Sunday, September 24, 2017

Against the Grain

James C. Scott teaches political science and anthropology at Yale.  He’s a smooth writer and a deep thinker.  A while back, he decided to update two lectures on agrarian societies that he had been giving for 20 years.  He began studying recent research and — gasp! — realized that significant portions of traditional textbook history had the strong odor of moldy cultural myths.  So, a quick update project turned into five years, and resulted in a manuscript that I found to be remarkably stimulating, from cover to cover —  Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States.

While the human saga is several million years old, and Homo sapiens appeared on the stage maybe 200,000 years ago, the origin myth I was taught began just 10,000 years ago, with domestication and civilization.  We were transformed from hungry, dirty, dolts into brilliant philosophers, scientists, and artists, who lived indoors, wore cool clothes, and owned lots of slaves.

As a curious animal interested in ecological sustainability, I’m amazed that every other animal species has, for millions of years, lived on this planet without destabilizing the climate, spurring mass extinctions, poisoning everything, and generally beating the <bleep> out of the planet.  These are the unintended consequences of our reckless joyride in a hotrod of turbocharged progress.  They define the primary aspects of a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, the era when tropical primates with huge throbbing brains left permanent scars on the planet.

Experts argue about when the Anthropocene began.  Did it start with the sorcery of nuclear fission, or the curse of fossil-powered industry?  Many point to the domestication of plants and animals, and the birth of civilization.  Scott is among the few who say it began with the domestication of fire, which occurred at least 400,000 years ago, sparked by our Homo erectus ancestors.  Every other species continues to survive via the original power source, the sun’s wildfire.  Plants grow green solar panels that produce the nutrients that keep the fauna alive and happy, a perfectly brilliant design.

Imagine waving a magic wand, and eliminating everything in the world made possible by domesticated fire — no metal, no concrete, no plastic, no glowing screens.  Would humans still be around?  Fire historian Stephen Pyne concluded, “Without fire humanity sinks to a status of near helplessness.”  We wouldn’t be able to survive outside the tropics.  The plant and animal species that enabled civilization lived north of the tropics (see THIS).  Without domesticated fire, we’d still be wild and free — and far less crowded.

Scott focused on southern Mesopotamia, because it was the birthplace of the earliest genuine states.  What are states?  They are hierarchical societies, with rulers and tax collectors, rooted in a mix of farming and herding.  The primary food of almost every early state was wheat, barley, or rice.  Taxes were paid with grain, which was easier to harvest, transport, and store than yams or breadfruit.  States often had armies, defensive walls, palaces or ritual centers, slaves, and maybe a king or queen.

The moldy myths imply that domesticated plants and animals, sedentary communities, and fixed-field agriculture emerged in a close sequence.  Wrong!  There is scattered evidence of sedentary hunter-gatherers by 12,000 B.C.  Domestication began around 9000 B.C.  It took at least four thousand years (160 generations!) before agricultural villages appeared, and then another two thousand years before the first states emerged, around 3100 B.C.

Moldy myths assume that the Fertile Crescent has been a desert since humans first arrived.  Wrong!  Southern Mesopotamia used to be wetlands, a cornucopia of wild foods, a paradise for hunters and gatherers.  There was so much to eat that it was possible to quit wandering and live in settled communities.  “Edible plants included club rush, cattails, water lily, and bulrush.  They ate tortoises, fish, mollusks, crustaceans, birds, waterfowl, small mammals, and migrating gazelles.”  In a land of abundance, it would have been absolutely stupid to pursue the backbreaking drudgery of agriculture.

Moldy myths often give us the “backs-to-the-wall” explanation for the shift to agriculture, which was far more work.  Simply, we had run out of new alternatives for feeding a growing mob, while hunting was producing less meat, and wild plants were producing less food.  We had no choice!  But in the Middle East, there appears to be no firm evidence associating early cultivation with the decline of either game animals or forage. 

Cultivation seems to have emerged in regions of abundance, not scarcity.  Every year, floods deposited silt along the riverbanks, moist fertile soil ready for sowing.  So, flood-retreat farming would have required far less toil than tilling fields, while producing useful nutrients.  More nutrients enabled further population growth, which eventually pressed the shift to miserable labor-intensive irrigated agriculture.

The root of “domestication” is “domus” (the household).  In early Mesopotamia, “the domus was a unique and unprecedented concentration of tilled fields, seed and grain stores, people, and domestic animals, all coevolving with consequences no one could have possibly foreseen.”  As a result of living on the domus, animals (including humans) were changed, both physically and behaviorally.  In this process, wild species became domesticated.  Over time, some species became “fully domesticated” — genetically altered, entirely dependent on humans for their survival.  Domestication was also about deliberate control over reproduction, which “applied not only to fire, plants, and animals but also to slaves, state subjects, and women in the patriarchal family.”

Domesticated sheep have brains 24 percent smaller than their wild ancestors.  Pig brains are a third smaller.  Protected from predators, regularly fed, with restricted freedom of movement, they became less alert, less anxious, less aggressive — pudgy passive dimwit meatballs.  They reached reproductive age sooner, and produced far more offspring.

“The multispecies resettlement camp was, then, not only a historic assemblage of mammals in numbers and proximity never previously known, but it was also an assembly of all the bacteria, protozoa, helminthes, and viruses that fed on them.”  The domus was a magnet for uninvited guests: fleas, ticks, leeches, mosquitoes, lice, and mites.  Unnatural crowds of animals spent their lives walking around in poop, and drinking dirty water.  It was a devilishly brilliant incubator for infectious diseases.  Humans share a large number of diseases with other domus animals, including poultry (26), rats and mice (32), horses (35), pigs (42), sheep and goats (46), cattle (50), and dogs (65).

Other writers have noted that, prior to contact, Native Americans had no epidemic diseases.  With very few domesticated animals, they lacked state of the art disease incubators.  Scott goes one step further, asserting that prior to the domus, there was little or no epidemic disease in the Old World.  “The importance of sedentism and the crowding it allowed can hardly be overestimated. It means that virtually all the infectious diseases due to microorganisms specifically adapted to Homo sapiens came into existence only in the past ten thousand years, many of them perhaps only in the past five thousand.”  Thus, the humans that first crossed from Siberia to North America 13,000 years ago were free of disease because little or no infectious disease existed anywhere in the world!

Dense monocultures of plants also begged for trouble.  “Crops not only are threatened, as are humans, with bacterial, fungal, and viral diseases, but they face a host of predators large and small — snails, slugs, insects, birds, rodents, and other mammals, as well as a large variety of evolving weeds that compete with the cultivar for nutrition, water, light, and space.”  Once harvested and stored in the granary, grain could be lost to weevils, rodents, and fungi.  The biggest vulnerability of states was that they were almost entirely dependent on a single annual harvest of one or two staple grains.  Crops could be wiped out by drought, flood, pests, storm damage, or crop diseases.

Mesopotamian life was largely human powered.  Workers grew the grain that the tax man hauled away to the plump elites.  More workers meant more wealth and power for the big shots.  In screw-brained hierarchical cultures (including ours), it’s impossible to have too much wealth.  Therefore, peasants and slaves were husbanded like livestock.  The diabolical “more is better” disease was devastating.  Some believe that monumental walls were built as much for defense as to prevent taxpayers and slaves from escaping to freedom.

Early states were vulnerable in many ways, and they frequently collapsed.  Collapse sounds like a tragedy.  But it could simply mean breaking up into smaller components.  Larger was not necessarily better.  A drought might cause a state’s population to disperse.  For the non-elites, life in a Mesopotamian state could be oppressive and miserable.  Sometimes, collapse was a cause for celebration.  Yippee!

Anyway, the book is fascinating.  Readers also learn about the tax game, the vital slave industry, trade networks, deforestation, erosion, soil salinization, irrigation, looting and raiding, mass escapes of workers, the challenges and benefits of being surrounded by large numbers of aggressive nomadic herders, and on and on.  It’s an outstanding book!

WARNING:  The expensive Kindle edition contains numerous charts, maps, and diagrams.  When downloaded to the Kindle for PC application (v 1.20.1), most are unreadably small, even on a 24” monitor.  Clever nerds can tediously capture the images to another application, expand them, and read them.  Strong reading glasses (3.75 lens or higher) also work with a big monitor.

Scott, James C., Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2017. 

Four Domestications is a free PDF download, the 48-page text of a lecture Scott gave at Harvard.  It includes some of the foundation ideas for his new book.

Seeing Like a State is a free PDF download of Scott’s 1998 book, a companion for his new book.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Surviving the 21st Century

In the old Three Stooges comedies, whenever Curly did something dumb, angry Moe gave him a dope slap (SMACK!).  With regard to humankind’s war on the future, a number of thinkers have been inspired to write passionate dope slap books, including Man and Nature (1864), Conservation of Natural Resources (1910), Checking the Waste (1911), Our Vanishing Wild Life (1913).  Dope slap books are a two-step: (1) describe the terrible growing harms, and (2) provide a motivating pep talk loaded with rational solutions — based on the assumption that the society is rational.

In the last 30 years, a tsunami of dope slap books have flooded the market.  The latest comes from Australian science writer Julian Cribb, Surviving the 21st Century.  He does a great job of providing a competent and sobering introduction to ecological reality in 2017 — vital knowledge that every 16-year old (and their teachers) should know (but don’t).  He’s good at explaining complex challenges in an understandable way.

The book has ten chapters, each discussing a category of serious risks.  (1) Dangerous overconfidence in human brilliance.  (2) Mass extinctions.  (3) Degrading the planet.  (4) Industrial warfare.  (5) Climate change.  (6) Pollution.  (7) Feeding an overgrown herd.  (8) Urban growth and disease.  (9) Moronic beliefs that trump scientific facts.  (10) It’s time for action — think like a species.

Humankind’s current mass hysteria has an oxymoronic name, Sustainable Growth™, and its destination is oblivion.  We are going to be slamming head-on, at high speed, into crucial limits — a magnificently irrational course of action.  Cribb prefers a mindful Plan B, a gradual, managed, and cooperative path to a slower, simpler, far less crowded future.

All humans have a hardcore addiction to food.  In his 2010 book, The Coming Famine (reviewed HERE), Cribb described the enormous degradation caused by feeding an ever growing population, and presented readers with many rational suggestions.  In the following seven years, the naughty world largely disregarded his recommendations.

In this new book, Cribb dreams of miraculously doubling food production, and feeding the growing mob until we hit Peak People, at ten or twelve billion, in 2060.  All nations will heroically cooperate in rapidly making many rational (and extremely radical) changes, we’ll avoid total catastrophe, and proceed with a bumpy but tolerable decline to a sustainable population of somewhere between two and four billion by 2100.  That’s a big dream.

Is it really possible to feed ten billion?  Readers learn that there are no new plant breeding miracles on the horizon.  In the 1960s, the Green Revolution research had noble intentions — temporarily boost food production, so humankind would have an extra ten years to resolve its embarrassing orgy of overbreeding.  It was a beautiful dream.  Food production actually doubled.  Unfortunately, the population problem was swept under the bed, and the human herd more than doubled, intensifying the original problem.

Hopium addicts have no doubt that the wizards of science will save the day.  GMO plants have been a stunning success at boosting the sales of toxic agrochemicals, but they have had minimal impact on harvest volumes.  The current rate at which we are depleting underground aquifers, and other freshwater resources, is going to crash into limits before 2030.  Destruction of the planet’s remaining topsoil continues at an impressive rate.  Food production trends are not encouraging.

“Outside of a nuclear war or asteroid collision, the biggest shock in store for the human population in the 21st Century will be the impact of climate change on the food supply.”  Luckily, readers discover a plan for doubling food production by solving big problems.  We’ll create a new form of agriculture that can survive in an unstable climate, produce lots of excellent food, and do so sustainably — without using a spoonful of fossil fuel!  We’ll make sustainable oil from algae.

The required inputs for algae farms are sunshine, salt water, and urban wastes.  “Algal oil… can be made into anything you can make from fossil petroleum — ‘green’ fuel, plastics, textiles, chemicals, drugs, food additives.  Furthermore, researchers have calculated, algae could supply the world’s entire transport fuel requirement from an area of 57 million hectares — which is a bit smaller than Switzerland — and can mostly be in the ocean in any case.”

Belief is the subject of the fascinating chapter nine, and something I’ve thought a lot about.  Belief may very well be the biggest threat to the survival of our species, worse than all the other threats combined.  Even the most ridiculous, insanely stupid, self-destructive beliefs can be highly contagious, readily passing from one generation to the next, fully resistant to reason, common sense, or factual reality.  Belief trumps reason.

Belief insists that human-caused climate change is impossible.  Humans do not share common ancestors with chimps and baboons.  Technology can solve any problem.  Perpetual growth is possible on a finite planet.  Good consumers must gain respect and honor by devoting their lives to working hard (at soul killing jobs), recklessly borrowing, impulsively spending, proudly hoarding trendy status trinkets, and promptly discarding trinkets the moment they cease being trendy.

Cribb believes that foresight is our ultimate skill, enabling us to perceive potential dangers, avoid them, and survive.  Wild humans, intimately attuned to the complex patterns of their ecosystem, excelled at foresight.  We don’t.  We are cursed to inhabit an industrial culture that mutates at a furious rate.  New technologies are often obsolete in five or ten years.  We can never become intimately attuned to something similar to a high-speed runaway train.

We’re trapped in a cycle of repeated mistakes, perpetually erecting new empires, watching them self-destruct, and never learning.  We’ve installed at least 440 nuclear power plants before we’ve built a single facility for safely storing the radioactive wastes that can remain highly toxic for a million years.  Nobody had the foresight to predict the staggering consequences of the Ford Model T, or the microchip, or metal smelting.  Hey, let’s colonize other planets!

Crusty old farts like myself, who have been reading dope slap books for 30 years, and observing how little they inspire society, no longer shout and cheer when the latest vision rolls by.  Cribb does an excellent job describing the challenges.  His grand vision requires humankind to undergo an amazing transformation, from the pathetic dullard Homo delusus (self-deceiving human) into the new, wise, and beautiful Homo sapiens (wise human).

Cribb has no doubt that “solutions to all of these challenges exist or can be developed.”  Today, essential information can be instantly shared with people everywhere in the world.  Scientific knowledge grows exponentially every decade.  Intelligent change is entirely possible!  Around the world, young women are having fewer children — voluntarily!  We are not obligated to commit mass suicide.

Understand that this is a textbook for college students.  Universities are monasteries that instruct the next generation in the management of Sustainable Growth™.  They require textbooks that reinforce the loony beliefs of the hopeless Homo delusus.  Cribb makes a heroic effort to tap-dance across a ballroom where the entire floor is covered with greased marbles.  It’s obvious that he is acutely aware of the growing challenges of reality (which are heretical nonsense at the monastery).  He knows that the young novices are likely to learn little or nothing about these challenges — unless he cleverly sneaks them into a gospel that appears to be orthodox.

Today’s novices are 100 times smarter than slobbering geezers over 30.  They are acutely aware that they have inherited a catastrophe.  They don’t need a dope slap.  They know that transforming all of nature into toxic landfill dreck is insane.  Hopefully, Cribb’s book will help the novices bombard the abbots with high-powered questions, and encourage our species to shift toward becoming Homo sapiens.  Good luck!

Cribb, Julian, Surviving the 21st Century: Humanity’s Ten Great Challenges and How We Can Overcome Them, Springer International Publishing, Switzerland, 2017.