Why agriculture emerged in multiple places within a few thousand years without having ever arisen anywhere in the previous quarter million years or so that homo sapiens existed, is puzzling, and it's all too easy to conclude that it is something called “progress.” Here is another theory. The meltdown of the last Ice Age, between 17,000 and 8,000 years ago, raised global sea levels more than 300 ft, submerging vast areas of previously dry land. It was a major if not quite cataclysmic process of global climate change. Some species are highly resilient, and survive for many millions of years. Large mammal species are not among them, and tend to exist for relatively short periods. They (actually, we) are highly sensitive to climate change, and indeed there was a major die-off of large mammals during the meltdown of the Ice Age. Many of these were important prey animals for humans. Derrick Jensen has gone far toward debunking the Pleistocene Overkill Hypothesis in his book Endgame, though it is undeniable that humans were hunting many of these doomed species, and perhaps the cullings that were previously sustainable rapidly became unsustainable as environmental factors undermined the species. Whether hunting significantly exacerbated this or not is open to debate.
Many humans from low-lying lands were driven off their ancestral lands as they were flooded, and inevitably encroached on other, relatively highland tribes, which were already experiencing a precipitous decline in prey populations. Add to this that the seas were not rising gradually, but in catastrophic floods, including the breaching around 10,800 B.C.E. of Lake Agassiz in North America, which was far larger than the five remaining Great Lakes combined. Each time such a massive glacial lake breached, seas could rise substantially in a matter of days or weeks. Such inundations would also cause vast tsunamis, the worst of which (perhaps from Agassiz) could easily be the basis for the universal myth of a Great Flood. Anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday finds that cultures that have been displaced from their traditional homelands become abusive, "high rape" cultures for, typically, at least 500 years. The pieces start coming together. A traumatized people invades another people's land where people were already wanting for food due to a prey die-off, the hungry peoples come into conflict, and sometimes, the invaders win. Perhaps they find a way to justify their conquest, even genocide, of the former inhabitants: enter the civilized myths that valorize violence and domination. Now that the former refugees are established as the new dominant tribe in a region, they are still, likely, a high-rape, abusive, militaristic culture, perhaps more so than before. They are also still wanting for food, and do not yet know how to live sustainably in their new land. Meanwhile, there are other displaced, traumatized tribes trying to survive this dire epoch, often encroaching on the same land, so a gradual reversion to a saner society is impeded by continual external threats.
Meanwhile, the climate continues to change such that in some parts of the world, practices that may have seemed sane and sustainable for a while (years, generations, etc.) proved to be unsustainable over longer stretches of time. Now, if we examine a map of the world at peak glaciation (approx. 16,000 B.C.E.), what we see is startling.
Now take a closer look at the Middle East.
The land must have been well watered by the glaciers melting down in the Zagros, Caucasus, and Taurus Mountains, but must have become far drier when those glaciers melted away entirely. By that point, the Mesopotamians were long since committed to a highly militaristic society, and to grain. They surely expended more effort each year trying to keep up food production in a drying land, eventually engaging in widespread deforestation and irrigation, both of which obviously intensified the problem (through dropping water tables, erosion, and salinization). Meanwhile, the hierarchical, militaristic, patriarchal society demanded population growth (for troops, for slaves). Such people might feel by this point that they had good reason to hate and fear the physical earth ("nature," or "Mother Nature"), and turned to a supreme, authoritarian Sky Father to protect them. By this point, I think we can safely say that civilization was born.
Extractive agriculture promotes patriarchy because men do most of the work of providing food. In hunting-gathering societies, men usually do most of the hunting while women usually do most of the foraging for edible and medicinal plants and mushrooms. In such cultures, women are also the primary care-givers of the young, for obvious reasons, and they were able to provide this care while making great contributions to the food supply. It should be apparent that women were obliged to carry and utilize a broader set of skills and knowledge than men, so it should not surprise us that many hunting-gathering societies were/are matriarchal. This matriarchy has never manifested in the coercive, rigid form of hierarchy that is so characteristic of patriarchy in civilization. In agricultural societies, men take overwhelming control of the system of food procurement, so perhaps it is not entirely surprising that women in these societies, now materially dependent on men, become systematically oppressed. Moreover, the militarism and material unsustainability of agricultural societies necessitate their expansionism. Expansionism requires maximal population growth, requiring, again, that women become enslaved. Patriarchy is, undeniably, a hallmark of civilization. “His Story,” indeed.
If we look at the non-Middle Eastern centers of agriculture, we might consider the relative proximity of large areas of now submerged land, and mountains overlooking the fertile plains and valleys where the refugees must have settled, mountains that were, for a while, delivering copious amounts of fresh water in glacial runoff, but then abruptly ceased doing so. West Africa is a likely exception, but the mass influx of refugees may have been from the rapidly desertifying Sahara, though it seems that this cradle of agriculture did not produce cultures as extreme in their pathology as the Mesopotamian cradle. Indeed, none did. If Sanday is right that displaced cultures universally trend toward abusiveness, there is no reason to doubt that the pattern would have been similar in all such areas. Mesopotamia happened to be home to a greater variety of edible wild seeds than any other part of the world. On the other end of things, teosinte, the wild ancestor of corn, is hardly usable as a food source, so it took far longer for any Mesoamericans to stumble on a genetic mutation that opened the path to agriculture, a path that only a displaced, abusive, traumatized culture would be likely to take.
I'm far from convinced that any center of agriculture and civilization other than the Western, Mesopotamian center would have necessarily led to apocalypse (I'm not even sure that the Western center was fated to reach this stage, though it did). We have no way of knowing precisely why Cahokia and the other Mississippian cultures collapsed rather than spreading and exploiting different "resources," as did other civilizations, but resistance was likely a factor. The Mayans abandoned civilization and rewilded, which may reflect their values as well as material limits. We can look at classical Chinese culture and note that the Chinese had a far larger economy and far more powerful coercive technology than Western Europe until well after industrialization was underway in the West. The Chinese could very plausibly have embarked on an Industrial Revolution in the 1300's, when vast Chinese fleets traversed the Indian and Pacific Oceans, building contacts with hundreds of cultures (notably not conquering, enslaving, or exterminating them). Yet we should note that classical Chinese culture, while guilty of manifesting many civilized pathologies (patriarchy, slavery, famine, etc.), is non-theistic and deeply informed by Daoism, which is essentially a form of animism. Unlike in the West (especially the industrial era West), the greatest poets, designers, and philosophers in classical China were often high ranking government officials, which belies a fundamentally different attitude of those in power toward beauty, wisdom, intuition, and spirit (yin energy). To me, it seems likely that China “failed” to subjugate and colonize the globe and embark on fossil-fuel based industrialization not because they couldn't but because they knew it would be wrong to move in that direction.
Does this mean that classical Chinese culture was entirely sane or sustainable? No. Does it leave open the possibility that it would have collapsed far less catastrophically than Western civilization? Yes, it does. The rice-based agriculture in pre-Westernized China was far closer to a sustainable model than anything in the West. Composted human shit and piss (humanure) was widely used as fertilizer, which closes a crucial loop. Ducks and fish were encouraged in the rice paddies, which diversified and improved the human diet and improved the health of the land. Soy was grown as a nitrogen fixing "green manure" (and was not often eaten, except in periods of famine, due to its high levels of phytates, trypsin inhibitors, phytoestrogens, and other baddies). It seems that this model of food production could probably have been practiced more or less indefinitely, at least on a certain scale. If some improvements were needed to create a true permaculture, such improvements might well have been achieved.
The Daoist tradition was always the definitive Chinese model on the place of humans in the universe and the ways in which humans should interact with the rest of the universe, and it is a non-anthropocentric model. In classical Chinese philosophy, one often reads of "wan wu," which translates roughly as "the myriad living things," reflecting a recognition of life, in the literal and spiritual sense, permeating the universe, not restricted to humans, or animals, or even organic life forms. The Daoist and Chan Buddhist traditions both reflect a sense of universal consciousness and of humans being small players in a greater whole of a conscious, living universe. These are mainstream traditions in classical China, quite unlike their Western counterparts, which have always been marginal, heretical, and definitely counter-cultural. Chinese civilization’s values are quite different than, and decidedly more sane than, those of Western civilization. It should be obvious that classical Chinese civilization no longer exists. China has been Westernized, with the full complement of Western industrial technologies and industrial era Western economic and political values and institutions. Today, the distinct elements of Chinese culture are now largely cosmetic. It is part of the West.
Western Civilization is killing the planet, that much is certain. Certain, too, is that it must be stopped. The discussion must move beyond abstraction. Only tangible resistance will stop the destruction, but resistance is unlikely from those who remain colonized. Perhaps these thoughts might help us decolonize ourselves. Civilization was not inevitable. It was not a sign of the “progress” of our species. It is not a manifestation of our “fallen state” or any other notion of inherent human wickedness (indeed, every other culture views humans, and the community of existence, profoundly favorably). It was an understandable accident in the midst of a bizarre geologic epoch that, in the case of one human culture out of thousands, spiraled out of control. Understanding it as such might help us begin to consider concrete action for taking down this pathological culture.