Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Ten Billion

Stephen Emmott is a chief techno-wizard at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, England.  His brilliant young scientists are doing research in complex natural systems.  Their objective is to invent miracles.  They want to program ordinary cells to perform photosynthesis, so we can produce food from sunlight, without plows and seeds.  Agriculture can’t feed ten billion.  The goal is to delay the onrushing planetary emergency, and push aside annoying obstacles to perpetual growth.

Much of the public seems to be paying little attention to the emergency, if they are aware of it at all.  Biking around the university town where I live, I don’t sense a crisis of overpopulation.  I don’t sense that global carbon emissions have increased 400 percent in my lifetime.  The squirrels, opossums, ducks, and blue jays have not gone extinct.  Life seems normal.  Everything is OK.  Right?

A wealth of information can be found online, but many internet factoids are generated by slippery gangsters who accumulate riches by accelerating the planetary emergency.  You see their work hundreds of times every day.  Among their favorite tools are magical rubber stamps that imprint [SUSTAINABLE] with subliminal green ink — [SUSTAINABLE] soil mining, [SUSTAINABLE] forest mining, [SUSTAINABLE] fish mining, [SUSTAINABLE] growth, [SUSTAINABLE] development, and on and on.

Emmott’s clan of brilliant scientists is an oddity.  They do not have the rubber stamp.  They are not wearing choke chains that will be jerked if they express ideas that offend the mighty.  They will not lose their jobs if they conclude that we are in the midst of a planetary emergency.  When thinkers are free to learn without blinders and hobbles, they come to perceive reality as an intense whirlwind of out-of-control juju.  This can be a head-snapping experience.

Emmott realized that it would be good to share his disturbing discoveries with the world, to help others see.  Being present in reality, with eyes wide open, breaks the spell.  It provides vision, coherence, and empowerment unavailable to those who stumble in a fog of illusions.  So, in a burst of creative energy, he sat down and wrote Ten Billion, a most unusual book.

It’s 216 pages long, but it can be read in less than an hour.  There is more white space than text.  Some pages are home to five words.  In a normal book, the text might fill 25 pages.  Ten Billion resembles a PowerPoint presentation — an orderly stream of brief statements, decorated with attention-grabbing photos and charts.  He smelted down a mountain of raw data, reducing it to vital conclusions, the pure essence of his vision, and nothing else.

According to one review, readers have a love/hate relationship with the book.  Techies and scientists tend to be annoyed by bold statements unsupported by exhaustive explanations and scholarly citations.  Commoners are more likely to appreciate the simplicity.  It’s encouraging that the book is keeping the cash registers busy at Amazon — it’s attracting hungry minds.  For oddballs like myself, who have read several hundred books on the planetary emergency, Ten Billion is just basic information that every well-educated high school student should know by now.

For example, “We currently have no known means of being able to feed ten billion of us at our current rate of consumption and with our current agricultural system.”  Indeed, experts expect food productivity to decline in the coming decades, “possibly very sharply.”  Why?  Reserves of phosphate, a mineral nutrient essential for agriculture, are no longer plentiful.  Desertification and urban sprawl are reducing cropland area.  Soils are being depleted, or eroding away.  Weeds, diseases, and insects continue to develop resistance to our latest chemicals.  Farmers are draining rivers and emptying underground aquifers.

To feed ten billion people, many of whom want more meat, food production must double.  Keeping a growing mob on life support will require far more water, energy, and cropland.  Kiss the tropical forests goodbye.  Kiss countless wild species goodbye.  Adding more people will also increase carbon emissions and accelerate climate change.

Don’t worry about Peak Energy.  Instead, worry that we’ll continue extracting and burning what we’ve already discovered.  Worry that we’ll discover even more, and burn that, too.  Worry about climate change.  A 2°C rise in the global climate would be catastrophic.  New research suggests that a rise of 4 degrees is likely, and 6 degrees is possible.  As the Arctic heats up, large amounts of methane are being released in thousands of plumes.  “This could be very big trouble on a very big scale.”

Even if miracles provided us with abundant clean energy, eliminated climate change, and inspired us to consume far, far less, we’re still doomed if population growth continues.  It is helpful to educate more women, and provide family planning services, but it is still very common for women have more than two children, often many more.  “The worst thing we can continue to do — globally — is have children at the current rate.”

Anyway, after a quick tour of our primary challenges, Emmott finally reveals two options for addressing them, (1) technological innovation, and (2) radical behavior change.  He warns that expecting techno-miracles requires “a staggering leap into fantasy.”  Science is unlikely to rescue us.  But radical behavior change requires a radical reduction in consumption, radically different governments, and a radically different economy.  The bottom line is on the last page.  “We urgently need to do — and I mean actually do — something radical to avert global catastrophe.  But I don’t think we will.  I think we’re fucked.”

For years, publishers have required eco-books to offer some light at the end of the tunnel.  “We only have 30 years to prevent disaster.”  Then, it was 20 years.  Then, it was 10 years.  Write letters to your legislators!  Change your light bulbs!  Let’s mobilize the nation, as we did during World War II, to sharply reduce consumption!  Those books failed to make enough people care.  The house was not on fire, yet.

If you spent months studying 500 channels of TV, you would not be blown off your couch by a fire hose of messages describing the planetary emergency.  “We’re not getting the information we need.  The scale and nature of the problem is simply not being communicated to us.”  A healthy dose of truth might encourage us to reflect upon how we live, and what we value, but that would slow economic growth.

A primary objective of our education system is to prepare the next generation for careers in [SUSTAINABLE] development, so they can live like there’s no tomorrow.  To expose innocent youth to full strength reality would plunge them into deep despair, reducing them to walking dead zombies, we claim.  Actually, despair is a normal, healthy, and rational response to today’s reality.  It’s not a terminal illness, it’s an opening of the heart that revives us as we recover from soul loss.  How can we interact intelligently with reality if we don’t comprehend reality?

There is no silver bullet cure for the planetary emergency.  There is no undo button.  But living mindfully, present in reality, is healing and empowering.  Our species did not evolve to be recreational shoppers.  We weren’t meant to spend our lives mindlessly hoarding frivolous status trinkets.  There’s no future in that.  It’s not even fun.  There are other paths.

Emmott, Stephen, Ten Billion, Vintage Books, New York, 2013.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Too Hot to Touch

Modern society provides a long menu of predicaments to inspire our nightmares.  For a number of years, climate change has been hogging the spotlight.  It’s time to have more nightmares about radiation.  Folks think that if we simply quit building new reactors, the nuclear boo-boo will go away, and we can forget about it — wrong!  William and Rosemarie Alley have shed much light on the subject with their book, Too Hot to Touch.  It reveals a deeply embarrassing chapter that has been omitted from the glorious epic of technology and progress.

Nuclear weapons were invented during World War II.  Nagasaki and Hiroshima were turned into ashtrays, but the enormous unintended consequences of half-baked genius have dwarfed the destruction of two cities.  We continue to create stuff that will remain extremely toxic for millions of years, and none of it is stored in secure permanent facilities, where it will cause no harm.

The war was followed by an arms race.  A hundred new bombs were detonated at the Nevada Test Range between 1951 and 1962.  Nuke tests became a tourist attraction.  Families sat in folding chairs at open-air spectator sites to see the amazing mushroom clouds.  A few minutes after the blast, they were sprinkled with fine dust.  Several decades later, the region became “the thyroid cancer capital of the world.”

Lunatics became giddy with nuclear mania.  Some wanted to blast a new canal across Panama.  Others dreamed of a coast-to-coast waterway across the U.S.  Others wanted to nuke Gibraltar, and turn the Mediterranean into a freshwater sea.  In the Soviet Union, 120 bombs were used for earthmoving projects.

In 1954, construction began on the first U.S. nuclear power reactor at Shippingport, Pennsylvania.  At that time, nuclear waste was not seen to be especially dangerous.  Robert Oppenheimer, at the Atomic Energy Commission, referred to the issue of radioactive waste as “unimportant.”  Experts were possessed by a stupefying blind faith in scientific magic — there is a brilliant solution for everything!

They contemplated a variety of schemes for making high-level waste disappear.  Some recommended shooting it into space, or burying it in sea floor clay beds.  The Soviets disposed it via deep well injection, in a liquid form that may not sit still for millions of years.  The U.S., U.K., France, and the U.S.S.R. have dumped a lot of waste in the oceans.  The Irish have caught contaminated lobsters and fish.

There are a number of radioactive elements and isotopes.  All of them are unstable and become less dangerous over time, degrading at varying rates of speed.  Most forms of uranium are mildly radioactive.  The atoms that are heavier than natural uranium are manmade, and some remain dangerous for millions of years.  Some are water soluble and highly mobile.  Some are picked up by plants and animals, and are biomagnified as they move up the food chain.

Experts eventually realized that high-level radioactive wastes were nastier than expected.  They had to be stored underground, in geologic repositories that would remain stable for a million years.  Serious research began at an old salt mine in Kansas.  Then, a plutonium plant in Colorado burned, and high-level waste was shipped to Idaho, where cardboard boxes of it were dumped into open trenches.  The media reported the story, and the nation soon realized that nutjobs were in charge of handling terrifically toxic dreck.  This detonated high-level fear.  Kansas promptly nuked the proposed repository.

The next hot prospect was Yucca Mountain, on the edge of the Nevada Test Site.  The government invested $10 billion on 25 years of research.  The objective was to prove that the site would be safe for a million years.  No place on Earth would be a perfect site.  Dr. Alley believed that Yucca Mountain was close enough to ideal.  (He spent years on the project, working for the U.S. Geological Survey.)

The core problem was that there were no politically suitable sites in the entire U.S., because every state would fiercely oppose a repository within their borders.  The public had a reasonable fear of high-level waste.  They also had a reasonable lack of trust in anything the government told them, after years of lies and deceptions.  Nevada was no exception.  The government’s nuclear testing had already turned much of the state into a radioactive wasteland.

Obama was elected in 2008.  Steven Chu was his Secretary of Energy.  In March 2009, Chu announced, “Yucca Mountain was not an option.”  He presented no explanations or alternatives.  Why did Chu kill the project?  “Virtually all observers attributed the decision to pull the plug on Yucca Mountain as political payoff to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada.  Nevada was a swing state in the election, and Obama had pledged to kill Yucca Mountain, if elected.”

So today, “there are some 440 nuclear power plants in 31 countries.  More are on the way.  Yet, no country on Earth has an operating high-level waste disposal facility.”  As of 2012, American taxpayers were responsible for storing a growing collection of high-level waste — 70,000 tons of spent fuel, and 20,000 canisters of military waste.  It’s being stored at 121 sites in 39 states.  In 15 other nations, 60 nuclear reactors are being built.

Industrial civilization is doing a fabulous job of trashing the planet’s atmosphere, forests, soils, oceans, aquifers, and biodiversity.  This is simply business as usual, and most of humankind is staring at their cell phones.  The future doesn’t matter — with the exception of nuclear waste repositories.  Almost no study has been devoted to the risks of doing nothing, and letting the crap remain where it is forever.  The Alleys steer around this red-hot issue, leaving readers to conjure worst-case nightmares.

Let’s take a side trip to Google.  The average U.S. reactor is 32 years old.  Reactors are licensed for 40 years.  When a license is not renewed, the reactor must be decommissioned, a process that often takes 60 years.  First, the reactor is turned off, and the fuel rods removed.  Then, wait 50 years.  This allows the radiation levels in the facility to cool off, making it much safer for the remaining work to proceed.  The buildings and contaminated soils are removed, and the site is restored to a harmless field.

Fuel rods have a working life of about six years.  Then, the spent fuel, which is still highly radioactive, is moved to cooling pools, where it must remain for at least five years.  Then, ideally, it is stored in dry casks.  If the pumps for the cooling pool quit, the water boils, the pool evaporates, and the rods are exposed to air.  If the uranium pellets in the rods are exposed to air, they melt, and begin releasing radioactive gasses. 

The meltdowns at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima were triggered by overheated fuel rods.  Cleanup efforts at Chernobyl are hampered by the Ukraine’s wheezing economy.  Around Chernobyl, citizens were permanently evacuated from a Zone of Alienation, which is larger than the state of Rhode Island.

In the U.S., the planned geologic repository did not materialize by the promised date, and no site has been approved, so spent fuel is piling up at reactor sites.  The Alleys note that some U.S. pools have been loaded with four times more rods than they were designed for, which increases potential risks.  Moving the rods to safer dry casks would cost billions of dollars.

Are we feeling lucky?  What will the world look like in 50 years?  Will effective geologic repositories be built in time?  Fifty years from now, will we have the oil, heavy equipment, transportation systems, functional governments, work crews, and wisdom to safely decommission the existing 440 reactors, plus the new ones being planned?  Will all of the reactors safely avoid disasters resulting from earthquakes, volcanoes, plane crashes, warfare, equipment failures, human errors, and sabotage?

If we cared about the generations to come, and if we were rational, what would a sane plan look like?  Today, orbiting spacecraft passing in the night can clearly see the city lights below.  My grandparents, and all of their ancestors, were born in homes without electricity.  They managed to survive without light bulbs, TVs, cell phones, or the internet.  They were good people who had satisfying lives.  The lights cannot stay on forever.

Alley, William M. and Alley, Rosemarie, Too Hot to Touch, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2013.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Who Will Feed China?

Lester Brown is an environmental analyst, and founder of the Worldwatch Institute, and the Earth Policy Institute.  His grand plan was to observe global trends, and produce objective information.  Brown’s many books and reports have provided rational advice for the world’s irrational policymakers.  He has not sold his soul to corporate interests.

In 1994, Brown wrote an essay, Who Will Feed China?  It triggered an explosive response.  Chinese leaders angrily denounced him.  But behind the scenes, they realized that their nation was vulnerable, because they had not perceived the big picture clearly.  Brown expanded his essay into a book with the same title, published in 1995.  It became a classic.  Reading it 20 years later is eerie, because many of his warnings now sound like the daily news.

Before they industrialized, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan were already densely populated.  Then, the growth of industry gobbled up a lot of cropland, which reduced food production, and forced all three to become dependent on imported grain.  In 1994, Japan imported 72 percent of its grain, South Korea 66 percent, and Taiwan 76 percent.

Brown saw that China was on a similar trajectory.  Cropland was limited, and it was rapidly being lost to sprawl, industry, and highways.  They were likely to lose half of their cropland by 2030.  They were also likely to add another 500 million people by 2030.  As incomes rose, people were eager to enjoy a richer diet, including more meat and beer.  This required even more cropland per person.

Freshwater for agriculture was also limited, and much of it was being diverted to growing cities and factories.  About 300 cities were already short of water.  China’s capitol, Beijing, was among 100 cities with severe water shortages.  Demand for water was sure to rise.  Only a few Chinese had indoor plumbing, and everyone wanted it.

Many farmers were forced to drill wells and pump irrigation water from aquifers, often at rates in excess of natural recharge — water mining.  As enormous amounts of water were removed underground, subsidence occurs.  The ground surface sinks, filling the void below, making it impossible for the aquifer to recharge in the future.  In northern China, subsidence affects a region the size of Hungary.  Irrigated fields produce the most food, but water mining will eventually force a reduction in irrigation.  Some regions may be forced to stop growing rice, a water-guzzling crop, and replace it with less productive millet or sorghum.

Grain productivity (yield per hectare) annually grew an average of 7.1 percent between 1977 and 1984.  The annual increase was less than 2 percent between 1984 and 1990, and just 0.7 percent between 1990 and 1994.  There were great hopes for biotechnology, but 20 years of efforts led to no significant increase in grain yields.  Meanwhile, the Yellow River moved 1.6 billion tons of topsoil to the ocean every year.

Now, assemble the pieces.  Population was likely to grow from 1.2 billion in 1995 to 1.66 billion in 2045.  Per capita grain consumption was growing, likely to increase 33 percent by 2030.  Cropland area was likely to decrease 50 percent by 2030.  Water for irrigation was limited, and certain to diminish.  Annual grain harvests may have been close to, or beyond, their historic peak.  The effects of climate change cannot be predicted, but might be severe.  In 1995, the notion of Peak Oil had not yet spread beyond the lunatic fringe, and Brown didn’t mention it, but at some point, it will make modern agriculture impossible.

Demand for grain was rising at a rate that would sharply exceed China’s harvests.  If their economy remained strong, they would have the money to import food.  But, would the food they need be available on the world market?  Following a century of catastrophic population growth, many nations were dependent on imported food.

As world population continued to grow, the ability to further increase food production was wheezing.  World grain stocks fell from 465 million tons in 1987, to 298 million tons in 1994.  At some point, surging demand for grain would exceed the surpluses of the exporters.  This would drive up the price of food.

Brown selected ten large developing nations where population growth remained extreme, and projected how much food they would need to import by 2030.  “By 2030, these countries — assuming no improvement in diet — will need to import 190 million tons of grain.  This is six times the amount they import today and nearly equal to total world grain exports in 1994.”

We were moving into an era of food instability.  “For the first time, an environmental event — the collision of expanding human demand with some of the earth’s natural limits — will have an economic impact that affects the entire world.”  Annual economic growth for the world was falling.  The global economy grew 5.2 percent in the ’60s, 3.4 percent in the ’70s, 2.9 percent in the ’80s, and 1.4 percent in 1990-94.  Slower growth, plus rising food prices, plus falling incomes, sets the stage for trouble.  “It could lead to political unrest and a swelling flow of hungry migrants across national borders.”

Agriculture was running out of steam.  The wizards of industrial civilization insisted that perpetual growth was possible, because our miraculous technology could overcome all challenges.  They were wrong.  Brown concludes, “The bottom line is that achieving a humane balance between food and people is now more in the hands of family planners than farmers.”  When Brown wrote, there were 5.6 billion of us.  Irrational policymakers disregarded the urgent need for family planning.  And so, today, at 7.2 billion, the world is a far more unstable place, with no light at the end of the tunnel.

Twenty years before Brown’s book, China realized that population growth was a problem.  They were adding 13 million every year, and emigration was not a real option.  Their one-child policy was launched in 1979, and the transition was bumpy.  The birthrate fell from 2.7 percent in 1970 to 1.1 percent in 1994.  It succeeded in preventing much misery, but it didn’t stop growth.  Brown praised them for actually taking action, forcing the present generation to sacrifice for the benefit of future generations — a concept unimaginable to Americans.

Brown, Lester R., Who Will Feed China?, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1995.

Here are recent follow-up reports from the Earth Policy Institute:

Can the World Feed China?  Lester R. Brown, February 25, 2014

Peak Water: What Happens When the Wells Go Dry?  Lester R. Brown, July 09, 2013

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Mao’s War Against Nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Dying of the Trees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Tender Carnivore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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