Have you ever wondered about that yourself? I mean, we all know someone, if it hasn’t happened to us personally. How many of us have struggled with alcoholism, or even more commonly, just learned to live with it? A lot of our parents drank, and if not our parents, our grandparents, uncles, aunts, family friends etc. We learned more about alcoholism from watching our family than we did about sex, and most of what we learned about alcoholism mirrored what we learned about sex. That is: kids don’t understand the appeal of it, and shouldn’t do it, but adults seem unable to resist its temptations, and it frequently ruins their lives.
History tells us that, here in the US, the further back you go, the more we drank. In the 1850s, Americans consumed, on average, more than a pint of whiskey every day for every man, woman and child, in the US, including newborns. Did newborn babies drink whiskey in the 1850s? I don’t know, but everyone else sure did. Founding Father Benjamin Franklin famously said: “Beer is living proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”
Of course, alcoholism goes back much further than that. The Romans drank. The Greeks drank. Jesus turned water into wine. Only an alcoholic would see that as a miracle. I don’t know if Moses drank, but he hung with Pharaoh, and Pharaoh definitely drank beer. I don’t think Adam and Eve drank, but I’ll bet that Cain and Able both did.
Think about that. Alcoholism was already well established, common, and endemic to society, well before the earliest written language, and even before the oldest stories recorded in them. For all of that time, alcoholism has remained a fixture in society, and society has dealt with the consequences of alcoholism. Our society does not remember a time before alcoholism, or where alcoholism came from. We know when temperance movements began, and who founded them, but who was the first drunk? Nobody knows. Why don’t we have a story about how or why or when we started drinking so much?
Our society does not remember a time before alcoholism for the same reason that I don’t remember a time before mom. We don’t remember our origins. We have to put our origin story together from what we can glean second hand, and we may learn that the story our mother tells, may not be the whole story. For instance, here’s one of those persistent questions regarding the origin of our culture, that mom really doesn’t have a good explanation for: Why did some people stop living a hunting and gathering lifestyle, and instead, devoted their time and energy to burning the forests that provided them with wild game, so that they could farm, however inefficiently, barley and wheat.
I’ve read a few books on the topic, and they usually offer a few theories, with no definitive answer. They may suggest that people living in the Levant 10,000 years ago decided they needed more food to feed a growing population, but evidence shows that the population only grew after the adoption of an agricultural lifestyle. They may postulate that farming was a technological breakthrough that allowed more leisure time, even though the evidence shows that hunting and gathering cultures enjoy far more leisure time than do their farming counterparts. Some books even suggest that farming provided more nutrition than a hunting and gathering lifestyle, making early agriculturalists stronger than their neighbors. Again, the evidence points in another direction. Human skeletons show that early agriculturalists were on average six inches shorter than their hunting and gathering neighbors, and showed many signs of malnutrition completely absent in their hunting and gathering contemporaries.
So, we don’t know why some humans quit the hunting and gathering lifestyle and started farming, but we assume they had a good reason, because it led to the birth of civilization, and eventually, us. We assume this was a good thing, because it culminates in us, but we should consider the possibility that the switch from a hunting and gathering lifestyle to an agricultural one, may not have been such a great choice, and alcohol may have been involved.
Clearly alcoholism and agriculture began at about the same time, in roughly the same place, and their histories have been intimately intertwined ever since. Doesn’t it make sense that the two things could be related? You know, the major expansion in the production of barley and wheat, the primary ingredients of beer, might have had something to do with this persistent, pathological thirst for alcohol, that has caused so much suffering for so many people for so many generations that we eventually recognized it as a debilitating disease and called it alcoholism.
What else do you think they did with all of that grain? The invention of bread was still centuries away, and bread began as a kind of beer-making kit in loaf form. Do you think people would burn down a productive forest and toil in the hot sun scratching the bare earth with a rock tied to a stick for tabbouleh? Hell no! Now ask yourself, “Would men do that for beer?” You know they would, and all of the evidence supports the claim that they did. Civilization is our mother, but alcoholism is our father.
Let that sink in. In school they teach us that the “agricultural revolution” gave birth to civilization like it was a good thing. They never mention the booze, do they? How do you suppose they could have overlooked that? Damn near every shard of ancient pottery archaeologists unearth shows evidence that it once held beer. These people drank, and they drank habitually. They loved beer. They couldn’t get enough of it, and they sacrificed a lot to satisfy that craving.
We’ve all seen what alcoholism can do to a person, and we’ve seen how far people have to go before they hit rock bottom and admit that they have a problem. We’ve all seen how alcoholism destroys families and ruins lives. Now imagine an entire culture based entirely on the endless pathological thirst for alcohol. Surprise! You don’t have to imagine it. Just look around and appreciate it.
Look at the toll chronic alcoholism has taken on planet Earth. A third of the Earth’s land mass has been converted to agriculture, not to feed people, but to make booze. The people come along later. Drunk people make poor family planning choices, which leads to overpopulation. Overpopulation leads to a plethora of other problems, which encourages ingenuity. However, ingenuity only mitigates problems, and never solves them because no amount of ingenuity can undo the fundamental imbalance caused by the pathological craving for alcohol.
We sure are proud of our ingenuity though. Aren’t we? We think farming was an ingenious innovation over hunting and gathering, and we’ve just been amazingly ingenious ever since. We think that we are smarter, more advanced and have evolved to a higher form of intelligence, because we’ve shown such amazing problem solving skills. We’ve gotten good at solving problems because we’re even better at creating them.
If you ask most people why they think civilized human beings dominate the planet, they will tell you it is because of our high intelligence and advanced technology. They won’t say, “Because alcohol makes us feel good, and we don’t care about anything but feeling good and we will do anything to anybody who stands between us and feeling good.” but that’s where our ingenuity comes from.
Today, through sheer ingenuity and hard work, we’ve engineered an environmental crisis for the ages, and a society of unimaginable cruelty and inequality. Ingenuity and hard work are strategies we employ as a culture, to compensate for the negative effects of our cultural alcoholism. Basically, you can think of all of the time you spend at work, and the time you spend trying to come up with a new business idea, as part of the price you personally pay to participate in an alcoholic culture. I know this sounds weird, but you knew our society was sick, didn’t you? Doesn’t the diagnosis help? Alcoholism is a disease we understand. We can beat alcoholism. We can beat alcoholism, but first we have to admit that we have a problem.
I realize that I’ve covered this material here before, but it bears repeating, and is worth considering from a variety of perspectives. It’s a big idea, so I don’t mind slicing it a little finer.