long . lines and ripples

Successive Monocultures

A logistics warehouse on former farmland
A logistics warehouse, next to a farmer's green field under cultivation

Efficiency and scale have their uses, but what happens when they become the only values? Do we have a clear idea of what is no longer possible, and what sort of activity gets ruled out? Let me go into two examples, one old and one new, sitting next to one another outside of Chicago.

Agriculture, or the growth of plants and animals under controlled conditions for the benefit of human beings, has been around for a while. But a civilization that relies completely on agriculture to provide for itself is a more recent development.

What preceded sedentary life, as it is called today, was an open-ended set of strategies known by the shorthand of "hunting and gathering." Hunter-gathers were bet-hedgers who improvised as many different food sources as possible. This included (when it made sense) agriculture. Sedentary farmers traded away the security of multiple food sources in favor of efficiency and scale. They produced a lot of just a few things, and got really good at it. When the model worked, the farmers got way more food than they needed, putting the extras into storage for the future, or allowing other people to consume the surplus without participating in agriculture themselves. In this way civilization acquired a class of elites: those who contributed zero to food production.

I was reminded of these tradeoffs when I got out of my neighborhood for the first time in a while, driving southwest of Chicago to the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie near Joliet, Illinois. That part of the state is far enough from Chicago, and large enough by area to have been spared total suburban or exurban development. A lot of it is still farmland; the crops may be different, but that land is still used for the same purpose as when it was first cleared by white settlers.

The most visually obvious exception? The logistics warehouses, with their long blocks of docks for trucks, are unbelievably gigantic, multi-hectare logistical temples that crop up at frequent intervals by the highways.

Like the monocrops encouraged by mass agriculture, the logistics hub concentrates a range of organizational problems into a single strategy. The more goods you can stage near the major population centers that do a lot of the purchasing (e.g., Chicago), the more efficiently you can sort them before their final trip.1 And even if these goods aren't bound for Chicago, you can use the power of scale in that one large sorting facility to forward the largest number of goods on to their next stop. In essence, the larger facility lets you handle more units of value (money, space, packages etc.) per a given unit of input to the hub (effort spent on delivery to the hub) and output from it (effort to ship on to the next destination). Everything in that large building works on the same basic principle as the crops next to it: amass a lot of something, and then figure out what new actions are possible because you have more of that thing in one place/time than you have ever had before.

A society founded on agriculture can produce enough food beyond its survival needs to allow some people to escape from food production. All hunter-gatherers engaged in productive labor some of the time, but agriculture made it possible for a few people to work none of the time.2

Once some people no longer had to work, human resources were freed up to do other things, like make more war. And how do you feed the troops? Logistics! Do a search for "logistics" in any research library (or on Amazon.com), and you will find military strategy or military history among the first page of results. Logistics began as the art of feeding the troops when they were far from the fields. These troops had two tasks: win more land on which to grow food, and capture foreign peoples who would be pressed into working the land as slaves. Agriculture and logistics were partners in early civilization, helping to further increase and then distribute the food supply in service of empire-building: grow more food, increase the population, send the new people to fight in far-away places, keep them fed, get new land, capture people to farm that land, have even more food, etc. etc. etc.

What kicked this whole cycle off? Here is the question that has to be answered: why become an agricultural society at all? It is at that point that many food-producers become unfree. They produced not as much food as they needed, but rather as much as they could, at the behest of a domineering, restless, adventuring group of non-producers.

In his 2017 book Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, the agricultural historian James C. Scott argues that it is not plausible for large numbers of people to have entered into full-time agriculture voluntarily. It would have taken force, by a conquering state or proto-state, to get people to switch from hunting-gathering to full-time agriculture. Agricultural surplus is an inconceivable default position, he argues, unless someone demands it:

Such a surplus does not exist until the embryonic state creates it. Better put, until the state extracts and appropriates this surplus, any dormant additional productivity that might exist is "consumed" in leisure and cultural elaboration.

James C. Scott, Against the Grain, 151

Unless forced to work to the point of surplus, people tend to only produce as much as they need. As any full-time farmer will tell you, it is tedious, and a hell of a lot of work. What the hunter-gatherer has that the farmer doesn't is abundant leisure. Think leisure in the broadest sense: lack of structure. Hunter-gathers were omnivores and survival generalists, who adopted as many strategies as their curiosity and the abundance of nature allowed. And nature could be very abundant. Read how Scott describes one particularly rich ecological niche in the Mesopotamian alluvial plain:

The first fixed villages in the southern alluvium were not merely in a productive wetland zone; they were located at the seam of several different ecological zones, allowing villagers to harvest from all of them and to buffer themselves from the risk of exclusive dependence on any one. They lived on the border between the water marine environment of the coast and the estuary with its resources and the very different fresh water ecology of the upstream river environment. The brackish-water, fresh-water seam, in fact, was a moving border, shifting back and forth with the tides, which, in such flat terrain, moved great distances. Thus for a large number of communities, the two ecological zones moved across the landscape while they remained temporary, taking sustenance from both. The same, even more emphatically, could be said for the seasons of inundation and drying and the resources particular to each. A transition between the aquatic resources of the wet season and the terrestrial resources of the dry season was the great annual pulse of the region. Instead of the population of the alluvium having to shift camp from one ecological zone to another, it could stay in the same place while, as it were, the different habitats came to them. A subsistence niche in the southern Mesopotamian wetlands, was, compared with the risks of agriculture, more stable, more resilient, and renewable with little annual labor.

James C. Scott, Against the Grain, 51-52

Hunter-gatherers didn't have the same work ethic. They didn't need it, and that wasn't the point. But to be a hunter-gatherer, you needed access to open land. In the prehistoric world (e.g., 10,000 BC), assuming you were not a slave (or even if you were), there was so much land available that the hunter-gatherer, according to Scott, had a decent chance of fleeing into the hills-where state authority was diminished, and the imperative to produce less intense. He thinks this freedom to roam had to end in order to make wide-scale agriculture a reality:

Only much later, when the world was, as it were, fully occupied and the means of production privately owned or controlled by state elites, could the control of the means of production (land) alone suffice, without institutions of bondage, to call forth a surplus. So long as there are other subsistence options, as Esther Boserup notes in her classic work, "it is impossible to prevent the members of the lower class from finding other means of subsistence unless they are made personally unfree. When the population becomes so dense that land can be controlled it becomes unnecessary to keep the lower classes in bondage; it is sufficient to deprive the working class of the right to be independent cultivators"-forages, hunter-gatherers, swiddeners, pastoralists."

James C. Scott, Against the Grain, 153. The work of Boserup's Cited is The Conditions of Agricultural Growth

Bondage to the land was therefore not just the fate of people unlucky to be conquered and enslaved. It was the background condition. Everyone in the community who farmed had no better option, no way of fleeing to where they could produce at a subsistence pace. It's understandable then that, according to Scott's analysis, the majority of people evaded state authority, and with it the imperative to pay taxes and produce for markets, for as long as possible:

"Arguably up to 1600 CE"…the vast majority [of people in the world] were still nonstate peoples: hunters and gatherers, marine collectors, horticulturalists, swiddeners, pastoralists, and a good many farmers who were not effectively governed or taxed by any state."

James C. Scott, Against the Grain, 219

Remember: Scott's argument is that most people-i.e., anyone outside of state control-avoided farming in the style that would come to define agricultural practice, the style that is most likely being practiced in the field next to the logistics hub above. No matter what, the farmer labors under the imperative to maximize the crop yield per unit of area. Little surprise that most people avoided this regime as long as possible. To be an efficient producer at scale, you had to live under limits that defined what you had to do and what you could not do. You had to grow what could be best stored, measured, sold, and paid in tribute (Scott argues this was the grain crops)- not what was best suited to the land. You couldn't switch to other methods of subsistence, because then you wouldn't have a surplus to contribute to the whole. You had to work hard to maximize your yield, because the state would take its surplus allotment regardless of whether you had enough for yourself. You couldn't choose to leave your land for other territories not under state control, because the state had claimed everything within reach.

Gradually, over centuries and millennia, agricultural life, and its attendant restrictions to human freedom, became the default mode of civilization. But the subsistence option was not forgotten. For example, the Roman poet Virgil, writing near the end of the common era, is known today for both his Georgics (29 BCE), which records Roman agricultural practices as he would have witnessed on his family's extensive land holdings, and his Eclogues (42 BCE), about the pastoral existence of shepherds and other subsistence peoples with a more nomadic existence.3

The subsistence option also reasserted itself in the modern colonial era, when white settlers in the U.S. claimed large swaths of land for individual subsistence farming. In confirmation of this reborn subsistence ethic, the early U.S. President Thomas Jefferson wrote that the United States would remain a land of small-scale farmers indefinitely. He was asserting that his country had discovered a new equilibrium between subsistence and the demands for scale and efficiency. But he was mistaken: land use in the United States would also consolidate into larger and larger holdings that emphasized yield per unit of area (a process of new land consolidation is ongoing today), and this country led agricultural innovations that raised the efficiency imperative to unimaginable levels. Today the amount of surplus generated by mainstream agriculture practice is so great that many "cash" crops exist in large part because of government subsidies that prop up artificial demand; in effect, they are all surplus.4

The advent of exclusive agriculture was a watershed for the practice of centralized control. The farmer grows not for himself, but for others who control his production. The farmer provides the labor, and he may own the land, but he does not decide how to produce on it.

What about the logistics hub? The emphasis on centralized control is the same. The hub coordinates all goods within its walls, and perhaps also other hubs within a linked network. The point is to be a middleman, to get to say what goes where, and charge a toll (i.e., "shipping costs") to pass through your network. The farmer is still a producer, but the logistics hub is not. Farmers own the goods and bear the liability for them all the way until they are sold at market. The hub owns only the facilities that store and ship goods; as for the goods themselves, it is responsible for them during a short, definable period of time while they pass through the network.

Centralization took a big leap forward with state control over agriculture, because agriculture provides the raw materials for non-producers to exist. You can't have state bureaucrats, priests, aristocrats and other classes until you have the food to feed them. So you control the food source, maximize its resources toward ends you decide, and put the surplus back into growing the apparatus of state control. Today, to say nothing of food, we have immense surpluses in every category of goods.5 What does the concept of surplus even mean in a consumer society? And who is a producer and a non-producer?

Logistics is a craft which deals in a basic material problem-"what is the best way to move this good between two points"-that is nonetheless capable of high abstraction. Goods are goods, but when you pack and ship them, you strive to make them interchangeable with one another. Now, with the internet, immense computing power, and the resources to store and represent almost anything (everything?) in data, centralization grows when it becomes possible to represent a range of human activities under a single system. This was what the state did to early farmers: it made them grow things that it could measure, control, and confiscate.

The state made agriculture more efficient, and it claimed that efficiency for itself. Logistics makes the movement of goods more efficient, and also seeks to benefit from its efficiency through a middleman structure, in the form of a "toll"-a shipping charge, which contributes to the ability to set prices-that it levies on every good. In the computing age, centralization benefits by sitting in the middle, by asserting that some range of human activities are actually equivalent to one another, and can be represented as such. People could reject farming as long as there was other land not under state control. People reject the logistics hub only while alternatives to it remain viable. As agriculture gained dominion over the land, the farmer's power to put land to other uses (or even to imagine other uses) faded. And eventually, the land itself was impoverished, and ecosystems were damaged, so that the viable option was to continue to farm. The logistics hub is the behind-the-scenes arm of the consumer internet. A large chunk of the 2020 internet, and some of its most famous companies like Amazon, relies on hubs like the one above to function. The efficiency of the physical shipping hub like this one is essential to the internet's competitive edge over other activity that is not on the internet: it doesn't matter if everything is purchasable online if you can't get it to people quickly.

As more commerce is represented and conducted online (especially this year), the logistics hub can be expected to grow along with it. And what becomes less possible, perhaps impossible over time, is everything the consumer internet has pushed out: commerce, social life, media, communication-everything that was formerly conducted through other means. You can go to the town square, but if no one is there, it has disappeared just like the land did for early farmers.

One thing you can say about farming: even if the land is claimed for monocrops and factory methods, it's still there. You can still see the land, still imagine it being put to other purposes like at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, where I was going that day. Just neglect it, and it will eventually return to a potential raw material for hunting and gathering. But in the publicly invisible spaces of the logistics hub...where is the reminder of what their efficiency has ruled out?

  1. Why did Chicago come into existence, if not to allow people to wait around for things to be shipped to them by rail, water, or road? Logistics mega-hubs like the one pictured are only recent in the specific sense, as newly built manifestation of a very old but perrenial reason for a city like Chicago to exist, staged as it is at the confluence of water, overland and-in the twentieth century-air routes.↩︎
  2. I, along with the great majority of people living in this country today, inherited the privilege to escape from agriculture.↩︎
  3. Incidentally, it is believed that that Virgil wrote the Eclogues after losing some of his family's land holdings due to unrest in the Roman Republic. In some ways, everyone was worse off in the agricultural state. Under exclusive agriculture, slaves faced a miserable and short existence of bondage to the land, and even aristocratic elites, whose wealth was tied to land holdings, faced ruin if they were dispossessed.↩︎
  4. But the existence of subsidies for "surplus" crops also illustrates a psychological tic for supposedly "post-industrial" (to say nothing of post-agricultural) countries: the agrarian past can be a point of stubborn nostalgia, as The Economist noted 15 years ago in an analysis of EU farm subsidies: "Many town-dwellers, besides, still have living relatives who till the land, and memories persist of post-war food shortages. Pride in agricultural self-sufficiency, with the farmer as folk hero, is strong." Farming becomes a living, working, growing monument to the past. Countries can justify the nostalgia by a strategic need to preserve some of their agricultural capacity during times of instability. ↩︎
  5. The fact that people go hungry today has more to do with the willingness of individual states to allocate food to them (through private markets, etc.). Only the most impoverished countries suffer from an actual lack the resources (either cash or food production capacity) to, in theory, allocate food to all their citizens.↩︎


James C Scott, Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. Yale University Press, 2017.