Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Future Eaters

After spending more than 20 years reading hundreds of books describing various aspects of the Earth Crisis, The Future Eaters by Tim Flannery stands out.  It provides a sliver of hope for the future that is not built on magical thinking.  Flannery is a lad who is madly in love with the Australian region, and he dreams that it will eventually heal, far down the road someday.

Here’s the story.  Hominids evolved in Africa, and later migrated into Eurasia, where they lived in some regions for a million years before Homo sapiens drifted in.  In ecosystems where the fauna coevolved with hominids, the critters clearly understood that two-legs were predators, and they behaved accordingly.  But when Homo sapiens first appeared in Australia, none of the critters had ever seen a two-leg before, so they had no fear.

The fearless elephant seals on King Island weighed up to four tons.  They would calmly sun themselves while humans killed the animal sitting beside them.  On Kangaroo Island, men could walk up to fearless kangaroos and dispatch them with clubs.  Millions of birds were killed with sticks.  Flannery referred to these hunters as future eaters.  Future eaters were Homo sapiens that migrated into lands where the ecosystem had not coevolved with hominids.  Australians were the first future eaters, but far from the last.

The first phase of future eating was to hunt like there’s no tomorrow.  For example, New Zealand was loaded with birds.  Moas were ostrich-like birds that could grow to 10 feet (3 m) tall, and weigh 550 pounds (250 kg).  Future eaters arrived between 800 and 1,000 years ago, and by 400 years ago the moas were extinct.  Today we have found many collections of moa bones, some containing the remains of up to 90,000 birds.  Evidence suggests that a third of the meat was tossed away to rot.  Obviously, the birds were super-abundant and super-easy to kill.

Meanwhile, well-fed future eaters gave birth to growing numbers of baby future eaters.  More killers + less prey = trouble.  The party got ugly.  Friendly neighbors became mortal enemies.  Moas disappeared from the menu, and were replaced by Moe and Mona from a nearby village.  Cannibalism beats starvation.  Overhunting and overbreeding, followed by bloody social breakdown, was a normal pattern in the world of the future eaters.

Following the crash, the survivors had two options: learn from their mistakes, or fool around with new mistakes.  The New Zealanders didn’t have time to get their act together before they were discovered by palefaces.  It was a different story in New Caledonia, where the future eaters arrived 3,500 years ago.  They partied hard, crashed, did the warfare thing, adapted to their damaged ecosystem, and were having a nice time when Captain Cook washed up on shore.

Future eating contributed to extinctions.  In Australia, large animals were going extinct by 35,000 years ago.  Most megafauna in the Americas vanished 11,000 years ago.  In New Caledonia, it was 3,500 years ago.  In recently settled New Zealand, big animals went extinct 500 to 800 years ago.

In Africa, Asia, and Europe, some megafauna managed to survive, because of coevolution.  The unlucky ones were domesticated, which led to radical changes in our way of life.  Enslaved horses facilitated the bloody spread of the Indo-European culture from Ireland to India.  Along with oxen, horses enabled the expansion of soil mining.  Vast forests were eliminated to make room for growing herds of hooved locusts.

Australia is an unusual continent.  It has been geologically static for 60 million years.  Most of the soil is extremely old, and very low in nutrients.  Consequently, the fauna that won the evolution sweepstakes were energy efficient, majoring in marsupials and reptiles. 

On other continents, soils often contain twice as much phosphate and nitrates.  Lands having rich soils produced energy-guzzling ecosystems, including large numbers of megafauna.  The most energy-intensive species of all are warm-blooded carnivores like us.  Europe has 660 million people, and Australia has 17 million.

In addition to feeble soils, Australia has spooky weather, driven by the El NiƱo Southern Oscillation (ENSO).  The climate unpredictably swings between droughts and floods.  Droughts can last for many years, and then be washed away with a deluge.  These freaky swings encourage cautious lifestyles, weed out energy-guzzling species, and make agriculture especially unreliable. 

Flannery wonders if it’s moral to “live as a vegetarian in Australia, destroying seven kilograms of irreplaceable soil, upon which everything depends, for each kilogram of bread we consume?”  This question is relevant in all lands.  There is no free lunch in farm country.

Anyway, before humans arrived in the Australian region, the ecosystems were self-sustaining.  Then came the future eaters.  Extinctions included species that had performed essential ecosystem functions, like controlling woody brush.  When brush got out of control, it reduced grazing land for herbivores, and encouraged devastating wildfires.

To reduce this new imbalance, Aborigines periodically lit fires to keep the fuel from accumulating.  Unfortunately, during burns, soil nutrients went up in smoke, especially nitrogen.  Exposed soils were vulnerable to wind erosion.  The land got drier.  Centuries of burning produced a downward spiral that was largely irreversible.  There was no undo command.

The hunters must have had turbulent times as the initial era of plenty and prosperity dissolved into scarcity.  Then, “for 60,000 years Aborigines managed the crippled ecosystems, preventing them from degenerating further.”  For the last 12,000 years, surviving evidence suggests that they lived in a stable and sustainable manner.  They succeeded at this by learning the most important trick of all — adapting to their ecosystem.  They were forced to return their future eater badges and uniforms, and they were glad to do so.

Meanwhile, back in Eurasia, the nutrient rich soils were sprouting the biggest and craziest mob of future eaters to ever walk the Earth.  For the last 12,000 years, they have exploded in number, exterminated the megafauna, laid waste to forests and fisheries, and spilled oceans of blood.  Then, they discovered Australia, and imported the future eater mindset, with predictable results.

Today, the human population of the planet is almost entirely future eaters.  Our binge of plenty and prosperity is wheezing, bleeding, and staggering.  Climate change and the end of cheap and abundant energy will derail civilization as we know it.  We are proceeding into an era of scarcity and conflict.  When the smoke eventually clears, we would be wise to learn the most important trick of all. 

On the plus side, we are the first future eaters to comprehend the catastrophic effects of our future eating lifestyle.  It’s never too late to learn, think, and grow.  There’s never been a better time to question everything.  In a thousand years, if we make it, we may be asked to return our badges and uniforms.  There is hope!  Hooray!

Flannery, Timothy Fridtjof, The Future Eaters — An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People, George Braziller, New York, 1995.

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