Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Parable of the Tribes

Once upon a time, I was on an internet mailing list that jabbered about “saving the world.”  Industrial civilization was hammering the planet.  What should we do?  Some advocated dropping out and creating self-sufficient eco-villages.  Others thought that industrial civilization had to be smashed first, because nothing would be safe until then.  A philosopher from Florida persistently asked: “How can we expect to stop them by emulating those that have been destroyed?”  His question was not easy to dismiss, and it made the pacifists squirm. 
Andrew Bard Schmookler’s book, The Parable of the Tribes, takes a long hard look at the problem of power and exploitation.  Schmookler believed that wild humans enjoyed lives of wholeness and freedom that modern folks can barely imagine.  In the good old days, human societies were stable, because our development was guided by genetic evolution, a slow-moving process.  Nature provided our sustenance, and we took only what we needed.  We were not in control of the world, nature was.  Humans were just one member of the great family, and nothing more.
Slowly, very slowly, over the course of many generations, cultures began to emerge.  Gradually, cultures passed more and more knowledge from one generation to the next, which improved our skills at exploiting nature.  Eventually, our growing cleverness led us to attempt an escape from the control of nature, and its limits — an impossible goal in the long run, but we tried.
We moved away from the wild buffet, and began producing our own food, in abundant quantities.  We cut down forests and replaced wild ecosystems with colonies of domesticated plants and animals.  By doing this, we were able to temporarily extract far more energy from nature, and this moved us into the fast lane.  The monstrosity that we were creating made us unstable, unpredictable, and dangerous.
Of course, more food always leads to more hungry mouths, and farming societies grew and grew.  First, they expanded by swiping the lands of wild humans, and when they ran out of those lands, they had to make a choice.  They could either limit their population, or they could conquer other farming societies.  Well, the farmers were bloated with overconfidence.  If they were powerful enough to escape from the limits of wild nature, then they were certainly powerful enough to swipe the lands of their lazy, stupid, sub-human neighbors.  Fetch the war paint, lads!
In the struggle between growing societies, the process selected for power.  Aggressive ruthless bullies were the most likely to come out on top.  Eventually, this led to hierarchical society and civilization.  Most humans were reduced to bondage, and legions of slaves built awesome monuments celebrating the gory glory of notorious bullies.  Warfare became a popular pastime.  For the first time, domination and control — power — was introduced into the world.
“Power” is a keyword in this book.  It meant forcing your will against the will of another.  Power provided the black magic juju for dancing to the beat of conquest and exploitation.  It was a new form of energy on the planet.  Wild people had no use for it, because they lived within nature, and all was well.  Power was the mother of “civilization,” another disgusting profanity.
Schmookler wrote that this struggle between societies was rooted in “anarchy” — meaning a dangerous, uncontrollable, state of disorder.  This confused me at first, because anarchy can also simply mean the absence of government.  For almost all of human history, anarchy worked wonderfully well in isolated wild societies that were based on self-control, cooperation, sharing, and freedom.  Wild societies were a normal functional component of the natural order; they had no need for rulers.  Anarchy is not a four-letter word.
Our school systems teach a “commonsense” version of history that ignores almost everything that preceded civilization.  It’s a mythical story of progress, in which highly intelligent humans made continuous advancements by deliberate choice, bringing us to the techno-utopia of modern times.  Schmookler hates his myth because, in reality, civilization has generally done a poor job of meeting human needs, except for the elites — and it’s been a huge disaster for ecosystems.
Schmookler offered a very different story, which he called the parable of the tribes.  He thought that as civilizations grew, they began to bump into each other, leading to conflict.  One day, tribe A massacred tribe B and — shazaam! — power was introduced into the world, like the rat-infested ship that delivered the Black Death to Europe in 1347.  When one society in a region began to utilize power, stability came to an end, replaced by treacherous anarchy.  At this point, it became impossible to choose a life of peace.  The only way to survive with a bully in the neighborhood was to become a bully too — only power can stop power.
The bottom line is that Schmookler foresees two possible outcomes for humankind: (1) mutual annihilation or (2) a global civilization that can unify humankind, and put an end to the struggle for power — a just world order guided by reason and values.  To stop the never-ending conflicts between civilizations, the solution is to create the mother of all civilizations.  It’s a surprising idea in a book that majors in tirelessly criticizing civilization from every conceivable angle. 
“How can we expect to stop them by emulating those that have been destroyed?”  Who is “them?”  Would the mother of all civilizations be emulating Uruk, Babylon, and Timbuktu — proud civilizations destroyed long ago?
Schmookler does not recommend solving our problems by violent revolution, because revolutions have a reliable habit of replacing old tyrants with new ones — a bloody waste of energy.  We’re so far from home that simple strategies are not enough.  Utopia is not just a revolution away.  Healing will take generations, and the disease will leave permanent scars.
Years ago, before I became politically correct, I used to cite Reese’s Law: “The <sphincters> always win.”  It was so frustrating that the savages with the spears almost never massacred the white dudes with the smallpox, artillery, and machine guns.  The beautiful wild folks who lived sustainably, and treated the land with respect and reverence, always got stomped by ecocidal maniacs.  Where was the justice?  Why did they have to die running?
Well, Schmookler gives us a model that makes our predicament comprehensible, and that’s what makes this book important.  It delivers pieces missing from the great puzzle.  Power just happened, by accident, and once it was born, nothing could stop it.  So, humans aren’t evil.  There’s no need to feel guilty about our ancestors’ boo-boos.  We’ve inherited problems that have been growing for thousands of years.  It feels better to understand this, but it doesn’t rinse away the bitter taste of tragedy and injustice.
His solution is a throwaway, because predicaments have no solutions (only problems can be solved).  I think that there are many more than two possible outcomes.  Mutual annihilation will remain a real risk.  A benevolent global civilization is highly dubious on the grounds of human nature alone, but Peak Cheap Energy will render it impossible.  Industrial civilization is in the beginning stages of collapse, and we are moving toward a future that is going to be local and muscle-powered.  Current patterns of living and thinking will disintegrate.  This will open the doors to many new possibilities, one of which is a return to sustainable living.  As Schmookler says, “the future remains to be written.”
Today’s benediction comes from J. C. Smuts: “When I look at history, I am a pessimist… but when I look at prehistory, I am an optimist.”  Amen!
Schmookler, Andrew Bard, The Parable of the Tribes — The Problem of Power in Social Evolution, SUNY Press, Albany, New York, 1995, second edition.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The End of the Line

Charles Clover’s book, The End of the Line, is a heartbreaking story about the seafood industry’s War on Fish.  The poor fish don’t have much of a chance anymore, because there’s nowhere to hide from the latest technology.  The eventual outcome of this systematic massacre is already obvious — both sides are going to lose.  When the nets finally come up empty, the unemployed fishers will shape-shift into burger flippers, security guards, and homeless panhandlers.  But until that final day, they’ll keep expanding the fleet, and fishing like there’s no tomorrow.
Back in the good old days of the Stone Age, there were vast numbers of fish, and a few scattered clans of low-tech subsistence fishers.  Most people in prehistoric Europe lived near the water, because that’s where the food was.  In the days before trawlers, the oyster population was astonishing.  Many were the size of dinner plates, and some oyster reefs were so big that they hindered navigation.  The Thames and Rhine rivers had huge salmon runs.  There were massive sturgeons in the Rhine delta.  It was an era of glorious abundance.
With the passage of centuries, tribal subsistence fishing eventually mutated into a business, and sustainability drifted away into the mists of the past.  Commercial fishers had an entirely different mindset, one with vivid fantasies of wealth and power.  Some refer to it as get-rich-quick fever, a painful incurable spiritual disease.  Using the technology of the day, they caught as many fish as possible, and converted them into money.  No matter how much they made, their burning hunger for treasure could never be satisfied. 
Over time, new technology enabled fishers to increase their landings.  By 1848, the “inexhaustible” halibut fishery on Georges Bank crashed, after a mere decade of overfishing.  It was once common to catch halibut as big as a man, but these fish are rarely seen at markets today.  The advent of steam-powered trawlers radically increased overfishing.  Today there are $89 million floating fish factories, 480 feet long, that can catch and freeze 440 tons of fish per day, and store 7,700 tons in the hold.  The Technology Fairy is a demon.
In 1500, there were 4,400,000 tons of cod off Newfoundland.  By 2003, there were just 55,000 tons.  Cod fishing was shut down in 1992, and 44,000 people lost their jobs.  The cod have yet to show signs of recovery.  The same is true for the North Sea mackerel, which collapsed in the 1970’s.  Tuna, sharks, and swordfish are swimming briskly down the Dinosaur Trail.
Experts calculate that global fish production peaked in 1988, and may now be declining at a rate of 770,000 tons per year.  Production statistics don’t include bycatch — the fish, sea mammals, birds, and turtles that are caught but tossed back, because they can’t be sold.  Nobody keeps records on bycatch, but some believe that one-third of the global catch is dumped overboard, almost all of it dead or dying, usually because of ruptured swim bladders or drowning.
Clover complains that we can put a man on the moon, but no nation does a competent job of managing fisheries, with the possible exception of Iceland.  Everybody can see that the industry is heading for disaster.  There are already plenty of intelligent rules on the books, but effective enforcement is almost non-existent.  Overfishing generates good income, fuels the economy, and hurts no one except for our children, the aquatic ecosystem, and poor people in foreign countries — none of whom can vote.  The bottom line is that nobody will voluntarily back off, because the fish that you don’t catch will be caught by someone else. 
Monthly payments on modern boats are huge, and for many fishers, the only way to pay the bills is to catch and sell illegal fish.  There are many ways of getting illegal fish to market.  Port inspectors often look the other way, especially in Spain and Portugal.  Extremely inaccurate paperwork is submitted and accepted.  Illegal fish are delivered in mismarked boxes.  If an inspector appears at port A, the boat will unload at port B, and truck the catch to the processor.  Few violators get busted and punished.  The huge economic benefits of pirate fishing far exceed the trivial risks.
Four times every day, all fish stop what they’re doing, bow their heads, and fervently pray for World War III on the dry land above, because world wars put a halt to most fishing activities.  War provides a much-appreciated break from the underwater mass extermination.  They also pray for skyrocketing energy prices, catastrophic stock market crashes, and major bankruptcies in the seafood sector.  They’re sick and tired of being the target of genocidal maniacs.  Who can blame them?
During the research process, Clover was surprised to discover that McDonalds got a top score for their fish, all of which is certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).  At the opposite end of the spectrum are most chi-chi restaurants.  World-famous celebrities, who would never dream of wearing a fur coat, are often photographed with famous chefs who serve the seafood equivalent of rhinoceros steaks or condor barbeque — species on the brink of extinction, like the extremely endangered tuna served at gold-plated sushi places.  MSC-certified fish is also sold at Wal-Mart.
Clover has no kind words for aquaculture, which many perceive to be the amazing high-tech “solution” to all of our seafood problems.  Industry is vacuuming up the smaller fish in the ocean to make feed for high value fish raised in horrid concentration camps.  This game cannot last long.  Be aware that “organic” farmed salmon is given feed made from overfished species.
Thankfully, Clover provides us with a brilliant alternative to aquaculture.  Rather than feeding low-value fish to concentration camp salmon, why don’t we simply eat the perfectly edible blue whiting, herring, horse mackerel, and sand eels?  They could provide us with excellent high quality protein and oils that totally bypass the mega-harmful worlds of agriculture and aquaculture.  Eating small wild fish is healthier for us, much less cruel, causes less harm to the seas, and makes us feel like an intelligent species.
Did you know that recreational fishers catch 30 percent of the cod taken off the coast of Maine?  Did you know that about 25 percent of “catch and release” fish die soon after being returned to the water?  Sport fishers now have sonar, fish finders, GPS systems, and small fast boats.  Their impact is not insignificant.  Anglers often break the rules, and their chances of getting caught are close to nil.
Clover provides us with intelligent, effective, commonsense solutions that are politically impossible, unfortunately.  We should set aside 50 percent of the ocean as reserves where fishing is prohibited.  We should also cut back industrial fishing by 50 percent.  We should create an aggressive full-scale oceanic police force that would have absolute authority to promptly end illegal fishing, and provide extra-generous punishment to offenders.  We should consume less fish, and shop more mindfully.  And so on.  “We have on offer two futures.  One requires difficult, active choices starting now.  If we don’t take those choices, the other future will happen anyway.”
Clover, Charles, The End of the Line, The New Press, New York, 2006.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Swimming in Circles

Swimming in Circles is an unflattering exposé on salt water aquaculture and the mindset that promotes it.  Author Paul Molyneaux has watched Maine's fishing industry go from boom to bust in his lifetime.  Old timers lament that the coast was once so crowded with big fish that you could almost walk across the water on their backs — no more.  In recent years there has been a growing exodus of ex-fishermen, and many communities are in the process of becoming boarded-up ghost towns.  Buying a pair of shoes can require a 100 mile round trip.
Maine’s seafood industry was driven into the ground by perpetual overfishing.  Despite sharply declining catches, the industry vigorously resisted stronger regulations and better enforcement.  Instead, they got bigger boats, and they fished harder.  They bought the latest technology, which allowed them to locate and land surviving schools of fish.  Powerful magical thinking insisted that abundant fish were still out there, somewhere, regardless of the increasingly empty nets.  Economic growth was their one and only sacred objective, and they were committed to pursue it by any means necessary.
Just in the nick of time, the Technology Fairy appeared and filled the coast with salmon farms — a new fish industry!  Hooray!  These were huge cages in which salmon were raised in high density, and spent their miserable lives swimming in circles in filth and pesticides.  Of course, when any creatures exist in unnatural crowding, diseases hear the call to duty.  The farms were owned by multinational corporations and they did an excellent job of spreading pests and diseases to other sites around the world.  They also excelled at automation — producing more fish while shrinking their workforce to barebones, much to the displeasure of impoverished coastal communities.
A virus called infectious salmon anemia (ISA) has killed millions of captive fish, and it readily spreads to wild fish communities outside the pens.  Farm salmon receive vaccine, but the virus displays an impressive ability to rapidly mutate and evade silver bullet cures.  Each rise and fall of the tides flushes the toilet for the fish farm, sweeping pests, pathogens, antibiotics, and poop soup out into the open sea, much to the displeasure of the wild ecosystem.
Salmon farming seems to be on a collision course with disaster.  Industry boosters boast that salmon convert two pounds of feed into one pound of fish, which is far more efficient than chicken or pigs.  But farm salmon consume feed made from fish meal and fish oil, which come from low-value wild fish that are being harvested at unsustainable rates.  Rising energy costs, combined with over-fishing, ensure rising prices for fish feed, and raise questions about its future.
Cattle consume the primary production of the land: grass.  Likewise, wild salmon consume the primary production of the sea: plankton, which provides 85 percent of their diet.  But feed made from fish comes from higher on the food chain, so its ecological footprint is far greater than the normal healthy diet that majors in plankton.  Thus, the amazing efficiency of salmon farms is based on expensive feed that is the equivalent of super-charged rocket fuel.
Feed pellets for salmon contain processed low-value fish (and their pollutants), dye (to make the flesh orange, like wild salmon), pesticides (for sea lice), and vaccines.  Salmon that consume this fish-based feed have been found to contain 13 organic pollutants at levels ten times higher than in wild fish — and half of them remain in your body ten years after dinner.  Because of the high PCB levels, pregnant women, and women who plan to become pregnant have been advised not to consume farm salmon.  Slice, the sea lice pesticide, contaminates the scallops living in the region.
Several chapters in the book discuss shrimp farming, which is popular in warmer regions.  It’s extremely profitable, extremely vulnerable to viral diseases, extremely harmful to traditional subsistence fishing, and it ravages coastal ecosystems, especially mangroves.  Many of these farms have gone belly up because of bad management and disease.  Tyson lost a billion dollars when it tried to cash in on shrimp farming.  Some folks are experimenting with land-based operations, where the shrimp are raised in aerated tanks.  This isolates the process from the disease pathogens that frequently ravage coastal shrimp farms.
Salt water aquaculture is not about producing low-cost protein and reducing world hunger.  It’s about providing highly profitable seafood products to a well-fed (and poorly informed) elite.  Profit is the keyword here.  Problems could greatly be reduced by raising the critters in lower densities, but stockholders won’t trade profits for quality.  They demand perpetual growth and maximum profits.  In its current mode, this is not an industry with a long-term future. 
Salt water aquaculture is fundamentally unsustainable, and Molyneaux sees no light at the end of the tunnel.  Wild fish are also in poor shape.  In 1992, the famous Newfoundland cod fishery crashed, and Canada banned cod fishing.  The cod have yet to recover.  Possible reasons include pollution, habitat destruction, and overfishing.  The tsunami of human overpopulation is causing severe damage to aquatic ecosystems.  Some worry that growing acidity may make the oceans uninhabitable for most forms of sea life, which may lead to a golden age for jellyfish.
Freshwater aquaculture is beyond the scope of this book, but it is rapidly growing, producing fish like carp, tilapia, and catfish.  Chinese peasants have been farming fish for 3,000 years, using a time-proven, low-tech system that recycles wastes and produces fish in a manner that may actually be sustainable.  Modern profit-driven corporate freshwater aquaculture is an entirely different matter, of course.
Molyneaux concludes: “The only hope springs from a sober realization of how far off course the ship of humanity has strayed, and how absurd the suite of technological solutions we are presented with really is.  If the future belongs to everyone, then it requires new models and a different way of thinking.”
I cannot disagree, but I think Peak Cheap Energy is going to be a godsend for the oceans.  Fish mining is resource-intensive, especially in its twenty-first century mode of energy-guzzling, high-tech floating seafood factories, towing miles-long nets.  The transition to sailboats and rowboats will sharply reduce fish-mining efficiency, and will likely destroy corporate fish mining as we know it.  Oceanic ecosystems will never return to what they were 500 years ago, but it seems likely that Peak Cheap Energy will sharply cut current forms of destruction, and this fills me with limited optimism, sort of.
Molyneaux, Paul, Swimming in Circles — Aquaculture and the End of Wild Oceans, Thunder’s Mouth Press, New York, 2007.

Monday, June 4, 2012

A Forest Journey

Once upon a time, at the dawn of civilization, the planet’s forests were in peak condition, in terms of their age, range, and health.  Wildlife was thriving.  Modern lads and lasses would not believe their eyes if they could dream their way back to 10,000 BC and observe the stunning abundance of birds, fish, and wild grazing animals — and the absence of cities.
Sadly, on a dark and stormy night, some wise guys figured out how to smelt ore and forge ax heads, and things have been going downhill ever since.  Axes did make it much easier to cut down trees, but the mad scientists totally failed to imagine the unintended consequences of their brilliant invention (as usual).  But this was an era when it was quite popular to invent technologies that would have negative effects for many, many centuries.  It was the trendy thing to do.
For example, the digging stick.  Agriculture preceded metal making.  First, they farmed shorelines and riverbanks until the soil fertility wore out.  Then, they cleared forests, and wore out the soil there.  Then they moved to a different forest, killed the trees, and wore out that soil.  And on and on.  This cycle has been repeated for thousands of years. 
Prior to the digging stick, hunter-gatherers simply limited the number children they allowed to survive.  By keeping their numbers low, they could live in a wild and healthy land, and enjoy a life that required far less effort and drudgery.  Remember that!
John Perlin’s book, A Forest Journey, is a history of forest destruction, with stops including Mesopotamia, Crete, Greece, Cyprus, Rome, Venice, England, Brazil, and America.  Humans have always used wood in a number of ways, but the era of agriculture has shown little mercy for forests, and it has turned more than a few of them into barren wastelands and urban wastelands.
A healthy forest grew in healthy fertile soil, but wheat would not grow in the shade, so the trees had to go.  The wood was used to build houses, bridges, temples, and palaces.  It was made into fences, docks, wagons, furniture, tools, and barrels.  It heated homes and fueled industries that produced metal, glass, pottery, lime, sugar, and salt.  Staggering quantities of wood were consumed by industry.  Very importantly, wood was used to build cargo, fishing, and war ships.  In earlier times, almost everything moved via water.
A civilization with access to abundant forests had great potential power.  It could grow, create profitable industries, participate in trade networks, defend itself from conquest, and conquer new forests.  Be careful not to confuse this glorious enterprise of never-ending growth with a free lunch.  The path of never-ending growth always seems to end at a mountain of skulls.  Typically, it allows for a few generations of excess and debauchery — and then the bill arrives.  Holy expletive!
Perlin discussed the pattern repeated by the civilizations of the Mediterranean Basin.  The trees were cut, then the heavy winter rains came, the soil eroded from the hillsides, the ports and bays were buried with eroded silt, and flash floods roared through the valleys.  Eventually, the prime soil was sent to the bottom of the sea, and the remaining wasteland could produce little more than olives, grapes, and goats.  The fuel for industry was gone, population plummeted, and the forest could never again recover on ruined land.  Most of the arid wastelands of today’s Mediterranean Basin used to be forests. 
Even the ancients understood that their civilizations were unsustainable.  In the epic poem Cypria, Zeus started the Trojan War to thin the bloated human herd so the weary earth could recuperate.  Plato wrote a bitter lament about the devastated land of Attica, a sickly skeleton of its former vitality.  In Works and Days, Hesiod described the decline of humankind from the wonderful Golden Age to the horrid Iron Age.  In Genesis, the Hebrew deity observed the stunning wickedness of humans, regretted creating them, and sent a huge flood to eliminate his multitudes of embarrassing mistakes.
Well hey, if they could see that what they were doing was really dumb, then why didn’t they just stop?  They could have quit cutting trees, thrown away their icky plows, implemented a draconian population reduction regime, and lived happily ever after, right?  Our modern consumer society has similar healthy options.  Why don’t we just stop? 
The bottom line was that people who preferred to limit their numbers, and continue living in harmony with nature, had no future.  Their thriving unmolested forests looked like mountains of treasure in the eyes of civilized sailors cruising by — and civilized people cannot tolerate the sight of unmolested forests; it drives them nuts.  In other words, if you didn’t destroy your forest, someone else would.  If you didn’t build war ships, you were a helpless sitting duck.  Thus, civilization bounced from region to region, repeating the same mistakes, turning countless paradises into parking lots.  Progress!
That was the story in the Mediterranean Basin.  It was a completely different story along the Pacific coast of America and Canada.  In this region, the people remained hunter-gatherers, and their ecosystem stayed as healthy as it had been 10,000 years earlier (until you-know-who arrived).  In the absence of agriculture and civilization, life can be far more pleasant for one and all, including the entire ecosystem.  Remember that!
Perlin concluded with two huge chapters on industrial England and America, for which large quantities of written records still survive.  He described greedy industrialists, corrupt politicians, exploited peasants, and several centuries of ridiculous environmental destruction.
By the end of the book, alert readers will recognize similar patterns of unwholesome behavior that continue to this very day.  The rate of destruction has skyrocketed — and so has our understanding of the harm we are causing.  Alert readers will be compelled to discard all fantasies of quick and easy remedies.
This book makes me crazy.  Why isn’t ecological history a compulsory subject throughout every student’s education?  Why are we still training our youth to be mindless consumers, and punctual obedient industrial robots?  There is more important information in this book than I learned during most of my school years.  Imagine what could happen if we ever produced a generation of well-educated children.  Hug every tree you see.
Perlin, John, A Forest Journey — The Role of Wood in the Development of Civilization, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1993.  [1989]