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.


Anonymous said...

“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."

Thank you! These sentences already made my day :)

I once heard that European shrubberies and other trees developed a very thick bark. There is no use of this thick bark nowadays since all animals today in Europe are the size of a deer or wild pig. However, thousand of years earlier these thick barks were absolutely necessary for survival since animals like elephants, rhinoceros and other sized animals wandered in Europe.
Do you know in which book this is explained again?

Cheers, Georg :)

Riversong said...

Another man who learned the vital lesson of the importance of nature's diversity is Allan Redin Savory (born 1935), Zimbabwean biologist, farmer, environmentalist, and winner of the 2003 Banksia International Award for environmental excellence and the 2010 Buckminster Fuller Challenge for comprehensive solutions to pressing global problems. He is the originator of holistic management. Savory has said, "only livestock can save us." Through reversing desertification, he believes rangeland soil has the ability to sequester vast amounts of CO2.

Savory began working on the problem of land degradation (desertification) in 1955 in Northern Rhodesia, where he served in the Colonial Service as Provincial Game Officer, Northern and Luapula Provinces.

As late as 1969 he was advocating culling large populations of wild animals such as elephants and hippos, when they were appearing to be destroying their habitat. He had participated in the culling of 40,000 elephants in the 1950s but he later concluded the culling did not reverse the degradation of the land, calling that project "the saddest and greatest blunder of my life."

After leaving Zimbabwe, Savory worked from the Cayman Islands into the Americas introducing a plan to reverse desertification of 'brittle' grasslands by carefully planning movements of large herds of livestock to mimic those found in nature.

Peer-reviewed studies have documented soil improvement as measured by soil carbon, water retention, nutrient holding capacity, and ground litter on land grazed according to Savory's methods compared with continuously grazed and non-grazed land.

What Is Sustainable said...

Georg, George Monbiot talks about bark and elephants in Feral, page 9. In the US, the pronghorn antelope are about five times faster than the fastest wolf or coyote. They evolved great speed to escape from speedy predators that have gone extinct.

What Is Sustainable said...

Riversong, I buy my meat and eggs from a local farmer, who uses pre-industrial methods — grass fed, free range, etc. Grain-fed meat is dumb. As a consumer in 2013 who is not independently wealthy, this is about the best I can do.

In my role as a thinker on ecological sustainability, trying to envision approaches for the long-term future, I don’t see animal enslavement as a part of the dream. Livestock ownership generates many problems. Richard Manning documents a lot of them in “Grassland” and “Rewilding the West.”

In “The Others,” Paul Shepard was not a fan of cattle, or any other domesticated critter: “If the auroch was the most magnificent animal in the lives of our Pleistocene ancestors, in captivity it became the most destructive creature of all.”

The ranching community seems fairly tolerant of Savory, since he endorses grazing. Lynn Jacobs, a blazing critic of the ranching industry wrote “Waste of the West” (1991). He said: “HRM [holistic resource management] promotes the dangerous philosophy that humans are capable of, and should be, managing a planet. It does not recognize the integrity of the natural environment, its right to free existence, or humans’ place in it.”

Savory is not loved by one and all.

Cows Against Climate Change: The Dodgy Science Behind the TED Talk by Adam Merberg

TED Talk Teaches Us to Disparage the Desert by Chris Clarke

All Sizzle and No Steak — Why Allan Savory’s TED talk about how cattle can reverse global warming is dead wrong. By James McWilliams

Anonymous said...

Hi Rick,

I wonder if you can write a blog entry about psychology and extinct animals. I remember that Jung wrote about how our lives and dreams still are connected to the original hunter and gatherer mind.

I personally have once in a while dreams about killing unsuccessfully huge, wild cattle. I wonder if that is connected to our ancestor's past.

What Is Sustainable said...

Unknown, I don't know enough about dreams and extinct creatures. I can tell you that I had a dream a few nights ago in which black panthers pranced playfully through a park, where some folks were sitting at picnic tables. All creatures were relaxed.

Unknown said...

I have personally thoroughly discredited two of the anti-Savory articles cited by a previous commenter (I am working on the third as we speak):

What Is Sustainable said...

Greetings Sheldon! Thank you for sharing your perspective. The book I reviewed here is not about ranching, I have never raised livestock, I am not an expert in ranching, and this is not a ranching blog. We live in an era when we have access to an immense amount of information, and a fair amount of it is inaccurate. The search for accuracy involves looking for the various viewpoints and comparing their arguments.

Riversong (above) mentioned Savory, not long after I had read Monbiot’s forceful critique of Savory. So, I bounced back to him that Savory’s ideas are controversial. I often agree with Monbiot, but he has written a few stinkers. I have also conversed with someone who claims to have directly observed the success of Savory’s methods. I don’t know enough to express an opinion on the subject. But your views contribute to the debate — great!