The Luxury Trap


Like most big changes, farming arose gradually. It did not happen all at once. The change from hunter-gathering to farming occurred incrementally in small almost imperceptible steps.  Had the changes occurred rapidly the reaction of humans might have been very different. Like the proverbial frog in the pot of water on the stove. If you throw a frog into a boiling pot of water it will leap out immediately. In such a case no harm is done. The frog does not get seduced. If you place a frog into a cold pot of water and then turn on the element so that the pot is heated very slowly, the frog might stay in the pot until it boils to death. It does not notice the gradual changes until it is too late.

The change from hunting and gathering to farming happened slowly like that. Had it occurred rapidly humans would likely have jumped out before any harm was done. Where the change is gradual, humans can accept it and then become enmeshed in the new system.

Humans initially arrived in the Middle East about 70,000 years ago. For more than 50,000 years humans there were content. Humans did very well withoutagriculture. When humans started to settle more, perhaps because of the availability of food, their natural population control mechanisms started to produce more offspring as a result of hormonal changes.

The last Ice Age ended about 18,000 years ago as the climate warmed. Temperatures rose, but so did the amount of rainfall. The new climate was perfect for wheat and other cereals. People ate more of these cereals. They were not easy to eat. People could not eat the wheat and other cereals without first winnowing, grinding and cooking them. People began to carry the grains back to their temporary homes. No doubt some grains dropped to the ground. Some were lost, but others sprouted along human trails and campsites. Humans burned down forests to help desirable plants to grow and this also helped wheat to grow. As a result nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers started to give up their nomadic lifestyles and settled down into more permanent settlements. At first they likely stayed in one place only for short times, but in time, they stayed longer and longer as more and more cereals grew. Gradually hunter-gatherers added farming to their survival arsenal, without giving up foraging. Farming increased greatly. No one knows exactly when the decisive transition from hunting and gathering to farming occurred.

At first the humans probably stayed at their camps for about 4 weeks during the harvest season.  When wheat plants multiplied and spread through more areas of the Middle East the Homo sapiensstarted to stay put longer. Evidence of this has been found by scientists and historians. They have found evidence of stone houses and granaries for example.  The people learned to save some part of the harvest to sow the fields with seeds. Later they discovered how to plant seeds deeper into the ground and this produced more wheat.  Then the people adding hoeing and plowing to their techniques. Of course as the people put in more effort to improve their corps, they had less time to travel and hunt and gather. They never gave up foraging or hunting entirely, but people spent more and more time cultivating just a few crops.

As Yuval Harari said, “But by 8500 B.C. the Middle East was peppered with permanent villages such as Jericho, whose inhabitants spent most of their time cultivating a few domesticated species.”

Life changed slowly but over time dramatically, as more and more people became farmers. First the population began to grow. Remember that is not necessarily a good thing. In fact some have said that it is the worstthing!

As humans gave up the nomadic life women could have children every year. As Harari said, “Babies were weaned at an earlier age—they could feed on porridge and gruel.” Is that an improvement? Babies had to grow up faster to help in the fields. Lucky kids. Of course the extra mouths to feed wiped out the “benefits’ of having more food. That meant more fields had to be sowed. More work again.

More and more people began to move to towns and even cities. More close contact meant more diseases. Things got tougher. As Harari reported, “As people began living in disease-ridden settlements, as children fed more on cereals and less on mother’s milk, and as each child competed for his or her porridge with more and more siblings , child mortality soared.” More dubious progress.

Even though many children died young, more children were being born than died. So the population increased. It appeared that things were good. Yet, the agricultural revolution was not an obvious success. As Harari said,


With time, the ‘wheat bargain’ became more and more burdensome.  Children died in droves, and adults ate bread by the sweat of their brows. The average person in Jericho of 8500 B.C. lived a harder lifethan the average person in Jericho of 9500 B.C. or 13,000 B.C. But nobody realized what was happening. Every generation continued to live like the previous generation, making only small improvements here and there in the way things were done. Paradoxically, a series of ‘improvements,’ each of which was meant to make life easier, added up to a millstone around the necks of the farmers.


All of these gradual changes ended up in disaster and no one noticed until it was too late to do anything about it. Like the frog in the pot of boiling water. People forgot what life had been like. People could not grasp the consequences of what they were doing, just like we in the modern social media digital age have not been able to comprehend how life is changing and too often assume, without good evidence, that things are getting better because we have more and faster computers.

Each of the changes the Homo sapiensmade required a little more work.     People thought the increased harvest would be worth the extra work. People worked harder, but they did not realize that with more children the “benefits” would have to be shared with more children. The extra “benefits” could not keep up with the extra burdens.

Are things so different today? How many modern “improvements” are just more powerful chains tying us to our personal air-conditioned prisons? How has the digital revolution improved our lives? Have our “time saving” devices saved time or squandered it?

Of course the newly minted farmers of the Agricultural Revolution did not understand that feeding children porridge instead of breast milk would weaken their immune systems just as more of them lived in crowded places where diseases were rampant. As Harari said, those “permanent settlements would be hotbeds for infectious diseases.” As well the increasing reliance on a single source of food exposed them to serious risks. Droughts now could be disastrous after people lost their foraging skills. As large granaries were needed to product the grain from bandits. As a result they had to spend more time “building walls and doing guard duty.”Not so much fun.

Humans screwed up. This has happened before and will happen again. As Harari said, “The pursuit of an easier life resulted in much hardship, and not for the last time. It happens today.” I know many young law students who join large law firms where they are expected to work inhuman hours in the pursuit of immense “billable hours” so that eventually they can retire and live the golden life. In time many of them realize they have pursued a chimera and their life is not worth living.

This is what Harari calls the “luxury trap”. Our luxuries become the prisons inside of which we live. Or as he put it,

“One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations…The story of the luxury trap carries with it an important lesson. Humanity’s search for an easier life released immense forces of change that transformed the world in ways nobody envisioned or wanted. Nobody plotted the Agricultural Revolution or sought human dependence on cereal cultivation. A series of trivial decisions aimed mostly at filling a few stomachs and gaining a little security had the cumulative effect of forcing ancient foragers to spend their days carrying water under a scorching sun.”

It is requires a complex calculus to determine whether the life of the hunter-gatherer was better or worse than the farmer. People may disagree. But what is unarguable is that saying the life of European farmers was a vast improvement over the life of Indigenous people of the Americas, is a monumental assumption. It takes a stubborn over-confidence to stick to such a presumption.


One thought on “The Luxury Trap

  1. barrister new field

    i would just sharpen your comments about women, children, and agriculture.
    servitude for women and children came with agriculture. women lost the “relative egalitarianism” which accompanied the importance of gathering. women began to be seen in a similar way to animals; that is, relative to breeding. with more births came more maternal deaths. read any family genealogy or go to any old graveyard to see how many died.

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