Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels Book Summary By Ian Morris

*This post contains affiliate links, and we may earn an affiliate commission without it ever affecting the price you pay.

Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels (2015) is an insightful and fascinating look at how energy has shaped our culture.

Written by esteemed anthropologist Jack Kloppenberg, this book dives deep into understanding the differences between cultures, showing us that much of what we think goes into creating a certain lifestyle or value system stems from one source: energy.

It blends together the history of agriculture, the development of fossil fuels and the impact these have had on societies around the world over time to explore humanity’s cultural development.

This book will provide readers with a newfound perspective on why people behave the way they do, helping us better understand both our past and present.

Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels Book

Book Name: Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels (How Human Values Evolve)

Author(s): Ian Morris

Rating: 4/5

Reading Time: 22 Minutes

Categories: History

Author Bio

The author of the book Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels is Ian Morris.

He's an incredibly accomplished individual with an impressive range of expertise!

As an archaeologist, historian, and university professor, he has inspired countless minds through his work.

He even co-founded the Stanford Archaeology Center and has won the prestigious PEN Center USA Literary Award for Creative Nonfiction.

On top of that, he holds honorary degrees from two universities – DePauw University and Birmingham University.

With such a stellar resume, it's no wonder why Morris was chosen to write this captivating book!

How Energy Has Shaped The Evolution Of Human Values

Human Values

The source of our most fundamental values is something that has puzzled people for centuries.

Many have turned to religion and philosophy for answers, and these certainly play an important role in their own way.

But the author believes that there is a much more fundamental force at work: energy.

In the book Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels, readers are taken on a journey from our earliest days of hunting and gathering all the way to today’s use of fossil fuels.

Energy collection has played a major part in determining which moral system we abide by, whether it be ancient China or modern Europe.

Energy capture can also influence our values in surprising ways going forward.

The latter sections take a look at how energy sources might shape humanity’s values over the next 80 years – with possibly catastrophic results if current trends continue unchecked.

From the changing ways tribes handled upstarts to understanding why farmers accepted gods and kings, this book will help you investigate where our moral values come from – and encourage you to think twice before allowing energy capture to decide our fate going forward.

How Our Values Evolved With Different Energy Sources: The Key To Understanding Human Hierarchies

The idea that our values and beliefs may have evolved along with the way we capture energy was first posed by the author in his book, Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels.

The premise is simple; although our values may seem unchanging or absolute at times, they actually adapt and change when they suit the environment.

By looking at how people capture energy, we can actually get a better understanding of why certain values are more common than others.

For instance, societies that rely heavily on farming tend to have very different values from those who use more modern methods such as fossil fuels.

In farm-based societies, traditional hierarchical structures tend to be more prominent and accepted.

On the other hand, fossil fuel-based societies tend to favor egalitarianism and personal freedom.

So why does all this matter? Our values not only help define our culture—they also dictate how successful a society will be in a given environment.

After all, if a society’s values don’t reflect its method of energy capture then it might not survive for very long.

Therefore, understanding our methods of energy capture can give us insight into why certain cultural practices remain strong while others fade away over time.

Foraging Societies Value Equality And Accept Violence As Part Of Life

Foragers generally reject hierarchy and wealth inequality, which is reflected in their Gini scores — a measurement for the amount of wealth inequality in a society.

In fact, the five foraging societies studied have an average Gini score of 0.25 — significantly lower than farming or fossil fuel societies.

This emphasizes the importance of fairness and equality amongst all members of the group, as individuals who try to hoard food are likely to be mocked or ostracized, or even killed in extreme cases due to food sharing amongst all members being essential for survival.

However, though foraging societies resist these hierarchies and value cooperation, they do still acknowledge violence as part of life.

One study tracked that in the twentieth century alone, one in ten foragers died a violent death, a grim reminder that even those living outside traditional governments must take steps to protect themselves from external threats.

It appears then, that within these societies evolution favours aggression when it comes to defending oneself and family from harm

The Rise Of Farming, Slavery, And Gender Hierarchy: How Farming Transformed Our Early Ancestors’ Lives

Rise Of Farming

It is estimated that early foragers only spent three or four hours a day searching for food, and most of them only lived to around the age of 25.

However, approximately 7000 BC brought about a change as humans began replanting wild wheat and stopped moving around.

Instead of hunting, domesticated herds were kept for food.

This shift was the beginning of farming cultures, with the capacity to generate lots of calories by staying in one place.

Farming soon spread out into places where food was plentiful and large rivers could be used for irrigation so people could settle down in one place – leading to the birth of cities.

By 4000 BC, farming societies like those in Mesopotamia and Egypt had reached peak energy capture at 10,000 kilocalories per day – a significantly increased amount from what foraging offered.

Unfortunately, this gain came with a high cost as farmers were subjected to long hours of hard labor – which forced them to have many children to help out at home instead or rely on the use of slaves – and women were mostly confined to caring for their offspring while men worked outside.

Overall, it is uncommonly seen that large-scale societies are born with such values; however this is exactly what occurred due an influx of energy through farming practices.

The Relationship Between Farming And Hierarchy: How People In Agricultural Societies Justified Their Elevated Roles Through Religion

When it comes to comparing farming societies to foraging ones, it’s clear that they tend to be more hierarchical and look more negatively on violence than before.

This is due to the energy capture moving from approximately 10,000 kilocalories per day and the rise of a ruling class who had ultimate authority over everyone.

Though this organisation often gave birth to negative social stereotypes, it also meant that with an external body of power in charge, people were much less likely to cause disruptive acts of violence against one another since any conflicts could complicate their work processes.

Farming values dominated most cultures around the world for almost 9,000 years until fossil fuels began to be used as a main source of energy.

This meant that society was restructured as fewer individuals had control over larger populations, which resulted in a higher Gini score (which measures levels of inequality).

In farming societies, the average Gini score was 0.45 which showed that 10 percent of people were extracting wealth from 80 percent of individuals.

This situation only further reinforced gender hierarchies as men would ensure their wealth was passed down to children who were “theirs” by placing emphasis on controlling female virginity.

The Amazing Impact Of Fossil Fuel Societies: More People, More Production, And A Higher Quality Of Life

The invention of the steam engine in 1776 was a remarkable development which showed how fossil fuel could be used to generate energy.

Once people realized that coal could be burned for powering engines, this changed the grim future of society.

Fossil fuel societies prospered by making the most out of their large-scale energy capture.

This large-scale energy capture enabled the West to gain control over 84 percent of the world’s landmass by 1914.

Through efficient steam engines and a series of inventions came mass production and an increase in factory profits.

In turn, workers were provided with higher wages resulting in them leaving their farms to get jobs in factories, thus creating a “feedback loop” that improved overall standard of living.

The use of fossil fuels has also caused an increase in population growth–with 6 billion people today compared to 1 billion people just two centuries ago!

Not only have we seen an immense population surge but those fortunate enough to live in fossil fuel societies experience longer life spans and greater heights due to their access to better healthcare options.

All in all, it is clear that developments associated with capturing massive amounts of energy from fossils fuels have had major impacts on modern societies today -and will continue to shape us for generations to come.

Fossil Fuel Societies Prefer Equality, Mobility And Peace Over Violence And Hierarchy


Fossil fuel societies have long held the belief that equality and peace are preferable to violence.

This is evidenced by both international polls and declines in Gini scores worldwide since 1800.

Take, for instance, a 2007 global survey which found that 80 percent of people expressed support for democracy as well as a 2009 survey in which 86 percent of respondents favored gender equality.

This can be further demonstrated by Gallup’s cross-continental poll, which showed that 69 percent of respondents were absolute pacifists when it comes to violence.

Over the past 200 years, the number of Gini scores has declined significantly due to the increased access to fossil fuels.

As a result, workers have had higher wages and better benefits than before.

Additionally, when there is an equal opportunity for all citizens to live well, society does not need to strongly stratify labor.

This is one reason why fossil fuel societies value equality and prefer peace over violence – they understand that it leads to better functioning markets which are necessary for collective prosperity.

Furthermore, societies that use fossil fuels are far more secular than agrarian ones.

When religion is not at play then rule by kings ceases to be acceptable behavior – something that has been observed in post-Maoist China since 1980s where economic growth has come at the cost of environmental devastation, extensive corruption and clashes between citizens with different views.

How Technology Will Shape Our Values In The Year 2103

It’s true that we don’t always know exactly how technological advancement will shape our values as time moves forward, but one thing is sure: they will change.

Technology has already shaped the way our societies are structured and the values they hold dear – and this evolution is inevitable in a world where technology advances at a rapid rate.

Evidence of this evolution can be seen to some extent already.

Countries like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have all seen a shift toward increased liberalism since 1945 due to technological advances.

This trend could spread to other countries like China and India as their economic and political power continue to grow.

However, not everyone believes that this “soothing scenario” would play out if global power shifts from the West to the East – with some reasonably predicting that Westerners may find themselves adopting more “Chinese-ified” values.

The future for humanity is unpredictable, although it would likely involve all aspects of life being much different than today – with energy capture solutions jumping to nearly 1 million kilocalories per day, population centers becoming much larger (up to 140 million people per city), life expectancy increasing drastically (even up to over 100 years in select countries) and even computer chips being implanted into humans!

The result of these advancements could either ensure our collective success or lead us back towards primitive ways of living if technology isn’t evenly distributed or access isn’t provided on an equitable basis.

Regardless, it’s practically certain that technological advancements will bring about changes in values – both positive and negative – for generations to come.

Wrap Up

Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels is an insightful book on how different societies throughout history have had different values that have shaped their methods of energy capture.

Foragers valued flat hierarchies and tolerated violence for dispute resolution; farmers on the other hand had steep hierarchies and were less tolerant of violence; and fossil fuel civilizations are now characterized by strong values in equality, as well as seeing violence as almost universally wrong.

Although it is impossible to predict exactly what future societies will be like, one thing seems certain: the values that they choose to adopt will be the ones that help them succeed.

Arturo Miller

Hi, I am Arturo Miller, the Chief Editor of this blog. I'm a passionate reader, learner and blogger. Motivated by the desire to help others reach their fullest potential, I draw from my own experiences and insights to curate blogs.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.