Thursday, July 21, 2016

Neanderthals, Bandits, and Farmers

 
 
Colin Tudge wrote Neanderthals, Bandits, & Farmers, a book that presents his theories on the dawn of progress and perpetual growth, focusing on how agriculture really began.  At the time, he was employed by the London School of Economics, an institution focused on capitalism, not ecological sustainability.
The book vibrates with cognitive dissonance.  Tudge has been studying agriculture for many years.  On one hand, it was a magnificent achievement that threw open the door to the wonders of modernity.  On the other hand, modernity has become a victim of its own success, with seven billion humans dangerously rocking the boat.  As Pandora once discovered, some magnificent achievements are best left in the box.
For most of the human journey, our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, whom Tudge likens to bandits.  They lived by their wits, snatched what the ecosystem had to offer, and had plenty of leisure time in their lives.  The prudent path was to live within the carrying capacity of their ecosystem.  If they had been ambitious and hard working, they would have wiped out their prey and starved.
Farmers were ambitious, hard working control freaks.  They manipulated the ecosystem to increase its carrying capacity, temporarily, via soil mining.  More work produced more rewards, and more food could feed more people.  Wild critters frequently molested their precious crops, so farmers responded with pest control — overhunting.  Eventually, the human mob got large, wildlife became scarce, wild land became cropland, and returning to hunting was no longer an option.
Agriculture emerged independently in at least six widely scattered locations.  It was not invented in Uruk by a demented genius.  It began maybe 10,000 years ago in the Middle East.  Tudge suggests that it developed gradually, as proto-farming, starting maybe 40,000 years ago.  Even primitive yokels could see that plants grew from seeds, and that clearing other vegetation away from food plants promoted their growth.  Proto-farming was done on a small scale, a pleasant hobby that left behind no enduring evidence for scientists to discover thousands of years later.
In Europe, Neanderthals had been big game hunters for hundreds of thousands of years.  While surviving a roller coaster of climate shifts, they lived within carrying capacity and did not wipe out the game.  Cro-Magnons were the Homo sapiens that later migrated into Europe, maybe 45,000 years ago.  Tudge theorizes that these foreign immigrants were proto-farmers.  Because they could produce their own food, they were less vulnerable to the consequences of overhunting.  Big game species began blinking out.  This eliminated the food supply for the Neanderthals, who were forced off the stage into oblivion.  (Stringer and Finlayson have other views on Neanderthals.)
By and by, proto-farming metastasized into a more virulent form, agriculture.  The economists leap to their feet with enthusiastic applause and cheering.  Civilization, here we come!  Whee!  The fuse was lit for a joyride of skyrocketing growth — onward to ten billion!  Well, this is the schoolbook version that everyone knows, and most believe.  (See Cohen on the shift to agriculture.)
Now, the plot thickens.  A growing number of scholars have been poking holes in the glorious myth of growth and progress.  Farming was miserable backbreaking work.  While hunter-gatherers benefitted from a diverse and highly nutritious diet, the farmer’s diet was the opposite, majoring in a few staple foods.  Farmers were shorter and less healthy.  In their remains, we find that “the toes and knees are bent and arthritic and the lower back is deformed.”
Tudge acknowledges the revisionists.  “People did not invent agriculture and shout for joy; they drifted or were forced into it, protesting all the way.”  Here’s my favorite line in the book: “The real problem, then, is not to explain why some people were slow to adapt agriculture but why anyone took it up at all when it was obviously so beastly.”
He believes that overhunting was the sole cause of the megafauna extinctions.  Native Americans had little self-restraint when it came to hunting mammoths and mastodons.  There is no evidence that climate change played any role in the die-off, he says.  But, at the end of the ice age, as the land warmed up, large areas of tundra were gradually replaced with dense forests.  This put the squeeze on species adapted to living on the tundra.
Did scruffy rednecks with homemade spears really hunt the speedy horses of North America to extinction — but not the bison, elk, and deer?  We’ll never know the full story, but I would be wary of dismissing the impact of radical climate swings, or the importation of Old World pathogens for which the American fauna had zero immunity.  (See Kolbert on extinction.)
Anyway, agriculture took root, because it worked more often than it failed.  Population gradually grew, which required more and more cropland and pasture.  Each expansion raised carrying capacity a bit, while soil depletion reduced it.  The growing mob had to work harder, and grow more.  In the cult of economists, “growth” is the god word.  Unfortunately, perpetual growth becomes a vicious spiral.  Tudge winces at the paradox.  “To condemn all of humankind to a life of full-time farming, and in particular arable farming, was a curse indeed.”  (See Montgomery, Manning, Dale, and Postel on agriculture’s drawbacks.)
Animal domestication, on the other hand, greatly benefitted the critters we enslaved, says Tudge.  For example, wild wolves are vanishing, but domesticated dogs have zoomed past a half billion.  Similarly, domesticated sheep can breed far more when well fed and defended.  If the population of a critter explodes, this is called biological success.  Dogs are a great success story, but their luckless wolf relatives keep smacking into bullets, stepping in traps, and eating poisoned bait.  Oddly, neither dogs nor sheep could survive in the wild, apart from humans.  (See Shepard on animal enslavement.)
It’s a great tragedy of history that the wild folks who adapted to their ecosystem, and lived within its carrying capacity, have been unable to withstand the constant pressure from growing mobs of farmers.  When Tudge wrote, we were approaching six billion.  The spectacular success of growth and progress was beginning to look like a Pyrrhic victory.  We might actually have real limits!  (See Bourne and Cribb on Peak Food.)
Clouds of doubt swirled in his head.  “Our earliest hunting ancestors must have been lazy, as lions are.  Perhaps we should learn from them.”  It’s touching and illuminating to watch the poor lad struggle with the conflict between powerful cultural myths and his growing awareness of reality.  This struggle is a necessary challenge on the path to growth and healing.  We must stand against the strong current.
The book is just 53 pages, and easy to read.  It would be a good text for courses in eco-psychology, environmental ethics, and critical thinking.
Postscript.  In a recent online video, Tudge reveals his grand solution, Enlightened Agriculture — small organic family farms raising a wide variety of crops.  By 2050, 9.5 to 10 billion will be coming to dinner.  Can we feed them?  “The answer is a resounding yes!”  We can feed them for decades, maybe indefinitely.  Profit-driven, energy-guzzling monoculture agriculture is fantastically unsustainable.  All we need is simply a total revolution in how we live, think, breed, and produce food — as soon as possible, please.
Tudge, Colin, Neanderthals, Bandits, & Farmers — How Agriculture Really Began, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1998.



Thursday, July 14, 2016

A New Green History of the World




A New Green History of the World (2007) is the new and improved version of A Green History of the World (1991), which was translated into 13 languages.  British historian Clive Ponting did a fantastic amount of research, and then refined it into a very readable, mind-altering 400-page book (a silver bullet cure for folks suffering from denial).  It spans the two million year saga of our hominid ancestors, devoting most attention to the last 12,000 years, the era of thunder footprints.

Ponting provides numerous charts displaying the skyrocketing growth of many unsustainable trends.  For example, world coal production was 10 million tons in 1800, 760 million tons in 1900, and 5 billion tons in 2000.  World oil production was 95 million tons in 1920, 294 million tons in 1940, 2.3 billion tons in 1970, and 3.8 billion tons in 2004.  Is it any wonder that the atmosphere is having convulsions?

For almost the entire human journey, wood was our fuel, a renewable resource.  With the shift to agriculture and civilization, we invented forest mining, which is unsustainable.  Industries making glass, ceramics, bricks, and metals rapidly obliterated forests.  By the 1550s, regional wood shortages began limiting growth.  The English were the first to begin the shift to coal.  Coal lit the turbo thrusters for the Industrial Revolution, which accelerated the process of urbanization, and ignited two centuries of pandemonium.

Until 1800, 95 percent of humans were paupers.  Ponting says, “Since the rise of settled societies some ten thousand years ago the overwhelming majority of the world’s population have lived in conditions of grinding poverty.  They have had few possessions, suffered from appalling living conditions, and have been forced to spend most of their very limited resources on finding enough food to stay alive.”  European commoners often lived in crude huts with dirt floors, and no windows or chimney.  Bed was a heap of straw.  No corpse was buried in usable garments.

Until 1800, most people travelled on foot.  Paupers couldn’t afford horses, or six acres (2.5 ha) of pasture to feed one.  Consequently, villages and towns remained small, close to their food supply.  Few places could afford even rudimentary sanitation services.  Village households dumped their night soil in the streets.  Almost any place was a restroom.  Fecal-oral diseases were popular, and bathing was not, especially in chilly months.  It was a wonderland for rats, fleas, flies, lice, and infectious diseases.

In 1652, the council of Boston banned residents from discarding the “entrails of beasts or fowls or garbage or dead dogs or cattle or any other dead beast or stinking thing” into the streets.  In the summer of 1858, the British House of Commons abandoned its sittings because of the unbearable “Great Stink” (all raw sewage went into the Thames).  The official residence for Britain’s prime ministers is 10 Downing Street, which didn’t have an indoor bathroom until 1908.  And so on.

With urbanization, the privileged class grew — folks who could afford horses, stables, carriages, and feed.  More horses were needed to haul more goods.  As cities grew, they got too big for foot travelers, so horse-drawn buses, trolleys, cabs, and coaches came into service.  Sprawling cities gobbled up nearby farms, increasing the distance between the inner city and their source of food.  More horses were needed to haul more food over more miles.  Eventually, farmers could no longer afford to have urban manure hauled to their distant fields, so it piled up in empty places.

By 1900, horses plopped 10 million tons of fragrant manure on British streets each year.  When it rained, the streets became yucky mucky smelly ponds.  In warm dry weather, the breezes carried manure dust for all to inhale.  The incredible filth attracted countless trillions of flies that took great delight in spreading typhoid.  New York City had to remove 15,000 dead horses annually.  Imagine the stench.

By the early twentieth century, Britain and France each had about 3.5 million horses.  The U.S. had 20 to 30 million, and feeding them required 88 million acres (36m ha) of farmland — about a quarter of the total.  These countries had little spare land to feed more urban horses; they were close to Peak Horses.  (Here’s an interesting stinky horse story.)

In 1900, London was the world’s biggest city, with 4.5 million.  New York City was second with 2.7 million.  Their streets were jammed with slow chaotic clippity-clop traffic, close to capacity, with little room for more.  The bubble of cheap and abundant horse feed was over.  Both cities had to switch from horse power to fossil power.  By 2000, Tokyo had 26.4 million, Mexico City had 18.4 million, and Mumbai had 18 million.  They cannot shift to horse power when motor vehicle extinction approaches.

Modern cities cannot function without nonrenewable fossil power.  It is needed to move folks from home to work, and from the ground floor to the thirtieth.  It moves water in, and sewage out.  It picks up the garbage and carries it to landfills.  It powers farms, ships, air travel, factories, mines, refineries, lighting, communication systems, and on and on.  The list includes everything essential for the energy-guzzling consumer lifestyle, and industrial society itself.

Our global civilization is completely addicted to ever-increasing quantities of finite nonrenewable resources.  Obviously, this can only be temporary.  We’ve had a high-speed joyride of insane growth, pollution, and ecological gang rape.  We’ve invented lots of fascinating gizmos, lived like crazy, and created a monster that has an expiration date.  It will disintegrate, sooner or later.  Ponting warns that we are approaching a major crossroads.

To make the coming decades even more exciting, climate change is knocking on the door, stopping by to collect our staggering karmic debts.  The Technology Fairy cannot give us the magic beans needed to remove the carbon from our emissions.  Ponting shrugs, “Global warming is the greatest threat that the world faces and finding a solution will be extremely difficult.”

The Technology Fairy also appears impotent to accelerate the crop yield gains necessary for feeding the projected mob in 50 years (see Cribb and Bourne).  Like the Green Revolution disaster, GMO crops require big inputs of fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation — large fields, expensive seeds, rich farmers, big machines, and lots of petrol.  Industrial agriculture is getting gray and wrinkled, its best days behind it.  Ponting has no faith in biotech miracles.

With the calm and objective voice of a venerable professor, Ponting lifts readers far above the intense roaring madness that we consider normal.  When we can observe the human journey from a perspective that spans thousands of years, it’s easy to see that our consumer lifestyle is an extreme deviation from the human journey.  Every student in every nation should take a class based on this book, every year.  The family of life is paying a terrible price for our ongoing ignorance of environmental history.  Few have a competent understanding of the path we have taken, or the predicaments that now threaten us.

I’ve only mentioned a few of the topics in Ponting’s book.  It’s a fascinating experience.  He did not include the obligatory chapter of brilliant solutions.  His conclusion: “The course of human history over the last two centuries has produced change at a rate never before experienced and brought together a series of interlinked problems that almost defy solution because of their complexity.”  Progress is wonderful, eh?

Ponting, Clive, A New Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations, Penguin Books, New York, 2007.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Black Gold




Albert Marrin is a history professor who has written dozens books for young readers.  In Black Gold, he discussed the geology of fossil energy, emergence of the oil industry, geopolitics, oil wars, environmental impacts, and future challenges.  I was intrigued by his perspective on geopolitics.

Before World War One, the British navy scrapped many coal-burning warships and began building modern boats that ran on oil.  This gave them a big advantage over the German navy.  The era of industrial warfare had arrived.  Nations with tanks, trucks, and planes could easily smash horse-powered enemies.

America joined the war in 1917, and brought lots of oil.  German ports were blockaded, their war machine ran out of fuel, and they were defeated.  In this new era, for the first time, oil became essential for military success.  Young Hitler grasped this, and so did the British.  A primary objective of the Brits was to seize control of Middle Eastern oil, a yet-to-be developed treasure that made greedy gits giddy.  They succeeded, invented new nations, and found obedient puppets to rule them (and loot them).

Of course, wealth and power frequently turns decent people into obnoxious monsters.  Troublesome puppets were replaced with new ones, Britain got very rich, and the Arabs and Persians developed an intense hatred of Brits.  In World War Two, Hitler launched his oil-powered blitzkrieg, made a beeline for oily Baku, and planned to grab the Persian Gulf.  In this war, American oil once again came to the rescue.

Germany and Japan learned the hard way that running out of oil is for losers.  Everyone knows this today.  U.S. presidents have poured trillions of dollars into maintaining control of oil, whilst jabbering about freedom, democracy, and weapons of mass destruction.  For some mysterious reason, millions of Middle Eastern folks now loath and detest the U.S.

In Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabis are a sect that perceives most of modernity as pure evil.  They don’t look fondly on the lavish lifestyles of the ruling Saud family.  Marrin asserts that the government agreed to subsidize the spread of Wahhabi schools into other regions.  In exchange for this funding, the Wahhabis agreed not to make trouble in Arabia — but trouble anywhere else was OK.  “In short, Saudi oil profits fueled terrorism.”

Russia now controls much of the natural gas that powers Europe, and Western powers are eager for an alternative, a pipeline from the Middle East that bypasses Russian control.  It would be reasonable to conclude that the coming decades are not going to be a sweet celebration of love, peace, and happiness.  Expect big drama as the age of hydrocarbons swirls the drain, climate change pounds the luckless, and Big Mama Nature hurls overshoot overboard.

The rear end of Marrin’s book was annoying.  The book is intended for use in schools.  He recommends that the U.S. should become energy independent as soon as possible.  The best solution, he says, is a combination of fossil fuels and alternative energy — solar, wind, biomass, hydro, geothermal, nuclear (no mention of sharply reducing consumption).  The assumption is that independence is possible, and that the consumer way of life will be free to continue down the path of mindless self-destruction.

Teachers, librarians, and parents should have an above average understanding of energy issues before selecting books on the subject.  These issues are going to have a staggering impact on the lives of the target audience, young readers.  It’s long past time to sit down with youngsters and have a highly embarrassing birds-and-bees discussion about the fact that the abundant energy bubble is going to turn into a pumpkin during their lifetimes.  Preserving their ignorance seems cruel.

In the book, readers learn that nuclear reactors can generate lots of electricity, but they occasionally barf large amounts of radiation all over the place.  Therefore, it’s very important to properly dispose of spent fuel because it’s extremely toxic.  Great idea!  How?  William and Rosemary Alley discussed this issue in Too Hot to Touch.  They note that today “there are some 440 nuclear power plants in 31 countries.  More are on the way.  Yet, no country on Earth has an operating high-level waste disposal facility.”

Obama cancelled plans for the Yucca Mountain site, which was as close to perfect as is possible — after 25 years of research at a cost of $10 billion.  Because it was cancelled, spent fuel rods continue building up, many of them temporarily stored in cooling ponds.  If the circulating pumps for the cooling ponds stop, the water boils, the pool evaporates, and the rods are exposed to air, melt, and release radioactive gasses.  The meltdowns at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima were triggered by overheated fuel rods.

Readers also learn that the U.S. has huge coal reserves, enough for 250 years at the current rate of consumption.  To understand why this is a meaningless statement, watch one of the many versions of Albert Bartlett’s famous lecture, Arithmetic, Population, and Energy on YouTube.  Every student and teacher should watch it.

Read Jeff Rubin’s book, The Big Flatline.  You’ll learn that the production of top quality anthracite coal peaked in 1950, and grade B bituminous coal peaked in 1990.  There is abundant grade C coal, lignite, which is especially filthy to burn.  Since lignite is so low in energy, it cannot be shipped long distances profitably.  It is absurd to use 100 calories of diesel to haul 100 calories of low quality coal.

This is an extremely important issue — energy returned on energy invested (EROEI).  The book doesn’t mention this.  EROEI is also highly relevant to oil.  Rubin and others note that in the good old days of high-profit gushers, it was common to invest one calorie of energy to produce 100 calories of oil (100:1).  By 2010, typical EROEI was about 17:1, and some are predicting 5:1 by 2020.

Rising prices enable the extraction of difficult and expensive non-conventional oil and gas.  At some point, declining EROEI makes extraction pointless, regardless of market prices.  Consequently, most of the oil in Canadian tar sands will be left where it is.  The EROEI of tar sands now in production is about 3:1, and 5:1 for shale deposits.

Readers learn about renewable energy, like wind, solar, and hydro.  See Ted Trainer’s book, Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society.  Learn about the significant shortcomings of the various types of alternative energy.  Discover why no combination of them will ever come anywhere close to replacing the energy now provided by fossil fuel.  Discover why we will not enjoy a smooth and painless transition to a sustainable, renewable energy future.

The education system, from grade schools to universities, seems to be largely committed to a “don’t scare the children” strategy.  We don’t want to fill kids with despair about their grisly inheritance.  Also, publishers want to avoid discussions that piss off poorly informed parents, or the politically powerful titans of industry.  The publisher did allow Marrin to drop hints that there might be some trouble in the future.  It’s a touchy game.  Sales can be harmed by too little reality, or too much.  The book’s takeaway message is that we have the solutions for our energy challenges, but we don’t have a lot of time to fool around.  Things will be OK, probably, maybe.  Is that likely?

Marrin, Albert, Black Gold: The Story of Oil in Our Lives, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2012.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Fire: A Brief History







We live in a perplexing era.  On one hand, we are the most brilliant critters that ever existed.  On the other hand, we are knowingly destroying the ecosystem upon which our survival depends, which sane folks might see as the opposite of brilliant.  You and I descend from ancestors who, once upon a time, lived in balance with the family of life.  What happened?

Obviously, the industrial era has supercharged our eco-impacts.  The stage for the industrial era was set maybe 8,000 years ago, by the transition to agriculture, animal domestication, and civilization — a sharp turn away from low-impact living.  Was this our turning point?  Some think that we began to drift away from original harmony much earlier, maybe 30,000 to 50,000 years ago, with a Great Leap Forward, which brought complex language, innovative new tools, cave painting, body decorations, rituals, etc.

A few scholars have suggested that if space aliens had visited Earth 100,000 years ago, our ancestors would have appeared to be nothing more than ordinary animals.  For a long time, I accepted that.  Now I don’t.  I’ve been reading the work of Stephen Pyne, a scholar who has written 25 books on fire history.  He provided an introduction to his knowledge in Fire: A Brief History.  Those visiting space aliens would have noticed that one species — and only one — maintained fires in their encampments.  This behavior was not the slightest bit ordinary.

By learning how to preserve and manipulate fire, our ancestors acquired great power, far more power than they acquired from wooden clubs or chipped flint spearheads.  Fire eventually enabled them to colonize the entire planet.  Pyne says, “Without fire humanity sinks to a status of near helplessness, a plump chimp with a scraping stone and digging stick, hiding from the night’s terrors, crowding into minor biotic niches.”

My home, food, and belongings were created by machines that operated on domesticated firepower.  Without firepower, this city and civilization would not exist; the place I live would be a healthy forest in a vast wilderness.  If our ancestors had not acquired firepower, humans would still be living close to the tropics, and the Americas might be unknown continents.

Long, long ago, our early hominid ancestors frequently provided nice warm meals for the hungry leopards and hyenas that visited in the night.  Man-eating predators greatly benefitted our kin by helping them avoid embarrassing population explosions.  But on one quest for a yummy midnight snack, the hungry man-eaters were shocked when the ancestors began brandishing flaming torches and yelling discourteous suggestions.  Antelopes never did this!

Swartkrans Cave is near Johannesburg, South Africa.  It has been carefully excavated.  At the oldest lower layers, no charcoal is found.  It is an era before domesticated fire.  At this level, there are complete skeletons of big cats, and the scattered gnawed bones of the critters they ate, including hominids.  Higher up, charcoal is found in newer layers, the age of fire.  Here we find complete hominid skeletons, and the scattered bones of the critters they gnawed, including big cats.  With fire, hominids had taken over the cave, and the prey had become predators.

Fire requires three things: heat, oxygen, and fuel.  From very early times, maybe a billion years ago, heat was available in the form of lightning and volcanoes, but fuel and adequate oxygen were missing.  Modern levels of free oxygen emerged by 500 million years ago, but there was no fuel.  With the arrival of land plants by 400 million years ago, biomass was born, and fire became possible.

In the early days, our Homo erectus ancestors captured fire from lightning strikes, and very carefully preserved it.  If the fire ever went out, the unlucky brothers and sisters began to smell like cat food.  Later, some genius learned how to kindle fire, a revolutionary innovation.  There were three types of fire starters: the fire drill, the fire piston, and the fire striker.  The first friction match appeared in 1827.  Today, even slobbering tykes can easily burn down the house.

Every day, there are eight million lightning strikes.  When a bolt hits fuel that is not soggy, a fire can start.  Pyne refers to this wild natural fire as First Fire.  Second Fire is fire that has been domesticated by humans.  It blazes under our control.  Some regions have abundant biomass fuel, and other regions barely have any.  The amount of Second Fire that could exist at any time was always limited by the amount of biomass available.

Third Fire is the flame of industrial civilization, and it has given us the diabolical power to create countless catastrophes.  The fuel it consumes is fossil biomass.  Coal is rainforest vegetation that accumulated over the course of 60 million years.  Oil and natural gas come from dead phytoplankton that accumulated over 250 million years.  Of course, they are nonrenewable and finite.  We will rubbish the planet’s ecosystem before we can burn all of them (but we’ll try!).

There has never been more combustion on this planet than now.  We are burning enormous amounts of sequestered carbon as fast as humanly possible, and this is overloading the planetary ecosystem with staggering amounts of pollution — greenhouse gasses, acid rain, toxic ash, etc.  “Since the present is often unable to absorb it, the outflow spills into the future,” says Pyne.  “We have had the impact of a slow collision with an asteroid.”

Third Fire powers the machinery that mines the ore, crushes it, smelts it, rolls it, delivers it, stamps it, welds it, and creates automobiles and countless other daffy mistakes.  The controlled fire in engines doesn’t care about the weather.  It can burn in the desert, the rainforest, the arctic, in planes, and at sea.  We simply turn the ignition key, and the engines fire up.  Third Fire enables the production of almost every manmade artifact in our lives.

I’ve just scratched the surface here.  Pyne has spent a lifetime writing about the subject that fascinates him.  Fire enabled cooking, which makes food easier to digest, neutralizes toxins, and kills bacteria and parasites.  Fire was used to drive wild game animals into confined locations where hunters waited.

Early agriculture began on treeless floodplains, where a digging stick and seeds were all that was needed.  As our numbers grew, we ran out of mudflats to thrash.  So, we invented slash-and-burn to transform vast regions of ancient forests into additional cropland and pasture.  Nobody knows more about the history of slash-and-burn than Pyne.

In eighteenth century North America, the eastern portion of the Great Plains was tallgrass prairie.  On average, Native Americans fired this region every three years, to eliminate brush, and maintain excellent grazing habitat for the bison herds.  The tallgrass prairie had soils and climate that were perfectly suitable for forest.  When the Indians were obliterated by the diseases of civilization, they quit burning, and the forest expanded.

Agriculture encourages population growth, and its shadow, conflict.  For thousands of years, demented nerds have invented countless new ways of using fire to kill people.  Both ships and settlements were flammable, and fire was an excellent weapon for turning them to ashes.  For several thousand years, there has been an accelerating nonstop arms race to discover new and improved ways for barbequing enemies and innocent bystanders.

In the old days, towns were often surrounded by defensive walls or palisades.  Inside, wooden structures were packed closely together, and each contained hearths with open flames.  Often, when one structure burned, many burned.  Russian villages typically burned every 20 to 30 years.  Cities have always been fireplaces.  After every immolation, the survivors built a new collection of highly flammable buildings.  Pyne suspected that the Christian concept of a fiery hell was originally inspired by the firestorms common in that era — horror!

It’s a short, well written, mind expanding, unforgettable book.

Pyne, Stephen J., Fire: A Brief History, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 2001.
 
 

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Myth of Human Supremacy




When an unlucky person has been swept away by the brainwashing of a wacko cult, concerned friends or family members sometimes seek the assistance of a skilled deprogrammer to exorcize the demons.  It’s a painful process.  The scrambled soul is blasted with a fire-hose of strong rational arguments, hour after hour, hammering away at the many contradictions in the cult’s beliefs.  Ideally, the shining power of truth blasts away the illusions, and opens the door to healing.

I was reminded of this while reading Derrick Jensen’s book, The Myth of Human Supremacy.  In his story, the wacko cult consists of human supremacists, zombies who have been indoctrinated to believe that humans are the miraculous conclusion of the long evolutionary journey.  Humans are the one and only species that is sentient, self-aware, intelligent, and able to make tools and communicate.

The cult of human supremacy has grown rapidly, and now includes a large portion of humankind.  The zombie mobs are mindlessly destroying the living planet that everything depends on for survival.  Jensen puts a spotlight on the demon: “Unquestioned beliefs are the real authorities of any culture.”  We are bombarded with supremacist ideas from early childhood.  They define our understanding of normality, and encourage us to live like there’s no tomorrow.  Only humans matter, a living planet does not.

By definition, human supremacy is about hierarchy: the white male God, white kings, white men, white women, minorities, mammals, birds, plants, insects, bacteria, etc.  Most of the community of life is inferior to you, resources for you to exploit or destroy.  The supremacist worldview has no concern for ecological health.  Civilization is a space station where all of our needs are magically met.

Jensen devotes many pages to revealing the cult’s creepy narcissism.  Research is discovering that plants and nonhuman animals are sentient, self-aware, intelligent, and able to make tools and communicate.  Slime mold can learn and remember, displaying more intelligence than a number of world leaders.  Plants do react when damaged, disproving the cult’s belief that organisms without brains can feel no pain.  The cult believes that communication means making funny noises with human lips, but trees communicate using chemicals.

Humans spray neurotoxins on their food, while boasting that we are the only ones who possess intelligence.  “Intelligence” is a slippery word.  From the supremacist perspective, it’s intelligent to create an industrial society that blindsides the planet’s climate.  Thanks to this intelligence, 98% of old growth forests are gone, 99% of prairies, 99% of wetlands, 90% of large oceanic fish.  “When others besides human supremacists look at us, they see the worst thing that has ever happened to this planet,” says Jensen.  “If animals could conceive of the devil, his image would be man’s.”

For thousands of years, agriculture has had a well-documented history of transforming healthy ecosystems into wastelands via deforestation, soil mining, wetland destruction, and water mining — a process that still continues.  Agriculture can never be sustainable.  “Plows are probably the single most destructive human invention ever, and agriculture was the single biggest — and least intelligent — mistake any creature has ever made.”  Humankind is in extreme overshoot right now, as the population skyrocket keeps zooming upward.

There are two flavors of technology: authoritarian and democratic.  Authoritarian technology is produced by complex, hierarchical civilizations.  This technology tends to control the society.  We must have electricity, electronics, sequestered carbon, and transportation devices to participate in modernity.  Consumers are hardcore electricity addicts.  Jensen screams!  Lack of imagination is a primary cause of the Earth Crisis.  We can’t imagine living without electricity, but we can imagine a world without rhinos or tigers.  Oy!

It takes imagination to challenge the unquestioned beliefs that inspire insane behavior.  Jensen’s doctor says that there can be no cure without a proper diagnosis.  Unquestioned beliefs often make an accurate diagnosis impossible.  They tell us that renewable energy, nuclear power, and geoengineering are brilliant solutions.  So, every unquestioned belief must be mercilessly questioned, and the dodgy ones sent to the shredder.

Democratic technology, on the other hand, is stuff that anyone can make, like a basket or bow and arrow.  Chimps use sticks to fish for yummy termites.  Vultures throw stones to crack ostrich eggs.  This is sustainable.  It doesn’t rock the boat.  But authoritarian technology is big juju.  Too often, even green activists have vivid fantasies of a sustainable future, whilst keeping many of the unsustainable goodies of civilization.  The line between naughty and nice can be blurry.

Lately, I’ve been reading about the Aztecs.  In 1492, Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) was one of the biggest cities in the world, with a population of about 200,000, five times larger than London.  They had no horses, oxen, plows, or metals.  The fields were tilled with digging sticks, and fertilized with human poop.  It was a highly sophisticated and authoritarian Stone Age civilization famous for cutting the beating hearts out of thousands of prisoners at a time.

Words can be slippery.  Throughout the book, Jensen frequently uses “stupid” when discussing the quirks of civilized humans.  Stupid means unintelligent, having a limited ability to learn and understand, an incurable handicap.  Maybe "ignorant" would have been more precise.  It means a lack of knowledge — a somewhat curable shortcoming.  Methinks that ignorance plays a major role in the bad choices we make.  In many ways our education system remains lost in a dream world of yesteryear.

Anyway, Jensen tackles and paddles many unquestioned beliefs.  We all suffer from them, to some degree, he says.  It’s hard not to, living in this culture.  Questioning is a powerful medicine that should be used daily.  When it comes to innovation, we are terribly clever.  At the same time, we are tropical primates, engaged in a phenomenally ignorant adventure in violating as many of the laws of nature as humanly possible, for no good reason.

The myth of human supremacy asserts that we are rational, moral, and ethical.  Wild animals have no interest in reason, morals, or ethics because they have no need for them.  They live sustainably by simply remaining in balance with the community of life.  They have no need for powerful 20-20 foresight, because they stay on a stable time-proven path.  Supremacists are ravaging Earth, but they look awesome in their smiling selfies.

Jensen's book reminds me of a defibrillator, the gizmo used when someone's heart stops beating.  Its two paddles are placed on the chest, and then a powerful electric shock is blasted into the victim, in an effort to restart the heart.  He doubts that his book will convince many of the living dead supremacists to question their beliefs.  Its main purpose is to encourage the pilgrims who understand that civilization is killing the planet.  We need to save as many species as we can.

The book is also something like a hearing aid.  It heightens readers’ ability to hear the supremacist voices that barrage us every day.  It’s helpful to better recognize the tireless jabber from the lunatic asylum.  And so, Jensen waves and rides off into the sunset.  “The more I learn about the real world, the more wonderful I think it is, and the more honored I am to be here.”

Jensen, Derrick, The Myth of Human Supremacy, Seven Stories Press, New York, 2016.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Burning an Empire




Long, long ago, around 1910, writer Stewart Holbrook met John Cameron, an old logger who had many stories to tell.  Cameron had witnessed the great fire at Peshtigo, Wisconsin (map) which began on October 8, 1871.  The town was a booming metropolis of 2,000 souls on the banks of the mighty Peshtigo River, and a hub for enterprises related to forest mining and wood products.

There had been little snow the previous winter, and just one rain between May and September.  Streams were shallow, and swamps were drying up.  Logging operations left large amounts of slash in the woods (piles of discarded limbs and branches).  Slash piles were eliminated by burning, even when it was very hot, dry, windy, and stupid.  Sparks and cinders would float off the huge bonfires onto a tinder dry landscape, where they frequently ignited other fires.  At Peshtigo, there had been small forest fires in the area during the preceding weeks, but these were commonplace, nobody worried.

The morning of October 8 was hotter than anyone could remember, and the air was deadly still.  At noon, the sun disappeared.  By nightfall the horizon was red, and smoke was in the air, making their eyes run.  At 9 P.M., Cameron heard an unusual roaring sound.  The night sky was getting lighter by the minute.  A hurricane force wind howled through.  Suddenly, swirling slabs of flames were hurtling out of nowhere and hitting the dry sawdust streets.

In a flash, Peshtigo was blazing — maybe five minutes.  The firestorm roared like Niagara Falls.  It was a seething, searing hell.  Forty people sought shelter in a (wooden) company boarding house, where they were promptly incinerated.  Others ran to the bridge, where they met a mob fleeing from the other side, as the bridge burst into flames.

Holbrook wrote that Cameron and others “saw things they never forgot.  Never.  They saw horses and cattle, yes, and men and women, stagger a brief moment over the smoking sawdust streets, then go down to burn brightly like so many flares of pitch-pine.  Forty years afterward, [Cameron’s] voice choked as he told of watching pretty Helga Rockstad as she ran down a blazing sidewalk, her blond hair streaming, and of seeing the long blond hair leap into flame that stopped Helga in her tracks.  Looking at the spot the next morning, he found two nickel garter buckles and a little mound of white-gray ash.”

The river was the safest place that night.  People kept their heads underwater as much as possible, so the great sheets of flame wouldn’t set their heads on fire.  Flaming logs floated down the river into the crowd.  Within an hour, the town was vaporized.  Big lumberjacks were reduced to streaks of ash, enough to fill a thimble.  At least 1,150 died, and 1,280,000 acres (518,000 ha) went up in smoke.

This is a condensed version of how Holbrook described the Peshtigo firestorm in his book, Burning an Empire.  In 1942, Holbrook met an old man who had lived in Peshtigo in 1871.  Before the fire, enormous pines grew close to the tracks between the town and the harbor.  But now there was nothing along the tracks except some brush and reeds.  The fire had erased the ancient forest, and the subsequent fires had destroyed the soil.

Holbrook’s book is a collection of stories describing the great forest fires of North America, from the Miramichi River valley in New Brunswick, Canada in 1825, to the Bandon, Oregon fire of 1936.  Readers learn about other big fires in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana.

The Peshtigo fire gets little attention in our history, because October 8, 1871 was also the date that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow knocked over a lantern, igniting the great fire of Chicago, a city made of wood.  Five times more people died in the Peshtigo fire, but Chicago was a major U.S. town.  Its fire destroyed more than 17,000 structures.  Also on October 8, 1871, numerous big fires raged across the state of Michigan, where it had not rained in two months.  These fires destroyed 2.5 million acres (1 million ha) — three times more timberland than Peshtigo.

Nobody knows how the Peshtigo fire started.  The sparks that ignited the firestorm may have come from twenty different fires.  While loggers were often blamed for triggering infernos, settlers were equally careless, and lit far more fires.  The Homestead Act provided land to anyone who would clear it and build a shack.  The quick and easy way for a settler to clear the trees was to start a fire.  Billions of feet of timber were simply burned.

Year after year, across the nation, clearing fires burned unattended throughout every summer and fall, causing far more damage than the mighty firestorms — “these friendly little blazes were burning an empire.”  Not surprisingly, this was an era of countless forest fires.  For example, in just the state of Wisconsin, tremendous fires destroyed huge areas in 1871, 1880, 1891, 1894, 1897, 1908, 1910, 1923, 1931, 1936.

The granddaddy of ecology was George Perkins Marsh.  In his 1864 masterpiece, Man and Nature*, he described how forests kept the land cooler in summer and warmer in winter.  Forests absorbed and conserved moisture.  When they were cleared, springs dried up, water tables fell, and rivers became more shallow and narrow.  Today, the Amazon Basin is painfully discovering the link between deforestation and severe drought.

Holbrook was an outstanding storyteller, a joy to read.  But he was the son of a logger, and he worked as a logger when young.  He witnessed the great fire at Tillamook, Oregon in 1933, and he later oversaw fire prevention efforts in the state of Washington.  I doubt he read Marsh.  Holbrook noted that during the logging binge in Minnesota, water tables dropped, and lake levels were up to eight feet lower.  He thought that this was the result of excessive swamp draining.

He didn’t understand that deforestation and drought are directly related.  He blamed the great fires on human carelessness.  Between 1933 and 1937, fires burned an average of 36 million acres (14m ha) each year in the U.S., and only eight percent were caused by lightning.  Today, progress, carelessness, and arson continue to be, by far, the primary cause of fires.

Holbrook was a proud American.  He admired growth and prosperity.  The timber industry was cool, except for its fire booboos.  He didn’t think like an environmental historian, who would perceive deforestation itself to be an act of carelessness.  He wrote, “Cutting a forest does not destroy it.”  Twenty-first century ecologists would never say that, because forests are far more complex than just a bunch of trees.  Nor would they endorse aggressive fire suppression, as Holbrook did.

Importantly, Holbrook reminds us about what life was like in simpler times.  At Peshtigo, there was no railroad line to the outer world, only a six-mile track from town to the harbor.  Prior to the fire, the telegraph line to the outer world had been cut by an earlier fire.  They had no radio, telephones, or internet.  They had no automobiles, fire engines, or water bomber airplanes. 

In the coming decades, as we move beyond the cheap energy bubble, the world is going to return to a similar state of simplicity, one way or another.  At the same time, climate change and foolishness are going to weaken or eliminate many of the forests alive today.  We live in interesting times.  Be careful with matches!

Holbrook, Stewart H., Burning an Empire, Macmillan Company, New York, 1943.

*George Perkins Marsh’s book, Man and Nature, is a free download away.  A scanned version (huge file) can be downloaded from here.  Amazon offers a free Kindle download (tiny file) of the 1874 edition, The Earth as Modified by Human Action, here.  Free software for reading Kindle books on your computer, tablet or phone can be downloaded (click the link below the book cover).