Monday, June 30, 2014

The Great Warming

Recent decades have been a golden age for archaeologists.  New technology has provided tools for better understanding the past.  Researchers can now identify the climate trends of past centuries by analyzing the layers in tropical coral, tree rings, glacial ice packs, and lakeshore and seabed sediments.
Climate has played a primary role in influencing the course of human history.  It could enable the rise of mighty empires, and later reduce them to dusty ruins.  Big changes can happen suddenly, without warning, and have devastating effects.  Mighty scientists may huff and puff and stamp their feet, but climate will do whatever it wishes.
In 2000, archaeologist Brian Fagan published The Little Ice Age.  This book examined an era of cooler weather spanning from 1300 to 1850, and its effects on northern Europe.  In those days, most folks lived from harvest to harvest, with few safety nets.  In 1315, it barely stopped raining, and the heavy rains continued through 1316 and 1317, followed by horrendous weather in 1318.  At least 1.5 million folks checked out.  The famine of 1344-1345 was so extreme that even the super rich starved.
Preceding the Little Ice Age was the Medieval Warm Period, which spanned from 800 to 1300.  Fagan described this era in The Great Warming, published in 2008.  Far less was known about this time, because fewer written records have survived.  But new climate data has been filling in a number of missing pieces, revealing many forgotten events, important stuff.
When it was in the mood for mischief, the Little Ice Age was a harsh bully.  Fagan had expected the warm period to be the opposite, and in some regions, it was, sort of.  In Europe, there were fewer late frosts, and the growing season was three weeks longer.  There were vineyards in England and southern Norway.  Surplus wealth enabled the construction of grand cathedrals.
Whilst the weather was rather pleasant, the era suffered from a devastating spasm of innovation.  The diabolically powerful moldboard plow, which was able to turn heavy soils, replaced the primitive scratch plow.  A new harness allowed horses to replace pokey oxen as beasts of burden.  The new three-field fallowing system enabled two-thirds of the fields to be growing crops every year, instead of just half, with the old two-field system.
By using these new technologies, vast regions of highly fertile heavy soils could now be converted into highly productive cropland.  The only obstacle was the vast ancient forests, and their untamed wildlife.  Loggers grabbed their axes and exterminated more than half of Europe’s forests between 1100 and 1350.
Expanded cropland area, combined with a balmy climate, produced much more food, and this always resulted in a mushrooming mob.  Between 1000 and 1347, the population of Europe grew from 35 to 80 million, despite short life expectancies.  It got so crowded that folks in 1300 were worse off than their grandparents in 1200.
In other regions, the warm period brought unpleasant weather.  The Mayans of the Yucatan lowlands experienced extended droughts and abundant misery.  “Hot, humid, and generally poorly drained, the Maya lowlands were a fragile, water-stressed environment even in the best of times,” Fagan observed.  “It’s hard to imagine a less likely place for a great civilization.”
The Mayan city of Tikal may have had 300,000 residents.  It was entirely dependent on rainfall for water.  Their ecosystem did not have dependable sources of water, like rivers or underground aquifers.  They developed amazing systems for storing rainwater, and these worked really well, usually, but not during multi-year droughts.  The drought of 910 lasted six years, and generated social unrest, which led to the collapse of many Mayan cities.
At the same time, severe droughts in western North America followed similar patterns.  Irrigation systems at Chaco Canyon enabled more than 2,000 folks to survive in an arid region for several centuries.  This worked well in wetter years.  After 1100, droughts intensified, and within 50 years the city was abandoned.
California was home to hunters and foragers.  Acorns were half of the diet for many tribes.  Oaks could produce as much food per acre as medieval European farms, and foragers could acquire a year’s supply in several weeks.  Fewer acorns fell in drought years, and extended droughts killed the oak trees.
Stumps at Mono Lake indicate that a severe drought began in 1250 and lasted for over a hundred years.  Fagan noted “None of today’s droughts, which last as long as four years, approach the intensity and duration of the Medieval Warm Period droughts.”  He called them megadroughts.  They baked away the surface waters and soil moisture.
The Yellow River (Huang He) has an appropriate nickname, China’s Sorrow, because it is one of the world’s most trouble-prone rivers.  Fagan said “the Huang He basin [has] been a crucible for human misery for more than seven thousand years.”  About 45 percent of the Chinese population lives in the basin.  From year to year, precipitation can vary by 30 percent.  A dry June is a bad omen.
To reduce the risk of famines, the Chinese built complex irrigation systems, which the Yellow River enjoyed burying with silt.  The yellow loess soil of the region was highly fertile, easy to till, and 200 feet deep (61 m) on average.  It was also light and easily erodible.  Once upon a time, forests held the soil in place, but deforestation* had catastrophic consequences.  The river carried an enormous load of yellow silt downstream, and this created perfect conditions for disastrous floods, which have killed many millions over the centuries.
This region has long been a spooky place to live, but the warm period was worse, “a time of violent climatic swings nurtured thousands of miles away that brought either lengthy dry cycles or torrential rainfall that inundated thousands of acres of the Huang He basin.”  (An extreme nineteenth century drought is described in Late Victorian Holocausts.)
Today, the global climate is hotter than the Medieval Warm Period.  The warming trend has been steadily building since 1860.  Glaciers are melting and folks are getting increasingly nervous about rising sea levels.  While this is indeed a bummer, Fagan warns that extended drought is a far greater threat.  Extended drought withers agriculture, toasts pastures, and dries up lakes and rivers.  Seven-point-something billion people will be extremely vulnerable when we move beyond Peak Food, and into the climate surprises of the coming decades.
Fagan, Brian, The Great Warming — Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations, Bloomsbury Press, New York, 2008.
* In the 1930s, W. C. Lowdermilk, of the Soil Conservation Service, visited northern China as part of a research project.  In Shensi province, he saw an ancient irrigation system destroyed by silt, which had washed down from the uplands, where erosion gullies were up to 600 feet deep (183 m). 
He published his findings in Conquest of the Land Through Seven Thousand Years.  In this document, Figure 7 is a photo of serious erosion.  The caption reads: “A severely gullied area in the loess hills of North China.  These hills were once covered with trees and grass; but cultivation started the ruinous process of erosion.  There are thousands of acres like this in China today.  It produces nothing except yellow mud to clog the Yellow River with silt.”  For scale, note the human in the foreground.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Make Prayers to the Raven

In 1976 and 1977, anthropologist Richard Nelson lived with the Koyukon people of northwestern Alaska.  Their vast forested homeland is in the region where the Koyukuk River feeds into the Yukon River.  They are Athapaskan people, and they live inland from the Inupiaq Eskimos, who inhabit the coastal region to the west.

When Russian explorers found the Koyukon in 1838, they already had tobacco, iron pots, and other stuff, acquired via trade with Eskimos.  They had already been hammered by smallpox.  In 1898, they experienced a sudden infestation of gold prospectors; luckily, their streams were gold-free.  Unluckily, the gold rush ended their isolation from white society.  Swarms of missionaries and educators buzzed around the forest, determined to help the ignorant heathens rise out of barbarism, and experience the miracles of civilization and damnation.

When Nelson arrived in 1976, they were no longer nomadic.  About 2,000 Koyukon lived in eleven villages.  They travelled by snowmobile, hunted with rifles, and worshipped a Jewish guru.  Most of those under 30 spoke only English, and some were not fond of anthropologists.  Nelson spent a lot of time with the elders, who had been raised in the old ways.  Then he wrote an important book, Make Prayers to the Raven.  (In their stories, the creator was Raven.)

The Koyukon were the opposite of vegans.  About 90 percent of their diet was animal foods.  The bears, moose, geese, and salmon they ate came from the surrounding area, and were killed, butchered, and cooked by close friends and family.  Their survival depended on the wildlife.  They were extremely careful to take only what they needed, and to waste nothing.

Their wilderness was the opposite of big box grocery outlets that have an endless supply of fizzy sugar drinks, frozen pizza, and corn chips.  A year of abundant salmon might be followed by a meager year.  During Nelson’s visit, there were plenty moose and caribou, animals that had been scarce 30 years earlier.  The Koyukon had to pay close attention to the land, and continually fine-tune their relationship to it.  When times were lean, people starved — prior to the adaptation of rifles.  Now, they also had dependable access to the mysterious industrial substances that white folks referred to as “food.”

Traditional Koyukon society needed nothing from the outside world.  Their relationship to the ecosystem was one of absolute reverence and respect.  They were not masters or managers, they were simply members of the family of life.  The humble status of humans is evident in a frequently quoted phrase: “Every animal knows way more than you do.”

Nelson said it like this: “Traditional Koyukon people live in a world that watches, in a forest of eyes.  A person moving through nature — however wild, remote, even desolate the place may be — is never truly alone.  The surroundings are aware, sensate, personified.  They feel.  They can be offended.  And they must, at every moment, be treated with proper respect.  All things in nature have a special kind of life, something unknown to contemporary Euro-Americans, something powerful.”

The Koyukon were not exotic freaks.  Their worldview and spirituality had much in common with all other cultures that thrived in the long era before the domestication fad.  They were perfectly wild and free — healthy, happy, intelligent, normal human beings.  Most modern people go to their graves without ever experiencing the magnificent beauty and power of the living world — the joy and wonder of the gift of life, the awe of being fully present in a sacred reality.  Most of them live and die in monotonous manmade habitats, having established no spiritual connection to life.

Nelson was born in Madison, Wisconsin.  His father was employed by the state.  Their middle class life provided food, clothing, and shelter.  A large portion of his childhood was spent in institutions of education — indoors — digesting, memorizing, and regurgitating words and numbers.  At that time, Madison was a disaster of concrete, traffic, and hordes of strangers.  Decades earlier, the forest and wildlife had been devoured by the metastasizing city.  So, as a young animal, Nelson was raised in devastating poverty, like most modern kids, isolated from wildness and freedom.

Anyway, something cool happened.  In 1973, Nelson hooked up with the University of Alaska and began spending time with Native Americans.  He arrived with his Euro-American cultural programming, and its wacky anthropocentric model of the natural world.  He had zero doubt that his perception of reality was correct and proper; it was absolute truth.

Then, he hung out with the Koyukon, and this blew his belief system completely out of the water.  They were intelligent people, and they saw the world in a very different way.  This made his Ph.D. mind whirl and spin.  “My Koyukon teachers had learned through their own traditions about dimensions in nature that I, as a Euro-American, had either not learned to perceive or had been explicitly taught do not exist.”

In less than 200 years, the white wizards of Wisconsin have transformed a healthy wilderness into a hideous nightmare called Madison.  It never occurred to them to adapt to the ecosystem, live with great respect and mindfulness, and preserve its health for future generations.  The Koyukon, on the other hand, have inhabited their forest for thousands of years, and it doesn’t look much different from how they found it.  They know every place in their forest as well as you know your kitchen.  Every location is rich with stories and spirits.

The Egyptians built huge pyramids, enduring monuments to their civilized megalomania, built by legions of miserable slaves.  The Koyukon have achieved something far more impressive.  “This legacy is the vast land itself, enduring and essentially unchanged despite having supported human life for countless centuries.”

Nelson’s book is a reflection of their culture.  He presents separate chapters to describe the physical realm and climate, insects and amphibians, fishes, birds, small mammals, predators, and large animals.  Eighteen pages are devoted to their relationship with bears, and birds get 43 pages.  The core of their culture is their relationships with the non-human relatives that share their land, and the need to nurture these relationships with absolute respect.  Nature always punishes acts of disrespect with bad luck, illness, or death — to the offender, or to a family member.

The good news here is that it’s not impossible for a highly educated adult to override their toxic cultural programming and experience the beauty and power of creation.  Most never do.  The important message of this book is that we are absolutely lost, but there are paths that are not lost, healthy paths.  Our cage is not locked, and it’s so much nicer outside.  It’s alive!

Nelson, Richard K., Make Prayers to the Raven — A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1983.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Something New Under the Sun

A verse* in the Old Testament proclaims, “there is no new thing under the sun.”  These words come from a low-tech era when nomadic herders diminished their ecosystem so slowly that little change was noticeable to the passing generations.  Something New Under the Sun is the title of J. R. McNeill’s environmental history of the twentieth century.  It describes a high-tech era when industrial society got thoroughly sloshed on cheap energy, and went on a berserk rampage, smashing everything.

With the emergence of agriculture, the relationship between humankind and the ecosystem took a sharp turn onto a bumpy bloody unsustainable road.  There are a few places where agriculture wrecks the land at a slower pace.  A region spanning from Poland to Ireland typically receives adequate rain in gentle showers, the lay of the land is not steep, and the heavy soils are not easily eroded.  When the farming methods from this region were exported to North America, where heavy rains are common, it resulted in severe erosion.

Many agricultural systems flamed out and vanished long ago.  China has beat the odds, and remained in the farm business for over 3,000 years.  This is often cited as proof that sustainable agriculture is possible.  But McNeill points out that their longevity is the result of sequentially replacing one unsustainable mode with a different unsustainable mode.  They will eventually run out of tricks and flame out.  A process that regularly pulverizes soils and depletes nutrients cannot have a long-term future, and irrigated systems usually flame out faster.

Food is one thing that humans actually need.  McNeill describes how agriculture has become far more destructive in the last hundred years.  It produces more food, degrades more land, and spurs population growth, seriously worsening many other problems.  Readers learn about erosion, heavy machinery, synthetic fertilizers, salinization, pesticides, herbicides, water mining, and so on.  Our ability to continue feeding a massive herd will face huge challenges in the coming years.

In addition to troublesome agriculture, we stirred fossil energy and industrialization into the pot, and it exploded.  The twentieth century was like an asteroid strike — a tumultuous pandemonium never seen before, that can never be repeated.  Tragically, this era of roaring helter-skelter is what most people today perceive to be “normal.”  Life has always been like this, we think, because this is how it’s been since grandma was born.  History Deficiency Syndrome leads to a life of vivid hallucinations.  There is a highly effective antidote: learning.

The “normal” mindset is trained to focus on the benefits, and ignore the costs.  With a bright torch, McNeill leads his readers down into a sacred cave, where the walls are covered with images of our culture’s darkest secrets.  In this vast grotto, we record the many, many things that are never mentioned in the daylight world above, because they clash with our myths of progress and human superiority — similar to the way that dinosaur bones make creationists twitch and squirm.  The bones contradict the myths, an embarrassing dilemma.

So, with the swish of a magic wand, we’ve made the bones invisible in our schools, workplaces, newsrooms, churches, and homes.  We keep them in the cave.  In the normal daylight world, we are constantly blasted by a fire hose of frivolous information, ridiculous balderdash, and titillating rubbish.  The myths are safe.  The world was made for humans.  We are the greatest.

McNeill points out that a major cause of twentieth century mass hysteria was that millions of people were enslaved by “big ideas.”  Some ideas are absorbed by cultures and never excreted, even stupid ideas, like the obsession with perpetual economic growth, our insatiable hunger for stuff and status, our stunning disregard for the generations yet-to-be-born.

“The overarching priority of economic growth was easily the most important idea of the twentieth century.”  We created a monster that we could not control — it controlled us.  Economists became the nutjob gurus of the wacky cult of growth, and society guzzled their toxic Kool-Aid.  Crazy economists, who preached that society could get along without natural resources, won Nobel Prizes.  They became respected advisors to world leaders.  In every newscast, you repeatedly hear the words “growth” and “recovery.”  These are the yowls and howls of an insane asylum.

Environmentalists often sneer at the multitudes who fail to be enraged by the catastrophe of the week.  They assume that the herd understands the issues.  But the daily info-streams that deluge the mainstream world have almost nothing in common with McNeill’s model of reality.  Few people in our society have a well-rounded understanding of our eco-predicaments, including most environmentalists.  This world would be a much different place if McNeill’s perception of history became the mainstream, and folks could readily comprehend the harms caused by our lifestyles.  Ignorance is enormously costly.

One wee bright spot in the twentieth century was the emergence of Deep Ecology, a small group of renegade thinkers that enthusiastically denounced the dead end path of anthropocentricism.  For the first time in 300 years, Western people were spray-painting naughty insults on the cathedrals of Cartesian thinking — “We do not live in a machine world of soulless dead matter!”  Deep Ecology succeeded in channeling bits of wisdom from the spirits of our wild ancestors. 

On the final pages, McNeill does not offer an intoxicating punch bowl of magical thinking.  Our future is highly volatile, even the near future is uncertain.  History has little to say about sudden mass enlightenment and miraculous intelligent change.  “The reason I expect formidable ecological and societal problems in the future is because of what I see in the past.”

The book is thoroughly researched, well written, and hard to put down.  Readers are taken on a sobering voyage of discovery, where there are thrills and chills around every turn — mercury poisoning, radiation nightmares, soil mining, deforestation, and on and on.  It’s fascinating to observe the spectacular ways that brilliant innovations backfire.  Human cleverness is amazing, but it is dwarfed by our amazing un-cleverness.  We weren’t made to live like this.

At the same time, human genes are about 98 to 99.4 percent the same as the genes of chimps and bonobos, our cousins who have never lost their path.  They’ve been healthy, happy, and sustainable for over a million years.  Circle the superior species in this picture.  We have a sick culture, but our genes are probably OK.  Cultures can be changed.  We need to become aware of reality.  We need to turn off our glowing screens, open the door, and rediscover our home and our identity.  Happy trails!

* Ecclesiastes 1:9 “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”

McNeill, J. R., Something New Under the Sun — An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2000.