My vote for the most sustainable food system humans have ever experienced is for the hunter-gatherer existence. Before the advent of agriculture roughly 10-11,000 years ago, anatomically modern humans lived only as hunter-gatherers for well over 100,000 years while causing limited ecological disruption. Some hunter-gatherer cultures continue to exist today, but worldwide, most of us live by the blessings of agriculture.
A hunter-gatherer’s life is a subsistence one, with little beyond life’s fundamental material necessities. Hunter-gatherers have limited capacity to carry and store goods and possessions (Diamond, 1997; Finkel, 2009). It is only through the advent of agriculture that societies can develop highly specialized roles (political leaders, merchants, artists, teachers, soldiers, priests, scribes, and technology specialists).
Life as a hunter-gatherer may offer a sense of deep freedom (Finkel, 2009), and compared to early farming communities, the hunter-gather life apparently offered a superior existence (Diamond, 1987). However, it is a life very, very distant from our present world of material comforts, cherished electronic devices, and relative security. Visual snapshots of traditional lives can make this point much more powerfully than I. Click here and here.
In my professional travels in four continents, I have never gotten the sense that there is a groundswell of people poised ready to relinquish a 21st-century material lifestyle. Yes, some of us make some progress in simplifying our lives. For example, I often buy local; all year, I ride a bike or walk as much as possible; I drive a four-cylinder; I recycle; etc.
Did you see the wealth in that last sentence? I own a bicycle; I own a car; I eat three square meals a day, made of delicious, diverse foods of my choosing, in a kitchen with running water, a gas range, a refrigerator, heat and A/C. Heck, I have shoes! Several pairs! And boots! And running shoes! And soccer shoes! I have lived overseas in regions of deep poverty, and…let’s just say that living a subsistence life does not seem to me to be a joyous, freely made choice for most people in the 21st century.
But what if a global transformation occurred in human thinking, and we agreed the world over to return to the simplicity of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Could we?
Hunter-gatherers need at least 2.5 km2 (=250 hectares) of land surface per person (Diamond, 1987; Diamond, 1997). The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization states that Earth has 13.4 billion hectares of ice-free land (FAO, 1993). Dividing 13.4 billion hectares of land by 250 hectares per person gives 54 million people as Earth’s maximum carrying capacity for hunter-gatherers. Dividing 54 million people by our present population of 7.3 billion people gives a proportion of 0.007, which is equivalent to 0.7%.
This “back-of-the-envelope” calculation suggests that the most sustainable food system humans have ever experienced cannot even accommodate one percent of our present population. What are we to do with the 99+%? And do we even dare to look a mere 35 years ahead to mid-century, when the global population is expected to be well over nine billion?
This calculation suggests to me that addressing the challenges of food-system sustainability will be…well…challenging. In fact, extremely so. Probably more challenging than most think. And it isn’t just a challenge due to our high current population, nor to our continuing population growth. The inexorable march of climate change introduces “jokers” into the deck. As geophysicist Ray Pierrehumbert said at the 2012 meeting of the American Geophysical Union, “we are running an uncontrolled experiment with the Earth, and we have to live in the beaker.”
Look for more on this line of thought in Part 2 of this two-part series.
1. Diamond, J. 1987. The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race. Discover Magazine, May 1987, pp. 64-66.
2. Diamond, J. 1997. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. Norton and Company, New York.
3. FAO, 1993, FESLM: An international framework for evaluating sustainable land management, Section entitled “Issues of Sustainable Land Management”
4. Finkel, M. 2009. The Hazda. National Geographic, October 2009.