Book Summary: “Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels” by Ian Morris

Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels

Title: Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels: How Human Value Evolve
Author: Ian Morris
Scope: 5 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

Topic of Book

How values, society and energy capture interact throughout human history.

If you would like to learn more about energy and values in human history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

Key Take-aways

  • Human values are strongly affected by how we capture energy
  • Humanity has gone through three systems of energy capture:
    • Foraging
    • Farming
    • Fossil Fuels
  • Each system has very different beliefs on equality, violence and freedom

Other books by the same author:

Important Quotes from Book

 “When we look at the entire planet across the last twenty thousand years, I argue, we see three broadly successive systems of human values. Each is associated with a particular way of organizing society, and each form of organization is dictated by a particular way of capturing energy from the world around us.

“I will spend chapters 2 to 4 trying to demonstrate the reality of these three broadly successive systems of human values. I call the first of them “foraging values,” because it is associated with societies that support themselves primarily by gathering wild plants and hunting wild animals. Foragers tend to value equality over most kinds of hierarchy and are quite tolerant of violence. The second system I call “farming values,” because it is associated with societies that support themselves primarily off domesticated plants and animals. Farmers tend to value hierarchy over equality and are less tolerant of violence. The third system, which I call “fossil-fuel values,” is associated with societies that augment the energy of living plants and animals by tapping into the energy of fossilized plants that have turned into coal, gas, and oil. Fossil-fuel users tend to value equality of most kinds over hierarchy and to be very intolerant of violence.”

“My argument is also strongly materialist. The labels I use for my three stages give this away: I am convinced, like the eighteenth-century philosophical historians, that the sources of energy available to a society set the limits on what kinds of values can flourish. Foragers living off wild plants and animals find that only a rather narrow range of ways of organizing their societies works out well, and these forms of organization tend to reward particular kinds of values. Living off domesticated plants and animals pushes farmers toward different organizations and values, and people able to tap into the energy locked in fossil fuels find that still another kind of organization and value system works best for them. If I am right, we have to conclude that culture, religion, and moral philosophy play only rather small causal roles in the story of human values… “the bottom line is that while cultural traditions generate variations on the central themes, energy capture is the motor driving the big pattern.”


 “In almost all foraging societies, these practical constraints on wealth accumulation are reinforced by a strong sense that material hierarchy is morally wrong. In most societies, the value of sharing is drummed into children early on.”

 “The reason these values are so widely shared by foragers is that they are fairly direct consequences of the economic and social constraints created by foraging as a method of capturing energy. In tiny groups of highly mobile hunter-gatherers, creating and maintaining steep political, economic, or gender hierarchies is very difficult, as is managing relationships without occasional resort to violence.”


 “To flourish in a farming world, people need a house, fields, and flocks, not to mention wells, walls, and tools, and improvements such as weeding, watering, terracing, and removing stones. Inheriting property from older generations literally becomes a matter of life and death, and with so much at stake, peasant men want to be sure that they are the fathers of the children who will inherit their property… Peasant men tended to marry around the age of thirty, after they had come into their inheritance, while women generally married around fifteen, before they had had much time to stray.”

“The basic problem was that the low output per premodern farmhand meant that the marginal product of labor—that is, the gain to an employer from hiring an extra worker—was often too small to make wages attractive to people who had any alternative means of supporting themselves. Hence the appeal of the second great alternative to kinship as a method to mobilize more workers than the family could supply: forced labor. Using violence to depress the costs of labor to the point that its marginal product became positive for employers made slavery and serfdom the obvious answers to the labor market’s failures”

 “A sunnier side of the increasing division of labor, though, was the professionalization of intellectual life, which massively expanded the stock of knowledge… The key to their success was literacy”

“The increasingly elaborate division of labor in farming societies ultimately depended on one more kind of specialist: the masters of violence, who converted a comparative advantage in killing to control over politics.

“We might call the relationship that Kleinjogg championed the “Old Deal,” a social contract that dominated the agrarian world before the coming of the various New Deals of the industrial age. It was a simple idea: that nature and the gods required that some people should give commands while others obeyed them, and so long as everyone played their parts properly, all would be for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”

“Farming societies often seem obsessed with the symbolism of rank, subdividing themselves into legally defined orders and marking each with its own insignia.”

 “There were no feminists in Agraria, and precious few communists or anarchists either. Rather, most people recognized that hierarchy, and its endless degrees of rank, was the moral foundation of the good life.”

 “At their heart is the idea that hierarchy is good. Hierarchy reflects the natural/divine order, in which some were put on this earth to command, and most to obey. Violence is valued according to the same principle: when legitimate rulers demand it, it is a force for good; otherwise, it is not.”

Fossil Fuels

Fossil fuels changed the structure of markets, setting off feedback loops that swept away the old barriers to scale and integration.

It was a virtuous cycle: steam-powered transport drove the cost of traded goods down and down, making it possible for even more people to buy them, and high wages tempted more and more people to take factory jobs rather than staying home on the farm, producing an ever more complex division of labor and churning out even more goods.

“Forced labor had been indispensable to farming societies for thousands of years, but fossil fuels swept it away in less than a century; and no sooner had free wage labor triumphed than fossil fuels also began dissolving another ancient and indispensable blockage in farming societies’ labor markets, the gendered division of labor.”

 “The fossil-fuel twentieth century was ten times safer than the world of foragers, and two or three times safer than that of farmers.”

“The more that fossil-fuel societies have moved toward peace, democracy, open markets, gender equality, and equal treatment before the law, the more they have prospered. Consequently, over the astonishingly short period of two centuries, large parts of the world have moved far from Agraria toward Industria.”

“In less than ten generations, political, economic, and gender hierarchy have gone from seeming entirely natural and just to being—to varying degrees—bad. ”


“I have argued that rising energy capture—itself an almost-inevitable cultural adaptation to changing environments and the growing stock of knowledge—has exerted selective pressures favoring different kinds of social organizations. Consequently, as people shifted from foraging to farming, they found that Agraria was a better survival machine than a tiny band, and as they shifted from farming to fossil fuels, they found that Industria was a better survival machine than Agraria. And just as rising energy capture exerted selective pressures on the evolution of social organization, so too did the evolution of social organization exert selective pressures on the interpretation of the core, biologically evolved human values.”

“My two assumptions are:

1.There are several core values that nearly all humans care about deeply. There is room for debate over what belongs on the list, but fairness, justice, love, hate, respect, loyalty, preventing harm, and a sense that some things are sacred seem to be strong candidates.

2.These core values are biologically evolved adaptations.”

 “Foraging presented humans with problems that were best solved through shallow hierarchies and abundant violence, which shifted power toward coalitions of losers. Farming created a whole new set of problems, to which hierarchy provided the winning solutions, undermining coalitions of losers.”

 “Biologically evolved core values never existed in a vacuum: they evolved among actual humans who survived by foraging, and therefore interpreted justice, love, and so on, in the ways that worked best when capturing energy from wild plants and animals and competing with other humans who were doing the same thing. Trying to imagine people who are somehow divorced from the demands of capturing energy and then speculating about what their moral values would be is an odd activity.”

  1. “Energy and Civilization: A History” by Vaclav Smil
  2. “Energy Transitions” by Vaclav Smil
  3. “A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations” by Robert Bryce
  4. “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil…” by Daniel Yergin
  5. “Prime Movers of Globalization: The History of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines” by Vaclav Smil
  6. “Power to the People: Energy in Europe over the Last Five Centuries” by Kander et al

If you would like to learn more about energy and values in human history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

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