We Are What We Eat
5 min read

We Are What We Eat

Or, more to Morris’s point, we are because how we manage to eat. Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels sets out an expansive history to build a simple model to explain wide ranging, cultural shifts or value system adoptions based on the three titular arrangements of a society. While there are a great many details, they are not quite so material to the history he is laying out: in the end, most societies get to the next (if we accept these so linearly and inevitably) eventually. His discussions of foraging, farming and fossil fuel societies moves chronologically and is centered around their means of producing food, primarily, and then production of other goods, all categorized by calories produced; this, in turn, literally provides the energy that allows societies to create culture, which have corresponding values based on the arrangement of the society that produced the calories. These values are the focal point of the work and how “values” are defined should almost be taken for granted: he is marrying thorough descriptions of material realities with statistical data and confronts the difficulty of accounting for these intangibles in the introduction; how could something so specific to individual cultures and societies be defined broadly across cultures across the world? In focusing on hierarchy/ power, gender and violence, Morris attempts to capture it all.

While this thorough accounting of the shared material realities of broad societies across broader time periods, restricted to caloric production and the institutions surrounding it, paints a convincing portrait of social development, the prevalence of Morris’s viewpoint as a member of a fossil fuel society and in the contemporary era raises some questions. Morris accepts that the claims he is setting out in his book are reductionist (9). This is where any consideration of his points has to begin: they are a model, a suggestion for a look at what has gone on in history and, more importantly to what Morris would like to say about humanity marching through time, how societies will inevitably shift their values again as caloric production continues to rise. However, it is this point of view from the future looking back that raises questions throughout the text, centered primarily on his view and treatment of violence: both defining it and leveraging it in his arguments.

Violence takes its most basic shape with the foragers, situated within Morris’s claim that “People are...afraid of violence, and will take steps to make its use unattractive,” but, well, what else are foragers to do? They have no hierarchy to mediate. Instead, the violence is direct and relatively common to to the small group dynamics of forager societies throughout both time and the world. Morris even compares the statistical prevalence of forager society murder to Detroit’s murder rate “at the peak of its crack cocaine epidemic” (42). The violence here is direct murder at worst and some kind of physical violence more commonly, a limited definition since, as Morris explains, it is often a last resort; is the ostracizing and exile not a violent act by a community? The archaeological data of ancient groups and the comparative ethnologic data of modern groups can only show so much, but this color of violence carries throughout Morris’s work: this becomes the definition of violence for his work (“fatalism,” Morris will quote later). The foragers would use the fatality of violence to right wrongs and some times this would be affected as a community whole. If this is the starting point, where could violence go in the shifting value structures of humanity writ large? As with the other values that Morris explores, the answer is usually with hierarchy and that is where the farmers place the stewardship of their violence.

The farming society is largely identified by the sedentary nature of communities and the normalized hierarchy that came from these communities to regulate the processes of the economy to maintain and further increase caloric production. With the stability of these communities, the societal values almost completely flip...save for violence, which sees a moderate shift away from acceptable to not so acceptable. This is a subtle break in the role of violence, how it looks and then how it is formulated in a culture’s value. The introduction of marketplaces in agrarian societies produced a new means of labor—that is, directly selling your labor—but, as Morris found, it was hardly worthwhile: “...entrepreneurs in farming societies... complained constantly about the difficulty of drawing reliable labor into the market solely through wages” (63). Instead, forced labor was used and violence was the means by which it was brought about. How could an agrarian society shift to approve of violence less when it was actually being enacted at a larger scale? Morris’s valuation of violence seems only to take into account violence that resulted in death, so it is not violence per se that farmers stopped approving of, but the loss of life...is this a farmer’s value or a marketplace’s value? None of this is to say that Morris misses the mark on violence in agrarian societies: “To accomplish these goals, rulers needed to convince their subjects that government alone had the right to use violence—...” (90). The role of violence is lifted out of the general public’s hands—no longer a community coming to agreement—and into the hands of the elite. Again, however, this violence is not so direct: a farmer does not face death, but merely labor that they have no choice but to enact. Is the cultural value regarding violence itself starting to shift or just how it looks? Is coercion seen as a violence? This is an important transition to the fossil fuel era, if only because violence is yet further sublimated and ill-defined.

The rush into fossil fuel societies is marked by the farmer being left out to die by the city and factory. Instead of households producing products, individuals sold their labor directly. “So eager were poor farmers for dirty, dangerous factory jobs that British employers only needed to increases wages by five percent...” (100). By threat of poverty and starvation people were led into wage labor. No longer forced! The state did not need to directly coerce the farmer into working: it had created the societal environment that let it use a violence of inaction. Morris does follow a form of this logic by discussing the wage becoming the symbol for the worker and the role of taxation within these fossil fuel societies. This is another subtle shading from agrarian values regarding violence to contemporary values: violence is no longer enacted upon a populace, but instead the absence of protection reproduces that violence the same. Morris discusses the Old Deal—the arrangement of order with an elite few guiding the masses—in agrarian societies protecting a hierarchy that we find unpleasant in the contemporary era, but then links forced labor and taxation in a discussion of that hierarchy: “Refusing to extract [taxes] from the rich, however, often seemed to mean extracting a different kind of forced labor...from the poor,...” (128). This is just the discussion of hierarchy and power in fossil fuel societies; on violence, it is only exceptional when it is enacted and not the means by which it is done.

In Morris’s direct discussion of violence, he has the statistical backing to comment on the reduction of violence and the role of war in particular as a tool of the state. The data and his argument show that contemporary society is becoming more pacifistic as time continues on, but I have to wonder about the violence seemingly inherent in the market: does this global decrease in violence account for the creation of conditions that force the labor of peoples outside of the global elite? Is the argument of violence no longer between individuals, but between the societies writ large? What role does globalism play as an economic force, especially in the shadow of colonialist forces?

Morris does not set out to answer these kinds of questions, which he made clear in his introduction. As a deep survey of modes of (food) production, he sets out a convincing argument for the structure of society determining—at least in part—the shape or configuration of a culture’s values. Even though these values are broadly defined, they do present a model, even one rife with exceptions as Morris acknowledges his is. However, taking it as a model could be a starting point in examining further the relationships within society; particularly those relationships within a hierarchy and between the poor and rich. Troubling a culture’s response to violence, how it is ignored or the specific cases in which it is glorified, would complicate the model, but it may also help to presage the next system of values society will adopt.


  • Morris, Ian. Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015.