical improvements tend to come gradually. I’m not so confident we’ll always be able to find solutions ahead of catastrophic shocks to the system.

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        • @Paul B, Actually Paul, my understanding is that current chemical fertilizer and herbicide “no-till” forms or farming produce less soil erosion than the till required forms of organic farming that require the earth to be torn up in order to control weeds.

          But definitly there’s nothing perfect about modern industrial agriculture. There’s probably a lot of room for improvement. But turning the clock back to earlier forms of low yield, high labor agriculture doesn’t strike me as a solution.

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          • @North,

            Who said anything about turning back the clock? No-till is the kind of solution I’m talking about.

            But it reduces yields in the short term, it requires substantial investment (you need a whole new set of tools to get the seeds in the gound), and it creates a host of problems in fighting weeds and pests. So it’s not a solution that’s going to lift anyone out of poverty, which is what Jason and Simon are concerned with.

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            • @Paul B, Well Paul, if you use pesticides/herbicides or genetically modified crops to fight weeds and pests my understanding is that the results from no till are excellent.

              If we’re talking about who wants to turn back the clock again my impression is we’re talking about the left wing food Luddite movement. Organic farming techniques for instance are great for the niche market of catering to the guilt of well fed yuppies but if implemented on the industry as a whole they would never feed the teeming masses, let alone feed them affordably. Genetically modified crops can reduce the need for pesticides and fertilizer and can increase the yield and vitamin value of crops but some African governments turn away tons of the stuff to the cheers of left wing groups preferring to let the people starve rather than feed them “Frankenfoods”.

              Now goodness knows there’s nothing perfect about modern agriculture or industry in general but it is a pet fetish of the left whether in economics or environmentalism to harken back to some mythical time when human beings lived healthily, happily and sustainably in harmony with Gaea. It’s an attitude that does need to be pushed back from within the left side of the political spectrum (because god knows the right isn’t good for much of anything right now and won’t be until they regain their collective sanity).

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              • @North,

                Sure, there are Luddites out there — but in my experience they tend to be foodies, not farmers, and I don’t see many people taking them too seriously.

                At any rate, since I’m neither Luddite nor foodie nor farmer (although I suppose my membership in a sustainable CSA farm makes me a yuppie) I don’t think that we really disagree on anything besides the yield figures of zero tillage.

                But who knows, maybe the optimists are right and soon enough we’ll all be eating meat grown in a vat.

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              • @Paul B, I think you’re quite right on many of those items. Fetishizing earlier more miserable eras is a pet peeve of mine and Jason really rang that bell with me so I jumped on board.

                I’m all about foodies, they’re great, they’re conscious consumers and they do wonderful things for localism and regional economics. Bless the locavores.

                On zero till I am far from an expert so I am not gonna contest you on the point.

                And as for meat from a vat, I say bring it on. For one thing the catfight that’ll explode inside the vegetarian movement on the issue would be worth it all by itself (to say nothing of the wonderful humanitarian and economic implications).

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        • @Paul B, Not sure about erosion actually. One of the advantages of modern cultivation is not much tillage is required compared with traditional cultivation where the soil has to be turned constantly (no-till organic is even better but the yields are lower). But yes, chemical fertilizers do create runoff, which in itself is bad, and also inefficient for the farmers.

          So you have to ask the question – why are farmers engaging in this inefficient behaviour? At least part of the answer to that is agricultural subsidies – by subsidising corn and soy on a volume basis they force the market price down by creating a surplus. Farmers have to produce huge yields of these crops to make money, which mostly comes from the subsidy check, so they over fertilize.

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          • @Simon K,

            Well I’m certainly no fan of ag subsidies, but I’m not sure they’re more than marginally important when it comes to sustainability. After all, in the U.S. they largely came about after the Dust Bowl showed us the consequences of unsustainable tillage. And they’re even more ridiculous in India, but the green revolution there is (I assume) paradigmatic of the kind of progress Jason praises.

            As far as topsoil goes, I think we’re talking past each other. Are you saying erosion isn’t a problem? Or that it doesn’t increase when you use more inorganic fertilizers and less green manure?

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  9. I’m stumbling into this thread when it’s 55 comments deep (always an act of courage with The League). Hopefully this comment has not been made before. I will note that a traditional food in my state is ‘country ham’ which, for the uninitiated, is a very salty cured ham that is served in a variety of manners. The method by which it is created was an attempt to make pork last longer for ‘poor people’. In recent years it has been ‘discovered’ by many food writers and compared favorably to the best prosciuttos in Italy. When Anthony bourdain talks about ‘peasant food’ he also means ‘every day food’ as he would likely consider a good street hot dog in NYC equivelant to a great bowl of pho in Vietnam. But he also talks about how the ingredients are better, fresher, etc. Take Provence (France)…their diet is heavy on vegetables but this is supplemented with thinks like aioli which is extremely tasteful. So…. when we say ‘peasant foods’ we’re not talking about the Dark Ages and heavy grained breads. We’re talking about what every day people love in a given country now.

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    • Likewise, take a cheap, tough, bland cut of beef, add spices to give it some flavor, cook it in a way that adds moisture and tenderizes it, and yum, pastrami. Like a lot of “peasant food” it was made from cheap ingredients and prepared in laborious ways by people who were short on money but long on time and ingenuity. I see nothing wrong with celebrating that.

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          • @Mike at The Big Stick,

            Farmers in the American colonies and the early United States always enjoyed a higher standard of living than the peasantry in Europe. We know this because their lives were longer, they had more surviving children, they grew taller, and their surviving physical artifacts were of a higher quality than their European contemporaries of similar social status.

            This happened for a variety of reasons, including the virgin soil of the continent; an extremely low population density; a near-total lack of internal barriers to trade among the colonies; contiguous land parcels; a generally low level or absence of taxes, entails, quitrents, and feudal obligations; and the good effects of using both New and Old World crops to diversify their economies and diets. Old World peasants were much slower to adopt New World crops than New World farmers — which is why Americans even today eat potatoes and maize much more readily than Europeans.

            (Note that I call them farmers, not peasants, because in the colonies and the early republic most land was owned by them in freehold tenure, not by any of the feudal with-strings-attached forms of land tenure. In this respect American farmers more closely resembled English yeomen, but they enjoyed a higher standard of living than even these. To find something like a true peasantry in the United States we would have to look to African slaves, who had things every bit as bad, and usually worse, than French peasants of a similar era. These however were in no way necessary for the prosperity of the rest.)

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  10. Of course a 15th century cookbook would never include a true peasant recipe, because the likelihood of peasants coming in contact w/ someone who was writing a recipe book is pretty slim. I’d say we’re better off romanticizing working class and early middle class diets than the peasants – goetta is my personal favorite.

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    • @David M, Well, maybe not real cookbooks, but there are some books called “herbals” from the time that give a pretty good idea of what peasants ate and, actually, some of the “cookery” books from about 100 years later cover peasant foods as well. The lords and peasants weren’t so isolated from each other after all. The cookery books might well be inaccurate, but historians also use farming manuals and peasant wives’ diaries to recreate diets. Indeed, what they ate was not a lot different than Jason has made it out to be- lots of roots and weeds and boiled things, plus a ton of bread.

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  11. I just want to make sure, but your points throughout the comments thread seem to be the following:

    A.) Most cultures don’t have a history of traditional food extending past early industrialization because before that most people were starving most of the time.
    B.) Industrialization is a mostly unmitigated good because before it most people were starving most of the time.
    C.) Industrialization is the product of a free market.

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    • @Dylan Nissley, Think you’re off a bit there Dylan ol’ boy. I’ll throw in a placeholder correction until he gets to it himself.

      A) The traditional foods we attribute to pre/early-industrial peasants was actually the fare of what would have been considered middle class and up levels of the society at the time. The actual peasants spent most of their time eating very crude basic stuff that no one would want to ear. Sawdust bread for instance.
      B) Industrialization, while certainly not without problems, produced an enormous amount of prosperity and eliminated incalculable suffering.
      C) A free market was certainly involved in the creation of industrialization and peoples with freer markets adopted and adapted to industrialization more quickly and equitably.

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    • @Dylan Nissley,

      I endorse North’s corrections. What we call “peasant” food today is nothing of the sort. Want to eat French peasant food? Then eat nothing but very low-quality bread or porridge, with maybe a few turnip peels in some hot water. Repeat until Sunday, when you get a scrap or two of bacon, and some butter on your bread. Repeat until you die of scurvy.

      Traditional food as we understand it — including what we call peasant food — is a product of the nineteenth century. It is wonderful, but it’s not nearly as old as we think.

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      • @Jason Kuznicki, Jason – I don’t understand why you keep going back to this lowest-common-denominator stance. Poor people in France had gardens and they grew a lot of vegetables, not just turnips. Again, Provence was an incredibly poor region and they had some great cuisine.

        All of our great cured meats and I would say cheeses, came from rural folks trying to preserve their foods.

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        • @Mike at The Big Stick,

          Put simply, the lowest-common-denominator was by far the commonest one. It represented the typical experience.

          Again, I’d stress the importance of chronology: Provence was an incredibly poor region (for much of its history), but it had some great food (in the late eighteenth century and afterward, when it remained relatively poor but still managed to have great food — a phenomenon previously unknown in history).

          Cured meats and cheeses are as you say they are, but it often took a high level of economic organization and specialization to produce them anyway. These forms of organization were often absent among the peasantry and were most common, oddly, among the monastic communities. This is also why abbey ales are still among the best in the world — the monks preserved the caloric content of their grain (and even enhanced the vitamin content, unbeknownst to them) by making it into strong beer that would keep for months.

          Doing so required a community of trust, so that the brewer for example wouldn’t just run off with the finished product. The monastic community provided this. Today, the same function is performed by the extensive rule of law, which allows us to specialize in a similar fashion, but with much greater flexibility.

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          • @Jason Kuznicki, But I think you’re touching on what many of us are trying to say here. When we discuss ‘peasant food’ today we aren’t talking about 17th century Europe. We’re talking about what are the traditional foods of average people in a given country today. Obviously Bourdain isn’t advocating we all get stoked about hardtack and porridge. He’s saying that freshly made pad thai from a street vendor or steamed mussels sold on the side of a wharf in Istanbul is more authentic and maybe better than what you would get in the best restaurants of those countries.

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              • @Jason Kuznicki, From Wikipedia:


                Peasant foods (or poor people’s food) are those dishes specific to a particular culture made from accessible and inexpensive ingredients and usually prepared and spiced to make them more palatable. They have often formed a significant part of the diets of poor people.

                Peasant foods are so called as being the diet of peasants, that is, tenant or poorer farmers and their farm workers, and by extension, of other cash-poor people. They may use ingredients, such as offal and less-tender cuts of meat, which are not as marketable as a cash crop. Characteristic recipes often consist of hearty one-dish meals, in which chunks of meat and various vegetables are eaten in a savory broth, with bread or other staple food. Sausages are also amenable to varied readily-available ingredients.

                Peasant foods often involve skilled preparation by knowledgeable cooks using inventiveness and skills passed down from earlier generations. Such dishes are often prized as ethnic foods by other cultures and by descendants of the native culture who still desire these traditional dishes even when their incomes rise to the point where they can purchase any food they like.

                Millions of Americans still love their bologna sandwiches.

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              • @Jason Kuznicki,

                Well then, I’m saying that as a matter of historical fact, Wikipedia is wrong here. Not like it’s the first time.

                The above is just not how peasants ate until the late eighteenth century at the earliest, and by then, the term “peasant” was increasingly strained anyway. The only times real peasants would eat this way were on special occasions or in exceptionally good times. Average fare was not like this at all.

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              • @Mike, Mike, I don’t think you and Jason actually disagree all that much. By my reading it’s more a matter of semantics. Peasant food is probably a terribly inapt term in the historic sense which is the way Jason is looking at it but the way you’re interpreting it is more in line with its current use in our common vernacular. The foods and “peasants” and gardens that you’re thinking of would have probably belonged to people of the upper echelons of the lower most classes. I’m speculating here but the people who made the dishes we celebrate today probably would have stridently protested being called peasants.

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    • @Dylan Nissley, I think it might be better to say that industrialization is the product of a market. In pre-modern societies, there really wasn’t much of one, not the way we think of it now. Trade did happen, but the vast majority of the goods consumed by your average peasant were produced within a few miles of where he lived. Only the wealthy could afford imports, and for most of history, large-scale import/export operations were prohibited by the general lawlessness of the age. I don’t think there was much of a grain trade on the Mediterreanian between the end of the Pax Romana and the beginning of the modern period.

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      • @Ryan Davidson,

        You’re entirely right about the collapse of the Mediterranean grain trade at the end of the Roman Empire. Chris Wickham’s excellent book The Inheritance of Rome traces the collapse of trade at the end of the empire, and its slow resurgence during the high middle ages. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I commend it to you as well.

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        • The book I’ve read about this subject/period is Pirenne’s Mohamed and Charlemagne, which argues that the collapse in trade arose, not from the fall of the empire (at least the traditional fall in 476), but the Muslim dominance of the Mediterranean that began in the 7th century.

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        • @Jason Kuznicki, I’ll take that recommendation. I’m interested to see how it’s explanations for Roman collapse jive with Jared Diamond’s in Collapse. After that book and a lot of related reading I’m of the opinion that the collapse of any civilization is precipitated first and foremost by resource depletion (and the rise of any civilization is precipitated by the exploitation of specific resources). Particularly salient considering our own impending resource depletion issues.

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          • @Dylan, I’ve never heard it suggested that Rome lacked much of anything in the way of natural resources. A little googling suggests that there is one historian who argues that Rome fell due to widespread deforestation, but this hypothesis looks a lot more like projecting current political worries onto history than it does a serious argument from historical data.

            I note that Diamond’s analysis seems to scrupulously avoid most of the really major societal collapses, e.g. Rome in the 400-600s, the Ming Dynasty in the seventeenth century, Persia in the seventh century, the Ottoman Empire etc. His case studies are all of rather small communities with the exception of the Maya, about whom we know relatively little.

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            • @Ryan Davidson, A bit of a side note, but I noticed the same thing. Guns, Germs, and Steel is, to my mind, a far superior work compared to Collapse. I think the major sticking point in his thought is the inability to seriously entertain any cultural, societal or economic explanations for the rise and fall. Everything has to come down to resources. As Ryan notes, this sort of thinking leads to some serious scholarly sins of omission.

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              • @Mopey Duns, I think your point is especially true given that the small communities Diamond considers are far more prone to collapse due to lack of resources than the well-established, continent-spanning civilizations whose collapses Diamond would probably consider more interesting.

                Of course a single village can get wiped out by a string of bad harvests. Even a slightly larger society like a colony This has always been true, and it isn’t terribly interesting. Plymouth Colony wasn’t actually the first attempt to settle Massachusetts: the Wessagusset Colony lasted less than a year (1622-23). Just like liquidity crises affect the poor far more than they do those with easy access to credit, resourcing problems hurt small, new communities more easily than well-established societies.

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  12. Pingback: Learning from Poverty | The League of Ordinary Gentlemen

  13. The main post is more of an ideological rant than anything one might expect from an actual ‘historian.’ I see no references, no nuance for what parts of the world or of history we are discussing…

    Without such, any claims are essentially meaningless.

    As was pointed out, industrialism (much more dependent on fossil fuel and cheap urban labor than ‘free market’–no such thing exists or ever could), unlike all agricultural-based and hunter-gathering systems that preceded it, cannot be sustained for very long because its sources do not feed into its sinks (in any kind of human time scale).

    Outside of a relatively small amount of metals, pretty much all of pre-industrial societies’ products returned (or could be returned) to the earth to nourish it and bring about further fertility.

    Fossil fuels, once burned, are gone for ever, and their by-products, particularly CO2, do not turn back into ffs (again, not on any time scale relevant for human life).

    So one way or the other, we will have to go beyond ff-based industrialism. A much more interesting and pressing discussion to have would be–what kind of post-ff-industrial society can we realistically envision that involves a minimum of the worst of industrial and pre-industrial hardships and injustices?

    I do not pretent to know the answer, but one important connected questions is what is the fate of the post-ff-industrial city? Only one city, Beijing, reached a population of over one million before 1800, and that was the center of a vast empire. In the future will large cities again be restricted to only the centers of large empires? Or does other knowledge we have obtained in the last 200 years give us the ability to sustain more large urban centers?

    Again, I don’t know the answer to this. I am an urban dweller and rather like many things about well run cities, but the historical precedence does not seem promising.

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    • Hi Harkness. How unusual to see such an old thread resurrect itself. I don’t have a comprehensive answer for you but I’ll throw out some things for you to consider.

      -Peak Oil dystopian imaginations often succumb to the fallacy of “one day the oil will just be gone!”. In fact this is very very far from the truth. Oil is available in many different forms. Some, the shallow liquid reserves of Saudi Arabia for instance, are easy and cheap to extract. Others; shale oil or oil sand oil, is considerably more expensive ranging up to prohibitively expensive. As we begin to run out of cheap oil the price of oil will skyrocket. Absent some form of impossibly enormous government price intervention the price of gas at the pump would begin an irreversible upward march. Economics and history have told us that any significant increase in gasoline prices produces a significant response from consumers. Long before we’re anywhere close to being out of extractable oil the price of gasoline will be high enough that the consuming public will turn en masse to alternative fuels. Hydrogen, electricity (produced by renewable and nuclear sources) and a plethora of other non-fossil fuels exist even now but are non-competitive with gasoline prices. Running low on cheap oil won’t mean our trucks and cars will grind to a half. Rather there will be economic hardship as we gradually transition to alternative propulsion methods.

      -The point of all the above is that for vital industries like agriculture or say jet propulsion the supply of fossil fuels will actually last a very long time. When the vast majority of our consumption switches over to non-oil based fuels that will leave a titanic reserve of fossil fuels available for use in agriculture and the few other areas where it currently has few feasible economic alternatives. By the time even these reserves run out it is highly likely given the advancement of science in the fields of genetics and genomes that we will have perfected either mass hydroponic farming (fueled by electricity and the unlimited supply of waste from our huge cities) or we will have engineered plants or microbes that will fill the role currently filled by fossil fuel based products. Such plants and microbes exist now already in the natural and farming world so it is far from a stretch to predict this.

      If I were to be laying bets I would predict that the future of humanity involves every growing, more densely populated and more towering and technological urban settings with an increasingly lighter human footprint on a countryside that exists more and more as preserves and recreational getaways from the cities. We as a species will embrace denser population concentration and currently unfashionable technologies long before we’ll collectively agree to return to the howling misery, starvation of retrograde social practices of subsistence hunter/gathering and farming.

      Truth be told, I’m optimistic.

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      • Oh and also consider that every society that has advanced into modern industrialized economies has also experienced neutral or negative birth rates. As such prosperity sweeps the globe one could also expect declining and stabalizing population numbers to further ease the pressure on fossil fuels and agricultural output. India, for instance, should be a fascinating case study in the next century. They have steadily upward marching standards of living and modernizing liberalizing social mores.

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        • I fully expect that we will have to leave fossil fuels. I don’t expect that it will cause us to forget any of the scientific knowledge that helps sustain high population levels today. That knowledge is primarily medical, not mechanical. Modern sanitation, vaccines, and other preventive health techniques are tremendously important, and these do not require prohibitive amounts of energy, I don’t believe. (Admittedly, I’m not an expert on them.)

          As to sourcing this post, I might want to revisit it at another time. At the moment one book you might want to consult is Fernand Braudel’s The Structures of Everyday Life. Braudel was of a very different ideological bent to mine — he was a Marxist — but his conclusions about pre-industrial subsistence and dearth are well-respected across ideological lines.

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