Monday, March 29, 2021

Bright Green Lies


In an era when the info stream is running heavy on conspiracy theories, fake news, and balderdash, it’s not unusual to come across stories of green energy miracles.  For example, we might see that a progressive country somewhere overseas is now almost entirely running on wind or solar energy.  Oh, really?  In this era of deceptive “news” releases, truth can be a slippery rascal.

Bright green environmentalism is a mindset that has big hopes for a brighter future, and strongly advocates renewable energy.  Their primary interest is preserving our luxurious high-impact lifestyle and mega-profitable economy, while (hopefully) lightening our eco-footprint a wee bit, allowing us to feel slightly less uncomfortable.

The cat is out of the bag with regard to approaching fossil energy limits and the Climate Crisis.  The bad old-fashioned way of living has become unhip and embarrassing.  It has to go.  Bright green is a brilliant marketing strategy.  Look!  Here’s a new and improved way of living in the fast lane that’s friendly to the birds and trees!  It’s great for the economy, and it’s great for the planet!  Imagine that!  How totally cool!  (Um, the inconvenient truth here is that, no matter how hard we wish, we can’t have both industrial civilization and a living planet.)

Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith, and Max Wilbert are the authors of Bright Green Lies, which enthusiastically reveals all the kinky and creepy aspects of the bright green cult.  The three wordsmiths are apostles of a gospel called Deep Green Resistance, which passionately advocates defending the living world, to the highest degree possible, without delay.  (“No, that doesn’t mean killing all humans.  That means changing our lifestyle dramatically.”)  OK!

Once I made it across the border into chapter three, I suddenly became extremely excited!  I found myself exploring a fascinating, in-depth “birds and bees” discussion of the unfortunate realities, drawbacks, and limitations of alternative energy — lots of stuff they never taught me in school (and I wish they were teaching now).

My Admiral TV was made in 1946.  It doesn’t have a screen the size of a barn door.  I’ve never seen it work.  Watching a dead TV is boring.  Reading is a lot more interesting.  When you spend 25 to 30 years studying ecology, anthropology, and environmental history, you can learn a lot of stuff that mainstream folks don’t know — stuff more important than football scores, soap operas, game shows, celebrity shenanigans, and so on.

Folks who have working TVs, and thousands of channels, are often very well informed about countless subjects that are not especially important.  They are unlikely to be up to date on difficulties of lithium recycling, or why Big Mama Nature loathes and despises notorious bright green billionaires, or why the electric grid is so poorly designed for effectively distributing renewable energy that is intermittent, unpredictable, hard to control, and a pain in the ass.

They are likely to be blissfully ignorant about most of the countless eco-impacts of their consumer lifestyles.  The view outside their picture window is not strip mines, clear-cuts, forest fires, methane craters, oil fields, toxic spills, chemical plants, and landfills.  Out of sight, out of mind.  Most importantly, they are unlikely to understand why running today’s industrial civilization entirely on renewable energy is absolutely impossible, and why attempting a transition would provide little or no benefit — but a lot more damage to the planet.

Of course, everyone remembers William Jevons, who discovered something very strange in 1865.  In those days, the steam engine industry was making big gains in efficiency.  More work could be done with less coal.  Instead of reducing coal mining, demand for coal increased, because it was the greedy and profitable thing to do.  Jevon’s Paradox asserts, “Increased efficiency not only doesn’t generally reduce demand, but instead increases it.”

Bright greens still dance to the Jevon’s boogie.  Richard York, a University of Oregon wizard, studied data from 128 nations, and found that for every unit of “green” power brought online, only one-tenth as much fossil fuel was taken offline.  “Industrial civilization requires industrial levels of energy, and fossil fuel is functionally irreplaceable.”  Electric cars can’t be made without it.  Nor can wind turbines, solar panels, planes, ships, concrete, cell phones, etc.  Oil is incredibly energy dense.

Solar power pauses for sunset or clouds, sometimes for days.  Wind turbines take a nap when it’s calm, sometimes for days.  Meanwhile, demand for electricity expects the grid to always provide our every need immediately, and demand can surge without warning.  This means that a conventional generation system (typically fossil powered) must constantly be kept running on standby, to immediately feed the grid when clouds pass, breezes calm, or demand suddenly spikes.  Brilliant, eh?

While coal or oil is energy that can be stored for millions of years, the grid delivers alternating current (AC) electricity, which is impossible to store — use it or lose it.  Batteries can store direct current (DC) electricity, but high capacity utility-scale batteries are not in common use.  There are other ways of storing energy, like hydro-electric dams, pumped hydro, compressed air, thermal, etc.  These can be used in unique locations, not everywhere.  Bottom line: “The grid was not built for renewables.”  Therefore, a new fantastically expensive state of the art grid is needed.

No storage systems are made of harmless green fairy dust.  All require a fossil energy powered industrial civilization.  In the world of batteries, lithium-ion is the most efficient.  Elon Musk is working hard to design and build lithium batteries for cars, homes, and industrial scale power storage.  Exponential growth in demand for lithium is predicted into the late 2020s and 2030s. 

Some fear that staggering demand for lithium could drive prices into the stratosphere, and close the gate to a beautiful green utopia.  Even worse, some predict that “not enough economically recoverable lithium exists to build anywhere near the number of batteries needed in a global electric-vehicle economy.”  This also applies to other gizmos that require lithium.  Oh-oh!

As a special bonus, readers are also taken on a naughty and exciting tour behind the curtains, to get a shocking peek at the steamy world of hardcore geology porn.  In addition to a long list of conventional minerals, “green” energy hardware requires exotic minerals, like lithium and rare earth metals, which are found in limited locations, and are not easy or “green” to mine.  The mining industry excels at creating enduring, toxic, eco-catastrophes.

The book explores a number of other subjects — power distribution grids, hydropower, recycling, green cities, biofuels, geothermal, and so on.  Near the end are 28 pages of “solutions,” all of which consumer society has zero interest in.  Consumer society wants to survive and grow until the planet can no longer breathe.  The authors suggest a more interesting path.

Put the plows away forever and bring back the grasslands, via holistic management (beneficial grazing).  Before long, the recovery of healthy wild vegetation will suck the excess carbon out of the air, and turn some of it into organic grass-fed meat.  Grass will save our ass!  Deal with overpopulation and extinctions.  Eliminate carbon emissions in five years.  Remove five dams per day and stop building new ones.  End logging.  And on and on.  In short, end the destruction, let the Earth heal.  Make America Walk Again.

Jensen has spoken to many audiences over 20+ years.  He asks each group the same question.  “Do you think this culture will undergo a voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable society?”  No one has ever said yes.  This is exactly the point of his extreme recommendations.  There is no solution that leaves our way of life intact.  Our way of life has some really big issues.  This book will help you better understand some of them.  I liked it.


Jensen, Derrick, Lierre Keith, and Max Wilbert, Bright Green Lies, Monkfish Publishing, Rhinebeck, New York, 2021.  

Monday, March 15, 2021

Wild Free and Happy Sample 54


[Note: This is the fifty-fourth 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 53]


We live in interesting times.  Bunnies aren’t acidifying the oceans.  Salmon aren’t blindsiding the climate.  Geese aren’t nuking rainforests.  Even our closest relatives, the chimps and bonobos, remain absolute champions at sustainable living.  Today, much of humankind has become disconnected from our wild, free, and happy roots.  The rest of the family of life is not amused.

Many folks believe that electric cars are environmentally harmless, and that miraculous technology will certainly stop and reverse the Climate Crisis.  Other folks, the wee minority who pay close attention to the eco-related news feeds, are more inclined toward anger, grief, and haunting premonitions of extinctions.  They perceive that our culture is a runaway steamroller destined to smash everything in its path.

Big Mama Nature is strong, fiercely determined, and invincible.  She is the spirit of life, and its sacred guardian.  She’s glad to see that the planet-thrashing catastrophe is accelerating to its exit.  Maybe its speedy demise could prevent many extinctions.  Rust in peace, and good <bleeping> riddance!  When the storms have passed, Big Mama will still be standing tall and proud amidst the smoldering ruins, nurturing the recovery of what was lucky to survive.

Some folks seriously wonder if the human species is fatally flawed, a goofy divine booboo.  There are cultures that live like hurricanes, and others that walk softly.  History repeatedly assures us that wrecking ball cultures eventually rubbish their resource base and blink out.  Those cultures are indeed ridiculous, fatally flawed, dead ends, and the impacts of their lifestyle harm the entire family of life.  Sadly, they also have a long tradition of brutalizing lower impact cultures.

At the beginning of this long and meandering word dance, I promised to serve you stories that contemplate how things got to be this way.  I promised to propose zero miraculous solutions.  Well into the writing process, I became spellbound by an exceptional culture whose simplicity and sustainability have been highly polished by centuries of heavenly isolation.  They are not fatally flawed.  So, I need to take a side trip here, and share a bit of their story.


I’m delighted to introduce you to the Pirahã (pee-da-ha) people of the Amazon rainforest.  They are hunter-gatherers who live in a few jungle villages near the Maici River in northwestern Brazil.  Estimates of their population range up to 800.  The outer world mostly knows about them via the work of Daniel Everett, who first met them in 1977. 

In the beginning, he had been a missionary and linguist on a mission from God to learn their language, translate the Bible, and inspire the salvation of their damned souls.  His project was nearly derailed by the fact that their language had absolutely nothing in common with any other in the world.  They were able to effectively communicate via speaking, singing, humming, and whistling.  When hunting, whistles were less likely to spook monkeys and other game.  Whistled words allowed conversations between folks who were not close together.  When Dan was present, private conversation shifted to whistling.

To help you get to know the Pirahã, let me toss out some snips and notes from assorted sources.  They hunted, fished, and foraged.  Fish provided about 70 percent of their diet, and the combo of fishing and hunting provided up to 90 percent.  Manioc was recently introduced to them by Steve Sheldon, the linguist whom Everett replaced.  Scraggly manioc plants sometimes grew in small weedy patches, and their food production was miniscule.  They did not depend on this food.

The Pirahã knew the usefulness and location of all important plants in their area.  They understood the behavior of local animals, and how to take them, or avoid them.  They could walk into the jungle naked, with no tools or weapons, and walk out three days later with baskets of fruit, nuts, and small game.  By the age of nine, all of them were capable of surviving in the jungle on their own, feeding themselves and making shelter.  They were at peace with their ecosystem because they knew how to live in it.  Their faith was in themselves. 

The Pirahã had no leaders, or social hierarchy, all were equal.  It was taboo to tell someone to do something.  Violence, anger, and shouting were unacceptable.  They were amazingly content, tolerant, and patient.  Children were never spanked or given orders.  They were free to play with sharp knives.  Adults spoke to them as equals, no baby talk. 

They often chitchat about daily events and personal affairs, but they were not storytellers.  They have no cultural folklore, legends, fables, or worship.  Everett wrote, “Committed to an existence in which only observable experience is real, the Pirahã do not think, or speak, in abstractions.”  He suspects that they may be the only group in the world that has no numbers, and no creation myth.  They have no concept of sin, punishment, or god.  Nor do they fear death or evil spirits.  Belief in evil spirits is common among groups of farmers or herders, where a year’s work can be lost suddenly via bad luck.  Fishers and hunters, on an unlucky day, were more likely to lose no more than a day’s work.

The people were remarkably easygoing and infectiously happy.  They wore bright smiles, and laughed about everything.  Folks from the outer world were often astonished to be among people who were sunbeams of happiness.  A visiting psychologist, amazed by their joy, said, “The Pirahãs look the most happy of all the people we ever saw; they laugh the most of all the populations we have seen.”

In the tribe, memories of ancestors or historic events were not preserved, they evaporated.  The distant past and future were off the radar of their here and now worldview.  Their realm of reality was limited to stuff that they could personally see or hear, or things seen or heard by their living parents, grandparents, friends, and kinfolk.  History was strictly limited to living memory.  Folks didn’t worry about what happened yesterday, or what might happen tomorrow.  They had no word for worry.  They lived entirely in the here and now. 


The Pirahã have a misty past, and it will likely remain misty.  Archaeologists estimate that they arrived in the Amazon at least 10,000 years ago.  Earlier, they were a subgroup of the Mura people, but they separated from them in 1714, when annoying colonists fell out of the sky, disturbing the peace.  Most of the Mura learned Portuguese and got closer to the Brazilian culture.  The Pirahã said screw this, moved deep into the jungle, and eventually settled along the Maici River, where a passing Portuguese missionary mentioned them in 1784. 

Everyone’s ancient ancestors originally evolved on African savannahs.  As they expanded around the world, grasslands were their preferred habitat, because they could be primo hunting grounds.  Thousands of years ago, when wild hunter-gatherers from Eurasia first arrived in the Amazon, they were happy to find, kill, and eat a variety of delicious large herbivores.  At some point during this era of migration and expansion, we aren’t sure when or how, the ancestors of the Pirahã also arrived in the Amazon region.

In 2020, news stories announced the discovery of tens of thousands of ice age rock paintings in the Amazon rainforest of Colombia (Article) (Video).  They were found on an eight mile (13 km) stretch of cliff face that was sheltered from the rain.  Images date from 12,600 to 11,800 years ago, when humans were busy colonizing North and South America. 

This was about the time that a megafauna extinction spasm was underway.  The rock painters could have never imagined how generations of low intensity overhunting might gradually lead to devastating irreversible impacts (modern highly educated folks are no less shortsighted and clueless).  In the years of feasting on fantastic abundance, they expressed jubilant celebration in their art.  Life is grand!  Yum!

Today, the Amazon rainforest is dense jungle, where it hasn’t been obliterated by loggers, miners, farmers, and ranchers.  The region was much different when the painters worked.  In those days, a warming climate was transforming the ecosystem.  A patchwork of savannahs, trees, and thorny scrub was in the process of shifting into today’s leafy tropical rainforest.  Among the cliff portraits were extinct horses, mastodons, camelids, and giant sloths.  These were not jungle critters. 

The Pirahã were super lucky.  Long before the invasion of pale faced space aliens with swords, axes, and smallpox, the rainforest had time to become well established in the Amazon basin.  It created a moist tropical climate that nurtured the survival of dense jungle.  This lush habitat was not suitable for herds of large herbivores, hunters of large game, livestock herders, or food producing soil miners.  Fish was their primary source of nutrients, and it was available year round.  The daily catch was promptly consumed, to avoid spoilage, or losses to hungry nonhuman neighbors.

The ecosystem was also home to black caiman, jaguars, giant anaconda, schools of piranha, venomous snakes, malaria, and other life threatening challenges.  Roadless jungle largely prohibited overland travel, which discouraged visits from uninvited outsiders.  This worked pretty well for a very long time.  Obnoxious neighbors can be a bloody pain in the ass.

In recent years, when the Brazilian government began providing the Pirahã with food from outer space, folks got fat.  Upon receiving sugary junk food, kids began getting tooth decay.  Folks now have a village generator, lights, a TV, and clinic.  They have a school where the kids are taught math and Portuguese.  And so on.  It would be awesome if the government instead directed their attention to protecting the rainforest, punishing the swarms of two-legged eco-terrorists, and teaching Brazilian kids ecology and environmental history.

The traditional Pirahã culture generated wastes that were biodegradable, no landfill needed.  It’s important to remember that they already had a way of life that worked perfectly, was not self-destructive, and could not be improved by increased exposure to troublesome stuff from outer space — exotic cultures, technology, beliefs, habits, diseases, etc.  They enjoyed living in a stable, low impact, time-proven culture where everyone shared the same belief system, and folks smiled and laughed a lot.  What could possibly be more terrible?

Missionary Work

In the beginning, after three years of tedious struggle, Everett finally became fluent in the Pirahã language.  He translated the Gospel of Mark, and shared it with some natives.  He had no doubt that the Bible was so spiritually powerful that anyone exposed to it could not help but be overwhelmed by its truth, and inspired to rush toward a heaven-bound path.  Well, the natives were fascinated by the bit about John the Baptist getting his head cut off, but nothing else had any effect on them whatsoever.

His holy objective had been “to convince happy, satisfied people that they are lost and need Jesus as their personal savior.”  A traditional missionary proverb says, “You’ve got to get them lost before you can get them saved.”  Everett told them that Jesus could deliver them from fear, and lead them to a good life.  But they didn’t live in fear, and they already enjoyed an excellent way of life. 

Another missionary proverb says that “everyone has a god-shaped hole in their heart,” but the Pirahã apparently had whole hearts.  None were converted despite decades of effort.  They were empirical people who expected compelling here-and-now evidence.  Notions from unknown times, places, or people were beyond their realm of reality — perfectly meaningless nonsense.

Everett had never met Jesus, because Jesus lived 2,000 years ago.  He often tried to tell the Pirahã about Jesus, but stumbled.  They asked, “Did you see him yourself?”  “No.”  “So why do you tell us about things that you have never seen?”  Another time, when he read them names from his translation of the Gospel of Luke, they assumed that these were people that Everett knew.  When he described crucifixion, they were aghast.  It was beyond comprehension.  Did Americans really do that?  This information was from outer space, not here-and-now reality.

In addition to his religious role, Everett was also a linguist, a science-based field.  The scientist in him deeply respected the importance of trustworthy evidence.  As the river of time flowed past, Everett began to question his right to tell them about ancient supernatural miracles that he had not seen with his own eyes.  He believed they were true.  Of course, believing anything makes it true, but “truth” is a slippery rascal that can cast powerful spells, and open trap doors.  He loved the Pirahã, and they loved him, but they had no interest in Jesus, and finally told him so.  This was truly a sharp metaphysical rebuke.

By around 1982, he began having uncomfortable visits from doubt fairies, and these increased with every passing month.  By 1985, the fairies had become a nonstop whirling cloud of fluttering wings.  Finally, there came a day when he was able to summon the power to see beyond the stone wall of his beliefs.  A miracle happened — the mission’s first spiritual conversion.  His old life had become unbearable.  He could never accept that they were lost and going to hell.  “I would go so far as to suggest that the Pirahãs are happier, fitter, and better adjusted to their environment than any Christian or other religious person I have ever known.” 

He remained a closet atheist until the late ’90s, at which point he came out, and his wife and three children abandoned him.  By 2008, the banishment had ended.  In a 2015 interview, he noted that his son had also been awakened by doubt fairies, and that his ex-wife continued her holy efforts to save the Pirahã. 

Webs and Cleverness

Unlike the Pirahã, I wake up every morning in an apartment with hot and cold running water, electricity, refrigerator, stove, flush toilet, heater, computer, phone, book collection, etc. — decadent luxuries for idle rich folks confined in maximum impact societies.  Outside my window is a busy industrial city, streets rumbling with thousands of motorized wheelchairs.  It’s an outpost of a global civilization that’s maniacally devouring resources, pooping out mountains of waste, blindsiding the climate, and racing to oblivion.

In bed, as I wake up, I turn on the radio for an hour or two of morning news.  Every day, there is abundant evidence that much of the world is out of its mind — tsunamis of bullshit, mass hysteria, and countless conflicts.  I think about the Pirahã, who are also getting up, smiling and laughing, down by the river, welcoming the beginning of a new day.  Same species, same morning, same planet.  They have not forgotten who they are, or how to live.

Earlier, I talked a bit about human webs, associations of people that shared a similar knowledgebase.  The U.S. is in the Old World Web, a patriarchal farmer-herder culture that likely originated in Mesopotamia, and eventually grew in all directions.  It’s now found almost everywhere, with a dwindling number of backwater exceptions, like Pirahã country.

I’ve talked about how humans evolved on African savannahs, and eventually expanded around the world, long before the advent of agriculture and herding.  Humans have traditionally had a strong preference for grassland and tundra ecosystems, because they are prime habitat for large herbivores, a highly preferred food source.  Open country made it easier to see both hungry man-eating predators, and delicious herds of walking meat.  Over the centuries, vast regions of forest have been cleared to create grassland openings attractive to herds of grazing animals.

Open grasslands also made overland travel relatively easy.  There were thousands of miles of Silk Road routes.  By making long distance travel more convenient, they also encouraged the long distance exchange of seeds, commodities, ideas, and technologies.  Cleverness can be highly infectious and contagious.  When a clever idea from one culture smacks into a different culture for the first time, the collision can set off a snowballing chain reaction of brilliant, highly destructive foolishness.  For example, when knowledge of the Chinese substance we call gunpowder arrived in Europe, it sparked an explosion of innovation, which soon began generating mountains of mutilated corpses.

Epidemics of cleverness can trigger bloody competition for resources.  In these conflicts, the groups with superior cleverness tend to have the advantage.  Winners are able to grab more, feed more, fight more, enslave more, rape more, and hoard more.  It’s essential for clever wizards to pay close attention to the jungle drums of innovation, because the cutting edge is a moving target.  Great empires were never built by sleepy half-clever societies.

Living in the wholesome isolation of their rainforest, the Pirahã have not domesticated plants or animals, built cities and civilizations, developed industries, obliterated the trees, conquered neighbors, or invented automobiles and cell phones.  Their cleverness was invested in carefully mastering the art of sustainable survival, which was all they ever needed.


In a 2007 interview, Everett said that his initial impression of Pirahã culture was that it was colorless and disappointing.  “But then I realized that this is the most intense culture that I could ever have hoped to experience.  This is a culture that’s invisible to the naked eye, but that is incredibly powerful, the most powerful culture of the Amazon.  Nobody has resisted change like this in the history of the Amazon, and maybe of the world.”

To him, the Pirahã success in resisting change seemed miraculous and otherworldly.  How was it possible that a society so healthy and happy could still survive in the twenty-first century?  It was stunning to see.  I’m not sure that resistance was the key factor here.  Isolation was probably what benefitted them most.  They had very little contact with clever people from elsewhere who had bad habits, odd tools, dark impulses, and heads slithering with brainworms. 

Everett was born and raised in California, where his cultural programming conditioned him to believe that innovation was the golden path to a better tomorrow.  This path was not focused on living in harmony with the ecosystem.  California culture is a highly diverse hell-broth of constantly clashing races, religions, classes, fads, and politics.  A better tomorrow is about more jobs, more income, more consumption, more landfills, and keeping your head above water in the ever changing currents.

In a 2017 essay, Everett praised diversity, because we learn far more (for better or worse) when we are around people who are different from us.  The more we learn, the more innovative we can become.  If we live among people who are just like us, we’re not going to learn much.  In a 2008 interview, he said that his biggest personal desire was to be able to learn faster.  He had a very busy mind.

Back in 1977, when he first fell out of the sky in Pirahã country, he landed in a living paradise of jungle diversity that bore no resemblance to California.  This diversity was ecological, not human, and it was overwhelmingly healthy.  He could have spent the rest of his life learning about the rainforest, and becoming one with it. 

Everett was once asked if an outsider could ever become fully integrated in the Pirahã culture.  He said that he could not, and had never met anyone who could.  “It requires tremendous knowledge of the jungle and its flora and fauna, as well as toughness that one rarely finds among outsiders.”  A complicating factor was his wife and three kids, who would not be eager to join a mind-expanding adventure in do-it-yourself rewilding.  If he abandoned mission work, he would lose his lifeline — and you and I would now know nothing about the Pirahã.

In 1999, when he returned to the Pirahã world from a side trip to outer space, he did not gather vegetation and build a lovely hut.  Instead, he unloaded 14 tons of ironwood from a boat, and built a two room dwelling.  It had a gas stove, freezer, water filtration system, TV, and a DVD player.  It was designed to ban the entry of bugs and snakes.  This pleased his wife and three kids.

Three Modes of Society

As mentioned earlier, Jon Young has devoted his life to promoting nature connection, because without connection, we are lost and confused critters.  He spent time with the San people of the Kalahari who had a deep spiritual connection to their land.  He said that they had perfect posture, and that their mental health factors are all positive.  They were super-happy, super-vital, and totally connected from birth to death.  In our society, maybe one in a thousand adults has connection.  Youngsters often have it, but it usually dies in the teen years, as they move into the cultural fast lane, into the realm of glowing screens and steaming hormones.

Colin Turnbull, in his most daunting book, compared the lovely wild society of Mbuti pygmies to the Ik tribe of Uganda, who were in a heartbreaking death spiral.  They had been banished from their ancient hunting grounds by the creation of a national park, and were expected to become farmers during a long and devastating drought.  Their traditional society was rapidly disintegrating, as many perished from starvation, and empathy went extinct.  The Ik reminded him of Western society, where growing de-socialization was also underway.  The Ik seemed like a spooky preview of where we were headed.

Like the Mbuti culture, Pirahã society was also held together by strong social bonds.  Their way of life depended on the complete cooperation of everyone, male and female, young and old.  This was possible because they lived in small intimate groups, where all were kin or friends, and everyone shared the same beliefs and values.  Their way of life echoed the original human blueprint.  They had no need for laws and cops.

For the Ik, family relationships had rotted, and society degenerated into a mob of self-centered individuals.  Western cultures can also be madhouses of rabid dog-eat-dog individualism.  We strive to achieve personal goals via competition for personal advancement.  We frequently suffer from the painful friction of diversity.  Our morals, values, lifestyles, ethnicities, and religious beliefs are all over the place, and often generate intolerance, resentment, exploitation, and hostility.  Our communities are too crowded and diverse to be kept in order by family connections.  So, we try to control the herd via laws, cops, and prisons. 

When cooperation and morals fail, and laws and prisons fail, door number three is social meltdown — absolute morality-free individual freedom, like the Ik.  In the ’70s, Turnbull was horrified by the rising tide of social rot in his world.  “The state itself, is resting ever more on both intellectual and physical violence to assert itself.”  Heads of state and their assistants fill the air with “loud-mouthed anti-intellectual blabberings.”  The populace “must not only not believe or trust or love or hope, but must not think.”  Sound familiar?


The good news is that the Pirahã, Mbuti, San, and others clearly demonstrate that the human species is not fatally flawed.  They show us that it’s possible for humans to be happy, healthy, and sustainable.  Simplicity is elegant.  What about the rest of us?  Babies born in Washington D.C. have essentially the same brains as Pirahã newborns.  Being raised in our warp speed consumer culture rewards us for living like thunder beings.  Pirahã kids leave the world in no worse condition than when they arrived.

Jack Turner was a philosophy professor who grew up to become a “belligerent ecological fundamentalist.”  Modern society was savagely and senselessly pounding the natural world to bloody bits, and this drove him mad, because it was insane.  He was deeply fond of the natural world, because it was the source of all life.  He was far less fond of eco-activists who tirelessly yowled and hissed at the designated villains, including capitalism, greedy corporations, corrupt politicians, the evil enemy-of-the-day, and so on.  They were overlooking the deeper point.

The root problem was philosophical.  Civilized cultures had reduced the natural world to abstractions — a treasure chest to be looted, a valuable machine that human brilliance should strive to rigorously control, despite barely understanding it.  (Abstract is the opposite of concrete.  Abstractions only exist as ideas or thoughts.)  The planet was being pummeled by a culture that was infested with childish abstract ideas — more is better, get rich quick, grow or die, human supremacy. 

These abstractions provided a sleazy seal of approval for numerous villainous behaviors, and they weren’t the sole domain of rich and powerful big shots.  Ordinary bubbas also got the cultural green light to clear a forest, drain a wetland, or plow a prairie.  On countless occasions, ambitious folks have gazed upon a sacred old growth forest, analyzed the potential board feet of milled lumber, calculated its dollar value, estimated the profit potential, fetched their axes, and turned living nature into lifeless cash.  This example of get-rich-quick fever is abstraction powered. 

In civilized cultures, the front line abstractions do not include reverence and respect for the natural world.  “We only value what we know and love, and we no longer know and love the wild,” Turner wrote.  “What we need now is a culture that deeply loves the wild earth.”  We must rejoin the natural world.  That’s an intelligent idea!  Is it possible?  Can we free our minds from the abstractions that cripple us?

Long ago, I chatted with Nick Trim, a Shawnee gentleman, on a Greenpeace bulletin board.  In the mid-1600s, French colonists were teaching the Shawnee how to build cabins, which involved cutting trees, an extremely dark and unnatural activity.  Many trees were home to “little people,” powerful spirits that required utmost respect.  Thus, it was necessary to knock on each tree, mention the possibility of cutting it, provide a worthy reason for doing so, and sincerely apologize for disturbing the peace.

Then, it was necessary to wait for a while, at least a day, to allow the little people to find a new tree.  A highly irritated French officer complained, “These Shawnee can’t cut a tree without a lengthy prayer, and a ceremony, and a day’s delay.”  Nick added, “I am pleased to say that some things don't change.  We still love trees.”  The frustrated officer found some French lads to do the murdering.

In our world, parents, educators, clergy, and others work to pass abstractions from one generation to the next.  Abstractions inspire cultures to send trainloads of heretics, pariahs, and useless eaters to gas chambers.  They inspire holy martyrs to put on suicide vests.  They inspire thundering mobs of Walmart Christmas shoppers to trample others in their maniacal quest to seize a bargain priced TV.  They inspire thousands of dimwitted fanatics to smash apart the U.S. capitol.  They inspire thousands of ambitious self-centered bumpkins to obliterate the Amazon rainforest.

Our poor brains are constantly raw and bleeding, thrashing with countless weird abstractions — owner, slave, freedom, oppression, success, failure, rich, poor, conservative, liberal, organic, conventional, ambition, apathy, valuable, worthless, sustainable, overshoot, sin, guilt, devils, angels, heaven, hell, creation, apocalypse, salvation, damnation, gods, goddesses, scripture, prophesy, dogmas, creeds, priests, shamans, heretics, infidels…. 

Skimming through the Wikipedia page on Abstraction, I read this: “Thinking in abstractions is considered by anthropologists, archaeologists, and sociologists to be one of the key traits in modern human behavior, which is believed to have developed between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago.”  The development of complex language unlocked the gate, and set loose a flash flood of cleverness.  The ingenious ability to effortlessly engage in abstract thinking was a tremendous achievement on the path to domestication, civilization, industrialization, mass extinctions, and the Climate Crisis.

Every day, many long freight trains rumble through my neighborhood, blowing their horns.  Similarly my mind seems to be pulling a long train of abstractions, day after day, a heavy and tiresome burden.  They stimulate confusion, illusion, irritation, distraction.  Life would be so much lighter, freer, and easier if I could simply unhitch my mind, and stop dragging around an enormous load of cultural goofiness.  Imagine what it would be like to switch to an abstraction-free diet and immediately lose 800 pounds (363 kg) of suffocating mental sludge.  You would feel so light, bouncy, free, and alive!

I must now repeat Everett.  Listen!  “Committed to an existence in which only observable experience is real, the Pirahã do not think, or speak, in abstractions.”  Wow!  This beautiful clarity must inspire their trademark smiles, laughter, and happiness.  It never occurs to them to do stupid things — burn down the forest, start a gold mine, build a dam.  They are not dangerous, unpredictable loose cannons. 

Indeed, it seems that the Pirahã were superb shamans.  They succeeded in exorcizing some thorny abstractions that caused Everett so much existential pain.  They were not demons in need of salvation, they were sweet joyful beings who knew how to live well, think with great precision, and instantly deflect mental sludge from the outer world.  When they held a mirror in front of him, he gasped, saw the light, and began a journey of healing, growth, and liberation.  Free at last! 

If only the rest of humankind could spend some years hanging out with happy, sustainable, uncivilized, illiterate, moneyless, abstraction-free role models.


PS:  For the sake of a smoother reading experience, I didn’t clutter up the above by noting sources.  If you are curious, and have two hours to invest, I recommend that you listen to the 52 minute The Humanist Hour #183 podcast (2015), and watch the 2012 documentary, The Grammar of Happiness.  In 2008, Everett wrote the book that introduced the Pirahã people to the world, Don’t Sleep: There are Snakes. 

If you want more, Everett did a TED talk, Wisdom from Strangers. He wrote articles Seek Out Strangers (2017) and About the Pirahãs.  The Instituto Socioambiental wrote a detailed report on the tribe.  See two articles in Wikipedia, Pirahã and Daniel Everett.  Several folks interviewed Everett:  John Colapinto (2007), Dominique Godreche (2012), Clare Dudman (2008).