Monday, February 25, 2013

Spell of the Tiger

The Sundarbans is a region of mangrove forests spread across many islands.  It straddles the border between India and Bangladesh, on the Bay of Bengal.  In earlier times, it was a civilized place, a flourishing port region.  Archaeologists recently discovered a walled city, built in the fourth century, that covered two and a half square miles (6.47 sq. km).  Ruins are scattered throughout the jungle, including temples and monasteries.  In 1586, a European visitor reported seeing fertile land and sturdy, storm-resistant houses.  

Over the last 600 years, the land has experienced big changes.  Beneath the Bengal Basin, the geologic structures have tipped, and the course of the Ganges has shifted to the east.  The flow of the Ganges no longer enters the Sundarbans.  Explosive population growth upstream has loaded streams with eroded silt.  Today, little fresh water enters the Sundarbans, and the forest has become too salty for farming in many places. 

There are large quantities of valuable timber in the Sundarbans, but there is little logging, because entering the forest is fairly suicidal.  Even poachers stay away.  The sharks and crocodiles take great delight in having humans for lunch.  Venomous vipers plunge from trees onto your head, or crawl into bed with you at night (don’t roll over!).  Sea snakes are ten to forty times more poisonous than cobras. 

The primary man-eaters are the tigers.  In the dense, swampy, tangled forest, you never feel safe for a minute — and guns and numbers provide no protection.  Hundreds are killed every year.  One hundred years ago, during a six-year period, 4,218 people were eaten by tigers in the Sundarbans.  Tigers think twice before attacking a boar, because they are strong and have sharp tusks.  But humans are slow, weak, sitting ducks (and they taste a lot like monkeys).

Tigers can weigh up to 500 pounds (226 kg), and grow up to nine feet long (2.7 m).  They almost always attack from behind, and instantly kill their victims by crushing their necks.  They can leap onto a boat, without rocking it, snatch a person, and disappear into the forest before anyone realizes what happened.  They often do this at 11 PM, when everyone is asleep, and they are said to prefer the fattest.  There are many stories of flying tigers.  They can leap 20 feet with a dead human in their jaws.

Tigers may sit patiently in the brush for hours, waiting for the ideal moment to pounce and snatch.  They can move across the land without making a sound, materialize anywhere, and hide behind a blade of grass.  Tigers are rarely seen, and they always see you first.  Scientists know almost nothing about them, because there is no way to observe them without becoming cat food.

Sy Montgomery discussed the healthy relationship between humans, tigers, and forests in her book Spell of the Tiger.  Modern folks suffer from immense spiritual pain because we don’t remember who we are.  Somewhere down the line, we got confused, and began to hallucinate that we were the lords and masters of the universe.  The folks of the Sundarbans have never forgotten that humans, like everything else that breathes, are meat.  They are kept humble by the powerful spell of the tiger.  We are all simply members of the family of life, where everyone is meat, and nobody is special.

Montgomery once met an unlucky shaman.  “His father, his brother, and his favorite son were all killed by tigers.  His wife was eaten by a crocodile.  His daughter drowned in the river.  His house was struck by lightning and burned to the ground.”  He did not hate tigers.  “No matter how many men are killed, no matter how deeply the man-eaters are feared, the tiger is not hated.  Almost everyone agrees on this point.”  They are sacred creatures that are worshipped, but not loved.  Likewise, the snakes are honored and loved, despite the fact that they kill thousands of Indians every year.

Hindus and Sufi Muslims live together in the Sundarbans, and they are tolerant and respectful of each other (unlike in urban areas).  Hindus worship local Muslim deities, and vice versa.  Every year, villages hold sacred celebrations to honor Bonobibi, the forest goddess, and Daksin Ray, the tiger god.  Unlike Western people, they have a spiritual connection to place.

In the Sundarbans, the Forest Service allows people to enter the forest to fish, collect dry firewood, or gather honey.  No groups are given a permit unless their party includes a reputable shaman to speak the sacred mantras, appease the forest deities, and provide the illusion of spiritual protection.  

In the Indus Valley, archaeologists have discovered a series of five clay panels at the site of Mohenjo-Daro, dating to 3000 BC:  (1) tiger and forest, (2) person chasing tiger, (3) a god begging the tiger, (4) loggers clear-cutting, (5) god gone, tiger gone, forest gone.  Moral: agriculture destroys everything sacred.  It echoes the Epic of Gilgamesh.

The tigers do a great job of slowing the destruction of the Sundarbans.  If the forest were destroyed, the land would be swept into the sea.  In 1984, a portion of the Sundarbans was turned into a national park.  India is a world leader in protecting tigers, but the tigers will never be safe until the human herd returns to sustainable levels — the sooner the better.

We are now living in the Kali Yuga, the last of four world ages, according to the Hindus.  In their scriptures, this is an era when human integrity hits bottom: “Property becomes rank, wealth the only source of virtue, passion the sole bond of union, falsehood the source of success.”  Some believe that the end of the world is not far off.

In any case, climate change and rising sea levels seem certain to devastate the low-lying Sundarbans, along with its mangroves and tigers.  Over the last 125 years, the rate of severe storms has been increasing.  Some associate this with deforestation.  In the Bay of Bengal, storm-driven tidal waves can grow to 250 feet high.

I will never forget this book, because it presents humans in normal, traditional way.  It’s a powerful message that reaches ancient places.  It provides a healthy contrast to Western society, where every predator is a problem that needs to be killed.

Montgomery, Sy, Spell of the Tiger, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1995.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Easter Island II

I keep having nightmares about one possible future: biofuel hell.  Clearly, they are visions sent by ancestral spirits, and they are meant to be shared.  Perhaps they will inspire writers, movie makers, and other creative people to produce healing, mind-altering work.  Perhaps they will inspire contemplation and sincere conversations.  At this point, I’m just going to dump a bag of jigsaw puzzle pieces on the table.  See what you can do with them.

During World War II, when gasoline was rationed, or unavailable to civilians, hundreds of thousands of vehicles in dozens of nations were converted to run on wood gas.  Car owners installed equipment that weighed 400 to 500 pounds (180 to 225 kg), plus another 50 to 100 pounds (22 to 45 kg) of fuel — wood chips or charcoal. 

In the firebox, fuel was ignited to release the gasses, primarily nitrogen and carbon monoxide.  Carbon monoxide was the flammable and explosive energy source.  It was also extremely poisonous, much to the delight of morticians.  Many folks drove with their windows rolled down.  The gas contained twice as much non-flammable nitrogen as carbon monoxide, which meant that it was not a high-powered fuel. 

In wartime Germany, 500,000 wood gas vehicles were in use, including cars, buses, tractors, motorcycles, ships, and trains.  These vehicles were also used in Denmark, Sweden, France, Finland, Switzerland, Russia, Japan, Korea, and Australia.

Charcoal-powered cars were developed in China in 1931, and they remained popular into the 1950s.  Before World War II, the French were consuming 50,000 tons of wood for vehicle fuel.  This increased to 500,000 tons by 1943. 

Readers who want to get a better feel for what life was like in an era of wood-fuelled transport should read Producer Gas & the Australian Motorist by Don Bartlett.  It’s a 26 page discussion of what Australian drivers experienced during World War II, when little gasoline was available. 

Today, rising gasoline prices are renewing interest in wood-power.  Modern technology allows wood-powered cars to cruise at 68 mph (110 km/h), with a driving range of 62 miles (100 km), consuming 66 pounds (30 kg) of wood.  There’s just one little drawback with biofuels.  “If we were to convert every vehicle, or even just a significant number, to wood gas, all the trees in the world would be gone and we would die of hunger because all agricultural land would be sacrificed for energy crops.  Indeed, the woodmobile caused severe deforestation in France during the Second World War.”  France was not alone.  Remember that there were far, far fewer cars in the world 70 years ago.

Americans are fiercely defensive about their sacred guns, but this passion is trivial in comparison to our God-given right to drive energy-guzzling motorized wheelchairs.  Most of us would rather be stoned to death by an angry crowd of Taliban than switch to bikes or buses.  Have no doubt that when gas rises above $20 or $30 a gallon, or when filling stations are out of gas for days or weeks at a time, countless hucksters will fall out of the sky, selling wood gas conversion units — and every one of them will be bought.

Air travel is a dinosaur industry, and will likely be replaced by rail.  The University of Minnesota is working with the Coalition for Sustainable Rail (CSR) and the Sustainable Rail International (SRI) to create powerful, fast, clean, and modern steam locomotives.  “If the demonstration project is successful, however, trains could be merely a starting point for biocoal-fueled steam power.”

The Natural Resources Research Institute at the University of Minnesota has invented biocoal.  They feed “cellulosic biomaterial” (like dead trees) into a torrefaction process and turn it into black pellets.  The raw material is exposed to high temperatures, pulverized, and then formed into fuel pellets.  Unlike wood pellets, torrefied biomass pellets will not absorb water, so they can be stored outdoors.  The pellets have the same energy content as coal, with no sulfur or heavy metals.  

Tests in the US, Europe, and Japan have shown that torrefied biomass can successfully be used in coal-fired power plants with few modifications.  Several plants for manufacturing torrefied biomass should be in operation by 2013.  This fuel has a higher energy density than wood pellets or wood chips. 

Here’s a gem: “Biomass gasification is being considered as a possible technology for converting at least 10 million acres of Texas brush into biofuel, according to Dr. Jim Ansley, Texas AgriLife Research rangeland ecologist in Vernon.”  Vast areas of mesquite and juniper wood are just going to waste, and need to be put to productive use.

This winter, many Greeks are heating with wood, since the tax on heating oil rose 450 percent.  Slimeballs are busy illegally cutting trees in national forests.  At night, people are going into Athens parks and cutting limbs and felling trees.  High levels of smoke are sending pollution readings far beyond danger levels.  What’s odd is that this hasn’t been a cold winter.  In Athens, nighttime temperatures typically dip into the low 40s (F).  That’s warmer than where I live. 

I’ve run my heater maybe four hours all winter.  I’m a writer, and writers have no choice but to live on nothing.  Every morning I get out of bed and put on a tee-shirt, heavy sweatshirt, fleece jacket, thick hooded sweatshirt, insulated cap, blue jeans, socks and shoes, and I’m ready for a long day of work.  Writers know that our sense of coldness is culturally programmed — it’s all in your head — and has little to do with our animal bodies.  Once we understand this vital secret, we can live with far greater comfort, at far lower temperatures, at far less expense. 

So anyway, as we move beyond the bubble of cheap energy, we will certainly burn more biomass.  Will we use biomass energy to fuel our wood stove, cars, tractors, trucks, railroads, and power grid?  No doubt we’ll give it a good try.  It’s clearly an insane idea, but it’s hard for us to imagine a life without our addictions.

Anyone who has read John Perlin’s essential book, A Forest Journey, clearly understands the folly of running an industrial civilization on wood.  It’s been tried many times, and always failed, because it wiped out a resource that the civilization depended on for its survival — just like we’re doing today with fossil fuels. 

Jared Diamond is a geography professor at UCLA.  He has given many lectures on the Easter Island story.  His students always have a difficult time grasping the image of natives cutting down the last tree on the island.  “That's simply not possible — people aren’t that stupid!”  Well, unfortunately, yes we are, is Diamond's conclusion in his book, Collapse. 

Today, we’re moving in the direction toward a treeless planet — Easter Island II.  Ten years from now, somewhere in Nebraska, there may be a morbidly obese accountant who drives his wood-powered F350 4X4 monster truck two miles to work every day.  His fuel box is empty.  In his back yard is the last living tree on Earth.

OK, so those are the puzzle pieces. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Pandora’s Seed

Spencer Wells is a geneticist who gathers DNA samples from around the world and uses them to analyze evolutionary history.  Mutations occur from time to time, and they provide landmarks in our genetic history.  Following a mutation, the new characteristic is passed along to future generations.  A region where the new characteristic is found in unusual density is marked as its place of origin.  Wells can also distinguish old mutations from recent ones, based on how common they are.  So, each mutation is marked with a time stamp and a place stamp.  Using these markers, and your DNA, Wells can go to a world map and plot the meandering journey of your ancestors’ migration out of Africa. 
Genetic historians perceive the journey of humankind in a unique manner.  Based on gene markers, they have theorized that humans nearly went extinct around 70,000 to 75,000 years ago, dwindling down to 2,000 to 10,000 individuals.  This corresponds with the huge eruption of Mount Toba in Sumatra, which spewed massive amounts of dust into the atmosphere.  Global temperatures dropped from 9° to 27° F, and the weather stayed cool for 1,000 years.
The ancestors of Neanderthals moved to Europe about 500,000 years ago, and they overspecialized for life in temperate forests.  Our ancestors migrated out of Africa 60,000 years ago, and arrived in Europe 35,000 years ago.  A few thousand years later, the Neanderthals were gone.  Europe was in an ice age 35,000 years ago, and the forests had changed to grasslands and tundra.  Neanderthals were not well suited for hunting on open ground.  The humans had better weapons, better hunting skills, and travelled in larger groups. 
Our tool-making skills increased significantly around 60,000 years ago, and we may have been pushed out of Africa by population pressure.  The arrival of the cave painting era, 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, provides clear evidence that we had acquired abstract thought.  This era of big changes has been called the Great Leap Forward.  Recent evidence suggests that this era of advance may have started as early as 70,000 years ago. 
Moving out of Africa presented us with a radically different survival game, and this encouraged us to be innovative and adaptable.  So did the wild mood swings of the climate.  Wells, who sees the world through gene-colored glasses, suspects that abstract thinking was the offspring of one or more genetic mutations.  Once we had acquired this dangerous juju, we were able to jump onto the high-speed train of cultural evolution.  Sadly, we have yet to be blessed with mutations that provide the powers of foresight or wisdom. 
So, for 60,000 years we’ve been stuck in a vicious cycle of out-of-control innovation, and this madness kicked on turbo thrusters about 10,000 years ago, with the Neolithic Revolution — the dawn of farming and civilization.  We entered into a long era of unusually warm and stable weather, which opened the floodgates to many new possibilities, and many new mistakes.
At this point, the feces hit the fan, in impressive quantities.  Everything that had worked pretty well for tens of thousands of years got blown out of the water.  The quality of our diet plummeted.  Our teeth began rotting from a grain-based diet.  Our enslaved animals generously shared their disease pathogens with us, shooting us off into an era of catastrophic pandemic disease.  Growing population led to growing empires and growing warfare.  We got shorter, sicker, and died younger.  We lost our ancient freedom and became “a group of worker bees with looming deadlines to meet.” 
Well’s book, Pandora’s Seed — The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization, does not present us with a miraculous epic of progress.  Agriculture totally changed our relationship with nature, and not for the better.  We quit finding food, and started creating it.  “Instead of being along for the ride, we climbed into the driver’s seat.”  Our numbers exploded, but our quality of life declined. 
Today, at the zenith of our tool-making juggernaut, we’re killing ourselves with a high-calorie crap diet, and an addiction to motorized transport.  A wide variety of degenerative diseases, rare in earlier centuries, have become quite popular.  We tend to be obese, and our rates of mental illness are rising sharply.  The World Health Organization predicts that by 2020, mental illness will be the second most common cause of death and disability, following heart disease. 
The book gets wobbly near the end, as it contemplates solutions.  Wells clearly understands that our current way of life is a dysfunctional disaster, and he hopes that we can find a sustainable long-term solution, but his recommendations get dodgy.  This is a normal problem with any book that attempts to sneak as much cool technology as possible into a “sustainable” tomorrow.  Many have tried, none have succeeded. 
“I’m not advocating a return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, of course….”  Why not?  At some point in our collapse, if we’re lucky, hunting may once again become a real possibility.  He doesn’t reveal how we’ll be able to indefinitely continue agriculture as water supplies are rapidly being depleted, as erosion continues the process of converting cropland into wasteland, and as the end of the cheap energy bubble is leading us toward the end agriculture as we know it.
Writing in the months prior to the Fukushima disaster, Wells thought it was time for a second look at nuclear energy, “as nuclear waste disposal methods become increasingly sophisticated and power plants become safer and more efficient.”  Better electric cars are coming out all the time.  If we don’t develop new forms of energy, our only alternative would be radical change. 
We are never more innovative than when we are up against the wall.  Maybe we’ll come up with some cool ideas.  The bottom line is that we need a new worldview, followed by a new lifestyle.  We need to live far slower, and waste far less.  Great!
Finally, Wells reveals his biggest fear, a nightmare future where fundamentalists try to take over the world.  Both Christian and Muslim fundamentalists detest modern life, and want to return to the good old days, by any means necessary.  Here on the west coast, Christian fundamentalism is far from putting a stranglehold on society.  But Wells was born in Georgia, raised in Texas, and schooled at Harvard, so his paranoia is understandable.
Wells, Spencer, Pandora’s Seed — The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization, Random House, New York, 2010. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Dominant Animal

Paul and Anne Ehrlich are respected thinkers in the modern environmental movement.  Paul achieved infamy in 1968, following the publication of his book, The Population Bomb.  It made dire predictions, warning of mass starvation in the 1970s and 1980s, and won him the intense and enduring hatred of every fiend suffering from a loony obsession with perpetual growth. 
The predictions probably would have come true, but Ehrlich’s timing could not possibly have been more unlucky.  He was blindsided by the unfortunately lucky efforts of Norman Borlaug, who tried to eliminate world hunger.  His Green Revolution dramatically increased grain yields, leading to a dramatic surge in population, making the original problem far worse — progress!  Catastrophe was postponed for a few decades.
In 2008, on the fortieth anniversary of The Population Bomb, Paul and Anne published The Dominant Animal.  They admitted that the original book had a serious defect — it was too optimistic.  The new book presents an extremely intimate “birds and bees” discussion of the facts of life regarding the immense challenges of the twenty-first century, including overpopulation, overconsumption, peak energy, global heating, toxic pollution, mass extinctions, and on and on.  It neatly describes the hominid journey, millions of years long, which led to what we have become today.
This book is special because of its expanded discussion of cultural evolution.  Genetic evolution is a slow motion process that modifies genes over the passage of many generations.  Cultural evolution modifies and accumulates information, and it can happen with dizzying speed.  Other animals learn behaviors by imitating their elders.  Humans learn behaviors and ideas, via imitation and complex communication.  Alas, cultural evolution enabled us to become the dominant animal on Earth, a backhanded honor, sodden with appalling consequences.
It’s not a book to read for pleasure, but it should be read by everyone on the planet, two or three times.  It fills many of the huge empty gaps in our education, and in the media coverage of our era.  You don’t have to be a propeller-head to understand it.  Hopefully, it will make enormous throbbing consumer fantasies go flaccid, and reorient minds to life in actual reality.
On the bright side, we’re not 100% committed to mass suicide.  There are people all over who think that self-destruction is totally unhip.  Most of them are far more interested in moving toward a survivable future.  The Internet enables ordinary people to make their ideas available to billions of others, and everyone now has access to a much broader range of ideas.  Sometimes the efforts of individuals succeed in sending cultural evolution off in a new direction — all that’s needed is a healthy imagination and good timing.
Ecological history has thoroughly compiled our major mistakes.  In theory, we could study this history, change our habits, and break out of the centuries-long cycle of repeated mistakes.  That might be fun.  When luck is in the air, large societies can make huge changes with dazzling speed — like the collapse of the Soviet Union.  We don’t need more technology; we need social change that’s inspired by clear thinking.
The authors recommend a number of rational things we could do, but make no effort to mesmerize us with magical thinking.  The Ehrlichs are not betting heavily on a future of endless “sustainable” growth.  They are sharing two lifetimes of learning with the younger generations, and that’s very thoughtful of them. 
Daniel Quinn’s work taught me that a segment of humankind went sideways with the transition to agriculture.  Everyone agrees that our problems grew explosively from that time.  In their 1987 book, Earth, the Ehrlichs wrote, “In retrospect, the agricultural revolution may prove to be the greatest mistake that ever occurred in the biosphere — a mistake not just for Homo sapiens, but for the integrity of all ecosystems.” 
Other writers, like Paul Shepard, John Livingston, and Alfred Crosby, understood that the roots of our problems were older.  They point to the Great Leap Forward, about 40,000 years ago, the cave painting craze.  The Ehrlichs agree that the Great Leap “greatly accelerated our rise to dominance,” but they also look even farther back.  Our ancestors began making chipped-stone tools about 2.5 million years ago.  “It was the start on the road to dominance that has produced technological ‘descendants’ as varied as books, blenders, SUVs, antibiotics, and nuclear weapons.” 
Other animals sometimes use tools, like chimps fishing for termites with a stick.  Hominids became increasingly innovative at making tools.  Without stone tools, life would have been a struggle for Homo habilis.  Modern consumers cannot survive without tools, but chimps without termite sticks would be just fine.
Further population growth, at any rate, is insane.  In Earth, the Ehrlichs discussed China’s one child policy, an impressive success that prevented 350 million births, and the corresponding environmental harm and social misery.  The Ehrlichs recommended that all governments implement fertility control programs — especially in over-developed consumer societies like ours — because it was the moral and responsible thing to do.  This notion was not repeated in the new book.  The authors deeply lament the fact that overpopulation remains a taboo subject among world leaders — inexcusable stupidity.
Just as destructive as overpopulation is overconsumption.  Billions of people, both rich and poor, have been programmed to believe that nothing is better than shopping.  I never watch horror movies.  Whenever I have an urge to get really grossed out, I go to a mall and observe the super-trendy shopping zombies.  Eeeeek!  The Ehrlichs recommended creating an organization similar to Planned Parenthood to help us plan our acts of consumption with utmost wisdom and responsibility.  Abstinence is usually the most mature option.
George Basalla now steps into the spotlight.  He pointed out that technological innovation was almost never motivated by fundamental human needs.  Everyone agrees that we were healthier and happier before agriculture.  Cars were not invented because people had lost the ability to walk.  What “need” is being met by cell phones, TVs, and computers?  Phooey on frivolous stuff.
This book devotes loads of attention to the many serious problems that have resulted from our experiment in cultural evolution.  One sentence hit me like a large stone hammer.  The authors are celebrating our glorious achievements.  Human brains have evolved capabilities “far beyond those of other animals, allowing us to become the dominant animal and (we hope) to remain so.” 
We hope so?  Dominant is cool?  Isn’t “dominant animal” essentially the one and only reason why we’re racing toward catastrophe?  Play with the notion of the “formerly dominant animal.”  What might that look like?  Could we live without tools once again, running around naked in the jungle?  Could we shut down the asylum and go back home, to the family of life, and live happily ever after?  That would be fun.  Have a nice day!
Ehrlich, Paul R. and Ehrlich, Anne H., The Dominant Animal - Human Evolution and the Environment, Island Press, Washington, 2008.