Saturday, November 17, 2018

Wild Free and Happy Sample 03


[Note: This is the third sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild Free & Happy.  I don’t plan on reviewing more books for a while.  My blog is home to reviews of 196 books, and you are very welcome to explore them.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews, if you are interested in specific authors, titles, or subjects.] 

The Primate Clans

Primates include both apes (no tails) and monkeys (tails).  Over the eons, different primate species evolved in different ecosystems.  Each location had a different mix of climate, food resources, advantages, and dangers.  These variables encouraged unique evolutionary adaptations.  The adaptations that best increased the odds for survival were more likely to be passed on to the following generations.  Each ecosystem was also in a process of endless change, sometimes slow and gradual, and other times fast and extreme.  Over time, in response to change, primate evolution fine-tuned beneficial adaptations, and abandoned the duds.

Since Neanderthals disappeared from the stage, our closest living relatives are the chimps and bonobos, with whom we share up to 99 percent of our genes.  Next closest are gorillas, and in fourth place are orangutans.  The ancestors of all four relatives have inhabited tropical forests for millions years without trashing their ecosystems.  Mainstream culture teaches us that they are less intelligent than we are (an advantage?).  Unfortunately, evolution has not outfitted them with bulletproof hides to protect them from bushmeat hunters and crabby farmers.  They do not instinctively mob and exterminate loggers, miners, and developers.

Let’s take a peek at a few of our primate relatives.

Snow Monkeys

Japanese macaque (snow monkey) habitat ranges from sub-tropical to sub-arctic.  In their sub-arctic locations, temperatures can dip to -4°F (-20°C).  Snow might cover the ground for four months, in depths up to 10 feet (3 m).  As winter approaches, their summer fur grows and thickens into gorgeous insulated coats.  Bands sometimes take a pleasant soak in a hot spring, on a snowy winter day.  They have been observed at elevations as high as 10,433 feet (3,180 m).

During the summer, they build up body fat by feasting at the warm season buffet, which includes the fruit, seeds, nuts, the vegetation of 213 plant species, and the crops of crabby gun-toting farmers.  They also dine on fish, insects, and invertebrates.  In winter months, they survive on stored body fat, and rough foods like leaves and bark.  They huddle together to keep warm. 

Hominins (human ancestors) evolved for life in the tropics, where there was no need for warm fur.  When they migrated into non-tropical regions, life got dangerously chilly.  To survive in snow country, they needed warm clothing and shelters — technological crutches that require tedious time-consuming toil that was completely unnecessary in their natural habitat.  They did not gradually move out of warm lands, and let evolution perfectly fine tune them for cooler places.  They were already extremely unusual high-tech critters, with their thrusting spears and domesticated fire.  They impatiently bypassed evolution.  Oh-oh!

Baboons

When climate change shrank the forest and expanded the savannah, the ancestors of baboons evolved in a way that allowed them to spend much of their time on the ground.  Few of them now live in tropical forests, but all baboons have retained the physique for scampering up trees.  Baboons intelligently avoid wild predators by sleeping at the top of steep cliffs.  Sleeping in trees protects them from lions and hyenas, but not leopards.  In daylight hours, when many large carnivores are snoozing, baboons forage in groups, paying constant attention to reality.

Spending time on the ground increased their vulnerability to daytime predators.  Male baboons evolved big, strong bodies and large canine teeth.  When predators approach, male baboons form a point defense to obstruct a quick, easy, surprise kill.  While the males hold off the threat, the females and their offspring have a chance to escape.  Baboons did not fabricate weapons and hunt animals larger than they were but, on happy days, they could mob a leopard and disassemble it.  Readers who have killed adult leopards with their teeth and bare hands know that this can be very dangerous.

The ancestors of both baboons and humans moved onto the savannah, where they learned to survive as ground dwelling primates in a rough neighborhood that included lions, hyenas, leopards, cheetahs, and crocodiles.  Baboons demonstrate that primates can survive in a dangerous habitat without spears, fire, or complex language — and they can do this without causing irreparable ecosystem degradation.  With smaller brains, grunt communication, and sticks and stones, the baboons have brilliantly lived sustainably for millions of years.  They continue to enjoy a healthy, pleasant, and traditional wild life.  Thus, our ancestors were not forced to choose between tool addiction and extinction. 

Baboons have tails, so they are monkeys, not apes.  Paul Shepard noted that ground monkeys are “the most aggressively status-conscious creatures on Earth.”  High-ranking males have primary access to females and food.  The rank order in the hierarchy regularly changed.  So, to maintain or elevate your rank, it was important to brutally attack your inferiors at every opportunity.  Daily life was a state of heightened stress and anxiety.  Any minute you might be chased, pummeled, and bitten. 

Robert Sapolsky spent 30 years studying a troop of baboons.  Over time, he came to like a few of them, but he really disliked the troop, because they were exceptionally mean to each other, hour after hour, day after day.  He came to understand that hierarchy and competition can be a destructive force in a community, and this principle also applied to humans, many of whom are shattered by stress filled lives.

Gorillas

Gorillas evolved a different mode of sustainable living.  They never left the tropical forests, and their diet is primarily vegetarian.  They would have a hard time surviving outside of the forest.  Gorillas spend hours each day stuffing their faces at the salad bar.  They have evolved large guts in order to digest this bulky fibrous feast.  Insects provide the animal food in their diet.  In one study, 25 percent of gorilla poop samples contained bits of termites.

Males can be twice as heavy as females, growing up to 485 pounds (220 kg).  The big guys can’t climb trees, but smaller gorillas do.  Trees are a place to sleep, and to escape from predators.  They live in groups of 6 to 30 individuals, dominated by one or two silverback males.  Silverbacks are generally shy and relaxed, except when disturbed by uninvited humans or other gorillas.  The only predators they fear are humans.

Gibbons

There are about 20 species of gibbons, apes that inhabit the tropical forests of Southeast Asia.  Gibbons are primarily arboreal, and they live in small monogamous groups.  They can swing through the tree canopy with astonishing speed — up to 34 miles per hour (55 km/h).  Science calls this form of travel brachiation.  Today, physically fit humans still have a limited ability to brachiate.  As a schoolboy, I used to swing by my arms, from rung to rung, on the monkey bars at the playground. 

Members of most gibbon species range in size from 12 to 17 pounds (5.5 to 7.5 kg).  Because they are small, confronting large predators is not an option, so the males and females of most species are about the same size.  Smallness is an asset, enabling them to travel rapidly through the forest canopy.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

The Rise of Homo Sapiens



The Rise of Homo Sapiens, by Frederick Coolidge (psychologist) and Thomas Wynn (anthropologist), is a book about the evolution of human cognition.  It describes the seven million year voyage that resulted in the magnificent mind that’s throbbing between your ears right now.  This voyage began with the first hominins — bipedal (two legged) apes who were either our direct ancestors, or our long lost cousins.

Note that the details of human evolution are the cause of endless barroom brawls among rowdy paleoanthropologists and archaeologists.  They constantly argue about the members of our family tree, the transitions between one species and the next, and the dates when changes happened.  To keep it simple here, the first brainy hominin was Homo erectus, who arrived on the African stage 1.8 million years ago.  Erectus probably evolved into Homo heidelbergensis, who was maybe the common ancestor of both Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens (our hero!).  Neanderthals are our cousins, not our direct ancestors (we share at least 99.5 percent of our DNA).

The authors believe that there were two significant surges in cognition, (1) Homo erectus 1.5 million years ago, and (2) Homo sapiens 40,000 years ago.  Erectus had a large brain, knapped stone tools, and was the first to move beyond woodland habitats.  They were able to survive in everything from dry savannahs to tropical rainforests.  From Africa, they spread to southern Europe and much of Asia.  Around 1.5 million years ago, they invented a major advance in stone tools — biface knapping.  These were hand axes and cleavers that had two cutting edges.  For the first time, folks could now effectively butcher large animals — an ability that greatly expanded their food resources.

Razor sharp stone tools were revolutionary.  Great apes, monkeys, and other mammals can only cut and chop with their teeth.  This book made me appreciate, for the first time, the huge importance of stone tools.  Cutting is big juju!  Imagine a world in which teeth were the only cutting edges for any purpose.  Civilization would be impossible, and you and I would be naked wild things on a sunny African savannah.

Another revolutionary technological discovery was the domestication of fire, which kicked open the gate to life as we know it.  The earliest evidence of fire was found in an African cave, dating to 1.4 million years ago.  Erectus was probably a fire user.  Prior to manufactured tools and domesticated fire, our ancestors were still ordinary animals, like baboons — wild, free, and happy.  These two changes shoved them outside the community of all other animals, and put them on an ominous new path.

In the million years following the invention of biface cutters, Homo erectus artifacts reveal no evidence of further innovation.  Maybe they now had everything they needed, and life was grand.  But the book’s authors live in a culture that is constantly disrupted by hurricanes of innovation.  To them, a million years of stability and sustainability is glaring evidence of feeblemindedness. 

Both authors are shameless out-of-the-closet human supremacists, and their book is a flag-waving celebration of human brilliance.  They write, “Homo sapiens has transformed the natural world into one of culture and civilization that our distant ancestors, let alone members of other species, possibly could not imagine.”  No kidding! 

The authors are also masters at the mysterious art of academic writing.  Behold: “The allometric trajectory that best distinguished anatomically modern Homo sapiens and Neanderthals was a tendency towards klinorhynchy or globularity in modern humans.”  The book was not a pleasure read for a general reader like me.  I was not the intended audience.

In the book, hominins are essentially presented as being biological machines.  Much attention is devoted to brain size, brain components, brain processes, and genetic evolution.  Subjects include decision making, planning, memory, learning, abstract thinking, language, communication.  Bones and artifacts reveal little or nothing about stuff like thinking, memory, or speaking, so the book indulges in a lot of speculating, which could get quite frisky, sometimes hopping over the fence of credibility.

Homo sapiens maybe emerged around 200,000 years ago.  Somewhere around 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, there is evidence of a significant shift that is often referred to as the Great Leap Forward.  It was an era of breathtaking cave paintings, decorative ornaments, ceramics, carvings, and innovation in hunting technology.  The authors make the highly controversial assertion that this big shift “developed because of an additive genetic mutation or epigenetic event that affected the neural organization of the brain.”  And so, a new and turbulent chapter in the human saga was the result of random genetic juju that scrambled our thinkers.

Far less attention is devoted to significant factors that were external to the brain machines and their magic genes.  By the time of the Great Leap, folks had struggled to overcome a number of major challenges.  They had figured out how to survive in a chilly temperate climate — warm clothing, secure shelters, food storage.  Utilizing the latest state of the art technology, they had become highly skilled at team hunting.  They lived in regions having abundant game.  People who are struggling to survive are not going to have time to fool around with nonessential amusements.  But people living in times of prosperity, like the Baby Boomers, or the cave painters, can indulge in fanciful excesses and extravagances.

In the Great Leap era, the world was unimaginably alive and a spectacular, breathtaking miracle.  Modern folks would eagerly pay big money, and get on a 40-year waiting list to experience a pure, thriving wilderness filled with mammoths, lions, aurochs, and buffalo.  To gasp with wonder at vast clouds of birds filling the skies with beautiful music and motion.  To listen to rivers thrashing with countless salmon.  To see, hear, and feel the powerful vitality of the reality in which our species evolved, the type of world that the genes of every newborn baby expects to inhabit — a healthy, sane, beautiful, wild paradise.

Craig Dilworth wrote that the cave painting tribes were the luckiest humans of all, because they lived at the zenith of the entire human experience.  A number of revolutionary innovations had provided them with a temporary opportunity to experience a magnificent way of life.  But the road ahead was a rough one.  Another ice age was approaching, and Europe would get colder than it had been in 100,000 years.  Large game would become less abundant due to habitat change, and to the long-term consequences of, century after century, killing a few too many big critters that did not breed like bunnies.

Technological innovation has a regular habit of sharply biting its clever inventors, and their societies, on the ass.  Patching up the damage caused by the unintended consequences of progress typically inspires even more innovation, leading to even more unintended consequences, resulting in a treacherous downward spiral. 

Humans have retained some characteristics of ordinary animals — our minds are focused on the here and now, our capacity for acute foresight is flaccid, and we often become prisoners of habitual thoughts and behaviors.  Over time, human numbers grew, and food resources diminished.  Storms of devastating cleverness eventually led to the domestication of plants and animals, a transition that many anthropologists refer to as the Great Leap Backward. 

And now, dear reader, here we are, standing in the growing shadow of an era of climate change helter-skelter, a painful withdrawal from a total addiction to energy guzzling, and the eventual obliteration of life as we know it.  And, here we are talking about a book that celebrates the miracle of human cognition.  Oy!

A year ago, I spent a few hours with this book, and set it aside.  Recently, I looked at it again, because I was interested in some anthropological information.  I contemplated reviewing it, but decided not to.  Then, my muse gave me a dope slap (SMACK!).  The book is perfect!  It’s a haunting mug shot of the mindset that is engaged in a full-scale war against all life — yet refuses to notice it, or care.

This is the mindset in which educated brains are thoroughly marinated from childhood onward.  Like standing in front of a curvy funhouse mirror, the distorted reflection we see is Superman or Superwoman, powerful beings of greatness and goodness.  Thus, the notion of superheroes knowingly engaging in pathological mass destruction is perfectly ridiculous.  We much prefer the flattering portrait to the lost and confused critter behind the mask.  This may not be the path to a happy ending.

One passage noted that, “excepting humans,” today’s great apes are in decline (chimps, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans).  Could their big brains have doomed them?  “Large brains are expensive and have profound life-history consequences.  If they no longer yield a competitive edge, their owners will, predictably, go extinct.”  Do you think that humans truly are the exception?  Is our ever-growing cleverness rotting out our competitive edge, as it undermines the ecosystems that make our existence possible?  Will our superhero brains ever snap out of their trance, open their eyes, and become fully present in reality?  Stay tuned.  And now, a message from our sponsor…

Coolidge, Frederick L., and Thomas Wynn, The Rise of Homo Sapiens: The Evolution of Modern Thinking, Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, U.K., 2009.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Dancing in the Streets



I was intrigued when our book group selected Dancing in the Streets by Barbara Ehrenreich.  It’s a history of collective joy and ecstatic ritual — stuff that’s pretty rare in the land of the glowing screen people.  Studying humankind’s long transition from wild and free to robo-consumers, it’s easy to perceive gradually advancing emotional decay.  Cultures slid further away from intimate connections to the family of life, and human societies grew from small clans of friends and family into sprawling megalopolises inhabited by millions of strangers.

In Colin Turnbull’s lovely book, The Forest People, the Mbuti Pygmies were beautiful people who thrived in a Congo rainforest.  They did not worship invisible deities, because that required a vivid imagination.  Instead, they had profound reverence and respect for their forest, which was not invisible, and gave them everything they needed.  This love often inspired song, dance, and jubilation.  Paradise was where their feet were standing.  Turnbull wrote that the Pygmy “likes to laugh until tears come to his eyes and he is too weak to stand.  He then sits down or lies on the ground and laughs still louder.”

In The Mbuti Pygmies, Turnbull spoke fondly of Father Longo, a Catholic missionary.  Pygmies had no word for evil.  “In order to convert them, then, he would first have to teach them the concept of evil, and that he was not prepared to do.”  He left them unmolested.

I had great hopes for Ehrenreich’s book, because it was a very neat idea.  I imagined a book to help us remember how essential it was, for health and sanity, to spend our lives in intimate daily contact with the family of life, in a thriving undefiled ecosystem — the mode of living for which we evolved.  The book didn’t quite do this.  Its time window was the era of civilization, beginning with brief glimpses of Canaanite orgies, and the lusty Dionysian cults of Greece.  The main focus was on Europe in the last 500 years.

For most, life in medieval times majored in backbreaking drudgery and poverty.  Folks avoided insanity by taking breaks for festive gatherings — carnivals where people wore costumes and masks.  There was singing, dancing, drinking, and good-natured mockery of their superiors.  The struggles of daily life were left behind, as peasants and nobles joined together, rolled down their socks, and dissolved into a sweet whirlwind of joyful noise and ecstatic celebration.

There were big cultural changes when puritanical cults appeared on the stage, with their fanatical intolerance.  Calvinism descended like a hard frost on fun.  Pleasure was of the devil.  Festivities were banned.  The music stopped.  Get back to work!  Naturally, this led to an epidemic of morbid melancholy (depression).

Over time, multinational salvation-oriented religions drove wedges into cohesive social relationships.  Believers were encouraged to regularly contemplate their shortcomings, and worry about where their souls would reside in the afterlife.  There was increased focus on “me,” the individual, and less on “us,” our community.  With the rise of individualism came “isolation, loneliness, a sense of disengagement, loss of vitality, and a feeling of burden because reality had no clear meaning.”

Then came the age of colonization, when this injured mindset spread to distant lands, forced its beliefs on others, and destroyed their cultures.  Missionaries were rigid, racist, domineering, and intolerant — dour and cheerless people who never laughed.  Savages were no longer allowed to practice their traditional ecstatic rituals, because they were devil worship.  Joy became a mental illness.

Ehrenreich wrote in 2007, but her chapter on the rise of fascist nationalism could have been written this morning.  Following their defeat in 1918, Germans were down and out.  Hitler revived their spirits with mysticism, color, and pageantry.  Hitler was a masterful performer and bullshit artist who entranced vast crowds with his highly animated oratory, repeatedly shouting slogan after slogan.  Thousands roared back, “Sieg heil!” [LOOK]

The Nazis built an enormous stadium at Nuremberg, and held annual gatherings in it.  Around the perimeter, 130 antiaircraft searchlights were aimed straight up into the night, creating an awe-inspiring circular colonnade of light beams. Folks were spellbound by the sight of thousands of soldiers, in crisp new uniforms, goose-stepping with astonishing precision, to the thundering drumbeats.

Like the Pied Piper, Hitler tried to unify and lead all good Germans to a heroic racially pure Teutonic utopia.  On the streets, gangs of roughneck brown shirts with swastika armbands aggressively harassed the socialists, Jews, and other undesirables.  The swing music of racially inferior Negroes was banned.  Radio and cinema reinforced the Third Reich’s message — make the Fatherland great again.

Military spectacles were a powerful way to manipulate crowds.  The barrage of high energy nationalism whipped them up.  But being orderly spectators was far less interesting than enthusiastically participating in singing, dancing, and merrymaking.  Nazi events were heavily policed.  Eventually, the parades and speeches got boring.

After the Hitler show was reduced to rubble, Ehrenreich discussed two new fads that seemed like modern attempts to revive ecstatic rituals — rock music, and sporting events.  In the ’60s, the Western world seemed to snap out of its brittle Puritan trance, get up, and dance.  White kids discovered what black folks had known for a long time — tune into the beat and shake those hips.  Letting yourself go led to ecstatic experiences.  At Beatles concerts, the music was often drowned out by the intense screaming and shrieking of thousands of girls. 

At football and soccer games, crowds quit being passive spectators.  Events took on carnival characteristics.  They put on costumes with their team colors, and painted their faces.  There were synchronized crowd movements, chants, dancing, feasting, and singing.  Eventually, the crowds got so loud and distracting that the players on the field complained.  Over time, games began to increasingly take on aspects of nationalistic military spectacles.  There were marching bands, precision drill teams, celebrities, loud music, flag waving, national anthems, and fireworks.

Modern psychology is focused on self-control, being a dependable human resource in an industrial society.  Old fashioned communal festivities were focused on escape from routines, losing the self, and becoming one with the soaring ecstasy of big joy.  I wish that Ehrenreich had invited Jacob Grimm into her story.  Long, long before the plague of Puritans, Europeans had deep roots in their ancestral lands, places that were spiritually alive with sacred groves, streams, mountains, animals, and fairies.  In Teutonic Mythology, Grimm described annual German bonfires:

“At all the cities, towns, and villages of a country, towards evening on the first (or third) day of Easter, there is lighted every year on mountain and hill a great fire of straw, turf, and wood, amidst a concourse and jubilation, not only of the young, but of many grown up peoples.  …Men and maids, and all who come, dance exulting and singing, hats are waved, handkerchiefs thrown into the fire.  The mountains all round are lighted up, and it is an elevating spectacle, scarcely paralleled by anything else, to survey the country for many miles round from one of the higher points, and in every direction at once to see a vast number of these bonfires, brighter or fainter, blazing up to heaven.” 

At Midsummer, there were wheels of fire rituals.  “A huge wheel is wrapt around with straw, so that none of the wood is left in sight, a strong pole is passed through the middle, and is grasped by the guiders of the wheel.  At a signal… the wheel is lighted with a torch, and set rapidly in motion, a shout of joy is raised, and all wave their torches on high, part of the men stay on the hill, part follow the rolling globe of fire as it is guided downhill to the Moselle.  …Whilst the wheel is rushing past the women and girls, they break out into cries of joy, answered by the men on the hill; and inhabitants of neighboring villages, who have flocked to the river side, mingle their voices in the universal rejoicing.”

In the old days, white folks still knew how to party like Pygmies.

Ehrenreich, Barbara, Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, Metropolitan Books, New York, 2007.

Grimm, Jacob, Teutonic Mythology, 4 vols, 1883, Reprint, Peter Smith, Gloucester, Massachusetts, 1976.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Wild Free and Happy Sample 02


[Note: This is the second sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild Free & Happy.  I don’t plan on reviewing more books for a while.  My blog is home to reviews of 196 books, and you are very welcome to explore them.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews, if you are interested in specific authors, titles, or subjects.] 

Our Tree Critter Ancestors

The dawn of life on Earth began maybe four billion years ago, with the emergence of single-celled beings, the common ancestors of all forms of life, including us.  Let’s fast forward to around 65 million years ago, when our first primate ancestors came into existence, not long after dinosaurs moved off the stage.  These critters were squirrel-sized, and lived high above the ground in the humid tropical rainforests of Mother Africa.  They were probably insectivores, furry little hunters that dined on the delicious flesh of bugs and grubs.

Arboreal (tree-dwelling) primates had little need for a powerful sense of smell like most terrestrial (ground-dwelling) animals have.  What they needed was excellent stereoscopic vision, via forward oriented eyes that provided accurate depth perception, so they could scamper and leap through the branches without mishap.  Being able to perceive colors made it easier to find ripe fruit, which was a primary food source.  Even today, bright red objects attract our attention.

Their hands and feet evolved into forms fine-tuned for grasping bark, vines, and branches, with toes and fingers tipped with nails, not claws.  Fingers were long and curved, wrists freely rotated, and shoulder joints were flexible.  An acute sense of touch and a sharp mind helped them excel at airborne acrobatics.  Humans retain a number of these arboreal traits.

Our ancestors were tree-dwellers for most of the 65 million year saga of primates.  A look in the mirror shows clear evidence of this heritage.  Most primate species today remain partly arboreal.  Humans are the only living primates that are fully terrestrial.  Large male gorillas do not sleep in the trees, but the other gorillas do.

In the rainforest, food was available year round, so our ancestors enjoyed an easy life.  Living amidst a cornucopia of organic fruit, nuts, insects, and assorted tree critters, they could live happily without tools, fire, cooking, cell phones, or psych meds.  The climate was comfortable, so there was no need for clothing.  A simple tree nest was all they needed.  It was a wonderful way of life, while it lasted.  They only used renewable resources, and they left no permanent scars on the forest.  Like all other animals at the time, they had a way of life that was genuinely sustainable.

Shift to the Savannah

Climate change is a trickster that takes great delight in periodically pulling the rug out from under stable ecosystems, and watching them scramble to survive.  It’s an exciting roller coaster of hot and cold, wet and dry, calm and stormy.  Species that can’t adapt to changing conditions go extinct, creating opportunities for other species to fill their ecological niche.  The show of life must go on.

Long, long ago, in Mother Africa, the climate was warm and moist, home to the magnificent rainforests in which primates evolved.  Later, around five million years ago, as glaciers grew in the Northern Hemisphere, the climate in African rainforests began to shift to cooler and dryer.  By two million years ago, lush rainforests were far smaller, largely replaced by expanding savannahs (grasslands with scattered trees).  If it wasn’t for climate change, you might be sitting naked on a branch today, wild, free, and happy in a lush rainforest paradise, nibbling on fruit with your friends and family, in a clean, healthy, sustainable world.

As the rainforests shrank, our tree-dwelling ancestors were something like tadpoles in a puddle that was drying up.  Many species of arboreal critters went extinct, but not all of them.  The ancestors of chimps, bonobos, gibbons, and orangutans were able to remain in the forest and avoid extinction, while baboons, gorillas, and our ancestors took a deep breath, moved to the ground, and tried to adapt to a new way of life.

On the savannah, our early ancestors were weird looking, funny smelling undocumented immigrants, attempting to survive in a habitat for which evolution had done little to assist them.  Their limited speed, size, and strength were serious drawbacks.  They were newcomers in a grassland neighborhood where most of the long-term residents had been coevolving for millions of years.  The new neighborhood included numerous large carnivores that were strong, fast, and equipped with sharp claws and fangs.  They specialized in weeding out the injured, sick, elderly, immature, and inattentive.  Many of our ancestors became organic cat food.

To survive, our ancestors used several defensive strategies.  They lived in groups, where many eyes were constantly paying attention to the surroundings.  When someone noticed a threat, loud calls were made to alert the gang, and the predator lost the advantage of surprise.  Sometimes they mobbed hungry predators, aggressively assaulting them.  Other times they quickly scattered in every direction.  The ancestors were careful to be as invisible as possible.  They chose sleeping places that offered the most security.  As a result of their cleverness, luck, and risky choices, an enormous number of ground-dwelling primates survive today.

Rainforests have high biodiversity, they provide a pleasant home for huge numbers of species.  Savannahs support far less biodiversity but, unlike dense forests, they provide excellent habitat for many large animal species.  A square mile of rainforest contains tons of biomass in its trees, far more than a square mile of grassland, but grassland can produce more new biomass every year, primarily during the wet season.  This nutritious vegetation, which includes high-energy seeds, grows close to the ground, a convenient location for grazing animals. 

The biological productivity of grasslands (savannahs, prairies, and steppes) encouraged the emergence of large herds of herbivores and their predators.  When our ancestors moved to the ground, evolution had not equipped them for hunting large game, or escaping from speedy carnivores.  They had two options, adapt or go extinct.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Wild Free and Happy Sample 01

[Note: I’m going to be posting a series of rough draft sections from the book I’m working on.  The plan is two per month.  My blog is also home to reviews of 196 books, and more than a dozen of my rants.  Feel free to wander.]

Introduction

I’ve been waking up with the ravens lately, around 5:30.  They celebrate each new day with enthusiasm, jabbering joyfully in the treetops.  Then they take wing and spread out across the land, to spend the day exploring, foraging, hanging out with friends, and celebrating the perfection of creation.  Near the end of the day, as the sun is setting, they return home from their travels, perch high in the trees, and chatter about the day’s events.  They’ve been living like this for more than a million years, and they have left no permanent wounds on the ecosystem.  Experts say that ravens are among the world’s smartest animals.

After the birds have departed in the morning, the neighborhood begins rumbling.  The ground dwelling tropical primates are getting up, taking a crap, eating Fruit Loops, drinking coffee, and then jumping into 2,200 pound (997 kg), 124 horsepower motorized wheelchairs, with luxurious seats, air conditioning, entertainment systems.  They join hordes of speeding wheelchairs, fanning out across a once-thriving wild ecosystem now mutilated by countless permanent wounds.  It’s time for another excellent day at the cubicle farm.  Joy!

As you can see, the two ways of living are radically different.  One is ecologically sustainable, and the other is ecologically insane.  Like the ravens, our closest living relatives, the chimps and bonobos, have lived in the same place, in the same way, for several million years, without degrading their ecosystem.  We share something like 99 percent of our genes with them.  Chimps, bonobos, ravens, and all other non-human critters have never forgotten who they are.

Once upon a time, long, long ago, our ancestors lived as intelligently as all the other critters in the family of life — wild, free, and happy.  That is who we are in our genes.  That is what we evolved to be.  It is our culture that has forgotten our birthright and identity, and turned into a freak show.  A few isolated groups of humans still remain wild, free, and happy.  But their survival is now threatened by rapidly growing mobs of folks who are lost, entranced, and destructive.  Why?  How did they get so lost?

The venerable historian William Cronon was the son of a history professor.  One day, his father gave him the magic key for understanding reality.  He told his son to carry one question on his journey through life: “How did things get to be this way?”  Sometime, when you’re feeling a bit bored, eager for thrills and excitement, get a library card and spend the next 25 years reading.  Search for answers to Cronon’s question.  Read 500 books on environmental history, ecology, anthropology, night after night, year after year, and type thousands of pages of notes.  I did that.

In the imperial sagas of our culture, we are told that humans are superior to all of our other relatives in the family of life.  We are living miracles that excel in the juju of science and technology.  Life has never been better, and the best is yet to come.  The sagas do acknowledge that there are still a few minor rough spots in our manmade utopia, but they are nothing more than pesky annoyances that can effortlessly be bleeped out by industrial strength magical thinking.  With our legendary big brains, there is nothing that humans cannot rationalize, deny, or wish away.  Progress rocks!  We are the greatest!

Relax and enjoy!  Shop like there’s no tomorrow!  Everything is under control.  Highly trained experts are protecting us, and there is no problem they cannot lick.  Our purpose in life is to work hard, spend like champions, constantly enhance our display of status trinkets, and patriotically contribute as much as possible to our local landfill.  It’s almost as if, from their earliest days, our kiddies were taught to be gravediggers.

In any culture, it’s perfectly normal to trust what your elders taught you, and to retain that mindset until your dying breath.  It’s perfectly normal to spend your entire life being surrounded by people for whom that mindset is as real as the sun and moon.  In healthy, time-proven, sustainable cultures, this is exactly as it should be.  In insane cultures, blind faith accelerates our plunge down paths that lead to nowhere good.  Among our worst options is to mindlessly live and think like a suicidal society expects us to.

Greetings readers!  Welcome to Wild, Free, & Happy!  My name is Richard, and I’ll be your loony heretic for this word dance.  Please take a seat by my campfire.  I have stories to tell.  I want to tell you the saga of our ancestors’ journey, the four million year voyage from tree dwelling primates, to planet thrashing thunder beings — from wild, free, and happy, to frantic stressed out maniacs, zooming down the fast lane toward the zenith of meaninglessness.  Yippee!

Big Mama Nature is being gang-raped by an absolutely insane society.  She is not enjoying it, she is screaming for help, and she is furious.  This society cannot hear her, and seems to be enjoying it.  Rape is the engine of perpetual economic growth, the golden goose.  We are the Crown of Creation.  We are all that matters.  Big Mama’s purpose is to satisfy our insatiable hunger for every imaginable pleasure.

This is what happens when generation after generation is taught nothing but the ridiculous imperial sagas of human supremacy.  It’s very easy to understand why this society is lost in a thick fog of magical thinking and pathological illusions.  Growth is our god word.  Our society trains us, and expects us, to devote our lives to the gang rape.  We deeply admire those who excel at the game, accumulate immense wealth, proudly display their lavish status symbols, and frequently appear on our glowing screens — as champions and role models.  How smart is that?

Our society, of course, is a horrifying masterpiece of spectacular insanity.  What would it be like to explore a wild, free, and happy version of the human saga, a clear and simple version of the story minus the mountains of bullshit and bad craziness?  I mean, seven-point-something billion people are charging at top speed, right past the signs: Wrong Way!  Do Not Enter.  We are on a dark path that dead ends with our extinction.  How smart is that?

Every newborn that squirts out of the womb is a wild animal that evolution has fine-tuned for foraging, scavenging, hunting, and thriving on healthy tropical savannahs.  Their genes are fine-tuned for a wild, free, and happy life — like newborn chimps, bonobos, raccoons, chipmunks, and everything else.  Sadly, our newborns glide out into a family and society that is the opposite of wild, free, and happy.  This culture has no memory of wild, free, and happy — and it proudly celebrates our transformation into hollowed out consumer zombies.  How smart is that?

Maybe it’s time to remember who we are, turn around, begin the long journey home, and return to the family of life.  Maybe it’s time to unlearn, question, and change.  Maybe it’s time to strew tons of banana peels in the path of the monster.  Maybe it’s time to goose every sacred cow, and delegitimize the toxic beliefs that make our culture crazy.

Please be aware that this book contains zero miraculous silver bullet solutions to our slithering multitude of predicaments.  It provides no instructions for conjuring a powerful magic spell that will throw open the gates to an ecological utopia of love, peace, and happiness.  On the following pages, you will find a banquet of outside the box thinking, which may result in something like a mental enema, flushing out a torrent of stinky brown accumulated crud.  This book is a hopelessly crazy-assed effort to break the trance.

We’re about to walk right past the No Trespassing signs, jump over the fence, and take a long strange trip, down an ancient path, to a realm of ideas forbidden by the grownups.  Please toss your cell phones into the shit bucket.  We’re about to begin.  Trust nothing I say.  Think for yourself.  Good luck!  Have fun!

 

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Joy Ride to Global Collapse


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

Joy Ride to Global Collapse:

Reflections on Kunstler’s Home from Nowhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NONE of the promised alternatives will replace petroleum.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim Minter, Editor
 

Some notes. 

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

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

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

(4) Minter’s essay has gone extinct on the current internet.  It can be accessed via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.  Use it to search for: http://fcn.state.fl.us/fdi/e-design/online/9612/joyride.htm

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

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

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