Friday, July 21, 2023

Wild New World


Dan Flores is a historian who has been studying the stormy relationship between humans and the family of life for many years.  He calls this subject Big History.  Wild New World is a fascinating and disturbing masterpiece.  It’s a thick book loaded with ideas gathered over a long career.  The core focus is on North America, which was once an Eden-like paradise of abundant wildlife.  What happened?

Our species emerged in beautiful Mother Africa maybe 300,000 years ago.  Maybe 60,000 years ago, adventurous folks began wandering off into the outer world.  Our exploration of the planet was underway.  Folks went east to Asia, and north to Europe.  By maybe 45,000 years ago, folks were in Siberia and northern Asia.  So far, the earliest evidence of humans in America dates to maybe 25,000 years ago.

Flores described two important discoveries in New Mexico.  At Folsom (1908), the bones of 32 extinct giant bison, 12,450 years old.  At Clovis (1914) the bones of extinct mammoths, 13,000 years old.  At both sites, flaked flint points were found with the bones, smoking gun evidence of human hunting.  A huge surprise!

Humans were team hunters skilled at killing delicious wild animals, preferably jumbo sized megafauna.  As bands of pioneers migrated into new frontiers, a number of megafauna species gradually went extinct, in one region after another, a sequence corresponding to the timeline of human arrival. 

Today, our culture celebrates human brilliance.  We’re simply too smart to disrupt the planet’s climate — global warming is a hoax!  We deny responsibility — not our fault.  Similarly, we’re too smart to cause mass extinctions — not our fault. 

It’s much more comfortable to blame prehistoric climate change.  But the wiped-out species in America had survived for millions of years, including numerous eras of unusual heat and cold.  They weren’t dainty weaklings.  Why did this killer climate shift only exterminate large animals, not small?  Why did it just affect America, but not other continents at the same time?  Hmmm…

In the 1960s, Paul Martin began using a new technology, radiocarbon dating, a better tool for dating prehistoric artifacts.  This enabled him to compare the dates of human presence in North America with the dates of extinctions.  He learned that human arrival came first, and extinctions came later — during a process that took maybe a thousand years. 

Stunned, he referred to this process as “blitzkrieg overkill,” because of its unusual speed.  To Native Americans, this implied that their venerable ancestors foolishly hunted too hard.  They’ve never been fond of the paleface settlers who foolishly obliterated their ancient homeland, and they especially disliked Martin.

We’ve now learned that as the human diaspora advanced around the world, the same pattern followed: arrival first, then extinction.  By 2006, Martin had learned more.  He wrote, “I argue that virtually all extinctions of wild animals in the last 50,000 years were anthropogenic.”  Yikes!  The indigenous white folks of Europe had done it too!

Evolution had fine-tuned us for living in tropical climates.  Many of the new lands we wandered into had uncomfortably chilly non-tropical climates.  We were forced to develop innovative solutions, like needles, awls, sewn clothing, and protective shelters. 

When we arrived in new regions, the wildlife was clueless.  Mysterious bipedal primates did not trigger danger alarms, because we didn’t fit the standard predator template.  “We were a brilliant new predator with sophisticated weapons, dogs, and fire.”  For a while, hunters enjoyed the pursuit of fearless prey, many of whom became victims of fatal tameness, like dodos.  During the Lewis & Clark expedition, Clark once bayoneted a wolf that calmly walked past.

Hunting focused on jumbo sized animals that didn’t breed like bunnies, or zoom like gazelles.  Small groups of humans roamed across vast roadless wilderness on foot, armed with Stone Age weapons.  Game was depleted over the course of centuries, and the process of decline could have been imperceptible to living generations.  As game got scarce, the diaspora advanced into new regions.

Everywhere we migrated, the megafauna had evolved large strong bodies, a traditional defense against fierce predators, like sabertooth cats.  Unfortunately, when the predators were bloodthirsty primates from outer space, jumbo size was a vulnerability, and high speed escape was not an option.  The big guys could be killed with primitive spears.

America was the last major stop of the human diaspora, which had begun maybe 35,000 years earlier.  During this long process, pioneers had become highly skilled survivalists.  When the Beringia land bridge emerged from the sea, they advanced from Siberia into the “American Serengeti.”

I was shocked to realize the very long time spans of evolutionary history prior to human arrival.  The camel family in North America blinked out 10,000 years ago, ending a 40 million year residence.  Horses went extinct 9,000 years ago, after enjoying four million years here.  Mammoths wandered in from the Old World 1.5 million years ago.  It’s heartbreaking to comprehend the impact of the blitzkrieg.

IMPORTANT!  So, a number of species blinked out.  When the American megafauna extinction surge wound down, what came next was 10,000 years (100 centuries) of relative stability, according to Flores.  The human pioneers remained, and eventually coevolved with the species that survived.  This preserved the continent’s downsized wildlife community.  Humans learned ecosystem limits, established wise taboos to avoid overhunting, and nurtured a culture of profound respect and reverence for the entire family of life. 

Species that survived extinction now had less competition.  With the giant bison gone forever, the much smaller bison we know today exploded in number.  They reached reproductive age faster, and successfully coevolved with the remaining survivors.  

Sadly, the 100 centuries of stability zoomed off a cliff 500 years ago, when visitors from the Old World began washing up on the Atlantic coast — something like a bloody asteroid strike.  The aliens brought with them an assortment of deadly infectious diseases for which natives had zero immunity.  There were maybe four million natives in 1492.  Epidemics rapidly spread westward, killing about 90 percent of them within 100 years. 

This die-off sharply reduced hunting pressure on the wildlife, which was free to grow explosively.  In 1585, Thomas Hariot was astonished by the fantastic abundance of animals he saw in Virginia.  It was an Eden created by disease.  Settlers were free to hunt like crazy in a wilderness where there were no rules or regulations. 

In addition to diseases, colonists also imported their infectious worldview.  Their religion had roots in a herding society that treasured enslaved livestock, and detested predators.  Their Old World culture was built on a foundation of human supremacy, domestication, civilization, manufacturing, fanaticism, patriarchy, environmental devastation, and pathological self-interest. 

From time to time, Flores stopped to take a long hard piss on the notion of self-interest, a demonic quirk in the settler’s worldview.  I suspect it emerged with the rise of farming, herding, personal property, and individual salvation.  Its one all-consuming question has been “how can I get what I want?”  We suffer from an insatiable lifelong pursuit of social status, to the fullest extent possible, by any means necessary.  Nothing else matters.  Sorry kids!  Sorry wolves!

The traditional worldview of most tribal cultures majored in cooperation instead.  It nurtured mindfulness, and profound reverence for the family of life, the mother of their existence.  They were something like the folks who made the passionate cave paintings at Chauvet.  With few exceptions, the named gods of Native Americans were animals — coyote, raven, rabbit, etc. 

In the Old World religion, humans were very special critters, the other animals were not.  By and by, settlers from the Old World flooded into America.  They had domesticated animals and religions and economic ideas wherein “animals were not kin but resources.”  Their lives had no sacred significance.  So, the more hides, pelts, and furs you could take to market, the more cool stuff you could get.  Yippee!

Native folks thoroughly detested the monstrous colonists, but were fascinated by the unusual stuff they had.  Fifty deerskins could be traded for a metal pot.  Hatchets, axes, and knives were more expensive.  Whiskey was intoxicating.  The desire for this stuff was powerful, but it wasn’t free.

It was in the self-interest of the market, and the colonies, to leave nothing of monetary value unmolested.  Wild animals were pests that stood in the path of progress, and their extermination would continue until it was no longer profitable.  For natives, all options sucked.  They struggled to do their best.

In 1972, I was a roller coaster operator.  Riders slowly went up the steep hill, and then rapidly zoomed downhill screaming their brains out.  Flores provides readers a similar experience.  Most of his book describes the terrifying mass insanity that ravaged America in the last 500 years.  Readers will scream their brains out as they plunge deep into the cesspool of Big History, our horrifying monster closet.

Flores wrote that the invaders forced “a transformation of a hundred centuries of Native America into a re-creation of Old World civilization on a new continent.”  Five centuries ago, Old World folks and animals arrived, “and then, like some new contagion spreading inland from the coasts, proceeded to effect a widespread demolition of almost all that was here.”

In one year, 1743, the port at La Rochelle, France “took in 127,000 beaver pelts, 30,300 marten furs, 12,400 river otter furs, 110,000 raccoon pelts, along with its big haul for that year, the stripped skins of 16,500 American black bears.”

“In 1874 Bozeman market hunters were hip-deep in the big bonanza.  That year they shipped out 48 tons of elk skins, 42 tons of deerskins, 17 tons of pronghorn skins, and 760 pounds of bighorn skins.”

“Governments at all levels paid money for the heads or ears or scalps of a suite of animals — wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, grizzly and black bears, jaguars, bobcats, lynx — for the single purpose of promoting agricultural economies.”  Dead animals (or meat chunks) injected with strychnine were put everywhere to poison scavengers — wolves, coyotes, eagles, vultures, ravens, magpies, foxes, skunks.  It was sold in bulk in every store.

To delight ranchers, Montana put out 3,567,000 poison baits to kill predators.  Between 1883 and 1928 Montana shelled out payments on 111,545 wolves and 886,367 coyotes.  In one year, a wolf killer earned enough to buy a ranch and livestock.

Passenger pigeons, had been in America for 15 million years.  My father was in diapers when the last one died in 1914.  “The largest nesting site ever reported, near Sparta, Wisconsin, in 1871, spread across 850 square miles (2,200 km2).”  One flock was estimated to have 3.7 billion birds. 

Life on Earth is powered by energy.  Sunbeams feed the plants, and plants feed the critters.  Agriculture and herding amplified the energy flow for humans.  More recently, the flow has been explosively accelerated by burning fossil hydrocarbons, which are not limitless or harmless.  We can now temporarily feed more than eight billion.  We’re heating the planet into a toasty concentration camp crematory.  The machine’s guiding force is insanely clever childish self-interest, which is dumber than dog shit, but far more powerful than foresight, wisdom, cooperation, and mindful self-control.  SCREAM!!!

Flores, Dan, Wild New World: The Epic Story of Animals & People in America, W. W. Norton, New York, 2022.

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Wild Free and Happy sample 84: Wild Free Isolation

[Note: The following is some new and updated material from my rough draft of Wild, Free, & Happy.  It is primarily expansion or revision of subjects related to samples 52, 53, and 54.  The other samples of this rough draft can be accessed HERE.  If you prefer audiobooks, Michael Dowd has been reading and recording my book HERE.]

 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.  The human mob, on the other hand, has been making quite a mess.

During my years of studying and writing, I have enjoyed learning about wild cultures that preserved elegant low impact simplicity.  They hold up a mirror so we can fully appreciate the incoherence of modernity.  Let’s take a quick peek at a few of those cultures. 


The Andaman group of islands is located in the Bay of Bengal, and belongs to India.  North Sentinel Island is inhabited by the Sentineli, a society of negrito pygmies.  Outsiders can sometimes view them from offshore boats, or from helicopters, but the natives want nothing to do with outsiders.  Intruders who get too close are showered with arrows, rocks, and rude comments.  Some have been killed.  India has outlawed all visitors.  Today the Sentineli enjoy a complete separation from the modern world. 

Their island is 14,700 acres (5,949 ha), a bit smaller than Manhattan.  The interior is forest, surrounded by sandy beaches, surrounded by reefs.  Treacherous currents make landing on the island impossible for ten months of the year, and extremely dangerous for the other two.  The island has nothing that is attractive to greedy parasites from elsewhere.  For these reasons, the Sentineli remain wild and free in the twenty-first century.

Flyovers have noted the existence of several villages with clusters of small huts.  No evidence of agriculture has been observed.  There may be 50 Sentineli, or 500, nobody knows.  They survive by foraging, fishing, and gathering shellfish.  They may also hunt for turtles, birds, and invertebrates.  Their small canoes are used in the lagoons, but not for open-sea travel.  They fish with spears and nets.

Long ago, two expeditions were able to land on North Sentinel.  They brought along folks from a nearby island to serve as translators.  In the brief and hostile meetings, the Sentineli spoke a language that the translators did not understand.  Obviously, they have been living in isolation for a long time.  They may be descendants of the folks who first settled in the Andaman Islands 60,000 years ago.

Imagine what it would be like to live in a society that was not at war with the planet and the future — a genuinely sustainable way of life, a tropical culture with a year round supply of food, where your wardrobe consisted of a g-string, headband, and a couple leaves.  Imagine a life without money, clocks, calendars, automobiles, airplanes, sirens, internet, locks, fences, bosses, salesman, presidents, police, classrooms, guns, dogs, nuclear weapons, taxes, racism, billionaires, and religions.  Imagine a paradise where the diseases of civilization were unknown.

Contemplate the enormous load of information stored in your brain, accumulated during a lifetime of existing in a highly complex society, and your constant struggle to keep pace with competitors in the endless quest for status, wealth, and power.  Now, imagine being blissfully unaware of absolutely everything happening in the outside world — and the entire outside world knowing almost nothing about your society.  Imagine having a healthy, simple, sane life.

Imagine living on an island where there were no strangers, where the soundtrack was waves, birds, breezes, and the voices of your friends and family.  We weren’t meant to live like consumers.  There are better paths.

New Guinea Highlands

New Guinea is a land base much larger than Oregon and California combined.  Around 1930, white folks from elsewhere began wandering into the highlands, in search of mineral treasure.  At that time, the highlands were home to a million uncivilized folks unknown to the outer world.

Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson wrote that native groups spoke maybe 800 languages, of which several hundred were unique, having absolutely nothing in common with any other language in the world.  Communication between tribes was limited or impossible.  It wasn’t easy for innovative ideas to spread from group to group.  This helped tribes preserve traditional cultures. 

Long distance travel (10+ miles) was also difficult or impossible because of the rugged mountain landscape, warlike enemies, and deadly fevers.  There were no roads, wheels, or beasts of burden.  One group might be completely unaware that other groups resided just a few miles away. 

So, many groups may have existed in complete isolation, living as they had always lived, in their ancient time proven manner.  Nobody in the highlands knew that they lived on an island, or that the Pacific Ocean existed.  There may still be uncontacted groups that remain wild, free, and unknown to the outer world. 

As mentioned earlier, when interaction between groups creates regional webs, and more and more webs share more and more ideas with a widening circle of other webs, shit happens.  Over the passage of centuries, accumulations of cleverness can trigger explosive snowballing chain reactions, creating situations like the world outside your window.  How clever was that?


I was especially fascinated to learn about the Pirahã (pee-da-ha) people of the Amazon rainforest.  They are hunter-gatherers who live in a few jungle villages along the Maici River in northwestern Brazil.  Estimates of their population range up to 800.  They hunt, fish, and forage.  Fish provide about 70 percent of their diet. 

Over the years, I’ve read about many wild cultures.  The Pirahã are among the simplest and lowest impact of all.  We know a lot about their culture, largely because of Daniel Everett, a missionary sent to save them.  Over time, it became painfully clear to him that they didn’t need to be saved.  He was the one who was lost.  He concluded, “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.”

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.

The Pirahã 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.  Their language has nothing in common with any other language in the world.

The Pirahã had no leaders or social hierarchy, all were equal.  It was taboo to tell someone to do something.  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.

In the tribe, memories of ancestors or historic events were not preserved, they evaporated.  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.  If a missionary had not actually met Jesus, then jabber about Jesus was meaningless.

The Pirahã people were remarkably easygoing and infectiously happy.  They wore bright smiles, and laughed about everything.  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.  They had no cultural folklore, legends, fables, or worship.  He wonders if they might be the only group in the world that has no numbers, and no creation myth.

Everett wrote, “Committed to an existence in which only observable experience is real, the Pirahã do not think, or speak, in abstractions.”  (“Abstract” is the opposite of concrete.  Abstractions only exist as ideas or thoughts.)  They have no concept of heaven, hell, sin, god, creation, apocalypse, devils, angels, guilt, punishment, salvation, damnation, sustainable, rich, poor, overshoot, democracy, capitalism, and on and on.  

Modern folks spend their entire lives with their heads constantly buzzing with swarms of abstractions.  The Pirahã spend every day of their lives being highly attuned to the incredible living paradise that they are so lucky to inhabit.  They enjoy living in a stable, low impact, time-proven culture where everyone shares the same belief system. 

Everett was amazed by them.  “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.”

They were lucky to have enjoyed centuries of isolation in a vast tropical rainforest.  They had very little contact with clever outsiders who had bad habits, odd tools, dark impulses, and heads slithering with brainworms.  Unfortunately, the outer world has found them, and wants to “help” them enjoy the wonders of modern living.

Every morning, I listen to news reports describing a world that is out of its mind.  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.

If you are curious about the Pirahã, and have a couple 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.   


Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Wild Free and Happy sample 83 Update: Human Web

[Note: The following is some new and updated material from my rough draft of Wild, Free, & Happy.  It will be included in the revised Human Web section, which was originally released as samples 52 and 53.  The other samples of this rough draft can be accessed HERE.  If you prefer audiobooks, Michael Dowd has been reading and recording my book HERE.]

Magical Thinking

Imagine living in an era when bubonic plague epidemics were common and horrific.  Geoffrey Marks noted that the Black Death arrived in England in 1348, and was followed by epidemics in 1349, 1361, 1363, 1365, 1369, 1371, 1373, 1375, 1378-1382, 1390, 1399-1400 …and on and on… until the Great Plague of London in 1665-1666.  Over the course of several months, the Great Plague killed about 100,000, almost a quarter of London’s population. 

In 1772, Daniel Defoe (author of “Robinson Crusoe”) published “A Journal of the Plague Year.”  He was a young boy during the Great Plague, and had a front row seat on the horror show.  As an adult, he interviewed a number of survivors.  His uncle kept diaries during the nightmare.

The city was a fantastically filthy nightmare.  Sewage was dumped in ditches along the streets.  Horseshit and garbage everywhere.  Everyone had lice, bathing was rare, and great mobs of rats enjoyed a wonderful life. 

When folks heard news of an approaching contagion, anyone who had options (nobility, clergy, physicians, officers, etc.) fled London in a great stampede.  Poor folks were left behind to experience what the fates would deliver.

Efforts were made to slow the spread of disease.  When someone was known to be infected (or so suspected), a red cross was painted on the door, and the dwelling was guarded day and night by a watchman, to prevent escapes, and to provide necessities.  Thus, the entire family was condemned to die.  Folks were infuriated, and there were riots. 

Bell ringers moved through the streets, shouting “bring out your dead.”  They were followed by buriers or bearers who loaded the dead carts.  Large pits were dug in which to dump the corpses.  Defoe wrote, “It is impossible to describe the most horrible cries and noise that the poor people would make at their bringing the dead bodies of their children and friends out of the cart.”

Doctors had no cures, and prayers got no response.  Johannes Nohl reported that during plague years, a number of communities in Europe engaged in ceremonial dances, hoping to drive away the evil spirits.  Hundreds danced until they collapsed from exhaustion.  Folks were overwhelmed with despair.  People rolled in filth, begging others to beat them.  “Otherwise modest maidens and matrons lost all sense of shame, sighed, howled, made indecent gestures, and uncovered obscene parts of their bodies.”

It was obvious to everyone that the plague was killing the clergy at especially high rates (it was their job to visit the dying).  Why did God have no interest in protecting his own special agents?  Many priests lived with concubines, an abominable sin.  Did this mean that the baptisms they performed were worthless?  Many lost their faith.  While large crowds danced, the churches sat empty.   A furious mob of Germans went to Liège, determined to massacre all clergy.

One tradition noted that in 1424, a lad named Maccaber arrived in Paris, and took residence in an ancient tower next to a cemetery.  Folks believed he had supernatural powers.  He initiated an ecclesiastic procession.  Every day, for months, crowds of men and women danced in the cemetery.  Folks wore scary masks to drive away the evil spirits. 

Over time, in many places, during many plagues, folks experimented with a wide variety of rituals.  Despite good intentions, their efforts failed.  The rats and fleas remained alive and well, and the grim reaper worked overtime.  Blind faith in rituals is called magical thinking.  Unfortunately, beautiful wishes don’t always come true. 

Today, of course, global telecommunication systems and the internet allow magical beliefs and assorted conspiracy theories to spread through large populations at astonishing speeds.  Societies become fiercely polarized, echo chambers roar, intolerance punches, courtesy vaporizes, bullets fly, and daily life becomes a surreal tragicomedy.  Elections no longer have losers — every candidate claims victory!


Many humans imagine that our species enjoys a superior status in the family of life.  Indeed, many hiss and snarl at the notion that humans are animals (!!).  We are obviously smarter, stronger, and greater in every way!  A number of religious traditions assert that humans are something like the glorious crown of creation, the managers of the world.  Earth is our playground.

These beliefs typically emerged in cultures that became addicted to the exploitation of domesticated plants and/or animals — turbulent societies that cleared forests, planted fields, raised birds and herds, and radically altered (and damaged) the ecosystems they inhabited.

Our wild ancestors were far more humble.  They were hunters and foragers, not planet smashing thunder beings.  Peter Ungar wrote that when an anthropologist in Tanzania asked some Hazda hunters how humans were different from other animals, they were completely baffled.  There is no difference.  What a stupid question!  We all eat, drink, breathe, excrete, wander, and reproduce.  Many carnivores think we’re absolutely delicious, and they eagerly enjoy every opportunity for having us for lunch.

Richard Nelson spent time (1976-77) with the Koyukon people of Alaska.  Their often quoted proverb is: “Every animal knows way more than you do.”  They believe that animals can understand everything we say, regardless of distance.  The Koyukon were not a culture of motor vehicles and glowing screens.  They were a hunting culture that had an amazingly deep understanding of nature, and absolute respect for it.  Modern folks have lost this intimate wild connection to home.  Nelson wrote, “We live alone in an uncaring world of our own creation.” 

David Ehrenfeld wrote The Arrogance of Humanism.  It was an aggressive critique of the widespread belief in human supremacy.  He wrote that humanism was “the dominant religion of our time.”  It’s essentially the air we breathe.  Humans are absolute geniuses, and our technology is amazing.  There is no problem we cannot solve.  We have no limits.  As resources become depleted, we’ll readily develop excellent alternatives.  Our children will enjoy even better lives than our own, and the best is yet to come.  Yippee!

Ehrenfeld wrote back in 1978, when pollution controls, if any, were weak, and the air and waters were heavily contaminated with noxious substances.  The entire city of Gary Indiana was hidden in a stinky orange fog of steel mill filth.  The Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught on fire.

In the ’70s, numerous eco-disasters were occurring around the world, but the general mob paid little attention to stuff happening elsewhere — out of sight, out of mind.  Network television avoided the yucky stuff, and hypnotized folks with generous servings of sports, entertainment, and happy news.  School systems tirelessly preached the holy gospel of humanism, and celebrated the age of miracles that students were so lucky to enjoy.

While the thundering human juggernaut was beating the living shit out of the planet, the mob barely noticed.  They were busy polishing their new cars.  Most remained zombie-like cheerleaders of the wonders of modernity, and the beautiful future that laid ahead.

This baffled Ehrenfeld.  Nobody <bleeping> cares!  The poor lad apparently suffered from a devastating incurable mental disorder known as critical thinking.  He was a sick pariah.  Humanist culture has zero respect for hopeless nutjobs, defeatists, misanthropes, oddballs, and doom perverts.

Ehrenfeld shrugged.  “Evidence is growing that the religion of humanity is self-destructive and foolish.  But the more it fails, the greater our faith in it.  We imagine that what we want to happen is actually happening.” 

He was not a misanthrope.  He didn’t hate, distrust, and avoid humans.  Actually, he was an “anti-humanist.”  He detested the ridiculous mass hallucinations — the enthusiastic celebrations of human genius, and the wondrous technological utopia that we have brilliantly created.  We are so lucky to live in the spectacular gushing orgasm of the entire human experience!

Ehrenfeld noted that pure anti-humanists were rare.  Most folks who know how to read have spent their entire lives in fanatical humanist cultures.  We’ve been constantly absorbing humanist ideas for years.  They have deep roots in our minds, and a strong influence on how we think.  It’s sort of pleasant to imagine that we’re on the path to a better tomorrow.  Progress will wash away the pain.

On the other hand, having read a pile of anthropology books, it’s clear that wild folks who lived undisturbed in their traditional way, in their ancestral land, tended to be enthusiastic and shameless anti-humanists.  They seemed to be nearly unanimous in perceiving civilized folks as being absolutely batshit crazy!  How could people be so stupid?  How can they have no respect and reverence for the natural world?  Why are they so aggressive and selfish?

Ehrenfeld wrote that a general rejection of humanism is now long overdue.  It won’t be easy.  Blind faith in humanist hopes and dreams remains strong, and the insanely furious war on the family of life rages on, and on, and on.

Monday, November 7, 2022

Finding the Mother Tree


Suzanne Simard wrote an unforgettable book, Finding the Mother Tree.  She was born and raised in the rainforests of British Columbia, and is now a professor of forest ecology.  Her grandfather was a logger who worked back in the low-tech days, when the industry ran on manpower, horsepower, and waterpower. 

At age 20, Simard’s first job was with a logging company.  By that time, the industry was using fossil powered machines — chainsaws, bulldozers, skidders, loaders, trucks, etc.  Selective cutting was being replaced by devastating clear-cuts.

At age 23, she was hired to do research for the British Columbia Forest Service.  They wanted to determine the most effective way to plant seedlings on a clear-cut site.  Government regulations required “free to grow” stocking.  So, prior to planting, herbicides were sprayed to exterminate natural plant life.  Only the moneymaking seedlings were free to grow.

In those days, much of what is now known about forest biology had not yet been discovered.  Consequently, standard industry practices were often based on a blind faith in unproven assumptions.  This wasted a lot of money, and unnecessarily damaged the ecosystem.  The most important business goal was to maximize short-term profits. 

Simard preferred critical thinking to blind faith, and she asked questions that the good old boys never considered.  Vital clues can often be very hard to see.  She paid close attention to the incredibly intricate ways in which forests function.  “My instinct has always been to listen to what living things were saying.”

One of her assignments was to investigate a mysterious situation.  A number of clear-cut sites had been planted with seedlings, and none were healthy.  Plantation after plantation was dying.  She found that all of them had been planted exactly as the rules required.  Seedling roots had to be inserted in mineral soil (sand, silt, clay) because it retained more water and supposedly boosted survival.  Rules prohibited inserting seedling roots in humus.  Humus is a nutrient-rich component of topsoil in old growth forests.  It’s loaded with fungi, worms, bugs, and decomposed organic material. 

Simard noticed that in the dying plantations, seedlings were failing to produce healthy root systems.  On the other hand, in nearby uncontrolled natural woodland, mature trees dropped seeds from which young trees sprouted.  The youngsters grew in humus, and they developed fantastically extensive root systems, intertwined with dense mats of yellow, white, and pink fungi.  This was a crucial discovery! 

So, she created an experimental plantation.  Half of the seedlings were planted in mineral soil (all died), and the other half in humus (all thrived).  Ongoing research confirmed her suspicion that healthy fungi networks were essential for the survival of healthy forests.  Very important!

Industry traditions perceived that the fundamental force of nature was competition — survival of the fittest.  So, industrial forestry was a game of nurturing the most valuable trees, and obliterating everything else.  The downside of this belief was that it was remarkably counterproductive in the real world.

Industry traditions believed that low value alders could reduce the vitality of high value lodgepole pines.  So, alders were chopped down.  Actually, pines loved alder, because alders transformed nitrogen into ammonium, a potent fertilizer that pine roots absorbed via the fungal networks.  Pines not growing near alders were more vulnerable to pine beetles that bored into their bark.  A fungus carried on beetle legs infected the pines, and it prevented water from flowing upward in the trees.  Countless pines died of thirst.

Industry traditions declared birches to be low value junk trees, because they were thought to slow the growth of high value Douglas firs.  Large birch leaves performed more photosynthesis than fir needles, so they were able to convert more sunbeam energy into chemical energy — sugar and other carbs.  As birch foliage expanded, fewer sunbeams could reach the firs.

Birches stored surplus carbs in their roots, where networks of fungi allowed fir trees to tap into it.  The more shade the birch cast, the more sugar it shared with the fir.  Simard eventually realized that this relationship was not a problem.  It was beneficial.  They were working together, like a system.  Healthy birches promoted healthy firs.

She wrote, “Fir can’t survive without birch due to the high risk of infection from Armillaria, and birch can’t survive in the long run without fir because too much nitrogen would accumulate in the soil, causing the soil to acidify.”  When firs are grown alone, up to a third are killed by a root disease. 

In one experiment, Simard grew birch and fir trees together in some stands.  In other stands, firs were grown without birches.  Twenty-one years later, the forest where birch and fir had been grown together had almost twice the productivity of stands with no birches.

The findings of Simard’s research inspired doubts about the validity of some traditions.  She began to suspect that the real life force of forest ecosystems was more like cooperation.  Over time, diverse communities of forest dwelling species apparently coevolved ways of establishing mutually beneficial win/win relationships.  Year after year, her experiments confirmed these suspicions.

She suspected that networks of fungi played a major role in this magic act.  Seeking evidence, she designed experiments to discover how nutrients and moisture were transferred from one tree to another.  This involved using carbon isotopes as tracers, unique identification tags.

The C-12 isotope is natural, C-13 is unnatural but not radioactive, and C-14 is unnatural and radioactive.  Simard inserted C-14 into birch leaves, expecting to find that it flowed into Douglas firs.  It did!  She inserted C-13 into the firs to see if nutrients also flowed from fir to birch.  They did!

When trees are able to intermingle with neighboring trees, they develop lots of beneficial fungi interconnections.  There may be more than 100 species of fungi in a forest.  Some retrieve phosphorus from humus.  Others retrieve nitrogen from decaying wood.  Some carry water.  Others send or receive sugar.  The function of most fungi is unknown.

Simard found that giant trees played an especially important role in healthy forests.  She called them Mother Trees because they nurtured others.  Fires generally roasted understory vegetation, while the taller overstory trees were more likely to survive.  Their bigger crowns captured more sunbeams and produced more carbs.  Larger trees shared their surplus carbs with nearby smaller trees, including those of other species.  Young trees might grow for decades in the shadows. 

Some of the seeds dropped by Mother Trees remain nearby, germinate, and emerge as young trees.  Mothers seem to recognize their genetic offspring, and give them top priority when sharing nutrients.  Unrelated trees, and trees of different species, also receive gifts from Mother Trees.  There seemed to be something like tree to tree communication.  Simard studied a stand of Douglas fir.  Fungi networks connected the older trees to all of the younger trees around them.  Some were as far as 20 meters away (22 yards). 

Simard’s book is a chatty discussion of her life, work, and family.  Its target audience is forestry students, and industry professionals.  Her unconventional ideas remained controversial for a number of years.  Today, her work has been peer reviewed, and is widely accepted.

General readers (like me) will stumble into the unfamiliar names of many plant and fungi species.  I didn’t know the meanings of “mycorrhiza” and “mycelium.”  Both are important categories of fungi species. 

The relationship between mycorrhizal fungi and living trees enabled the survival of both.  Fungi contributed water and soil nutrients to the tree roots.  In return, tree roots provided the fungi with carbs produced by photosynthesis.

Peter Wohlleben fondly described mycelium, the largest living organisms yet discovered.  One in Oregon weighs 660 tons, covers 2,000 acres (800 ha), and is 2,400 years old.  They provide trees with water, nitrogen, and phosphorus — in exchange for sugar and other carbs.

Around the world today, relentless industrial scale forest mining is causing far more catastrophic destruction than ever before.  The global economy has no plans to slam on the brakes.  Humankind demands unlimited lumber, paper products, firewood, etc.  We will eventually win the War on Forests — an idiotic Pyrrhic victory.  My short overview on the history of deforestation is HERE.

Simard, Suzanne, Finding the Mother Tree, Random House, New York, 2021.  

Thursday, August 18, 2022

Wild Free and Happy Sample 44 Update Nutrients

 [Note: The following is a significant expansion of the soil nutrients discussion of Sample 44.]



All life depends, directly or indirectly, on essentials like sunlight, water, oxygen, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, soil, and so on.  In healthy wild ecosystems, these essentials are not depleted.  The magic of evolution nurtures their ability to adapt to changing conditions in the circle dance of life.

Agriculture operates in a far less elegant manner.  It’s a powerful, rowdy, perfectly unnatural, manmade monstrosity.  Its unpredictable mood swings can range from feast to famine, prosperity to oblivion.  In Mary Shelley’s classic horror story, the foolishly clever Dr. Frankenstein got cold shivers when his ghoulish monster turned to him and spoke these words, “You are my creator, but I am your master.”

Wild vegetation excels at recycling essential nutrients.  On the other hand, field crops excel at extracting and exporting nutrients, a slippery clumsy dance of destruction.  For example, phosphorus is transferred from the soil to the corn, from the corn to the hog, from the hog to the human, and finally flushed down the toilet, bye-bye!  Little if any is returned to the field to replenish what was removed from the soil.

Poop is precious.  Remember that.  In 1588, Anzelm Gostomski, a Polish gentleman, once proclaimed an eternal truth: “Manure is worth more than a man with a doctorate.”  In the modern world, every shipment of food that moves from the local countryside to faraway consumers is carrying away essential soil nutrients on a one-way ride, never to return.

To keep a farm operation on life support for as long as possible, efforts must be made to replace the deported nutrients.  Over the centuries, farmers have kept soil fertility on life support by applying stuff like sewage, manure, ashes, lime, bone meal, seaweed, compost, peat moss, guano, synthetic fertilizer, and so on.  In China, human wastes have been used as fertilizers for 5,000 years.  Traditionally, manure has been a popular fertilizer.  Gathering and spreading manure was far more fun than depleting the soil and starving. 

Even modest sized cities could religiously indulge in rituals that recycled holy shit.  In 1909, Franklin Hiram King visited Kyoto, Japan.  While traveling down a road one lovely morning, he observed a long caravan of men pulling cartloads of precious night soil from town.  They were in the process of returning this sacred life giving treasure to the fields where their food was grown. 

Each cart carried six 10-gallon (38 l) covered containers of delightfully fragrant plant food.  King noted that he passed 52 of these carts.  Then, on the return trip, he passed another 61 carts.  Other caravans moved down other roads.  He estimated that 90 tons of sewage was hauled out of town on that morning.  I wonder if this was a daily routine.

With the growth of population and urbanization, returning more and more human poop to fields that were farther and farther away, became impractical.  Eventually, imported fertilizers were able to save the day (temporarily).  Guano, phosphates, and synthetic ammonia were powerful, but nonrenewable.  Unfortunately, they accelerated population growth, forcing the jumbo sized mob to zoom faster down a one-way road to a less than utopian future.

Writing in 2001, when the population was a mere six billion, Vaclav Smil estimated that 40 percent of the people alive in 2000 existed only because of the intensive use of synthetic ammonia fertilizer.  It had succeeded in shattering the population ceiling (temporarily).

In order to survive in good health, all living plant and animal organisms must acquire the mix of nutrients that are essential for them.  Different species prefer different mixes.  David Montgomery explained that there are three absolutely must-have macronutrients for all plant and animal life (including you), for which there are no substitutes — nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K).  General purpose “NPK” fertilizers contain portions of all three.  Humans acquire these essential nutrients by eating plant and/or animal foods. 

Nitrogen (N)

Vaclav Smil noted that all living organisms require carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen.  In the world, there are huge quantities of all four, but nitrogen is the oddball.  The air we breathe is about 78 percent nitrogen, but it’s not in a form that most living things can actually use. 

In the air, it’s a gas that consists of tightly bonded pairs of nitrogen atoms (N2) that are too stable to readily intermingle with other atoms.  Before it can be utilized by living organisms, it must be transformed via a process called nitrogen fixation.  In the soil are nitrogen-fixing bacteria that can combine nitrogen and hydrogen to produce ammonia (NH3), a compound that can nourish natural processes.  Ammonia is 82 percent nitrogen.

These bacteria grow on the roots of leguminous plants, like beans, soybeans, peas, chickpeas, peanuts, lentils, carob, alfalfa, and clover.  So, when you eat beans, your body is able to absorb the usable nitrogen.  After a legume crop is harvested, the leftover plant material decomposes, releasing fixed nitrogen into the soil, fertilizer for future crops.  This “green manure” is plowed back into the field.

When livestock graze, they absorb usable nitrogen from their food, and then produce “brown manure” that generously boosts soil fertility.  You and I commonly get our nitrogen when we digest the amino acids in high protein foods, including beans, leafy greens, nuts, seeds, eggs, milk, and lean meat.  At the rear end of the process, we expel a potent brown fertilizer called poop.

Old fashioned low tech farming could produce modest harvests when assisted by good luck and determined efforts.  Unlike modern industrial agriculture, old fashioned farm soil only provided modest amounts of usable nitrogen.  Low nitrogen content results in low yields, while high content boosts them.  So, nitrogen is a limiting nutrient, something like the gas pedal in a car.  So is phosphorus.

Ordinary soil generally contains modest amounts of N, P, and K.  Applying additional potassium (K) to the soil does little or nothing to boost crop yields.  But synthetic fertilizers can boost the content of nitrogen and phosphorus beyond normal levels, and this actually promotes bigger harvests.  Of course, bigger harvests can feed larger mobs of hungry humans.  

In the short version of nitrogen history, there were two huge leaps in fertilizer technology — guano and synthetic ammonia. 

Guano is an organic fertilizer created by dense accumulations of bird shit or bat shit.  Seabirds often nest on islands, where they are less vulnerable to pesky predators.  For the same reason, bats prefer to shit in the comfort and privacy of caves. 

Each day, seabirds gobble up lots of yummy anchovies, return to their nesting ground, and happily unload magic excrement.  Century after century, more and more piles of crap grew higher and higher.  Mounds of guano could have nitrogen content ranging from 8 to 21 percent by mass!  Holy shit!

In arid regions, like the Pacific coast of South America, the nesting islands were deeply covered with nutrient rich guano.  Islands off the shore of Peru used to be guano heaven — some deposits were over 200 feet (61 m) deep.  In wetter regions, birds also colonize offshore islands, and shit all over them, but rainy weather and humidity leaches out vital nutrients. 

According to Wikipedia, “The rulers of the Inca Empire greatly valued guano, restricted access to it, and punished any disturbance of the birds with death.”  Guano was used for centuries by indigenous folks.

By the 1840s or so, in Europe and North America, a persistent brutally abusive relationship between farmers and their precious dirt was taking a serious toll on soil fertility.  Meanwhile the mobs of hungry white folks continued snowballing.  How in the <bleep> are we going to feed them?  Trouble ahead!

White folks first learned about magic guano in 1802, via the writings of Alexander von Humboldt, which were translated into several languages.  Eventually, some ambitious lads experienced a breathtaking revelation.  Holy shit!  We could become filthy rich guano tycoons! 

As we all know, money is a devilish hallucinogen that can turn kind and decent people into batshit crazy idiots.  Consequently, humankind began a dramatic transition from traditional food production that utilized local manure, into a fast lane powered by imported bird shit.  In some locations, the guano had an exceptionally high content of nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium.  It greatly excited the productivity of field crops.

And so, in the nineteenth century, guano was the world’s super fertilizer, and a source of great wealth.  A guano gold rush was born.  Nations vigorously competed to claim ownership of guano islands.  Disputes triggered the War of the Pacific (1879-1884).

Traditions got tossed on the compost pile.  Farmers no longer had to devote lots of time to nutrient recycling.  They didn’t need to plant cover crops of nitrogen fixing legumes, or do crop rotations.  They could simply buy what they needed, magic bird shit, harvest far greater yields, and get rich quick.

Industrial scale guano mining was extremely disruptive to the seabirds that squirted out the valuable shit.  On Peru’s guano islands, bird populations plummeted from the 53 million in the late 1800s to just 4.2 million in 2011.

Of course, guano was a finite resource created over the passage of countless millennia, and it was being extracted as fast as humanly possible.  Production peaked around 1870.  Insatiable greed heads then directed their attention to the saltpeter deposits in the deserts of Chile.  Saltpeter is sodium nitrate, a compound that contained usable nitrogen. 

J. R. McNeill noted that by 1900, German farmers were highly dependent on imported guano.  Without it, they could no longer feed the growing mob of hungry Germans.  Gosh!  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could produce fixed nitrogen on an industrial scale?  Could it be possible?  Yes!  Unfortunately, two Germans figured out how.

Synthetic Ammonia.  I’d now like to introduce you to Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch.  In 1909, chemist Fritz Haber invented a process that could extract nitrogen from the air (N2), mix it with natural gas (CH4), and embed it in ammonia (NH3), via an energy-guzzling process of high heat and pressure.  Synthetic ammonia created a sharp turn in human history.  (Years later, Haber invented Zyklon B, the poison used in Nazi gas chambers.) 

Carl Bosch figured out how to perform this catalytic process on an industrial scale.  Haber and Bosch opened the first ammonia plant in Germany in 1911. 

Ammonia was also a feedstock for explosives, which were in high demand for countless bloody military adventures.  So, many new ammonia plants were built.  At the end of World War II, large quantities of ammonia became available for other uses, and the production of synthetic ammonia fertilizer soared.

In the second half of the twentieth century, the production of synthetic NPK fertilizers skyrocketed: 4 million tons in 1940, 40 million tons in 1965, and 150 million tons in 1990.  Far more food was produced, and the human population grew at an explosive rate.

Today, the intended benefits of these fertilizers are maxing out — applying more of it to a field no longer increases the size of the harvest.  But the potent fertilizer runoff is able to continue increasing the contamination of groundwater, rivers, coastal dead zones, and oceans.

Richard Manning noted that when farmers apply synthetic fertilizer on a field, less than half of it is absorbed by crop plants.  Fertilizer can acidify the soil.  Some of it dissolves and contaminates the groundwater that folks drink, and lots of it runs off into waterways.  Much of the U.S. Corn Belt drains into the Mississippi River, which is an ecological catastrophe. 

Fertilizer runoff stimulates the growth of algal blooms.  As the blooms die, they consume oxygen and emit CO2.  As the oxygen content of the water is depleted (anoxia), this can cause everything to die (eutrophication).  The Mississippi flows into the Gulf of Mexico, where it has created a dead zone the size of New Jersey.  The Baltic Sea is home to seven of the of the world's ten largest marine dead zones.  About half of U.S. lakes have low oxygen content, and the number of dead zones in the world continues growing (415 in 2022).

The National Science Foundation reported that fertilizer runoff is increasing the nitrogen content in rivers and streams, where microbes convert it into nitrous oxide (N2O), “a potent greenhouse gas, with a warming potential of approximately 300 times that of carbon dioxide.”  Nitrous oxide persists in the atmosphere a long time, and promotes global warming and acid rain (it’s also a pain reliever, laughing gas).  Cow shit is another source of nitrous oxide emissions, and their belches are a significant source of methane.

In the twentieth century, global population skyrocketed at a rate similar to the rapid increase in fertilizer use.  Nitrogen and phosphorus are limiting nutrients, and synthetic fertilizers exceled at sweeping away longstanding limits to crop productivity.  Julian Cribb wrote that the wellbeing of most of humankind is now heavily reliant on the use of these potent fertilizers to assure adequate food harvests.

Today, about 80 percent of synthetic ammonia is made using a natural gas feedstock — a finite nonrenewable fossil energy resource.  As natural gas prices rise, so will the cost of nitrogen fertilizer, which will increase the cost of food.  Political instability in the world is increasing.  A few nations have abundant reserves of gas, while all nations are dependent on reliable access to food.  This presents many opportunities for heavy handed dog-eat-dog mischief.

Phosphorus (P)

Like nitrogen, phosphorus is also a limiting nutrient.  It is always found in mixed compounds, never in pure form.  Much of the P in soil is in a form that plants cannot use.  This puts a firm ceiling on crop productivity.  In NPK fertilizers, usable P is provided by phosphate (P2O5), a mineral compound. 

When phosphate is applied to a field, crop yields are boosted.  When it runs off cropland into bodies of water, it can trigger eutrophication.  Phosphorus enters your body at the mouth, and departs via urine and excrement.  It’s possible to recover it from sewage and manure, but not cheap.  When mixed 50/50 with water, your urine is an excellent liquid fertilizer that contains both nitrogen and phosphorus — and it’s free.  Waste not!

Fred Pearce noted that every living cell needs P, and there is no substitute.  It’s as essential to plant life as water is.  We are great at misusing it, suck at recycling it, and it’s vital for feeding humans and other critters.  Each year, the world mines 170 million tons of phosphate.

The world’s primary source of phosphate rock is an open-cast mine in the Western Sahara, a region currently controlled by Morocco — an unpleasant situation that irritates the native Saharans.  Political instability in the region could disrupt the production and distribution of phosphate, and generate a food crisis in many nations. 

So, demand is rising, most of the world’s best phosphate reserves are gone, and those that remain are in just a handful of countries.  Most of these reserves are in hard rock form, which requires vastly more fossil energy to mine and process.  There are also large deposits of phosphates in deep sea locations, but mining them would be deeply expensive. 

When will phosphate production peak?  That’s a highly contentious question, because accurately estimating the remaining reserves requires lots of guesswork.  Today, of the three essential NPK nutrients, P is the most worrisome to experts. 

Just as I was about to send this info to the world, my faithful muse gave me a dope slap and directed me to an important research paper.  It’s written in super-cryptic science jargon, and ordinary readers (like me) may suffer some permanent brain damage, but it’s a fascinating horror story.

Christine Alewell and team put a spotlight on the latest news.  If global heating doesn’t blindside industrial civilization, phosphorus depletion will.  Big Mama Nature brilliantly guided the evolution of wild ecosystems that did a wonderful job of protecting precious topsoil and perpetually recycling essential nutrients.  Sadly, cleverness has pulled the rug out from under this delicate balancing act.  The tilling of agricultural soils eliminates the protective covering of wild vegetation, and exposes the delicate treasure below.

When P is not locked within solid rock, its water soluble.  When rain splatters directly on pulverized farm soil, gravity carries the P runoff elsewhere, like wetlands and streams.  Erosion causes about half of the P depletion in farm soil.  As P content decreases, so does the productivity of the field.  Harvests shrink.

Alewell noted, “The world’s soils are currently being depleted in P in spite of high chemical fertilizer input.”  In poor countries, where folks can’t afford potent fertilizer, the rate of P depletion is even higher.  In the long run, agriculture is not sustainable.  “Soil phosphorus (P) loss from agricultural systems will limit food and feed production in the future.”

To continue producing chemical fertilizer requires continued mining of nonrenewable geological deposits of P, an increasingly limited resource.  The P moves in a one-way flow from the mines, to the agricultural land, into freshwaters, and finally into oceans.

The “organic management” of P is also unsustainable.  A cornfield extracts P from the soil.  Then, the harvested grain is sent somewhere else, along with its P content.  Added manure and compost won’t replace all of the P exported.  Similarly, livestock grazing extracts the P from the greenery consumed.  Some of it is returned to the land via manure and urine, but some of it is sent away to the meat processor, never to return.

Potassium (K)

In plants, potassium is important for the synthesis of protein.  The potassium component of NPK fertilizer is provided by a variety of minerals rich in potash (K2O) that are found in the salt beds of ancient seas and lakes.  The K added to NPK fertilizer comes from nonrenewable mined sources.  David Montgomery noted that “potassium occurs in rocks almost everywhere in forms readily used as natural fertilizer.”  We don’t have to worry about near term potassium shortages.  Lots of other future crises are closer to the front of the line.

Toxic Sludge

Abby Rockefeller wrote a fascinating essay that thoroughly explored the long and exciting history of human pooping and peeing.  In modern cities, sewage treatment plants regularly generate sludge, which has to be removed and put somewhere.  Somewhere is often cropland. 

Besides the holy shit that happily splashes in your toilet, sludge also contains lots of weird stuff produced by industrial civilization.  For example, volatiles, organic solids, disease-causing pathogenic organisms, heavy metals, and toxic organic chemicals from industrial wastes, household chemicals, and pesticides.  Crops grown in fields treated with toxic sludge produce foods that may be less than wholesome.

BOTTOM LINE:  Bill McGuire reported that intensive industrial agriculture is depleting the quality of cropland soils.  In many parts of the world, including in the U.K., E.U., and the U.S., these soils are becoming “effectively sterile in the absence of regular fixes of artificial fertilizer.”  No free lunch.  No sustainable agriculture.  But eight billion get to pee and poop every day (for a while).  Hooray! 

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Wild Free and Happy Sample 44 Update

 [Note: The following is a significant expansion of the Soil Destruction section of Sample 44.]


Spencer Wells lamented the transition to food production, when folks shifted from foraging to farming and herding.  “Instead of being along for the ride, we climbed into the driver’s seat.”  Richard Manning agreed.  He said that in the good old days, “we didn’t grow food; food grew.”  Food production took an increasing toll on the soil.  Folks didn’t fully understand the consequences of what they were doing. 

In the good old days, wild ecosystems were complex communities of plants and animals.  These wild communities coevolved over time, which kept them fine-tuned for long term survival in ever changing local conditions.  Believe it or not, they could thrive, century after century, without irrigation systems, synthetic fertilizer, pesticides, fossil powered machinery, human stewards, and so on.

With the transition to plant and animal domestication, humans could produce greater quantities of food, and feed more mouths.  But the artificial ecosystems they created (cropland and pasture) commonly reduced natural biodiversity, encouraged erosion, and depleted soil fertility.

Walter Youngquist wrote that the average depth of the world’s topsoil is less than 12 inches (30 cm).  He added that almost all modern folks consider oil to be a vital strategic resource.  Oddly, far fewer have a profound appreciation for soil, the most precious mineral treasure of all.  For almost the entire human saga, our ancestors left fossil hydrocarbons in the ground, where they belong.  Soil is vital for the survival of the entire family of life — yesterday, today, and forever after.

He warned that, from a human timeframe, topsoil is a nonrenewable resource, because new topsoil is created over the passage of centuries, on a geological timeframe.  “Overall, one-third of the topsoil on U.S. cropland has been lost over the past 200 years.”  Humans are destroying it far faster than nature creates it. 

Youngquist mentioned the work of Peter Salonius, a soil scientist who performed 44 years of research.  Salonius came to the conclusion that all extractive agriculture, from ancient times to the present, is unsustainable.  Environmental history clearly supports his conclusion. 

Writing in 2000, J. R. McNeill wrote that the U.S. was currently losing 1.7 billion tons of topsoil per year to erosion.  At that time, there were 281 million Americans.  So, the loss would have been six tons per person.  Writing in 2007, David Montgomery noted that each year, the world was losing 24 billion tons of soil.  In 2015, Joel Bourne reported that every year, a million hectares (2.4 million acres) of world cropland are taken out of production because of erosion, desertification, or development. 

Richard Manning wrote, “There is no such thing as sustainable agriculture.  It does not exist.”  David Montgomery agreed.  “Continued for generations, till-based agriculture will strip soil right off the land as it did in ancient Europe and the Middle East.  With current agricultural technology though, we can do it a lot faster.”


Dale and Carter wrote a history of humankind’s war on soil.  Immigrants who colonized the U.S. behaved much like civilized colonists throughout history.  “They caused more waste and ruin in a shorter time than any people before them because they had more land to exploit and better equipment with which to exploit it.  Some ruined their land because they knew no better, and others destroyed out of greed for immediate profits, but most of them did it because it seemed the easiest thing to do.”

David Montgomery described the farmers of early America.  Tobacco was a goldmine, because it reaped six times more income than any other crop, and it could be shipped across the Atlantic and arrive in perfect condition. 

Growing tobacco was labor intensive, and slaves provided the muscle power.  It was also a heavy feeder on soil nutrients.  A farmer could make great money for three or four crops, after which the soil was severely depleted. 

At that point, they often abandoned the useless fields, and cleared forest to create new ones, for another round of jackpot moneymaking.  It was easier and more profitable.  In the early days, frontier land was abundant and cost little or nothing.

Back in Europe, it was foolish to greedily treat topsoil like a rape and run disposable resource.  Over time, agriculture had eventually collided with serious limits, when it was no longer easy to expand cropland area by exterminating forests.  So, respectful consideration was given to future generations of descendants, who wouldn’t enjoy inheriting a (%@&#!) wasteland.  Each generation deliberately made efforts to slow soil deterioration by regularly adding manure, compost, leaves, crushed bone, and other fertilizers.  Soil was treated like gold.

On the other hand, in early America, ambitious high achievers thought that being conservative stewards of the land was ridiculously stupid.  Livestock was needed to produce manure, and livestock required pasture.  Tobacco acres earned big money fast, and pasture acres did not.  Profit was their god word.


Clive Ponting noted that a bit after the tobacco boom, the cotton gin made it more profitable to manufacture cotton fabric, rather than wool.  Cotton became a new goldmine for farmers and slave traders.  In Africa, slaves were often purchased by trading cotton cloth for them.  Like tobacco, cotton was very hard on the soil.  Compared to a food crop, it extracted 11 times the nitrogen, and 36 times the phosphorus.  Between 1815 and 1860, cotton was 50 percent of U.S. exports.

As with tobacco, depleted cotton fields were abandoned, and farm country migrated westward, as it devoured ancient forests.  It was cheaper, easier, and more profitable to move on, so they did.  David Montgomery described how these folks broke every cardinal rule of careful land stewardship.  Farmers did continuous planting without crop rotation, used little or no manure, and plowed straight up and down hills (not contour plowing). 

Highly explosive ignorance resulted in painful lessons and enduring destruction.  Stripping away the forests in hill country deleted what had held the soil in place for thousands of years.  Damage was extreme in the Piedmont belt of the southeastern U.S.  Further north, the wreckage was a bit lighter, because snow protected the soil during winter months.  But in the south, heavy rains were common.  Some regions eventually lost most of their soil, exposing portions of bedrock.  

Shockingly huge gullies were created in the wake of deforestation.  In Alabama, gullies up to 80 feet (24 m) deep soon followed land clearance.  One erosion gully near Macon, Georgia was 50 feet deep (15 m), 200 feet across (61 m), and 300 yards long (274 m).  Montgomery wrote, “By the early 1900s, more than five million acres of formerly cultivated land in the South lay idle because of the detrimental effects of soil erosion.”

Dust Bowl

As the colonization of the U.S. proceeded, folks continued migrating westward, moving beyond forested regions to the open prairies.  They perceived prairies to be wastelands, because they were largely treeless.  Many pushed onward toward Oregon, hoping to settle in lands having fertile soil.  In the process, they skipped right past the tallgrass prairie, home to the nation’s most fertile soil by far.  Eventually, they realized their mistake, and the primo tallgrass belt was settled. 

Latecomers got the less desirable shortgrass prairie, which had highly fertile soil, but it was lighter in texture, and more vulnerable to erosion.  In shortgrass country, strong winds and periodic droughts were normal and common, but evolution had fine-tuned the wild ecosystem to survive these conditions.

The natural vegetation was drought tolerant, retained moisture, and kept the soil from blowing away.  Unfortunately, the settlers brought state of the art steel plows, and proceeded to strip the vegetation off the land, and expose the precious soil.  Unintentional foolishness led to catastrophe.

David Montgomery mentioned a 1902 report by the U.S. Geological Survey that classified the high plains as being suitable for grazing, but not farming.  It was “hopelessly nonagricultural” because it was ridiculously prone to erosion.  Gullible farmers were encouraged by sleazy speculators to settle on the land and get rich quick.  And many did, for a while.

Walter Lowdermilk wrote that much of the time between 1900 and 1930 was a highly unusual period of above average precipitation.  During the wet years, farmers enjoyed big harvests and generous profits.  Wheat could do well in the shortgrass climate, and a thriving wheat field protected the fragile soil from erosion.  But in drought years, the wheat withered, and there was nothing to hold the soil in place when the winds began howling.

  Tractors were the latest cool gizmo.  A lad with a tractor could farm 15 times more land than a lad who used draft animals.  Cropland area greatly expanded, exposing more and more soil, which the winds carried away.  The stage was set for the Dust Bowl. 

Marc Reisner wrote, “The first of the storms blew through South Dakota on November 11, 1933.  By nightfall, some farms had lost nearly all of their topsoil.  At ten o’ clock the next morning, the sky was still pitch black.  People were vomiting dirt.”

“If not the worst man-made disaster in history, it was, at least, the quickest.”  From 1934 to 1938, there were numerous huge dust storms, “black blizzards” that could turn day into night.  In 1934, congressmen in Washington D.C. went outside to watch the sky darken at noon.  The jet stream carried dust across the ocean to Europe. 

In many regions, more than 75 percent of the topsoil was blown away by the end of the 1930s.  The Department of Agriculture estimated that 50 million acres of farmland had been ruined and abandoned during the Dust Bowl. 

Invisible Disaster

Humankind’s war on soil continues, and we’re winning.  In a 2012 article in Time magazine, John Crawford, a risk analysis expert, wrote that “A rough calculation of current rates of soil degradation suggests we have about 60 years of topsoil left.  Some 40% of soil used for agriculture around the world is classed as either degraded or seriously degraded — the latter means that 70% of the topsoil, the layer allowing plants to grow, is gone.”  [LOOK]

In some locations, visible evidence of this loss is obvious, in large clouds of dust, ghastly erosion gullies, or rain shower runoff that looks like chocolate milk.  In other places, the loss may not be readily visible during a lifetime.  When you gaze at a large field, decade after decade, you might not notice the gradual loss of tons of soil. 

Walter Youngquist mentioned a study finding that when one hectare of land lost six metric tons of soil, the surface of the soil dropped just one millimeter.  He thought that erosion was similar to cancer, a persistent intensifying destroyer.

Soils with less humus absorb less water, which increases runoff and soil loss.  Light soils are more likely to disappear than dense soils.  Sloped land is most prone to erosion.  Some regions of Europe typically receive gentle rain showers, while some locations in the U.S. often receive heavy cloudbursts.  Of course, wild grasslands and forests excel at absorbing moisture, building humus, and retaining soil. 

When forest is cleared, or grassland is plowed, the soil is exposed to incoming sunlight.  As the soil warms up, microbial activity is stimulated, which accelerates the oxidation of the carbon-rich humus.  Precious carbon built up over the passage of years is dispersed into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.  Soil fertility declines, and will not be promptly restored, if ever. 

All tilling, to varying degrees, degrades or destroys soil.  The healthy green blanket of natural vegetation that protects the precious topsoil is entirely torn off the face of the land.  The soil dries out, hardens, and absorbs less precipitation, which accelerates runoff.  This increases the chances of sheet erosion, gullying, landslides, and flooding.  It can sometimes take centuries for nature to replace the unprotected topsoil lost in a stormy hour. 

Long ago, the Mediterranean basin became a hotbed of civilizations as agriculture spread westward out of Mesopotamia.  The Mediterranean climate provided heavy winter rains, making it a suitable place to grow wheat and barley.  Much of the basin was sloped land, which was extensively deforested over time, driven by growing demand for lumber and firewood. 

Flocks of sheep and goats roaming on the clear-cut hillsides overgrazed, encouraged erosion, and prevented forest recovery.  By and by, the rains leached out the nutrients, and washed much of the fertile soil off the hillsides.  In many locations, bare bedrock now basks in the warm sunshine, where ancient forests once thrived in ancient soils.

Carter and Dale noted that, in the good old days, the Mediterranean used to be among the most prosperous and progressive regions in the world.  But when they wrote in 1955, most of the formerly successful civilizations had become backward, or extinct.  Many had just a half or a third of their former populations.  Most of their citizens had a low standard of living, compared to affluent societies.

Montgomery noted that these ancient civilizations often enjoyed a few centuries of prosperity, as they nuked their ecosystems.  Sadly, the soils of the Mediterranean basin were heavily damaged by 2,000 years ago, and they remain wrecked today.  They are quite likely to remain wrecked for many, many thousands of years.  Much of the region that once fed millions is a desert today.

I never learned any of this in school.  Instead, this region was celebrated as the glorious birthplace of civilization, democracy, culture, and science.  It had incredible architecture and dazzling artwork.  It was home to brilliant writers and philosophers (no mention of slaves).  Many of our public buildings today, with their ornate marble columns, pay homage to this era when we first got really good at living way too hard.

Of course, progress never sleeps.  In 2000, J. R. McNeill published a fascinating (and sobering) book on the environmental history of the twentieth century, when cultures blind drunk on gushers of cheap oil spurred a population explosion that probably caused the most destruction to Earth since the Chicxulub asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs.

In a 2014 book, McNeill narrowed his focus to the catastrophic changes that have occurred since 1945.  He noted that in the world, about 430 million hectares (seven times the size of Texas) has been irreversibly destroyed by accelerated erosion.  “Between 1945 and 1975, farmland area equivalent to Nebraska or the United Kingdom was paved over.”  By 1978, erosion had caused the abandonment of 31 percent of all arable land in China.