Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The democratic and sacred nature of agriculture (Environment, Develop. and Sustainability, 27 Sept. 2011)

Abstract: “Sustainable” agriculture is a relative recent invention. It is a salvage operation designed to undo some of the harm of agribusiness, which nearly wiped out farming as a way of life. Sustainable agriculture tries to restore methods of farming and values that satisfy present needs for food without compromising the food for future generations. Sustainable farming, however, remains experimental and on the fringes of society and science. It includes all kinds of farming practiced by peasants, small-scale family farmers, organic farmers as well as large farmers. In what follows, I am showing, first, farming is or becomes sustainable when two things prevail: First, it is democratic, spread throughout the land in the form of family farming while the difference in size among farms is modest at best. Second, farming is sustainable when it draws its inspiration and methods not merely from the most advanced ecological science but from ancient agrarian cultures. I briefly highlight the case of ancient Greek farming as having the virtues of sustainability: that of equity and democracy. In our times, however, agribusiness and animal farming, fail the criteria of sustainability.
Keyworlds: democracy, industrialization, agribusiness, large farms, sustainability, sacred agriculture, organic farming, animal farms, nature
1. Introduction
The dust bowl of the 1930s is symbolic of the violence unleashed in rural America and the rest of the world by industrialized farming, mechanizing what used to be a way of life on the land into a factory for the extraction of profits. Industrialized agriculture found expression in large farms and agribusiness. Both of these forms of farming are incompatible with democracy. 
2. Discussion
Walter Goldschmidt, an anthropologist working for the US Department of Agriculture, USDA, brought to light in the early 1940s the deleterious political effects of large farms and agribusinesses. He documented the undoing or rural America by agribusiness: When, for instance, large farms / agribusiness surrounded a town, there was a precipitous decline in the quality of life; schools, churches, stores and culture would be left to fend for themselves. The town would attract transient people, shrinking and becoming a slum-like subsidiary of the large farms (Goldschmidt 1947, 1978).
USDA fired Goldschmidt and the country refused to take him seriously. The feeble attempts in the US Senate in the mid-1970s to put a break in the path of the agribusiness colossus did not go very far. USDA never ceased lavishing America’s large farmers with gold.
In 1983, another researcher, Dean MacCannell, professor of rural sociology at the University of California-Davis, issued a severe warning that repeated and complemented the findings and warning of Walter Goldschmidt: Size of farms matters in agriculture. Large farms destroy rural America. MacCannell said agribusiness policies “cut against the grain of traditional American values.” His studies showed that giant farmers were becoming America’s “neo-feudal” lords who, with government assistance, were converting rural America into a Third World of poverty, injustice, exploitation and oppression. When large farms are in or near small farm communities, he says, they ruin the rural communities, sucking all life out of them: “In the place of towns which could accurately be characterized as providing their residents with clean and healthy environment, a great deal of social equality and local autonomy,” he explains, “we find agricultural pollution, labor practices that lead to increasing social inequality, restricted opportunity to obtain land and start new enterprise, and the suppression of the development of local middle class and the business and services demanded by such a class” (MacCannell 1983).
In 1990, Linda Lobao of Ohio State University published the results of her sociological study on the effects of industrialized farming on rural communities. Her data came from 3,000 US counties. In 2006, Curtis Stofferahn of the University of North Dakota updated the work of Lobao. In summarizing the findings from 50 years of social science research, he reached the following conclusions: Industrialized agriculture “disrupts the social fabric of communities… poses environmental threats where livestock production is concentrated; and is likely to create a new pattern of ‘haves and have nots’” (Stofferahn 2006).
The middle class has always been the heart of democracy. The most lasting of the effects of the industrialization of farming include the decline of democracy, poisoned water and food, high rates of debilitating disease and death from poisoning, monstrous malformations of the newborn, higher rates of cancer in both farmers, other rural residents, and wildlife, the drastic decline of the small white family farmers and the near disappearance of the black family farmers whose numbers dropped from 925,710 in 1920 to less than 18,000 in the year 2000. This was a catastrophic decline of 98 percent (Vallianatos 2006, pp. 197-212).
USDA undermined black farmers in America. It also diminished the lives of the small white family farmers, never ceasing telling them to get big or get out. Its advice was wrong most of the times. Its science was mostly a technology of production, which it gold-plated with lavish subsidies, research, and policies designed to benefit the large farmers. Sowing pro-agribusiness seeds in rural America did bring forth the desired harvest – a few thousand giant companies and large farmers producing so much that, even with subsidies for the medium and small farmers, they sell their grains and food at prices that fail to match their costs of production. One by one, family farmers “go out of business,” leaving behind them an empty and devastated rural America.
A positive development in American agriculture is the expanding frontier of organic farming, America’s contribution to sustainable agriculture. Organic or biological farmers raise food by blending traditional knowledge and ecological wisdom (Vallianatos 2006). Organic food production has been growing by at least 20 percent per year. Sales of organic products, including non-food, earned $ 1 billion in 1990 and about $ 24.6 billion in 2008 (Laux 2009). 
Conventional farmers either disappear or blend into the complex of agribusiness. Some of the surviving small family farmers make it as “hobby” farmers. Others have no option but becoming the modern equivalent of Medieval serfs, earning about $ 10,000 per year. Researchers politely describe them as “contract” workers, laboring for a handful of agribusiness companies. Several of those companies are meat factories that produce bacon burgers and chicken nuggets while, at the same time, they are “among the nation’s largest polluters” (Silverstein 1999).
Carl Buckingham Koford, an American ecologist decried, in 1958, the barbaric habit of ranchers, farmers, and government agencies of using sodium fluoroacetate, a chemical known largely by a number, 1080, to exterminate wildlife, especially beneficial rodents. “Aside from killing prairie dogs,” Koford says, “continuous distribution of compound 1080 has had other effects on animal communities. The chemical is extremely toxic and kills other grain-eating mammals, such as cottontails. The poison is stable, even in animal tissue, so that carnivores which feed on poisoned rodents are often killed. Coyotes (Canis latrans) have nearly disappeared from the plains because of secondary poisoning. In addition, application of poison brings about a cataclysmic alteration in the relative populations of different mammals, followed by various coactions between species and changes in their effects on plants and soils” (Koford 1960, p.340).
Spreading poison in dog towns was annihilation to more than the dogs that ate the poison. Just like rural towns fall apart when their family farmers go under, so does the community of wild animals around a prairie dog town go to pieces when prairie dogs get into trouble. Koford’s affection for prairie dogs was the affection of a biologist who understood nature. Rodents, he said, were a beneficial species to man. They improved the soil and checked unwanted plants and shrubs. They were food to other animals, and enlivened the scenery. What more could we expect of any animal?
In addition, is it not wrong to destroy millions of small family farmers in America and Europe, and take the land away from countless millions of peasants in the Third World? And what about the slaughter and extinction of wildlife following the massive machinery and toxins of this mechanical agriculture? Rachel Carson, a biologist, denounced the massive poisonous sprays used with complete abandon in the United States. In fact, Carson was convinced toxic sprays threatened the natural world; hence she spoke about the coming of “silent spring” (Carson 1962; Shepard and McKinley 1969). Moreover, these sprays are probably responsible for many of the cancers killing millions of humans (Sherman 2000; Epstein 2005; Davis 2007). Philip Shabecoff, former reporter for the New York Times, accused the chemical industry for a “toxic assault” on America’s children (Shabecoff 2008).
In addition, farms and plantations appropriate most of the world’s freshwaters (McCully 1996; Lohan 2008). The international peasant and family farmer civil society organization, Via Campesina, says that it is this giant agriculture that is pushing family farmers and peasants throughout the world to the brink of “irredeemable extinction” (Via Campesina 1996).
We need to globalize the peasants’ hopes and stop the war against them. Our conflict is with those who clear the forest and “produce” cash crops. They are incapable or unwilling to understand that the roots of African hunger lie deep in the structure of the most persistent of colonial institutions in the continent—the export out of sub-Saharan Africa of plantation agricultural cash crops to the markets of Europe and North America. Such agricultural exports are bad for democracy and the land, concentrating political power in a few hands and impoverishing Africa’s traditional food and agricultural economy. Scrapping that colonial model of development—cash cropping -- for a healthier and stronger peasant economy is bound to invigorate both democracy and the raising of food for local consumption (Vallianatos 2001).
A stronger peasant society is also a precondition for population control. Doubling the number of people every 25 years or so in the fashion of African countries is catastrophic to everything the peasants want: food, shelter, and security. A peasant-driven development strategy is certain to heal both the wretchedness of over-population and restore Africa to her values—give the best land of Africa back to the peasant and bring into the field and the village the fabulous biological and cultural diversity and wisdom of traditional farming.
This did not happen because the powerful of the world, America and the Soviet Union / Russia, used Africa to test their theories for global hegemony. They also “domesticated” nature by breaking it apart. The Soviet Union destroyed the Aral Sea in the 1950s for the production of irrigated cotton—in one of the most dramatic and violent ecological crimes of the twentieth century. The United States ploughed up its Great Plains for the industrial production of cattle, wheat, and corn. The result of sodbusting the fragile prairies was biological warfare against millions of buffaloes and genocide against the Native American people who relied on the buffalo for their survival and culture (Stannard 1992). Moreover, farming the semiarid Great Plains brought that vast region on the verge of a cataclysm, massive dust bowls in the 1930s, the 1950s and 1970s threatening to swallow farms, machinery, crops, and people (Worster 1979).
Yet the United States failed to do more than cosmetic changes in the political economy of the prairies or the policies of the country in addressing the root cause of the dust storms and desertification in the Great Plains, namely industrial ranching and one-crop factory farming in particular. In addition, the plantations of America’s Great Plains are using the ground water of the great Ogallala aquifer with abandon. The United Nations Environment Programme says that America’s Great Plains are going through “another form of desertification - groundwater depletion” (Middleton and Thomas 1997, p. 154).
It’s the same cruel plantation politics all over the vast southwestern region of the United States. Agribusiness and large farmers in California and Arizona pump groundwater 10 or more times the rate nature recharges aquifers. The Colorado River—a water highway 1,400 miles long starting from the Colorado Mountains and ending in Mexico and the Sea of Cortez—is without doubt the lifeblood of the arid southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico. It brings water to about 30 million people and irrigates more than 3.7 million acres of agricultural land in both the United States and Mexico. Yet this life-giving river has to contend with an exceedingly brutal shackling of its nature and waters—no less than 29 dams capture its might and every drop of its water, which rarely reaches the Sea of Cortez (Reisner 1990).
The same people who drink the entire Colorado River, particularly the practitioners of giant agriculture in arid southwestern United States, convert forested wetlands and uplands to pine forests, cotton plantations, or other cash crop farms. Such conversion of nature from ecosystems to industrial systems wipes out biodiversity and kills wildlife on both land and water. New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma, for example, destroy 30,000 acres of wetlands and uplands every year for pine plantations alone. Huge amounts of poisons are used for the maintenance of those plantations (US EPA 1996; Dugan 1993; Wallace 1987).
It’s the globalization of this model of agricultural plantation of power, camouflaged under the image of science, which threatens the world’s ecology and cultures. Millions of farmers / peasants throughout the world are repeating the experience of the industrialized or “green revolution” farmers with the result of increasing violence and agrarian wars, landlessness, and hunger (Vallianatos 1976). In addition, countless millions of acres of good land have been made into desert. The more land goes to agribusiness production or cash cropping, the more acute pressures are exerted against poor people trying to survive. Landless peasants—like those of Mexico, India or Africa—do cut down forests, and in other desperate ways, degrade the land that gives them life (Jordan 2001).
               Fortunately, alternatives to the anti-democratic farming exist both in the United States and in every other society in the world. These alternatives included in the tent of sustainable agriculture -- biodynamic agriculture, organic farming, community-supported agriculture, biological agriculture, peasant or ecological farming – are forms of applied biology that have nature as their primary model. They are desired biological pathways to family agriculture (Hodges 1982), which has the potential to heal some of the wounds of industrial agriculture (Horrigan, Lawrence and Walker 2002). All these methods of raising food—and the indigenous people, peasants, and small family farmers who practice them—share a respect for the land and the people who eat what they raise on that land. This means they follow ancient traditions of agrarian knowledge and practice, and some even merge that heritage with the latest in agroecological thinking about agriculture (Altieri 1995).
3. Ancient Greek democratic and sacred farming
Borrowing knowledge from our ancient traditions appeals to me because I am the son of Greek culture that formed the foundations of Western civilization. In addition, I grew up in a self-reliant peasant family. We raised all of our food: wheat, barley, lentils, olive oil, wine. We also had small flocks of sheep and goat.
My ancient Greek ancestors farmed the same land my father raised our food. They worked hard. They raised food knowing fully well that they depended on the gods for their success. The Greek farmer also watched carefully the seasons, the risings and settings of the stars and the phases of the moon, all of them vital for farming. Besides, the stars and the moon and the sun were gods.
Peasant farmers, not philosophers, invented democracy. Greek thinkers like Platon (c.427-347 BCE) and Aristoteles (384-322 BCE) had no doubt agriculture was at the center of Greek life. They also knew that land made Greek history, being the most important factor for the expansion of Greece outside of Greece. And inside poleis the equitable distribution of land determined the success or failure of state and society.
For example, in the sixth century BCE, Athenian farmers owning excessive amounts of land enslaved farmers who owned very little amounts of land because the small farmers could not pay back their loans. Such harsh treatment brought Athens on the verge of civil war. But rather than fight battles, Athenians decided to give their government to Solon, a former archon (chief political leader) and man of integrity and trust. They asked him to end the deadlock in the countryside. Solon forgave all private and public debts and forbade Athenians to ever enslave a fellow citizen on account of debt. He stopped the export of food except for olive oil. But Solon went further than bringing some security and peace in the countryside. He encouraged fathers to teach their sons a trade and made it easier for skilled craftsmen to settle in Athens and the Athenian countryside, Attike. According to Aristoteles, Solon secured democracy in Athens by giving supreme power to the courts. In addition, he gave sovereignty to the people to elect officials and to have oversight over their activities. Officials came from the ranks of men of property (Aristoteles, Politics 1273b35 – 127411-21; Ploutarchos, Solon 24.1-2).
Greeks controlled farm size, realizing how important relative equity was for the health of their democracy and society. Platon did not think it fair for any farmer to own a piece of land that was more than four times the average-sized farm (Platon, The Laws 744), which was, in most instances, about five acres or less. Some poleis ignored land equity, risking peace at home and trouble with their neighbors. Aristoteles reports the Spartans esteemed wealth. Land in Sparta was in the hands of the few, indeed, Spartan women, who indulged in all kinds of luxury, owned two-fifths of all the private land (Aristoteles, Politics 1269b12-1270a11-33). Greek states, including Sparta, did not allow the privatization of all land. Enough of the land belonged to the state for the support of the religious festivals, the sacrificial meals and the funding of the temples honoring the gods. In most instances, the Greeks enjoyed the fruits of their farming together (Burford 1993, p. 25).
Next the gods were in the crops and fields of the Greeks. Demeter, sister of Zeus, the supreme of the Greek gods, was the goddess of wheat. She and her daughter, Persephone, the goddess of the spring, sent a young prince, Triptolemos, around the world teaching people the art of agriculture. Athena, daughter of Zeus, gave the Athenians the olive tree. Dionysos, son of Zeus, brought to Greece the grape vine and wine. Pan protected the flocks of sheep, goat, pigs and cattle and Artemis protected the entire natural world. Zeus was the god of thunder and rain. The Eleusinian mysteries was the Greeks’ greatest religious festival. It took place during the sowing of the crops so that the honored gods, Demeter and Dionysos, would bless those crops for good harvest.   
4. Ecological wisdom in peasant farming
Just like the Greeks, indigenous people and peasants have detailed knowledge of nature. Their religion, just like the religion of ancient Greeks, is a spiritual form of farming – pleading to the gods to bring them a good harvest. Their celebrations, their fiestas, are prayers of enjoyment to their gods for their ancestors, animals, crops, harvest, the dead and the living. Indigenous people in the Philippines consider the land a gift of the gods. And land in the savannah grasslands of the Upper East region of Ghana is a sanctuary for the gods. The Dai people of southwest China protect and preserve sacred groves where they worship their gods – exactly like the ancient Greeks. The Dayak Pasir Adang people live in East Borneo, Indonesia, and practice sacred farming. If their reading of nature is auspicious, they use fire for clearing the land in order to plan their crops. They don’t destroy or burn fruit-bearing trees or ground that has the graves of their ancestors. They sow seeds of spinach, bitter brassica, corn, and cucumber. But the most sacred of seeds and agrarian traditions of the Dayak Pasir Adang people are rice seeds and their cultivation. They place the first rice seeds in holes, each with a special name – father, mother, captain, and guardian. The community sows and harvests the rice. At harvest time, men, women, and children work together. They sing and pray to the gods. The unhusked rice grains that will become the seed for the next growing season are cleaned first, and, then, the rest of the rice grains are trampled and dried in the sun for two to three days. Finally, the rice is thrown in the air, its chaff and impurities blown away. In the same tradition of sacred farming, the Mende rice peasants of southern and eastern Sierra Leone use rice varieties best adapted to the ecological conditions of their land and region. And since rice is a self-pollinating crop, the Mende peasants do the shifting and choosing of rice seeds coming their way, in the rice fields, and next door in nature. They revere their ancestors for the rice bounty they left them. But they no more feel they own the rice varieties they developed than they own the breeze. Yet they are experts in combining and selecting seeds for their way of life, which is sacred agriculture. “Maybe,” says Paul Richards, a British scholar on African traditional farming, “it makes more sense to concentrate on enriching the gene pool, leaving local talent to do the rest. Forget the Green Revolution. Treat local myths seriously. Charter a plane and scatter duplicates of the international rice gene bank collections to the four winds” (Richards 1999).
Paul Richards is right. The Mende peasants are the real experts and best guardians of rice genetic diversity. The Dai’s sacred groves or Holy Hills or Nong are rich in agricultural biodiversity. The Dai peasants, and peasants in the rest of the world, use a tremendous variety of plants for food, fiber, and medicine.
The ethnobotanical knowledge of several indigenous people is remarkable. The Tzeltals and the Purepechas of Mexico recognize more than 1,200 and 900 plants respectively. It was from that careful study and understanding of the workings of nature that traditional farming came into being. Crop mixtures with animals, crops grown with trees near or within a forest, make up a traditional farming system. Mixing plants and animals is good farming because, together, they fertilize the land and keep pests under control. Crop mixtures attract insect predators and parasites that keep hostile insects and weeds in check. In addition, the traditional seeds of the peasant have a greater resistance to disease. Farm animals (hogs, chicken, cattle) give the peasant milk, meat, and draft power while they eat weeds and crop residues recycling them into protein and manure for the land.
The Chiapas peasants, who are fighting for survival, raise two tons of maize per hectare while the industrialized farmer next door produces six tons of maize per hectare. For this reason, the agricultural experts call the peasants backward and insist they leave the land or adopt the methods of the mechanical plantation. Yet the industrialized farmer gets nothing more from his land but the six tons of corn, though in the United States, the industrialized farmer gets more than 9 tons of corn per hectare per year. The Chiapas peasant, however, grows not merely maize but, along with maize, he raises beans, squash and pumpkins, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and other vegetables and fruits and medicinal herbs. Some of his food the peasant sells for cash and the rest is for his family, chicken, and cattle. The Chiapas peasant “easily produces more than fifteen tons of food per hectare and all without commercial fertilizers or pesticides and no assistance from banks or governments or transnational corporations" (Lutzenberger 1998).        
The harvest of such a sowing of traditional knowledge and practice is predictably good for civil society organizations that work with peasant or small family farmer communities, sometimes reviving and protecting their culture. Civil society organizations also make it possible for some small farmers to move away from the one-crop chemical and mechanical model of raising food. They help them return to their own agrarian traditions of planting a variety of crops at the same time, rotating forage and food crops, forest and fruit trees, rebuilding their terraces, using cover crops to smother weeds and fertilize their hillside plots, planting trees.
In Peru, a pre-Columbian high-altitude farming method of raised fields (waru-waru) in the midst of water ditches was responsible for bumper crops of potatoes, quinoa, amaranth and oca (wood sorrel), better diet, better incomes, and healthier and more resilient land (National Research Council 1989). This waru-waru farming system of the Andes – with its canals for water, terraces, and raised fields – is a very productive and sophisticated method of growing food in a harsh environment. The water in the canals slowly percolates to the raised fields. That way it moderates the temperature of the land and prevents the frost from hurting the growing crops. The peasants use the silt, sediment, and organic residues in the ditches to fertilize their vegetables or crops.
Raised-bed farming was a widespread agricultural practice not merely in Peru but throughout pre-Columbian Central and South America. In Mexico, raised-bed farming or chinampas had probably been invented by the Mayas and passed on to the Aztecs. When on November 8, 1519, Herman Cortes and his Spanish conquistadors entered Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), the metropolis of the Aztec empire with a population of 200,000 to 300,000 people, they came in contact with an advanced and rich indigenous culture that sustained itself from the food grown on the chinampas. One of Cortes’ soldiers, Bernal Diaz del Castillo, left us an account of the Spaniards’ destruction of the Mexican Aztec Empire of Montezuma. Despite his contempt for the Aztecs so he could justify their murder, Bernal Diaz was impressed by the Aztecs’ cities, their running water, paved streets, temples, large markets, clothing, organization, gold, silver, abundant wealth. Diaz saw the chinampas lining the waterways of Tenochtitlan and he thought he was dreaming. He assigned those gardens to emperor Montezuma; they were so beautiful, what “with their many varieties of flowers and sweet-scented trees planted in order, and their ponds and tanks of fresh water into which a stream flowed at one end and out of which it flowed at the other, and the baths he had there, and the variety of small birds that nested in the branches, and the medicinal and useful herbs that grew there. His gardens were a wonderful sight, and required many gardeners to take care of them. Everything was built of stone and plastered; baths and walks and closets and rooms like summerhouses where they danced and sang. There was so much to see in these gardens, as everywhere else, that we could not tire of contemplating his great riches and the large number of skilled Indians employed in the many crafts they practiced” (Diaz 1975, p. 231).
The chinampas, exactly like the waru-waru of Peru, were agricultural islands within lakes and marshes encircled by shallow water and dense vegetation. These raised beds produced maize, beans, chilies, tomatoes and fruits in abundance. They were very productive, allowing continuous cultivation. They were round year gardens. The chinampas also were an ideal environment for fish and wildfowl and forage for animals. But the Spanish vented their hatred, jealousy and Christianity and buried both the chinampas and Aztec Mexico. In one blow the Spanish conquistadors destroyed Mexico’s prosperous and sacred agriculture (the chinampas and terrace cultivation) and Mexican culture (Redclift 1987). On their ruins they built the hacienda or large farm and manned it with the slave labor of the surviving indigenous people. Industrialized agriculture was the harvest of hacienda.   
When in November 1998 Hurricane Mitch devastated Honduras and northern Nicaragua, the only region of Honduras that escaped the fury of nature was around the village of Guarita close to the El Salvador border primarily because the Lenca peasants of Guarita never changed their farming way of life. The massive rain and wind of the violent storm barely touched their land since that land is solidly anchored on the hills with the roots of ancient wisdom and traditional agricultural practices. The Lenca peasants don’t slash-and-burn their hillside farms. And neither do they go for the cash cropping methods of farming taught at the colleges of Honduras in an effort to speed up the country’s modernization. Instead, they plant their crops under trees, and build terraces to prevent erosion of the land. They also avoid ploughing but use their traditional pointed stick for sowing (Gunson 1998). In the same manner, in fighting against another deadly erosion, peasants have been waging struggles of resistance in defense of their culture, and struggles of liberation from all colonizers (Grove 1990). Thus it is almost part of their nature that they create and maintain crop genetic diversity. Their seeds are not the suicide seeds of genetic engineers. The seeds of peasants are their culture—ancient, rich in variety, resilient, tasty, aromatic, dependable for the next sowing and harvest of food. Says Jonathan King, professor of molecular biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “Peasant farmers [in Asia] are struggling to maintain control over the material basis of their livelihood, the agricultural crop plant on which they depend. They are also struggling to maintain control over their culture, as represented in the knowledge of producing and using rice” (King and Stabinsky 1999, p. 86).
5. Conclusions
The seeds of peasants are the backbone of plant breeding throughout the world. Some $ 200 to $ 350 million per year is needed to support gene banks for sharing, on a global basis, the peasants’ seeds. In Tehran, Iran, in August 2000, representatives of major plant breeders and biotech companies agreed to pay a portion of the annual costs for the global peasant seed bank. But in the November 12-17, 2000 international meeting in Neuchatel, Switzerland, the United States objected to the “tithing” of industry and the global negotiations for the support of the peasant seed bank collapsed. Europeans and representatives of Africa, Asia, and Latin America accused the United States for wrecking the world’s food security.  “Most diplomats, most people,” an Asian diplomat said, “don’t understand how dependent the world’s food supply is on the flow of plant genetic resources [from the seeds of peasants]. This is a tempest in our rice bowl – and that’s important!” (Ribeiro 2000). 
The seeds of the industrial farmer have their origins in the seeds of peasants. But because their genetic structure is perpetually redesigned to meet the needs of industrialized agriculture, they are poorly adapted to nature, thus they are genetically uniform, exotic species easily attacked by insects, weeds, and diseases. They require weapons for survival—synthetic poisons and fertilizers—not exactly a replacement for the eons-tested peasant seeds.
Moreover, non-industrialized family farmers and peasants practice not merely good husbandry but, just as importantly, they and their agriculture are expressions of agricultural, ecological, and biodiversity principles, social justice, democracy, and very small-scale farming on the land. In contrast to the ruthless treatment of both land and rural communities by industrialized farmers, peasants and small family farmers raise food in ways that enrich the land and create strong rural society. Peasants in particular are inseparable from seeds – agricultural genetic diversity. There is simply no alternative to healthy peasant communities. Seeds for food security survive and thrive only when peasants have been growing food for a very long time.     
Organic farmers in the United States are not peasants, much less indigenous people, but, to some degree, they do things like peasants and indigenous people. For instance, to a large extent, they don’t spray or use synthetic pesticides and fertilizers in growing their crops. They raise food in such a way that they maintain high levels of organic matter in the soil, which means their land is healthy, resisting erosion, capable of conserving nutrients, and absorbing and storing water. Organic farms also sequester much more carbon dioxide than conventional farms (Pimentel 2009). 
The significance of organic farming in the US is that it is a third party independent certification process that starts with land inspections and lab analysis for pesticides, chemicals and poisons in water, air, eggs, plants, soil, air, animals, milk, trees, anything, for a period of three years. This revolutionary process was first put into effect in the state of California with the Foods Act of 1990. This inspection process continues for a minimum of 3 years until the farm gets certification; the use of the restricted designation ‘organic’ is then granted by the State, and, since 2000, by the USDA after it became a federal law. After the 3 year period, unannounced spot inspections continue. This process is now in place in the fifty states with the 2000 Organic Foods Act. It is a model of emulation across the planet. It is as significant a step as flying an airplane that is certified and inspected vs. flying an aircraft that is not.
The other significance of organic farming in America is moral and political. For the most part, organic farmers work small pieces of land and grow food without poisons, earning a very good living. This neutralizes the lies of the plantation: that we would starve without pesticides. Organic farmers and non-industrialized farmers in general all over Europe and North America and, particularly, peasants in Latin America, Asia, and Africa represent a living counterrevolution to the factory food and power path of giant agriculture.
However, as we already suggested, organic farming earns about $ 25 billion a year. This money makes organic farming an attractive target for agribusiness. Big corporations are buying into organic farming big time, a clear and present danger that is becoming a threat. The same age-old ills of corporate greed and corruption, buyouts and takeovers, are stealing the moral and political gains of organic farming.  
Hugh Iltis, the American expert on agricultural biological diversity, said correctly we ought to pay peasants to continue to do what they do so well—protecting the natural evolution of food seeds without which agriculture would not exist (Iltis 1974). If, for instance, we could help the peasants of Africa get back to the cultivation of their enormous variety of crops—which exist in the periphery of the continent (National Research Council 1996)—it would be humanity’s greatest gift to the African people. Africans would have enough to eat, food security and food sovereignty would replace hunger, and the rest of us would know that those making the transition from cash cropping to sustainable farming could borrow seeds from Africa for expanding the narrow biological diversity of their agriculture.
Our organic farmers would be the means by which we could expand the frontiers of our biological diversity and variety of our foods, making the unambiguous connection between politics, health, farming and food possible; in addition, such understanding might help each one of us make the right moral choice. That way, industrialized agriculture may fade into oblivion. Only then America’s family farming has a chance to reclaim its territory and our moral, political, and economic support.
Finally, as I have suggested, agriculture was sacred to the Greeks. Xenophon, c.428-c.354 BCE, military man, historian and philosopher from Athens, put it like this: “The man who said that farming is the mother and nurse of the other arts spoke truly. When farming is successful, all the other arts prosper, but wherever the earth is forced to be barren, the other arts, both on earth and sea, are virtually extinguished” (Xenophon, Oeconomicus 5.20-24). Aristoteles, great Greek scientist and philosopher, considered nature and agriculture and all animals indispensable for human existence and culture (Aristoteles, Parts of Animals 645a). Like other virtues of Greek culture, Greek farming has the potential of inspiring those building sustainable agriculture. This ought to hit home especially in Greece that, like other modern countries, made the error of putting her food security in the agribusiness basket.
Animal factories, like the remaking of crops and animals by genetic engineering, represent the worst form of industrialized agriculture. They break with that tradition. They change the world of traditional agriculture and culture into a world of injustice and terror. It’s about time to dispense with such an error and return to democratic family farming, which is a cousin of the sacred peasant farming. That agrarian tradition draws from the core values of Greek and Western civilization.


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Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Shooting Non-targets

I spent twenty-five years working for America’s Environmental Protection Agency. I found myself in an inferno of corruption -- right in the belly of the government.

Corruption came to EPA directly from the industry and through the White House and Congress. But my experience at EPA had its pleasures as well. Those included learning from my constant readings, observations, and my discussions with some exceptional colleagues. Yet I lived through the daily uncertainty of survival in a bureaucracy increasingly becoming the other face of the “regulated” industry. I agonized in vain how to stop corruption and pollution. 

The EPA came into being in December 1970. Despite the war politics of the 1970s, EPA tried to live up to its mission: protecting human health and the natural world from factory and agricultural poisons, especially keeping water, air, and food relatively safe.

However, industry intervened and crippled the agency. For example, the owners of farm sprays have their fingerprints all over EPA.

Agricultural sprays are biocides, chemicals designed to kill all life. These poisons also contaminate our food, drinking water and air. In fact, they are so pervasive in the environment, that they poison mothers’ breast milk.

I observed EPA “regulating” these toxins. I concluded early on that the machinery of exterminating insects and wildlife with synthetic poisons is a concrete expression of ruthless economic and political power. It follows that the panoply of pesticide companies, science, scientists, government regulators and money serve only to legitimize that immoral power.

And since the result of “pest control” practices is impoverishing the natural world and is causing disease and death among humans, we are witnessing and tolerating violence in the management of agriculture, the chemical industry, government regulation, and politics.

I am not the first to connect pesticides to violence. As early as 1978, an outstanding professor of biology at the University of California-Berkeley, Robert van den Bosch, equated the pest control industry to “a pro-pesticide mafia.” In his book, “The Pesticide Conspiracy,” he says this pro-pesticide mafia “owns politicians, bureaucrats, researchers, county agents, administrators, and elements of the media, and it can break those who don’t conform.”

Van den Bosch was right. The global pest control industry makes quite a killing: more than $ 40 billion per year. Some of this money lubricates the politicians and academics; they, in turn, bring the government to their team.

The pesticides establishment (chemical manufacturers, pesticide merchants, large farmers, timber companies, academics and government regulators) labels the victims of pesticides “non-targets.”

The “non-target” costs of spraying lethal poisons in the environment are often high. In a cotton field, everything but the bugs feeding on cotton is non-target: that includes farmers, farm workers, children, birds, beneficial insects, other crops and wildlife.

David Coppage and Clayton Bushong, senior EPA ecologists, studied the ecological damage of pesticides in the United States. In their December 1983 draft report, “On the Value of Wild Biotic Resources of the United States Affected by Pesticides,” they calculated the harm of farm poisons to a limited number of land and water wild animals cost the people of this country more than 1.25 trillion dollars per year in lost recreational, commercial, personal food, and aesthetic values.

For example, in the 1950s and 1960s, spraying DDT to marshes and tidelands killed billions of fish and aquatic invertebrates, including fish eating birds. DDT-like sprays like dieldrin and heptachlor killed about 80 percent of songbirds, wiping out some game birds while decimating wild mammals. Just the runoff of cotton insecticides, said Coppage and Bushong, “caused staggering losses of fish.” It boggles the mind to think of so massive a “potential” loss we put up with yearly in complete indifference. 

This ecological damage is a consequence of a political culture that, increasingly, looks and sounds like organized crime.

Some of my EPA colleagues got as angry as I was. They were better diplomats than me, however.

For example, a few of them working out of Dallas, Texas, reported on the ecological and human impacts of policies in Region 6 – a huge area in South Central United States covering Texas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Arkansas. In their November 1990 “Region 6 Comparative Risk Project: Overview Report,” they reached these conclusions:

“All ecological threats are ultimately threats to human health. Man depends upon a predictable global ecology for air quality, water, food, shelter, and medicines…. Although humans are one species among thousands, they are the only species that can chemically and biologically alter the planet. Human activity has changed the course of evolution through agricultural and industrial technology; we must begin to understand that, ecologically, humans have a responsibility to preserve the earth’s life if but to protect human life. We have not demonstrated the knowledge, wisdom, or compassion to accept this role.”

These gems of courage and wisdom inspired me to speak out as well. Rather than being a “team player” and earn a high salary and awards, I took the road rarely taken. I paid a high price for that decision.

I kept saying the environmental conditions in America are deleterious to all life, including human life. EPA failed us but only because our politicians are in bed with the industry. The medicine for EPA’s failure is to demolish the corrupting power of the industry. Then let EPA scientists do their work.

We need a new EPA designed to be immune to political corruption.

Young American moms (and other young women all over the world) should never have to discover poisons in their breast milk. But they do. That alone is dangerous to the health of the mothers and newborn. Poisons in mothers’ milk are also so offensive to human dignity that young women -- and the rest of us -- ought to overthrow everything that makes their poisoning possible.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Antikythera Mechanism (from the magazine: Leonardo, Vol. 45, No 3, pp. 250-257, 2012)

Deciphering and Appeasing the Heavens: The History and Fate of an Ancient Greek Computer
Evaggelos Vallianatos

The Greeks incorporated cunning craftsman- ship, inventiveness and beauty in everything they made. Techne, the term they used to describe this, was the mother of their culture. Aristotle, who shaped the nature of Greek science and invented zoology, admired craftsmen for their useful devices and wisdom [1]. In fact, of all classes in a polis, he considered craftsmen the most essential. No polis could exist without mechanics practicing their arts and crafts. Of those arts and crafts, Aristotle said, some are “absolutely necessary,” while others enrich life [2]. This Greek mechanics gave birth to the Antikythera Mechanism, discussed below.
On around Easter Sunday 1900, Greek sponge divers discov- ered the remnants of an ancient ship in the waters of the Ae- gean island of Antikythera. The most precious artifact within this treasure trove was a small piece of metal with gears. Ar- chaeologists of the National Museum in Athens categorized it as an astrolabe [3].
The shipwreck probably happened in the mid-1st century BCE. The doomed Roman ship, sailing from Rhodes to Rome, carried looted Greek treasure: more than 100 bronze and marble statues, amphorae and coins. Some of the amphorae came from Rhodes. The silver coins originated in Pergamon, a Greek kingdom in northwestern Asia Minor, and the bronze coins were from Ephesos, a Greek polis about 100 miles south of Pergamon. The bronze coins, which dated from 70 to 60 BCE, helped to date the doomed Antikythera ship. One memo- rable statue, the Antikythera Youth, is a bronze masterpiece of a male nude from the 4th century BCE.
The mechanism, calcified and covered with seashells, was kept in a crate until May 1902, when an archaeologist, Spyri- don Stais, unpacked it and saw a Greek inscription on its sur- face. Others noticed perfectly cut triangular gear teeth.
In 1905, Konstantinos Rados, a naval historian, declared that the Antikythera device was too complex to be an astro- labe [4]. In 1907, the German philologist Albert Rehm sided
Evaggelos Vallianatos (historian, writer, environmentalist), 675 W. 10th Street, Claremont, CA 91711, U.S.A. E-mail: <evaggelosg@gmail.com>.
See <www.mitpressjournals.org/toc/leon/45/3> for supplemental files associated with this issue.
Article Frontispiece. Works of Archimedes, Basel, 1544. (Reproduced by permission of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.)
with Rados [5]. Rehm correctly suggested that the Antikythera clockwork resembled the Sphere of Archimedes, which Cicero de- scribed in the 1st century BCE. Archimedes was a mathemati- cian and engineer of the 3rd cen- tury BCE (Article Frontispiece).
n 1900, Greek sponge divers discovered an ancient Greek treasure in the waters of the Aegean island of Antikythera: a device with gears dubbed the Antikythera Mechanism. Scientists studied it for almost a century and eventually declared it the most advanced machine preserved from the ancient world. This device predicted solar and lunar eclipses and harmonized the Greeks’ sac- rifices to their gods with their Panhellenic games and agricul- ture. This geared computer from the 2nd century BCE is now
said to mirror the philosophy of Aristotle and the science of Archimedes. It was the product of an advanced Greek techno- logical infrastructure that early Christians destroyed.
© 2012 ISAST
LEONARDO, Vol. 45, No. 3, pp. 250–257, 2012 251
Cicero recounted that the plan- etarium of Archimedes repro- duced the movements of the sun and moon and the planets Venus, Mercury, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter. The same eclipse of the sun that happened on the globe of Archimedes would actually happen in the sky [6].
Rehm worked on the device for several years; he died prema- turely, however, and his work remained unpublished.
In the 1920s, a Greek admiral, J. Theophanides, opined that the ancient mechanism was a navigational device that could tell the position of certain planets [7].
The next important phase in the decipherment of the Antiky- thera Mechanism began with Derek de Solla Price, a British physicist and historian of science then teaching at Yale Univer- sity. In studying the papers of the Greek scientists and those of Rehm, Price came to the understanding that the Antikythera Mechanism was probably the most sophisticated technological artifact of the ancient Greeks and that it remained unrivaled for 1,500 years.
In 1971, Price asked the Greek nuclear physicist Charalam- bos Karakalos to X-ray the Antikythera fragments. In summer 1972, Karakalos took hundreds of radiographs of all large frag- ments. Price wanted to know how the gearwheels meshed with each other and how many teeth each wheel had. Only then could he figure out the purpose of the Greek machine. He eventually left us “Gears from the Greeks,” a masterful scientific record of his assessment of the Antikythera Mechanism [8].
Price took 16 years to master the intricacies of the device. He reported that the Antikythera Mechanism, dating from about 150 to 100 BCE, was “one of the most important pieces of evidence for the understanding of ancient Greek science and technology” [9]. He explained why: The complex gearing of the Antikythera Mechanism shows a more precise picture of the level of Greek “mechanical proficiency” than that indi- cated by the surviving textual evidence. This “singular artifact,” he said of the Antikythera Mechanism,
the oldest existing relic of scientific technology, and the only complicated mechanical device we have from antiq- uity, quite changes our ideas about the Greeks and makes visible a more contin- uous historical evolution of one of the most important main lines that lead to our civilization [10].
Price described the differential gear of the Antikythera Mechanism as the cornerstone of the computer’s technol- ogy. The differential gear enabled the Antikythera Mechanism to show the movements of the sun and the moon in “perfect consistency” with the phases of the moon. “It must surely rank,” Price said of the differential gear, “as one of the greatest basic mechanical inventions of all time” [11] (Fig. 1).
In fact, in keeping with the near disap- pearance of the Antikythera Mechanism’s technology in late antiquity, the differ- ential gear disappeared for more than a millennium and a half. Price shows that its reinvention eluded Leonardo da Vinci and that it reappeared in 1575 in a clock made by Eberhart Baldewin in Kassel, Germany. This gear and the clockwork culture that developed it advanced the technology of cotton manufacture in the 18th century. Eventually, the differential gear ended up in automobile designs in the late 19th century.
Price complained that the West now judges the Greeks from scraps of build- ing stones, statues, coins, ceramics and a few selected written sources. Yet, when it comes to the heart of their lives and culture, we have practically nothing from the Greek past. We do not have artifacts that show how they carried out agricul- ture, how they built the perfect Parthe- non, what kind of mechanical devices they employed in war, how they used metals or, in general, what the Greeks did in several fields of technology. As Price wrote:
Wheels from carriages and carts survive from deep antiquity, but there is abso- lutely nothing but the Antikythera frag- ments that looks anything like a fine gear wheel or small piece of mechanism. In- deed the evidence for scientific instru- ments and fine mechanical objects is so scant that it is often thought that the Greeks had none [12].
Price was correct, particularly on the value he put on the fragments of the Antikythera device. In this insight, he surpassed his critics and others who maintained that the Greeks had no technology to speak of. (In 1968, the best-selling Swiss writer Erich von Dan- iken in his book Chariots of the Gods advanced the fiction that important technologies in the ancient world were
Fig. 1. The Antikythera Mechanism: The largest gear, the Wheel of the Sun. (Photo © Xeno- phon Moussas)
252 Vallianatos, An Ancient Greek Computer
products of extraterrestrial astronauts or gods.)
This nonsense that the Greeks lacked technology fooled millions for a long time. Finally, in 2005, more than 20 years after Price’s death in 1983, a group of international scientists was formed to settle the controversy over the ancient device’s scientific significance and func- tions. Key members included a British mathematician and filmmaker, Tony Freeth; a British professor of astronomy, Mike Edmunds (University of Wales); and two Greek professors of astronomy, J. Seiradakis (University of Thessalonike) and Xenophon Moussas (University of Athens). Freeth, who brought to bear creativity and innovation, convinced two companies, X-Tek of England and Hewlett-Packard of the U.S.A., to volun- teer their imaging technologies for study of the Antikythera Mechanism.
In September and October 2005, tech- nicians used a 10-ton machine to take 3D photos and nonlinear computer tomog- raphies of the Antikythera Mechanism. They also exposed the 82 fragments of the 32 known gears of the computer to X-ray bombardment unprecedented in intensity and sophistication. From thousands of X-ray tomographs of the interior and exterior of the ancient ma-
chine, there emerged evidence of the machine’s architecture and engineer- ing, and even of a users’ manual (Fig. 2). Now it was possible to understand more clearly how the Antikythera computer was constructed.
The fragments bore inscriptions in ancient Greek. Moussas hired physicist Yanis Bitsakis to assist Agamemnon Tse- likas, director of the Center for History and Paleography, with the reading of those inscriptions from the computer tomographies. The Greek letters were very small; some were smaller than 2 mm. The first inscription Bitsakis and Tselikas translated was on the back of the Anti- kythera Mechanism. It read: “The spiral [!"#$#] divided into 235 sections.” This meant that one of the back dials was a spiral representing the 19-year Metonic moon and sun calendar of 235 months. Other back dials predicted the eclipses of the sun and the moon. Inscriptions on the front dials, on the other hand, con- cerned the days of the year; the zodiac ran clockwise around them. These in- scriptions allowed one to determine the date based on the rising and setting of constellations. Moreover, the front dials showed the movement and position of the sun, moon and the planets in the zo- diac. They also revealed the phases of the
Fig. 2. Part of the users’ manual. At center it reads, “So we know four,” and below this, “76 years,” “19 years,” representing the Callippic and Metonic lunisolar periods; “223” [months]; “divided”; and then “ecliptic months.” (Photo © Xenophon Moussas)
Greek philosopher and mathematician Hypatia. Around that time, Augustine, the most important church father of the Latin West, preached that all that a Christian needed was the Bible. In 484, Emperor Zeno defiled the Parthenon, plundering its chryselephantine statue of Athena by Pheidias, one of the foremost Greek sculptors of the 5th century BCE. In 529, Emperor Justinian shut down the Platonic Academy, which had been the greatest university of Greece for about 900 years. These barbaric acts were part and parcel of an extremely effective and sustained Christian attack against Greek culture [19].
The investigators of the Antikythera Mechanism all ignored the effect of Christian actions, which must have al- most obliterated Antikythera-like de- vices and other technology throughout the Greek world. Christian acts against pagan ideas explain the rarity of the An- tikythera computer. By means of terror and propaganda, followers of Christian- ity devalued Greek culture so much that the arts of civilization, including technol- ogy and science, fell into a precipitous decline. Also, as a matter of course, the Christians melted down or burned the bronze devices and statues of antiquity.
For example, in the mid-4th century, Firmicus Maternus, a Christian apologist, appealed to the brother emperors Con- stantius and Constans to “take away . . . the adornments of the temples. Let the fire of the mint or the blaze of the smelt- ers melt them down” [20]. Palladas, a Greek poet of the 5th century, witnessed a smith transforming a statue of Eros into “a frying-pan” [21]. In the early 5th century, the Christian historian Sokrates documented the Christians’ recasting of the Greek bronze statues of the Library (Serapeion) of Alexandria into “pots and other convenient utensils for the use of the Alexandrian church” [22].
The fires of the mint and the blazes of the smelters must have consumed Anti- kythera Mechanism–like devices. In the new Christian society, such devices would have lost all utility and meaning.
Despite such violence, not all Chris- tians hated the Greeks. The Nestorians, for example, became instrumental in the preservation of some Greek texts. They were branded heretics and fled to Persia, carrying with them Greek books. In the 8th century, the caliphs of Islam turned to the Nestorians for the translation of the Greeks’ scientific and philosophical works into Arabic. In addition, Greek Christians in medieval Greece copied and protected the key ancient Greek texts that have lasted to our time.
moon. Indeed, the entire device became a text (Fig. 3). The scientists reported the Antikythera device is “an extremely rare original document that gives us critical information about the astronomy and technology of its era” [13].
The celestial Antikythera device was alternatively like a laptop computer the size of a shoebox, which, according to the scientists, exhibited “longitudes of heav- enly bodies on the front dial, eclipse pre- dictions on the lower back display, and a calendrical cycle believed to be strictly in the use of astronomers on the upper back display” [14] (Fig. 4).
The scientists also concluded that the Antikythera Mechanism was in its time the most sophisticated technology in the Mediterranean and remained so for more than a millennium. They published their reports in the 30 November 2006 and 31 July 2008 issues of Nature. Like Price’s 1974 report, these two Nature ar- ticles are fundamental in the decipher- ment of the Antikythera Mechanism. They complement each other, with the 2006 and 2008 reports building on the technical detail of Price, who had also de- scribed the Antikythera Mechanism as a “singular artifact” and an “astronomical or calendrical calculator” that turned out to be “the most enigmatic, most com-
plicated piece of scientific machinery known from antiquity” [15].
Freeth et al. admired the ancient de- vice’s “great economy and ingenuity of design.” The Antikythera Mechanism, they concluded, “stands as a witness to the extraordinary technological poten- tial of ancient Greece, apparently lost within the Roman Empire” [16].
The truth is simpler. The Christians de- stroyed the technological achievements and potential of the Greeks. The technol- ogy of the Antikythera Mechanism was not merely lost; the Christians made it obsolete, that is, made it disappear. The Romans were brutal, but it was the Chris- tians, not the Romans of the pagan era, who removed the Greeks’ contributions from the landscape.
The apostles directed Christians, “Stay clear of all Greek books” [17]. The church fathers denounced the Greeks, accepting the utility of Greek logic only where Greek philosophy was made a handmaiden of Christian theology. In 391–392, Chris- tians burned the nearly intact Library of Alexandria [18], which possessed most of the books of the Greeks; the Christians brought the Olympics to an end in 393; they imported barbarians to smash the Greek temples in 396.
In 415, Christian monks killed the
Vallianatos, An Ancient Greek Computer 253
Fig. 3. From the letters of the manual, the archaeologist C. Kritzas estimated the mecha- nism’s date of construction to be between 150 and 100 BCE. (Photo © Xenophon Moussas)
the Antikythera Mechanism. Price would have agreed with this conclusion.
Thus, the considerable scientific and political value of such a small machine would argue for its widespread use and ownership. This suggests dozens of such computers all over the Greek world and more than one place manufacturing them. In contrast to the 14th-century Dondi astronomical clock, set upon a church tower, the Greek computer was not a plaything for the rich. It did not simply vanish.
In 1983, a Lebanese man sold to the Science Museum of London a sundial possibly constructed in Constantino- ple, in all probability around the early 6th century. This device had 4-toothed wheels and a ratchet carried on 2 small axles. One of the wheels had 59 teeth; this wheel measured the movement of the moon. Like ancient lunar calen- dars, this sundial represented a 30-day month followed by a 29-day month, the gearwheel turning a tooth a day. This sundial is the oldest surviving Greek clockwork device after the Antikythera device. To find anything resembling this technology, one has to look ahead to the 11th century, when al-Biruni, a Persian scientist, described a geared calendar mechanism.
Price was right that the Greek knowl- edge of gears was passed on to the Arabs, who made their own clockwork calendars. In addition, the construction of the Con- stantinople sundial showed that the in- strument, clearly descended from the Antikythera model, was not a luxury toy but an everyday calendar.
The Antikythera Mechanism also pro- vided the names and schedule of the Panhellenic games: OLYMPIA for the Olympics; NEMEA for the Nemean games; ISTHMIA for the Isthmian games at Korinthos; PYTHIA for the Pythian games at Delphi; and NAA for games in Dodona in Epiros. Since the Greeks did not need a computer to tell them the times of their Panhellenic games, which for more than a millennium were the most important political, social and re- ligious celebrations in their civilization, the Olympiad dial on the Antikythera device served another purpose.
Freeth et al., in their 2008 report, were right in saying, “It is perhaps not extravagant to see the Mechanism as a microcosm illustrating the temporal har- monization of human and divine order” [23] (Fig. 5). That is exactly the nature of
Fig. 4. The Wheel of the Sun seen from behind. (Photo © Xenophon Moussas)
254 Vallianatos, An Ancient Greek Computer
Fig. 5. Antikythera Mechanism fragment: The users’ manual with the Fig. 6. A lunar pointer, showing the position and speed of the moon Wheel of the Sun superimposed. (Photo © Xenophon Moussas) throughout the cycle of the zodiac. (Photo © Xenophon Moussas)
The Arabs copied the Greek geared machine and eventually passed it to Eu- ropeans in 13th-century al-Andalus (Mus- lim Spain). It then became the model for the sophisticated clockwork that under- pinned Europe’s scientific and techno- logical developments of the 17th century.
The Antikythera device was probably made in Rhodes or Korinthos or one of the daughter-poleis of Korinthos: Kerkyra, Sicily or, most likely, Syracuse.
Rhodes and Syracuse are the most at- tractive possibilities for the birthplace of Antikythera Mechanism–like devices. It is likely that the Greek computer came from both areas. Ancient Rhodes was a center of Greek science and culture. Here, a pleiad of famous scientists and philosophers lived and flourished. In- deed, the work of these people was one of the reasons Rhodes became one of the earliest and most important cultural centers of ancient Greece. According to the Greek physicist Antonios Pinotsis, the first meteorological observations neces-
sary for Greek calendars took place in Rhodes [24].
Hipparchos, the greatest Greek as- tronomer, had his laboratory in Rhodes from 140 to 120 BCE. He, more than other Greek astronomers, made use of the data of Babylonian astronomers. However, like the rest of the Greek as- tronomers, he employed geometry in the study and understanding of astro- nomical phenomena. He invented plane trigonometry and made astronomy the predictive mathematical science it is to- day. He computed eclipses. In addition, he discovered the precession of the equi- noxes—that is, he proved that the fixed stars are very slow movers that appear to be stationary [25]. He left a list with all his astronomical observations, including the observations he borrowed from the Babylonian and Greek astronomers. His only surviving book is a commentary on the works of Eudoxos and Aratos. Most of what we know of Hipparchos comes from the Almagest of Ptolemy, a great as- tronomer of the 2nd century of our era.
The connection of Hipparchos to the Antikythera Mechanism is in the front bronze plate of the device, where point-
ers displayed the positions and speed of the sun and the moon throughout the cycle of the zodiac. According to the July 2008 Nature report, that technology mir- rored work by Hipparchos [26].
Hipparchos knew the moon moved around the earth at varying speeds. When the moon is close to the earth, it moves faster, and it slows down when it is far- ther from the earth. This is because the moon’s orbit is elliptical, not the perfect circular movement the Greeks associated with the stars. Hipparchos resolved this difficulty with his epicyclic lunar theory, which superimposed one circular motion of the moon onto another, the second movement having a different center.
Those who made the Antikythera Mechanism modeled these ideas of Hip- parchos, setting one gearwheel sitting on top of another but located on a differ- ent axis. A pin-and-slot mechanism then accounts for the non-circular or ellipti- cal orbit of the moon. A pin originating from the bottom wheel enters the slot of the wheel above it. When the bottom wheel turns, it also drives the top gear- wheel around. However, the wheels have different centers, and therefore, the pin
Vallianatos, An Ancient Greek Computer 255
Fig. 7. Gears of the computer, showing their intricacy and the complexity of the machine. (Photo © Xenophon Moussas)
According to Geminos, the ancient Greeks reckoned the days and months by the moon and the year by the sun. One revolution of the earth on its axis equals a day. The Greeks and other an- cient people had determined that the year had 365 days. However, the dura- tion of the earth’s spinning on her axis 365 times is not exactly the time it takes the earth to circle around the sun, which is 1 year or 365.242199 days. The same kind of rotational deviation governs the month, which turns out to be 29.53059 days. Nevertheless, time-reckoning by the Greeks was not far off the mark.
The crescent moon was seen at the be- ginning of a month. The time between one crescent and another was never more than 30 days and never less than 29 days. The solar year was vital for marking time, telling the Greeks when to sow and when to harvest; and the moon’s cycles, averag- ing 291⁄2 days, reminded the Greeks to join farming to civic life. According to Geminos, the astronomical calculation of the month and the year helped the Greeks to follow the tradition of their ancestors in sacrificing to the gods, al- lowing “the same sacrifices to the gods to be performed at the same times of the year” [30].
All the cycles in the heavens, especially those of the sun and the moon, were captured in the Antikythera Mechanism, as the lunar pointer shows (Fig. 6). The Greeks used their mathematics, espe- cially geometry, to simulate astronomical
slides back and forth in the slot, which enables the speed of the top wheel to vary while that of the bottom wheel remains constant.
Poseidonios (c. 135–c. 51 BCE) was also connected with the technology of the An- tikythera Mechanism. He succeeded Hip- parchos in the school of astronomical studies in Rhodes. Poseidonios became a citizen of Rhodes and served Rhodes in senior political positions. Powerful Romans visited him for his friendship and learning. General Pompey stopped at Rhodes in 66 and 62 BCE to see Posei- donios. Cicero studied under him and reported that Poseidonios constructed a sphere that looked like the planetarium of Archimedes. That globe showed “the movements of the sun and the stars and planets, by day and night, just as they ap- pear in the sky” [27].
Finally, Geminos, probably a student of Poseidonios, was another astrono- mer who flourished in Rhodes in the 1st century BCE. His book Introduction to the Phenomena is a general overview of Greek astronomy, written by a knowledgeable polymath for the general reader [28]. It served as a scientific bridge for 400 years of Greek astronomical thought, connect- ing Hipparchos (2nd century BCE) and Ptolemy (2nd century of our era). Intro- duction to the Phenomena includes ideas
that resemble the inscriptions on the Antikythera Mechanism regarding the names of the months, which years had 13 months, which month would be repeated in those years, and which months had 30 and which 29 days. After reading its in- scriptions, the scientists who studied the Antikythera Mechanism saw the hand of Geminos in the Antikythera device [29].
256 Vallianatos, An Ancient Greek Computer
Fig. 8. The Tower of the Winds. An octagonal planetarium with sundials, a wind vane and a klepsydra or water clock. (Photo © Evaggelos Vallianatos)
phenomena, creating an accurate model of the universe through the use of gears (Fig. 7).
Could it be that Hipparchos, who ex- plained why the moon changes speed while zooming around the earth, created the first astronomical computer, some- thing like the Antikythera Mechanism? It is quite possible he did. His astronomi- cal models were more advanced than those of Archimedes, and his footprint is in the Antikythera Mechanism. How- ever, he relied on Archimedes, because Archimedes’s science and mechanics moved the world in Greek times; he was the model for Hipparchos as much as he was for Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton.
Price proposed that the creator of the Antikythera Mechanism was Andronikos Kyrrhestes, who built the Tower of Winds in Athens (Fig. 8) [31]. Pinotsis makes a case for Poseidonios being the architect of the Antikythera computer and indeed inventing the differential gear [32]. Ar- chimedes, however, built the prototypical astronomical computer, that is, his plane- tarium, and Poseidonios must have been indebted to him.
Pinotsis favors Rhodes as a point of origin. Studying the coins of Rhodes, he noticed an interesting evolution in the ray-crowned head of Helios on Rhodian coins, which changed with the advances in the astronomical knowledge on the island. That is a great insight. However, even if that observation is accurate, and in all likelihood it is, science and ad- vanced technology in the Alexandrian era became Panhellenic, spreading rap- idly from polis to polis, possibly from Syracuse to Rhodes or from Rhodes to Korinthos.
Some Western scholars and scientists, being preeminent in the modern world, question Greek achievements in science and technology, preferring that Western Europe take special credit for the birth of science and technical knowledge. They know or should know their claims are false.
Above I have mentioned Aristotle and how much he admired craftsmen and artists. A near contemporary to Archi- medes, Philon of Byzantium, also wrote about mechanics, including about the construction of weapons. He was em- phatic that advancements in technology rely on trial and error as well as theory. His experience came from working in both Alexandria and Rhodes. For exam- ple, the catapult was made more effective by changing the size of the hole through which its twisted skeins, the springs of the weapon, moved. Doubling the size of a
catapult required a larger diameter for the hole, which meant solving the inter- esting and difficult geometrical problem of doubling the cube. Philon tells us that the Ptolemies, the Greek kings of Egypt, funded experiments for “the long-range shooting of missiles which [would] land with vigorous impact” [33].
The mechanics and engineering of Philon, just like those of Archimedes, persisted as late as the 4th century of our era, when the Greek mathematician Pappos of Alexandria divided mechanics into theory and praxis. Theory includes “geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and physics.” Practical mechanics relies on “metal-working, architecture, carpentry” and “painting” [34].
Thus crafts and mechanics among the Greeks, including the technology of the Antikythera Mechanism, were not trivial but comprehensive, scientific and funda- mental to their culture and life.
Francois Charette, professor of the history of natural sciences at the Ludwig- Maximilian University in Munich, Ger- many, studied the Antikythera computer and concluded that “mind-boggling tech- nological sophistication” must have been available to those who made it [35].
References and Notes
Unedited references as provided by the author.
1. Aristotle, Metaphysics 981b13–17, in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. and tr. Richard McKeon (New York: The Modern Library, 2001).
2. Aristotle, Politics, in McKeon [1] 1291a1-4.
3. See description of the shipwreck by archaeologist J.N. Svoronos, Das Athener Nationalmuseum (Athens, 1908). For an early description of the Antikythera Mechanism see Der Astrolabos von Antikythera by Perikles Rediadis, who later became Greek minister of finance. Rediadis sees it as a very complex astro- labe. See also Rediadis, “The Antikythera astrolabe,” Newsletter of the Archaeological Society of Greece, Athens, 1910, pp. 157–172.
4. K. Rados, On the Antikythera Treasure (Athens, 1910).
5. A. Rehm, Philologische Wochenschrift (Berlin, 13 April 1907).
6. Cicero, De re publica 1.14.21-22, tr. Clinton Keyes (Loeb, 1928).
7. J. Theophanides, Military and Naval Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, Athens, 1928, pp. 83–104; J. Theophanides, “On the Findings of the Antikythera Treasure,” Naval Review (Athens, 1934).
8. Derek de Solla Price, “Gears from the Greeks: The Antikythera Mechanism—A Calendar Computer from ca. 80 B.C.,” in Transactions of the American Philo- sophical Society, 1974, 64 (7).
9. Price [8] p. 13. 10. Price [8] p. 13. 11. Price [8] p. 60. 12. Price [8] p. 51.
13. Tony Freeth et al., “Supplementary Notes,” in “Calendars with Olympian display and eclipse predic- tion on the Antikythera Mechanism,” Nature, 31 July 2008, 458, pp. 614–617.
14. Freeth et al. [13], “Supplementary Notes,” p. 21.
15. Price [8] p. 5. The two Nature articles are: Tony Freeth et al., “Decoding the ancient Greek astro- nomical calculator known as the Antikythera Mecha- nism,” Nature, 30 November 2006, 444, p. 591, and Freeth et al. [13].
16. Freeth et al. [15] (2006) p. 591. 17. Didascalia et Constitutiones Apostolorum 1.6, ed. F.X.
Funk (First published 1905, Turin, 1964) pp. 13–15.
18. Eunapius, Lives of Philosophers, tr. Wilmer Cave Wright (Loeb, 1998) pp. 465–473; Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 6 vols. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993) Vol. III, pp. 151–152.
19. Evaggelos Vallianatos, The Passion of the Greeks (Harwich Port, MA: Clock and Rose Press, 2006).
20. Firmicus Maternus, The Error of the Pagan Reli- gions 28.6, tr. Clarence A. Forbes (New York: Newman Press, 1970).
21. Palladas, in The Greek Anthology 9.773, tr. W.R. Paton (Loeb, 1968).
22. Sokrates, Ecclesiastical History 5.16, tr. A.C. Zenos, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 2 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995).
23. Freeth et al. [13], “Supplementary Notes,” p. 21.
24. Antonios Pinotsis, “Astronomy in Ancient Rhodes” (unpublished paper, 2008, Section of As- trophysics, Astronomy and Mechanics, Department of Physics, University of Athens); Pinotsis, “Kleovou- los of Lindos: The Precursor of Science in Ancient Rhodes,” Dodecanesian Chronicles, Vol. 18, 2005, 322– 351 (in Greek).
25. Ptolemy, Almagest 7.1–3, tr. and ed. G.J. Toomer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998).
26. Freeth et al. [13] pp. 2–3. 27. Cicero, The Nature of the Gods 2.87–89, tr. Horace
C.P. McGregor (London: Penguin Books, 1972).
28. Geminos, Introduction to the Phenomena 8.15, tr. James Evans and J. Lennart Berggren (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).
29. Freeth et al. [13] p. 614. 30. Geminos [28]. 31. Price [8].
32. Antonios Pinotsis, “The Antikythera Mechanism: Who Was Its Creator and What Was Its Use and Pur- pose?” Astronomical and Astrophysical Transactions, Vol. 26, Nos. 4–5, 2007, pp. 211–226.
33. Philon of Byzantium, Belopoeica (Mechanics IV) 3.5-7, in A Source Book in Greek Science, ed. Morris R. Cohen and I.E. Drabkin (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1948) pp. 318–319.
34. Pappos, Mathematical Collection 8.1–5, in Cohen and Drabkin [33] pp. 183–184.
35. Francois Charette, “High tech from ancient Greece,” Nature, 30 November 2006, 444, p. 552.
Manuscript received 21 December 2010.
Evaggelos Vallianatos was born in Greece. He studied at the University of Illinois, where he earned a BA in zoology and an MA in medieval Greek history. He continued his his- torical studies at the University of Wisconsin, where he earned a doctorate in Greek history. He then did postdoctoral studies in the history of science at Harvard. He worked on Capitol Hill and at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He has also taught at several uni- versities. He is the author of five books, one forthcoming book, and more than 150 articles on Greek history, the history of science and en- vironmental issues.
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