don't get firewood from the fruit-bearing trees

Charles C. Mann, in his book 1491, writes about the Americas before Columbus. It's a work of popular revisionist history – which is to say, it's more than simple "mythbusting". It is, instead, a collection of scholarship that suggests that not only the popular, but in fact the scientific, perception of what the continents were like shortly before the arrival of Europeans has been wrong for hundreds of years.

The most shocking example is that of the American northeast. Mann writes how the tales sent by the first pilgrims, of great flocks of passenger pigeons blackening the sky and huge herds of bison flattening the ground, aren't wrong. But they are misleading.

What the arrivals could not have known is that while they were indeed the first European people to set foot on the land, they were not the first Europeans. That privilege belonged to the smallpox virus.

Smallpox arrived with the very first boats, but it didn't leave when those boats sailed home. It didn't stay in the environs of the first permanent settlements, either. Instead, it spread throughout the continent – which meant that by the time European humans arrived in the northeast, they were witnessing a postapocalyptic scene: one where the virus had already wiped out the vast bulk of humanity decades earlier.

The flocks of pigeons and the herds of bison weren't that large because they had existed in an unspoiled state of natural abundance for millennia; they were that large because the predator that kept their numbers in check had suddenly experienced a mass fatality event. Humans left a hole in the environment, and it was one that the first settlers from across the ocean didn't even know had once been filled.

Even the descriptions of early contact between the two cultures, European and American, needs to be revised in that light. Europeans weren't meeting a culture at the peak of its power, or some "noble savage" who had lived the same way since the Stone Age; they were meeting the survivors of civilisational collapse.

Elsewhere, though, the revisionism has different basis. Mann writes about another mistake, made much later, by Europeans arriving in the Amazon. Here, he says, scholars spent time debating the affect of the environment on the people. They still lived in hunter-gatherer tribes, plucking fruit from trees and hunting animals for protein. The debate was whether this was a result of hardship – or of excess. Was Amazonian culture kept in this apparently primitive state because of the difficulty of survival, or was it in fact that the rainforest provided so much for its people that uniquely, they never felt the need to aim for more?

Again, Mann suggests, the Europeans were wrong. They had quite literally failed to see the forest for the trees. The environment laden with fruit, vegetables and calories wasn't something that happened to people: it was the result of people. The lush, dense rainforest, so alien to Europeans hacking through it with machetes, was not actually a tabula rasa, any more than the American northwest. It was, instead, the result of an independent invention of agriculture – and an agriculture quite unlike any other in the world.

Agriculture has been invented multiple times. The domestication of wheat in the Fertile Crescent, the Mesopotamian heartland of Eurasian civilisation, is perhaps the most famous. But in Neolithic China, rice farming happened around the same time. In Central America, maize, corn and squash were harvested.

And, Mann writes, in the Amazon, trees themselves were turned to the will of man. But arboriculture is different from the agriculture seen in the rest of the world, which explains why it hid in plain sight. Trees grow too slowly for the planter to see the benefit. And even if they could be grown fast enough to pay off, you can't clear-cut a rainforest with stone tools. And even if you could clear-cut a rainforest with stone tools, they wouldn't grow from seed in the barren environment that results.

Instead, Neolithic arboriculture is a set of practices. Practices that evolve over time, and in the long run – over generations – result in an environment that is bountiful for all. "Don't use the fruit trees for firewood. Hack away the poisonous berries, but leave the others." It doesn't even look like agriculture, because if it's done right, it doesn't look like work. 

This isn't, obviously, a call to a primitivist lifestyle. There is no amount of plucking fruit off trees that can make up for the absence of healthcare, sanitation and leisure.

But I've been thinking about it as a way of organising my own thoughts about our world today, and my world in particular. I don't think we can clear-cut the habitat we live in and invent a better way of doing things. I'm not averse to people trying; maybe there is that invention, just around the corner, that's as momentous as planting wheat for the first time, and completely worth reorganising everything around.

In the meantime, though, the question to ask is the other one. What are the practices which will leave the world better than it is now? What are the aspects of our environment that we wish to encourage, compared to those we want to avoid? How can we ensure that the things we like become the norm by the time our grandchildren arrive?

Don't get firewood from the fruit-bearing trees. Strip the bark from the poisonous ones.