Friday, July 21, 2017

Sea of Slaughter

Farley Mowat (1921–2014) was a famous Canadian nature writer, a fire-breathing critic of modernity’s war on wildness.  He spent much of his life close to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Atlantic, and was an avid outdoorsman.  By 1975, he and his wife were becoming acutely aware of the sharp decline of wildlife during their own lifetimes.

Mowat chatted with 90-year olds who confirmed his suspicions, and revealed even more tragedies.  Then he began researching historical documents, and his mind snapped.  Early European visitors were astonished by the abundance of wildlife in North America, something long gone in the Old World.  To them, the animals appeared to be infinite in number, impossible for humans to diminish, ever!

At this point, spirits of the ancestors gave him the heart-wrenching task of writing the mother of all horror stories.  His book, Sea of Slaughter, focused on the last 500 years in a coastal region spanning from Labrador to Cape Cod.  The book has five parts: birds, land mammals, fish, whales, and fin feet (seals, walrus).

For thousands of years, Native Americans hunted for subsistence, taking only what they needed to survive.  Europeans were strikingly different.  They suffered from brain worms that inflamed a maniacal obsession with wealth and status.  They were bewitched by an insatiable greed that was impossible to satisfy — they could never have enough.  Today, scientists refer to this devastating, highly contagious mental illness as get-rich-quick fever — the villain of this story.

In 1534, Jacques Cartier sailed by the Isle of Birds, a rookery for auks (northern penguins).  He wrote, “This island is so exceedingly full of birds that all the ships of France might load a cargo of them without anyone noticing that any had been removed.”  Auks were large, flightless, fat, and laid eggs in accessible locations (not cliff side nests).  Vast numbers were clobbered, salted, and loaded on ships.  Others were chopped into fish bait.  Many were boiled in large cauldrons to extract the oil from their body fat.  In Europe, it had taken over a thousand years to exterminate the auks; in the New World, advanced technology got the job done in just 300 years.  The last two died in 1844.

Prior to the emergence of the petroleum industry in the late nineteenth century, civilization acquired large amounts of oil from wildlife — seabirds, whales, walrus, seals, porpoises, and fish.  An adult polar bear killed in autumn provided lots of meat, a valuable pelt, and twelve gallons (45 l) of good oil.  Animal oil was used for lamp fuel, lubrication, cooking oil, soap, cosmetics, margarine, and leather processing.

There are a number of repeating patterns in the book.  The hunger for money was the heart of the monster.  Nothing else really mattered.  If there were just ten whales left in the world, and they were worth money, the hunters would not hesitate to kill them all.  God made animals for us to obliterate.  Whenever possible, wildlife massacres were done on an industrial scale — kill as many as possible, as fast as possible.

Conservation was an obscene, profit killing, four-letter word.  When there were fewer cod, whales, or seals, the value of each corpse increased.  So, the industry got more and bigger boats, used the latest technology, and raced to kill as many as possible, before competitors found them.  Rules, regulations, and prohibitions were always issued far too late to matter, and they usually included enough loopholes to make them meaningless.  The slaughter industry ignored them, and bureaucrats winked and looked the other way.

Five hundred years ago, cod grew to seven feet long (2.1 m), and weighed up to 200 pounds (91 kg).  An observer noted, “Cods are so thick by the shore that we hardly have been able to row a boat through them.”  Today the average cod is 6 pounds.  For many years, they were killed in staggering numbers.  By 1968, the cod fishery was rubbished.  It has not recovered, because fish mining has also depleted small fish, the cod’s basic food.

Nobody ever confesses to overfishing or overhunting.  What happened to the cod?  Obviously, they moved somewhere else, we don’t know where.  Efforts are made to find them.  When searches failed, it was time to seek and destroy scapegoats: whales, porpoises, loons, otters, cormorants, and many others.

In 1850, loons lived in nearly every lake and large pond in the northeast, from Virginia to the high arctic.  Hunters rarely ate them, but they were excellent flying targets for gun geeks.  When folks noticed salmon and trout numbers declining, it was time to look for loon nests and smash their eggs.  Cormorants got the same treatment.  Their rookeries were invaded, and all eggs and chicks destroyed.  Sometimes they sprayed the eggs with kerosene, to kill the embryos.  Birds continued sitting on lifeless eggs, instead of laying new eggs.

Big game hunting was a profitable industry, catering to <bleepity-bleeps> who found killing to be thrilling.  It generated the shiny coins that make men crazy.  What could be more fun than cruising around shooting beluga whales?  In the old days, many beaches were jam-packed with walrus that could grow to 14 feet long (4.2 m), and weigh up to 3,000 pounds (1,360 kg).  Rich lads enjoyed walrus hunting competitions.  One guy, in three weeks, killed 84 bulls, 20 cows, and a number of youngsters, not counting those that died unseen after being wounded.

Mature whales and walrus had no natural predators, so they never evolved defensive aspects or strategies.  They didn’t need to be aggressive or speedy.  They were often curious and friendly.  Hunters preferred to kill black right whales.  Their bodies had a layer of blubber up to 20 inches (51 cm) thick, containing up to 3,500 gallons (12,250 l) of oil.  Abundant blubber meant that the dead ones floated.  Other species sank when killed, and were lost.  With regard to all whale species, it was common for the number of lost carcasses (sinkers) to exceed the number landed and butchered.  Extreme waste didn’t matter as long as the carcasses landed were profitable.

Anyway, Sea of Slaughter is over 400 pages of back-to-back horror stories with no rest stops.  The book is painful, disgusting, and illuminating — a mind-bending experience.  Reading it puts you into an altered state of consciousness, an otherworldly trance state.  Our brains aren’t designed to process flash floods of stupidity.

Many readers will be shocked to see the degree to which screw brained beliefs can turn ordinary people into mindless monsters — an important concept for folks trying to understand the world.  Some readers may be tempted to dismiss the foolish destruction as an aspect of the bad old days, when we didn’t know any better.  Readers having a larger collection of working brain cells will realize that the greed is still with us, in a multitude of new forms, and it’s destroying more than ever before — a vital idea to grasp.

It’s much easier for us to acknowledge horrors that happened in the past, rather than the horrors our shopping is causing today.  History can be powerful medicine when it is taught by competent elders, instead of the usual cheerleaders for wealth, empire, progress, and human supremacy.  Mowat was an excellent wordsmith, and a passionate storyteller.  You will never forget this one.

Postscript.  In 1985, following the publication of Sea of Slaughter, Mowat was scheduled to do a book tour in the U.S.  Shortly after boarding his plane in Toronto, customs officials escorted him back off.  He learned that he was forever forbidden to travel to the land of freedom — and they wouldn’t tell him why.  This was the Reagan era, and Mowat had pissed off many conservatives.  Banishment inspired him to write a smart-assed new book, My Discovery of America.

Mowat, Farley, Sea of Slaughter, 1984, Reprint, Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver, British Columbia, 2012.

The Sea of Slaughter documentary, with Farley Mowat (1 hr, 45 min) is HERE.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Great Leaps

It’s fascinating to explore the deeper roots of our family tree.  They reveal a lot about the path that led us to today.  Homo sapiens emerged in Africa, somewhere between 300,000 and 130,000 years ago, depending on which expert you read.  DNA mapping asserts that the oldest surviving human group is the San people of South Africa and Namibia (also known as Khoisan, Bushmen, or !Kung).  Their genes are the closest to the ancient female from whom all living humans descend (Mitochondrial Eve).

The San have been hunter-gatherers since the dawn of humankind, enjoying a way of life that managed to survive into the 1970s.  Eight hundred years ago, the San homeland included all of southern Africa.  Since then, Bantu and European herders and farmers have displaced them from their better lands.  They now reside in the Kalahari Desert, where they are being devastated by the dark juju of modernity — missionaries, bureaucrats, booze pushers, and the money economy.

The Pygmies, who live in the rainforest of central Africa, are the second oldest surviving group.  They also managed to live as hunter-gatherers into recent decades.  The Pygmies and San coevolved in their ecosystems, and their way of life was genuinely sustainable, like all other (normal) animals.  They did not live like ecological firestorms.  Prior to the arrival of outsiders, they had no domesticated plants or livestock.

In the tropics of Mother Africa, meat spoiled quickly, and yummy carcasses quickly attracted mobs of ravenous scavengers.  When folks wanted a steak, they killed something.  Preserving and storing meat was impractical and unnecessary, a stupid idea that never occurred to anyone.  This limitation was a blessing, because it made large-scale hunting impossible, keeping low limits on population.  It was impossible for nomadic hunters in the tropics to acquire and preserve surplus meat that could feed non-hunting specialists like priests, technicians, warriors, or kings.

Somewhere between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago, pioneers began migrating out of Africa, into southwest Asia.  They discovered new species of big game, many of which had no instinctive fear of small, smelly, goofy-looking tropical primates with sharp sticks.  In tropical regions like India, Southeast Asia, and Australia, traditional lifestyles essentially continued, because meat storage was impractical.

Pioneers who migrated into colder regions were confronted with daunting new challenges.  They were something like moon explorers.  Outside the tropics, food was less available all year long.  Surplus had to be carefully stored to ensure winter survival.  They needed weatherproof shelters, warm hearths, and stylish wardrobes of fur clothing.

The San and Pygmies lived in sustainable, time-proven, low-tech ways.  However, in chilly non-tropical regions, where living was more complicated, ongoing innovation boosted the odds for survival.  The clever ones invented sleds, canoes, kayaks, lances, harpoons, nets, snares, and on and on.  For the moon explorers, innovation became insanely addictive, because cool gizmos reduced the odds of premature death.  As centuries passed, innovation became something like an endless arms race, a nightmare-inducing runaway train, according to Alfred Crosby.

Clive Finlayson discussed the humans living in snowy Europe from 20 to 30 thousand years ago.  The clever Gravettian culture preserved surplus meat by freezing it in pits dug in the permafrost.  Finlayson perceived the storage pit to be a wicked invention, because it radically changed the world.  “They had found ways of producing surplus, something almost impossible in tropical climates, and with it emerged an unstoppable drive to increase rapidly in numbers.”  Food storage infected the moon explorers with a new and diabolical idea, “more is better.”

Around 10,000 years ago, in the Fertile Crescent, the genie of domestication emerged from the magic lamp, and steered humankind into the express lane to catastrophe.  Jared Diamond wrote a fascinating essay on the emergence of domestication.  Obviously, it was impossible for the cunning conjurors to foresee the unintended consequences of the monster they were creating.  If a vision had revealed the dark future to them, Diamond thought that they would have immediately ceased their experiments, and made food production taboo.  The shift to agriculture “was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered.”

No matter how hard the control freaks tried, most plant and animal species proved to be unsuitable for domestication.  Of the 200,000 species of wild plants, only 100 have been enslaved.  Of the 148 species of terrestrial herbivores and omnivores weighing more than 100 pounds (45 kg), only 14 have been enslaved.  Of those 14 species, 13 were enslaved in Eurasia, including the big five: cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, and horses.

None of the 14 species enslaved originally resided south of the equator in Africa.  Horses, donkeys, and zebras are close relatives, and can interbreed.  Horses and donkeys were enslaved in Eurasia, but all four species of African zebras defiantly resisted 200 years of efforts to destroy them — the older a zebra gets, the more vicious it becomes.  Freedom is precious.  No surrender!

In the homelands of the San and Pygmies, few wild plants were suitable for domestication.  Of the crop plants domesticated in Africa, all originated north of the equator.  In their ancient homelands, the San and Pygmies had no domesticated plants or livestock, and zero need for long-term food storage.  Progress was not an option for them, so they lived simply and sustainably, like their hominid ancestors had for the last two million years.

Unfortunately, the moon explorers wandered into harsh ecosystems where it was impossible to live like tropical hunter-gatherers.  The way-too-clever oddballs eventually became exotic invasive loose cannons.  Large game became scarce, then small game.  The dark and slippery path to agriculture was nicely described by Mark Nathan Cohen.

Diana Muir noted how the process unfolded in prehistoric New England.  In the good old days, game was abundant.  Stuff like acorns and shellfish were reserved for famine food.  As game became scarce, shellfish became a mainstay.  An adult male would need 100 oysters or quahogs each day.  Thousands were dug and smoked for winter consumption, a tedious job.  In the lower layers of huge shell dumps are oyster shells 10 to 20 inches across (25 to 50 cm) — oysters 40 years old.  In higher levels, the shells get smaller and smaller.

Eventually, the seeds of corn (maize), squash, and beans reached New England.  If a region was home to 100 tribes of hunter-gatherers, and just one tribe adopted corn, helter-skelter followed.  The farmers produced more calories, and could feed more bambinos.  With abundant stored foods, they had a much better chance of surviving harsh winters when hunting was poor.

Eventually, farmers outnumbered hunters.  Muir wrote, “Once any group in a region decides to adopt agriculture, no neighboring group can afford not to.”  Farming spread, population grew, conflicts increased, and villages were surrounded by defensive wooden palisades.  Soils were depleted, new fields displaced forests, and stronger tribes trumped weaker ones.  Progress!

In Mother Africa, the San continued their traditional way of life (i.e., naked, illiterate, heathen savages).  The folks who stumbled into Europe took a different path.  The turbo thrusters of progress roared.  In the Czech Republic 25,000 years ago, folks lived in mammoth bone huts.  A bit later, folks in France were painting gorgeous graffiti in caves.  A bit later, folks were whacking down forests, living in filthy cities, and slaughtering each other in great numbers.

Pleistocene Europeans had heroically transformed from “anatomically modern humans” (like the San), to “behaviorally modern humans” (like the Trumps).  Hooray!  This miracle began maybe 50,000 years ago, an event celebrated by the cult of human supremacy.  They call it the Great Leap Forward — cave paintings, complex language, ceramics, ornaments, rational thinking, and on and on.  It had a lot to do with migrating out of Africa and adapting to exotic ecosystems via technological innovation.

The bottom line disturbs me.  Until recently, the San followed an ancient path, which didn’t wreck their ecosystem.  The folks who adapted to non-tropical ecosystems eventually strayed away from a two million year tradition of sustainability.  Consequently, after a relatively brief rocket ride of bad craziness, the climate is trashed, the ocean is trashed, and seven-point-something billion primates are painfully discovering the embarrassing side effects of great leaps.

It’s fun playing “what if?”  Imagine what the world would be like if our ancestors had remained in sub-Saharan Africa, and continued living like wild tropical primates — and nothing was domesticated.  Would Europe and America still be home to mammoths, rhinos, and saber-toothed cats?  Is there something we might learn from our bloody adventure?

Image: A San Tribesman (Source)

Cohen, Mark Nathan, The Food Crisis in Prehistory — Overpopulation and the Origins of Agriculture, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1977. 

Crosby, Alfred W., Throwing Fire: Projectile Technology Through History, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2010.

Diamond, Jared, “Evolution, consequences and future of plant and animal domestication,” Nature, 418, 700-707 (8 August 2002) | doi:10.1038/nature01019  Free download.

Diamond, Jared, Guns, Germs, and Steel, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1997.

Diamond, Jared, “The Worst Mistake In The History Of The Human Race,” Discover, May 1987.  Free download.

Finlayson, Clive, The Humans Who Went Extinct — Why Neanderthals Died Out And We Survived, Oxford University Press, New York, 2009.

Muir, Diana, Reflections in Bullough’s Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New England, University Press of New England, Hanover, New Hampshire, 2000.

Thomas, Elizabeth Marshall, The Harmless People, Vintage Books, New York, 1989.

Turnbull, Colin M., The Forest People, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1961.

Wade, Nicolas, Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors, Penguin Books, New York, 2006.