Historically, Western agriculture is "mechanically" oriented. In the West, if a farmer wanted to become more efficient or increase his yield, he introduced more and more sophisticated equipment, which allowed him to replace human labor with mechanical labor: a threshing machine, a hay baler, a combine harvester, a tractor. He cleared another field and increased his acreage, because now his machinery allowed him to work more land with the same amount of effort. But in Japan or China, farmers didn't have the money to buy equipment—and, in any case, there certainly wasn't any extra land that could easily be converted into new fields. So rice farmers improved their yields by becoming smarter, by being better managers of their own time, and by making better choices. As the anthropologist Francesca Bray puts it, rice agriculture is "skill oriented": if you're willing to weed a bit more diligently, and become more adept at fertilizing, and spend a bit more time monitoring water levels, and do a better job keeping the claypan absolutely level, and make use of every square inch of your rice paddy, you'll harvest a bigger crop. Throughout history, not surprisingly, the people who grow rice have always worked harder than almost any other kind of farmer.
That last statement may seem a little odd, because most of us have a sense that everyone in the premodern world worked really hard. But that simply isn't true. All of us, for example, are descended at some point from untergatherers, and many hunter-gatherers, by all accounts, had a pretty leisurely life. The !Kung bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, in Botswana, who are one of the last remaining practitioners of that way of life, subsist on a rich assortment of fruits, berries, roots, and nuts—in particular the mongongo nut, an incredibly plentiful and protein-rich source of food that lies thick on the ground. They don't grow anything, and it is growing things—preparing, planting, weeding, harvesting, storing—that takes time. Nor do they raise any animals. Occasionally, the male !Kung hunt, but chiefly for sport. All told, !Kung men and women work no more than about twelve to nineteen hours a week, with the balance of the time spent dancing, entertaining, and visiting family and friends. That's, at most, one thousand hours of work a year. (When a bushman was asked once why his people hadn't taken to agriculture, he looked puzzled and said, "Why should we plant,
Or consider the life of a peasant in eighteenth-century Europe. Men and women in those days probably worked from dawn to noon two hundred days a year, which works out to about twelve hundred hours of work annually. During harvest or spring planting, the day might be longer. In the winter, much less. In The Discovery of France, the historian Graham Robb argues that peasant life in a country like France, even well into the nineteenth century, was essentially brief episodes of work followed by long periods of idleness.
Chapter 8: RICE PADDIES AND MATH TESTS
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