So, every so often, I come across people who, while they might not articulate it fully, have a deep seated belief that we should all go back to an agrarian society. Wouldn’t it be nice to move back to a time when we all farmed organically, had low impact lifestyles and didn’t screw up the planet. Well… Unfortunately, it’s not a simple as that.

Firstly, let’s not forget that as a species we’ve been having a pretty hefty impact on our environment for a very long time now (if only on a local level). While there may not be many documented examples (we are talking about prehistoric cultures), it seems likely that a number of people groups have managed to wipe themselves out or at least severely degrade their standard of living as a result of environmental mismanagement (see Easter Island, Mayan collapse, the Egyptian old kingdom etc.). So, even if we did turn the clock back, there would still be no guarantee of sustainability.

The main problem however, is that there are such a lot of us. According to Haberl et al (downloadable here) the land required to keep each Neolithic hunter gatherer was between 800 and 4,000 ha per person (or up to 40 km^2). That’s fine, settled agriculture means we can grow food much more efficiently than your average Neolithic tribe. In an agrarian society, before the industrial revolution, we were using approximately 2.5ha per person. This is actually still pretty good, at this point agriculture is still producing energy (in the form of food) rather than absorbing it.

Here we come to the problem. Since the industrial revolution, agriculture has moved from an energy producing activity into an energy consuming activity. We essentially use agriculture as a tool for converting fossil fuels into an edible form (at a considerable loss I might add). This abundant energy has moved us to the current situation, where globally we support something in the region of 4 people per ha. This doesn’t sound like much, but if you kick away the support (our unsustainable economy) suddenly we return to a situation where many of our current land management practices just don’t work. It seems reasonable to assume that we’ve got a bit of an advantage over the pre-industrials in that we have a few hundred years of scientific knowledge to fall back on, but it also seems fairly realistic that we could be undermined by our degraded landscapes, and the appalling pressure to adapt before runaway climate change really kicks in.

We can’t go back.

So, what next? If the old ways of doing things won’t help us to deal with the future, it becomes apparent that either we fail to adapt (which leads to all sorts of dystopian situations) or we embrace a new way of interacting with our environment. What does that look like? The writers of the paper I just quoted, point out that it’s probably as hard for us to imagine a future society after this transformation, as it would be for agrarians to imagine the world we live in today. I don’t think that this should stop us looking for it, it will take imagination (and more than a little courage) but the future could be so much better than our clunky, inelegant, dirty, industrial present.


Will Rolls is an independent consultant with expertise in forestry, biomass and sustainability, with a strong personal interest in developing sustainable systems and practices. This article originally appeared on LinkedIn here