Monday, June 20, 2016

Fire: A Brief History







We live in a perplexing era.  On one hand, we are the most brilliant critters that ever existed.  On the other hand, we are knowingly destroying the ecosystem upon which our survival depends, which sane folks might see as the opposite of brilliant.  You and I descend from ancestors who, once upon a time, lived in balance with the family of life.  What happened?

Obviously, the industrial era has supercharged our eco-impacts.  The stage for the industrial era was set maybe 8,000 years ago, by the transition to agriculture, animal domestication, and civilization — a sharp turn away from low-impact living.  Was this our turning point?  Some think that we began to drift away from original harmony much earlier, maybe 30,000 to 50,000 years ago, with a Great Leap Forward, which brought complex language, innovative new tools, cave painting, body decorations, rituals, etc.

A few scholars have suggested that if space aliens had visited Earth 100,000 years ago, our ancestors would have appeared to be nothing more than ordinary animals.  For a long time, I accepted that.  Now I don’t.  I’ve been reading the work of Stephen Pyne, a scholar who has written 25 books on fire history.  He provided an introduction to his knowledge in Fire: A Brief History.  Those visiting space aliens would have noticed that one species — and only one — maintained fires in their encampments.  This behavior was not the slightest bit ordinary.

By learning how to preserve and manipulate fire, our ancestors acquired great power, far more power than they acquired from wooden clubs or chipped flint spearheads.  Fire eventually enabled them to colonize the entire planet.  Pyne says, “Without fire humanity sinks to a status of near helplessness, a plump chimp with a scraping stone and digging stick, hiding from the night’s terrors, crowding into minor biotic niches.”

My home, food, and belongings were created by machines that operated on domesticated firepower.  Without firepower, this city and civilization would not exist; the place I live would be a healthy forest in a vast wilderness.  If our ancestors had not acquired firepower, humans would still be living close to the tropics, and the Americas might be unknown continents.

Long, long ago, our early hominid ancestors frequently provided nice warm meals for the hungry leopards and hyenas that visited in the night.  Man-eating predators greatly benefitted our kin by helping them avoid embarrassing population explosions.  But on one quest for a yummy midnight snack, the hungry man-eaters were shocked when the ancestors began brandishing flaming torches and yelling discourteous suggestions.  Antelopes never did this!

Swartkrans Cave is near Johannesburg, South Africa.  It has been carefully excavated.  At the oldest lower layers, no charcoal is found.  It is an era before domesticated fire.  At this level, there are complete skeletons of big cats, and the scattered gnawed bones of the critters they ate, including hominids.  Higher up, charcoal is found in newer layers, the age of fire.  Here we find complete hominid skeletons, and the scattered bones of the critters they gnawed, including big cats.  With fire, hominids had taken over the cave, and the prey had become predators.

Fire requires three things: heat, oxygen, and fuel.  From very early times, maybe a billion years ago, heat was available in the form of lightning and volcanoes, but fuel and adequate oxygen were missing.  Modern levels of free oxygen emerged by 500 million years ago, but there was no fuel.  With the arrival of land plants by 400 million years ago, biomass was born, and fire became possible.

In the early days, our Homo erectus ancestors captured fire from lightning strikes, and very carefully preserved it.  If the fire ever went out, the unlucky brothers and sisters began to smell like cat food.  Later, some genius learned how to kindle fire, a revolutionary innovation.  There were three types of fire starters: the fire drill, the fire piston, and the fire striker.  The first friction match appeared in 1827.  Today, even slobbering tykes can easily burn down the house.

Every day, there are eight million lightning strikes.  When a bolt hits fuel that is not soggy, a fire can start.  Pyne refers to this wild natural fire as First Fire.  Second Fire is fire that has been domesticated by humans.  It blazes under our control.  Some regions have abundant biomass fuel, and other regions barely have any.  The amount of Second Fire that could exist at any time was always limited by the amount of biomass available.

Third Fire is the flame of industrial civilization, and it has given us the diabolical power to create countless catastrophes.  The fuel it consumes is fossil biomass.  Coal is rainforest vegetation that accumulated over the course of 60 million years.  Oil and natural gas come from dead phytoplankton that accumulated over 250 million years.  Of course, they are nonrenewable and finite.  We will rubbish the planet’s ecosystem before we can burn all of them (but we’ll try!).

There has never been more combustion on this planet than now.  We are burning enormous amounts of sequestered carbon as fast as humanly possible, and this is overloading the planetary ecosystem with staggering amounts of pollution — greenhouse gasses, acid rain, toxic ash, etc.  “Since the present is often unable to absorb it, the outflow spills into the future,” says Pyne.  “We have had the impact of a slow collision with an asteroid.”

Third Fire powers the machinery that mines the ore, crushes it, smelts it, rolls it, delivers it, stamps it, welds it, and creates automobiles and countless other daffy mistakes.  The controlled fire in engines doesn’t care about the weather.  It can burn in the desert, the rainforest, the arctic, in planes, and at sea.  We simply turn the ignition key, and the engines fire up.  Third Fire enables the production of almost every manmade artifact in our lives.

I’ve just scratched the surface here.  Pyne has spent a lifetime writing about the subject that fascinates him.  Fire enabled cooking, which makes food easier to digest, neutralizes toxins, and kills bacteria and parasites.  Fire was used to drive wild game animals into confined locations where hunters waited.

Early agriculture began on treeless floodplains, where a digging stick and seeds were all that was needed.  As our numbers grew, we ran out of mudflats to thrash.  So, we invented slash-and-burn to transform vast regions of ancient forests into additional cropland and pasture.  Nobody knows more about the history of slash-and-burn than Pyne.

In eighteenth century North America, the eastern portion of the Great Plains was tallgrass prairie.  On average, Native Americans fired this region every three years, to eliminate brush, and maintain excellent grazing habitat for the bison herds.  The tallgrass prairie had soils and climate that were perfectly suitable for forest.  When the Indians were obliterated by the diseases of civilization, they quit burning, and the forest expanded.

Agriculture encourages population growth, and its shadow, conflict.  For thousands of years, demented nerds have invented countless new ways of using fire to kill people.  Both ships and settlements were flammable, and fire was an excellent weapon for turning them to ashes.  For several thousand years, there has been an accelerating nonstop arms race to discover new and improved ways for barbequing enemies and innocent bystanders.

In the old days, towns were often surrounded by defensive walls or palisades.  Inside, wooden structures were packed closely together, and each contained hearths with open flames.  Often, when one structure burned, many burned.  Russian villages typically burned every 20 to 30 years.  Cities have always been fireplaces.  After every immolation, the survivors built a new collection of highly flammable buildings.  Pyne suspected that the Christian concept of a fiery hell was originally inspired by the firestorms common in that era — horror!

It’s a short, well written, mind expanding, unforgettable book.

Pyne, Stephen J., Fire: A Brief History, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 2001.
 
 

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Myth of Human Supremacy




When an unlucky person has been swept away by the brainwashing of a wacko cult, concerned friends or family members sometimes seek the assistance of a skilled deprogrammer to exorcize the demons.  It’s a painful process.  The scrambled soul is blasted with a fire-hose of strong rational arguments, hour after hour, hammering away at the many contradictions in the cult’s beliefs.  Ideally, the shining power of truth blasts away the illusions, and opens the door to healing.

I was reminded of this while reading Derrick Jensen’s book, The Myth of Human Supremacy.  In his story, the wacko cult consists of human supremacists, zombies who have been indoctrinated to believe that humans are the miraculous conclusion of the long evolutionary journey.  Humans are the one and only species that is sentient, self-aware, intelligent, and able to make tools and communicate.

The cult of human supremacy has grown rapidly, and now includes a large portion of humankind.  The zombie mobs are mindlessly destroying the living planet that everything depends on for survival.  Jensen puts a spotlight on the demon: “Unquestioned beliefs are the real authorities of any culture.”  We are bombarded with supremacist ideas from early childhood.  They define our understanding of normality, and encourage us to live like there’s no tomorrow.  Only humans matter, a living planet does not.

By definition, human supremacy is about hierarchy: the white male God, white kings, white men, white women, minorities, mammals, birds, plants, insects, bacteria, etc.  Most of the community of life is inferior to you, resources for you to exploit or destroy.  The supremacist worldview has no concern for ecological health.  Civilization is a space station where all of our needs are magically met.

Jensen devotes many pages to revealing the cult’s creepy narcissism.  Research is discovering that plants and nonhuman animals are sentient, self-aware, intelligent, and able to make tools and communicate.  Slime mold can learn and remember, displaying more intelligence than a number of world leaders.  Plants do react when damaged, disproving the cult’s belief that organisms without brains can feel no pain.  The cult believes that communication means making funny noises with human lips, but trees communicate using chemicals.

Humans spray neurotoxins on their food, while boasting that we are the only ones who possess intelligence.  “Intelligence” is a slippery word.  From the supremacist perspective, it’s intelligent to create an industrial society that blindsides the planet’s climate.  Thanks to this intelligence, 98% of old growth forests are gone, 99% of prairies, 99% of wetlands, 90% of large oceanic fish.  “When others besides human supremacists look at us, they see the worst thing that has ever happened to this planet,” says Jensen.  “If animals could conceive of the devil, his image would be man’s.”

For thousands of years, agriculture has had a well-documented history of transforming healthy ecosystems into wastelands via deforestation, soil mining, wetland destruction, and water mining — a process that still continues.  Agriculture can never be sustainable.  “Plows are probably the single most destructive human invention ever, and agriculture was the single biggest — and least intelligent — mistake any creature has ever made.”  Humankind is in extreme overshoot right now, as the population skyrocket keeps zooming upward.

There are two flavors of technology: authoritarian and democratic.  Authoritarian technology is produced by complex, hierarchical civilizations.  This technology tends to control the society.  We must have electricity, electronics, sequestered carbon, and transportation devices to participate in modernity.  Consumers are hardcore electricity addicts.  Jensen screams!  Lack of imagination is a primary cause of the Earth Crisis.  We can’t imagine living without electricity, but we can imagine a world without rhinos or tigers.  Oy!

It takes imagination to challenge the unquestioned beliefs that inspire insane behavior.  Jensen’s doctor says that there can be no cure without a proper diagnosis.  Unquestioned beliefs often make an accurate diagnosis impossible.  They tell us that renewable energy, nuclear power, and geoengineering are brilliant solutions.  So, every unquestioned belief must be mercilessly questioned, and the dodgy ones sent to the shredder.

Democratic technology, on the other hand, is stuff that anyone can make, like a basket or bow and arrow.  Chimps use sticks to fish for yummy termites.  Vultures throw stones to crack ostrich eggs.  This is sustainable.  It doesn’t rock the boat.  But authoritarian technology is big juju.  Too often, even green activists have vivid fantasies of a sustainable future, whilst keeping many of the unsustainable goodies of civilization.  The line between naughty and nice can be blurry.

Lately, I’ve been reading about the Aztecs.  In 1492, Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) was one of the biggest cities in the world, with a population of about 200,000, five times larger than London.  They had no horses, oxen, plows, or metals.  The fields were tilled with digging sticks, and fertilized with human poop.  It was a highly sophisticated and authoritarian Stone Age civilization famous for cutting the beating hearts out of thousands of prisoners at a time.

Words can be slippery.  Throughout the book, Jensen frequently uses “stupid” when discussing the quirks of civilized humans.  Stupid means unintelligent, having a limited ability to learn and understand, an incurable handicap.  Maybe "ignorant" would have been more precise.  It means a lack of knowledge — a somewhat curable shortcoming.  Methinks that ignorance plays a major role in the bad choices we make.  In many ways our education system remains lost in a dream world of yesteryear.

Anyway, Jensen tackles and paddles many unquestioned beliefs.  We all suffer from them, to some degree, he says.  It’s hard not to, living in this culture.  Questioning is a powerful medicine that should be used daily.  When it comes to innovation, we are terribly clever.  At the same time, we are tropical primates, engaged in a phenomenally ignorant adventure in violating as many of the laws of nature as humanly possible, for no good reason.

The myth of human supremacy asserts that we are rational, moral, and ethical.  Wild animals have no interest in reason, morals, or ethics because they have no need for them.  They live sustainably by simply remaining in balance with the community of life.  They have no need for powerful 20-20 foresight, because they stay on a stable time-proven path.  Supremacists are ravaging Earth, but they look awesome in their smiling selfies.

Jensen's book reminds me of a defibrillator, the gizmo used when someone's heart stops beating.  Its two paddles are placed on the chest, and then a powerful electric shock is blasted into the victim, in an effort to restart the heart.  He doubts that his book will convince many of the living dead supremacists to question their beliefs.  Its main purpose is to encourage the pilgrims who understand that civilization is killing the planet.  We need to save as many species as we can.

The book is also something like a hearing aid.  It heightens readers’ ability to hear the supremacist voices that barrage us every day.  It’s helpful to better recognize the tireless jabber from the lunatic asylum.  And so, Jensen waves and rides off into the sunset.  “The more I learn about the real world, the more wonderful I think it is, and the more honored I am to be here.”

Jensen, Derrick, The Myth of Human Supremacy, Seven Stories Press, New York, 2016.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Burning an Empire




Long, long ago, around 1910, writer Stewart Holbrook met John Cameron, an old logger who had many stories to tell.  Cameron had witnessed the great fire at Peshtigo, Wisconsin (map) which began on October 8, 1871.  The town was a booming metropolis of 2,000 souls on the banks of the mighty Peshtigo River, and a hub for enterprises related to forest mining and wood products.

There had been little snow the previous winter, and just one rain between May and September.  Streams were shallow, and swamps were drying up.  Logging operations left large amounts of slash in the woods (piles of discarded limbs and branches).  Slash piles were eliminated by burning, even when it was very hot, dry, windy, and stupid.  Sparks and cinders would float off the huge bonfires onto a tinder dry landscape, where they frequently ignited other fires.  At Peshtigo, there had been small forest fires in the area during the preceding weeks, but these were commonplace, nobody worried.

The morning of October 8 was hotter than anyone could remember, and the air was deadly still.  At noon, the sun disappeared.  By nightfall the horizon was red, and smoke was in the air, making their eyes run.  At 9 P.M., Cameron heard an unusual roaring sound.  The night sky was getting lighter by the minute.  A hurricane force wind howled through.  Suddenly, swirling slabs of flames were hurtling out of nowhere and hitting the dry sawdust streets.

In a flash, Peshtigo was blazing — maybe five minutes.  The firestorm roared like Niagara Falls.  It was a seething, searing hell.  Forty people sought shelter in a (wooden) company boarding house, where they were promptly incinerated.  Others ran to the bridge, where they met a mob fleeing from the other side, as the bridge burst into flames.

Holbrook wrote that Cameron and others “saw things they never forgot.  Never.  They saw horses and cattle, yes, and men and women, stagger a brief moment over the smoking sawdust streets, then go down to burn brightly like so many flares of pitch-pine.  Forty years afterward, [Cameron’s] voice choked as he told of watching pretty Helga Rockstad as she ran down a blazing sidewalk, her blond hair streaming, and of seeing the long blond hair leap into flame that stopped Helga in her tracks.  Looking at the spot the next morning, he found two nickel garter buckles and a little mound of white-gray ash.”

The river was the safest place that night.  People kept their heads underwater as much as possible, so the great sheets of flame wouldn’t set their heads on fire.  Flaming logs floated down the river into the crowd.  Within an hour, the town was vaporized.  Big lumberjacks were reduced to streaks of ash, enough to fill a thimble.  At least 1,150 died, and 1,280,000 acres (518,000 ha) went up in smoke.

This is a condensed version of how Holbrook described the Peshtigo firestorm in his book, Burning an Empire.  In 1942, Holbrook met an old man who had lived in Peshtigo in 1871.  Before the fire, enormous pines grew close to the tracks between the town and the harbor.  But now there was nothing along the tracks except some brush and reeds.  The fire had erased the ancient forest, and the subsequent fires had destroyed the soil.

Holbrook’s book is a collection of stories describing the great forest fires of North America, from the Miramichi River valley in New Brunswick, Canada in 1825, to the Bandon, Oregon fire of 1936.  Readers learn about other big fires in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana.

The Peshtigo fire gets little attention in our history, because October 8, 1871 was also the date that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow knocked over a lantern, igniting the great fire of Chicago, a city made of wood.  Five times more people died in the Peshtigo fire, but Chicago was a major U.S. town.  Its fire destroyed more than 17,000 structures.  Also on October 8, 1871, numerous big fires raged across the state of Michigan, where it had not rained in two months.  These fires destroyed 2.5 million acres (1 million ha) — three times more timberland than Peshtigo.

Nobody knows how the Peshtigo fire started.  The sparks that ignited the firestorm may have come from twenty different fires.  While loggers were often blamed for triggering infernos, settlers were equally careless, and lit far more fires.  The Homestead Act provided land to anyone who would clear it and build a shack.  The quick and easy way for a settler to clear the trees was to start a fire.  Billions of feet of timber were simply burned.

Year after year, across the nation, clearing fires burned unattended throughout every summer and fall, causing far more damage than the mighty firestorms — “these friendly little blazes were burning an empire.”  Not surprisingly, this was an era of countless forest fires.  For example, in just the state of Wisconsin, tremendous fires destroyed huge areas in 1871, 1880, 1891, 1894, 1897, 1908, 1910, 1923, 1931, 1936.

The granddaddy of ecology was George Perkins Marsh.  In his 1864 masterpiece, Man and Nature*, he described how forests kept the land cooler in summer and warmer in winter.  Forests absorbed and conserved moisture.  When they were cleared, springs dried up, water tables fell, and rivers became more shallow and narrow.  Today, the Amazon Basin is painfully discovering the link between deforestation and severe drought.

Holbrook was an outstanding storyteller, a joy to read.  But he was the son of a logger, and he worked as a logger when young.  He witnessed the great fire at Tillamook, Oregon in 1933, and he later oversaw fire prevention efforts in the state of Washington.  I doubt he read Marsh.  Holbrook noted that during the logging binge in Minnesota, water tables dropped, and lake levels were up to eight feet lower.  He thought that this was the result of excessive swamp draining.

He didn’t understand that deforestation and drought are directly related.  He blamed the great fires on human carelessness.  Between 1933 and 1937, fires burned an average of 36 million acres (14m ha) each year in the U.S., and only eight percent were caused by lightning.  Today, progress, carelessness, and arson continue to be, by far, the primary cause of fires.

Holbrook was a proud American.  He admired growth and prosperity.  The timber industry was cool, except for its fire booboos.  He didn’t think like an environmental historian, who would perceive deforestation itself to be an act of carelessness.  He wrote, “Cutting a forest does not destroy it.”  Twenty-first century ecologists would never say that, because forests are far more complex than just a bunch of trees.  Nor would they endorse aggressive fire suppression, as Holbrook did.

Importantly, Holbrook reminds us about what life was like in simpler times.  At Peshtigo, there was no railroad line to the outer world, only a six-mile track from town to the harbor.  Prior to the fire, the telegraph line to the outer world had been cut by an earlier fire.  They had no radio, telephones, or internet.  They had no automobiles, fire engines, or water bomber airplanes. 

In the coming decades, as we move beyond the cheap energy bubble, the world is going to return to a similar state of simplicity, one way or another.  At the same time, climate change and foolishness are going to weaken or eliminate many of the forests alive today.  We live in interesting times.  Be careful with matches!

Holbrook, Stewart H., Burning an Empire, Macmillan Company, New York, 1943.

*George Perkins Marsh’s book, Man and Nature, is a free download away.  A scanned version (huge file) can be downloaded from here.  Amazon offers a free Kindle download (tiny file) of the 1874 edition, The Earth as Modified by Human Action, here.  Free software for reading Kindle books on your computer, tablet or phone can be downloaded (click the link below the book cover).

Monday, May 9, 2016

A Plague of Sheep



Elinor Melville’s book, A Plague of Sheep, is a scary story about the Valle del Mezquital, a valley north of Mexico City.  Spanish colonists arrived there in 1521.  Melville describes the tragedy that occurred between then and 1600.  The valley is located at high elevation in a tropical region.  It has a cool and arid climate.  Valle del Mezquital means “a valley where mesquite grows.”  It got this name late in the seventeenth century, after it had been transformed into a barren land by an ecological revolution — a plague of sheep.

For the first hundred years of Spanish occupation, epidemics repeatedly blasted the natives, who had no immunity.  Between 1519 and 1620, the population of Mexico fell by 90 to 95 percent.  The Aztec and Inca civilizations were overwhelmed.  When the Spanish arrived, the densely populated Valle del Mezquital was home to the Otomi people, descendants of the once mighty Toltecs.  They were farmers who grew maize, beans, squash, chilies, tomatoes, amaranth, sage, and other crops.  The surrounding slopes were a mix of grass and forest.  Vegetation cover kept the soil moist, and there were a number of flowing springs.  This water was used to irrigate the fields.

As the native population was reduced by disease, cropland was abandoned, and became available for grazing.  The Spanish brought livestock which exploded in number because there was abundant vegetation and they had no competition from indigenous grazing animals.  Overgrazing radically altered the existing plant community, leading to irreversible changes.

The valley experienced an ungulate irruption, in which abundant vegetation is converted into abundant livestock that zoom past carrying capacity and then crash.  Eventually, some form of equilibrium is reached.  In many ways, it’s similar to the primate irruption that we’re experiencing today.  The cattle and horses could not be convinced to leave crops alone, so the herding eventually majored in sheep.

A severe epidemic from 1576 to 1581 sharply reduced the Indian population, which brought an end to their dominance in the valley.  Herding profits made sheep more valuable than Indian farmers.  Sheep rapidly grew in number.  While loggers cut trees for the mining industry, thousands and thousands of sheep stripped the land of grasses and young trees.  The hills were eventually deforested.  Some locations were stripped to bare soil, resulting in sheet erosion and gullies.  The land dried out, and the springs stopped flowing, which limited irrigation.  By 1600, “the valley was a homogenous mesquite-dominated desert.”

This is not a story of paradise transformed into parking lots, because the land was not a paradise in 1521.  Indians had lived there for thousands of years, and agriculture had not improved the land.  It encouraged erosion and other problems.  Without manure from livestock herds, soil nutrients were depleted.  The megafauna extinctions of the Pleistocene eliminated most species of large animals that may have been suitable for domestication in the Americas.  The Incas had llamas.  On the plus side, by not having livestock herds, Native Americans suffered little from infectious diseases until the Europeans arrived.

I got curious about the diet of the Indians.  It must have been similar to what the Aztecs ate in Mexico City, south of the valley.  Wikipedia informed me that Aztecs ate a number of wild animals, including fish, fowl, gophers, iguanas, salamanders, deer, crayfish, grasshoppers, ants, larvae, and insect eggs.  They also raised three domesticated animals for meat: turkeys, ducks, and dogs.

With the introduction of sheep, and the intensive overgrazing, the vitality of the Valle del Mezquital was sharply degraded.  The Spanish had no experience with grazing in this ecosystem.  Their culture was market driven, and maximizing the production of commodities was the path to prosperity and respect.  They lived as they were taught to live.

Garrett Hardin’s essay, The Tragedy of the Commons, declares that common lands are typically degraded by selfish careless use, while private property is lovingly nurtured by owners, because they have self interest in the long term productivity of the land.  But in the Valle del Mezquital, most of the overgrazing was done on private lands.  The owners were not illuminated with perfect knowledge, and they blatantly disregarded local limits on herd sizes.  Melville asserts that what happened in the valley was nothing more than the result of good old fashioned ignorance.  They didn’t know what they were doing, so they could not foresee the long term consequences.

I fell out of my chair.  Ignorance!  It’s so trendy to blame our woes on capitalism and mobs of insanely ambitious greed heads.  But our culture strongly encourages us to pursue wealth and status, by any means necessary, to the best of our ability, till the end of our days — Donald Trump is the ideal.  Our culture disastrously fails to provide everyone with a competent understanding of ecology and environmental history.  Imagine what this world would be like if we ever produced just one well-educated generation.  Our bizarre planet-wrecking mania would be cured.  Yippee!

Today, the Valle del Mezquital has enjoyed much progress, and is home to impressive refineries, cement factories, and nuclear power plants.  It has become a thriving center for the production of vegetable crops.  Irrigation now uses surface water (“black water”), which flows downstream from Mexico City, highly enriched with untreated human and chemical wastes.  Crops grow like crazy in raw sewage.  But salinization of the soil is increasing, which will eventually ruin the cropland.

The book has six chapters.  Five discuss the Valle del Mezquital, where grazing was introduced into an agricultural region.  One chapter discusses Australia, where sheep were introduced to a wild ecosystem.  Herders and herds exploded in number.  Indigenous vermin, kangaroos, were aggressively exterminated.  By 1838, much of New South Wales was “a naked surface without any perceptible pasture upon it for the numerous half-starved flocks.”  Grasslands were rubbished in 7 to 20 years.  The land dried out, erosion increased, and floods became more frequent.

Do you notice a pattern here?  Now it’s the twenty-first century, and the civilized world is raging with a devastating pandemic of get-rich-quick fever.  Almost all of our graduating scholars are nearly as ignorant as the Spanish settlers about ecological sustainability.  All our grads are tirelessly trained to believe that status seeking, via working and hoarding, is the purpose of life — a plague of shoppers.

Melville, Elinor, A Plague of Sheep, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1994.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Natural West


Dan Flores is an environmental historian.  His book, The Natural West, focuses on the region of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains.  This ecosystem has been radically changed in the last 300 years, and a number of these changes have resulted in irreversible degradation.  Flores has a misty vision of restoring the West, and his work explores issues that contributed to ecological imbalances.  We can’t address challenges that we don’t understand.
At the time Flores was writing, many green thinkers were indulging in a fantasy that imagined an environmental Golden Age, when the continent had no scars from human activities.  Native Americans lived so lightly that they left almost no footprints.  Flores was among the scholars who questioned the fantasy.  What happened to the mammoths, mastodons, and camels?  Where are the wooly rhinos and saber-toothed cats?
He noted that many ecosystems were altered by the Indian practice of periodic burns to control the growth of brush, and to maintain grassland habitat that was ideal for bison.  In The Ecological Indian, Shepard Krech wrote that some of these fires grew too large and killed entire herds of animals.  Flores didn’t mention the “buffalo jumps,” where herds of bison were driven off the edge of cliffs.  Of course, far more impact was caused by the technologically advanced settlers.  Never before, in North America, have a group of humans wrecked so much, so quickly.
Obviously, we would not be where we are today if hunter-gatherers possessed a level of ecological knowledge that a small herd of ecology experts now have (and the vast herd of consumers really need).  If our wild ancestors had possessed wizardly understanding, then pockets of humans would not have reduced carrying capacity via overhunting, leading to the catastrophe of agriculture, and the resulting population explosion.
Some Western Indians were bison hunters for more than 8,000 years.  Bison can zip along at 35 miles per hour (56 km/h).  On the wide-open prairie, sneaking up on a herd unseen, unheard, and unsmelled, required remarkable stalking skills.  Then, Spaniards brought domesticated horses to the New World.  Over the next 200 years (1680–1880), more than thirty Indian groups adapted horse-propelled bison hunting, which made it much easier to get lots of meat.  This very unusual era was recorded by white painters, and it has become a common perception of traditional Native American life.
Plains Indians imagined that there were infinite bison, it was impossible to deplete their numbers.  Herds had been boosted by the cooler wetter climate of the Little Ice Age (1550–1850).  Then, the shift to a warmer dryer trend reduced vegetation growth, which reduced carrying capacity for bison.  Meanwhile, the horse population exploded, and horses competed with bison for the same vegetation.  Among the many unwelcome gifts brought by settlers were bovine diseases like anthrax.
The Gold Rush migration of 1849 brought cholera, which triggered a diarrhea rush, killing many natives.  By 1850, there were many reports of starving Indians.  Comanches were eating their horses.  Competition for bison and horses spurred tribal warfare between 1825 and 1850.  Tribe raided tribe to snatch horses.  (See Paul Shepard’s book, The Others, for an excellent discussion of the many problems resulting from animal domestication.)
So, it turns out that bison herds were not infinite, and that horse-propelled hunting very likely did not have a rosy future, even if whites had stayed out of the West.  The experiment was cut short by industrial bison hunting, which accelerated after the Civil War ended in 1865.  It rapidly brought the species close to extinction.
I learned a lot from the chapter on the settlement of Utah, which got little notice in my history textbooks.  In the early years, Mormon society was strikingly un-American.  Rights to water and forests could not be privately owned by individuals.  They belonged to the entire community.  Joseph Smith believed that animals had souls, as did the Earth.  Farms were limited to 20 acres (8 ha) to discourage the emergence of wealth inequality.
Unfortunately, their impact on the ecosystem was similar to American communities everywhere.  Population quickly grew.  Most of the forests around Salt Lake City were gone in just ten years, and not reseeded.  Grassland was overgrazed.  War was declared on “wasters and destroyers” (wild predators).  When the transcontinental railroad was completed, many non-Mormons moved into Utah, accelerating the turbulence by increasing cultural diversity and economic competition.
In 1896, when Utah was admitted as a state, they were required to Americanize.  Polygamy was banned.  Firewalls were erected to separate church and state.  Utah leaped onto the free market bandwagon, and grew like crazy.  Explosive growth was not kind to the ecosystem.  Everyone agreed that overgrazing was dumb, but everyone disagreed on which animals were the problem (not mine!).
Americans brought many exotic weeds to the West, causing immense irreversible damage.  Cheatgrass displaced native vegetation across large areas.  It created biological wastelands, since cattle and wild grazers would not touch it.  Cheatgrass was highly flammable.  After a fire, exposed soil was vulnerable to erosion and gullying.  When it rained, the runoff of water was rapid, leading to sudden floods.  By 1930, the risk of repeated floods forced the abandonment of thirteen Utah communities.  In the 1930s, four Utah valleys that were once lush grasslands became barren dust bowls.
Flores was raised in a Mormon household.  He laments that this culture (like most Americans) perceives humankind to be the crown of creation.  The Earth is merely a funky waiting room on the journey to paradise, and if we trash it, it doesn’t matter.  Many in Utah, and other Western states, want federal lands returned to the states, so that resources can be profitably extracted, as quickly as possible, without the annoying restrictions of regulations (sorry kids).  The culture is conservative, and environmentalists are not warmly welcomed.  Growth is the god-word.
Flores circles the word “animalness,” and suggests that it might aid the healing process.  Behaving like the masters of the world has been very harmful to the planet.  What might happen if we came to perceive humans as one animal among many, in a circle of equals?  Many of the vital lessons in life are learned from mistakes.  Flores serves readers a lavish banquet of eco-booboos.  The West has been dying for 200 years.  What should we do?  What does “restore” mean?  Is it possible?  Are we willing to bury industrial civilization and get a life?
Flores, Dan, The Natural West — Environmental History in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2001.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Hierarchy in the Forest


Christopher Boehm is a professor of anthropology and director of the Jane Goodall Research Center at the University of California.  He has read hundreds of anthropological studies on a variety of human societies.  He also spent time with Goodall at Gombe National Park, observing the behavior of wild chimpanzees.  These experiences inspired him to speculate on our evolutionary journey, and to attempt the daunting challenge of defining “human nature,” the core essence shared by all humans.  He presented his ideas in Hierarchy in the Forest.
Before we begin, the goal of my work is to help people who are interested in learning about ecological sustainability.  Boehm’s book pays little attention to ecology, and I quit reading about 75 pages before the end.  Folks who are eager to learn about the various trends and controversies in cultural anthropology should put it on their reading list.  I was intrigued by some of the passages I read.  My plan is to jabber a bit about these, and then call it a day.
There are numerous types of societies, ranging from egalitarian (no bosses) to hierarchical (some have more power than others).  Among hierarchical societies, some have many layers of rank and status, like wolf packs.  At the extreme, despotic societies have a dominant alpha to whom all others must submit, like chimps or Nazis.  Boehm presented theories on the evolution of politics and morality among chimps, bonobos, gorillas, and humans.  Based on how the four species behave today, he imagined that the common ancestor of all four, who lived seven million years ago, was innately despotic — and that all four today remain near the despotic end of the political spectrum.
He believed that humans took a strange path.  In the beginning, we were hierarchical.  Later, for much of the hunter-gatherer phase, we were egalitarian.  Then, around 12,000 years ago, with the domestication of plants and animals, hierarchy returned to ascendance, and grew to monstrous proportions over the centuries.  This was not black and white, some early societies of herders or horticulturalists remained egalitarian, despite having private property and unequal wealth.
Oddly, egalitarian societies were also hierarchical.  Civilized societies have pyramid-shaped hierarchies, with the powerful at the top, and the dominated masses spread out below.  Egalitarian societies have an upside down pyramid, a “reverse dominance hierarchy.”  When someone began behaving in an inappropriate manner, the entire group united to confront the misbehaving oddball.
Cooperation was fundamental to the success of hunter-gatherer societies, so conflict avoidance was imperative.  Upstart males, exhibiting impulses to dominate others, were a serious threat to the stability and survival of the society.  Nothing was more uncool.  The antidote to disruptive upstarts was sanctions — criticism, ridicule, disobedience, ostracism, shunning.  Sanctions often helped the upstart get the message, and return to conformity.  If these failed, the upstart might move to a different group.  If all else failed, he might be executed.
Hunter-gatherer cultures had time-proven methods for encouraging conformity, and discouraging the impulses of problem personalities.  It was always uncool to be boastful, arrogant, or overbearing.  When a hunter brought home excellent meat, he would apologize for the worthless crap that was unfit for dog food.  Self-depreciation helped to level out differences, and discourage painful swellings of pride.
Once upon a time, Boehm had succeeded in earning the trust of Navajo elders, in his quest to learn about mental illness in the tribe.  One day, he realized that he had left a watermelon in his car, which he had bought to be a gift.  He ran out, got it, ran back, offered it to the elder — and immediately obliterated the trust he had carefully earned, terminating his research.  His action had been too sudden, and was perceived as aggressive.  The Navajo have a low opinion of white people, and are highly distrustful of them.  In Indian country, people are expected to be calm, composed, dignified, and respectful.
One passage especially touched me.  Jean Briggs was an anthropologist who spent more than a year with the Utku Eskimos of northern Canada.  She apparently behaved like an ordinary American, who had moody days, and sometimes displayed a flash of anger when irritated.  This freaked out the Eskimos, who sometimes ran out the cabin when she was crabby and hissing.  In that society, folks were expected to smile, laugh, and joke — to behave like happy people.  Nothing was more uncool than showing your emotions, because strong thoughts can kill or cause illness.  Anger was dangerous juju, highly toxic.
The Eskimos tolerated a lot of extremely inappropriate behavior, because Briggs was a visitor from a tribe that was notoriously loony.  They gave her hints for behaving more politely, but she missed their meaning.  Eventually, they reached their limits, and Briggs became a nonperson.  She simply could not learn how to conform.
Briggs was brought up in a hierarchical culture, where we all compete against one another to acquire, hoard, and display the most status trinkets.  Self-centeredness is the expected norm.  Most of us live amidst hordes of perfect strangers, and the sight of strangers must make our tropical primate brains squirm and sweat.  When chimps see a strange male, they don’t welcome him with smiles and hugs; they kill him.  Gorillas are also impolite unknown visitors.  Of course, humans take great delight in savagely killing foreigners by the millions.
It’s hard for us to imagine spending our entire lives among a small group of people, where survival depends on cooperation, where competition and conflict were toxic.  The Eskimos were not merely “acting” happy.  They were raised in a culture where it was normal and healthy to mindfully maintain respectful relationships with all others.  They had to spend long dark winters in close quarters, so it was impossible to tolerate selfish spoiled brats or infantile tyrants.  Everyone’s highest responsibility was to maintain the stability of the group.
Boehm’s book was published in 1999.  Most research on wild bonobos occurred after 2003.  Early studies had to be abandoned, because of a civil war that raged between 1994 and 2003, claiming three million lives.  Based on incomplete information, Boehm assumed that bonobos were at the despotic end of the spectrum, but later research revealed that they were remarkably egalitarian.  Also, they were not egalitarian in the sense of “reverse dominance hierarchy.”  For bonobos, egalitarian behavior was normal, natural, almost effortless.  Humans are closely related to both despotic chimps and egalitarian bonobos.
Why are chimps and bonobos so different?  Ecology may be the primary factor.  Bonobos enjoy an ideal habitat, with abundant food, and no serious competitors in their niche.  Chimps live in leaner lands, and compete for food with gorillas and baboons.  Scarcity creates tensions, and territorial boundaries must be aggressively defended against trespassers.  Crowding is the mother of conflict.  Extreme crowding turns humans into bloodthirsty mass murdering maniacs.
Boehm, Christopher, Hierarchy in the Forest, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1999.