Thursday, July 5, 2018

Conquest of the Land Through Seven Thousand Years

Following a severe Chinese famine in 1920-21, Walter Lowdermilk (1888-1974) was hired to study the situation, and provide famine prevention recommendations.  He worked there from 1923 to 1927.  Floods and famines had been hammering the Yellow River (Hwang Ho) basin for 4,000 years, sweeping away millions of lives.  The basin is covered with a deep blanket of yellowish, nutrient-rich loess soil, dumped there by winds during the Ice Age. 

Because loess is light, it could easily be tilled using primitive digging stick technology.  This is why an early civilization began in the Yellow River region.  Loess is also easily erodible.  The long history of floods is related to the enormous loads of silt that the river regularly flushed down from the uplands following the summer rains.  As the silt-loaded flow arrived in regions with minimal slope, it slowed down, dumped the silt, clogged the river channel, and spread out across the land.  So, farmers built dikes along the both sides to confine the river channel.  The dikes eventually fail, the land is flooded, the dikes are repaired… the cycle endlessly repeats.

Lowdermilk travelled to the source of the silt, the Loess Plateau, a region one and a half times the size of California.  Prior to the expansion of agriculture and population, ancient forests held the upland loess in place.  After the forests were eliminated, rain runoff increased, erosion increased, and the era of catastrophic floods was born.  The Yellow River has long had a nickname: China’s Sorrow.

Up in the plateau, Lowdermilk discovered a surreal nightmare world of enormous erosion gullies up to 600 feet (183 m) deep.  It was at this point that he realized his life’s calling, soil conservation.  His utopian fantasy was to develop permanent agriculture, so that humankind could be fed in a manner that was ecologically harmless, perfectly sustainable, forever.

In the western U.S., the Dust Bowl began late in 1933.  During a period of above average precipitation (most of 1900 to 1930), a swarm of farmers and ranchers had stripped the natural vegetation from much of the shortgrass prairie.  Then came years of drought, which zapped the wheat, leaving the soil exposed.  When the monster winds arrived, some farms lost half of their topsoil in several hours.  In 1934, the skies in Washington D.C. were dark at noon.  Lowdermilk was hired by the new Soil Erosion Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In 1938 and 1939, he was sent to Western Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, to make observations, and report on his findings.  During his research, he drove more than 25,000 miles (40,000 km), until World War Two terminated the project.  He learned how to read landscapes — agricultural archaeology.  He saw many devastated wastelands, some reduced to bare bedrock, which had once been prosperous densely populated regions.  This wasn’t about climate change.  Common causes were deforestation, overgrazing, soil salinization, planting on sloped land, and failure to maintain irrigation canals and hillside terraces.

His findings echoed those of George Perkins Marsh — the granddaddy of environmental history — who had visited Old World disaster areas 80 years earlier.  While Marsh went into great detail in his 300 page Man and Nature, Lowdermilk boiled the core story down to a booklet, Conquest of the Land Through Seven Thousand Years, available free online [HERE].  More than a million copies have been printed.  Importantly, Lowdermilk took a camera with him.  His photos are shocking testimonials to the unintended consequences of domestication and civilization.  The booklet can be read in one sitting.

The text bounces from disaster to disaster, providing a brief description of each.  In Tunisia, he observed the site of Cuicul, a magnificent city in Roman times, which had been entirely buried, except for three feet (1 m) of one column poking out of the soil.  It took 20 years of digging to expose the remarkable ruins.  Today, the land can support only a few inhabitants.  Likewise, the Minoan city of Jerash, a village of 3,000 people, was once home to 250,000.  Lebanon was once covered with 2,000 square miles (5,180 km2) of ancient cedar forests, now reduced to four small groves.  In Syria, he observed a million acres (404,685 ha) of manmade desert, dotted with a hundred dead villages.

I don’t want to spoil the vivid excitement of your reading experience by summarizing most of the subjects.  Keep in mind that the stories he tells are the result of good old-fashioned muscle-powered organic farming, and organic grass-fed herding.  The harms were the result of human actions inspired by ignorance or tradition, not the fickle whims of nature.  Compared to the modern industrial agriculture, the early farmers and herders were childlike amateurs at ecocide.  We have, unfortunately, become champions.

Lowdermilk provided recommendations for reducing soil loss, but not eliminating it.  He had a blind faith that the wizards of science would eventually discover ways to make agriculture genuinely sustainable.  Following World War Two, U.S. agricultural policies were somewhat progressive, for a while.  Efforts were made to preserve small family farms.  Farmers were paid to cease crop production on erosion-prone locations, and protect the vulnerable soil with grass.  The government gave additional land to my uncle in North Dakota to reward him for planting shelterbelts of trees to reduce wind erosion. 

Then came the Richard Nixon administration.  In 1973, food prices spiked.  So, Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz ordered farmers to get big or get out, plant from fencerow to fencerow, and let the magic of the marketplace select the winners.  Subsidies ended, and shelterbelts vanished.  Huge grain surpluses were harvested, prices tanked, and legions of farms went belly up.

Almost all university grads (and professors) know absolutely nothing about George Perkins Marsh or Walter Lowdermilk.  Those two lads revealed that civilization has never been sustainable, and they deliberately gave their readers a loud dope slap — dudes, it’s still unsustainable.  Wake up!  When Marsh published in 1864, Earth was home to 1.4 billion.  When Lowdermilk released his first version in 1948, there were 2.4 billion.  Yesterday, it was 7.6 billion and still growing.  Oh-oh!  The two lads shared great wisdom with us, which we disregarded.  It’s hard to get concerned about threats that are not immediate, and readily visible.

In the twentieth century, the scale of global agriculture grew explosively.  All life requires nitrogen, but only in a special form that is produced by nitrogen-fixing bacteria.  Plants cannot utilize the nitrogen in the air.  In 1911, Germans began the commercial production of synthetic ammonia, which contained nitrogen in the plant-friendly form, bypassing the ancient dependence on soil bacteria, and ending agriculture’s addiction to livestock manure.  Potent synthetic fertilizer is primarily made from natural gas, a fossil fuel.

Synthetic fertilizer greatly increased the volume of nitrogen available for plant growth, sidestepping nature’s limits.  This accelerated food production, and shattered the glass ceiling on population size.  Nitrogen expert Vaclav Smil speculated that 40 percent of the people alive in 2000 would not exist without synthetic ammonia fertilizer.*  I wonder what percentage of humankind might survive in the post-petroleum world.  In his essay, The Oil We Eat, Richard Manning wrote, “Every single calorie we eat is backed by at least a calorie of oil, more like ten.”

Later, the crop-breeding projects of the Green Revolution more than doubled farm productivity between 1950 and 2000.  Consequently, population soared from 2.4 billion in 1950 to 6 billion in 2000.  The Green Revolution was all about full scale industrial agriculture — irrigation, large farms, powerful machinery, monoculture cropping, proprietary seeds, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides.  To sum up the food story today, Paul Ehrlich wrote a five page summary [HERE].

Anyway, Lowdermilk gave me a sucker punch.  When he was in Palestine in the late 1930s, he observed a brutally abused ecosystem.  Much of the highlands had been stripped of soil, which had washed into the valleys, which continued to erode.  This was the land that, 3,000 years earlier, Moses had described as “a land flowing with milk and honey.”  Moses could have never imagined what his descendants would eventually do to the vibrant vitality of the Promised Land — by faithfully following the divine instructions to be fruitful, multiply, and subdue the Earth.  Oy!  Lowdermilk suggested an eleventh commandment, along the lines of live sustainably or go extinct.

This inspired me to contemplate the condition of our planet 3,000 years from now.  My imagination sputtered, gasped, and suffered a total meltdown.  Having read hundreds of books on environmental history, and observed 65 years of modern trends, my ability to engage in soaring flights of magical thinking is dead and gone.  I’ll be happy if I can help a hundred people break the trance before I cross to the other side.

Lowdermilk, Walter Clay, Conquest of the Land Through Seven Thousand Years, 1948, Reprint, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Washington D.C., 1999.

*In 2001, when there were six billion humans, Smil wrote about the Haber-Bosch process for making synthetic ammonia.  “Without this synthesis about two-fifths of the world’s population would not be around — and the dependence will only increase as the global count moves from 6 to 9 or 10 billion people.”  Enriching the Earth, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2001, page xv.

Douglas Helms wrote Walter Lowdermilk’s Journey, an interesting five page paper describing the highlights of Lowdermilk’s professional life.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Guns Germs and Steel

Professor Jared Diamond did research in New Guinea, and became buddies with many natives.  One day, a lad asked him why some societies became so rich, and others did not.  Why are there haves and have-nots?  White folks with European ancestors have done better economically than folks in New Guinea, and many other regions.  To a number of dodgy white gits, this was absolute proof of their racial superiority.  Diamond disagreed and explained why in his bestselling Pulitzer Prize winning book, Guns, Germs, and Steel.

White folks did not become dominators via divine blessings, or genetic perfection.  They were simply the winners of a lottery named geography, folks who happened to live in the right place at the right time.  This provided them with big advantages over societies of equally intelligent people, of all other races, who had not won the lottery.

Human history is a story that is maybe five million years old, and it sprouted in our African motherland.  For almost the entire saga, our ancestors were hunter-gatherers who developed a low impact mode of living.  By and by, the ancestors migrated into Asia, Australia, and Europe, where they invented clever new tricks for surviving in unfamiliar places.

For Diamond, the excrement hit the fan around 13,000 years ago, when the Ice Age rode off into the sunset, and the planet warmed up and stabilized.  By that time, about 80 percent of large mammal species had gone extinct.  Most experts assign much or all of the blame on hunting.  Big animals have a low rate of reproduction, and killing just a few too many each year can wipe them out over several centuries.  It’s much less work to kill a 500 pound animal than it is to bag 500 bunnies. 

At that time, the Fertile Crescent was a fabulous place to live, situated between Europe and China.  It was home to large herds of gazelles, and grasslands loaded with wild wheat, barley, and peas.  Of course, abundant food tends to stimulate population growth.  Eventually, the number of mouths reached the point where wild food resources became strained.  Around 7500 B.C., farming and herding began displacing hunting and foraging.  Food production was the ominous first step on the bloody path to guns, germs, and steel.

Most of the wild grass species that produce large seeds live in Mediterranean climates, and the Fertile Crescent was especially blessed with these plants.  It was home to several grain and legume species that were suitable for domestication.  An acre of domesticated wheat could produce 10 to 100 times more nutrients than an acre of wild grassland.  This was a unique situation.  In our African motherland, which was south of the equator, the number of food plants suitable for domestication was zero.

Of all the species of large herbivores in the world, only fourteen were suitable for domestication.  One lived in South America, and thirteen in Eurasia.  Diamond listed the traits that made a wild animal suitable for domestication, it “must be sufficiently docile, submissive to humans, cheap to feed, immune to diseases, grow rapidly, and breed well in captivity.”  The Fertile Crescent was unusually lucky to be home to four wild animals that eventually became the most important domesticated livestock of all: goats, sheep, pigs, and cattle.  This was a unique situation.

In our beloved African motherland, zero large herbivores were suitable for domestication.  Zebras were so wary of hungry lions that they refused to be owned and controlled.  The older the zebra, the meaner.  The guinea fowl was the only animal that all experts agree was originally domesticated on the continent.  Thus, if humankind had remained in home sweet home, with nothing to eat but wild organic foods, we’d likely still be wild and free today, and Detroit and Paris would be hangouts for mammoths and buffalo.

Livestock provided folks with meat, milk, fertilizer, hides, wool, and muscle power.  When animals were milked, they provided herders with far more lifetime calories than could be consumed by simply killing and eating them.  In different regions, folks milked cows, sheep, goats, horses, reindeer, water buffalos, yaks, and camels.  Folks also rode on the backs of horses, donkeys, yaks, reindeer, and camels.  Mounted cavalry radically redefined the rules for warfare and raiding.  Beasts of burden were used to pull plows, carts, and sleds, and to haul loads of cargo on their backs.

A serious downside of keeping livestock was being in constant close contact with large herds of animals.  Many herders lived and slept close to their critters.  This encouraged a number of animal pathogens to adapt to human hosts, like influenza, smallpox, tuberculosis, plague, measles, and cholera.  As rising food production encouraged the emergence of civilizations and cities, this created perfect conditions for epidemic diseases, which thrive in filthy crowds.

After Columbus landed in America, maybe 90 percent of Native Americans perished from Old World diseases.  Indians didn’t have similar diseases to share with the white folks, because they kept few domesticated animals.  Llamas and alpacas lived in small herds, and only in the Andes.  They didn’t live in close contact with people, and people didn’t drink their milk.

The big idea in Diamond’s book was about the axis of continents.  In Africa and the Americas, the land base was taller than wide, spanning multiple climate belts.  This north-south axis presented obstacles for the easy movement of people, livestock, crops, technology, and ideas.  From north to south in Africa, the belts were Mediterranean, Saharan, rainforest, savannah, and Mediterranean.

Eurasia had a huge land base, spanning from France to China.  Generally, tropical climates (mostly hot) are found near the equator, arctic climates (mostly cold) are close to the poles, and temperate climates (hot & cold) are found between them.  Food production and civilization emerged in the Fertile Crescent, which had a temperate climate.  The east-west axis of Eurasia made it easy for people, livestock, crops, technology, and ideas to spread across the vast temperate zone.

The early farmers and herders of the Fertile Crescent were living in a new-fangled way, with no traditional wisdom to guide them.  They began a reckless joyride in trial and error, and gained tremendous expertise in error.  The forests were mowed down, and erosion plugged up the valleys and harbors.  Irrigation systems eventually made the soil so salty that it became infertile.  Ravenous goats hungrily sabotaged nature’s every effort at healing.  Over time, paradise largely became a desert wasteland.  So, many survivors packed up and migrated to new homes.  Some went east to China, others went west to Europe.  Their brilliant plan was to repeat the same mistakes.

In China, folks grew millet in the north, and rice in the south.  Innovators developed a number of important technologies, like gunpowder, cast iron, navigation, paper, and printing.  But you are not gazing at Chinese characters right now, because they did not colonize the world.  China unified their empire in 221 B.C., and its culture was conservative — don’t rock the boat!  Job One was to maintain order across the large complex society, so the friendly tax collectors could safely visit everyone.

Europe, on the other hand, was a chaotic wild west — politically fragmented and terrifically competitive.  In 1500, it was home to maybe 500 smallish states, spread out across many islands, peninsulas, and mountain valleys.  Each was a hub of innovation.  Job One was to avoid getting exterminated by ambitious enemies, and Job Two was to exterminate enemies at every opportunity. 

There was a nonstop arms race to develop more and better weapons, fortifications, ships, steam engines, and so on.  Technologies and ideas moved with great speed back and forth across the continent.  Consequently, Europe was the region that colonized the world, spreading across the temperate regions of North America, South America, northern and southern Africa, southern Australia, and so on.

Anyway, Diamond presented many competent answers to the question of why some societies are haves, and others are have-nots — mission accomplished.  I’ve only mentioned a few of his many points here.  The black hole in the book is a more important question.  The book presumes that it’s cool that some societies are in the “haves” category.  Ecological sustainability is off the radar.

There is one sentence with a whiff of doubt: “If those first farmers could have foreseen the consequences of adopting food production, they might not have opted to do so.”  Obviously!  The twenty-first century way of life would have totally terrified them, an overwhelming horror show of unimaginable craziness and destruction.  Of course, the book was written in 1997, when Earth was home to a wee herd of 5.8 billion.  In those days of love and innocence, climate change and energy limits were still largely paranoid fantasies among the lunatic fringe.

But Diamond thoroughly understood the dark side of the “haves.”  Ten years earlier, he wrote an essay, The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race.  He said, “Recent discoveries suggest that the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered.  With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism that curse our existence.”

Every year, thousands of college students are required to read Guns, Germs, and Steel.  They are spending a fortune on tuition, hoping to devote their lives to climbing up the hierarchies, living as lavishly as possible in the Empire of the Haves, and overloading landfills with the discards of their infantile opulence.  They are not being prepared for the advancing storms that will eventually pummel their generation.

Diamond added an afterword section to the 2003 reprint of his 1997 book.  Bill Gates loved it.  Diamond was contacted by numerous corporate leaders seeking guidance.  “What is the best way to organize human groups, organizations, and businesses so as to maximize productivity, creativity, innovation, and wealth?”  Our culture’s worldview only has one channel, perpetual economic growth — another joyride having no guidance from traditional wisdom.  Full speed ahead!

Diamond, Jared, Guns, Germs, and Steel, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1997.

National Geographic produced an excellent three-part (3 hour) documentary on Jared Diamond and his book.  Go HERE. 

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Germs Seeds and Animals

In history classes, students struggle to memorize and regurgitate the names, dates, and places essential to our glorious myth — the sacred journey that brought us to the miracle of today.  For many, this parade of dusty factoids is the story they will believe for the rest of their days.  What I was taught about Christopher Columbus resembled a kindergarten fairy tale — the courageous hero succeeds.  Hooray!

The last 50+ years have released a flash flood of important new information.  Our planet is being disemboweled by seven-point-something billion humans racing down a hell-bound path for no good reason.  Alfred Crosby was an important pioneer in the field of environmental history.  In his book, Germs, Seeds, and Animals, Crosby described how the Columbus voyage of 1492 detonated a global ecological catastrophe.  It was a monumental event in the human saga, something like an asteroid strike.

When the Pilgrims washed ashore at Plymouth Rock in 1620, they were not immediately exterminated by Wampanoag warriors, because the tribe was nearly extinct.  Smallpox got there first.  Pilgrims found an empty village surrounded by cornfields full of weeds.  During the first winter, half of the colonists died from malnutrition, exhaustion, and exposure.  They knew almost nothing about surviving in a foreign ecosystem.  Pilgrims struggled to survive on shellfish, and on corn (maize) that was bought or stolen from the Indians.  It wasn’t until 1624 that they figured out how to live on their own.

Native Americans were spooked by the freaky aliens.  Everyone around them was dead or dying, while none of the aliens were molested by evil spirits.  Deadly diseases, especially smallpox, spread from tribe to tribe, across vast regions, well in advance of explorers and settlers.  Natives could have easily exterminated the Pilgrims, but they were fearful of their horrific dark powers.  Without smallpox, history could have taken a radically different path.

The Pilgrims came from a densely populated civilization that had transformed its thriving rainforest into fields, pastures, and disease-ridden cities.  In Europe, smallpox had raged for centuries.  Around 1500, the virus mutated into a far more virulent form, killing many children in cities near the Atlantic coast of Europe.  Folks who survived to adulthood were those lucky to have unusually robust immune systems.  It was these folks who carried smallpox to the New World in 1518, where it killed up to half of those infected.  The virus could unintentionally be transported via a trunk of clothing.  Human-to-human contact was not needed.

In an era of long distance sea travel, ships often returned to Europe with new and exciting diseases from every corner of the Old World.  Many deadly diseases originated in domesticated animals, with whom Old World people often lived in close contact.  A number of livestock pathogens were able to transfer to human hosts.  These germs especially loved infecting dense crowds in filthy cities.  Epidemics of assorted diseases bounced from region to region on a regular basis.  Native Americans, who did not enslave herds of animals, had only two indigenous pathogens, Chagas’s disease and Carrion’s disease.

Spaniards documented the die-off in Mesoamerica (Aztecs) and Peru (Incas), where 90 percent of the Native Americans were dead within a century.  In these cooler highland regions, folks died from temperate diseases, primarily smallpox, measles, whooping cough, and pneumonia.  In the hot, wet coastal lowlands, people not only died from temperate diseases, but also tropical diseases, like malaria, yellow fever, dengue fever, and amoebic dysentery.  Around 1590, an observer estimated that 29 of every 30 lowland natives had perished from disease.  As a special bonus, Europeans also brought chicken pox, typhus, typhoid fever, bubonic plague, cholera, scarlet fever, diphtheria, and influenza.

To this day, Old World diseases continue killing natives who come into contact with outsiders for the first time — missionaries, loggers, miners, etc.  By far, the primary reason Europeans conquered the Americas was disease.  I was surprised to learn that Europeans did not intend to exterminate the natives and replace them with settlers.  Colonists suffered from get rich quick fever, and the fast path to wealth was to control and exploit multitudes of Indians.

Unfortunately, the native workers rapidly died from disease, malnutrition, and abuse.  This labor shortage inspired a rapid expansion of the highly profitable slave trade.  Africans were less vulnerable to the tropical diseases, for which white folks were helpless sitting ducks.  At least ten million slaves arrived alive in America.  Millions more perished before setting foot ashore.  Once here, their death rate was higher than births, which kept the slave industry booming.

Old World livestock thrived in the New World.  The new ecosystem had abundant vegetation, was free from Old World pathogens and parasites, and wild predators were not a serious threat.  Animals grew faster and larger, and had more offspring.  On the pampa of South America, where few humans lived, feral horses and cattle multiplied into huge populations — they had no buffalo to compete with.

Corn (maize) was a super-productive crop.  Sowing a bushel of wheat might yield 12 to 20 bushels at harvest time.  A bushel of corn might yield 200 bushels or more.  Corn could be grown using simple tools and unskilled labor.  It could be grown on marginal soils, required minimal weeding, and could survive several frosts.  It stored well.  Husks discouraged losses to birds.  When mature, ears could be left on the stalk and harvested later, without risk of spoilage.

Settlers in America were far better nourished than the sickly mobs of Europe.  Most lived in rural areas, in low density, which discouraged epidemics.  They bred like crazy, and many of their kiddies survived to adulthood.  Folks had access to abundant land for expansion.  By 1775, the U.S. population was doubling every 25 years.  In 1790, half of Americans were younger than 16 years old.

Meanwhile, Europeans took corn, potatoes, and treasure back to the Old World, where they blindsided almost everything.  Corn became a staple in southern Europe.  For many folks, it was their primary food.  Because it lacks the essential nutrient niacin, many poor folks came down with pellagra.  Around the world, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, hundreds of thousands died from pellagra.  The simple cure was a slightly better diet.

Potatoes were widely adopted in northern Europe, where they produced far more nutrients per area than traditional grain crops, which were vulnerable to molds, fungus, and cool weather.  A family of five could survive on 5 acres (2 ha) of grain, or just 1.5 acres of potatoes.  Folks remained healthy on a daily diet of 11 pounds (5 kg) of potatoes and some milk (another source said 10 pounds).  Potatoes contained vitamin C, so far fewer died from scurvy during winter months.  Farmers could raise them on marginal soils, using only a spade.  In wartime, invaders could easily steal stored grain, but buried spuds were often too much effort to swipe, so fewer farmers starved.

Gold, silver, and gems were hauled back to Europe.  This provided a flash flood of new wealth, which greatly expanded the global economy.  Manufactured stuff went to the New World, and resources sailed back to Europe.  The wealth surge provided the capital needed to jump start the Industrial Revolution. 

Because potatoes and corn were highly productive, less cropland was needed.  So, many peasants were forced off the land, to make room for sheep, which generated more profit.  Mobs of displaced people migrated into cities, where they provided cheap labor for industry.  After the 1666 epidemic in London, the plague largely went dormant in Europe.  This spurred population growth, which intensified urban filth, and provided ideal conditions for the cholera epidemic that arrived in 1829.

Aided by potatoes and corn, both Europe and America were able to harvest far more food.  People were better nourished, so child mortality dropped.  The population of Europe leaped from 80 million in 1492, to 180 million in 1800, and 390 million in 1900.  Europe was bursting with people, and many migrated to colonies — Australia, New Zealand, southern Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Canada, and the U.S.  Bottom line, world population leaped from 450 million in 1500 to 7.5 billion in 2018.

Crosby concluded that Columbus sparked “the greatest demographic catastrophe in the human record.”  “The encounter may have been the most influential event on this planet since the retreat of the continental glaciers.”  “Calories can make as much history as cannons — more in the long run.” 

Crosby, Alfred W.  Germs, Seeds, and Animals: Studies in Ecological History, M. E. Sharpe, Armonk, New York, 1994.

Other Crosby books I’ve reviewed are Children of the Sun, and Throwing Fire.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Ghost Map

Steven Johnson’s book, The Ghost Map, is a thoroughly researched, very interesting, and well written historical detective story.  It describes how Dr. John Snow proved that cholera was a waterborne disease, during an 1854 epidemic in London.  In those days, nobody knew that tiny invisible life forms, in a nice cool glass of water, could pull the curtains on your existence in a most unpleasant way.

At the time, London was suffering from a population explosion, soaring from one million in 1800, to 2.4 million in 1851 (5 million in 1900, now 14 million).  Its infrastructure was totally inadequate for the huge mob.  “It was a kind of permanent, rolling disaster, a vast organism destroying itself by laying waste to its habitat.”  One question tormented the minds of urban bureaucrats: “What are we going to do with all this shit?”  London had become the biggest city in the world, and the biggest city in human history.  To cholera bacteria, heaven looks like dense crowds of people who are unclever at sanitation.  Joy!

The domestication of grain in the Fertile Crescent was a half-clever blooper that enabled humans to exist in densities that were unnatural, unhealthy, and crazy-making.  Cholera apparently emerged in Asia in about 500 B.C.  Much later, in the age of steamships and locomotives, both people and pathogens could travel great distances at speeds never before possible.  Cholera arrived in Europe in 1829, advanced to Britain in 1831, and then sailed across the Atlantic to Montreal in 1832.  Boats and trains rapidly spread it across Canada and the U.S.  In the past two centuries, seven pandemics have spread cholera around the world.  The seventh began in 1961, and is still killing today.

In the old days, filthy cities were population sinks — the death rate exceeded the birth rate.  Child mortality was very high.  An analysis of 1842 data found that 62 percent of recorded deaths were children under 5.  The upper class life expectancy was 45, and for commoners it was their mid-20s.  Another source noted that in 1750, the population increase in all of England was cancelled by the high mortality of London.  Urban population levels were maintained by a steady inflow of rural peasants who had been forced off the common lands to make room for sheep, and refugees from the famine in Ireland.

Johnson described 1850s London as a city that wasted little.  Thousands of underclass scavengers did a remarkable job of recycling.  They included “bone pickers, rag gatherers, pure finders, dredgermen, mud larks, sewer hunters, dustmen, night soil men, bunters, toshers, shoremen.”  Pure finders gathered dog turds (“pure”) and sold them to tanneries.

Londoners got their water from shallow wells in their neighborhoods.  Sewage and other wastes were stored in cesspools.  When your cesspool was full, the night soil men hauled the dreck out to farms, where it was applied to fields.  As the city expanded, the distance to farms increased, as did the cost of removal.  So, more and more stinky muck remained in town.  Dung heaps grew to the size of large houses.  The entire city had a powerfully intoxicating aroma.  Parliament had to shut down during a heat wave 1858, when the flowing sewer known as the Thames River emitted the Great Stink.

The center stage of Johnson’s book was a well pump at 40 Broad Street, in the Soho district.  Near the end of August 1854, the six month old daughter of the Lewis family got sick and died.  Her soiled diapers went into the cesspool, and caused the biggest cholera outbreak in London history.  The cesspool was only accessible to the Lewis family.  Other tenants in the building “tossed their waste out the windows into the squalid courtyard at the back of the house.”  The cesspool was in the cellar, and the brick-lined well was just 32 inches (81 cm) away.  Oh-oh!

A thousand people used the pump.  Ironically, the water was clearer than water from other pumps in the neighborhood, and many preferred it.  In less than two weeks, 700 nearby people were dead.  Cholera symptoms included an upset stomach and rocket diarrhea.  When this happened, you might turn blue and be dead within 48 hours.  To become infected, you had to ingest more than a million bacteria, via contaminated water.  Stomach acid killed almost all of them.  If survivors entered your intestines, you might soon be joining your neighbors for a ride in the dead cart.

With the exception of Dr. Snow, all the experts agreed that the cause of cholera was miasma — stinky air.  Poor Dr. Snow was cursed with an ability to engage in critical thinking.  If the entire city smelled like shit, why did cholera only occur in isolated clusters?  Why did the sewer hunters, who spent their days wading in filthy muck looking for lost valuables, not die like flies?

Much of the book is a tragi-comical soap opera about the astonishing stupidity of experts.  Since miasma was certainly the cause of the problem, the solution was to move the stink elsewhere.  So, in the name of public health, they built sewer systems, and directed the smelly crud into river.  Before long, “the Thames had been transformed from a fishing ground teeming with salmon to one of the most polluted waterways in the world.”  Meanwhile, the epidemics continued.

In this era, private water companies were also growing, in response to the trendy flush toilet fad (flushes filled cesspools even faster).  There was no unified city plan.  So, it was not uncommon for water company intake pipes to be a bit downstream from sewer system discharge pipes.  Guess what happened.

Anyway, after much study, Dr. Snow concluded that the water from the Broad Street pump was somehow killing people.  The experts howled, shrieked, and called him a bloody nutjob.  He drew a map showing the location of the neighborhood pumps, and added a black mark for each cholera death, at the location of their residence — the “ghost map.”  Yikes!  Luckily, Snow convinced a respected pastor in the neighborhood, and they managed to get permission to remove the pump handle.  The deaths soon tapered off.

Meanwhile, Mr. Lewis, the father of the dead baby, also died.  Mrs. Lewis dumped his filth in the cesspool in the cellar.  If the handle had not been removed, the epidemic would have raged on.  The accuracy of Snow’s theory was supported by obvious smoking gun evidence and numerous eyewitnesses.  Yet, even after he made this revolutionary discovery, and curtailed the epidemic, the experts continued to ridicule him.  His achievement wasn’t honored until years after his death.

As I write, many in America’s ruling class refuse to believe that human activities are accelerating climate change.  Many consider them to be shameless loudmouth liars, because it’s impossible for anyone to actually be so stupid.  Really?

I enjoyed the book until the Epilogue, when it hit a patch of banana peels.  Johnson, a proud resident of the utopia of Brooklyn, praises the excellent cities in developed countries.  Birth rates are low, life expectancies are high, incomes are huge, health care is great, the technology is state of the art, well-educated residents are very cool people, the food and entertainment are amazing, and the environmental footprint is much smaller than in the suburbs.  Eventually, everyone will live in wonderful cities, and enjoy excellent lives.  Hooray!

The tone is mostly upbeat, but he does acknowledge that we may experience some problems in the coming years — climate change, energy limits, warfare, influenza pandemics, and so on.  Don’t worry!  Things also looked bleak in 1854 — but the experts saved them!  The global challenges in 2018 are many orders of magnitude worse.  There are now three megacities with populations over 30 million.  In many regions today, conditions are fairly similar to 1854, or worse.

Johnson believes that cities will survive the end of oil.  Hmmm…  Systems for water distribution, sewage treatment, trash removal, medical services, agriculture, transportation, lighting, heating, cooling, law enforcement, communications, manufacturing, etc., require enormous amounts of energy — primarily fossil energy.  Experts who believe in technological miracles, rational societies, and rapid radical worldwide change, suffer from thought processes similar to the miasma experts of London.  A human herd of seven-plus billion, largely urban, propelled by human muscles and horse power, is magical thinking.

Sorry for the ranting.  I really liked most of the book.  The Epilogue made me stop and think (and wince).  Maybe that was the clever plan.  Maybe Johnson is a coyote teacher, using slippery ideas to overwhelm our mental autopilot, and trick us into putting the whip to our prodigious brains.

Johnson, Steven, The Ghost Map, Riverhead Books, New York, 2006.

Sunday, May 13, 2018


Sebastian Junger’s bestselling book Tribe is fascinating and perplexing.  He’s a journalist who has covered a number of armed conflicts.  As a result of these experiences, he’s developed an admiration for war and warriors, because chaos brings out the best in people.  It creates an alternate reality in which it is acceptable and desirable to behave like human beings (sort of).

During times of helter-skelter, people shift into a tribal mode.  Divisive stuff, like race, religion, and politics, are largely swept under the bed.  Emotional disagreements over beliefs that are irrelevant to the immediate situation can get everyone killed — the opposite of the preferred outcome.  In chaos, people share, cooperate, care for others, and abandon class roles.  The tribal mindset feels pleasantly natural and satisfying, a refreshing change.  They cease being the isolated individuals that industrial society excels at mass producing.

In combat, warriors become capable of great courage and great cruelty.  They transform into fearless beings of holy rage who laugh in the face of death.  “They wore amulets and magical charms and acted as if they were possessed, deliberately running into gunfire and dancing while firing their weapons.”  They were intensely and absolutely alive (sort of).

This reminded me of stories about wild European warriors.  Berzerkers were sometimes swept away by a state of fury they could not turn off.  They killed everyone in sight, even friends.  In Ireland, Cu Chulainn was so overheated with battle rage that a group of naked women was sent out to calm him.  He was put in vats of cold water, which boiled and evaporated.

Junger noted that when a deployment ends, warriors plunge down a chute, back to consumer oblivion.  They return to “a society where most people work outside the home, children are educated by strangers, families are isolated from wider communities, and personal gain almost completely eclipses collective good.”  It’s a sharp slap on the face.  Equality comes to an abrupt end, class roles resume, and some brave warriors once again have to move to the back of the bus, work crap jobs, and suffer the arrogant rudeness of petty tyrants.  It immediately becomes apparent that the society that they had fought to protect is insane.

Back in consumer wonderland, herds of strangers, blissed out on antidepressants, devote total attention to tiny glowing screens.  Roads are jammed with frantic reckless drivers who have no sense of courtesy or common decency.  Alpha consumers proudly posture beside their shiny $50,000 pickup trucks and pretentious McMansions.  It’s like a loony zoo for primates born in captivity.  Warriors feel completely out of place.  Many snap.  Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is common. 

Junger is fond of American Indian tribes, because they honored and respected warriors, and performed ceremonies to help them successfully reintegrate into civilian society.  The mindset of modern warriors has elements in common with the tribal cultures of wild societies.  Humans have a powerful desire to be close to others.  Hunter-gatherers learned to share food, help one another, promptly resolve conflicts, and cooperate in team hunting and group defense.  Self-centered individualists were annoying pariahs, because they were a threat to group stability.

Junger reminds readers of colonial times, when whites captured by Indians actually preferred living in the wild society of their captors.  Many refused to return to rigid Christian society, even when begged by relatives.  This was so common that laws were passed that prohibited settlers from abandoning their communities and voluntarily choosing to live in tribal freedom.

Page one asserts that the white colonizers were aggressively conquering Stone Age Indians who had barely changed technologically in 15,000 years.  I disagree.  During the colonization process, Indians acquired horses, guns, and metal tools.  Horses dramatically cranked up the velocity and intensity of warfare, enabling the rise of the Comanche empire.  Hunting on horseback made it much easier to kill bison, which increased the possibility of overhunting and population growth.

The three sisters system of agriculture (corn, squash, beans) began expanding around 800 A.D., following several centuries of experimentation.  It allowed far more nutrients to be extracted from the same land area.  This led to surging population, increased conflict, mutual defense alliances, hierarchical chiefdoms, and large villages surrounded by rugged wooden palisades.  Junger mentions that the Iroquois empire dominated just about every tribe within 500 miles (804 km).

Tribal towns emerged at Cahokia, Illinois; Spiro, Oklahoma; Moundville, Alabama; and Etowah, Georgia.  Each invested many years of manual labor in building monumental earthworks.  Mound 72 at Cahokia contained the bodies of 52 young women, sacrificed in some way that did not leave marks on their bones. Their bodies had been stacked in two tidy layers.  South of the border, in the motherland of corn, Aztecs apparently sacrificed thousands of people every year.

Junger’s short book often feels like a supertanker of testosterone.  It feels like its primary message was a celebration of war, warriors, and tribal culture.  But anthropologists tell us that war is not a normal component for all tribes.  There have been many exceptions, and these cultures did not domesticate grains, or enslave horses or livestock.

I had a flash of excitement when Junger briefly mentioned the !Kung people of the Kalahari, the northern group of the San hunter-gatherers.  Louis Lieberman noted that the San are genetically among of the oldest modern humans.  Their hunting culture survived into the 1950s, and may have survived continuously for 200,000 years or more.  They possess all the positive characteristics of tribal people, minus the warrior tradition.

Junger’s book devotes abundant attention to the holiness of warriors.  Do you think the pathology of modern society could be cured by becoming more war oriented?  The book devotes far less attention to the creepy soul-killing civilian culture that warriors hated returning to.  Modern societies fail to provide a way of life that is comfortable, normal, and natural for primates.  We weren’t meant to live like neurotic caged animals amidst crowds of strangers in sprawling concrete metropolises.

The book’s subtitle is “On Homecoming and Belonging.”  Home is far more than a group of humans.  Even more important, home is also a place that supports a complex family of life — wild life.  From what I gather, Junger grew up in Boston, and has spent most of his adult years in New York City.  I sense that he, along with most Americans, has never experienced a healthy lifelong spiritual connection to a healthy wild ecosystem.  We are a society of lost and lonely homeless critters.

If this disconnection does not change, we can have no long term future.  Modern societies are possessed by a collective trance — an overwhelming blind faith in technological miracles, perpetual growth, and endless progress.  We are the greatest, and the best is yet to come!  It will take a profound cultural awakening to break out of this toxic trance.  Junger scores points for pointing out how dysfunctional our society is.  In order to successfully break the spell of powerful illusions, millions more need to join him in delegitimizing the black magic juju.

What’s missing is a heartfelt celebration of wildness, and the powerful medicine of healthy connection.  Also missing is a deeper discussion of the conflicts he reported on.  In two sentences, Junger mentions that he did not support the Vietnam War, or the Iraq War.  So, on the battlefields, young warriors learned some beneficial aspects of tribal relationships.  But the warriors were risking their lives to participate in wars that were not justified — wars that should never been started.  Might there be better ways of learning how to have healthy relationships with the family of life?

Junger, Sebastian, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Twelve Books, New York, 2016.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Biggest Estate on Earth

The British colonization of Australia began in 1788.  Historian Bill Gammage, a white fella, spent ten years studying the writings of early observers, as well as paintings, drawings, and maps from the era.  The landscape in 1788 looked radically different from today.  Much of what is now dense forest or scrub used to be grasslands.  Early eyewitnesses frequently commented that large regions looked like parks.  In those days, all English parks were the private estates of the super-rich.  Oddly, the Aborigines who inhabited the park-like Australian countryside were penniless bare naked Stone Age heathens.  Their wealth was the land.

For unknown reasons, the British immigrants did not immediately discard their clothes, metal tools, livestock, and Bibles, fetch spears, and melt into the wilderness — freedom!  Instead, they attempted to transplant the British way of life onto a continent for which it was unsuitable.  In his book, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, Gammage focused on the first century of the colony (1788–1888), an era he refers to as “1788” in the text.  He refers to the Aborigines as “people,” and the aliens as “newcomers.”

In a nutshell, he describes the people as being brilliant at surviving in a brutally bipolar drought & deluge climate, and the newcomers as a hapless demolition team.  Gammage’s academic peers, stodgy old gits faithfully clinging to the glorious myths of Empire and white supremacy, did not leap to their feet cheering for his scandalous nonsense.  So, his book is jam-packed with images and lengthy quotations that support his heretical conclusions (1,522 footnotes!).  The endless parade of historic evidence may test the endurance of general readers, but Gammage had to do it in order to avoid being dismissed as a raving nutjob.

A core subject in the book is firestick farming — using fire to deliberately reconfigure ecosystems in order to better satisfy human desires.  Our species originally evolved as grassland hunters that loved dining on large herbivores.  In Australia, the people used a variety of fire strategies for transforming rainforest and scrub into lush grassland.  This greatly expanded habitat for delicious grass loving critters.

The people used both hot fires and cool fires to manage vegetation that was fire intolerant, fire tolerant, fire dependent, or fire promoting.  Different fires were used to promote specific herbs, tubers, bulbs, or grasses.  To prevent new grassland from reverting to woody vegetation, it needed to be burned every two to four years.  Eventually, after decades or centuries of repeated burnings, there would be no more dormant tree seeds that could germinate.  According to Gammage, “Most of Australia was burnt about every 1 to 5 years depending on local conditions and purposes, and on most days people probably burnt somewhere.”

Ideally, in selected locations, patches of dry grassland were burned as rains approached.  Several days after a shower, fresh green highly nutritious grass burst through the ashes, and the wildlife raced in to feast on it.  After a burn, the grass grew waist high, and often head high.  Some sites were deliberately designed to optimize ambush hunting for kangaroos or wallabies.  Without managers or fences, the wild game animals capably raised themselves, and eagerly moved to where the people provided fresh food.  By keeping most fires small, the people chose when and where game would be concentrated.  On outstanding years, when herds got too large, surplus animals were slaughtered, to avoid rocking the ecological boat.  Australia had few large predators that competed with the people, or ate the people.

Gammage saw that the people lived in affluence.  They had learned how to live through 100 year droughts and giant floods.  No region was too harsh for people to inhabit.  Their culture had taboos that set limits on reproduction and hunting.  Hunting was prohibited in breeding grounds for important animals.  Lots of food resources were left untouched most of the time.  Newcomers were astonished to observe the great abundance of wild herbivores, fish, birds, and edible plants.  Abundance was the norm.  “People accepted its price.  They must be mobile, constantly attendant, and have few fixed assets.”

In 1788, the people were also growing crops, including plums, coconuts, figs, berries, macadamia nuts, tubers, bulbs, roots, rhizomes, and shoots.  Yams were grown in paddocks that could cover many square miles.  The people planted grains, including wild millet and rice.  Early newcomers described millet meadows of a thousand acres (405 ha), as far as the eye could see.  The people’s method of farming did not require a permanent sedentary life.  They stored food, but they didn’t remain by their stores to guard them.  Even in harsh times, theft was uncommon.  The people were astonished to see how hard the newcomers worked to grow food.  Whites perceived hard work to be a virtue.

The people made farm and wilderness one.  Also, their way of life intimately married spirituality and ecology.  Gammage provided a fascinating chapter on the spiritual life of the people.  While many different languages were spoken in wild Australia, all places shared the same cosmology, the Dreaming.  Reality was created by their original ancestors in the Dreamtime, and they established the Law, which required the people to care for all of their country.

“The Dreaming has two rules: obey the Law, and leave the world as you found it.”  Thus, fundamental change was outlawed.  Many other societies are possessed with a pathological desire for change, and see it as natural — progress.  Their god word is Growth.  “People prize knowledge as Europeans prize wealth.”

The native kangaroo grass was excellent (“caviar for grazers”).  It was a deep-rooted, drought tolerant perennial that held the soil in place, retained soil moisture, survived fire, and was highly nutritious.  It remained green after four months without rain, a great asset for wildlife in drought times.  The newcomers’ sheep grazed it down to bare clay, killing the grass.

Wetlands were drained to expand pasture.  Livestock compacted the soil, which dried out, and cracked.  Springs, ponds, and creeks evaporated, eliminating the critters that lived in them.  When rains returned, runoff was increased, leading to erosion, landslides, deep gullies, floods, silt chokes, and the spread of salts.  An observer in 1853 commented on the growing soil destruction: “Ruts, seven, eight, and ten feet deep, and as wide, are found for miles, where two years ago it was covered with a tussocky grass like a land marsh.”

The unclever solution was to continue overgrazing, and plant exotic grasses from Europe and Africa.  These were shallow-rooted annuals that flourished in winter and spring, wheezed in summer, and died when burnt.  When “the land looks drought-stricken; it is cattle-stricken.”  Before long, the finest native grasses were greatly reduced, and in many places eradicated.

The newcomers wanted to live like rural Brits — permanent homes, built on fenced private property.  They freaked out when the people set fires to maintain the grassland.  Before long, districts began banning controlled burns.  This led to the return of saplings and brush.  So, in just 40 years, the site of a tidy dairy farm could be replaced by dense rainforest.

Without burning, insect numbers exploded.  In 48 hours, a pasture could be nuked by caterpillars or locusts.  Dense clouds of kangaroo flies drove newcomers crazy.  Leaf-eating insects defoliated entire forests.  Without burning, fuels built up, leading to new catastrophes, called bushfires.  Since 1788, there have been many catastrophic bushfires.  The Black Thursday fire hit on February 6, 1851.  It burned 12 million acres (5 million ha), killed a million sheep, thousands of cattle, and countless everything else.

Newcomers generously shared smallpox and other diseases with the people, who proceeded to die in great numbers.  Too late, the people realized that the newcomers intended to stay.  They resisted, but were badly outnumbered.  Newcomers “brought the mind and language of plunderers: profit, property, resource, improve, develop, change.  They had no use for people who wanted the world left as it was.”  They were champions at the dark juju of genocide.

Without people hunting them, the kangaroo population exploded, gobbling up the grass intended for sacred cows and sheep.  Bounties were paid for kangaroo scalps.  “In 1881, New South Wales paid a bounty on 581,753 roo scalps — 1600 a day — and in 1884 on 260,780 scalps in the Tamworth district alone, but roo plagues continued.”

Australia is an especially salty continent.  There are large lakes saltier than the ocean, and numerous saltwater rivers and creeks.  In many regions, topsoil sits on a layer of clay, which keeps water from penetrating into the salt below.  Since 1788, the salt problem has become far worse.  The bigger trees grow, the more water they drink, saltwater rises, killing the trees.  Also, forest clearing increases runoff, and faster moving water cuts deeper into subsurface salt — so do plows and other mutilations.  The salt predicament befuddles the experts, but all agree that salt is an effective cure for agriculture.

One question perplexes me: Was firestick farming genuinely sustainable for the long run?  It significantly altered the ecosystem of a land the size of 48 U.S. states, minus Hawaii and Alaska, and the alterations had to be regularly maintained, century after century.  Nobody is sure when the practice eventually became time-proven and widely adapted.  Obviously, Australia wasn’t interested in being continually forced to dress scantily, like a park.  At the first opportunity, she rushed to return to her preferred wardrobe, primarily forest and scrub.  Could the burning have continued indefinitely, without additional harm?  Should we consider firestick farming to be a form of domestication?

Gammage’s benediction:  “We have a continent to learn.  If we are to survive, let alone feel at home, we must begin to understand our country.  If we succeed, one day we might become Australian.”

Gammage, Bill, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2011.

There are several Gammage videos on YouTube.