How agriculture ruined business before business even started

A common narrative is the following: before the industrial revolution, farming was pretty idyllic. In your mind, there might be images of green family-owned farmland with a couple of cows and lots of perfectly healthy vegetables and crops (Heidi comes to mind). Then big business came along, introduced industrial farming techniques for no reason except profit, and the family had to make way for trucks and tractors. So far, so controversial – I am not going to discuss the benefits and  challenges of industrial vs. organic farming today, although the snails in my garden might have something to say about my attempts at keeping healthy plants without any kind of chemical protection. Hungry beasts.

Instead, we’re talking about how agriculture ruined business way before business had a chance to even touch agriculture. There’s a pretty solid set of theories out there about the deep changes in human society during the evolution of agriculture: For the first time, the notion of ownership became necessary – and transferred to people as well, especially women. Here’s a citation from this link from sciencedirect:

Bowles and Choi argue that it was the co-evolution of food production and property rights — rather than technological progress based on inventions — that secured the success of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent and the small number of other regions where agriculture evolved independently at later times.

Before, there was not a whole lot of sense in owning many things (or women). Hunters and gatherers are thought to have been mostly nomadic, so it was not a concern to ensure that your kids inherit your stuff. There was more stuff, more land, more food around than anyone could ever use or eat, so why bother? People lived in an area until the resources were exhausted, and then they simply moved on. Labor was shared and equality prevailed: forget the notion of the dominant caveman (the guardian).

With no inheritance and therefore no paternity to worry about, there was also less reason to control women’s behavior and sexuality. People might even have been living in complex networks of open relationships (Wiki link about a book called “Sex at Dawn”). In a twisted way, wanting to eat bread every day (bread is awesome) kicked off thousands of years of patriarchy (super not awesome). I wonder if they would think it was worth it.

Another deeply affected area is collaboration – certainly one of today’s most used buzzwords –  that is supposed to increase performance and allow businesses to thrive in our fast-changing world. A quick google search will overwhelm you with articles upon articles on how to get people to be more collaborative. And yet, with those theories about ownership vs. the initial equality and sharing-based hunter-gatherer lifestyle, it’s easy to see how the advent of agriculture ruined business: A hunter-gatherer society was certainly not producing tons of articles about increasing collaboration, they just did it (and probably worked less hours in a day than we do today). But once the idea came up that the land that belongs to them is not my land, even if I’m starving (but it could be if I took it, so let’s go to war), collaboration got a lot more complicated. Trusting got a lot more complicated. In other words, as soon as our survival started to depend on what we own in a world of scarcity,  and not on the people around us in a world of plenty, behavior started to shift. Developing agriculture caused us to develop ownership, and ownership caused us to develop inequality: between men and women, between those who have a lot and those who do not, and between those who are willing to take from others, and those that are not.

I’m not proposing to go back to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle – I do like bread, and central heating, and food safety. There are other benefits to agriculture as well (sustaining higher populations, modern crops). But there is something to learn here for the way we set up modern business. But this post is long already, so we make a cut here. The next post will have a couple of ideas and sources why and how things can change in a post-agricultural world –  a world that includes bread and collaboration.