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).

Monday, May 9, 2016

A Plague of Sheep

Elinor Melville’s book, A Plague of Sheep, is a scary story about the Valle del Mezquital, a valley north of Mexico City.  Spanish colonists arrived there in 1521.  Melville describes the tragedy that occurred between then and 1600.  The valley is located at high elevation in a tropical region.  It has a cool and arid climate.  Valle del Mezquital means “a valley where mesquite grows.”  It got this name late in the seventeenth century, after it had been transformed into a barren land by an ecological revolution — a plague of sheep.

For the first hundred years of Spanish occupation, epidemics repeatedly blasted the natives, who had no immunity.  Between 1519 and 1620, the population of Mexico fell by 90 to 95 percent.  The Aztec and Inca civilizations were overwhelmed.  When the Spanish arrived, the densely populated Valle del Mezquital was home to the Otomi people, descendants of the once mighty Toltecs.  They were farmers who grew maize, beans, squash, chilies, tomatoes, amaranth, sage, and other crops.  The surrounding slopes were a mix of grass and forest.  Vegetation cover kept the soil moist, and there were a number of flowing springs.  This water was used to irrigate the fields.

As the native population was reduced by disease, cropland was abandoned, and became available for grazing.  The Spanish brought livestock which exploded in number because there was abundant vegetation and they had no competition from indigenous grazing animals.  Overgrazing radically altered the existing plant community, leading to irreversible changes.

The valley experienced an ungulate irruption, in which abundant vegetation is converted into abundant livestock that zoom past carrying capacity and then crash.  Eventually, some form of equilibrium is reached.  In many ways, it’s similar to the primate irruption that we’re experiencing today.  The cattle and horses could not be convinced to leave crops alone, so the herding eventually majored in sheep.

A severe epidemic from 1576 to 1581 sharply reduced the Indian population, which brought an end to their dominance in the valley.  Herding profits made sheep more valuable than Indian farmers.  Sheep rapidly grew in number.  While loggers cut trees for the mining industry, thousands and thousands of sheep stripped the land of grasses and young trees.  The hills were eventually deforested.  Some locations were stripped to bare soil, resulting in sheet erosion and gullies.  The land dried out, and the springs stopped flowing, which limited irrigation.  By 1600, “the valley was a homogenous mesquite-dominated desert.”

This is not a story of paradise transformed into parking lots, because the land was not a paradise in 1521.  Indians had lived there for thousands of years, and agriculture had not improved the land.  It encouraged erosion and other problems.  Without manure from livestock herds, soil nutrients were depleted.  The megafauna extinctions of the Pleistocene eliminated most species of large animals that may have been suitable for domestication in the Americas.  The Incas had llamas.  On the plus side, by not having livestock herds, Native Americans suffered little from infectious diseases until the Europeans arrived.

I got curious about the diet of the Indians.  It must have been similar to what the Aztecs ate in Mexico City, south of the valley.  Wikipedia informed me that Aztecs ate a number of wild animals, including fish, fowl, gophers, iguanas, salamanders, deer, crayfish, grasshoppers, ants, larvae, and insect eggs.  They also raised three domesticated animals for meat: turkeys, ducks, and dogs.

With the introduction of sheep, and the intensive overgrazing, the vitality of the Valle del Mezquital was sharply degraded.  The Spanish had no experience with grazing in this ecosystem.  Their culture was market driven, and maximizing the production of commodities was the path to prosperity and respect.  They lived as they were taught to live.

Garrett Hardin’s essay, The Tragedy of the Commons, declares that common lands are typically degraded by selfish careless use, while private property is lovingly nurtured by owners, because they have self interest in the long term productivity of the land.  But in the Valle del Mezquital, most of the overgrazing was done on private lands.  The owners were not illuminated with perfect knowledge, and they blatantly disregarded local limits on herd sizes.  Melville asserts that what happened in the valley was nothing more than the result of good old fashioned ignorance.  They didn’t know what they were doing, so they could not foresee the long term consequences.

I fell out of my chair.  Ignorance!  It’s so trendy to blame our woes on capitalism and mobs of insanely ambitious greed heads.  But our culture strongly encourages us to pursue wealth and status, by any means necessary, to the best of our ability, till the end of our days — Donald Trump is the ideal.  Our culture disastrously fails to provide everyone with a competent understanding of ecology and environmental history.  Imagine what this world would be like if we ever produced just one well-educated generation.  Our bizarre planet-wrecking mania would be cured.  Yippee!

Today, the Valle del Mezquital has enjoyed much progress, and is home to impressive refineries, cement factories, and nuclear power plants.  It has become a thriving center for the production of vegetable crops.  Irrigation now uses surface water (“black water”), which flows downstream from Mexico City, highly enriched with untreated human and chemical wastes.  Crops grow like crazy in raw sewage.  But salinization of the soil is increasing, which will eventually ruin the cropland.

The book has six chapters.  Five discuss the Valle del Mezquital, where grazing was introduced into an agricultural region.  One chapter discusses Australia, where sheep were introduced to a wild ecosystem.  Herders and herds exploded in number.  Indigenous vermin, kangaroos, were aggressively exterminated.  By 1838, much of New South Wales was “a naked surface without any perceptible pasture upon it for the numerous half-starved flocks.”  Grasslands were rubbished in 7 to 20 years.  The land dried out, erosion increased, and floods became more frequent.

Do you notice a pattern here?  Now it’s the twenty-first century, and the civilized world is raging with a devastating pandemic of get-rich-quick fever.  Almost all of our graduating scholars are nearly as ignorant as the Spanish settlers about ecological sustainability.  All our grads are tirelessly trained to believe that status seeking, via working and hoarding, is the purpose of life — a plague of shoppers.

Melville, Elinor, A Plague of Sheep, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1994.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Natural West

Dan Flores is an environmental historian.  His book, The Natural West, focuses on the region of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains.  This ecosystem has been radically changed in the last 300 years, and a number of these changes have resulted in irreversible degradation.  Flores has a misty vision of restoring the West, and his work explores issues that contributed to ecological imbalances.  We can’t address challenges that we don’t understand.
At the time Flores was writing, many green thinkers were indulging in a fantasy that imagined an environmental Golden Age, when the continent had no scars from human activities.  Native Americans lived so lightly that they left almost no footprints.  Flores was among the scholars who questioned the fantasy.  What happened to the mammoths, mastodons, and camels?  Where are the wooly rhinos and saber-toothed cats?
He noted that many ecosystems were altered by the Indian practice of periodic burns to control the growth of brush, and to maintain grassland habitat that was ideal for bison.  In The Ecological Indian, Shepard Krech wrote that some of these fires grew too large and killed entire herds of animals.  Flores didn’t mention the “buffalo jumps,” where herds of bison were driven off the edge of cliffs.  Of course, far more impact was caused by the technologically advanced settlers.  Never before, in North America, have a group of humans wrecked so much, so quickly.
Obviously, we would not be where we are today if hunter-gatherers possessed a level of ecological knowledge that a small herd of ecology experts now have (and the vast herd of consumers really need).  If our wild ancestors had possessed wizardly understanding, then pockets of humans would not have reduced carrying capacity via overhunting, leading to the catastrophe of agriculture, and the resulting population explosion.
Some Western Indians were bison hunters for more than 8,000 years.  Bison can zip along at 35 miles per hour (56 km/h).  On the wide-open prairie, sneaking up on a herd unseen, unheard, and unsmelled, required remarkable stalking skills.  Then, Spaniards brought domesticated horses to the New World.  Over the next 200 years (1680–1880), more than thirty Indian groups adapted horse-propelled bison hunting, which made it much easier to get lots of meat.  This very unusual era was recorded by white painters, and it has become a common perception of traditional Native American life.
Plains Indians imagined that there were infinite bison, it was impossible to deplete their numbers.  Herds had been boosted by the cooler wetter climate of the Little Ice Age (1550–1850).  Then, the shift to a warmer dryer trend reduced vegetation growth, which reduced carrying capacity for bison.  Meanwhile, the horse population exploded, and horses competed with bison for the same vegetation.  Among the many unwelcome gifts brought by settlers were bovine diseases like anthrax.
The Gold Rush migration of 1849 brought cholera, which triggered a diarrhea rush, killing many natives.  By 1850, there were many reports of starving Indians.  Comanches were eating their horses.  Competition for bison and horses spurred tribal warfare between 1825 and 1850.  Tribe raided tribe to snatch horses.  (See Paul Shepard’s book, The Others, for an excellent discussion of the many problems resulting from animal domestication.)
So, it turns out that bison herds were not infinite, and that horse-propelled hunting very likely did not have a rosy future, even if whites had stayed out of the West.  The experiment was cut short by industrial bison hunting, which accelerated after the Civil War ended in 1865.  It rapidly brought the species close to extinction.
I learned a lot from the chapter on the settlement of Utah, which got little notice in my history textbooks.  In the early years, Mormon society was strikingly un-American.  Rights to water and forests could not be privately owned by individuals.  They belonged to the entire community.  Joseph Smith believed that animals had souls, as did the Earth.  Farms were limited to 20 acres (8 ha) to discourage the emergence of wealth inequality.
Unfortunately, their impact on the ecosystem was similar to American communities everywhere.  Population quickly grew.  Most of the forests around Salt Lake City were gone in just ten years, and not reseeded.  Grassland was overgrazed.  War was declared on “wasters and destroyers” (wild predators).  When the transcontinental railroad was completed, many non-Mormons moved into Utah, accelerating the turbulence by increasing cultural diversity and economic competition.
In 1896, when Utah was admitted as a state, they were required to Americanize.  Polygamy was banned.  Firewalls were erected to separate church and state.  Utah leaped onto the free market bandwagon, and grew like crazy.  Explosive growth was not kind to the ecosystem.  Everyone agreed that overgrazing was dumb, but everyone disagreed on which animals were the problem (not mine!).
Americans brought many exotic weeds to the West, causing immense irreversible damage.  Cheatgrass displaced native vegetation across large areas.  It created biological wastelands, since cattle and wild grazers would not touch it.  Cheatgrass was highly flammable.  After a fire, exposed soil was vulnerable to erosion and gullying.  When it rained, the runoff of water was rapid, leading to sudden floods.  By 1930, the risk of repeated floods forced the abandonment of thirteen Utah communities.  In the 1930s, four Utah valleys that were once lush grasslands became barren dust bowls.
Flores was raised in a Mormon household.  He laments that this culture (like most Americans) perceives humankind to be the crown of creation.  The Earth is merely a funky waiting room on the journey to paradise, and if we trash it, it doesn’t matter.  Many in Utah, and other Western states, want federal lands returned to the states, so that resources can be profitably extracted, as quickly as possible, without the annoying restrictions of regulations (sorry kids).  The culture is conservative, and environmentalists are not warmly welcomed.  Growth is the god-word.
Flores circles the word “animalness,” and suggests that it might aid the healing process.  Behaving like the masters of the world has been very harmful to the planet.  What might happen if we came to perceive humans as one animal among many, in a circle of equals?  Many of the vital lessons in life are learned from mistakes.  Flores serves readers a lavish banquet of eco-booboos.  The West has been dying for 200 years.  What should we do?  What does “restore” mean?  Is it possible?  Are we willing to bury industrial civilization and get a life?
Flores, Dan, The Natural West — Environmental History in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2001.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Hierarchy in the Forest

Christopher Boehm is a professor of anthropology and director of the Jane Goodall Research Center at the University of California.  He has read hundreds of anthropological studies on a variety of human societies.  He also spent time with Goodall at Gombe National Park, observing the behavior of wild chimpanzees.  These experiences inspired him to speculate on our evolutionary journey, and to attempt the daunting challenge of defining “human nature,” the core essence shared by all humans.  He presented his ideas in Hierarchy in the Forest.
Before we begin, the goal of my work is to help people who are interested in learning about ecological sustainability.  Boehm’s book pays little attention to ecology, and I quit reading about 75 pages before the end.  Folks who are eager to learn about the various trends and controversies in cultural anthropology should put it on their reading list.  I was intrigued by some of the passages I read.  My plan is to jabber a bit about these, and then call it a day.
There are numerous types of societies, ranging from egalitarian (no bosses) to hierarchical (some have more power than others).  Among hierarchical societies, some have many layers of rank and status, like wolf packs.  At the extreme, despotic societies have a dominant alpha to whom all others must submit, like chimps or Nazis.  Boehm presented theories on the evolution of politics and morality among chimps, bonobos, gorillas, and humans.  Based on how the four species behave today, he imagined that the common ancestor of all four, who lived seven million years ago, was innately despotic — and that all four today remain near the despotic end of the political spectrum.
He believed that humans took a strange path.  In the beginning, we were hierarchical.  Later, for much of the hunter-gatherer phase, we were egalitarian.  Then, around 12,000 years ago, with the domestication of plants and animals, hierarchy returned to ascendance, and grew to monstrous proportions over the centuries.  This was not black and white, some early societies of herders or horticulturalists remained egalitarian, despite having private property and unequal wealth.
Oddly, egalitarian societies were also hierarchical.  Civilized societies have pyramid-shaped hierarchies, with the powerful at the top, and the dominated masses spread out below.  Egalitarian societies have an upside down pyramid, a “reverse dominance hierarchy.”  When someone began behaving in an inappropriate manner, the entire group united to confront the misbehaving oddball.
Cooperation was fundamental to the success of hunter-gatherer societies, so conflict avoidance was imperative.  Upstart males, exhibiting impulses to dominate others, were a serious threat to the stability and survival of the society.  Nothing was more uncool.  The antidote to disruptive upstarts was sanctions — criticism, ridicule, disobedience, ostracism, shunning.  Sanctions often helped the upstart get the message, and return to conformity.  If these failed, the upstart might move to a different group.  If all else failed, he might be executed.
Hunter-gatherer cultures had time-proven methods for encouraging conformity, and discouraging the impulses of problem personalities.  It was always uncool to be boastful, arrogant, or overbearing.  When a hunter brought home excellent meat, he would apologize for the worthless crap that was unfit for dog food.  Self-depreciation helped to level out differences, and discourage painful swellings of pride.
Once upon a time, Boehm had succeeded in earning the trust of Navajo elders, in his quest to learn about mental illness in the tribe.  One day, he realized that he had left a watermelon in his car, which he had bought to be a gift.  He ran out, got it, ran back, offered it to the elder — and immediately obliterated the trust he had carefully earned, terminating his research.  His action had been too sudden, and was perceived as aggressive.  The Navajo have a low opinion of white people, and are highly distrustful of them.  In Indian country, people are expected to be calm, composed, dignified, and respectful.
One passage especially touched me.  Jean Briggs was an anthropologist who spent more than a year with the Utku Eskimos of northern Canada.  She apparently behaved like an ordinary American, who had moody days, and sometimes displayed a flash of anger when irritated.  This freaked out the Eskimos, who sometimes ran out the cabin when she was crabby and hissing.  In that society, folks were expected to smile, laugh, and joke — to behave like happy people.  Nothing was more uncool than showing your emotions, because strong thoughts can kill or cause illness.  Anger was dangerous juju, highly toxic.
The Eskimos tolerated a lot of extremely inappropriate behavior, because Briggs was a visitor from a tribe that was notoriously loony.  They gave her hints for behaving more politely, but she missed their meaning.  Eventually, they reached their limits, and Briggs became a nonperson.  She simply could not learn how to conform.
Briggs was brought up in a hierarchical culture, where we all compete against one another to acquire, hoard, and display the most status trinkets.  Self-centeredness is the expected norm.  Most of us live amidst hordes of perfect strangers, and the sight of strangers must make our tropical primate brains squirm and sweat.  When chimps see a strange male, they don’t welcome him with smiles and hugs; they kill him.  Gorillas are also impolite unknown visitors.  Of course, humans take great delight in savagely killing foreigners by the millions.
It’s hard for us to imagine spending our entire lives among a small group of people, where survival depends on cooperation, where competition and conflict were toxic.  The Eskimos were not merely “acting” happy.  They were raised in a culture where it was normal and healthy to mindfully maintain respectful relationships with all others.  They had to spend long dark winters in close quarters, so it was impossible to tolerate selfish spoiled brats or infantile tyrants.  Everyone’s highest responsibility was to maintain the stability of the group.
Boehm’s book was published in 1999.  Most research on wild bonobos occurred after 2003.  Early studies had to be abandoned, because of a civil war that raged between 1994 and 2003, claiming three million lives.  Based on incomplete information, Boehm assumed that bonobos were at the despotic end of the spectrum, but later research revealed that they were remarkably egalitarian.  Also, they were not egalitarian in the sense of “reverse dominance hierarchy.”  For bonobos, egalitarian behavior was normal, natural, almost effortless.  Humans are closely related to both despotic chimps and egalitarian bonobos.
Why are chimps and bonobos so different?  Ecology may be the primary factor.  Bonobos enjoy an ideal habitat, with abundant food, and no serious competitors in their niche.  Chimps live in leaner lands, and compete for food with gorillas and baboons.  Scarcity creates tensions, and territorial boundaries must be aggressively defended against trespassers.  Crowding is the mother of conflict.  Extreme crowding turns humans into bloodthirsty mass murdering maniacs.
Boehm, Christopher, Hierarchy in the Forest, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1999.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Understanding Sustainability

Dearest Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a great honor to announce the release of my new book, Understanding Sustainability, a collection of seventy-four reviews of sustainability-related books.  It’s vital that humankind develops a competent understanding of ecological sustainability, and pursues it with all deliberate speed.  A sustainable way of life is one that can continue for millennia without causing permanent degradation to the ecosystem. 

The path we are on now is exactly the opposite.  It has no long-term future.  It’s not even fun.  Mainstream society continues wobbling and staggering in a twentieth century stupor, blind drunk on a rotgut elixir called sustainable development.  Sustainable development is nothing more than ordinary <bleep> the future development dressed up in a cheap green suit, with a foolish smirk.

Ecological sustainability is something like kryptonite, a powerful antidote to the pathological superpowers of industrial society.  Humans are the proud owners of legendary big brains, and the lucky ones have gifts for thinking outside the box, and asking questions that really matter.  Where can they find answers?  The neighborhood library or bookstore is unlikely to provide a robust collection of books on ecological sustainability.  Local classrooms are mostly home to lectures praising technological innovation, sustainable development, and perpetual growth.  Yuck!

Unfortunately, my book does not reveal quick and easy solutions to our eco-predicaments.  Mainstream culture is out of its mind, the zombie offspring of ignorance and tradition.  But culture is software, and it’s possible to change software.  Understanding Sustainability is intended to be a resource for outside the box thinkers who are eager to learn.  It exposes pilgrims to a wide variety of outside the box writers.  It supplements my two previous books, What Is Sustainable and Sustainable or Bust.

Understanding Sustainability is available as a modestly priced paperback, and as a bargain priced Kindle download.  Kindle downloads can be read on your computer, tablet, or phone using free software — you don’t need to buy a Kindle gizmo.  Amazon Prime members can “borrow” the Kindle version from Amazon, free of charge.

Please feel welcome to post reader reviews at Amazon and Goodreads.  They are very helpful to curious shoppers who are nervous about inviting new authors into their minds.

Best of all, Understanding Sustainability is the perfect gift for all occasions — graduations, birthdays, retirement parties, weddings, anniversaries, hot dates, and baby showers.  Buy it by the dozen, and avoid aggravating time-consuming visits to the mall.


Saturday, January 30, 2016


The following is the rough draft of the last section of my upcoming third book.

So, here we are in the twenty-first century.  We are not a generation born wild and free, running around naked in lush tropical rainforests, nibbling on fruit, nuts, and grubs.  We inherited an age of challenges, the result of a long string of risky experiments.  Negative consequences have piled up over the centuries, and we now stand in the dark shadow of a mountain of predicaments.

Humans are not cursed with defective genes, but we have succeeded in creating a highly unsustainable way of living and thinking — a defective culture.  The clock is running out on this troublesome experiment.  It would be wise to acknowledge this, and mindfully explore saner ways of living and thinking.

Like all other animals, humans focus their attention on the here and now, the immediate vicinity.  Many animals are capable of foresight.  Some know that panthers hunt at night, so they sleep in the trees.  With regard to the manmade realm of techno-innovation, foresight is largely impossible.  Nobody could have imagined the enormous consequences of metal making, fossil energy, or the domestication of plants and animals.  A few wild cultures still live sustainably with barely any technology.

Low impact cultures do not believe in human superiority.  They do not suffer from a persistent itch to hoard personal property.  They have exactly what they need.  They do not control and exploit the ecosystem, they adapt to it.  They have time-proven cultures in which everyone practices voluntary self-restraint.  In this manner, they could enjoy extended periods of real sustainability, living in a healthy wild ecosystem.

High impact cultures, by definition, cannot have a long-term future.  In their spooky fantasies, the primary goal is to pursue economic growth, by any means necessary, for as long as possible, without regard for the generations yet to come.  Nothing is more important than perpetual growth, at any cost.  This is the dominant paradigm in consumer societies, where it is perceived to be perfectly normal and intelligent.

But deviants on the fringe, who enjoy an amazing ability to recognize the obvious, warn us that normal is insane.  For revealing this inconvenient truth, they are called doomers.  But the consumer hordes, who are enthusiastic lifelong participants in the most destructive culture in human history, are the true champions of doom.

Consumers are annoyed by the truth tellers, and denounce them for their negativity, but it’s actually the other way around.  Sending tons and tons of waste to landfills, via a lifetime of recreational shopping, in an effort to gain social status, is a heartbreaking tragedy.  It’s a path of ferocious negativity.

The truth-telling deviants are not doomers, they are simply more present in reality.  For them, the foolishness in our culture becomes less invisible.  Being present in reality, in the fullness of the darkness, puts them in a far better position to think clearly and make wise decisions.  They become less vulnerable to peer pressure.  They become less willing to mindlessly do what a mindless society expects of them.

In the process of healing from acute ignorance, you cross a painful threshold.  One day, you realize that the consumer fantasyland has little relationship with reality.  Big storms are coming, and the future will not be a prosperous and pleasurable joyride.  This realization hurts.

When this occurs, despair is an appropriate response.  It’s OK to grieve for the loss of a major long-held illusion.  At the same time, it’s also appropriate to celebrate your mind-expanding awakening, your successful return from the realm of the living dead.  Despair is like a hangover, a painful headache resulting from an unhealthy binge.  It’s a normal temporary experience on the long journey to growth and healing.

The consumers scream, “We can’t go back,” and that’s true.  We also cannot indefinitely remain on our current dead-end path.  John Trudell, the Santee Sioux activist, summed it up nicely.  “There is no old way, no new way.  There is a way of life.  We must live in balance with the Earth.  We must do it.  We have no choice.”

Eight words precisely describe the one and only sustainable destination, “We must live in balance with the Earth.”  That sacred destination has never been farther from where we now stand.  So, what should animals with legendary big brains be doing?  Obviously, we need to change how we think and live.

At the moment, consumer society feels little or no desire to question its mode of living and thinking.  Many have chugged the Kool-Aid of the techno-wizards, and have a blind faith in the wondrous solutions promised by clever experts.  Many others have little or no understanding of reality, because they suffer from ignorance, or limited ability to think.  Still others can sense the growing darkness, but are paralyzed with fear and powerlessness, and block out the yucky feelings with false hope.

Nothing can stop the coming storms of change, all paths lead to turbulence.  You can’t save the world.  You can’t fix everything, but you can use your gifts, and do what you can to confront ignorance, protect your ecosystem, and lessen the long-term damage.  There are infinite opportunities for doing beneficial work.

It’s time for unlearning, identifying the silly nonsense we’ve absorbed over the years, and hurling it overboard.  It’s time for learning, continuing our exploration of reality.  It’s time for communicating, helping each other learn.  It’s time to get outdoors, without electronic distractions, and develop an intimate relationship with the planet of our birth.  It’s time to grow and heal.

We are living in the most momentous century in the entire human experience.  It will be a time of immense learning and awakening.  As our glorious house of cards disintegrates, we will experience a beautiful die-off — countless idiotic myths, fantasies, and illusions will lose their hypnotic power, tumble into the tar pits, and never again entrance us.

It will be a century of huge lessons, an era of tremendous enlightenment.  No, climate change was not a hoax!  Yes, there really are limits!  Concepts like carrying capacity and overshoot will become well understood by any who survive.  The powerful storms of the Great Healing will inspire a great tide of questioning, critical thinking, and clear understanding.

No matter what we do, the Great Healing will eliminate a number of key predicaments, even if we don’t change our ways.  Whether or not we get serious about rapid population reduction, the current population bubble will become an ex-predicament.  Finite resources will certainly strangle the mass hysteria of consumer mania.  As we move beyond the era of climate stability, every ecosystem will be hammered by big changes.  The consumer lifestyle will no longer be an option.

Big Mama Nature has little tolerance for overshoot.  One way or another, sooner or later, some form of balance will be restored, with or without us.  But if we summon our power, and strive to live with responsibility, we may be able to prevent some destruction.  It’s essential to understand the mistakes that got us into this mess, so we will not be tempted to repeat them.  Learn!  Think!  Heal!

Friday, January 15, 2016

Psychic Epidemics

I read the news today, oh boy… we seem to be living in an age of craziness, all around the world.  I am reminded of the famous psychologist, Carl Jung, and his notion of psychic epidemics.  He was born in 1875, as the Industrial Revolution was turning many societies inside out.  It was a gold rush for psychologists, because mental illness was soaring in advanced societies.

Urbanization led to the “insectification” of city dwellers, which fueled the emergence of mental imbalances.  The human mind evolved to function nicely in small groups, not large crowds.  The neurotic urban hordes bore no resemblance to the Pueblo Indians that Jung had met in New Mexico.  He was fascinated by his encounter with these shockingly sane and content humans, and he spoke fondly about them throughout his life.  “Such a man is in the fullest sense of the word in his proper place.”

Three issues spooked Jung.  The world wars, with their new and improved technology, took death and destruction to unimaginable new levels.  Nuclear war was a big threat, but it was avoidable, in theory.  What scared him most was population growth, a runaway train with no brakes.  World population nearly doubled in his lifetime.  It had soared to almost three billion when he died in 1961.  “Masses are always breeding grounds of psychic epidemics.”

Jung was horrified by the rise of Hitler.  “The most dangerous things in the world are immense accumulations of human beings who are manipulated by only a few heads.”  Germany suffered from an inferiority complex following its defeat in the First World War.  The collective unconscious of the Germans begged for a savior, a Messiah.  Hitler helped them compensate for their shame by leading them on a heroic adventure in megalomania.  He had a remarkable ability for bringing the nation’s unconscious into his conscious awareness.  He told the people exactly what they wanted to hear.

After Hitler’s defeat, Jung concluded, “The phenomenon we have witnessed in Germany was nothing less than the first outbreak of epidemic insanity, an eruption of the unconscious into what seemed to be a tolerably well-ordered world.”  I don’t believe that this was “the first” such epidemic.  Many, like the Inquisition, preceded the Nazis.

Jung died 55 years ago, before the first Earth Day.  Since his death, population has more than doubled again, and continues to soar.  Climate change is getting warmed up for unleashing centuries of big surprises.  The sixth mass extinction is now officially recognized.  The list of ongoing catastrophes is long and growing.  On his deathbed (1961), Jung had a disturbing vision.  In 50 years (2011), “I see enormous stretches devastated, enormous stretches of the earth.  But, thank God, it’s not the whole planet.”

Jung warned that, “It is becoming ever more obvious that it is not famine, not earthquakes, not microbes, not cancer, but man himself who is man’s greatest danger to man, for the simple reason that there is no adequate protection against psychic epidemics, which are infinitely more devastating than the worst of natural catastrophes.”

Jung was perplexed by the notion of consciousness, a slippery concept.  Consciousness includes being aware of what our senses are telling us about the here and now.  It allows us to think about people and events in different times and places, and share this knowledge with others.  We are very self aware, and know that we will die.  We can think in words, and use words to assemble reasoned concepts and abstract ideas.

Among our wild ancestors, the development of consciousness was minimal.  They had what Jung called the “original mind.”  A wild lad could put on a lion mask and literally become a lion, in his mind.  Modern insurance salespeople can’t do this, because they have been trained in the differentiated consciousness of civilization, which makes the original mind unconscious.

Jung believed that consciousness in humans developed slowly over a very long time.  By 4000 B.C., consciousness in civilized societies was approaching its modern form.  He noted that primitive people were less conscious than we are.  At the same time, even in its advanced form, consciousness remained highly unstable, far from finished.  Consciousness is merely the mind’s thin surface, floating on an unconscious ocean.  Throughout every day, our minds flutter in and out of consciousness, frequently drifting off into daydreams and fantasies.  Conscious thought is tiresome, requiring deliberate effort, while fantasyland is effortless.

Education factories indoctrinate students with the notion that reason is the guiding force in our nation’s affairs.  But our ability to reason is flimsy.  Like the Germans of the 1930s, we are always vulnerable to slick talking advertisers, politicians, and woo-woo hucksters.  Those with skills for prodding unconscious fears, doubts, and desires will find many sitting ducks to corral and exploit.  Here’s my favorite Jung line: “Our present lives are dominated by the goddess Reason, who is our greatest and most tragic illusion.”

Jung was an important pioneer in exploring the unconscious, home of the ancestral soul, which stores content that is millions of years old.  We drift into the unconscious whenever we dream, or daydream.  When we remember dreams, we can bring unconscious content into the realm of our consciousness.  This content can provide important guidance, or solutions to inner conflicts.  Instinct can often see the elephant that the conscious mind blocks out.  Instinct is our ally.

Jung believed that, “Loss of instinct is largely responsible for the pathological condition of contemporary culture.”  We are cut off from our roots, making us childish and infantile.  Some primitive people remain connected to their ancient instincts, and are therefore more stable.  Their dreams guide them through life.  They inhabit a reality that is sacred, beautiful, and alive with wonder. 

Non-human animals obviously have some degree of consciousness, but a form far different from that of the glowing screen people.  Unlike many domesticated critters, wild animals are not neurotic basket cases.  Nor are primitive people, who do not suffer from advanced stages of consciousness.  People with advanced consciousness have conquered the Earth, but Jung wasn’t sure if “this is an advantage or a calamity.”  He could not escape the paradox that consciousness is “both the highest good and the greatest evil.”

Sometimes, Jung wondered if the solution was to deliberately pursue the further development of consciousness, complete our unfinished quest, and become perfectly reasonable.  But based on his long experience with many damaged souls, this notion seemed to be ridiculous and impossible.  At the same time, “we cannot develop backwards into animal unconsciousness.”  But we are, in fact, animals.  When we squirted out of the womb, our standard issue equipment included an animal mind, with an excellent instinct collection.  This mind was fully capable of spending its entire existence operating without words, tools, fire, or clothing, like all other animal minds.

In both wild kids, and kids born in captivity, rudimentary self-aware consciousness (ego) emerges when a child is about four.  Kids born in civilization go on to absorb a highly unstable civilization-grade form of consciousness.  It’s fascinating to contemplate children who did not receive consciousness programming, like the girls raised by wolves, or the wild boy TarzancĂ­to.

For Jung, the magic word was individuation, which means becoming who you are, like a unique acorn develops into a unique oak tree.  Every newborn is a unique being, not a blank slate.  The mass mind of industrial society could care less about that unique being.  The mass mind expects everyone to become mindless status seeking robo-consumers.  But the ancient original mind expects us to use our gifts, and pursue our calling.  Individuation allows us to develop a strong and healthy relationship with the rest of the family of life, so we can avoid being swept away by psychic epidemics.

Individuation does not happen automatically, it requires effort to set foot on your own path.  Our ancestors benefitted from initiation ceremonies, in which adolescents received important visions that revealed their identities and destinies.  Modern society provides no such assistance, hence the mobs of robo-consumers.

“People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls.”  The path to healing requires looking inward.  Deliberately move away from the torrents of distractions that bombard our society.  Seek solitude and nature.  “Imagination and intuition are vital to our understanding.”  Intuition is perception via the unconscious.  It opens channels to the unconscious, and draws up the life.  Humankind has enormous conflicts to resolve.  The experts of our society are largely out to lunch, still lost in toxic hallucinations of perpetual growth and material wealth.

So, Jung does not give us the secret formula for mass enlightenment and a heavenly utopia.  Instead, he gives us a mirror.  Humankind can only heal individual by individual.  There are mountains of books describing the ecological damage we cause.  Far less attention has been given to the psychological twists and turns that have brought us to the brink.  Maybe we don’t need to study Mars.

The Earth Has a Soul is an excellent book that presents Jung’s commentary on our relationship with nature.  In Man and His Symbols, he explains his core ideas to general readers.  Jung wrote the autobiographical Memories, Dreams, Reflections.  C. G. Jung Speaking presents a series of notable interviews and letters.  Diagnosis: Psychic Epidemic is an essay by Paul Levy.