Monday, July 30, 2012

Bird Flu

Dr. Michael Greger’s book, Bird Flu, is both fascinating and spooky.  Many people are aware of the Black Death, which hit in 1347.  Far fewer know anything about the Spanish Flu of 1918, which killed more people in one year than the bubonic plague killed in 100 years.  For some reason, our culture has suppressed the memory of this recent horror.
Back in 1918, millions of humans, mostly between the ages of 20 and 40, experienced muscle aches and pains for a few days.  Then their lungs filled with blood, they turned purple, bled from the ears, nose, and/or eyes, and died a few hours later.  It was hard to tell whites from Negroes.  Some called it the Purple Death. 
Within a year, up to 100 million died.  The virus ran out of targets.  You were either resistant or dead.  This was the H1N1 virus, and it infected half of humankind.  It was highly contagious, but only five percent of those infected died.  The only place that the pandemic missed was the island of American Samoa, a US Navy base, which cut all contact with the outside world for 18 months, into 1920. 
For millions of years, the influenza virus existed only in wild ducks, and it didn’t make them sick.  When humans domesticated ducks, the birds were raised in farmyards in close company with other domesticated animals.  These unnatural living conditions made it easier for pathogens to spread from species to species, and they did just that.  It was almost inevitable that humans would become vulnerable to them.
A number of epidemic diseases emerged in species that tend to herd or flock together, and some of these were domesticated by humans.  Goats and cattle gave us tuberculosis, which kills millions of people each year.  Measles and smallpox came from cows.  Typhoid is from chickens.  Whooping cough is from pigs.  There are too many to list here.  “Entire ancient civilizations fell prey to diseases birthed in the barnyard.”
Imagine what life would be like if we had never enslaved our animal relatives.  When Columbus arrived in the New World, the Native Americans had few domesticated herd animals.  They had no resistance to Old World diseases, and up to 95 percent of them died.  “Why didn’t Native American diseases wipe out the landing Europeans?  Because there essentially weren’t any epidemic diseases.”  We often blame disease on the filth and crowding of city living, but Mexico City was one of the biggest cities in the world in 1492.  Epidemic diseases were largely an unintended consequence of enslaving animals.
In 1997, the new H5N1 virus appeared in Hong Kong, and it was far more deadly than the H1N1 of 1918.  It killed an astonishing 50 percent of those it infected, but it was not highly contagious — yet.  Health experts had a panic attack, because flu viruses constantly mutate.  When/if the super-catastrophic mutant eventually appears, it will take six to eight months to create a vaccine.  By the time the vaccine is mass-produced, the pandemic will be over. 
The avian flu outbreak in Hong Kong was quashed by exterminating every chicken in the region.  But four years later, it moved from ducks to chickens once again.  It also spread into migratory waterfowl.  It kills humans and chickens, but it is harmless to the wild birds that move from continent to continent.  The cat is out of the bag.  Ducks crap in a pond, chickens drink the water and die, the dead chickens are fed to pigs, and the swine get the flu.  Pet cats, and tigers and leopards in zoos die when fed infected chicken.
We were able to wipe out smallpox because it existed only in humans.  The flu virus now exists in a number of species, and the guts of highly mobile waterfowl provide a widely dispersed reservoir of H5N1.  It is now “virtually impossible to eradicate.”  All it takes to wipe out thousands of confined chickens is a virus brought in by a mouse that has stepped in duck poop.
In 1928, the average American only consumed a half pound of chicken per year, because it was expensive.  Today, it’s cheap, and we eat 90 pounds a year.  Nine billion chickens are slaughtered in the US each year (45 billion in the world).  If we deliberately set out to greatly encourage the possibility of a catastrophic influenza pandemic, we would raise of billions of chickens in high-density confinement, like we are now.
We would also slaughter and process the chickens the way we are now.  Super-efficient mechanized systems frequently puncture intestines, causing fecal contamination of the meat.  Then, the contamination is spread to uncontaminated carcasses in the soaking bath, where they absorb water (“fecal soup”) for an hour to make the meat heavier ($).  “At the end of the line, the birds are no cleaner than if they had been dipped in a toilet.”  Greger says, “As long as there is poultry, there will be pandemics.  It may be us or them.”  Our massive appetite for cheap chicken could trigger a pandemic that sweeps away a billion people. 
Some believe that raising chickens outdoors is safe, but there were no factory farms in 1918.  Any day the H5N1 virus could mutate into a highly-lethal form that excels at human-to-human transmission.  It could occur in someone’s backyard, but it is far more likely to happen in a poultry confinement facility.
Poultry corporations are concerned about disease because it’s a threat to profits.  Exterminating infected flocks is bad for business.  China and Thailand have a reputation for keeping disease outbreaks secret.  When H5N1 hit Turkey, and the government ordered the destruction all turkeys, the farmers opposed the authorities with pitchforks and axes.  The editor of a poultry industry journal clearly stated his priorities: “I'm not as worried about the U.S. human population dying from bird flu as I am that there will be no chicken to eat.”  Who could disagree?
Greger provides 19 pages of tips for surviving a flu pandemic.  Wear goggles, gloves, and a facemask (masks offer minimal protection).  Stay away from crowds.  Don’t breathe near coughers and sneezers.  Avoid contact with commonly touched surfaces like doorknobs, handrails, and so on.  Don’t shake hands.  Stay home.  If you don’t have antiviral drugs, the primary treatments are fluids, rest, prayer, and good luck.  Maintain a several week supply of water, non-perishable food, cash, and ammunition.  Do not trust officials and experts who proclaim that everything is OK.  Be prepared for civil unrest. 
Greger is not a wacko.  He is the Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at the Humane Society of the US, and an MD.  Virology magazine reviewed his book favorably.  His views are shared with world leaders in public health.  By 2005, the experts were very worried that a colossal flu pandemic was just weeks or months away.  The sky was falling, and humankind was essentially a helpless deer in the headlights.  Greger’s 2006 book was written with a mixture of urgency and paranoia.  For a long discussion on public health, it’s exciting and unforgettable.
As I write, it’s six years later, and the anticipated disaster has yet to arrive.  The H5N1 threat is not gone.  A catastrophic mutation may have happened five minutes ago.  Or it might happen in 30 years.  Or brilliant gene-splicers might succeed in creating 500-pound transgenic chickens that nothing can kill.
I just checked the website of the World Health Organization (WHO).  The first H1N1 pandemic in this century ran from April 2009 to January 2010, and spread to 19 nations.  About 70,000 were hospitalized, and 2,500 died.  On 7 June 2012, WHO issued a global alert on an H5N1 outbreak in Egypt, with 168 cases and 60 deaths.  On 6 July 2012 a global alert was issued on an H5N1 outbreak in Indonesia, with 190 cases and 158 deaths.
Greger, Michael, MD, Bird Flu — A Virus of Our Own Hatching, Lantern Books, New York, 2006.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Roots of Dependency

In the 1970s, there was a trendy movement in academia to romanticize Native Americans into pure, innocent, saint-like beings.  Richard White wrote The Roots of Dependency to butt heads with the romantics, while at the same time presenting the European invaders in a manner that was anything but flattering.  He sought to pursue an approach to history having greater balance and accuracy.  White examined the history of three tribes, the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos.  He described how their traditional subsistence way of life collapsed, and how they eventually became dependent on white society for their survival. 
The traditional home of the Choctaws is now the state of Mississippi.  Before the whites arrived, they had become addicted to a dangerous habit, agriculture, which had harmful side effects, like population growth and ecological destruction.  When the chaotic dance of climate delivered drought seasons, the food supply was threatened.  All tribes in the scorched regions intensified their hunting, which inevitably lead to conflicts.  There was not enough wild game to feed excessive numbers of corn eaters.  Famine helped to restore balance.
In the sixteenth century, disease-ridden Spanish tourists trekked through the southeast.  Before long, 80 percent of the natives had dropped dead.  In the absence of significant hunting, the numbers of deer and buffalo exploded.  Abundant game allowed the Choctaws the luxury of depending less on farming, a dirty and toilsome occupation.  Things were fairly cool for a while, until French and English traders moved in and trashed the neighborhood.
In the early days, business activity at the trading posts was modest.  The Choctaws brought in some deerskins from time to time.  Once a hunter owned a decent knife, he saw no point in acquiring ten more knives.  Their frugality mystified the Europeans, because the woods remained crowded with deer — exploitable wealth.  The whites believed that the “love of gain” was a universal human trait: work more, get more stuff.  They suffered from a soul-killing mental illness that came to be known as the Puritan work ethic.
Around 1740, trading posts in Creek country were handling 100,000 deerskins per year, while Choctaw country produced a mere 15,000 skins.  In order to boost Choctaw business, the traders decided to break two laws: they started carrying liquor, and they offered credit to the hunters: drink now, pay later.
Unfortunately, many Choctaws found rum to be irresistible, and they tumbled into an era of drunken brawls, murders, and social breakdown.  The proceeds from months of hunting could be guzzled overnight in a whirlwind of oblivion drinking.  The hunters had little understanding of numbers or interest rates, and they essentially became slaves.  Before long, rum constituted 80 percent of the trading.
The traders were aggressive about collecting debts, and they sometimes got land cessions for payment.  Crushing debt and rum fever sparked intensive overhunting.  Using his new musket, a hunter could kill 20 times more deer than his bow-hunting father.  In 1770, a visitor to Choctaw country commented, “Almost half of the men had never killed either a deer or a turkey in their entire lives.”  They were forced to become full-time farmers, making them helpless sitting ducks for the crop-roasting droughts of 1777, 1778, 1782, and 1792. 
The trading economy blindsided traditional Choctaw society, making a few rich, and more poor.  The traditional culture of sharing and cooperation was seriously damaged.  Murders became a daily affair.  In 1830, the whites seized their land, and sent the tribe off to Indian Territory.
Credit has a powerful crazy-making juju.  Once upon a time, the major multinational religions banned usury — Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity.  It was virtuous to help others, but charging interest on loans was a devilish enterprise (making money whilst doing no work).  In the words of the venerable wise guy Benjamin Franklin: “Who goeth a borrowing goeth a sorrowing.”  It’s vitally important to remember that.  Borrowing has destroyed countless lives, and brought many large economic systems to their knees.
*        *        *
The Pawnees lived in western Nebraska and Kansas.  They weren’t very interested in trading, and they largely refused liquor.  Neighboring tribes were more eager to trade, which led to sharp reductions in the numbers of beaver, otters, elk, and deer.  Diseases arrived in the 1750s, and a smallpox epidemic in 1831 killed half of the tribe.  Droughts periodically dried up the bliss.
The arrival of horses around 1700 created many serious problems.  They were seen as being private property, leading to wealth disparity, and the consequent social strains.  Prior to horses, the only animals you owned were the ones you killed.  Nobody owned the vast roaming herds, and this belief was a mainstay of all happy and sustainable societies.
The horses raided the crops, which infuriated the women, and led to the breakup of many marriages.  The ecosystem was poorly suited for keeping large numbers of horses year round, and the Pawnees did not cut and store hay.  Tall grasses lost their nutritional value when they dried up, and many horses perished during harsh winters. 
Horses made it much easier to hunt buffalo, but they also made it easier for enemies to visit, and the spread of firearms increased the level of violence.  Living in a remote location was no longer safe and secure.  In this era, horse-mounted slave raiders snatched Indians from many tribes.
The Pawnee’s problems became serious when the whites decided to hunt buffalo on an industrial scale.  Competition for food became intense.  It was not uncommon for hunters returning home to find their women, children, and elders dead, their horses missing, their fields burned, their lodges destroyed, and their stored food gone.  The Sioux and their allies were powerful enemies, and they eventually defeated the Pawnees.  Three years later, the Americans conquered the Sioux.  The Pawnees moved to Indian Territory in the 1870s.  By 1900 the tribe had dwindled to 1,000. 
*        *        *
The Navajo or DinĂ© remain on their own land.  Their reservation covers portions of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.  They were farmers when the Spanish colonists arrived with their livestock.  Eventually the Navaho acquired livestock and became ranchers, raising horses, goats, and especially sheep.  The Navajo were able to thrive on land that the whites thought to be nearly worthless.  In 1869 they owned 15,000 to 20,000 sheep, and fifteen years later they had almost a million sheep and goats.  Periodic droughts and severe winters killed hundreds of thousands of animals, but the herds were back to a million or more by 1930. 
Overgrazing contributed to increased erosion and land degradation, and this made the whites nervous.  The expensive new Boulder Dam (later called Hoover Dam) was collecting a lot of silt, much of it running off Navajo land.  Experts recommended exterminating the vegetation-gobbling prairie dogs, and sharply reducing the size of Navajo herds.  Hundreds of thousands of sheep and goats were killed or removed, and countless prairie dogs were poisoned.
This did not make the natives happy.  They agreed that the range was in poor condition, but believed that the cause of this was drought, not overgrazing.  The government aggressively took measures to reduce herds, at the same time that drought made farming nearly impossible.  The drought ended in 1941, and the reservation exploded with lush green vegetation.  After World War II it became clear that stock reduction had not healed the range, and that the livestock business had a limited future. 
The tribe became dependent on American society in the 1950s, as wage work and welfare expanded.  “The Navajo reservation today remains overgrazed, but on the reservation strip-mining, radioactive rivers, and mines which cause cancer dwarf overgrazing as an environmental problem.”
*        *        *
In the end, the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajo became dependent on white society.  All three had enjoyed greater stability and freedom prior to 1492.  All three were slammed by contagious disease, and by the disease of the market economy — both were weapons of mass destruction. 
White focused his attention on the notion of dependency, but another component of this process was disintegration.  In traditional Indian society, nobody went hungry unless everybody did.  Cooperation and sharing were essential components of every functional culture.  The introduction of private property (personal wealth) inspired endless conflicts and roaring craziness.  It always does.  Harmony in the human sphere disintegrated.  On a larger scale, traditional harmony with the ecosystem also disintegrated, as human society increasingly fell out of balance with the family of life.
All three tribes practiced primitive agriculture.  Prior to 1492, they had no livestock to produce manure for maintaining soil fertility, a serious shortcoming that contributed to rapid depletion of the land.  History informs us that agriculture is almost never sustainable in the long run.  It creates more problems than it solves.  It’s vitally important to remember that.
All three tribes were seriously affected by normal climate variations.  Today, in our temporary energy wonderland, food is promptly shipped in to regions suffering from crop failures, and famine is avoided.  Almost all societies in human history lacked this safety net.  Instead, intelligent societies created a safety net based on deliberately maintaining a population that was well below the carrying capacity of their wild and healthy ecosystem.  Remember that.
White, Richard, The Roots of Dependency, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1983. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Ojibway Heritage

What would it be like to wake up every day in a sane, healthy, life of wildness and freedom?  Imagine stepping outside at dawn, and observing a landscape that remained as the creator made it, undefiled by the catastrophe of industrial civilization — a gentle misty morning of peace, fresh air, and good energy.  You pause and offer a prayer of gratitude, giving thanks for the gift of another day to celebrate the perfection of creation. 
This is not easy to imagine, because we no longer live like human beings.  Our culture provides us with almost no information about living in harmony with the land, because that is not the nature of our culture.  Memories of our own wild ancestors have been erased by the passage of time, and by the sharp turn we made when we surrendered our freedom.  We have forgotten who we are, and how to live.  We are lost.  Our entire way of life is lost.
Basil Johnston’s book, Ojibway Heritage, pulls back the curtains, and allows us to explore a healthy way of life.  It’s disturbing to read this book, because it illuminates how far we have strayed from the path of balance and good life.  It carries us to a sacred mountain, far above the toxic smog of civilization, and helps us remember things of great importance.
Johnston is an outstanding storyteller.  His book describes Ojibway culture to those who are not close to it, in a manner that outsiders can easily comprehend and appreciate.  We learn about wild freedom — a way of life similar to how our wild ancestors once lived.  It’s a world of sharing and cooperation, honor and morality, a world of overwhelming reverence and respect for the natural world and the family of life.
The Ojibway people inhabit a vast region in the middle of North America, on both sides of the US-Canadian border.  They have always avoided the political unification of all Ojibways because they cherish independence.  Nothing was more abhorrent to them than the notion of submitting to control.  They were free people who enjoyed living in free communities.
Community had greater importance than the desires of the individual.  Each individual was entitled to food, clothing, shelter, personal inner growth, and freedom.  For all other matters, the permission of the community was sought.  The people were consulted for guidance, so that the custom and will of the community was respected.
Each community had chiefs for various purposes, and they became chiefs based solely on their merits.  If anyone lost respect for a chief’s abilities, they could ignore him.  His influence was based on persuasion, not authority.  Those who followed his lead did so voluntarily.
Stories were powerful cultural tools.  They encoded the moral principles of the society.  Always tell the truth.  Respect your elders.  Always be thankful for food, for life, and for your powers.  Seek wisdom and peace. 
Stories provided guidance on hunger, courage, generosity, fidelity, creation, death, transformation, history, and all matters that related to life and being.  On a simple level, a child could find meaning in them, but they could also be understood on deeper levels by adults and elders.
Males were expected to quest for a vision.  “No man begins to be until he has seen his vision.”  Every person had different gifts and powers, and the self-discovery of vision provided purpose and meaning for their existence.  Women fulfilled their existence by bringing life into the world, so a vision was optional for them.
Boys were ready to begin questing for their vision by the age of 12 to 14.  They would be ceremonially purified, and then spend four days alone in a remote quest lodge, with no food.  Rarely was the first attempt a success.  Sometimes nothing happened, and sometimes the vision was incomplete.  Quests were made every year, until a complete vision was finally received.  A man was not considered to be an adult until he received his vision.  One fellow didn’t receive his vision until he was 50.  This was not a cause for shame.
Your vision was personal and private, not to be shared.  You had a sacred obligation to pursue and complete your vision.  Straying from your path was not unusual, but it was seen as betraying your vision, and “such a state was tantamount to non-living in which acts and conduct had no quality.”  To avoid this, men and women went on annual retreats to review their lives, and verify that they were still on their true path.  The Ojibway were big on living with integrity.  I like that.
They were also big about personal independence.  “The individual and his individuality were inviolable; his vision was equally inviolable.  No person was to surrender to another; no person was to seek dominion over another man or woman.”  They weren’t into playing master and servants.  Likewise, no person could own the land. 
Johnston talked at length about healers.  There were both medicine men and medicine women.  A few boys and girls displayed special gifts of curative power, and they were trained in the art of healing.  Part of the training process was observing what animals ate when ill, because they possessed knowledge of medicinal plants.  Some of the trainees became herbalists, and others advanced to become philosophers.  Illness was seen to be a punishment for a failure to live a good life, so healers attempted to guide patients back to upright living.  They analyzed dreams, and provided advice.
Every year, healers gathered for the Midewewin ceremony, by invitation only.  The initiation process took at least four years, before a healer earned the full rights and privileges of membership.  An important component of the healer’s initiation was learning the history of the Ojibway people, so that they had a solid understanding of the path of life, and the gifts received from the grandfathers and grandmothers.  People couldn’t enjoy good health and good life if they were disconnected from their history.
This book reminds us of who we once were, in the days of our wild ancestors.  It allows us to gaze into a mirror and observe the wounded beings that we have become.  It presents us with a portrait of a coherent culture, living intimately in harmony with nature.  We see a beautiful picture of what life could be like, following the collapse of industrial civilization, several generations down the road.  It’s precious information for people who are in contact with reality, and seeking dreams for a better tomorrow.
A better tomorrow will not come to our descendants automatically.  It must be envisioned, and then the vision must be fulfilled.  “A man or woman begins to learn when he seeks out knowledge and wisdom; wisdom will not seek him.”
This is a small book, but it’s loaded with fascinating information.  I have just scratched the surface here.  It’s an important message.
Johnston, Basil, Ojibway Heritage, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1990.  [Originally published in 1976.]

Monday, July 9, 2012

Pillar of Sand

Pillar of Sand, by Sandra Postel, is spellbinding book about everyone’s favorite subject, irrigation.  It discusses the history of irrigation, the numerous serious problems, and the theoretical solutions — many of which seem to be economically or politically impossible.  The general health of irrigated agriculture is worrisome, and so is its future.  Feeding ten billion a few decades from now is not going to be a piece of cake.
The benefits of irrigation enabled the development of many civilizations, and the drawbacks of irrigation then destroyed many of them.  Today, 17 percent of the world’s cropland is irrigated, and it produces 40 percent of our food.  This amazing productivity has thrown gasoline on the flames of human reproduction, resulting in explosive population growth, which is never a good thing. 
From the very beginning, irrigation seemed to be a fountain of bad karma.  From the flooded fields sprouted a bumper crop of mighty emperors, vast palaces, powerful armies, multitudes of slaves, contagious diseases, the loss of freedom, and a pitiable way of life, isolated from wild nature.  It was a high-powered form of agriculture, but the magic was mixed with serious defects.  Sudden shifts in precipitation or temperature could make an entire civilization vulnerable to famine.  The levees, canals, and dams required continuous maintenance by large numbers of hard-working grunts.  The infrastructure also provided excellent targets for malevolent invaders, and vengeful enemies.
Over time, irrigation often led to the buildup of salt in the soil — salinization, which eventually transformed excellent cropland into infertile wasteland.  Irrigation was a primary reason why the once lush gardens and orchards of the Cradle of Civilization are now bleak deserts decorated with ancient ruins.
Today, salinization is increasing on 20 percent of irrigated land, causing productivity losses over vast areas.  Farmers can slow this destruction by installing a combination of drainage systems and high-efficiency drip irrigation.  Unfortunately, this is very expensive, few farmers do it, and the salt continues to accumulate.  Postel writes, “Salt remains one of the gravest threats to irrigated agriculture and food security in a world that will be striving to feed 8 to 9 billion people within 50 years.”
In the last 200 years, irrigated land has increased 30 times in area.  We went on a dam-building binge.  In the last 50 years, there has also been an explosion in the number of powerful electric and diesel pumps.  They allowed irrigation to expand into many new regions.  It is no coincidence that our population also skyrocketed — more food, more mouths, more problems.
It is no coincidence that we are discovering limits to the supply of fresh water.  In many places the water table is falling, because water is being pumped from underground aquifers faster than the ecosystem replaces it.  This groundwater mining is a widespread threat in primary food-producing regions of Pakistan, the Middle East, North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, India, northern China, and the western United States. 
The problem is well understood, but little effort is being made to address it, because over-pumping generates lots of food and money.  Eventually, the wells will go dry, and the golden goose will drop dead.  About a tenth of global grain production currently depends on aquifer mining.  Postel warns us: “Groundwater over-pumping may now be the single biggest threat to irrigated agriculture, exceeding even the buildup of salts in the soil.”
Irrigation is also draining major rivers.  In 1997, sections of the Yellow River in China had no flow for 226 days.  The dry stretches are often 600 kilometers long, and this takes a big toll on farm production.  Other threatened rivers include the Ganges, Indus, Nile, Amu Darya, Syr Darya, Chao Phraya, and Colorado.  In these basins, irrigation can no longer be expanded.  Growing cities and industries are consuming more and more water too, and they can produce more money with a gallon of water than a farmer can.  The proverbial wisdom says that water flows uphill toward money.
Meanwhile, the catastrophic population explosion continues, and another two or three billion are expected to come to dinner in 2050.  How will we feed them?  Oceanic fisheries are past peak and declining.  Ranching isn’t able to dramatically expand, neither is rain-fed agriculture.  The Green Revolution is over, and there are no new plant-breeding miracles on the horizon. 
This leaves irrigated agriculture holding the bag, and it looks like a wobbly bloody boxer after 18 rounds in the ring with a hard-punching opponent.  Conflicts over water are on the rise.  Numerous aquifers are being depleted.  Major rivers are being pumped dry.  Salinization continues to destroy more cropland.  Climate change could introduce serious additional problems, because our systems are designed to function in the current climate scenario.
The ideal sites for dams are already taken, and an anti-dam movement is growing.  Existing dam reservoirs are continuously accumulating silt.  On average, the capacity of the world’s reservoirs is diminishing by one percent annually.  For this reason, all dams have an expiration date, because removing the silt is very expensive.  “Like salinization and groundwater depletion, the silting up of reservoirs is a quiet, creeping threat that is building to massive proportions.”
Governments are running low on funds for the costly maintenance of water systems, and they are losing interest in building costly new water systems.  Many farmers do not feel obligated to obey the water use rules (if any), and enforcement of these rules is minimal.  Few farmers can afford to install state-of-the-art irrigation technology.  Cheap subsidized water discourages farmers from investing in efficiency improvements.  Few if any farmers could afford to pay the full cost for their water.  Few are interested in investing big money today to avert a problem that may not become serious until 20 or 30 years from now, especially if they don’t own the land, or have big money.
Despite all of these challenges, the strategic global goal is to double the productivity of irrigated lands.  In theory, Postel believes that this is possible.  In reality, important changes are being made far too slowly.  The subtitle of this book is “Can the Irrigation Miracle Last?”  From what Postel tells us, I wouldn’t bet on it.  Was the invention of irrigation really a “miracle?”  It unleashed major changes in history, and it’s not hard to argue that the costs far exceeded the benefits. 
On the last two pages, Postel mentions population.  Population growth tends to magnify all problems, while solving none.  Therefore, major efforts to further increase food production are not perfumed with the intoxicating aroma of wisdom.  As long as we’re dreaming for miracles, it would be far more intelligent to sharply reduce population, and thereby diminish many problems simultaneously.  But the current generation seems to be firmly against this — breed now, pay later.

Postel, Sandra, Pillar of Sand — Can the Irrigation Miracle Last?, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1999.

Monday, July 2, 2012


Epidemics, by Geoffrey Marks and William K. Beatty, shined floodlights on a realm that barely appears in our general history textbooks.  They discussed a number of contagious diseases — where they originated, how they were transmitted, where they spread, and when.  They included spooky eyewitness accounts of life during an epidemic. 
The book presents us with a ghastly vision of life in a bizarre reality.  Imagine the horror of living in a city where death is everywhere, thousands are dying every week, and the cause is a complete mystery.  Inhale the reeking stench of rotting corpses.  In cholera stories, we often find tales of folks who were healthy and happy at sunrise being buried at sunset.  Will you be next?  Will anyone survive?  Why is this happening?
Contagious diseases were one of the many unintended consequences of living in high density populations, surrounded by high densities of non-human animals, in foul-smelling villages and cities where the streets were filled with sewage, garbage, and dead animals; amidst hordes of rats, lice, fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes; places with cloudy, stinky, crappy-tasting water. 
Hunter-gatherers missed this form of gruesome excitement, because they lived within the natural order, a far healthier mode of existence.  The advent of agriculture created an incubator for contagious diseases, and contagious diseases were a normal and expected component of living in or near a civilization (except in recent decades).
Is anywhere safe?  We learn about remote Alaskan Eskimo villages, in inaccessible locations, where every man, woman, and child died during the 1918 influenza pandemic, infected by migrating birds.  A pandemic is a super-sized epidemic.  This flu pandemic spread around the world in just two months, in an age prior to modern air travel.  Twenty-two million died, and only one tiny island escaped.  My grandmother’s sister, Emma Amundson, died of the flu on November 19, 1918.  This variety of flu was the deadly offspring of too many people living too close to too many chickens. 
Today, influenza remains a pandemic disease, but it is not in a highly lethal form.  Since 1918, we have made great gains in creating conditions that promote the transmission of viruses from one species to another, and all flu viruses are constantly mutating.  It is impossible for vaccine-makers to work as quickly as the viruses are mutating.  So, conditions are close to perfect for the appearance of a pandemic as deadly as 1918, or worse, and modern transportation systems are ready to rapidly accelerate the spread.
Our sacred cultural myths describe early America as a noble experiment in human progress — brave pioneers, and industrious people, working together to create a new form of society based on freedom, justice, and prosperity.  Stories about epidemics have been swept under the bed.  For example, Mother Nature generously rewarded our impressive achievements in rapid deforestation by hammering us with malaria, a major obstacle to colonization.  Malaria competed with dysentery for being the most popular disease of the growing civilization.
Another deadly consequence of deforestation was yellow fever.  In 1820, it killed one-third of the residents of Savannah.  In the eighteenth century, Charleston suffered from yellow fever epidemics in 1706, 1711, 1728, 1732, 1790, 1791, 1792, 1795, 1798, and 1799.  This disease was the reason why the United States got a fabulous bargain on the Louisiana Purchase, which included the territory of fifteen future states.  Why? 
In 1802, Napoleon sent an army to Haiti to put down a rebellion.  He enjoyed a smashing victory over the rebels, whilst the Haitian mosquitoes took great pleasure in killing 40,000 of his men with yellow fever.  At this point, he lost all interest for further projects in the frightfully unhealthy continent of North America, and sold French claims to the USA for a bargain price.
Smallpox devastated the Native Americans across the continent.  The children of the colonists also had no immunity to it.  “Smallpox was so common in the eighteenth century that only the most severe epidemics were noted, including seven in Boston between 1721 and 1792.”
Typhus was a gift from lice, and it had nicknames like jail distemper and ship fever.  The Micmac tribe was almost completely wiped out because of the lice that came with French clothing and blankets.  Some speculate that the typhus epidemics during the Revolutionary War delayed the final victory by two years. 
In his book, The Impact of Disease on American History (1954), Howard N. Simpson described the situation after 1812, as settlement of the Midwest began:  “The most lethal dangers the pioneers had to face were neither savages nor wild animals.  They were typhoid, malaria, dysentery, malignant scarlet fever, pneumonia, erysipelas in epidemic form, spotted fever, or what would now be called meningococcal meningitis, and diphtheria.”
If you live in a developed country, it’s obvious that modern life is a different reality.  In recent decades, we have had much freedom from epidemics of deadly contagious disease.  We have been protected by the temporary fortress walls of energy-guzzling high technology — municipal water systems, waste treatment plants, garbage collection, sanitary landfills, antibiotics, vaccines, and well-equipped public health bureaucracies. 
But our energy-guzzling safety net is totally addicted to an abundant supply of cheap energy.  Abundant energy is the result of a freak bubble in the history of civilization — a catastrophic one-time-only binge on non-renewable fossil energy.  The world is now moving beyond Peak Cheap Energy, never to return.  Consequently, what is energy-guzzling today will eventually move down the hall to the museum, or quietly disintegrate and rust in peace. 
This transition has clear implications for the future of public health, and these are magnified by ongoing population growth, and rising poverty and malnutrition.  The millions of people now living in developed nations will some day see their magic safety bubble burst, one way or another.  Eventually, they will return to the traditional filth, squalor, violence, and exploitation of normal civilized life — if they choose to continue on the same path, which is the easiest option.
People who are working to envision a healthy, sane, sustainable future should contemplate the possibility of a lightly-populated tomorrow without cities, travel, trade, and agriculture.  The history of civilization is precious, because it provides us with countless extremely important lessons on how not to live.  Imagine a bright new world that is wild, free, and happy.  Never forget that the soul of our culture is just software — a basket of peculiar ideas that is always subject to change.
Marks, Geoffrey and Beatty, William K., Epidemics, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1976.