The Roots of Progress

Studying agriculture, with the garage door up

Starting with this post, I’m trying an experiment: I’m going to do more of my work in public—“with the garage door up”. That means I’m going to post more frequently (closer to daily than weekly), with most of them being less polished, and to be more explicit about my thinking and research process. I’ll be sharing my open questions, confusions, and tangential thoughts. I already do a lot of this on Twitter, and in private journaling, but now I’ll be bringing it to these posts. It’s actually how I used to write in the earliest days of this site.

My goals are: to bring to the surface more of my half-formed thoughts, by forcing myself to write about them; to create a new type of content for you, my audience; to model good epistemic norms; and to get early pointers, references, feedback—and pushback.

Again, this is an experiment. Risks: lowering signal-to-noise ratio; overwhelming some parts of my audience with too much content. If you don’t want to read a bunch of shorter, more informal posts, feel free to skim/skip them and just read my occasional long-form comprehensive summaries, which I will continue to write every few weeks or so.

And please let me know what you think of this experiment, one way or another!


So. Today I’m diving into a new topic: agriculture. More broadly, the technology and industry of food. It’s the one major research topic of mine that I’ve read almost nothing about (with the exception of synthetic fertilizer, a little about cotton, and I guess a bit of Jared Diamond).

What I know, or think I know

I don’t know much about this topic, but I have many issues in my peripheral vision.

I know that the origins of agriculture go back well into pre-history, about ten thousand years, around the time of the first settled societies and crafts (although it’s not entirely clear which came first, or whether they co-evolved).

I know some topics that are important:

There are many other topics I could go into: meat and livestock, fishing and aquaculture, food retail, more broadly distribution and the modern global supply chain. But probably the above will be more than enough to occupy me, and should be sufficient to get the big picture.

What I want to know

Basically I want to flesh out all of the points above. As you can see, my starting level of understanding is approximately “9th-grade book report”. I want to understand the subject to the level where I can write a ~3,000-word article summarizing the history of agriculture. So I want to learn the history of major developments in each topic above—the problems and solutions—and figure out which topics I’m missing completely.

My resources

It’s been hard to find good books on this topic that meet my standards. There are many books that have a pretty narrow focus on one place or time, or both (actual title: A History of Georgia Agriculture, 1732–1860). There are some that focus on one agricultural product (Cheese and Culture: A History of Cheese and its Place in Western Civilization, or Chickens: Their Natural and Unnatural Histories) or one area of innovation (A History of Weed Science in the United States). There are a surprising number that focus on society or politics (The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture). Nothing really wrong with any of these—the world needs specialist books, and I’ll probably end up reading some of them—but when I begin a topic, I like to get an overview.

So far the most promising resources seem to be the following, which I might end up skimming or reading only certain chapters of:

So my first step will be to start reading and flesh out my general knowledge on the subject. Once the broad strokes are in place, I expect to have a clearer set of open questions, which I can answer with more targeted research.

Comment on Reddit or debate me on Letter.

Social media link image credit: Wikimedia / Dennis Jarvis

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