Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Sixth Extinction

I didn’t rush to read Elizabeth Kolbert’s book, The Sixth Extinction, because I imagined it would be a gloomy expose on the unfortunate consequences of way too much half-baked cleverness — and it was.  But it’s also a fascinating story about the long saga of life on Earth, and the unclever antics of the latest primate species.  It’s an outstanding book.

We have soared away into a fantasy world, where godlike humans spend their lives creating brilliant miracles.  But when observed in a 450 million year timeframe, from this moment when a new mass extinction is gathering momentum, the wonders of progress and technological innovation lose their shine.  Kolbert rips off our virtual reality headsets, and serves us powerful medicine, a feast of provocative news.

The frog people have lived on this sweet planet for 400 million years, but many are now dying, because of a fungus called Bd.  This fungus can live happily in the forest on its own, without an amphibian host, so endangered frogs rescued by scientists cannot be returned to the wild.  The crisis began when humans transported frogs that carried the fungus, but were immune to it.  There was money to be made in the frog business, and so the fungus has spread around the globe.

This is similar to the chestnut blight of a century ago.  Entrepreneurs profitably imported chestnut seedlings from Asia.  The Asian species was immune to the fungus it carried.  American chestnut trees were not immune, and four billion died, almost all of them.  The fungus persists, so replanting is pointless. 

North American bats are dying by the millions from white-nose, caused by fungus that is common in Europe, where bats are immune to it.  It was likely carried across the Atlantic by a tourist who dropped some spores in Howe Caverns, in New York.  By 2013, the die-off had spread to 22 U.S. states and five Canadian provinces. 

Welcome to New Pangaea!  Once upon a time, long before we were born, all seven continents were joined together in a single continent, Pangaea.  Over time, it broke apart, and ecosystems on each continent evolved in a unique way.  In recent centuries, highly mobile humans have moved countless organisms from one ecosystem to another, both deliberately and unintentionally.  The seven continents no longer enjoy the long-term stability provided by isolation.

On another front, many colonies of humans have become obsessed with burning sequestered carbon on an enormous scale.  This is overloading the atmosphere with carbon, which the oceans absorb and convert to carbonic acid.  Carbonic acid is a huge threat to marine life, except for lucky critters, like jellyfish.  The world’s coral reefs are dying.

Tropical rainforests are treasure chests of biological diversity.  Tropical oceans generally are not, because of low levels of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus.  Coral reefs are the shining exception.  They provide habitat for thriving ecosystems, home to more than 500,000 species.  This reminded me of beaver ponds, which are also sanctuaries of abundant life. 

Coral polyps and beavers give us excellent examples of reciprocity.  They create relationships that are mutually beneficial for many species.  Reciprocity is a vital idea that most human cultures have forgotten.  Our dominant culture has no respect for the wellbeing of ecosystems.  It has a tradition of displacing or exterminating the indigenous species on the land, and replacing them with unsustainable manmade systems.

Evolution is fascinating.  Rabbits and mice have numerous offspring, because they are vulnerable to predators.  Other species have deflected the predator challenge by evolving to great size, like mammoths, hippos, and rhinos.  Big critters have long lifespans and low birth rates.  This made them highly vulnerable when Homo sapiens moved into the neighborhood. 

Kolbert imagines that the megafauna extinctions were not the result of a reckless orgy of overhunting.  It probably took centuries.  Hunters had no way of knowing how much the mammoth population had gradually dwindled over the generations.  Because they reproduced so slowly, they could have been driven to extinction by nothing more than modest levels of hunting.  An elephant does not reach sexual maturity until its teens, and each pregnancy takes 22 months.  There are never twins.  Deer are still with us, because they reproduce faster.

Sadly, Neanderthals are no longer with us.  They lived in Europe for at least 100,000 years, and during that time, their tool collection barely changed.  They probably never used projectiles.  They have acquired a reputation for being notorious dimwits, because they lived in a stable manner for a very long time, and didn’t rubbish the ecosystem.  Homo sapiens moved into Europe 40,000 years ago.  By 30,000 years ago, the Neanderthals were gone.  The DNA of modern folks, except Africans, contains up to four percent Neanderthal genes.

Homo sapiens has lived in a far more intense manner.  In the last 10,000 years, we’ve turned the planet inside out.  Kolbert wonders if there was a slight shift in our DNA that made us so unstable — a “madness gene.”  I wonder if we’re simply the victims of cultural evolution that hurled us down a terrible path.  If we had been raised in Neanderthal clans, would we be stable, sane, and happy?

Kolbert laments, “The Neanderthals lived in Europe for more than a hundred thousand years and during that period they had no more impact on their surroundings than any other large vertebrate.  There is every reason to believe that if humans had not arrived on the scene, the Neanderthals would be there still, along with the wild horses and wooly rhinos.”

Cultures have an amazing ability to put chains on our mental powers.  Kolbert describes how scientists (and all humans) typically struggle with disruptive information, concepts that bounce off our sacred myths.  Bizarre new ideas, like evolution, extinction, or climate change, are reflexively dismissed as nonsense.  As evidence of reality accumulates, increasing levels of absurd rationalizations must be invented.  Eventually, someone actually acknowledges reality, and a paradigm shift is born. 

For most of my life, human extinction has not been on my radar.  By the end of Kolbert’s book, readers understand that our extinction is more than a remote, theoretical possibility.  What is absolutely certain is that we are pounding the planet to pieces.  Everything is connected, and when one type of tree goes extinct, so do the insects that depend on it, as well as the birds that depend on the insects.  When the coral polyps die, the coral reef ecosystem disintegrates.

The sixth mass extinction is clearly the result of human activities.  The driving forces include the things we consider to be our great achievements — agriculture, civilization, industry, transportation systems.  This is highly disruptive information, and everyone is working like crazy to rationalize our nightmares out of existence.  Luckily, a number of people, like Kolbert, are beginning to acknowledge reality.  Will there be a paradigm shift?  Will we walk away from our great achievements, and spend the next 100,000 years living in balance with the planet?

Kolbert, Elizabeth, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2014.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The End of Plenty

Nothing is more precious than balance, stability, and sustainability.  Today, we’re hanging by our fingernails to a skyrocket of intense insane change, and it’s the only way of life we’ve ever known.  Joel Bourne has spent his life riding the rocket.  He grew up on a farm, and studied agronomy at college, but sharp changes were causing many farmers to go bankrupt.  Taking over the family farm would have been extremely risky, so he became a writer for farm magazines.  Later, he was hired by National Geographic, where he has spent most of his career.

In 2008, he was assigned to cover the global food crisis, and this project hurled him into full awareness of the big picture.  The Green Revolution caused food production to skyrocket, and world population doubled in just 40 years.  Then, the revolution fizzled out, whilst population continued to soar.  Demographers have told us to expect another two or three billion for dinner in 2050.  Obviously, this had the makings of an excellent book, so Bourne sat down and wrote The End of Plenty.

The subtitle of his book is “The Race to Feed a Crowded World,” not “The Race to Tackle Overpopulation.”  A growing population thrills the greed community, and a diminishing herd does not.  Overpopulation is a problem that can be solved, and will be, either by enlightened self-restraint, by compulsory restraint, or, most likely, by the vigorous housekeeping of Big Mama Nature.  Feeding the current population is thrashing the planet, and feeding even more will worsen everything, but this is our primary objective.  We are, after all, civilized people, and enlightened self-restraint is for primitive savages who live sustainably in roadless paradises.

As incomes rise, the newly affluent are enjoying a more luxurious diet.  To satisfy this growing demand, food production must double by 2050.  “We’ll have to learn to produce as much food in the next four decades as we have since the beginning of civilization.”  Meanwhile, agriculture experts are not bursting with brilliant ideas.  “Producing food for more than 9 billion people without destroying the soil, water, oceans, and climate will be by far the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced.”  Bourne’s book describes a number of gigantic obstacles to doubling food production — or even maintaining current production.

Automobiles are more addictive than crystal meth.  Europeans guzzle biodiesel made from palm oil.  Americans are binging on corn ethanol.  The 2005 Energy Tax Act mandated the addition of biofuels to gasoline.  From 2001 to 2012, the ethanol gold rush drove corn prices from $1.60 to $8.28.  Not coincidentally, in 2008 food riots erupted in twenty countries.  The Arab Spring revolts began in 2011, a year of record harvests and record prices.  Today, almost 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop is being fed to motor vehicles — enough corn to feed everyone in Africa.  Experts predict that we’ll need four times more land for biofuels by 2030.

Crops require cropland, and almost all places ideal for farming are already in use, buried under roads and cities, or have been reduced to wasteland.  Every year, a million hectares (2.4 million acres) of cropland are taken out of production because of erosion, desertification, or development.  So, 90 percent of the desired doubling in food production will have to come from current cropland.  At the same time, the farm soils still in production have all seen better days.  Agriculture is an unsustainable activity that normally depletes soil quality over time.

Another obstacle is yield, the amount of food that can be produced on a hectare of land.  Between 1961 and 1986, cereal yields rose 89 percent, due to the Green Revolution.  But per capita grain production peaked in 1986.  Since then, population has been growing faster than yields.  Crop breeding experts are wringing their hands.  A number of indicators suggest that we are heading for “agricultural Armageddon,” but the experts remain silent, praying for miracles.  The biotech industry is focused on making huge profits selling seeds and poisons, not boosting yields.

Agriculture guzzles 70 percent of the water used by humans.  Irrigated fields have yields that are two to three times higher than rain fed fields.  Demand for water is projected to increase 70 to 90 percent by 2050, but water consumption today is already unsustainable.  “Over the next few decades, groundwater depletion could cripple agriculture around the world.”

Crop production is already being affected by climate change.  Research indicates that further warming will take a substantial toll on crop yields.  If temperatures rise 4°C, maybe half the world’s cropland will become unsuitable for agriculture.  Rising sea levels will submerge large regions currently used for rice production.

Meanwhile, population continues to grow, and some hallucinate it will grow until 2100.  In a nutshell, our challenge is “to double grain, meat, and biofuel production on fewer acres with fewer farmers, less water, higher temperatures, and more frequent droughts, floods, and heat waves.”  This must be done “without destroying the forests, oceans, soils, pollinators, or climate on which all life depends.”

Ladies and gentlemen, this is an outstanding book, and easy to read.  Most people have blind faith that innovation will keep the supermarkets filled forever.  Those who actually think a bit are focusing on stuff like solar panels, wind turbines, and electric cars.  Food is something we actually need, and it gets far less attention than it deserves.  By the end of the book, it’s impossible to conclude that everything is under control, and that our wise leaders will safely guide us through the storm.  Surprisingly, a few additional super-threats were not discussed in the book.

Bourne mentions that insects and weeds are developing resistance to expensive GMO wonder products, but stops there.  Big Mama Nature is the mother of resistance.  She never tires of producing new forms of life that are resistant to every toxin produced by science: insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, rodenticides, antibiotics.  Every brilliant weapon we invent will only work temporarily.  In terms of breeding new varieties of plants that are resistant to the latest biological threat, there are only so many tricks available.  The low-hanging fruit has already been used.  Just three plants enable the production of 80 to 90 percent of the calories we consume: corn, rice, and wheat. 

The global food system is heavily dependent on petroleum fuels, which are finite and nonrenewable.  There is no combination of biofuels or alternative energy that will come anywhere close to replacing oil.  In the coming decades, we will be forced to return to a muscle-powered food system.  We are entirely unprepared for this, and the consequences will be very exciting for people who eat food.

There is a similar issue with fertilizer.  Of the three primary plant nutrients, reserves of mineral phosphorus will be depleted first, and this will blindside conventional agriculture — no phosphorus, no life.  A hundred years ago, Chinese farmers used zero commercial fertilizer.  Every morning, long caravans of handcarts hauled large jugs of sewage from the cities to the fields.

In the end, readers are presented with two paths to the future.  One path looks like a whirlwind of big trouble, and this is not just a comic book doomer fantasy — it’s already blowing and rumbling.  The other path is happy and wonderful.  Humans will discover their legendary big brains, turn them on, shift industrial civilization into reverse, speed down the fast lane to genuine sustainability, and live happily ever after.  Place your bets. 

Bourne, Joel K., The End of Plenty: The Race to Feed A Crowded World, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2015.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Eye of the Crocodile

In February 1985, Val Plumwood was having a lovely time canoeing by herself in Australia’s Kakadu National Park.  The ranger had assured her that the saltwater crocodiles, notorious man-eaters, never attacked canoes.  It was a perfect day, gliding across the water in a beautiful land, no worries.

She was a scholar and writer who focused on feminism and environmental philosophy.  The Earth Crisis was pounding the planet, and it was obvious to eco-thinkers that this was caused by a severely dysfunctional philosophy.  Her book, The Eye of the Crocodile, is a fascinating voyage into the realm of ethics, values, and beliefs.

Plumwood understood that the ancient culture of the Aborigines was the opposite of insane, and she had tremendous respect for it.  It presented a time-proven example of an ethic that had enabled a healthy and stable way of life for more than 12,000 years.  Australia was blessed with a bipolar climate that often swung between drought and deluge, making low-tech agriculture impractical.  The land escaped the curse of cities until you-know-who washed up on shore.  (As her canoe gently drifted, a floating stick slowly moved closer.)

Plumwood grew up in a rural area.  She was home schooled, and enjoyed a fairy tale childhood outdoors, delighted by the “sensuous richness” of the forest.  She was unlike most of her generation, because “I acquired an unquenchable thirst for life, for the wisdom of the land.”  Thus, her appreciation of the Aboriginal culture was not merely intellectual — it was real and deep.  Unlike most of her generation, she enjoyed a spiritual connection to the land.  (The floating stick had two beautiful eyes.)

The stick with two eyes was a crocodile, nearly as big as the canoe, and it was five minutes to lunchtime.  Suddenly, the reptile began ramming her canoe.  She rushed toward shore, but the crocodile leaped and grabbed her between the legs.  Three times it pulled her underwater, trying to drown her.  Miraculously, she managed to escape, severely injured, and survived.

It was a mind-blowing life changing experience.  Intellectually, she had understood food chains, predators, and prey.  But this was the first time in her life that she was nothing more than a big juicy meatball — impossible!  She was far more than food!  The crocodile strongly disagreed.  Its sharp teeth drove home the message that she was not outside of nature.  She was a part of the ecosystem, an animal, and nourishing meat — no more significant than a moth or mouse.

She wrote, “In the vivid intensity of those last moments, when great, toothed jaws descend upon you, it can hit you like a thunderclap that you were completely wrong about it all — not only about what your own personal life meant, but about what life and death themselves actually mean.”

She was blindsided by the realization that an entire highly educated civilization could be wrong about subjects so basic — animality, food, and the dance of life and death.  The crocodile painfully drove home the point that the entire modern culture was living in a fantasy.  Our highly contagious culture was ravaging the planet, and we didn’t understand why.  Each new generation was trained to live and think like imperial space aliens.

Plumwood was educated by the space alien culture, but the crocodile was a powerful teacher from the real world, the ecosystem.  Darwin revealed that humans are animals, but this essential truth harmlessly bounced off a long tradition of human supremacist illusions.  It was easy to see that those who were demolishing the planet were radicalized space aliens who believed that human society was completely outside of nature, and far above it.

The Aboriginal people inhabited the real world.  They were wild two-legged animals who had learned the wisdom of voluntary self-restraint.  For them, the entire land was alive, intelligent, and sacred; even the plants, streams, and rocks — everything.  Nobody owned it.  Mindfully inhabiting a sacred place required a profound sense of respect.

Space aliens drove them crazy.  Colonists in spandex jogged mindlessly across sacred land, listening to electronic pop music.  Reverence was absent.  They did not belong to the land, and were unaware of its incredible power.  Some of the traditional folks wanted to ban these disrespectful intrusions.  The colonial era had been a disaster.

The colonial worldview had many layers of hierarchy.  At the summit were the elites.  Below them were women, peasants, slaves, and the colonized.  Beneath the humans were animals.  Some critters, like dogs, cats, and horses, had special status.  If they obediently submitted to human domination, they were not meat.  Below them were meat class animals that had no consciousness.  Especially despised were man-eating animals, and critters that molested human property.  They were mercilessly exterminated.  Beneath animals was the plant world, a far older realm.

The foundation of the dominant worldview was human supremacy, and this mode of thinking had been the driving force behind a growing tsunami of ecological devastation.  Plumwood saw two alternatives to supremacist thinking.

(1) Ecological animalism was the realm of crocodiles, Aborigines, our wild ancestors, and the rest of the natural world.  All life was food, including humans.  In an ecosystem, “we live the other’s death, die the other’s life.”  Our bodies belonged to the ecosystem, not to ourselves.  The spirits of animate and inanimate beings had equal significance.

(2) Ontological veganism did not believe in using animals or eating animal foods.  This ethic was an offshoot of human supremacy.  It did not condemn the dogma of human/nature dualism.  It denied that humans were meat, despite the fact that a number of large predators have been dining on us for countless centuries.  It believed that animals were worthy of moral consideration, but the plant people were not.

Ontological veganism was queasy about predation; it would prefer a predator-free world.  It believed that human hunting was cultural (animal abuse), while animal predation was natural (instinctive).  But every newborn human has a body carefully designed by evolution for a life of hunting.  We are capable of smoothly running for hours on two legs, and we have hands, arms, and shoulders that are fine-tuned for accurately throwing projectiles in a forceful manner.  What you see in the mirror is a hunter.

Plumwood was a vegetarian because she believed that the production of meat on factory farms was ethically wrong.  She had no problems with Aborigines hunting for dinner.  All of the world’s sustainable wild cultures consumed animal foods.  She was well aware that her plant food diet was not ecologically harmless.

Cultures rooted in human supremacy have achieved remarkable success at rubbishing entire ecosystems.  This is not about flawed genes.  It’s about a bunch of screwy ideas that we’ve been taught.  Sustainable cultures perceive reality in a radically different way.  Luckily, software is editable.  Plumwood recommended that creative communicators bring new ideas to our dying culture; stories that help us find our way home to the family of life.  This is an enormous challenge.

Plumwood also wrote an essay, Prey to a Crocodile, which is not in the book.  It provides a detailed discussion of the attack.  The rangers wanted to go back the next day, and kill the crocodile.  She strongly objected.  The crocodile had done nothing wrong.  Predation is normal and healthy.  She had been an intruder.

A free PDF of the entire contents of The Eye of the Crocodile is available online.  It’s just 111 pages.  A paperback edition is still in print.

Plumwood, Val, The Eye of the Crocodile, Australian National University Press, Canberra, 2012, ed. Lorraine Shannon.