Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Make America Great Again

In 2016, the election slogan of TV star Donald Trump was “Make America Great Again!”  One day, a pilgrim on the internet asked, “When was America great?”  For someone deeply immersed in the study of ecological sustainability, the answer was obvious.  America was great at least 15,000 years ago, when America resembled something like the Serengeti — a self-regulating (manager-free) wild ecosystem in a climax phase.

In those days, America was a paradise for the indigenous mastodons, wooly mammoths, wooly rhinos, short-faced bears, cheetahs, saber-tooth lions, jaguars, and many others who are now gone forever.  They had inhabited this ecosystem for millions of years, and successfully coevolved in it.  This was their ancient home and community.

I’m not exactly certain why there were so many extinctions, but all had survived hundreds of thousands of years of recurring ice age cycles.  Experts with their high-tech gadgets assert that many disappeared from the stage in the same era that humans from Siberia arrived.  Of course, other continents had similar experiences.  Europe, Asia, and Australia were also great prior to the arrival of two-legged tropical primates, and then went downhill in the millennia that followed.

Evolution is brilliantly simple — as conditions change, species genetically adapt via natural selection, a slow and steady process that has worked very well for a few billion years.  Our innovative tropical primate ancestors figured out how to sneak around this time-proven process.  For example, learning how to preserve and control fire was a big juju shift that no other animals have made.

With fire, they were better able to fend off predators.  They could stay warm in non-tropical climates.  They learned how to cook, which made it easier to digest food.  Cooking made many inedible substances edible, and these were added to their diet.  Consequently, they could extract more calories from the same territory.  So, the carrying capacity of their habitat increased, which led to more well-fed bambinos.

This process is called cultural evolution — a deliberate way of altering our relationship with the ecosystem via learning and innovation, a process for change that was far faster than genetic evolution.  With clothing and shelters, they could survive in cooler lands.  With weapons and teamwork, they could kill animals much larger than themselves.  When they first arrived in new ecosystems, the wildlife had no instinctive fear of them, which made hunting ridiculously easy.  This led to more well-fed bambinos.

Eventually, we became clever enough to live everywhere, even the Arctic.  Cultural evolution gained momentum, transforming many societies of two-legs into ecological super storms.  Technological innovation has given us the power to poison the oceans, erase vast forests, exterminate wildlife, and disrupt the planet’s climate systems — and we’re bloody proud of this.  We call it Progress.

Our closest living relatives, the chimps and bonobos (like all other animals), did not board the runaway train of cultural evolution.  Their ancestors have lived in the same tropical ecosystem for millions of years, without wrecking it.  Our DNA is ninety-nine percent the same as theirs.  All newborn humans are wild tropical primates, expecting to spend their lives in a thriving Serengeti, but most of their parents have been entranced.  Most newborns squirt out of the womb into a batshit crazy culture.

This crazy culture imagines that one animal species (guess who) is superior to everything else in the universe, and no other species matters at all.  In this culture, newborns grow up, go to school, get a job, and spend their entire lives wandering around amidst mobs of neurotic insecure tropical primates.  Unlike wild humans, and other wild animals, consumers mature, reproduce, and die in a bleak space station culture of human supremacy.

I once spent nine years in the forest.  Humans would build a cabin in bear country, and live as if they were in a sterile suburban cul-de-sac where everything wild had been exterminated.  They’d put their garbage (bear food) on the porch, which would attract… (guess who).  A hungry bear would dine on the wasted food, the moron would race of the cabin with a high-powered rifle, screaming obscenities at the “problem bear,” and blow it away.  The moron perceived himself to be the lord and master of the ecosystem.  This attitude is perfectly normal in our culture.

You see, the mastodons and wooly rhinos instinctively lived in an ancient time-proven manner — automatically, thoughtlessly, effortlessly — like the other species in the world.  This is exactly why America was great.  It worked!  The American flora and fauna had succeeded in adapting to millions of years of ongoing changes of climate and habitat via evolution and coevolution.  By staying on the traditional path, they did not nervously tap-dance through minefields of their own making.

By adapting fire, clothing, and weapons, two-legs had moved onto a terrifically dangerous path.  They had become far more powerful than bonobos or chimps.  They were en route to becoming the mightiest critters on the planet — via culture, not genes — a treacherous daredevil experiment with no safety nets.

To wisely avoid self-destruction, the innovative two-legs had to have foresight.  They had to have respect and reverence for their ecosystem.  They had to develop traditions and taboos that expected everyone to practice self-restraint.  No other species had to struggle with these highly challenging responsibilities.  Surprisingly, numerous human societies actually succeeded in living mindfully, until being clobbered by… (guess who).  The Koyukon, Ohlone, Ojibway, and many other tribes carefully adapted to their ecosystems, and lived for thousands of years in a low-impact manner.  Great, eh?

Today, I’m living in a culture that generates staggering amounts of scientific data, but has pathetically limited foresight.  There is little respect for this ecosystem.  Self-restraint is seen as a disgusting disability in a consumer culture obsessed with unrestrained self-indulgence, and an insatiable hunger for status and power.  History is clear that cultures like this one routinely trump the wild cultures of reverence, respect, and restraint.  Civilized cultures mindlessly mangle everything in their paths.

The Glowing Screen People inhabit a wonderland of technological progress — not a devastated ecosystem.  They do not perceive the huge gaping holes in the family of life.  They have no awareness of all that has been lost.  They do not grieve the absence of giant condors, giant beavers, giant armadillos, giant bears.  They have no memory of the great American Serengeti.  They will barely notice the passing of the last lions and tigers and bears, and few will grieve their demise.

Well, gosh, we’ve inherited an interesting mess, and it’s getting worse.  This is the opposite of great, methinks.  Genes did not get us into this mess, culture did — it’s a buggy software thing.  Our nightmare is a swirling roaring pandemonium of dysfunctional beliefs, ideas, fantasies, and illusions — toxic cultural baggage.  But our society is not required to continue operating on Ecocide 1.0 until the bloody end.  We have the option of creating an entirely different operating system, in theory.  Attempting to dominate and exploit the entire family of life has been a catastrophic experiment in megalomania and embarrassing foolishness.

We’re not going to bring back the wooly rhinos and mastodons.  America will not return to a healthy stable wild paradise for a very long time.  People capable of thinking outside the box understand that the path to ecological sustainability travels in the opposite direction from the current path of windmills, solar panels, electric cars, nuke plants, voyages to Mars, and happy meals for eleven billion shoppers on antidepressants.

Anyway, I wonder if this was the profound vision of “great again” that Donald Trump struggled so clumsily to convey — turning out the lights, walking away from civilization, going home sweet home, and living happily ever after.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Topography of Ireland

One grouchy grumpy day, Pope Adrian IV got honked off at Ireland.  The Irish were not paying their tithes, and they were Catholic in name only, living in abominable moral decay.  So, he ordered England’s Henry II to conquer the rowdy heathen barbarians.  Along with the invasion went a secretary, Giraldus Cambrensis (1146 – 1223), a Welsh priest and scholar.  (“Giraldus Cambrensis” was Latin for “Jerry of Wales.”)  Father Jerry arrived in Ireland in 1185, and wrote a description of the emerald isle, Topography of Ireland.  It captured a rare snapshot of what life was like more than eight centuries ago, when the Irish were still tribal people.

At that time, Ireland was a remote and isolated frontier, largely off the radar of civilization.  The landscape majored in forests, bogs, lakes, streams, and swamps.  Boats were the easiest mode of travel.  Stags feasted on the lavish banquet of foliage, becoming chubby and less speedy.  Wolves dined on the abundant boars and wild pigs.  The air and water were clean, and the rivers were loaded with fine salmon, trout, muddy eels, and oily shad.

The tribes of Ireland were wild chiefdoms, and the lads and lasses were primarily cowboys and cowgirls.  The climate was mild, rainfall was gentle and abundant, and the grass was green all year.  Snows were rare, and soon melted away.  It was a paradise for herbivores and herders.  Herders needed no structures to protect the livestock from the cold, and they had no need for cutting, drying, and storing hay.  Organic milk, grass-fed meat, wild fish, and little else, were on the menu every day of the year.

The wild folks had no interest in adapting the latest European fashions — dainty, frilly, colorful attire.  They refused to invest endless hours in the tedious drudgery of spinning and weaving fabric of flax or wool.  Sensible people are not trend junkies, and dressing up in silly duds made you look like a goofy geek from Liverpool.  It was simply too embarrassing.  Sensible people wore skins and furs, which were comfortable, durable, attractive, and suitable for all occasions.

There were veins of ores, including gold-bearing quartz, but the cowboys ignored them.  Mining was brutally hard work, and their cattle refused to eat gold.  Their lands were home to majestic forests, but the cowboys weren’t interested in forest mining.  They had no need for lumber or paper, and their finicky cattle would eat neither boards nor money.  A good deal of the countryside was potentially suitable for use as cropland, but very little was tilled and sown.  Cowboys knew that soil mining was miserable, backbreaking work, and their traditional way of life worked just fine.  Cattle were perfectly happy to eat the delicious grass.

Tribes had abundant leisure time for making a joyful noise.  Father Jerry had travelled as far as Rome, and he considered the Irish to be the finest musicians of all.  Irish music was lively and rapid, and the harmonies sweet and gay.  They mostly played the harp and tabor (a small drum).  In those days, music was still genuinely sustainable.  Musicians did not need huge tour buses, or dozens semis to haul speakers, amplifiers, lighting systems, stages, mega-screens, and dumpsters of cocaine and heroin.

The people were strong and healthy.  They did not waste years in lingering sickness and decline.  They preferred to leap directly from good health to their deathbeds, and promptly get it over with.  They did not know the days of the week, the names of the months, or what year it was.  They kept time by the sun, moon, and seasons.

The Irish have never been fond of Father Jerry’s writing, because he was an obnoxious gaseous sphincter.  For example, “The Irish are a rude people, subsisting on the produce of their cattle only, and living themselves like beasts.”  Or, “This people, then, is truly barbarous, being not only barbarous in their dress, but suffering their hair and beards to grow enormously in an uncouth manner… indeed, all of their habits are barbarisms.”

Father Jerry was certain that the world was very old, close to its end.  He was stunned and perplexed by the Irish indifference to salvation and eternal life.  You see, Saint Patrick had successfully converted all the tribes before he died in 485.  Yet seven centuries later, most of the Irish savages had forgotten everything about sin, damnation, and guilt.  Many Irish remained unbaptized and unmarried — shameless, adulterous, incestuous, illegitimate bastards.  (Writer Michael Ventura heard of an Irish grandmother who, in the 1950s, still referred to Christianity as “the new religion.”)

Anyway, King Henry’s invasion of Ireland was the kickoff for centuries of bloodshed — similar in many ways to English colonization of New England or Australia.  The Irish were low-tech guerilla warriors, skilled at hit and run ambushes.  They used slings to hurl stones with skull-splitting accuracy.  They had spears, javelins, and axes.  The English were state-of-the-art warriors, having chain mail, armor, archers, and deadly swords.  For example, “He who had seen how John de Courcy wielded his sword, with one stroke lopping off heads, and with another arms, must needs have commended him for a most valiant soldier.”

Long after Jerry’s death, after more than 450 years of fighting, the conquest was complete.  The English victors seized the estates of Irish nobles, and gave them two options.  They could move to a reservation, or be executed.  Thousands of Irish women were sold to the owners of Caribbean sugar plantations.  Countless lads were hung.  One observer noted, “You may ride 20 miles and discern anything or fix your eye upon any object, but dead men hanging on trees and gibbets.”

History is clear that civilization trumps tribes.  It also trumps healthy wild ecosystems.  It trumps the wellbeing of generations yet to be born.  But even before Henry and Jerry washed up on shore, tribal Ireland was not a place of love, peace, and happiness.  Ireland was divided into many túatha, or petty kingdoms, the domains of chiefdoms.  The borders often fluctuated, as chiefs ambitiously pursued the glories of perpetual growth.

History is clear that the accumulation of property, including domesticated livestock, is a routine cause of wealth inequality, social friction, and war.  Before becoming cowboys, the Irish hunted and fished.  They could not capture and hoard wild stags or boars, so they avoided status-seeking mania, and the dark juju of bossy rich jerks.  Countless millions have perished in countless wars resulting from the insatiable obsession of insecure people for more, more, and more.  Today, many blame our woes on capitalism, but the roots of the monster are far deeper.

Father Jerry wrote with flamboyance.  The translation I read was clear and understandable.  However, he was not skilled at remaining focused on his subject, and frequently wandered away to jabber about whatever came into his head.  He wrote many books, including The History of the Conquest of Ireland.  The Historical Works of Giraldus Cambrensis contains both of his books on Ireland, and his two books on Wales.  A free download is HERE.

Cambrensis, Giraldus, The Historical Works of Giraldus Cambrensis, George Bell & Sons, London, 1905.

Hegarty, Neil, The Story of Ireland, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2012.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Seeing Like A State

As centuries passed, and the human herd swelled, the strains on society increased, often sparking friction.  In an effort to discourage chaos, many societies became more structured — codes of rules, conflict resolution systems, hierarchies of control and coercion.  Tribes formed alliances with others, and these confederations often merged into states.  In a shark pool of ongoing growth and overshoot, weak states were vulnerable sitting ducks.  The struggle for survival was a never-ending challenge.  It encouraged better defenses, stronger offences, technological innovation, and tough leaders.

To nourish their strength, states had to focus on maximizing tax revenues, conscripting fresh cannon fodder, and promptly smashing uprisings.  To do this effectively, they needed detailed censuses listing the names and residences of all citizens.  They needed maps that illustrated the boundaries and fields of landed property, the names of the owners, and the economic output generated on each estate.  They needed accurate street maps of cities.  The better a state understood the society it controlled and exploited, the richer and more powerful it could become.

James Scott is a political science professor at Yale.  In his book, Seeing Like A State, he presents a tragi-comical exposé of bloopers and blunders performed by a variety of ambitious states in their quest for greater efficiency, order, and prestige — modernization.

Chapter one takes readers on an illuminating visit to eighteenth century Germany.  Prior to the coal age, wood was the essential source of energy and building materials — no wood, no civilization.  Today, it’s impossible for anyone to know the actual amount of oil that remains underground, but in the forests of old Germany, the reserves of standing trees were perfectly visible to everyone, and they were getting smaller.  Yikes!  Folks having more than a few brain cells realized that if they wiped out the forests, they would wipe themselves out.

Unlike modern society, which is fatally addicted to nonrenewable energy, old Germany had better options, in theory.  Forests were renewable, in theory.  Forests were complex self-regulating ecosystems, and their long-term health was seriously harmed by persistent attacks from gangs of vicious ax murderers.  Unfortunately, the bureaucrats of the state didn’t understand this at all.  When they looked at a forest, they saw precious treasure to be taken, and they throbbed with giddy adolescent excitement.

Healthy, happy undisturbed forests included diverse communities of tree people, most of which were not valuable grade-A species, in the minds of greed-heads.  In a sparkling shower of light, a brilliant solution fell out of the sky — scientific forestry!  The treasure could be maximized by growing nothing but grade-A trees!  Simply erase the messy old forest, and replace it with plantations of Norway spruce.  These trees could be planted, evenly spaced, row after row, century after century.  Every year, the volume of wood grown would equal the volume of wood removed, in theory.  By 1900, scientific forestry had been adapted by cutting edge nations around the world.

Whoops!  Well, the first generation of plantation trees was awesome, having been planted in the fabulously fertile soil produced by thousands of years of old growth forests.  The second rotation was less than awesome, and went downhill from there.  Monocultures were always a magnet for pests and diseases.  Spruce trees become chronically depressed slackers when planted in abused and depleted soils.  Unhealthy root systems encouraged blow downs.  This inspired the birth of a new word — Waldsterben (forest death).

In other types of projects, growing states fooled around with strategies similar to scientific forestry.  Scott says that these strategies were the offspring of an accident-prone control freak mindset, which he called the high-modernist ideology.  It proclaimed that the path to utopia was lit by science, technology, and reason.  He takes readers on a breathtaking whitewater raft ride through a number of high-modernist catastrophes, designed by a mob of half-clever smarty-pants.

Vladimir Lenin, a leader in the Russian Revolution, was a devious super-ambitious control freak, determined to create a high-modernist utopia, by any means necessary.  In order to rapidly industrialize the new state, he needed to rapidly industrialize agriculture, to keep the heroic factory workers well fed.  The age of tractors had arrived, and many nations were becoming very excited about industrial agriculture.  In the twentieth century, the Industrial Revolution was having powerful orgasms, and the entire planet was ravaged by a highly contagious epidemic of drug-resistant get-rich-quick fever.

A fatal flaw in the high-modernist ideology was that it intensified civilization’s merciless war on ecological sustainability.  Yes, scientific forestry was foolish, but so was the traditional low-tech forest mining it replaced.  Scientific forestry just accelerated the wreckage.  Yes, industrial agriculture was foolish, but so was the organic low-tech soil mining it replaced.  The modernists could not comprehend the serious irreversible consequences of the well-intended mistakes they were making; they focused their full attention on utopian fantasies.

Joseph Stalin brutally collectivized Russian agriculture.  Millions of peasants were forced to work on huge mechanized farms.  They were like slaves, even more oppressed than during the bad old days of the czars.  Idiot bureaucrats, who knew almost nothing about the farms they managed, established impossible production quotas.  If factory workers didn’t meet their quotas, they were still fed.  The same was not true for farm workers.  They starved.  Folks who complained were deported or executed.  This adventure in high-modernism resulted in at least 20 million deaths.

The new Brazilian capital, Brasília, was a perfect city, in theory.  It was designed by notorious geniuses, and then built on a bulldozed forest.  It was the pinnacle of modernity, reminiscent of Albert Speer’s monumental designs for Hitler’s Berlin.  Comically, the city that dazzled the avant-garde intelligentsia was despised by the thousands of miserable government workers forced to live in it.  Life in Brasília was painfully bleak.  Eventually, they built an unplanned city around the edges of perfect hell, where they could roll their socks down and enjoy life.

Like a cat with nine lives, high-modernism refuses to die.  Today’s modernist buzzwords include sustainable agriculture, sustainable forestry, sustainable cities, sustainable development, and so on.  The ideology has thoroughly infected the cultures of the civilized world.  It’s taught in every school, so the kiddies are prepared for a soul-killing life of sustainable consuming.  In every facet of our lives, every minute of the day, the air is constantly buzzing with modernist memes.  They define the specifications for how normal, well-adjusted, planet-thrashing consumers think and behave.  Questioning is unacceptable.  Don’t!

Scott’s book is loaded with descriptions of quirky high-modernist escapades.  It’s powerful medicine for folks who are beginning to experience doubts about the sanity of our age of astonishing wonders.  No, you’re not crazy; you’re coming out of the trance.  Good job!  Welcome to reality!

A free PDF of the book can be downloaded HERE.  YouTube has an interesting 38-minute video of Scott HERE.

Scott, James C., Seeing Like A State — How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1998.

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Hidden Life of Trees

As a young lad in Germany, Peter Wohlleben loved nature.  He went to forestry school, and became a wood ranger.  At this job, he was expected to produce as many high quality saw logs as possible, with maximum efficiency, by any means necessary.  His tool kit included heavy machinery and pesticides.  This was forest mining, an enterprise that ravaged the forest ecosystem and had no long-term future.  He oversaw a plantation of trees lined up in straight rows, evenly spaced.  It was a concentration camp for tree people.

Wohlleben is a smart and sensitive man, and over the course of decades he got to know the tree people very well.  Eventually, his job became unbearable.  Luckily, he made friends in the community of Hümmel, and was given permission to manage their forest in a less destructive manner.  There is no more clear-cutting, and logs are removed by horse teams, not machines.  In one portion of the forest, old trees are leased as living gravestones, where families can bury the ashes of kin.  In this way, the forest generates income without murdering trees.

Wohlleben wrote The Hidden Life of Trees, a smash hit in Germany.  It will be translated into 19 languages.  The book is built on a foundation of reputable science, but it reads like grandpa chatting at fireside.  He’s a gentle old storyteller explaining the wondrous magic of beautiful forests to befuddled space aliens from a crazy planet named Consume.  He teaches readers about the family of life, a subject typically neglected in schools.

Evergreen trees have been around for 170 million years, and trees with leaves are 100 million years old.  Until recently, trees lived very well without the assistance of a single professional forest manager.  I’m serious!  Forests are communities of tree people.  Their root systems intermingle, allowing them to send nutrients to their hungry children, and to ailing neighbors.  When a Douglas fir is struck by lightning, several of its close neighbors might also die, because of their underground connections.  A tribe of tree people can create a beneficial local climate for the community.

Also underground are mycelium, the largest organisms yet discovered.  One in Oregon weighs 660 tons, covers 2,000 acres (800 ha), and is 2,400 years old.  They are fungi that send threads throughout the forest soil.  The threads penetrate and wrap around tree roots.  They provide trees with water, nitrogen, and phosphorus, in exchange for sugar and other carbohydrates.  They discourage attacks from harmful fungi and bacteria, and they filter out heavy metals.

When a limb breaks off, unwelcome fungal spores arrive minutes later.  If the tree can close off the open wound in less than five years, the fungi won’t survive.  If the wound is too large, the fungi can cause destructive rot, possibly killing the tree.  When a gang of badass beetles invades, the tree secretes toxic compounds, and sends warnings to other trees via scent messages, and underground electrical signals.  Woodpeckers and friendly beetles attack the troublemakers.

Forests exist in a state of continuous change, but this is hard for us to see, because trees live much slower than we do.  They almost appear to be frozen in time.  Humans zoom through life like hamsters frantically galloping on treadmills, and we blink out in just a few decades.  In Sweden, scientists studied a spruce that appeared to be about 500 years old.  They were surprised to learn that it was growing from a root system that was 9,550 years old.

In Switzerland, construction workers uncovered stumps of trees that didn’t look very old.  Scientists examined them and discovered that they belonged to pines that lived 14,000 years ago.  Analyzing the rings of their trunks, they learned that the pines had survived a climate that warmed 42°F, and then cooled about the same amount — in a period of just 30 years!  This is the equivalent of our worst-case projections today.

Dinosaurs still exist in the form of birds, winged creatures that can quickly escape from hostile conditions.  Trees can’t fly, but they can migrate, slowly.  When the climate cools, they move south.  When it warms, they go north, like they are today — because of global warming, and because they continue to adapt to the end of the last ice age.  A strong wind can carry winged seeds a mile.  Birds can carry seeds several miles.  A beech tree tribe can advance about a quarter mile per year (0.4 km).

Compared to trees, the human genome has little variation.  We are like seven-point-something billion Barbie and Ken dolls.  Tree genomes are extremely diverse, and this is key for their survival.  Some trees are more drought tolerant, others are better with cold or moisture.  So change that kills some is less likely to kill all.  Wohlleben suspects that his beech forest will survive, as long as forest miners don’t wreck its soil or microclimate.  (Far more questionable is the future of corn, wheat, and rice, whose genetic diversity has been sharply reduced by the seed sellers of industrial agriculture.)

Trees have amazing adaptations to avoid inbreeding.  Winds and bees deliver pollen from distant trees.  The ovaries of bird cherry trees reject pollen from male blossoms on the same tree.  Willows have separate male trees and female trees.  Spruces have male and female blossoms, but they open several days apart.

Boars and deer love to devour acorns and beechnuts.  Feasting on nuts allows them to put on fat for the winter.  To avoid turning these animals into habitual parasites, nuts are not produced every year.  This limits the population of chubby nutters, and ensures that some seeds will survive and germinate.  If a beech lives 400 years, it will drop 1.8 million nuts.

On deciduous trees, leaves are solar panels.  They unfold in the spring, capture sunlight, and for several months manufacture sugar, cellulose, and other carbohydrates.  When the tree can store no more sugar, or when the first hard frost arrives, the solar panels are no longer needed.  Their chlorophyll is drained, and will be recycled next spring.  Leaves fall to the ground and return to humus.  The tree goes into hibernation, spending the winter surviving on stored sugar.  Now, with bare branches, the tree is far less vulnerable to damage from strong winds, heavy wet snows, and ice storms.

In addition to rotting leaves, a wild forest also transforms fallen branches and trunks into carbon rich humus.  Year after year, the topsoil becomes deeper, healthier, and more fertile.  Tree plantations, on the other hand, send the trunks to saw mills.  So, every year, tons of precious biomass are shipped away, to planet Consume.  This depletes soil fertility, and encourages erosion.  Plantation trees are more vulnerable to insects and diseases.  Because their root systems never develop normally, the trees are more likely to blow down.

From cover to cover, the book presents fascinating observations.  By the end, readers are likely to imagine that undisturbed forests are vastly more intelligent than severely disturbed communities of radicalized consumers.  More and more, scientists are muttering and snarling, as the imaginary gulf between the plant and animal worlds fades away.  Wohlleben is not a vegetarian, because experience has taught him that plants are no less alive, intelligent, and sacred than animals.  It’s a wonderful book.  I’m serious!

Wohlleben, Peter, The Hidden Life of Trees — What They Feel, How They Communicate, Greystone Books, Berkeley, 2016. 

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Call of Distant Mammoths

I’ve long been interested in the megafauna extinctions of Pleistocene North America.  A number of books endorse Paul Martin’s “Pleistocene Overkill Hypothesis,” which asserts that the early humans on the continent were “super predators” who launched a blitzkrieg of overhunting.  Hunting began in northwest Canada, and spread south and east like a wild fire.  Within 2,000 years, at least 33 genera (50 species) of large mammals went extinct — many more than in the preceding three million years.  At first contact, large animals who had never before seen odd-looking humans, did not sense danger.

In other locations, when humans first arrived, extinctions followed — for example, Australia, New Zealand, Madagascar, and Caribbean islands.  Hunting, and hunting alone, was the cause, said Martin.  His ideas really pissed off Native Americans, like Vine Deloria, because overkill implied that Indians were as foolish as Euro Americans.

Deloria blasted the hypothesis, pointing to the fantastic number of bones found in northern Siberia — mammoths, mastodons, rhinos, horses, bison.  Chinese have been hauling away mammoth tusks since medieval times, and this ivory is still being mined today; a high-quality tusk can fetch over $40,000.  The white keys on grandma’s piano might be mammoth ivory.

These bones were not the result of a blitzkrieg.  Mastodons had been living in Siberia for 400,000 years, and woolly mammoths for 250,000 years.  The frigid climate helped to preserve their remains.  In central Russia, more than 70 mammoth bone huts have been found.  One hut had 385 bones, and weighed 20 tons.

I just read The Call of Distant Mammoths by paleontologist Peter Ward, and learned a lot about extinction and evolution.  I’ve often wondered how hairy lads, on foot, with wooden spears, were able to exterminate every horse in all of North America within 2,000 years.  Bison were also residents of the open plains, able to sprint up to 35 miles per hour, and they did not go extinct — and horses could run even faster.

Ward introduces us to the climate change hypothesis.  During the two million year Ice Age (the Pleistocene), there were at least 18 glaciation cycles.  Until the last cycle, the megafauna had mostly survived.  The last one began 18,000 years ago, and it was the most intense of all.  It ended 12,000 years ago.  The ice pack melted, forest advanced, and habitats rapidly changed.  The mammoth tundra fragmented and shrank, which split the herbivore population into isolated groups.

Ward also studied the extinction of dinosaurs.  They roamed the Earth for 160 million years, and then disappeared.  Ward was an early advocate of the notion that the dinosaur mass extinction was sudden, caused by an asteroid strike near Chicxulub, Mexico.  Some say it resulted in a decade of near-freezing temperatures on a planet that was largely tropical.

Throughout the dinosaur era, small mammals also existed — insect eating night creatures.  The extinction of dinosaurs eliminated large animals, and made the age of mammals possible.  If not for the asteroid, humans and elephants would have never evolved.  Mammoth country once ranged from France to Siberia to New York.

Our primate ancestors evolved in the trees.  Their tropical homeland was eventually chilled by an era of glaciation.  It thinned the rainforest, and expanded savannahs, which encouraged the evolution of large mammals, including our hominid ancestors.  Thus, you and I are the children of climate change and asteroids.

Evolution is a process that creates and deletes species.  New species can only emerge when a group becomes isolated, evolves unique traits, and eventually becomes unable to interbreed with their old kin.  Homo sapiens come in many sizes, shapes, and colors, but all belong to the same species, because we can all interbreed.  Ward expects white skinned people to disappear in a few thousand years, because of their increasing vulnerability to skin cancer.

Our cultural myths tell us that humans are continuously getting smarter.  Ward believes that the brains of modern humans are essentially the same as the first Homo sapiens in Africa, 125,000 to 200,000 years ago (but we’ve learned lots of stuff since then).  Once a new species emerges, it changes little thereafter.  Humans are the last species of the hominids, and this has risks.  A gene pool has better odds for long-term survival when it diversifies into multiple species, as the ants have.

Another way for critters to avoid extinction is to become generalists, like humans, rats, and cockroaches, who have adapted to many different ecosystems around the world.  Today, humans live everywhere.  There is no place a group could remain isolated for millennia.  So, there is little chance for a new hominid species to emerge.

Evolution is random, like tossing dice.  The process is influenced by ongoing environmental change, natural selection, and genetic drift (chance genetic changes).  Evolution has no foresight; it can’t anticipate coming changes.  It’s not always progressive.  Greenland ice core data tells us that there have been times when global temperature changed up to 18°F in a few decades.  Many gene pools that work well in one set of conditions will fail to adapt to sudden shifts.

The golden rule of evolution is adapt or die.  Ward doesn’t discuss cultural evolution, which is a million times faster than genetic evolution, and has catapulted humankind onto extremely thin ice, by overloading our tropical primate brains with way too many half-smart ideas.  We are, by far, the world champion resource parasites.  We are hurling countless species into the abyss in our insane impossible quest for perpetual economic growth.

In an extremely quirky twist, Ward celebrates human supremacy at causing mass extinction.  “We are the comet now.  And not only have we won the game of evolution; we control the rules of the game,” he wrote.  “And to this winner, in my view, goes an even greater prize: species immortality.  It is my opinion that no matter where on the board we humans land and no matter what card we draw, we cannot be knocked into extinction.”  Who could disagree?

The book was written 20 years ago, when resource limits and climate change were still dumb ideas among the lunatic fringe — rational people.  Ward is employed in academia, which remains a militant hotbed of radicalized human supremacists.

OK, back to the megafauna.  Doubts are growing about the overkill hypothesis.  Martin claimed a sudden 2,000-year rampage wiped out the megafauna, but this was based on data generated by obsolete dating technology.  Improved dating does not confirm sudden extinction.  Martin claimed the extinctions fanned out in a wave, beginning in Alberta — so kill sites far from there should be more recent.  They aren’t.  We have only discovered a dozen sites where human artifacts are found with mammoth remains.

Dan Fisher has studied of mammoth tusks in Michigan and Ohio.  Tusks have annual rings inside, like tree trunks.  Rings are thin in hungry years.  In female tusks, rings mark each pregnancy, providing a birth rate.  If climate change had killed the mammoths, the rings would indicate malnutrition, but Fisher found that the last mammoths were “fat, fit, and well fed.”

Ward suspects that the mammoths were not the victims of a blitzkrieg.  Unlike bunnies, mammoths were slow to mature, and had low reproduction rates.  If hunters had regularly taken just two percent of the animals each year, the extinction process would have taken 400 years — too slow for each generation of hunters to notice.  Hunting alone could have wiped them out.  Ward thinks that if there had been no hunting, mammoths would probably have survived the warming climate.

In the 1990s, editors adamantly insisted that manuscripts like Ward’s include brilliant solutions and happy endings, because bummer books didn’t sell.  So, his mammoth book ends with a happy visit to the year 3001.  Population was well below its peak of 11 billion.  The U.S. grain belt was a desert.  African survivors were healthy vegetarians with solar panels and pedal-powered transport.  The rainforest was long gone, replaced with endless fields of GMO crops.  Wildlife and livestock had been eliminated by starving hordes.  Happily, the human species survived — hooray!

Compulsory happy endings meant that vital knowledge was deliberately withheld from an entire generation, who are now teachers, reporters, and leaders.  Even today, a “don’t frighten the children” strategy remains common among educators, and young minds are still being infected with a carcinogenic worldview.  Bummer!

Ward, Peter D., The Call of Distant Mammoths, Copernicus, New York, 1997.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Are We Smart Enough

Primatologist Frans de Waal has made a career out of pounding his head against the rugged wall of human exceptionalism — the belief that humans are the only species that is conscious, self-aware, rational, cooperative, goal-oriented, empathetic, and so on.  This wall of calcified grandiosity has resisted change for a long time, and has inspired an abusive relationship with the rest of the family of life.  With his new book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, de Waal has launched a new assault on the cult of exceptionalism.

In the 1970s, when de Waal was in college, behavioral psychology was the hot trend.  It asserted that animals were mindless, machine-like organisms that did nothing more than robotically respond to stimuli with responses.  Animals were incapable of cognition — knowing based on perception and judgment.  They could not have desires or intentions.  Many scholars remain reluctant to consider the possibility that animals possess various forms of intelligence.  Whoops, I meant non-human animals.  In our culture, the two categories of fauna are humans and animals (not wombats and non-wombats).

In the last 20 years, new research has been inspiring doubt in many long-held beliefs, including the notion that rationality is exclusively human.  Yet “animal cognition” is still an obscene four-letter word, a diabolical heresy.  Smart scholars wait until they have tenure before they come out of the closet and study it.

The illusion of exceptionalism has deep roots.  By the time children reach the age of 8 or 10, their worldviews are largely solidified for the rest of their lives.  The culture constantly reinforces this worldview, and only a few can summon the power to question it.  So, youngsters absorb the worldview, grow up, and raise their children with it, generation after generation.  Entrenched belief is immune to conflicting evidence.

Humans are extremely proud of our complex language and abstract thought, but these are just two tools in a big box of mental functions used by animals.  De Waal believes that some species use forms of intelligence that we are still unaware of — intelligence beyond our imagination.  The absolute bottom line for any species is basic survival, and ants and termites excel at this.  No animal needs alphabets, numbers, or glowing screens.

Irene Pepperberg had a parrot named Alex, who was remarkably capable of advanced cognition.  When she pointed at a key, Alex said “key.”  He pronounced words precisely.  He could add numbers.  Alex didn’t just memorize names, he could listen to questions, think, and answer correctly.  He was asked, “What color is corn?” when no corn was present.  “Yellow,” he replied.

Other birds are also extremely smart.  “The Clark’s nutcracker, in the fall, stores more than twenty thousand pine nuts, in hundreds of different locations distributed over many square miles; then in winter and spring it manages to recover the majority of them.”  Could you do that?

Crows, jays, magpies, and ravens are corvids, “a family that has begun to challenge the cognitive supremacy of primates.”  One biologist caught and banded many crows, which really pissed them off.  They recognized him wherever he went, and they regularly scolded and dive-bombed him.

Ayumu the chimp was trained to use a touchscreen.  On the screen, a number appeared for a quarter second, then another, in a rapid sequence.  Ayumu could remember the sequence of numbers, and then tap them in the correct order.  Without practice, he was far better than any human at memory tests — even a memory expert who could remember the sequence of cards in a deck.  Harrumph!  The supremacists soiled their britches and muttered obscenities.  Eventually, a frantic researcher practiced, practiced, and practiced and was finally able to score as well as a chimpanzee.

In Japan, chimps were taught a computer game, similar to rock-paper-scissors, which required them to anticipate their opponent’s choices.  “The chimps outperformed the humans, reaching optimal performance more quickly and completely than members of our own species.”

Like many social animals, primates excel at imitation and conformity, which can have great survival value.  Youngsters note what their mothers eat, and what they avoid.  Chimps readily imitate the behavior of high status chimps, but not low status ones.  When apes are raised in a human home, they are as good at imitating humans as children are.  They “spontaneously learn to brush their teeth, ride bicycles, light fires, drive golf carts, eat with a knife and fork, peel potatoes, and mop the floor.”

Humans are pathological conformists, abandoning personal preferences when they conflict with the current whims of the majority, whims that are typically manufactured by a slimy mob of marketing shysters.  When a celebrity dyes her hair pink, her fans do too.  Respectable people must travel everywhere in gas guzzling motorized wheelchairs — bicyclists, bus riders, and walkers are low status slugs.  Mindless imitation is the life force of consumer society, and the death force of Earth’s biosphere.

When de Waal gives a talk on primate intelligence, he is frequently asked, “What sets humans apart?”  Consider an iceberg, he responds.  Almost all of it is submerged, only a wee tip is visible above the surface.  We have many cognitive, emotional, and behavioral similarities with our primate relatives, and a few dozen differences — the tip.  Academia focuses most attention on the tip alone.  “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the smartest of them all?”

Animal intelligence books annoy me.  Why do we need scientists to inform us that animals are not robots?  Wild people, and others who live close to nature, never doubt the powerful intelligence of deer, ravens, foxes, and weasels.  I know outdoor living.  I have watched healthy wild animals survive long frigid winters without tools, fire, or clothing — a way of life that would promptly kill me.

We are like fish out of water, space aliens.  The best way to discover the intelligence and coherence of the family of life is to abandon our climate-controlled cubicles and go back home to the wild.  But there are way too many of us.  Books and videos cannot substitute for fulltime direct experience.  It’s no fun being a space alien.  The Koyukon tell us “Every animal knows way more than you do.”  A shaman once told Knud Rasmussen “True wisdom is only to be found far away from people, out in the great solitude.”

De Waal’s book jabbers a lot about experiments done in zoos and research centers, on enslaved animals.  I’m not a fan of animal imprisonment.  I’m a fan of wildness and freedom.  The ancestors of chimps and bonobos have lived in the same place for millions of years without trashing it — a demonstration of profound intelligence.  Send the researchers to the rainforest, so we can learn from our brilliant relatives, and rigorously question our entrenched beliefs.

There is an enormous quirk in this book.  The core premise is that humans are a highly intelligent species, and that the other animals are not as dumb as we think.  Are ants seriously destabilizing the climate?  Are termites acidifying the oceans?  Are chimps sending billions of tons of topsoil into the sea?  In this discourse on animal intelligence, the fact that human animals are knowingly bludgeoning the planet is never once acknowledged.

De Waal says, “Cognition is the mental transformation of sensory input into knowledge about the environment and the successful application of this knowledge.”  Cognition is about the process of acquiring and applying knowledge.  “Intelligence refers more to the ability to do it successfully.”  Among the propeller heads of science, “success” includes the bad juju of overpopulation, overshoot, and overconsumption.  My definition of success requires long-term ecological sustainability.

Waal, Frans de, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2016.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Dawn of World Renewal

My ancestors include tribal people who inhabited the ancient forests of Norway, Wales, and Germany.  Bits and pieces of their myths and folkways have managed to survive the passage of centuries.  These people lived close to wild nature, and venerated oak trees, salmon, wolves, ravens, mistletoe, thunder, rainbows, and so on.

Their cultural heroes were a pantheon of human gods and goddesses who possessed metal weapons, chariots, and domesticated horses.  Clearly, these stories were not from the era of hunter-gatherers.  Their deities were not all knowing and omnipotent; they could be deceived, or make foolish mistakes.  They were mortals who would someday die.

Like many triumphant sagas, these heroes eventually became victims of their own success.  Prophecies had long predicted the twilight of the gods.  Their fatal mistake was fettering the four forces of nature — Surt the giant (volcanoes and earthquakes), the Midgard Serpent (turbulent seas), the Fenris wolf (powerful animal wildness), and Loki the trickster (fire and air).

With nature fettered, the world tumbled out of balance.  Wolves swallowed the sun and moon.  Fimbulwinter brought nonstop snow for three seasons, followed by three seasons of nasty weather.  Earthquakes pulverized mountains, and the world was covered with a thick layer of ice.  Society plunged into helter-skelter.  One day, the four forces of nature broke free, and obliterated the gods at the battle of Ragnarök.

Surt the giant spread fire over the whole world, leaving behind nothing but naked soil.  Flames purified the land.  Then the rivers and seas rose up, and all dry land was submerged by a huge flood.  In Norse Mythology, Peter Andreas Munch described the dawn of world renewal with a beautiful line: “Out of the sea there rises a new earth, green and fair, whose fields bear their increase without the sowing of seed.”

Later, a new deity arrived, when the black robes from civilization forcibly penetrated northern Europe.  They had just one god.  He created the world and all living things.  Humans were his masterpiece, made in his image.  Our original home was a wilderness paradise, the Garden of Eden.  At this point, we had everything we needed — food, water, clean air, a magnificent ecosystem, and a hot date.

Like any other healthy wild animal, Adam and Eve were naked and not ashamed.  The lad and lass were permitted to eat the fruit of any tree, except one — the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Like many other animals, they really liked apples.  The creator was a peculiar stranger.  Imagine telling a wolf not to eat the bunny of good and evil.  What does “good” and “evil” mean to naked wild animals?

A serpent, another mysterious stranger, highly recommended the forbidden fruit, “…your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”  They indulged.  Suddenly, they were extremely embarrassed about their beautiful animal bodies.  The creator gave them some leather clothes, and threw them out of paradise, “to till the ground from whence he was taken.”  The punishment for disobeying the creator’s instructions was to be condemned to the drudgery of farming.

The troublesome humans had many children, grandchildren, etc.  The growing mob really got on the creator’s nerves.  Man was unbelievably wicked, and “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”  Humans were a terrible mistake, and the creator regretted creating us.  “I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air.”

The creator told Noah to build an ark and load it with wild critters.  Then it rained for forty days and forty nights, and the mountains were covered.  The flood lasted 150 days.  Everything not on the ark died.  The creator was happy again.  Yet the surviving humans were still flawed critters.  He realized this, but took pity on his imperfect boo-boos.  “I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done.”  He told Noah’s family to “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.”  You and I are their flawed descendants.

There are many versions of this story, and Genesis was included in the Bible.  Another version is The First Book of Adam and Eve.  In it, the two humans were motivated to eat the forbidden fruit by a “desire for divinity, greatness, and an exalted state.”  The creator told Adam that before he impulsively ate the apple, “thou hadst a bright nature within thee, and for that reason couldst thou see things afar off.”

The Hebrew flood story is similar to the story of the nearby Sumerians.  The Sumerian version says that the gods were drunk when they created humans.  This is why every human has at least one serious defect.  Eventually, the gods could no longer tolerate humankind, because we made too much noise.  The gods couldn’t sleep.  At this point, Ziusudra (a mortal human) was instructed to build a large barge, gather up specimens of the various animal species, and spare them from the coming floods.

There literally were great floods in the ancient Fertile Crescent.  Archeologists have discovered a heavy layer of silt in the region, which dates to around 2900 B.C.  Because the civilizations converted vast ancient forests into fields, flooding must have been frequent, and sometimes catastrophic.

Anyway, the Teutonic, Hebrew, and Sumerian stories describe, in various ways, the notion that humans are flawed.  Certainly, in these three cultures, humans did not live in harmony with the family of life, and their stories throbbed with weird vibes.  In all three stories, the prime troublemakers (and countless innocent critters) were drowned, setting the stage for world renewal, a beautiful healing.

Portions of the Jesus saga offer a more wholesome message.  One day, he dropped out and headed for the hills.  After being baptized by a wild holy man, Jesus was filled with spirit power.  He went to the wilderness, and spent 40 days in the perfection of creation.  This experience flooded his heart with profound knowledge.  He realized that the civilization around him was insane, and he decided to illuminate his neighbors.  Give away your wealth and live a life of unconditional love.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

The Jesus movement fragmented into many variants as it spread.  In the Roman variant, the patriarchs worked aggressively to eliminate all competitors.  They selected an official collection of sacred texts, which was a small subset of the writings generated by the Jesus movement.  The banished texts included a number of gospels — the Gospel of Peter, Gospel of the Hebrews, Gospel of the Egyptians, Gospel of James, Gospel of Mattheus, Gospel of Truth, and Gospel of Mary.

In 1945, a farmer found an ancient jar near Nag Hammadi in Egypt.  Among the papyrus pages in this jar was the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of 114 sayings of Jesus.  Here is saying 113:  His disciples said to him, “When will the kingdom come?”  Jesus said, “It will not come by waiting for it.  It will not be a matter of saying ‘here it is’ or ‘there it is.’  Rather, the kingdom of the father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it.”

Look!  Paradise is where your feet are standing.  This sounds remarkably similar to the mindset of the Pygmies, Anishinabe, Inuit, and other wild folks.  Wild cultures don’t tell stories reeking of human supremacy.  The creator might be a frog.  Humans are among the youngest critters in the family of life, mischievous two-year olds playing with plutonium.  We have so much to learn from our older relatives.

It’s interesting to contemplate what a wholesome creation story would sound like.  Imagine a story where we skipped the toxic apple, remained in the garden, and lived in balance with the family of life, like the deer and ravens.  When we inform our offspring that they were flawed before they were born, the result is the world outside your window — a bloody lunatic asylum.

And so, today, we’re zooming down the Ragnarök Expressway, and Big Mama Nature will once again hurl the crazy mob into oblivion, big brains and all.  When the storms pass, fires burn out, and floodwaters recede, the dawn of world renewal will rise once again, “a new earth, green and fair.”