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Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilizationby Richard Manning
Synopses & Reviews
In this provocative, wide-ranging book, Richard Manning offers a dramatically revisionist view of recent human evolution, beginning with the vast increase in brain size that set us apart from our primate relatives and brought an accompanying increase in our need for nourishment. For 290,000 years, we managed to meet that need as hunter-gatherers, a state in which Manning believes we were at our most human: at our smartest, strongest, most sensually alive. But our reliance on food made a secure supply deeply attractive, and eventually we embarked upon the agricultural experiment that has been the history of our past 10,000 years.
The evolutionary road is littered with failed experiments, however, and Manning suggests that agriculture as we have practiced it runs against both our grain and nature's. Drawing on the work of anthropologists, biologists, archaeologists, and philosophers, along with his own travels, he argues that not only our ecological ills-overpopulation, erosion, pollution-but our social and emotional malaise are rooted in the devil's bargain we made in our not-so-distant past. And he offers personal, achievable ways we might re-contour the path we have taken to resurrect what is most sustainable and sustaining in our own nature and the planet's.
"Manning skillfully details the historical spread of agriculture through the conquest of indigenous peoples and describes how this expansion led to overpopulation, famine and disease in Europe, Asia and Africa." Publishers Weekly
"Manning brings theory to life with well-crafted essays that cover such diverse subjects as the Irish potato famine and the controversy over bioengineered plants. Readable and well-researched, this book unsettles as it informs." Patricia Monaghan, Booklist
"This thought-provoking and readable book will force readers to see agriculture, farming, and food in a different light. Recommended." Library Journal
"An exhilarating and provocative questioning of our most ingrained beliefs about how we get our food and why. A must read for anyone concerned about the intimate couplings of man, plant, and beast." Betty Fussell, author of The Story of Corn
"Against the Grain is a brilliant, provocative book. Where environmental journalism is concerned, Richard Manning is at the head of the class." Larry McMurtry
"Richard Manning's important new book is radical in the very best sense, taking agriculture by the roots to make a bracing case that unless we manage to tame this environmental juggernaut it will ruin our health and the health of the planet." Michael Pollan, author of The Botany of Desire
"Against The Grain is both fascinating and frightening. But Manning reports more than bad news — he also suggests solutions. This is an important book. Let's hope it's widely read, and that its urgent message reaches our leaders. As it will, if we insist loudly enough." William Kittredge, author of The Nature of Generosity
"Anyone who can read this book and still accept the NPR-advertised Archer Daniels Midland notion of non-sustainable monoculture 'feeding the world' is sleepwalking off a cliff....Manning's indictment is so well researched, provocative, and damning that it makes us feel moral conflict every time we place a processed food product in our mouths. This conflictedness can only improve our health and lives." David James Duncan, author of The Brothers K and My Life as Told by Water
"Against the Grain is an important book. It effectively upends the assumption that domesticating agriculture thousands of years ago improved lives then and now. Instead agriculture domesticated people. Manning brings the concentration of the hunter-gatherer to his subject. The writing is taut and powerful. He shows how with agriculture diets deteriorated, workload increased, and social inequities soared. We have become distanced from our very natures as sensual human beings. Agriculture's quest is products. As grain production rose, it required more outlets, so we eat what needs to be sold. Manning points the way to restored health for humanity and for ecosystems: a counteragriculture of food rather than food products. Diversify what gets planted, raised, and eaten to go against the grain." Deborah Popper, geographer at City University of New York's College of Staten Island
Manning offers a fascinating through-the-looking-glass view of people and agriculture, from the domestication of plants and animals ten thousand years ago to today's corporate megafarms.
In this bold book, Richard Manning narrates a fascinating revisionist history of agriculture, from the domestication of plants and animals ten thousand years ago to today's corporate megafarms. Instead of a bucolic Ur-myth, Manning portrays an enterprise that was from its inception expansionist, and that did not so much accompany colonialism as drive it. Drawing on the work of anthropologists, biologists, archaeologists, and historians, as well as on his own extensive research, he traces a commodification of grain that has reached its apex in contemporary agribusiness and that has helped to build some of the most familiar — and dysfunctional — features of our political and economic landscape.
In the process, agriculture not only overran native peoples and species but also pushed past the limits of arable land and finally into the water, where we now farm fish. At the same time, it served up — for the masses of poor people it produced — a high-carb, sugar-laden, monotonous diet, and it undermined the mental and physical fitness, sensory alertness, and egalitarianism that characterized our species in the 290,000 years before agriculture, when we were, Manning believes, at our most human. It would be fair to say, he asserts, that agriculture has domesticated — enslaved — us, and he offers thoughts on how we might recontour our path, personally and collectively, to resurrect what is most sustaining to both our own nature and the planet's.
About the Author
Richard Manning is the author of Last Stand, A Good House, Grassland, One Round River, and Food's Frontier. He lives in Montana.
Table of Contents
Why Agriculture? 23
Why Agriculture Spread 43
Hard Times 67
Modern Times 85
A Vanguard of Feudalism 105
To See the Wizard 123
Why We Are What We Eat 149
Hog Heaven 163
A Counteragriculture 185
I Eat, Therefore I Kill 203
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