Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Food Crisis in Prehistory

For several million years — almost the entire human journey — our ancestors survived by hunting and gathering.  Until 10,000 years ago, everything on our menu was wild food.  By 2,000 years ago, most of our food came from farms, a rapid and radical change.  In his book The Food Crisis in Prehistory, archaeologist and anthropologist Mark Nathan Cohen explored two questions.  Why did we switch to agriculture?  Why did this shift occur, around the world, almost simultaneously?

His answer to both questions was population pressure.  Our preferred foods decreased as our numbers increased.  In the good old days, the preferred food for hunter-gatherers everywhere was large game.  It took far less time to kill a six-ton wooly mammoth than it took to kill six tons of rabbits, rats, or snails.  As long as large game was available, we were delighted to put the forks to them.

When large game became scarce, adventurous souls migrated into uninhabited regions, in search of nourishing four-legged banquets.  Because we were so clever with tool making, we learned how to survive in almost any type of ecosystem, wet or dry, roasting or frozen.  Eventually, we ran out of uninhabited regions, and large game became scarce everywhere.  Before long, less-preferred foods began to look like a delicious alternative to starvation.

When large game was our primary preferred food, the planet’s carrying capacity was maybe 15 million people, Cohen estimated.  He believed that the transition to agriculture had three phases: (1) large game, (2) small game, aquatic resources, more plant foods, and (3) domesticated foods.  The archaeological record in most regions generally supports this.

Climate change also played a role.  As the ice ages passed, the weather warmed up, and tundra ecosystems were replaced by forests.  Large tundra critters became hungry homeless ruffians, and many of them staggered toward the exit.  Forest critters like aurochs, deer, and pigs were not animals that lived in vast herds.  Hunting them required more effort.  By and by, we zipped past Peak Large Game.

Cohen found plenty of evidence that the trend throughout the long human journey had been one of population growth, slow but fairly steady.  Some societies did a good job of voluntarily limiting their numbers, and others didn’t.  Some surely lived in balance for multiple generations.  Joseph Birdsell estimated that during the Pleistocene, 15 to 50 percent of all live births were eliminated via infanticide.  Deliberate stability was better than growth-driven starvation, but stability was a slippery ideal.  In an ever-changing world, stability can only be temporary.

The notion of carrying capacity sets a firm limit on how many deer an ecosystem can support.  For humans, carrying capacity limits were more flexible, because we could digest a wide variety of plant and animal parts.  When rhinoceros steaks were no longer available, we began eating more plant foods, smaller game, marine mammals, salmon, shellfish, birds, seeds, nuts, snails, reptiles, insects, and so on.  It was more work, but it kept us fed, and our numbers slowly kept growing.

This transition from a Class A diet to a Class B diet occurred in all societies, in various forms, and it increased the carrying capacity for humans.  You can guess what happened next.  We eventually thumped against the ceiling once again, despite our new high-tech nets, bows and arrows, traps, weirs, fishhooks, harpoons, and so on.  What now?  Our options included die-off, bloody conflict, effective family planning, and/or a Class C diet.

Fate tossed the dice, and a crap diet won.  Agriculture was not a brilliant discovery.  A million years ago, everyone knew what happened when seeds were planted.  Everyone knew that tending plants was laborious.  In a world of abundant animal food, most plant foods were held in low regard.  “People worldwide eat meat and various fruits when they can, and eat cereals and tubers only when they must,” said Cohen.  A cereal-based diet had many nutritional drawbacks, and nothing was more excruciatingly dull than a diet that majors in hot porridge.

We routinely fail to appreciate the elegant time-proven culture of wild foragers.  They ate a wide variety of nutritious wild plants that evolution had fine-tuned to survive the various quirks of the local ecosystem.  Because they weren’t dependent for survival on just two or three domesticated plant foods, Bushmen could easily survive a three-year drought that hammered nearby ranchers.  Foragers were healthier people, because wild foods were more nutritious, and the nomadic lifestyle discouraged disease.

Farming was backbreaking work.  It required tilling, planting, weeding, and watering — months of effort invested before the payoff, if any.  The threats of drought, deluge, frost, insects, disease, fire, hail, and winds could zap a thriving crop at any time.  When the grain was ripe, there was a window of opportunity for harvesting it, which sometimes only lasted a few days.  If you missed it, you were doomed.  The stalks had to be cut and then threshed.  If the grains were not loose enough, some roasting was needed.

Storage pits or granaries had to be built, and constantly defended against assorted moochers and thugs.  Before storing it, the grain had to be parched to prevent germination, and to discourage molds and fungi.  Prior to cooking, grain had to be pulverized by pounding or grinding.  In the New World, living on maize required even more work.

Population pressure propelled the spread of agriculture to every suitable habitat.  Small societies of hunter-gatherers were helpless to oppose the growing onslaught of belligerent mobs of porridge fiends and bread heads.  In recent times, we’ve discovered how to use soil to convert petroleum into edible food-like substances.  Today we’ve munched our way deeply into the realm of Class D foods, loaded with highly refined carbs, oceans of empty calories.

We’ve succeeded in temporarily stretching our carrying capacity to 7 billion, but little stretch remains before the inevitable snapback.  Even ghastly Class D foods will slam into firm limits — Peak Cheap Energy, Peak Fertilizer, cropland destruction, desertification, and the certainty that industrial agriculture has an expiration date.  Somewhere down the road, climate change is likely to eliminate most or all forms of farming.  The unusually stable climate of the last 10,000 years is a freak.

Observing the human journey from Cohen’s mountaintop, we can see above the fog of myths, and the big picture comes into better focus.  Even the hunter-gatherer way of life, as it occurred, was not sustainable over the long run.  If we had remained in balance, agriculture and civilization would have never happened.  Human efforts at voluntarily limiting population have not been 100 percent effective, and this failure has been amplified by our skills at neutralizing the traditional man-eating predators that provided essential mob control.  A herd of seven billion is a time bomb.

On a misty morning, a group of chimps sits at the edge of the forest, gazing at us.  They are our closest relatives, and for millions of years they have not blundered into tool addiction, domestication, or population explosions.  Predators are always free to invite the less alert to lunch.  Wild chimps are still healthy, happy, and sustainable.  They wonder how we became so lost and confused.  It’s never pleasant to watch old friends self-destruct from devastating addictions.  What happened?  Was it necessary to trash the planet?  Please!  Get a grip!  We miss you!  Come home!

Humankind is suffocating in toxic myths.  Critical thinking is a powerful antidote, and it’s a vast, barely explored continent.  In the coming decades, one way or another, the lights will be going out on civilization, as we know it.  In the time remaining, it would be wise to bury as many of these myths as possible, so that they will not poison the minds of future generations, if any.  It’s time for learning, thinking, and remembering.  We have many dragons to slay before we can recover our long-lost treasure, a reality-based understanding of where we came from, and who we truly are.  Our greatest need is for healthy new visions.  It’s time to go home.

Cohen, Mark Nathan, The Food Crisis in Prehistory — Overpopulation and the Origins of Agriculture, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1977. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Coming Home to the Pleistocene

Paul Shepard (1925-1996) was a human ecologist and a turbocharged original thinker who spent his life trying to understand (a) how ordinary animals like us managed to evolve into a highly destructive swarm, and (b) how we could correct this.  Genetic evolution is the primary engine of change for all forms of life, except humans.  With humans, history and culture have changed us far more, and much faster.

Shepard’s research came to conclusions that did not thrill the stodgy professors of mainstream academia.  He was more or less dismissed as a nutjob.  Most of his fame came after he died, when a new generation of fresh minds discovered an underappreciated genius.  His masterpiece, Coming Home to the Pleistocene, summed up the scholarly pilgrimage of his life.  He wrote it as cancer was drawing the curtains on his life.

The Pleistocene epoch was the era of ice ages.  It began between 2.6 and 1.6 million years ago (definitions vary), and concluded about 11,700 years ago.  It was during this time that the hominid line slowly evolved into Homo sapiens.  The Upper (or Late) Pleistocene spanned from 126,000 to 11,700 years ago, and it was the zenith of humankind, Shepard concluded.  Then, the weather warmed up and stabilized, farmers and herders fell out of the sky, and all hell broke loose.

The frantic 10,000-year whirlwind that transformed healthy wild foragers into berserk consumers is a mere eye blink in the human journey.  Our genome is mostly unchanged from the Pleistocene, but the cultures of civilization have mutated into a catastrophic snowballing nightmare.  (Old Norse tales described berserkers, warriors who became so possessed with battle rage that they couldn’t turn it off.  They killed everyone in sight, including family and friends.)

Back in the Pleistocene, our wild ancestors lived in a sacred world where everything, both animate and inanimate, was spiritually alive.  They were healthy, strong, and had a nutritious diet.  They lived in small groups, and were skilled at cooperation, conflict resolution, and sharing.  Women were not second-class.  Folks spent their entire lives in Big Mama Nature’s magnificent cathedral.

Wild people were highly attuned to their ecosystem.  They paid acute attention to every scent, sound, and flicker.  Because they were both predators and prey, survival required them to pay complete attention to reality, all the time.  Unlike the human livestock in corporate cubicle farms, our wild ancestors were intensely alive, and they lived authentically, in the manner for which evolution had fine-tuned them.  Even today, all newborns are wild animals, expecting to spend their lives in a wild world.  Sadly, every critter in the cubicle farm has the time-proven genes of Pleistocene hunter-gatherers, but not their time-proven culture — a profound deviation.

Shepard increasingly comprehended the tragedy of what had been lost: “Through writing and contemplation over the years, I have somehow bonded firmly to those ancient ancestors, their society and ecology, and this kinship has guided my writing and thinking.”  He spent his boyhood hunting and fishing in rural Missouri.  Later he spent two decades in Los Angeles, and residing in a super-nightmare undoubtedly sharpened his perceptions of modernity’s pathology.

With the arrival of agriculture, folks shifted from being nature, to controlling nature.  We became dependent on the products of domestication, and population clusters swelled and bloated.  Domestication created “a catastrophic biology of nutritional deficiencies, alternating feast and famine, health and epidemic, peace and social conflict, all set in millennial rhythms of slowly collapsing ecosystems.”

Most animals have numerous offspring that mature rapidly, with few surviving to adulthood.  Humans have few offspring, we mature slowly, and our lives pass through many phases.  Wild cultures guided people through these phases, so that they could smoothly move down the path, living in balance from birth to death.  Today, 8-year olds spend much of their time surrounded by other 8-year olds.  In wild communities, they normally lived amidst people of all ages.  Every day was lived in the presence of the extended family.  Grandma and grandpa were never far away, nor were aunties and uncles.

Shepard believed that modern cultures do an especially terrible job at guiding newborns through their first two years, and through the crucial transition from adolescence to adulthood.  When a phase is not successfully completed, this failure can permanently arrest the development process.  “We slide into adult infantility and its neurotic symptoms,” a widespread problem in the modern world.  Many never develop a mature sense of social responsibility or emotional stability.  Imagine jamming 14 million Pleistocene hunter-gatherers into the culture of twenty-first century Los Angeles.

Shepard’s tour visited a wide variety of other topics.  His analysis of pastoralism gave me quite a thump.  Domestication replaced intelligent and powerful elk and deer with “total potato-heads” like cattle and sheep.  Potato-heads were not sacred wild beings worthy of respect, they were just personal property — status tokens — the bedrock foundation of every insane society.  The more potato-heads you own, the bigger man you are.  Nothing was more important than status, and it was impossible to have too much.

Once herders discovered the thrill of having enormous sweaty hairy horses between their legs, the age of warriors rose to great heights.  Mighty mounted warriors raided other camps to swipe their potato-heads, killing anyone who objected.  They also welcomed visiting raiders with spears, arrows, and impolite remarks.

When the Navajo acquired potato-heads from the Spanish, their traditional foraging culture was destroyed, according to James Mischke, a social scientist at DinĂ© College.  Horses provided high mobility, and the raiding game led to an era of devastating tribal warfare.  “The rise at that time of the hero/warrior was far more disastrous for Navajo society than the advent of colonial militarism two centuries later.”

Eventually, the lords of the cavalry joined up with the lords of civilization to conquer vast empires of status tokens.  Captured people were penned and exploited.  No settlement was ever safe from the raids of mounted warriors.  Consequently, humans were reduced helpless flocks of sheep that required the protection of mighty vigilant shepherds. 

The Judeo-Christian culture was born in a pastoral world.  In my digital Bible, the words “flock” and “horse” each appear 100 times, and “shepherd” appears 83 times.  “As I live, saith the Lord GOD, surely because my flock became a prey, and my flock became meat to every beast of the field, because there was no shepherd…” (Ezekiel 34: 8). 

Our wild Pleistocene ancestors needed no shepherds, because their world was not roaring mad.  They were safe.  There were no hordes of mounted warriors to live in fear of, just assorted local predators.

This book is juicy because it presents us with ideas that are contrary to almost everything we believe — at a time when our crazy culture is ravaging the planet.  Shepard rips our worldview inside out, and the shocking result presents a reasonable imitation of coherence.  Is it possible that our modern consumer wonderland is not, in fact, paradise?  Could there really be better ways to live?  Are we mentally capable of wrapping our heads around other modes of perception?

Shepard clearly understood that it was impossible for us to march out of our freak show malls and promptly return to a Pleistocene way of life, but he did have powerful dreams that we could heal over time.  Right now, we could begin recovering forgotten social principles and spiritual insights.  Right now, we could begin weaning ourselves from addictions and illusions.

He knew that all humans share the same Pleistocene genome, and that our genetic memories all trace back to a common ancestral culture in Africa.  Long-term human survival requires that our cultures reintegrate with nature.  It’s important to understand how we got lost, and where we came from.  Shepard tosses us a lump of hopium: “We humans are instinctive culture makers; given the pieces, the culture will reshape itself.”  Will it?

Shepard, Paul, Coming Home to the Pleistocene, Island Press, Covelo, California, 1998.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Voice of Knowledge

Before they learn how to speak, children are wild, living in their true nature, like all other healthy animals.  They live in a world of feelings.  Life is very cool for the first few years, until the domesticated culture reduces them to domesticated neurotics.  By and by, domesticated adults teach them names, and then language, and then abstract concepts, like good and bad, trendy and dorky.  Young children believe whatever we tell them, even if it’s irrational or toxic.  In this manner, their minds are filled with knowledge, and innocence gets tossed out the window.

Knowledge is made of words, and can only be shared with others via words.  Knowledge is opinions, stories, or gossip, but never truth.  Truth can only be experienced via feelings, never with words.  Anyone who offers you truth is a liar.  Almost all knowledge is lies, and these lies make everyone miserable and crazy, according to Don Miguel Ruiz, author of The Voice of Knowledge.  We reside in an insane society, and it’s no wonder that our knowledge is faulty.  The elders who load our minds with dodgy knowledge are not evil; they simply pass on what they were loaded with — it’s all they know.

The deity of the Judeo-Christian stories was perfect, and humankind was created in his image.  We are the crown of creation.  But not long after we became fruitful, multiplied, and subdued paradise, the deity experienced an embarrassing bout of creator’s remorse.  “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.  And it repented the LORD that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.”  (Genesis 6:5-6)  Obviously, the final solution was to drown them all.  He was a complicated deity, and more than a little abusive.

This dark tone dominates the knowledge of our society.  You smell bad.  Your clothes are dumb.  You’re stupid and ugly.  You’ll never succeed.  You’re flawed in every way.  You don’t deserve to be loved.  Ruiz doesn’t explore green issues, but it’s easy to see that our toxic knowledge is the driving force behind the spectacular ecocide of our era.  We never doubt that compulsive shopping is the silver bullet cure for whatever ails us.  People will respect us, and life will be grand, if we continuously accumulate trendy status trinkets.  Yet no matter how hard we shop, inner peace is never achieved.  Sigh!

Our world is swarming with beliefs of self-rejection.  If I choose to agree with a belief, it becomes a part of my story.  “My name is Richard, I live in Oregon, I like to learn and write, and I’m a bad person who will never succeed.”  If I choose not to agree, the unwanted belief harmlessly swirls down the drain.  My story is nothing but software, a collection of agreements.  It’s not carved in stone; it’s always changing as the years pass.

The voice of knowledge is the storyteller inside your head.  The thinker never stops jabbering at you, and it never hesitates to disapprove or belittle.  It’s a common mistake to presume that it’s speaking the truth.  Ruiz warns us: “Don’t believe yourself, and don’t believe others.”  In reality, you are far better than what you imagine.  Listen with great care, have an open mind, and deflect incoming lies with the shield of your skepticism.  “The greatest gift you can give yourself is the gift of doubt.”

The heart of Ruiz’s message is that (1) we are ridiculously screwed up, and (2) we can heal ourselves.  Life does not have to be sad and painful.  All humans are artists, and we all have the power to create a really sweet life story, a masterpiece — and we should.  We change the world by changing ourselves.

There are two types of artists: aware and unaware.  The unaware are oblivious to the multitude of lies that contaminate their lives.  Confronting these lies is unpleasant work.  It’s much easier and safer to just believe in them, because everyone else does, too.  They zoom through life on autopilot.  Artists who are unaware bear a striking resemblance to the living dead.

Artists who are aware understand that the path to healing is a process of unlearning, hurling toxic agreements overboard.  Beneath the sludge of lies is the happy wild animal you were as a child.  Young children have no choice, they uncritically absorb the knowledge they are fed.  Older folks do have a choice.  We don’t have to be dead.  We can create a far better story based on nontoxic beliefs, deleting the self-defeating.  Then we can gird ourselves to thrash the super lies: human superiority, materialism, perpetual growth, the glory of civilization, and so on. 

Science-oriented folks may have an impulse to dismiss Ruiz following a quick glance at the cover.  From my point of view, the book is maybe 15 percent sugarcoated woo-woo, but its strengths are the reason why you’re reading about it here.  The scope of the discussion is narrow, focusing on how you can fix your story, extremely useful for some.  But on the far side of the fence, there are other monsters.  (Don’t bother looking for love if you aren’t happily in love with yourself.)

Ruiz presents us with a different model for perceiving reality.  This model reframes the notion of denial.  People who are in denial are not stupid, stubborn, or evil.  They’re just paralyzed by a headful of lies, because they live in a culture foaming with lies, hence they’re perfectly normal.  More importantly, it reframes the integrity of mainstream reality.  “Normal” = crazy.  This is a brilliant and powerful twist.  Luckily, normal is not a life sentence without parole.  He gives you the key to freedom — doubt.  Off with the chains!  Fly away!  Be happy!

Most importantly, Ruiz has found a way to communicate stimulating knowledge in a form that many normal people can hear.  His first book, The Four Agreements, has sold four million copies.  It’s in the top 100 at Amazon.  His books are short, simple, clear, and deep.  For more than a few people, they are mind-altering.  Despite the fact that they will be filed in the New Age box, they are not fluffy, flaky joyrides in magical thinking.  He is not a get-rich-quick quack.  There is power in his words. 

Ruiz, Don Miguel, The Voice of Knowledge, Amber-Allen Publishing, San Rafael, California, 2004.