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]

Tuesday, July 21, 2015


McKenzie Funk’s book, Windfall, explores the question, “What are we doing about climate change?”  Readers are introduced to ambitious speculators who are eager to make enormous profits on new opportunities resulting from a warming planet.  They are not investing in research for sharply reducing carbon emissions.  They are obsessed with keeping the economic growth monster on life support.  Climate change investment funds will soon become gold mines, creating a flood of new billionaires.  The future is rosy as hell.

Mining corporations are slobbering with anticipation as Greenland’s ice melts, providing access to billions of dollars worth of zinc, gold, diamonds, and uranium.  A defunct zinc mine, which operated from 1973 to 1990, provides a sneak preview of the nightmares to come.  The Black Angel mine dumped its tailings into a nearby fjord.  The zinc and lead in the runoff was absorbed by the blue mussels, which were eaten by fish, which were eaten by seals.  Investors won, the ecosystem lost.

Other entrepreneurs are anxious to turn the torrents of melt water into hydropower, providing cheap energy for new server farms and aluminum smelters.  Meanwhile, the tourism industry is raking in big money serving the growing swarms of disaster tourists.

As the Arctic ice melts, sea levels could rise as much as 20 feet (6 m).  A number of low-lying islands are already on death row — the Maldives, Tuvalu, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Seychelles, Bahamas, and the Carteret Islands.  Islanders are pissed that faraway rich folks are destroying their home.  Bath time is also predicted for large portions of Manila, Alexandria, Lagos, Karachi, Kolkata, Jakarta, Dakar, Rio, Miami, Ho Chi Minh City, and a fifth of Bangladesh.  There may be a billion climate refugees by 2050.

Five nations have shorelines on the icy Arctic Ocean: Canada, Russia, Norway, Denmark (Greenland), and the United States (Alaska).  Beneath the rapidly melting ice are billions of dollars worth of oil, gas, and coal.  We would be wise to leave this energy in the ground but, of course, we won’t.  There will be abundant testosterone-powered discussion over borderlines in the region, and this might include blizzards of bombs and bullets.  Both Canada and Denmark claim ownership of Hans Island.  Russia has planted a flag on the North Pole.

A melted Arctic will also provide a new shipping lane, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific, providing a much shorter and much cheaper alternative to the Panama Canal.  Both sides of the Northwest Passage are owned by Canada, but other nations, like the U.S. and China, disagree that Canada owns the waterway.  They prefer it to be an international route of innocent passage, like Gibraltar.  Funk took a cruise on the Montreal, a frigate of the Royal Canadian Navy.  They were engaged in Arctic war games, which included an exercise that seized a naughty American ship.

The core driver of climate change is simple: “add carbon, get heat.”  As carbon emissions skyrocket, so does the temperature of the atmosphere.  We can’t undo what has already been done, damage that will persist for centuries, but it would be rather intelligent to quit throwing gasoline on the fire.  Unfortunately, the titans of capitalism have a different plan.  Renewable energy cannot power our nightmare, and environmental activism has failed.  Governments are careful to ignore the prickly issue, because voters delight in living as wastefully as possible.  Technology is our only hope.

Cutting emissions would blindside our way of life (and so will not cutting emissions).  But cleverly adapting to climate change will greatly enrich the titans, temporarily.  There’s growing interest in seawalls, storm surge barriers, and floating cities.  Israelis are making big money selling snowmaking and desalinization equipment.  Biotech firms are working like crazy to produce expensive drought resistant seeds.  India is building a 2,100 mile (3,380 km) fence along its border with Bangladesh, to block the flood of refugees that are expected when rising seas submerge low-lying regions.

Others dream of making big money creating monopolies on the supply of freshwater, which is diminishing as the torrents of melting ice rush into the salty oceans.  There are two things that people will spend their remaining cash on, water and food.  Crop yields are sure to drop in a warming climate.  This will lead to rising prices, and create exciting opportunities for profiteering.  A number of wealthy nations are ruthlessly acquiring cropland in third world regions.

Funk visited Nathan Myhrvold, a Microsoft billionaire, who now runs Intellectual Ventures.  His plan is to keep economic growth on life support by creating a virtual volcano called StratoShield.  Volcanoes spew ash into the atmosphere, which reduces incoming solar heat, and cools off the climate.  StratoShield would spray 2 to 5 million metric tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere every year.  This would make the sunlight one percent dimmer, and enable life as we know it to continue, with reduced guilt, for a bit longer (maybe) — hooray!

Funk also visited Alan Robock, who opposes the plan.  Volcanic ash is not harmless.  The goal of StratoShield is to block heat.  The catastrophic side effect is that it’s like to severely alter rain patterns in the southern hemisphere, spurring horrendous droughts, deluges, and storm systems.  On the bright side, life in Microsoft country, the Pacific Northwest, would remain fairly normal, and the sulfur dioxide sunsets would be wonderfully colorful.

Funk didn’t mention that the geoengineering, if it actually worked, would have to be done permanently.  Beneath the shield, ongoing emissions would continue to increase the atmosphere’s carbon load.  If the shield was discontinued, and full sunlight resumed, the consequences would not be pleasant.

Myhrvold’s former boss, Bill Gates, is running a foundation that’s spending billions of dollars to eradicate disease.  The mosquitoes of the world are nervous, fearing near term extinction.  The foundation is dedicated to promoting the wellbeing of humankind.  Oddly, it has spent nothing on research to cut carbon emissions.  Folks will be spared from disease so they can enjoy drought and deluge.  There is no brilliant win/win solution.  The path to balance will be long and painful.

Funk finished his book in 2012, a very hot year for climate juju all around the world.  He had spent six years hanging out with tycoons, “the smartest guys in the room.”  All were obsessed with conjuring highly complex ways of making even more money by keeping our insane civilization on life support, for as long as possible, by any means necessary.

Climate change is a manmade disaster, and those most responsible are the wealthy consumers of the north.  Funk imagines that the poor folks of the south will be hammered, while the primary perpetrators remain fairly comfortable.  It’s a wicked problem because “we are not our own victims.”  We feel no obligation to reduce our emissions or consumption.  We care little about misery in far away places. 

I am not convinced that the north will get off easy.  Anyone who spends time studying the Earth Crisis will eventually conclude that humans are remarkably clever, but pathologically irrational.  We’ve created a reality far too complex for our tropical primate brains.  We’ve created a culture that burns every bridge it crosses.  Funk reminds us that, “We should remember that there is also genius in simplicity.”  I agree.

Funk, McKenzie, Windfall — The Booming Business of Global Warming, Penguin Press, New York, 2014.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Future

Al Gore’s book, The Future, is fascinating and perplexing.  The world is being pummeled by enormous waves of change, and most are destructive and unsustainable.  What should we do?  To envision wise plans, it’s important to know the past, and understand how the present mess evolved.  The book presents a substantial discussion of six megatrends that are influencing the future:

EARTH INC is the global economy, dominated by a mob of ruthless multinational corporations.  It’s pushing radical changes in the way we live, work, and think.  Many leaders in the world have become its hand puppets, shamelessly selling influence in exchange for treasure and power.  Earth Inc. is the monster that’s killing the ecosystem.

GLOBAL MIND is the worldwide web that enables communication between people everywhere.  Two billion now have access to it.  It provides access to a cornucopia of fresh information — knowledge from sources outside the walls of culture and propaganda.  The Global Mind is our single hope for inspiring rapid, intelligent, revolutionary change.

BALANCE OF POWER is changing.  Following World War II, the world was happy, as America provided virtuous leadership that helped maintain stability in the world.  Today, the U.S. is no longer respected.  Power is shifting away from Western nations to new powerhouses, and from national governments to corporate interests.

OUTGROWTH is the explosion of unsustainable growth in almost everything — population, pollution, consumption, soil mining, water mining, extinctions, and on and on.  Earth Inc. is fanatically obsessed with perpetual growth, and aggressively flattens anything that stands in its path.  Bummer growth must be replaced with the benevolent growth of Sustainable Capitalism.

LIFE SCIENCE is providing us with technology to manipulate biological processes in new ways.  We’ll cure more diseases and live much longer.  Our ability to deliberately alter the genes of any living organism allows us to play a significant role in controlling the planet’s evolutionary journey.  Of course, evolution must be manipulated cautiously, to avoid embarrassing calamities.

THE EDGE is the catastrophically dysfunctional relationship between humankind and the ecosystem.  On the down side, trashing the atmosphere and climate has created a monster we cannot control.  On the plus side, it’s inspiring many enlightened efforts to guide civilization back into balance with the ecosystem.

Al Gore is a charming lad with a good sense of humor.  The son of a senator, Gore has spent much of his life amidst the barbarian tribes of Washington.  He eventually became the vice president and a wealthy tycoon.  While at Harvard, one of his professors was a pioneer in climate change research, a big juju subject, and a primary influence on Gore’s career path.  Gore is a senior advisor to Google, and a board member at Apple.  He is exceptionally well informed about the digital world, climate change, ecological challenges, global politics, and the shenanigans of the rich and powerful.

In the book, Gore sometimes jabbers like a politician giddy with optimism.  Yes, things are a big mess, and the status quo is in need of speedy, intelligent, radical reform.  We can fix it!  Politicians rarely win elections when their objective is damage control (Jimmy Carter’s mistake).  The way to win is to wear a big smile and promise hope, solutions, and better days ahead.  I sometimes wonder if damage control might accomplish more.

Much of the book is impressive, but its optimism for the future is not well supported by compelling arguments and evidence.  Readers learn that it’s not too late to nip climate change in the bud.  We simply need to reduce greenhouse emissions by 80 to 90 percent.  But how could we do this without blindsiding the system that enables the existence of seven-point-something billion people?  Easy!  Create a carbon tax.  Shift subsidies from fossil energy to renewables.  Require utilities to use more alternative energy.  Create a cap and trade system.  If every nation eagerly did this next week, our worries would be over.

Population continues to grow exponentially.  Gore recommends that we “stabilize” population.  It would be risky to actually reduce population, because this might trigger a “fertility trap,” a terrible downward spiral of population free-fall.  When there are too many seniors, and not enough taxpayers, pension systems collapse.

But stabilizing an enormous population raises serious questions about how much longer we can continue to feed so many people.  Agriculture is currently engaged in “strip-mining topsoil” on a staggering scale.  Each kilogram of Iowa corn costs 1.5 kilograms of topsoil, a precious nonrenewable resource. 

Gore asserts that this can be corrected by a transition to crop rotation, and to organic low-till technology.  But low-till cropping is designed for conventional agriculture, and works well with heavy applications of herbicide.  Organic low-till is still in the experimental phase, and is extremely difficult to do successfully, because weeds are not wimps.

While water usage is increasing, water resources are declining, because underground aquifers are being depleted in many highly productive farming regions.  Gore recommends drip irrigation, wastewater recycling, and cisterns for rainwater storage.  Considering the current scale of water mining, and the cost of high tech irrigation, it’s hard to see these options as effective solutions.  When the water is used up, farm productivity drops sharply, or completely.

Meanwhile, another monster is rising on the horizon — global phosphorus reserves are moving toward a crisis.  Because phosphorus is an essential plant nutrient, this will have huge effects on conventional agriculture.  Oh, we also need to get the nations united behind reversing deforestation, fish mining, and mass extinction.  

Gore says that it would be insane to burn the fossil energy we’ve already discovered, because this would worsen the effects of climate change.  But we’re unlikely to stop.  Experts aren’t sure when Peak Oil will arrive, but it will, and it will be followed by an era of increasing turbulence, as industrial civilization is painfully weaned.  Most of the easy oil has already gone up in smoke, and what remains is far more difficult to extract.  Expensive oil means expensive food, and many poor people can barely afford food today.  Spikes in food prices led to food riots in 2008 and 2011.

Gore adores civilization’s two magnificent achievements, democracy and capitalism, but he laments that both have been “hacked” by the evil slime balls of Earth Inc.  If we don’t fix this, we’re doomed.  It’s time to fetch our pitchforks and chase the slime balls away.  The solution to our problems is to restore dynamic democracy, and then create a utopia of Sustainable Capitalism, which will allow Sustainable Growth to continue forever!  The best is yet to come!

The book provides an impressive discussion how we got into this mess.  It’s unique in that it comes from a card-carrying member of the global elite, not a hungry dirty radical.  Readers are given a rare opportunity to enjoy the view from the top of the pyramid.  I hope that the second edition clarifies some questionable assumptions in this otherwise fascinating book.

Gore, Albert, The Future — Six Drivers of Global Change, Random House, New York, 2013.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Sixth Extinction

I didn’t rush to read Elizabeth Kolbert’s book, The Sixth Extinction, because I imagined it would be a gloomy expose on the unfortunate consequences of way too much half-baked cleverness — and it was.  But it’s also a fascinating story about the long saga of life on Earth, and the unclever antics of the latest primate species.  It’s an outstanding book.

We have soared away into a fantasy world, where godlike humans spend their lives creating brilliant miracles.  But when observed in a 450 million year timeframe, from this moment when a new mass extinction is gathering momentum, the wonders of progress and technological innovation lose their shine.  Kolbert rips off our virtual reality headsets, and serves us powerful medicine, a feast of provocative news.

The frog people have lived on this sweet planet for 400 million years, but many are now dying, because of a fungus called Bd.  This fungus can live happily in the forest on its own, without an amphibian host, so endangered frogs rescued by scientists cannot be returned to the wild.  The crisis began when humans transported frogs that carried the fungus, but were immune to it.  There was money to be made in the frog business, and so the fungus has spread around the globe.

This is similar to the chestnut blight of a century ago.  Entrepreneurs profitably imported chestnut seedlings from Asia.  The Asian species was immune to the fungus it carried.  American chestnut trees were not immune, and four billion died, almost all of them.  The fungus persists, so replanting is pointless. 

North American bats are dying by the millions from white-nose, caused by fungus that is common in Europe, where bats are immune to it.  It was likely carried across the Atlantic by a tourist who dropped some spores in Howe Caverns, in New York.  By 2013, the die-off had spread to 22 U.S. states and five Canadian provinces. 

Welcome to New Pangaea!  Once upon a time, long before we were born, all seven continents were joined together in a single continent, Pangaea.  Over time, it broke apart, and ecosystems on each continent evolved in a unique way.  In recent centuries, highly mobile humans have moved countless organisms from one ecosystem to another, both deliberately and unintentionally.  The seven continents no longer enjoy the long-term stability provided by isolation.

On another front, many colonies of humans have become obsessed with burning sequestered carbon on an enormous scale.  This is overloading the atmosphere with carbon, which the oceans absorb and convert to carbonic acid.  Carbonic acid is a huge threat to marine life, except for lucky critters, like jellyfish.  The world’s coral reefs are dying.

Tropical rainforests are treasure chests of biological diversity.  Tropical oceans generally are not, because of low levels of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus.  Coral reefs are the shining exception.  They provide habitat for thriving ecosystems, home to more than 500,000 species.  This reminded me of beaver ponds, which are also sanctuaries of abundant life. 

Coral polyps and beavers give us excellent examples of reciprocity.  They create relationships that are mutually beneficial for many species.  Reciprocity is a vital idea that most human cultures have forgotten.  Our dominant culture has no respect for the wellbeing of ecosystems.  It has a tradition of displacing or exterminating the indigenous species on the land, and replacing them with unsustainable manmade systems.

Evolution is fascinating.  Rabbits and mice have numerous offspring, because they are vulnerable to predators.  Other species have deflected the predator challenge by evolving to great size, like mammoths, hippos, and rhinos.  Big critters have long lifespans and low birth rates.  This made them highly vulnerable when Homo sapiens moved into the neighborhood. 

Kolbert imagines that the megafauna extinctions were not the result of a reckless orgy of overhunting.  It probably took centuries.  Hunters had no way of knowing how much the mammoth population had gradually dwindled over the generations.  Because they reproduced so slowly, they could have been driven to extinction by nothing more than modest levels of hunting.  An elephant does not reach sexual maturity until its teens, and each pregnancy takes 22 months.  There are never twins.  Deer are still with us, because they reproduce faster.

Sadly, Neanderthals are no longer with us.  They lived in Europe for at least 100,000 years, and during that time, their tool collection barely changed.  They probably never used projectiles.  They have acquired a reputation for being notorious dimwits, because they lived in a stable manner for a very long time, and didn’t rubbish the ecosystem.  Homo sapiens moved into Europe 40,000 years ago.  By 30,000 years ago, the Neanderthals were gone.  The DNA of modern folks, except Africans, contains up to four percent Neanderthal genes.

Homo sapiens has lived in a far more intense manner.  In the last 10,000 years, we’ve turned the planet inside out.  Kolbert wonders if there was a slight shift in our DNA that made us so unstable — a “madness gene.”  I wonder if we’re simply the victims of cultural evolution that hurled us down a terrible path.  If we had been raised in Neanderthal clans, would we be stable, sane, and happy?

Kolbert laments, “The Neanderthals lived in Europe for more than a hundred thousand years and during that period they had no more impact on their surroundings than any other large vertebrate.  There is every reason to believe that if humans had not arrived on the scene, the Neanderthals would be there still, along with the wild horses and wooly rhinos.”

Cultures have an amazing ability to put chains on our mental powers.  Kolbert describes how scientists (and all humans) typically struggle with disruptive information, concepts that bounce off our sacred myths.  Bizarre new ideas, like evolution, extinction, or climate change, are reflexively dismissed as nonsense.  As evidence of reality accumulates, increasing levels of absurd rationalizations must be invented.  Eventually, someone actually acknowledges reality, and a paradigm shift is born. 

For most of my life, human extinction has not been on my radar.  By the end of Kolbert’s book, readers understand that our extinction is more than a remote, theoretical possibility.  What is absolutely certain is that we are pounding the planet to pieces.  Everything is connected, and when one type of tree goes extinct, so do the insects that depend on it, as well as the birds that depend on the insects.  When the coral polyps die, the coral reef ecosystem disintegrates.

The sixth mass extinction is clearly the result of human activities.  The driving forces include the things we consider to be our great achievements — agriculture, civilization, industry, transportation systems.  This is highly disruptive information, and everyone is working like crazy to rationalize our nightmares out of existence.  Luckily, a number of people, like Kolbert, are beginning to acknowledge reality.  Will there be a paradigm shift?  Will we walk away from our great achievements, and spend the next 100,000 years living in balance with the planet?

Kolbert, Elizabeth, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2014.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The End of Plenty

Nothing is more precious than balance, stability, and sustainability.  Today, we’re hanging by our fingernails to a skyrocket of intense insane change, and it’s the only way of life we’ve ever known.  Joel Bourne has spent his life riding the rocket.  He grew up on a farm, and studied agronomy at college, but sharp changes were causing many farmers to go bankrupt.  Taking over the family farm would have been extremely risky, so he became a writer for farm magazines.  Later, he was hired by National Geographic, where he has spent most of his career.

In 2008, he was assigned to cover the global food crisis, and this project hurled him into full awareness of the big picture.  The Green Revolution caused food production to skyrocket, and world population doubled in just 40 years.  Then, the revolution fizzled out, whilst population continued to soar.  Demographers have told us to expect another two or three billion for dinner in 2050.  Obviously, this had the makings of an excellent book, so Bourne sat down and wrote The End of Plenty.

The subtitle of his book is “The Race to Feed a Crowded World,” not “The Race to Tackle Overpopulation.”  A growing population thrills the greed community, and a diminishing herd does not.  Overpopulation is a problem that can be solved, and will be, either by enlightened self-restraint, by compulsory restraint, or, most likely, by the vigorous housekeeping of Big Mama Nature.  Feeding the current population is thrashing the planet, and feeding even more will worsen everything, but this is our primary objective.  We are, after all, civilized people, and enlightened self-restraint is for primitive savages who live sustainably in roadless paradises.

As incomes rise, the newly affluent are enjoying a more luxurious diet.  To satisfy this growing demand, food production must double by 2050.  “We’ll have to learn to produce as much food in the next four decades as we have since the beginning of civilization.”  Meanwhile, agriculture experts are not bursting with brilliant ideas.  “Producing food for more than 9 billion people without destroying the soil, water, oceans, and climate will be by far the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced.”  Bourne’s book describes a number of gigantic obstacles to doubling food production — or even maintaining current production.

Automobiles are more addictive than crystal meth.  Europeans guzzle biodiesel made from palm oil.  Americans are binging on corn ethanol.  The 2005 Energy Tax Act mandated the addition of biofuels to gasoline.  From 2001 to 2012, the ethanol gold rush drove corn prices from $1.60 to $8.28.  Not coincidentally, in 2008 food riots erupted in twenty countries.  The Arab Spring revolts began in 2011, a year of record harvests and record prices.  Today, almost 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop is being fed to motor vehicles — enough corn to feed everyone in Africa.  Experts predict that we’ll need four times more land for biofuels by 2030.

Crops require cropland, and almost all places ideal for farming are already in use, buried under roads and cities, or have been reduced to wasteland.  Every year, a million hectares (2.4 million acres) of cropland are taken out of production because of erosion, desertification, or development.  So, 90 percent of the desired doubling in food production will have to come from current cropland.  At the same time, the farm soils still in production have all seen better days.  Agriculture is an unsustainable activity that normally depletes soil quality over time.

Another obstacle is yield, the amount of food that can be produced on a hectare of land.  Between 1961 and 1986, cereal yields rose 89 percent, due to the Green Revolution.  But per capita grain production peaked in 1986.  Since then, population has been growing faster than yields.  Crop breeding experts are wringing their hands.  A number of indicators suggest that we are heading for “agricultural Armageddon,” but the experts remain silent, praying for miracles.  The biotech industry is focused on making huge profits selling seeds and poisons, not boosting yields.

Agriculture guzzles 70 percent of the water used by humans.  Irrigated fields have yields that are two to three times higher than rain fed fields.  Demand for water is projected to increase 70 to 90 percent by 2050, but water consumption today is already unsustainable.  “Over the next few decades, groundwater depletion could cripple agriculture around the world.”

Crop production is already being affected by climate change.  Research indicates that further warming will take a substantial toll on crop yields.  If temperatures rise 4°C, maybe half the world’s cropland will become unsuitable for agriculture.  Rising sea levels will submerge large regions currently used for rice production.

Meanwhile, population continues to grow, and some hallucinate it will grow until 2100.  In a nutshell, our challenge is “to double grain, meat, and biofuel production on fewer acres with fewer farmers, less water, higher temperatures, and more frequent droughts, floods, and heat waves.”  This must be done “without destroying the forests, oceans, soils, pollinators, or climate on which all life depends.”

Ladies and gentlemen, this is an outstanding book, and easy to read.  Most people have blind faith that innovation will keep the supermarkets filled forever.  Those who actually think a bit are focusing on stuff like solar panels, wind turbines, and electric cars.  Food is something we actually need, and it gets far less attention than it deserves.  By the end of the book, it’s impossible to conclude that everything is under control, and that our wise leaders will safely guide us through the storm.  Surprisingly, a few additional super-threats were not discussed in the book.

Bourne mentions that insects and weeds are developing resistance to expensive GMO wonder products, but stops there.  Big Mama Nature is the mother of resistance.  She never tires of producing new forms of life that are resistant to every toxin produced by science: insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, rodenticides, antibiotics.  Every brilliant weapon we invent will only work temporarily.  In terms of breeding new varieties of plants that are resistant to the latest biological threat, there are only so many tricks available.  The low-hanging fruit has already been used.  Just three plants enable the production of 80 to 90 percent of the calories we consume: corn, rice, and wheat. 

The global food system is heavily dependent on petroleum fuels, which are finite and nonrenewable.  There is no combination of biofuels or alternative energy that will come anywhere close to replacing oil.  In the coming decades, we will be forced to return to a muscle-powered food system.  We are entirely unprepared for this, and the consequences will be very exciting for people who eat food.

There is a similar issue with fertilizer.  Of the three primary plant nutrients, reserves of mineral phosphorus will be depleted first, and this will blindside conventional agriculture — no phosphorus, no life.  A hundred years ago, Chinese farmers used zero commercial fertilizer.  Every morning, long caravans of handcarts hauled large jugs of sewage from the cities to the fields.

In the end, readers are presented with two paths to the future.  One path looks like a whirlwind of big trouble, and this is not just a comic book doomer fantasy — it’s already blowing and rumbling.  The other path is happy and wonderful.  Humans will discover their legendary big brains, turn them on, shift industrial civilization into reverse, speed down the fast lane to genuine sustainability, and live happily ever after.  Place your bets. 

Bourne, Joel K., The End of Plenty: The Race to Feed A Crowded World, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2015.