Book Review: Not Your Textbook Version Of Agricultural History

August 1, 2018 04:08 PM

Against the Grain

In titling his book “Against the Grain,” Yale anthropologist James Scott pulls off a double play. Not only does his account of how early states and agriculture developed sharply disagree with textbook dogma, but his criticism of the mixed blessing of switching to grain-based diets after sedentary ag became common will rankle many farmers who have long believed all civilization was solely about fixed food sources.

Scott offers convincing historical and logical arguments that the progression from hunting and gathering took far longer and yielded mixed results. Indeed, sedentary agriculture was not just based on domesticating plants and animals. Anthropology can demonstrate it changed humans, as well. Nor was hunting and gathering as precarious as usually portrayed. While threaded with a general political distrust of states, Scott offers a  powerful case that the miracle of agriculture came with great costs (disease, taxes, slavery, poverty, etc.) and was a drawn-out competition with foraging over millennia, rather than narrowed to wheat and barley planting around 4,000 BCE.

This book represents fresh thinking about our profession’s benefit-cost ratio and a sobering accounting of what farming has done to our species and world.

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