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Excerpt from The Myth of Human Supremacy

Solutions To Food Scarcity (p. 189)

From chapter "Authoritarian Technics"

But let’s pretend for a moment that agriculture is simply a solution to food scarcity. Let’s compare it to some other solutions, and see which solutions we find more elegant, more helpful, more intelligent, superior.

Some of those living in temperate zones face a food shortage each winter. One approach to this problem is to only live through the summer. This is the approach taken by many annual plants, some insects such as grasshoppers or solitary bees, and many others. Their lives consist primarily of warm and sunny days, as they eat and bask and make love and then leave behind their seeds or eggs for next year. It works for them, and it works for their communities; living only a brief time can sometimes make these plants and animals “ first responders” of a sort, who can move in to damaged landscapes and help the land to recover. I’m obviously not suggesting humans (or polar bears) adopt this approach, or even that they could adopt this approach. I’m merely saying it’s a valid approach.

Another approach is to sleep or doze or drift through the winter. This approach is taken by many deciduous plants, and by many mammals (such as the grizzlies we mentioned earlier), and by many fish. Trees often release hormones into streams telling fish when it is time to rest for the winter, and when it is time to become more active in the spring. Hormones from the trees also act as tranquilizers, and then, come spring, stimulants. Wood frogs freeze solid during winter. Their hearts even stop. In the spring the frogs thaw out, and resume their lives.

A third approach would be to stay awake but eat less through the winter. Many beings do this, from mammals to amphibians to reptiles to birds to plants to fungi and so on. Some humans do it as well. The Algonquin peoples called the full moon in February the “hunger moon,” since this would be the month when their food supplies were their lowest. The Cherokee likewise called it the “bony moon.” Agriculturalists have often tried to talk Indigenous peoples the world over into adopting agriculture, but most often the Indigenous peoples have understood what would be lost in this adoption, and refused, only to be forced into agriculture through conquest, the elimination of their foodstocks (such as salmon or bison), and other pressures.

Yet another approach is to follow the food. This is what migratory birds do. It is what anadromous fish do. It is what many ungulates do. It is what those who follow the herds of ungulates do. It is what many whales do. It is what many humans do. Even the Tolowa, living here in salmon paradise, still moved up into the mountains in the summer, and down to the coast in the winter. These migrations are wonderful ways to experience different places while you act as nutrient pumps (with anadromous fish, for example, moving almost incomprehensible amounts of food from the oceans into the waters where they spawn). In the case of ungulates and many others, it is a good way to allow land to rest: bison move in, create wallows, and leave for several years as the wallows become homes for aquatic plants, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and so many others. Passenger pigeons brought in and left vast volumes of feces, which decayed into rich soils (the acidity of which also protected the huge chestnut trees where the birds often roosted; the argument has been made that the eradication of passenger pigeons contributed to the devastation of American chestnuts through changing soil composition and making the chestnuts more susceptible to the introduced chestnut blight). The pigeons would stay a while, gift one forest with these nutrients, and then move on to help another. The forests fed the pigeons in the form of nuts, and the pigeons fed the forests in the form of their feces and their bodies. Everybody wins. Or used to, until this human supremacist culture showed up, killed off the pigeons, and nearly wiped out the American chestnuts.

And the final approach we’ll discuss here is to store food through the winter. This is part of the promise of agriculture. It does store food, but does so in a way that destroys landbases, leads to hierarchies and militarization, and forces its addicts to continually expand or collapse. Let’s contrast that with solutions arrived at by some others to this problem. The Tolowa Indians smoked salmon and jerked meat, and did so sustainably. They did not harm rivers or forests by doing so. In fact, they played similar roles to bears and eagles and ravens and insects and everyone else who eats salmon, in that they carried nutrients in their bodies and then deposited them as feces throughout a forest. This is a vital role in forests, not dissimilar to blood carrying nutrients around the body; it doesn’t matter how many nutrients are in your stomach and intestines if these nutrients aren’t moved to where they’re needed in your body. It’s the same in a forest. Or we can talk about honeybees. Honeybees collect food to last through the winter. And their gathering of this food facilitates sexual interactions between flowers. Gosh, we have a solution that leads to ecological destruction and militarism, or one that leads to the exuberance of sexual reproduction and a literal flowering of the next generation. And what is the superior choice?

Or let’s talk about squirrels. They’re known for gathering and storing nuts in the summer and fall, then throughout the winter, digging up the nuts and eating them. A typical gray squirrel needs about twenty pounds of acorns to make it through a winter. Let’s say there are 115 acorns in a pound. That would mean this squirrel would eat about 2,300 acorns in a winter (which, coincidentally or not, is about the same number of acorns produced in a year by a healthy, mature oak of at least some species).

First, since the squirrel hid these nuts, then found them again (partly using smell, but also memory), it clearly has a far better memory than I do. That’s a lot of locations to remember. I can’t speak for you, but whenever I don’t leave my keys in their customary place, I have no memory of where I put them. But squirrels aren’t perfect either; they also sometimes forget. They generally find only a little over 25 percent of their caches. Which sounds about fifteen percent better than I would do. In the case of squirrels, this memory loss—or it could be squirrels playing their part in taking care of the forest’s future—helps the forest. Squirrels plant far more trees than humans do. And it is simply true that squirrels spend far more time planting trees than they do storing food for themselves; to be clear, squirrels spend far more time taking care of the future of the forest than they do taking care of themselves. I’m sure the trees are more than happy to feed them a quarter of their acorns to thank them for their help. To be accurate at all, the book and film should have been called The Squirrels Who Planted Trees, and likewise I probably should have told that simple living dude with the four children that if he thinks not enough trees are being replanted, to take it up with the squirrels. As a side note, squirrels also pay close attention to whether anyone is watching as they hide their food, and if they suspect someone might be eyeing their stash, they’ll make decoy caches in which they only pretend to bury acorns. Scientists have also discovered these suspicions extend far past other squirrels; when the squirrels realized the scientists were disturbing their food supplies, they started making more fake caches to throw the scientists off the trail, or at least waste their time.

All of which is a long way of asking, which is a better way of storing food for the winter: one in which you deplete the topsoil, destroy the landbase, create and support authoritarian power structures, then conquer other landbases and destroy them, too; or one in which by your very act of storing food for the winter you guarantee the health of your home and its future for your own children and those of the other species who share this larger body that is the biome?

The squirrels are helping out the trees, who are helping out the squirrels, who are helping out the trees. . . . What did Richard Dawkins call beings who acted like this? Oh, yes, Suckers.

What do I call them? Life being life.

It would be easy enough to do what I’ve done so often, and simply make a snide comment about who is more intelligent between human supremacists and squirrels (I’d say the squirrels, since they generally hide the nuts, instead of valorizing them as respected philosophers), but the first point I really want to make here is that both nonhuman and human cultures have come up with a near infinitude of “solutions” to this particular “problem.” So it’s nonsense to say that humans—or let’s just say what we mean and say non-Indigenous humans—are superior because of our ability to solve problems. Further, these other solutions have had the necessary elegance of not only not destroying their landbases—what they rely on to, you know, live—but rather improving their landbases, all of which would seem to me to be the number one consideration for whether a solution is or is not superior.