[Note: This is the thirty-third sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy. I don’t plan on reviewing more books for a while. My blog is home to reviews of 202 books, and you are very welcome to explore them. The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews, if you are interested in specific authors, titles, or subjects.]
The Monster Mash
Mesopotamia was one section of an ancient region known as the Fertile Crescent. The Fertile Crescent has misty borders, and no two maps agree, but it’s blob-shaped. [MAP] One finger pokes westward toward Turkey. Another spreads down along the east coast of the Mediterranean and plunges deep into Egypt. Another heads south toward the Persian Gulf. The Fertile Crescent was a ground zero location for the emergence of plant and animal domestication. Eventually, it became the birthplace of a ridiculously unsustainable culture known as Western Civilization.
For uncertain reasons, domestication independently emerged in at least eight regions, following the end of the last ice age. Population pressure (growing resource scarcity) must have been a primary factor. Backbreaking farm labor was not something that folks indulged in for fun or kinky pleasure. Domestication wasn’t a brilliant innovation, it was more like a graveyard headstone for the very long era of hominin wildness and freedom, a sharp turn for the worse.
As the last ice age gradually rode off into the sunset, the Fertile Crescent ecosystem inhaled a deep breath of fresh springtime breezes, opened its eyes, smiled, and felt the power of new life surging within it. Generous winter rains nurtured abundant greenery. Ancient myths describe a Garden of Eden. Large areas were clothed with wild cereals, like wheat (emmer and spelt), and barley. There were also fruit and nut trees.
Someone estimated that there are about 200,000 species of plants in the world. Of those, only a bit more than 100 have been domesticated. Preference has been given to plants that are easy to grow and produce lots of food — especially food that is storable and/or high in nutrients. Jared Diamond pointed out that, of the twelve biggest crop plants today, five of them are cereals — wheat, corn, rice, barley, and sorghum. Cereals provide half of the calories that humans eat today. Pulses (peas and beans) provide protein. A diet based primarily cereals and pulses is not guaranteed to be nutritionally complete.
Diamond noted that only 14 large herbivore species have been domesticated, and that they were not evenly distributed around the world. For example, North America had none, and Europe had one (reindeer). Neither sub-Saharan Africa nor Australia were home to native plants or herbivores that were suitable for domestication. In these regions, the Aborigines, San, Pygmies, and many others did just fine with wild plant and animal foods. They lived lightly, built no cities, had no bosses or rulers, did not hoard personal belongings, and maintained a respectful and intimate relationship with their ecosystems. Imagine that!
The Fertile Crescent, on the other hand, was very different. It had wheat, barley, and pulses. Also, in addition to huge herds of delicious wild gazelles, the Crescent was unique because it was home to four species of large herbivores that were suitable for domestication — goats, sheep, pigs, and cattle. Obsidian was common too, an excellent stone for making cutting blades and sharp weapon points.
At first, I wrote “the Fertile Crescent was cursed with riches,” a tantalizing booby trap of treasures that entranced naïve tropical primates. The abundance triggered terrible hallucinations that inspired them to chop down forests, build ghastly cities, and develop impressive world-class wastelands. But I realized my mistake and deleted those words.
In fact, the original ecosystem itself was perfectly OK — wild, free, happy, healthy, and beautiful. Its problems didn’t begin until tropical primate refugees wandered in. They were homeless vagabonds who had strayed far from their ancestral roots in Mother Africa, and they were cursed with being a bit too smart for their britches — and quite a bit lacking in wisdom and foresight.
Peter Ungar wrote that our wild ancestors were a part of nature, but domestication drove them apart from it. As the control freak hysteria bloomed, an abusive relationship was born, and over time became deeply rooted and dangerous. Over time, the one-two punch of plant and animal domestication conjured a furious host of monsters into existence, an ever growing tsunami of ecological devastation.
Like all other animals, tropical primates are mostly focused on the here and now. We instantly pay acute attention to immediate risks like lions, tornados, or rattlesnakes. Risks that take decades or generations to snowball into terrific destruction are of little or no concern to us. They might seem like theoretical abstractions, farts in the bathtub. Since few of us have a competent understanding of environmental history, we may not even recognize the presence of powerful trends, directly in front of our eyes, which will eventually hurl our civilization off the cliff.
Since I got up this morning, I have experienced no jarring evidence of the growing global climate catastrophe. If I wasn’t devoted to regularly paying close attention to a narrow fringe of the info stream from the outer world, the climate crisis would seem insignificant, and easy to sweep under the rug. Just another hoax. La-de-dah! In the mainstream mindset, ecological sustainability is simply not a matter for primary concern, or a proper subject for polite conversation. If nice people on TV tell us that electric cars are sustainable, then… << SHAZAM! >> …they are!
“The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” Shut up Chicken Little! You’re nothing but a messed up negativity bomb, a batshit crazy doom pervert. What’s wrong with you? Can’t you see that everything is beautiful, and the best is yet to come? Get a life! Jeez! Well, in the old folk tale, Chicken Little had a long and annoying habit of screaming fake warnings of danger. Then, one day, when genuine danger was actually rushing toward the village, nobody believed Chicken Little, and what happened next was not happy.
With regard to the ecological impacts of plant and animal domestication, a substantial portion of the Chicken Little warnings have not been hysterical false alarms. They are very often accurate and serious. Every farmer understands that tilling leads to erosion, that the precious topsoil is nonrenewable, and when it’s gone, game over. When many irrigation pumps are working to empty an ancient fossil aquifer, everyone knows that this water is nonrenewable. The aquifer will run dry in a predictable number of years, and the temporary flourish of prosperity will screech to a halt and disintegrate. Everyone understands the irreparable damage caused by logging and overgrazing over time. So what? We will have a nice warm dinner tonight. All is well.
Unfortunately, many catastrophes take decades or centuries for the hammer to finally drop — like how salinization transformed Mesopotamia’s prosperous agriculture into a lifeless brown wasteland. If I can probably get away with unsustainable behavior that benefits me, I just might be tempted to do it. All other animals have figured out how to live sustainably. Humans are the only critters that ravage ecosystems, often unknowingly, and often selfishly.
(Sigh!) The memorable meme of the week is, “common sense is a punishment.” Making a commitment to being present in full dose reality is a mind altering experience. It can overwhelm you with righteous rage, or reduce you to a flaccid puddle of despair. It can make you quietly laugh at the absurdity of it all, the unbelievable comedy of errors, the fantastic power of ignorance.
Anyway, for me here at the keyboard, the task of presenting a thorough and well-organized analysis of the consequences of plant and animal domestication is challenging. The impacts have been huge, complex, and all tangled together — not easy to sort into neat and tidy subject packets. So I won’t. My fuzzy plan here is to intuitively meander where the muse inspires, jabber about stuff that feels important to say, and let my dear readers fill in the blanks. I don’t want this document to end up being 30,000 pages long, and neither do you.
And now, at last, I shall get to the point of this heading. Throughout the centuries, wizards have appeared who had the amazing ability to perceive reality, to actually see big juju that was happening right in front of their eyes. They had something like Superman’s x-ray vision, allowing them to see what others could not — the total insanity of their culture, the staggering irreparable damage to the ecosystem, the complete disregard for the generations yet to be born.
Of the mountains of stuff that we acquire and discard in life, almost all of it is silly crap that no healthy animal needs — cars, TVs, cell phones, etc. Food is different. Food matters. It’s a powerful addiction for which death is the only release. Domestication has a lot to do with food. Domestication has also created countless highly destructive unintended consequences. Environmental history books are packed with these horror stories. Who reads them? Most folks seem to be floating on a comfortable cloud of blissful ignorance and childlike magical thinking. Things will turn out OK.
Since you have managed to make it this far in my long and windy word dance, there’s a fair chance that you might be a bit interested in this realm of knowledge. While I still have your attention, I’d like to recommend a few of my favorite sources of high quality brain food. Most are free downloads (ask Google), and others require a visit to your friendly local library. If you develop an intimate relationship with this knowledge, you may get up one morning, look in the mirror, and see that there is a brand new Chicken Little in the world. Hooray! Let’s take a quick stroll through a gallery of some important Chicken Little heroes.
Man and Nature
Twenty-five years ago, a wise guy recommended that I read Man and Nature, by George Perkins Marsh, published in 1864. (The second edition in 1874 was titled The Earth as Modified by Human Action.) He was a visionary who helped set the stage for the modern ecology movement, and the study of environmental history. You’ve heard of him, haven’t you? Probably not. His book was not a bestseller, but it sold fairly well over time. It did not succeed in derailing the self-destructive juggernaut of industrial civilization, but it was a noble effort, and its message is still valid and important.
Long ago at school, I learned all about the glories of Greek and Roman civilization. Marsh was probably taught a similar load of pretentious doo-doo. As the U.S. ambassador to Italy and Turkey, he had been able to actually visit regions that were once the realm of thriving civilizations. What he observed gave him a powerful dope slap. One way or another, each had been reduced to an ecological train wreck.
Ancient forest mining in the watersheds of Italy’s Po and Adige rivers resulted in devastating erosion over the centuries, and huge volumes of silt spread down the coastline of the Adriatic Sea. Marsh wrote, “Ravenna, forty miles south of the principal mouth of the Po, was built like Venice, in a lagoon, and the Adriatic still washed its walls at the commencement of the Christian era. The mud of the Po has filled up the lagoon, and Ravenna is now four miles from the sea. The town of Adria, which lies between the Po and the Adige, at the distance of some four or five miles from each, was once a harbor famous enough to have given its name to the Adriatic sea, and it was still a seaport in the time of Augustus. The combined action of the two rivers has so advanced the coast line that Adria is now about fourteen miles inland, and, in other places, the deposits made within the same period by these and other neighboring streams have a width of twenty miles.”
It’s a plump book loaded with fascinating revelations, but it is written in an obsolete academic style that some bookworms may find rather tedious and difficult. Apparently, at the time of writing, there was a serious shortage of periods in the U.S., which forced Marsh to write sentences as long as 230+ words. (My next recommendation is much easier to read, and equally important.) There are several ways of downloading Man and Nature.
Free Kindle version from Amazon is HERE
Scanned PDF of book (giant file) is HERE
EPUB, MOBI, TXT, and HTML versions are HERE
Topsoil and Civilization
In 1955, Tom Dale and Vernon Gill Carter published Topsoil and Civilization. Readers are taken on a neat journey, during which they discover how a number of ancient civilizations destroyed themselves. Stops include the Nile, Mesopotamia, Crete, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Greece, North Africa, Italy, and more. Attentive folks will discover that these ecological disaster areas had many factors in common — a long list of fatal mistakes that civilizations remain committed to repeating, up to today.
Tom and Vern were not ditzy cheerleaders for civilization. They wrote, “The very achievements of civilized man have been the most important factors in the downfall of civilizations.” Civilized man had the tools and intelligence needed “to domesticate or destroy a great part of the plant and animal life around him.” Unfortunately, “His chief troubles came from his delusions that his temporary mastership was permanent. He thought of himself as ‘master of the world,’ while failing to understand fully the laws of nature.”
When reputable scholars make great efforts to describe serious challenges, it is obligatory to provide a happy ending, where they reveal their brilliant silver bullet solutions. Today, there are hordes of hucksters selling magic cures for every environmental malady, and most of their elixirs have a pungent aroma of hopium and bull excrement. Tom and Vern’s cure was soil conservation, a fantasy of permanent agriculture that could feed a gradually growing crowd for the next 10,000 years. Yeah, right.
At the same time, they were painfully aware that humankind was ravaging the land. “The fact is that there has probably been more man-induced erosion over the world as a whole during the past century than during any preceding thousand-year period. There are many reasons for the recent rapid acceleration of erosion, but the principal reasons are that the world has more people and the people are more civilized and hence are capable of destroying the land faster.” The book is a bit bipolar, but most of it, the historical passages, are excellent. Great stuff!
Free PDF is HERE. It is not available in some countries, for copyright reasons, but I saw a pirate copy on Google yesterday.
Gilgamesh, Plato, and Ovid
It’s interesting but sad that the Chicken Little movement is very old. Folks have been jumping up and down and shouting their pain for a very long time, but civilization is a merciless steam roller.
The Epic of Gilgamesh was written in about 2700 B.C. It described the creation of the city of Uruk, along the Euphrates River. The process involved massive deforestation along the valley, which unleashed immense erosion and flooding. Humbaba was the sacred defender of the forest. Gilgamesh whacked his head off, and proceeded to cut trees like there was no tomorrow. Rains then washed the soil off the mountains, down to bedrock. And so, whenever the floods blast down the river, the noise of destruction is referred to as “Humbaba’s roar.”
The Greek philosopher Plato wrote Critias in about 360 B.C. In the dialog, the speaker laments how the land has deteriorated over time. The forests were almost gone, and so was the rich soil on the mountains and plains. Rains quickly run off the bare earth, and springs no longer flow. The land is drying out. Compared to the better days of years past, only a skeleton of the earlier land remained.
Many years later, not long before the time of Jesus, the Roman poet Ovid wrote a similar poem in the third book of his Amores collection. It also expressed sadness for the dark times of his day. Long ago, wild crops were abundant. The land was not divided into parcels, and no plows tore into the ground. “Clever human nature, victim of your inventions, disastrously creative, why cordon cities with towered walls? Why arm for war?”
Conquest of the Land Through Seven Thousand Years
In the 1940s, Walter Lowdermilk created the short, quick, and easy primer on the ravages of early civilizations. In the 1920s, he visited the Yellow River (Hwang Ho) basin in China. Floods and famines had been hammering the Yellow River for 4,000 years, sweeping away millions of lives. The basin is covered with a deep blanket of yellowish, nutrient-rich loess soil, dumped there by winds during the ice age. Prior to the expansion of agriculture and population, ancient forests held the upland loess in place. After the forests were eliminated, rain runoff increased, erosion increased, and the long era of catastrophic floods was born. The Yellow River has long had a fitting nickname: China’s Sorrow. Lowdermilk discovered a surreal nightmare world of enormous erosion gullies up to 600 feet (183 m) deep.
In 1938 and 1939, he was sent to Western Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, to make observations, and report on his findings. He visited many of the ancient sites mentioned by George Perkins Marsh — and he took a camera with him. He saw many devastated wastelands, some reduced to bare bedrock, which had once been prosperous, densely populated regions. This wasn’t about climate change. Common causes included deforestation, overgrazing, soil salinization, planting on sloped land, and failure to maintain irrigation canals and hillside terraces.
Lowdermilk boiled the core story down to a booklet. More than a million copies have been printed. His photos are shocking testimonials to the unintended consequences of domestication and civilization. The booklet can be read in one sitting.
The text bounces from disaster to disaster, providing a brief description of each. In Tunisia, he observed the site of Cuicul, a magnificent city in Roman times, which had been entirely buried, except for three feet (1 m) of one column poking out of the soil. It took 20 years of digging to expose the remarkable ruins. Today, the land can support only a few inhabitants. Likewise, the Minoan city of Jerash, a village of 3,000 people, was once home to 250,000. In Syria, he observed a million acres (404,685 ha) of manmade desert, dotted with a hundred dead villages.
I don’t want to spoil the excitement of your reading experience by summarizing most of the subjects. Keep in mind that the stories he tells are the result of good old-fashioned muscle-powered organic farming, and organic grass-fed herding. The harms were the result of human actions inspired by ignorance or tradition, not the fickle whims of nature. Compared to modern industrial agriculture, the early farmers and herders were childlike amateurs at ecocide. We have, unfortunately, become champions.
Free PDF is HERE
Against the Grain
James C. Scott teaches political science and anthropology at Yale. He’s a smooth writer and a deep thinker. In Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, he focused his discussion 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 Old World state was wheat, barley, or rice. Taxes were paid with grain, which was easier to harvest, transport, and store. States often had armies, defensive walls, palaces or ritual centers, slaves, and maybe a king or queen.
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. Over time, some wild 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, the process of domestication made livestock 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.
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.
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!
Free PDF is HERE
Great, But Not Free
A Forest Journey by John Perlin is a fabulous history of forest mining. In the era of domestication, forests were cleared to create cropland and pastures. Trees were cut to make lumber. Wood was like the petroleum of earlier times, a source of both energy and wealth. It was used for heating buildings, glassmaking, ceramics, smelting, casting, brickmaking, and so on. Trees were a form of treasure, and treeless societies might be willing to take your trees by bloody force (and often did).
Against the Grain by Richard Manning presents a rigorous critique of agriculture in an easy to read format. He slings snappy lines like: “There is no such thing as sustainable agriculture. It does not exist.” Or, “The domestication of wheat was humankind’s greatest mistake.” Agriculture is one of humankind’s most troublesome experiments, and it is now hopelessly in debt. It has borrowed soil, water, and energy that it can never repay, and never intended to repay — burning up tomorrow to feed today. We know it, we keep doing it, and we have dark hallucinations about feeding billions more. Agriculture has become civilization’s tar baby.
Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations by geologist David Montgomery provides a fascinating discussion about an extremely precious substance that we can’t live without, but treat like dirt. He begins with an intimate explanation of what dirt is, how it’s formed, and how it’s destroyed — in plain, simple English. Then, he proceeds to lead us on an around-the-world tour, spanning many centuries, to examine the various methods that societies have devised for mining their soils, and sabotaging their future via agriculture.
He concludes, “Continued for generations, till-based agriculture will strip soil right off the land as it did in ancient Europe and the Middle East. With current agricultural technology though, we can do it a lot faster.” Nature is far smarter. “Mother earth never attempts to farm without livestock; she always raises mixed crops; great pains are taken to preserve the soil and to prevent erosion; the mixed vegetable and animals wastes are converted into humus; there is no waste; the process of growth and the process of decay balance one another.”