Tuesday, April 20, 2021

A Farewell to Ice

 

In 1968, the Apollo-8 mission orbited the moon, and took the first photo of the Earth rising above the moon’s horizon.  In that photo, Earth was white on both the top and bottom.  Today, when it’s summer in the northern hemisphere, the distant view shows a white bottom and a blue top.  An ancient ice sheet is becoming an ocean.  With a sloppy stampede of well-intended, self-defeating, highly-destructive booboos, human cleverness has changed the planet.

In 1970, Peter Wadhams began studying cool stuff in polar regions — sea ice, glaciers, ice sheets, snow, and permafrost.  When he began his 47 years of research, polar ice was not a headline making subject that begged for the full attention of the world.  He is now among the world’s top experts in the field.  His book, A Farewell to Ice, sums up what he has learned over the years.  It provides an understandable, uncomfortable, and important introduction to the Climate Crisis. 

Arctic ice is precious, because it nurtures the existence of a climate that enables complex biodiversity.  But things are changing now.  When incoming sunbeams hit white regions, some of the heat is reflected away from the planet, back into outer space.  This ability to reflect is called albedo.  Fresh snow, which is very white, reflects 80 to 90 percent of incoming heat.  So, it has an albedo of 0.8 to 0.9.  Ice that has been bare for a while accumulates soot and dust, which makes it darker, less reflective.  It has an albedo of 0.4 to 0.7.  Sea water and dry land are darker, and absorb more incoming heat.  Open water has an albedo of 0.1. 

When albedo reflectivity weakens, more heat can enter the atmosphere, and accumulate.  Ice gets thinner, breaks up, and retreats.  So, more sunlight hits more open water, which absorbs more heat.  More ice that used to exist year-round now melts away during the warmer months.  The duration of ice-free summer periods is lengthening.  This vicious circle is called the “Arctic Death Spiral.” 

Glaciers, ice sheets, and sea ice have existed for thousands of years, leftovers from previous ice ages.  Once they are gone, they will not return for a very long time, if ever.  They were still in pretty good shape at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.  If human population and lifestyles had remained at pre-industrial levels, the Arctic might still be an awesomely cool and stable region.

The atmosphere is precious.  It helps to retain adequate heat, but not too much, like a greenhouse.  While it allows some heat to escape into outer space, it allows even more solar heat to enter.  If Earth had no atmosphere, it would be a lifeless frozen planet.  The moon is a frigid place because it has no atmosphere, and its average temperature is -4°F (-18°C).  Earth’s lovely atmosphere enables an average temperature of 59°F (15°C). 

This atmospheric greenhouse enables our survival, because life is possible when it’s warm enough for water to exist in liquid form.  Every living cell contains water.  The greenhouse also prevents most seawater from freezing.  Unfrozen oceans absorb incoming solar heat and retain it, which is good and normal, up to a point.  Right now, ocean absorption is what’s (temporarily) saving our asses.  Eventually, the oceans will get too warm, which will impact marine ecosystems, and everything else.  Eventually, the climate will get more unstable.  Agricultural systems will get dizzy and wobbly.  Life will become more exciting.

There are several greenhouse gases that help the atmosphere trap heat, including ozone, water vapor, nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide, and methane.  Wadhams is especially concerned about carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4), because of their primary role in encouraging warmer temperatures.  CO2 is responsible for about 55 percent of the greenhouse warming issues.

Some CO2 emissions can remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years.  A lot of it is absorbed by plant life and oceans.  Prior to the Industrial Revolution, CO2 levels in the air were 280 ppm (parts per million).  Today, they are 421 ppm.  Current trends suggest that in 75 to 100 years, levels will double (800+ ppm).  In oceans, CO2 dissolves and forms carbonic acid, which damages the shells of sea critters, and hammers coral reefs.  Wizards have calculated that oceans now absorb over one million tons of manmade CO2 every hour!  [LINK]  What could possibly go wrong?

CO2 is precious.  If there was no CO2, there would be no plants or animals.  During photosynthesis, all plants take in CO2 and emit oxygen, which all animals need.  We’re now learning that it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.  Wadhams shouts (in bold text), “adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere inevitably causes a temperature rise.  And, the more you add, the greater the temperature rise.”

It won’t be long before the North Pole will be ice-free for the first time in tens of thousands of years.  In the ’70s, summertime Arctic sea ice covered over 3 million square miles (7.8 million km2), an area larger than the continent of Australia.  In 2012, it covered just 1.3 million square miles (much more open water).  Climate change is happening most rapidly in the Arctic.  Their summers are now having some horror show heat waves.  The Southern Hemisphere has been less vulnerable to ice age periods, because it has less dry land, and much more heat-retaining ocean area.

So, as Arctic snow and ice retreats, albedo declines, more sunbeams arrive, temperatures rise, melting increases, and on and on…  This is called a feedback loop.  Our emissions have created growing imbalances that now enable self-perpetuating feedback loops.  “We are fast approaching the stage when climate change will be playing the tune for us while we stand by and watch helplessly, with our reductions in CO2 emissions having no effect.”  This is what is known as runaway warming.

Concentrations of methane are also rising in the atmosphere.  They have risen from 700 ppb (parts per billion) in preindustrial times, up to 1,940 ppb recently.  Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas, but it only stays in the atmosphere for 7 to 10 years, during which time it is 100+ times more harmful than CO2.  Then, it breaks down into CO2.  When methane’s brief existence is calculated within a hundred year timeframe, its impact is 23 times worse than the hundred year impact of CO2. 

In addition to airborne methane, massive amounts of it are stored in seabed permafrost, in the form of methane hydrates — flammable frozen crystals of methane and water.  When the permafrost thaws, the hydrate crystals dissolve, and the methane is released.  Permafrost is soil that has been frozen for years, often thousands of years.  Deposits can be hundreds of yards (or meters) deep.  With regard to warming and methane, Wadhams highlights two daunting issues.  One is offshore permafrost (underwater), and the other is terrestrial permafrost (under dry land).

Offshore permafrost is a dire concern for Wadhams, because it has the potential to be the source of a monstrous release of methane within a few decades.  This permafrost formed on dry land thousands of years ago, when sea levels were much lower.  Today, it is buried beneath seabed sediments.  It contains substantial amounts of methane hydrates, and it is especially vulnerable to thawing as sea ice retreats, and water temperatures rise. 

The East Siberian Sea includes 810 square miles (2,100 km2) of shallow water, most of which is less than 130 feet (40 m) deep.  In the good old days, the sea used to be covered year round with surface ice, which kept the water frigid.  This changed in 2005, when summer sea ice began disappearing, which exposed seawater to the atmosphere for the first time.  Sunlight could now penetrate directly into the water and warm it.  Shallow waters warmed faster than deeper areas.

For the first time in tens of thousands of years, warm water could reach the seabed, causing frozen sediments to thaw.  Then, as the underlying permafrost thaws, large plumes of methane bubbles are released.  In deeper waters, the rising methane oxidizes, and the plume disappears before reaching the surface.  In the shallows, methane makes it to the surface, and is released into the atmosphere.

In the entire Arctic Ocean, the methane hydrate deposits are estimated to contain 13 times the amount of carbon currently present in the atmosphere.  Wadhams believes that “the risk of an Arctic seabed methane pulse is one of the greatest immediate risks facing the human race.”  Russian scientists on site calculate that the probability of this is at least 50 percent.  Scientists skeptical about the possible methane pulse have one thing in common — none have participated in research on the East Siberian Sea.  In a 2020 article, Wadhams revealed that the East Siberian Arctic Shelf was home to high concentrations of methane hydrates in permafrost layers that are up to 1.25 miles (2 km) thick. [LINK] 

Terrestrial permafrost is buried under dry land across the Arctic.  It is found within a region of 7.3 million square miles (19 million km2) — something like the combined land area of Russia and Argentina.  As Arctic temperatures soar, the permafrost is rapidly thawing.  Soils in this permafrost contain lots of organic carbon, plant material that lived long ago, but froze before fully decomposing.  Unlike offshore permafrost, terrestrial permafrost does not contain methane while frozen.  But when it thaws and decays, chemical processes then create CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide.  

Wadhams strongly suspects that a massive seabed methane pulse may occur in the next decade or so.  One way or another, fast or slow, the permafrost will inevitably thaw.  Nobody questions that the climate is warming.  The amount of carbon stored in the offshore permafrost is estimated to be 50 gigatons, but the terrestrial permafrost is estimated to hold 1,400 to 1,700 gigatons (30 times more than offshore).  Wadhams believes that most of the massive greenhouse emissions are likely to take place by the end of the century, at the latest.

So, that’s a bit about what this book is about.  When you sit down with a copy from your friendly local library, you’ll learn much more.  Wadhams is profoundly concerned about the path we’re on, and is distinctly gloomy about where we’re headed.  He admits that the technological miracles that will successfully end the Arctic Death Spiral have yet to be invented, and may never be. 

Humankind remains largely clueless, whilst insanely committed to preserving our maximum waste lifestyle, as long as possible, by any means necessary.  Only dangerous heretics talk about sensibly turning stuff OFF.  We are wading neck deep in happy talk, misinformation, gibberish, and magical thinking.  The jungle drums keep talking about “solving the Climate Crisis.”  The spotlights are aimed at solar panels, electric cars, and LED light bulbs, not melting permafrost.  What could possibly go wrong?

Wadhams, Peter, A Farewell to Ice, Oxford University Press, New York, 2017.


Wednesday, April 7, 2021

The End of Ice


 

The Climate Crisis is alive and thriving, a persistent embarrassing bummer that refuses to be wished away.  It is, by far, the biggest threat we’ve faced in the entire human saga.  We are, by far, the most unusual animals in the world, and we’ve bumbled and stumbled into a “deer in the headlights” situation of complete vulnerability.  The Climate Crisis shrugs with indifference, and faithfully serves us what we’ve ordered… rough justice.

In human society, there is a modest level of agreement that the crisis is real and intensifying.  There is vigorous disagreement over how severe the crisis may become, how quickly it may proceed, and whether there is anything non-idiotic we can do to soften impacts on the ecosystem.

Projections of long-term climate trends are based on computer models designed to predict how massively-complex natural processes are likely to interact over time, and how the consequences will affect life as we know it.  “Every single worst-case prediction made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) about the rise in temperatures, extreme weather, sea levels, and the increasing CO2 content in the atmosphere have fallen short of reality,” wrote climate journalist Dahr Jamail.

Following this rapidly moving field of knowledge is not easy, because it’s a whirlwind of arguing experts, misinformation, hard truths, and shameless marketing gibberish.  The hard truths rarely appear in the daily headlines because they do not boost ratings, delight advertisers, or nurture consumer confidence.  Consumers are constantly fed steaming balderdash about progress and miracles.  Students might hear mild truths, if any (don’t scare the children!).  Many of the hard truth discussions are written for an audience of scientists, not general readers.  

Dahr Jamail is a journalist who is good at translating perplexing techno-jabber into ordinary English.  He is a Texas-born, fourth generation Lebanese-American.  In 1996, he moved to Alaska, where he got into mountain climbing.  As the years passed, he could see that the glaciers were melting and retreating.  The world was changing, and not in a good way.  In 2003, the fates called him to become a war correspondent in Iraq and Afghanistan.  In 2010, the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico seized his full attention, and he began covering the world war on our home, Earth.

Since then, he’s travelled extensively, visited highly impacted regions, chatted with locals, and received a full immersion baptism in bullshit-free reality.  He’s written more than a hundred climate stories.  In 2019, he published The End of Ice, a combo of fascinating travel journal, terrifying horror story, and voyage of personal growth.  The book allows readers to see and feel the painful changes that are taking place, from the perspective of direct, feet on the ground, experience.  Jamail is passionately interested in helping people understand the Climate Crisis.  Ignorance is curable.

In Brazil, he was amazed by the Amazon rainforest.  About one percent of the incoming sunlight makes it through the dense green canopy.  It’s always warm, and close to 100 percent humidity.  There isn’t much difference between day and night, or winter and summer.  The birdsong symphony is amazing.  Scientists have barely begun discovering the fantastic biodiversity of this rainforest.  A 25 day expedition discovered 80 new species.  Because of the rapid rate of destruction, countless species will go extinct before we learn of their existence.

This forest used to sequester carbon.  Now, because of drought, fires, clear-cuts, and development, it’s releasing more carbon than all of the traffic in the U.S.  Biologists who are overwhelmed by the stunning magnificence of the Amazon are deeply pained by the massive mindless destruction, and by the cold indifference of the world.  People have no connection to the planet, no connection with anything.

A week after leaving the Amazon, Jamail arrived in the Inupiat village of Utqiagvik, Alaska (formerly Barrow), on the Arctic Ocean.  The modern town is located east of the original village, which is decomposing, and collapsing into the sea.  The waves will eventually wash away modern Utqiagvik too.  Residents say that winters have been getting much shorter and warmer.  The sea ice is thinning, breaking up, and retreating.  Polar bears are gone. 

A gravedigger said that in the past, solid permafrost was just 10 to 12 inches (25 to 30 cm) below the surface.  Digging a grave took three days of strenuous chopping.  Now, it only takes five hours or less.  There are enormous deposits of permafrost scattered across the northern hemisphere.  As permafrost thaws, it softens and the land sinks.  In the thawing process, methane is released.  In 2017, enormous methane craters began blowing open on Siberia’s Yamal Peninsula, and in Canada’s Northwest Territories.  Big trouble is just getting warmed up.

NOTE: With warming, glaciers and ice “melt,” and permafrost deposits “thaw.”  To avoid looking like a dolt, never forget this!

Jamail visited Glacier National Park, home to a formerly thriving boreal forest.  A warming climate has delighted millions of hungry beetles, some of whom can now have two life cycles per year.  In the last 20 years, beetles have killed 40 million acres (16 million ha) of trees.  They kill fewer trees now, because fewer trees remain alive.  The latest serial killer is white pine blister rust, which has infected almost 85 percent of the trees in the park.

Another stop was Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, which is busy dying.  Because of warming and ocean acidification, most of the world’s coral will be gone by 2050.  Oceans are absorbing more than 30 percent of the CO2 that humans emit.  Carbon in the water promotes the formation of carbonic acid, which is harmful to coral, mollusks, and some types of plankton.  Phytoplankton are tiny water plants that generate half of the planet’s oxygen supply.  All of my best friends are chronic oxygen addicts.

Florida is a state that should learn how to swim.  In the southern region, there are four national parks that “will be underwater in my lifetime.”  Sea level is rising because ice is rapidly melting, and because warming seawater expands in volume.  Salt water will eventually infiltrate the Florida freshwater aquifer.  Miami’s drainage system was designed to operate by gravity.  Rising sea levels and tides now prohibit the system from fully draining.  Many homes in South Miami are on septic systems.  These only work when they are above the water table.  When this is not the case, bathtubs fill with raw sewage — a delightful surprise!

Anyway, zooming out to the bigger picture, current trends do not suggest that we are hippity-hopping down the golden path to a brighter future.  “The last time there was this much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was three million years ago, when temperatures were as high as they are expected to be in 2050, and sea levels were 70 feet (21 m) higher than they are today.”  Back in those days there were trees growing on the South Pole.

“Even if we immediately stopped all greenhouse emissions, it would take another 25,000 years for the CO2 now in the atmosphere to be absorbed into the oceans.”  So, the ice will continue melting, the seas will continue absorbing heat, the climate will continue warming, and the planet’s ecosystems will continue taking a merciless catastrophic beating.  Ignorance pandemics don’t <bleep> around.

As readers move into the book’s homestretch, Jamail stops storytelling and looks them directly in the eye.  It’s time for some heart-to-heart communication.  Writing this book has been very painful.  The folks he wrote about were not extremists, lunatics, or liars.  In addition to his travels and interviews, he’s spent lots of time gathering additional information online.  Paying close attention to eco-reality, year after year, is a miserable path.

Writers are often inspired by the hope that the work they do can inspire beneficial change.  They hope that readers will see the light if blasted with a firehose of truth.  Well, the world often enjoys taking long hard pisses on hope-filled dreams.  It laughs at their grandiose hope in promoting real transformation.  And so, the spurned dreamer hopes even harder.  Eventually, Jamail wondered if there was any point in writing.

Hope is a turd in the swimming pool.  Hope can’t undo the damage, or send the carbon back home, or resurrect the extinct, or make people care.  The worst is yet to come.  It’s time for grieving not hoping.  Jamail took a nose dive into a deep depression, and eventually emerged hope-free, a great healing.  He is now able to be present in reality, in the fullness of the darkness.  He learned that it is possible for acceptance and inner peace to reside in the same heart with grief and suffering.  “I have never felt more alive.”

 Jamail, Dahr, The End of Ice, The New Press, New York, 2019.  


Monday, March 29, 2021

Bright Green Lies


 

In an era when the info stream is running heavy on conspiracy theories, fake news, and balderdash, it’s not unusual to come across stories of green energy miracles.  For example, we might see that a progressive country somewhere overseas is now almost entirely running on wind or solar energy.  Oh, really?  In this era of deceptive “news” releases, truth can be a slippery rascal.

Bright green environmentalism is a mindset that has big hopes for a brighter future, and strongly advocates renewable energy.  Their primary interest is preserving our luxurious high-impact lifestyle and mega-profitable economy, while (hopefully) lightening our eco-footprint a wee bit, allowing us to feel slightly less uncomfortable.

The cat is out of the bag with regard to approaching fossil energy limits and the Climate Crisis.  The bad old-fashioned way of living has become unhip and embarrassing.  It has to go.  Bright green is a brilliant marketing strategy.  Look!  Here’s a new and improved way of living in the fast lane that’s friendly to the birds and trees!  It’s great for the economy, and it’s great for the planet!  Imagine that!  How totally cool!  (Um, the inconvenient truth here is that, no matter how hard we wish, we can’t have both industrial civilization and a living planet.)

Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith, and Max Wilbert are the authors of Bright Green Lies, which enthusiastically reveals all the kinky and creepy aspects of the bright green cult.  The three wordsmiths are apostles of a gospel called Deep Green Resistance, which passionately advocates defending the living world, to the highest degree possible, without delay.  (“No, that doesn’t mean killing all humans.  That means changing our lifestyle dramatically.”)  OK!

Once I made it across the border into chapter three, I suddenly became extremely excited!  I found myself exploring a fascinating, in-depth “birds and bees” discussion of the unfortunate realities, drawbacks, and limitations of alternative energy — lots of stuff they never taught me in school (and I wish they were teaching now).

My Admiral TV was made in 1946.  It doesn’t have a screen the size of a barn door.  I’ve never seen it work.  Watching a dead TV is boring.  Reading is a lot more interesting.  When you spend 25 to 30 years studying ecology, anthropology, and environmental history, you can learn a lot of stuff that mainstream folks don’t know — stuff more important than football scores, soap operas, game shows, celebrity shenanigans, and so on.

Folks who have working TVs, and thousands of channels, are often very well informed about countless subjects that are not especially important.  They are unlikely to be up to date on difficulties of lithium recycling, or why Big Mama Nature loathes and despises notorious bright green billionaires, or why the electric grid is so poorly designed for effectively distributing renewable energy that is intermittent, unpredictable, hard to control, and a pain in the ass.

They are likely to be blissfully ignorant about most of the countless eco-impacts of their consumer lifestyles.  The view outside their picture window is not strip mines, clear-cuts, forest fires, methane craters, oil fields, toxic spills, chemical plants, and landfills.  Out of sight, out of mind.  Most importantly, they are unlikely to understand why running today’s industrial civilization entirely on renewable energy is absolutely impossible, and why attempting a transition would provide little or no benefit — but a lot more damage to the planet.

Of course, everyone remembers William Jevons, who discovered something very strange in 1865.  In those days, the steam engine industry was making big gains in efficiency.  More work could be done with less coal.  Instead of reducing coal mining, demand for coal increased, because it was the greedy and profitable thing to do.  Jevon’s Paradox asserts, “Increased efficiency not only doesn’t generally reduce demand, but instead increases it.”

Bright greens still dance to the Jevon’s boogie.  Richard York, a University of Oregon wizard, studied data from 128 nations, and found that for every unit of “green” power brought online, only one-tenth as much fossil fuel was taken offline.  “Industrial civilization requires industrial levels of energy, and fossil fuel is functionally irreplaceable.”  Electric cars can’t be made without it.  Nor can wind turbines, solar panels, planes, ships, concrete, cell phones, etc.  Oil is incredibly energy dense.

Solar power pauses for sunset or clouds, sometimes for days.  Wind turbines take a nap when it’s calm, sometimes for days.  Meanwhile, demand for electricity expects the grid to always provide our every need immediately, and demand can surge without warning.  This means that a conventional generation system (typically fossil powered) must constantly be kept running on standby, to immediately feed the grid when clouds pass, breezes calm, or demand suddenly spikes.  Brilliant, eh?

While coal or oil is energy that can be stored for millions of years, the grid delivers alternating current (AC) electricity, which is impossible to store — use it or lose it.  Batteries can store direct current (DC) electricity, but high capacity utility-scale batteries are not in common use.  There are other ways of storing energy, like hydro-electric dams, pumped hydro, compressed air, thermal, etc.  These can be used in unique locations, not everywhere.  Bottom line: “The grid was not built for renewables.”  Therefore, a new fantastically expensive state of the art grid is needed.

No storage systems are made of harmless green fairy dust.  All require a fossil energy powered industrial civilization.  In the world of batteries, lithium-ion is the most efficient.  Elon Musk is working hard to design and build lithium batteries for cars, homes, and industrial scale power storage.  Exponential growth in demand for lithium is predicted into the late 2020s and 2030s. 

Some fear that staggering demand for lithium could drive prices into the stratosphere, and close the gate to a beautiful green utopia.  Even worse, some predict that “not enough economically recoverable lithium exists to build anywhere near the number of batteries needed in a global electric-vehicle economy.”  This also applies to other gizmos that require lithium.  Oh-oh!

As a special bonus, readers are also taken on a naughty and exciting tour behind the curtains, to get a shocking peek at the steamy world of hardcore geology porn.  In addition to a long list of conventional minerals, “green” energy hardware requires exotic minerals, like lithium and rare earth metals, which are found in limited locations, and are not easy or “green” to mine.  The mining industry excels at creating enduring, toxic, eco-catastrophes.

The book explores a number of other subjects — power distribution grids, hydropower, recycling, green cities, biofuels, geothermal, and so on.  Near the end are 28 pages of “solutions,” all of which consumer society has zero interest in.  Consumer society wants to survive and grow until the planet can no longer breathe.  The authors suggest a more interesting path.

Put the plows away forever and bring back the grasslands, via holistic management (beneficial grazing).  Before long, the recovery of healthy wild vegetation will suck the excess carbon out of the air, and turn some of it into organic grass-fed meat.  Grass will save our ass!  Deal with overpopulation and extinctions.  Eliminate carbon emissions in five years.  Remove five dams per day and stop building new ones.  End logging.  And on and on.  In short, end the destruction, let the Earth heal.  Make America Walk Again.

Jensen has spoken to many audiences over 20+ years.  He asks each group the same question.  “Do you think this culture will undergo a voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable society?”  No one has ever said yes.  This is exactly the point of his extreme recommendations.  There is no solution that leaves our way of life intact.  Our way of life has some really big issues.  This book will help you better understand some of them.  I liked it.

 

Jensen, Derrick, Lierre Keith, and Max Wilbert, Bright Green Lies, Monkfish Publishing, Rhinebeck, New York, 2021.  


Monday, March 15, 2021

Wild Free and Happy Sample 54

 

[Note: This is the fifty-fourth sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews.  These samples are not freestanding pieces.  They will be easier to understand if you start with sample 01, and follow the sequence listed HERE — if you happen to have some free time.  If you prefer audiobooks, Michael Dowd is in the process of reading and recording my book HERE.

[Continued from sample 53]

BEING WILD, FREE, AND HAPPY!

We live in interesting times.  Bunnies aren’t acidifying the oceans.  Salmon aren’t blindsiding the climate.  Geese aren’t nuking rainforests.  Even our closest relatives, the chimps and bonobos, remain absolute champions at sustainable living.  Today, much of humankind has become disconnected from our wild, free, and happy roots.  The rest of the family of life is not amused.

Many folks believe that electric cars are environmentally harmless, and that miraculous technology will certainly stop and reverse the Climate Crisis.  Other folks, the wee minority who pay close attention to the eco-related news feeds, are more inclined toward anger, grief, and haunting premonitions of extinctions.  They perceive that our culture is a runaway steamroller destined to smash everything in its path.

Big Mama Nature is strong, fiercely determined, and invincible.  She is the spirit of life, and its sacred guardian.  She’s glad to see that the planet-thrashing catastrophe is accelerating to its exit.  Maybe its speedy demise could prevent many extinctions.  Rust in peace, and good <bleeping> riddance!  When the storms have passed, Big Mama will still be standing tall and proud amidst the smoldering ruins, nurturing the recovery of what was lucky to survive.

Some folks seriously wonder if the human species is fatally flawed, a goofy divine booboo.  There are cultures that live like hurricanes, and others that walk softly.  History repeatedly assures us that wrecking ball cultures eventually rubbish their resource base and blink out.  Those cultures are indeed ridiculous, fatally flawed, dead ends, and the impacts of their lifestyle harm the entire family of life.  Sadly, they also have a long tradition of brutalizing lower impact cultures.

At the beginning of this long and meandering word dance, I promised to serve you stories that contemplate how things got to be this way.  I promised to propose zero miraculous solutions.  Well into the writing process, I became spellbound by an exceptional culture whose simplicity and sustainability have been highly polished by centuries of heavenly isolation.  They are not fatally flawed.  So, I need to take a side trip here, and share a bit of their story.

Pirahã

I’m delighted to introduce you to the Pirahã (pee-da-ha) people of the Amazon rainforest.  They are hunter-gatherers who live in a few jungle villages near the Maici River in northwestern Brazil.  Estimates of their population range up to 800.  The outer world mostly knows about them via the work of Daniel Everett, who first met them in 1977. 

In the beginning, he had been a missionary and linguist on a mission from God to learn their language, translate the Bible, and inspire the salvation of their damned souls.  His project was nearly derailed by the fact that their language had absolutely nothing in common with any other in the world.  They were able to effectively communicate via speaking, singing, humming, and whistling.  When hunting, whistles were less likely to spook monkeys and other game.  Whistled words allowed conversations between folks who were not close together.  When Dan was present, private conversation shifted to whistling.

To help you get to know the Pirahã, let me toss out some snips and notes from assorted sources.  They hunted, fished, and foraged.  Fish provided about 70 percent of their diet, and the combo of fishing and hunting provided up to 90 percent.  Manioc was recently introduced to them by Steve Sheldon, the linguist whom Everett replaced.  Scraggly manioc plants sometimes grew in small weedy patches, and their food production was miniscule.  They did not depend on this food.

The Pirahã knew the usefulness and location of all important plants in their area.  They understood the behavior of local animals, and how to take them, or avoid them.  They could walk into the jungle naked, with no tools or weapons, and walk out three days later with baskets of fruit, nuts, and small game.  By the age of nine, all of them were capable of surviving in the jungle on their own, feeding themselves and making shelter.  They were at peace with their ecosystem because they knew how to live in it.  Their faith was in themselves. 

The Pirahã had no leaders, or social hierarchy, all were equal.  It was taboo to tell someone to do something.  Violence, anger, and shouting were unacceptable.  They were amazingly content, tolerant, and patient.  Children were never spanked or given orders.  They were free to play with sharp knives.  Adults spoke to them as equals, no baby talk. 

They often chitchat about daily events and personal affairs, but they were not storytellers.  They have no cultural folklore, legends, fables, or worship.  Everett wrote, “Committed to an existence in which only observable experience is real, the Pirahã do not think, or speak, in abstractions.”  He suspects that they may be the only group in the world that has no numbers, and no creation myth.  They have no concept of sin, punishment, or god.  Nor do they fear death or evil spirits.  Belief in evil spirits is common among groups of farmers or herders, where a year’s work can be lost suddenly via bad luck.  Fishers and hunters, on an unlucky day, were more likely to lose no more than a day’s work.

The people were remarkably easygoing and infectiously happy.  They wore bright smiles, and laughed about everything.  Folks from the outer world were often astonished to be among people who were sunbeams of happiness.  A visiting psychologist, amazed by their joy, said, “The Pirahãs look the most happy of all the people we ever saw; they laugh the most of all the populations we have seen.”

In the tribe, memories of ancestors or historic events were not preserved, they evaporated.  The distant past and future were off the radar of their here and now worldview.  Their realm of reality was limited to stuff that they could personally see or hear, or things seen or heard by their living parents, grandparents, friends, and kinfolk.  History was strictly limited to living memory.  Folks didn’t worry about what happened yesterday, or what might happen tomorrow.  They had no word for worry.  They lived entirely in the here and now. 

Origins

The Pirahã have a misty past, and it will likely remain misty.  Archaeologists estimate that they arrived in the Amazon at least 10,000 years ago.  Earlier, they were a subgroup of the Mura people, but they separated from them in 1714, when annoying colonists fell out of the sky, disturbing the peace.  Most of the Mura learned Portuguese and got closer to the Brazilian culture.  The Pirahã said screw this, moved deep into the jungle, and eventually settled along the Maici River, where a passing Portuguese missionary mentioned them in 1784. 

Everyone’s ancient ancestors originally evolved on African savannahs.  As they expanded around the world, grasslands were their preferred habitat, because they could be primo hunting grounds.  Thousands of years ago, when wild hunter-gatherers from Eurasia first arrived in the Amazon, they were happy to find, kill, and eat a variety of delicious large herbivores.  At some point during this era of migration and expansion, we aren’t sure when or how, the ancestors of the Pirahã also arrived in the Amazon region.

In 2020, news stories announced the discovery of tens of thousands of ice age rock paintings in the Amazon rainforest of Colombia (Article) (Video).  They were found on an eight mile (13 km) stretch of cliff face that was sheltered from the rain.  Images date from 12,600 to 11,800 years ago, when humans were busy colonizing North and South America. 

This was about the time that a megafauna extinction spasm was underway.  The rock painters could have never imagined how generations of low intensity overhunting might gradually lead to devastating irreversible impacts (modern highly educated folks are no less shortsighted and clueless).  In the years of feasting on fantastic abundance, they expressed jubilant celebration in their art.  Life is grand!  Yum!

Today, the Amazon rainforest is dense jungle, where it hasn’t been obliterated by loggers, miners, farmers, and ranchers.  The region was much different when the painters worked.  In those days, a warming climate was transforming the ecosystem.  A patchwork of savannahs, trees, and thorny scrub was in the process of shifting into today’s leafy tropical rainforest.  Among the cliff portraits were extinct horses, mastodons, camelids, and giant sloths.  These were not jungle critters. 

The Pirahã were super lucky.  Long before the invasion of pale faced space aliens with swords, axes, and smallpox, the rainforest had time to become well established in the Amazon basin.  It created a moist tropical climate that nurtured the survival of dense jungle.  This lush habitat was not suitable for herds of large herbivores, hunters of large game, livestock herders, or food producing soil miners.  Fish was their primary source of nutrients, and it was available year round.  The daily catch was promptly consumed, to avoid spoilage, or losses to hungry nonhuman neighbors.

The ecosystem was also home to black caiman, jaguars, giant anaconda, schools of piranha, venomous snakes, malaria, and other life threatening challenges.  Roadless jungle largely prohibited overland travel, which discouraged visits from uninvited outsiders.  This worked pretty well for a very long time.  Obnoxious neighbors can be a bloody pain in the ass.

In recent years, when the Brazilian government began providing the Pirahã with food from outer space, folks got fat.  Upon receiving sugary junk food, kids began getting tooth decay.  Folks now have a village generator, lights, a TV, and clinic.  They have a school where the kids are taught math and Portuguese.  And so on.  It would be awesome if the government instead directed their attention to protecting the rainforest, punishing the swarms of two-legged eco-terrorists, and teaching Brazilian kids ecology and environmental history.

The traditional Pirahã culture generated wastes that were biodegradable, no landfill needed.  It’s important to remember that they already had a way of life that worked perfectly, was not self-destructive, and could not be improved by increased exposure to troublesome stuff from outer space — exotic cultures, technology, beliefs, habits, diseases, etc.  They enjoyed living in a stable, low impact, time-proven culture where everyone shared the same belief system, and folks smiled and laughed a lot.  What could possibly be more terrible?

Missionary Work

In the beginning, after three years of tedious struggle, Everett finally became fluent in the Pirahã language.  He translated the Gospel of Mark, and shared it with some natives.  He had no doubt that the Bible was so spiritually powerful that anyone exposed to it could not help but be overwhelmed by its truth, and inspired to rush toward a heaven-bound path.  Well, the natives were fascinated by the bit about John the Baptist getting his head cut off, but nothing else had any effect on them whatsoever.

His holy objective had been “to convince happy, satisfied people that they are lost and need Jesus as their personal savior.”  A traditional missionary proverb says, “You’ve got to get them lost before you can get them saved.”  Everett told them that Jesus could deliver them from fear, and lead them to a good life.  But they didn’t live in fear, and they already enjoyed an excellent way of life. 

Another missionary proverb says that “everyone has a god-shaped hole in their heart,” but the Pirahã apparently had whole hearts.  None were converted despite decades of effort.  They were empirical people who expected compelling here-and-now evidence.  Notions from unknown times, places, or people were beyond their realm of reality — perfectly meaningless nonsense.

Everett had never met Jesus, because Jesus lived 2,000 years ago.  He often tried to tell the Pirahã about Jesus, but stumbled.  They asked, “Did you see him yourself?”  “No.”  “So why do you tell us about things that you have never seen?”  Another time, when he read them names from his translation of the Gospel of Luke, they assumed that these were people that Everett knew.  When he described crucifixion, they were aghast.  It was beyond comprehension.  Did Americans really do that?  This information was from outer space, not here-and-now reality.

In addition to his religious role, Everett was also a linguist, a science-based field.  The scientist in him deeply respected the importance of trustworthy evidence.  As the river of time flowed past, Everett began to question his right to tell them about ancient supernatural miracles that he had not seen with his own eyes.  He believed they were true.  Of course, believing anything makes it true, but “truth” is a slippery rascal that can cast powerful spells, and open trap doors.  He loved the Pirahã, and they loved him, but they had no interest in Jesus, and finally told him so.  This was truly a sharp metaphysical rebuke.

By around 1982, he began having uncomfortable visits from doubt fairies, and these increased with every passing month.  By 1985, the fairies had become a nonstop whirling cloud of fluttering wings.  Finally, there came a day when he was able to summon the power to see beyond the stone wall of his beliefs.  A miracle happened — the mission’s first spiritual conversion.  His old life had become unbearable.  He could never accept that they were lost and going to hell.  “I would go so far as to suggest that the Pirahãs are happier, fitter, and better adjusted to their environment than any Christian or other religious person I have ever known.” 

He remained a closet atheist until the late ’90s, at which point he came out, and his wife and three children abandoned him.  By 2008, the banishment had ended.  In a 2015 interview, he noted that his son had also been awakened by doubt fairies, and that his ex-wife continued her holy efforts to save the Pirahã. 

Webs and Cleverness

Unlike the Pirahã, I wake up every morning in an apartment with hot and cold running water, electricity, refrigerator, stove, flush toilet, heater, computer, phone, book collection, etc. — decadent luxuries for idle rich folks confined in maximum impact societies.  Outside my window is a busy industrial city, streets rumbling with thousands of motorized wheelchairs.  It’s an outpost of a global civilization that’s maniacally devouring resources, pooping out mountains of waste, blindsiding the climate, and racing to oblivion.

In bed, as I wake up, I turn on the radio for an hour or two of morning news.  Every day, there is abundant evidence that much of the world is out of its mind — tsunamis of bullshit, mass hysteria, and countless conflicts.  I think about the Pirahã, who are also getting up, smiling and laughing, down by the river, welcoming the beginning of a new day.  Same species, same morning, same planet.  They have not forgotten who they are, or how to live.

Earlier, I talked a bit about human webs, associations of people that shared a similar knowledgebase.  The U.S. is in the Old World Web, a patriarchal farmer-herder culture that likely originated in Mesopotamia, and eventually grew in all directions.  It’s now found almost everywhere, with a dwindling number of backwater exceptions, like Pirahã country.

I’ve talked about how humans evolved on African savannahs, and eventually expanded around the world, long before the advent of agriculture and herding.  Humans have traditionally had a strong preference for grassland and tundra ecosystems, because they are prime habitat for large herbivores, a highly preferred food source.  Open country made it easier to see both hungry man-eating predators, and delicious herds of walking meat.  Over the centuries, vast regions of forest have been cleared to create grassland openings attractive to herds of grazing animals.

Open grasslands also made overland travel relatively easy.  There were thousands of miles of Silk Road routes.  By making long distance travel more convenient, they also encouraged the long distance exchange of seeds, commodities, ideas, and technologies.  Cleverness can be highly infectious and contagious.  When a clever idea from one culture smacks into a different culture for the first time, the collision can set off a snowballing chain reaction of brilliant, highly destructive foolishness.  For example, when knowledge of the Chinese substance we call gunpowder arrived in Europe, it sparked an explosion of innovation, which soon began generating mountains of mutilated corpses.

Epidemics of cleverness can trigger bloody competition for resources.  In these conflicts, the groups with superior cleverness tend to have the advantage.  Winners are able to grab more, feed more, fight more, enslave more, rape more, and hoard more.  It’s essential for clever wizards to pay close attention to the jungle drums of innovation, because the cutting edge is a moving target.  Great empires were never built by sleepy half-clever societies.

Living in the wholesome isolation of their rainforest, the Pirahã have not domesticated plants or animals, built cities and civilizations, developed industries, obliterated the trees, conquered neighbors, or invented automobiles and cell phones.  Their cleverness was invested in carefully mastering the art of sustainable survival, which was all they ever needed.

Diversity

In a 2007 interview, Everett said that his initial impression of Pirahã culture was that it was colorless and disappointing.  “But then I realized that this is the most intense culture that I could ever have hoped to experience.  This is a culture that’s invisible to the naked eye, but that is incredibly powerful, the most powerful culture of the Amazon.  Nobody has resisted change like this in the history of the Amazon, and maybe of the world.”

To him, the Pirahã success in resisting change seemed miraculous and otherworldly.  How was it possible that a society so healthy and happy could still survive in the twenty-first century?  It was stunning to see.  I’m not sure that resistance was the key factor here.  Isolation was probably what benefitted them most.  They had very little contact with clever people from elsewhere who had bad habits, odd tools, dark impulses, and heads slithering with brainworms. 

Everett was born and raised in California, where his cultural programming conditioned him to believe that innovation was the golden path to a better tomorrow.  This path was not focused on living in harmony with the ecosystem.  California culture is a highly diverse hell-broth of constantly clashing races, religions, classes, fads, and politics.  A better tomorrow is about more jobs, more income, more consumption, more landfills, and keeping your head above water in the ever changing currents.

In a 2017 essay, Everett praised diversity, because we learn far more (for better or worse) when we are around people who are different from us.  The more we learn, the more innovative we can become.  If we live among people who are just like us, we’re not going to learn much.  In a 2008 interview, he said that his biggest personal desire was to be able to learn faster.  He had a very busy mind.

Back in 1977, when he first fell out of the sky in Pirahã country, he landed in a living paradise of jungle diversity that bore no resemblance to California.  This diversity was ecological, not human, and it was overwhelmingly healthy.  He could have spent the rest of his life learning about the rainforest, and becoming one with it. 

Everett was once asked if an outsider could ever become fully integrated in the Pirahã culture.  He said that he could not, and had never met anyone who could.  “It requires tremendous knowledge of the jungle and its flora and fauna, as well as toughness that one rarely finds among outsiders.”  A complicating factor was his wife and three kids, who would not be eager to join a mind-expanding adventure in do-it-yourself rewilding.  If he abandoned mission work, he would lose his lifeline — and you and I would now know nothing about the Pirahã.

In 1999, when he returned to the Pirahã world from a side trip to outer space, he did not gather vegetation and build a lovely hut.  Instead, he unloaded 14 tons of ironwood from a boat, and built a two room dwelling.  It had a gas stove, freezer, water filtration system, TV, and a DVD player.  It was designed to ban the entry of bugs and snakes.  This pleased his wife and three kids.

Three Modes of Society

As mentioned earlier, Jon Young has devoted his life to promoting nature connection, because without connection, we are lost and confused critters.  He spent time with the San people of the Kalahari who had a deep spiritual connection to their land.  He said that they had perfect posture, and that their mental health factors are all positive.  They were super-happy, super-vital, and totally connected from birth to death.  In our society, maybe one in a thousand adults has connection.  Youngsters often have it, but it usually dies in the teen years, as they move into the cultural fast lane, into the realm of glowing screens and steaming hormones.

Colin Turnbull, in his most daunting book, compared the lovely wild society of Mbuti pygmies to the Ik tribe of Uganda, who were in a heartbreaking death spiral.  They had been banished from their ancient hunting grounds by the creation of a national park, and were expected to become farmers during a long and devastating drought.  Their traditional society was rapidly disintegrating, as many perished from starvation, and empathy went extinct.  The Ik reminded him of Western society, where growing de-socialization was also underway.  The Ik seemed like a spooky preview of where we were headed.

Like the Mbuti culture, Pirahã society was also held together by strong social bonds.  Their way of life depended on the complete cooperation of everyone, male and female, young and old.  This was possible because they lived in small intimate groups, where all were kin or friends, and everyone shared the same beliefs and values.  Their way of life echoed the original human blueprint.  They had no need for laws and cops.

For the Ik, family relationships had rotted, and society degenerated into a mob of self-centered individuals.  Western cultures can also be madhouses of rabid dog-eat-dog individualism.  We strive to achieve personal goals via competition for personal advancement.  We frequently suffer from the painful friction of diversity.  Our morals, values, lifestyles, ethnicities, and religious beliefs are all over the place, and often generate intolerance, resentment, exploitation, and hostility.  Our communities are too crowded and diverse to be kept in order by family connections.  So, we try to control the herd via laws, cops, and prisons. 

When cooperation and morals fail, and laws and prisons fail, door number three is social meltdown — absolute morality-free individual freedom, like the Ik.  In the ’70s, Turnbull was horrified by the rising tide of social rot in his world.  “The state itself, is resting ever more on both intellectual and physical violence to assert itself.”  Heads of state and their assistants fill the air with “loud-mouthed anti-intellectual blabberings.”  The populace “must not only not believe or trust or love or hope, but must not think.”  Sound familiar?

Abstractions

The good news is that the Pirahã, Mbuti, San, and others clearly demonstrate that the human species is not fatally flawed.  They show us that it’s possible for humans to be happy, healthy, and sustainable.  Simplicity is elegant.  What about the rest of us?  Babies born in Washington D.C. have essentially the same brains as Pirahã newborns.  Being raised in our warp speed consumer culture rewards us for living like thunder beings.  Pirahã kids leave the world in no worse condition than when they arrived.

Jack Turner was a philosophy professor who grew up to become a “belligerent ecological fundamentalist.”  Modern society was savagely and senselessly pounding the natural world to bloody bits, and this drove him mad, because it was insane.  He was deeply fond of the natural world, because it was the source of all life.  He was far less fond of eco-activists who tirelessly yowled and hissed at the designated villains, including capitalism, greedy corporations, corrupt politicians, the evil enemy-of-the-day, and so on.  They were overlooking the deeper point.

The root problem was philosophical.  Civilized cultures had reduced the natural world to abstractions — a treasure chest to be looted, a valuable machine that human brilliance should strive to rigorously control, despite barely understanding it.  (Abstract is the opposite of concrete.  Abstractions only exist as ideas or thoughts.)  The planet was being pummeled by a culture that was infested with childish abstract ideas — more is better, get rich quick, grow or die, human supremacy. 

These abstractions provided a sleazy seal of approval for numerous villainous behaviors, and they weren’t the sole domain of rich and powerful big shots.  Ordinary bubbas also got the cultural green light to clear a forest, drain a wetland, or plow a prairie.  On countless occasions, ambitious folks have gazed upon a sacred old growth forest, analyzed the potential board feet of milled lumber, calculated its dollar value, estimated the profit potential, fetched their axes, and turned living nature into lifeless cash.  This example of get-rich-quick fever is abstraction powered. 

In civilized cultures, the front line abstractions do not include reverence and respect for the natural world.  “We only value what we know and love, and we no longer know and love the wild,” Turner wrote.  “What we need now is a culture that deeply loves the wild earth.”  We must rejoin the natural world.  That’s an intelligent idea!  Is it possible?  Can we free our minds from the abstractions that cripple us?

Long ago, I chatted with Nick Trim, a Shawnee gentleman, on a Greenpeace bulletin board.  In the mid-1600s, French colonists were teaching the Shawnee how to build cabins, which involved cutting trees, an extremely dark and unnatural activity.  Many trees were home to “little people,” powerful spirits that required utmost respect.  Thus, it was necessary to knock on each tree, mention the possibility of cutting it, provide a worthy reason for doing so, and sincerely apologize for disturbing the peace.

Then, it was necessary to wait for a while, at least a day, to allow the little people to find a new tree.  A highly irritated French officer complained, “These Shawnee can’t cut a tree without a lengthy prayer, and a ceremony, and a day’s delay.”  Nick added, “I am pleased to say that some things don't change.  We still love trees.”  The frustrated officer found some French lads to do the murdering.

In our world, parents, educators, clergy, and others work to pass abstractions from one generation to the next.  Abstractions inspire cultures to send trainloads of heretics, pariahs, and useless eaters to gas chambers.  They inspire holy martyrs to put on suicide vests.  They inspire thundering mobs of Walmart Christmas shoppers to trample others in their maniacal quest to seize a bargain priced TV.  They inspire thousands of dimwitted fanatics to smash apart the U.S. capitol.  They inspire thousands of ambitious self-centered bumpkins to obliterate the Amazon rainforest.

Our poor brains are constantly raw and bleeding, thrashing with countless weird abstractions — owner, slave, freedom, oppression, success, failure, rich, poor, conservative, liberal, organic, conventional, ambition, apathy, valuable, worthless, sustainable, overshoot, sin, guilt, devils, angels, heaven, hell, creation, apocalypse, salvation, damnation, gods, goddesses, scripture, prophesy, dogmas, creeds, priests, shamans, heretics, infidels…. 

Skimming through the Wikipedia page on Abstraction, I read this: “Thinking in abstractions is considered by anthropologists, archaeologists, and sociologists to be one of the key traits in modern human behavior, which is believed to have developed between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago.”  The development of complex language unlocked the gate, and set loose a flash flood of cleverness.  The ingenious ability to effortlessly engage in abstract thinking was a tremendous achievement on the path to domestication, civilization, industrialization, mass extinctions, and the Climate Crisis.

Every day, many long freight trains rumble through my neighborhood, blowing their horns.  Similarly my mind seems to be pulling a long train of abstractions, day after day, a heavy and tiresome burden.  They stimulate confusion, illusion, irritation, distraction.  Life would be so much lighter, freer, and easier if I could simply unhitch my mind, and stop dragging around an enormous load of cultural goofiness.  Imagine what it would be like to switch to an abstraction-free diet and immediately lose 800 pounds (363 kg) of suffocating mental sludge.  You would feel so light, bouncy, free, and alive!

I must now repeat Everett.  Listen!  “Committed to an existence in which only observable experience is real, the Pirahã do not think, or speak, in abstractions.”  Wow!  This beautiful clarity must inspire their trademark smiles, laughter, and happiness.  It never occurs to them to do stupid things — burn down the forest, start a gold mine, build a dam.  They are not dangerous, unpredictable loose cannons. 

Indeed, it seems that the Pirahã were superb shamans.  They succeeded in exorcizing some thorny abstractions that caused Everett so much existential pain.  They were not demons in need of salvation, they were sweet joyful beings who knew how to live well, think with great precision, and instantly deflect mental sludge from the outer world.  When they held a mirror in front of him, he gasped, saw the light, and began a journey of healing, growth, and liberation.  Free at last! 

If only the rest of humankind could spend some years hanging out with happy, sustainable, uncivilized, illiterate, moneyless, abstraction-free role models.

 

PS:  For the sake of a smoother reading experience, I didn’t clutter up the above by noting sources.  If you are curious, and have two hours to invest, I recommend that you listen to the 52 minute The Humanist Hour #183 podcast (2015), and watch the 2012 documentary, The Grammar of Happiness.  In 2008, Everett wrote the book that introduced the Pirahã people to the world, Don’t Sleep: There are Snakes. 

If you want more, Everett did a TED talk, Wisdom from Strangers. He wrote articles Seek Out Strangers (2017) and About the Pirahãs.  The Instituto Socioambiental wrote a detailed report on the tribe.  See two articles in Wikipedia, Pirahã and Daniel Everett.  Several folks interviewed Everett:  John Colapinto (2007), Dominique Godreche (2012), Clare Dudman (2008).

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Wild Free and Happy Sample 53

 

[Note: This is the fifty-third sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews.  These samples are not freestanding pieces.  They will be easier to understand if you start with sample 01, and follow the sequence listed HERE — if you happen to have some free time.  If you prefer audiobooks, Michael Dowd is in the process of reading and recording my book HERE.

[Continued from sample 52]

ABRAHAMIC WEB

Mesopotamian cultures preserved many traditional stories from long, long ago.  The tales began as oral traditions, and quite a few were later inscribed on clay tablets, many of which are still readable.  These tablets date as far back as 3500 B.C.  Much later, around 586 B.C., Hebrew people were living in exile in Babylon.  Most scholars agree that the writing of the Torah began in Babylon, a project to create a lasting record of older traditions.  The Torah contains the five books of Moses.  In the Bible, these five books are called Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

In Genesis, a lad named Abraham appeared.  Abdullah Öcalan wrote that Abraham has been celebrated as the founding father of monotheistic religion in three scriptures, first in the Torah, then the Bible, and later the Qur’an.  Abraham was the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — which is why these three are known as Abrahamic religions.  All three provide a stage for characters including Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, Noah, and Moses.  All three believe in angels, judgment day, heaven for the good folks, and hell for everyone else.  All of their prophets were male.

It’s interesting to note that some of the values, ideas, and themes in ancient Sumerian legends have left their fingerprints on stories in Abrahamic scriptures.  These seem to be an indication of the Mesopotamian web influencing the Abrahamic cultures, which then spread the ideas to distant realms.  Today, some of these traditions are known to more than a billion people.  Let’s take a quick peek at how they compare, and pay a few visits to other points of interest.

Creation

A few pages back, I mentioned a Babylonian creation myth, in which Marduk killed the goddess Tiamat, created the world with her body, and then created humans.  Over the span of several thousand years, numerous Mesopotamian societies created a wide variety of stories, and Marduk makes guest appearances in many.  Some say he was the son of Enki.

Older than the Babylonian story was a Sumerian creation story that starred the god Enki, and the goddess Ninmah.  Once upon a time, the gods and goddesses were feeling overworked, so they decided to invent servants.  While preparing to create humans, they got into the mood for spiritual work by drinking “overmuch” and becoming roaring drunk.  Consequently, because our creators were totally sloshed, every human has at least one serious defect.  (Now the world makes perfect sense!)

Over the years, reputable researchers have worked hard to decipher characters that were etched on clay tablets thousands of years ago, in a long extinct dialect.  Their translations present us with a sanitized version of this drunken creation story that was safe to share with innocent children.  They tell us that the gods created humans from “clay.”  Öcalan, writing in the comfort of his luxurious prison cell, enjoyed the freedom to sidestep a scholarly obligation to disguise embarrassing ancient raunchiness.  He wrote, “It does not take much interpretative skill to realize that the narrative suggests that these servants were created from the feces of the gods.”  Holy shit!  Walking turds!

Let us now turn our attention to the Abrahamic version of the creation story.  In Genesis, humans were created in the Garden of Eden, a wilderness paradise.  Adam was made first, and then Eve was made from his rib.  Humans were the creator’s masterpiece, made in his image.  The first two humans had everything they needed — food, water, clean air, a perfect ecosystem, and a hot date. 

They could remain in paradise as long as they obeyed just one simple rule — don’t eat apples from one forbidden tree, or you will be severely punished.  There were many other trees in the garden, and it was perfectly OK to eat as much of their fruit as you wished.  Of course, just 14 short verses after the stern warning, they chose to break the one and only rule. 

The creator was infuriated.  He tossed them some leather clothes, and threw them out of paradise.  Their punishment for disobeying divine instructions was to till the ground from which they came — condemned to spend the rest of their lives chained to the backbreaking drudgery of farming (Genesis 3:1-24).  Eve was gullible and dim, as was Adam.

The Qur’an also tells a version of creation that includes Adam, Eve, forbidden fruit, and nudity.  Humans may be the only animals that are embarrassed by their nakedness.  Like the Sumerian story, the first humans were created from clay (soil from the earth).

So, both the Sumerian and Abrahamic creation stories imply that humans are less than brilliant.  Both also introduce the existence of a cosmic hierarchy.  Deities are all-powerful, immortal, and often short tempered.  Gods are our masters, and good humans always obey our masters.  Complex societies can work more smoothly when obedience is believed to be virtuous, and the mobs behave in an orderly manner.  Wild, free, and happy societies had no masters or hierarchies. 

Flood

In the Sumerian story of the great flood, the booze-headed gods had become thoroughly sick of humans.  There were way too many of them, and they were now making so much noise that the gods couldn’t sleep at night.  So, the way to cleanse the land of these noxious primate pests was to unleash a great flood and drown them all. 

At this point, the god Enki told the king of Sumer, Ziusudra, to build a large barge, gather up his family, and specimens of the various animal species, and spare them from the coming floods.  So he did.  Then, it rained, and rained, and rained, generating a great flood that lasted seven days.  The world got much quieter, and the gods slept much better.  Ziusudra made an offering to Enki, and then his family got to work repopulating the Earth. 

Floods were serious bad juju in Sumer, because the normal season for flooding in the Tigris Euphrates watershed corresponded to the time when wheat and barley crops were normally ripe.  If the un-harvested grain was suddenly washed away, hunger times followed, and gravediggers would work overtime.  Myths provided an explanation for why the gods sometimes punished them (humans are annoying).

In the remarkably similar Abrahamic flood story, the god Yahweh instructed Noah to build an ark.  God was thoroughly sick of humans, and regretted creating them.  He saw humans as being thoroughly wicked — every thought that crossed their minds was evil.  They were hopeless, a mistake (Genesis 6:5-7).  God told Noah to build an ark and load it with critters.  Then it rained for forty days and forty nights, and the mountains were covered.  The flood lasted 150 days.  Every nonaquatic critter drowned.  The creator was happy again. 

Unfortunately, the small group of surviving humans who stepped off of the ark were the same inherently flawed critters who had boarded it, and would now proceed to repopulate the Earth.  God sighed, and then took pity on his imperfect evil-loving boo-boos.  “I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more everything living, as I have done.”  (Genesis 8:21)  In Islam, Noah is also celebrated as a great prophet.  The Qur’an presents a similar version of the flood story, a tale of immoral unbelievers who were drowned for their wrongs.

Myths seem to indicate how ideas traveled via ancient webs.  In Greece, river floods were almost unknown, but their myths still included flood stories, likely reflecting a Mesopotamian influence.  In one tale, Zeus got furiously pissed off at the sins of humankind, and decided it was flood time.  Prometheus discovered the plan, and told his son Deucalion to build an ark or chest.  Floods arrived, and Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha (Pandora’s daughter) floated for nine days and nights, until they safely landed on Mount Othrys.  They recreate humans by throwing stones behind their back, from which people are born.

In the Norse story of Ragnarök, the humanlike gods subdued the four forces of nature.  Of course, nature violently broke loose, and gave the arrogant control freak gods their bloody just rewards.  The whole world burned, and was then was submerged by floods.  Earth was cleansed, healed, and renewed.  Greek myths also mention that, from time to time, fires destroyed the world.

When you toss a stone into still water, ripples fan out in expanding circles.  The apocalyptic culture of ancient Mesopotamia can seem to be a splash that rippled around the world, disturbing the very long era of kinder and gentler cultures that preceded it.

Herder vs. Farmer

Jared Diamond wrote that Mesopotamia was unusual because it was home to a number of plant and animal species that were suitable for domestication.  Early hunter-gatherers were delighted to discover abundant wild foods.  They ceased being nomads, eventually gobbled up too much of the abundance, and began fooling around with domestication. 

The friction between farmers and herders is very old.  Farmers clustered along the floodplains of waterways.  Crops were habitual heavy drinkers and, in lucky times, they could produce generous harvests of nutrient-rich grains and pulses (peas, lentils, etc.).  Farming was hard work.  It chained you to a piece of land, where the food stored in your granary could provide an irresistible temptation to nomadic raiders, violent parasites.

Floodplains were primo real estate for both farmers and herders.  Herders managed livestock that had a serious addiction to grass and water.  In the eyes of livestock, a lush field of wheat and barley was a paradise of yummy grass.  Was it the farmer’s job to protect his fields, or the herder’s job to keep his critters in the hills?  Herding was an attractive choice for people disinterested in backbreaking drudgery, folks who preferred the freedom of nomadic living.

Myths preserve the enduring friction between farmers and herders.  Sumerians told a story about the lovely goddess Inanna, who was courted by Dumuzid (a herder), and Enkimdu (a farmer).  She chose the herder, the more prudent choice. 

Much later, this story is echoed in the Abrahamic tradition, by the story Cain (farmer) and Abel (herder).  God did not favor Cain’s offering, but gladly accepted Abel’s.  This hurt Cain’s feelings, so he murdered his brother, which did not amuse God.  Cain was banished, wandered away, and built the city of Enoch.

In both stories, the farmer appears inferior.  The Sumerian and Abrahamic traditions were strongly influenced by the culture of nomadic pastoralism.  For example: “Neither shall ye build house, nor sow seed, nor plant vineyard, nor have any: but all your days ye shall dwell in tents; that ye may live many days in the land where ye be strangers.”  (Jeremiah 35:7)

Bruce Chatwin wrote, “The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Hosea were nomadic revivalists who howled abuse at the decadence of civilization.  By sinking roots in the land, by laying house to house and field to field, by turning the Temple into a sculpture gallery, the people had turned from their God.”

Chatwin also mentioned that the name Cain means metal-smith, and that in several languages the words for “violence” and “subjugation” are linked to the discovery of metal, and the malevolent arts of technology.  Warfare became much bloodier.  The pages of the Old Testament document the violent deaths of up to several million people, and the destruction of many cities.  For example:

“And so it was, that in the seventh day the battle was joined: and the children of Israel slew of the Syrians an hundred thousand footmen in one day.” (Kings 1, 20:29)  “But the Syrians fled before Israel; and David slew of the Syrians seven thousand men which fought in chariots, and forty thousand footmen, and killed Shophach the captain of the host.” (Chronicles 1, 19:18)

Jared Diamond discussed God’s instructions to Hebrew warriors, regarding the proper treatment of heathens.  When an ordinary city you are attacking does not surrender, besiege it, kill every male, enslave the women, children, and cattle, and take what you want.  On the other hand, when attacking cities that worship false gods, like the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, “thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth.” (Deuteronomy 20:10-18)  Diamond noted that Joshua faithfully slaughtered every person in over 400 cities. 

METAPHYSICAL WHIRLWINDS

Wild cultures were local and simple, and their notions of the cosmos, if any, were quite different from the religions of civilization.  With the emergence of farming and herding, populations grew, ecosystems got pounded, and bloody conflicts became more numerous and destructive.  Religions developed a number of new and unusual mutations.  Old fashioned traditions of respect and reverence for creation often got hurled overboard.  Civilization was focused on growth, wealth, status seeking, dominance, and other quirky kinks.

Multiply and Subdue

By the time that the Abrahamic scriptures had been written down, the notion of human supremacy was well established in the Fertile Crescent.  Indeed, the human saga is a long story of our cleverness, our tireless expansion into every land, and the tumultuous “progress” we unleashed. 

A classic example of this mindset appears in Genesis.  Immediately after creating Adam and Eve, the first instructions that God gave them were: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”  (Genesis 1:28) 

Humans were made in God’s image, the world was made for humans, and only humans matter (no mention of limits or foresight).  Our holy mission was to multiply, subdue, and dominate.  The descendants of Adam and Eve have displayed exceptional skill at achieving these objectives.  Unintended consequences now include the climate crisis, surging extinctions, soaring population, pollution, deforestation, and on and on. 

Biblical scholars have reported that Earth was created between 4000 B.C. and 3000 B.C., some calculating specifically 3137 B.C., but scientists have some doubts.  Scholars who study historic demographic trends estimate that in that era, humankind had a population between 7 to 14 million.  Almost all of the planet still looked a lot like an ecological paradise.  Water in the Mississippi, Rhine, and Thames was safe to drink.  The Irish rainforest was full of stags, wolves, and boars.

Writing is a fantastically powerful technology, for both illuminating and casting spells.  If there was a deep cave somewhere in which God was unable to read our every thought, some might be tempted to question whether divine instructions given to a world of 14 million are still wise and appropriate in a world zooming toward 8 billion.  In the twenty-first century, maybe contraceptives are not tools of the devil.  But that cave does not exist.  Never mind!  Just kidding!

Linear Time

Control freak societies can get obsessive-compulsive about time, measuring it in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, centuries, millennia.  I am writing at 4:08 PM PST on Sunday, January 17, A.D. 2021.  This moment is unique in the life of the universe, like a fingerprint, or a DNA sequence.  Many were just born, many just died, and Big Mama Nature received more kicks.

Wild folks had a softer and gentler perception of time.  Time was the daily passage of the sun across the sky, and the monthly phases of the moon.  Time was the perpetual cycle of winter, spring, summer, and fall.  It was the zig and zag of wet seasons and dry seasons, of cold ones and hot ones, of serenity and frightening storms.  For these people, time was circular, a wheel that never stops turning.  It keeps spinning and spinning, and it is real and alive and good.

In a number of Neolithic societies, like those in Mesopotamia, something extremely weird happens — the notion of linear time emerges.  It is not circular.  Linear time is like a drag strip for tire-burning hot rods, a one-way sprint from the starting line (creation) to the finish line (apocalypse), from paradise to wasteland, from womb to worms.  It is a cosmic (comic?) soap opera in which the spotlights remain focused on the rise and fall of an odd and amusing species of primates — as if we are the one and only thing in the universe that matters.  Nothing came before us, and nothing shall follow us.  How weird!

Paul Shepard said that folks living in Neolithic societies couldn’t help but notice that their way of life was wobbly, sloppy, and turbulent.  He wrote, “Living amidst collapsing ecosystems, agrarians accept a religion of arbitrary gods, catastrophic punishments by flood, pestilence, famine, and drought in an apocalyptic theology.”  Folks could see that the surrounding region was dotted with the ruins of past glory, remnants of the eternal two-step of overshoot, and its faithful companion, collapse.

Populations sometimes grew faster than Big Mama Nature could limit the swarms.  When the flood plains reached full occupancy, settlement expanded into forests, and up hillsides.  Hungry herds of hooved locusts chewed away the vegetation, exposing the naked soil, which blew away and washed away.  Rainfall and snowmelt rapidly ran off of stripped slopes.  Consequently, catastrophic floods were common, as were landslides.  Irrigation systems eventually made the fields so salty that nothing can grow in them.  A satellite flying over Mesopotamia now sees THIS.

The McNeills commented on the expanding shoreline along the Persian Gulf, into which the Tigris and Euphrates emptied.  Sumerian cities that were once located on the coast, or close to it, are today up to 100 miles (161 km) inland from the shore.  Former islands are now mainland, far from the coast.  Massive erosion was a perfectly normal consequence of upstream deforestation, overgrazing, and agriculture. 

George Perkins Marsh, in his 1864 book, described his visits to the ruins of many classic civilizations, and (correctly) worried that America was on the same path.  He wrote that where the Roman Empire once reigned, more than half of their lands today (1860s) are either deserted, desolate, or at least greatly reduced in both productiveness and population.  Vast forests are gone, much soil has been lost, springs have dried up, famous rivers have shrunk to humble brooklets, smaller rivers have dried up or have become seasonal, entrances to navigable streams are blocked by sandbars, former harbors are now distant from the sea, and large areas of shallow sea and fertile lowland are now foul smelling unhealthy swamps.

The ancient Greeks saw history as a long and tragic saga of human decline.  Hesiod writes of the Golden Age: “They lived like gods, free from worry and fatigue; old age did not afflict them; they rejoiced in continual festivity.”  This was followed by the Silver Age, a matriarchal era of agriculture, when men obeyed their mothers.  This was followed by the Bronze Age, a patriarchal era of war.  “Their pitiless hearts were as hard as steel; their might was untamable, their arms invincible.”  This was followed by the Iron Age, a time “when men respect neither their vows, nor justice, nor virtue.”

Today, we live in the Overshoot Age, when billions of people spend their lives in the crazy lane, and nothing seems to really matter.  Do redwoods matter, or whales, or polar bears, or ravens, or children?  Is anything sacred?  Hello?  Is anybody home?

Holy Lands

Wild cultures felt a sense of sacred oneness with their ancestral homeland.  It was a relationship of profound reverence and respect.  Their creation stories do not include the notion of being forcibly evicted from paradise for naughty behavior.  Something like paradise was their birthplace and permanent address, the home of their ancestors, and the generations yet to be born.  A Karuk man once took me to a bluff, and pointed down to a bend in the Klamath River where the Karuk people were first brought into existence, long, long ago.

Modern Americans are two-legged tumbleweeds that have blown in from countless distant places.  We frequently move every few years.  Many tumbleweeds have little or no knowledge of their ancestral homelands.  Many never develop a spiritual connection to any place.  For them, nature is typically nothing more than a meaningless static backdrop along the highway, stuff they zoom past during their daily travels.

Paul Shepard noted that this was a big shift away from older cultures, in which folks felt a profound spiritual connection to the land where they lived.  His wife Florence Shepard said it like this, “At the heart of our identity is a fundamentally wild being, one who finds in the whole of wild nature all that is true and beautiful in this world.”  By the time wild children reach puberty, they have developed a healthy connection to place.  They have a profound sense of belonging that most modern tumbleweeds cannot begin to imagine, and will never experience.

Vine Deloria was a Yankton Sioux who had immense respect for their traditional culture, because it had deep roots in place, and a healthy sense of coherence.  Settlers were ridiculously incoherent.  A missionary would tell them they were devil worshippers, convert them to the one true faith, and then a year later the next missionary would inform them that the first one was a demonic fire hose of lies and deceptions.  All the black robes read the same book, but none agreed on what it meant.

In 1945, a farmer named Mohammed Ali found an ancient jar near Nag Hammadi in Egypt.  Among the contents of this jar was a book containing the Gospel of Thomas.  This gospel of Jesus’ life had never been edited, corrected, clarified, or blessed by the official Holy Roman Church.  In chapter 113 of the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is talking about the nature of heaven — God’s kingdom.  He said that it was not an event that would occur in the future.  Here is what he said: “The kingdom of God is spread out upon the earth, and people do not see it.”  In other words, heaven is where your feet are standing.  Wherever you stand is sacred ground.

Moralizing Society

Harvey Whitehouse wrote about how deities changed with the rise of civilizations.  Complex societies tend to promote the rise of gods that are all-powerful, all-seeing, and tireless moralizers — deities that reward the virtuous, and spank the naughty.  Folks tend to be more motivated by the fear of punishment, rather than the desire for rewards.  Strict morals can also be useful for getting ethnically diverse groups to march to the same drum, without getting uppity.

The objective here was to encourage beneficial behavior, because a disempowered, obedient, and orderly mob was a productive and profitable mob.  Elites do not enjoy the presence of rebels and rabble-rousers.  But in a big community, troublesome folks can often become invisible within the vast anonymous crowds.  In theory, all-seeing moralizing gods are personal deities.  They always know exactly what you (and everyone else) are doing and thinking.

In simple societies, the local spirits were less likely to become morality police.  There was no cultural diversity to generate friction, everyone shared the same worldview.  Folks in small groups lived in fishbowls — everyone was well aware of what everyone else was doing.  There were no secrets.  Folks were inclined to behave mindfully.  Misbehavior could lead to friendly nudges, a damaged reputation, an ass whooping, or ostracism. 

John Trudell, a Santee Sioux activist, bitterly detested the colonization of the Americas.  Traditionally, tribal people were raised in a culture of spiritual reality, which emphasized a profound respect and reverence for the family of life.  Their guiding star was responsibility.  Settlers, on the other hand, were far less interested in notions of responsibility.  Preachers blasted tribal folks with intensely toxic moralizing.  A primary objective was to make people feel powerless, to convince them that they’re bad, sinful, evil from birth — to paralyze them with guilt and shame, to strip away their self-respect.

Vine Deloria said that a tribal person “does not live in a tribe, the tribe lives in him.”  Their sense of identity was rooted in “we,” not “me.”  Self-centeredness was a spiritual abnormality.  Everyone had powerful bonds to the land, the clan, and their family.  I am an only child, and my good buddy Jim was one of seven children.  I envy their powerful lifelong bonds, and their ongoing mutual support.  This is the mode in which social primates evolved to live.

Robert Anton Wilson noted that living within a tribe, and benefitting from mutual support, was vital for survival.  Being punished by banishment or exile was like being thrown overboard in the high seas — an extremely brutal and terrifying punishment that was only chosen for hopelessly impossible buttheads.  Execution would have been more merciful.  The benefits of mutual support really encouraged conformity to time-proven tribal norms.

And this, dear reader, is why hierarchical societies, like industrial civilization, are wonderlands of craziness.  The air is constantly hissing with the voices of sorcerers.  Thou shalt compete (not cooperate).  Thou shalt hoard (not share).  Thou shalt always strive to become a heroic example of personal success and extravagant excess.  Fun fact: “Thou shalt” appears exactly 500 times in the King James Bible. 

Individual Salvation

A few pages back, we learned that the Sumerian gods could be sloppy drunks.  They created humans so flawed that the only solution was to exterminate them with a great flood.  The Genesis story echoes this.  When the flood subsided, Noah’s surviving kinfolk were still just as flawed as the countless humans who were deliberately drowned.  A rational person could wonder why all-knowing, all-powerful creators kept flubbing up when creating humans, but that might be heresy.  Let’s not go there.  Reason and religion usually sleep in separate beds.

It’s not heresy to perceive the obvious.  These Neolithic cultures clearly taught that the humans were inherently flawed.  In the Christian tradition, every newborn is evil until baptized.  Once baptized, living in strict obedience to divine instructions is not mandatory.  The world is filled with temptations, and we all have the freedom to be naughty or nice.  Nice folks are obedient, and their reward is salvation, the heavenly ticket to eternal paradise.  Death is when the good times begin.

With regard to salvation, everyone is equal, from billionaires to ditch diggers, women, and slaves.  Everyone has the option of seeking the path to a wonderful afterlife.  Nobody is worthless.  This is very cool, because if you were born a slave, that was God’s will, not a cruel misfortune.  So, with this understanding, you can happily shovel shit for a few decades, and then go to paradise for eternity.  Yippee!

Belief in salvation can be so powerful that it overrides survival instincts.  Michael Dowd wrote, “In group-to-group conflicts, any culture that offers the promise of an afterlife to those who heroically martyr themselves will likely triumph over an army of atheists who have the rational belief that death marks the absolute end of individual existence.”

Humans are social critters, not stray cats.  We are most comfortable when we are among small intimate groups of family and friends, where everyone is equal, and we care for each other.  With regard to individual salvation, the opposite is true.  When it’s time to meet the divine for your final exam, you are completely on your own.  I may achieve salvation, while everyone I love and respect does not (or vice versa).

Beyond flawed humans, the entire planet is flawed.  In the Christian sphere, they believe that the world is the realm of Satan, a place of evil.  For them, Earth is something like a cheap motel room where we get an opportunity to spend some time demonstrating our worthiness for salvation (or the toasty alternative).  It’s just an audition.  Of course, this implies that the living ecosystem does not deserve respect and reverence.  It’s just a funky roadside flophouse with stained sheets with cigarette burns, a cheap place for a short stay.  It’s OK to smash it up (or flood it).

[Continued on sample 54]