by Dale Schlundt
In the study of history we ask the question, "What are the catalysts?" In other words, what are the motivators the make events happen?
Depending on the topic and the framing one puts it in, many times the question is not what made something occur, but what prohibited it from doing so. Agriculture has typically been a fundamental factor in world history in answering both those questions, events that came about and those that had the potential but failed. Despite America's unprecedented urbanization in the 20th century, the move from rural to urbanized areas has never diminished the need for agrarian industries. Throughout most of our world's history, agriculture in some form or another is at the center of societal development.
Let's make a generic comparison: cowboys vs. Indians. I would venture a guess we have all watched at least one western in our lives. Although typically these historical dramas are heavy on the drama and light on the historical accuracy, it lends itself well to form the right question. Why did indigenous populations use primitive weapons prior to obtaining advanced tools from their oppressors, the "cowboys"?
In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond makes the argument it is through agriculture. If I am a hunter-gather, the lack of a consistent food supply is the society's main focus. The majority of the everyday effort is put into sustaining the population's food supply through hunting, gathering, or small scale farming. That leaves little, if any, discretionary time available for individuals or subgroups to develop complex governments, furthering culture/education, and most importantly invention.
With the exploitation of large scale agriculture made possible by available "beasts of burden" (cow, pigs, and horses of the Old World), masses of individuals are able to divert their attention to societal developments other than obtaining food: weapons, blacksmithing (metal work), the written word, and complex societies with a broad range of skills and trades. Hence, if you watch any historically accurate movies of colonizers in relation to indigenous peoples, there is a huge discrepancy in the weapons and tools being used.
Now there are historians that suggest this theory is oversimplified and other factors were contributing, which we should not rule out. However, prior to trade and assimilation in many instances, the advantages and disadvantages among the two vastly differing societies have been argued are a result of harnessing large-scale agriculture.
Moving right along through history, one cannot discuss agriculture in the New World without putting a focus on slavery. We do a disservice to those who endured this horrifying institution not to mention it. However, here is a perfect example where agriculture was a hindrance to society. Not just in terms of so many human lives, cultures, and families being decimated — a fact that is of huge significance — but in regards to a lack of industrial growth as a result of the focus on agriculture. The focus on tobacco, rice and cotton growth diverted the attention of education, industry, and human rights in a relatively modern society. Individuals of today have a misconception that the majority of the South's population were slave holders — a fallacy, as most white farmers could not afford to be so. though most aspired to invest in slaves. Despite that fact, following the Civil War leading up into the middle 20th century, what we see is the south was such a deeply ingrained agrarian culture, a lack of industrialization and education, that stunted their ability to catch up to the rest of modernized society in the U.S.
Of course, we cannot discount the effects the war itself had on the south. However, to have a society whose sole culture, in terms of economy as well as ideology, has been so deeply embedded in the reliance of slaves and agriculture, the inability to re-focus both of those aspects should not be surprising. Yet the length of time taken to modernize the south continues to astound many, as well as myself.
As students of history, what I tell my classes is that relatively early in human history, we became an agrarian people in one context or another. Agriculture has been at the heart of every culture and has dictated events to varying degrees beginning with small scale farming as a supplement to hunting and gathering, those who practice aquaculture in geographic locations that supported such, cultivation of wood for fuel, and finally large complex modernized farming that we see ranging into the 21st century.
For those who wonder why this relevant to modern America, let us forget the grocery store for a moment. I would challenge you to take a look at what you're putting into your gas tank next time you fill up. You might be surprised to see how significant agriculture is in your everyday commute and in what despair we would be in without it.
Dale Schlundt holds a Master's Degree in Adult Education with a concentration in American History from the University of Texas at San Antonio. He is currently an Adjunct Professor for Palo Alto College, Our Lady of the Lake University, and Northwest Vista College. Dale has written two books, Tracking Life's Lessons: Through Experiences, History, and a Little Interpretation and Education Decoded (A Collection of My Writings).