Catching a Glimpse of the Future... In the Past

I grew up in the Middle Ages. Well, not the Middle Ages exactly, but in Kentucky, which is close, and with a father who believed that if you didn't have garden soil under your nails, you just weren't working hard enough. We lived in the middle of town, but he was determined his girls would have as much good, wholesome farm experience as he could contrive to give us. We grew berries and vegetables, canned tomatoes and made jam, chopped wood and spread mulch; and when I wasn't imagining I was really a princess in exile amongst the surly serfs, I gained an appreciation for the timeliness of growing things.

So begins an internet article titled, The Medieval Agricultural Year by Rachel Hartman. It is an introduction that makes you want to read more. And that is what I did. The article describes agricultural as it was practiced for approximately 1,000 years in Middle Ages Europe.

The fascinating thing to me is that Medeival agriculture was much the same as agriculture in this country up to until the early to mid 1800s. As in Medieval Europe, the vast majority of people in this nation were closely involved in the work and customs of the agrarian culture. We were an Agrarian Nation back then.

Prior to the Civil War, agriculture in this country started to undergo revolutionary changes. Horsedrawn mechanical reapers and mowers, and a host of other clever devices came on the scene.

Some historians question whether the Northern states could have won the war if it were not for Cyrus Hall McCormick’s famous reaper. Such mechanization allowed for greater productivity with less manpower, which is what was needed at the time.

It’s worth noting that such mechanization did not result in greater productivity per acre of land. It just allowed for less farmers to farm more land.

So what happened to all the farmers? Well, tens of thousands of them were killed in the war. Many of the survivors never returned to the farm way of life. They found work in manufacturing and business. Major wars typically lead to significant cultural changes, and the Civil War was certainly no exception.

A few decades later, along came steam powered farm machinery, followed by motorized tractors and other gasoline (or diesel) powered farm equipment. Horsedrawn machines were replaced by engine-driven machines, and even less manpower was needed to farm.

The whole concept of fertilizing the soil to grow crops also underwent radical change with the rise of the petroleum industry. Before agriculture became so dependent on synthetic, oil-derived fertilizers, farmers used natural minerals and composted manures to fertilize their fields.

Today, modern agriculture is harnessed to oil—a lot of oil. But oil dependence may well prove to be a Trojan Horse. Oil is a finite resource. Different factors are working together to create a scarcity of oil supply. Prices continue to rise. I recently heard that gasoline will cost $4.00 a gallon by summer. Someday, in the not too distant future, we may look back longingly at gasoline for only $4.00 a gallon.

As oil prices rise, agriculture as we have known it will become less and less sustainable. As food prices rise dramatically, people will go hungry, and greater geopolitical problems will develop. I heard on the news that worldwide wheat reserves are at a seventy year low. Lower income people in less industrialized nations are already suffering. If you buy wheat flour you know the price has more than doubled in recent months. I bought a freshly baked bagel at a grocery store the other day and it cost seventy cents. Last time I bought a bagel at that store it was fifty-five cents.

Productive land is being diverted to grow crops for alternative biofuels, and this also serves to drive food prices higher. Is there relief in sight? I’ll answer that... No. There is no magic bullet solution to the multiple, interconnected, problems of supply, and demand, and production, in this waning age of industrialism.

It seems that we are entering a new historical era. The industrial age will probably give way to a period of time when the dependent masses try in vain to hold on to a lifestyle of ease and priviledge. Perhaps that is beginning now. Of course, money and the economy figures prominently into all of this.

Then will come a New Agrarian Era.

Moderns will laugh at such an assertion. "A New Agrarian Era?" You’ve got to be kidding me. Mankind is moving ahead. Science and Technology will come to our rescue. They always have.

I beg to differ. Science doesn’t have a good track record. That said here’s an interesting quote from the book, Angels in the Architecture

If we think in terms of centuries and millennia, few other disciplines turn inside-out so flippantly and quickly as the natural sciences. Nothing can take the puff out of the scientific chest more than a study of it’s history. Perhaps that’s why it’s so rare to find science departments requiring courses in the history of science. The history of science provides great strength to the inductive inference that, at any point in its history, that day’s science will almost certainly be deemed false, if not laughable within a century (often in much less time). As the saying goes, if you marry the science of today, you will be a widow tomorrow.

Same goes for Technology. Unrestrained technology in the hands of corporate-industrial-government interests has killed more people and destroyed more natural resources than any force in the history of the world.

If you look at the span of world history, you will see that oil-dependent modern civilization, with its attendant modern technology, is a relatively short anomaly. When the free flow of cheap oil can no longer sustain, the civilization that depends on it must undergo change. Civilization will revert back to the “default setting,” which is agrarianism.

Think of an abandoned factory. If it is no longer worked, no longer maintained, what happens? It will decay and crumble as natural elements slowly but surely do their work. Vegetation will move in and overtake the factory. Given enough time, the factory will be leveled and overgrown. A forest may envelop it, like some ancient Incan ruin. In other words, it will revert back to the default setting.

If you want a glimpse of the future, look to the past. The future will surely not look just like the past. It will not be exactly the same. But as I come to a better understand history, and consider the realities of the here and now, I find myself drawn more and more to the conclusion that the future will be far more agrarian than it will be industrial.


My newest blog Old Farm Almanacs takes a look at American agricultural and agrarian culture of the 1800s through the agricultural almanacs of the day. America was undergoing significant change in those years and it is reflected in the farm almanacs. But, even with the changes, we were still primarily an agrarian nation with agrarian values back then. I invite you to visit Old Farm Almanacs and learn not only about our nation's agrarian past, but maybe a little about our agrarian future............

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