Monday, July 21, 2014

What Is Sustainable — The Interview Video

It is with great honor that I announce the premier of the What Is Sustainable video. It's 27 minutes, and rated PG. Fetch the popcorn!

Much gratitude to Robin and Janaia, for their fine work at PeakMoment TV.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Go Wild

Go Wild was written by Dr. John Ratey and Richard Manning.  I’m a Manning fan, and I was hoping for a book with rhythms similar to the writing of Tom Brown, Richard Nelson, or Jay Griffiths — work rooted in a spiritual connection to the family of life.  Our current path is a dead end.  If Big Mama Nature decides to let two-legged animals have a future, the key to survival is returning to a path of reverence, respect, and balance, like our ancient African ancestors lived.

Be aware that Go Wild does not take you on a fascinating tour of wild cultures.  The authors did not live with wild people, or interview any.  The book will not thoroughly erase your cultural programming and make you wild and free, nor will it transform you into a wild hunter-gatherer, shaman, sorcerer, or medicine woman.

The book’s subtitle is “Free Your Body and Mind from the Afflictions of Civilization.”  But most of the major afflictions of civilization are not targeted — automobiles, television, cell phones, computers, education, wage slavery, materialism, submitting to masters.  Despite this omission, the book does provide interesting discussions about a variety of lesser-known afflictions.

Go Wild is a self-help book that offers many suggestions for eating better and living better.  Sugar is poison.  Shun grains, including whole grains, and avoid all other foods rich in carbohydrates — bananas, honey, potatoes, organic fruit juice, and so on.  It’s far healthier to get your calories from fats.  Run regularly, outdoors, not on a treadmill.  Sleep 8.5 hours every night.  Avoid artificial light.  Forge tribe-like bonds with your marathon-running buddies.  Practice meditation to revive your mindfulness, contentment, and joy.

Go Wild is primarily a science book, based on a Cartesian mindset that perceives living beings to be amazingly complex biochemical machines.  Two-legged animals raised in civilizations are severely damaged biochemical machines, and this book is an up-to-date shop manual for do-it-yourself backyard mechanics.  It’s about tuning up your brain and body for maximum performance, so you’ll remain happy, sharp, and fit well beyond 100, maybe 200.

Readers are introduced to a parade of medical doctors, biologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, endocrinologists, paleoanthropologists, and other assorted researchers who discuss their big discoveries.  Hot topics include oxytocin, vasopressin, cortisol, phytoncides, telomeres, neuroplasticity, neurogenesis, homeostasis, allostasis, dopamine, dyslipidemia, epigenics, and lipoproteins.

Folks who seriously follow some or all of the suggestions in this book will have a decent chance of experiencing genuine benefits.  Being raised in civilization causes many injuries, some of which can be healed, and many that cannot.  This book is likely to appeal to millions of pudgy, unhappy, poorly nourished, sleep deprived, stressed out, walking dead, well-educated professionals who are looking for ways to improve their health and wellbeing.

Ratey, John J. M.D., and Manning, Richard, Go Wild, Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2014.

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Great Warming

Recent decades have been a golden age for archaeologists.  New technology has provided tools for better understanding the past.  Researchers can now identify the climate trends of past centuries by analyzing the layers in tropical coral, tree rings, glacial ice packs, and lakeshore and seabed sediments.
Climate has played a primary role in influencing the course of human history.  It could enable the rise of mighty empires, and later reduce them to dusty ruins.  Big changes can happen suddenly, without warning, and have devastating effects.  Mighty scientists may huff and puff and stamp their feet, but climate will do whatever it wishes.
In 2000, archaeologist Brian Fagan published The Little Ice Age.  This book examined an era of cooler weather spanning from 1300 to 1850, and its effects on northern Europe.  In those days, most folks lived from harvest to harvest, with few safety nets.  In 1315, it barely stopped raining, and the heavy rains continued through 1316 and 1317, followed by horrendous weather in 1318.  At least 1.5 million folks checked out.  The famine of 1344-1345 was so extreme that even the super rich starved.
Preceding the Little Ice Age was the Medieval Warm Period, which spanned from 800 to 1300.  Fagan described this era in The Great Warming, published in 2008.  Far less was known about this time, because fewer written records have survived.  But new climate data has been filling in a number of missing pieces, revealing many forgotten events, important stuff.
When it was in the mood for mischief, the Little Ice Age was a harsh bully.  Fagan had expected the warm period to be the opposite, and in some regions, it was, sort of.  In Europe, there were fewer late frosts, and the growing season was three weeks longer.  There were vineyards in England and southern Norway.  Surplus wealth enabled the construction of grand cathedrals.
Whilst the weather was rather pleasant, the era suffered from a devastating spasm of innovation.  The diabolically powerful moldboard plow, which was able to turn heavy soils, replaced the primitive scratch plow.  A new harness allowed horses to replace pokey oxen as beasts of burden.  The new three-field fallowing system enabled two-thirds of the fields to be growing crops every year, instead of just half, with the old two-field system.
By using these new technologies, vast regions of highly fertile heavy soils could now be converted into highly productive cropland.  The only obstacle was the vast ancient forests, and their untamed wildlife.  Loggers grabbed their axes and exterminated more than half of Europe’s forests between 1100 and 1350.
Expanded cropland area, combined with a balmy climate, produced much more food, and this always resulted in a mushrooming mob.  Between 1000 and 1347, the population of Europe grew from 35 to 80 million, despite short life expectancies.  It got so crowded that folks in 1300 were worse off than their grandparents in 1200.
In other regions, the warm period brought unpleasant weather.  The Mayans of the Yucatan lowlands experienced extended droughts and abundant misery.  “Hot, humid, and generally poorly drained, the Maya lowlands were a fragile, water-stressed environment even in the best of times,” Fagan observed.  “It’s hard to imagine a less likely place for a great civilization.”
The Mayan city of Tikal may have had 300,000 residents.  It was entirely dependent on rainfall for water.  Their ecosystem did not have dependable sources of water, like rivers or underground aquifers.  They developed amazing systems for storing rainwater, and these worked really well, usually, but not during multi-year droughts.  The drought of 910 lasted six years, and generated social unrest, which led to the collapse of many Mayan cities.
At the same time, severe droughts in western North America followed similar patterns.  Irrigation systems at Chaco Canyon enabled more than 2,000 folks to survive in an arid region for several centuries.  This worked well in wetter years.  After 1100, droughts intensified, and within 50 years the city was abandoned.
California was home to hunters and foragers.  Acorns were half of the diet for many tribes.  Oaks could produce as much food per acre as medieval European farms, and foragers could acquire a year’s supply in several weeks.  Fewer acorns fell in drought years, and extended droughts killed the oak trees.
Stumps at Mono Lake indicate that a severe drought began in 1250 and lasted for over a hundred years.  Fagan noted “None of today’s droughts, which last as long as four years, approach the intensity and duration of the Medieval Warm Period droughts.”  He called them megadroughts.  They baked away the surface waters and soil moisture.
The Yellow River (Huang He) has an appropriate nickname, China’s Sorrow, because it is one of the world’s most trouble-prone rivers.  Fagan said “the Huang He basin [has] been a crucible for human misery for more than seven thousand years.”  About 45 percent of the Chinese population lives in the basin.  From year to year, precipitation can vary by 30 percent.  A dry June is a bad omen.
To reduce the risk of famines, the Chinese built complex irrigation systems, which the Yellow River enjoyed burying with silt.  The yellow loess soil of the region was highly fertile, easy to till, and 200 feet deep (61 m) on average.  It was also light and easily erodible.  Once upon a time, forests held the soil in place, but deforestation* had catastrophic consequences.  The river carried an enormous load of yellow silt downstream, and this created perfect conditions for disastrous floods, which have killed many millions over the centuries.
This region has long been a spooky place to live, but the warm period was worse, “a time of violent climatic swings nurtured thousands of miles away that brought either lengthy dry cycles or torrential rainfall that inundated thousands of acres of the Huang He basin.”  (An extreme nineteenth century drought is described in Late Victorian Holocausts.)
Today, the global climate is hotter than the Medieval Warm Period.  The warming trend has been steadily building since 1860.  Glaciers are melting and folks are getting increasingly nervous about rising sea levels.  While this is indeed a bummer, Fagan warns that extended drought is a far greater threat.  Extended drought withers agriculture, toasts pastures, and dries up lakes and rivers.  Seven-point-something billion people will be extremely vulnerable when we move beyond Peak Food, and into the climate surprises of the coming decades.
Fagan, Brian, The Great Warming — Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations, Bloomsbury Press, New York, 2008.
* In the 1930s, W. C. Lowdermilk, of the Soil Conservation Service, visited northern China as part of a research project.  In Shensi province, he saw an ancient irrigation system destroyed by silt, which had washed down from the uplands, where erosion gullies were up to 600 feet deep (183 m). 
He published his findings in Conquest of the Land Through Seven Thousand Years.  In this document, Figure 7 is a photo of serious erosion.  The caption reads: “A severely gullied area in the loess hills of North China.  These hills were once covered with trees and grass; but cultivation started the ruinous process of erosion.  There are thousands of acres like this in China today.  It produces nothing except yellow mud to clog the Yellow River with silt.”  For scale, note the human in the foreground.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Make Prayers to the Raven

In 1976 and 1977, anthropologist Richard Nelson lived with the Koyukon people of northwestern Alaska.  Their vast forested homeland is in the region where the Koyukuk River feeds into the Yukon River.  They are Athapaskan people, and they live inland from the Inupiaq Eskimos, who inhabit the coastal region to the west.

When Russian explorers found the Koyukon in 1838, they already had tobacco, iron pots, and other stuff, acquired via trade with Eskimos.  They had already been hammered by smallpox.  In 1898, they experienced a sudden infestation of gold prospectors; luckily, their streams were gold-free.  Unluckily, the gold rush ended their isolation from white society.  Swarms of missionaries and educators buzzed around the forest, determined to help the ignorant heathens rise out of barbarism, and experience the miracles of civilization and damnation.

When Nelson arrived in 1976, they were no longer nomadic.  About 2,000 Koyukon lived in eleven villages.  They travelled by snowmobile, hunted with rifles, and worshipped a Jewish guru.  Most of those under 30 spoke only English, and some were not fond of anthropologists.  Nelson spent a lot of time with the elders, who had been raised in the old ways.  Then he wrote an important book, Make Prayers to the Raven.  (In their stories, the creator was Raven.)

The Koyukon were the opposite of vegans.  About 90 percent of their diet was animal foods.  The bears, moose, geese, and salmon they ate came from the surrounding area, and were killed, butchered, and cooked by close friends and family.  Their survival depended on the wildlife.  They were extremely careful to take only what they needed, and to waste nothing.

Their wilderness was the opposite of big box grocery outlets that have an endless supply of fizzy sugar drinks, frozen pizza, and corn chips.  A year of abundant salmon might be followed by a meager year.  During Nelson’s visit, there were plenty moose and caribou, animals that had been scarce 30 years earlier.  The Koyukon had to pay close attention to the land, and continually fine-tune their relationship to it.  When times were lean, people starved — prior to the adaptation of rifles.  Now, they also had dependable access to the mysterious industrial substances that white folks referred to as “food.”

Traditional Koyukon society needed nothing from the outside world.  Their relationship to the ecosystem was one of absolute reverence and respect.  They were not masters or managers, they were simply members of the family of life.  The humble status of humans is evident in a frequently quoted phrase: “Every animal knows way more than you do.”

Nelson said it like this: “Traditional Koyukon people live in a world that watches, in a forest of eyes.  A person moving through nature — however wild, remote, even desolate the place may be — is never truly alone.  The surroundings are aware, sensate, personified.  They feel.  They can be offended.  And they must, at every moment, be treated with proper respect.  All things in nature have a special kind of life, something unknown to contemporary Euro-Americans, something powerful.”

The Koyukon were not exotic freaks.  Their worldview and spirituality had much in common with all other cultures that thrived in the long era before the domestication fad.  They were perfectly wild and free — healthy, happy, intelligent, normal human beings.  Most modern people go to their graves without ever experiencing the magnificent beauty and power of the living world — the joy and wonder of the gift of life, the awe of being fully present in a sacred reality.  Most of them live and die in monotonous manmade habitats, having established no spiritual connection to life.

Nelson was born in Madison, Wisconsin.  His father was employed by the state.  Their middle class life provided food, clothing, and shelter.  A large portion of his childhood was spent in institutions of education — indoors — digesting, memorizing, and regurgitating words and numbers.  At that time, Madison was a disaster of concrete, traffic, and hordes of strangers.  Decades earlier, the forest and wildlife had been devoured by the metastasizing city.  So, as a young animal, Nelson was raised in devastating poverty, like most modern kids, isolated from wildness and freedom.

Anyway, something cool happened.  In 1973, Nelson hooked up with the University of Alaska and began spending time with Native Americans.  He arrived with his Euro-American cultural programming, and its wacky anthropocentric model of the natural world.  He had zero doubt that his perception of reality was correct and proper; it was absolute truth.

Then, he hung out with the Koyukon, and this blew his belief system completely out of the water.  They were intelligent people, and they saw the world in a very different way.  This made his Ph.D. mind whirl and spin.  “My Koyukon teachers had learned through their own traditions about dimensions in nature that I, as a Euro-American, had either not learned to perceive or had been explicitly taught do not exist.”

In less than 200 years, the white wizards of Wisconsin have transformed a healthy wilderness into a hideous nightmare called Madison.  It never occurred to them to adapt to the ecosystem, live with great respect and mindfulness, and preserve its health for future generations.  The Koyukon, on the other hand, have inhabited their forest for thousands of years, and it doesn’t look much different from how they found it.  They know every place in their forest as well as you know your kitchen.  Every location is rich with stories and spirits.

The Egyptians built huge pyramids, enduring monuments to their civilized megalomania, built by legions of miserable slaves.  The Koyukon have achieved something far more impressive.  “This legacy is the vast land itself, enduring and essentially unchanged despite having supported human life for countless centuries.”

Nelson’s book is a reflection of their culture.  He presents separate chapters to describe the physical realm and climate, insects and amphibians, fishes, birds, small mammals, predators, and large animals.  Eighteen pages are devoted to their relationship with bears, and birds get 43 pages.  The core of their culture is their relationships with the non-human relatives that share their land, and the need to nurture these relationships with absolute respect.  Nature always punishes acts of disrespect with bad luck, illness, or death — to the offender, or to a family member.

The good news here is that it’s not impossible for a highly educated adult to override their toxic cultural programming and experience the beauty and power of creation.  Most never do.  The important message of this book is that we are absolutely lost, but there are paths that are not lost, healthy paths.  Our cage is not locked, and it’s so much nicer outside.  It’s alive!

Nelson, Richard K., Make Prayers to the Raven — A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1983.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Something New Under the Sun

A verse* in the Old Testament proclaims, “there is no new thing under the sun.”  These words come from a low-tech era when nomadic herders diminished their ecosystem so slowly that little change was noticeable to the passing generations.  Something New Under the Sun is the title of J. R. McNeill’s environmental history of the twentieth century.  It describes a high-tech era when industrial society got thoroughly sloshed on cheap energy, and went on a berserk rampage, smashing everything.

With the emergence of agriculture, the relationship between humankind and the ecosystem took a sharp turn onto a bumpy bloody unsustainable road.  There are a few places where agriculture wrecks the land at a slower pace.  A region spanning from Poland to Ireland typically receives adequate rain in gentle showers, the lay of the land is not steep, and the heavy soils are not easily eroded.  When the farming methods from this region were exported to North America, where heavy rains are common, it resulted in severe erosion.

Many agricultural systems flamed out and vanished long ago.  China has beat the odds, and remained in the farm business for over 3,000 years.  This is often cited as proof that sustainable agriculture is possible.  But McNeill points out that their longevity is the result of sequentially replacing one unsustainable mode with a different unsustainable mode.  They will eventually run out of tricks and flame out.  A process that regularly pulverizes soils and depletes nutrients cannot have a long-term future, and irrigated systems usually flame out faster.

Food is one thing that humans actually need.  McNeill describes how agriculture has become far more destructive in the last hundred years.  It produces more food, degrades more land, and spurs population growth, seriously worsening many other problems.  Readers learn about erosion, heavy machinery, synthetic fertilizers, salinization, pesticides, herbicides, water mining, and so on.  Our ability to continue feeding a massive herd will face huge challenges in the coming years.

In addition to troublesome agriculture, we stirred fossil energy and industrialization into the pot, and it exploded.  The twentieth century was like an asteroid strike — a tumultuous pandemonium never seen before, that can never be repeated.  Tragically, this era of roaring helter-skelter is what most people today perceive to be “normal.”  Life has always been like this, we think, because this is how it’s been since grandma was born.  History Deficiency Syndrome leads to a life of vivid hallucinations.  There is a highly effective antidote: learning.

The “normal” mindset is trained to focus on the benefits, and ignore the costs.  With a bright torch, McNeill leads his readers down into a sacred cave, where the walls are covered with images of our culture’s darkest secrets.  In this vast grotto, we record the many, many things that are never mentioned in the daylight world above, because they clash with our myths of progress and human superiority — similar to the way that dinosaur bones make creationists twitch and squirm.  The bones contradict the myths, an embarrassing dilemma.

So, with the swish of a magic wand, we’ve made the bones invisible in our schools, workplaces, newsrooms, churches, and homes.  We keep them in the cave.  In the normal daylight world, we are constantly blasted by a fire hose of frivolous information, ridiculous balderdash, and titillating rubbish.  The myths are safe.  The world was made for humans.  We are the greatest.

McNeill points out that a major cause of twentieth century mass hysteria was that millions of people were enslaved by “big ideas.”  Some ideas are absorbed by cultures and never excreted, even stupid ideas, like the obsession with perpetual economic growth, our insatiable hunger for stuff and status, our stunning disregard for the generations yet-to-be-born.

“The overarching priority of economic growth was easily the most important idea of the twentieth century.”  We created a monster that we could not control — it controlled us.  Economists became the nutjob gurus of the wacky cult of growth, and society guzzled their toxic Kool-Aid.  Crazy economists, who preached that society could get along without natural resources, won Nobel Prizes.  They became respected advisors to world leaders.  In every newscast, you repeatedly hear the words “growth” and “recovery.”  These are the yowls and howls of an insane asylum.

Environmentalists often sneer at the multitudes who fail to be enraged by the catastrophe of the week.  They assume that the herd understands the issues.  But the daily info-streams that deluge the mainstream world have almost nothing in common with McNeill’s model of reality.  Few people in our society have a well-rounded understanding of our eco-predicaments, including most environmentalists.  This world would be a much different place if McNeill’s perception of history became the mainstream, and folks could readily comprehend the harms caused by our lifestyles.  Ignorance is enormously costly.

One wee bright spot in the twentieth century was the emergence of Deep Ecology, a small group of renegade thinkers that enthusiastically denounced the dead end path of anthropocentricism.  For the first time in 300 years, Western people were spray-painting naughty insults on the cathedrals of Cartesian thinking — “We do not live in a machine world of soulless dead matter!”  Deep Ecology succeeded in channeling bits of wisdom from the spirits of our wild ancestors. 

On the final pages, McNeill does not offer an intoxicating punch bowl of magical thinking.  Our future is highly volatile, even the near future is uncertain.  History has little to say about sudden mass enlightenment and miraculous intelligent change.  “The reason I expect formidable ecological and societal problems in the future is because of what I see in the past.”

The book is thoroughly researched, well written, and hard to put down.  Readers are taken on a sobering voyage of discovery, where there are thrills and chills around every turn — mercury poisoning, radiation nightmares, soil mining, deforestation, and on and on.  It’s fascinating to observe the spectacular ways that brilliant innovations backfire.  Human cleverness is amazing, but it is dwarfed by our amazing un-cleverness.  We weren’t made to live like this.

At the same time, human genes are about 98 to 99.4 percent the same as the genes of chimps and bonobos, our cousins who have never lost their path.  They’ve been healthy, happy, and sustainable for over a million years.  Circle the superior species in this picture.  We have a sick culture, but our genes are probably OK.  Cultures can be changed.  We need to become aware of reality.  We need to turn off our glowing screens, open the door, and rediscover our home and our identity.  Happy trails!

* Ecclesiastes 1:9 “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”

McNeill, J. R., Something New Under the Sun — An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2000.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Human Web

Cultural cheerleaders constantly shout about how lucky we are to live in an age of miracles, a utopia of technology and progress.  Everything is just great (if you cram most of reality under the bed).

But the folks who rip off their blinders know better.  They can perceive huge and growing crises that cannot be well addressed via the pursuit of shopping and entertainment.  They can see that it’s time to learn, to think, and to change.  Understanding how we got into this bog of predicaments requires learning, lots of learning.  For this, we need our superheroes, the historians.

William McNeill, and his son John, heard the calls for help, and came to the rescue.  William once tried to boil the human journey down to one book, but it was 829 pages, too big for general readers.  John’s vision was human history in 200 pages, and he teamed up with his father to write it.  The finished product was 350 pages, and titled The Human Web.

The book slices human history into time blocks, and provides snapshots of the world during each period.  It’s not a sleep-inducing recital of kings, empires, wars, and dates.  It’s about trends — in technology, weaponry, religion, worldviews, and environmental impacts.  The McNeills framed their discussion based on a model of webs, which are networks of communication and trade.  Throughout the book, they take readers on an interesting promenade through the ages.  Let’s take a peek at a few of their topics.

For most of the human journey, our hunter-gatherer phase, webs were small nomadic clans.  They weren’t completely isolated.  For example, the freakishly powerful new technology of bows and arrows made it much easier to deplete game and enemies.  It managed to gradually spread from web to web until it was used everywhere except Australia.  This was version 1.0 of the worldwide web.  Technology that expands food production or kill-power has always been popular and highly contagious.  Webs that don’t adopt the latest technology have an increased risk of extinction.

As humans migrated out of Mother Africa, into non-tropical ecosystems, new challenges and opportunities forced many changes.  Survival depended on flexibility and innovation, and we got quite slick at this.  By 40,000 years ago, we had become a potent “weed species” of invasive exotics, like dandelions, rats, and houseflies.  Nothing could stop our spread.

With the emergence of agriculture 12,000 years ago, webs got bigger, and interacted more with neighboring webs.  Around 6,000 years ago, the emergence of cities led to metropolitan webs.  Things and ideas spread faster and farther.  Strong webs frequently expanded by absorbing weaker webs.  By 2,000 years ago, the highly successful Old World web included most of Eurasia and North Africa.  Finally, by 500 years ago, most of the world’s webs merged into the cosmopolitan web, which spanned the entire globe.

We began domesticating animals about 6,000 years ago.  Along the way, we learned a new trick, milking them.  “Herdsmen, in effect, substituted themselves for kids and lambs as consumers of milk — an extraordinary perversion of natural biological relationships.”  By going into the dairy business, a herder could extract four times more calories from their enslaved animals, compared to simply eating them.

Salvation religions, like Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam grew in popularity because they made life tolerable for the oppressed majority.  Everyone, including women and slaves, had souls, so nobody was worthless.  Those who obeyed the divine rules while alive were promised eternal life in paradise.

Trading by barter was often clumsy.  I might not want to trade my wheat for your rutabagas.  The invention of money made trading much easier.  This greatly increased the exchange of goods, and the injuries caused to ecosystems.  Emperors also loved money, because taxes paid in rutabagas were a hassle.  When peasants were required to pay taxes with money, they had to acquire money by selling stuff, forcing them to produce commodities.

In A.D. 1000, most of Western Europe was largely forest, and lightly populated.  Then the moldboard plow came into use.  It enabled farmers to till heavy soils.  Cropland rapidly expanded as forests shrank.  A similar explosion occurred in India and China, as rice farming spread between A.D. 200 and 1000, spurred by irrigation, iron tools, and the use of oxen.  Population growth accelerated.

In the good old days, communities were not diverse.  Members of small webs shared the same worldview, so there was far less friction.  With the invention of the printing press, cities were flooded with information from many cultures, and many of the new ideas conflicted with traditional beliefs.  Both the Pope and Luther howled, and tried to block the rising tide of science and other heresies.  Today, science is working to standardize the global mind, at the expense of multinational religions and animist traditions.

Civilization is addicted to agriculture.  Soil mining and water mining are unsustainable.  We know this, but it’s impossible for us to go cold turkey and quit the habit.  Similarly, we have become extremely addicted to the unsustainable use of fossil fuels, and our modern way of life would be impossible without them.  Non-renewable resources do not last forever.  Our super-sized global society is lurching toward its expiration date.

The most disturbing trend in this book is a non-stop, ever-growing arms race, driven by an obsession with perpetual growth.  It seems to be impossible for unsustainable societies to stop pursuing more and better ways of smashing each other.  During the industrial era there has been explosive growth in death technology.  In the twenty-first century, we are now capable of wiping out most of humankind in a single day, with the push of a button.

The last chapter provides two summaries.  John, the son, writes first.  He sees history as an ongoing race for complexity, requiring ever-increasing flows of energy and information.  In remote areas, simple cultures still work, but when complex cultures thrust into their sacred home, the days of wildness and freedom are soon over.  Complexity provides immense competitive advantages, as long as the inflow of extracted resources continues.  But the inflow is beginning to sputter.  Consequently, “the chances of cataclysmic violence seem depressingly good.”

Then William, the father, writes.  The path that led us to having one worldwide web was driven by a collective pursuit of wealth and power.  He wondered how long this web could survive on our current energy flows.  William thought that for long-term survival, we needed to return to small face-to-face communities, “within which shared meanings, shared values, and shared goals made life worth living for everyone, even the humblest and least fortunate.”  He concluded, “My personal hunch is that catastrophes — great and small — are sure to come and human resilience will prove more than we can imagine.”

This book is part of a significant watershed in the modern perception of reality.  It is pushing aside the magical thinking that assured us that technology and wise leaders could be trusted to smooth the path before us.  Very late in the game, it’s finally acceptable for respected scholars like the McNeills to state the obvious.  They point to big storms ahead, ready or not. 

Constantly wishing away the swarms of contradictions makes us crazy.  When we stop wishing, and open our eyes, the world suddenly snaps into sharp focus, and makes perfect sense — we are not in utopia; we are lost.  Finally, we have a call to action.  How can we get home?  It’s time to pursue understanding, and stir in generous amounts of imagination.  Our experiment in controlling and exploiting ecosystems has been a disaster.  On the path forward, adapting to ecosystems is likely to work far better.  It’s worth a try.

McNeill, J. R. and McNeill, William H., The Human Web — A Bird’s-eye View of World History, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2003.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Changes in the Land

Historian William Cronon was one of a group of scholars that pioneered a new and improved way of understanding the past.  Environmental history put the spotlight on many essential issues that were ignored by traditional history, and this made the sagas far more potent and illuminating.

His book, Changes in the Land, is an environmental history of colonial New England.  It documents the clash of two cultures that could not have been more different, the Indians and the settlers.  It describes the horrific mortality of imported diseases, and two centuries of senseless warfare on the fish, forests, soils, and wildlife.

The prize at the bottom of the box is a mirror.  The patterns of thinking that the colonists brought to America are essentially our modern insanity in its adolescent form.  We are the unfortunate inheritors of a dysfunctional culture.  It helps to know this.  It helps to be able to perceive the glaring defects, things we have been taught to believe are perfectly normal.

Cronon was the son of a history professor, and his father gave him the key for understanding the world.  He told his son to carry one question on his journey through life: “How did things get to be this way?”  Schoolbook history does a poor job of answering this question, because it often puts haloes on people who caused much harm, folks who faithfully obeyed the expectations of their culture and peers.

In Cronon’s book, alert readers will discover uncomfortable answers to how things got to be this way.  We have inherited a dead end way of life.  In the coming decades, big challenges like climate change, peak oil, and population growth seem certain to disrupt industrial civilization, as we know it.

We can’t return to hunting and gathering anytime soon, nor can we remain on our sinking ship.  To continue our existence on Earth, big changes are needed, new ideas.  This presents a fabulous opportunity to learn from our mistakes, to live slower, lighter, and better.  Cronon’s book reveals important lessons — what worked well, and what failed.

In the 5,000 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, Europe had been transformed from a thriving wilderness to a scarred and battered land, thanks to soil mining, forest mining, fish mining, mineral mining, and a lot of crazy thinking.  During the same 5,000 years, the Indians of northern New England kept their numbers low, and didn’t beat the stuffing out of their ecosystem, because it was a sacred place, and they were well adapted to living in it.

In southern New England, the Indians regularly cleared the land by setting fires.  This created open, park-like forests, which provided habitat attractive to game.  Burning altered the ecosystem.  One early settler noted a hill near Boston, from which you could observe thousands of treeless acres below.  This was not a pristine ecosystem in its climax state.

In the north, the Indians did not clear the land with fire.  The trees in that region were too flammable, so the forests were allowed to live wild and free.  Indians travelled more by canoe.

In the south, where the climate was warmer, Indians practiced slash and burn agriculture.  Forests were killed and fields were planted with corn, beans, and squash.  Corn is a highly productive crop that is also a heavy feeder on soil nutrients.  After five to ten seasons, the soil was depleted, and the field was abandoned.  The Indians had no livestock to provide manure for fertilizer.  Few used fish for fertilizer, because they had no carts for hauling them.

This digging stick agriculture was soil mining, unsustainable.  Corn had arrived in New England just a few hundred years earlier, too recently to produce civilization and meltdown, as it did in Cahokia on the Mississippi.  Corn spurred population growth, which increased the toll on forests and soils.  (Other writers have noted that corn country was not a land of love, peace, and happiness.  Most Iroquois villages were surrounded by defensive palisades, because more people led to more stress and more conflict.)

The colonists imported an agricultural system that rocked the ecological boat much harder.  Their plows loosened the soil more deeply, encouraging erosion.  Their pastures were often overgrazed, which encouraged erosion.  They aggressively cut forests to expand pastures, cropland, and settlements, and this encouraged erosion.  Harbors were clogged with eroded soil.  Their cattle roamed the countryside, so little manure was collected for fertilizer.  They planted corn alone, so the soil did not benefit from the nitrogen that beans could add.  They burned trees to make ash for fertilizer.

Cronon devotes much attention to the eco-blunders of the settlers.  A key factor here is that their objective was not simple subsistence.  They had great interest in accumulating wealth and status, and this was achieved by taking commodities to market, like lumber and livestock.  The more land they cleared, the more cattle they could raise.  It was impossible to be too rich.

This silly hunger for status has a long history of inspiring idiotically reckless behavior.  When a colonist gazed on the land, his mind focused on the commodities, the stuff he could loot and sell.  He noticed the enormous numbers of fish, the millions of waterfowl, the unbelievable old growth forests, the furbearing animals — all the things that his kinfolk in Europe had nearly wiped out.

Indians hunted for dinner, not for the market.  They did not own the deer, elk, and moose that they hunted, so nobody freaked out if a wolf ate one.  These wild animals had coevolved with wolves, so a balance was maintained.  Colonists introduced domesticated animals that had not coevolved with wolves.  The slow, dimwitted livestock were sitting ducks for predators, which boosted wolf populations, which led infuriated settlers to launch wolf extermination programs.

Indians were not chained to private property.  When their fields wore out, they cleared new fields.  Colonists owned a fixed piece of land, which narrowed their options.  In the winter months, Indians moved to hunting camps, selecting sites with adequate firewood available.  They had nice fires and stayed warm, while the colonists shivered in their fixed villages, where firewood was scarce.

Colonists suffered from an insatiable hunger for wealth and status, which drove them to spend their lives working like madmen.  Instead of belongings, the Indians had a leisurely way of life, and this was their source of wealth.  They thought that the workaholic settlers were out of their minds.  Indians were mobile, so hoarding stuff made no sense.  By having few wants, the path to abundance was a short one.  Even the least industrious wanted nothing.

Liebig’s Law says “populations are not limited by the total annual resources available, but by the minimum amount available at the scarcest time of the year.”  So, despite the seasonal fish runs and bird migrations, life was not easy in February and March, when the game was lean and hard to hunt.  Indians stored little fish and meat.  In rough winters, they could go ten days without food.  They didn’t breed like colonists.

In the south, the Indians were engaged in a high-risk experiment by growing corn, because agriculture is almost never harmless, and it often opens the floodgates to numerous troublesome consequences.

In the north, the Indians were lucky that their home was unsuitable for farming.  They adapted to their ecosystem and lived like genuine conservatives, not looters.  This was a path with a future, until the looters arrived.

Cronon, William, Changes in the Land, Hill and Wang, New York, 1983.