Monday, April 15, 2013

What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been

I’ve been living like a hermit for 19 months now, reading dozens of powerful books, and writing weekly blogs.  I’m not the same person I was when I started.  My perception of reality has gone through some changes.  I’ve been sharing what I learned with the world.  I hope that seekers will find it, and I hope that my work will be helpful to them.  I’ll be publishing this material in book form shortly.

Genuine sustainability, of course, is the holy destination — a way of life that is healthy, satisfying, and has a long-term future.  Getting there, of course, will be an enormous challenge, requiring enormous changes, enormous wisdom, enormous luck, and probably a century or three, at least.

What we are today is the result of many choices and changes — stone tools, projectile weapons, fire, complex language, consciousness, directed thinking, cultural evolution, civilization, industrialization, the domestication of plants, animals, and minerals, and so on. 

At the time of the Great Leap Forward, 40,000 years ago, the megafauna were still abundant, and perhaps we were still sustainable.  But these cave painters were quite different from the far simpler hominids who roamed in Africa 500,000 years ago.  The high-tech cave painters were much more vulnerable to falling out of balance, which is exactly what happened.  Infants born today are still pure wild animals, ready to grow up in an advanced tribe of cave painters, or a primitive tribe of early Africans.  As Prince Charles says, we are what we are surrounded by.

Obviously, the safest and most conservative ideal would be to return to tropical regions.  Back in Africa, we didn’t need clothing, fire, shelters, or tools.  We lived much like chimps.  Food was readily available year round.  People enjoyed abundant leisure, and good health.  Perhaps climate change will come to our rescue here, by expanding tropical regions, and dealing a deathblow to agriculture.

But some predict that climate change will be the final chapter in the human story.  Those who foresee near term extinction (NTE) perceive me to be a delusional moron for contemplating the possibility that any humans will exist 100 years from now.  Rapid heating will destroy agriculture and blindside every ecosystem on the planet.  Oceans will become so acidic that only jellyfish remain.  Coal burning will cease with the demise of industry, so less incoming solar energy will be deflected by pollution, and the warming process will accelerate.  When the power goes out, the cooling ponds for spent fuel rods at 430+ nuclear power plants will evaporate, the rods will burn, and ionized radiation will poison the planet.

Extinction would neatly solve every single one of our problems.  We were certain to go extinct at some point in the future anyway.  Uff!  But what if there are still some humans alive 100 years from now?  I’m very happy that I’m not going to live to see the end of the collapse.  What the survivors choose to do is entirely beyond my control.  I am not responsible for the decisions they make, but I am responsible for taking action to protect their wellbeing, to the best of my ability.  We all are.

Collapse will blow away many obstructions that currently block our return to sustainability, but not all of them.  In theory, we are smart enough to choose a new path, and deliberately strive to return to a sustainable way of life.  What we do today to encourage this return, before the lights go out, may make a big difference in the coming years.  It feels right to try.

Five hundred years ago, large portions of the planet were still inhabited by humans living in a relatively sustainable manner.  Four thousand years ago, even more.  But these nature-based societies had no long-term future because there were pockets of dark energy emerging on the planet, something like cancer tumors, and their plan was perpetual growth, by any means necessary.

In his parable of the tribes, Schmookler warned us that once a bully entered the playground, the fun and games were over.  Only power can stop power.  He believed that this problem could be cured by creating a global civilization that was guided by wisdom.  Jack Forbes called it the cannibal disease, and he thought that this disease could be eliminated by spiritual rebirth on a global scale.  There is no fast-acting, silver bullet cure for the growing predator energy.  It’s a formidable challenge to the healing process.  In theory, we can outgrow it.

Another serious problem is a lack of foresight.  I could be gazing at a group of wooly mammoths right now, if only the inventor of the stone-tipped lance had the foresight to imagine the consequences of giving weapons of mass destruction to a gang of scruffy-looking illiterate longhaired rednecks.  Lions and tigers and bears don’t have this problem, because they hunt with tooth and claw, and this works just fine. 

Dilworth, Crosby, and Wright changed the way I think.  I used to believe that our problems began with domestication.  They taught me that our problems began with tool making.  Imagine what a paradise this world would be if prehistoric toolmakers had had foresight, immediately abolished their dangerous profession, and pursued careers in singing, dancing, and storytelling. 

At the dawn of the last century, there was loud and abundant opposition to automobiles, but the wise voice of conservatism was foolishly ignored — a huge mistake!  Two centuries ago, we failed to listen carefully to the ultraconservative Luddites, and what a mess we have now, Lord Almighty!  The problem really isn’t a lack of foresight, it’s a lack of stability.  Stable species have no need for foresight.  They live entirely in the here and now, and do so beautifully.  Domesticated humans are the exception.  We’re the loose cannons of the animal world.

Likewise, Shepard, Wells, Ehrlich, and Livingston warned us about the dangers of cultural evolution.  This is the same problem: a lack of stability.  Culture does not become toxic until it falls out of harmony with wildness, freedom, and the laws of nature — until it crosses the line and becomes unsustainable, a dead end.

It all boils down to remembering who we are, and how to live like human beings.  It’s about living as lightly as possible, and contributing the healing process to the best of our ability.

Thank you!  This has been fun!  Have an honorable life!  Best wishes!

Monday, April 8, 2013

Bring Back the Buffalo

The western plains of the US are witnessing an impressive boom in the growth of ghost towns (6,000 just in Kansas).  Lands having less than two people per square mile are classified as frontier.  In the 1990 census, 133 western counties were frontier.  The area of these counties is one quarter of the land in the lower 48 states (excluding Alaska and Hawaii).  The population of the plains peaked in 1920, and has been declining since.  An area that once may have supported 25,000 Indian buffalo hunters now supports 10,000 Americans.  The population is aging, because young folks tend to leave, and there is little to attract newcomers.

Ernest Callenbach, the author of Ecotopia, is a green dreamer.  His book, Bring Back the Buffalo, presents us with a vision for healing the plains.  For 500 years, the European invaders have done an impressive job of ravaging America’s ecosystems, but the plains are less wrecked than the rest of the nation.  Therefore, the plains would be the easiest region to return to a genuinely sustainable way of life.  So, what are we waiting for?

Well, more than a few folks have little affection for green dreamers.  The plains are home to God-fearing, government hating, ultra-conservatives.  Yet the economy of the region is kept on life support via a golden shower of generous government subsidies (welfare!).  Only fools with high principles question this paradox, and they are promptly bounced out of the saloon.

The government pays farmers not to till 26 million acres (10.5m ha) of highly erodible land.  In North Dakota, 80 percent of net farm income comes from subsidies.  Dry climate trends have been limiting farm productivity, and irrigated farming is on a dead end road, because underground aquifers are in the process of being emptied.

Public lands are leased to ranchers at bargain rates, typically 20 percent of the fair market price.  Grazing is not carefully managed, and both public and private lands are generally degraded.  The current system is a dead end road.  Likewise, the U.S. Forest Service routinely sells timber on public lands at prices far below cost.

Thanks to the General Mining Act of 1872, mining corporations can buy public land for $5 an acre, extract billions of dollars in minerals, pay no royalties to the public, and leave behind toxic messes for the public to clean up at enormous expense.  The latest technology is heap leach mining, which enables corporations to make a profit by extracting one ounce of gold from 60 tons of rock.  Crushed ore is piled up, and toxic cyanide is dumped on the pile.  The cyanide extracts gold, and some of it is collected at the bottom of the heap and then processed.  Thousands of birds are killed by landing on poison lakes.  If only humankind was able to survive without gold.

So, on the plains, like everywhere else in America, profits are privatized, and risks are socialized.  The net result is that taxpayers are subsidizing the destruction of the plains ecosystem.  But there are fools with high principles who question the wisdom of this.  For example, in a 1987 essay, demographers Frank and Deborah Popper proposed creation of the Buffalo Commons.  They needed bodyguards at public appearances in the early days, but the accuracy of their predictions, and the logic of their recommendations are gradually gaining respect.

Lynn Jacobs, author of the fiery Waste of the West, recommended that the government simply buy out the ranchers.  In the long run, it would be cheaper than subsidizing them to raise cattle and damage the range.  Public lands produce just two percent of America’s meat.  We could create an open range for buffalo once again, and this would benefit the health of both the grassland and the meat-eaters.  Grass-fed buffalo meat is low in fat, high in iron, and free of hormones and antibiotics.

Buffalo are amazing critters.  Bulls can weigh a ton, and cows more than a half ton.  In a five-mile race (8 km), they can outrun any horse, and they can sprint up to 50 miles per hour (80 km/h).  Their average lifespan is 12 to 15 years, but some live to 40.  They are perfectly attuned for living in semi-arid grasslands.  Unlike cattle, they can go several days without water.  They can remain healthy on a diet of grass.  They can survive blast-freezer winters without shelters or supplemental feed.  They give birth to their calves without human assistance.  They live wonderfully without managers!

Cattle tend to remain close to water, overgraze, and damage the banks of the streams (riparian areas).  Grazing buffalo keep moving, at something like a walking pace.  On the open range, they would eat and move on, and they might not return to that location for several years.  The result was healthy grassland, healthy riparian areas, healthy herds of buffalo, and healthy tribes of Indians.

Having been bred for passivity, cattle and sheep are easy prey, so ranchers have developed a passion for exterminating predators.  The poisons used by the Animal Damage Control (ADC) program kill twice as many cattle and calves as predators do.  Countless numbers of wild animals have been murdered in order to make the world safe for livestock.  Buffalo are far less vulnerable to predators, because they’re wild, fast, strong, smart, and dangerous.

Countless millions of prairie dogs have been killed, because cattle have a tendency to step into their holes and break their legs.  Buffalo, on the other hand, have learned the important skill of not stepping into holes.  Also, prairie dogs dine on vegetation, leaving less for the livestock to convert into profits — death to all freeloaders!

A primary obstacle to creating the Buffalo Commons is that the traditional mindset of the plains has a hard time wrapping its head around the idea of greatly expanding public lands, removing the fences, evicting the cattle, and letting the wild ecosystem heal — allowing the wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, and prairie dogs to return, and happily live in peace.

There’s an even wilder idea.  The government swiped lots of Indian land and gave it to settlers, so it could be put to “higher use.”  Since whites have a hard time surviving on the land without subsidies from outsiders, the land should be returned to the tribes and the wildlife.

Callenbach understands that a “sustainable” system is one that will function smoothly for “several thousand years.”  But in his zeal to sell us on a sustainable future for the grasslands, he gets a bit sloppy with the notion of sustainability.  He recommends promoting a tourism industry to bring urban people from distant lands to marvel at the herds of buffalo.  How will visitors travel to buffalo country?

He recommends constructing many wind turbines on the range.  Wind turbines are industrial products that cannot be made in the backyard with local materials.  The existence of industrial civilization is required for the maintenance and replacement of wind turbines, and the electrical grid.  He also suggests harvesting biomass from the range and using it to generate energy.

He envisions harvesting the buffalo, and exporting their meat and hides to other regions, to generate profits in a cash economy.  The old Indian system was far less risky.  Tribes simply killed what they needed, and left the rest alone.  All tribes had access to buffalo, so there was no motivation to trade, raid, or hoard.  The tribes got along just fine without creating a meat industry, or investing in power plants — and they are still suffering from when the crazy white tourists came to visit.  The tribes understood how to live with the land, as simply as possible.

Callenbach, Ernest, Bring Back the Buffalo: A Sustainable Future for America’s Great Plains, Island Press, Washington, 1996.

Monday, April 1, 2013

God Save Me From A Normal Life — Part Four

OK, so our modern civilized world is lost, but we’re starting to wake up to the notion that we’ve travelled a long ways down a dead path, because we have been guided by a dead vision.  We didn’t create this vision, we inherited it, and we have (so far) been unable to summon the power to acknowledge its fatal defects, reject it, and outgrow it — a long and difficult process.

Luckily, as we move beyond the temporary bubble of abundant energy, the unfolding collapse will undermine the dead vision.  The portion of the vision related to perpetual growth and insatiable consumption will be run over and killed by economic decay.  Unluckily, the portion of the dead vision related to the notion that humans are the divine owners and masters of the world is likely to persist, as we return to a muscle-powered way of life — but it will be weakened and vulnerable.

Following the Black Death, many survivors lost their faith in religion.  Why worship a god that permitted such immense horror?  In the wake of our collapse, many minds will likewise be roaring with resentment about all aspects of industrial civilization.  Our glorious era of astonishing innovation and human brilliance will shapeshift into a hideous calamity of unimaginable stupidity and unforgivable destruction.

“Never again!” will be the mantra of the survivors.  But how thoroughly will they comprehend the mistakes that created the disaster?  How likely will they be to continue the practice of unsustainable habits, especially soil mining, animal enslavement, and metal making?  One of the most powerful medicines of all is understanding.  What knowledge would be of great importance to our descendants?  How can we help them escape from the tentacles of our dead vision, and safely return to wildness and freedom? 

They will need to understand a reality-based version of history that discards the daffy myths and tells us who we are, warts and all — how we stumbled into this mess, and how our mistakes snowballed into the current disaster.  They will need to understand genuine sustainability, an extremely important subject that our society keeps chained up in the basement.  This is why I’ve written two books on sustainability — to shine a light on a clan of thinkers who are not wind turbine salesmen, or sustainable development hucksters.

Unfortunately, our institutions of education, religion, media, and government are manifestations of the dead vision, and they seem committed to going down with the ship.  To them, real history and genuine sustainability are matters of heresy that must religiously be beaten and stoned.  Sustainable living will never become our goal if we don’t know what it is, or why it’s essential to the health of the land, and the survival of our species.

Fortunately, the system is rotting from within.  In its prime, this system vigilantly protected us from fresh ideas and healthy visions — the cultural gatekeepers never allowed this information to enter our madhouse.  But the madhouse walls are crumbling. 

Recently, we have entered a delightful bubble of freedom.  For a limited amount of time — until the lights go out, or freedom is squashed — anyone can publish a book, release a song, display a painting, share a video, or discuss ideas with people from around the world.  For a limited amount of time, we have access to a global communication system.  Anything you do can be made available to billions.  If the moment is ripe, fresh ideas and healthy visions can go viral, rapidly spreading — and these days, large numbers of minds might be intrigued by fresh ideas and healthy visions.  Amazing things could happen.

Today, seven-point-something billion people are sitting ducks in a no-man’s-land between two powerful unfriendly forces.  On one side is climate change, which has many uncomfortable surprises in store for us.  On the other side is the end of the cheap energy bubble, and the collapse of industrial civilization, which will also bring many uncomfortable surprises.  In other words, big trouble is coming, big suffering.  The bill for our experiment in tool making has come due, and it is enormous.

Along with big trouble comes big opportunity.  Mother Nature will mercilessly resolve the overpopulation problem that we have ignored, a problem that has made sustainability impossible.  Another barrier to sustainability, our industrial system, will run out of energy, disintegrate, and rust in peace, terminating our dreadfully meaningless consumer society.  The final barrier to sustainability resides between our ears.

When the lights go out, our crippling isolation from the family of life will thankfully end.  There will be nothing to eat in the refrigerator, and all of our glowing electronic screens will thankfully go blank forever.  We will have no choice but to go outdoors, devote some serious attention to the living world, and develop a profound sense of respect for its power and beauty (and edible aspects).  We will have the precious opportunity to shift to a healthy path, and remember how to live like wild and free human beings once again.  Will we do it?

We at last come to the mother of all questions.  If people educated in industrial cultures survive the storm, will they regroup and repeat the same mistakes we’ve been making for thousands of years?  Or will they wisely perceive these devastating mistakes as important lessons to be learned?  What happens if the dead vision has no serious competition when the lights go out?  Game over?  Maybe climate change will make it impossible to repeat our cardinal mistakes.  Maybe it won’t. 

What if people imagined new visions before the lights went out, and shared them with the world?  What might happen if the moment was ripe, and these visions became as popular as Avatar, Lady Gaga, or Harry Potter?  What might happen if millions of minds received healthy doses of stories depicting real history and genuine sustainability?  What might happen if we acknowledged the existence of reality and began to have deep, meaningful discussions about it?  Could this awakening make a vital difference for those who live in the aftermath?  Could it help the present generation make better choices?

Those whose minds dance outside-the-box are not sodden with despair.  Big change is coming, and the rich and powerful can do nothing to stop it.  There is a faint light at the end of the tunnel.  The gang rape of the planet is running out of fuel, and will eventually cease.  Better days are on the way — a long era of healing.  Sooner or later, with or without us, the family of life will once again return to balance.

The ancestors remind us that there was a time before civilization, industrialization, overpopulation, the madness.  There will also come a time when they have long been forgotten.  There is no undo button, but there will come a day when the storm has passed.  Joy!