Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Tender Carnivore

Paul Shepard was an animal with a PhD who made the astonishing discovery that he really was an animal, and so was everyone else.  This sort of thinking makes us sweaty and nervous, because we prefer to believe that we are the creator’s masterpiece — not the cousins of disgusting baboons and orangutans.  It’s insulting to call someone’s kid a cute animal.

Two-legged primates evolved as hunters and gatherers in healthy wild habitats, living in groups of a dozen or so.  These highly intelligent animals were perfectly at home in natural surroundings, but today’s two-legs are overwhelmed by the input barrage of modern life.  For two-legs, industrial civilization feels like a prison.  Could this be why we are frantically shopping the planet to smithereens?  Shepard spent his life trying to solve this riddle.

Historians have invented glorious stories of the incredible ascent of humankind, from hungry dirty peasants to futuristic cell phone zombies.  In the process, they whited out ninety-nine percent of the human journey, the era before we went sideways.  Restricted to this heavily edited history, our culture has “unwittingly embraced a diseased era as the model of human life.”  This has nurtured “a malignant self-identity.”

We can’t know who we are if our past has been whited out.  In his book, The Tender Carnivore, Shepard pulls back the curtains and presents readers with the 14 million year version of our story.  Notably, the book leaps outside the wall of flatulent myths, and speaks from a viewpoint where wild people are normal healthy animals, and planet thrashers are not.  His ideas provide an effective antidote to the trance, a charm to break the curse.

The book includes a timeline of the human saga.  By 40,000 years ago, we had 240 tools, and numbered 3.3 million.  By 10,000 years ago, we had domesticated sheep, goats, and cereals, and there were 5.3 million.  By 6,000 years ago, we had irrigation, pottery, metal, war, states, wheel, trade, ideology, and writing — and there were 86 million.  The human enterprise was getting dangerously out-of-balance.

Tree monkeys are relatively safe from predators, so males and females are about the same size, and the troop is sexually promiscuous.  Ground monkeys, like baboons, are far more vulnerable to predators, so they are larger, and live in tight groups.  They kill and eat other animals.  The males are much bigger and stronger than the females, and they are hot-tempered.

Ground monkeys are “the most aggressively status-conscious creatures on Earth.”  High-ranking males have primary access to females and food.  They are constantly watched by low-ranking males, who wait for signs of aging and weakness, and opportunities to drive the big boy out of the harem.  They are high-strung animals who constantly adapt to a hierarchy that is always changing.

Humans are also status-conscious critters, so it’s hard for us to recognize that this monkey business is unusual in the animal kingdom.  Monkeys are not our direct ancestors, but we share many genes with them.  Like ground monkeys, every group of humans has a hierarchy of individuals, from ultra-cool to scruffy riffraff.

In sedentary human societies, where personal wealth varies, the status game is amplified by hoarding status trinkets — cars, televisions, and other valuables.  Is it possible that the reason folks refuse to wean themselves from habitual car driving is because it would sharply reduce their social status — something far more important than a stable climate?  Shepard says that we are obsessed with immature goals and follow trends like a dumb herd.

The ape family includes chimps and gorillas.  They inhabit forests, and spend the daylight hours on the ground.  Chimps live in groups of about 40, and use a few very simple tools.  They are nice, mild mannered animals, Shepard says.  But when Shepard was writing, Jane Goodall’s chimp research was just beginning.

It turns out that chimp groups are ruled by an alpha male, who aggressively dominates the females.  They are also violent killers.  Goodall saw one chimp group completely exterminate another group.  Bonobos are their closest relatives, and they are strikingly different.  Bonobo groups are matriarchal, extremely promiscuous, and rarely violent.

A number of anthropologists have reported that, among recent hunter-gathers, males are not dominators, with some exceptions.  But many would agree that, during the civilized era, the status of women often got the shaft.  Shepard’s overview of primate history suggests that male domination and abuse was not invented by Middle Eastern deities.  Evolution can get rough.

When scientists raised chimps in their homes, along with their own children, the chimps were at least as intelligent as children, until the children were three or four, learned language, and left the chimps in the dust.  Language promotes mental development, spurring reasoning and knowing.  Yet, without language, lions and wolves are superior hunters.  Intelligence is an evolutionary experiment.  It allows us to better comprehend the complexity of the world, but it also enables us to better destroy it.

When adolescence concludes with a successful initiation into adulthood, the youth becomes a confident fully human animal that is well integrated with the non-human environment.  He clarifies his self-identity, moves closer to his peer group, and away from his parents.  When initiation is botched or omitted, the youth remains trapped in adolescence, chronically narcissistic, enraged at humankind and nature for failing to help him become a complete human.  “Everyone who fails will be intellectually, emotionally, and socially retarded for the rest of his life.”

Because humans evolved to be ground-dwelling wild omnivores, the hunter-gatherer way of life “is the normal expression of his psychology and physiology.  His humanity is therefore more fully achieved, and his community is more durable and beautiful.”  When removed from a healthy wild environment, folks “live in constant crisis, stress, and poor mental health.”

Throughout the book, Shepard directs a fire hose of ideas at readers, and some are stronger than others.  This one is false: “Hunters and gatherers, by contrast, do not make war.”  When Knud Rasmussen trekked from Greenland to Siberia in the 1920s, he reported several regions where warfare was common, in his book Across Arctic America.

It is also false that all humans are inherently violent.  Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Richard Lee, and Colin Turnbull all reported that Pygmy and Bushman hunter-gatherers were not warlike.  People with adequate space and resources like to sing and dance.  The Inuit described by Rasmussen lived in extremely low population density, but the lands they inhabited had an extremely low carrying capacity.  Crowding is a social disease that causes frantic agitation.

In the last chapter, Shepard looks toward the future.  He presents us with imaginative, impractical, and sometimes daffy solutions.  Rather than burning oil, we could use yeast to convert it into high-protein food.  Agriculture and domesticated animals must go.  Human settlements should be limited to a five-mile strip along the coasts, returning the interiors of continents to nature.  In the wild lands, only foot travel would be allowed.  Only hand weapons could be used for hunting, no guns or dogs.  And so on.

The book was written in the good old days of the early 1970s, when there were fewer than four billion, and the future seemed fairly stable.  Peak oil and climate change had yet to walk onto the stage.  We seemed to have time to repair things.  This is a 40-year old book, with a few rough edges, but well worth the time.

Shepard, Paul, The Tender Carnivore, University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia, 1998.  [1973]

Monday, December 15, 2014

Encounters With Nature

Paul Shepard was a pioneer in human ecology, a young field that studies the relationship between humans and their habitats.  The decades of his career were an exciting time.  New research was challenging myths about low impact (“primitive”) cultures, and scholars were starting to contemplate environmental ethics.  He hoped that growing awareness might end humankind’s war on the planet, but as his hair got grayer, his disillusionment grew.  Enlightenment takes time.

Encounters With Nature is a collection of Shepard’s essays, some of which reveal his thinking near the end of his days.  It was compiled, edited, and published by his wife, Florence, after he died.  She summed up the book in one sentence:  “At the heart of our identity is a fundamentally wild being, one who finds in the whole of wild nature all that is true and beautiful in this world.”  The essays spin around two themes that shaped human development: animals and place. 

Our early pre-human ancestors lived in the trees of tropical rainforests.  Leaping quickly from limb to limb through the canopy required far more brainpower than herbivores needed to manufacture manure on the wide-open savannah.  Our time in the trees provided us with sharp minds, grasping hands, stereoscopic vision, and the ability to see in color.

Later, our ancestors moved to the ground, and became larger and stronger.  To defend themselves against predators, they became socially organized.  By and by, they came to walk erect.  They were hunters, but lacked speed, fangs, and claws.  Instead, they became long-distance runners.  Many herbivores were capable of amazing bursts of speed, but they couldn’t outrun hunters who doggedly pursued them for hours.  Some think that we lost our body hair to stay cooler while chasing lunch.  Our ancestors also evolved arms and shoulders that were well suited for throwing sticks and stones.

Our culture takes great pride in the Industrial Revolution and the Agricultural Revolution, but the most important revolution was the Hunting Revolution.  We moved onto the savannah, and learned how to hunt in packs.  Our ancestors were hunters long before Homo sapiens first appeared.  If you look in the mirror, you will observe the body of a tropical omnivore, fine-tuned for running and throwing — a hunter.  Imagine what you would look like if your ancestors had spent the last two million years on couches watching television.

When civilized folks look in the mirror, they don’t see a hunter; they see the crown of creation, God’s masterpiece.  We are taught that every other species is inferior and non-essential.  Only humans matter.  A chimp looking in the mirror sees a wild chimpanzee.  They have not lost their identity.  Coyotes have never forgotten how to be coyotes.

Shepard described three phases in the “identity formation” of each individual.  In the first phase, we bond to our mother.  In the second phase, between learning to speak and puberty, we have about a decade to bond with the living place we inhabit.  All of us are wild animals at birth, expecting to spend our lives in wild ecosystems.

Wild children are fascinated by other wild animals, which are far more interesting than rubber ducks and teddy bears.  Kids observe animals, learn their names, categorize them, imitate them, and study their anatomy when butchered.  They learn the daily and seasonal patterns of the others.  They watch the others transform from youngsters to oldsters, and a strong feeling of kinship develops.  “It is a family tie and carries responsibility.”

Shepard has little to say about the realm of plants, which is equally alive and fascinating.  Plants also play a major role in our bonding to nature.  By puberty, wild children are well rooted in place, feeling at-one with the flora and fauna of the family of life.  They have a profound sense of belonging that most modern tumbleweeds cannot begin to imagine, and will never experience.

Our bodies are those of hunters.  Likewise, our minds were formed and perfected by two million years of hunting and foraging.  We do not thrive in McMansions, malls, or cubicle farms.  We’re like zoo animals with rusty souls, enduring a dreary existence so far from home.  Condors are at home soaring with great joy above the mountains.  When imprisoned by humans, they become sad biological specimens.  A writer once concluded that condorness consisted of 10 percent condor and 90 percent place.  The same is true for us.

The third phase is initiation, the transition into adulthood.  “The youth is ushered into adult status by ceremonies that include separation from family, instruction by elders, tests of endurance and pain, trials of solitude, visions, dreams, and rituals of rebirth.”

What happens if the bond to mother is flawed?  In her book, The Continuum Concept, Jean Liedloff described how wild people raised happy children, and how civilized folks often fail to. 

What happens if we do not form a healthy bond to the family of life?  We become space aliens, and see the natural world as static scenery, or something to plunder.  Jay Griffiths described how wild children bond, and modern kids suffer, in her book, Kith.

What happens when adolescents aren’t initiated into adulthood?  They can remain immature and alienated, whirling in infantile anxieties, often for the rest of their lives.  The natural identity-forming process fails, and they assume a synthetic identity appropriate for the industrial culture.

For wild people, life was generous and giving.  Food was acquired without regular hard work.  The fruit, nuts, roots, and meat they got were gifts, for which they regularly expressed thanks and gratitude.  Meat was always shared.

For farmers, food was not a gift, but a wage received for months of backbreaking work.  If everything went well, there would be food to harvest at summer’s end.  Food could be stored and traded.  It became private property, and a source of wealth and power.  For modern consumers, food is not a gift, it’s a product sold at stores.  Many do not comprehend the link between pizza and the natural world.

The bottom line here is that we were normal and healthy at birth.  Evolution did not design us to be Earth-wrecking savages.  What turned us into freaks was our humanistic culture, which elevates us above all other animals, and celebrates our intelligence and technology.  This illusion is certain to take a beating as we move into the age of collapses, driven by peak energy, peak food, peak humans, and peak everything else.  Our crazy way of life is running out of time.

Our descendants are not going to hold humanistic culture in high regard, because its amazing bursts of cleverness could never outrun its tireless dark shadow.  It’s obviously a suicidal culture, and this will encourage its abandonment.  New and healthier modes of thinking are emerging, but have yet to go viral.  Mainstream academia seems determined to cling to the cult of perpetual growth as it swirls around the drain, lost in pipedreams of techno-utopia.

Shepard has sketched out suggestions of what needs to be nurtured, and what needs to be dumped.  This is precious information for people with imagination, who reject the orders to shop till they drop.  Creative minds understand that other cultures are possible, and that it’s time to envision them.  There is much to do before the lights go out.

Shepard, Paul, Encounters With Nature, Island Press, Washington, D. C., 1999.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Population Explosion

Following the publication of The Population Bomb in 1968, the new predicament of overpopulation was inducted into our gruesome mob of predicaments.  World leaders snapped to attention, contemplated their options, realized that promoting population control was political suicide, and chose to step around the messy issue.  The house was not on fire today, just some smoke.

The big exception was the Chinese, whose one-child program successfully prevented 350 million births.  It was sometimes heavy-handed, but ignoring runaway growth would have guaranteed a super-heavy disaster.  China had the same amount of cropland as the U.S., but four times the population, and the cropland was wearing out after centuries of organic farming.  The last thing they needed was more mouths to feed.

In 1968, there were 3.5 billion people, twenty years later 5.3 billion.  Paul and Anne Ehrlich realized that The Population Bomb had failed to inspire miraculous change, so they wrote The Population Explosion (1990).  The problems they had predicted earlier were now appearing in many places, and a new generation needed an excellent primer on overpopulation and its side effects.  This second book did not repeat the 1968 error of predicting timeframes.  It was much more substantial than the first, and is still illuminating to read today.  Readers will recognize that the raging bloody chaos of the twenty-first century is an obvious consequence of soaring overshoot.

In this second act, the Ehrlichs took readers into the ecological equivalent of an amusement park funhouse, where loud and scary ghouls and goblins frighten us at every turn — except that their eco-spooks were genuinely dangerous.  The trends in food production and population were not in any way encouraging.  In 1970, population was growing by 75 million per year.  By 1990, it was 95 million.

At the same time, staggering amounts of irreplaceable topsoil were being lost, aquifers were being depleted, and fields were being taken out of production because of salinization and waterlogging.  The Green Revolution surge in food production was peaking, whilst population continued to soar, setting the stage for crisis.  “We shouldn’t delude ourselves: the population explosion will come to an end before very long.”

North America produced 75 percent of the world’s grain exports, and the U.S. was the number one exporter.  In 1988, a severe drought reduced U.S. grain production from 300 to 200 million tons.  That year, Americans consumed more than they produced.  A stable climate was essential for crop production.  So was healthy topsoil, which was being lost at an estimated 24 to 26 billion tons per year.  So was cheap and abundant oil, and water for irrigation.

In 1990, the Ehrlichs were aware that global warming might become a serious problem some day, one that might disrupt agriculture, and spark major famines.  They knew that fossil energy was finite, and that we would be insane to burn it all.  But peak oil and climate change were not presented as current threats in this book.  The inevitable return to muscle-powered agriculture is certain take a huge bite out of food production, and an unstable climate will ensure unstable harvests.

Most of humankind lives in the northern hemisphere, in regions having a temperate climate.  These regions are where most of the world’s grain is produced.  Tropical regions are far more troublesome to farm, and they are home to most of the world’s hungry folks.  There is no winter to provide pest control.  Forest soils are typically thin.  Rains are often heavy, sweeping away soil, fertilizer, and pesticides.  The magic seeds of the Green Revolution do not thrive in the humid tropics.

A fascinating chapter reveals why it is so hard for us to take action on long-term issues.  It’s almost impossible to see, hear, touch, or smell greenhouse gasses, overpopulation, acid rain, aquifer depletion, soil destruction, or mass extinction.  These are not sudden, attention-grabbing events, like a charging rhino.  They are slow motion processes that are mostly perceptible via charts, graphs, and books.  We are tropical primates, and we evolved to pay close attention to the here and now, in the immediate vicinity.

Slow motion threats cannot be chased away with complaints or magical thinking.  We can’t seem to get interested in making enormous sacrifices today in the hope of theoretical benefits somewhere down the road, maybe.  Exponential growth can blindside us, because it’s slow at first, and gradually spins into a devastating whirlwind.  Evolution did not prepare us for civilized living.

The Ehrlichs are more homocentric than ecocentric.  Here’s a real boner: “The population problem is rooted in one of humanity’s greatest triumphs — overcoming natural controls on population size: predators, starvation, and disease.”  Triumphs?  Overcoming natural controls was the blunder that hurled us onto the path of doom!  Replace “triumphs” with “mistakes” and the line makes sense.  Natural controls work beautifully.  There are not 7.2 billion chimps staring at cell phones.

From 1968 to today, the main goal of the Ehrlichs has been to prevent the collapse of our global civilization.  In The Population Explosion, they fire hose readers with torrents of grim information.  Readers are likely to conclude that today’s global civilization is already far beyond the point of no return.  The solutions recommended require countless miracles, by next year, if possible — world leaders fully cooperating to rapidly reverse the course of humankind.

In a 2014 essay, they concluded that the odds of preventing collapse are now less than one percent.  Every civilization collapses, and not one has ever been anything close to sustainable.  Instead of rescuing civilization, wouldn’t a wiser goal be to quit destroying the ecosystem?  The early civilizations destroyed themselves by overexploiting renewable resources, like water, forests, and topsoil.  The newer ones are also extracting nonrenewable resources at an exponential rate.  We’re beating the stuffing out of the planet.

Sadly, the super-loony consumer lifestyle has been successfully marketed as being extremely cool.  Everyone in China, India, Africa, and everywhere else is eager to live as wastefully as possible, like Americans, but finite resources make this impossible.  Instead, Americans need to learn how to live like the people who pick their coffee beans, and we will, sooner or later.

Civilization appears to be speeding toward decades of collapses, yet most of us have little understanding of how we created our mob of predicaments.  Methinks it would be ideal to understand our boo-boos before the lights go out.  It would be great to quit repeating them.  Long ago, the introduction of plows increased carrying capacity.  Today, their continued use is reducing carrying capacity.  It’s important to understand this.

Here’s an essential sentence:  “The complacency with which our education system at all levels accepts the production of citizens hopelessly unequipped to understand the population explosion and many other aspects of the modern world is a national disgrace.”

Ehrlich, Paul R. and Ehrlich, Anne H., The Population Explosion, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1990.

In 2012, the Ehrlichs published a detailed essay, Can a Collapse of Global Civilization be Avoided? 

Other reviews of Ehrlich books:  The Population Bomb, The Dominant Animal.