Thursday, April 5, 2018

Peak Horse



In the early 1900s, automobiles, trucks, buses, and tractors were becoming very trendy.  The human population was two billion and growing, while the horse population peaked and declined.  Model T Fords did not require five acres of good grassland to fuel them, an area that could feed six to eight people.  While grassland was, in theory, a renewable resource, there was not an infinite supply of it.  Pasture could be degraded or destroyed by overgrazing, drought, plowing, or urban sprawl.

Of course, motor vehicles are dependent on a wide variety finite nonrenewable resources.  The global production of conventional oil peaked around 2005, and now we’re briskly advancing toward the peak of unconventional sources — tar sands, shale deposits, and deep-water — the fossil energy that’s far more difficult and expensive to extract.  When we pass Peak Oil, production will begin a continuous decline, and prices will rise.  Some estimate that this will begin around 2030.

Life is solar powered.  Plants have solar panels that use light to create carbohydrates.  Plant eating animals acquire these nutrients by feasting on the greenery.  Meat eating animals consume the flesh of plant eaters.  Legions of wee organisms extract the nutrients from biomass and build topsoil.  Solar energy is also embedded in coal, oil, and natural gas — carbon that was sequestered millions of years ago.

Throughout the three million year era of our ancestors, muscle power was the primary energy for moving people and things.  Muscle power is highly versatile, able to run on a variety of edible fuels — meat, eggs, fruit, nuts, roots, insects.  More versatile than horses, human muscles can move people and stuff through dense rainforests, up rugged mountains, and across deserts.  Horses are poorly adapted for hot climates and arctic regions.

Pita Kelekna noted that humans have a long history of acquiring stored solar energy via the consumption of horse flesh.  At the Roche de Solutré site, near Mâcon, France, archaeologists found a 2.5 acre (1 ha) bone bed, up to 29 feet (9 m) thick, containing the bones of up to 100,000 horses.  Neanderthals hunted horses there 50,000 years ago.  Later, humans hunted them from 37,000 to 10,000 years ago. 

Around 9,000 years ago, the last horse in the Americas died in Patagonia.  The once plentiful wild horses of Western and Central Europe’s river valleys were apparently eliminated by overhunting 8,000 years ago.  To the east, large numbers of horses managed to survive on the wide open Eurasian steppes, where trapping animals was less easy.

Horses were domesticated about 6,000 years ago.  Kelekna described how nomadic pastoralists became skillful horse parasites.  “The Mongols lived off the horse; as they traveled, they milked and slaughtered for food.  They consumed a steady diet of milk and yoghurt, drank the horse’s blood, and mixed dried milk paste with water, dried meat, and millet.”

Eventually, clever folks realized that horses were not just a tasty form of solar energy — they also had more muscle power than humans.  If properly enslaved, they could be used to pull stuff, haul stuff, and carry riders.  Four legged slaves enabled a tremendous expansion of soil mining, forest mining, mineral mining, bloody empire building, and economic growth.  They unlocked the gateway to industrial civilization.

Around 25,000 years ago, the mammoth hunters at the Dolní Věstonice site in the Czech Republic heated their mammoth bone huts by burning the solar energy embedded in two fuels: mammoth bones and black coal.  By the mid-1500s, English forest miners had nearly succeeded in eliminating the ancient rainforest.  This created an energy shortage that inspired a large scale transition to coal burning.  In the late 1800s, the oil industry emerged, and the war on the future became turbocharged.

As the age of mechanical horsepower accelerated, the long era of four legged horse power rode off into the sunset.  My grandparents witnessed the advent of Peak Horse, and my parents saw work horses largely disappear from farms and cities.  Physicist Albert Bartlett calculated that children born after 1966 will see the world consume most of its oil during their lifetime.  Industrial civilization has an expiration date.  So, we’ll just have to go back to horse power, right?  Well, umm, there are some challenges.

Eric Morris wrote a fascinating essay to help us remember life in the Peak Horse era.  By 1898, big city streets were jammed with horses, carriages, and wagons, squishing through a deep layer of manure and urine, past rotting horse carcasses, amidst dense clouds of flies and overpowering stench.  Cities were rapidly growing, as hordes immigrants moved in to enjoy miserable industrial jobs, while living in crowded, filthy, disease ridden slums. 

Each horse emitted 15 to 30 pounds (7 to 14 kg) of manure daily — 3 to 4 million pounds in New York City every day.  In 1800, farmers would pay haulers to bring manure to their fields.  By 1900, there was way too much poop, and it piled up on empty lots.  Some heaps were 60 feet high (18 m).  Clouds of flies picked up pathogenic microbes and brought them to your kitchen, spreading typhoid and other fecal-oral diseases.  In 1880, 41 horses died each day on the streets of New York.  The average horse weighed 1,300 pounds (590 kg).  Carcasses were often left to rot, making it easier to dismember them, so they could be hauled away.

Horses were jammed into filthy, poorly ventilated stables — excellent disease incubators.  In 1872, the Great Epizootic Epidemic struck, as huge numbers of horses were infected by the equine influenza virus.  Coughing spread it from one animal to the next.  Typically, they recovered in two to three weeks, but severe cases could immobilize an animal for six months.

During the epidemic, available horse power was drastically reduced.  Folks had to use wheelbarrows and handcarts to transport goods.  The postal service was hobbled.  Freight piled up.  Coal deliveries stopped.  Food distribution wheezed.  On farms, plows and other equipment fell idle.  Boats quit moving on the Erie Canal.  Horse-drawn fire engines and street cars did not move.  When a big fire roared in downtown Boston, firemen had to pull their heavy equipment from the station by hand.

Almost certainly, there are people alive today who will see the peak of motor vehicle production, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some (or many) will experience the extinction of motor vehicles, and the lights going out on civilization as we know it.  Bye-bye railroads, air travel, refrigerators, elevators, irrigation, mining, supermarkets, and so on.  Sewage treatment plants, municipal water systems, and digital technology will blink out.  Vast areas of cropland will cease being plowed, planted, and harvested.  The age of obesity and cell phone addiction will end, but we might see the screw-brained revival of wood-fueled motor vehicles.

Kelekna, Pita, The Horse in Human History, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2009.

Olsen, Sandra L., “Pleistocene Horse-hunting at Solutre,” Johnson, E., ed., Ancient Peoples and Landscapes, Museum of Texas Tech University, Lubbock, 1995, pp. 65-75.

Dolní Věstonice webpage with awesome illustrations.  [LINK]

Morris, Eric, “From Horse Power to Horsepower,” Access, Number 30, Spring 2007.  [LINK]

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

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Food Explorer



Cue up the marching band, majorettes, flag-waving veterans, and cheering crowds.  The Food Explorer by Daniel Stone is a proud celebration of American greatness.  The hero of the story is David Fairchild (1869–1954), a botanist and agricultural explorer.  Working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, his group was responsible for sending home seeds and cuttings of thousands of plants from nations around the world.  The goal was to expand the variety of crops grown in America, and build the biggest, most profitable, industrial agriculture system in human history.

The devious villain in the story is Charles Marlatt, a childhood acquaintance of Fairchild who had grown up to be an entomologist.  He detested what Fairchild was doing, because the tons of samples sent home to Washington were not quarantined and thoroughly inspected.  So, plant diseases and pests were free to flee and discover America.  Imported insects included the codling moth, Hessian fly, asparagus beetle, hop-plant louse, cabbage worm, wheat-plant louse, pea weevil, Croton bug, boll weevil, San Jose scale, gypsy moth, brown-tail moth, Argentinian ant, alfalfa-leaf weevil, and so on. 

Marlatt understood that plant pests and pathogens were potentially as dangerous to society as a cholera epidemic.  They could spread rapidly and cause enormous damage.  Farms were getting thrashed, and Marlatt had stunning photos.  It was nearly impossible to control problems once they were released into the ecosystem.  It would have been far more intelligent to zap them before they left the starting gate.  Fairchild scoffed at Marlatt’s hysterical paranoia.  Economic benefits exceeded economic costs, he believed.  America could solve any problem.  Full speed ahead!

The spooky fanatical weirdo in this story is Fairchild’s all-star food explorer, Frank Meyer.  In deepest, darkest Asia, he often walked 20 miles (32 km) per day, through regions where locals intensely hated white folks.  He had frequent confrontations, beatings, and near death experiences.  He obsessively gathered and shipped thousands of plant seeds and cuttings.  Folks who comprehended the botanical risks of importing exotics gave him a nickname, Typhoid Mary (Google her). 

In his book Grassland, Richard Manning talked about the unintended consequences of introducing European cattle to the western plains, where the climate and natural forage were not ideal for them.  Efforts to introduce traditional European plants failed, so Meyer was assigned to send back plants from arid regions of Asia.  Crested wheatgrass was one of his discoveries. 

Following the Dust Bowl, and other agricultural wipeouts, the government aggressively planted crested wheatgrass for erosion control.  It thrived on the plains, aggressively replacing native vegetation with colonies that were nearly monocultures.  Unfortunately, in the winter months, this wonder grass retained little nutritional value, and the mule deer, elk, and antelope starved in endless fields of grass.  Manning lamented that “Meyer brought with him botanical bombs that explode even today.”

The plant importation fad introduced a number of bummers.  Spotted knapweed suppresses native grasses, and has now spread to 7 million acres (2.8 million ha).  Grazing animals avoid it.  Leafy spurge now inhabits 2.5 million acres, only some types of goats can eat it.  The result is biological deserts that are expanding, and extremely expensive to eliminate — essentially impossible, according to Manning.

Anyway, my curiosity about Meyer led me to discover Stone’s book.  It’s easy to read, and portrays the food explorers as heroes who devoted their lives to making America great.  If, like most Americans, school taught you little about environmental history, Stone’s story is warm and fuzzy, a pleasant tale of courage, progress, and wealth creation.  Fairchild became a celebrity, and hung out with the rich and famous.

One of the biggest eco-catastrophes caused by imported plants was the chestnut blight.  Fairchild, Marlatt, and Meyer were fully aware of it.  It was first noticed on American chestnut trees at the Bronx Zoo in 1904.  At that time, chestnuts were a canopy species in 8.8 million acres (3.5 million ha) of eastern forest.  The trees were called “the redwoods of the east.”  Some grew to 150 feet (46 m) high, having trunks up to 17 feet (5 m) in diameter, and a canopy 100 feet wide.

Every year, mature trees dropped an abundance of nuts, food for squirrels, wild turkeys, deer, bears, raccoons, and grouse.  The wood was rot resistant, easily split, did not warp or shrink, and was useful in many ways.  Both the Indians, and the hill people who followed them depended on these trees.  Hillbillies could raise free-range hogs in the forest commons at no cost, and fill their smokehouses with chestnut flavored pork.  Cartloads of nuts were hauled to town and sold for cash, “shoe money."

Spores of the blight fungus were transported by birds, mammals, insects, and breezes.  As the contagion got rolling, it could spread as far as 50 miles (80 km) per year.  The blight damaged the inner bark, blocking the flow of water and nutrients to the tree above ground.  Within 40 years, the American chestnut was a threatened species.  Four billion trees died.  The wildlife disappeared, and many hill people had to abandon their subsistence way of life.*  One reported, “Man, I had the awfulest feeling about that as a child, to look back yonder and see those trees dying; I thought the whole world was going to die.”

In 1904, nobody knew if the fungus was native or imported.  Meyer identified the source of the fungus when he found infected chestnut trees in China in 1913, and Japan in 1915.  He noted that these trees rarely died from the blight, and some were very resistant.  The food explorer lads did send back some chestnut seeds and cuttings over the years, but they weren’t the first.  In her essay on the introduction of the blight, Sandra L. Anagnostakis** noted that nurseries were importing Japanese chestnuts as early as 1876.  Many seedlings were sold by mail order long before 1904.

Marlatt argued that the blight could have been prevented if the federal government had wisely quarantined and inspected all imported plants.  Fairchild though this was a ridiculous idea, impeding the speed of progress for no good reason.  Marlatt eventually won.  Congress passed the Plant Quarantine Act in 1912, and inspections were the domain of the Federal Agricultural Board, which Marlatt controlled.

Stone devoted about four sentences to the chestnut blight catastrophe.  In Stone’s account, Fairchild dismissed the blight as a triumph of progress — an existing vulnerability had been eliminated by importing the superior blight resistant chestnuts from Asia.  Hooray!  Fairchild wrote a different version of this story in his 1938 book, The World Was My Garden.  When he eventually comprehended the incredible devastation, he was stunned.  He wrote, “I regretted any feelings of impatience I may have had towards their quarantines and inspections.”

As we chaotically plunge into the twenty-first century, with seven-point-something billion humans furiously beating the stuffing out of the planet’s ecosystems, all the red idiot lights on the dashboard are flashing.  At the same time, the vast majority of consumers seem to believe that perpetual growth is both possible and desirable, life as we know it won’t get blindsided by the end of the fossil fuel era, and wizards will find a way to feed eleven billion.  I’m beginning to wonder if it might be wise to devote a little time to sniffing reality’s butt.

It took thousands of years for Old World cultures to develop the skills and technology needed to obliterate their wild ecosystems.  By the time these folks washed up on the shores of America, they were fire-breathing masters of the art of destruction.  Uninvited immigrants colonized a vast continent and threw open the floodgates to legions of biological nightmares.  Environmental history is loaded with horror stories caused by primate travelers — potato blight, anthrax, Dutch elm disease, white-nose fungus, bubonic plague, smallpox, cholera, typhoid, yellow fever, influenza, HIV, and countless others.

The tallgrass prairie and much forest land has now been stripped of indigenous life, plowed, and planted with sprawling monocultures of genetic clones — absolutely perfect paradises for pests and pathogens.  Here comes the sprayers.  Here comes the tumors.  There goes the topsoil.  The parade marches on.  Hooray!

Stone, Daniel, The Food Explorer, Dutton, New York, 2018.


Thursday, March 8, 2018

American Serengeti




Once upon a time, the Great Plains of the western U.S. resembled the Serengeti of Africa, a vast prairie inhabited by abundant wildlife.  Each year, during the wet season, grasslands produce far more new biomass than forests do, per unit of land.  The greenery converts sunlight into carbohydrates, nutrients necessary for the existence of animal life in the ecosystem.  Thus, the usually sunny plains are a vast array of solar collectors that generate food for the vast array of animal life.  Bison meat is highly concentrated solar energy.

Dan Flores is an environmental historian, and he specializes in Big History, which focuses on entire ecosystems, and regards humans as just one group of the many actors on the stage.  Each species of plant and animal plays a role in the living drama.  In this book, American Serengeti, Flores described the drama of the Great Plains from a perspective that spanned millions of years, going back long before humans.  It highlights the sagas of six species. 

The notion of “climax state” asserts that ecosystems can achieve enduring balance and stability.  Flores doesn’t believe in climax states.  Our hunter-gatherer ancestors succeeded in existing for a very long time in a low impact manner.  The fact that agriculture emerged independently in multiple locations indicates that the process could sometimes wobble out of balance, and whirl into ecological hurricanes.  We gradually expanded into new ecosystems, improved hunting methods, grew in numbers, and began bumping into limits.

Before Siberian hunters discovered America, the Great Plains were home to many species of large mammals, none of which had evolved adaptations for living near packs of aggressive primates with spears, dogs, and fire.  Between 8,000 and 13,000 years ago, 32 genera and at least 50 species went extinct.  Losers included camels, mammoths, giant ground sloths, horses, steppe lions, dire wolves, long-toothed cats, long-legged hyenas, giant long-horned bison, and many others.  In addition to overhunting, it’s likely that intense climate change also played a role in the surge of megafauna extinctions. 

Eventually, the species that escaped extinction managed to adapt to the humans, and share the plains for several thousand years.  Then, two centuries ago, powerful primate hurricanes whirled in from Europe and launched a devastating war on the Great Plains ecosystem.  Flores says that today, “you feel as if you’re standing at the end of an immense line of dominos…” 

Pronghorn antelopes evolved from ancestors that emerged 25 million years ago.  They are the fastest mammals on the plains.  Males can zoom along at 55 mph (88 km/h), and females at 65 to 70 mph (104 to 112 km/h).  Pronghorns can run at 90 percent of their top speed for two miles (3.2 km).  They can easily outrun today’s wolves and coyotes, only their fawns are vulnerable to predation.

Pronghorns evolved traits to evade a number of speedy predators, all of which blinked out at least 10,000 years ago.  They are very well adapted to a reality that no longer exists.  Unfortunately, they are unable to leap fences, a fact that has benefitted their exterminators.  By 1900, they had declined from at least 15 million to 13,000.  Today, there are 700,000.

The coyote story is fascinating.  Indians had great respect for them.  Coyotes were often tricksters in their folktales — exceptionally clever, but their cleverness often backfired.  Along with wolves and jackals, coyotes evolved in America five million years ago.  By one million years ago, some wolves and jackals migrated west into Eurasia.  Gray wolves returned to America 20,000 years ago, and began bumping into coyotes, leading to friction.  Evolution solved this problem by making wolves larger, and coyotes smaller, adjusting them for different niches.

American settlers hated coyotes, leading to decades of extermination campaigns.  By inserting strychnine pellets into rotting carcasses, one lad could kill 350 coyotes in ten days — far easier than shooting them.  Many millions have been killed, and the U.S. continues to kill 500,000 every year.  Efforts at extermination almost always backfire.  Apparently it’s impossible to permanently eliminate them.

Coyotes, like humans, have fission-fusion families — they sometimes work in packs, and other times as individuals.  This versatility promoted their survival.  Wolves are solely pack hunters, an unfortunate limitation.  Coyotes are fertile at one year old, and their average litters have 5.7 pups.  But when food is abundant, or their numbers are dwindling, they have larger litters.  Persecution also inspires them to migrate and colonize new lands.  They now range from Alaska to Panama, in all Canadian provinces, and all U.S. states except Hawaii.  They’ve learned how to thrive in cities.

Horses, pronghorns, wolves, and coyotes originated in America.  The ancestors of horses emerged 57 million years ago.  At some point, the horse family discovered Asia, and spread to Europe and Africa.  In North America, they were extinct by 10,000 years ago.  Spanish settlers later brought them to New Mexico, where many escaped in 1680.  They fled into an ecosystem for which evolution had already fine-tuned them, and where extinction had eliminated their primary predators.  Paradise!

Given these conditions, they were tremendously successful.  One observer noted, “As far as the eye could extend, nothing over the dead level prairie was visible except a dense mass of horses, and the trampling of their hooves sounded like the road of the surf on a rocky coast.”

For Indians, horses provided huge benefits — with hunting, hauling, raiding, and rustling.  They gained wealth by capturing wild horses and selling them at white trading centers.  A number of tribes abandoned agriculture, moved to the plains, and became bison hunters.  Comanches were the dominant tribe.  They were eager to trade horses for cool stuff, fully intending to steal their horses back from the palefaces at the first opportunity.

Today, wild horses baffle Americans.  They compete for forage with livestock that have market value.  Americans are unwilling to consume organic, grass fed, high protein, low fat horse meat — ordinary food in countries including Mexico, Switzerland, Belgium, Japan, Germany, Indonesia, Poland, and China.  In the 1800s, pompous Anglo-Americans sneered at the disgusting meat that only low class immigrants would eat.  Thus, a cultural taboo evolved.  Countless horses ended up in dog food cans.  Today, instead of raising native animals fine-tuned for the Great Plains, like horses and bison, we continue to raise animals fine-turned for Europe — a region having a mild, moist climate, and a blend of vegetation optimal for raising cattle and sheep.

Grizzly bears were hammered in the last two centuries.  Settlers detested big strong animals that loved having lunch dates with settlers.  Five hundred years ago, the entire western half of the U.S. was grizzly country, home to 100,000 bears.  Travelers sometimes saw 30 or 40 in a day.  By 1900, only a few hundred remained, hiding in the mountains.  Today, there are zero bears on the plains, and maybe 1,000 close to national parks.

Giant long-horned bison from Eurasia discovered America about 800,000 years ago (today’s bison are dwarfed).  Both bison and pronghorns survived the megafauna extinctions.  Since then, both have coevolved.  Bison prefer to eat grasses, which encourages the growth of plants that pronghorns like.  Pronghorns prefer flowering plants and shrubs, shifting the advantage back to grasses.  They don’t compete for the same grub.

Following the megafauna extinctions, bison had few grazing competitors or predators, so their numbers swelled to maybe 20 to 30 million (others say 60).  Once upon a time, bison ranged from northwest Canada to Florida.  Sometimes a single herd took more than a week to pass.  “The buffalo was the essence of ecological adaptation to North America, perfectly suited to the grasslands.”  They survived drastic climate changes, and 100 centuries of human hunters.  Sadly, it took less than 100 years to reduce them to 1,073 animals by 1886.  They stood in the path of progress and civilization.

Before Indians got horses, hunting was far more difficult.  Fewer bison were taken, so scarcity was not often experienced.  Hunting did not seem to diminish their numbers, and many believed that the animals magically regenerated, the dead were renewed.  “The horse cast a dark shadow over the bison herds… no Indian could see that shadow.”  Then came the crazy Americans, for whom bison were walking gold pieces, which the magic of the marketplace deposited into the piggy bank.

The ancestors of wolves, coyotes, and dogs originated in America five million years ago.  Some wolves migrated into Asia, and spread to Europe and Africa.  Following the extinction spasm, a number of large predators left the stage, leaving a huge niche for both bison and wolves.  Wolves almost acted like shepherds to herds of bison and other large grazers.  They ate maybe four of every ten bison calves.  When horses were reintroduced, yummy colts were added to the menu.

As settlers, market hunters, and sportsmen moved west, they killed lots of game.  Wolves feasted on the banquet of leftovers.  The bison extermination campaign raged from the 1860s to 1880s.  As bison were depleted, market hunters turned to elk, pronghorns, bighorn sheep, and deer.  Countless millions of animals were slaughtered.  Then, the generous settlers began raising delicious wolf chow, dimwitted critters called cattle and sheep.  Enjoying 10,000 years of fine dining, wolves may have expanded up to 1.5 million animals.  Around 1850, America declared war on wild predators.  Wolves were shot, roped, gassed, stomped, strangled, poisoned, and trapped.  By 1923, wolves had been erased from the Great Plains.

The book closes with a discussion of recent efforts to rewild the west — remove the fences, and let bison, wolves, and others return to wild freedom.  A few projects are underway, and others are being considered.  For decades, Americans have been migrating out of the plains.  The Dust Bowl of the 1930s, nuked many farms.  Then came irrigation, extracting fossil water from the Ogallala Aquifer — an adventure in water mining that’s beginning to sing its death song.  Dust is returning.  Climate change may be the settlers’ last stand.  It’s expected to make the plains hotter and drier, maybe a desert.

“Before it was de-buffaloed, de-wolved, and de-grassed, the nineteenth-century Great Plains was one of the marvels of the world,” writes Flores.  “It took 13,000 years but the one, singular charismatic megafauna that walked upright did finally succeed in vanquishing, indeed nearly obliterating, all the others and bending the plains to its will.”  His book is fascinating, easy to read, short, and sad — an illuminating and uncomfortable look in the mirror.

Flores, Dan, American Serengeti: The Last Big Animals of the Great Plains, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 2016.

See my review of Flores’ earlier book, The Natural West, HERE.  YouTube has some Flores videos.  In 2010, National Geographic released a gorgeous and informative video titled American Serengeti.

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Forgiveness of Nature



I grew up in the battered remains of a once vast hardwood forest in Michigan.  I was lucky to spend my childhood wandering in a small surviving remnant.  My forest was a sacred place.  To me, the western plains felt dry, empty, bleak.  But my oldest ancestors evolved on the arid savannahs of Mother Africa — grassland with scattered brush and trees.  Grassland was where the big game hung out, and they were good to eat.  Recently, I studied horse history, and learned a lot about the vast steppe grasslands of Eurasia.  They were also home to big game and nomadic hunters.

I began to get curious about grass.  There are maybe 12,000 species of grass, and they inhabit climates between the arctic and equator.  More than half of the calories consumed by humankind come from three grasses: rice, wheat, and corn (maize).  Others include oats, barley, millet, sorghum, sugar cane, and bamboo.

Clive Ponting noted that in the last 300 years, the world’s grassland has increased 680 percent.  The forests of the U.S. Midwest were destroyed to grow corn, wheat, and livestock.  The Amazon rainforest is being destroyed to create cattle pasture.  So were the rainforests of Britain and Ireland.  The list is incredibly long.  I discovered that a British grass worshipper, Graham Harvey, had written a passionate book, The Forgiveness of Nature: The Story of Grass. 

Nature “forgives” humankind’s tireless vandalism — deserted roads, villages, and battlefields are eventually covered with a healthy carpet of greenery.  “Like the horse and hyena, Homo sapiens is first and foremost a creature of the grass,” wrote Harvey.  The Bible says “All flesh is grass,” because all flesh is mortal: green today, brown tomorrow; but God is eternal.  In 1872, John James Ingalls of Kansas offered a different interpretation.  “The primary form of food is grass.  Grass feeds the ox: the ox nourishes man: man dies and goes to grass again; and so the tide of life with everlasting repetition, in continuous circles, moves endlessly on and upward, and in more senses than one, all flesh is grass.”

Harvey described the heartbreaking story of the American prairies.  Farmers first arrived during an unusually rainy period.  They plowed under lots of turf, tapped the fantastic fertility of the rich black soil, and had fantastic harvests for a while, until drought returned, and the Dust Bowl blew away millions of tons of degraded soil.  Within 50 years, the party was over.  Farming continues today, with significant yields, but the heavily diminished soil is kept on life support by fertilizer, pesticides, irrigation, and fossil fuel.

Native Americans enjoyed the abundance of the prairie for free, hunting herds of 50 million bison.  Observers described one herd that was 50 miles (80 km) long and 25 miles (40 km) wide, maybe 480,000 animals.  American colonists now use the prairie to raise 45 million cattle, in a capital intensive, fossil fuel powered enterprise that degrades the grassland.  Bison evolved on the plains; they grazed and then moved on, allowing the grass to recover.  Cattle moved too little, and they were heavily overstocked.  Regions of the once-rich ancient turf were “grazed practically to dirt.”

Montana writer Richard Manning summed it up.  “Seventy per cent of the grain crop of American agriculture goes to the livestock that replaced the bison that ate no grain, and one wonders, what is agriculture for?”  Cattle don’t need grain, but farmers are subsidized to grow enormous surpluses.  Harvey lamented the rape of the prairie, “It was a biological powerhouse, rich in wildlife and with a productivity no modern farming system could match.  Yet Americans waged a ceaseless war on this priceless asset, and now it has all but disappeared, its life snatched by the quick cut of steel or slowly sapped by overgrazing.” 

Harvey carefully described the many ways in which evolution ingeniously created grasslands that could survive almost any challenge — except civilization.  They created soil-building humus, which retained moisture and accumulated nutrients.  Many plants have very deep roots, up to 32 feet (10 m), which bring up nutrients.  They can tolerate fire, drought, and grazing.  In fact, they need grazing, to nip off the first shoots of woody shrubs and trees that would compete for sunlight.

Back in the good old days, on the steppe and prairies, the bison and other grazers manicured the turf, and the wooly mammoths controlled the woody plants.  With the mammoths and mastodons gone, and elephants fading, humans in many regions around the world have adapted “firestick farming” to expand grassland area, control woody vegetation, improve the vitality of the forage, and attract game.  Burning off the dry grasses eliminates hiding places for game, and provides a banquet of roasted grasshoppers and other delicacies.

Grasslands are arid, receiving just 10 to 30 inches (25-76 cm) of rain per year.  In wetter prairies, grass can grow tall enough to hide a horse.  Lands getting less than 10 inches are desert.  More than 30 enables forest.  Britain is wet, not arid.  Its grasslands are manmade.  The land was once largely a rainforest.  Over the centuries, nomadic pastoralists gradually cleared trees to expand meadows for their cattle, sheep, and pigs.

In Harvey’s mind, this was the golden age, an era of wonderful freedom and easy living — before the arrival of farming, drudgery, serfdom, and oppressive nobility.  It doesn’t occur to him that wild Britain was even freer, when the ancient forest thrived, home to red deer, wild boar, wolves, and aurochs, and the Thames was loaded with salmon.  Tragically, agriculture displaced the nomadic herders, “setting Britain on its momentous path to ownership and exclusion, enclosure and dispossession, industrialization and urban living, to factory farming and genetically modified foods.”  Harvey screams “Why?” 

Sheep sped the Brits down the road to ruin, a sheepwreck.  The climate was ideal for producing wool of exceptional quality, which became a major industry, and made many people very rich.  This led to the enclosure movement, during which peasant farmers were evicted from the land, so their fields could be converted into valuable sheep pasture.  The wool gold rush generated much of the capital needed to launch the industrial revolution. 

Many of the evicted farmers migrated into rapidly growing urban slums that were crowded, filthy, and disease ridden.  They were joined by hordes of desperate refugees from the Irish Famine.  This generated widespread discontent that could not by soothed in gin palaces.  The fat cats got nervous, fearing unrest and revolution.  Grass came to the rescue.  Liverpool, New York, and other cities began building parks, providing islands of green sanity amidst the industrial nightmare world.

Delirious from perpetual growth fever, Brits joined the Americans in racing down the dead-end road of industrial agriculture — synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, big machines, fossil fuel, monocultures, feedlots, mega-farms.  Maximum yields were the goal, <bleep> the topsoil, the ecosystem, the grandchildren.  This explosion of pure idiocy drove poor Harvey bonkers.  He goes to great lengths to enthusiastically educate readers on the magnificence of healthy topsoil, and the many ways that spectacularly stupid people foolishly destroy it.

His grand vision is a wise transition to organic mixed farming, a three-year rotation of winter grain, spring grain, and a fallow of grasses and red clover — combined with regular application of all available manure.  While this is better than the current norm, there are some important drawbacks.  Every trainload of wheat shipped away to London includes essential nonrenewable nutrients that will never be returned to the farm.  The soil nutrients sent to London stay in London, where they are mixed into toxic sludge.  Anything less than 100 percent nutrient recycling is an enterprise with an expiration date.

Britain usually has gentle rains, so less soil is washed away than in the U.S., where torrential downpours are common, and soil erosion is a huge problem.  Harvey asserts that mixed farming can heal the wrecked soil, rebuild the humus, and restore the millions of tiny creatures that thrive in healthy soil.  If people did this everywhere, enough carbon could be sequestered in the soil to snuff climate change.  Listen to this: “A return to sound husbandry in agriculture would end global warming without the need for motoring cuts.”  Oy!

 When my Norwegian ancestors settled in Iowa in 1879, folks were astonished by the coal black topsoil that could be up to 12 feet (3.6 m) deep.  This super-fertile soil was created by thousands of years of healthy tall grass prairie.  Today, this treasure is nearly gone.  Plows are turning up yellow patches of subsoil.  A wise elder once concluded that the plow has caused more harm to future generations than the sword.

Harvey explores many other subjects.  His book is easy to read, and out of print.  It will inspire you to psychoanalyze the suburbanites who spend thousands of dollars obsessively maintaining spooky freakshow lawns that look as natural as Astroturf.  They must spend their nights having sweet dreams of chasing antelopes across the endless prairies.

Harvey, Graham, The Forgiveness of Nature: The Story of Grass, Random House, London, 2001.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Children of the Sun



All life requires energy to survive, and our primary source of energy is the sun, a fireball of nuclear fusion.  On Earth, the plant people absorb this energy and convert it into simple carbohydrates.  Humans and other animals extract these nutrients from edible plants, and/or from the flesh of plant eating animals.

Alfred Crosby’s book, Children of the Sun, presents a history of how humans access energy.  It’s a good companion to his earlier book, Throwing Fire, a history of projectile use, spanning from thrown stones to nuclear weapons.  Both discuss the rapid acceleration of innovation, population, and ecological impacts.  This growing instability over the centuries is largely off the radar in our day-to-day lives.  Most of our brain cycles are engaged in the here and now, a pushbutton wonderland of nonstop magic.

Crosby reminds readers of the obvious fact that fossil energy is finite, and the large, high quality deposits are approaching their finish lines.  We are making little effort to wrap our heads around the notion that our high-impact energy-guzzling lifestyle has an expiration date.  Instead, we pretend — with all our might — that the here and now is perfectly “normal,” and everything is excellent.

When the spirits of our wild ancestors observe today’s “normal” they see a nightmarish insane asylum.  Powerful historians like Crosby can vaporize the walls of our madhouse, and allow us to perceive the hundreds of centuries of turbulent cultural evolution that preceded our birth.  We can observe the spirit of progress transition from an occasional draft, to a strong wind, and the full-scale hurricane of today.

In the 200,000 years since the first Homo sapiens punched in at the time clock, almost all generations have been wild nomadic hunter-gatherers, living in a manner that was far simpler, and much closer to sustainable.  For almost the entire human saga, this slower, gentler mode was the long term “normal.”  But it wasn’t normal.

Some scholars have speculated that if space aliens had visited 100,000 years ago, humans would have appeared to be ordinary animals of no significance.  Wrong!  We were roasting steaks with domesticated fire, a spooky trick never performed by ordinary animals.  Fire was domesticated prior to Homo sapiens, maybe 500,000 years ago, maybe a million, nobody knows.

When our ancestors burned biomass like wood, they were utilizing the solar energy stored by the tree.  Fire provided some benefits.  It intimidated hungry predators.  It enabled our ancestors to survive in regions outside the tropics.  It made cooking possible, a huge advance.  Cooking partially predigests foods, making it easier for our guts to extract more nutrients from them.  It also transforms a number of inedible substances into edible sources of nutrition.  Chimps spend six hours a day chewing raw foods.  Of course, progress is never free — fire making eventually led to huge unintended consequences, like megafauna extinctions, industrial civilization, the population explosion, and an unstable climate. 

It’s fun to play “what if…”  What if that first fire starter, who learned how to make sparks with friction, had been ripped to shreds by hyenas prior to his or her discovery?  Without fire, furless hominids could not have survived in chilly non-tropical regions.  The snow monkeys of Japan solved this challenge by evolving heavy winter coats.  Would Homo sapiens have ever evolved at all, limited to a raw food diet?  Would the Americas and Europe of today still be human-free wildernesses, home to healthy populations of mammoths, bison, and sabertooth cats?

Over time, our ancestors got better at hunting and basic survival.  When some groups moved out of the tropics, they encountered conditions for which evolution had not fine-tuned them.  They needed tighter shelters, warm clothing, and food storage for the lean seasons.  Clever innovations could increase the odds for survival, and the cleverer we got, the better.  Over the millennia, our addiction to innovation snowballed.  Like an arms race, the groups possessing the most powerful juju were likely to displace or erase the bubbas with inferior juju.

And so, the clever ones spread around the globe.  Growing numbers eventually ran out of uninhabited lands to colonize, leading to growing friction.  Too much cleverness eventually led to what Ronald Wright called “the perfection of hunting.”  By killing megafauna a bit faster than they could recover over the centuries, big game gradually got scarce.  Our menu shifted toward small game, and then to aquatic edibles.

The domestication of plants and animals was another Earth-shaking innovation.  We could now exploit solar energy more efficiently.  More people could live on less land.  Never before had we controlled so much energy.  Population grew, spurring instability.  The enslavement of animals like horses and oxen provided us with pack animals to carry stuff, and traction animals to pull stuff.  No longer was the work in human communities performed solely by human muscle power.  Enslaved animals could be exploited in many ways.

By A.D. 1000, clever ones had learned how to capture more energy with waterwheels, windmills, and sailing ships, but muscle power was still the primary energy.  We were drifting toward the limits of utilizing solar energy via agriculture and burning wood.  As forests disappeared, the clever ones began burning coal.  Eventually, mineshafts reached the water table, and muscle powered gizmos were unable to remove the water fast enough.  So, brilliant lads invented steam engines that could pump water and keep the mines dry.

Until maybe 1700, human society ran primarily on the muscle power of humans and animals.  The steam engine, like the domestication of plants, animals, and fire, was a major advance with horrendous unintended consequences.  The speed of innovation became a constantly accelerating whirlwind — locomotives, steamships, and multiple-spindle spinning machines.  Lighting switched from the flickering hearth fire, to candles, then whale oil lamps, then coal gas, then kerosene, then electric lights.

Steam engines were pushed to the sidelines by internal combustion engines, which were used to power automobiles, tractors, trucks, locomotives, ships, and many other machines.  Gasoline couldn’t run a sewing machine 100 miles away, but electricity could.  We invented generators, installed power grids, built hydroelectric dams, and nuclear power plants.  We invented telegraphs, telephones, radio, television.  The herd grew explosively from one billion to two, three, four, five, six, seven…  Zoom, zoom, zoom…

For a while, the Peak Oil doomsters made us nervous, with their predictions that the production of conventional oil would likely peak around 2005, which it did.  But we got distracted by the growing production unconventional oil from oil shale (fracking) and tar sands, and returned to pretending that we have no limits.  Let’s go shopping!

Thankfully, Crosby provides readers with an embarrassing birds-and-bees talk about EROEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested).  In the 1930s, the EROEI of oil production was 100:1 — it took one unit of energy to extract 100 units from the underground reserves.  When he was writing in 2006, it had dropped to 17:1.  Today, it’s less.  Low EROEI means that lots of oil will be left in the ground forever, regardless of how high the price eventually rises.  Imagine having a job that paid $100 per day, but the bridge toll to get there was $105.

Crosby offers us no silver bullet solutions.  “Winning streaks are rarely permanent.”  The easiest approach to our challenges is to continue living foolishly and hope for miracles.  The smartest response would be sanity — limit population, cut consumption, live lightly, and abandon nuclear and fossil energy.  “We have every reason to believe that we are capable of environmental sanity; but first we have to accept that the way we live now is new, abnormal, and unsustainable.”  

It’s a short book, and very easy to read — no charts, graphs, or techno-jargon.  Crosby describes the uncomfortable facts of life in a calm and non-hysterical way.  I have zero complaints about it.  It’s an excellent intro to energy.  He briefly discusses the limitations of alternative energy sources.  The limits are more thoroughly discussed in Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society.  The huge downside of nuclear energy is better addressed in Too Hot to Touch.  Other energy-related books include Snake Oil: Fracking’s False Promise, Cadillac Desert, The Big Flatline, The End of Growth, Techno-Fix, and Afterburn.

Crosby, Alfred W., Children of the Sun — A History of Humanity’s Unappeasable Appetite for Energy, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2006.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Horse in Human History



Our ancestors evolved on the savannahs of tropical Africa, arid grasslands home to herds of large herbivores.  Later, some ancestors migrated out of Africa, into non-tropical Eurasia, a cooler climate for which evolution and experience had not carefully prepared them.  They discovered northern grasslands, called steppes, home to herds of gazelles, argali sheep, saiga antelope, reindeer, and wild horses.  These shortgrass prairies extended 5,000 miles (8,000 km) from Hungary to Manchuria.  The struggle to survive on the steppes encouraged innovation (warm clothing, tighter shelters, food storage, etc.).  Groups that developed better stuff were less likely to become buzzard food.

The first species of the horse genus (Equus) emerged in North America about 4.5 million years ago.  Some migrated to South America, and others crossed the land bridge to Eurasia, and spread as far as Western Europe.  Maybe 15,000 years ago, hunters from Siberia discovered America.  Over the following centuries, a surge of megafauna extinctions occurred.  The last horse in the Americas died in Patagonia about 7000 B.C.  In 1493, Spaniards brought domesticated horses back to America, and by 1550, there were 10,000 roaming the golden plains.

In Pleistocene Europe, humans loved to hunt horses.  At the Roche de Solutré site, near Mâcon, France, archaeologists have found the bones of up to 100,000 horses, with dates ranging from 37,000 to 10,000 years ago.  During seasonal migrations, horses were trapped, butchered, and smoked.  By the sixth millennium B.C., the once plentiful wild horses of Western and Central Europe’s river valleys were apparently eliminated by overhunting.  To the east, large numbers of wild horses managed to survive on the vast open steppes, where they were less vulnerable to traps.  Hunters on foot were much slower than speedy critters so, prior to horse domestication, few humans could survive in the steppe ecosystem.

Cattle, goats, and sheep were domesticated in the Middle East, but horses were domesticated much later (4000 B.C.), on the Pontic-Caspian steppe, which spans from the Ukraine to western Kazakhstan, along the north coasts of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea.  Wild horses were big, strong, fast, intelligent, and aggressive.  When spooked, they attack, and swift kicks can be fatal.  They were not easy to domesticate.  Zebras, their Equus cousins, have never been tamed — the older they get, the meaner.

Prior to the enslavement of horses, society was powered by human muscles.  The addition of horse power was a tremendous boost.  They could move much larger loads.  On horseback, humans could move rapidly, and travel long distances.  The Horse in Human History, by anthropologist Pita Kelekna, is a mind-altering book.  It describes our turbulent 6,000 year relationship with domesticated horses.

Few readers were raised in tribes of nomadic pastoralists.  Our civilized world teaches us grand stories of magnificent empires, and their ongoing conflicts with scruffy bloodthirsty barbarians.  Kelekna reveals the missing half of the story that our culture has bleeped out — the tremendous impact these nomadic horsemen have had in shaping the world of today.  As they grew in scale, both the sedentary farmers and nomadic horsemen caused injuries to the ecosystem.  The earlier hunter-gatherers of the steppe caused far less disturbance.

At first, domesticated horses were kept for meat, milk, and hides.  Compared to other livestock, horses were more tolerant of snowy conditions, better able to survive on low quality forage, and required less pampering.  Because horses were highly mobile, and could go up to four days without water, herders could utilize grasslands farther from rivers, and maintain larger herds.  Nomadic life was an ongoing quest to move hungry herds to greener pastures, so agriculture was rarely an option.  They learned to survive largely on milk, milk products, and wild foods.

Eventually, folks figured out how to utilize horse power for hauling packs, and for pulling carts, wagons, chariots, and plows.  By and by, they transported trade goods, technologies, religions, ideas, and infectious diseases over long distances.  Bridle, saddle, and stirrup innovations eventually enabled humans to ride horses, at high speed, while effectively using deadly weapons.

One herder on foot could oversee 150 to 200 sheep, but a mounted herder could manage 500.  Horse domestication promoted the expansion of farming and herding, spurring population growth and conflict.  Mounted prospectors were better able to explore remote regions, and horse power was a tremendous asset for labor intensive mining operations.  This set the stage for the emergence of the Iron Age on the Anatolian steppe (Turkey).  Iron was history-altering big juju.

Warning!  Before you sit down with this book, be sure to have an inflatable raft nearby, because you’ll soon be up to your neck in blood.  Kelekna thoroughly documents how horsepower led to “bloodshed, massacres, deportations, enslavement, amputation, beheadings, torture, incineration, rape, castration, famine, pestilence, and destruction.”

Old fashioned warriors on foot became sitting ducks for speeding war chariots.  Later came mounted cavalry, which was even more deadly.  Then, armored knights on armored horses.  Then, infantry soldiers got halberds, pikes, and crossbows, which reduced knights to wolf chow.  Then, cannons.  And so on.  In an endless arms race, every brilliant innovation was inevitably trumped by something even more deadly.  Societies that did not maintain cutting edge capabilities were doomed to be dismembered by the cutting edge.

Readers learn about the Mongol blitzkrieg that rapidly created the largest contiguous land empire in history, spanning the steppes from the Baltic to the Pacific.  It survived for a few centuries until the Ottomans stomped them.  The spread of Islam spilled oceans of blood, as did the Christian Crusades.  Kelekna’s tireless recital of bloodbath after bloodbath, the rise and fall of countless cocky gangbangers, is stunning, and before long, absurd.

The words you are reading right now are English, another inheritance from the steppe nomads.  English is one of many Indo-European languages that branched off from the nomads’ ancient mother tongue, proto Indo-European (PIE).  Around 3000 B.C., PIE split into two language families, as people zoomed off in many directions in their new horse drawn carts.  The satem group includes Baltic, Slavic, Albanian, Armenian, Iranian, Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, and Nepali.  The centum group includes Celtic, Italic, Germanic, Greek, Anatolian, and Tocharian.  Today, the first language of more than a third of humankind is one of the Indo-European offshoots.

Multinational religions absorbed spiritual beliefs of the steppe nomads.  Zoroastrianism originated among Iranian tribes.  Their beliefs included one supreme god, a seven day creation, angels and demons, a coming savior, virgin birth, heaven and hell, and judgment day — which influenced Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam.  These four religions emerged between 2000 B.C. and A.D. 1000, the era of equestrian empires.  Today, their believers include 72 percent of humankind.

To better appreciate the impact of horses in the Old World, it’s interesting to look at the horseless Americas.  Llamas and alpacas were the only two large animals domesticated, and neither were suitable for riding.  Incas had no wheels, so they had no carts or wagons, and no need for smooth roads.  They did build bridges, dig tunnels, and cut steps up steep hillsides.  “Without the horse, the central steppes of the Americas — the prairies and pampas — remained undeveloped for agriculture and largely uninhabited.”

Pack trains of llamas could travel up to 12 miles per day (19 km), with each animal carrying up to 101 pounds (46 kg).  Horses, donkeys, and mules were far better pack animals.  Speedy long-distance communication was provided by messages relayed from one Inca runner to the next.  This was much slower than Genghis Khan’s pony express system, which could move messages 248 miles (400 km) per day.

Up north in Mesoamerica, they had wheels, but they were only used on tiny clay toys.  Northern pack animals had two legs.  On a good day, a healthy lad might carry 50 pounds (23 kg) for 13 to 17 miles (21 to 28 km).  Without carts or pack animals, Mesoamericans could not create vast sprawling empires like Rome.  While the Mayans built some roads, hiking in Mexico was via dirt paths, where they existed.

Military activities were restricted.  Each soldier had to carry his own provisions, which limited load size and distance travelled.  Thus, if supplies could not be snagged from villagers along the way, adventures would have been limited to round trips of eight days or so.  In Eurasia, huge Mongol cavalries could zoom across the steppe at 68 miles (110 km) per day.

Ideas also moved slowly in a horseless world, if they moved at all.  The brilliant mathematical achievement of the Mayans was the invention of the zero — 500 years before the Hindus.  In the Old World, the extremely useful idea of zero spread fast and far, while the Mayan zero never left home.  The voyage of Columbus depended on the existence of countless tools, resources, and skills, none of which were invented in Spain.  Some came from as far away as China, like gunpowder, forged steel, paper, and printing.  Imagine what today would look like if the concept of gunpowder had never left China.

Bottom line, if horses had never been domesticated, the world of today would be unimaginably different, and far less trashed — maybe.  In fact, big bloody civilizations did emerge in horse free America, develop productive agriculture, and feed growing mobs.  In South America, they were making bronze tools, and ornaments of silver and gold.  When Cortes first arrived, the Valley of Mexico had two million residents, and Tenochtitlan was a city of 200,000 — twice the size of Paris at that time.

By 1705, on the buffalo rich plains of Texas, the Comanche acquired horses.  “Like the Eurasian steppes, before the horse, the prairie had few human inhabitants.  Tough sod discouraged farming, and hunting speedy large mammals on foot in open country was not easy.”  Comanche horsemen could now ride faster than buffalo, and kill as many as they wanted.  Many more people could be fed.  Other tribes got into the game, and grew in size.  Like any ecosystem, grasslands have limited carrying capacity — growth is the mother of conflict.

The domestication of plants and animals, especially the horse, radically altered the human saga.  Hunter-gatherers were egalitarian, non-hierarchical.  Personal belongings were minimal, and sharing was the key to survival.  For pastoralists, domesticated horses were perceived to be personal property, and status symbols.  A new, toxic, and highly contagious belief was born — you are what you own.  Stealing horses became a get-rich-quick scheme.  Raiding led to counter raids, blood was often spilled, and an era of intertribal warfare emerged, in both the Old World and New.  Today, the insatiable and idiotic hunger for status is pounding the planet to pieces.

I’ve only scratched the surface here.  Kelekna did an outstanding job of giving us a long, powerful, and sobering look in the mirror.  Thankfully, she does not visit the fairy pool of magical solutions, fill the obligatory slop bucket, and dump it over our heads.  The traditional path of endless escalating growth and conflict isn’t taking us anywhere good.  She suggests that contemplation, communication, and cooperation might provide an antidote for the urge to self-destruct.  We haven’t tried that.  Hey!

Kelekna, Pita, The Horse in Human History, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2009.

Today, horse power has been replaced with machines powered by fossil energy, a nonrenewable resource that does not have a long and rosy future.  Can seven-point-something billion humans return to horses?  By 1900, modern cities had become horrid smelly nightmares.  Read this:  From Horse Power to Horsepower.