Thursday, March 20, 2014

Kith (republished as A Country Called Childhood)

Jay Griffiths soared away on a seven-year pilgrimage to forage for the knowledge that illuminated her book Wild.  She spent a lot of time with wild tribes, and with conquered people who still had beautiful memories of wildness and freedom.  As she bounced from place to place, both modern and indigenous, she became aware of a glaring difference between wild people and the dominant culture — their children.

This presented her with a perplexing riddle.  “Why are so many children in Euro-American cultures unhappy?  Why is it that children in many traditional cultures seem happier, fluent in their child-nature?”  Her dance with this riddle gave birth to her book, Kith.

Griffiths is English, and the book’s title refers to the old phrase, “kith and kin.”  Kin means close family.  Kith originally meant knowledge or native land, the home outside the house.  When peasants lived on the land, their knowledge was rooted in the living place around them, not in mysterious juju like mathematics, economics, or engineering.  In recent centuries, most peasants have been driven out of their home, and their traditional knowledge has been forgotten.  Today, the meaning of kith has been reduced to extended family and neighbors.

Like “sustainable,” kith was once a beautiful word of great importance, now reduced to a toothless ghost.  Both words are lifesavers, if we could just remember them.  They are not forever lost.  Griffiths reminds us that “the past is not behind us, but within us.”

In this book, kith is used in its ancient form, a sacred word of power.  Why are kids so unhappy?  They have no kith.  They are dreadfully impoverished.  In our society, kids (and adults) are unwell because they have largely been exiled from nature.  They live indoors in manmade environments.  Nature is an essential nutrient for health and sanity.  Kith is life.

Griffiths and her brothers spent much of their youth playing outdoors, wandering across the land, getting wet and dirty, without adult supervision.  They rarely watched television.  She fears that her generation may be the last to experience the remaining vestiges of a normal childhood.  But I think that the game will change radically after the lights go out.  Mass insanity may not be our closing act.  After the plague comes healing.

Evolution prepared our species for a life of hunting and foraging.  All infants born today are wild animals fine-tuned for thriving outdoors in a tropical climate, surrounded by wild flora and fauna.  Being surrounded by nature is what all animals require for a normal and healthy life.  Like all other animals, young humans need to explore, play, learn.  Children need nature like fish need water.  They need a place where they belong, a home, a land that will be “mentor, teacher, and parent.”

They need to grow up in lands that still have their original parts — deer, birds, snakes, frogs, coyotes — our relatives who have not forgotten how to live.  They have so much to teach us.  Pets are unacceptable replacements for our wild and free relatives.  Cities are unacceptable substitutes for healthy places to live.  Zoo animals have miserable lives.  Confinement in industrial civilization is devastating for tropical primates of all ages.

Several centuries back, Griffiths’ ancestors lived in villages near commons.  The commons were open lands where the people could hunt, fish, pick berries, gather wood, and graze livestock.  Today, the commons are nearly extinct.  They have been eliminated by a process called enclosure, whereby wealthy lords fenced off the commons, replaced forests with sheep pastures, evicted most peasants, and burned down their humble cottages.

Enclosure is the diabolical anti-kith.  Modern kids no longer have abundant open spaces in which they can mature in a healthy manner.  Space has been enclosed and denatured.  So has freedom, the essence of childhood.  They are no longer free to spend their days wandering where whimsy leads them.  Modern childhood is now rigidly scheduled.

Community has also been enclosed.  Kids used to be raised in villages where there were no strangers.  Kids were mentored and parented by neighbors and extended family.  Modern kids grow up in a world of automobiles, strangers, and nuclear families.  Outdoors, behind every bush, are tweakers, psychopaths, perverts, and predators.  Kids spend much of their lives under house arrest.

Kids have immense interest in learning, but we give them “a school system that is half factory, half prison, and too easily ignores the very education which children crave.”  They major in obedience, punctuality, self-centeredness, and the myths of civilization.  They spend their childhood years indoors, in classrooms, and graduate knowing nearly nothing about the ecosystem they inhabit, their kith.

This is quite different from how children in traditional societies are raised.  Wild children are in constant human contact until they learn to walk, some sleep with their parents for the first five years or so.  They are never left alone to cry themselves to sleep.  They are never scolded, beaten, or given commands.  They are socialized, respected, treated like adults.  Socialization teaches them to be respectful of others, and nurture good relationships.  They develop confidence and self-reliance.

Importantly, wild cultures do an excellent job of guiding youths through a healthy transition into adults.  Every person is born with a unique personality.  We all have different gifts, interests, and destinies — trackers, herbalists, counselors, scouts, singers, dancers, drummers, shamans, storytellers, healers, slackers, morons, lunatics. 

Elders carefully help youths find their paths in life.  “Every child needs their time in the woods, to find their vision or their dream.  Yet most children today have no such rite, no way of negotiating that difficult transition into adulthood.”

The first generation of enclosure victims were painfully aware of all they had lost.  Their city born descendants have little or no awareness of the lost treasure of kith, and the harsh poverty of their consumer prosperity.  They are “denied their role as part of the wildlife.”  Many may go to their graves without ever experiencing the beauty that is the sacred birthright of tropical primates, and every other living thing.

Griffiths learned to talk and read at a very early age.  She has a great passion for words and learning.  You get the impression that she has read 10 or 20 books a week since she was crawling around in nappies.  She writes with flourish and flamboyance.  Kith is not an instruction manual for childrearing, but it provides a wealth of important insights for tropical primates who live in modern society.  It’s an excellent companion to Jean Liedloff’s masterpiece, The Continuum Concept. 

Here is a 20 minute video of Griffiths talking about her book.

Griffiths, Jay, Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape, Hamish Hamilton, London, 2013.

NOTE: The U.K. edition of Kith is now in print.  Australians can get the Kindle version only.  The U.S. edition will be published by Counterpoint Press, and released by the end of 2014, they say.  Non-Europeans can buy the British edition from Amazon via third party vendors.  Amazon U.K. is forbidden to sell the Kindle version to Yanks (they’re still sore about the Revolutionary War).

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Deep Water

The completion of the Hoover Dam in 1935 was a head-snapping experience — something like the moon landing, or the atomic bomb — history-making techno-craziness.  It was the greatest construction project in human history, and the world’s biggest power plant.  It was a giant leap forward in humankind’s crusade to enslave and abuse Big Mama Nature, and leave behind enormous messes for the kids.

Legions of hustlers were thrilled to realize the fabulous new opportunities for becoming rich whilst not getting their hands dirty.  From 1935 to 2000, about 45,000 large dams were constructed in 140 nations.  In his book, Deep Water, Jacques Leslie takes readers to India, Africa, and Australia to explore the dark world of the dammed.

In India, we meet Ms. Medha Patkar, a charismatic full-throttle activist determined to stop the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River.  It would flood the homes of 200,000 to 300,000, many of whom were indigenous tribal people.  Tribal folks were happy to live in the roadless forest, where the Hindus didn’t molest them.  In the Hindu world, tribal people were assigned a status even lower than the untouchables.  Tribes had zero political power.

The primary villain in this book was the World Bank, which poured billions of dollars into dam projects, to spur what is comically referred to as sustainable development.  Devious bureaucrats in India were highly skilled at diverting a good portion of this flood of money into their own pockets.  The politicians of India were so corrupt that they made American officials almost look virtuous.  Social and environmental concerns went out the window.

In India alone, dams have displaced somewhere between 21 and 55 million people (40 to 80 million worldwide).  In the relocation game, officials promised the sun and moon to the families to be displaced, like five acres (2 ha) of good land and a government job.  What they actually ended up getting was screwed.  Their fields were under water, and they were prohibited from fishing in the reservoir.  Often the tribes scattered to the winds, and ended up in urban nightmares.

India’s population is projected to be larger than China’s by 2050.  The privileged folks hunger to enjoy a planet-trashing consumer lifestyle, and have little concern for what happens to the politically invisible.  The nation has already built 4,300 large dams, and has plans for 700 to 1,000 more.  Dam building is easier and more profitable than population management.

The next section of the book takes us to Southern Africa, where we meet anthropologist Thayer Scudder, who spent decades as a consultant specializing in the resettlement of unlucky people who resided in future reservoirs.  He was skilled at creating high quality resettlement plans, and disappointed to see them all mostly ignored.  Once again, the natives were screwed, the officials pocketed a lot of money, and the ecosystem was damned.

Scudder had no doubt that dams were cool, in theory.  In theory, it was not impossible to create water projects that were fair, equitable, beneficial, and environmentally sensitive.  On the other hand, he believed that 70 percent of the world’s 45,000 large dams should have never been built.  Decade after decade, he nurtured a fantasy that some day he would be involved in creating just “one good dam.”  Instead, the great triumphs of his long career were his successes in killing a few stupid projects.

The last stop is Australia, where we meet water commissioner Don Blackmore, and get a thorough analysis of his frustrating struggle to keep the dying ecosystem of the Murray-Darling Basin on life support.  It’s the continent’s only major river system, but its annual flow is a wee trickle compared to the Amazon.  Australia was an especially unsuitable place to transplant the British way of life, and many experiments have fallen far short of their lofty goals, agriculture for example.  Much of the continent is arid, droughts are common, the ancient soils are low in nutrients, and the supply of fresh water is far from dependable.

Before the colonial invasion, thirsty Australian forests prevented most precipitation from reaching the water table in the Murray Basin.  When the white lads chopped down 15 billion trees to create cropland, the water table surged upward, as much as 75 feet (23 m), mobilizing the salts stored in the soil, and poisoning large areas of land.  The soils in the basin contain 100 billion tons of salt.  It would be a terrible place to attempt large-scale irrigation, but they did. 

Radical reductions of water diversions would slow the growing damage, but without water, farming is impossible.  Climate change presents a new wild card.  It could add major strains to a system that’s already staggering.

Leslie spent a day with an Aborigine man, Tom Trevorrow.  He lives in the Coorong, a 90-mile (145 km) lagoon near the mouth of the Murray.  When he was young, the land was thriving with abundant wildlife.  Today, with 75 percent of the water diverted upstream, the Coorong is very salty, and the habitat for birds, fish, and trees is devastated.  He wants the dams removed.  “The River is a living thing.  When you start interfering with it, everything dies.”

Aborigines managed to survive with an unrestricted free-flowing river for 50,000 years.  They survived because they learned how to live with the land, an extremely intelligent strategy.  They were not possessed with unhealthy impulses to temporarily control and exploit nature.  And this, ladies and gentlemen, is the powerful wisdom that our ancestors forgot — wisdom that we damn well need to remember if humankind is to have any chance for sticking around for a while.

This book is a powerful parable.  Readers are given a backstage tour of the hideous world behind the dazzling magic show of endless growth and sustainable development.  The heroes of our culture, the wealthy pioneers of progress, without their makeup and glittering costumes, are sad creatures, like spoiled two-year olds.

Every single one of those 45,000 dams will die, sooner or later.  About 5,000 large dams are more than 50 years old.  As they age, the costs of maintenance rise, eventually eliminating profits.  Investors must make an important decision — should they abandon the dam, or come up with billions of dollars to safely decommission it?  It often costs more to decommission a major hydropower dam than it did to build it.

Many dams are nearly impossible to safely decommission.  Exactly where do you dispose of billions of tons of accumulated sediment, mud often loaded with pollutants?  Abandoned dams become the responsibility of taxpayers, who may not have the expertise, funds, or desire to safely decommission them.  Earthquakes may decommission some dams.  So might terrorists or wars.  Old age and normal decay will certainly remove many.

The good news here is that we enjoy a surplus of super-important lessons to learn.  We currently have access to outstanding tools for learning and teaching.  We have a ridiculously out-of-balance culture to practice on, and little to lose.  We have been presented with a fabulous opportunity to become the most beloved generation of ancestors ever.

Leslie, Jacques, Deep Water — The Epic Struggle Over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2005.