Energy in Nature and Society
Vaclav Smil, MIT Press, 2008
The most important difference between commercial agriculture, with its assured food surpluses, and vulnerable peasant farming, is not surprisingly, in their divergent energy conservation strategies. As Seavoy (1986) argued, this difference is perhaps best elucidated by posing a seldom asked question: Why do peasant societies increase their populations to the maximum carrying capacity during normal crop years and expose themselves periodically to seasonal hunger of famine during consecutive harvest failures? Moreover, why has this happened even in societies with low population densities, high soil fertilities, and fairly elaborate farming techniques? Despite enormous cultural differences, traditional peasant societies shared a strong preference for subsistence compromise, in which minimum levels of material welfare and food safety were acquired with the least expenditure of physical labor.
The predilection is confirmed by the persistence of shifting agriculture [I take it he means what we would call "slash and burn"] and by the reluctance to expand permanently and adopt more intensive cultivation. As already mentioned, shifting cultivations, with its absence of tillage, fertilization, and animals, requires relatively low and largely non-specialized energy inputs, and it has been a preferred way of food production in all thinly populated forest regions. There it included even those populations that had long contacts with settled farmers...
Little House on the Prairie was a polemic peace and should not be a basis for our ideas on pre-industrial farming.The villages of Carolingian Europe [~early middle ages] were overpopulated, and their grain supplies were constantly insufficient, but except in parts of Germany and Flanders few efforts were made to create new fields beyond the most easily cultivable soils. Later European history is replete with waves of German migrants from densely populated western regions opening up farmlands in areas considered inferior by local peasants (Bohemia, Poland, Russia) and setting the stage for violent nationalist conflicts for centuries to come. A similar reluctance can be seen in Asia... (p 166-167).