Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Mao’s War Against Nature

When I was young, I discovered pictures from China, where the streets were filled with people riding bicycles.  I was overwhelmed by this display of human intelligence.  Had they learned from our mistakes and taken a higher path, or had their culture taught them to respect life?  I was living in Kalamazoo, where the streets were a nightmare, jammed with impatient nutjobs in speeding wheelchairs.  The air was thick with methylene chloride, and the river was a PCB cesspool.  If only our leaders were Chinese… sigh!  Like I said, I was young.

In 1949, Mao Zedong led a revolution that overthrew the Chinese government.  The victors created the People’s Republic of China, a communist state.  China had suffered from a long era of exploitation by foreign powers.  Mao was eager to create a prosperous industrial utopia as rapidly as possible, by any means necessary.

In 1972, Richard Nixon visited Mao and reestablished relations between the U.S. and China.  Judith Shapiro was among the first Americans allowed to work there.  She taught English.  The outside world knew little about Red China, but Shapiro soon learned that the Maoist era had been a turbulent freak show.  She described this period in her book, Mao’s War Against Nature.

Every environmental history book is a horror story, describing how clever humans survived by using technology and aggression to devour nonrenewable resources, deplete renewable resources, ravage ecosystems, and leave the bills for their children.  Shapiro’s book stands out, because it examines an era of unbelievable ecocide.  Maoist China repeated the classic mistakes of other civilizations, but in fast forward mode.

Mao’s high-speed modernization project was called the Great Leap Forward (1958-60).  He wanted to produce more steel than Great Britain within 15 years.  Peasants rapidly constructed several million primitive backyard furnaces.  A hundred million people worked day and night melting tools, pots, and scrap into blobs of useless metal.  Most of the furnaces were wood-fired, and deforestation was widespread.  In those days, the peasants still believed the dream — that their heroic efforts would bring a new era with powerful tractors and railroads.  They worked enthusiastically.

At the same time, there was a huge drive to increase grain production via bone-headed strategies.  They were told that if they planted ten times as many seeds in a field, the yield would be ten times higher.  Sadly, the densely grown plants rotted.  But local leaders were deeply engaged in a competition to report astonishing gains in grain production, and their claims were far in excess of reality. 

Because it would have been impossible to store all the grain reported, folks were ordered to make steel.  The 1958 crop largely rotted in the fields, while the steel-making peasants consumed their grain reserves.  In 1959, drought arrived, and the Great Famine began.  Between 35 and 50 million died by 1961 — the biggest manmade famine in history.

The war on nature had another front, the Four Pests — rats, sparrows, flies, and mosquitoes.  Sparrows were an enemy of the people because they ate too much grain.  Schoolchildren ran around the countryside, destroying their nests and smashing their eggs.  They banged pots whenever a sparrow landed.  Before long, there were far fewer sparrows, and far more of the insects they used to eat.  Farmers soon realized that sparrows were great allies.  The birds were removed from the pest list, and replaced by bedbugs.

A core component of the Mao era was disregard for expertise.  Mao hated intellectuals, scientists, and anyone else who questioned his fantasies.  “Mao and his followers all too often fell into the trap of believing that because they declared something possible or true, it would be so.”  Time-proven ideas were annoying superstitions that obstructed the fast lane to utopia.  Knowledgeable people who voiced doubts about stupid ideas were promoted to exciting new careers in breaking rocks, exterminating forests, or worse.

When the president of Beijing University warned about the danger of rapid population growth, he was denounced and relieved of his responsibilities.  Overpopulation could only be a problem in evil capitalist societies — never in a socialist paradise.  China was already overpopulated in 1949, and it grew with spooky speed.  Mao refused to believe the census numbers.  In 1958, family planning programs were ended, and not resumed until 1971.  Mao died in 1976, and in 1979, the one-child policy was implemented.

When a respected engineering professor at Qinghua University warned that the planned Sanmenxia dam on the Yellow River was stupid, and would promptly fill with silt, he was denounced and relieved of his responsibilities.  The dam was built, and the reservoir filled with silt two years later, flooding a nearby town.  Mao rushed to build thousands of dams, of which 2,976 had collapsed by 1980.  Many were built with soil alone, by untrained peasants.  Floods caused by two dam failures in 1975 killed an estimated 230,000 people.

Rubber was a strategic resource, and Mao did not want to rely on imports from capitalists.  During the Cultural Revolution, hundreds of thousands of educated urban youths from bad families (i.e., intellectuals, rightists, capitalists) were shipped to the virgin rainforests north of Laos.  This region was too far north for rubber, but the experts understood it was dangerous to protest.  So, ancient forest was cleared, and planted with rubber.  Much of it died during the winter of 1974-75.  They replanted, and the trees died again.  They replanted a third time, with the same result.

Looking at this era from the outside, it’s easy to see the foolishness.  The only news the peasants got came from government sources — propaganda.  The culture had a long tradition of obedience to superiors.  Free speech and dissent were not cool.  “Political campaigns so distorted human relationships that family members were driven to denounce and beat each other, neighbors spied on neighbors, schoolchildren drove teachers to suicide, and the world was turned upside down for countless millions.”

As I read, I couldn’t help but contemplate how foolish our own culture would appear to intelligent outsiders.  How much of our news stream is truthful?  What stories are missing?  Why do we disregard the warnings of climate scientists?  How can a “well-educated” population remain so ecologically illiterate?  It’s 2015, the polar bears are dying, and the streets of Kalamazoo are still jammed with speeding wheelchairs.  Why?

The Chinese were manipulated to pursue an ideology, and the program resulted in enormous environmental harm.  It seems like consumer societies are manipulated via advertising and peer pressure to cause enormous harm via lifelong competition for status.  We must continually acquire more impressive homes, cars, televisions, and on and on.  A couple years ago, it was awesomely trendy to wear clothing printed with skull motifs.  The following year, the skulls vanished, and the trend robots rushed to fill their wardrobes with the latest new fashions.

Anyway, Shapiro’s book is stunning.  Mao is dead, and so is his ideology.  The new game is the high speed pursuit of personal wealth.  She mentions a few signs of hope, but it seems clear that the post-Mao era is causing far more environmental harm.  The population is still growing.  The pollution is horrendous.  In every nation, the war on nature is winning.  What would intelligent people do?

Shapiro, Judith, Mao’s War Against Nature, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2001.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Dying of the Trees

Long, long ago, before the 1970s, thousands of people would make a springtime pilgrimage to the Catoctin woods of Maryland to enjoy the flowering dogwood trees.  Today, the tourists no longer come, because 79 percent of the dogwoods are dead, and the rest are dying.  A mystery fungus created a rapidly spreading blight, which penetrated the bark and blocked the flow of water and nutrients.  It killed new dogwood seedlings.  The experts were puzzled.  Could the trees have been weakened by acid rain, smog, increased UV radiation, or a changing climate?

The dogwood die-off captured the attention of Maryland resident Charles Little, a conservationist and writer.  It inspired him to spend three years visiting 13 states, observe dying trees, interview experts, and read papers and reports.  Then he wrote The Dying of the Trees.  It was a heartbreaking project, because everything he learned was grim, and worsening.

On one trip, he visited Hub Vogelmann, in the Green Mountains of Vermont, a region downwind from the industrial Midwest.  Three-quarters of the spruce trees were dead, and there was no evidence of insects or disease.  In tree ring studies, vanadium, arsenic, and barium began appearing in the wood around 1920.  Following World War II, the wood also contained copper, lead, zinc, and cadmium.  Aluminum is commonly found in forest soils, but acid rain breaks down aluminum silicates, enabling the metal to be absorbed by plants.  It kills the roots.  Vogelmann was sharply criticized for suggesting that the problem was related to acid rain, an emerging issue by 1979.

Acid rain was killing forests in Germany and Eastern Europe.  It was killing the sugar maples in New England, Ontario, and Quebec.  In the Appalachian region of Quebec, 91 percent of the maples were in decline by 1988.  The rain was ten times more acidic than normal.  It was leaching the phosphorus, potassium, and magnesium out of the soil — essential nutrients.  In some places, the livers and kidneys of moose and deer contained so much cadmium that the Canadian government issued health warnings.  In glaring defiance of the evidence, the U.S. Forest Service reported that the maples were healthy and improving.

Little visited Rock Creek, near Beckley, West Virginia.  It was home to a remnant of the mesophytic forest, bits of which are spread across several states.  This ecosystem may be 100 million years old.  It was never submerged by rising seas, or erased by glaciers.  It was the mother forest for the trees now living in eastern North America. 

Sadly, mature trees at Rock Creek, in full foliage, were falling over, their trunks hollowed out by rot.  Fungi, supercharged by excess nitrogen, were now able to penetrate the bark.  Trees were producing up to 80 percent fewer seeds.  John Flynn was among the pioneers in reporting the acid rain story to the national media.  He was harshly criticized by both industry and the U.S. Forest Service.

Once, on a visit to England, Little met an elderly sailor who had visited Oregon as a young man.  The immense virgin forests had amazed him.  Little did not tell the old fellow that those ancient forests were mostly gone now, and that industry was eager to destroy the ten percent that remained.  It took the Brits a thousand years to exterminate their ancient forest.  Americans largely did it in one generation, thanks to better technology and mass hysteria.

The vast white pine forests that once stretched from Maine to Minnesota never recovered.  Deciduous trees took their place.  Ancient forests are not renewable resources.  “In clear-cutting such forests, then, we not only kill the trees that are cut, but we annihilate the possibility of such trees for all time.”  Forests are incredibly complex ecosystems, and logging disrupts a state of balance that took eons to develop.  Many wildlife species cannot survive on cutover lands.  A monoculture tree plantation is not a forest, and is more vulnerable to cold, drought, pests, and diseases.

Little visited Colorado, where many forests were brown and dead.  The original forest was exterminated about 100 years ago.  The second growth that replaced it was a different mix of species, mostly shade-tolerant, which were more vulnerable to spruce budworms.  These trees were densely packed together, thanks to a strategy of fire suppression — promptly extinguishing every wildfire.  The dense growth was attractive to budworms, which weakened the trees.  Then the bark beetles were able to finish them off.  Dead forests loaded with fuel invite fire.

Native Americans controlled fuel buildup with periodic low-level burns, but this is impossible today, because of the massive accumulations of fuel.  There is no undo button for a century of mistakes.  The government cannot afford to thin overgrown forests and remove the excess fuel from many millions of acres, so the stage is set for catastrophic fires.  There will come a day when the cost and availability of oil makes modern high-tech firefighting impossible.

Forests often die in slow motion.  A speedy decline might take 25 years, and be invisible to casual observers.  Forest death increased in the twentieth century, following the extermination of ancient forests.  It worsened after World War II, as pollution levels increased.  Climate change is likely to cause additional harm.

A vital lesson in this book is to never automatically believe anything.  Master the art of critical thinking, and always question authority.  Our culture is out of its mind, and many of its deeply held beliefs are bull excrement.  Each generation innocently passes this load of excrement to the next, because it’s all they know.

Here’s my favorite passage: “A hand will be raised at the back of the room.  ‘But what can we do?’ the petitioner will ask.  Do?  What can we do?  What a question that is when we scarcely understand what we have already done!”

In a series of stories, Little’s book informs readers that industrial civilization and healthy forests do not mix.  But it barely scratches the surface of the harms caused by the logging industry, or the many other industries.  When I proudly received my golden meal ticket from the university, I was dumber than a box of rocks.  I was well trained to spend the rest of my days striving for respect and status by shopping the planet to pieces.

Today, as the clock is running out on industrial civilization, it’s essential to better understand what we have already done.  We won’t discover every fatal defect, because our way of life is overloaded with them, but the ones that we can see are more likely to be addressed.  We are on a dead end path.  We would be wise to outgrow our habits and illusions, and remember how to live.

Little recommends the obvious — sharply reverse population growth, end the extermination of forests, plant billions of trees, and stop industrial pollution.  He cautions readers that we’re well beyond the point where the damage can be repaired.  Our task today is damage control — learning, growing, teaching, and mindfully reducing the harm we cause each day.  The book does not conclude with the traditional slop bucket of magical thinking.  His straight talk is refreshing.

Little, Charles E., The Dying of the Trees, Viking, New York, 1995.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape

In the family of life, humankind’s two closest living relatives are bonobos and chimpanzees, two apes with strikingly different approaches to living.  Ninety-eight percent of our DNA is the same as theirs.  These three intelligent cousins share a common ancestor that lived five to seven million years ago.  In his book, Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape, primatologist Frans de Waal does a superb job of comparing the three cousins, and the photos of Frans Lanting are fantastic.

In Africa, chimps far outnumber bonobos, and inhabit a larger territory.  The two never meet in the wild, because apes cannot swim, and the Zaire River keeps them apart.  Both reside in dense tropical rainforests, and both sleep in the trees.  They are similar in appearance, and it wasn’t until 1929 that scientists realized that bonobos and chimps were different species.

Bonobos are lucky to live in a dense and rugged rainforest that is difficult for humans to get to, explore, and destroy.  Researchers can spend many days thrashing around in the foliage, completely unaware that a group of bonobos is silently looking down at them from the thick canopy above.  Bonobos were not studied in the wild until the mid-1970s, and research was interrupted from 1994 to 2003, by a civil war that claimed three million lives.  Chimps, on the other hand, had been known and studied for a long time.

During the twentieth century, industrial warfare brutally exterminated millions of humans.  For some reason, it became trendy to perceive humans as inherently violent.  Chimps were seen in a similar light, because of their resemblance to industrial humans.  Once, when two chimp groups came into contact, researchers observed the brutal massacre of the weaker group.

De Waal offered this insight on male chimps:  “Their cooperative, action-packed existence resembles that of the human males who, in modern society, team up with other males in corporations within which they compete while collectively fighting other corporations.”

Chimps and civilized humans typically live in groups dominated by alpha males who actively subdue their rivals.  Females are second-class.  When an alpha male chimp reaches retirement age, and is clobbered by a vigorous young upstart, the new alpha often kills the old fellow’s young offspring, so their mothers can promptly begin producing offspring with his genes.  Because of this, females with young tend to go off and forage alone, avoiding contact with the bloody stud and his buddies.

Bonobos look a lot like chimps, but live very differently.  Bonobo groups are matriarchal, and males are second-class.  Females determine how food is shared, and they eat while the males wait.  Chimps have sex only when a female is fertile.  Bonobos have sex almost anytime, several times a day, with anyone interested, young or old, in every imaginable way.

The genitals of female bonobos become enormously swollen when they are receptive to sexual delights.  They are receptive almost half of the time, whilst being fertile for just a few days.  Non-reproductive sex is an excellent way to defuse conflicts, keep everyone relaxed, and have a pleasant day.  Because everyone has sex with everyone, paternity is impossible to determine.  Therefore, male bonobos do not kill infants, because any infant might be their offspring.

Hominids have taken a third path, the nuclear family.  Long ago, with the arrival of the chilly glacial era, the rainforests we evolved in came close to disappearing.  Our ancestors shifted outside the forest.  The nuclear family was an adaptation for surviving on the open savannah.  Hominid offspring benefitted when their mothers and fathers lived together and cooperated.  Tightly knit groups of aggressive hominids could successfully kill game and fend off predators.  The strongest, fiercest males were more likely to survive and reproduce, so natural selection favored these traits.

Promiscuity was discouraged, because males did not want to spend their lives raising a rival’s offspring.  Thus, the nuclear family reduced the reproductive freedom of females, via moral constraints.  Hominid societies have probably been male-dominated from the start.  Male control further increased with the shift to sedentary living, and the accumulation of property.  Males wanted their life savings to be inherited by their own offspring.  This led to an obsession with virginity and chastity, and the prickly patriarchal mindset.

Civilized societies have developed patriarchal cultures.  “With a few notable exceptions, such as spotted hyenas and the lemurs of Madagascar, male dominance is the standard mammalian pattern.”  Chimps follow this pattern but, to the great delight of feminists, the discovery of female-dominant bonobo society has presented a less macho alternative.  So, who are humans?  De Waal says that humans are in the middle, between the two poles — both aggressive and empathetic.

Why are chimps and bonobos so different?  Both have low birth rates, and nurse their young for four or five years.  Bonobos live in a habitat with abundant food, and no serious competitors in their ecological niche, an ideal situation.  Chimps live in leaner lands, and compete for food with gorillas and baboons.  They feel the squeeze of crowding, and they reduce this pressure by infanticide, and by killing competitors.  Infanticide is common in many species, including lions, prairie dogs, mice, chimps, and gorillas.

We live in an era of extinctions, and the numbers of chimps and bonobos are in sharp decline, as their human cousins relentlessly expand.  Diamond miners, loggers, bush meat hunters, and war refugees continue pushing into their habitat.

De Waal appeared in a fascinating documentary, The Last Great Ape.  It includes many scenes of bonobos living in the wild.  We see them enjoying a pleasant life — eating fruit, having sex, climbing trees, playing, having sex, grooming each other, nursing.  In one scene, viewers look down from a plane zooming over the jungle, and the narrator says, “This part of the forest is like a time capsule; bonobos may have existed here in much the same way for two million years.”  Wow!

Viewers see animals that look like our ancestors, live like our ancestors, and still inhabit the region where our species originated.  The bonobos have obviously remained far more stable over two million years than humans have, because they enjoy good luck and just enough intelligence to live well in their niche.  When I contemplate the era of my 62-year life, and the skyrocketing destruction caused by humankind, it breaks my heart — and mindlessly killing the planet doesn’t even make us happy.  Big brains do not guarantee long-term stability and ecological sustainability.

Patriarchal chimps have also succeeded in living for two million years, in the same region, in a stable manner.  While they rudely offend our humanist and feminist sensibilities, they have evolved a way of living that is thousand times less destructive than that of the humanists and feminists in our insane society.

This raises an embarrassing question.  Exactly how did we benefit from complex language, literacy, technology, domestication, agriculture, civilization, and industrialization?

Waal, Frans de, Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997.


The Last Great Ape, WGBH, 2007 (the BBC version is titled Bonobo: Missing in Action, 2006).  The transcript is here.  Copyright holders periodically block YouTube access to this program, so it keeps changing names.  Search for “bonobo” videos that are 51 minutes long.

The Baka Pygmies are our relatives who have lived in the African rainforest close to forever.  In this video (2 min), they make an incredibly joyful noise.  The aura they radiate is that of wild people with deep roots in their ancestral home.  Sadly, their teeth indicate that their diet has been civilized.

This video (5 min) includes beautiful portraits of Baka Pygmies, along with their music.  The faces of the children radiate a glowing sense of joy and contentment.