Thursday, December 26, 2013

Annual Report of the Red Mountain Pilgrimage

Well, I’ve survived yet another trip around the sun, and I hope you have, too.  It’s been an interesting year, and a good one.  I’m busy doing the work I was meant to do, and it’s finding an audience that appreciates it, and respects me.  It’s a bit sad that I spent so many years hauling stone blocks up the latest pyramid, but I was always learning, too.  It takes time to make sense of this world.  I never imagined that, at this point in my life, there would still be so many fascinating new things to learn.

I’ve been living in the hermitage for four and a half years now, on a wee budget, exploring the myriad ways of preparing bean soup and oatmeal.  I did suffer a brief relapse of consumer fever, and bought a one-speed bicycle.  My elderly high-tech bike was becoming a persistent headache.  This year, I rode my scooter 1,050 miles (1690 km), which was 50 percent less than the year before.  This burned up 20 gallons (76 l) of gas, the smallest amount since I got my drivers license in 1968.

On a whim, I rented a car to take a much-needed vacation.  I haven’t driven a car since 2009.  The karma of it all immediately gave me a swift boot in the posterior — every campground was jam-packed with people, dogs, skateboards, mountain bikes, and loud music.  Horror! 

On previous trips, I had apparently been lucky to visit during off-peak times.  There had been no crowds, it was easy to find blissful tranquility, and enjoy a quiet campfire with the spirits of the ancestors.  But this time, it was mid-August, the weekend, perfect weather, and everyone had the same idea.  In sadness and amusement, I turned around and took the car back to Hertz, an expensive seven-hour misadventure.  Sigh!

This year, I read and reviewed a number of important books.  I enjoy exploring the work of inspiring minds, and sharing my discoveries with others.  The reviews are posted on my blog, where pilgrims on the path of learning can easily find them via Google searches.  At the beginning of 2013, my blog had 11,000 page views in total.  Today, it’s over 41,000.  This is satisfying.  My devious plan is working!

Social networking has provided a broad gateway into a fascinating realm of stories, opinions, and discussions that the mainstream world never sees, unfortunately.  It pulls back the McNews curtain, revealing many behind the scenes issues.  I now have connections with allies in Belize, Ireland, Scotland, Netherlands, Germany, France, Hungary, Canada, Poland, Australia, Croatia, Sweden, Belgium, Brazil, Indonesia, and America.

The big highlight for the year was that I published my second book, Sustainable or Bust.  It’s a collection of 64 book reviews and 16 rants — a toolbox for seekers who want to learn more about human ecology and genuine sustainability.

After I send this letter, my next project is a months-long marketing process.  Writing is less than half of the job.  The plan is to visit university websites, find their course catalogs, and identify instructors who teach ecology, environmental ethics, or sustainability.  Then, I’ll find their email addresses, and send them a nice note.

I think that a fair number of students would find my work to be interesting, since many of them are starting to grasp the dire state of the ecosystem they’re inheriting, and the perplexing indifference of the elders.  Deep ecology has never been a mainstream subject, and I’m not sure how many professors are interested in it now.  It’s not where the money and prestige are these days.  All I can do is try.  If you have any suggestions for contacts, let me know.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Apocalyptic Planet

Craig Childs is a nature writer and globetrotting adventure hog.  He’s been thinking a lot about apocalypse lately.  It’s hard not to.  The jungle drums are pounding out a growing stream of warnings — attention! — big trouble ahead.

The Christian currents in our culture encourage us to perceive time as being something like a drag strip.  At one end is the starting line (creation), and at the other end is the finish line (judgment day).  We’re speeding closer and closer to the end, which some perceive to be the final Game Over for everything everywhere.  Childs disagrees.  “We are not on a one-way trip to a brown and sandblasted planet.”

He was lucky to survive into adulthood still possessing an unfettered imagination, and he can zoom right over packs of snarling dogmas that disembowel most folks who attempt to think outside the box.  In his book Apocalyptic Planet, he gives readers a helpful primer on eco-catastrophe.  The bottom line is that Earth is constantly changing, and it’s not uncommon for change events to be sudden and catastrophic.

He purports that the big storm on the horizon today is not “The Apocalypse.”  It’s just one more turbulent era in a four billion year story.  Out of the pile of planetary disasters, he selects nine examples, travels to locations that illustrate each one, and then spins stories.  Each tale cuts back and forth between his adventures at the site, and background information from assorted sources.  It’s an apocalypse buffet.

Deserts are a quarter of all land, and many are growing now.  History tells us that they can expand and contract rapidly, taking out societies in the process.  Four out of ten people live in regions prone to drying up.  New Mexico once experienced a drought that lasted 1,000 years.  Beneath the driest regions of the Sahara, pollen samples indicate that the land was once tropical savannah and woodlands.  A few years ago, Atlanta, Georgia (not an arid region) came close to draining its water supply during a long drought.

Glaciers are melting at rate that alarms people who think.  Childs visited the Northern Patagonia Ice Field, where hunks the size of buildings were crashing down off the edge of the dying glacier.  Enormous volumes of melt water are raising the global sea level.  He also visited the Bering Sea, where the old land bridge is now 340 feet (103 m) underwater.  Beringia was once a broad treeless steppe, home to an amazing community of megafauna.  If climate change eliminates all ice, the seas could rise another 120 feet (36 m) or so, and major rivers will run dry from lack of melt water.  About 40 percent of humankind resides near coasts.  Nobody knows how fast the seas will rise, or how much.

The planet has been smacked countless times by asteroids.  Many believe that the dinosaur era was terminated by the Chicxubal impact on the Yucatan Peninsula.  There are many, many objects zooming around in space that could hit us, but Childs recommends that our time would be better spent worrying about catastrophic volcanic eruptions.  There are daily eruptions from 200 active volcanoes.  Extreme eruptions have loaded the atmosphere with dust, blocking out sunlight, leading to winters that lasted for years.  Humankind once had a close call with extinction when Mount Toba erupted 73,000 years ago.

Climate change is likely to affect the movement of the planet’s tectonic plates.  As glaciers melt and dam reservoirs evaporate, there will be less weight on the land below, allowing it to rise.  Tectonic shifts can lead to earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, and altered ocean currents and weather patterns.

All civilizations are temporary outbursts of overbreeding and harmful lifestyles.  On a visit to Mayan ruins in Guatemala, Childs discussed their collapse, the result of a combination of factors.  “The issue, ultimately, was carrying capacity.”  Over the years, I’ve often seen people sharing their opinions of the Earth’s carrying capacity for humans.  Estimates usually range between 100 million and 15 billion, as if there is one correct answer.

Actually, the long-term carrying capacity is constantly changing, and these days it’s getting smaller and smaller.  Ocean acidification, chronic overfishing, and other harms have sharply reduced the vitality of marine ecosystems.  Chronic forest mining, soil mining, and industrialization have sharply reduced the vitality of terrestrial ecosystems. 

The fossil energy bubble enabled a huge temporary spike in carrying capacity, but as we move beyond peak, we’ll discover that the long-term carrying capacity is far less than it was 10,000 years ago, when the ecosystem enjoyed excellent health.  Climate change is likely to reduce it further still, as large numbers of plant and animal species go extinct.

There have been five mass extinction events in ages past, and we are now in the sixth.  Childs takes us on an amusing visit to the site of a catastrophic mass extinction, the state of Iowa, where 90 percent of the ecosystem has been reduced to agriculture.  He and a buddy spent two days hiking through fields, dwarfed by tall stalks of corn (maize), during a week of blast furnace heat. 

They were looking for signs of life besides corn, and they found almost none.  The ecosystem was once home to 300 species of plants, 60 mammals, 300 birds, and over 1,000 insects.  “This had historically been tallgrass prairie, one of the largest and most diverse biomasses in North America where a person on horseback could not be seen for the height of the grass.”  The sixth mass extinction is unlike the previous five, in that it is the result of human activities, an embarrassing accomplishment.

Yeast devours sugar and converts it into alcohol and carbon dioxide.  When yeast are added to a vat of freshly pressed grape juice, they plunge into a sweet paradise, and promptly produce a bubbly population explosion.  The alcohol in the vat will keep increasing until it reaches toxic levels, at which point the yeast experience a mass extinction event, the tragic consequence of living in an artificial environment constructed by thirsty alcoholics.

Childs believes that civilization and human domination of the planet waited until recently because we thrive in warm weather.  Humans evolved in a tropical climate.  Eventually, we migrated into non-tropical climates, and developed the skills and technology necessary for surviving in chilly weather, but the ice ages were a time of struggle, not a sweet paradise.  Then, a freak thing happened.  The weather got warm, and stayed warm, for 10,000 years.  Suddenly, we were like yeast in grape juice.  Yippee!

The 800-pound gorilla in this book is climate change, and concern about the decades that lie before us.  Childs cites the views of a number of scientists, and they are all over the place.  A loose cannon at the EPA says that global warming is a hoax, but the others agree that the climate is warming, and humans are the primary culprits.  Some think that we’ve passed the tipping point, and all ice will soon be gone.  Others think that if emissions are reduced, disaster might be avoided.  One is sure that technology will fix everything — geoengineering will allow us to control the planet’s climate like a thermostat.  Another says that humankind will be gone in 100 years.

Climate history tells us that global temperatures commonly swing up and down, sometimes as much as 10° to 12°C.  Huge temperature swings lead to extinctions, but life on Earth has persisted.  The current jump in temperature is unlike the previous ones in that it is the outcome of human activities.  It is the result of a unique combination of factors, with no historical precedent.  Humans are unique in being able to adapt to a wide variety of ecosystems, but ecosystems are far less adaptable to sudden climate shifts.  Agriculture is on thin ice, as are seven billion people.

In a hut on the Greenland ice sheet, Childs had a long chat with José Rial, a chaos researcher and climate change scholar.  Rial understands that nature is highly unstable, and quite capable of rapid and unpredictable changes.  “What we study doesn’t always help us predict very much, but it helps us to understand what is possible.”  Childs added, “He knows that the actual future is the one we never expect.”

Childs, Craig, Apocalyptic Planet — Field Guide to the Everending Earth, Pantheon Books, New York, 2012.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Bloodstoppers & Bearwalkers

The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is commonly called the U.P., thus its residents are Yoopers.  The arrival of civilization in the U.P. created a number of resource extraction colonies to disassemble the wilderness paradise.  Whites were attracted to the region to mine the furs, fish, copper, iron, and forests.  Long winters and marginal soils have spared it from being obliterated by industrial agriculture and suburban sprawl.  Population density is low.  The biggest city, Marquette, has just 21,000 souls.

Richard Dorson (1916-1981) was born into an affluent family in New York City.  He received his PhD from Harvard.  When he was hired by Michigan State University in 1944, he had never heard of the U.P.  In 1946, he boarded the ferry at Mackinaw City, landed in the U.P., and spent five months researching the folklore of the region.  He visited mining communities, lumber camps, beer gardens, and Indian villages, seeking out the venerable storytellers.  They included the Anishinabe, Cornish, Finns, Irish, French, Slovenians, Croatians, Swedes, and many others.  He met quite a few fascinating characters, listened to a lot of tall tales, and obviously had a good time in the process.

Then he wrote Bloodstoppers & Bearwalkers, which presented a scruffy parade of rustic Yoopers.  Harvard published it in 1952, after MSU refused to.  Dorson’s book is valuable because it recorded the essence of a number of cultures, many of which no longer exist.  Typical Yoopers were the opposite of wealthy East Coast dandies.  The whites often came from the lower classes of Europe, forced out of their homelands by the turbulence of the Industrial Revolution.  Many had little or no education; more than a few were illiterate.  They were strong, hard-working people who did not bloat and rot from soft indoor living.

Most of Dorson’s sources were born in the nineteenth century, but the oral cultures they came from had deep roots in the past, and deep roots in the living Earth.  There were Yoopers who could shapeshift into bears, wolves, pigs, and owls.  Potent curses could cause the death of others.  Anishinabe and Finnish shamans had powers for counteracting black magic.  Fairies were everywhere.  Yoopers spent their lives in a land that was spiritually alive, rich with power and vitality.

Dorson was hanging out with folks who were semi-Medieval at a time when modern America was dropping nuclear bombs, buying televisions, building skyscrapers, and zooming around in ridiculous automobiles.  Sadly, the ancient art of storytelling, humankind’s oldest profession, was being brushed aside by modern mass entertainment — pulp magazines, soap operas, and movie thrillers.

In the nineteenth century, Yooper communities spent long winters in isolation.  The waterways froze, the roads were buried under deep drifts of snow, and stores had no fresh produce for months.  In springtime, when the ice melted, the arrival of the first ship was always a day of joyful celebration and clattering church bells — reconnection with the outer world.  There was no television, radio, internet, phones, or recorded music.  Entertainment on long winter nights came from telling old stories and singing old songs — experiences shared by gatherings of family and neighbors, not in isolation with techno-gadgets.

Many communities had bloodstoppers, who could stop heavy bleeding by speaking words of power, or a simple touch.  There were far-sighted seers who could foretell the future, and psychics who could communicate with the spirits of the dead, or accurately describe things that were only known by you.

In those days, life was filled with mysteries — accidents, illness, deaths, disasters.  Misfortunes were often explained as being the result of malevolent acts of evil people.  The Anishinabe referred to these dark beings as bearwalkers, who could appear as animals, birds, or lights glowing in the night.  The French called them loup-garous, something like werewolves, devious shapeshifters. 

As we move into the post-antibiotic era, the post-carbon era, the era of spectacular climate juju, life will be filled with mysteries and misfortunes once again.  Without the ultra-expensive safety net of high-tech medicine, folks who are unwell will either recover or die, as the fates desire.  There will be few stores, if any.  We’ll be far less mobile.  Communication will be limited to those around us.  We’ll actually have to go outdoors — yikes!

The whites ravaged the U.P. because they knew almost nothing about ecological history, the mistakes of their ancestors.  They did not have great powers of foresight, nor deep reverence for the health of the ecosystem.  They remained addicted to an incoming flow of goods from distant industrial centers.  Few of them unplugged themselves from civilization and learned to live with the land.

The Anishinabe preserved a long tradition of reverence and respect for the family of life.  Dorson noted that they “all live in the woods as if the cities of white men never existed.”  Of course, anyone who has ever experienced a city will understand why.  They inhabited the same region as the whites, but the land was their home, a sacred place, where they were reverend guests — an entirely different relationship.

Today, we have fabulous education systems, and instant access to staggering quantities of information.  Today, there are specialists who actually understand ecological history, and are extremely distressed by the mindless destruction caused by consumer society.  But our schools do not major in teaching reading, writing, and ecological history.  Our religious leaders do not teach us reverence and respect for creation.  Tomorrow doesn’t matter.

Oddly, most of the graduates rolling off the academic assembly line these days are barely distressed at all.  They are lost in a fantasy world, mesmerized by a moronic belief in perpetual economic growth, eager to devote their lives to accumulating and discarding unnecessary stuff.  Sadly, the more our society is educated, the faster we destroy the future.  Circle what is wrong with this picture. 

In 1900, many whites dreamed that their children would spend their lives mining and cutting pines.  But in the decades that followed, as “infinite” resources became scarce, their communities and culture would be scattered to the winds.  Many moved to Detroit, where there were no wolves, bears, or fairies, and their children were raised in the urban consumer culture, which displaced the old rustic one.  Importantly, in just one generation, the culture of the youngsters was very different from the culture of their elders.  Cultures can make sudden sharp turns, for better or worse.

Another huge cultural shift is certain to occur as the collapse of industrial civilization proceeds.  At some point, all the daffy infantile balderdash of the consumer worldview will have no purpose whatsoever.  The throbbing lust for McMansions, giant pickups, and huge TVs will become meaningless.  The game of life will be nothing like today.

What can we do today to prepare the young for the coming storms?  It would be awesome if we could help them acquire the intelligence needed to replace the loony consumer culture with a new one that is far more in balance with the family of life, something similar to the Anishinabe perhaps.  We need to help them as much as we can before the lights go out.

Dorson, Richard M., Bloodstoppers & Bearwalkers, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1952.


In 1983, I biked to Wales and visited the hamlet of Cwmbelan, where my great-grandfather Richard E. Rees was born in 1843.  I had a beautiful experience chatting with Gwen Ingram, who lived in the old mill.  She relished the old days when the hamlet thrived.  Her father and grandfather were carpenters.  The water wheel drove their machinery.  The schoolhouse next door had been full of the sounds of playing children.  There were two pubs, two chapels, a post office, and over a hundred people.

Gwen told me about Mr. Morris, the village blacksmith.  He was a conjurer, a white witch, a healer.  When sickness or accident occurred, Mr. Morris was summoned, not a doctor.  In fact, doctors often came to visit the conjurer.  Once a year, for a small fee, Mr. Morris would cast a spell on the doctors, which would protect them from harmful curses.

He was wise in the use of herbs and potions, but he also had other powers.  When a horse ripped its leg on barbed wire and began bleeding heavily, the conjurer was called.  He hurried out of the village.  As soon as he entered the same field that the horse was in, the bleeding stopped.

She told me another story.  Many years ago, when the factory was a woodworking shop, the water wheel stopped one day.  It had jammed.  Her father went out to repair it.  Her grandfather was inside working.  The wheel started again, suddenly.  A saw began cutting into her grandfather’s knee.  It was serious.

Mr. Morris was called.  As soon as he entered the room, the bleeding stopped.  “It will be all right now,” he said.  A doctor who saw the wound said that the leg would have to go.  Mr. Morris disagreed, “It will heal.”  Old Mr. Ingram had to use a cane after that, but he could still walk the entire ridge of the roof when he was 70 years old.  I asked her why Mr. Morris hadn’t passed his knowledge on to his children.  “They didn’t have the intelligence,” she said.

I spent two afternoons talking with Gwen.  She was an inspiration, a beautiful soul.  I had finished my family research and had to go.  Money was running short, and I had to get back to Luxembourg.  I said good-bye to Gwen.  I said good-bye to Cwmbelan.

Maybe a week later, I was in Luxembourg.  By dusk, I had a neighbor at the camp, a 22-year old Swiss lad on a Yamaha.  I had two 98-cent bottles of wine.  He had a fifth of scotch.  We commenced an exchange of adventure stories.  He had been in Ireland.  He was a carpenter and an architecture student.

When I was talking about Wales and Mr. Morris, the conjurer, he lit up.  My friend was a conjurer too.  His grandmother and aunt practiced earth magic.  They had taught him.  He never talked to anyone about this because most people saw it as silly superstition.  I didn’t.  I pumped him.  Yes, stopping bleeding is easy.  Fevers, headaches, body pains all had cures.  People who his family couldn’t cure were sent to an old man in the hills.

He had found some old books while renovating a house, books of conjury: The Fifth and Sixth Books of Moses, and The Book of Seven Secrets.  I wanted to learn these methods, read the books.  Would he be willing to teach me?  No.  It is traditional that you only pass the knowledge on to two people in your life.  They have to be younger than you.  He was saving it for his children.  It was reassuring that the arts hadn’t been lost to time.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Mortal Sea

Until the twentieth century, it was commonly believed that the oceans, filled with vast quantities of fish, were immortal.  It was impossible for mere humans to ever make a dent in the sea’s enormous bounty.  Similarly, iron miners once believed that the Lake Superior lodes could be mined for eternity.  The white pines of the region were so numerous that it would be impossible to cut them all down.  Incredible fantasies are common among folks who are blissfully ignorant of eco-history, and don’t understand the reality of fish mining, mineral mining, forest mining, soil mining.

A society unaware of eco-history is like an elder lost in an Alzheimer’s fog.  He doesn’t recognize his wife or children, and has no memory of who he is, where he is, or what he’s done.  History turns on floodlights, sharply illuminating the path of our journey, making the boo-boos stand out like sore thumbs.  It’s more than a little embarrassing, but if we can see the pitfalls, we’re less likely to leap into them.  In theory, we are capable of learning from our mistakes.

Jeffrey Bolster is a history professor who once loved to fish.  He realized that the Hall of History desperately needed more illumination on humankind’s abusive relationship with the oceans, because it was a tragicomedy of endlessly repeated self-defeating mistakes.  He wrote The Mortal Sea, which focused on the rape of the North Atlantic — and he quit fishing.

In prehistoric Western Europe, many folks congregated along the water’s edge.  They harvested shellfish from the sea, but most of their fish came from rivers and estuaries.  Following the transition to agriculture and metal tools, their population grew and grew.  Forests were cut, fields were plowed, and streams were loaded with eroded soil, livestock wastes, human sewage, and industrial discharges.  Hungry mobs got too good at catching too many fish with too many traps.  England passed the Salmon Preservation Act in 1285, but it was little enforced and generally ignored.

Meanwhile, Viking innovations resulted in boat designs that were excellent for travelling the open seas.  They made it possible to aggressively pursue saltwater seafood, which was incredibly abundant.  Vikings learned to air-dry cod, which could be stored for years, and provide sustenance for long voyages of walrus hunting, auk killing, raping, and pillaging.  Before long, all coastal communities started building seaworthy boats, and hauling in the cod, mackerel, herring, and so on.  The human population grew, and marine life diminished.

In the sixteenth century, when Europeans explored the American shoreline, they were astonished by the abundance of sea life.  They observed hundreds of thousands of walruses, which could grow up to 2,600 pounds (1,180 kg), critters that were nearly extinct at home.  In those days, the oil industry was based on whales, walruses, and seals.

Halibut could grow to 700 pounds (317 kg).  There were sturgeons more than 600 pounds (272 kg), and cod five feet long (1.5 m).  One lad caught 250 cod in an hour, with just four hooks.  They killed seabirds like there was no tomorrow, using many for fish bait.  Lobsters were huge and plentiful, but their flesh spoiled quickly, so they were fed to hogs, used for bait, and spread on fields for fertilizer.

Maine and northward was home to the Mi’kmaqs and Malecites, who got 90 percent of their calories from sea life.  Their population was not supersized by agriculture.  They had no metal tools or high tech boats, nor a spirituality in which humans were the masters of the universe.  For some reason, they had failed to destroy their ecosystem.  Then, they were discovered, and the whites went crazy with astonishing greed.  “By 1800 the northwest Atlantic was beginning to resemble European seas.”  Where’s the fish?

Between America and Europe, the boreal North Atlantic had been among the world’s most productive fishing grounds.  The bulk of the book discusses how clever white folks skillfully transformed unimaginable abundance into an aquatic disaster area.  In the waters off Maine, Peak Cod occurred around the Civil War, long before industrial fish mining.  By 1875, writers were speculating about the extinction of menhaden, lobster, halibut, eider, shad, salmon, mackerel, and cod.

The fish mining industry was driven by a desperate arms race.  Hand-line fishing had been the norm since the Middle Ages.  Each fisherman set four to twenty-eight baited hooks.  Then, geniuses invented long-line fishing, which used 4,000 hooks.  More fish were caught, and more money was made.  By 1870, some fishers were setting 63 miles of lines with 96,000 baited hooks.

By 1880, geniuses were delighted to discover that gill nets could triple the haul — and they eliminated the need for bait, which was getting scarce and expensive.  For mackerel mining, the new purse seines were fabulous.  They used nets to surround an entire school of fish, and could land 150,000 per day.  In 1905 came steam-powered otter trawls — huge nets dragged across the sea floor that caught everything.  Only 45 percent of the fish landed were kept.  Unmarketable fish were tossed back dead, including juveniles of marketable species.  Millions of dead juveniles did not grow into mature fish, reproduce, and maintain the viability of the species.

Throughout the long gang rape of the North Atlantic, there were always voices urging caution and conservation, but they never ran the show.  As more and more capital poured into fish mining enterprises, resistance to regulation increased.  The one and only objective for fat cats was maximizing short-term profits.  Government bureaucrats who monitored the industry experimented with many interesting programs for increasing fish stocks — everything except for reducing fishing pressure.

New technology expanded the market for seafood.  Salting and drying were replaced by keeping fish on ice, and shipping them to market by rail.  Later, canneries created even bigger demand for fish.  The first floating fish factory was launched in 1954, and was followed by many more.  These boats had assembly lines for gutting, cleaning, and filleting the fish.  The fillets were quick frozen, for indefinite storage.  Waste was turned to fishmeal, another source of profit.

In 1992, the cod landings in Canada vanished, and the fishery was closed.  The U.S. closed fishing on Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine.  “The impossible had occurred.  People had killed most of the fish in the ocean.”  Folks had been overfishing since Viking days, but industrial fishing put the process into overdrive.  The cod show no signs of recovery.

Bolster concluded that the way to avoid unsustainable harvests was to adopt the precautionary approach, which meant always selecting the least destructive option.  This was an excellent idea, for a world ruled by pure reason.  Maybe we should contemplate phasing out all commercial fishing, because history is clear: any enterprise having to do with the accumulation of personal property, wealth, and social status tends to turn ambitious folks into insatiable parasites with no respect for the future.  Actually, the industry is working hard to terminate itself — before oceanic acidification beats it.

One more thing before I go.  Some folks have dreams of replacing today’s maritime fleet with zero emission sailing ships, but they don’t remember the downside.  Bolster warns us, “Fishing made coal mining look safe.  No other occupation in America came close to the deep-sea fisheries for workplace mortality.”  In just Gloucester, from 1866 to 1890, more than 380 schooners and 2,450 men were lost at sea.  When powerful squalls race in, sailboats are hard to control, and very dangerous.

Over the centuries, interregional commerce has made many fat cats fatter, but it’s also led to many catastrophes, like the spread of bubonic plague, cholera, malaria, influenza, measles, smallpox, rinderpest, potato blight, chestnut blight, assorted empires, and on and on.  Countless millions have died as an unintended consequence of long-distance travel.  It isn’t necessary for a sustainable future.

Bolster, W. Jeffrey, The Mortal Sea — Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail, The Belknap Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2012.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Goal of My Work

The goal of my work is to encourage learning, thinking, and discussion about how humankind has created a catastrophically unsustainable way of life, why the process of collapse cannot be prevented, and how collapse survivors, if any, might learn from our many mistakes and mindfully pursue a sane way of life.

Seven-point-something billion people are sleepwalking into a dark and furious storm because of a sequence of innovative experiments called progress.  Progress is an obsession that continuously provides us with new tools for destroying the health of the ecosystem more rapidly.  Unintended drawbacks routinely outweigh the benefits — one step forward, two steps back.  We celebrate the amazing benefits and… what costs?  Our loony culture programs us to hunger for what destroys us, like the junkies of Funkytown.  This is a short path.

The safe and effective antidote is, of course, clear thinking — letting our imaginations soar away from their cages to explore new realms, questioning every truth, swerving around the tar babies of the blind faith mobs.  When clear thinking plunges into a steamy relationship with ecological history, a new and healthy mode of perception can be born.  The offspring of this romance will have an irresistible urge to push aside entertainments and distractions, race out the door, and develop a reverent and respectful relationship with the family of life that exists outside the concentration camp.

When your body becomes infected, it dispatches a SWAT team to exterminate the pathogens.  If this fails, Plan B is a fever, which raises your body temperature in an effort to fry the malicious intruders.  Fevers are never enjoyable, but they might save your life, and extend your existence by decades.  Fever seems like an apt metaphor for the collapse of the global civilization — a turbulent experience that, on the plus side, has the possibility of preserving some of the ecosystem in the end.

So, we tried.  Perceptive people sounded the alarm, “The ecosystem is in great danger!”  A SWAT team was dispatched, but they were easily blown away by the pathogens — clear thinking was decisively overwhelmed by ignorance, hysteria, and deep-rooted habits.  Thus, Plan B is now underway, fever.  Growing winds announce the approach of furious storms.  No place is safe.  It’s time to stand before the court of the family of life and submit to rough justice.  We’ve broken all of nature’s laws.

There is no consensus among the prophets as to when the misery of collapse will intensify, how long it will last, what form it will take, or what will survive.  I have no clear vision of the future, but it’s easy to identify a number of factors that will play a powerful role in fueling the fever.

Non-renewable resources are finite, and many are becoming scarce and expensive.  The global economy is totally dependent on them, and the supply is shrinking every minute, rapidly.  Is it possible to feed even one billion once petroleum becomes unavailable or unaffordable?  We’re completely unprepared, in every way, for a global transition to muscle-powered agriculture — and we’ve forgotten that primitive agriculture wasn’t sustainable either.

The climate is becoming unstable, and there are countless scientific predictions that this will worsen, and could persist for thousands of years.  Agriculture, as we know it, is only possible in the stable climate patterns that began in 9600 B.C.  Our major food crops will not maintain their current productivity in an unstable climate, if they survive at all.  The same is true for nut trees, fruit orchards, forests, wildlife, marine life, livestock, and humans.  Climate change seems likely to pull the carpet out from under our traditional strategies for basic survival.

We’re approaching the end of the antibiotic era.  Pathogens always develop resistance to these wonder drugs eventually, and the pharmaceutical industry is running out of tricks.  Humankind got a temporary reduction in the toll from infectious diseases, which contributed to several decades of skyrocketing population growth, but the bubble will not last much longer.  Crowding, malnutrition, poor sanitation, and high mobility ensure a golden age recovery for all persecuted pathogens.  Modern medicine, as we know it, does not have a long future, no matter how hard we wish.

Crowding and scarcity are the parents of conflict, and in a world with seven-point-something billion people, growing levels of intense conflict are inevitable.  There are many nuclear weapons ready for use, and each of them is vastly more powerful than the bombs dropped on Japan in 1945.  There are also chemical weapons, biological weapons, cyber weapons, explosives, old-fashioned skull openers, and secret weapons we’ve never heard of. 

There are 400+ nuclear power plants in the world, and the worst-case scenario for even one of them could make vast regions uninhabitable for many thousands of years.  We have yet to experience a worst-case event, but they seem certain.  If reactors are not carefully decommissioned prior to problems, worst-case events are almost guaranteed.  Decommissioning is an extremely expensive process that takes years — but instead of an aggressive global campaign to do this as soon as possible, they’re contemplating building even more nuke plants!

There are surely a number of other loose cannons that will be smashing into the crowd, but let’s not get gloomy here.  Clearly, there is no brighter future ahead for civilization, which is good, because it’s the opposite of sustainable.  It’s terminally and incurably ill.  What then?

History informs us that all civilizations die, and that their survivors typically regroup and repeat the same mistakes, using the same skills and tools.  Today’s global civilization is fossil-powered, and its collapse can only be replaced by societies that are primarily muscle-powered.  Climate change seems likely to radically redesign the planet’s ecosystems.  It might be impossible to repeat the same mistakes, because they’ll no longer work.

And now, at long last, I shall get to my point.  Anyone who explores an assortment of books that discuss aspects of ecological history will soon perceive civilization as bloody screaming insanity, because it has zero regard for ecosystem health and stability, or for the future.  It’s pure madness.

In 1975, at the conclusion of 17 years of education, I was absolutely clueless about the extraordinary costs of industrial civilization, and knew nothing about lower-impact alternatives.  I had never heard the words “ecology” or “sustainable.”  My brain was swollen with enormous quantities of information that was useless for living in balance with the family of life.  It took many years to shovel all that crap out, and acquire knowledge and understanding useful for recognizing good paths.

So many of the huge problems we’ve created are the direct result of our culture, which trained us to be world champion consumers, to furiously destroy the planet to the best of our ability, so help us God — and we did just that.  Countless millions have devoted much of their lives to acquiring and discarding enormous quantities of stuff they had no need for.

It’s painful to contemplate what a beautiful world this could be if we had been provided with a thorough education in ecological history — if we had a vivid understanding of the centuries-long pileup of shortsighted blunders that have led us to the brink of catastrophe.  If we had clearly comprehended the big picture, many, many super-nutjob schemes would have been completely unimaginable.

If the entire global economy suddenly died today, all the lights went out, and all money became worthless, the future would be in the hands the survivors, most of whom are clueless about genuine sustainability.  They would likely regroup and attempt to resume the same fatal mistakes that we excel at today.

Nothing can change until ideas change.  At the moment, we have access to an amazing global communication system, a powerful tool for sharing ideas.  It’s actually useful for things beyond bombarding us with cat videos, tweets, and pornography.  How long will this system continue to operate, as Peak Everything keeps pressing harder on the brakes?  It would be wise to make good use of it, before it slips beneath the waves forever.

It’s never too late to rip off our blinders and learn.  My mission is to encourage this learning.  Let’s think about it.  Let’s talk about it.  Let’s write about it, film it, paint it, sing it.  Let’s use our legendary intelligence for truly intelligent purposes.  Let’s envision futures in which our fundamental boo-boos have been tossed overboard, and our descendants are once again wild, free, and happy.  Let’s do all we can before the lights go out. 

With lots and lots of luck, and lots and lots of clear thinking, our species might still be around in 500 years, in a radically different reality, fully obedient to the laws of life.  History bets against this, but the dreamers are giddy with hope.  

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Once and Future World

J. B. MacKinnon grew up on the edge of a Canadian prairie.  “I knew the prairie in the hands-in-every-crevice detail that only a child can, and it was, for me, a place of magic.”  He developed a healthy relationship with the living ecosystem, an experience that is no longer ordinary.  Years later, as an adult, he returned to visit home, and his sacred prairie had been erased by the Royal Heights subdivision.  He could find no trace of the red foxes that he had loved so much.  It hurt.

By and by, curiosity inspired him to spend some time studying books about the days of yesteryear.  To his surprise, he learned that the foxes of his region were not indigenous, nor was much of the prairie vegetation.  His childhood home bore little resemblance to the wild prairie that existed several centuries earlier.  Before he was born, the land was home to caribou, elk, wolves, and buffalo, all absent in his lifetime.  What happened?  Could the damage be repaired?  MacKinnon explored these questions in The Once and Future World.

The world we experience in childhood is typically perceived as being the normal, unspoiled state.  We can comprehend the damage that has occurred during our lifetime, but not all that has been lost since grandma was little, or grandma’s grandma.  This ecological amnesia is called shifting baseline syndrome.  It whites out the past.

Thank goodness for the venerable grandmothers of the temple of history.  They can take us to sacred mountains offering views of eons past, and help us remember who we are, where we came from, and how much has been lost.  We can see the Pleistocene cave paintings, aglow with reverence and respect for the family of life, created by a culture in which humans were “just another species on the landscape.”  Later Greek paintings illustrate a culture of total disconnection — human gods, goddesses, warriors, lion killers — starring the one and only species that mattered (as does our culture).

Like MacKinnon, the world of my childhood has been erased.  Three hundred years earlier, it had been a paradise of forests dotted with many pristine lakes, home to unimaginable numbers of fish, turtles, waterfowl, and assorted woodland critters.  Thousands of years earlier, in the wake of the melting glaciers, Pleistocene Michigan had been home to giant beavers, walruses, whales, mastodons, mammoths, peccaries, elk, moose, caribou, musk oxen, and bison.*  I had been completely unaware that they belonged in this ecosystem, and that their absence was abnormal.  I did not dream of their return, since I didn’t know they were missing.

MacKinnon says that we have inherited a 10 percent world, because 90 percent of the planet’s wildness is largely gone.  We can’t begin to comprehend all that has been lost in the last century or three.  But the tragedy can also be medicinal.  “The history of nature is not always a lament.  It is also an invitation to envision another world.”  Indeed!  Our current vision is suicidal.  His mantra is remember, reconnect, and rewild.  “We need to remember what nature can be; reconnect to it as something meaningful in our lives; and start to remake a wilder world.”  Great!

The rewilding bandwagon is picking up momentum now.  Twenty years ago, it meant reintroducing missing species, like elephants, mountain lions, and wolves, acts that would spark firestorms of opposition.  Lately, it has expanded to include smaller, doable tweaks that can be done right now, around the neighborhood, to make the ecosystem a bit more wild — reconnection.  Tiny successes are likely to feed the soul, and inspire bolder acts of healing.  It all adds up.

Importantly, rewilding directs some of our attention to the ecosystem that we inhabit, a form of awareness that’s getting close to extinction in consumer societies.  MacKinnon doesn’t fetch his paddle to spank capitalism, greedy corporations, corrupt politicians, incompetent activists, or the consumer hordes that live high impact lives whilst dishonestly denying all responsibility.  Instead, he suggests that most people simply don’t get it.  Industrial strength cultural programming makes it difficult or impossible for most people to wander beyond the mall parking lot.  Listen to this:

“Standing on the globe as we know it today, among people who are predominantly urban, who often spend more time in virtual landscapes than in natural ones, and who in large part have never known — do not have a single personal memory — of anything approaching nature in its full potential, it is hard to even wrap one’s head around where to begin.”

Most people are focused on short-term human interests, and nothing else.  They have been taught to inhabit a world of pure fantasy.  On the walls of their caves are paintings of trophy homes, SUVs, smart phones, tablet computers, big TVs, and on and on.  Most of them will never find their way home.

The tiny minority of folks who have found the power to think outside the box, like biologist Michael Soulé, feel “profoundly alienated from mainstream society.”  Communication is nearly impossible.  He says, “We are different.  We’re wired to love different things than other people are.”  I know what he means.  We don’t feel at home in this society.  Maybe we’re pioneers, scouting a new and safer path.

Mark Fisher is one of the different ones, an advocate for rewilding.  He works with the Wildland Research Institute in northern England, a devastated nation where people sometimes strongly oppose even the reintroduction of trees (let alone vicious man-eating beavers).  On a visit to America, he was overcome with emotion when he saw wolves running wild in Yellowstone.  When he stood on an overlook at White Mountain National Forest, and observed 800,000 acres of woodland, “I just cried my eyes out.”  Ancestral memories returned with great beauty.

Once upon a time, MacKinnon met a mother and daughter who had lived for 30 years in a remote region of British Columbia, in grizzly bear country.  The mother had had two brushes with the bears, and perceived them as “highly spiritual experiences.”  Being reminded that humans were not the Master Species helped her remember who she was.  “It was just like coming home.”  The daughter had no notion that living near grizzlies was unusual.  MacKinnon found hope in this, “We are always only a single generation away from a new sense of what is normal.”

Finally, I was fascinated to learn about our olive baboon relatives of Ghana.  Like us, their diet is omnivorous.  Like us, they evolved in a tropical climate, where they needed no clothes or shelter.  Like us, they can inhabit rainforests, deserts, and savannahs, but prefer savannah.  On average, males weigh 53 pounds (24 kg), and females weigh 32 pounds (14.5 kg).  Despite their size, they have been able to survive for millions of years in a world of powerful carnivores — without tools — without becoming hopelessly stuck in the toxic tar baby of innovation and technology, with its enormous bloody costs.

Instead of chasing large herbivores with spears, baboons hunt a wide variety of small critters with their bare hands and teamwork.  Hunting provides a third of their food.  Unlike us, they never migrated out of Africa, into chilly climates where they could not survive without techno-crutches.  Unlike us, they didn’t exterminate the predators that kept their numbers in balance.  They have never had any need for fire, psych meds, or cell phones.  Might there be a lesson here?

* Wilson, Richard Leland, The Pleistocene Vertebrates of Michigan, Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters, Vol. LII, 1967.

MacKinnon, J. B., The Once and Future World — Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2013.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Where the Wild Things Were

For the first billion years of life on Earth, all of our ancestors were single celled.  One day, we aren’t sure why, a hungry organism ate a delicious bystander, and became the first predator.  Predation inspired evolution to become very creative.  Some organisms became mobile by developing cilia or tails.  Others shape shifted into multi-celled life forms.  Critters developed scales, spikes, shells, fangs, and many other clever defenses.  Thus, one group survived by dining on the unlucky, and the bigger group survived by evolving every imaginable trick for cancelling lunch dates with predators.

When predators became too powerful, they would wipe out their food supply, blush with embarrassment, and starve.  Prey that managed to survive evolved stronger defensive capabilities.  But if they got too good at this, their population would explode, deplete the available nutrients, and the vast mob would perish in an undignified manner.

Thus, evolution is an elegant balancing act.  If the prey gets one percent faster, the predator gets one percent faster, not two.  This balancing act is the subject of William Stolzenburg’s book, Where the Wild Things Were.  More specifically, the book focuses on how humankind uses its brilliant technological innovations to bypass the limits of our current state of evolution, upset healthy balancing acts, and devastate ecosystems, often unintentionally.

In the early 1970s, zoologist James Estes travelled to the Aleutian Islands of Alaska to do research on sea otters.  Sea otters can grow up to four feet long (1.2 m), and they have incredibly soft fur.  Stylish women with too much money loved wearing fur coats, and for 150 years, from Alaska to Baja, otter hunting was a serious business, and very profitable.  Somewhere between 500,000 and 900,000 otters lost their hides to the fashionable dames of high society.

The island of Amchitka had a healthy population of otters, and this is where Estes began his study, scuba diving in frigid water.  Beneath the waves were thriving jungles of kelp, a popular hangout for a number of aquatic herbivores.  Kelp can grow up to 200 feet tall (61 m).  Urchins enjoy dining on kelp, and sea otters enjoy dining on urchins.  What Estes observed was a healthy balance between the kelp, urchins, and otters.

Later, he spent some time on the island of Shemya, where the great extermination had wiped out the otters.  Only a few had since recolonized there.  The ecosystem here was stunningly different from Amchitka.  In the absence of otters, the urchins exploded in numbers, and many were huge in size.  The sea floor was wall-to-wall urchins, and there was no kelp at all. 

So, when the keystone predators (otters) live in peace, the ecosystem is healthy and balanced.  When they are eliminated, the ecosystem becomes a train wreck — a chain reaction known as a trophic cascade.  Predators are essential.

A similar scenario occurred when Zion National Park was established in Utah.  To make the park safe for tourists, the cougars (mountain lions) were exterminated.  In their absence, the population of mule deer exploded, and the land was stripped of vegetation.  The forests were dying, because young seedlings were devoured by deer.  Meanwhile, over the hill in North Creek Canyon, the cougars had been left alone, and the land was remarkably alive and healthy.

The Kaibab Plateau in Arizona became a game preserve in 1906.  Deer hunters were kept out, and 6,000 large carnivores were deleted.  The deer population skyrocketed from 4,000 to 100,000, and the vegetation was promptly vacuumed up.  In the winters of 1924 and 1925, 80,000 deer starved to death.  Ecosystems pay an enormous price for the stunning ecological ignorance of literate, educated people, who spend years in miserable classrooms carefully absorbing spooky illusions.

Wolves and grizzlies had been absent in the Tetons for quite a while.  Then, a few began drifting in from Yellowstone.  At first, the moose and elk had no fear of them.  Wolves calmly strolled into the herd and snatched their young.  Before long, they learned that fearing predators was beneficial.  Something similar to this innocent fearlessness likely existed in every ecosystem when humans first arrived with their state-of-the-art killing technology.

In the 1950s, Paul Martin connected some archaeological dots.  The megafauna of the world, that had survived almost two million years of ice ages, suddenly blinked out whenever armed humans arrived in a new region.*  This realization gave birth to his Pleistocene Overkill hypothesis, “that man, and man alone, was responsible for the unique wave of Late Pleistocene extinction.”  Despite many loud objections, it has generally been accepted, but it fails to explain the large numbers of mammoths and rhinos found in Siberia and Alaska.  It also causes those who worship at the crumbling Temple of Human Omnipotence to become moody and irritable.

Whatever your opinion on this controversy, it’s easy to argue that during the long era of warm weather (since 9600 B.C.), the pristine state of America was the Pleistocene, not 1492.  In 2005, a group of biologists published a paper on rewilding in the journal Nature.  It recommended the reintroduction of missing species like cheetahs, camels, lions, and elephants.  The mainstream crowd soiled their britches and howled hysterically.

It was, like, totally groovy to reintroduce pretty butterflies, but the huge backlash boiled down to “no lions in my backyard!”  This was the lively kickoff for what will be a long and bumpy process of attitude evolution — or a fierce backlash from those who have yet to free themselves from the tiny cage of anthropocentric hallucinations.

I wonder if the systematic extermination of millions of predators over the years is associated in any way with the current explosion in the human population.  When climate change forced our ancestors onto the savannah, evolution had not prepared us for living amidst fast, powerful, heavyweight predators.  We developed a highly unusual dependence on technology in order to survive, thereby knocking over the evolutionary balancing act.  “They would eventually wield the power to level mountains, to dam the biggest rivers, to coat entire continents in concrete and crops, to alter the climate as it had once altered them.”  The chapter on how we morphed into apex predators is fascinating.

Today, we almost never encounter man-eating predators running lose.  We no longer have to pay careful attention to reality, ready to react at any moment, fully present and alive.  The world has become safe for pudgy cell phone zombies — an empty, dull, and lonely place.  This is seen as normal.  I disagree.

* Megafauna survived in Africa because they evolved together with hominids, but there’s more to the story.  Lars Werdelin, a specialist in African carnivores, has learned that there used to be far more large carnivores.  Between 2 and 1.5 million years ago, many large carnivores went extinct.  This is about the time that tool-using, meat-eating Homo erectus appeared.  (Werdelin, Lars, “King of Beasts,” Scientific American, November 2013, pp. 34-39.)

Stolzenburg, William, Where the Wild Things Were, Bloomsbury, New York, 2008.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Europe Between the Oceans

I’ve long been interested in learning more about my wild ancestors, the indigenous hunter-gatherers of Europe, in order to better understand who I am.  Descriptions of them recorded by the ancient Greeks and Romans were too meager to satisfy my curiosity.  Recently, I came across Barry Cunliffe’s book, Europe Between the Oceans: 9000 BC – AD 1000.  Cunliffe is an archaeologist, and ongoing research is discovering many new pieces for the puzzle.  His book serves readers a staggering amount of information.

Cave paintings have preserved beautiful memories of the wild paradise of ice age Europe, and the lucky people who enjoyed the continent in the days of its undiminished vitality.  The party began breaking up around 9600 B.C., when a warmer climate returned.  Glaciers melted and forests expanded northward into tundra country.  Tundra critters like the reindeer and elk were forced to migrate further north.  Others, like the mammoth and wooly rhino, walked off the stage.

The recovering forests provided habitat for smaller animals, like deer, elk, boars, and aurochs.  Here’s a surprising notion: “This forest fauna amounted to only about 20-30 percent of the total biomass of herbivores that had roamed the tundra before them.”  In a land of trees, there was far less meat nibbling on the foliage.  Folks were forced to live in smaller and fewer settlements.  Their population “drastically declined.”  They preferred locations close to coastlines, lakes, rivers, and wetlands, where a year round supply of food could be gathered with little effort.

Meanwhile, over the border in Asia, dark juju was swirling in the Fertile Crescent.  Between 12,000 and 9600 B.C., the number of permanent settlements was growing, based on hunting and foraging the (temporarily) abundant wild foods.  Then came the ominous Aceramic Neolithic period (9600 – 6900 B.C.).  By its end, people were growing fully domesticated cereals, and dining on domesticated sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle.  Cunliffe blames population issues for this shift, which has yet to stop clobbering the planet via seven billion unintended consequences.

The laborious new way of life worked for a while in Asia, but turned into a nightmare when supersized — large-scale irrigation-based agriculture, reckless forest mining, explosive population growth, bloody warfare, and full-blown civilizations run by power-crazy tyrants awash in testosterone.  Few civilizations, if any, have ever managed to reverse their mistake and deliberately return to low impact living.  Most self-destruct.  It’s easier.

Geography has played a starring role in European history.  The continent is a lumpy peninsula protruding from the posterior of Asia.  It is largely surrounded by navigable seas, and interlaced with navigable rivers.  Even in the days before roads, it was fairly easy to journey back and forth across it.  The continent had immense forests, fertile soils, a nurturing climate, plenty of water, thriving wildlife and marine life, and large deposits of industrial minerals and precious minerals. 

The Fertile Crescent, on the other hand, was an arid region that was poorly suited for supporting large complex societies.  But to the west was a vast unmolested paradise, and there were few guards at the border crossings to Europe.  Consequently, the wild hunter-gatherers of Europe were among the unluckiest people in the world, similar to the Native Americans in 1492.  Their valuable assets were irresistible to the growing mobs of hungry farmers.

Cunliffe euthanized the myth of the Neolithic Revolution, which purported that the Asian farmers swept across Europe in a blitzkrieg, nearly exterminating the indigenous folk, as the white folks did in America.  New evidence suggests that diffusion played a significant role in the spread of agriculture, similar to the spread of maize in the eastern U.S.  Whenever the folks down the river start growing lots of calories, and feeding swarms of bambinos, your options are: (1) exterminate them, (2) take up the dirty habit, (3) flee, or (4) be overrun.  Since farmers outbreed hunters, agriculture tends to spread like a steamroller.

Recent studies of mitochondrial DNA conclude that about 80 percent of European females are genetically indigenous, not related to Asian immigrants.  In France, Germany, and northeast Spain, only 15 to 30 percent of males have immigrant genes.

In a nutshell, Europe was essentially a continent of hunter-gatherers in 7000 B.C., and by 4000 B.C. it was reduced to a sad gulag of farmers and herders.  “The rapidity of the spread of the Neolithic way of life was remarkable.”  According to Cunliffe, wild Europe disintegrated in the face of increased mobility, connectivity, innovation, and imbalance.

Mobility was stimulated by factors such as growing population, depleted soils, overgrazing, and bloodthirsty invaders.  Connectivity was increased as trading networks expanded, often leading to tribal alliances led by cocky warlords.  Innovation was the clever process of devising new ways for living farther out of balance with nature, a tireless war on the future.  The Neolithic path was a devastating hurricane of countless forms of imbalance — population, hierarchy, warfare, technology, ecology, pathology.

Friendly traders who made it through the gauntlet of pirates and highwaymen delivered wine, weapons, jewelry, furs, smallpox, and the bubonic plague.  Diseases delighted in paying regular visits to the filthy, malnourished communities, and providing much needed assistance in resolving family planning imbalances.  Slave trading was a major industry.

In central Asia and southern Russia, ancestors of the Aryans hunted the fierce wild horses of the grassy steppes and ate them.  Over time, they succeeded in reducing them to submissive beasts, and used them for hunting, herding, trading, and raiding — another brilliant innovation!  Before long, Europeans on the plains were periodically being raped, pillaged, and slaughtered by scruffy hordes of horse-mounted Cimmerians, Scythians, Sarmatians, Alans, Huns, Avars, Bulgars, Magyars, and Turks. 

Equally catastrophic was the dark art of metalworking, another diabolical gift from the Middle East.  The Bronze Age began around 3300 BC, and the Iron Age arrived around 1200 BC.  The awesome new technology resulted in the deaths of millions of trees and people, and the permanent destruction of many mining regions.

Conflict was the core of the story.  Every page I turned unleashed a thousand screams, as jets of hot blood squirted out of the book, forming a sticky puddle around my desk, page after page.  They never tired of killing each other.  This psychic epidemic — “grow or die” — has now driven us deep into the valley of the shadow of extinction.  It’s a game we can neither win nor deliberately abandon.  Everyone loses.

Native Americans have always been appalled by the immense craziness of the Europeans who washed up on their shores.  Ward Churchill says that we suffer from a profound sense of identity confusion, having lost all connection to our tribal roots.  John Trudell says we have become disconnected from spiritual reality.  We have lost our identity and need to remember who we are.  The cave paintings are the strongest medicine we have, along with our dreams.

Cunliffe’s 10,000-year tour tells us almost nothing about tribal Europeans living in relative harmony with the ecosystem, but it exhaustively describes the birth of disharmony, which is useful to understand.  Many of the important lessons in life are learned from goofy unclever teachers, who demonstrate the wrong way to do something, and the Neolithic Europeans excelled at this, as did their descendants around the world.

They weren’t stupid or evil.  It’s nearly impossible to intentionally stop or turn a complex society in motion.  They were born in the wrong place at the wrong time, and had little choice but to be swept away by the roaring currents of their era, as we have been.  But calmer waters lie downstream, and some folks may survive the journey.  May they learn well from our mistakes, let the planet heal, and remember who they are.

Cunliffe, Barry, Europe Between the Oceans: 9000 BC – AD 1000, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2008.