How’s our subsistence economy doing? An archaeologist’s perspective on our food supply, self-distancing policies, and what is essential
Last week I was thinking about how pandemics impact the business of archaeology. How we are, or rather are not, prepared to deal with accessing digital documents and data to go about our daily work routine (especially in CRM where access differs dramatically state-to-state). Access to information, documents, and digital data is changing and is dramatically different than it was 10 to 20 years ago. But being isolated at home, I’ll admit that my thoughts are continually shifting to other aspects of what archaeology has taught me about past and current human behavior. As an archaeologist, understanding changes in subsistence practices has been a large part of my academic career (I’ve studied bison jumps on the Great Plains, small-mammal hunting in the Amazon, and mammoth hunters in Paleolithic Germany), so I feel like I should put that esoteric knowledge to use. Right now, it appears that our current practice of self-distancing is having a tremendous impact on our economic trajectory, especially related to our “new” brand of subsistence economy. Our current subsistence practices as they stand in this new covid-19 landscape, especially related to food security, do not appear to be (to use an overused phrase) sustainable or resilient.
When I originally started doing archaeology, I was interested in prehistoric subsistence patterns. Humans had been hunter-gatherers for the better part of +240,000 years. That’s a long time to perfect your craft. That behavior developed across all continents, except of course Antarctica, and over many climatic phases (Interglacials, the Last Glacial Maximum, Little Ice Age, regional droughts, etc.). And then the Holocene happened, with a more stable climate, and with it ushered a new economy in the forms of pastoralism and subsistence agriculture. Humans turned to cultivating local plants, domesticating animals, and honing a new economy. And like their HG ancestors, that craft was refined over large expanses of time and space. Dr. Robert Kelly’s book the 5th Beginning: What Six Million Years of Human History Can Tell Us about Our Future (which is a must read) discusses how humans have experienced several radical, almost incomprehensible to previous generations, economic/lifestyle shifts. And today, as a result of the industrial revolution we now have industrial-levels of subsistence agriculture; that is our true “new normal”. No longer are we subsisting off local family farms, killing and butchering our own animals for meat, and harvesting our own wheat to make bread. Rather we’re dependent upon wage labor for supplying meat, grains, and vegetables, to process and package those items, to ship those derivative products, and place those products on store shelves for us to purchase. Seems like an incredible departure from the optimal forager, stalking the wily bison across the plains, living in our small bands, co-existing as part of a larger ecosystem.
In the United States (and the rest of the “1st World”), our subsistence, our daily bread, is now tied to a larger economic engine. During this period of self-distancing for the purposes of curbing the spread and mortality of a corona virus, people largely aren’t working; rather only people with essential jobs are “allowed” to work. Naturally, I assumed that people working in the food industry are essential, right? On average, food travels 300 miles from “farm to fork” (Zsidisin and Ritchie 2009), so there a lot of moving pieces to make that happen. But what is the current state of our subsistence economy? Are famers able to plow and plant their fields, or are their delays because they can’t get needed parts for equipment? Are stock yards adequately feeding and caring for livestock, or are they experiencing operational issues because they can’t purchase needed equipment, like replacement fencing because the local Quality Farm & Fleet is closed? Are the employees at meat-packing plants processing chickens or are employees being sent home, shuttering the factor? There are so many interwoven components to our subsistence economy and by self-distancing to slow the spread of a corona virus, are we setting ourselves up for major problems with our food supply?
The rallying cry about impacts to our economy, in my opinion, is not just about being able to shop at Bed, Bath, and Beyond, Hobby Lobby, the local comic book store, or any of the other thousands of businesses that are shuttered. My concern here is related to the impacts on our subsistence economy. I haven’t fully researched what happened to our food supply during the Black Plague or the Spanish Flu, but my guess is that there were major interruptions, but not collapse. Because of an enormous death rate, largely due to lack of hygiene and poor food quality , family farm labor was decimated and crops went unplanted and unharvested leading to starvation in areas. It’s likely that the wealthy didn’t suffer terribly, nor will they today, but many may. If our economic policies related to this virus do not clearly prioritize truly essential work, like farming, food processing, and the ancillary business that support such, then we’re in serious trouble. Likely more so than what could befall our society if the corona virus spread in normal manner. Maybe our food supply is not as resilient as we thought.
Reopening our “economy” is not a black or white issue; how and when it should reopen needs to be done as a well-thought out cost-benefit analysis. And not just what is the cost of exposure to a corona virus, which has a highly variable, and yet fully unknown, mortality rate (based on age-demographics and how each region is treating the virus).
So, what are those costs? I’m not qualified to answer that properly, but let’s try to think, critically, about ALL costs social-distancing has on today’s subsistence economy; including the ramifications to our food supply and what a lack of food means. Food insecurity coupled with self-isolation, unemployment, and social divisiveness on what the it means to self-distance doesn’t bode well for social cohesiveness during times of emergency.
When I started at Digital Antiquity (way back in late 2019), I was delighted to learn that the office had established a “shared” drive (our own mini-cloud) which we could access via VPN from just about anywhere we had decent internet access. Since I frequently get “epiphanies” on the weekend, I really like being able to access my office documents remotely from home; I often tinker and re-tinker with documents or save work that pertains to a project I’m currently focused on. When the Covid-19 virus event initially cropped up, our office staff discussed what it might look like if we had to work from home. We are physically housed in newly remodeled Hayden Library at Arizona State University, and at first that there was no real indication that we would need to work from home. What began more as a thought exercise turned out to be good planning on our part. Though we weren’t thinking that we would really need to work remotely for an extended period of time, this turns out to be our “new normal” (though I’m not a fan of that phrase).
It turns out that all the work that Digital Antiquity staff had undertaken over the past several years to 1) create a shared drive on our university server, 2) establish a Slack Channel™ and Zoom™ meetings for communication, 3) facilitate Remote Desktop access, and 4) create administrative log-in protocols on tDAR has paid off 100-fold. Though these platforms have been in use for years, the manner in which they’ve become intertwined into our daily workflows as a result of our enforced social-isolation is pretty new to most of us who were working in an office setting. In thinking about how our digital world is constantly changing, it was wise to plan and enact procedures that gave us the flexibility to access work-related documents remotely. For now, Digital Antiquity staff is able to efficiently work from home given the absurdity of the world around us; all of which has me thinking more about the importance of planning, archiving, preservation, access, and later reuse. Our reliance on technology is as prevalent as ever.
I’m hyper-aware of how selfish this sounds given that we are facing a global lock-down in the face of a pandemic. But since I’m at home and able to work (and I realize that many are not as fortunate) it has given me a chance to reflect and have a new appreciation for that ability. The technological capacity to access digital documents and data, either from home or remotely in a field setting, can truly be invaluable. Because we have digital information stored in a service like tDAR (and there are many others), and the tools to access them, we can continue to work and provide a platform for others to do the same. The same cannot be said for many other archaeologists/historic preservationists.
CRM work is very much a client-based professional service based on federal regulations and is steeped in technology. In the CRM world today, if a SHPO isn’t physically open for an extended period of time nor has an online presence, how do you go about conducting gray literature reviews, even if you are able to go into the field? Having documents archived digitally and made accessible thus becomes incredibly important for compliance work to continue. Likewise, SHPOs who may receive digital documents may not be in a position to store them in a manner that facilitates their access within the organization, limiting their ability to help companies or agencies meet their compliance requirements.
The financial impact to archaeology likely pales in comparison to the overall economic impact that the Covid-19 pandemic will ultimately have on our nation’s economy, but the impact to the field of archaeology and historic preservation will nonetheless be felt. This period of confinement/social-distancing has given me a chance to reflect a bit on many things personally and professionally, but from a strictly professional perspective, working from home reminds me that not all organizations have the cyber-infrastructure that allows them the flexibility to work remotely with digital documents.
Archaeologists need to continue efforts in 1) converting our physical documents (those reports sitting on shelves gathering dust) to digital formats, 2) creating online platforms to access these items, and 3) planning for future work interruptions, whether they be from pandemics or other reasons. Making information and data accessible, either intra- or inter-office, truly is as important as ever.
A rather dystopic article recently released from the MIT Technology Review entitled “We’re not going back to normal” (https://www.technologyreview.com/s/615370/coronavirus-pandemic-social-distancing-18-months/; accessed 4/6/2020) postulates that this pandemic (and maybe future ones) will be cyclical, necessitating multiple periods of social-distancing over extended periods of time. If such does occur, as a discipline we need to be innovative and consider different ways of accessing and sharing information, documents, and data across groups; both within our own offices and to our customers. Archaeology firms, SHPOs, university staff, student’s and the like will need to consider how their workflows will look different, both today and in the coming months and the importance of having access to variety of materials so that we can continue to be productive. Not to mention we may find that the investment in getting these resources online during disruptions should pay off in “normal” times.
Our work and research are so intricately woven into cyber-infrastructure and data that we “need” the ability to access information; this period of human history, if nothing else, highlights our continued need to flex our phenotypic capacity to adapt changes in our economy. If there is a return to normal, will we look back at the economic ramifications of working remotely and take steps to adapt by modifying our existing platforms? Is accessing document and data remotely, despite major societal disruptions, important enough for many organizations to make significant changes to how they operate? Only time and/or another disruption will ultimately tell.