The Ancient World & The Rise of Agrarian Empires

Paper # 3  – November 16th, 2016


Reflection Paper: “The Ancient World and The Rise of Agrarian Empires (10,000–750BC)

by Andrew Hayward Smith


Stanley Diamond writes in Introduction: Civilization and Progress that “for 40,000 years man survived and formulated his own existence in the absence of the state.” Humankind lived in harmony with the land. Then, around 9,000 B.C.E., humankind began to plant and cultivate cereals in the Levant and Mesopotamia and ‘agriculture’ was born. As Evan Eisenberg outlines in Ecology of Eden, “Two ways of looking at the world arose in the ancient Near East and are with us yet. For one, the heart of the world is wilderness. For the other, the world revolves around the city, the work of human hands… It is a fundamental dispute about the way the world works and what our role in it should be.” Previous to our studies and experiences of the past month I was unaware of the existence of the two opposing world-views that formed with the birth of agriculture.

From the rise of agriculture in the Near East, around 9,000 BCE, to the present day two different histories have been lived out– indigenous cultures continued to live in harmony with the land and live according to its supplied abundance, whilst so-called ‘civilized’ society went on to develop systems of farming, writing, religion, weight and measurement, credit, money, debt, cities and eventually nation states managed by governments and laws. These two world-views have been consistently in conflict.

Religion has played its part and has equally been understood differently by the two world-views. The indigenous worldview places faith in a Creator who will supply the food and resources necessary to sustain life. Civilized societies have increasingly removed their faith in God and placed their faith in their own hands. As soon as humankind placed its faith firmly in its own hands there emerged an inherent fear that it will not be able to provide for itself. Therefore, humankind began to store grains and resources, deplete one area’s resources and then move onto another area to do the same again, all in an effort to ensure humankind’s survival. Civilized society began to revolve around consumption.

The need to consume necessitated civilized humankind’s movement from place to place, continual exploitation of the earth and of each other. Civilized society’s actions began to be based on the abundance or scarcity of natural resources. This remains true today. The Ecology of Eden states, “We stripped forests, troubled the soil, uprooted whole ecosystems. On this point the Bible is clear: ‘Cursed is the ground for thy sake.’” The need to control resources and the people needed to manage those resources, resulted in the development of cities, organized religion, governments and laws. Eventually the governments became imperialistic, conquering other lands to ensure access to more natural resources. And now, as Stanley Diamond describes, “Imperialism is incarnated today in the multinational corporation… It is the projection of the socioeconomic needs and cultural realities of Euro-America.”

With the advent of the industrial revolution and multinational corporations we have been able to access natural resources more quickly and easily, damaging our planet to the point of being on the brink of possible extinction along with many other species. A new report called the Living Planet Index, prepared by the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London, recently published its findings that two thirds of the vertebrate populations could be extinct by the year 2020. The study reports that animal populations dropped by 58 percent between 1970 and 2012, largely due to human activities– poaching, habitat loss and pollution. Humankind has managed the earth poorly.

In Ecology of Eden, Evan Eisenberg explains that only a few centuries ago humankind became saprophages– “creatures such as fungi, maggots, and various microbes that feed off decaying or decayed organic matter. In our case, the dead organic matter in question is wood, peat, coal, and oil.” He continues to explain, “An oil spill is a kind of night of living dead, in which dead organic matter that we have called from its grave rises and strangles the living.” The potential problems resulting from construction and use of the Dakota Access Oil Pipeline in North Dakota is this strangling of the living that the Standing Rock water protectors are trying to prevent. As the Native American says, “water is life” and if the pipeline should malfunction and spill its contents into the Missouri River then the drinking water of 26 million people would become undrinkable.

One month ago, as a seminary we visited with the Standing Rock Sioux’s water protectors’ camp. We had all heard of the protests surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline but visiting the camp gave us the chance to experience the two opposing world-views played out in front of our eyes– an indigenous worldview where humankind is connected with all life and an acknowledgement that water is necessary for the survival of all species. The other worldview also present at Standing Rock is the so-called “civilized” worldview. What we discovered there was startling and helped to challenge my understanding of what “civilized” means.

On the one hand there is a peaceful camp filled with “water protectors” who are willing to welcome everyone into their camp, their prayer ceremonies, and who share their food and resources without request for compensation. The camp is by the people, for the people. It is a true community based on societal structures that were in place before the rise of agriculture and the state. It is a gift economy rather than an economy based on credit, which became the norm for “civilized” societies as outlined in David Graeber’s “Debt: The First 5000 Years.”

On the other hand there is the presence of the civilized worldview in the form of a large corporation constructing a $3 billion oil pipeline, a militarized police force and the National Guard who claim to be protecting the rule of law. Except, they are not protecting the established law because they are not honoring the treaty that was drawn up with the Great Sioux Nation in 1851. They are protecting the development of a $3 billion pipeline representative of an extractive, exploitative and destructive economy.

“Exploitative” and “destructive” are not terms that the corporations and banks would use to describe the pipeline. As is typical of the actions of an oppressive nation-state they use more euphemistic terms such as “progress,” “environmental protection,” and “job creation.” Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the company building the pipeline, spin the construction positively on their website They claim that the pipeline will “transport 100% domestically produced crude oil in a more direct, cost-effective, safer and responsible manner.” The pipeline will produce 8,000 to 12,000 local jobs. However, what ETP doesn’t promote is that these jobs are temporary and that only 40 permanent jobs will be created after the construction’s completion. ETP claims that the pipeline will generate an estimated $156 million in sales and income taxes, and $55 million annually in property taxes. All of these taxes are “to be used to support schools, roads, emergency services and more.” I find I am cynical and believe that it is more likely that much of these tax dollars not be used for positive effect.

Meanwhile the pipeline will cross four states, approximately 1,172 miles of land and with an easement width of somewhere between 25 to 50 feet wide. ETP does not seem to take into consideration the amount of ecological damage to topsoil during the course of 1,172 miles of pipeline. For many years it will be barren land, no good to anyone. The topsoil will not be given a chance to regenerate. Plant life and diversity will be lost.

ETP continue their positive spin– “landowners will be fairly compensated” for the land that is acquired for the pipeline. However, ETP’s use of the word “landowners” seems to indicate only European-American landowners. Native American ownership of land is not explicitly mentioned and seems to be of no consequence. Neither does ETP explain who gives them the right to claim or purchase the lands. For a private company to be able to acquire land in such a manner, only the weight of the government and militarized police could force the landowners to sell, because they make and uphold the arbitrary laws that make this possible. These are exploitative actions that previously I would have thought only possible in the barbaric annals of history. This past month I’ve discovered that actions of this kind have been perpetrated for thousands of years and continue today.

The government of the USA set the historical precedence for this kind of acquisition of land, unrightfully so when dishonoring the treaty it agreed to with the Great Sioux Nation in 1851. The US government since stole land and broke up the Great Sioux Nation into six small and separate parts. Even the U.S. Supreme Court was appalled. It 1980, it upheld a U.S. Court of Claims decision in favor of the Sioux. Justice Harry Blackmun quoted from the lower court’s decision: “A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history.”

In an interview with the Seattle Times, published on October 26th, 2016, Standing Rock Sioux tribal chairman Dave Archambault II stated, “We are not opposed to economic development and industry; what we are opposed to is threatening our land and threatening our water. Do this somewhere else. You did it to us for over 200 years and you continue to do it. We are taking a stand and saying, ‘Enough is enough.’ ”

Landowners will be given a few thousand dollars per acre in compensation for the loss of land and their voice thereby silenced. As David Graeber notes in Debt: The First Five Thousand Years, “… the crucial factor, and a topic that will be explored at length in these pages, is money’s capacity to turn morality into a matter of impersonal arithmetic– and by doing so, to justify things that would otherwise seem outrageous and obscene.” Except that the Native American focus is morality and not the impersonal arithmetic of monetary compensation. The two world-views do not understand each other and never have done.

The DAPL website states, “During the initial conception stage of the pipeline and its proposed route, we selected a route that avoided and minimized the crossing of sensitive environmental resources as our base routing guideline. This, coupled with avoidance of residences, defines the route initially and then the route is field verified by civil surveys.” This statement sounds positive but ignores the desecration of Native American sacred sites and land that is legitimately owned by the Sioux Nation.

Indigenous sacred sites seem to be of no consequence to ETP. If the Native American declared that they were going to build an oil pipeline through the middle of the Vatican or Arlington National Cemetery there would be an outcry. Construction would be halted immediately. Why is it acceptable for one section of society to desecrate sacred sites and not the other? Perhaps because the Native American has respect for our Creator and knows that humankind is no better than any other species on the planet. Whereas the ‘civilized’ worldview is that the planet has been provided to humankind to manage and use as we wish. Also, Native American sacred sites are often in natural lands and retain the natural landscape, whereas ‘civilized’ sacred sites have been manufactured with many man-hours. I find it appalling that the Earth, the work of God’s hands, is not considered sacred while the work of man’s hands is considered sacred.

Neither does ETP seem to place a value on the long-term ecological effects of building the pipeline or possible failures of its integrity. ETP is only focused on the immediate gain in profit, certainly not planning for seven generations hence as the Native American does. It is shocking to see the lengths that those in power will go to protect their profits– by the use of militarized police, and the blocking of information and news accessible to the larger populace. As Stanley Diamond writes in Introduction: Civilization and Progress, “The original crimes of civilizations, conquest and political repression, were committed in silence and that is still their intention, if not always the result.”

This challenges my notion of the freedom of information that I have come to expect. I have taken for granted that the media will report on that which the public must know. The art of writing throughout history has been controlled by the elite and used to control the masses. This remains true today. Only news that the media wishes to report is released for public consumption. A lot of news is silenced and therefore the public is silenced via ignorance. Stanley Diamond writes, “History, then, has always been written by the conqueror; the majority of people have traditionally remained silent.” Diamond continues, “…Most men, whether Africans, medieval Europeans, or working class Englishmen, have lived in the ‘darkness’ to which they have been confined by those who record and rationalize the career of civilization.” The masses have been kept silent but Standing Rock is an example of the voice of the masses attempting to be heard.

With the advent of social media, information can be shared more easily. The unfortunate side affect is that the news is not regulated by the established code of journalism ethics. I have noticed that the news has become opinion and skewed facts, both in the mainstream media and in information shared by the public. Some news being shared is actively false. We live in a society where it is becoming difficult to believe any information. This time we are kept in the darkness via an overabundance of information. The two opposing world-views are actively at odds with each other in the media via a war of information.

The result of keeping the masses silent via the media and militarized police is the further destruction of indigenous communities and culture. Stanley Diamond writes, “As civilization propagates itself, the remaining primitive peoples become increasingly marginal, not only geographically, but also culturally. They are no longer the raw material for the state-building process. They are superfluous, and so if they cannot be transformed, they are destroyed.” Like our ecology, our human race needs diversity to be able to survive. However, this diversity is being slowly destroyed.

I’ve learnt of the Native American prophecy from seven generations past– that there will be a black snake that crosses Turtle Island (America) and the people will be given a choice– between the two opposing world-views. What future will we choose? I am challenged to help humankind choose the correct path and to rethink the concept of progress. I am challenged to ask, “What is progress?”

The two opposing world-views answer this question differently. Stanley Diamond writes, “Imperialism seeks to absorb and nullify all contradictions, but the basic apology for imperialism remains the idea of progress… No matter how critical he may be of the realities of his society, he clings to his progressivism as he would to his sanity.” Progress for the ‘civilized’ means the forward movement of the societal system. But to where is this progress leading us? Based on historical evidence the answer is a complete depletion of natural resources until there are insufficient resources to sustain life.

Diamond also outlines the indigenous worldview of progress, “Progress is a reality of personal growth, a progress through society, not of society, as the individual moves from experience to experience on what the Winnebago call the ‘road of life and death.’ Progress… would be a metaphor for spiritual transformation.” There is no pressure to achieve, to construct, or to conquer. If civilized people’s adopted more of this worldview our consumption of natural resources would reduce.

I am challenged to ask, “What would it take to bring the two world-views together in peace and harmony?” For those that recognize the problems facing humankind and want to make improvements it’s a question that we will all have to answer on a daily basis going forward. Ecology of Eden summarizes the challenge in this way: “Suppose you are fed up with city life but know that the wilderness is no place for people. The obvious next step would be to look for someplace in between. You would look for a place that was softened, but not yet spoiled, by human settlement. You would look for a way of life that used just enough technology– not too little, not too much. You would look for a place nestled neatly in the trough of the wave of human advance.” Finding this “in-between” place is the challenge we now face.