Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Mao’s War Against Nature


When I was young, I discovered pictures from China, where the streets were filled with people riding bicycles.  I was overwhelmed by this display of human intelligence.  Had they learned from our mistakes and taken a higher path, or had their culture taught them to respect life?  I was living in Kalamazoo, where the streets were a nightmare, jammed with impatient nutjobs in speeding wheelchairs.  The air was thick with methylene chloride, and the river was a PCB cesspool.  If only our leaders were Chinese… sigh!  Like I said, I was young.

In 1949, Mao Zedong led a revolution that overthrew the Chinese government.  The victors created the People’s Republic of China, a communist state.  China had suffered from a long era of exploitation by foreign powers.  Mao was eager to create a prosperous industrial utopia as rapidly as possible, by any means necessary.

In 1972, Richard Nixon visited Mao and reestablished relations between the U.S. and China.  Judith Shapiro was among the first Americans allowed to work there.  She taught English.  The outside world knew little about Red China, but Shapiro soon learned that the Maoist era had been a turbulent freak show.  She described this period in her book, Mao’s War Against Nature.

Every environmental history book is a horror story, describing how clever humans survived by using technology and aggression to devour nonrenewable resources, deplete renewable resources, ravage ecosystems, and leave the bills for their children.  Shapiro’s book stands out, because it examines an era of unbelievable ecocide.  Maoist China repeated the classic mistakes of other civilizations, but in fast forward mode.

Mao’s high-speed modernization project was called the Great Leap Forward (1958-60).  He wanted to produce more steel than Great Britain within 15 years.  Peasants rapidly constructed several million primitive backyard furnaces.  A hundred million people worked day and night melting tools, pots, and scrap into blobs of useless metal.  Most of the furnaces were wood-fired, and deforestation was widespread.  In those days, the peasants still believed the dream — that their heroic efforts would bring a new era with powerful tractors and railroads.  They worked enthusiastically.

At the same time, there was a huge drive to increase grain production via bone-headed strategies.  They were told that if they planted ten times as many seeds in a field, the yield would be ten times higher.  Sadly, the densely grown plants rotted.  But local leaders were deeply engaged in a competition to report astonishing gains in grain production, and their claims were far in excess of reality. 

Because it would have been impossible to store all the grain reported, folks were ordered to make steel.  The 1958 crop largely rotted in the fields, while the steel-making peasants consumed their grain reserves.  In 1959, drought arrived, and the Great Famine began.  Between 35 and 50 million died by 1961 — the biggest manmade famine in history.

The war on nature had another front, the Four Pests — rats, sparrows, flies, and mosquitoes.  Sparrows were an enemy of the people because they ate too much grain.  Schoolchildren ran around the countryside, destroying their nests and smashing their eggs.  They banged pots whenever a sparrow landed.  Before long, there were far fewer sparrows, and far more of the insects they used to eat.  Farmers soon realized that sparrows were great allies.  The birds were removed from the pest list, and replaced by bedbugs.

A core component of the Mao era was disregard for expertise.  Mao hated intellectuals, scientists, and anyone else who questioned his fantasies.  “Mao and his followers all too often fell into the trap of believing that because they declared something possible or true, it would be so.”  Time-proven ideas were annoying superstitions that obstructed the fast lane to utopia.  Knowledgeable people who voiced doubts about stupid ideas were promoted to exciting new careers in breaking rocks, exterminating forests, or worse.

When the president of Beijing University warned about the danger of rapid population growth, he was denounced and relieved of his responsibilities.  Overpopulation could only be a problem in evil capitalist societies — never in a socialist paradise.  China was already overpopulated in 1949, and it grew with spooky speed.  Mao refused to believe the census numbers.  In 1958, family planning programs were ended, and not resumed until 1971.  Mao died in 1976, and in 1979, the one-child policy was implemented.

When a respected engineering professor at Qinghua University warned that the planned Sanmenxia dam on the Yellow River was stupid, and would promptly fill with silt, he was denounced and relieved of his responsibilities.  The dam was built, and the reservoir filled with silt two years later, flooding a nearby town.  Mao rushed to build thousands of dams, of which 2,976 had collapsed by 1980.  Many were built with soil alone, by untrained peasants.  Floods caused by two dam failures in 1975 killed an estimated 230,000 people.

Rubber was a strategic resource, and Mao did not want to rely on imports from capitalists.  During the Cultural Revolution, hundreds of thousands of educated urban youths from bad families (i.e., intellectuals, rightists, capitalists) were shipped to the virgin rainforests north of Laos.  This region was too far north for rubber, but the experts understood it was dangerous to protest.  So, ancient forest was cleared, and planted with rubber.  Much of it died during the winter of 1974-75.  They replanted, and the trees died again.  They replanted a third time, with the same result.

Looking at this era from the outside, it’s easy to see the foolishness.  The only news the peasants got came from government sources — propaganda.  The culture had a long tradition of obedience to superiors.  Free speech and dissent were not cool.  “Political campaigns so distorted human relationships that family members were driven to denounce and beat each other, neighbors spied on neighbors, schoolchildren drove teachers to suicide, and the world was turned upside down for countless millions.”

As I read, I couldn’t help but contemplate how foolish our own culture would appear to intelligent outsiders.  How much of our news stream is truthful?  What stories are missing?  Why do we disregard the warnings of climate scientists?  How can a “well-educated” population remain so ecologically illiterate?  It’s 2015, the polar bears are dying, and the streets of Kalamazoo are still jammed with speeding wheelchairs.  Why?

The Chinese were manipulated to pursue an ideology, and the program resulted in enormous environmental harm.  It seems like consumer societies are manipulated via advertising and peer pressure to cause enormous harm via lifelong competition for status.  We must continually acquire more impressive homes, cars, televisions, and on and on.  A couple years ago, it was awesomely trendy to wear clothing printed with skull motifs.  The following year, the skulls vanished, and the trend robots rushed to fill their wardrobes with the latest new fashions.

Anyway, Shapiro’s book is stunning.  Mao is dead, and so is his ideology.  The new game is the high speed pursuit of personal wealth.  She mentions a few signs of hope, but it seems clear that the post-Mao era is causing far more environmental harm.  The population is still growing.  The pollution is horrendous.  In every nation, the war on nature is winning.  What would intelligent people do?

Shapiro, Judith, Mao’s War Against Nature, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2001.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Dying of the Trees


Long, long ago, before the 1970s, thousands of people would make a springtime pilgrimage to the Catoctin woods of Maryland to enjoy the flowering dogwood trees.  Today, the tourists no longer come, because 79 percent of the dogwoods are dead, and the rest are dying.  A mystery fungus created a rapidly spreading blight, which penetrated the bark and blocked the flow of water and nutrients.  It killed new dogwood seedlings.  The experts were puzzled.  Could the trees have been weakened by acid rain, smog, increased UV radiation, or a changing climate?

The dogwood die-off captured the attention of Maryland resident Charles Little, a conservationist and writer.  It inspired him to spend three years visiting 13 states, observe dying trees, interview experts, and read papers and reports.  Then he wrote The Dying of the Trees.  It was a heartbreaking project, because everything he learned was grim, and worsening.

On one trip, he visited Hub Vogelmann, in the Green Mountains of Vermont, a region downwind from the industrial Midwest.  Three-quarters of the spruce trees were dead, and there was no evidence of insects or disease.  In tree ring studies, vanadium, arsenic, and barium began appearing in the wood around 1920.  Following World War II, the wood also contained copper, lead, zinc, and cadmium.  Aluminum is commonly found in forest soils, but acid rain breaks down aluminum silicates, enabling the metal to be absorbed by plants.  It kills the roots.  Vogelmann was sharply criticized for suggesting that the problem was related to acid rain, an emerging issue by 1979.

Acid rain was killing forests in Germany and Eastern Europe.  It was killing the sugar maples in New England, Ontario, and Quebec.  In the Appalachian region of Quebec, 91 percent of the maples were in decline by 1988.  The rain was ten times more acidic than normal.  It was leaching the phosphorus, potassium, and magnesium out of the soil — essential nutrients.  In some places, the livers and kidneys of moose and deer contained so much cadmium that the Canadian government issued health warnings.  In glaring defiance of the evidence, the U.S. Forest Service reported that the maples were healthy and improving.

Little visited Rock Creek, near Beckley, West Virginia.  It was home to a remnant of the mesophytic forest, bits of which are spread across several states.  This ecosystem may be 100 million years old.  It was never submerged by rising seas, or erased by glaciers.  It was the mother forest for the trees now living in eastern North America. 

Sadly, mature trees at Rock Creek, in full foliage, were falling over, their trunks hollowed out by rot.  Fungi, supercharged by excess nitrogen, were now able to penetrate the bark.  Trees were producing up to 80 percent fewer seeds.  John Flynn was among the pioneers in reporting the acid rain story to the national media.  He was harshly criticized by both industry and the U.S. Forest Service.

Once, on a visit to England, Little met an elderly sailor who had visited Oregon as a young man.  The immense virgin forests had amazed him.  Little did not tell the old fellow that those ancient forests were mostly gone now, and that industry was eager to destroy the ten percent that remained.  It took the Brits a thousand years to exterminate their ancient forest.  Americans largely did it in one generation, thanks to better technology and mass hysteria.

The vast white pine forests that once stretched from Maine to Minnesota never recovered.  Deciduous trees took their place.  Ancient forests are not renewable resources.  “In clear-cutting such forests, then, we not only kill the trees that are cut, but we annihilate the possibility of such trees for all time.”  Forests are incredibly complex ecosystems, and logging disrupts a state of balance that took eons to develop.  Many wildlife species cannot survive on cutover lands.  A monoculture tree plantation is not a forest, and is more vulnerable to cold, drought, pests, and diseases.

Little visited Colorado, where many forests were brown and dead.  The original forest was exterminated about 100 years ago.  The second growth that replaced it was a different mix of species, mostly shade-tolerant, which were more vulnerable to spruce budworms.  These trees were densely packed together, thanks to a strategy of fire suppression — promptly extinguishing every wildfire.  The dense growth was attractive to budworms, which weakened the trees.  Then the bark beetles were able to finish them off.  Dead forests loaded with fuel invite fire.

Native Americans controlled fuel buildup with periodic low-level burns, but this is impossible today, because of the massive accumulations of fuel.  There is no undo button for a century of mistakes.  The government cannot afford to thin overgrown forests and remove the excess fuel from many millions of acres, so the stage is set for catastrophic fires.  There will come a day when the cost and availability of oil makes modern high-tech firefighting impossible.

Forests often die in slow motion.  A speedy decline might take 25 years, and be invisible to casual observers.  Forest death increased in the twentieth century, following the extermination of ancient forests.  It worsened after World War II, as pollution levels increased.  Climate change is likely to cause additional harm.

A vital lesson in this book is to never automatically believe anything.  Master the art of critical thinking, and always question authority.  Our culture is out of its mind, and many of its deeply held beliefs are bull excrement.  Each generation innocently passes this load of excrement to the next, because it’s all they know.

Here’s my favorite passage: “A hand will be raised at the back of the room.  ‘But what can we do?’ the petitioner will ask.  Do?  What can we do?  What a question that is when we scarcely understand what we have already done!”

In a series of stories, Little’s book informs readers that industrial civilization and healthy forests do not mix.  But it barely scratches the surface of the harms caused by the logging industry, or the many other industries.  When I proudly received my golden meal ticket from the university, I was dumber than a box of rocks.  I was well trained to spend the rest of my days striving for respect and status by shopping the planet to pieces.

Today, as the clock is running out on industrial civilization, it’s essential to better understand what we have already done.  We won’t discover every fatal defect, because our way of life is overloaded with them, but the ones that we can see are more likely to be addressed.  We are on a dead end path.  We would be wise to outgrow our habits and illusions, and remember how to live.

Little recommends the obvious — sharply reverse population growth, end the extermination of forests, plant billions of trees, and stop industrial pollution.  He cautions readers that we’re well beyond the point where the damage can be repaired.  Our task today is damage control — learning, growing, teaching, and mindfully reducing the harm we cause each day.  The book does not conclude with the traditional slop bucket of magical thinking.  His straight talk is refreshing.

Little, Charles E., The Dying of the Trees, Viking, New York, 1995.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape


In the family of life, humankind’s two closest living relatives are bonobos and chimpanzees, two apes with strikingly different approaches to living.  Ninety-eight percent of our DNA is the same as theirs.  These three intelligent cousins share a common ancestor that lived five to seven million years ago.  In his book, Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape, primatologist Frans de Waal does a superb job of comparing the three cousins, and the photos of Frans Lanting are fantastic.

In Africa, chimps far outnumber bonobos, and inhabit a larger territory.  The two never meet in the wild, because apes cannot swim, and the Zaire River keeps them apart.  Both reside in dense tropical rainforests, and both sleep in the trees.  They are similar in appearance, and it wasn’t until 1929 that scientists realized that bonobos and chimps were different species.

Bonobos are lucky to live in a dense and rugged rainforest that is difficult for humans to get to, explore, and destroy.  Researchers can spend many days thrashing around in the foliage, completely unaware that a group of bonobos is silently looking down at them from the thick canopy above.  Bonobos were not studied in the wild until the mid-1970s, and research was interrupted from 1994 to 2003, by a civil war that claimed three million lives.  Chimps, on the other hand, had been known and studied for a long time.

During the twentieth century, industrial warfare brutally exterminated millions of humans.  For some reason, it became trendy to perceive humans as inherently violent.  Chimps were seen in a similar light, because of their resemblance to industrial humans.  Once, when two chimp groups came into contact, researchers observed the brutal massacre of the weaker group.

De Waal offered this insight on male chimps:  “Their cooperative, action-packed existence resembles that of the human males who, in modern society, team up with other males in corporations within which they compete while collectively fighting other corporations.”

Chimps and civilized humans typically live in groups dominated by alpha males who actively subdue their rivals.  Females are second-class.  When an alpha male chimp reaches retirement age, and is clobbered by a vigorous young upstart, the new alpha often kills the old fellow’s young offspring, so their mothers can promptly begin producing offspring with his genes.  Because of this, females with young tend to go off and forage alone, avoiding contact with the bloody stud and his buddies.

Bonobos look a lot like chimps, but live very differently.  Bonobo groups are matriarchal, and males are second-class.  Females determine how food is shared, and they eat while the males wait.  Chimps have sex only when a female is fertile.  Bonobos have sex almost anytime, several times a day, with anyone interested, young or old, in every imaginable way.

The genitals of female bonobos become enormously swollen when they are receptive to sexual delights.  They are receptive almost half of the time, whilst being fertile for just a few days.  Non-reproductive sex is an excellent way to defuse conflicts, keep everyone relaxed, and have a pleasant day.  Because everyone has sex with everyone, paternity is impossible to determine.  Therefore, male bonobos do not kill infants, because any infant might be their offspring.

Hominids have taken a third path, the nuclear family.  Long ago, with the arrival of the chilly glacial era, the rainforests we evolved in came close to disappearing.  Our ancestors shifted outside the forest.  The nuclear family was an adaptation for surviving on the open savannah.  Hominid offspring benefitted when their mothers and fathers lived together and cooperated.  Tightly knit groups of aggressive hominids could successfully kill game and fend off predators.  The strongest, fiercest males were more likely to survive and reproduce, so natural selection favored these traits.

Promiscuity was discouraged, because males did not want to spend their lives raising a rival’s offspring.  Thus, the nuclear family reduced the reproductive freedom of females, via moral constraints.  Hominid societies have probably been male-dominated from the start.  Male control further increased with the shift to sedentary living, and the accumulation of property.  Males wanted their life savings to be inherited by their own offspring.  This led to an obsession with virginity and chastity, and the prickly patriarchal mindset.

Civilized societies have developed patriarchal cultures.  “With a few notable exceptions, such as spotted hyenas and the lemurs of Madagascar, male dominance is the standard mammalian pattern.”  Chimps follow this pattern but, to the great delight of feminists, the discovery of female-dominant bonobo society has presented a less macho alternative.  So, who are humans?  De Waal says that humans are in the middle, between the two poles — both aggressive and empathetic.

Why are chimps and bonobos so different?  Both have low birth rates, and nurse their young for four or five years.  Bonobos live in a habitat with abundant food, and no serious competitors in their ecological niche, an ideal situation.  Chimps live in leaner lands, and compete for food with gorillas and baboons.  They feel the squeeze of crowding, and they reduce this pressure by infanticide, and by killing competitors.  Infanticide is common in many species, including lions, prairie dogs, mice, chimps, and gorillas.

We live in an era of extinctions, and the numbers of chimps and bonobos are in sharp decline, as their human cousins relentlessly expand.  Diamond miners, loggers, bush meat hunters, and war refugees continue pushing into their habitat.

De Waal appeared in a fascinating documentary, The Last Great Ape.  It includes many scenes of bonobos living in the wild.  We see them enjoying a pleasant life — eating fruit, having sex, climbing trees, playing, having sex, grooming each other, nursing.  In one scene, viewers look down from a plane zooming over the jungle, and the narrator says, “This part of the forest is like a time capsule; bonobos may have existed here in much the same way for two million years.”  Wow!

Viewers see animals that look like our ancestors, live like our ancestors, and still inhabit the region where our species originated.  The bonobos have obviously remained far more stable over two million years than humans have, because they enjoy good luck and just enough intelligence to live well in their niche.  When I contemplate the era of my 62-year life, and the skyrocketing destruction caused by humankind, it breaks my heart — and mindlessly killing the planet doesn’t even make us happy.  Big brains do not guarantee long-term stability and ecological sustainability.

Patriarchal chimps have also succeeded in living for two million years, in the same region, in a stable manner.  While they rudely offend our humanist and feminist sensibilities, they have evolved a way of living that is thousand times less destructive than that of the humanists and feminists in our insane society.

This raises an embarrassing question.  Exactly how did we benefit from complex language, literacy, technology, domestication, agriculture, civilization, and industrialization?

Waal, Frans de, Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997.

 

The Last Great Ape, WGBH, 2007 (the BBC version is titled Bonobo: Missing in Action, 2006).  The transcript is here.  Copyright holders periodically block YouTube access to this program, so it keeps changing names.  Search for “bonobo” videos that are 51 minutes long.

The Baka Pygmies are our relatives who have lived in the African rainforest close to forever.  In this video (2 min), they make an incredibly joyful noise.  The aura they radiate is that of wild people with deep roots in their ancestral home.  Sadly, their teeth indicate that their diet has been civilized.

This video (5 min) includes beautiful portraits of Baka Pygmies, along with their music.  The faces of the children radiate a glowing sense of joy and contentment.

 

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Tender Carnivore


Paul Shepard was an animal with a PhD who made the astonishing discovery that he really was an animal, and so was everyone else.  This sort of thinking makes us sweaty and nervous, because we prefer to believe that we are the creator’s masterpiece — not the cousins of disgusting baboons and orangutans.  It’s insulting to call someone’s kid a cute animal.

Two-legged primates evolved as hunters and gatherers in healthy wild habitats, living in groups of a dozen or so.  These highly intelligent animals were perfectly at home in natural surroundings, but today’s two-legs are overwhelmed by the input barrage of modern life.  For two-legs, industrial civilization feels like a prison.  Could this be why we are frantically shopping the planet to smithereens?  Shepard spent his life trying to solve this riddle.

Historians have invented glorious stories of the incredible ascent of humankind, from hungry dirty peasants to futuristic cell phone zombies.  In the process, they whited out ninety-nine percent of the human journey, the era before we went sideways.  Restricted to this heavily edited history, our culture has “unwittingly embraced a diseased era as the model of human life.”  This has nurtured “a malignant self-identity.”

We can’t know who we are if our past has been whited out.  In his book, The Tender Carnivore, Shepard pulls back the curtains and presents readers with the 14 million year version of our story.  Notably, the book leaps outside the wall of flatulent myths, and speaks from a viewpoint where wild people are normal healthy animals, and planet thrashers are not.  His ideas provide an effective antidote to the trance, a charm to break the curse.

The book includes a timeline of the human saga.  By 40,000 years ago, we had 240 tools, and numbered 3.3 million.  By 10,000 years ago, we had domesticated sheep, goats, and cereals, and there were 5.3 million.  By 6,000 years ago, we had irrigation, pottery, metal, war, states, wheel, trade, ideology, and writing — and there were 86 million.  The human enterprise was getting dangerously out-of-balance.

Tree monkeys are relatively safe from predators, so males and females are about the same size, and the troop is sexually promiscuous.  Ground monkeys, like baboons, are far more vulnerable to predators, so they are larger, and live in tight groups.  They kill and eat other animals.  The males are much bigger and stronger than the females, and they are hot-tempered.

Ground monkeys are “the most aggressively status-conscious creatures on Earth.”  High-ranking males have primary access to females and food.  They are constantly watched by low-ranking males, who wait for signs of aging and weakness, and opportunities to drive the big boy out of the harem.  They are high-strung animals who constantly adapt to a hierarchy that is always changing.

Humans are also status-conscious critters, so it’s hard for us to recognize that this monkey business is unusual in the animal kingdom.  Monkeys are not our direct ancestors, but we share many genes with them.  Like ground monkeys, every group of humans has a hierarchy of individuals, from ultra-cool to scruffy riffraff.

In sedentary human societies, where personal wealth varies, the status game is amplified by hoarding status trinkets — cars, televisions, and other valuables.  Is it possible that the reason folks refuse to wean themselves from habitual car driving is because it would sharply reduce their social status — something far more important than a stable climate?  Shepard says that we are obsessed with immature goals and follow trends like a dumb herd.

The ape family includes chimps and gorillas.  They inhabit forests, and spend the daylight hours on the ground.  Chimps live in groups of about 40, and use a few very simple tools.  They are nice, mild mannered animals, Shepard says.  But when Shepard was writing, Jane Goodall’s chimp research was just beginning.

It turns out that chimp groups are ruled by an alpha male, who aggressively dominates the females.  They are also violent killers.  Goodall saw one chimp group completely exterminate another group.  Bonobos are their closest relatives, and they are strikingly different.  Bonobo groups are matriarchal, extremely promiscuous, and rarely violent.

A number of anthropologists have reported that, among recent hunter-gathers, males are not dominators, with some exceptions.  But many would agree that, during the civilized era, the status of women often got the shaft.  Shepard’s overview of primate history suggests that male domination and abuse was not invented by Middle Eastern deities.  Evolution can get rough.

When scientists raised chimps in their homes, along with their own children, the chimps were at least as intelligent as children, until the children were three or four, learned language, and left the chimps in the dust.  Language promotes mental development, spurring reasoning and knowing.  Yet, without language, lions and wolves are superior hunters.  Intelligence is an evolutionary experiment.  It allows us to better comprehend the complexity of the world, but it also enables us to better destroy it.

When adolescence concludes with a successful initiation into adulthood, the youth becomes a confident fully human animal that is well integrated with the non-human environment.  He clarifies his self-identity, moves closer to his peer group, and away from his parents.  When initiation is botched or omitted, the youth remains trapped in adolescence, chronically narcissistic, enraged at humankind and nature for failing to help him become a complete human.  “Everyone who fails will be intellectually, emotionally, and socially retarded for the rest of his life.”

Because humans evolved to be ground-dwelling wild omnivores, the hunter-gatherer way of life “is the normal expression of his psychology and physiology.  His humanity is therefore more fully achieved, and his community is more durable and beautiful.”  When removed from a healthy wild environment, folks “live in constant crisis, stress, and poor mental health.”

Throughout the book, Shepard directs a fire hose of ideas at readers, and some are stronger than others.  This one is false: “Hunters and gatherers, by contrast, do not make war.”  When Knud Rasmussen trekked from Greenland to Siberia in the 1920s, he reported several regions where warfare was common, in his book Across Arctic America.

It is also false that all humans are inherently violent.  Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Richard Lee, and Colin Turnbull all reported that Pygmy and Bushman hunter-gatherers were not warlike.  People with adequate space and resources like to sing and dance.  The Inuit described by Rasmussen lived in extremely low population density, but the lands they inhabited had an extremely low carrying capacity.  Crowding is a social disease that causes frantic agitation.

In the last chapter, Shepard looks toward the future.  He presents us with imaginative, impractical, and sometimes daffy solutions.  Rather than burning oil, we could use yeast to convert it into high-protein food.  Agriculture and domesticated animals must go.  Human settlements should be limited to a five-mile strip along the coasts, returning the interiors of continents to nature.  In the wild lands, only foot travel would be allowed.  Only hand weapons could be used for hunting, no guns or dogs.  And so on.

The book was written in the good old days of the early 1970s, when there were fewer than four billion, and the future seemed fairly stable.  Peak oil and climate change had yet to walk onto the stage.  We seemed to have time to repair things.  This is a 40-year old book, with a few rough edges, but well worth the time.

Shepard, Paul, The Tender Carnivore, University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia, 1998.  [1973]

Monday, December 15, 2014

Encounters With Nature


Paul Shepard was a pioneer in human ecology, a young field that studies the relationship between humans and their habitats.  The decades of his career were an exciting time.  New research was challenging myths about low impact (“primitive”) cultures, and scholars were starting to contemplate environmental ethics.  He hoped that growing awareness might end humankind’s war on the planet, but as his hair got grayer, his disillusionment grew.  Enlightenment takes time.

Encounters With Nature is a collection of Shepard’s essays, some of which reveal his thinking near the end of his days.  It was compiled, edited, and published by his wife, Florence, after he died.  She summed up the book in one sentence:  “At the heart of our identity is a fundamentally wild being, one who finds in the whole of wild nature all that is true and beautiful in this world.”  The essays spin around two themes that shaped human development: animals and place. 

Our early pre-human ancestors lived in the trees of tropical rainforests.  Leaping quickly from limb to limb through the canopy required far more brainpower than herbivores needed to manufacture manure on the wide-open savannah.  Our time in the trees provided us with sharp minds, grasping hands, stereoscopic vision, and the ability to see in color.

Later, our ancestors moved to the ground, and became larger and stronger.  To defend themselves against predators, they became socially organized.  By and by, they came to walk erect.  They were hunters, but lacked speed, fangs, and claws.  Instead, they became long-distance runners.  Many herbivores were capable of amazing bursts of speed, but they couldn’t outrun hunters who doggedly pursued them for hours.  Some think that we lost our body hair to stay cooler while chasing lunch.  Our ancestors also evolved arms and shoulders that were well suited for throwing sticks and stones.

Our culture takes great pride in the Industrial Revolution and the Agricultural Revolution, but the most important revolution was the Hunting Revolution.  We moved onto the savannah, and learned how to hunt in packs.  Our ancestors were hunters long before Homo sapiens first appeared.  If you look in the mirror, you will observe the body of a tropical omnivore, fine-tuned for running and throwing — a hunter.  Imagine what you would look like if your ancestors had spent the last two million years on couches watching television.

When civilized folks look in the mirror, they don’t see a hunter; they see the crown of creation, God’s masterpiece.  We are taught that every other species is inferior and non-essential.  Only humans matter.  A chimp looking in the mirror sees a wild chimpanzee.  They have not lost their identity.  Coyotes have never forgotten how to be coyotes.

Shepard described three phases in the “identity formation” of each individual.  In the first phase, we bond to our mother.  In the second phase, between learning to speak and puberty, we have about a decade to bond with the living place we inhabit.  All of us are wild animals at birth, expecting to spend our lives in wild ecosystems.

Wild children are fascinated by other wild animals, which are far more interesting than rubber ducks and teddy bears.  Kids observe animals, learn their names, categorize them, imitate them, and study their anatomy when butchered.  They learn the daily and seasonal patterns of the others.  They watch the others transform from youngsters to oldsters, and a strong feeling of kinship develops.  “It is a family tie and carries responsibility.”

Shepard has little to say about the realm of plants, which is equally alive and fascinating.  Plants also play a major role in our bonding to nature.  By puberty, wild children are well rooted in place, feeling at-one with the flora and fauna of the family of life.  They have a profound sense of belonging that most modern tumbleweeds cannot begin to imagine, and will never experience.

Our bodies are those of hunters.  Likewise, our minds were formed and perfected by two million years of hunting and foraging.  We do not thrive in McMansions, malls, or cubicle farms.  We’re like zoo animals with rusty souls, enduring a dreary existence so far from home.  Condors are at home soaring with great joy above the mountains.  When imprisoned by humans, they become sad biological specimens.  A writer once concluded that condorness consisted of 10 percent condor and 90 percent place.  The same is true for us.

The third phase is initiation, the transition into adulthood.  “The youth is ushered into adult status by ceremonies that include separation from family, instruction by elders, tests of endurance and pain, trials of solitude, visions, dreams, and rituals of rebirth.”

What happens if the bond to mother is flawed?  In her book, The Continuum Concept, Jean Liedloff described how wild people raised happy children, and how civilized folks often fail to. 

What happens if we do not form a healthy bond to the family of life?  We become space aliens, and see the natural world as static scenery, or something to plunder.  Jay Griffiths described how wild children bond, and modern kids suffer, in her book, Kith.

What happens when adolescents aren’t initiated into adulthood?  They can remain immature and alienated, whirling in infantile anxieties, often for the rest of their lives.  The natural identity-forming process fails, and they assume a synthetic identity appropriate for the industrial culture.

For wild people, life was generous and giving.  Food was acquired without regular hard work.  The fruit, nuts, roots, and meat they got were gifts, for which they regularly expressed thanks and gratitude.  Meat was always shared.

For farmers, food was not a gift, but a wage received for months of backbreaking work.  If everything went well, there would be food to harvest at summer’s end.  Food could be stored and traded.  It became private property, and a source of wealth and power.  For modern consumers, food is not a gift, it’s a product sold at stores.  Many do not comprehend the link between pizza and the natural world.

The bottom line here is that we were normal and healthy at birth.  Evolution did not design us to be Earth-wrecking savages.  What turned us into freaks was our humanistic culture, which elevates us above all other animals, and celebrates our intelligence and technology.  This illusion is certain to take a beating as we move into the age of collapses, driven by peak energy, peak food, peak humans, and peak everything else.  Our crazy way of life is running out of time.

Our descendants are not going to hold humanistic culture in high regard, because its amazing bursts of cleverness could never outrun its tireless dark shadow.  It’s obviously a suicidal culture, and this will encourage its abandonment.  New and healthier modes of thinking are emerging, but have yet to go viral.  Mainstream academia seems determined to cling to the cult of perpetual growth as it swirls around the drain, lost in pipedreams of techno-utopia.

Shepard has sketched out suggestions of what needs to be nurtured, and what needs to be dumped.  This is precious information for people with imagination, who reject the orders to shop till they drop.  Creative minds understand that other cultures are possible, and that it’s time to envision them.  There is much to do before the lights go out.

Shepard, Paul, Encounters With Nature, Island Press, Washington, D. C., 1999.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Population Explosion


Following the publication of The Population Bomb in 1968, the new predicament of overpopulation was inducted into our gruesome mob of predicaments.  World leaders snapped to attention, contemplated their options, realized that promoting population control was political suicide, and chose to step around the messy issue.  The house was not on fire today, just some smoke.

The big exception was the Chinese, whose one-child program successfully prevented 350 million births.  It was sometimes heavy-handed, but ignoring runaway growth would have guaranteed a super-heavy disaster.  China had the same amount of cropland as the U.S., but four times the population, and the cropland was wearing out after centuries of organic farming.  The last thing they needed was more mouths to feed.

In 1968, there were 3.5 billion people, twenty years later 5.3 billion.  Paul and Anne Ehrlich realized that The Population Bomb had failed to inspire miraculous change, so they wrote The Population Explosion (1990).  The problems they had predicted earlier were now appearing in many places, and a new generation needed an excellent primer on overpopulation and its side effects.  This second book did not repeat the 1968 error of predicting timeframes.  It was much more substantial than the first, and is still illuminating to read today.  Readers will recognize that the raging bloody chaos of the twenty-first century is an obvious consequence of soaring overshoot.

In this second act, the Ehrlichs took readers into the ecological equivalent of an amusement park funhouse, where loud and scary ghouls and goblins frighten us at every turn — except that their eco-spooks were genuinely dangerous.  The trends in food production and population were not in any way encouraging.  In 1970, population was growing by 75 million per year.  By 1990, it was 95 million.

At the same time, staggering amounts of irreplaceable topsoil were being lost, aquifers were being depleted, and fields were being taken out of production because of salinization and waterlogging.  The Green Revolution surge in food production was peaking, whilst population continued to soar, setting the stage for crisis.  “We shouldn’t delude ourselves: the population explosion will come to an end before very long.”

North America produced 75 percent of the world’s grain exports, and the U.S. was the number one exporter.  In 1988, a severe drought reduced U.S. grain production from 300 to 200 million tons.  That year, Americans consumed more than they produced.  A stable climate was essential for crop production.  So was healthy topsoil, which was being lost at an estimated 24 to 26 billion tons per year.  So was cheap and abundant oil, and water for irrigation.

In 1990, the Ehrlichs were aware that global warming might become a serious problem some day, one that might disrupt agriculture, and spark major famines.  They knew that fossil energy was finite, and that we would be insane to burn it all.  But peak oil and climate change were not presented as current threats in this book.  The inevitable return to muscle-powered agriculture is certain take a huge bite out of food production, and an unstable climate will ensure unstable harvests.

Most of humankind lives in the northern hemisphere, in regions having a temperate climate.  These regions are where most of the world’s grain is produced.  Tropical regions are far more troublesome to farm, and they are home to most of the world’s hungry folks.  There is no winter to provide pest control.  Forest soils are typically thin.  Rains are often heavy, sweeping away soil, fertilizer, and pesticides.  The magic seeds of the Green Revolution do not thrive in the humid tropics.

A fascinating chapter reveals why it is so hard for us to take action on long-term issues.  It’s almost impossible to see, hear, touch, or smell greenhouse gasses, overpopulation, acid rain, aquifer depletion, soil destruction, or mass extinction.  These are not sudden, attention-grabbing events, like a charging rhino.  They are slow motion processes that are mostly perceptible via charts, graphs, and books.  We are tropical primates, and we evolved to pay close attention to the here and now, in the immediate vicinity.

Slow motion threats cannot be chased away with complaints or magical thinking.  We can’t seem to get interested in making enormous sacrifices today in the hope of theoretical benefits somewhere down the road, maybe.  Exponential growth can blindside us, because it’s slow at first, and gradually spins into a devastating whirlwind.  Evolution did not prepare us for civilized living.

The Ehrlichs are more homocentric than ecocentric.  Here’s a real boner: “The population problem is rooted in one of humanity’s greatest triumphs — overcoming natural controls on population size: predators, starvation, and disease.”  Triumphs?  Overcoming natural controls was the blunder that hurled us onto the path of doom!  Replace “triumphs” with “mistakes” and the line makes sense.  Natural controls work beautifully.  There are not 7.2 billion chimps staring at cell phones.

From 1968 to today, the main goal of the Ehrlichs has been to prevent the collapse of our global civilization.  In The Population Explosion, they fire hose readers with torrents of grim information.  Readers are likely to conclude that today’s global civilization is already far beyond the point of no return.  The solutions recommended require countless miracles, by next year, if possible — world leaders fully cooperating to rapidly reverse the course of humankind.

In a 2014 essay, they concluded that the odds of preventing collapse are now less than one percent.  Every civilization collapses, and not one has ever been anything close to sustainable.  Instead of rescuing civilization, wouldn’t a wiser goal be to quit destroying the ecosystem?  The early civilizations destroyed themselves by overexploiting renewable resources, like water, forests, and topsoil.  The newer ones are also extracting nonrenewable resources at an exponential rate.  We’re beating the stuffing out of the planet.

Sadly, the super-loony consumer lifestyle has been successfully marketed as being extremely cool.  Everyone in China, India, Africa, and everywhere else is eager to live as wastefully as possible, like Americans, but finite resources make this impossible.  Instead, Americans need to learn how to live like the people who pick their coffee beans, and we will, sooner or later.

Civilization appears to be speeding toward decades of collapses, yet most of us have little understanding of how we created our mob of predicaments.  Methinks it would be ideal to understand our boo-boos before the lights go out.  It would be great to quit repeating them.  Long ago, the introduction of plows increased carrying capacity.  Today, their continued use is reducing carrying capacity.  It’s important to understand this.

Here’s an essential sentence:  “The complacency with which our education system at all levels accepts the production of citizens hopelessly unequipped to understand the population explosion and many other aspects of the modern world is a national disgrace.”

Ehrlich, Paul R. and Ehrlich, Anne H., The Population Explosion, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1990.

In 2012, the Ehrlichs published a detailed essay, Can a Collapse of Global Civilization be Avoided? 

Other reviews of Ehrlich books:  The Population Bomb, The Dominant Animal.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Where We Belong


Where We Belong is a collection of Paul Shepard essays that discuss how we perceive the natural world, and how this influences the way we treat it.  Most of the essays were written between the 1950s and 1970s.  They include some ideas that evolved into major components of his classics.  Almost half of this book is devoted to provocative discussions of pioneer diaries, a special treat.

Humans evolved as hunters and scavengers on tropical savannahs.  Today, our genes are still those of Pleistocene hunter-gatherers — not Anthropocene cell phone zombies.  Shepard believed that the process of normal human development depended on experiences best provided by living close to wild nature.  Children need to be surrounded by a variety of wild species, to observe them, and learn from them.  They need to be outdoors, and experience how everything in their land is alive.

They need a culture that guides them through the transition from adolescence to adulthood, via rituals of initiation.  When this is not provided, “Self-generated substitutes created by adolescents are a virtual catalog of delinquency and neurosis … adolescents cannot discover their maturity in a city.”  They don’t understand that the all-natural dance of creatures eating creatures is normal and good.  They think that food comes from stores.  They are space aliens, as most of society is.

Some of the damage can be healed by spending more time with nature.  Emotionally impoverished city folks can “recover elements of human ecology warped by millennia of immersion in domesticated landscapes.  Paramount among these is the opportunity to be free of domestic animals both as social partners and as models of the nonhuman.”  We have a powerful desire to live in a wild landscape that is inhabited by wild animals — and parks and pets are a poor substitute.

Shepard was never a cheerleader for the domestication of plants and animals, because it spawned a way of living that was harmful to everything.  The relationship between the human and non-human shifted from one of freedom to one of human domination and control.  This led to profound changes in the way we perceived the world, and to destructive changes in behavior.

From the first civilizations, growing population fueled ongoing deforestation.  Sheep, goats, and cattle were then turned loose on the former forest.  These “hoofed locusts” gobbled up young seedlings, and ensured that the forest would never recover.  The exposed soil was then washed away by the rains, creating vast wastelands that modern visitors now perceive as natural and picturesque.  This resulted in a “lobotomy on the land, done not with a scalpel but with teeth and hooves.”  

The Minoan community of Jerash, a dusty village of 3,000, was once home to 250,000.  “No wonder Western consciousness is an overheated drama of God’s vengeance and catastrophe, preoccupation with sacrifice, portents and omens of punishment by a heavy-handed Jehovah.  Like the dinosaurs, which are known mainly for their vanishing, the ancestors we know best, and from whom we take our style, are those who seem to have lived mainly to call down calamity upon themselves.”

Much of the book is devoted to Shepard’s discussion of pioneer diaries from New Zealand and the Oregon Trail.  These essays are illuminating and disturbing.  In New Zealand, the English observed a gloomy, desolate, terrifying wildness, like “Caesar’s Britain,” that was dreadfully unimproved.  To their fundamentalist minds, wilderness was immoral and sinful.  The solution, of course, was to erase the existing ecosystem, and turn the land into a proper English countryside.  Settler Richard Taylor wrote, “The fern is like the savage; both are going down before civilization.”

On the Oregon Trail, early travelers from New England and the Midwest experienced landscapes that were beyond their imagination — vast wide-open spaces, and dark skies with billions of twinkling stars.  Their wagons were prairie schooners, sailing across the seas of waving grass.  At night, they sat around fires, fiddling and singing, listening to the hoots of owls, bellowing bison, and the music of the wind.  They were serenaded by enthusiastic choirs of wolves, howling and shrieking their ancient wild music. 

Folks used to existing in the bowels of civilization were jarred by feelings of isolation, solitude, and emptiness.  At times, the land was absolutely silent.  Then there were deluges, prairie fires, and tornados.  Humming clouds of the native mosquitoes were exceedingly friendly to the smelly travelers in funny attire.  “Everyone was deeply moved by the immense herds of buffalo as they roamed beside, toward, and even through the wagon trains.”

In hotter and drier regions, travelers found buffalo trails that looked like old roads, because of frequent use.  They saw rock formations that resembled castles, lighthouses, churches, palaces, and so on.  From a distance, they looked like manmade ancient ruins, ghost towns.  They wondered if the treeless landscape had once been cleared. 

It was spooky to experience a vast region showing no signs of being beaten and molested by civilization, except along the trail, which was strewn with litter.  Many began the pilgrimage overloaded with stuff, dumping ballast along the way, to make the journey less challenging.  Everywhere along the trail, people carved their names on rocks, stumps, skulls, and trees.

Readers get two impressions from these pioneer stories.  One is that the experience was precious and sacred, a very long trek through a healthy wild land.  Imagine how much people would pay today to experience a wild Nebraska where there were far more buffalo and wolves than humans — no highways, beer cans, motels, or fences.  The tales call up deep ancestral memories of how we all once lived, pleasant memories.

The other impression was that these travelers had not come to abandon civilization and return to wildness and freedom.  If the western plains had water, good soil, and forests, the travelers on the Oregon Trail would have stopped in their tracks, built cabins, and destroyed it.  But they knew that they could not survive on the plains, so they kept moving toward the promised land of salmon and forests, where their descendants would build Portland and Eugene, and create the ancient ruins of the future — enduring monuments to our experiment in civilization, warning signs to the distant generations yet-to-be-born.

The essays in this book discuss aspects of how civilized Western people interpret the natural world.  Their perspective is strongly influenced by our culture of wealth, alienation, and destruction.  What’s missing in this book is the perspective of people rooted in place, who have reverence and respect for the land they inhabit.

Okanagan elder Jeanette Armstrong is one of many who eloquently discuss the vital importance on having a healthy connection to place, community, and family.  She sees that our world is being disemboweled by alienated people who have no connection to place, people who have no hearts, because they are “dis-placed.”  Shepard put it like this, “Knowing who you are is impossible without knowing where you are.” 

Shepard, Paul, Where We Belong — Beyond Abstraction in Perceiving Nature, University of Georgia Press, Atlanta, 2003.