Saturday, March 28, 2015

Deforesting the Earth

Michael Williams’ book, Deforesting the Earth, describes humankind’s 10,000 year raid on the planet’s forest cover.  Readers are taken on a world tour of deforestation through the ages.  Ports of call include Greece, Rome, China, India, the Amazon, and others.  We discover the regional variations of forest mining, from the first frontier clearings to the lumber guzzling industrial societies.

The saga of the forest molesters begins in the Stone Age, on an embryonic scale.  Many imagine that all Native Americans lived in perfect harmony from the dawn of time.  Compared to the white colonists, they indeed lived far lighter, but many tribes altered their ecosystems over time via periodic burning, which prevented forest regeneration.  They left some footprints on the land.

In the Old World, the experiment in agriculture had been thrashing soils and forests for centuries.  But in America, many imagine that similar slash-and-burn techniques somehow caused no injuries.  Williams disagreed.  He described extensive deforestation and soil depletion in corn country.  Note that large-scale agriculture in the eastern U.S. was just 500 years old in 1492, and they lacked metal axes, plows, and draft animals.  In Mexico, where large-scale farming existed since 2000 B.C., there was abundant evidence of serious damage — bigger footprints.

Our dependence on wood makes Homo sapiens an unusual species.  Without the warmth provided by burning wood, our ancestors could have never left the tropics.  Deforestation was civilization’s shadow.  Until the temporary blip of fossil energy, wood was our oil.  Wood enabled the manufacture of metals, bricks, mortar, glass, and ceramics.  It enabled long-term survival in snow country.

The Mayans, Aztecs, and Incas developed big bloody empires without plows, iron tools, or domesticated herd animals — but deforestation kept them on life support.  Gold, silver, diamonds, and iron were not necessary for becoming victorious conquerors, but the march to domination required food, water, and wood.

In medieval Europe, the new religion had driven a wedge between humans and nature.  Earth was created for us.  We were partners with God, and our job was to put the finishing touches on creation.  “A wild landscape not hallowed by prayer and asceticism was said to be in a state of original sin, but once it has become fertile and purposeful, it was transformed.”  So, the forests had to go, along with the savages and outlaws that lurked within them.

In theory, wood is renewable.  Societies with light footprints didn’t kill trees; they gathered dead wood instead.  For rising civilizations, on the other hand, wood was more like pure crystal meth.  When you had access to it, life was a fantastic amazing rush.  You built ships, cities, fortresses, temples, trade networks.  But when the wood was gone, you were a burned out, toothless, walking dead tweaker.

Wood addiction was a vicious cycle.  Deforestation led to expanded cropland and pasture, which led to growing population, which led to further deforestation, and so on.  Eventually, the Ponzi scheme encountered limits.  Endless growth is impossible.  Simple societies that saw their forest as sacred were helpless sitting ducks for loony societies possessed by an insatiable addiction to wood and wealth.  Why practice enlightened self-restraint when you can grow like crazy?

Forests are finite.  Perpetual deforestation is impossible, as they discovered on Easter Island.  Today, it’s growing at an exponential rate.  Listen to this: we’ve cleared more forest since 1950 than in all previous time, and the extermination continues.  Consumers encourage rainforest destruction by buying pet food, fast food burgers, soy-based products, foods containing palm oil, and so on.

Williams mentioned the winter of 1695, when the king of France sat at his dinner table, bundled in furs, his glass filled with frozen wine.  Before iron stoves, heating was extremely inefficient.  The metropolis of Paris was importing firewood from up to 200 kilometers away (124 miles).  In the winter of 1709, wood was scarce, and “people died like flies.”

At about this time, folks began seriously fooling around with coal, a nonrenewable source of energy.  Before long, coal became the new meth.  It threw open the doors to the Industrial Revolution, and a new vicious cycle of exponential growth and resource depletion.  Two hundred years later, we slipped into the petroleum nightmare, civilization went viral, and we are now skyrocketing toward bad juju oblivion.

Previously, I thought that the biggest impact of riding the downslope from Peak Energy was the transition to muscle-powered agriculture, a massive shift that we are entirely unprepared for.  But what about heating?  In 1695, when the king’s wine froze, the planet’s population was just 600 million.  Today, there is far less forest and far more people.  Today, almost half of humankind uses wood for heating and cooking, and they are burning twice as much as 20 years ago.  Imagine the day when wood is the only source of heat for Boston or Chicago, and the chainsaws, trucks, and trains are rusting in the snow.

Williams’ book is a grand banquet of information.  Readers get to spend many hours studying charts, graphs, and tables of statistics, observing reality through the mind of a geographer.  He described how, why, and when the long process of deforestation has proceeded, but paid little attention to the ecological impacts of forest clearing.  He advocated conservation, based on wise management.  The rate of cutting should not exceed the rate at which new wood grows.  Therefore, efforts to preserve old growth ecosystems were dumb, because mature trees grow slower than young ones.

Williams disliked critics of deforestation.  Those youngsters were feeble-minded alarmists who spewed exaggerated hysteria — obnoxious eco-fascists determined to make our lives miserable.  For him, deforestation was a necessary evil, “In fact, the clearing of the forest… over much of western and central Europe was one of the most dramatic changes made to human landscapes anywhere and can be regarded as one of the great achievements of the medieval age.”

Williams was born in 1935, and grew up during the zenith of the British Empire, the petroleum blip, the high tech revolution, and the population explosion — an era of staggering chaos.  Yes, deforestation was a bummer, but it was a sacrifice required for our joyride to wonderland.  Like the worldview of the dominant culture in which he was raised, the book vibrates with cognitive dissonance.  Our advanced standard of living must be preserved, at any cost, for as long as possible, by any means necessary.

Reading the book with ecology-tinted glasses is most illuminating.  It describes a chain reaction of catastrophic mistakes, made with good intentions, spanning thousands of years — mistakes that continue to multiply at a head spinning rate.  We are given a detailed map of the path we took to disaster, including the wrong turns.  We can never comprehend genuine sustainability until we identify and understand the mistakes.  We must discover our history.

Immense imagination is needed to elevate our consciousness far above the reeking cesspool of pathological illusions.  There may come a day, after the storms, when we have a chance to start over again.  How could we do it differently — and wisely — next time around?  It’s time for good people with hearts and creative gifts to contemplate these issues.  It’s time for new lessons, stories, songs, and paintings.  It’s time to remember who we are, and come home.

Williams provided a vital clue.  “If sustainable societies existed, then they depended on very low population densities, abundance of land, and little or no involvement in a market economy, local or regional, all of which were rare.”  I agree.

P.S., I also recommend John Perlin’s book, A Forest Journey.

Williams, Michael, Deforesting the Earth — From Prehistory to Global Crisis, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2006.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Limits to Growth

The Club of Rome was formed in 1968.  It included big shots and experts from 25 nations.  Social and environmental challenges had grown beyond the ability of individual countries to manage.  It was time to study the big issues, and develop strategies for dealing with them.  Their research began with the Project on the Predicament of Mankind.

In 1972, Limits to Growth was published, authored by Donella Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows.  (Here is a free PDF of the book.)  They developed a computer model that allowed them to tinker with variables like population, food, pollution, and resources, and create possible scenarios for the coming decades.  This allowed them to understand which variables were best for leveraging desired improvements. 

The book concluded that we were on a path to big trouble, but it was not too late to avert disaster.  World leaders did not leap to action, so 20 years later the second edition was published, Beyond the Limits.  It announced that humankind was beyond overshoot, and it was time to slow down.  Despite millions of copies sold, consumers kept consuming, and leaders kept snoozing.  In 2004, the third edition was published, Limits to Growth — The 30-Year Update, the subject of this review.

All three books present two very important ideas.  First, our planet is finite, so economic and population growth cannot continue forever.  There are limits to growth.  Nothing could be more obvious to anyone who has more than two brain cells, but our culture stubbornly refuses to accept this.  It is impossible to ever have enough.  We are hell-bent on perpetual growth, by any means necessary, at any cost.  Sorry, kids!  Even the most prestigious universities on Earth remain hotbeds of the perpetual growth cult, which is the equivalent of the flat Earth cult of centuries past.

Second, humans have moved beyond the limits.  We are currently on a path that cannot continue for more than a generation or two.  Sorry, kids!  Exponential population growth continues, and exponential growth in resource consumption is growing even faster.  Climate is becoming unstable.  Cropland is being destroyed.  Rivers and aquifers are being drained.  Forests are vanishing.  Fossil energy is finite.  And so on.  There are no silver bullet solutions, but there are countless ways to weaken the monster.

Naturally, the perpetual growth cult is yowling and screeching.  They denounce the Limits to Growth research, asserting that the “predictions of the future” were wildly inaccurate, and therefore all of their ideas are pure balderdash.  Of course, those who have actually read the book(s) know that the authors were careful to repeatedly remind readers that the various possible scenarios of the future were not predictions.

So, there are limits to growth, and we are beyond the limits — this begs the question: what next?  The hurricane of predicaments that comprise humankind’s war on the planet is enormously complex.  We have countless options, and the better ones include slowing down, consuming less, fewer kids.  With regard to what next, the book gets fuzzier.

The intended audience is not the billion hungry souls living on less than two dollars a day.  The authors are writing to the educated, wealthy elite — folks who will yowl and screech if anyone makes a move toward their air conditioner, refrigerator, or vehicle.  They cannot wrap their heads around the notion that life can be both pleasant and sustainable, because sustainability implies terrible sacrifice, an unbearable reduction of their precious high-status, high-waste standard of living.

Because this elite audience is jittery and spooked, the discussion becomes more acrobatic and dubious.  For example, “A global transition to a sustainable society is probably possible without reductions in either population or industrial output.”  Not all growth is bad.  Poor folks need some growth so they can escape from poverty, and discover the magic of family planning.

Of the ten scenarios presented in the book, only one results in a sustainable future, which is inhabited by eight billion happy humans.  This scenario includes the highest number of major changes.  In it, “the system brings itself down below its limits, avoids an uncontrolled collapse, maintains its standard of living, and holds itself very close to equilibrium.”

Our predicaments have been accumulating for centuries.  The Agricultural Revolution sharply disturbed our relationship with the family of life, and the Industrial Revolution greatly magnified these imbalances.  Consequently, it’s time for the Sustainability Revolution.  The book mentions three ways of contemplating sustainability.

Most well known is the Brundtland Report, which defines sustainable development as “…development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  It fails to point out the huge difference between wants and needs.  Needs are about the basic necessities for survival: food, clothing, and shelter.  Consumers often perceive needs as everything money can buy. 

Another approach is the Herman Daly Rules.  (1) Renewable resources such as fish, soil, and groundwater must be used no faster than the rate at which they regenerate.  (2) Nonrenewable resources such as minerals and fossil fuels must be used no faster than renewable substitutes for them can be put into place.  (3) Pollution and wastes must be emitted no faster than natural systems can absorb them, recycle them, or render them harmless.

The Daly Rules are clearer, and they imply backing away from industrial society and traditional agriculture, which is rational and daunting.  His second rule is perplexing.  It’s OK to use energy and minerals to make solar panels, but what would we need electricity for?  Rule two would seem to prohibit using energy and minerals to make computers or refrigerators, because they are not renewable, and they require the existence of a vast and unsustainable industrial society.  Readers are warned that a sustainable society “would be almost unimaginably different from the one in which most people now live.”

The authors favor a third approach to sustainability, the Ecological Footprint model, which compares the impact of human activities to the planet’s carrying capacity.  They calculated that humankind’s current footprint requires an area 1.2 times the Earth — we have exceeded the planet’s carrying capacity by twenty percent, and this is unsustainable.  The footprint is defined as “the total area of productive land and water ecosystems required to produce the resources that the population consumes and assimilate the wastes that the population produces, wherever on Earth that land and water may be located.”  The footprint model is vague and imprecise.

The scenarios in the book are based on measurable variables, like cropland area, industrial output, energy reserves, population, and so on.  They do not include unknowns like war, floods, earthquakes, epidemics, and climate instability. 

A serious weakness in their computer model is the assumptions used to project crop yields.  Nine billion could be fed in 2100 if cropland area was not diminished, if food production doubled worldwide, if degraded land was restored, if erosion did not increase, if irrigation capacity did not diminish, and if there was adequate energy and fertilizer.  These assumptions are impossible to take seriously.  Agriculture is highly unsustainable already.

No book provides the solutions we wish for — a healthy future, with a high standard of living, quickly achieved via easy, painless changes.  Limits to Growth is a classic, and it takes a unique approach to describing our predicaments, and evaluating responses to them.  It’s nourishing brain food, easy to read, and a bit sugarcoated.

Meadows, Donella; Randers, Jorgen; and Meadows, Dennis, Limits to Growth — The 30-Year Update, Chelsea Green, White River Junction, Vermont, 2004.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015


Baz Edmeades (“ed-meedz.”) grew up in South Africa.  His grandfather, Thomas F. Dreyer, was the paleontologist who discovered an unknown species, Homo helmei.  The new species was an immediate predecessor of Homo sapiens, and it lived 239,000 years ago — in Africa!  Europeans, the self-elected master race, naturally assumed that humankind emerged somewhere closer to London.  White folks were shocked to realize that they were (gulp!) Africans.

South Africa’s Kruger National Park is home to megafauna (large animals) that once inhabited vast regions of the world.  Sadly, poachers have been pushing a number of species close to extinction.  This drove Edmeades crazy.  It inspired him to begin research on a book that became Megafauna — First Victims of the Human-caused Extinction.

During the project, he became friends with Paul Martin, who strongly influenced his thinking.  Martin was the father of the Pleistocene overkill hypothesis, which asserted that overhunting was the sole cause for the megafauna extinctions in North and South America.  They occurred after humans crossed into the Americas from Siberia, 15,000 to 20,000 years ago.

Other scholars disagreed.  They blamed climate change, and its effects on vegetation.  But the extinct species had previously survived a number of big climate swings.  Still others blamed disease, a comet strike, or a combination of factors.  The issue is highly complex, and there is currently insufficient evidence to unify the experts, and drive the controversy extinct.

On every continent except Antarctica, there were spasms of megafauna extinctions.  They occurred in different regions, at different times, not in synch with climate swings.  There is real evidence that humans were not innocent bystanders in these murder mysteries.  They likely played a primary role.

In Australia, some say that the species driven to extinction 50,000 years ago were victims of the newly arrived humans.  On the islands of New Zealand, Tasmania, Hawaii, Tonga, Madagascar, the Caribbean, and the Mediterranean, extinctions occurred at different times, following the appearance of humans.

Much earlier, Africa suffered a severe spasm of extinctions, long before Homo sapiens.  The continent was loaded with megafauna 1.8 million years ago, but many were gone by 1.4 million years ago.  There used to be nine species of big cats (three today), nine types of elephants (one today), four hippos (one today).  There were giant antelopes, giant hyenas, giant pigs, giant monkeys, and giant baboons, all gone.  

Some, including Edmeades, blame overhunting.  At the time, our ancestor Homo erectus had been busy, inventing a new and improved toolbox — knives, saws, axes, cleavers.  This was the Acheulian revolution.  They knew how to use fire, and they may have been the first to use the wooden spear.

In North America, when humans arrived, there were at least nine species of big cats, and seven species of elephants.  The biodiversity was incredible — beavers as big as bears, two-ton buffaloes, armadillos the size of VW Beetles.  Until 14,000 years ago, mammoth country ranged from Western Europe to Mexico.  Aurochs ranged from England to Korea, and south to India and North Africa.  Rhinos ranged from Europe to Sumatra.  Under downtown London are the remains of hippos, elephants, giant deer, aurochs, and lions, residents of the thriving rainforests of England. 

Prior to the spear, our ancestors had been similar to baboons and chimps, scavenging lunch from carnivore kills, and bludgeoning small critters like monkeys and lizards.  Over many thousands of years, evolution had gradually made us better hunters.  Changes to our bones and muscles improved our ability to accurately hurl projectiles, and kill from a distance.  Evolution also improved our long distance running skills.  Our ancestors were much slower than antelopes, but we could chase them for hours, until they collapsed from exhaustion.

Before the spear, we acquired new abilities very slowly, by evolving.  At the same time, other species were also busy evolving new abilities for countering our advances, and maintaining the balance.  With our transition to tool making, we began gaining new abilities by inventing them, a far quicker process.  Spears enabled our ancestors to subdue the man-eating predators who kept them from exploding in numbers.  This rubbished the laws of nature.  Imagine rabbits inventing tools that allowed them to overpower foxes.  With spears, we could also kill large game, acquire abundant meat, and feed more bambinos.

Like the trend of population growth, the trend of techno innovation proceeded slowly for ages, until exploding in recent times.  Innovation allowed us to temporarily sneak around the checks and balances of evolution, and discover the painful consequences of violating the laws of nature in a giddy whirlwind of blissful ignorance.  We invented the ability to disrupt the balance of nature.

All wild animals live in the here and now, paying acute attention to the immediate vicinity.  None devote attention to the balance of nature, or to risks that may arise in the future.  If they get food, they eat; if not, they starve.  Amazingly, some tool-making societies eventually developed a sense of foresight.  They practiced enlightened self-restraint, which included taboos on overhunting and overbreeding — never-ending responsibilities.  Foresight was a slippery path, and some groups slid into domestication.  Unfortunately, societies that master self-restraint are helpless sitting ducks when discovered by civilization — a serious and perplexing predicament.

What really captured my attention while reading, was realizing the incredible abundance of huge, beautiful, powerful forms of life that once thrived on Earth.  It’s almost impossible to imagine how spectacularly alive and healthy this planet was in the days before the toolmakers.  Today, it feels like we’re living in desolate ghost towns, nothing but humans.  I can walk alone all night without fear of being eaten.  Our soundtrack is the rumbling, roaring, screeching noise of planet-eating machinery — not wolves, hyenas, elephants, elk — the wild music of a wild land.

And so, here we are.  We have unluckily inherited a treasure chest of predicaments, all getting worse.  Do you think we can somehow find a way to return to ecological harmony by continuing down the path of technology — solar panels, wind turbines, nanotechnology, space exploration, computer-driven cars?

Our closest relatives, the chimps and bonobos, with whom we share 98 percent of our DNA, provide excellent examples of the benefits of living in compliance with the laws of nature.  They’ve lived in the same place for two million years without trashing it.  Humans who study the school of life can survive in tropical forests without tool making, but seven billion can’t.

Cultures die.  The culture of endless growth and insatiable consumption is moving into its twilight years, as resource limits draw the curtains closed.  A muscle-powered future will require a muscle-powered culture.  We could resurrect the unsustainable cultures of centuries past, and repeat their blunders.  Or, we could learn from their mistakes and try something different and better — like rejoining the family of life, and obeying the laws of nature.  Imagine that.  What can we do to move in that direction?

Anyway, Edmeades provides a long and fascinating discourse on megafauna extinctions.  Megafauna is an unfinished work in progress (as of February 2015).  The manuscript has not been copyedited, but the text is well written, easy for general readers to understand.  Edmeades’ deep knowledge of paleontology is obvious.  This is an important document.

Edmeades, Baz, Megafauna — First Victims of the Human-caused Extinction, 2013.  This fascinating manuscript has been withdrawn from its home location ( for updates.  An earlier version is available HERE.

In 2013, the Caustic Soda program produced a slightly-serious interview with Edmeades, a 75-minute podcast.