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Cowboy Logic

Illustration by John Bardwell
Civilizations fail when agriculture fails

By Michael Martin Murphey

I was re-reading an old classic just the other day, on one of those in-between winter days when you’re lucky to be feeding grass hay, and you know it’s warm enough not to have to worry about calves. The book was that great old tome with a daunting title, “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” by Gibbons. Not exactly your everyday tack-and-gear catalog reading, but you can ride over its landscape at a pretty fair lope, once you get moving.

The thing that really got to me about what happened with the Roman Empire is that such a mighty, vast empire could, in fact, decline and fall. What makes this classic a page-turner is that it asks one of the fundamental carrot-on-a-stick questions of all time: “Why do great civilizations fall?” What happens from within a seemingly unassailable empire that suddenly causes the ultimate decline of a culture powered by great armies, philosophers, and imperial rulers? It’s clear that great civilizations don’t crumple from outside pressure until something becomes weak in the “infrastructure” of the whole.

A ranch is a pretty good microcosm of what happens in any system. Ranches usually fail when you can’t feed the animals any more. Feeding is the whole story, whether you’re feeding protein you produce, or feeding protein someone else produces. A rancher had better make sure the supply lines are not too far out on the periphery, which makes it too expensive to get the feed to the livestock. If a rancher is a farmer too, and he grows his own feed, he’d better make sure the supply is protected and guaranteed–something that is virtually impossible to pull off year after year.

Allan Savory, holistic thinker and philospher/student of the rangeland once said, “Civilizations fail when their agriculture fails.” This includes a nation’s policy toward agriculture, too. In the case of the Roman Empire, that’s exactly what happened. As the Roman Empire grew, the focus of its elite citizens became “sophisticated.” It became more important to build a great city with beautiful buildings and public forums, than it was to have great farms and ranches. As time went by, the Romans forgot about, even ignored the “rubes” of the country, and even the gentleman farmers were pushed out to the fringes of the empire. The supply lines were more and more controlled by those who were dependent on slaves and bondsmen who were not a part of the political process, and even their masters were regarded as rough men who had no place in the senate, where the hands of the rulers were not the rough hands of toil and herding.

Just when they were feeling that the empire was all of the known world, the Roman civilization went into a sharp decline. The barbarians who were kept at the fringes on the outland farms, swept down on the armies of the Roman Empire and won, because they had the real control of the food supply, or easier access to the destruction of it. Roman senators who were once proud of their agricultural wealth, and admired for it by the citizens, lost interest in the business of feeding and clothing people. They were more interested in becoming immortalized by patronizing a great public building or festival than they were in perfecting the abundance of the food supply, or the quality of the other products yielded up by agriculture.

Today in America we are doing the same thing. We are more interested in information than the food supply. We take it for granted that good food will be in abundance forever, because somebody out there somewhere will grow it for us. The rancher and the farmer are ignored, get little press, except when a tornado rips through Kansas, a cold snap kills a large number of livestock, or a drought or flood wipes out a large swath of agricultural wealth. Rising prices and disasters are always big news. The rest of the time there is no interest in the rubes, way out there on the frontier, in those boring little country towns. We have more fun with virtual reality than reality, because we think we control it. That beef jerky we munch while we are locked on to the internet actually comes from cattle raised by somebody, but who knows or cares who they are?

When was the last time you heard a president talk about agricultural policy in a State of the Union address? Presidential primary candidates rarely talk about farm policy, even in agricultural states. After all, they are hitting the big cities in those states anyway, where most urban dwellers have lost touch with anything but digital reality. And they don’t visit agricultural states very often anymore, anyway. After all, it’s usually flat and boring out there on the plains.

How can the vital issue of the source and health of our food supply be ignored? Simple. We can always get it from some other place, right? Beef from South America, Mexico, and Canada–places where we can export our real environmental problems, so we don’t have to look at them. As long as they’re cutting down someone else’s rain forest, politicians can brag to their constituents that we’re “preserving” our own.

So on we go, buying beef from other nations, while we make television specials about that most romantic of a vanishing breed, The Noble but Lonesome American Cowboy, and the rancher who employs him. While we slowly strangle those who grow a quality food supply in this nation, we reward the ranchers of other nations, no matter what methods they used to grow the beef. We make it easy for consumers to buy what they offer cheaper through “free trade” agreements (how about equitable trade agreements?), then we demonize our ranchers for taking up all that beautiful land out there.

We want easily accessed playgrounds next door to our resorts, not ranches and farms, where there’s open space you can’t reach. The government closes the roads to the ranchers, pushes them farther out on the fringe or even out of society completely, so that we can have three times as much traffic on non-motorized vehicles. Our government thinks it’s better to get that six-person ranching family operation off the ground, so that thousands can hike and pedal over it without having to encounter a messy horseapple or cowchip; unless it’s a “buffalo chip”–which, of course, is a politically correct by-product of a noble beast!

Downtowns are coming back. Dot-commers are moving into lofts in the inner-city. Mayors are cleaning up the trash and trashy people–the hungry and homeless pests who make a row of stores with upscale fashions so unappealing. Nature is a store in a mall with cute posters of wolf cubs and pandas. Planet Hollywood and The Hard Rock Cafe are never far behind. Wealth is being thrown at better and better “arts districts,” industrial parks, and upstart Silicon Valleys.

Somewhere out there, beyond the city gates where Caesar can’t hear them, the barbarians sing their quaint folk songs and dance their folk dances. If they are good, they might even form a troupe and present a charming but antiseptic version of their “folk culture,” at the new arts center. But the citizens don’t have to deal with them all of the time. Most of the real folk culture is beyond our frontiers, over the border, but hopefully, controlled by the distant legions we sent out there. But, hey, maybe those legions are getting a little expensive. Maybe it’s time to downsize and create a little better net profit. What are those uneducated, unsophisticated barbarians going to do to us anyway?

Maybe it’s time to ask the spirits of the emperors of the past. After all, they claimed to have a democracy, too.

Michael Martin Murphey raises pure-breds and crosses from Texas Longhorn and Corriente cattle and American quarter horses for M.M.Murphey’s Rocking 3M Ranching Co. He is a performer of cowboy songs and other original music. He is originator of the Westfest (a festival celebrating the American West culture), owner of Westfest/ Valley Records of Santa Fe, founder of The Murphey Western Insitute for American West Cultural Studies, The Murphey Public Trail Fund, and The Murphey Library of the American West. He serves as an adjunct professor at Utah State University and The University of New Mexico-Taos. His websites are <>, <>, and the soon-to-be launched web portal for the American West, <www.WorldOfThe>.


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last page update: 04.03.05