Monday, August 27, 2012

Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions

Tahca Ushte (Lame Deer) was a Lakota medicine man from a land now known as South Dakota (“Sioux” is a white name that insults the Lakota).  His government-issued name was John Fire.  He was born some time between 1895 and 1903, and died in 1976.  His parents were of the last generation to be born wild and free.  Two of his grandfathers had been at the battle of Little Big Horn, Custer’s last stand, and one of them survived the massacre at Wounded Knee.
Lame Deer’s early years were spent in a remote location, where they had no contact with the outside world.  He never saw a white man until he was five.  At 14, he was taken away to a boarding school, where he was prohibited from speaking his language or singing his songs.  The class work never went beyond the level of third grade, so Lame Deer spent six years in the third grade.  He eventually gained renown for being a rebellious troublemaker.  When he was 16, he went on a vision quest, and discovered that he was to become a medicine man.
Sons destined to become medicine men were often removed from school by their families, because schooling was harmful to the growth of someone walking a spiritual path.  One father drove away truancy officers with a shotgun.  For medicine men, the skills of reading and writing had absolutely no value.
When Lame Deer was 17, his mother died, and the family fell apart.  The white world was closing in, making it hard for his father to survive as a rancher.  He gave his children some livestock and wished them good luck.  By that time, the buffalo were dead, their land was gone, many lived on reservations, and the good old days for the Lakota were behind them. 
Lame Deer straddled two worlds, the sacred path of Lakota tradition, and the pure madness of the “frog-skinners,” — people who were driven by an insatiable hunger for green frog-skins (dollar bills).  The frog-skinners were bred to be consumers, not human beings, so they were not fun to be around.
Lame Deer spent maybe 20 years wandering.  He made money as a rodeo rider, clown, square dance caller, potato picker, shepherd, and so on.  He always avoided work in factories or offices, “because any human being is too good for that kind of no-life, even white people.”  He enjoyed many women, did more than a little drinking, stole a few cars, and shunned the conventional civilized life.
Between jobs he would return to his reservation and spend time with the elders.  During World War II, just before Normandy, he was thrown out of the Army when they discovered that he was 39, too old.  Soon after, he abandoned the frog-skin world and became a full time Indian, walking on the sacred path of a medicine man.
For the Lakota, the Black Hills were the most sacred place in their world.  To retain possession of them, they surrendered much of what became Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas.  The treaty declared that the Black Hills would remain Indian territory “for as long as the sun shined.”  Soon after, whites discovered gold in the Black Hills, and flooded into the holy lands with drills, dynamite, whiskey, and prostitutes.  The Lakota were horrified by the behavior of these civilized Christians.
The frog-skinners exterminated the buffalo, and replaced them with livestock.  Buffalo were beings of great power and intelligence.  They even had a sense of humor.  Lame Deer said that if buffalo were used in bullfighting, the cocky matadors would promptly be trampled and gored into extinction.  Cattle were dullards that had the power bred out of them.  Sheep and goats would stand calmly while you cut their throats. 
To provide additional vegetation for the dim-witted livestock, the prairie dogs had to go.  Ranchers launched an intensive poisoning campaign that also killed more than a few children and pets.  With the prairie dogs gone, there was far less prey for the wolves, coyotes, bobcats, foxes, badgers, hawks, and eagles.  A diverse, thriving prairie ecosystem was replaced with monocultures of destructive sub-intelligent exotic species.
Sheep were amazingly frail.  They often fell over, with their feet in the air, and couldn’t get back up again.  If the shepherd didn’t rescue them, they would bloat up and die.  Lambs often had to be hand-raised because their mothers didn’t recognize them or feed them.
“There was great power in a wolf, even in a coyote.  You have made him into a freak — a toy poodle, a Pekingese, a lap dog. … You have not only altered, declawed, and malformed your winged and four-legged cousins; you have done it to yourselves. … You live in prisons which you have built for yourselves, calling them homes, offices, factories.”
In the 1880s, the Indians of the west were in despair, and the Ghost Dance movement was spreading from tribe to tribe.  It was a grand magic act intended to bring a new world into existence via sacred song and dance.  The dead would come back to life, the buffalo herds would return, the whites would get sent back home, and the civilized world would be rolled up like a dirty old carpet — the cities, mines, farms, and factories.  This would reveal a healthy unspoiled land, with many teepees and animals, as it once had been.
Dancers were not allowed to possess things from the white world: liquor, guns, knives, kettles, or metal ornaments.  They would dance for four days.  Whites feared an armed uprising, so they attacked the dancers.  Hundreds of unarmed Indians were murdered at the Wounded Knee massacre. 
The magic dancing did not succeed, but today many can see that a great healing is badly needed.  Obviously, the madness cannot continue forever.  Lame Deer was clear: “The machine will stop.”  He said that a young man would one day come who would know how to turn it off.  “It won’t be bad, doing without many things you are now used to, things taken out of the earth and wasted foolishly.”  We will have to learn how to live more simply, and this will be good for one and all.
Lame Deer asked Richard Erdoes to help write his story, to pass along important information.  He included several chapters describing the sacred culture of the Lakota.  He wanted hold up a mirror for us, to give us a different perspective, to feed a sane voice into our lost and confused world.  “We must try to save the white man from himself.  This can be done if only all of us, Indians and non-Indians alike, can once again see ourselves as part of this earth.”
Lame Deer, John (Fire) and Erdoes, Richard, Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions, Washington Square Press, New York, 1994.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Earth Has a Soul

Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) was born in Kesswil, Switzerland, a wee lakeside hamlet that had changed little since the Middle Ages.  His rustic upbringing gave him the gift of intimate contact with the natural world, a profound source of meaning for him: “Every stone, every plant, every single thing seemed alive and indescribably marvelous.”  Like his mother, Jung had the ability to access his archaic mind.  He had an old soul that was intimately connected with all living creatures, and to the world of dreams.  This gave him the unusual ability to observe people and events with extreme clarity, as they truly were.
From the sweet pinnacle of a tranquil, wholesome childhood, the rest of his life was a stunning downhill plunge, as the civilized world fell into ever-growing chaos and catastrophe — rapid industrialization, urbanization, population explosion, two world wars, mustard gas, atomic bombs, holocaust, the rise and fall of Hitler and Stalin.  It was an excellent time to become a famous psychiatrist, because this new reality was a steaming cauldron of intense insanity.
Jung provided the world with a new model for understanding the mind.  For almost the entire human journey, we had obeyed the laws of nature, like all other animals did.  But with the emergence of domestication and civilization, we began violating the laws of life, snatching away some of nature’s power — power that did not belong to us.  This cosmic offense created a break that shifted us onto a path of suffering.  The gods are now punishing us for our immature and disrespectful impulses.
Jung left behind a huge body of writings, most of which are of little interest to general readers.  Meredith Sabini heroically combed through the mountain of words, extracted passages about our relationship with nature, and published them as The Earth Has a Soul.  It stitched together snippets from many sources, from different phases of his life, so it’s not as flowing and focused as a discourse written from scratch, but it’s an important collection of provocative ideas.
In recent decades, thinkers have tried to explain why the roots of the Earth Crisis emerged several thousand years ago.  Most have diagnosed the root of today’s problems as rapid, out-of-control cultural evolution — our skills at learning, communication, and tool making evolved far more quickly than our genes did, and this pushed us dangerously out of balance. 
Jung would agree with this theory, but his perception of the problem was far more complex.  For almost our entire journey, humankind was guided by instinct, a form of intelligence that was magnificently refined by millions of years of continuous improvement.  Like other animals, we lacked self-awareness, or consciousness.  Like other animals, we could think and strategize, but we remained unconscious, and perfectly functional.
Jung thought that consciousness became apparent in civilized cultures maybe 4,000 years ago, and it has been increasing ever since.  The expansion of consciousness went into warp drive when the era of modern scientific thinking arrived, and we plunged into an industrial way of life.
In remote, isolated locations, there are still a few “primitive” cultures which remain largely unconscious, guided by their normal instinctive intelligence.  They do not engage in abstract thinking.  They do not destroy their ecosystem.  They continue to obey nature’s laws.  But they are being driven into extinction by you-know-who. 
Our conscious mind was new, infantile, incomplete, unstable, and easily injured.  Jung saw it as a tiny boat floating in a vast ocean of unconscious knowledge.  Like a fish out of water, we were separated from our ancient oceanic home, an unpleasant traumatic shock.  In the good old days, we lived in an enchanted world where everything was sacred.  But science and technology have dragged us away into a miserable manmade world where nothing is holy, and everyone is restless, anxious, and neurotic.
Consciousness was an extremely powerful two-edged sword, equal parts blessing and curse: “Unfortunately, there is in this world no good thing that does not have to be paid for by an evil at least equally great.  People still do not know that the greatest step forward is balanced by an equally great step back.”
On the shore of Lake Zurich, Jung built a summer retreat out of rugged cut stones, a sacred refuge for solitude and contemplation.  He cooked on a wood fire, raised food in his garden, and drew water from a well.  There was no phone or electricity, because the technology of modernity was certain to frighten away the souls of his ancestors.
Primitive people were “hellishly afraid of anything new” because they feared “unknown powers and indefinite dangers.”  This was just as true for modern folks, even if we pretended otherwise.  “Nevertheless, we have plunged down a cataract of progress which sweeps us on into the future with even wilder violence the farther it takes us from our roots.”  In 1912 he wrote that America “does not understand that it is facing its most tragic moment: a moment in which it must make a choice to master its machines or to be devoured by them.”
Jung had an intense dislike for modernity.  A city dweller was reduced to a tiny, insignificant ant.  Humankind was moving toward insectification.  Overpopulation was destroying everything.  Growing crowds multiplied the stupidity level, whilst sharply decreasing our intelligence and morality.  Crowds were incubators for psychic epidemics, which were far more destructive than natural disasters.  Excited mobs often created explosions of madness that nothing could stop.  “The most dangerous things in the world are immense accumulations of human beings who are manipulated by only a few heads.” 
In his psychiatric work, Jung helped patients heal by encouraging them to seek guidance from their dreams.  Our unconscious has all the answers we need, but we usually avoid looking there, because we are afraid of it.  We overload our lives with distractions to discourage reflection, and to hide from our darkness.  We live at a rapid pace, and never leave a moment for looking inward.
Tragically, Jung never came to know a real live hunter-gatherer.  He never spent a year or three with the Pygmies or Bushmen, people who lived in the traditional human manner, and lived quite well.  If he had, his thinking would certainly have taken quite a different path — and very likely a far more powerful one.
He did take several brief expeditions to New Mexico, Africa, and India, to spend a little time with people who were neither Christian nor European.  Contact with these miserable “primitive” people gave him feelings of superiority, because they seemed to be neurotic, “tormented by superstitions, fears, and compulsions.”  But they also scared him.  He once left Africa because of a powerful dream.  He worried that he was in danger of “going black under the skin.”  Did he come frighteningly close to breaking free from his civilized cage?
For Jung, returning to simple, primitive, sustainable living was not a possible solution.  “The wheel of time cannot be turned back.  Things can, however, be destroyed and renewed.  This is extremely dangerous, but the signs of our time are dangerous too.  If there was ever a truly apocalyptic era, it is ours.”  He believed that salvation could be found by training the conscious mind to receive guidance from the unconscious realm, the world of dreams.
His recommendations for healing included: getting closer to nature, living in small communities (not cities), working less, engaging in reflection in quiet solitude, reconnecting with our past, avoiding distractions (newspapers, television, radio, gramophones), paying serious attention to our dreams, and simplifying our lifestyles.
In 1961, the year he died, Jung wrote: “Civilization is a most expensive process and its acquisitions have been paid for by enormous losses, the extent of which we have largely forgotten or have never appreciated.”  In his final days in 1961, Jung had visions of massive catastrophes striking in 50 years.
Jung, Carl Gustav, The Earth Has a Soul, Edited by Meredith Sabini, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, 2008.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The End of Growth

Richard Heinberg has been a pundit on the Peak Oil beat for more than ten years.  With each passing year, his understanding of diminishing resources has grown.  In 2007 he redefined the problem as Peak Everything.  He came to see that industrial civilization was gobbling up non-renewable resources at a rate that spelled serious problems for the generation currently alive, which included himself.  Yikes!
This mind-expanding learning process provided a miraculous cure for blissful ignorance, and replaced it with a healthy awareness of an unhealthy reality.  Heinberg has been jumping up and down and shouting warnings for a long time, but the world has largely ignored him.  The world perceived our incredibly unhealthy reality to be perfectly normal, because we were all born into it, as were our parents and grandparents.  Normal means normal.  Stop jumping up and down, already!  Get a life!
Heinberg avoided suffering from normal thinking because, late at night, he secretly explored the magic and mysteries of history, which gave him special powers of vision.  He could see that the twentieth century was simply a calamitous freak in human history, powered by recklessly binging on cheap and abundant energy, a nightmare that can never again be repeated, thank goodness.  Hence, normal was insane.  Normal was in big danger.  He kept shouting at us.
In July 2008, the price of oil skyrocketed to $150.  In September, the financial system went sideways.  Was this The Big One?  Had the luxurious unsinkable Titanic fatally impaled itself on an iceberg of powerful reality?  Was the pleasure cruise about to become a life-threatening struggle for survival?  The shadows suddenly became much darker, cold winds howled, thunder rumbled, and the Earth shook. 
This big shift inspired Heinberg to write a new book, The End of Growth.  His thesis was that time is running out on the era of perpetual economic growth (i.e., “normal” living).  Obviously, never-ending expansion was impossible on a finite planet.  Heinberg foresaw that growth might continue for a while in a few places, but growth for the overall global economy was essentially finished.  There were three reasons for this.
First, the days of cheap oil were behind us.  Global oil production peaked in 2005, and this level of production could not be indefinitely maintained.  Eventually production would shift into its decline phase — less oil for sale, and more expensive.  No combination of alternative energy sources could replace the role of oil in industrial society, or even come close.  The supply of oil was finite, and the cheap and easy oil had already been reduced to noxious clouds of carbon emissions.
Second, economic growth was getting more resistance from environmental challenges.  Fresh water was getting scarce in many places.  Climate change was creating costly problems.  Food production could barely keep pace with rising population.  The health of cropland, range land, and forests was declining.  Oceanic fisheries were depleted.  The prices for important minerals and metals were rising. 
Third, on 15 September 2008, the financial system experienced a terrifying near death experience.  Much of what had appeared to be a growing economy was actually a colossal bubble of growing debt, like a Ponzi scheme.  Borrowed money had turbocharged the global economy for almost 30 years.  It was a merry party of intoxicated gaiety and foolish excess, but now it was time for the dry heaves and roaring hangover.  The party was over, and the place was a mess.
Peak cheap energy, by itself, was enough to bring an end to perpetual growth.  But combined with a wheezing planet and a terminally ill financial system, the result was like a perfect storm, hastening the inevitable demise of industrial civilization.  We had crossed a watershed, moving from a time of growth to a time of contraction.  We had begun a long journey back toward traditional normality — a muscle-powered way of life, because muscle power will once again be cheaper than doing work with machines.
Heinberg does an impressive job of describing the crash of ’08 in way that is easy to understand.  It’s not a pretty picture.  Legions of greed-crazed speculators did whatever they could to seize as much wealth as possible, by any means necessary, legal or not.  By 2003, banks were giving mortgages to people with no money and no source of income.  Then they quickly offloaded these toxic assets onto clueless investors, who believed that they were top quality investments.  In this manner, many trillions of dollars were vaporized. 
In the absence of a growing economy, it will be impossible to service today’s stratospheric debts.  The banking system still holds vast quantities of absolutely worthless “assets,” creating a temporary illusion of viability.  We can expect to see continued bank failures, corporate bankruptcies, and home foreclosures.  “At some point in the next few years, stock and real estate values will plunge, banks will close, and businesses will shutter their doors,” warned Heinberg.
If the objective is recovery — returning to the idiocy of unlimited pathological borrowing — there simply is no solution, at any price.  Instead, we would be wise to adapt to the new conditions, and direct our attention to reducing the turbulence and suffering of the contraction process.  We’re not looking at the end of the world here, just an uncomfortable return to stability.  The healing process is likely to take generations, but the final result may actually be quite pleasant.  A tolerable collapse is theoretically possible.  No matter how it unfolds, the end result is that our economic system and lifestyles will be far simpler. 
For most of the book, Heinberg thoroughly discusses why the growth economy is ending.  Near the end, he presents “solutions.”  Like many, he dreams of a future in which the benefits of industrial civilization are preserved, while the myriad problems of industrial civilization are wished away.  He asks, “Can we surrender cars, highways, and supermarkets, but still keep cultural exchange, tolerance, and diversity, along with our hard-won scientific knowledge, advanced healthcare, and instant access to information?”  Well, yes we can, for a while, but this would require disregarding long-term sustainability.  We can't have the benefits without the problems.  Can't we live without Facebook and cell phones?
Heinberg, Richard, The End of Growth — Adapting to Our New Economic Reality, New Society, Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada, 2011.
NOTE: Chapter Seven, Life After Growth, discusses what we should do now.  Heinberg has created an online supplement to this chapter that will be updated as new ideas emerge.  Go to and select The End of Growth – Exclusive Supplemental Materials.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Late Victorian Holocausts

In the years 1876-1879 and 1896-1902 between 12.2 and 29.3 million died of famine in India.  In the years 1876-1879 and 1896-1900 between 19.5 and 30 million died of famine in China.  In the same period, an estimated 2 million died in Brazil.  Famine hit these three nations the hardest, but many other nations were also affected.  In the US, churches organized to send relief to hungry farmers in the Dakotas and western Kansas.
Mike Davis wrote about these famines in his book Late Victorian Holocausts.  The famines occurred in regions slammed by severe drought.  The droughts have been linked to the El NiƱo Southern Oscillation (ENSO), a major factor in global weather patterns. 
Droughts have been common throughout history, and agricultural societies have commonly prepared for them by creating emergency reserves of stored grain.  Because of political shifts in many regions, these safety nets were in poor condition during the late Victorian droughts.  In the wake of the Industrial Revolution came a new mode of economic thinking that frowned on setting aside significant wealth for insurance against disaster.  It was more profitable to sell the grain today, pocket the cash, and worry about tomorrow’s problems tomorrow.  Peasants were expendable.
The Qing dynasty in China believed that subsistence was a human right, and it had relief management systems in place to reduce the toll of famines during drought years or floods.  By the late Victorian era, conflicts with colonial powers had drained the wealth of the Qing government, so it was incapable of effectively responding to the catastrophic droughts.
Prior to the British colonization of India, the Moguls had a similar system for responding to famine.  The British, on the other hand, were cruel masters (as they had been during the 1845 famine in Ireland).  Food was widely available, but few could afford the inflated prices.  While millions were starving, they exported Indian wheat.  They outlawed donations of private relief.  They forbid the Pariahs from foraging for forest foods, leading to 155,000 deaths.  They created relief camps where the starving received inadequate rations, and 94 percent died.  Very civilized chaps, eh?
The hungry hordes in Brazil were the victims of their own corrupt government, which had disposed of grain reserves.  Brazil was not a colony of Britain, but English investors and creditors played a powerful role in the economy, turning Brazil into an “informal colony” that was kept permanently in debt.
Davis argued that the millions of deaths were largely a deliberate “holocaust” rather than a spell of bad luck, because political actions were a primary factor behind the high mortality rates.  He also argued that this holocaust played a role in the creation of the Third World.  In the eighteenth century, Europe did not have the highest standard of living.  The biggest manufacturing districts were in India and China.  Their workers ate better, had lower unemployment, and often earned more than workers in Europe.  Literacy rates were higher, including women.
One of Davis’s primary objectives was to spank capitalism, colonialism, and the hideous overseers of the British Empire.  There has been lively discussion in the reader feedback at Amazon, and a number of critics have questioned the way in which Davis assigned blame for the massive famines.  For me, the book had important messages:  (1) Droughts happen.  (2) Agricultural societies are highly vulnerable to droughts.  (3) Famines commonly follow droughts.  (4) Famines can be horrific. 
When rains ended an Indian drought in 1878, the mosquito population exploded, and hundreds of thousands of malnourished survivors died of malaria.  Meanwhile, locusts gobbled up the growing young plants.  Hungry peasants murdered many creditors who threatened foreclosure.  Then came gangs of armed tax collectors.  Hungry wild animals became very aggressive, dragging away the weak, screaming.  In the Madras Deccan, “the only well-fed part of the local population were the pariah dogs, ‘fat as sheep,’ that feasted on the bodies of dead children.”
In China, the flesh of the starved was sold at markets for four cents a pound.  People sold their children to buy food.  Husbands ate their wives.  Parents ate their children.  Children ate their parents.  Thousands of thieves were executed.  At refugee camps, many perished from disease.  If too many refugees accumulated, they were simply massacred.  In some regions, relief took more than a year to arrive.
Davis’s vivid and extensive descriptions of famine times remind an increasingly obese society that we are living in a temporary and abnormal bubble of cheap and abundant calories.  Importantly, he puts a human face on the consequences of climate change, a subject usually presented in purely abstract form: parts per million, degrees Celsius, and colorful computer-generated charts, graphs, and maps.
Near the end of the book, Davis gives us a big, fat, juicy discussion on the history of agriculture and ecological catastrophe in China.  People who remain in denial about the inherent destructiveness of agriculture typically point to China as a glowing example of 4,000 years of happy sustainable low-impact organic farming.  Wrong, wrong, wrong!  This chapter provides a powerful cure for those who suffer from such embarrassing naughty fantasies.
The late Victorian droughts happened at a time when the world population was less than 1.4 billion.  Today, it’s over 7 billion, and growing by 70 million per year.  Cropland area per capita is shrinking, and soil health is diminishing.  Energy prices are rising, and water usage for irrigation is foolishly unsustainable.  We’re getting close to Peak Food.  World grain production per capita peaked in 1984, at 342 kilograms per person.  World grain stocks (stored grain) peaked in 1986, and have been declining since then.
On 24 July 2012, the venerable Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute published a warning in The Guardian.  “The world is in serious trouble on the food front.”  World grain stocks are currently “dangerously low.”  “Time is running out.  The world may be much closer to an unmanageable food shortage — replete with soaring food prices, spreading food unrest, and ultimately political instability — than most people realize.” 
For me, the main message of this book was a powerful warning about the huge risks of agriculture, and its insanely destructive companion, overpopulation.  The famines discussed in this book were not a freak event in history.  Famine has been a common, normal, periodic occurrence in virtually all agricultural societies, from the Cradle of Civilization to today. 
As the collapse of industrial civilization proceeds and life slows down, opportunities to live more in balance with nature will emerge.  Clever societies will carefully limit population size, and phase out their dependence on farming.  Un-clever societies will continue to breed like there’s no tomorrow, beat their ecosystems to death, and hippity-hop down the Dinosaur Trail.
Davis, Mike, Late Victorian Holocausts, Verso, New York, 2001.