Saturday, November 29, 2014

Where We Belong

Where We Belong is a collection of Paul Shepard essays that discuss how we perceive the natural world, and how this influences the way we treat it.  Most of the essays were written between the 1950s and 1970s.  They include some ideas that evolved into major components of his classics.  Almost half of this book is devoted to provocative discussions of pioneer diaries, a special treat.

Humans evolved as hunters and scavengers on tropical savannahs.  Today, our genes are still those of Pleistocene hunter-gatherers — not Anthropocene cell phone zombies.  Shepard believed that the process of normal human development depended on experiences best provided by living close to wild nature.  Children need to be surrounded by a variety of wild species, to observe them, and learn from them.  They need to be outdoors, and experience how everything in their land is alive.

They need a culture that guides them through the transition from adolescence to adulthood, via rituals of initiation.  When this is not provided, “Self-generated substitutes created by adolescents are a virtual catalog of delinquency and neurosis … adolescents cannot discover their maturity in a city.”  They don’t understand that the all-natural dance of creatures eating creatures is normal and good.  They think that food comes from stores.  They are space aliens, as most of society is.

Some of the damage can be healed by spending more time with nature.  Emotionally impoverished city folks can “recover elements of human ecology warped by millennia of immersion in domesticated landscapes.  Paramount among these is the opportunity to be free of domestic animals both as social partners and as models of the nonhuman.”  We have a powerful desire to live in a wild landscape that is inhabited by wild animals — and parks and pets are a poor substitute.

Shepard was never a cheerleader for the domestication of plants and animals, because it spawned a way of living that was harmful to everything.  The relationship between the human and non-human shifted from one of freedom to one of human domination and control.  This led to profound changes in the way we perceived the world, and to destructive changes in behavior.

From the first civilizations, growing population fueled ongoing deforestation.  Sheep, goats, and cattle were then turned loose on the former forest.  These “hoofed locusts” gobbled up young seedlings, and ensured that the forest would never recover.  The exposed soil was then washed away by the rains, creating vast wastelands that modern visitors now perceive as natural and picturesque.  This resulted in a “lobotomy on the land, done not with a scalpel but with teeth and hooves.”  

The Minoan community of Jerash, a dusty village of 3,000, was once home to 250,000.  “No wonder Western consciousness is an overheated drama of God’s vengeance and catastrophe, preoccupation with sacrifice, portents and omens of punishment by a heavy-handed Jehovah.  Like the dinosaurs, which are known mainly for their vanishing, the ancestors we know best, and from whom we take our style, are those who seem to have lived mainly to call down calamity upon themselves.”

Much of the book is devoted to Shepard’s discussion of pioneer diaries from New Zealand and the Oregon Trail.  These essays are illuminating and disturbing.  In New Zealand, the English observed a gloomy, desolate, terrifying wildness, like “Caesar’s Britain,” that was dreadfully unimproved.  To their fundamentalist minds, wilderness was immoral and sinful.  The solution, of course, was to erase the existing ecosystem, and turn the land into a proper English countryside.  Settler Richard Taylor wrote, “The fern is like the savage; both are going down before civilization.”

On the Oregon Trail, early travelers from New England and the Midwest experienced landscapes that were beyond their imagination — vast wide-open spaces, and dark skies with billions of twinkling stars.  Their wagons were prairie schooners, sailing across the seas of waving grass.  At night, they sat around fires, fiddling and singing, listening to the hoots of owls, bellowing bison, and the music of the wind.  They were serenaded by enthusiastic choirs of wolves, howling and shrieking their ancient wild music. 

Folks used to existing in the bowels of civilization were jarred by feelings of isolation, solitude, and emptiness.  At times, the land was absolutely silent.  Then there were deluges, prairie fires, and tornados.  Humming clouds of the native mosquitoes were exceedingly friendly to the smelly travelers in funny attire.  “Everyone was deeply moved by the immense herds of buffalo as they roamed beside, toward, and even through the wagon trains.”

In hotter and drier regions, travelers found buffalo trails that looked like old roads, because of frequent use.  They saw rock formations that resembled castles, lighthouses, churches, palaces, and so on.  From a distance, they looked like manmade ancient ruins, ghost towns.  They wondered if the treeless landscape had once been cleared. 

It was spooky to experience a vast region showing no signs of being beaten and molested by civilization, except along the trail, which was strewn with litter.  Many began the pilgrimage overloaded with stuff, dumping ballast along the way, to make the journey less challenging.  Everywhere along the trail, people carved their names on rocks, stumps, skulls, and trees.

Readers get two impressions from these pioneer stories.  One is that the experience was precious and sacred, a very long trek through a healthy wild land.  Imagine how much people would pay today to experience a wild Nebraska where there were far more buffalo and wolves than humans — no highways, beer cans, motels, or fences.  The tales call up deep ancestral memories of how we all once lived, pleasant memories.

The other impression was that these travelers had not come to abandon civilization and return to wildness and freedom.  If the western plains had water, good soil, and forests, the travelers on the Oregon Trail would have stopped in their tracks, built cabins, and destroyed it.  But they knew that they could not survive on the plains, so they kept moving toward the promised land of salmon and forests, where their descendants would build Portland and Eugene, and create the ancient ruins of the future — enduring monuments to our experiment in civilization, warning signs to the distant generations yet-to-be-born.

The essays in this book discuss aspects of how civilized Western people interpret the natural world.  Their perspective is strongly influenced by our culture of wealth, alienation, and destruction.  What’s missing in this book is the perspective of people rooted in place, who have reverence and respect for the land they inhabit.

Okanagan elder Jeanette Armstrong is one of many who eloquently discuss the vital importance on having a healthy connection to place, community, and family.  She sees that our world is being disemboweled by alienated people who have no connection to place, people who have no hearts, because they are “dis-placed.”  Shepard put it like this, “Knowing who you are is impossible without knowing where you are.” 

Shepard, Paul, Where We Belong — Beyond Abstraction in Perceiving Nature, University of Georgia Press, Atlanta, 2003.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Population Bomb

In 1968, biologist Paul Ehrlich achieved infamy by publishing The Population Bomb, one of the most controversial eco-books ever printed.  Ehrlich has been condemned to spend eternity with Thomas Malthus, in a dungeon reserved for doom perverts.  To this day, professors still use the two lads as great reasons to never take seriously anyone who asserts that there are limits to growth.  We all know, of course, that humankind has no limits.  We have technology!

Actually, Malthus never predicted catastrophic famine.  He simply stated the obvious — when population reaches overshoot, the death rate will automatically rise to restore balance, one way or another (starvation, disease, conflict).  A thousand people cannot prosper if forced to share ten cheeseburgers a day.  The overshoot ceiling rises when food is abundant, and falls when food is scarce.  Malthus was not a doomer.  His cardinal sin was declaring the obvious — that there are limits to growth.

Ehrlich, on the other hand, actually did predict catastrophic famine, and soon.  The first lines in his book are, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over.  In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”  Millions indeed starved, but not hundreds of millions.  Everyone agrees that this prediction was inaccurate or premature.

When Ehrlich was writing, India was sliding toward catastrophic famine.  Only ten nations produced more food than they consumed in 1966.  In America, the postwar baby boom led to a freakish population spike of 55 million in 20 years.  The streets of 1968 were jammed with scruffy rebels protesting the Vietnam War, and our totally unhip way of life.  It was hip to be loud, brash, and vigorously opposed to the status quo.

At the same time, the Green Revolution was just getting rolling, and no one could foresee how well it would succeed at temporarily boosting grain production.  Norman Borlaug was the wizard of the Green Revolution, and his holy mission was to reduce world hunger.  He hoped that the new technology would give us 10 or 20 years to resolve our population issues.  We didn’t even try.  Those who recommend strict population control measures are called callous.  But the leaders who irresponsibly blew off an amazing opportunity were also callous.

Naturally, much more food led to many more people.  In 1968, there were 3.5 billion people, by late this morning there were 7.2 billion.  World hunger sharply increased, and many other problems worsened.  The Green Revolution had wonderful intentions, but its unintended consequences far exceeded its benefits, because we refused to seize the opportunity to confront and subdue the 800-pound gorilla.

The bottom line here is that Ehrlich’s predictions of catastrophe within a specific timeframe were wrong, but he succeeded in bringing a lot of attention to real and growing problems — population, pollution, and environmental destruction.  At the same time, he succeeded at pissing off almost everyone. 

Liberals hated him because he wanted to set population goals for poor nations, and withhold food aid for those who did not meet their goals.  He contemplated the notion of withholding food aid to nations that had zero chance of becoming self-sufficient.  He did not endorse the “right” of families to breed as they pleased — a right that was not handcuffed to responsibilities.

Religious people hated him because he believed that contraception and abortion should be legal everywhere, and that all children should receive rigorous training in sex education and family planning.  They hated him because he believed that fetuses were nothing more than potential humans.

Environmentalists hated him, because he was a lightning rod for criticism.  They believe that his fondness for bold statements made it hard for folks to trust anything that greens said.  He was a popular scapegoat to blame their failures on.  If Ehrlich had never been born, would we be living in a sustainable utopia today?

Conservatives hated him because he wanted to regulate pollution and pesticide use.  He advocated compulsory population control, because voluntary family planning has never been successful at stabilizing or reducing population.  Ehrlich detested their insane obsession with perpetual economic growth, which thrived on population growth, and disregarded ecocide.  But they loved him for being so loud and so bizarre.  He made it easy for them to label all greens as hysterical nutjobs.

Modern society is suffocating in information.  Everyone in a hunter-gatherer clan knew the entire collection of their cultural information.  Today, we don’t know a millionth of our cultural information, because knowing it all is impossible.  So, climatologists are freaked out about rising temperatures, while the masses are blissfully ignorant.  Petroleum geologists are freaked out about the looming specter of Peak Energy, while the masses are not.

Within the realm of his specialty, Ehrlich could perceive enormous threats that society was unaware of, and this freaked him out.  He was compelled to rattle cages.  If he had written a dry, mature, scholarly discourse on population, with 300 footnotes, it would not have reached a general audience and provoked lively and widespread discussion.  In modern society, suffocating in information, you get attention by flaming and screaming, like the election ads for candidates.  Whether or not it is honorable, it works.  In my opinion, Ehrlich’s opinions were sincere, and a bit inflamed, but not devious fabrications.

Ehrlich’s book was read by many, and it drew needed attention to a crucial issue.  A taboo subject was let out of the closet, for a while.  Others were inspired to write books.  Green organizations boldly called for action, but many checkbook activists promptly revolted by putting away their checkbooks.  So, the issue of overpopulation was handed over to Big Mama Nature to resolve, and she will.

While his ideas continue to outrage many, they do have a basis in cold, hard reason.  We could reward couples who don’t marry until 25, and those who space their children at least five years apart.  Childfree people could be eligible to win lottery prizes.  “There has been little effective criticism of the medical profession or the government for their preoccupation with death control… death control in the absence of birth control is self-defeating.”

It would have been cool if humans were purely rational, realized their mistake, and took bold action to divert disaster.  Ehrlich sighed.  “By now you are probably fed up with this discussion.  Americans will do none of these things, you say.  Well, I’m inclined to agree.”  He wrote because there was a wee chance for success.

Don’t read this book to learn about overpopulation and its side effects.  Hundreds of newer books are far more up to date.  Read this book to contemplate morals, ethics, taboos, ideologies, and communication.  Contemplate his critics, and why they are so determined to banish discussion on an issue that is a major threat to humankind and the planet (see the reader comments on  The anger and pain that continues to swirl around this book provides a fascinating study in human nature — long-term survival vs. a mentally unstable culture. 

Ehrlich is an intelligent and charismatic fellow.  In 2008, on the fortieth anniversary of The Population Bomb, he reread his book and blushed a bit.  He had learned a few new things in the preceding forty years, but his overall impression was that in 1968 he had been far too optimistic.  He presented his current perspective in a lecture at Stanford, From the Population Bomb to the Dominant Animal (54 min.).

Ehrlich, Paul R., The Population Bomb, Ballantine, New York, 1968.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Topsoil and Civilization

Outside the entrance of the glorious Hall of Western History are the marble lions, colorful banners, and huge stone columns.  Step inside, and the popular exhibits include ancient Egypt, classical Greece, the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, Gutenberg, Magellan, Columbus, Galileo, and so on.  If we cut a hole in the fence, and sneak around to the rear of the building, we find the dumpsters, derelicts, mangy dogs, and environmental history.

The Darwin of environmental history was George Perkins Marsh, who published Man and Nature in 1864 (free download).  Few educated people today have ever heard of this visionary.  Inspired by Marsh, Walter Lowdermilk, of the Soil Conservation Service, grabbed his camera and visited the sites of old civilizations in 1938 and 1939.  He created a provocative 44-page report, Conquest of the Land Through Seven Thousand Years (free download).  The government distributed over a million copies of it.

Lowdermilk helped inspire Tom Dale of the Soil Conservation Service, and Vernon Gill Carter of the National Wildlife Federation, to write Topsoil and Civilization, published in 1955 (free download).  Both organizations cooperated in the production of this book.  Following the horror show of the Dust Bowl, they were on a mission from God to promote soil conservation.

The book’s introduction gets directly to the point, “The very achievements of civilized man have been the most important factors in the downfall of civilizations.”  Civilized man had the tools and intelligence needed “to domesticate or destroy a great part of the plant and animal life around him.”  He excelled at exploiting nature.  “His chief troubles came from his delusions that his temporary mastership was permanent.  He thought of himself as ‘master of the world,’ while failing to understand fully the laws of nature.”

Readers are taken on a thrilling tour of the civilizations of antiquity.  We learn how they developed new and innovative strategies for self-destruction.  Stops include Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Mediterranean basin, Greece, China, India, and others.  No society collapses because of a single reason, but declining soil health is always prominent among the usual suspects — no food, no civ.

The civilization of Egypt was the oddball.  It thrived longest because of the unique characteristics of the Nile Valley.  Then, in the twentieth century, they strangled the golden goose by building dams, which ended the annual applications of fertile silt, led to soil destruction, and shifted the system into self-destruct mode.

Mesopotamia (Iraq) was home to a series of civilizations that depended on irrigation.  Creating and maintaining irrigation canals required an immense amount of manual labor, which legions of slaves were unhappy to provide.  At the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, deforestation and overgrazing led to growing soil erosion, which flowed downstream, regularly clogging the canals.  Eroded soils have filled in 130 miles (209 km) of the Persian Gulf.  Today, the population in this region is only a quarter of what it was 4,000 years ago.

Over the centuries, the region of Mesopotamia was conquered and lost many, many times.  For the most part, replenishing soil fertility with manure and other fertilizers was a fairly recent invention.  In the old days, an effective solution to soil depletion was to expand into less spoiled lands, and kill anyone who objected.  Throughout the book, the number of wars is stunning.  The tradition of farming is a bloody one.  It always damages the soil, sooner or later, which makes long-term stability impossible, and guarantees conflict.

Rome, Greece, and other Mediterranean civilizations were all burnouts, trashed by a combination of heavy winter rains, sloping lands, overgrazing, deforestation, soil depletion, and malaria.  The legendary cedars of Lebanon once covered more than a million acres (404,000 ha).  Today, just four tiny groves survive.  “Deforestation and the scavenger goats brought on most of the erosion which turned Lebanon into a well-rained-on desert.”  Much of once-lush Palestine, “land of milk and honey,” has been reduced to a rocky desert.

Adria was an island in the Adriatic Sea, near the mouth of the Po River in Italy.  Eroding soils from upstream eventually connected the island to the mainland.  Today, Adria is a farm town, 15 miles (24 km) from the sea, and its ancient streets are buried under 15 feet (4.5 m) of eroded soil.  In Syria, the palaces of Antioch were buried under 28 feet (8.5 m) of silt.  In North Africa, the ruins of Utica were 30 feet (9 m) below.

Even now, in the twenty-first century, there are dreamers who purport that China provides a glowing example of sustainable agriculture — 4,000 years of farmers living in perfect harmony with the land.  Chapter 11 provides a silver bullet cure for these fantastic illusions.  “Erosion continues to ruin much of the land, reducing China, as a whole, to the status of a poor country with poor and undernourished people, mainly because the land has been misused for so long.”

The authors aim floodlights on the fundamental defects of civilization, and then heroically reveal the brilliant solution, soil conservation.  Their kinky fantasy was permanent agriculture, which could feed a gradually growing crowd for the next 10,000 years — a billion well-fed Americans enjoying a continuously improving standard of living.  Their vision went far beyond conservation, which merely slowed the destruction.  Their vision was about harmless perpetual growth, fully developing all resources, bringing prosperity to one and all, forever.  Oy!

At the same time, they were excruciatingly aware that humankind was ravaging the land.  “The fact is that there has probably been more man-induced erosion over the world as a whole during the past century than during any preceding thousand-year period.  There are many reasons for the recent rapid acceleration of erosion, but the principal reasons are that the world has more people and the people are more civilized and hence are capable of destroying the land faster.”  The book is more than a little bit bipolar.

For readers who enjoy the delights of mind-altering experiences, I recommend reading Topsoil and Civilization, a discourse on soil mining.  Also read its shadow, a discourse on forest mining, A Forest Journey, by John Perlin.  Your belief system will go into convulsions, and then a beautiful healing process begins.

You will suddenly understand that the stuff you were taught about the wonders of civilization was an incredibly delusional fairy tale.  The real story is one of thousands of years of accelerating population growth, ruthless greed, countless wars, enormous suffering, and catastrophic ecocide.  Suddenly, the pain of baffling contradictions is cured, the world snaps into sharp focus, and the pain of being fully present in reality begins — useful pain that can inspire learning and change.  Live well.

Soil erosion photo gallery: Gulley erosion.  Alabama cotton field.  Iowa sheepwreck.  Iowa sheet erosion.      

Carter, Vernon Gill and Dale, Tom, Topsoil and Civilization, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1974.  [First ed. 1955]