Monday, February 27, 2012

The Forest People

Colin Turnbull’s book The Forest People takes us on a fascinating voyage into the world of the Mbuti Pygmies, who live in the Ituri rainforest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Turnbull (1924-1994) was an anthropologist who spent several years with the Pygmies, beginning in 1951.  He came from a wealthy English family, but he found life among the Pygmies to be so satisfying that he had to resist strong urges to remain with them.
Instead of using the standard scholarly format for anthropology books, Turnbull described these people in a series of stories.  These stories included descriptions of the important cultural components of the Pygmy way of life, and introduced us to the personalities of various individuals in the band. 
They were hunter-gatherers, and they enjoyed an exceedingly low tech way of life in their tropical rainforest home.  They had little need for clothing, blankets, or warm shelters.  They hunted with nets, spears, and bows and arrows.  They did not garden or herd animals.  Consequently, they had an abundance of leisure time.  They loved singing, dancing, storytelling, and visiting kinfolk.  They would laugh until they were too weak to stand, then sit down and laugh.
In 2500 BC, Egyptian explorers discovered the Pygmies.  Their report to the Pharaoh described “a people of the trees, a tiny people who sing and dance to their god, a dance such as had never been seen before.”  When Turnbull arrived 4,500 years later, he found a similar scenario.  They had a way of life that worked, and it was quite enjoyable.  Yes, daily life included normal personality conflicts, but their society did not suffer from chiefs, priests, thieves, chauvinists, inequality, or individualism.
The hunting way of life required cooperation, so the Pygmies were highly skilled at conflict resolution.  One of their proverbs proclaimed that “a noisy camp is a hungry camp.”  Disputes promptly led to active discussion by the group.  Shunning and ridicule were common tools, and annoying offenders were sometimes beaten.
Everything about the forest was sacred to the Pygmies.  “They were a people who had found in the forest something that made their life more than just worth living, something that made it, with all its hardships and problems and tragedies, a wonderful thing full of joy and happiness and free of care.”  
In another book, Turnbull mentioned Father Longo, a Catholic missionary who refused to preach to the Pygmies, because they had no word for evil.  “In order to convert them, then, he would first have to teach them the concept of evil, and that he was not prepared to do.”
Moke, a wise elder, said: “The forest is a father and mother to us, and like a father or mother it gives us everything we need — food, clothing, shelter, warmth, and affection.  Normally everything goes well, because the forest is good to its children, but when things go wrong, there must be a reason.”
Alas, sometimes the forest fell asleep, and failed to take care of the Pygmies, leading to illness, death, or bad hunting.  Army ants might move in, or a leopard might snatch a child.  When these problems occurred, the Pygmies would sing to the forest, to wake it up and make it happy.  They sometimes performed the molimo ceremony, during which animal noises were made using a long hollow wooden instrument.
And when the forest was happy, they would sing and dance to share their happiness with it.  They lived in a heavenly place, in constant direct contact with everything they held to be sacred.  They had absolute reverence for the forest, their ancient home, and they were some of its many children.
The Pygmies enjoyed at least 4,500 years of relative stability, and this was made possible by their primitive technology.  If they had become farmers or herders, their journey would have been far more destructive and turbulent.  They would have seriously damaged themselves and their sacred forest.
Change has been increasing in Pygmy country, requiring them to adjust the way they live.  Maybe 400 years ago, Bantu people moved into the forest and began slash-and-burn farming.  They had been herders from the grasslands of East Africa, but they were driven off their home by other tribes.  Their cattle died in the jungle, so they traded food with the Pygmies for meat. 
In the 1880’s, the Congo became a colony of Belgium.  Since then efforts have been made to “liberate” the unfortunate Pygmies and convert them into hard-working tax-paying farmers.  This plan has not enjoyed great success.  At one farm, 29 Pygmies died of sunstroke in a single day.  They thrive in the cool shade of their ancient forest, and they harbor an intense hatred of miserable backbreaking field work — what could be more idiotic?
In the twentieth century, the Ituri has been ravaged by road-builders, loggers, miners, ivory poachers, bushmeat hunters, missionaries, and a bloody parade of trigger-happy rebels, terrorists, goon squads, psychopaths, and freedom fighters.  There have been numerous armed conflicts.  The Second Congo War began in 1998, and resulted in 5.4 million deaths, mostly from disease and starvation.  Many displaced people were driven into the Ituri Forest.  Pygmies were hunted down and eaten like game animals. 
Much deforestation has been caused by the continuous expansion of slash-and-burn farming.  Jungle soils are rapidly depleted by agriculture, and the Congo’s birthrate is one of the worlds highest.  Almost half of the population is younger than 15.
When The Forest People was published, it soon became popular.  Turnbull thought that the book had impact “because the near-Utopia described rang true, and showed that certain voids in the lives of many of us could indeed be filled.”
Ah yes, the voids in our lives.  How often do we sing and dance to keep our forest happy?  Turnbull has given us a precious gift — a taste of what a healthy and joyful life could be like, living in harmony with the land, singing and dancing in a balanced ecosystem, century after century after century.  His book offers us a brief enchanting escape from our world of madness, and a beautiful vision of what life could be like for our descendants.

Turnbull, Colin M., The Forest People, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1961.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Against the Grain

Agriculture is one of humankind’s most troublesome experiments, and it is now hopelessly in debt.  It has borrowed soil, water, and energy that it can never repay, and never intended to repay — burning up tomorrow to feed today.  We know it, we keep doing it, and we have dark hallucinations about feeding billions more.  Agriculture has become civilization’s tar baby. 
Richard Manning is among my favorite writers.  He slings snappy lines like: “There is no such thing as sustainable agriculture.  It does not exist.”  Or, “The domestication of wheat was humankind’s greatest mistake.”  And he’s the opposite of a raving nutjob.  In his book, Against the Grain, he hoses off the thick crust of mythical balderdash and twaddle, and presents us with a clear-eyed history of agriculture, warts and all (especially the warts).  Everyone everywhere should read it, and more than once.
Roughly 10,000 years ago, agriculture came into existence in several different locations, independently.  These were lands having an abundant supply of wild foods.  The residents had no need to roam for their chow, so they settled down and built permanent homes and villages.  Over time, with the growing number of mouths, the food supply became strained, and this inspired a habit of seed planting.  As usual, nobody foresaw the unintended consequences of a brilliant new trick, and an innocent mistake ended up going viral and ravaging the entire planet.  Whoops!
Grains are potent foods, because they are rich in calories, and they can be stored for extended periods of time.  Herds of domesticated animals and granaries packed with hoarded seeds came to be perceived as private property, which led to the concept of wealth, and its dark shadow, poverty.  Wealth had a habit of snowballing, leading to elites having access to far more resources than the hordes of lowly grunts.
Countless legions of peasants and slaves spent their lives building colossal pyramids, temples, castles, cathedrals, and other monuments to the rich and powerful.  “What we are today — civilized, city-bound, overpopulated, literate, organized, wealthy, poor, diseased, conquered, and conquerors — is all rooted in the domestication of plants and animals.  The advent of farming re-formed humanity.”
Like mold on an orange, agriculture had a tendency to spread all over.  It tended not to “diffuse” from culture to culture, like cell phone technology.  More often it spread by “displacement” — swiping the lands of the indigenous people.  Evidence suggests that Indo-European farming tribes spread across Europe in a 300-year blitzkrieg, eliminating the salmon-eating wild folks.
Paleontologists study old artifacts.  Examining hunter-gatherer skeletons is brutally boring, because these people tended to be remarkably healthy.  The bones of farming people are far more interesting.  Grain eaters commonly suffered from tooth decay, bone deformities, malnutrition, osteomyelitis, periostitis, intestinal parasites, malaria, yaws, syphilis, leprosy, tuberculosis, anemia, rickets in children, osteomalacia in adults, retarded childhood growth, and short stature among adults. 
Hunter-gatherers consumed a wide variety of foods, consequently they were well nourished.  In farming villages, poverty was common, and the common diet majored in grain, the cheapest source of calories.  The poor in England often lived on bread and water, period.  They almost never tasted meat, and milk and cheese were rare luxuries.  The Irish poor lived on oat porridge.  Later, the poor of England and Ireland switched to potatoes, an even cheaper food.
In twentieth century America, government farm policies drove most small subsistence farms into extinction.  Big farmers, with big farms and big machines, got big subsidy checks for growing commodity crops, like corn.  We now produce vast quantities of extremely cheap grain.  Some of the surplus is exported to other nations, some is made into livestock feed, some is converted into processed foods.  The inspiration for writing his book came suddenly, when Manning returned from a trip abroad, and was astonished to observe vast herds of obese Americans.  Oh my God!  Why? 
Through the wonders of food science technology, we are now able to extract the complex carbs in corn, and convert them into simple carbs — sugar.  Sugar is the calorie from hell, because it is rapidly metabolized by the body, like spraying gasoline on a fire.  Mother Nature includes generous amounts of fiber in fruits and berries, and this slows the rate at which sugar is released to the body.  But there is zero fiber in a cheap 40 ounce soda fountain soft drink, and an immense dose of corn sugar.  It seems like most processed foods now contain added sugar.
Michael Pollan’s fabulous books encourage readers to have serious doubts about industrial agriculture and processed foods.  Manning probes deeper.  He leaves us perceiving the entire history of agriculture in a new and vividly unflattering manner.  It’s an extremely important issue, and one that’s long overdue for thorough critical analysis.
At this point in the game, we can’t painlessly abandon agriculture, and return to sustainability, so we’ve placed most of our bets on impossible techno miracles (God forbid!).  This century is going to provide many powerful lessons on the foolishness of living like stylish Madoffs on stolen resources.  As the end of cheap energy deflates the global economy, the shrinking herd will eventually reach a point where we actually can abandon agriculture painlessly.  It would be very satisfying to finally break out of our ancient habit of repeating the same old mistakes over and over.  Will we kick the habit and joyfully celebrate the extinction of tilling?  Hey, this is what big brains are for — learning.
Not surprisingly, at the end of this book, Manning does not provide a cheap, quick, simple solution.  He does not foresee a smooth, managed transition to a sustainable future — it’s going to be a mess.  He recommends shifting toward foods from perennial plants, like fruits, nuts, and berries — and replacing grain-fed meat with grass-fed.  And, of course, nothing close to seven billion people can fit into a happy sustainable future.  The healing process will be a vast undertaking: “Not back to the garden, back to the wild.”
Manning, Richard, Against the Grain — How Agriculture has Hijacked Civilization, North Point Press, New York, 2004.

Richard Manning on agriculture.  This is a 60 minute video of a Manning lecture at the University of Montana in 2008. 

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Rapid Growth of Human Populations 1750-2000

It’s heartbreaking being an older person during a population explosion, witnessing the effects of catastrophic progress, while remembering the lost goodness.  William Stanton (1930-2010) grew up on a lovely English countryside.  He became a geologist and wandered the world in search of metal-bearing ores.  When he returned to Somerset in 1970, the healthy land of his childhood was in ecological ruins.  England was suffering from a baby boom, growing by 300,000 each year.  This inspired Stanton to embark on a voyage of learning, and in 2003 he published The Rapid Growth of Human Populations 1750-2000. 
Explosive population growth was new to history, beginning roughly around 1750, driven by new advances in “death control.”  While birth rates remained very high, death rates were dramatically driven down by the introduction of sanitary sewers, municipal water, vaccines, and a sharp increase in the food supply, lubricated by the emergence of cheap and abundant fossil energy.
Prior to 1750, England was at carrying capacity, with five million people.  The birth rate matched the death rate, and the lack of extra food made further growth impossible.  Many lived on the edge of starvation, and were expected to die whenever harvests were below average, as they often were.
Then, extra food became available, first a trickle, and then a torrent.  Colonial forests were being converted to cropland.  European farmers began planting highly productive maize and potatoes from the New World.  Soil fertility was sharply boosted by potent new fertilizers.  New technology made farmers more productive.  By decreasing the risks of starvation, the flood of additional food provided a huge advance in death control.  This was not balanced by similar advances in birth control, so the population shot upward.
Prior to 1750, there were strong restraints on population growth: disease, war, starvation.  But then we entered the WROG era (weak restraints on growth), which is almost over now.  As the era of cheap and abundant energy concludes, we can expect sharp declines in agricultural productivity, and sharp increases in food prices — presenting a terminal restraint on growth.  Climate change is a wild card that is likely to create additional restraints. 
Population missionaries are pariahs who are shunned by most, because ignoring them has no immediate consequences, and ignoring them avoids the need for uncomfortable contemplation.  They have a depressing occupation — delivering one of the most important stories of our era to an auditorium of empty chairs.  Who cares?
Religions don’t care, babies are divine gifts.  The business community doesn’t care, because a growing herd keeps wages low and profits high.  Governments don’t care, because overpopulation is only a problem for other countries, and taking it seriously is a fast path to early retirement.  Even environmentalists don’t care, because population is an issue that rapidly drives away large numbers of contributors.  So, the herd in prosperous regions pretends that their comfortable way of life is not directly threatened.
Prior to WROG, life was cheap.  Human rights were unknown.  There were few prisons, because criminals were not rewarded with free room and board — most were hung or brutally flogged.  Imbeciles, heretics, rabble-rousers, cripples, and the mentally ill were not carefully protected by the ruling nobility.  Many died on the streets.  Infanticide was common, and the church looked the other way — there was no extra food, and there were many, many unwanted newborns.
Much to Stanton’s intense dismay, the WROG era ushered in a new mindset of sentimentality — the nanny state.  Since food was now cheap and abundant, it became possible to rescue the unwanted children, feed the poor, and care for the dregs of society.  A “politically correct” value system emerged, which advocated for human rights, but failed to balance these human rights with equal levels of human responsibilities, a fatal defect.
Decade after decade, we’ve spent millions and millions on food aid, and sent it to regions with high birth rates, having populations far in excess of the local carrying capacity — Ethiopia, for example.  As long as their birth rate remains high, they can never be rescued from poverty by any amount of food aid.  Political correctness insists that family planning decisions are a private matter.  Reproductive rights, without reproductive responsibilities, lead to an ever-increasing population of poor and hungry people.  Yet few charities promote family planning, so the problem proceeds briskly toward the cliff.
PC strategists argue that we don’t need to stop growth, the smart solution is to simply end poverty.  If we rape the Earth more, expand the economy more, and make everyone prosperous, then the whole world will be happy well-fed car owners — but this will destroy the planet (and it’s impossible, too).  Stanton shouts the obvious: sustainable development is an oxymoron.
He insisted that there was absolutely nothing immoral about Draconian birth control, like China’s one child policy.  Yes, it ruffled some feathers, but it was a dramatic success — between 300 and 400 million births were prevented.  Consequently, over the long run, the Chinese people, and their ecosystem will suffer far less.  The choices were intense birth control, or intense social misery, or aggression and conquest.  The PC faith absolutely opposes the notion of intense birth control, in every country, starting yesterday.  By default, collective inaction is a unanimous vote for catastrophe.
Stanton had no kind words for the PC faith.  Despite their good intentions, he believed that over the long run they were inadvertently increasing human misery and ecological destruction.  He was sure that PC was bound for extinction as the collapse proceeds, prosperity withers, and life once again becomes cheap.  PC believers denounced his book with great vigor (cruel, evil, racist, xenophobic infidel!). 
Here’s the bottom line: every genuinely sustainable culture that I have studied deliberately and actively practiced population management, in a wide variety of forms, many of which were extremely non-PC.  This was not cruel or immoral.  It was necessary to maintain the harmony of the community, the continuity of the culture, and the vitality of the ecosystem.  They had a different value system, and it worked well (unlike ours).  This was the norm for most of human history.
In our society, the values of political correctness are widely regarded as being normal.  But blind faith in any belief system is risky.  In an insane world, every core belief must be questioned, every right must be balanced by responsibilities, and every population must shift into reverse.
Stanton, William, The Rapid Growth of Human Populations 1750-2000, Multi-Science Publishing Company, Brentwood, United Kingdom, 2003.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Ohlone Way

The wee folk were once beaten by iron-using people, which made them detest this powerful metal, and the people who used it.  Consequently, when the Iron People conquered Europe, they were very careful to protect themselves.  They sewed bits of iron into their children’s clothing, and hung horseshoes on their doors.  They used the dark energy of forged iron to repel the bright spirits.
Malcolm Margolin’s book, The Ohlone Way, is a magnificent collection of bright knowledge that is powerfully repellent to the dark energy of misanthropes — those cynics who insist that all humans everywhere have always been self-centered, materialistic, and aggressively warlike by nature — fatally flawed, and rotten to the core.  If you carefully absorb the knowledge in this book, misanthropes will skedaddle whenever they see you coming.  Bye-bye!
Humans simply aren’t the problem.  The problem is crazy cultures.  It is cleansing and healing to comprehend this important distinction.  It implies no quick or easy remedies, but it negates the notion that the only effective solution to the Earth Crisis is human extinction.  We possess adequate intelligence to do what needs to be done, but whether we will ever do so remains a potent and prickly mystery.
The Ohlone were an assortment of tribes that lived in the region around San Francisco Bay for thousands of years prior to European conquest.  Margolin does a lovely job of describing the various aspects of their way of life, and Michael Harney’s drawings are intriguing — many show skies darkened with millions of seabirds.  The Ohlone were blessed to inhabit a land that provided an abundance of plant and animal foods. 
It’s so hard for us to imagine what a magical treasure this planet was prior to farmers.  Ohlone country, like much of the western region, was lucky to have a climate that was poorly suited for growing corn, so the tribes were able to avoid that dangerous and highly unstable way of life.  They didn’t farm, nor did they enslave animals, yet they were able to enjoy a complex culture and a stable way of life. 
Occasional armed conflicts were usually low-intensity ritual warfare, good for blowing off steam.  Sometimes conflicts were intense, wiping out whole villages.  But this was not a war-oriented culture.  There were no wooden palisades surrounding villages.  The men did not have shields, war clubs, tomahawks, or body armor.  The culture did not enshrine heroic war chiefs, nor did it create a sprawling empire.  They were really into dancing.
The Ohlone lost few people to disease, famine, and war.  But their culture was successful at maintaining a stable population.  Taboos and restrictions on sex kept a leash on the birth rate.  Sex was forbidden during the two years that a mother was nursing, as it was prior to hunts, or during menstruation.  Deformed babies and twins were not kept.  Women understood how to terminate unwanted pregnancies.  They were careful to avoid the horrors of population growth.  Smart!
Stability was the core of their success, and time-proven wisdom was carefully preserved.  “To be different was to be wrong, the best ways were the old ways.”  Innovators and rebels were scorned, as were freedom and individualism.  The Ohlone valued belonging — having strong social bonds to family, clan, and tribe.  A man without his family was nothing.  It was a society built on a foundation of cooperation, sharing, and generosity.  Greedy and aggressive people were banished, because they toxic.  Respectable people learned well, and then passed the ancient knowledge on to the next generation.
Stability is hard for us to comprehend.  The Ohlone could live in the same place for a thousand years and not destroy the soils or forests.  The hills were still filled with antelope, elk, and deer.  The rivers were still thrashing with salmon.  The nut trees continued producing sacred acorns.  Stability did not diminish the seals, sea lions, sea birds, or shellfish.  Fast forward a thousand years into the future, and it’s the same culture, the same stories, songs, and dances.
They did not live like a hurricane.  They lived like reverend guests in a sacred land.  “Everything was alive, everything had character, power, and magic, and consequently everything had to be dealt with properly.”  “It was a world in which thousands of living, feeling, magical things, all operating in dream logic, carried out their individual actions.”  “Power was everywhere, in everything, and therefore every act was religious.”
All of us have wild ancestors who enjoyed a similar manner of living.  The Ohlone were not fascinating freaks.  Five hundred years ago, the tribes of western North America were among the most stable, successful, and sustainable human societies on the planet.  The secret of their success was that their cultures were, in almost every way, the direct opposite of our own.  Sadly, the Iron People arrived in 1770, and hurricanes of progress and ecocide soon followed.
Margolin worked on this book for three years, and he often dreamed about the Ohlone.  “It produced in me a sense of victory to know that such a way of life is part of the human potential, part of the human history.” 
Yes, indeed!  The daily news in our world regularly fills us with awe and amazement at the stunning achievements of human foolishness.  It’s difficult not to feel like inmates at an insane asylum because, in many ways, we are.  On the bright side, we all have front row seats as our insane civilization crumbles before our eyes, creating thrilling opportunities for new experiments in living.  And Margolin reminds us of the important fact that our genes are not diseased, just our culture.  Victory over civilization is not impossible, it’s a matter of time and love and healing.