Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Braiding Sweetgrass

Science is a painfully tight pair of shoes.  It perceives the family of life to be little more than a complex biochemical machine.  It has created powerful tools for ravaging the planet’s ecosystems, creating a hard path for our descendants.  It gives us knowing, but not caring.  It’s not about wisdom.  It’s about pursuing the wants and needs of humans, with less concern for the more-than-human world.

Robin Kimmerer is a biology professor.  After being trained in the rigid beliefs of science, she heard a Navajo woman talk about the realm of plants from the perspective of indigenous knowledge.  For that woman, plants were not subjects, but teachers.  In a flash, Kimmerer realized the shallowness of her scientific training.  It only provides a pinhole view of reality.  Science is not enough.

Her grandfather was Potawatomi.  When he was a boy, the government sent him away to the Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where he was trained to become an English-speaking wageworker.  He forgot his language and culture and drifted away from his people.  He never felt at home in either world.

Kimmerer has worked hard to reconnect with her Native American roots, because traditional indigenous cultures are blessed with a far more holistic relationship with the family of life.  All people on Earth have tribal ancestors who once lived close to the land, but so much has been lost with the passage of centuries.  Her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, is a collection of stories that focus on living with respect and reverence for the land.

She once asked a city lad where his sense of place felt strongest.  He immediately responded, “My car.”  Her book is especially important for the impoverished millions, who have grown up indoors, in a ghoulish netherworld of glowing screens.  She has a strong and respectful relationship with the land, and she describes it beautifully.  It’s a perspective that is almost absent in our culture, and without it, a long-term future for humans is impossible.  We must remember.

While explaining the culture of sharing, respect, and gratitude, she does not conceal her scientist badge.  So, readers are less tempted to automatically dismiss her stories as daffy rainbows of New Age woo-woo.  Science is not worthless.  In the centuries of restoration that lie ahead, it can offer some useful ideas, if we keep it on a short leash.  Nature will play a primary role in healing the land as much as possible — it knows what to do.  The far bigger challenge is dealing with the monsters that inhabit the goop between our ears.

In the native world, when a patch of ripe strawberries is discovered, the plants are warmly greeted.  The people ask permission to take some berries.  If the response is yes, they take only what they need, never more than half of the fruit.  The plants are thanked for their gift, and the pickers leave an offering of tobacco.

Gifts and responsibilities are two sides of the same coin.  The berry pickers now have an obligation to promote the wellbeing of the strawberry people, by depositing their seeds in good locations (not a toilet).  This is a relationship of reciprocity between berries and people.  The berry eaters need the plants, and the plants need the berry eaters.

On the other hand, the relationship between mainstream people and nonrenewable resources is not reciprocal.  The oil, coal, iron, and other minerals do not need the miners, nor is their wellbeing improved by the mining.  The planet’s atmosphere does not appreciate our toxic offerings of carbon emissions.  The ecosystem does not enjoy being treated like an open pit mine.

Cultures that enjoy a direct and intimate relationship with their ecosystem have far more respect for it than those that forage at malls and supermarkets.  Consumer culture receives enormous gifts from the land, but gives almost none in return.  Kimmerer’s students clearly understand that the relationship between consumers and nature is abusive.  It’s difficult for them to imagine what a healthy relationship would look like. 

Kimmerer lives in the Onondaga Nation.  At the school, the Haudenosaunee flag blows in the breeze, not the stars and stripes.  There is no pledge of allegiance to a political system that claims to provide “liberty and justice for all.”  Instead, each day begins with the Thanksgiving Address, in which the students express gratitude for all of creation.  It helps them remember that, “everything needed to sustain life is already here.”  We are wealthy.

I had one issue with the book.  Natives from corn-growing cultures see corn as sacred.  Corn was a recent arrival to the region of the eastern U.S.  Its expansion spurred population growth and conflict.  We know that hunter-gatherers could succeed in achieving genuine sustainability when they lived with the wisdom of voluntary self-restraint.  But environmental history has not documented a culture achieving sustainability via intensive agriculture.

Potawatomi legends describe a dangerous spirit called the Windigo.  It wanders across the land in the lean months of winter.  It is always hungry, and never stops hunting.  It’s a selfish spirit that is obsessed with its own survival, by any means necessary.  The Windigo is notorious for having an insatiable hunger.  The moral of the story is to share, to take care of one another.  Don’t be a greedy butthead.

Much to the horror of the natives, the colonists imported a diabolical spirit of incredible self-destructive overindulgence — Super Windigo.  In white society, mastering the madness of insatiable consumption was seen as an admirable mark of success!  Kimmerer winces.  “We spend our beautiful, utterly singular lives on making more money, to buy more things that feed but never satisfy.  It is the Windigo way that tricks us into believing that belongings will fill our hunger, when it is belonging that we crave.”

After a lifetime of shopping and discarding, we don’t return our bodies to nature.  The dead are placed in heavy caskets and buried deep in the ground, where nature will struggle for centuries to retrieve the nutrients.  I’ve always hoped that my corpse would be eaten by mountain lions in a wild location, an offering to an ecosystem upon which I have lived far too hard.

From other books, I have learned about cultures that did something like this.  Carl Jung noted that the Maasai tribe did not bury their dead.  Corpses were left outdoors for the hyenas to eat.  John Gunther wrote that the Bakutu people of the Congo recycled corpses by laying them on a termite hill.  In sky burial, corpses are fed to the vultures.  This is done in Tibet, and in Zoroastrian communities in India.  Evan Pritchard noted that the Western Algonquin people also practiced it.

Over the years, Kimmerer has heard the Thanksgiving Address recited countless times.  It is so inspiring to listen to people express gratitude for all of creation.  She longs for the day “when we can hear the land give thanks for the people in return.”  So do I.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall, Braiding Sweetgrass, Milkweed Editions, Minneapolis, 2013.

Questions for a Resilient Future is a 17-minute talk given by Kimmerer.

Returning the Gift is a brief essay.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Original Wisdom

Original Wisdom is an unforgettable book.  Like all humans, author Robert Wolff was born a wild animal, ready to enjoy a pleasant life, romping around in a tropical wilderness.  He grew up in Sumatra, the son of Dutch parents.  His father was a doctor.  The young lad suffered the misfortune of being educated by the dominant culture.  It trained him for an unnatural life of schedules, destinations, and anxiety.  His wildness was paved over, and his consciousness became disconnected from All-That-Is.

Wolff was interested in healing, and hoped to become a doctor, but World War II interrupted his plans.  After the war, he became a social psychologist, and worked on a number of government projects.  Work included numerous visits to rural villages in Malaysia, where life was very laid back.  The people were “soft, gentle, polite.”  Villagers were the opposite of city people, who tended to be “crude, loud, insensitive.”

Oddly, the patients in Malaysian mental hospitals included whites, Indians, and many Chinese — but no Malays, who were half of the population.  Malay villages had a healthy sense of community.  They accepted the presence of people who were odd; there was never a thought of sending them away.  Everyone knew the village thief, and no one reported him to the police, because he belonged where he was.  Malays respected one another.

Wolff was grateful that he had learned to speak several languages, because this ability expanded his awareness.  Languages are unique products of the cultures in which they evolve.  Different cultures perceive reality in different ways, and many ideas cannot be accurately translated from one language to another.  Consequently, it was clear to him that the Western worldview was not the one and only way of interpreting reality.  Most Western people never learn this.  Insanity seems perfectly normal to the inmates of the loony bin.

His career began in the 1950s, the dawn of the most horrific era in human history.  Population grew explosively, as did the ecological blitzkrieg.  Traditional cultures were being exterminated by a plague of bulldozers.  Wolff worked hard to learn and record the knowledge of traditional healers.  He believed that their skills were the time-proven results of thousands of years of trial and error.  A tremendous treasure was on the verge of being lost forever.

He remembered the days before antibiotics, when Western doctors were little better than witch doctors.  He detested modern healthcare, where doctors practiced medicine, not healing.  They were highly skilled at temporarily postponing death via extremely expensive treatments — even if the additional weeks or months of existence were meaningless.  Not long ago, most of those with fading spirits would simply have been allowed to pass to the other side in peace.

In his crusade to preserve ancient knowledge, he met a number of healers who had not been the apprentices of venerable elders.  They acquired their skills via inner knowing.  Intuition told them what herbs to use, and the way to prepare them.  These healers told Wolff to relax; a treasure was not being lost.  The wisdom was always accessible.  When it was needed, someone would find it.  This notion gives Western folks cramps, because they process reality via thinking.

One day, Wolff learned about a tribe of hunter-gatherers who lived in a remote mountain forest — the Sng’oi (or Senoi or Sakai).  Meeting them opened the door to a series of life-changing experiences, a great healing.  They were masters of intuition and inner knowing.  They lived in a spiritual reality, “where things were known outside of thinking.”

Their camps were not close to the road.  Whenever Wolff arrived unannounced for a visit, one of the Sng’oi would be waiting for him in the forest.  The guide would stand up and, without a word, lead him to the village.  This baffled Wolff.  How did they know he was coming?  When asked, they told him that they had no premonition of his arrival.  They had experienced a feeling to go to a place and be there.  When Wolff appeared, they understood why they were there.

They knew each other’s unspoken thoughts, communicating telepathically.  Their shaman could sometimes foresee future events.  In the mornings, the Sng’oi discussed their dreams.  Once, Wolff described a dream.  Its message, they told him, was that he was needed at home.  He returned to his family, and learned that a child had had a medical emergency.

“They had an immense inner dignity, were happy, and content, and did not want anything.”  They loved to laugh and joke.  They were often singing and smiling.  Angry voices were never heard.  Each new day was a blank slate — no plans, no jobs, nothing that had to be done.  They floated, inspired by feelings.  Life in a tropical rainforest was not a tough job.

One evening, while sitting in a group, Wolff went into a trance, and spoke to the others, an experience he did not remember.  A Sng’oi shaman recognized that Wolff had shamanic powers, and offered to open spiritual doors for him.  His name was Ahmeed, and his job description was “to bring new knowledge to the People.”  Wolff accepted his offer.

The learning process involved long, silent walks in the forest, with no food or water.  Wolff was frustrated, because he was thinking like crazy.  It was impossible to still his furiously roaring mind.  He could not hear his inner voice.  At the end of the walks, he was exhausted; his mind fried.

Eventually, his thinker got more and more flaccid, and he learned to pay attention.  Some days, he could float away from his mind, and vividly experience the sounds and smells of the forest.  Everything changed.  The world became intensely alive.  He ceased being an observer, and became a living part of All-That-Is.

After months of practice, he gradually remembered how to be a human being.  “The all-ness was everywhere, and I was part of it.  I cannot explain what went on inside me, but I knew that I had learned something unbelievably wonderful.  I felt more alive than I had ever felt before.  All of me was filled with being.”  He felt great love for the people.  The trees and mosquitoes were his family.

Back in the civilized world, Wolff was no longer the same person.  Inner knowing could be painful, and sometimes had to be turned off.  He could sense the feelings of the people around him, and this could be overwhelming.  “It was frightening to discover how many people think nothing at all, but feel waves of anger, resentment, and bitterness — although they act as if they are deaf and blind to their own feelings.”

As the years passed, Wolff became whole and confident, as his humanness recovered.  Being human was so much healthier than being civilized.  That’s his message.  Even adults can heal.  It’s never too late to try.  Knowing inside is not something unusual; it is how we are.  All humans can have that connection with All-That-Is.  The connection is within us.”  Cultures without the connection are on a bleak path.

Wolff’s website is here, and many of the stories in his book are here.

Wolff, Robert, Original Wisdom — Stories of an Ancient Way of Knowing, Inner Traditions, Rochester, Vermont, 2001.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society

We live in a fantasy world.  We have blind faith that we’ll be able to sustainably feed nine or ten billion people in 2050, a wish-based belief.  We have blind faith that technology will vaporize all challenges that appear in our path over the coming centuries.  Economic growth will continue forever.  We’ll celebrate a glorious victory over climate change by switching to safe, clean renewable energy, in a smooth and painless manner.  Our high standard of living will keep getting better and better as we zoom toward utopia.  The best is yet to come!

Australian professor Ted Trainer is not entranced by blind faith, and he explained his heresy in Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society.  Attempting to transition to a future powered only by renewable energy, while maintaining our current mode of high waste living, would be the opposite of smooth and painless.  Indeed, it’s impossible, he says.  Renewables simply can’t produce as much energy as we currently get from burning enormous amounts of sequestered carbon (fossil fuel).

In modern societies, electric power is highly reliable for both households and industries.  Power companies generate electricity, feed it into their distribution grid, and send it to consumers.  Excess electricity cannot be stored, and insufficient electricity leads to brownouts.  So, utilities must be very careful to generate electricity at levels that closely match the swings in demand.  Today’s centralized power systems are designed to do a good job of this, but they are not designed to reliably distribute electricity generated by decentralized sources, like wind farms or solar facilities.

Coal-powered plants can run at full capacity all the time, and they can be built anywhere.  Solar and wind facilities can run at full capacity only during ideal conditions.  For example, a solar thermal plant can run at peak on a hot summer day, but its average annual production is just twenty-five percent of peak.  The capacity of solar and wind facilities is highly dependent on location.  They cannot be built anywhere, and the ideal locations are chosen first.  The potential for future expansion is limited.

Photovoltaic panels convert sunlight directly into electricity.  They produce little or no energy at dawn, dusk, night, or during cloudy periods.  For large-scale generation, solar thermal is better, because it generates heat, which can be stored for use during off-peak periods.  Ideal locations for solar thermal are deserts, like the Sahara, or the U.S. southwest.  The drawback is that ideal locations are typically distant from population centers, and significant energy is lost when power is sent thousands of kilometers away.  Even in ideal locations, output during summer is five times higher than winter.

Wind power is even less consistent.  Wind velocity varies from year to year, from season to season, and from minute to minute.  For 54 days in 2002, a wind farm in Denmark had zero production.  A farm in Australia was nearly windless for five straight days.  Winds can suddenly go calm over a wide region.  Ideal locations are on hills and ridges.

This hard-to-predict variability is a serious obstacle to a renewable energy future.  Neither wind nor solar can produce electricity sufficient to meet current demand, in a dependable manner.  To provide dependable power, backup capacity is needed.  One mode of backup is to use the surplus power, generated during peak hours, to pump water uphill into reservoirs, where it can later be used to generate hydroelectric power.  For most regions, this is not an option.

Surplus electricity can also be used to generate hydrogen, to be stored for later use.  Storing energy in hydrogen is highly inefficient, expensive, and problematic.  Putting one unit of hydrogen energy into a fuel cell requires at least four units of wind or solar energy.  Hydrogen atoms are tiny, which makes them especially prone to leakage.  A big tanker truck can only carry 288 kilograms (634 pounds) of hydrogen.  Hydrogen does not make economic sense.

Backup electricity can also be generated by burning sequestered carbon, but this would result in undesirable greenhouse gas emissions.  In a renewable energy future, for each megawatt of wind or solar capacity, systems would also need almost a megawatt of backup.  The backup systems would be expensive, and they would be idle much of the time.  They cannot be quickly cranked up to respond to demand surges, or to supply shortfalls due to clouds or calms.

A number of well-paid respectable-looking nutjobs are preaching that the cure for climate change is nuclear energy.  But eighty percent of the energy used today is not electricity.  Trainer concluded, “If all electricity was generated by nuclear reactors, carbon dioxide emissions might be reduced by thirty percent.”  Uranium is nonrenewable, the supply is finite, and the top quality ores are gone.  All facets of the nuclear industry are designed and operated by accident-prone tropical primates.  Meanwhile, spent fuel remains intensely toxic for more than a million years, and we have yet to discover how to safely store it.  A more mature option would be to focus intense attention on how we live and think.

The variability of wind and solar generation is a huge challenge to a renewable energy future.  A far greater challenge — the death blow — is the issue of liquid fuels.  Liquid fuels are used to power cars, trucks, trains, planes, ships, wars, and our food system.  Under perfect conditions, renewable energy might be able to generate ten percent of the energy currently produced by petroleum.  Options include ethanol, methanol, and hydrogen fuel cells.  Trainer discusses the serious drawbacks.

Clearly, a smooth and painless transition to a renewable energy future that allows us to continue living like crazy is an intoxicating fantasy.  In addition to being impossible, it’s also unsustainable.  The “clean,” high-tech wonderland will continue extracting non-renewable resources for wind turbines, solar panels, transmission lines, roads, tractors, fuel cells, air conditioners, cell phones, and so on.  It will do nothing to wean us from soil mining, water mining, forest mining, and fish mining — or shift population growth into reverse.

The consumer way of life is a dead end path.  While reading, I kept thinking about my four grandparents, all of whom were born into non-electric, car-free households.  They lived good lives.  Food is a genuine need, but unsustainable energy is a devastating addiction — lots of fun at first, but deadly in the long run.

Trainer thought along the same lines.  The big problem is that the dominant culture programs us to be competitive, acquisitive, individualists.  He presented a dreamy vision called The Simpler Way, a joyful utopia of voluntary frugality, stress-free lifestyles, lovely gardens, and small cooperative communities — and we don’t even have to give up modern technology!  Really?

Instead of struggling to continue living like crazy, for as long as possible, by any means necessary, the intelligent option would be to slow down — to really slow down!  That’s the message here.

In 2012, Trainer wrote an updated 22-page summary of his analysis of renewable energy, Can Renewable Energy Sustain Consumer Societies.  In 2011, he helped write a 48-page description of his vision for a happy green future, The Simpler Way Report.

Trainer, Ted, Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society, Springer, Dordrecht, The Netherlands, 2007.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The End of Nature

Long, long ago, in scorching-hot 1988, Bill McKibben was busy writing The End of Nature, a book that cranked up the global warming warning sirens.  It was the first climate change book written for non-scientists, and it was a smash hit.  It makes an eloquent effort to convince those entranced by the dominant culture to radically change their thinking and lifestyles, this week if possible, because the biosphere is more damaged than we think.  It’s about living with great care, fully present in reality, and pursuing the healing sanity of voluntary self-restraint.

The root issue is that human cleverness has succeeded in creating so many brilliant ideas that we’re blindsiding nature.  This does not mean we’re eliminating all life on Earth.  It means that humankind has spawned powerful cultures that no longer blend in smoothly with the rest of the family of life.  The biosphere can no longer run on autopilot, because humans are fooling around in the control room and, despite good intentions, are piling up an impressive collection of devastating misjudgments.

If we look at the world of 500 years ago, we can observe a number of blotches resulting from human activities, but the atmosphere remained fairly close to its original condition, as did the oceans, and much of the planet’s land surface.  The seas were loaded with fish, and millions of bison thundered across North America.  Overall, the world largely remained the domain of Big Mama Nature.  It was able to shake off the punches from human activities.

In the last 200 years or so, this has changed.  Human cleverness is now capable of causing disturbances that are global in scale.  These include DDT, ozone holes, radiation, acid rain, and an unstable climate.  The dominant culture is discharging pollutants that affect the biosphere everywhere.  Humankind has (temporarily) forced nature out of the pilot’s seat.  This is what is meant by “the end of nature.”  Legions of radicalized consumers are now vigorously rocking the boat, to a degree that exceeds nature’s ability to compensate and maintain balance.

In recent decades, our techno-juggernaut has invented a new and improved way of suppressing nature, genetic engineering.  This represents an enormous advance in our mistake-making talents.  By fooling around with gene splicing, we are beginning to interfere with evolution’s autopilot.  Highly specialized mistake makers have pushed us beyond the amateur level of mere biosphere destroyers.  They now strive to control the future of the family of life, by fooling around with matters that were once the sole domain of the Creator.  What could possibly go wrong?

Genetic engineering gave McKibben intense nightmares.  It’s a technology with fabulous potential for creating multitudes of unintended consequences; bizarre surprises that the mad scientists could have never imagined.  Some manmade organisms might survive for millions of years, affecting the biosphere longer than nuclear waste.  Obviously, GMOs are absolutely unnecessary for our long and challenging return to balance with nature.

McKibben is a good thinker, a good writer, and a good-hearted human being.  He’s an environmental wordsmith who is also a Christian, providing a perspective that is not common in green literature.  The end of nature deeply offended his beliefs.  Many Christians don’t get much farther than the instructions to “multiply and subdue,” which imply that God made the world for us to dominate and exploit.  McKibben knew that the scriptures could be annoyingly inconsistent.  He was fond of the Book of Job, which teaches that humans are not the center of the universe, and wilderness is not ours to trash.

As the dominant culture furiously thrashes the planet, glaring questions arise — why doesn’t God stop us?  Did he die, or move away?  McKibben sidesteps the sixth chapter of Genesis, where God realized that creating humans was a huge mistake, because they turned out to be remarkably wicked.  God corrected his blooper by bringing “a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven; and every thing that is in the earth shall die.”  Today, humans are the ones executing the end of nature, not the Creator.  No other species is so clever — or so willing to mindlessly imitate a pissed-off sky god.

The End of Nature is also notable because it does not reek with a pungent anthropocentric stink.  The path to healing requires the abandonment of human superiority, a deadly brain fever.  McKibben concurs with Dave Foreman, “Each of you is an animal, and you should be proud of it.”  It’s not easy for us to accept that we are delicious two-legged meatballs wandering around in the food chain, and that the rest of creation is at least as important as we are.

Green wordsmiths rarely reveal a profound love for the natural world, maybe because it’s unprofessional, or because they have no spiritual connection to life, the norm in this society.  The focus for many green thinkers is finding a way to maintain our “high standard of living” while leaving no scars on the ecosystem, an absurd and impossible quest.  Usually, their primary objective is generating enough electricity to keep their gizmos glowing and humming.  Food is lower on the list, and population reduction is nowhere to be seen.

Lately, hysterical electricity addicts have been hallucinating that nuclear energy is the silver bullet solution.  McKibben noted that if we quit burning fossil fuels to generate electricity, and switched to nuclear, our carbon dioxide emissions would only drop 30 percent, because much of our economy cannot run on electricity (ships, planes, trucks, trains, etc.).  Furthermore, carbon dioxide is only half of the greenhouse gases we are releasing.  Alas, there is no free nuclear lunch.

McKibben loved nature.  While writing, he lived in the Adirondacks, and he gushed with adoration for the surrounding forest and mountains.  Outdoors, he felt the presence of God far more than when he sat indoors among a congregation of holy rollers.  God created nature, not cities.  One of God’s great delights was annihilating cities, according to the scriptures.

McKibben confessed that he’s also an American who enjoys the cool things that modern living provides, and he has no desire to live in an unheated cabin.  Modern living is so comfortable.  Unfortunately, it’s beating the stuffing out of nature.  There is a vast chasm between the way of life we enjoy, and a sustainable life.  If we were rational, we would leap into “an all-out race to do with less.”  Instead, we desperately cling to a blind faith in technological miracles that will magically eliminate all need for living intelligently.

A memorable portion of the book describes the author’s sincere struggle to find answers, tirelessly wrestling with hordes of demons and inconvenient truths.  He tries so hard to find workable approaches, but there are no quick and easy solutions.  Centuries will pass before balance returns.  But our biggest obstacles are psychological, and radical change is not impossible, in theory.

The nations of the world actually cooperated in sharply reducing the use of DDT, and ozone-eating CFCs, because the risks clearly exceeded the costs.  Fossil energy is different.  Billions of people literally cannot survive without oil.  Therefore, the radical changes we need will not happen anytime soon, if ever.  We can continue living like there’s no tomorrow, or we can make a heroic effort to encourage a gentler collapse — McKibben’s preference.

To recharge his sanity, he enjoys stepping outdoors at night, and gazing at the stars.  The rest of the universe is still as wild and free as it ever was.  What could be more inspiring?

McKibben, Bill, The End of Nature, Random House, New York, 2006.  [1989]

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Essential Exponential

Galileo was a lad who had a powerful talent for thinking outside the box.  He was capable of believing what he saw with his own eyes, and rejecting what society told him to believe, if it was nonsense.  With his telescope, he could clearly perceive that the sun did not rotate around the Earth.  He was alone in comprehending the truth, whilst the rest of society was completely wrong — not fun!

Later, as the nightmare of the Industrial Revolution was picking up steam, the mindset of the elite went absolutely manic, soaring in vivid utopian hallucinations.  One of those wacky dreamers was the daddy of Thomas Malthus, and dad drove the lad mad.  The lad could think outside the box.  He commenced to write a book, which explained why perpetual growth was impossible (an atrocious heresy!).  For 200 years, the ultra ambitious mob has been tirelessly denouncing the lad who had an amazing ability to understand the obvious.

Since World War II, a growing number of heretics have been preaching about limits, carrying capacity, overshoot, and the dangers of ignoring them — folks like Hubbert, Youngquist, Ehrlich, Hardin, and Catton.  But few are listening.  It’s still a heresy.  “Grow or die” remains the law of the land, and no other ideas disturb our cloudy minds.

Today’s sermon is about Albert Bartlett and his book, The Essential Exponential.  Bartlett was a physics professor who was dumbfounded by the world’s inability to comprehend the dangerous power of exponential growth.  Virtually all high school graduates remain blissfully ignorant about the subject, just like most graduates of Ivy League schools.

You can see a tornado rip a town to smithereens.  But as you bike to work each morning, you cannot see or hear the far more destructive force of exponential growth.  It’s like a thousand invisible hurricanes battering the planet, and pounding the future.

Linear growth is like adding one marble per week to your collection of ten marbles (10, 11, 12…).  The rate of growth is steady.  On a graph, linear growth is a straight line.  Exponential growth occurs when something is increasing at a constantly growing rate, and the rate increases with each cycle — the way compound interest inflates the balance of your savings account.

For example, since 1950, world oil production has been growing exponentially, at about seven percent per year.  At that rate, production doubles every ten years.  Bartlett illustrated the scale of this doubling in the following diagram, showing the volume of oil consumed each decade.  Children born after 1966 “will see the world consume most of its oil during their lifetime.”

Population can also grow exponentially.  In 1986, the world population grew 1.7 percent, a rate that would double our numbers in 41 years.  In 1999, growth had slowed to 1.3 percent, doubling in 53 years — 80 million people were added in 1999.

Industrial society has been growing like crazy for 200 years.  This was made possible by resources that were once so abundant that they seemed infinite.  During the growth surge, few enterprises ran into limits that could not be worked around.  This encouraged a mindset that paid little or no attention to limits.  Nothing was impossible.  Nothing!

Leap to full alert whenever you encounter a statement that begins with “At the current rate of consumption….”  Bartlett saw an article claiming that, at the current rate of consumption, U.S. coal would last 500 years.  While statements like this may technically be correct, they are meaningless when consumption is growing at an exponential rate.  He calculated that, at the actual growing rate of consumption, coal would last 46 years — which is far more meaningful information.

In 1956, Shell Oil geophysicist M. King Hubbert analyzed the trends in oil discoveries and production, and predicted that U.S. petroleum production would peak between 1966 and 1971.  Experts called him a dolt.  In fact, the peak occurred in 1970.  People who understand numbers, like Hubbert and Bartlett, possess powerful magic.

When you understand the affects of exponential growth on finite nonrenewable resources, reality becomes spooky.  Hubbert produced the following chart to illustrate the era of fossil energy extraction on a 10,000-year timeline.  The surge lasts about three centuries, and what follows is sure to be exciting and memorable.

“Population growth is not sustainable,” Bartlett insisted.  “Can you think of any problem, on any scale, from microscopic to global, whose long-term solution is in any demonstrable way, aided, assisted, or advanced by having larger populations at the local, state, national, or global level?”  The worst population deviant was the U.S., because our society consumes resources at an extreme rate.

Sustainable growth is an oxymoron.  Bartlett carefully explained the original meaning of sustainability — a way of life that must remain stable for millennia.  He presented 18 laws relating to sustainability, and 23 hypotheses.  He devoted a great deal of thought to sustainability, because it’s an incredibly important concept.

Today, genuine sustainability has been rudely pushed aside by the trendy and highly intoxicating silliness of ersatz sustainability, a masterpiece of magical thinking created by shameless marketing hucksters.  Bartlett lamented that the herd is convinced “that the frequent use of the adjective ‘sustainable’ is all that is needed to create a sustainable society.”  He suffered from an amazing ability to understand the obvious.

Bartlett explained the basics of exponential growth in a lecture titled Arithmetic, Population and Energy, which he gave over 1,500 times.  YouTube carries a number of versions.  It’s an illuminating way to spend an hour of your life.  Arithmetic can be fascinating, when the storyteller is a brilliant heretic.

The Essential Exponential is out of print.  Some libraries and booksellers have copies.  Much of the book is available free online, in an updated form.  Some sections present calculus equations for understanding the mechanics (which go way over my head), but many others are good old-fashioned writing, and present important ideas in a manner that’s easy to understand.  I have three favorites to recommend:

Bartlett, Albert A., The Essential Exponential!, Center for Science, Mathematics & Computer Education, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, 2004.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Deforesting the Earth

Michael Williams’ book, Deforesting the Earth, describes humankind’s 10,000 year raid on the planet’s forest cover.  Readers are taken on a world tour of deforestation through the ages.  Ports of call include Greece, Rome, China, India, the Amazon, and others.  We discover the regional variations of forest mining, from the first frontier clearings to the lumber guzzling industrial societies.

The saga of the forest molesters begins in the Stone Age, on an embryonic scale.  Many imagine that all Native Americans lived in perfect harmony from the dawn of time.  Compared to the white colonists, they indeed lived far lighter, but many tribes altered their ecosystems over time via periodic burning, which prevented forest regeneration.  They left some footprints on the land.

In the Old World, the experiment in agriculture had been thrashing soils and forests for centuries.  But in America, many imagine that similar slash-and-burn techniques somehow caused no injuries.  Williams disagreed.  He described extensive deforestation and soil depletion in corn country.  Note that large-scale agriculture in the eastern U.S. was just 500 years old in 1492, and they lacked metal axes, plows, and draft animals.  In Mexico, where large-scale farming existed since 2000 B.C., there was abundant evidence of serious damage — bigger footprints.

Our dependence on wood makes Homo sapiens an unusual species.  Without the warmth provided by burning wood, our ancestors could have never left the tropics.  Deforestation was civilization’s shadow.  Until the temporary blip of fossil energy, wood was our oil.  Wood enabled the manufacture of metals, bricks, mortar, glass, and ceramics.  It enabled long-term survival in snow country.

The Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas developed big bloody empires without plows, iron tools, or domesticated herd animals — but deforestation kept them on life support.  Gold, silver, diamonds, and iron were not necessary for becoming victorious conquerors, but the march to domination required food, water, and wood.

In medieval Europe, the new religion had driven a wedge between humans and nature.  Earth was created for us.  We were partners with God, and our job was to put the finishing touches on creation.  “A wild landscape not hallowed by prayer and asceticism was said to be in a state of original sin, but once it has become fertile and purposeful, it was transformed.”  So, the forests had to go, along with the savages and outlaws that lurked within them.

In theory, wood is renewable.  Societies with light footprints didn’t kill trees; they gathered dead wood instead.  For rising civilizations, on the other hand, wood was more like pure crystal meth.  When you had access to it, life was a fantastic amazing rush.  You built ships, cities, fortresses, temples, trade networks.  But when the wood was gone, you were a burned out, toothless, walking dead tweaker.

Wood addiction was a vicious cycle.  Deforestation led to expanded cropland and pasture, which led to growing population, which led to further deforestation, and so on.  Eventually, the Ponzi scheme encountered limits.  Endless growth is impossible.  Simple societies that saw their forest as sacred were helpless sitting ducks for loony societies possessed by an insatiable addiction to wood and wealth.  Why practice enlightened self-restraint when you can grow like crazy?

Forests are finite.  Perpetual deforestation is impossible, as they discovered on Easter Island.  Today, it’s growing at an exponential rate.  Listen to this: we’ve cleared more forest since 1950 than in all previous time, and the extermination continues.  Consumers encourage rainforest destruction by buying pet food, fast food burgers, soy-based products, foods containing palm oil, and so on.

Williams mentioned the winter of 1695, when the king of France sat at his dinner table, bundled in furs, his glass filled with frozen wine.  Before iron stoves, heating was extremely inefficient.  The metropolis of Paris was importing firewood from up to 200 kilometers away (124 miles).  In the winter of 1709, wood was scarce, and “people died like flies.”

At about this time, folks began seriously fooling around with coal, a nonrenewable source of energy.  Before long, coal became the new meth.  It threw open the doors to the Industrial Revolution, and a new vicious cycle of exponential growth and resource depletion.  Two hundred years later, we slipped into the petroleum nightmare, civilization went viral, and we are now skyrocketing toward bad juju oblivion.

Previously, I thought that the biggest impact of riding the downslope from Peak Energy was the transition to muscle-powered agriculture, a massive shift that we are entirely unprepared for.  But what about heating?  In 1695, when the king’s wine froze, the planet’s population was just 600 million.  Today, there is far less forest and far more people.  Today, almost half of humankind uses wood for heating and cooking, and they are burning twice as much as 20 years ago.  Imagine the day when wood is the only source of heat for Boston or Chicago, and the chainsaws, trucks, and trains are rusting in the snow.

Williams’ book is a grand banquet of information.  Readers get to spend many hours studying charts, graphs, and tables of statistics, observing reality through the mind of a geographer.  He described how, why, and when the long process of deforestation has proceeded, but paid little attention to the ecological impacts of forest clearing.  He advocated conservation, based on wise management.  The rate of cutting should not exceed the rate at which new wood grows.  Therefore, efforts to preserve old growth ecosystems were dumb, because mature trees grow slower than young ones.

Williams disliked critics of deforestation.  Those youngsters were feeble-minded alarmists who spewed exaggerated hysteria — obnoxious eco-fascists determined to make our lives miserable.  For him, deforestation was a necessary evil, “In fact, the clearing of the forest… over much of western and central Europe was one of the most dramatic changes made to human landscapes anywhere and can be regarded as one of the great achievements of the medieval age.”

Williams was born in 1935, and grew up during the zenith of the British Empire, the petroleum blip, the high tech revolution, and the population explosion — an era of staggering chaos.  Yes, deforestation was a bummer, but it was a sacrifice required for our joyride to wonderland.  Like the worldview of the dominant culture in which he was raised, the book vibrates with cognitive dissonance.  Our advanced standard of living must be preserved, at any cost, for as long as possible, by any means necessary.

Reading the book with ecology-tinted glasses is most illuminating.  It describes a chain reaction of catastrophic mistakes, made with good intentions, spanning thousands of years — mistakes that continue to multiply at a head spinning rate.  We are given a detailed map of the path we took to disaster, including the wrong turns.  We can never comprehend genuine sustainability until we identify and understand the mistakes.  We must discover our history.

Immense imagination is needed to elevate our consciousness far above the reeking cesspool of pathological illusions.  There may come a day, after the storms, when we have a chance to start over again.  How could we do it differently — and wisely — next time around?  It’s time for good people with hearts and creative gifts to contemplate these issues.  It’s time for new lessons, stories, songs, and paintings.  It’s time to remember who we are, and come home.

Williams provided a vital clue.  “If sustainable societies existed, then they depended on very low population densities, abundance of land, and little or no involvement in a market economy, local or regional, all of which were rare.”  I agree.

P.S., I also recommend John Perlin’s book, A Forest Journey.

Williams, Michael, Deforesting the Earth — From Prehistory to Global Crisis, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2006.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Limits to Growth

The Club of Rome was formed in 1968.  It included big shots and experts from 25 nations.  Social and environmental challenges had grown beyond the ability of individual countries to manage.  It was time to study the big issues, and develop strategies for dealing with them.  Their research began with the Project on the Predicament of Mankind.

In 1972, Limits to Growth was published, authored by Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows.  (Here is a free PDF of the book.)  They developed a computer model that allowed them to tinker with variables like population, food, pollution, and resources, and create possible scenarios for the coming decades.  This allowed them to understand which variables were best for leveraging desired improvements. 

The book concluded that we were on a path to big trouble, but it was not too late to avert disaster.  World leaders did not leap to action, so 20 years later the second edition was published, Beyond the Limits.  It announced that humankind was beyond overshoot, and it was time to slow down.  Despite millions of copies sold, consumers kept consuming, and leaders kept snoozing.  In 2004, the third edition was published, Limits to Growth — The 30-Year Update, the subject of this review.

All three books present two very important ideas.  First, our planet is finite, so economic and population growth cannot continue forever.  There are limits to growth.  Nothing could be more obvious to anyone who has more than two brain cells, but our culture stubbornly refuses to accept this.  It is impossible to ever have enough.  We are hell-bent on perpetual growth, by any means necessary, at any cost.  Sorry, kids!  Even the most prestigious universities on Earth remain hotbeds of the perpetual growth cult, which is the equivalent of the flat Earth cult of centuries past.

Second, humans have moved beyond the limits.  We are currently on a path that cannot continue for more than a generation or two.  Sorry, kids!  Exponential population growth continues, and exponential growth in resource consumption is growing even faster.  Climate is becoming unstable.  Cropland is being destroyed.  Rivers and aquifers are being drained.  Forests are vanishing.  Fossil energy is finite.  And so on.  There are no silver bullet solutions, but there are countless ways to weaken the monster.

Naturally, the perpetual growth cult is yowling and screeching.  They denounce the Limits to Growth research, asserting that the “predictions of the future” were wildly inaccurate, and therefore all of their ideas are pure balderdash.  Of course, those who have actually read the book(s) know that the authors were careful to repeatedly remind readers that the various possible scenarios of the future were not predictions.

So, there are limits to growth, and we are beyond the limits — this begs the question: what next?  The hurricane of predicaments that comprise humankind’s war on the planet is enormously complex.  We have countless options, and the better ones include slowing down, consuming less, fewer kids.  With regard to what next, the book gets fuzzier.

The intended audience is not the billion hungry souls living on less than two dollars a day.  The authors are writing to the educated, wealthy elite — folks who will yowl and screech if anyone makes a move toward their air conditioner, refrigerator, or vehicle.  They cannot wrap their heads around the notion that life can be both pleasant and sustainable, because sustainability implies terrible sacrifice, an unbearable reduction of their precious high-status, high-waste standard of living.

Because this elite audience is jittery and spooked, the discussion becomes more acrobatic and dubious.  For example, “A global transition to a sustainable society is probably possible without reductions in either population or industrial output.”  Not all growth is bad.  Poor folks need some growth so they can escape from poverty, and discover the magic of family planning.

Of the ten scenarios presented in the book, only one results in a sustainable future, which is inhabited by eight billion happy humans.  This scenario includes the highest number of major changes.  In it, “the system brings itself down below its limits, avoids an uncontrolled collapse, maintains its standard of living, and holds itself very close to equilibrium.”

Our predicaments have been accumulating for centuries.  The Agricultural Revolution sharply disturbed our relationship with the family of life, and the Industrial Revolution greatly magnified these imbalances.  Consequently, it’s time for the Sustainability Revolution.  The book mentions three ways of contemplating sustainability.

Most well known is the Brundtland Report, which defines sustainable development as “…development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  It fails to point out the huge difference between wants and needs.  Needs are about the basic necessities for survival: food, clothing, and shelter.  Consumers often perceive needs as everything money can buy. 

Another approach is the Herman Daly Rules.  (1) Renewable resources such as fish, soil, and groundwater must be used no faster than the rate at which they regenerate.  (2) Nonrenewable resources such as minerals and fossil fuels must be used no faster than renewable substitutes for them can be put into place.  (3) Pollution and wastes must be emitted no faster than natural systems can absorb them, recycle them, or render them harmless.

The Daly Rules are clearer, and they imply backing away from industrial society and traditional agriculture, which is rational and daunting.  His second rule is perplexing.  It’s OK to use energy and minerals to make solar panels, but what would we need electricity for?  Rule two would seem to prohibit using energy and minerals to make computers or refrigerators, because they are not renewable, and they require the existence of a vast and unsustainable industrial society.  Readers are warned that a sustainable society “would be almost unimaginably different from the one in which most people now live.”

The authors favor a third approach to sustainability, the Ecological Footprint model, which compares the impact of human activities to the planet’s carrying capacity.  They calculated that humankind’s current footprint requires an area 1.2 times the Earth — we have exceeded the planet’s carrying capacity by twenty percent, and this is unsustainable.  The footprint is defined as “the total area of productive land and water ecosystems required to produce the resources that the population consumes and assimilate the wastes that the population produces, wherever on Earth that land and water may be located.”  The footprint model is vague and imprecise.

The scenarios in the book are based on measurable variables, like cropland area, industrial output, energy reserves, population, and so on.  They do not include unknowns like war, floods, earthquakes, epidemics, and climate instability. 

A serious weakness in their computer model is the assumptions used to project crop yields.  Nine billion could be fed in 2100 if cropland area was not diminished, if food production doubled worldwide, if degraded land was restored, if erosion did not increase, if irrigation capacity did not diminish, and if there was adequate energy and fertilizer.  These assumptions are impossible to take seriously.  Agriculture is highly unsustainable already.

No book provides the solutions we wish for — a healthy future, with a high standard of living, quickly achieved via easy, painless changes.  Limits to Growth is a classic, and it takes a unique approach to describing our predicaments, and evaluating responses to them.  It’s nourishing brain food, easy to read, and a bit sugarcoated.

Meadows, Donella; Randers, Jorgen; and Meadows, Dennis, Limits to Growth — The 30-Year Update, Chelsea Green, White River Junction, Vermont, 2004.