Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Joy Ride to Global Collapse

Note: I need to devote more time to my upcoming book, now known as Wild Free & Happy.  The following is Jim Minter’s review of James Howard Kunstler’s book, Home from Nowhere.  It was posted over 20 years ago (5 December 1996) on the e-design website.  This was back when the Peak Oil movement still lived in caves.  Oddly, most of the essay could have been written in 2018.  America’s fanatical addiction to motorized wheelchairs is stronger than ever.  Minter is an excellent writer.  Enjoy!

Joy Ride to Global Collapse:

Reflections on Kunstler’s Home from Nowhere

Here’s a prediction for you.  In the next two decades millions of Americans will begin a serious search for an alternative to the gasoline-powered automobile.  It is not going to be a happy search.  If you think trying to wean gun owners from their passion for firearms is a hornet’s nest, try talking to the great majority of us about reining in our passion for the automobile.  Lordy!  And yet, most of us agree there is a problem, vaguely phrased as, “There are too many other people out there clogging up the highways and slowing me down.”  Otherwise our attitude is similar to the rabid firearms bumper sticker: “You’ll get my car when you pry my cold, dead fingers from around the steering wheel.”

No one is talking to us about giving up cars today — even though there is hard scientific evidence that the freewheeling automotive world we know today will have totally vanished within the lifetime of most of us now living.  A few idealists are talking about maybe getting us to constrain our use a little bit.  None of them are running for any position of political influence in this country.  They would be lucky to get their family’s vote.  We don’t want to hear it.

Auto mania is not confined to Americans.  The love affair is international and now grows fastest in the nations of the Second and Third World.  Humanity burns 70 million barrels of oil a day.  At the present rate of increase, it is projected we’ll be burning 100 million in 20 years.  But we’ll never get there.  We are close to that peak of global production which was foreseen almost half a century ago by Dr. M. King Hubbert, the foremost petroleum geologist of his day.  The descent from that peak only takes a few decades.  We know that petroleum is a finite resource.  But even as gasoline prices begin to creep upward some time in the not-too-distant future we won’t curtail our driving until real supply shortages absolutely force the issue.

Take a look at an ugly future scenario: The sudden, agonizing death of the private automobile is a wall that global society will hit full speed, pedal to the metal when a global petroleum crisis finally catches up with us.  We will not accept any solutions that will soften the impact until the real shortage hits us at some time (early) in the next century.  If we continue to fail to take any reasonable steps to prepare for it, and it comes upon us thus, the constriction of the petroleum base of our global economy is quite likely to begin a plunging, bucking, gasping downward spiral towards a deep and lasting depression-with-inflation that could virtually end modern times as we now know them.

I will explain the combination of hard science and human hard-headedness which backs the likelihood of this future.  But first, let’s examine where we are.  Even if we believe that we are joyriding toward the abyss, few of us will volunteer to be first to quit driving.  I’ve tried it twice.  Once in Tallahassee as Florida’s “Energy Czar,” and once as a freelance investigative reporter in Washington, D.C.  What a royal pain it was to be carless in Florida’s sprawled-out, little, old capital city.  What a joy it was not to have to fool with parking in our nation’s capital.  Cabs there were plentiful and cheap.  Walking was a pleasure.  The excellent subway and bus lines were just a hop from my little flat three blocks from the Library of Congress.  But that urban experience is the exception. 

For most Americans life without a car is unthinkable — even in Washington, D.C.  It is too late to talk about rational restraint.  As James Howard Kunstler’s new book Home from Nowhere makes clear, the entire complex of the American civilization and infrastructure that we have built since World War II is almost unworkable without our massive herd of private autos.  We can’t get along without them, although Kunstler would clearly like to tame them.

Kunstler’s first best seller, The Geography of Nowhere, was described by a Wall Street Journal reviewer as “a sharp polemic.”  The language of Home from Nowhere is just as crisp and creative as he continues his positive indictment of America’s post-World-War-II built environment.  I say “positive,” because in Home from Nowhere Kunstler tries to focus on curing the blight — what we are already beginning to do in a few places, and what more we can and must do.

I, however, turned immediately to the chapter entitled “Car Crazy.”  The book’s dust jacket says it “offers real hope to a nation yearning to live in authentic places worth caring about.”  Not only does the car chapter not deliver hope, Kunstler’s auto jeremiad is almost as bleak as my post-petroleum scenario.  After a splendidly concise and eloquent damning of what American car craziness is doing to our built environment, he concludes his chapter, “We have the knowledge to do the right thing; we lack only the will to do the right thing.  The inescapable conclusion is that our behavior is wicked, and that we are liable to pay a heavy price for our wickedness by losing the things we love, including our beautiful country and our democratic republic.”

Pretty appalling.  Hello!  Is anyone home, out there?  No.  We’re out joyriding.  “But,” you protest, “lose our country?  Our form of government?”  Perhaps that’s not impossible. 

The sudden death of the automobile in America would produce a major crunch that would dwarf the Great Depression.  Kunstler deplores the negative aspects of the car without understanding just how endangered the automobile truly is.  He even purports to see signs that we may be wandering away from the automobile.  Fat chance!  We Americans are not going to abandon our cars.  Especially because some guru is telling us they are immoral.  We don’t care if they are immoral.  We won’t abandon them even if they cause global warming and melt the polar ice caps putting Florida and New York City under water.  Even if we have to wear gas masks because of pollution and the whole nation grinds to gridlock we will still sit in our cars on the freeways, beeping our horns and idling our engines, praying we can creep just a few more yards.  We are not going to walk or ride bicycles except for exercise.  We are not going to ride buses, streetcars, subways, taxicabs or rickshaws except as entertainment.  A personal automobile is the right of every American.  It says so in the Constitution.

Ah, would that Kunstler’s prophesy of a gradual taming of the automobile were possible.  Nothing so gentle as that seems likely to me.  The Auto Age is going to hit a rapid deceleration.  But it will not be graceful, gradual or planned.  Disregard for a moment the thesis that the environment will run out of breathable air before we run out of petroleum.  What is unquestionable is that if we keep burning it, one way or another, the human species is eventually going to burn up the planet’s vast store of petroleum.  The only question is when.  Some very good scientists who study the globe’s petroleum supplies, but don’t work for oil companies, auto companies or nervous governments say that time is closer upon us than we suspect.

The Petroleum Age will begin sputtering into crisis as demand continues to rise and petroleum production peaks (within a decade, according to the best Hubbert projections to which I will link you at the end of this column).  We will not yet be at the bottom of the barrel, just turning towards it.  Vast windfall profits will be made by some, which will complicate the ability of leaders to explain the reality.  And the supply-side religion will tune-up its highly paid chorus.  In fits and starts prices will rise and then fall, spiraling upward because of real shortfalls in the distribution system, or in anticipation of shortage, then dropping as over-speculators take a bath, only to rise again and then fall again, but with prices always rising further and falling back slower as supply constricts.  And if an “artificial” shortage is politically created in anticipation of hoarding for the real shortage down the road, it could be a recipe for wars.  Either way, most of us will not be able to imagine curtailing our driving until the bitterest end.

What makes the decline of the Petroleum Age so relentlessly damaging is that there is no fuel that is going to substitute for it.  I know the technological optimists, with a lot of cynical hype from the auto/petroleum industrial axis and a lot of naive wishing by the Greens, vaguely promise a clean, beautiful, driving world on “a mixed fuel economy.”  It is this promise that keeps us tranquilly driving along burning it up for “a few more years” without feeling at all wicked.  Some cabal of scientists in white coats is going unmask the Second Law of Thermodynamics as an oldthink fraud.

NONE of the promised alternatives will replace petroleum.

It ain’t gonna happen.  None (let me get way out on the limb and repeat that: NONE) of the promised alternatives will replace petroleum — not even vast stores of natural gas, which is the closest potential substitute, but is also finite.  Nor will liquified and “scrubbed-up” coal juice.  Nor (again disregarding for the moment the environmental and safety questions) will the scores of new nuclear plants needed to charge up electric cars be economically supportable in a Post-Petroleum Age. 

Why?  That was explained to us by an almost forgotten scientist at the University of Florida over 20 years ago.  It is the concept of “net energy.”  If it takes one barrel of oil to produce every ten barrels of oil, you have nine barrels of oil left to run the rest of society.

As oil becomes more difficult to find and transport, the net yield decreases.  There is less to run society.  Oil costs rise.  All other costs that are touched by oil (everything) also rise.  Eventually, you creep into recession-with-inflation, which economists said wasn’t supposed to happen — until it did happen after the 1973 oil embargo.

This is where economists display their ignorance of physics.  Many economists, people who should know better, say at that point people go out and explore for more oil.  (We’re still finding new oil, but not at the rate we’re burning it.  And there are a steadily diminishing number of places on the planet where we haven’t poked holes.)  Or, economists chirp, we’ll find other energy sources and drive prices back down.  That is what happens for every other commodity, they say, and energy is no different from any other commodity.  Not so.

Energy is the great exception to conventional economic theory.  The Second Law of Thermodynamics is why.  Every time you “use” energy you lose some.  You can never get perfect efficiency.  So burning energy to get energy is a “losing” process.  Burn oil to get electricity and you end up with less energy in the electricity than you began with in the oil.  Transmit that electric energy over wires to a home or factory and you lose some.  You can’t “make” energy; and though you can sometimes “store” it in another form for a while (with loss each time) you only use energy once.  So the more complicated a process is.., the more “technologically involved”.., the more you lose in the processing.  That’s the problem with burning electricity which is a “highly refined” energy, to get hydrogen, a “lower” form, from water to then burn in cars.  That’s also why liquified coal will always be devilishly expensive to burn in autos and trucks.

The great shale oil fiasco of the late ’70s is a perfect example of what is wrong with all of the proposed “high-tech sources” of “new” energy.  Economists kept saying that when the price of oil rose high enough, extracting the oil from shale deposits would make it an economical commodity.  We burned billions of your tax dollars and billions more in private investment money trying to make it work.  There are those who still say it will work some day.  Don’t let them sell you any shale stock.

It doesn’t matter how high the price of shale oil rises

The problem with shale oil is that it has to be mined and crushed and heated to extract the oil that is there.  Mining machinery burns oil.  Crushing machinery burns oil.  Heating shale burns oil.  Hauling and dumping the spent shale burns more energy.  And of course, refining that oil into useable product takes more energy.  As does transporting it, and transporting all of the workers in the process, etc., etc.  In the ’70s we discovered that we burned about a barrel of oil to produce a barrel of shale oil.  (So-called in situ production methods shared a similar problem.)  In other words the “net energy” was zero.  So it didn’t matter what the price was.  If the price rose to a million dollars a barrel, it would still consume a million-dollar barrel of oil to produce a million-dollar barrel of shale oil and there would be no net gain to sell.

Energy is not just another commodity in our modern economic system.  Energy is the underlying power that carries the burden and makes our modern economic infrastructure “more productive” (less labor intensive).  Petroleum is the dominant energy source for the transportation network that undergirds the global economy, and the planet’s most plentiful, most versatile, most transportable and most efficient energy source.  In a very real and measurable sense the price of every other energy source we have floats on a “subsidy” of cheap petroleum.  In other words every other energy form we use, including all of the “solar” energies are as cheap and usable as they are because they are “underwritten” by cheap oil.  (Cheap petroleum and natural gas produce and transport those silicon PV cells.  When the oil is gone, the price of “solar” will skyrocket, along with every other “alternative energy source,” in direct proportion to the petroleum used in every step of its production and delivery.)

“Gasohol” is another ideal example of an “alternative fuel” that floats on a cheap petroleum subsidy.  It takes cheap oil for each step of planting, tending, fertilizing, spraying, harvesting, transporting and processing corn into alcohol.  It takes more cheap oil to blend that alcohol into something that will (still imperfectly, compared to gasoline) power your car.  Gasohol from corn, sugar, peat, beets, sawdust, tropical rain forest, or any other “biomass” is not going to run our present global auto world, let alone the expanding auto world glowingly predicted by the car industry for the future.  Ignore, for a second the fact that such massive use would quickly begin cannibalizing the biomass that supports all life and supplies such basics as food and oxygen.  “Biomass” is not a long-term massive source of global energy because many of our current agricultural and forestry practices “mine the soil,” and are, in the long run, neither “renewable,” nor “sustainable.”  Ignore the environmental concerns about CO2, ozone, etc.  Ignore the shrinking global biomass and arable land that will be needed in ever greater amounts to feed, clothe and house a swelling human population.  There isn’t enough biomass on earth to run our petroleum economy at its present level if we are insane enough to try it.  (And we are.)  We would quickly turn the planet into a desert trying to run our current automobile fleet on biomass.

And so the real “Catch 22” for alternative fuels is that when the petroleum economy begins to stumble over shortage, all of the “alternative fuels” that are supposed to be waiting in the wings, are going to rise in price dramatically.  It is going to be an ugly, cost-pushed, escalating thing that is going to cripple the global economy and impoverish global society.

Cleaned-up coal and natural gas and perhaps even some nuclear will provide our electricity for a period of time.  And some niche-market transportation, too.  Wind power can be a real electric winner for many places on the planet (not much wind here in Florida and cloud cover makes solar PV a marginally expensive source on much of the planet).  But none of these sources, along with their electric cars, will run our present automotive economy at the level of wealth and consumption we enjoy in this glorious sunset of our Petroleum Age.  Trans-continental economies that are most strung-out on automobiles and trucks (the United States, Canada, Australia, etc.) are likely to be hardest hit first. 

So just when we need to make the transition to other fuels we will discover that everything we do is much more expensive and we seem to have less than we anticipated.  It will puzzle economists.  The economy will slow down but the prices of everything will keep on rising.  We will then rediscover the age-old truth: money is not a real thing; it is only an accounting device.  Congress can’t print oil and they can’t repeal the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  So after we have ritually fired the then-current crop of politicians and the new ones haven’t changed anything, we won’t know who to blame.  What will be going on?

Now pay attention economists.  Here are three dicta that may sound heretical.  First is Minter’s Little Observation: Neither capital nor labor can create energy.  Growing out of this observation is Minter’s Little Law of Energy Subsidy: The shortage of a more efficient energy source in an economy will always make the remaining sources of less efficient energy more expensive and even less efficient.  Will humanity belatedly begin to use all energy more efficiently when we finally hear those sucking sounds in the petroleum barrel?  Of course.  We will have to.  But such efficiencies will not make us more prosperous (as they do today).  By that time they will only slow the rate at which we get poorer.  Why?  Heed Minter’s Little Maxim: A society’s transition from a more efficient energy source to a less efficient energy source will always and invariably decrease the wealth, flexibility and options available to that society.

In other words, just when we most need the wealth and flexibility of cheap petroleum energy to make the transition to a less energy-intensive infrastructure, everything is going to cost much, much more.  We will be poorer.

If this is all true, what should we be doing?  I do not have many answers.  We should at least take off the rose colored alternative fuel glasses that are blinding the Greens and providing a smoke screen for short-sighted governments and industries.  Until we do that we can’t accurately begin envisioning what a post-petroleum society is really going to look like.  Possibly we should stop sinking so much money into long-term expansions of infrastructure to support automobiles.  Maybe a few advanced thinkers will begin considering post-petroleum cities with electric-only cars, or without private-passenger cars altogether.  You tell me.

One thing that seems obvious is that we need to begin an honest net energy analysis of all of the proposed alternative fuels, and just what their true net is after all of the present petroleum subsidies are worked out of the formula.  That is not going to be as easy as it sounds.  Petroleum subsidizes everything we make and do.  But it is vital if we are to make rational judgments not based upon the partisan polemics of vested interests or true believers.  Just what we will do with this knowledge once we get it is another matter.  The Western World is run by corporate leaders who think quarter-to-quarter, politicians who think election-to-election, and a public that is hostile to bad news about their lifestyle (especially our beloved cars).  The Pacific Rim countries are enslaved to automobile exports (and petroleum poor).  The oil exporters are already exaggerating their reserves to get loans and the global financial community is making those loans.  Is there anyone out there who isn’t heavily vested in a continuation of the existing myopia?

In an earlier column, I said that since we obviously are going to do nothing about transportation until it is way too late, America’s only energy policy option is to work for efficiency in our buildings and built environment.  Certainly that is the focus of Kunstler’s two books.  That is the focus of what we have been calling “Sustainable Design.”  What is crucial for the design professions to realize is that we probably don’t have as much time as we think before we will not be as rich as we once were.  To me that spells building for quality and endurance.  It means an end to “consumable” buildings.  It means building for ourselves and posterity.  It means the old-fashioned conservative virtues of thrift and investment, not burn-up and squander.  To be Biblical, it means using the remaining fat years to prepare for the coming lean years.

Without considering the decline of petroleum, Kunstler already thinks we are wicked to be trashing our lives, our cities, and our infrastructure in our mad romance with the automobile.  Would he think us diabolic if he understood we are really racing towards a post-petroleum economy that stands to impoverish our posterity?

If so, he would probably be right.  Morally what we are doing is very much akin to burning the children’s lifeboats on the Titanic to keep the partying adults warm for another half an hour.

In the very humane, final chapter of Kunstler’s book, he reflects on the fine life that the success of his previous book, The Geography of Nowhere, has given him in a small town in New York.  It’s an idyllic world of writing and painting in an almost car-free cocoon.  He should enjoy it with a clear conscience.  He, at least, has jousted with the beast and urged reform.

But we are unreformable, and it seems certain that any such modest reforms as humanity would swallow will only delay the inevitable by a few years.  And so, as I understand it, a global economic crunch of epic proportions, one that stands to debase much of our current wealth and render much of our current infrastructure valueless, lies just over the horizon sometime in the next century.  The economic tremor of the early ‘70s was but a mild hint of the times to come.  Once again humanity is going to demonstrate Voltaire’s little maxim: “History teaches us that history teaches us nothing.”

Jim Minter, Editor

Some notes. 

(1) Minter thought we’d never make it to 100 million barrels per day of global oil production.  In 2014, we were at 89 million barrels.  Nobody was fracking in 1996.  Fracking is an extremely expensive and low net energy process that has no long term future.

(2) He foresaw the Petroleum Age beginning to sputter in a decade or so (i.e., 2006).  A barrel of oil was $30 in 2004.  In 2008, it was $147 — at which point the global banking system suddenly melted down, and the sky was filled with fat cats leaping off tall buildings.

(3) He mentions that shale oil is resource that will never be used.  This is accurate, because he is referring to shale that contains carbon-rich kerogen, a precursor of petroleum, which cannot be profitably extracted and refined into oil.  Today, the fracking industry is working different shale beds, in other regions, that actually contain petroleum, which can be profitably extracted only if the market price of oil is very high.

(4) Minter’s essay has gone extinct on the current internet.  It can be accessed via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.  Use it to search for:

(5) His essay was produced by e-design, part of the Florida Sustainable Communities website, run by the Florida Design Initiative.  This endeavor went extinct around 2000, when Republicans gained control of Florida government, and declared that Sustainability was “a socialist plot.”

(6) Minter was a former Miami Herald reporter, a bureau chief, daily columnist, and editor at the Tallahassee Democrat, a freelance investigative reporter in Washington, D.C., and Florida’s “Energy Czar.”  He’s over 80 now.

And… Our Plundered Planet, by Walter Youngquist (1921-2018), is an excellent 8-page essay that updates the nonrenewable resource story as of 2014.  He was one of the grandfathers of the Peak Oil movement, a top level petroleum geologist, and a university professor.  See pages 4-5 to learn about the limits of fracking, and the daunting reality of sharply diminished Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI), which almost all joyriders are completely ignorant of.  Download the PDF [HERE]

Monday, August 27, 2018

God is Red

God is Red fascinated me.  Vine Deloria Jr. (1933–2006) was a Yankton Sioux activist.  His great-grandfather was a medicine man.  His grandfather was a chief who became a priest.  His father rose to an executive position in the Episcopal Church.  Deloria graduated from a seminary, but chose not to become a minister, because of his father’s frustrations.  He sought a path that could be of greater benefit to Native American people.

There are three editions of God is Red (1973, 1992, 2003), spanning a turbulent 30 year era — aim for the newest version.  The book provides important views omitted from the glorious saga of Western civilization.  Even the 1973 edition was well ahead of mainstream society in foreseeing ecological catastrophe, the destination of our runaway train.  We’re not a good path.  Why are we on it?  That’s the question that drives this book.  Deloria’s search for understanding is presented from a Native American perspective.

All civilized people are descendants of tribal ancestors.  Unique religions emerged in each tribal homeland, fine-tuned to its landscape, ecology, and climate.  Every homeland had sacred places where the community participated in special ceremonies.  All members of the tribe had deep roots in the homeland, and all shared the same worldview.  A tribal person “does not live in a tribe, the tribe lives in him.”

In modern society, neighborhoods are constantly-changing swarms of occupants having highly diverse incomes, ethnicities, religious beliefs, and political views.  People may live side by side for years, yet have nothing in common, and sometimes intense differences.  Many do not know the names or faces of most folks in their neighborhood.  This is not a coherent community sharing a profound sense of responsibility for the wellbeing of their ecosystem.

The Western conception of time is not about the eternal cycles of passing seasons; it is linear — a bloody one-way pilgrimage from the miracle of creation to the tumultuous end of the world, a constantly intensifying cyclone of population, progress, pollution, and bad craziness.  Humans are simultaneously the crown of creation, superior to all other life on the planet, yet each newborn inherently flawed, via the curse of original sin.

Jesus of Nazareth was a radical and intriguing Jewish thinker who lived in occupied Palestine.  He was not fond of the Roman storm troopers, materialism, or greed.  Just live simply and be nice.  At that time, in the Mediterranean basin, and in many surrounding regions, the tribal era was long gone.  It had mutated into a number of civilizations.  Common folks lived under the thumb of elites.  Life was harsh.  Regional bloodbaths were common.

For a while, the members of the Jesus movement were all Jews.  When Jesus died, his followers believed that he was the long anticipated Messiah, and that he “would return almost immediately with an angelic army to judge the world.”  So, they quit working.  Before long, they went bankrupt.  They had no doubt that he would return during their lifetime.  They were wrong.  He didn’t. 

A bit later, they opened the door to allowing gentiles into the Jesus movement.  From this point forward, it was no longer a community having a common ethnic identity.  This was the first step on the path to becoming a multinational religion, the one and only absolute truth for everyone, in every place, for all eternity.

Over time, the Jesus movement expanded into other regions.  In Rome, many joined the parade.  Growing numbers led to the birth of a religious institution — the Roman Catholic Church.  By and by, the Roman Empire was rotting away from decadence and delirium, softening it up for a spectacular blind date with vicious mobs of bloodthirsty barbarians.  The collapse of the Empire created a power vacuum that was taken over by the Church, which proceeded to expand its domain and accumulate enormous wealth and power.

True believers waited for the return of the Messiah for years, then decades, then centuries.  This was getting boring.  One day, a revelation from God arrived — the Messiah could not return until all nations had heard the story of Jesus.  So, believers shifted their preaching and teaching into high gear.  Like the Roman Empire, the Roman Church became devoted to perpetual growth and the accumulation of wealth.  Kings and Popes worked hand in hand to conquer, colonize, and convert distant lands.  The missionaries wanted to save heathen souls, and the states wanted to relieve the converts of their valuable resources, exploit their labor, and collect taxes.

And so, Christendom spread across Europe, Africa, Australia, and Asia.  Colonists eventually arrived in America.  Epidemics of Old World diseases rapidly spread, killing maybe ninety percent of the Indians.  The buffalo robe fad exterminated 40 to 60 million bison.  Fur traders nearly eliminated the beavers.  Loggers mowed down vast virgin forests.  The cavalry slaughtered those Indians who resisted surrendering their freedom.

Tribal folks were not amused.  They were confused, perplexed, and pissed.  A missionary would convert them to the one true faith, and a year later the next missionary would inform them that the first one was a demonic fire hose of lies and deceptions.  All the black robes read the same book, but none agreed on what it meant.  WTF?  Especially aggravating was the enormous gulf between the beautiful beliefs they taught, and the relentless brutality of the colonial society, and its frantic gang rape of their ecosystem.  Meanwhile, back in Europe, instead of brotherly love, Christian nations endlessly waged war on one another.

When the Church shifted into globalization mode, and the Reformation shattered it into numerous denominations, the sweet teachings of Jesus largely got thrown under the bus.  Many express deep concern for zygotes embedded in uterine walls, but display far less compassion for the infants that eventually squirt out of the womb.  When American economic interests are threatened, reverence for human life stops, and the Marines are sent to mow down the enemy of the month, as well as innocent bystanders.

Deloria maintained a sense of humor.  He had a lot of fun with his chapter on popular Christianity — the theme parks, Jesus freaks, pussy grabbing faith healers, shameless money-hustling televangelists, and mega-church prosperity cults.  “The evangelical and fundamentalist wing of Christianity dwells on the figure of Jesus, and on the theology of old time religion.  Yet their knowledge about Jesus, his times, and the early church is nearly nil.”  Sunday school taught me nothing about the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the Thirty Years War.

Today we’re flying along on a joyride to Judgment Day, which is mere months or days away, maybe.  In polite conversation, it remains rude to contemplate our responsibility for leaving behind a somewhat habitable planet for the kiddies.  “It takes incredible willpower to pretend that history is the unfolding of a divine plan for humanity.  In less than two and a half centuries, American whites have virtually destroyed a whole continent.” 

Deloria concludes, “Who will find peace with the lands?  The future of humankind lies waiting for those who will come to understand their lives and take up their responsibilities to all living things.  Who will listen to the trees, the animals and the birds, the voices of the places of the land?  As the long-forgotten peoples of the respective continents rise and begin to reclaim their ancient heritage, they will discover the meaning of the lands of their ancestors.  That is when the invaders of the North American continent will finally discover that for this land, God is red.”

Deloria, Vine, God is Red: A Native View of Religion, 3d ed, Fulcrum Publishing, Golden, Colorado, 2003.

YouTube offers a number of Deloria videos.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Lapps and Labyrinths

Once upon a time, all humans in Europe were nomadic hunter-gatherers.  Today, we know little about those prehistoric wild folks.  Over the centuries, farming, animal husbandry, ceramics, textiles, and other technologies from the Middle East slithered westward into Europe.  Eventually, almost all of the wild folks were either absorbed into the turbulent new culture or eliminated by it.

In Europe, the far north was one of the last regions to be colonized.  Around 15,000 years ago, it was buried under a sheet of ice that was a kilometer thick.  Then, the climate warmed up, and by 8,000 years ago, the northern interior of Sweden was no longer hidden under an ancient glacier.

Humans began moving into some parts of Scandinavia about 10,000 years ago, along with the reindeer, moose, wolves, bears, seals, and other pioneers.  The descendants of these early humans are known as Saami or Lapps (“Lapps” is insulting to some).  For thousands of years, they were largely disconnected from European civilization.  Some forest dwelling Saami remained hunter-gatherers until the end of the nineteenth century.

There are now maybe 70,000 Saami.  They call their ancient homeland Sápmi.  Four modern nations claim sections of it: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia.  In the past, Saami groups spoke nine different languages.  These belong to the Uralic family of languages, which emerged west of the Ural Mountains of Russia.  Uralic languages include Hungarian, Finnish, Estonian, and Samoyed.  The Saami in western Sápmi look Scandinavian; in eastern Sápmi they look more like Inuit.  Their language includes 400 words for describing reindeer.

In the 1980s, archaeologist Noel Broadbent was engaged in routine research on Iron Age seal hunting in Sweden and Finland, along the northern coastlines of the Gulf of Bothnia.  One day, in the Västerbotten region of eastern Sweden, he discovered evidence of a ritual bear burial, which made no sense whatsoever, because it spit in the face of sacred myths — and myths often trump reality.

Bear burials could only be Saami business.  The myths said that Swedes were the original settlers of Sweden, and the scruffy Saami were exotic aliens that wandered in from elsewhere a few hundred years ago.  The myths said that Saami were reindeer herders who lived in the interior, and Swedes were the ones who settled the coast and began seal hunting settlements.  On, the coast, Broadbent had stumbled across an inconvenient truth, and a significant one.  The bear burial forced a sharp turn in his research.  He rolled up his sleeves and became a myth buster.

Broadbent reported his Saami findings in Lapps and Labyrinths.  It does an excellent job of documenting his archaeological research in Västerbotten — lots of charts, graphs, tables, illustrations, maps, and detailed technical information.  It’s not written for general readers, it’s not a pleasure to read, but it is readable, and it delivers many fascinating insights on these wild folks of prehistoric Europe.

The Saami were fortunate to inhabit a region that was far from ideal for farming, or herding cattle, sheep, and goats.  Six month winters are not easy for tropical primates.  Unfortunately, Germanic peoples, who farmed and herded, were being driven by population pressure to expand northward — folks who are now called Swedes and Norwegians.

What followed was similar to the later conflicts that arose between European settlers and Native Americans — their language, music, and spirituality was banned.  Kids were sent away to boarding schools.  Much of their land was privatized by settlers.  This put the squeeze on traditional hunting, so many shifted to reindeer herding.  The Saami were forced to perform hard labor in silver mines and construction projects.  The formerly wild and free became taxpayers, required to give the king furs, skins, feathers, fish, and so on — this put additional stress on wildlife.

The Saami were nomadic.  In the warm months, reindeer grazed in the mountains; in winter, they moved to the forest and dined on lichen.  At the coast, the Saami hunted seals on the late winter ice.  In the autumn, when the skins, blubber, and meat were at peak quality, they returned to catch seals in nets.  Three months were devoted to seal hunting.  Along the shore, Broadbent’s research uncovered thousands of bones from seals, reindeer, hares, ducks, moose, and bears.  Ninety-eight percent of the bones were from seals.

On the coast, they caught salmon, whitefish, cod, herring, and shellfish.  In rivers and lakes they caught salmon, perch, whitefish, pike, burbot, trout, and char.  When the catch diminished, they simply moved to another lake.  When game got scarce, they packed up their lavvo (teepee) and moved on.  In summer, they feasted on raspberries, bilberries, blueberries, crowberries and bearberries.

The Swedes were sedentary, betting their lives that luck and cleverness would allow them to survive in one permanent location in the wilderness.  It was a harsh life.  Farming was small scale, and very risky, in a land where late spring frosts, and early autumn frosts could nuke their crops overnight — and often did.  Too much rain could rot their crop.

The wild Saami didn’t soil their britches when a wolf killed a reindeer, because they didn’t own the reindeer, and wolves needed to eat.  What could possibly be more normal, natural, and healthy?  Duh!  Saami wisdom understood that everything was spiritually alive: humans, animals, trees, winds, streams, blizzards, northern lights, and so on.  Their entire reality was magnificently sacred.  They were always careful to remain quiet and respectful, because shouting and loud disturbances profaned the holiness of their home.

Saami people had great respect for bears, highly intelligent magical beings who slept all winter without eating, and then returned to life when warm breezes blew.  Every spring a bear was killed and eaten in a holy ceremony, and then its bones were lovingly buried.  It was a celebration of rebirth, renewal, and profound admiration for the bear people.

Swedish settlers depended primarily on their cattle, goats, and sheep.  These provided milk, meat, hides, wool, and fertilizer.  For six months animals could graze outdoors, and for six months it snowed and snowed.  In places, it could get up to 3 meters (10 ft.) deep.  Animals were jammed together in shelters, eating stored hay.  In warm months, pastures sometimes got baked by droughts, eliminating the forage.  Sometimes rain preceded haymaking, damp hay rotted in the barns, and animals sickened and died.  In remote settlements, dry hay could not be hauled in from elsewhere.  Sometimes epidemics of animal diseases wiped out the herds in a region.

Sometimes predators dropped by to have lunch with the herd, which always resulted in settlers violently soiling their britches, jumping up and down, and shouting impolite comments.  Settlers were law abiding royal subjects, and they were obligated to regularly make generous contributions to the friendly bailiffs who collected taxes for the king.  The animals were private property, living wealth, and status symbols.  The more you owned, the better.

The primitive devil-worshipping Saami hung out with the reindeer people, herbivores who were perfectly adapted to the chilly climate of Sápmi, needed no barns, ate lichen all winter, and took care of themselves.  The Saami did not suffer from tax collectors and tithe collectors.  They were free.  They inhabited their Sápmi homeland for thousands of years without causing permanent injuries to the ecosystem.

Beginning in A.D. 829, a mob of radicalized black robed terrorists began to stomp in from down under, and build churches on holy sites.  The Saami were perfectly happy with their own spiritual beliefs, so converting the small population took 300 years.  They learned to act like faithful believers, whilst privately preserving their ancient culture.

A bit later, the Saami were shocked to discover that they had mistakenly converted to a fake religion, according to the new Lutheran black robes, who hated both Catholics and the Saami.  In the 1600s, the Lutherans and the state began a brutal crusade of compulsory conversion.  Resisters were beaten, some were killed, especially shamans.  Sacred drums were confiscated, smashed, and burned.

Swedes were encouraged to move into the “vacant” wilderness and settle.  Population grew.  Women lost status.  Saami were driven away from the coast and other prime locations.  By and by, Sápmi country was savagely molested by money hungry road builders, miners, loggers, trappers, sealers, and fishers.

Oh, before I go, here’s an interesting fact.  By 8,000 years ago, the glaciers had melted away, raising the sea level.  At the same time, because there was no longer immense weight on the land, the land rose in elevation (called isostatic uplift).  “Stone Age sites in northern Sweden are found on old beaches that have been uplifted 120 m or more (393 feet).”  The Bronze Age coastline is now 20.5 km (12.7 miles) inland from today’s coastline.  Land uplift has greatly altered the waterways, lakes, and fjords over time.  Many old water networks and harbors dried up.

Finally, what are labyrinths?  Broadbent discovered some of these along the coast.  They were spiraling stone constructions made up of single lines of stones forming walkways toward a center point.  More than 300 have been found in Sweden.  Labyrinths were built by Christian settlers, mostly in the sixteenth century.  They were symbols of protection, indicating that the land was no longer corrupted by dangerous heathen devil worshippers.  Labyrinths are found in many regions of Europe.  Ironically, they were originally invented by pagans.

Broadbent, Noel, Lapps and Labyrinths: Saami Prehistory, Colonization, and Cultural Resilience, Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press, Washington, D.C., 2010.

A print version of Lapps and Labyrinths can be purchased from Amazon.  A free PDF version of the entire book can be downloaded free [HERE].

The Sami is an easy to read, colorfully illustrated, 86-page PDF produced by the Sami Parliament in Sweden.  It contains info on the modern Sami, their history, traditional spirituality, and struggles as an oppressed minority.

Other peepholes into Sápmi:

A gorgeous 4-minute video of Saami, reindeer, and their land is [HERE]

Friday, July 27, 2018

A History of the Swedish People

Vilhelm Moberg was born in 1898, in a remote village where remnants of the peasant way of life persisted.  He wrote A History of the Swedish People, which spanned two volumes: (1) before the Renaissance, and (2) after.  Moberg’s writing has been translated into 20 languages, and Swedes have bought six million copies of his books.  Most histories focus on the big shots, the decision makers, the conquerors, the villains.  His work focuses on the nameless people that historians disregard: the common folks, the salt of the Earth.  I like that.

In this spirit, chapter one is a discussion of slavery, which existed for several thousand years.  Bondsmen (slaves) have been invisible in Swedish history, because textbooks are obligated to focus on the patriotic glories, and step around the embarrassing dreck.  Bondsmen could be bought, sold, given way, or killed.  Throughout his life, Moberg was devoted to the notion of freedom.  He estimated that in the eleventh century, twenty percent of the population was bondsmen.  The rest of the book is devoted to the commoners who were freeborn, the rugged peasantry who worked hard to survive in the forests of Sweden, and were the majority of the population.

In most other European nations, peasants were not free.  They suffered for centuries under the heavy fist of feudalism.  They inhabited lands crisscrossed with roads, which enabled the nobility to snatch the fruits of their toil and keep them under control.  The main exceptions were Sweden, Norway, and Switzerland, where the peasants escaped serfdom.  The Swiss, surrounded by powerful enemies, were protected by the Alps.  The Norse and Swedes were protected by their vast rugged forests.  As long as the forests survived and remained roadless, the people were much safer.

In several European languages, the words for “road” and “raid” evolved from a common root.  Romans built many roads for the expansion and management of their empire.  Later, those same roads made it easier for scruffy outsiders to rubbish their empire and loot their booty.  In Roman times, the wild German tribes were also fiercely warlike, but their goal was not conquest and expansion.  Their goal was to keep outsiders out, homeland security.  Caesar noted, “It is the greatest pride of the Germanic tribes to surround themselves with broad desolate frontier regions.”  Frontier forests were buffer zones that were kept untilled and uninhabited.

In the dense roadless forests of Sweden, invaders soon became perfectly lost.  It was terrifying.  Behind any bush might be a man with a crossbow.  The forest people knew every rock, hill, and cranny in the woods.  They could pick the ideal time and place to strike.  When attack was unwise, they vanished and waited patiently for fresh opportunities.

Over the centuries, Swedes adapted well to forest life.  In addition to fishing, foraging, and hunting, they farmed on a small scale.  Livestock was their primary resource, providing them with meat, milk, butter, cheese, hides, and wool.  The forest was common land owned by no one.  A Swedish proverb declares, “The forest grows as well for the poor as for the rich.”  It was the poor man’s garden.  Forest dwellers often lived in isolation, with few neighbors to rely on.

Moberg devoted an entire chapter to his love for the forest wonderland in which he grew up.  In his strict rural Lutheran village, good and bad were sharply defined.  Where others could see him, little Vilhelm had to behave properly, to avoid criticism.  In the forest, he was free.  He could hide where no one would see him, and behave any way he liked.  He was happier as a child in the forest than in any other place in his life.

In pagan times there were festivals in which stallions, bulls, billy-goats, cocks, and humans were sacrificed to the gods.  One observer recorded details about the annual ceremony at Uppsala.  Next to the temple was a sacred grove, where the corpses of up to 200 sacrificed men and beasts hung from the trees.  The sacrificial humans included criminals, infirm old men, foreigners, bondsmen, and prisoners.

The Vikings were possessed with an insatiable hunger for the valuables belonging to others.  They enjoyed cruising along coasts and rivers and raiding Christian towns and villages — peaceful settlements with which they had no disputes.  Vikings were extraordinarily cruel and inhuman, and they fought with pure fury.  Vikings ravaged Europe from 800 to 1050.

Sweden’s conversion to Christianity was slow and bloody.  The Asa people (pagans) were open minded, and they worshipped many gods and goddesses.  Deities that brought good harvests, weather, and health were honored, and bummer gods were tossed on the compost pile.  When foreign missionaries suggested worshipping a new one, they were willing to give him a try.  The pagans were open minded, but the missionaries were not.  Naturally, the Swedes were not delighted to be told that all their ancient beliefs were wrong and evil.  Commonly, after the missionaries had moved on to convert others, the newly baptized folks returned to the faith of their ancestors.

It took 300 years to convert the small population of Swedes.  In 1122, Småland was last region to be converted.  The chronicle reads: “King Sigurd set his course for a trading city called Kalmar, which he laid waste, and thereafter ravaged Småland, exacting from the Smålanders a tribute of fifteen hundred beasts; and the Smålanders accepted Christianity.”  This slaughter was called the Kalmar Raid.  Sigurd returned to Norway laden with loot.  In some regions, Swedes continued to secretly practice pagan rituals into the seventeenth century.

Later, Christian Swedes decided to teach the Finns about the Prince of Peace.  King Erik offered the Finns peace on condition they let themselves be baptized and adopt the Christian faith, but they turned down his offer.  So the Finns were massacred.  “After the struggle was over the king walked about the battlefield among the masses of the fallen heathen and was so deeply moved by the sight of their corpses that he wept.”

Moberg had deep appreciation for the 5,000-year era of Swedish peasants, which was approaching extinction by 1900, displaced by the hideous rise of industrialism and urbanization.  Ancient farms and villages were being abandoned, returning to forest.  Growing numbers of weird and spooky human-like beings, known as Consumers, were wandering into peasant country from Stockholm, and other insane asylums.

Rural peasants were the last full-blooded individualists; each one was personally unique, warts and all.  They were highly attuned to the ecosystem that had been their ancestors’ home for centuries, and they had little contact with outsiders, or their peculiar ideas.  The Consumers were rootless tumbleweeds who dressed alike, smelled alike, thought alike, and lived alike — the standardized outputs of a mass culture.

Peasants spent a lot of time with each other, gathered around the hearth fire.  Folks did handiwork — spinning, weaving, carving, and so on.  Elders shared stories and memories.  The daily lives of peasants were spent in intimate contact with the magic, mystery, and beauty of wild nature, which is essential for wellbeing.  Consumers would suffer panic attacks if forced to live in a medieval cottage — no lights, TV, radio, internet, books, running water, toilet.  Here’s Moberg’s punch line: “Instead of the things they lacked, medieval people had others, which we have lost.”  They enjoyed good old fashioned community.

The book goes on to discuss many other topics.  It interested me because my mother’s family has Norwegian roots.  The Norse and Swedes are closely related.  I’ve been reluctant to review this book, because it’s not about ecological sustainability.  But it does discuss subjects that are both interesting, and rarely mentioned.  So, I turned to a number of other sources to look for the missing eco-info.

Like the wild Irish, British, and Germanic tribes, Scandinavians shifted from hunting, fishing, and foraging, moving toward small scale pastoralism and farming in forest clearings.  This encouraged conflicts with wild critters, who were thrilled to feast on the delicious offerings of rye, oats, calves, poultry, sheep, and so on.  Nature became an enemy.  The peasant lads fetched their war paint.

By 1870, wild boars, aurochs (wild cattle), and beavers were extinct in Sweden, and red deer and moose were getting close.  By the mid-1900s, the wolf population was zero.  Later, some beavers (from Canada), boars, and wolves were reintroduced, or wandered in from elsewhere.  To this day, the eternal peasant’s war on wolves continues in Sweden, Norway, and Finland — three of the most “eco-progressive” societies in Christendom.

Oddest of all, in Moberg’s celebration of the common folk of Sweden, he made no mention of the Sami people, the wild hunter-gatherers who have been harshly abused and exploited by the civilized racist settlers for several centuries.  New research is discovering that the Sami people inhabited large portions of Scandinavia long before the Nordic (Germanic) pastoralists arrived.  Sami lived as far south as Hadeland in Norway, not far from Oslo, one of my ancestral homelands.

Genetic data has linked the modern Sami to the first humans who wandered into Scandinavia more than 10,000 years ago.  They have been in Sweden much longer than the Swedes.  The Sami homeland is known as Sápmi, and it spans large areas of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia.  Sami have another name, Lapp, which some do not like.

Moberg, Vilhelm, A History of the Swedish People, Pantheon Books, New York, 1973.

To learn more about Sami and reindeer, four nice essays are [HERE]

Lapps and Labyrinths, an excellent 2010 book on the Sami, by archaeologist Noel Broadbent, can be purchased from Amazon ($$$), or downloaded free [HERE]


Thursday, July 5, 2018

Conquest of the Land Through Seven Thousand Years

Following a severe Chinese famine in 1920-21, Walter Lowdermilk (1888-1974) was hired to study the situation, and provide famine prevention recommendations.  He worked there from 1923 to 1927.  Floods and famines had been hammering the Yellow River (Hwang Ho) basin for 4,000 years, sweeping away millions of lives.  The basin is covered with a deep blanket of yellowish, nutrient-rich loess soil, dumped there by winds during the Ice Age. 

Because loess is light, it could easily be tilled using primitive digging stick technology.  This is why an early civilization began in the Yellow River region.  Loess is also easily erodible.  The long history of floods is related to the enormous loads of silt that the river regularly flushed down from the uplands following the summer rains.  As the silt-loaded flow arrived in regions with minimal slope, it slowed down, dumped the silt, clogged the river channel, and spread out across the land.  So, farmers built dikes along the both sides to confine the river channel.  The dikes eventually fail, the land is flooded, the dikes are repaired… the cycle endlessly repeats.

Lowdermilk travelled to the source of the silt, the Loess Plateau, a region one and a half times the size of California.  Prior to the expansion of agriculture and population, ancient forests held the upland loess in place.  After the forests were eliminated, rain runoff increased, erosion increased, and the era of catastrophic floods was born.  The Yellow River has long had a nickname: China’s Sorrow.

Up in the plateau, Lowdermilk discovered a surreal nightmare world of enormous erosion gullies up to 600 feet (183 m) deep.  It was at this point that he realized his life’s calling, soil conservation.  His utopian fantasy was to develop permanent agriculture, so that humankind could be fed in a manner that was ecologically harmless, perfectly sustainable, forever.

In the western U.S., the Dust Bowl began late in 1933.  During a period of above average precipitation (most of 1900 to 1930), a swarm of farmers and ranchers had stripped the natural vegetation from much of the shortgrass prairie.  Then came years of drought, which zapped the wheat, leaving the soil exposed.  When the monster winds arrived, some farms lost half of their topsoil in several hours.  In 1934, the skies in Washington D.C. were dark at noon.  Lowdermilk was hired by the new Soil Erosion Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In 1938 and 1939, he was sent to Western Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, to make observations, and report on his findings.  During his research, he drove more than 25,000 miles (40,000 km), until World War Two terminated the project.  He learned how to read landscapes — agricultural archaeology.  He saw many devastated wastelands, some reduced to bare bedrock, which had once been prosperous densely populated regions.  This wasn’t about climate change.  Common causes were deforestation, overgrazing, soil salinization, planting on sloped land, and failure to maintain irrigation canals and hillside terraces.

His findings echoed those of George Perkins Marsh — the granddaddy of environmental history — who had visited Old World disaster areas 80 years earlier.  While Marsh went into great detail in his 300 page Man and Nature, Lowdermilk boiled the core story down to a booklet, Conquest of the Land Through Seven Thousand Years, available free online [HERE].  More than a million copies have been printed.  Importantly, Lowdermilk took a camera with him.  His photos are shocking testimonials to the unintended consequences of domestication and civilization.  The booklet can be read in one sitting.

The text bounces from disaster to disaster, providing a brief description of each.  In Tunisia, he observed the site of Cuicul, a magnificent city in Roman times, which had been entirely buried, except for three feet (1 m) of one column poking out of the soil.  It took 20 years of digging to expose the remarkable ruins.  Today, the land can support only a few inhabitants.  Likewise, the Minoan city of Jerash, a village of 3,000 people, was once home to 250,000.  Lebanon was once covered with 2,000 square miles (5,180 km2) of ancient cedar forests, now reduced to four small groves.  In Syria, he observed a million acres (404,685 ha) of manmade desert, dotted with a hundred dead villages.

I don’t want to spoil the vivid excitement of your reading experience by summarizing most of the subjects.  Keep in mind that the stories he tells are the result of good old-fashioned muscle-powered organic farming, and organic grass-fed herding.  The harms were the result of human actions inspired by ignorance or tradition, not the fickle whims of nature.  Compared to modern industrial agriculture, the early farmers and herders were childlike amateurs at ecocide.  We have, unfortunately, become champions.

Lowdermilk provided recommendations for reducing soil loss, but not eliminating it.  He had a blind faith that the wizards of science would eventually discover ways to make agriculture genuinely sustainable.  Following World War Two, U.S. agricultural policies were somewhat progressive, for a while.  Efforts were made to preserve small family farms.  Farmers were paid to cease crop production on erosion-prone locations, and protect the vulnerable soil with grass.  The government gave additional land to my uncle in North Dakota to reward him for planting shelterbelts of trees to reduce wind erosion. 

Then came the Richard Nixon administration.  In 1973, food prices spiked.  So, Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz ordered farmers to get big or get out, plant from fencerow to fencerow, and let the magic of the marketplace select the winners.  Subsidies ended, and shelterbelts vanished.  Huge grain surpluses were harvested, prices tanked, and legions of farms went belly up.

Almost all university grads (and professors) know absolutely nothing about George Perkins Marsh or Walter Lowdermilk.  Those two lads revealed that civilization has never been sustainable, and they deliberately gave their readers a loud dope slap — dudes, it’s still unsustainable.  Wake up!  When Marsh published in 1864, Earth was home to 1.4 billion.  When Lowdermilk released his first version in 1948, there were 2.4 billion.  Yesterday, it was 7.6 billion and still growing.  Oh-oh!  The two lads shared great wisdom with us, which we disregarded.  It’s hard to get concerned about threats that are not immediate, and readily visible.

In the twentieth century, the scale of global agriculture grew explosively.  All life requires nitrogen, but only in a special form that is produced by nitrogen-fixing bacteria.  Plants cannot utilize the nitrogen in the air.  In 1911, Germans began the commercial production of synthetic ammonia, which contained nitrogen in the plant-friendly form, bypassing the ancient dependence on soil bacteria, and ending agriculture’s addiction to livestock manure.  Potent synthetic fertilizer is primarily made from natural gas, a fossil fuel.

Synthetic fertilizer greatly increased the volume of nitrogen available for plant growth, sidestepping nature’s limits.  This accelerated food production, and shattered the glass ceiling on population size.  Nitrogen expert Vaclav Smil speculated that 40 percent of the people alive in 2000 would not exist without synthetic ammonia fertilizer.*  I wonder what percentage of humankind might survive in the post-petroleum world.  In his essay, The Oil We Eat, Richard Manning wrote, “Every single calorie we eat is backed by at least a calorie of oil, more like ten.”

Later, the crop-breeding projects of the Green Revolution more than doubled farm productivity between 1950 and 2000.  Consequently, population soared from 2.4 billion in 1950 to 6 billion in 2000.  The Green Revolution was all about full scale industrial agriculture — irrigation, large farms, powerful machinery, monoculture cropping, proprietary seeds, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides.  To sum up the food story today, Paul Ehrlich wrote a five page summary [HERE].

Anyway, Lowdermilk gave me a sucker punch.  When he was in Palestine in the late 1930s, he observed a brutally abused ecosystem.  Much of the highlands had been stripped of soil, which had washed into the valleys, which continued to erode.  This was the land that, 3,000 years earlier, Moses had described as “a land flowing with milk and honey.”  Moses could have never imagined what his descendants would eventually do to the vibrant vitality of the Promised Land — by faithfully following the divine instructions to be fruitful, multiply, and subdue the Earth.  Oy!  Lowdermilk suggested an eleventh commandment, along the lines of live sustainably or go extinct.

This inspired me to contemplate the condition of our planet 3,000 years from now.  My imagination sputtered, gasped, and suffered a total meltdown.  Having read hundreds of books on environmental history, and observed 65 years of modern trends, my ability to engage in soaring flights of magical thinking is dead and gone.  I’ll be happy if I can help a hundred people break the trance before I cross to the other side.

Lowdermilk, Walter Clay, Conquest of the Land Through Seven Thousand Years, 1948, Reprint, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington D.C., 1999.

*In 2001, when there were six billion humans, Smil wrote about the Haber-Bosch process for making synthetic ammonia.  “Without this synthesis about two-fifths of the world’s population would not be around — and the dependence will only increase as the global count moves from 6 to 9 or 10 billion people.”  Enriching the Earth, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2001, page xv.

Douglas Helms wrote Walter Lowdermilk’s Journey, an interesting five page paper describing the highlights of Lowdermilk’s professional life.