Chris Maser

With the advent of herding, agriculture, and progressive settlement, however, humanity created the concept of "wilderness," and so the distinctions between "tame" (meaning controlled) and "wild" (meaning uncontrolled) plants and animals began to emerge in the human psyche. Along with the notion of tame and wild plants and animals came the perceived need to not only "control" space but also to "own" it through boundaries in the form of landscape markers, pastures, fields, and villages. In this way, the uncontrolled land or wilderness of the hunter-gatherers came to be viewed in the minds of settled folk either as "free" for the taking or as a threat to their existence.

So it was that the dawn of agriculture, which arose in the "Fertile Crescent" of the Middle East, ushered in a new era of controlling land through often-contested boundaries based on a sense of "personal ownership." The Fertile Crescent is a crescent-shaped valley stretching from just south of modern-day Jerusalem, northward along the Mediterranean coast to present-day Syria, eastward through present-day Iraq, and then southward along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to the Persian Gulf. Although sparsely inhabited for centuries, it is thought that agriculture originated in this valley around 8000 BCE. The region was not only greener in those days but also home to a great diversity of annual plants, including grasses with large seeds, such as wild wheat and barley, which grew in abundance. In fact, the wild varieties of wheat have higher nutritional values than domestic wheat.1 This combination of factors allowed tribes of nomadic hunters, gatherers, and herders to settle along the lush banks of the rivers, where the fertile soil and plentiful water made it possible for them to become the world's first farmers. The rivers also provided fish that were used both as food and fertilizer, as well as giant reeds and clay for building materials.

"One of the most important developments in the existence of human society was the successful shift from a subsistence economy based on foraging to one primarily based on food production derived from cultivated plants and domesticated animals."2 Being able to grow one's own food was a substantial hedge against hunger and thus proved to be the impetus for settlement that, in turn, became the foundation of civilization. Farming gave rise to social planning as once-nomadic tribes settled down and joined cooperative forces. Irrigation arose in response to the need of supporting growing populations—and so the discipline of agriculture was born.3

Around 5,000 BCE, the first cities were constructed in the southern part of this long valley, near the Persian Gulf, by an intelligent, resourceful, and energetic people who became known as the Sumerians. The Sumerians gradually extended their civilization northward over the decades to becoming the first great empire—Mesopotamia, the name given to this geographical area by the ancient Greeks, meaning "land between two rivers."4

As the farming population grew, groups of people migrated northwestward out of the Fertile Crescent and colonized much of what is Europe today. As they did so, they replaced the indigenous hunter-gatherers, some of which may have taken up farming rather than surrender their home territories to the newcomers. Nevertheless, data indicate that the newly arrived farmers bred at a rate sufficient to keep their population expanding northwestward.5

The shift from a hunter-gatherer way of life to one of increased sedentism (the term archaeologists use to describe the process of settling down) and its concommitment to social interaction and the maintenance of permanent agricultural fields and irrigation canals occurred in just a few independent centers around the world. One center was the circumscribed upper-middle Zaña Valley of Peru (as opposes to a low, broad valley), where four canals, drawn from hydraulically manageable small, lateral streams, were found on the southern side of the river flowing through the valley. The canals, stacked on top of one another, were dated from 1,190 years ago (the most recent) to about 6,700 years ago (the oldest). Remnants of at least 51 sited of human habitation doted the intermontane countryside around the canals. Thus began the incipient production of food in an artificially created wet agro-ecosystem.

Evidence indicates this early-irrigation farming was accomplished through communally organized labor to construct and maintain the canals, which necessitated the scheduling of daily activities beyond individual households. Nevertheless, to support the inevitable increase in the local population required an economy wherein farming was combined with hunting and gathering. The commitment to agriculture was more than simply the transition to a sedentary life structured around sustainable, small-scale production of food, it was also the commitment to a set of decisions and responses that resulted in fundamental, organizational changes in society, increased risks and uncertainties, and shifts in social roles as a result of the dependence on irrigation technology.6

As indicated by the necessitated of scheduling daily activities beyond individual households, Agriculture brought with it both a sedentary way of life and a permanent change in the flow of living. Whereas the daily life of a hunter-gatherer was a seamless whole, a farmer's life became divided into home (rest) and field (work). While a hunter-gatherer had intrinsic value as a human being with respect to the community, a farmer's sense of self-worth became extrinsic, both personally and with respect to the community as symbolized by, and permanently attached to "productivity"—a measure based primarily on how hard they worked and thus the quantity of good or services they produced. In addition, the sedentary life of a farmer changed the notion of "property."

On the other hand, the growing agricultural lifestyle caused many people to suffer ill health, as illustrated by the analyses of human skeletons excavated at variety of prehistoric farming villages. As fecal waste from the villagers accumulated, disease and parasites flourished, contaminating water supplies whereby they infected the residents. In addition, the people's skeletal structure became weaker due to poorer nutrition than people experienced prior to the agricultural way of life. Evidence also indicates that infants and young children perished more frequently than they had at the height of the Stone Age.7

So, the dawn of agriculture, which ultimately gave birth to civilizations, created another powerful, albeit unconscious, biases in the human psyche. For the first time, humans saw themselves as clearly distinct—in their reasoning at least—from and superior to the rest of Nature. They therefore began to consider themselves as masters of, rather than members of, Nature's community of life. It seems that farmers had a mindset of utility that was anti-biodiversity from the beginning—an attitude that l prevails among the world's farmers of today. In fact, wild Nature, humankind's millennial life-support system, suddenly came to be seen as a fierce competitor—a perpetual enemy to be vanquished when possible and subjugated when not.8

Accordingly, to those who lived a progressively sedentary life as farmers, land became a commodity to be bought, owned, and sold. Thus, when hunter-gatherer cultures, such as the American Indians, "sold" their land to the invaders (in this case Europeans), they were really selling the right to "use" their land, not to "own" it outright as fixed property to the exclusion of others, something the Europeans did not understand. The European's difficulty in comprehending the difference probably arose because, once a sedentary lifestyle is embraced, it's almost impossible to return to a nomadic way of life, including the thinking that accompanies it.

Until fairly recently, historically speaking, property in Britannia, as early England was known, used to be a matter of possessing the right to use land and its resources, and most areas had some kind of shared rights. Today, the land itself is considered to be property, and the words for the British shared rights of old have all but disappeared: "estovers" (the right to collect firewood), "pannage" (the right to put one's pigs in the woods), "turbary" (the right to cut turf), and "pescary" (the commoner's right to catch fish) are no longer in the British vocabulary. Now, while the landowner's rights are almost absolute, the common people no longer have the right of access to most lands in England.9

Even the future of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent is becoming increasingly grim due to a combination of a changing global climate and continual diversions of the water far upstream in both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Now (2009), after two years of drought, which experts warn could become permanent, farmers are abandoning their fields, even as the Turks are tightening the grip of their dams, which have already reduced the rivers to mere trickles. In addition, however, new Iranian dams are further reducing the flows in these two historic rivers.10

We, as individuals, may despair when we contemplate the failure of so many earlier human societies to recognize their pending environmental problems, as well as their failure to resolve them—especially when we see our local, national, and global society committing the same kinds of mistakes on an even larger scale and faster time track. But the current environmental crisis is much more complex than earlier ones because modern society is qualitatively different than previous kinds of human communities. Old problems are occurring in new contexts and new problems are being created, both as short-term solutions to old problems and as fundamentally new concepts. Pollution of the world's oceans, depletion of the ozone layer, production of enormous numbers and amounts of untested chemical compounds that find their way into the environment, and the potential human exacerbation of global climate change were simply not issues in olden times.11 But they are the issues of today.

Although a few cultures (such as Bedouin clans in the Middle-Eastern deserts and the Lapland reindeer herders) still live lightly on the land, most of humanity leaves a heavy footprint, consuming nearly a quarter of the Earth biophysical productivity. In fact, land use continually transforms Earth's terrestrial surface, thereby resulting in changes within biogeochemical cycles and thus the ability of ecosystems to deliver services critical to human well-being.12

Thus, while the hunter-gatherers created The Commons Usufruct Law spontaneously in their living, it is today being progressively eroded as people, especially in the industrialized countries, are evolving from Homo sapiens (modern human) into Homo economis (economic human). To arrest this erosion, we must understand and accept that the quality of our individual lives depend on the collective outcome of our personal thoughts, decisions, and actions as they coalesce in the environment over time, particularly with respect to the global commons.


  1. Tom D. Dillehay, Herbert H. Eling, Jr., and Jack Rossen. Preceramic Irrigation Canals In The Peruvian Andes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 102 (2005):17241-17244.

  2. (1) Stacey Y. Abrams. The Land Between Two Rivers: The Astronomy of Ancient Mesopotamia. The Electronic Journal of the Astronomical Society of the Atlantic 3, (no 2). Georgia State University Press. 1991. No page numbers given and (2) The Fertile Crescent. http://visav.phys.uvic.ca/~babul/AstroCourses/P303/mesopotamia.html (accessed 7 January 2009).

  3. Ibid.

  4. Wolfgang Haak, Peter Forster, Barbara Bramanti, and others. Ancient DNA from the First European Farmers in 7500-Year-Old Neolithic Sites. Science 310 (2005):1016-1018.

  5. The preceding two paragraphs are based on: Tom D. Dillehay, Herbert H. Eling, Jr., and Jack Rossen. Preceramic Irrigation Canals In The Peruvian Andes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 102 (2005):17241-17244.

  6. Bruce Bower. Evolution's Ear. Science News 174 (2008):22-25.

  7. Wolfgang Haber. Energy, Food, and Land— The Ecological Traps of Humankind. Environmental Science and Pollution Research 14 (2007):359-365.

  8. ibid.

  9. George Monbiot. Land Reform in Britain. Resurgence 181 (1997):4-8.

  10. Steve Newman. Fertile Crescent Decline. Earthweek:  A Diary of the Planet. In:  Albany Democrat-Herald, Corvallis (OR) Gazette-Times. August 14, 2009.

  11. Gus diZerega. Re-thinking the Obvious: Modernity and Living Respectfully with Nature. Trumpeter 14 (1997):184-193

  12. Helmut Haberl, K. Heinz Erb, Fridolin Krausmann, and others. Quantifying and mapping the human appropriation of net primary production in earth's terrestrial ecosystems. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104 (2007): 12942-12947.

©Chris Maser 2009. All rights reserved.

Protected by Copyscape Web Copyright Protection