Friday, December 11, 2020

Wild Free and Happy Sample 51

 [Note: This is the fifty-first sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews.  These samples are not freestanding pieces.  They will be easier to understand if you start with sample 01, and follow the sequence listed HERE — if you happen to have some free time.  If you prefer audiobooks, Michael Dowd is in the process of reading and recording my book HERE.

[Continued from sample 50]

Plan B

And now, dearest reader, it’s time for a brief message from your humble storyteller.  Hi!  I’m going nuts!  The plan here was to compress some super-significant trends of the last 10,000 years down to a lumpy chubby chapter.  It’s a journey that wanders from wild, free, and happy to the nightmarish whirlwinds of the twenty-first century.  It’s about unconditional surrender to those who control us, and to the beliefs we’re expected to profess.  It’s about wealth and obsession with status.  It’s about disconnection from nature, disintegration of traditional wild cultures, and a free-fall into self-destructive meaninglessness without a parachute.

I’m far more comfortable talking about logical and linear history — names, dates, places, descriptions, consequences.  But this chapter spends some time poking and squeezing a number of slippery and slithery mental inventions that smell like abstractions, mental fabrications — freedom, control, progress, success, etc.  I am not a philosopher.  Abstractions are not my forte, and I’ve burned up too many hours trying to envision a clever approach here.

I would love it if this rowdy mob of ideas would simply go to their assigned seats and, in an orderly manner, stand up and introduce themselves to you.  They aren’t interested.  They aren’t obedient robots.  So, Plan B is to flip through a series of snapshots, an exhibition of impressions, ideas, trends, and curiosities.  What follows is not logical and linear, it’s more random, intertwined, and meandering.  Let’s see what happens.  Do your best.  Here we go.

Wild Oneness

Humans evolved as hunter-gatherers, living in small nomadic groups.  Survival required cooperation, sharing, and the prompt resolution of conflicts.  They were egalitarian, everyone enjoyed equal worth — women, men, young, and old.  Nobody gave orders, or obeyed orders.  Nobody went hungry unless everyone did.  Folks who became infected with pride, and got big headed, were mocked and shunned until they recovered.  Healthy communities could not tolerate the disharmony generated by self-centered oddballs. 

Over the course of two million years, hominins fine-tuned the dance of small group survival in tropical grasslands.  This long and gentle path carefully guided the evolution of our bodies and minds.  Each band of hunter-gatherers operated with a conscious identity of “we.”  They thought like a group, not a bucketful of anxious, irritated, self-oriented individuals.

Similarly, the relationship between bands of hunter-gatherers and the surrounding family of life also consisted of a strong sense of “we,” of oneness.  Richard Nelson spent time with the Koyukon people of Alaska, who were the opposite of arrogant human supremacists.  They told him, “Every animal knows way more than you do,” which was true.  Wild critters perfectly understood the art of natural survival.  It was impossible for tropical primates to survive in Alaska without manmade technology that compensated for their numerous physiological limitations.

Nelson beautifully described their attitude of profound respect and reverence.  “Traditional Koyukon people live in a world that watches, in a forest of eyes.  A person moving through nature — however wild, remote, even desolate the place may be — is never truly alone.  The surroundings are aware, sensate, personified.  They feel.  They can be offended.  And they must, at every moment, be treated with proper respect.  All things in nature have a special kind of life, something unknown to contemporary Euro-Americans, something powerful.”

Herds and Property

Among tropical wild people, personal property was minimal, usually no more than could be carried in both hands — spears, nets, pouches, feathers, baskets, bits of clothing, and so on.  Nobody coveted simple stuff like this.  It did not make people crazy, greedy, or homicidal.  There was no hoarding.  A hunter would get no benefit from owning 900 spears.  Spears were too quick and easy to replace.

For hunter-gatherers, status was not based on property, it was based on their special knowledge or abilities — healing, storytelling, tracking, hunting, conflict resolution, shamanic gifts, and so on.  Social status was about respect — not power, authority, competition, or control.  Everyone knew who was really good at certain stuff, and they received honor for their gifts.  This form of status was normal and healthy. 

Herding was a different game.  Managing livestock was a constant responsibility.  Animals had to be guided to water and fresh grass.  They had to be protected from predation.  Wild carnivores had to be exterminated at every opportunity.  Male animals not needed for breeding services were mellowed out via castration.  Some nomads regularly collected milk from lactating females.  Herders assisted when animals were birthing.  To avoid overgrazing, and to discourage losses from escape and predation, there were limits to herd size.  Thus, a relationship formed between herders and the group of critters they regularly oversaw.  Master and slave.  Controller and controlled. 

Hunting produced meat via skill and good luck.  Herding produced meat via totalitarian control.  The concept of personal property expanded to include valuable animal slaves, a source of nourishing life energy.  Each critter in my herd became a status symbol, and my social rank was based on the value of the status symbols I possessed.  You are what you own.  This was a new and radical shift in the human saga.  It inspired a sense of power and omnipotence, an amazingly brilliant smarty-pants, Superman.  For the first time in the human saga, Superman could have ongoing life and death control over tons of living meat.  Whoa! 

My ownership of an easily replaced spear or loincloth had trivial importance.  On the other hand, my ownership of 40 large herbivores was a matter of tremendous significance.  This set me apart from (and above) someone who merely owned two goats.  More is better could lead to notions that I am better.  Superman had no immunity to a highly contagious mania known as status fever, which reduces kind and decent people to obnoxiously ambitious nutjobs.

Status Fever

Over time, status fever spread to epidemic levels in some cultures, becoming a primary motivator for individuals and groups.  It led to the emergence of many powerful nomadic tribes and empires, motivated by swarms of screaming demons.  More is better, by any means necessary!  Grab as much as you can.

Today, of course, billions suffer from advanced stages of multi drug resistant status fever, and most of them are not livestock herders.  Countless things have now been reduced to silly status trinkets that delirious consumers find irresistible, including clothing, jewelry, shoes, cell phones, jumbo TVs, appliances.  It’s a never-ending lifelong treadmill of resource intensive acquisitions, upgraded at every opportunity — bigger houses, fancier cars, cooler boats, exotic vacations, and on and on.  More!  More!  More!

Our culture celebrates this status seeking mentality, and encourages youngsters to spend their lives striving to increase their status display to the highest degree possible.  We are expected to continuously strive to hoard more than our neighbors, more than our parents and siblings, and to own more stuff than we owned last year.  Obviously, this is a ridiculously unsustainable dead end way of life.  If we weren’t raised in consumer society, this game would appear to be utterly idiotic and insane (and it is).

Stan Rowe perceived that consumers are raging narcissists, spellbound by their own image, imprisoned in an introspective cage — too much time spent before the mirror.  Their culture has become disconnected from an ancient relationship with nature and the family of life.  Many devote their entire lives to acquiring and discarding unnecessary stuff, hoping to someday find inner peace.  They are trying to fill the vacuum created by their loss of wildness, freedom, and functional community.  It’s an ineffective attempt to suppress a gnawing hollowness in their lives.

William Cronon compared and contrasted Native American society with the culture of European colonists.  Indians enjoyed far greater affluence because they were in an intimate long-term relationship with their ecosystem, and the things they considered to be needs were minimal.  They didn’t need a luxurious post and beam trophy home with a stone fireplace and a four horse garage.  When you have few wants, the path to prosperity is short and easy.  Even the least industrious wanted nothing. 

Colonists, on the other hand, had an insatiable hunger for an infinite number of frivolous needs.  They had thick black smoke pouring out their ears from raging brain-fires of status fever.  Their culture had a demonic technology called money, which made it much easier to exchange commodities, make profits, accumulate durable wealth, and soar away to daffy mental orgasms of pride, achievement, success.

Back home in Europe, more than 1,500 years of forest clearing had eliminated large regions of ancient woodlands.  Wildlife was severely depleted.  Rivers formerly loaded with salmon had become sewage canals.  Cities were incubators of infectious diseases.  America blew their twisted little minds.  They could make so much <bleeping> money if they destroyed everything they could, as quickly as possible.  They imagined that the supply of valuable resources was beyond limitless.  Most of this astonishing wealth was free for the taking.  Whee!

Robin Wall Kimmerer noted that among the Anishinabe, howling winter winds are associated with the Windigo, a legendary monster with a heart of ice.  It is the primal survival instinct in that rises during the Hunger Moon, and then swerves out of control, from need to greed.  It eats until hunger fades, but doesn’t stop.  Windigo is a selfish spirit that doesn’t know when it has taken too much.  It is the insatiable hunger of the corporation, the greed freak, and the maniacal consumer.  It’s daunting to see that much of modern society has now become thoroughly entranced by the Windigo spirit.

Different cultures assigned different status value to different types of property.  For California Indians, gold was just an ordinary type of stone.  Raymond Dasmann noted that they would happily trade ordinary gold nuggets for glass beads.  Pale faced Americans, on the other hand, went absolutely delirious with status fever at the sight of gold.  There was nothing they would not do to stuff the shiny stones into their pouches.  They washed away many mountains with hydraulic mining.  The Gold Rush brought people from everywhere.  “The Indians were deliberately decimated.”  In 1765, there may have been 130,000 in California.  In 1850, maybe 85,000.  By 1852 just 31,000 were left.

John Tanner was born in Kentucky in 1780, and captured by Indians at age 9.  He spent the next 30 years living on the wild side.  In one of his yarns, he jabbered about his favorite horse.  It had been stolen from another tribe by an aggressive war party.  The successful raiders had returned with 180 horses.  “In this excursion they had been absent seven months.  They had fallen upon and destroyed one village, and taken one hundred and fifty scalps, besides prisoners.”

Sitting Bull was not the slightest bit fond of insane colonizers.  “The love of possessions is a disease with them.”  A century ago, Peter Fruechen mentioned a comment from a mystified Eskimo, “You white people don’t really know how to do without things and still be happy.”  On another occasion, an Eskimo snarled at Knud Rasmussen.  “You are so strange, you white men!  You collect things you will never require, and you cannot leave even the graves alone.”

An old hippy friend of mine, Hitch-hiker John, observed American society with a mix of horror and amazement.  “They are never distracted by ideas,” he said.  “Brainwashed people have no issues — they don't know how to think.  The sole focus of their lives is just one all-consuming question: how can I get what I want?”

Full Granaries

In the good old days, wild lands were like commons, freely open to hunters, foragers, and all other wildness.  Folks were welcome to wander, explore, and help themselves to whatever they fancied, because the wild buffet was free to all, usually.  In some locations, groups did establish limits that defined the boundaries of their hunting territory, and enforced them.  When these limits were respected, there was less irritation that could lead to hurt feelings, conflict, and injuries.

Like herders, farmers were also possessed by a burning desire for ownership, and the status it conveyed.  They performed backbreaking labor to reduce wild forests and grasslands to cropland and pasture, land that was no longer freely open to one and all (No Trespassing!).  The transformation from wild to private typically involved erasing much of the healthy wild ecosystem, and replacing it with a highly controlled unsustainable manmade soil mining operation. 

Paul Shepard noted that the concept of controlling pests, animals, plants, and predators was relatively new.  “If the farmer can destroy his competitors, be they beetles, fungi, birds, or deer, and the pastoralist-rancher can kill lions and wolves, they will be inclined to do so.  Wild things become adversaries; they take up space, sunlight, or water that the farmer can use for his crops, or they invade the crops, eating, trampling, or infecting them with disease.”  Nature became an opponent, something to conquer and subdue.  This land is my land.  My harvest is stored in my granary.  My livestock are grazing on my pasture.

Raiders and Defenders

Wild folks let wild meat critters run free and enjoy their happy lives.  Wild game didn’t need to be provided with food, water, protective shelter, and security guards.  There was no need to cut, dry, and store hay.  When meat was needed, hunters went to work.  Similarly, wild food-producing plants were allowed to grow however they wished.  There was no need to engage in tedious backbreaking work. 

In essence, the simple hunter-gatherer way of life was about going out and getting what you needed, when you needed it, and leaving the rest alone.  All they needed was enough, and nothing more.  In the days before status fever epidemics swept through their homeland, they were genuine, good old-fashioned conservatives.  Leave the world in no worse shape than the day you were born (and better, if possible).

Big Mama Nature had zero interest in regularly serving lavish all you can eat banquets for wild humans.  As with all other critters, it was their responsibility to invest modest amounts of time and effort every week, to acquire their nutrients.  This approach could have a future.  The ecosystem did not need to be obliterated.

Compared to tropical regions, living in colder lands was more challenging.  There were lean periods every year, so food preservation and storage increased the odds for survival.  As discussed earlier, the domestication of plants (farming) and animals (herding) was essentially developed and intensified north of the tropics.  Domestication encouraged deforestation, soil erosion, overgrazing, wildlife destruction, population growth, tension, conflict, infectious disease, and so on.

Both farmers and herders invested immense amounts of time and effort accumulating stashes of essential life energy — edible nutrients made by domesticated plants and animals.  In a sense, their stashes were like treasure chests, collections of precious valuables.  The emergence of these new and unusual treasure chests triggered a huge turning point in the tropical primate saga.  On one dark and stormy night, a demon whispered an evil idea into the ear of a demented nutjob: stealing treasure chests required far less effort than creating them.  Oh my goodness!  Why didn’t I think of that?

Laborious drudgery was for scroungers, dolts, and slaves.  Clever exploitation trumps hard work.  A Berber proverb proclaimed, “Raiding is our agriculture.”  So, raiding became a respectable and manly profession.  Its frequent success created a need for the treasure makers to invent the warrior profession, in order to protect their stored wealth.  The raiding game led to centuries of conflict, which spilled rivers of blood.  It persists to this day, as a furious unlimited full-scale war on the family of life.

Sedentary communities were chained to a location.  They could not rapidly grab their treasure and flee.  So, they had to protect their towns and villages with palisades, walls, fortresses, moats.  Walled cities protected vast amounts of wealth.  Raiders kept inventing new and improved ways of overcoming physical barriers and exterminating city defenders.  At the same time, cities tirelessly invented new and better ways of protecting themselves and exterminating raiders.  Alfred Crosby wrote a fascinating book about the endless spiraling arms race in deadly technology, from thrown stones a hydrogen bombs.

Nomadic pastoralists owned treasure chests that were highly mobile — herds of precious four-legged food lockers.  Their nutritious flesh did not spoil whilst they remained alive, it increased — and they produced offspring too.  Many raids also acquired slaves, two-legged, muscle-powered busybodies that generously provided baby slaves.  Slaves and livestock were valuable commodities that could be sold to agrarian states, in exchange for city made goods.

The raiders’ highly mobile way of life gave them a strategic advantage over the immobile city dwellers, whose access to food could be cut off by an extended siege (when dogs became “siege mutton”), while flaming arrows landed on their wooden roofs, and corpses of plague victims were hurled in via catapult.  Barbarian hordes, like the Mongols, loved raiding farm country, because cities were fat, juicy sitting ducks.  It was often very easy to swipe the fruits of years of sweat and toil via a lightning raid.

James Scott noted that, as long as cities were weakly defended, barbarians could enjoy a far better life than farmers.  Mongols perceived agrarian communities to be ra’aya (herds) — irresistible get-rich-quick opportunities for merciless, bloodthirsty, mobs of looters.  Mounted on speedy horses, hundreds of nomads could suddenly appear out of nowhere, thunder into town without a polite invitation, and enjoy an exciting day of slaughter, rape, pillaging, and demolition. 

Horses played a starring role here.  For many thousands of years, they were simply wild game, a source of meat and hides.  Following domestication, they were also used as beasts of burden, carrying loads, and pulling them.  Eventually, folks developed saddles, stirrups, and bridles, which transformed horses into awesomely powerful high velocity assault missiles. 

This revolutionary innovation provided humans with mind-blowing godlike powers.  For two million years, hominins had moved across the land by foot, slower than an elderly squirrel.  Now, an astonishing new era had begun, and its destination was not love, peace, and happiness.  Mounted warriors turbocharged civilization’s expansion.  Cavalry enabled mass culture, mass control, and mass murder.

Status fever is an equal opportunity pathology.  Some cities began contemplating other cities in the region, calculating the amount of treasure they controlled, and the weaknesses in their defenses.  Naturally, strong cities overwhelmed weaker cities, and empires metastasized.  Conquering neighbors was an exciting way to fill treasure chests, and increase their herds of livestock, warriors, serfs, women, and slaves. 

Similarly, nomads were not honorable gentlemen having the highest moral principles.  It was not beneath their dignity to attack, kill, and rob other pastoralists, if they were believed to possess interesting treasure.  There was no reason why strangers should remain the owners of livestock that could become my property with a modest investment of belligerence and terrorism.  Social status was very important to testosterone powered egos, and macho lads took every opportunity for elevating it.

Throughout the centuries nomads have enjoyed being parasites on hard working farmers.  In A.D. 98, the Roman historian Tacitus said this about the tribal Germans: “They will much easier be persuaded to attack and reap wounds from an enemy, than to till the ground and wait the produce.  They consider it as an indication of effeminacy and want of courage to gain by the sweat of the brow, what they may acquire at the price of their blood.”

Saxo Grammaticus, a Danish historian, was born around A.D. 1150, and had more of a ringside seat at the bloody horror show.  “Now the warriors, who were always pillaging the neighborhood, used often to commit great slaughters.  Plundering houses, cutting down cattle, sacking everything, making great hauls of booty, rifling houses, then burning them, massacring male and female promiscuously — these, and not honest dealings, were their occupations.”  War dogs were popular too.  “Biorn had also a dog of extraordinary fierceness, a terribly vicious brute, dangerous for people to live with, which had often singly destroyed twelve men.”

Saxo also mentioned berserkers (bear shirts), warriors who wore bear skins into battle, and became ferociously violent, completely out of control, and fought in a trance-like wild fury.  Ralph Metzner called it a holy rage that they could not turn off.  They killed everyone in sight, even friends.  In Ireland, Cu Chulainn was so overheated with battle rage that a group of naked women was sent out to calm him. He was put in vats of cold water, which boiled and evaporated.

Giraldus Cambrensis (Jerry of Wales) visited Ireland, and wrote a report in A.D. 1185, when the rivers were full of salmon, the rainforest was full of wolves and boars, and indigenous chiefdoms were constantly fighting amongst themselves.  England’s King Henry was beginning the process of conquering Ireland.  The Irish were low-tech guerilla warriors, skilled at hit and run ambushes.  They used slings to hurl stones with skull-splitting accuracy.  They had spears, javelins, and axes.  The English were state-of-the-art warriors, having chain mail, armor, archers, and deadly swords.  For example, “He who had seen how John de Courcy wielded his sword, with one stroke lopping off heads, and with another arms, must needs have commended him for a most valiant soldier.”

Paul Henri Mallet wrote about the customs of pagan Scandinavia.  The scribes who penned the ancient sagas were associated with the nobility who were often highly engaged in the raiding industry.  Sagas devoted much attention to documenting the triumphs and defeats of warriors and warfare.  Mallet wrote one sentence that hit the nail on the head, “The weak had no right to what they could not defend.” 

In that culture, war was their source of honor, riches, and security.  Courage was the highest virtue, death was not feared.  The honorable way to die was violently, weapon in hand, ideally laughing with their final breath.  This was rewarded by a premier afterlife in Valhalla, where they would spend eternity in bloody battle.  Every day, they would delight in cutting each other to pieces, and then magically recover, mount their horses, and ride back to the hall of Odin for a night of feasting and oblivion drinking. Yippee!

The shameful way to die was bed death.  Folks who died of disease or old age were sent to a low class afterlife in Niflheim.  To avoid this fate, Mallet wrote, warriors would plunge off an ancestral cliff (├Ąttestup) to a violent death, in order to end their lives honorably.  Those too weak to jump were sent to Valhalla by a caring friend smashing their skull with an ancestral club (├Ątteklubbor).  Stafva Hall in Sweden had annual festivals, with singing and dancing, after which the wobbly geezers, beyond their expiration dates, leaped into the lake far below.

With every century that followed, raiding continued spreading into new regions around the world, grabbing as much treasure as possible, often utilizing staggering amounts of destructive force.  The twentieth century saw tremendous advances in fossil-powered mechanized warfare, on land, on sea, and in the skies above.  Large cities could be reduced to ash trays with the push of a button.

Today, technological innovation has enabled many more options for raiders, few of which require “coming to grips” with their opponent, and getting splattered with their blood, sweat, and spit.  Millions of dollars can now be robbed with a mouse click, from a cozy cubicle in nowhere land.  We are living in the Golden Age of status fever.  In many communities, the infection rate among adults approaches 100 percent.  “More” is the god word of modern society.  Imagine what life would be like if humankind had remained wild and free.

Big Mama Nature is not amused.  She will still be standing — scarred and wounded but defiant — when the lights go out, and industrial civilization runs out of treasure, and finally slips beneath the waves.  Let the healing begin.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Wild Free and Happy Sample 50


[Note: This is the fiftieth sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews.  These samples are not freestanding pieces.  They will be easier to understand if you start with sample 01, and follow the sequence listed HERE — if you happen to have some free time.  If you prefer audiobooks, Michael Dowd is in the process of reading and recording my book HERE.


As discussed earlier, humans originated on the tropical savannahs of east Africa.  For most of the human saga, we were strong, healthy, nearly naked tropical critters with beautiful brown skin and curly hair.  In the tropics, winters were not cold, and food was available year round, so there was no need to preserve and store food.  There was no need to invent technology for staying warm, like protective clothing and shelter.

Because they were nomads, hoarding personal belongings would have made no sense.  Hauling stuff across roadless wilderness was hard work.  Because they lived simply, they didn’t need much stuff.  Instead, their survival largely depended on the knowledge stored in the glop between their ears.  For them, the keys to survival included cooperation and sharing, working well together.  Hunter-gatherers were egalitarian, everyone was equal.  Nobody gave orders, or took them.  No one went hungry unless everyone did.

The berry patch was freely open to all.  If a wandering forager picked some berries, they were hers to share and eat.  If I killed a kudu, the event was a perfectly normal and natural, like the sun rising at dawn.  Nobody owned the animal, no one got upset.  It would be carried back to camp, shared with the band, making everyone happy.  All was good.  If a lion ate my brother, nobody exploded with rage.  Lions ate many brothers and sisters, because they were good to eat.  We all feed each other.

In the tropics, some sort of food was generally available year round.  From week to week, folks knew the prime time for various munchies, and where to find them.  They regularly visited the wild buffet, and took what they needed from the daily specials.  Long term food storage was unnecessary and absurd. 

Big Mama Nature devoted a couple million years to fine tuning the evolution of tropical primates for survival in tropical climates, our home sweet home, where we belonged.  Compared to today, our ancient ancestors would seem to have been simple, stable, sane, and sustainable.  They were not two-legged category 5 hurricanes, like modern consumers.  Things were relatively cool for a very long time (sort of).  It wasn’t until much later that some sorcerers discovered the Fountain of Progress, guzzled its hallucinogenic fluids, and started smashing things.

Snow Country Colonization

As discussed earlier, maybe 100,000 years ago, some intrepid pioneers began migrating from Africa into Asia.  They wandered eastward through tropical lands, eventually reaching Australia.  The pioneers had a great time, and found many wonderful things to eat.  Quite a bit later, some of them wandered northward, into regions having a temperate climate, snow country. 

In portions of northern Eurasia, they discovered vast steppe and prairie grasslands that spanned from central Europe, east to the Pacific coast.  Temperate grasslands were ideal habitat for nurturing large herds of large herbivores, the food most cherished by hunter-gatherers.  It was as if they had stumbled into an unimaginable Serengeti-like heaven of limitless meat.  Joy!

Oddly, this was a bit like polar bears migrating into steaming hot Congo rainforests.  The notion of tropical primates colonizing snow country was equally silly.  The colonists were not born with fur coats.  They were not capable of hibernation.  They were too big to easily travel across deep snow, or thin ice.  Food was scarce during the winter months.  They knew little if anything about food preservation and long-term food storage.  But they were spellbound by the availability of so much meat!  Might there be some way that they could possibly make a home in this land?

The colonists proceeded to improve their skills at hunting, trapping, and surviving the long and frigid winters.  Over time, they got a bit too skilled.  As generations passed, the abundance of game gradually diminished.  Some species blinked out forever.  By and by, folks began fooling around with horticulture and herding, setting the stage for the dawn of plant and animal domestication.

I’ve already pointed out the obvious fact that the domestication of plants and animals was a sharp change of direction in the human saga.  It forced us into the express lane to a turbulent future.  I must emphasize that it’s also important to understand that the mere fact that hunter-gatherers successfully colonized snow country — thousands of years before domestication — was itself a crucial turning point, a necessary prerequisite.  Domestication originated in regions having a temperate climate, as did the first civilizations.  Colonization unlocked the gate to dangerous realms.

Energy Storage and Risks

In snow country, hunters faced more challenges than their ancestors had in Africa.  Back in the tropics there was no frigid season, so no need for the long-term storage of food energy.  If hyenas snatched the kudu you just killed, you may have lost one day’s effort, or less.  In snow country, the two options were store energy or starve.  Many weeks of hard work were invested in creating their winter food stash, lots of eggs in few baskets.  On any day, it could be raided by rodents, wolves, dogs, bears, or other hungry visitors.  A sudden hot spell could melt frozen meat and spoil it.

Of course, compared to snow country hunters, the farmers and herders faced more and bigger challenges.  From planting to harvest, a farmer’s crops were vulnerable to many potential risks (weather, fire, insects, disease, deer, bunnies, etc.).  Once the harvest was brought in, the granary was loaded with valuable energy for future use, something like a tank of oil.  It was a treasure chest that stored the concentrated results of countless hours of hard work — like a crisp new $100 bill, not a mere handful of pennies.  Carefully stored energy could be an irresistible temptation to folks who weren’t your best buddies. 

Likewise, herders invested loads of time and effort in creating impressive treasure chests of living flesh.  Herding was not risk free.  Late at night, your livestock could be quickly driven away by thieves.  Wild predators could pick them off.  During a long drought, or when anthrax or rinderpest came to visit, the herds in a region could be obliterated.  At any time, you could lose the stored treasure of a year’s hard work, or more.  Nothing was insured.

Livestock herds were overseen by masters who firmly controlled their movements, protected them from predators and raiders, and blocked their escape attempts.  Lifelong enslavement made it easy for masters to acquire their meat, milk, blood, hides, and wool whenever needed.  Imagine spending your entire life subservient to a dominator who eventually intended to cut your throat, strip off your hide, and eat you (and your kids). 

In snow country, when hunters, farmers, or herders enjoyed a lucky streak, it could lead to population growth, which could lead to increased tension and conflict.  More folks expected a piece of the pie, and some got wee slices.  Treasure chests, of course, have a long tradition of inspiring the belligerent behavior of aggressive parasites.  One successful day of raiding could snatch the rewards of months or years of toil, an outstanding profit.  Very clever!

More is Better

The colonization of snow country, and the necessity of food storage, inspired a new meme: more is better.  Having adequate energy storage was mandatory, but having even more was better still.  When good luck disappeared, it could be a blessed life saver. 

Folks painfully understood when they were dangerously hungry.  They also understood when life was kind to them.  Oddly, many humans seem to have a hard time perceiving the border line between enough and way too much.  In their brains, the idiot light that indicated [ENOUGH] never came on.  More was always better.  Too much was impossible.  Why do wobbly wrinkly 85 year old gits, with a billion dollars stashed away, still put on a suit and tie every morning and strive to hoard even more?

Herds of livestock were self-propelled warehouses of living meat that didn’t spoil.  Provided with grass and water, their bodies added more meat every month.  So, more is better was an intoxicating idea, until the land was stripped of vegetation, and herders experienced the painful revenge of merciless limits.  Farmers could farm like crazy, year after year, until their topsoil was drained of nutrients or ran away.  Limits spoil rowdy parties.

Of course, for our wild ancestors who remained in the tropics, the more is better concept was absolute nonsense.  It was impossible for nomadic folks to make use of more than enough (too much = waste).  They couldn’t haul surplus with them, and in the hot climate, it would spoil, or attract pests and scavengers.  It wasn’t until much later, when domesticated crops and livestock were imported into Africa, that tropical folks began suffering from serious more is better deliriums.  Prior to this, enough was enough, and they all lived happily ever after.

Control Freaks

Big Mama Nature is fully aware that unusual population outbursts in any species can destabilize healthy ecosystems.  She generally does what’s needed to restore balance.  The current human outburst has become a spectacularly destructive living asteroid.  It’s now traveling at maximum velocity toward an invincible fortress of merciless limits that will take great delight in splattering the juggernaut.  There will once again be peace on Earth (and a staggering mess).

Domestication triggered a shock wave in the human saga.  It radically altered the traditional core relationship between humans and the rest of the ecosystem.  For maybe two million years, hominins were participants in a family of life that joyfully danced to the ecstatic music of freedom.  Then, domestication gave birth to a monster child, a new and obscene verb named control.  Devilish anti-freedom.  The toxic juju of control has infected the relationship, rendering it dysfunctional and violently abusive.

During the hunter-gatherer era, folks foraged for wild plant foods, and took what they needed.  This wasn’t a labor intensive control-oriented process of clearing, tilling, planting, weeding, etc.  The shift to agriculture transformed healthy sustainable wild landscapes into unsustainable radically simplified manmade food production systems.  Wild and free are the opposite of controlled.

Hunting was the pursuit of wild game, which required a combination of skill and random chance.  Wild game is intelligent, alert, and driven by a powerful desire to avoid predators.  Being alive is precious.  Wild game is out of control.  They are not passive dimwitted sheep in the pasture, constantly overseen by shepherds and dogs.  Herding is the process of controlling enslaved animals, for every minute of their lives.  When the herder needs meat, he selects which animal dies.  Escape is impossible.

Agriculture was a sedentary enterprise, the farmer was firmly bound to a specific piece of land.  When danger approached, the granary treasure chest could not be easily moved to a safe place, because it was not self-propelled, like livestock.  Depending on the threat, a farmer could defend it (and maybe die), or abandon it (and maybe starve).  High vulnerability, and a desire to survive, inspired farmers to reside in villages, and benefit from mutual defense.  Over time, as threats increased, villages became walled and fortified cities.  Over time, a warrior class emerged, to molest incoming attackers, and to attack and rob vulnerable outsiders.

Many farmers didn’t have the time, space, or desire to keep much livestock, but herders did.  Herders who had access to extensive open grasslands could pursue a very different way of life, and they did.  Indeed, the mindset of pastoralism eventually achieved great power.  It provided the foundation for the mindset of the world as we know it (stay tuned, more later).

Mother Africa Infected

Lyall Watson wrote a fascinating biography of Adrian Boshier (1939-1978), a young British man who went to South Africa and walked a path of power.  During his first six years in Africa, the lad spent most of his time in the bush, learning the ways of the land, rewilding.  He would head off into wild country with nothing but a pocketknife and a bag of salt (for trading), and live off the land for as long as he wanted. 

Boshier became highly skilled at catching and befriending dangerous snakes.  Walking into a village wrapped up in a 14-foot python (4.2 m), he terrified the natives, giving birth to his reputation as a powerful magician.  He would catch an eight-foot cobra, milk its venom, and drink it before a gasping wide-eyed crowd. 

Prehistoric cave painting in Europe gets a lot of attention.  African cave art gets less.  Boshier visited many caves, because the rock art in them had immense spirit power.  One day, he sat in a cave in Makgabeng, and had a chilling experience when his eyes focused on a horrific heartbreaking image.  The artists were likely San people, the original residents.

Mother Africa is where the human saga began, an evolutionary adventure spanning back maybe two million years, when early hominins came down from the trees.  There’s a good chance that the San people are the ancestors of most or all humans alive today.  Around 100,000 years ago, some Africans began migrating into the Eurasian landmass, where they eventually learned how to survive in a temperate climate, and then much later conjured plant and animal domestication into existence.

The images that had filled Boshier with horror were portraits of fat-tailed sheep, critters domesticated in the Middle East.  Sheep were not indigenous to sub-Saharan Africa.  They were brought to Africa by folks who were returning to Mother Africa, their ancestral homeland, with some new and creepy habits.  Some say the Bantus brought the sheep, others suspect the Khoi (Hottentots).  Whoever brought them, they were symbols of a dark transition.  The family of life in Africa was, for the first time ever, no longer entirely wild and free.  Hideous manmade freak show critters had arrived, along with a freak show culture of control and domination.  Trouble ahead.

Watson lamented, “The introduction of a pastoral economy, starting perhaps three or four thousand years ago, seems to have marked the beginning of a relentless destruction, now almost complete, of the earliest way of human life.  It was the end of a society that had discovered how to live in harmony with — rather than at the expense of — nature.”

 [Continued in sample #51]

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Wild Free and Happy Sample 49


[Note: This is the forty-ninth sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews.  These samples are not freestanding pieces.  They will be easier to understand if you start with sample 01, and follow the sequence listed HERE — if you happen to have some free time.  If you prefer audiobooks, Michael Dowd is in the process of reading and recording my book HERE.


“Limit” is a power word, a gateway that can open or close, and influence the course of ecosystem trends.  When members of a species move into an ecosystem, and adapt to it, they make use of available resources, and expand until their growth is paused by limits — food, water, climate, predators, etc.  Herbivores are limited by the availability of digestible vegetation.  Predators are limited by the availability of prey.  The whims of climate can suddenly tighten limits, or relax them.  The dance of life is full of surprises.  Humans are unique in that we can sometimes blow away traditional limits via the wildcard of technological innovation. 

In 1798, Thomas Malthus wrote a landmark book announcing that there were limits to growth, an idea that many still consider to be silly nonsense (we have no limits!).  At the time, Britain’s Industrial Revolution was rapidly eliminating the traditional cottage-based craft workers who spun yarn, knitted garments, and wove fabric. 

During this era, aristocrats were also busy enclosing (privatizing) the common lands, which forced many peasants from homes where their ancestors had lived for generations.  Enclosure freed up land that could be used to raise lots of sheep, which generated far more income than rents from hungry dirty peasants.

Many displaced peasants migrated to filthy crowded cities to work in textile factories.  Kirkpatrick Sale described folks working up to 18 hours per day (never less than 10), breathing air that was thick with dust.  Many were injured by the whirling and jerking machines.  Most of the workforce was women and children (as young as 4 or 5), because they worked for far less money than men.  While the poor folks lived in misery, the well to do were surfing on big waves of wealth.  Life was grand!

Steam powered textile factories were driving cottage enterprises extinct, at the same time that enclosures were forcing many to migrate to cities, where low-paying factory work was available.  Factories could make clothing that was far less expensive, and far lower in quality.  Shoddy hosiery sometimes decomposed after a single wearing.  Poor folks could only afford the cheap crap.  Cottage workers were too proud of their craft to lower their standards, or work for peanuts.

Let’s take a quick side trip.  In the 1851 census, my great-great-grandmother, Sarah Cleaton Rees was a handloom weaver in the parish of Llangurig, Wales, as was her mother, sister, four of her sisters-in-law, and many of their neighbors.  The wool produced in the Cambrian Mountains was rugged.  Flannel woven from it lasted nearly forever, but was a bit scratchy.

Sarah had been a widow since 1844, when her husband died from “decline” at 23.  She had three sons.  Unlike factory rats, handloom weavers generally earned a living income.  Sarah did not marry again for 11 years, but she did leave Llangurig.  In about 1853, Sarah and her sons moved south to Merthyr Tydfil, an ironworking district.  Was she forced out by enclosure, or did her source of income go belly up?

In the 1861 census, she was working as a beer house keeper at the Green Dragon, and her sons were iron miners.  In the region, dense coal smoke made the air black, and the rivers too.  It was a miserable life — hard work, wee wages, filthy air, raw sewage everywhere, and tainted water that killed thousands.  Cholera was common.  Legends tell of families being alive and well in the morning, and all dead by sunset.  In 1863, Sarah, her sons, and new husband, packed up and moved to the U.S., where they found coal mining work in Ohio.

When Malthus wrote in 1798 there were about 8.8 million English.  By 1861, the number had soared to 20.1 million.  Sarah and Malthus spent their lives in a population explosion, an era of intense social turbulence.  In 1798, like today, the wizards in the center stage spotlights were radicalized utopians, like Marx, Engels, and Malthus’s crazy daddy, who enthusiastically celebrated the wonders of progress, and the limitless rosy future that laid ahead.

For 200+ years, legions of critics have been denouncing the legacy of Malthus, because he predicted that rapid population growth would soon lead to catastrophe.  Actually, he never made that prediction, although he was right to be wary of growth.  Few critics have actually read his book.  Over the years, Malthus penned six editions.  Garrett Hardin sat down and read them all, comparing the additions and deletions.  In Living Within Limits, Hardin concluded that 95 percent of his ideas were correct.  Not bad!

Carrying Capacity

William Catton put his finger on Malthus’ core misunderstanding.  Malthus simply could not imagine that it was possible for humankind to ever exceed Earth’s carrying capacity.  At the time, the global population was just approaching one billion.  Much of the U.S. Midwest was still a vast ancient forest.  He clearly underestimated the destructive potential of technological innovation, and what it would do to the planet.

Catton wrote a masterpiece on carrying capacity, and how it impacts humans and everything else.  On the book cover, his five word definition of carrying capacity was “the maximum permanently supportable load.”  His use of “permanent” doesn’t mean for all eternity, because all living systems never stop changing.  It sort of meant living in a manner that was not at the expense of the next generation(s), or the vitality of the ecosystem — something that could operate indefinitely, because it was not a belligerent enemy of the family of life.

Around 300,000 years ago, the planet’s carrying capacity for humans was limited by the resources available within their original homeland in east Africa.  They lived lightly, because that was their only option.  Later, as the ancestors migrated into Asia, Europe, and Australia, the planet’s carrying capacity for humans expanded, because they inhabited more territory, and had access to more resources.  Their expansion did not leave behind a wake of ecological wreckage, at first.  As discussed earlier, a number of large game species were gradually driven to extinction when the intrepid pioneers lived a bit too hard.

Over the passage of millennia, some ancestors gradually swerved farther and farther across the yellow line of limits.  Eventually, with the domestication of plants and animals, some clever ones closed their eyes and stomped on the accelerator.  Bye-bye forests, wetlands, topsoil, and animal life.  Bye-bye healthy wild ecosystems.  Hello growing mobs, civilizations, tyrants, slavery, patriarchy, and a wake of irreparable wreckage.  Whoops!

For any species, the carrying capacity limits for a region, or the planet, can be altered in two ways.  (1) Takeover is expansion into new habitat, which provides access to additional resources.  This is not inherently naughty.  For example, long, long ago horses and camels migrated from America to the Old World.  Mammoths and saber-tooth cats migrated in the opposite direction.  So, takeover can genuinely enlarge carrying capacity for a species. 

(2) Drawdown enables carrying capacity limits to be temporarily overridden by diminishing exhaustible resources — forests, topsoil, minerals, oil reservoirs, and so on.  For example, when an ancient forest is displaced to create farms and pastures, more food can be produced, and the mob can grow — at the cost of degrading exhaustible resources, and overthrowing traditional balances in the ecosystem.  Drawdown can include horses being replaced with tractors, manure replaced with synthetic fertilizer, and rainfall supplemented with water extracted from ancient aquifers.

Catton wrote that drawdown did not actually elevate carrying capacity.  Instead, it created “phantom carrying capacity,” because the expansion was unsustainable and temporary.  Writing in 1980, he said that the ongoing survival of 90 percent of humankind (including Americans) was dependent on phantom carrying capacity, far in excess of traditional limits.  Today, that percentage is certainly higher, because it is enabled by ever-growing dependence on fossil energy and other strategic nonrenewable resources.

Drawdown leads to overshoot — growth beyond an area’s carrying capacity, eventually leading to crash and die-off.  Blissfully ignorant consumers, as well as world leaders, often mistake overshoot for progress.  Today, humankind has advanced deeply into overshoot, impacting the entire planet.  Consequently, as the still soaring population works harder and harder to ravage the natural world, the global carrying capacity for humans is deteriorating, while phantom carrying capacity soars ever higher.

Overshoot doesn’t <bleep> around.  It is beginning a messy and merciless process of herding the enormous human mob into a narrow bottleneck, through which only a limited number can pass.  The tight squeeze will continue until the human mob is reduced to a number that can live in peace with a severely damaged Earth (if we don’t simply get pushed off the stage forever).

Energy and Growth

In this long and lumpy comedy of errors, the transition to fossil energy shifted the monster into warp drive.  In the famous story, Dr. Frankenstein’s creepy monster spoke these words to him, “You are my maker, but I am your master.”  Today’s globalized industrial civilization is living like there’s no tomorrow, and behaving as if we were the last generation.  This story will have a crappy ending.  Consumer society has zoomed far beyond the border, deep into the bowels of Crazyland, where folks soar away in beautiful hallucinations of limitlessness — a magical realm of progress, abundance, perpetual growth, maniacal shopping, and 500 channels of nonstop entertainment with no commercials.

J. R. McNeill and Peter Engelke wrote about the planet shaking explosion of eco-destruction that has occurred since 1945.  They noted that energy is the guiding force, the trail blazer, of humankind’s long meandering saga.  We can’t photosynthesize sunlight, so we survive by eating plants and animals.  In the days before hominins learned how to kindle fire, their sole source of life energy was a raw food diet.  Fire led to cooking, which enabled the ancestors to transform indigestible stuff into an additional sources of life energy.  Increased access to edible energy enabled the survival of more food eaters. 

Tragically, with the emergence of plant and animal domestication, traditional limits to growth could be radically exceeded, temporarily, by rubbishing wild ecosystems, and replacing them with manmade ecosystems capable of producing far more edible energy, when conditions were favorable.  Cereal grains are energy dense, and suitable for long term storage.  Today, our food is produced by mechanized, irrigated, chemical drenched, industrial agriculture, which further accelerates overpopulation.

Similarly, the domestication of livestock and poultry generated even more food energy, especially when wild predators (competitors) were systematically exterminated.  Enslaved horses could convert the solar energy stored by vegetation into mechanical energy useful for carrying riders and cargo, or for pulling plows, carts, and carriages.  Prior to this time, for almost 300,000 years, the primary source of mechanical energy used by our ancestors was human muscle power.

Catton wrote that agriculture provided phantom carrying capacity.  Another phantom was the exploitation of “ghost acreage.”  The hungry mobs in places like Britain could be fed by importing lots of food produced on faraway acres in other lands.  Many nations are now depend on imported food.  Another phantom was industrial fish mining, depleting wild fisheries to feed hungry urban populations.  All wild animals have limits too.  The global food system can seem like a shaky house of cards.

The planet-eating monster is primarily powered by nonrenewable fossil energy, a form of stored sunshine that accumulated over the course of 500 million years.  Every day we move closer to the post-fossil era, and to the funeral wake for today’s global food industry, and the overshoot it conjured into existence.

In 2019, ecological economist William E. Rees wrote a stunning sentence: “It is a quirk of exponential growth that half the fossil energy ever used (and half the fossil CO2 ever produced), has been burned (emitted) in just the past 35 years!”  Rees has come to the conclusion that humans are not “primarily a rational species.”  It’s hard to disagree.

Growth Soars Away

Eventually, our food production surpluses rose to the point where a portion of the mob was no longer needed in the fields and pastures.  It became possible to feed people who could indulge in specialized activities, like metallurgy, woodworking, ceramics, construction, warfare, religion, government, and on and on.  We swerved into the express lane, and commenced our joyride of turbocharged cleverness with no brakes, no roads, and no foresight — full speed ahead into the powerful nightmare world of unintended consequences.  Yippee!

Growing numbers of folks accumulated in villages, towns, and cities.  Poor sanitation, malnutrition, and high density living laid out the welcome mat to a wide variety of herd diseases.  William McNeill noted that for 8,000 years, cities were demographic black holes, because of their high death rates.  Their ongoing existence depended on the constant inflow of surplus people from the countryside, commonly bachelors, spinsters, orphans, and refugees who were not among the lucky winners in the land inheritance lottery.

William Stanton pointed out that around 1750, population trends shifted into a new mode, accelerating growth.  Food production was booming.  Colonies in Africa, Australia, and the Americas greatly expanded the area of land used for growing crops and raising livestock.  It became possible to import abundant amounts of food.  New World crop plants were sent back to the Old World, including two extremely productive super foods — potatoes and corn (maize).  Old World livestock was sent to the colonies, where they could explode into the millions. 

Our skills at soil mining improved.  The area of land that could support ten people in 1700, could support 50 by 1900.  New types of potent fertilizers became available, further boosting productivity.  Crop breeding research launched the Green Revolution, which enabled a dramatic increase in productivity. 

Stanton wrote that when agriculture became dependent on oil, the need for human labor was reduced by a factor of 40 to 1.  Using the latest mega-technology, the factor might be close to 100 to 1.  New farm machinery promoted higher crop yields.  New dams enabled deserts to become lush croplands.  New irrigation pumps enabled water miners to drain ancient aquifers.  New petrochemicals reduced crop losses by insects, diseases, and weeds. 

Birth control is intended to prevent unwelcome pregnancies.  Stanton talked a lot about its opposite, death control, which was intended to delay unwelcome deaths.  Prior to 1750, high mortality rates provided a reliable restraint on growth.  Then, from 1750 to now, stunning advances in death control kicked open the gateway to a horrific population explosion.  He decreed that this was an era of weak restraints on growth (WROG).  Naturally, when death rates drop below birth rates, population rises.  Growth happens.

In prehistoric times, there were periods of WROG that began when wild humans first set foot on uninhabited continents and islands, and discovered an abundance of delicious resources.  Five centuries ago, civilized folks from the Old World washed ashore in the New World.  The infectious diseases they carried with them rapidly spread, killing most of the inhabitants on two continents.  The massive die-off then cleared the stage for a 500 year WROG rocket ride.

In the current WROG surge, while birth rates chug along, death rates have been dramatically driven down by technological innovations.  Food production is booming.  Mortality from infectious diseases has been reduced by new vaccines, antibiotics, wonder drugs, antiseptic surgery, and other health care advances.  Public health has been improved by energy-guzzling systems for garbage disposal, safe drinking water, and sewage treatment.  What this one-time binge on fossil energy is doing to the climate will eventually drive a stake through the heart of the WROG era.

Growth Nears Retirement

As the old proverb says, what goes up, must come down.  During the current WROG nightmare, technological cleverness has made it possible to maximize drawdown, and foolishly override carrying capacity limits.  We’re rocketing into the future, at maximum velocity, blindfolded, out of control, lost in a dream world of vivid hallucinations — a joyride into the roaring flames of overshoot.  This is what is known as progress, sustainable growth, a high standard of living, and other oxymoronic gibberish.

When you spend every minute of your life pounded by a hurricane of conflicting, nonsensical, fabricated information, it can sometimes be difficult to see and think clearly.  Most folks unconsciously assume that the decadent lifestyles of the WROG era (including our entire lifetime) are perfectly normal.  Wrong! 

When I was born in 1952, there were 2.6 billion humans.  Today in 2020, it has tripled to 7.8 billion, and is still growing — a massive explosion resulting in catastrophic irreversible damage.  Oddly, most folks in the land of glowing screens consider the status quo to be not only normal, but the pinnacle of the entire human experience.  We have great powers of imagination.

We’ve gotten way too clever at exceeding limits — by sneaking around them, leaping over them, tunneling under them, or exterminating them.  Consumer society has soared away into a state of limitless debauchery.  No previous generation has ever lived in such a destructive manner.  This way of life has an expiration date, and there are folks alive today who will experience its arrival.

In the absence of wisdom, foresight, radical birth control, and enthusiastic worldwide cooperation, food will become increasingly expensive and/or scarce.  No matter how hard we wish, it is not possible to conjure megatons of food out of thin air via hope, prayers, voting, or positive thinking.  When overshoot finally slams into the stone wall of carrying capacity, carrying capacity giggles, overshoot splatters, and the obesity epidemic sings its death song.

Sooner or later, as the WROG circus rides off into the sunset, the most vulnerable regions will eventually reach what Stanton calls the violent cutback level (VCL).  When this happens, violence becomes inevitable, he says, because the surefire medicines that effectively cure acute overpopulation are bitter.  He noted that a number of regions began approaching VCL levels in the late 1970s, Rwanda for example.  The number of hotspots continues growing.  Stanton noted that folks having low social status, or high bad luck, will be among those affected first.  Political correctness will go extinct, as will sympathy for underdogs, scapegoats, heretics, and (fill in the blank). 

Societies that are ethnically and culturally homogenous, like Iceland, have not shattered into aggressively competing factions, so the possibility of reaching their VCL is not a constant danger.  On the other hand, in dysfunctional, oppressive, intolerant, multi-cultural societies — flaming hotbeds of merciless, power crazy, pathological selfishness — like the U.S., the Middle East, and many other regions, VCL is always just one spark away.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Wild Free and Happy Sample 48


[Note: This is the forty-eighth sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews.  These samples are not freestanding pieces.  They will be easier to understand if you start with sample 01, and follow the sequence listed HERE — if you happen to have some free time.  If you prefer audiobooks, Michael Dowd is in the process of reading and recording my book HERE.



Colin Turnbull wrote about tribal life in Africa.  Hunting people paid careful attention to the large game animals in their ecosystem, noting their migratory trends, and comparing these to historic patterns.  There were periods of abundant game, and times of scarcity.  While some species were rising, others declined.  Through long experience, they roughly understood how many humans their territory could conservatively support — it’s carrying capacity.  They clearly understood the difficult consequences of having too many mouths to feed when meat was scarce.  It was important to avoid this.

The value of human life did not trump the value of maintaining a healthy relationship with their ecosystem.  Newborns were not automatically accepted into the band.  They might not be perceived as being fully born before they opened their eyes for the first time, or while their umbilical cord was still wet.  When folks agreed that a child had “come to stay,” it was given a name, and only then became a proper person.  If it died before naming, it was as if it had never been born.  Deformed newborns were always promptly buried or smothered. 

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas spent a lot of time with the San people of the Kalahari, and noted their methods of family planning.  Most of the women had one to four offspring.  In lean times, intercourse was avoided.  When a child could not be kept, the woman gave birth alone, away from the camp, and buried the newborn before it drew breath.  In their culture, a newborn did not immediately become alive, so disposing it was OK.

Because of low body fat and hard work, San women began menstruating later.  Some did not have regular monthly periods.  Nursing further drained their bodies.  Children were usually nursed for about four years, which reduced mom’s fertility.  In a drought year, underfed women lost their milk, and some babies died.  Infant mortality was not uncommon.  Wild carnivores also took their share.  Nomads moved frequently, and belongings and infants had to be hauled to new sites.  A woman could only carry one infant, so just one twin was kept.

Peter Freuchen wrote about the Inuit people of the Arctic.  During long months of winter darkness, stashes of frozen meat got smaller with every passing week, like a fuel gauge getting closer to empty.  Infanticide was common and normal.  When hunting was bad, children were killed to spare the group from the misery of starvation.  One woman survived a spell of bad hunting by eating her husband and three children. 

Folks who could no longer keep up with the hunting party were abandoned.  In lean times, those who were too old to contribute to the wellbeing of the community committed suicide (a one-way walk into the frozen darkness), or asked their children to hang them or stab them — and these requests were honored without hysteria or drama, often during a party when everyone was in high spirits.


Infanticide and Abandonment

Like today, early civilizations were also hierarchical.  The lucky few on top controlled and exploited the less than lucky masses.  This game could work as long as the masses were not too numerous, and not too pissed at the elites.  Working folks got pissed when they were unable to adequately feed their families.  Unfortunately, the elites were often folks who did not enjoy a reputation for being generous and benevolent.  The lower rungs of society were disposable.

The other problem here was that folks did not have easy access to effective contraceptives, or to clinically safe methods for ending unwelcome pregnancies.  When families were struggling to feed the kids they already had, adding more would only worsen their crisis.  So, many took a path that had an ancient tradition.

William Lecky wrote that the Greeks were devoted to the greatest happiness principle.  “Regarding the community as a whole, they clearly saw that it is in the highest degree for the interests of society that the increase of population should be very jealously restricted.”  Infanticide was considered to be perfectly normal in most ancient Greek civilizations.  Keeping more than one daughter was rare.

Infanticide was also common in Rome, during its Empire phase.  Lecky wrote that an ancient law required “the father to bring up all his male children, and at least his eldest female child, forbidding him to destroy any well-formed child till it had completed its third year, when the affections of the parent might be supposed to be developed, but permitting the exposition of deformed or maimed children with the consent of their five nearest relations.”

“Infanticide” means actively killing a child less than one year old, via burying, drowning, suffocating, refusal to nurse, etc.  Killing older offspring was child murder.  “Exposition” (abandonment) means setting the infant down somewhere, and then walking away.  In Rome, exposition “was certainly not punished by law; it was practiced on a gigantic scale and with absolute impunity, noticed by writers with the most frigid indifference, and at least, in the case of destitute parents, considered a very venial offence.”  Lecky added, that the abandoned infants were often taken in by speculators “who educated them as slaves, or very frequently as prostitutes.”

William Langer made one statement that I will never forget.  He said, “In the seventeenth century, Jesuit missionaries to China were horrified to find that in Peking alone several thousand babes (almost exclusively female) were thrown on the streets like refuse, to be collected each morning by carriers who dumped them into a huge pit outside the city.”  This practice remained common into the 1830s.

Langer also noted that in 1860s Britain, dead babies were frequently found under bridges, in parks, in culverts and ditches, and even in cesspools.  He quoted Dr. Lankester, the coroner of Middlesex, England: “The police seemed to think no more of finding a dead child than of finding a dead dog or cat.”

Barbara Kellum pointed out that unbaptized children were beings of immense dark juju.  They were evil, a “captive in the devil’s power.”  A mother who died in childbirth had to have the unbaptized child removed from her corpse before she could be buried.  Dead unbaptized children could not be buried in the churchyard.  They were buried in a secret place, which was thereafter avoided.  Sometimes a stake was driven through their heart when buried, to prevent spooky mischief. 

Lecky added that killing an infant was terrible, but even worse was the fact that it died unbaptized, because its immortal soul was forever damned, and would suffer for all eternity in the burning flames of hell.  Married mothers were often given penance for infanticide.  Sometimes, unwed girls got off by pleading insanity.  Others got a death sentence, “in the most diabolical imaginable manner” (especially for violent murder).  They were buried alive, drowned, or decapitated.  Hanging was rare. 

He also mentioned a strange law passed in 1803 that declared infanticide to be murder — but only if the baby had passed entirely out of the mother.  Thus, if the feet were still in the womb, and you smashed the baby’s head, or cut its throat, no crime occurred.  Juries would not convict mothers, because there was no compelling proof of wrongdoing without the testimony of eyewitnesses.  This enabled private family matters to remain private.

Foundling Hospitals

With the emergence of Christianity, the deliberate elimination of unwanted babies was strongly denounced, but abandonment remained a common practice among all social classes, especially the poor.  In response to this preventable loss of life, some churches were inspired to engage in social charity.  They often found babies laying on their front steps.  Caring for foundlings was a painful, tedious, and never-ending challenge.

In the thirteenth century, the first foundling hospitals appeared.  Their objective was to anonymously receive unwanted infants, care for them, discourage murder, and encourage the community to adopt them.  Unfortunately, many mothers worried about being recognized at the hospitals, so they chose more discrete modes of disposal.  Gradually, over the following centuries, more cities built hospitals, including London, Paris, and St. Petersburg.  On the downside, according to Lecky, under their care 30 to 40 percent of the infants died in the first six weeks.  Many were already sickly or half dead.  Caretakers were often overwhelmed by large caseloads and emotional strain.

London built Christ’s Hospital in 1552, to help foundlings and legitimate orphans, but in 1676 they stopped caring for illegitimate children.  In 1741, the London Foundling Hospital was opened.  By 1760, it was buried in abandoned babies, far more than they could properly care for.  Langer wrote that the hospitals were terrible at saving lives, but they were so popular that they became too expensive to operate, forcing many to shut down.  New York City opened their hospital in 1869, and 123 infants arrived on the first day. 

Lecky mentioned that in 1811, Napoleon created foundling hospitals in every department of France.  These had “tours,” a rotating table that allowed mothers outside the building to put the baby on the table, ring the bell, disappear into the night, and remain anonymous.  Nurses then spun the baby indoors, where its chances of survival were dubious.  This reduced child murders, but the hospitals were quickly swamped.  In 1883, 164,319 babies were left at the French hospitals.  Tours were a mistake.  They made it too easy to discard the unwanted, and were therefore accused of encouraging immorality. 

Foundling hospitals were not located in every big city.  In some places, they operated for many years, in other places they didn’t last long.  The journal Pediatrics noted that foundling hospitals did not solve the problem of abandoned infants.  “A majority of the children died within a few years of admission in most areas of Europe …in some times and places the mortality rate exceeded ninety percent.”

So, far fewer babies died illegally, but the mortality rates in foundling hospitals were extremely high.  Some have called this “legalized infanticide,” because the hospitals were provided by religious organizations.  Most infants perished from neglect, and many were mercifully put out of their misery by wet nurses.

Baby Farms

Dorothy Haller noted that the English traditionally sneered at young bastards (illegitimate children).  Baby farming, a cottage industry that provided illegal infanticide services, received a major boost when the Poor Law of Britain was reformed in 1834.  It revised earlier legislation that required the fathers of bastards to be responsible for them.  The new regulation shifted all responsibility to the mothers, whose low moral standards were at the root of the problem.  They had to support themselves, and their kids, until they reached age 16.  Good luck!

Infanticide, abandonment, and abortion were illegal.  Communities did not provide effective social safety nets.  Churches typically declared pregnancy out of wedlock to be a mortal sin, and said that the women were “fallen.”  The offender was often ostracized by her neighbors and family, and forced to leave in disgrace.  She had to relocate to a place where she was not known, where alone and friendless, she gave birth to an unwanted child.  Mom and her infant might not be welcome back home.

She might find work in the new place, but would promptly be fired as soon as her condition became visible.  Joni Johnson noted that it was often impossible for an unskilled unmarried woman to both have a job and take care of her child.  A number of orphanages refused to accept illegitimate children, because they were the disgusting offspring of immoral people.  The mother of a bastard was not at all appealing to gentlemen looking for a wholesome wife.  For many, a baby farmer offered the possibility of a second chance.  It was easy to find them, because they printed ads in newspapers.  A journalist ran an ad in a paper seeking a nurse for an unwanted child.  He promptly received 333 responses.

Baby farmers were women who offered to care for, or adopt, illegitimate children — for a price.  Sometimes the mother made regular payments so the caretaker would serve as a foster parent.  Other times, the mother paid a fee, allowing the caretaker to adopt the child, or find a family willing to adopt it.  The mother would never see the child alive again.  Mothers asked few questions, baby farmers kept no records, and doctors didn’t get nosey when infants died because their high mortality rate was the norm.

When a mother paid a fixed sum for the caretaker to adopt her child, the sooner the child died, the more profitable it was.  Long-term care could not be expected when the fee paid was modest.  Some infants died from opiate overdoses.  For some reason, baby farmers had two nicknames, “killer nurses” and “angel makers.” 

Haller mentioned Mrs. Winsor who, for a weekly fee, agreed to take in the four-month old son of Mary Jane Harris.  When Mary couldn’t keep up the payments, she watched Winsor smother her son, and wrap his body in a newspaper.  He was dumped on the side of a road.  Winsor enjoyed a steady business. 

Mrs. Martin boasted that, in a ten month period, she discarded 555 fetuses and infants.  In Tottenham, Mrs. Jagger had taken in 40 to 60 infants over three years.  Most perished from starvation.  The “baby butcher” Amelia Dyer was suspected of murdering at least 400 infants over 20 years.  Her career ended at the gallows.

It wasn’t until the 1860s that doctors began investigating baby farmers, and demanding reforms.  Laws were eventually passed to regulate or prohibit baby farming (decades after animal protection laws were passed).  The capital of baby farming was Britain, but it also occurred in Australia, New Zealand, the U.S., Scandinavia, and elsewhere.

Reproductive Rights

For the first 69 years of the United States, there were no laws against surgical abortion.  Massachusetts passed the first regulation in 1845.  By 1900, just about every state banned most forms of abortion.  As their options diminished, many women felt compelled to choose the risky option of do-it-yourself abortion.  Many attempts succeeded, but more than a few died from the unintended consequences, back in the days before antibiotics and reproductive freedom.

Dayna Troisi wrote that the methods women attempted included swallowing gunpowder, drinking turpentine, spending a night in the snow, throwing themselves down the stairs, harshly punching their stomach, pennyroyal, opium, or using a scraping instrument, like the notorious metal coat hanger.  In many locations, illegal abortions were provided by underground enterprises, sometimes by real doctors, sometimes by folks having varying levels of experience.

In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the Roe v. Wade case, and in a 7 to 2 decision decided that a woman could have an abortion without excessive government restriction.  This struck down many state and federal laws.  Since then, a number of states have worked to reduce the inherent freedom of female American citizens to make important life changing decisions about their own bodies.  Oddly, a number of religious folks are obsessed with returning to the traditional situation of dead babies laying all over the place.  No effort has been made to harshly punish what horny boys do with their frisky throbbing weenies.  I am overwhelmed by the powerful stench of patriarchy and injustice.

As I write today, there are 7.8 billion humans on Earth, and growing.  We’ve managed to temporarily send the planet’s carrying capacity into the stratosphere by becoming extremely innovative in food production and health care, a rocket ride enabled by a one-time-only binge on fantastic quantities of nonrenewable fossil hydrocarbons.

We live in ridiculous decadence, directly at the expense of our children, grandchildren, and the entire family of life.  This seems rather daffy.  Coming generations are not going to inherit cool stuff like healthy soils, forests, fisheries, wildlife, clean water, and a stable climate.  They missed the riotous home wrecking party, and will inherit the toxic smoldering ruins.

In a subway system, you must never, ever step on the third rail, to avoid instant death by electrocution.  In modern society, the notion of setting guidelines on reproduction is a third rail subject, and a 100% effective method of political suicide (except in totalitarian states).  In the good old days, hungry carnivores, wars, famines, and pestilence helped to reduce the possibility of population outbursts, sparing folks from having to contemplate touchy issues.

Garrett Hardin was often criticized for ranting about overpopulation without also revealing some brilliant solutions.  He confessed that he had been intimidated by the ostrich factor — never touch 800-volt issues that are surrounded by large piles of scorched skeletons.  You can’t win, so bury your head in the sand, and have a nice day!  The world was not interested in contemplating the foolishness of perpetual growth.  Mass stupidity got the green light.

He lamented that the U.N. decreed two rights simultaneously.  (1) Every man, woman, and child has the inalienable right to be free from hunger and malnutrition.  (2) Every woman has the right — perhaps with the agreement of her mate(s) — to determine how many children she shall produce.  He countered that, in a finite world, unrestricted freedom is intolerable, a loose cannon having great destructive potential.  We cherish sacred rights, but have zero interest in <spit!> sacred responsibilities.

John Livingston lamented that human fetuses have a right to life, but nature does not.  Rights are one half of a dynamic duo, and they are typically amputated from their sacred partner, wise responsibilities.  Rights are human inventions.  Limits are not, they are absolutely real.  In theory, a woman may have the right to bear a thousand children, but limits trump rights.  Limits matter, rights are dreams induced by hopium.  In our culture, limits are demonic bastards.

William Langer, writing in 1974, celebrated the fact that, since the end of World War Two, the wonders of progress have provided humankind with the contraceptive pill, intrauterine device, and legalized abortion.  At long last, in theory, there was no longer any excuse for unwanted pregnancy, infanticide, abandonment, or baby farmers.  Oddly, now in the twenty-first century, there are still folks who oppose all forms of family planning except the heavenly pleasures of celibacy.

I shall now reveal both good news and an effective solution.  The good news is that ecological sustainability is, by definition, inevitable.  Unsustainable foolishness can only be a temporary deviation (industrial civilization for example).  Whether or not bipedal primates will survive to see the restoration of sustainability is another matter.  Time will tell.

I cannot imagine that civilized humans will ever mindfully summon their wisdom and foresight, and then proceed to intelligently resolve the issue of extreme overpopulation.  Luckily, overpopulation is merely a problem, not a predicament.  Problems have solutions, predicaments do not (i.e., climate change, ocean acidification, mass extinctions, etc.). 

The one and only guaranteed solution to the problem of overpopulation is time.  In the coming years, countless hordes of turbulent problems and predicaments will tirelessly work to reduce the planet’s carrying capacity for humans — from the stratosphere of furious decadence, to the humble ground floor of utter simplicity (and hopefully sustainability).  When Big Mama Nature pulls the plug on the mega-mob, one way or another the population issue will be resolved, like magic!  We won’t even have to do anything, like think, or get off the couch.