Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Destruction of California

Raymond Dasmann (1919–2002) was a professor of conservation biology, and the author of many books.  The poor fellow suffered from a devastating mental disturbance known as rationality, a condition that affects dozens of people in the civilized world.  He frequently experienced painful attacks of foresight and common sense.  Living in California, he was on the front line of the world war against the planet, an ecological blitzkrieg.  “When this war is finally won, the consequences will be as severe and irreversible as though we had fought a nuclear war,” he said.

Dasmann was born in San Francisco, in an era when there were few cars, the neighborhoods were pleasant, and men, women, and children felt perfectly safe, day or night, almost everywhere.  He was cursed to be born whilst the fossil energy blip was skyrocketing toward its climax, creating a bewildering whirlwind of immense change.  Young folks perceived the whirlwind to be normal, while older folks remembered better times, and were sickened by the senseless destruction, and the profound decay of society.

He wrote The Destruction of California when he was 45.  During his lifetime, the state’s population had grown six fold, spurred by a tsunami of immigration.  This was not good.  In the book, he described the various crises that were propelling the state toward disaster.  He wanted people to better understand the consequences of perpetual growth.  The book was published in 1965, 50 years ago.

Before colonization, California had been a cool scene for thousands of years.  Over time, the native hunter-gatherers learned how to live in a careful and respectful manner, and the ecosystem enjoyed jubilant health.  Their children were lucky to receive superb educations, which inspired them to live mindfully, in balance with the land.  The lasting marks that tribes left on the land were mostly mounds of discarded shells.

Later, the Spanish arrived, built missions, enslaved the Indians, introduced contagious diseases, and forced the natives to accept a foreign religion obsessed with world domination.  With the invaders came livestock and shipments of hay, which included the seeds of Spanish weeds.  The weeds were mostly annuals, and they were well adapted to thriving in a Mediterranean climate similar to California.  The grasses indigenous to California were primarily robust perennials that provided an excellent source of nutrition.

During drought times, there was less vegetation for the Spanish livestock to eat, leading to overgrazing.  The weed seeds sat patiently in the dust, waiting for a year when the rains returned.  Sadly, the weeds won.  The indigenous grasses are nearly extinct now.  Decade by decade, the quality of rangeland declined.  “In some places all that was left was worthless tarweed, star thistle, or cheat grass.”  Today, few people cruising through ranch country are capable of perceiving this glaring ecological train wreck.

Eighty years after the Spanish settled, a swarm of Americans rumbled into California, and they were out of their minds with Gold Fever.  They didn’t enslave Indians; they shot them.  Indians had been known to trade gold for glass beads, because gold was not super-big juju in their culture.  But gold made white folks crazy.  They would kill for it.  Gold was a magical rock that gave crazy people enormous illusions of grandeur.  With hydraulic mining, they channeled flowing streams through high-pressure nozzles and washed away entire mountains to extract the shiny rocks.

Early visitors to California were overwhelmed by the incredible abundance of wildlife.  Portions of the Central Valley looked like the Serengeti — herds of tule elk, pronghorn antelope, and black-tailed deer.  There were many wetlands.  “Here were birds in the tens of millions that darkened the sky when migrations sent them winging northward.”  In 1852, a man in Humboldt sat on a hill and observed 40 grizzly bears below.  The swarm of gold digging crazy people inspired other crazy people to get into the meat business via full-scale industrial hunting.  By 1910, the wildlife was in tatters.

Crazy people also became giddy with greed at the sight of 4,000 year old redwoods, 27 feet (8m) in diameter.  They sharpened their axes and went wacko.  Profits were invested in technology that enabled them to cut more and more.  There was no plan to leave anything for future generations.  The plan was to make as much money as possible, as fast as possible.  Floods washed away highways, bridges, and entire communities.  Fish perished in the silt-choked streams.  When Dasmann was writing, it looked like the old growth would be gone in 16 years.  At the same time, the community of Arcata was fiercely resisting the proposed creation of Redwood National Park.

Hordes of well-educated elites, who did not suffer from rationality, were delighted to get rich quick promoting the rapid growth of ghastly megacities in arid regions having minimal freshwater resources.  As the consumer mobs swelled in size, more streams were dammed, new aqueducts were built, rivers were pumped over mountains, and ancient water was removed from aquifers.  Nobody questioned this.  “Since growth is by definition progress, and progress is by definition good, this is deemed to be answer enough for any but a fool.”

Dasmann was driven out of his wits by this highly contagious pandemic of Get Rich Quick Fever.  Yet he was not an eco-revolutionary who recommended turning the clock back 400 years.  He didn’t preach the gospel of ecological sustainability.  His dream was quite modest; stop making things worse — think!  He worried about environmental destruction, the growing populations of people and automobiles, and the ongoing threat of water shortages.  Today, we can add to this list climate change, economic collapse, and growing limits on energy and other resources.  It’s 50 years later, and the crazy growth has not stopped.

The Indians lived in the same land for thousands of years without destroying it.  This is called “primitive.”  If whites had never arrived, the land would still be incredibly healthy.  But the blitzkrieg arrived in 1769, and the destruction has been accelerating at an exponential rate.  This is called “progress.”  The root problem here is not genes, but culture.  During the pilgrimage from womb to grave, every human floats in the currents of culture, like fish swim in water.

Indian children received superb educations because they lived in rational cultures that were mindful about not rocking the ecological boat.  Today’s kids are taught to work hard, shop like there’s no tomorrow, and leave the bill for their descendants.  Those who rock the boat the hardest earn the highest social status.  This screwy ritual is reinforced by teachers, preachers, peers, parents, the media — everywhere, all the time.  To break out of this toxic trance, a cultural meltdown is required.  Maybe we’ll be rescued by a beneficial calamity.

It’s difficult to question the madness.  We have a hard time comprehending how destructive and irrational our society is.  It’s nearly impossible to wrap our heads around the notion that the Indians enjoyed a way of life that had a long future.  It’s very hard for us to understand ecological intelligence, and desire it.  Thinking outside the box requires us to summon our inner power and leap into the unknown.  We have nothing to lose.

Dasmann, Raymond F., The Destruction of California, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1965.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015


Once upon a time, Richard Heinberg was a mild-mannered college professor in northern California.  In 1998, he happened to read an article in Scientific American that revealed the peak oil theory.  A small clan in the lunatic fringe had been discussing the notion, but it was now being yanked out of the closet by a number of retired petroleum geologists — respectable experts having front line experience with an increasingly ominous reality.

Peak oil was terrifying.  The geologists were telling us that our way of life was racing toward the cliff.  Dignified ladies and gentlemen naturally swept it under the carpet, because the notion was certainly impossible in this age of techno-miracles.  Anyway, the anticipated calamity was still 20 or 30 years away, so there was no need to think about it.

In 2003, Heinberg published The Party’s Over, which explained peak oil to a general audience.  Since then, he’s made a career out of exposing the dark side of growth, progress, and other mischief.  Eventually, he left the university and joined the Post Carbon Institute.  His message is that resource depletion, climate change, and economic meltdown will blindside our way of life in this century.  He suggests that now is a great time to pay closer attention to reality.

Decades of explosive economic growth were only possible because of cheap and abundant energy, abundant high quality mineral resources, and highly productive oil-powered agriculture.  Today, the perpetual growth monster is kept on life support by pumping it up with trillions of dollars of debt.  Back in the 1960s, a dollar of debt boosted the GDP by a dollar.  By 2000, a dollar of debt boosted GDP by just 20 cents.  Today, the tsunami of debt is creating a new stock market bubble, and its collapse may be worse than the crash of 2008.  The notion that “growth is over” inspires the titans of finance leap from tall buildings.

Well-paid goon squads of spin-doctors are effectively conjuring doubts about peak oil.  What they don’t mention is the energy returned on energy invested (EROEI).  A century ago, it took one calorie of energy to produce 100 calories of petroleum.  The EROEI was 100:1.  Today, the EROEI of U.S. production has plummeted to 10:1.  Tar sands, oil shale, and biofuels all are less than 5:1.  Most fossil energy will be left in the ground forever, because of low or negative EROEI.  Imagine having a job that paid $100 a day, but the bridge toll for getting there was $105.

It’s already too late to cleverly pull the plug on climate change and live happily ever after.  Our current strategy, ignoring the problem and denying it exists, is the preferred policy of our glorious leaders.  It might be possible to soften the worst-case scenario if we reduced our fossil fuel consumption by 80 to 90 percent by 2050, a daunting challenge.  The transition to renewable energy will be turbulent, because of its numerous shortcomings.  For example, trucks, planes, and agriculture cannot run on electricity.  Many uses of oil have no substitute.

Welcome to the subject matter of Heinberg’s latest book, Afterburn.  We’re living in the final decades of a one-time freak-out in human history, the Great Burning.  For two centuries, we’ve been extracting and burning staggering amounts of sequestered carbon, for no good reason.  What were we thinking?  It’s nonrenewable, so using it as the core energy source for industrial civilization could only have a crappy ending.  For thousands of years, Arab herders traveled across regions containing oceans of oil, left it alone, and enjoyed a good life.  Self-destruction is not mandatory.

The book takes readers on an up-to-date tour of the unintended consequences of the Great Burning, and presents reasonable arguments for why it’s moving into the sunset phase.  The final chapters of Afterburn contemplate life after the burn.  What can intelligent people do to prepare for a way of life that will be far smaller, simpler, and slower?

In the 1930s, a Nazi control freak named Joseph Goebbels revolutionized mind control via high-tech propaganda.  This was made possible by the latest consumer fad, radio.  One person spoke, and millions listened, day after day.  Today, with the internet, and hundreds of TV channels, many millions are speaking at once, presenting a fantastic variety of viewpoints.  Truth (if any) can become a needle in the haystack.

Many huge ideas have been born in the lunatic fringe, presented by heretics like Galileo and Darwin.  At the same time, the fringe produces oceans of idiotic balderdash.  At the opposite end of the spectrum is the mainstream world, where the one and only thing that matters is ongoing economic growth.  Other issues, like climate change and resource depletion, are nothing more than annoying distractions that must be stepped around.

Heinberg is interesting because he camps in the no-man’s-land between shameless mainstream disinformation and the wacko hysteria of the fringe.  He’s a likeable lad, and a clear writer who makes an effort to be respectful and fair-minded.  Until recently, it’s been compulsory for eco-writers to include hope and solutions, even if they’re daffy, because bummer books gather dust.  It’s encouraging to see an emerging trend, in which the emphasis on hopium is becoming unhip, and readers are served larger doses of uncomfortable facts with no sugar coating.

Afterburn includes small servings of magical thinking, but overall it lays the cards on the table.  A way of life can only be temporary if it is dependent on nonrenewable resources, or on consuming renewables at an unsustainable rate.  An economy requiring perpetual growth is insane.  Nature will fix our population excesses and eliminate overshoot.  The lights will go out.  All civilizations collapse.  Ours will too.  We won’t be rescued by miraculous paradigm shifts.  The biggest obstacle to intelligent change is human nature.  Folks with food, money, and a roof don’t worry about threats that are not immediate.  There is a possibility that humankind will no longer exist by the end of this century.  And so on.

Yes, things can look a little bleak, but don’t surrender to cynicism and give up.  We can’t chase away the storm, but we can do many things that make a difference.  Learn how to do practical stuff, like cook, sew, and garden.  Become less reliant on purchased goods and services.  Develop trusting relationships with your neighbors.

Today is a paradise for folks interested in changing the world.  Imagine cool visions of a new and improved future where we could nurture cooperation, eliminate inequality, mindfully manage population, and minimize environmental injuries.  Unfortunately, visioning is limited by the fact that the future is certain to be radically different.  What can we say for sure about 2050?  I remain stubbornly confident that there will be sun and moon, mountains and oceans, bacteria and insects.

When civilizations die, most or all of their cultural information also dies.  Today, much of this information is stored in electronic media, or printed on acidic paper that has a short lifespan.  Heinberg believes that it’s essential to protect our books, because they are vital for cultural survival.  He fears that the amazing achievements of the Great Burning will be forgotten.  “Will it all have been for nothing?”

A far better question is, “What cultural achievements would we want to be remembered by?”  During the Great Burning, we’ve learned so much about environmental history and human ecology.  We are coming to understand why almost every aspect of our way of life is unsustainable.  (Our schools should teach this!)  The most valuable gift we could give to new generations is a thorough understanding of the many things we’ve learned from our mistakes, and the mistakes of our ancestors.  They need a good map of the minefield.

Heinberg, Richard, Afterburn — Society Beyond Fossil Fuels, New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, British Columbia, 2015.

The book’s introduction is HERE.  Two other reviews of Heinberg books are Snake Oil: Fracking’s False Promise and The End of Growth.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Man the Hunted

Not long ago, I came across a book that looked interesting, Man the Hunted: Primates, Predators, and Human Evolution, written by two anthropologists, Donna Hart and Robert Sussman.  Almost half of the book discussed the many varieties of man-eating predators who for millions of years have enjoyed transforming our delicious ancestors into steaming feces.  Would it shed light on the drastic reduction in man-eating predators?  Would it explain why we plunged into our disastrous experiment with tool making, which has brought us to the brink of planetary disaster?  It did not, but it was both interesting and odd.

In the deepest, darkest auditoriums of academia, the wizards of primatology are engaged in a yowling catfight over the primary factor that influenced the course of human evolution.  The choices are: (a) being hunters, or (b) being prey.  Apparently, (c) all of the above, is rewarded with a dunce cap and a paddle whack.

The authors believe that the general public, and a sizable mob of halfwit professors, have been stupefied by the trendy Man the Hunter myth.  It proclaims that our ancestors were bloodthirsty hunters, and hunting encouraged us to become aggressive, violent, sociopathic killers, and monstrous oppressors of women.  Folks entranced by this myth also believe that their human ancestors were never eaten by predators, because they were far too smart to be killed by lions, leopards, or wolves.

The authors are on a mission from God to torpedo the Man the Hunter myth and illuminate readers with the shining truth — Man the Hunted.  Our ancestors were slow, weak, and lacked fierce teeth, sharp claws, and long horns.  On the ground, they were easy prey.  Thus, our evolutionary journey was largely influenced by being yummy meatballs in a hungry cathouse.  This encouraged us to live in groups, pay close attention to reality, cooperate with one another, and become smart, lovable, feminist hominids.

Readers discover that it was impossible for our ancestors to consume meat prior to the invention of cooking, because we lack the teeth and digestive system of carnivores.  Well, actually, we’re omnivores, like our chimp, bonobo, and baboon relatives, all of whom eat both plant and animal foods, uncooked.  Maybe our smaller teeth evolved following the invention of cooked food. 

It’s impossible to accurately determine when we began manufacturing spears, controlling fire, cooking food, or using complex language.  These interesting and unusual innovations had enormous unintended consequences.  They unlocked the entrance to a fantastically dangerous path.

I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that bonobos and chimps, our closest living relatives, have managed to inhabit the same ecosystem for two million years without trashing it.  They wisely avoided the temptation to fool around with technology beyond sticks and stones.  The book revealed an even more astonishing success story, the crocodiles, critters that have a special fondness for inattentive humans.  Today’s crocs are nearly identical to the crocs that lived in the dinosaur era, 200 million years ago.  They live in the water, floating close to the surface, and patiently wait for a thirsty critter to stop for a drink — a simple and awesomely brilliant strategy.

Bonobos and chimps provide us with an important lesson.  Their territories are separated by the Zaire River, so they’ve never met.  The bonobos are like free love hippies, whilst the chimps sometimes act like brutal biker gangs.  Why the difference?  The two species are almost genetically identical, and they inhabit the same ecosystem.  But in bonobo country, there are no chimps, baboons, or gorillas.  So, they have more food, less competition, and life is grand.  In chimp country, it doesn’t pay to be a gentleman.  The most aggressive male is always first in line at the buffet, as well as the primary sperm pump.

The authors lash out at Demonic Males, by Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson, a gospel of Man the Hunter.  It discusses species that kill their own kind, like orangutans, chimps, gorillas, and humans.  For these species, aggressive behavior could provide some benefits, so this trait has not been discouraged by natural selection.  This infuriates Hart and Sussman, because blame is shifted to the females, who shamelessly burn with desire for demonic males, and then give birth to cute little baby demons.

All parties agree that bonobos were dealt an unbeatable hand and won the jackpot.  If humans had been dealt a similar hand of luxurious abundance, we’d probably be running around naked in an African paradise, having sex ten times a day.  Instead, we got a crap hand — the queen of technology, the joker of excess cleverness, and the ace of self-destruction.

All parties agree that, in theory, humans could mindfully choose to outgrow their rough habits, and transform into adorable sweeties.  Our unpleasant behavior is learned, not genetic.  The Pygmies, Bushmen, and other hunter-gatherers were generally good-natured.  Hunting doesn’t automatically turn us into monsters.

All parties agree that humans are not crazy-violent by nature.  Competition, crowding, scarcity, and anxiety trigger our belligerence.  So, what the heck is this argument about anyway?  Certainly, the demonic male meme has the pungent funk of Judeo-Christian juju, the crabby old sky god who never tires of exterminating city dwellers and other despicable deviants.  Where’s the science?  Well, the science of human evolution provides us with a few hundred pieces of a 100 billion-piece puzzle, and numerous versions of the story are continuously being rewritten, hence the hissing primatologist catfights.

With brains substantially larger than Homo sapiens, Neanderthals managed to live on this planet for maybe 200,000 years without leaving permanent scars.  Scientists sneer at their embarrassing lack of technological innovation (dullards!), and disregard their stunning success at sustainable living (who cares?).  Scientists are quirky folks obsessed with stuff like space colonies and computer-driven electric cars.  (I was surprised to learn that Neanderthals may have gone extinct because they ate too much meat.)

The book is about genetic evolution, not cultural evolution.  Cultural evolution is what has blown the human journey off the rails, ignited the turbo thrusters, and sent us skyrocketing into the dark unknown.  Cultural evolution provided shortcuts that gave us spears and hammers far faster than genetic evolution could enhance our anatomical assets.  Today, the pace of techno-innovation has grown to furious hurricane force.  So, does the hunter vs. hunted catfight really matter?  The planet is not being destroyed by naughty genes.  Wouldn’t it be wiser to yowl and hiss about our toxic culture instead?

Humans evolved in a healthy, wild, natural world.  Our ancestors’ lives were highly adapted to the ecosystem they inhabited.  Survival required being constantly alert to the ever-changing sights, sounds, and smells.  Humankind still exists because our ancestors were acutely aware.  Infants born today have genes that evolved during our hunter-gatherer era, genes fine-tuned for thriving in a tropical savannah amidst hungry leopards, hyenas, snakes, and crocodiles.

But look at us.  We now live in a brutally lobotomized ecosystem where being eaten is no longer a normal everyday possibility.  We live amidst crowds of strangers.  We hunt and forage in supermarkets.  We spend the last years of our lives filling diapers.  Imagine what we’d look like if we spent the next 100,000 years sitting on our butts, staring at glowing screens, and guzzling soda pop.

Many species of bipedal hominids have evolved over seven million years.  Humans are the last of the line.  Few of our bipedal cousins survived as long as the chimps have; they flamed out.  The happy ending here is that a perfect storm of manmade predicaments seems destined to yank the rug out from under our culture.  We won’t have to spend the next 200 years having loud catfights over climate change, contraceptives, or evolution.  Humankind will be dealt a very different hand of cards.  Will we be lucky?

Hart, Donna and Sussman, Robert W., Man the Hunted — Primates, Predators, and Human Evolution, Westview Press, New York, 2005.

Wrangham, Richard and Peterson, Dale, Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996.

Wrangham, Richard, “Out of the Pan, Into the Fire: How Our Ancestors’ Evolution Depended on What They Ate,” Tree of Origin, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2001.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Desert Solitaire

Edward Abbey (1927–1989) was an eco-wordsmith whose work is often compared to the classics of Aldo Leopold and Henry Thoreau.  His book Desert Solitaire has been called “the Walden of the southwest.”  Abbey was born in Pennsylvania, and went to school in New Mexico.  In 1956 and 1957 he spent the summers as a ranger at the Arches National Park, near Moab, Utah.  It was a mind-altering experience.  The young ranger fell in love with the desert, and kept extensive diaries.

Like Leopold and Thoreau, he had profound reverence and respect for the natural world.  All three watched in agony as industrial civilization worked so hard to mindlessly destroy it.  While the other two were respectable gentlemen, Abbey was a funny, rude, rowdy, loose cannon.

In 1845, Thoreau diagnosed the problem as a deficiency of timeless wisdom and intellectual refinement.  In 1949, Leopold recommended establishing a set of common sense rules to discourage gung-ho American halfwits from obliterating the future.  By 1968, Abbey was furious about the absurdity of it all.  Our culture was insane.  It was time to mercilessly beat the monster to a bloody pulp, but the monster was winning, and it was shape shifting into an invincible mass extinction steamroller.

At the Arches, Abbey’s ranger station consisted of a picnic table, house trailer, generator, and pickup truck.  It was far from the main entrance, and the dirt road was dusty, primitive, and pocked with potholes.  He spent the six-month tourist seasons in a place of immense beauty, constantly in awe of the magnificence of this gorgeous desert paradise.  The multi-colored sandstone had been sculpted into astonishing forms by a million years of snow and rain.  “I am twenty miles from the nearest fellow human, but instead of loneliness I feel loveliness.  Loveliness and a quiet exultation.”

The only turd in the tranquility was the daffy tourists, determined to see every national park in two weeks.  They yowled and whined about the terrible road.  They were Americans, by God, and paved roads and vast parking lots were guaranteed in the Constitution.  Many of these “wheelchair explorers” never stepped out of their cars, except to take a few snapshots and contribute to the litter.  Where’s the Coke machine?

They were unable to comprehend the treasure that surrounded them.  Their spirits did not soar, overwhelmed with amazement at the power of this sacred land.  It was as if their souls had been anesthetized by living in an industrial nightmare.  They were like fish that no longer felt at home in the water, preferring to reside on dry land and devote their lives to flopping and shopping.

Worse, the vision of the Park Service was to update its scruffy old parks into gleaming Disneyland National Parks — modern, clean, and convenient.  In 1956, President Eisenhower signed a bill to create the interstate highway system.  America had sold its soul, and its future, to the automobile.  Abbey was bummed.  He knew that the Arches were doomed.  After two summers, he quit, not wishing to stick around and watch the inevitable wreckage of progress.

He was right.  Several years later, planners designed a new and improved infrastructure that would allow the Arches park to accommodate 75,000 visitors per year — a vast increase from Abbey’s frontier days.  In 2012, the park had over a million visitors.  Traffic jams, noise, and air pollution have become serious problems.

Anyway, the book contains a collection of stories and rants.  The most important story was Down the River, which described floating down the Colorado River as the Glen Canyon Dam was being built.  Abbey and his buddy Ralph were among the last humans to observe the incredible canyons before they were submerged beneath the new Lake Powell reservoir.  It reminded me of our generation, taking a final cruise through what remains of the natural world, before it is composted by the unintended consequences of our brilliant techno-miracles.

Oddly, the reservoir was named after John Wesley Powell, an early explorer who actually loved the beautiful river.  “Where he and his brave men once lined the rapids and glided through silent canyons two thousand feet deep the motorboats now smoke and whine, scumming the water with cigarette butts, beer cans and oil, dragging the water skiers on their endless rounds, clockwise.”

Abbey and Ralph were delighted to leave modernity behind, “…the stupid and useless and degrading jobs, the insufferable arrogance of elected officials, the crafty cheating and the slimy advertising of the businessmen, the tedious wars… the foul, diseased, and hideous cities and towns we live in…” and on and on.  They had sweet fantasies of spending the rest of their days floating downstream in canyon country.  They also had sweet fantasies of blowing up the dam — fantasies that Abbey later expanded in his smash hit, The Monkey Wrench Gang.

The U.S. built several thousand major dams in the twentieth century.  These projects created many jobs during the Depression, unleashed flash floods of political sleaze, and made mobs of fat cats richer.  Glen Canyon Dam was intended to be a “cash register dam,” generating big revenues from hydropower sales, which could then be used to pay for vast irrigation projects.  The dreams were far brighter than the subsequent realities.

Hoover Dam was finished in 1936, creating the Lake Mead reservoir.  Today, this reservoir is at 37 percent of capacity, its lowest level since the 1930s, when it was being filled.  Farther upstream, the Glen Canyon Dam was finished in 1963, creating the Lake Powell reservoir.  Today, this reservoir is at 54 percent of capacity.  The flow of the Colorado River has been below average since 1999.  In 2002, the flow plunged to 25 percent of normal and 2003 was a bit higher.

There is growing concern that falling water levels will eliminate the thrust necessary to spin the power turbines at Glen Canyon.  While water levels fall, sediment levels are rapidly rising, as the river delivers 30,000 dump truck loads per day.  Eventually, sediment will permanently choke the power turbines.  While many wring their hands about the toll of ongoing drought, lots of water is also being lost due to evaporation and bank seepage (water soaking into porous sandstone).  Droughts can come and go, but rising temperatures seem to be here to stay for a long, long time — and some believe that this is the primary cause of falling water levels.

Up to 34 million people depend on water from the Colorado River basin.  The rapid development of Cheyenne, Albuquerque, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Tucson, Los Angeles, and San Diego was inspired by a cyclone of magical thinking.  Our well-educated nation suffers from a pandemic of ecological ignorance, and critical shortages of foresight.

Abbey had the ability to stand firm against the whirlwinds of magical thinking that constantly roar through our communities, making everyone sleepy and dreamy.  He understood that humans were not above and apart from the rest of nature, that anthropocentricism was a glaring symptom of lunacy.  It was obvious to him that new technology was best left in the box and promptly buried.  The culture that poisons our worldview is completely out of its mind.  Where’s the Coke machine?

Abbey, Edward, Desert Solitaire, Simon & Shuster, New York, 1990.  [1968]

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Civilization and Sludge

The emergence of domestication and agriculture allowed humankind to produce more food per area of land, but this innovation also resulted in myriad unintended consequences, many of which were unsustainable.  One of my favorite essays is Civilization & Sludge, by Abby A. Rockefeller.  It describes the evolution of how people dealt with the production of human excrement, a process that never ends.  Like everything else in the human saga, the history begins simple and sustainable, and over time degenerates into a system that is complex and energy-guzzling.  The following is mostly a summary of her 16-page essay.

Rockefeller learned that the simplest and most sustainable sewage treatment system was developed by nomadic foragers.  They utilized the same time-proven system used by non-human animals — depositing their feces and urine on the ground, in a widely dispersed manner.  This recycled vital nutrients, cost nothing, required no staff or infrastructure, did not pollute the water, kill the fish, encourage the spread of contagious water-borne diseases, or produce a single spoonful of toxic sludge.  This brilliant system works very well in societies having low population density.

With the advent of agriculture, the supply of food increased, the population increased, the output of sewage increased, and the old system failed completely.  This inspired the clever invention of smelly outhouses and cesspools.  This new technology recycled nutrients less effectively than the nomadic forager system.

The flush toilet grew in popularity during the nineteenth century, as municipal water systems came into fashion.  Municipal water systems increased the production of wastewater, which overwhelmed the old cesspools.  The cheap and dirty solution was open sewers — ditches beside the streets where sewage from the cesspools was drained.  It’s no coincidence that cholera became a very popular disease at this time.

This inspired the development of closed-pipe sewage systems, which moved the wastes out of town — into lakes, streams, and oceans, where nature would (in theory) purify it all.  On the plus side, cholera rates dropped.  On the downside, typhoid became popular among downstream residents who got their water from sewage-laden streams.  Once upon a time, the Thames River of England was filled with salmon, and supported a thriving fishery.  Then came the new and improved sewage systems, which killed the fish, and turned the Thames into one of the most polluted rivers on Earth.

This inspired cities to filter the drinking water pumped from tainted waterways.  Typhoid rates dropped.  But filtering did not remove the sewage from the rivers, and rapid growth in the industrial sector was adding large quantities of other pollutants, including toxics.

This inspired cities to treat waste before dumping it into waterways.  Treatment systems have been evolving over the years — each new design is more complex, expensive, and energy-intensive than its predecessor.  The wastes and nutrients that used to go into the river are now concentrated into toxic sludge.

Because the waste discharged from industry varies from place to place, and day to day, the toxicity of the sludge varies from moderate to extremely poisonous.  The sludge was dumped into the ocean, where the poisons created dead zones on the ocean floor.  Ocean dumping was outlawed in 1988.  At this point, sewage industry propagandists began presenting toxic sludge as a wonderful fertilizer — beneficial biosolids!  This was given to farmers free of charge.  Rockefeller has actually seen stores selling bags of sewage sludge pellets labelled “natural organic fertilizer.”

Toxic sludge is low in nitrogen, so it has to be applied in large quantities to serve as fertilizer.  Heavy metals and other toxins in the sludge move into the soil.  These toxins are absorbed by plants, and the animals that eat them.  In the soil, thousands of industrial chemicals can interact, creating a countless opportunities for unintended and undesirable consequences.

Following the application of toxic sludge at a Georgia dairy farm, the milk was contaminated with high levels of toxic thallium.  Another Georgia farmer watched his herd of 300 cattle die — his free beneficial biosolids happened to contain high levels of arsenic, heavy metals, and PCBs.  Sludge is a hazardous waste.  What do we do with it?  Answer: stop making sludge.  Human wastes need to be returned to the soil, and production of toxic industrial wastes needs to end.

What is the moral of this story?  Thou shalt keep society small and simple.  Ants and bees live well in large complex civilizations.  But humans are not insects.  This is an important fact to remember.

Rockefeller owns Clivus Multrum, a manufacturer of composting toilets.  Other Rockefeller essays:

Friday, August 14, 2015


Henry David Thoreau had a mind that was intelligent, complex, and rigidly righteous.  He was born in Concord, Massachusetts in 1817, into a family of uppity Unitarian abolitionists.  After attending Harvard, he worked as a schoolteacher for a few years.  Later, he lived with Ralph Waldo Emerson, serving as a tutor, handyman, and editorial assistant.  Emerson took him under his wing, and encouraged his literary efforts.  Emerson owned land on Walden Pond, and he allowed the young man to build a cabin there.  Living by the pond led to experiences that inspired Thoreau’s classic, Walden. 

Thoreau built the cabin at age 27, and moved out at 30.  His thinking was not yet set in concrete, and it wandered to many regions in the world of ideas, tirelessly searching for eternal truth.  He read the ancient classics in Greek and Latin, and discovered that enlightened philosophers preferred paths of voluntary simplicity.  He adored Native Americans, because they thrived in wildness and enjoyed a simple life.  He worshipped nature, and loved spending time outdoors.

Unfortunately, he was born during a diabolical hurricane of what is now called Sustainable Growth™.  Concord was becoming discord, as the ancient forest was replaced with gristmills, sawmills, cotton mills, a lead pipe factory, and a steam powered metalworking shop.  It was rare to stroll by Walden Pond in daytime and not hear whacking axes.  Railroads were the latest fad for rich folks.  Countless trees were hacked to death to provide millions of railroad ties.  By 1850, just ten percent of the land around Concord was forest, and wild game was getting scarce.

Obviously, the residents of Concord were not philosophers aglow with timeless wisdom.  They were also not wild folks who had lived in the same place for thousands of years without destroying it.  These new people acted crazy!  They were possessed, out of their minds, infected with the highly contagious status fever.  They burned up their precious time on Earth in a furious struggle to appear as prosperous as possible — fancy houses, cool furniture, trendy clothes.  If a monkey in Paris put on a traveler’s cap, then every monkey in America must do likewise.

Thoreau was not impressed.  “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”  In 1845, he moved into his tiny new cabin.  He hired a farmer to plow two and a half acres (1 ha), and then planted a bean field.  Using a hoe to control the weeds proved to be far more challenging than his fantasy of humble simplicity.  The net income for a summer of sweat and blisters was $8.12, far less than envisioned.  He learned an important lesson, and this experiment was not repeated.

A low-budget life of simplicity required a low-budget diet.  Thoreau’s meals majored in water and unleavened bread made from rye and corn meal.  Over time, he lost interest in hunting and fishing.  “I had rarely for many years used animal food, or tea, or coffee, etc.; not so much because of any ill effects which I had traced to them, as because they were not agreeable to my imagination.”

The second summer included a pilgrimage to Maine.  He had a gnawing hunger for genuine wilderness that Concord could not satisfy.  He also wanted to meet real live Indians, and be invigorated by their purity.  Alas, Mount Katahdin was a rugged wilderness without trails, and the philosopher from Harvard was shocked by how difficult it was. 

Big Mama Nature gave him a swift dope slap.  In The Maine Woods he recorded her harsh words.  “I have never made this soil for thy feet, this air for thy breathing, these rocks for thy neighbors.  Why seek me where I have not called thee, and then complain because you find me but a stepmother?”  This nasty wilderness “was a place for heathenism and superstitious rites — to be inhabited by men nearer of kin to the rocks and to wild animals than we.”

His experience with the Indians also disappointed him.  After 200 years of colonization, their traditional culture had long been bludgeoned by smallpox, whiskey, missionaries, and civilization.  “Met face to face, these Indians in their native woods looked like the sinister and slouching fellows whom you meet picking up strings and paper in the streets of a city.  There is, in fact, a remarkable and unexpected resemblance between the degraded savage and the lowest classes of the great city.  The one is no more a child of nature than the other.”

Sadly, Thoreau never experienced a community that was fully wild, free, and at one with the land.  He returned to Walden, a tame and comfortable place, and buried some fantasies.  He wasn’t at home in wilderness, and he wasn’t at home in civilization.  Could he find peace somewhere in between?  He soon packed up his stuff, left the cabin, and returned to the Emerson home.  He had learned a lot from 26 months of solitude, but he was wary of getting stuck in a rut.

After eight years of work, and seven drafts, Walden was published in 1854.  It caught the world’s attention, and he finally had a steady stream of income.  Thoreau’s sister died of tuberculosis in 1849.  His father died of tuberculosis in 1859.  In 1862 it killed Henry, at the ripe old age of 44.

He had spent his life trying to find a beautiful, healthy, and ethical way of living.  His education prepared him for a life in civilization instead, loading his mind with myths, hobbles, and blinders.  Thoreau was well aware that his society was on a dead end path.  Its citizens robotically submitted to the peer pressure of their culture.  They could imagine no other way to live.  The only thing they could change was their clothes.  Consequently and tragically, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

His core message was “explore thyself” — question authority, question everything, every day.  Never assume that you are crazy, and never assume that your society is normal and sane — it is not!  Stay away from status fever, and the living dead that suffer from it.  Go outdoors!  Live simply!  Live!  Live!  Live!

Thoreau’s world was deranged.  But viewed from the twenty-first century, it looks far less crazy than our nightmare.  He gathered chestnuts by the pond, a species that would later be wiped out by blight.  The skies were often filled with passenger pigeons, now extinct.  Millions of buffalo still thundered across the plains.  He drank water directly from the pond.  There were no cars or aircraft.  Most folks moved by foot or horse.  They did not live amidst hordes of strangers, they knew each other.  None spent their lives inside climate-controlled compartments, staring at glowing screens. 

Henry would have hated our world.  His mission was to live as mindfully as possible.  “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Thoreau, Henry David, Walden, Ticknor & Fields, Boston, 1854.  Download 

Thoreau, Henry David, The Maine Woods, Ticknor & Fields, Boston, 1864.  Download 

Sims, Michael, The Adventures of Henry Thoreau, Bloomsbury, New York, 2014.

Friday, July 31, 2015

A Sand County Almanac

Aldo Leopold’s book, A Sand County Almanac, is near the top of many lists of environmental classics.  It was published in 1949, and has sold over two million copies.  He was born in Iowa in 1887, when Earth was inhabited by just 1.4 billion humans.  It was an era before radio, television, automobiles, airplanes, computers, DDT, nuclear fission, and antibiotics.  Most roads were dirt.  Vast ancient forests still thrived.  On the first page, Leopold informs us that this is a book for people who cannot live without wild things.

Part one is a series of twelve sketches, one for each month.  They describe how the land changes during the circle of the seasons — the return of the geese, the mating ritual of the woodcocks, the rutting of the deer, the bloody snow where predators snatched prey.  They describe what life was like in simpler times, before the sprawl, the malls, the highways, the tsunami of idiotic consumer crap.  People were more in touch with the life of the land, because it had not yet been deleted.

In 1935, Leopold bought a farm in Wisconsin.  The previous owner had tried and failed to make a living tilling the lean sandy soil.  The place was cheap, far from the highway, worthless to civilization, but a precious sanctuary for a nature-loving professor.  Luckily, the soil mining enterprise perished quickly, before it had time to exterminate the wildness.

Leopold loved the great outdoors.  He loved hiking and hunting.  Birds fascinated him.  He spent many years working for the U.S. Forest Service, and later became a professor of Game Management at the University of Wisconsin.  Sadly, he lived in a culture that was waging full-scale war on nature, and this drove him mad.  It was so senseless.  During his life, the population had grown from 1.5 to 2.4 billion, an era of staggering out of control disruption.

Part two presents observations, made in assorted times and places, about the damaged relationship between Americans and nature.  This relationship was often abusive, because it lacked love.  There often was no relationship at all.  Many folks had no sense of connection to the rest of the family of life.  For them, nature was nothing more than a treasure chest of resources that God created for the amusement of ambitious nutjobs.

Leopold was saddened by the trends.  He learned to never revisit places that had amazed him in his youth.  It was too painful to see the damage that commerce and tourism were tirelessly inflicting.  It was best not to turn sweet memories into heartbreaking nightmares.

He was raised in an era when it was perfectly normal to kill wolves, coyotes, and other predators at every opportunity.  These “vermin” killed too many game animals, depriving hunters of their rightful harvest.  The most famous essay in this book is Thinking Like a Mountain.  Having just shot a wolf, the gunman noticed a fierce green glow in its eyes.  With the wolves eliminated, the deer multiplied in numbers, stripping the vegetation off the mountain, and wrecking the ecosystem.  Deer lived in fear of wolves, and the mountain lived in fear of deer.

Part three is essays describing the need for a land ethic.  Cultures have ethics to define right and wrong.  Traditionally, these defined person-to-person interactions, or the interactions between individuals and society.  Leopold lamented that American culture lacked a land ethic, rules for living with the natural world, the family of life.  In our culture, as long as the land was not claimed and defended by someone else, you were free to do whatever you pleased.

Mainstream education was close to useless, because it was incapable of recognizing the glaring defects in the mainstream worldview.  It loaded young minds with the crash-prone software of infantile self-interest.  Generation after generation was being programmed to spend their lives as robotic servants to our economic system.  The education system and the economic system were the two primary threats to the health of the land.  Today, 65 years later, the lunacy has become a roaring hurricane.  Leopold would be horrified and furious.

Leopold was a pleasant lad, glowing with love for the natural world, and a gifted storyteller.  But this should not be the only ecology book you ever read.  Since 1949, there has been an explosion of research in anthropology, archaeology, ecology, and environmental history.  Many important discoveries have been made about hunter-gatherers, agriculture, deforestation, civilization, finite resources, climate change, and ecological sustainability.  Today’s deep ecologists will sneer at a few statements in the book, but in 1949, no one was more radical than Leopold.

At the time, he knew we were on a bad path, and we needed to pay serious attention to where it was taking us.  He clearly understood what we needed.  He wrote, “Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.  He was sketching out a concept now known as ecological sustainability.  Here’s his land ethic in a nutshell: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”  Great!

Since the book was published, population has skyrocketed from 2.4 to 7.3 billion.  Our leaders, educators, and the vast human herd remain lost in a dream world where perpetual growth is the only channel on the glowing screens.  This story has paralyzed our culture, and condemned our descendants, but it’s running out of time.  Hopefully, in its aftermath, important lessons will be learned and never forgotten.

Leopold’s book was written “for people who cannot live without wild things.”  As the swelling mobs surge into vast cities, our disconnection from wild nature is almost complete.  We have forgotten who we are, and where we came from.  Well, we’re wild animals, and we came from wild nature, like every other critter.  Darwin revealed this embarrassing secret, but it still makes us uncomfortable, since it clashes with our deepest, darkest myths, our grandiose illusions of superiority.

These anthropocentric myths have ancient roots in every civilized culture, and they are like venomous brain worms that turn us into planet thrashing monsters.  In 1949, few expressed doubts about these myths, but Leopold did.  He was a flaming radical in his day.  He often dreamed that the progressive movement would eventually grow, flourish, and address the primary challenges of our time, but reality hasn’t cooperated.

His vision of a land ethic would have been a first step, but not a miraculous cure.  No other animal needs a formal system of rules and regulations to discourage self-destructive behavior.  Like our chimp and bonobo cousins, the others have never forgotten who they are, or how to live.  Thinking like an animal has worked perfectly for millions of years.  Thinking like a conqueror has been a disastrous failure.

Leopold, Aldo, A Sand County Almanac, Oxford University Press, New York, 1989.  [1949]