Monday, June 20, 2022

Clean Green Incoherence


In 2015, I posted my review of Too Hot to Touch, a 2013 book by William and Rosemarie Alley.  William worked for the U.S. Geological Survey, and he was involved in the search for somewhere to store more than 70,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel rods, and 20,000 canisters of military waste.  The challenging objective was to store this extremely dangerous high level radioactive waste in a way that would be absolutely safe for a million years.  The Yucca Mountain site in Nevada was an isolated desert location.  It was not perfect, but no place was perfect.  It was the best choice possible, based on 25 years of research costing $10 billion.  The repository was designed to be 1,000 feet (304 m) below the surface.

The Alleys wrote that fuel rods are used for about six years.  Spent fuel rods remain very hot and highly radioactive.  For about five years, they must be kept submerged in ponds, where cooled water constantly circulates.  Eventually, the hot rods cool off, and can be stored in airtight dry casks, which are much safer.  Dry casks are made of steel and concrete.  The concrete blocks radioactive emissions.  Casks are designed to last maybe 50 years, not a million. 

Permanent storage requires underground geologic repositories that will remain very dry forever, and not be disturbed by earthquakes or terrorists.  In 2022, more than 89,000 tons of spent fuel rods are stored in casks in many states.  If we ever build a repository, all those casks of extremely toxic waste will have to be hauled in from distant locations, with no surprises, if possible.

The Alleys wrote that in 2011, about 75 percent of spent fuel in the U.S. was stored in ponds.  “Many of these pools are full, with some containing four times the amount of spent fuel that they were designed for.”  If a booboo happens, and hot rods are exposed to air, the embedded uranium pellets can oxidize.  If the rods ignite, massive amounts of highly radioactive emissions can be released.  This could result in many cancer deaths, and cost billions of dollars.  The meltdowns at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima were triggered by overheated fuel rods. 

When the Alleys wrote in 2013, there were 440 nuke plants in 31 countries.  At that time, no nation had a permanent high-level waste storage facility in operation.  In 2022, there are 449 plants.  Guess how many nations are using geologic repositories (zero).  One in Finland might open in 2023.

A Wikipedia article on Nuclear Decommissioning described the aging reactors in the U.S.  “As of 2017, most nuclear plants operating in the United States were designed for a life of about 30 to 40 years and are licensed to operate for 40 years by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  As of 2020, the average age of these reactors was about 39 years.  Many plants are coming to the end of their licensing period and if their licenses are not renewed, they must go through a decontamination and decommissioning process.”  Decommissioning is very expensive, and can take many years.

Barack Obama was elected president in 2008.  At that time, Yucca Mountain was the widely supported location for our nuke waste repository.  One crappy day, the Alleys were blindsided by an unpleasant surprise.  In March 2009, Obama’s new Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, told a Senate hearing that “Yucca Mountain was not an option.”  In July 2009, the license application was withdrawn, and all funding for the project was cut.  Game over.

Chu cited no issues, and offered no alternatives.  The Alleys wrote, “Virtually all observers attributed the decision to pull the plug on Yucca Mountain as political payoff to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).  Nevada was a swing state in the election, and Obama had pledged to kill Yucca Mountain, if elected.”  He needed Reid in order to push his health care plans through.  Republican Senators blasted Chu with sharp questions about his hasty dumb decision. 

In 2016, Donald Trump was elected president.  Wikipedia described his Yucca Mountain policies.  “On March 15, 2017, the Trump Administration announced it would request Congressional approval for $120 million to restart licensing activity at the Yucca Mountain Repository, with funding also to be used to create an interim storage program.  The project would consolidate nuclear waste across the United States in Yucca Mountain, which had been stockpiled in local locations since 2010.”

Then, he changed his mind.  “Although his administration had allocated money to the project, in October 2018, President Donald Trump stated he opposed the use of Yucca Mountain for dumping, saying he agreed with the people of Nevada.”  “On May 20, 2020, Under Secretary of Energy Mark W. Menezes testified in front of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that Trump strongly opposes proceeding with Yucca Mountain Repository.”

In November 2020, voters chose Joe Biden to be the next president.  Biden did not overturn Trump’s policy.  The Wikipedia article continues.  “In May 2021, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said that Yucca Mountain would not be part of the Biden administration’s plans for nuclear-waste disposal.  She anticipated announcing the department's next steps in the coming months.”

A year later, in May 2022, an Associated Press story reported that Granholm had not changed her mind.  “The Energy Department is working to develop a process to ask communities if they are interested in storing spent nuclear fuel on an interim basis, both to make nuclear power a more sustainable option and figure out what to do with the waste.  Granholm said it’s the best way to finally solve the issue.  A plan to build a national storage facility northwest of Las Vegas at Yucca Mountain has been mothballed because of staunch opposition from most Nevada residents and officials.”  So, Obama, Trump, and Biden rubbished the Yucca solution, and offered no Plan B.  Sorry kids!

Luckily, hope was on the way!  In February 2019, tree-hugging progressives, led by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey, were galloping in to rescue us.  The answer to our prayers was called the Green New Deal (GND).  An early version of the plan rejected the notion that carbon-free nuclear energy was necessary to fight climate change and keep the perpetually growing economy on life support.  It was simply too expensive, too risky, and there was nowhere to store the waste for all eternity.  The best solution was “clean, green, renewable energy” — mostly solar and wind.

Not everyone agreed.  Shutting down the nuclear industry would mean burning even more fossil energy to keep energy guzzling consumers in the express lane to oblivion.  The downside of solar and wind is intermittency — when the winds calm, or sunbeams disappear, they quit working.  Nukes can consistently produce lots of electricity, whilst emitting no carbon during operation. 

These were the two possible options: renewables only, or renewables plus nukes.  Not worthy of serious consideration was a third option: mindfully confronting our embarrassing addictions — sharply reigning in consumption, turning off the lights, unplugging the gizmos, learning how to walk, and seriously contemplating the dark vibes of our maximum impact lifestyles.

Anyway, the initial anti-nuke version of the GND generated resistance from the Sunrise Movement and other folks.  They wanted to continue using carbon-free nuclear energy, rather than burning even more fossil fuel, and belching even more carbon into the atmosphere.  On May 6, 2019, Ocasio-Cortez felt the heat, saw the light, and developed an “open mind” on nukes.  She was willing to leave the door open on nuclear.  She imagined that newer reactors were far better than the old technology.  Ideally, the long term goal should be to meet 100% of U.S. electricity needs via “clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy.”

OK, so that’s what I’ve learned recently.  It’s been a while since I posted new stuff here.  Revising this book is hard on my tired brain.  The above fits into a bigger picture that’s still under construction.  The bigger picture has more components.  We live in an era of conspiracy theories and fake news.  The powers that be are working very hard to assure us that the climate crisis is an annoyance that can and will be solved.  With the transition to clean, green, renewable energy, the consumer way of life can happily metastasize forever.  We’re on the path to a brighter future.  Don’t worry, go shopping. 

I previously posted four sample sections on climate change: [55] [56] [57] [58].  Those sections describe why I perceive that the climate is in a positive feedback loop.  Atmospheric carbon continues accumulating, polar ice continues shrinking, Arctic temperatures continue rising, permafrost continues melting, and many other processes are intensifying in a downward spiral that is out of control.  Even if all eight billion of us suddenly went Stone Age tomorrow, the avalanche of change we’ve unleashed would continue its descent.

An enormous shortcoming in the clean, green, renewable future dream is that it’s essentially electric powered.  Fossil energy is not invited.  Building millions of wind turbines, solar panels, storage batteries, and radically redesigning the global grid would be impossible without the use of technology that requires huge amounts of fossil energy.  All of these gizmos have limited working lifespans.  Periodic replacement is needed.

Electricity cannot generate the intense heat needed to make metals, silicon, concrete, and other compounds.  Mining, smelting, transportation systems, and many other processes cannot be entirely performed using electricity.  You can’t manufacture stuff like machinery for construction, agriculture, high technology, and so on.  Thus, the GND is the opposite of carbon-free.

Lately — and very late in the game — some folks are beginning to push back on the Green New Deal’s magical thinking.  Megan Seibert and William E. Rees discussed its serious shortcomings.  Their report relied heavily on the pioneering research by Alice Friedemann.  Geologist Walter Youngquist was my friend.  The second edition of his outstanding GeoDestinies book is now available as a free 600-page PDF.

Someday my revisions will be complete, and this stuff will all be presented in a neat and tidy manner.  Thank you for your patience!  Have a nice day!

Saturday, April 23, 2022

GeoDestinies 2022


Walter Youngquist (1921-2018) was a petroleum geologist, a University of Oregon professor, and my friend.  His life’s masterpiece is a 600 page book that’s now available to everyone as a free PDF download [HERE].  

Geologists study Earth resources, many of which are being degraded and depleted — aquifers, topsoil, hydrocarbons, minerals, etc.  These resources have limits.  Every drinker learns that the glass starts full, ends empty, and the faster you drink it, the quicker it’s gone.  Consumers pay little attention to resource limits, but they’re beginning to comprehend the impact of carbon emissions on the climate.  Mainstream experts repeatedly tell us not to worry.  They preach a fervent blind faith in miracles — a smooth and easy transition to a clean, green, renewable utopia.  Geologists wince. 

Youngquist didn’t believe in miracles or techno utopias.  Today, we’re living dangerously fast by destroying astonishing amounts of nonrenewable resources — a onetime binge that can never again be repeated.  Nonrenewable energy is finite.  We have been soaring in a beautiful dream world, where the air is perfumed with the intoxicating aroma of a nonrenewable prosperity.  The era of cheap energy is fading away in the rear view mirror. 

In 1973, the Eugene newspaper wrote a story about one of his lectures, “Dark Picture Painted by Youngquist.”  He gave many talks to Chamber of Commerce groups, trying to introduce them to the concept of limits.  He was almost never invited back.  America worships perpetual growth at any cost.  Growth is our god word.

In the mid-1990s, a number of the world’s petroleum geologists became alarmed that the volume of new oil discovered was declining, while the volume of consumption continued soaring.  This inspired the dawn of the Peak Oil movement, a wakeup call.  In 1997, Youngquist published GeoDestinies, which quickly sold out.  Folks begged him to print more, but Walt was reluctant.  He wanted to update the info first, but the story was moving faster than he could type. 

Finally, in 2012, he finished the update.  Unfortunately, the process hit some curves.  The book did not get to a printer, Walt died, the publisher went extinct, and the manuscript gathered dust.  In 2022, a small group of fans was able to get a digital copy, and make it available to the world.  Most of the content is still timely and very important.  For most readers, this book is largely going to be a banquet of new information, important stuff that’s rarely taught in school, if ever.

Today, many snicker at the Peak Oil dimwits.  Dudes, we didn’t run out!  We’ll always find more!  In the ’90s, the industry was primarily producing cheap and easy conventional oil (insert a straw and suck).  It appears that the global production of this oil peaked around 2005.  Unfortunately, mad scientists developed new technology for extracting oil, like hydro-fracking and horizontal drilling.  This enabled a sharp increase in the production of unconventional oil from sources including tar sands, heavy oil, shale oil (tight oil), and deep water wells.  This oil was far more challenging and expensive to extract (and the mother of many bankruptcies).

In addition to declining discoveries, a new boogeyman is EROEI (energy returned on energy invested).  It takes energy to extract fossil energy.  For example, a hundred years ago, the EROEI for conventional oil was very high.  Ram a drill into a huge pool of Texas oil, and a geyser of black gold often shot high in the sky.  Today, with the shift toward unconventional oil, the EROEI is far lower and declining.  As the energy needed for extraction approaches the energy content of the output, the industry moves closer to its expiration date.  A lot of fossil energy will be left in the ground forever. 

It took more than 500 million years for geologic forces to transform plant and animal residue into fossil fuels — coal, oil, and natural gas.  It will take less than 500 years for humans to extract it and burn it.  We live during a brief blip in Earth history, an ecological hurricane.  Walt’s core message was a blunt warning.  “The momentum of population growth and resource consumption is so great that a collision course with disaster is inevitable.  Large problems lie not very far ahead.  …In some respects, the twenty-first century will be like the twentieth century in reverse.”

The public believes that adequate “renewable” substitutes will be available when needed.  Alternative energy is not clean, green, and free.  The hardware components have limited working lifespans.  Scaling up to replace nonrenewable energy would require vast land area, roads, power lines, and backup for when adequate wind or sunbeams are unavailable.  Manufacturing solar panels requires critical minerals like cobalt, gallium, germanium, indium, manganese, tellu­rium, titanium, and zinc.  Each wind turbine requires tons of concrete, steel, and other resources.

Walt described the alternative energy options, and their many limitations.  He concluded that renewable energy will not come close to replacing fossil energy.  In 2021, Alice Friedemann presented a far more thorough discussion in her book Life After Fossil Fuels.  A renewable utopia seems impossible. 

Oil is just one of many Earth resource topics in Walt’s book.  Plants and animals don’t need it.  Less than 200 years ago, oil was of no great importance to anyone anywhere.  For many thousands of years, nomads wandered across the Arabian Peninsula, under which laid oceans of ancient oil.  It never occurred to them to extract it, burn it, blindside the climate, and race down crowded highways in powerful motorized wheelchairs.  Naturally, in those days, the planet was in far healthier condition.  Then, in the twentieth century, Arabia became very rich, very fast.

Other resources are genuinely essential for the survival of the family of life — soil, water, air, and sunlight.  Of all minerals, soil is the most precious by far.  Fertile soil is created so slowly that, from a human perspective, it’s essentially nonrenewable.  In his book Dirt, geologist David Montgomery wrote, “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.”  Peter Salonius studied soil for 44 years.  He concluded that all extractive agriculture, from ancient times to the present, was unsustainable. 

The problems associated with soil destruction are widely understood, and widely disregarded.  Nobody became a billionaire by promoting soil conservation.  Globally, billions of tons are lost every year.  Overall, one-third of the soil on U.S. cropland has been lost over the past 200 years.  Half of the excellent topsoil of Iowa is already gone.  The highest quality soil is close to the surface, and the first to erode.  Walt wrote, “Worldwide, the con­tinuing loss of soil and depletion of groundwater is leading humanity directly over the cliff.”   

All life needs water.  Water allows mineral nutrients in the soil to be absorbed by plants.  Your body is about 60 percent water.  In some regions, farms receive adequate water from precipitation.  Other regions require irrigation.  About 17 percent of cropland is irrigated, but it produces 40 percent of the world’s crops. 

Some underground aquifers are unable to recharge as fast as pumps are extracting the water — like the vast Ogallala aquifer in the U.S. midlands.  They are unsustainable water mines.  Several communities in Colorado are (temporarily) drinking from reservoirs of 10,000 year old water.  Forty percent of humankind now lives in regions with chronic water shortages, especially Africans, with their rapidly growing populations. 

When ancient aquifers are depleted, subsidence can occur — the ground sinks, filling the empty space where the water once was.  This makes it impossible for the aquifer to ever refill again.  In some portions of Mexico City, subsidence has lowered the ground surface up to 28 feet (8.5 m), causing much damage.  Irrigation can also lead to the accumulation of salt in the soil, which eventually creates a permanent wasteland.  In the cradle of civilization, the once thriving Tigris Euphrates floodplain is now “a glistening desert of salt.”

Earth resources have played a starring role in world history.  They enable the rise of civilizations, and their limited eras of prosperity.  It’s no coincidence that the Industrial Revolution began in Britain, because they had abundant deposits of coal, iron, and limestone in convenient locations.  The U.S. skyrocketed into a global superpower by exploiting huge deposits of a wide variety of Earth resources.  In World War II, Japan was short on iron, coal, and oil.  Hitler invaded southern Russia in an effort to seize the huge Baku oilfields.

In coming years, as fossil fuel fades out, agriculture will once again be muscle powered and low tech (if the climate crisis allows crop production to continue).  Industrial scale food processing and distribution will fizzle.  Potent synthetic fertilizers and other agrichemicals will no longer be available.  As harvests decline, population growth will shift into reverse. 

Finally, a few footnotes.  GeoDestinies was written on a tiny digital typewriter that allowed files to be saved on a floppy disk.  As Walt typed, the display presented a single line of text.  He never owned a computer, and never had direct access to the internet or email.  He had no spare time.  Finishing this manuscript was job one.

I gave him prints of interesting online stuff, and copies of my book reviews, including Brian Fagan’s The Great Warming, and The Little Ice Age.  The Fagan reviews reinforced his belief that climate always changed.  Back in 2012, the notion that human-caused emissions were disrupting the climate was still controversial in the mainstream mindset.

In his 96 years, Walt witnessed remarkable changes in the American standard of living.  These were only possible because of our maniacal binge of energy guzzling.  Modernity’s high standard of living, and fabulous healthcare was awesome.  But the long term environmental impact of these short term benefits was huge.

He lacked some sympathy for environmentalists who opposed energy development projects in America, whilst they were enjoying a comfortable consumer lifestyle.  High impact projects were often diverted to poor nations that had few regulations, if any.  In 2012, Walt was not fully aware of the serious long term hazards of nuclear energy, and the lack of permanent storage for high level radioactive wastes.

Walt was especially horrified by exponential population growth.  In his lifetime, the human mob skyrocketed from 1.9 billion to 7.6 billion.  He was deeply disappointed that overpopulation was a taboo subject for secular and spiritual leaders.  Large numbers of immigrants to the U.S. came from cultures where large families are the norm.  Their dream was to live a maximum impact consumer lifestyle.

Youngquist’s book pulls away cultural blindfolds, and provides a mind-expanding full immersion baptism in the actual facts of life.  “The confluence of factors soon at hand may make this century the most turbulent in human history.  There will be adjustment of population size.  There will be a new energy paradigm.  There will be lifestyle change.  There will be great economic change.  There will be environmental change.  Although change has always been the order of life, the particular confluence of major factors in each of these areas will make the twenty-first century a fundamental turning point for mankind.”

Walt completed the manuscript of the second edition in 2012.  Since then, he wrote four papers for the Negative Population Growth Forum.  Our Plundered Planet (2014), A Geomoment of Affluence (2015), The Scale of Things (2016), Framework of the Future (2016). 

Thursday, April 14, 2022

The Passenger Pigeon


Once upon a time, North America was home to an estimated five to eight billion passenger pigeons.  They may have been the most numerous bird species in the world.  My father was in diapers when the last one died in 1914.  I was born in Michigan, where immense flocks had once thrived, prior to the invasion of farmers and loggers in the early 1800s.  Today, our culture has largely forgotten the saga of the passenger pigeons.  We still remember the war on bison, which is somehow seen as more heroic and dignified.

Lately, some genetic engineers have been talking about resurrecting the extinct birds.  Huh?  Would that make any sense?  Their natural habitat is long gone, and their return would not be appreciated by farmers, airline pilots, and many others.  Curiosity forced me to read two pigeon books.  It was an illuminating and disturbing experience. 

A. W. Schorger (1884-1972) wrote The Passenger Pigeon, which especially impressed me, because he was totally obsessed with this subject.  He devoted 15 years to research, exploring over ten thousand sources — books, journal articles, newspaper clippings.  He actively sought informants, and corresponded with many old-timers who had been near the front lines in the war on birds.  Passenger pigeons inhabited the eastern U.S., and southeastern Canada.  Wikipedia provides a good overview, and a map of their habitat [HERE]. 

Their primary source of food was mast — nuts, seeds, berries, and fruit produced by trees and woody brush.  The two most important foods were acorns and beechnuts.  Acorns were swallowed whole, and up to 17 could be stored in the bird’s crop.  By morning, they would be digested.  When winter grew old and tired, flocks migrated northward, as the retreating snow exposed a buried treasure of yummy nuts.

Pigeons also raided farms.  In the early days, at planting time, seeds were broadcast by hand (tossed on the ground surface).  Then, hungry flocks would zoom in and eagerly devour them all.  They loved corn and wheat, but buckwheat was their favorite.  Farmers sometimes burned thousands of acres of trees to discourage flocks from roosting close to their fields.  Later, they switched to sowing devices that covered the seeds with soil.

Flocks did not visit the same areas annually, because oak and beech forests did not reliably produce nuts year after year.  Birds might not return to the same place for 11 years.  Nut trees were smart.  By being unpredictable, hungry flocks could not become permanent parasites.  This enabled enough nuts to germinate, sprout, and maintain the survival of the species.  For pigeon flocks, life was a never ending search for free lunches.  They followed their stomachs to delicious locations. 

Observers calculated that enormous flocks zoomed across the sky at about 60 miles per hour (96 km/h).  They constantly scanned the land they flew over, in search of nourishing treasures.  Flocks were most vulnerable when on the ground, where they were prey for predators like wolves, foxes, lynxes, cougars, raccoons, and humans. 

They were far safer when perched in trees, or flying.  Airborne predators included eagles, hawks, and vultures.  A solitary pigeon would have been an easy lunch.  It was much safer to fly within a fast moving mob of a million friends.  Large flocks were not one solid mass, they separated into multiple tiers of birds, layers maybe spaced a foot apart (30 cm).  At high speed, these densely packed clusters moved fluidly in unison — swerving, diving, soaring, and bending.  This made predation difficult.

Large flocks of birds required large amounts of food, so they had to keep moving.  Nights were spent safely roosting in trees.  In the morning, smaller groups scattered across the land to forage.  They might travel 100 miles (160 km) before returning to roost for the night.  If one group discovered a location that contained abundant food, the larger flock would somehow learn this, and join the feast.  When a banquet concluded, the flock took wing and searched for a new place to roost for a while.  Passenger pigeons were nomads, no permanent address.

In Kentucky, observers described a huge roosting site 40 miles (64 km) long, and 3 miles wide.  When large flocks roosted, birds covered every limb, sometimes several layers deep, standing on the backs of others.  Their weight snapped off large limbs.  Sometimes entire trees fell over.  Some forests looked like a tornado had passed through — thousands of acres of dead trees.

Descriptions of migrating flocks, in unbelievable numbers, strain the imagination.  But millions of people saw them.  Flocks often stretched as far as the eye could see, from horizon to horizon.  They might block out the sun for several days.  People could hear the approach of flock that was still 4 miles (6.4 km) away.  The sound of a million wings was deafening, “like the roar of distant thunder.”  John James Audubon, naturalist and artist, calculated that one flock had more than a billion birds.  Someone else watched a flock in Kentucky that sped across the sky for 14 hours.  It was a mile wide and more than 300 miles (483 km) long.  The flock continued on the following day. 

Roosting sites were inhabited until food in an area became scarce, then the flock moved on.  Nesting sites required a longer stay, so they were located where food resources were especially abundant.  They were close to water, sheltered from the wind, and often on islands.  A vital process was performed at nesting sites, reproduction.  Nests were built in trees, eggs laid, and squabs (chicks) hatched.  Flocks nested at least once a year, and most observers reported that just one egg was laid per nest. 

Nesting sites varied in size, but large colonies were typical.  There was safety in numbers.  Pigeon cities could have a hundred million birds or more.  They might inhabit an area ten miles long and three miles wide (16 by 4.8 km).  Tree limbs were crowded with nests.  If a winter storm blew in, or if hunters began shooting, the entire colony might suddenly abandon their nests and squabs.

Nesting was synchronized.  Colonies gathered and nests were built.  Almost all of the eggs were laid on about the same day.  Parents took turns keeping the squabs warm under wing, while the other parent brought back food.  Squabs grew rapidly, remaining in the nest for 13 to 15 days.  At this point, parents brought squabs their last meal, and then departed from the nesting area in a great mass.  It was up to the squabs to learn how to fly.  They were fairly helpless, and predators were happy to eat them.  Their bodies were loaded with fat. 

Native Americans were grateful for the pigeons.  They caught birds with nets.  Nesting sites were primary locations for getting birds.  They used poles to knock squabs from their nests.  Nesting trees were sometimes cut down to access the numerous squabs.  Tribes collected the fat from squabs, stored it, and used it like butter.  Pigeons played starring roles in tribal myths and legends.  There were taboos against prematurely disturbing nesting sites, and scaring away the adults before the young had hatched. 

Early explorers (1534) reported large passenger pigeon populations.  They were the most common birds on Manhattan Island in the 1620s.  In the 1800s, the tide changed.  Settlers were encouraged to conquer and demolish the wild frontier.  In 1849, free land was given to folks who drained wetlands (prime nesting habitat).  New telegraph systems enabled social networking, announcing the location of nesting sites.  New railroads enabled industrial scale pigeon hunting.  Millions of birds could be quickly shipped from rural areas to big cities.  Sometimes tons of squabs were dumped in the river due to spoilage.  Unsold birds were fed to pigs.

Hunters used ducking guns with six foot barrels, double barrel shotguns, and large blunderbusses.  A single shot might kill 132.  A Wisconsin hunter shot 1,458 birds in one day.  Lads skilled with nets could capture up to 6,000 birds per day.  Many birds were killed for their feathers alone, which were used for bedding.

By the 1870s, bird numbers were obviously declining.  Some folks suggested conservation efforts, but few really gave a <bleep>.  Money makes civilized people crazy, and an ambitious lad could make big money selling squabs for 30¢ a dozen.  The last wild flocks were gone by 1889.  They had been massacred far faster than they could reproduce.  Schorger sighed, “Persecution was unremitting until the last wild bird disappeared.” 

Over and over again, natural history teaches us that genetic evolution works slowly and beautifully.  When the species in an ecosystem coevolve over the course of thousands of years, the journey is far more likely to develop a sense of balance and harmony.  Over and over again, reality teaches us that a society obsessed with wealth and status is a fast path to a dead end.  Why don’t schools teach this?  How can we see where we’re going if we don’t know where we’ve been?

Schorger, Arlie William, The Passenger Pigeon, 1955, Reprint, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1973.

Greenberg, Joel, A Feathered River Across the Sky, Bloomsbury, New York, 2014.  

Thursday, March 31, 2022

Under a White Sky


Elizabeth Kolbert, author of the Pulitzer Award winning The Sixth Extinction, has written a potent new book, Under a White Sky.  She sums it up as “a book about people trying to solve problems created by people trying to solve problems.”  So much of what we do echoes the plot of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice folktale — vivid imaginations, half-baked cleverness, dangerous overconfidence, and zero foresight result in frightening unintended consequences.  Kolbert puts on a journalist uniform, and visits the wizards on the cutting edge of ingenious technology.  She presented eight scenarios of human hubris. 

Two are about climate change.  The title, “Under a White Sky,” is a reference to her discussion of SRM.  Solar Radiation Management is what is usually meant by “geoengineering.”  The goal of SRM visionaries is to reduce the rate of atmospheric warming by bouncing away a significant portion of the incoming solar radiation.  To do this, they envision dumping a million tons of highly reflective particles into the stratosphere each year — 40,000 planeloads of sulfur dioxide, calcium carbonate, or something.  Some fear that SRM would turn the blue skies white.  What could possibly go wrong?  I need to put this in context.

Petroleum geologist Walter Younquist noted that in less than 500 years, we’re going to burn up the oil, gas, and coal that took more than 500 million years to create.  It took 109 years to consume the first 200 billion barrels of oil, ten years for the second 200 billion, and six and a half years for the third.  Of all the oil ever consumed, 90 percent has been used since 1958.  We’re taking a high speed one-way joyride into the deep unknown, with no brakes, and no understanding.

Alice Friedemann explained why life as we know it would be impossible without fossil energy.  Many core processes cannot be run on electric power — trucking, shipping, air travel, manufacturing, agriculture, mining, and so on.  Wind turbines, solar panels, and high capacity storage batteries have limited working lifespans, and making them requires high impact processes and materials.  They are “re-buildable,” not “renewable.”  The current electric grids of the world were not designed to reliably function on intermittent inflows of energy.  So, the global transition to happy “green” energy would be a monumental undertaking.

The atmosphere is already overloaded with greenhouse gases, and we constantly add more.  This leads to a perpetual downward spiral.  As the gases accumulate, the atmosphere retains more heat, shiny white ice sheets keep melting, so less incoming solar heat is reflected away, so the atmosphere gets warmer, so more ice melts…, etc.  Vast regions of permafrost are beginning to thaw, allowing ancient organic material to decompose, and emit methane.  Vast undersea deposits of frozen methane hydrates are beginning to melt, sending even more methane into the atmosphere.  Consequently, this is why the planet’s formerly tolerable climate is shape-shifting into a furious city-smashing movie monster. 

It’s important to understand that the carbon released into the atmosphere does not quickly dissipate, it accumulates.  Environmental historian J. R. McNeill wrote, “Some proportion, perhaps as much as a quarter, of the roughly 300 billion tons of carbon released to the atmosphere between 1945 and 2015 will remain aloft for a few hundred thousand years.”  If all of humankind camped on Mars for 50 years, the warming cycle on Earth would not promptly stop.

Not everyone is an enthusiastic fan of SRM.  As the planet continues warming, more flights will be needed to release more tonnage of reflective particles.  What goes up, must come down.  Could falling dust harm our lungs?  If sulfur dioxide particles were used, this could damage the ozone layer, and add sulfuric acid to the rain.  The bottom line is that SRM does not eliminate the primary cause of climate change — massive ongoing emissions of carbon compounds.

Kolbert also discussed a theoretical solution to the climate crisis.  She visited the brave new world of Direct Air Capture (DAC).  It involves extracting the carbon from the atmosphere, and injecting it deep underground at locations with ideal geology, where it would mineralize into calcium carbonate, and harmlessly stay there forever.  One plan involved building 100 million trailer sized DAC units around the world.  It sounds like a miracle, the answer to our prayers.  We can save the world and keep living like lunatics too!

In another scenario, she discussed Chicago’s heroic war on Asian carp.  The city is a ghastly disaster area that generates enormous amounts of sewage, garbage, pollution, and toxic waste.  Years ago, the Chicago River was used to conveniently move lots of crud into Lake Michigan, where it would be out of sight, out of mind, and out of nose.  Eventually, a few oddballs began to wonder if this was intelligent. 

Luckily, experts solved the problem by changing the course of the flow.  They began sending the filthy dreck down the new Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which would eventually dump it into the Mississippi River, which is far less sacred to many Americans.  Unfortunately, the river is home to four species of Asian carp, some of which can weigh up to 100 pounds (45 kg).  In the Mississippi, when motorboats pass by, numerous carp leap high into the air, sometimes injuring fishermen, and knocking boaters overboard.  Waterskiing has become an especially dangerous activity.

Unfortunately, Chicago’s alterations to the flow of filth was not a flawless design.  It was theoretically possible for carp to migrate into the Great Lakes.  The carp are so good at extracting plankton that it was possible they might deplete food resources that enabled the survival of indigenous lake fish.  If they spread throughout the Great Lakes, it would be a death sentence for sport fish like walleye and perch.  This upset some folks.  Rachel Carson opposed poisoning the new canal, so they installed electrified underwater fences to electrocute the carp.  What were Asian carp doing in the Mississippi?  In 1964, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service imported the fish to control exotic aquatic weeds.  How smart was that?

Kolbert also spent time with folks engaged in genetic engineering.  The cool new CRISPR technology enables them to make green chickens.  Other gene splicers want to resurrect the extinct passenger pigeon.  My father was in diapers when the last bird died in 1914.  Some estimate that there were once 3 to 5 billion passenger pigeons.  In 1800, they may have been the most numerous birds on Earth.  The pigeons were forest animals, and their primary food was mast — nuts and berries that grew on trees and woody brush. 

A. W. Schorger (1884-1972) wrote an outstanding book on pigeon history.  He mentioned a 1663 report from Quebec, noting that one scattershot blast into a dense flock could kill up to 132 birds.  Some migrating flocks, a mile wide (1.6 km), and miles long, darkened the sky for up to three days.  Folks could hear the roar of countless wings before the flocks came into view.  They could fly up to 62 miles per hour (100 km/h). 

Farmers hated the huge flocks that generously assisted at harvest time.  Market hunters adored them as an easy way to make money.  In 1913, William Hornaday wrote, “In 1869, from the town of Hartford, Michigan, three car loads of dead pigeons were shipped to market each day for forty days, making a total of 11,880,000 birds.  It is recorded that another Michigan town marketed 15,840,000 in two years.”

Should we bring the pigeons back from extinction?  Forests were where they nested, where they roosted for the night, and home to their primary food resource, nuts.  While the hunters were taking a devastating toll on the birds, others were obliterating their habitat.  Loggers eagerly turned forests into gold.  Farmers nuked forests to expand cropland and pasture.  Explosive population growth converted forest ecosystems into hideous hotbeds of industrial civilization.  Greetings GMO pigeons!  Welcome to our nightmare!  Enjoy your resurrection!

Kolbert’s book is easy to read, not too long, provides us with a provocative look in the mirror, and encourages us to reexamine our blind faith in unquestioned beliefs.  She gave us a pair of dueling quotes.  Hippy visionary Stewart Brand once asserted, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”  This annoyed biologist E. O. Wilson, who responded, “We are not as gods.  We’re not yet sentient or intelligent enough to be much of anything.” 

A one hour interview with Kolbert discussing this book is [HERE].  The message is, if you’re not pessimistic about the future, you’re not paying attention. 

Kolbert, Elizabeth, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future, Crown, New York, 2021.

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Wild Free and Happy Sample 59


[Note: This is the fifty-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.


The saga of the family of life is several billion years old.  It’s a story of evolution, from single celled organisms to a fantastically complex and diverse collection of living beings.  It’s a story of climate change which, for better or worse, never tires of pulling the rug out from under eras of stability.  Craig Childs noted that drill cores of lake sediments in northern New Mexico showed droughts that lasted up to ten centuries.  Six thousand years ago, the Sahara Desert was a lush grassland.

The saga is also a story of migration and colonization.  All plant and animal species are sometimes nomadic, remaining in comfortable habitats until conditions become challenging.  When their home becomes harsh, the lucky ones are able to migrate to better locations.  The horse family originated in North America about 4.5 million years ago.  It was a wonderful place to live — until hungry humans from Eurasia arrived.  Pita Kelekna noted that the last wild American horse perished in Patagonia 9,000 years ago.  

The horse family remains alive and well today because, long ago, some adventurous herds happened to wander across the land bridge to Asia.  They migrated into new regions, and found lots of delicious places to live.  Like the horses, many other groups of megafauna species have colonized large portions of the world — the elephant-like family, and the bears, cats, canines, camels, hominins….  They migrated from one continent to the next by walking across dry land.  Of these globetrotting megafauna, only one species has a reputation for causing numerous extinctions, and severely damaging ecosystems.

Paul Martin was a pioneer in the study of megafauna extinctions.  Offshore islands were the last places to be colonized by species that did not fly or swim.  He noted that ground sloths were eventually driven to extinction from Alaska to Patagonia — except on islands.  For example, on the islands of Cuba, Haiti, and Puerto Rico, ground sloths survived 6,000 years longer than on the continental mainland.  Why?  The mainland and islands had the same climate.  The critical variable was human presence.  When watercraft technology enabled hunters to visit islands, the sloths were finally doomed.

After reading a pile of books and papers, I was convinced that climate change was not the primary cause for many of the extinctions that have happened since humans migrated out of Africa.  Martin wrote that the megafauna species that went extinct had been around for a very long time, and had survived a number of surging and fading glacial cycles.  Ongoing research largely supports the human impact hypothesis.

In his book Europe, Tim Flannery discussed the vast mammoth steppe of northern Europe.  Oddly, with the rise and fall of temperature trends, warmth loving species were not more likely to vanish during periods of frigidity.  Cold loving species were not more likely to vanish when the steppe got hotter.  Uncomfortable animals were inspired to migrate to more pleasant locations.  Unlike today, ice age climate swings happened gradually.  Living generations would not have been aware of the changes.

Earlier, I mentioned that megafauna extinctions could sometimes take a thousand years or more.  Living generations were unlikely to actually notice the slow decline of large game species in a wild frontier.  As humans colonized new regions, and unintentionally encouraged extinction spasms, the largest mammals were usually the first to blink out.  They were easy to find, provided lots of meat, and had low reproduction rates.  Thus, human impact.  A climate whammy would have hammered critters of all shapes and sizes indiscriminately.  David Burney and Tim Flannery described a 50,000 year pattern of extinctions corresponding with the arrival of humans. 

Fernando Fernandez wrote an unusually readable paper that described six significant problems with the climate change theory.  Bernardo Araujo and team agreed.  They concluded that if we disregarded all evidence of human impacts, nobody would be talking about megafauna extinctions today.

Over the years, Paul Martin rejected flimsy arguments that blamed climate shifts, but by 2005, he acknowledged that the climate could have led to a few extinctions.  Big Mama Nature may have sometimes played a direct role, and that’s OK.  We can’t complain.  She will always do whatever she wishes, because this is her circus, and we are her clowns.

Most of the world’s woolly mammoths were extinct by 10,500 years ago.  A few lasted longer.  Saint Paul Island is off the coast of Alaska.  Graham Russell and team noted that woolly mammoths survived there until about 5,600 years ago.  A warming climate had elevated sea levels, which shrank the land area of the island.  The climate got dryer, and sources of fresh water became scarce.  The thirsty mammoths vanished.  The first evidence of human presence on the island dates to just 230 years ago.  Here, climate is clearly a primary suspect.

The last mammoths on Earth perished about 4,000 years ago on Wrangel Island, north of Siberia.  DNA analysis suggests that the mammoths were wrecked by a small population and inbreeding.  Lately, new research has found evidence of human presence about 3,700 years ago.  The island is huge, and has not been thoroughly studied.  When more is learned, this story may add a hunting chapter.  Stay tuned.

I’ve been a technical writer for 35 years.  Accuracy is essential.  But in the realm of prehistory, experts express theories and factoids that are consistently inconsistent.  Truth can be a fairy mist.  This gives me endless headaches.  I still can’t understand why more than a few folks continue to believe that the primary cause of the megafauna extinctions was climate change, not human impacts.

Today, the world is buzzing with countless conspiracy theories that throw truth under the bus.  Derrick Jensen wrote the book on human supremacy, and the super-spooky mind-altering power of unquestioned beliefs.  Humans are the only things that matter, a living planet does not.  Earth is a disposable stage prop for the heroic stars of the show, the comically clever primates.

From this mindset, the human colonization of Earth (a process that has left behind a long and bloody trail of extinctions, spurred explosive population growth, rubbished countless ecosystems, and triggered an onrushing climate catastrophe) is seen as a wondrous achievement that should fill us with glowing pride.  We have blind faith that technology will always sweep aside every challenge on our path.  Indeed, the best is yet to come! 

Was I missing something important?  My muse was nervous and perspiring heavily.  She persistently insisted that I take a deeper look at island extinctions, and butt heads with my doubts.  So I did.  Wow!  It has been a mind-blowing experience.  I now have no doubt that islands have especially important stories to tell us.  So, let’s do some island hopping.  Enjoy!

Pangaea the Supercontinent

I sometimes look out my window and see an opossum.  One day, I was fascinated to discover the saga of the opossum people.  They are marsupial mammals, and humans are placental mammals (see Google).  Opossums originated in the vicinity of Australia.  Around 335 million years ago, most of Earth’s dry land was clumped together into an enormous supercontinent called Pangaea.  It began to break apart around 200 million years ago.  Over time, chunks of it drifted all over the place, and arranged themselves into the seven continents we know today.

The plants and animals that had evolved on Pangaea continued living on the drifting chunks, in varying assortments of species.  The chunks migrated in different directions, sometimes into different climate zones.  Their plant and animal communities continued adapting and evolving, creating unique ecosystems.  Opossums had lived on chunks that used to be connected, now called Australia, Antarctica, and South America.  For a long time, South America was far away from North America, but they eventually wandered close together, and opossums boogied north across the border, and into my future back yard.

Until this morning, I believed that humans were the only species associated with mass extinctions, but I was wrong.  A wise woman has now informed me that, three million years ago, when North and South America finally kissed at Panama, North American carnivores charged southward, and exterminated numerous marsupial species.

Anyway, the gradual breakup of Pangaea was rough and messy.  Offshore from the large land masses were smaller chunks that had broken away from the edges — islands.  Many islands were created.  For example, Madagascar broke away from India maybe 100 million years ago.  East of Madagascar is Mauritius, a different type of island, created by volcanic activity (like Hawaii was).

Channel Islands

Offshore from Santa Barbara, California are the five Channel Islands.  Around 20,000 years ago, when sea levels were 300 feet (91 m) lower than today, the five islands were united in one larger island that was just 6 miles (10 km) from the coast.  Over time, rising seas altered the coastlines.  Today, the islands are 22 miles from the coast.  About 80 percent of their former dry land area is now submerged.

Among the former residents were pygmy mammoths.  Their ancestors were the huge Columbian mammoths that lived on the mainland, some of whom decided to swim several miles to the islands.  Swim?  Yes!  Even when sea levels were low, there was no land bridge from the mainland to the islands.  Asian elephants have been known to swim to islands 23 miles (37 km) away.  Their large bodies are buoyant, and their trunks can be used like snorkels.  Did you know that hippos in the Old World have also been excellent long distance swimmers?  No joke!

Anyway, over the passage of thousands of years on the Channel Islands, the mammoths evolved into dwarfs, a unique new species.  Maybe this was an adaptation to limited resources.  Or, maybe it was a lack of predators.  Jumbo size improves the odds for survival when bloodthirsty carnivores live nearby.  But when predators are not good swimmers, and live far away, there is less need to be huge and powerful.

Radiocarbon dating is accurate up to 50,000 years ago, and mammoths were on the islands for at least that long.  Humans arrived on the islands around 13,000 years ago.  The mammoths went extinct between 13,000 and 12,900 years ago.  Coincidence?  Wikipedia reports that mammoths still lived on the islands when humans arrived.  Two mammoth skulls with the brains removed were found near a fire pit.  Of the 100 fire pits examined, at least a third contained mammoth bones.  Climate pleads innocent.


Jacques Blondel was interested in habitat destruction on the Mediterranean islands during the last 10,000 years.  Population pressure on the mainland encouraged folks to colonize the larger islands.  Forests were pushed back to create cropland and pasture.  Humans deliberately introduced livestock, and unintentionally released pests, like rats and mice. 

Long, long ago, isolation from the mainland led several species of large animals to become dwarfs on multiple Mediterranean islands. There were pygmy hippos and deer, and at least 12 species of pygmy elephants.  The smallest elephants were 39 inches (1 m) tall.  The scarcity of predators also led to the evolution of giant rodents and flightless owls. 

Blondel wasn’t sure if the pygmies were primarily eliminated by hunting, or by feral pigs introduced from the mainland.  Either way, this was not a climate bummer, it was a human impact bummer.  Bottom line: probably all of the wild mammal species that originally inhabited the Mediterranean islands were eventually driven extinct following human colonization. 

Marco Masseti was fascinated by the mammals of the Mediterranean islands, and his report is long, exceedingly thorough, and includes cool maps and illustrations.  In the Mediterranean basin, several thousand years of civilization have been fantastically successful at rubbishing the ecosystem, taking a heavy toll on biodiversity.  Many islands were once vast jungles of oak trees, now reduced to “little more than mineral skeletons.”  It may be the most heavily destroyed region on Earth. 

The old theory was that when sea levels were low, large mammals simply walked across dry land to what are now islands.  When sea levels rose, and islands became cut off, the isolated large mammals became dwarfs.  Experts now say that the land bridges never existed.  Islands were only accessible by swimming, rafting, or flying.  Rising sea levels increased the difficulty.  Deer are capable swimmers, and hippos and elephants are champions.  Birds and bats can go where they wish.  Masseti concluded that human impacts were the primary cause of Mediterranean island extinctions.  Again, climate pleads innocent.


There have been two recent studies of extinctions on islands of the West Indies, in the Caribbean Sea.  The 2017 paper was written by Siobhán B. Cooke and team.  On multiple islands, it compared the dates of human arrival with the extinction dates.  It found that humans arrived on the islands in four waves.  The first three were Amerindian hunter-gatherers, and the fourth was Europeans.  Each wave generated increased eco-impacts.  Access to the full paper is not free. 

Luckily, Mindy Weisberger wrote a news release that summarized the study, and is free to one and all.  Prior to human colonization, there were 150 species of mammals on the islands, including sloths, giant monkeys, bats, and jumbo rats.  Humans colonized the Caribbean basin mainland by 12,000 years ago, but they didn’t begin colonizing the islands until 6,000 years ago.  By this time the climate was stable, well into the Holocene warm era.  Most of the extinctions on all of the islands happened after human arrival, not before. 

Early in the game, hunting was probably the cause of extinctions.  Then came forest clearance and agriculture, which eliminated wildlife habitat.  Destruction accelerated 500 years ago, when Europeans arrived, bringing invasive exotics like cats, rats, goats, and mongooses.  Indigenous rodent species got hammered.  This is not a climate story, it’s another human impact tragedy.

In 2021, a second paper was published, written by Samuel Turvey and team.  It’s online and free.  This paper tracked the data on 89 species on 118 Caribbean islands, and explored the pattern of extinctions.  All of these species were still alive at the start of the Holocene warm era, which began 11,700 years ago, and has not cooled off yet.  Conclusion: “Hunting, landscape transformation, and invasive mammal introduction by successive waves of colonists following human arrival approximately 6000 years ago are considered the primary drivers of Caribbean mammal loss.” 

Larger animals had low reproduction rates, and small populations.  They were at the highest risk of being driven to extinction by the growing human population.  The smallest animals were hard hit by the introduction of invasive predators, like black rats and mongooses.  Their extinction dates correspond to the arrival of these predators.  Again, climate pleads innocent.

New Zealand

The islands of New Zealand were the last large landmass colonized by humans.  Polynesian settlers began arriving somewhere between A.D. 1280 and 1350.  Over time, almost half of New Zealand’s original vertebrate species went extinct, including 51 species of birds.  Alexandra van der Geer wrote that nine species of huge flightless moas vanished in less than a century, zapped by hunting and habitat destruction. 

Moas shared the trait of gigantism with other flightless birds, like the ostriches of Australia, and the elephant birds of Madagascar.  In the extremely distant past, the moas lived elsewhere, and still had wings that enabled flight.  When they landed in New Zealand, maybe 60 million years ago, they were delighted to discover that there were no large ground dwelling predators eager to eat them.  The only mammals on the islands were bats and seals, and they weren’t interested in moas. 

Until this morning, I believed that the gigantism of flightless island birds was solely due to little or no predator risk.  Today I learned that there was another factor.  Isolated islands had no large herbivores that feasted on the greenery.  So, birds that could digest the greenery lived in a heavenly all-you-can-eat buffet.  They were free to grow to jumbo proportions, in a normal and healthy way.

Flying is an energy-guzzling way for an animal to explore the world.  If you live in a place where there is plenty to eat, and little or no risk of getting killed by ground-dwelling predators, then you might have little or no need for wings.  Over time, evolution completely eliminated the tiny useless wing bones of the moas. 

The largest moas stood 12 feet (3.6 m) tall, and weighed 510 pounds (230 kg).  Many collections of moa bones have been found, some containing the remains of up to 90,000 birds.  Evidence suggests that a third of the meat was tossed away to rot.  Obviously, the birds were super-abundant and super-easy to kill.  Obviously, the hunters (like modern folks) did not comprehend the vital importance of mindfully respecting limits.

Moas were the primary food source for the Haast’s eagle, the largest eagle that ever lived.  They weighed up to 33 pounds (15 kg), and their wingspan was over 8 feet (2.6 m).  Not long after the moas were hunted to extinction, the eagles lost their meal ticket and vanished forever. 

Polynesian settlers also brought with them domesticated food plants, which required cleared land.  Originally, 80 percent of New Zealand was forest.  Today, forest covers only 23 percent of the land.  Along with the trees, many forest dwelling birds also got wiped out.  Europeans stumbled upon the islands in 1642, and substantially accelerated the eco-destruction.

Folks who colonized islands sometimes brought with them rats, mice, dogs, ferrets, pigs, and so on.  Baz Edmeades noted that exotic rodents exploded in number, and drove many island birds to extinction.  Their chicks and eggs were no longer safe.  Rodents wiped out frogs, flightless songbirds, ground-dwelling bats, and large insects.  Again, climate pleads innocent.


Alexandra van der Geer described the ecological history of Madagascar, the world’s fourth largest island.  It’s located in the Indian Ocean, 250 miles (400 km) east of the African mainland.  Isolated from the outer world for maybe 100 million years, it was home to a unique collection of tropical fauna (see the illustrations in her report). 

Several types of exotic mammals mysteriously began arriving on the island around 60 million years ago, maybe rafting in via ocean currents — lemurs, tenrecs, fossas, and Malagasy mice.  More recently, just one or two million years ago, hippos arrived, and eventually shrank to one fourth the size of mainland hippos.

Lemurs evolved into 17 varieties, including giant sloth lemurs that could grow to the size of male gorillas.  The island was also home to the elephant bird, the heaviest bird in the world.  It was flightless, weighed up to a half ton, and stood 10 feet (3 m) tall.  Their eggs could weigh 22 pounds (10 kg).  When the European colonizers arrived in the 1600s, elephant bird eggshells still littered the beaches of the island’s southern coasts.  Conclusion: “The combined evidence suggests that all mammalian species heavier than 10 kg (22 lbs) gradually disappeared forever from Madagascar’s fauna list.”

Baz Edmeades wrote that Indonesian seafarers first visited Madagascar sometime between A.D. 670 and 920.  By the end of the fourteenth century, many mammals, birds, and reptiles were gone.  Elizabeth Kolbert wrote that the lemurs, elephant birds, and pygmy hippos survived into the Middle Ages.  All of them blinked out.  She noted that the extinction spasms in North America, South America, Madagascar, New Zealand, and elsewhere occurred in a series of pulses, each of which corresponded to the arrival of human colonists.  None of the pulses seem to correspond with unusual climate events.  Again, climate pleads innocent.


Mauritius is a tropical island, east of Madagascar, in the Indian Ocean, about 1,200 miles (2,000 km) from the African coast.  It is one of the four Mascarene Islands.  They were created by volcanic activity about eight million years ago.  Because of its long isolation, Mauritius was inhabited by an amazing assortment of unique species, including many flightless birds and large reptiles. 

It was home to the famous flightless dodos.  The dodo lineage was more than 23 million years old.  So, they were originally from somewhere else, and arrived in Mauritius by flying there, back when they still had functional wings.  Having no natural enemies, dodos enjoyed a wonderful life.  For this reason, evolution long ago reduced the dodo’s wings to tiny useless stubs.  Dodos were unable to fly or swim, but they did enjoy being alive.  They could grow up to 39 inches (1 m) tall, and weigh up to 37 pounds (17 kg).

When the Portuguese visited in 1507, there were zero ground dwelling mammal species on the island.  The only mammals were fruit bats and marine animals.  In 1598, Dutch sailors were the first to describe the existence of dodos.  The Dutch East India Company used Mauritius as a service station for trade vessels.  The last mention of dodos was in 1662. 

There used to be at least ten species of flightless birds on the island, all are now extinct.  Humans imported dogs, pigs, macaques, cats, and rats.  Some think the imports may have killed more dodos than humans did, by raiding their nests.  There is also the matter of habitat destruction.  When humans arrived, the island was entirely forested.  Dodos were forest birds.  Today, just two percent of the forest remains.  Again, climate pleads innocent.

There is an old saying that rude folks use to insult others, calling them “dumb as a dodo.”  Humans could simply walk up to a happy dodo and club it to death.  Dodos weren’t dumb, they were fearless.  They had no concept of predators or danger.  To them, humans were mysterious funny-looking weird-smelling space aliens.

Eight Billion Fearless Dodos

Paul Martin focused much attention on the megafauna extinctions.  They were an ongoing process that began in Africa more than two million years ago, then Australia, then Eurasia, and then the Americas.  Human pioneers migrated from continent to continent by walking (except for the soggy trip to Australia).  Fifteen thousand years ago, before the ice age softened, critters could theoretically walk north from South Africa, through Eurasia, cross the land bridge to America, and go south to Chile.

In these large interconnected continental landmasses, there were many species of carnivorous animals, of every size and shape.  They regularly enjoyed having lunch dates with delicious prey.  The endless bloody dance of predator and prey could lead to evolution and/or extinction. 

As discussed earlier, genetic evolution was something like a nonstop escalating arms race, encouraging animals to become smarter, larger, stronger, faster, and/or harder to find.  In this process, prey gradually got better (but not too good) at escape, and predators gradually got better (but not too good) at capture.  In continental ecosystems, the existence of these predators would have made it impossible for flightless moas, elephant birds, or dodos to survive.  Islands provided a far safer refuge, allowing lucky critters to enjoy a wonderful life to the fullest. 

Genetic evolution was an exceedingly slow balancing act.  For savannah elephants to evolve into tundra-adapted woolly mammoths took many thousands of years.  But for furless tropical primates to adapt to a frosty life in snow country required a different, turbulent, and high speed process called cultural evolution, which bypassed the limits set by genes.  It was driven by cleverness and technological innovation — campfires, shelters, sewn clothing, food storage, deadly weaponry, and so on. 

Cultural evolution, in countless ways, enabled folks to quickly pound the crap out of an ecosystem.  Using a short spear, a single Mbuti pygmy could kill a full grown elephant 20 times larger than the hunter.  With this clever new killing technology, the elephant’s great size and thick hide suddenly lost all of its defensive benefits, and became a serious handicap.  The improvements provided by millions of years of genetic evolution were tossed out the window.  No more safety nets.

A number of isolated islands were remarkably different from continental mainland ecosystems.  Some of them existed for millions and millions of years without humans, spears, manmade fire, religion, industry, money, cell phones, plastic garbage, and eco-catastrophes.  Imagine that! 

Island critters did not have to live in a state of high alert, in constant fear of life-threatening surprise visits from lions and tigers and bears.  Island birds could grow huge, and eventually lose their wings, because flying had no useful purpose.  On islands, there were no two ton elephants with thick hides and huge tusks, because elephants were perfectly safe — no sabertooths.  They were free to slim down to pygmy size, so they could dance with ecstatic enthusiasm.

It is very IMPORTANT to understand that the long term journey of existence for ALL species is guided by genetic evolution, but just ONE genus (Homo) has seriously fooled around with cultural evolution, which has become the curse of our existence.

Humans share 98.8 percent of our DNA with chimps, charming beings that have not been bedeviled by the juju of cleverness.  They have lived in the same place, in the same way, for maybe a million years or more.  They haven’t trashed it.  It has never occurred to them to cleverly obliterate their home and future.  Can you imagine living in a manner that could glide along for a million years? 

Like all wild nonhumans, chimps have a way of life that remains within the limits defined by genetic evolution.  In other words, they continue to live in their ancient, time-proven traditional manner.  Chimps have not forgotten how to be chimps.  The difference between humans and wild nonhumans is that cultural evolution has enabled us to bypass the limits set by genetic evolution, and become control freaks and loose cannons.  Singh and Zingg wrote a fascinating book about feral children — kids who had no language, no tools, no fire, no self-awareness, no directed thinking, no sin, no guilt, no greed.  The only thing they wanted was freedom.

Cultural evolution was born long ago, maybe ignited by the fire-making Erectus, or another early ancestor.  If they had never domesticated fire, and discovered many clever ways of exploiting its power, our ancestors may have remained something like ordinary animals — brown skinned, wild, free, and happy tropical primates.

Snow country might still be home to mammoths, sabertooths, dire wolves, short-faced bears, and so on.  Neanderthals were also addicted to cultural evolution.  So is humankind.  We can start fires, use projectile weapons, drive species extinct, travel at high speeds, live underwater, fly around the world, survive in polar bear country, and spend our lives entranced by glowing screens. 

Discovering new tricks can be thrilling — using rocks to crack nuts.  Wow!  The discovery of fire making was mind blowing!  It blasted our ancestors outside the community of ordinary animals, into a dangerously unstable realm of existence.  Cleverness snowballs over time, at an accelerating pace.  It never sleeps.  Every day, countless new gizmos and ideas pour into the world, like a devastating flash flood.  None are clean, green, and renewable.

With the emergence of plant and animal domestication, our ability to control, exploit, and rubbish ecosystems soared to astonishing new heights.  More and more people got better and better at living too hard and busting up everything.  Forests were cleared to make space for fields, pastures, cities, civilizations, freeways, landfills, and barren wastelands.  This large scale destruction was turbocharged by explosive surges in cultural evolution.

To varying degrees, every human society is addicted to clever tricks inspired by cultural evolution.  Indigenous cultures were rooted in a specific region, which set firm limits on them.  Smart groups paid close attention to reality.  If they did not live mindfully, they were on a slippery path.  Nomadic cultures were free to pack up and move.  While passing through a region, they might unintentionally damage an ecosystem without knowing it.  Consumer cultures, like the one I live in, have no foresight.  We live like there’s no tomorrow.

Low impact does not mean no impact.  The humans that colonized the mainland regions of the Caribbean basin 12,000 years ago, were what we would consider to be extremely low-tech hunter-gatherers.  So, what happened to the giant ground sloths, huge rodents, and jumbo monkeys?  They disappeared.  Then, 6,000 years later, humans colonized the offshore islands, and another extinction spasm commenced.

Sadly, low impact does not always mean safe and secure.  Back country wild folks with bows and arrows are not going to have a pleasant future when the folks with guns and diseases discover them.  In the painful words of an old proverb, cultures have no right to what they cannot defend.  The ancient Story of Ahikar says it more elegantly, “Oh my son!  Withstand not a man in the days of his power, nor a river in the days of its flood.”

Unfortunately, the serpent in the Garden of Eden encouraged the first couple to eat the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge.  By doing so, “your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”  The disobedient duo was immediately hurled out of paradise, and condemned to spend the rest of their days tilling the soil.  Bye-bye!

Unfortunately, our blind leap into hardcore cleverness also inspired the development of mining, smelting, axes, plows, swords, spears, automobiles, aircraft, toxic pollution, nuclear fission, and on and on.  We have become techno-kamikazes, skilled at using turbocharged cultural evolution to blindly zoom down a dead-end road. 

I am an American consumer, and it’s extremely painful to contemplate the enormous amount of stuff I’ve discarded during my life.  I was simply living as Americans are expected to live (like spoiled two year olds).  Other cultures are far less clever, and far less destructive.  No culture is cleverness free.  None live with the sustainable simplicity of chimps and bonobos.

In earlier chapters, I’ve mentioned many low impact cultures.  It would be great if the vast human herd could sharply downsize and return to far lighter lifestyles — deliberately, wisely, and this afternoon (or sooner).  That would blindside life as we know it.  The herd is still growing explosively, and we’re zooming toward energy limits, water limits, and soil limits, while the rapidly warming climate is preparing to serve us exactly what our blindfolded cleverness has ordered.

Wild humans had no wings, and could not fly.  So, most islands remained healthy and safe.  Unfortunately, clever innovation eventually inspired the development of technology for travelling by water.  Dodos were doomed!  Fearless flightless birds also vanished on Tonga, New Caledonia, Fiji, Hawaii, Easter Island, the Marquesas, and on and on.  Island by island, the good old days disappeared in the rearview mirror. 

Like dodos, mainstream humankind is also fearless.  Some of us are a bit aware of a few uncomfortable changes in the world.  In the preceding chapters, I mentioned the existence of swarms of growing abnormalities.  Nobody comprehends them all, including me.  The future is sure to be full of exciting surprises.

The notion that our ancestors unintentionally encouraged extinction surges is uncomfortable.  But the planet’s sixth mass extinction catastrophe is not slowing down.  I suspect that blaming climate change might be an effort to defend our reputation, and conceal embarrassing secrets.  We can act like children who don’t understand how the cookie jar mysteriously became empty.  Hey, we didn’t eat the pygmy hippos.  Honest!

Luckily, doubt fairies can be chased away with magical thinking.  We’re OK!  Miraculous technology will protect us.  We just need to make a bunch of clean green energy, buy a bunch of electric cars, and continue enjoying unlimited prosperity.  If we just maintain a positive attitude, and hope really hard, the clouds will pass.  Really?

Bon Voyage!

Congratulations, you’ve finally made it to the rear end of my long and tedious rant storm!  You now know a bit about what I’ve been contemplating for the last 25+ years.  What I’ve learned has little in common with the worldview I absorbed during 16 years in classrooms, the standard love story that celebrates our amazing genius, and perpetual progress.

This book’s core question was: “How did things get to be this way?”  Obviously, a mob of eight billion critters fearlessly rubbishing a delightful planet is not exactly a heartwarming portrait of sparkling intelligence.  Limited knowledge, clever technology, and self-centered thinking helped to conjure the monster into existence. 

In this book, my goal was to explore the human saga from a perspective that presents humans as simply one of the gang in the family of life, rather than the glorious crown of creation.  From this viewpoint, we are the family’s crazy uncle.  The dodo family enjoyed this planet for 23 million years, but the human family just stepped off the bus recently.  Humankind’s initial colonization of the planet’s ecosystems established a pattern that has never stopped.  Empire builders continue ruthlessly bulldozing their way over all obstacles in their never-ending quest for maximum domination — the Romans, Mongols, Spaniards, English, Americans, Nazis, Russians, and thousands more.

On the day you squirted out of the womb, you were a wild animal, ready to enjoy a wild life in a healthy paradise.  You were not a fatally flawed animal genetically, but the culture that taught you everything you know is a train wreck.  The good news, in theory, is that dodgy cultures can be revised and improved, or hurled off a cliff.  They are nothing but vivid ideas, fantasies, and nightmares that live between your ears, and can be highly contagious. 

As promised, I have presented no sure-fire snake oil cures for all that ails us.  I’ll let you know if I ever find any.  In this book, my objective was exploring history, not foretelling the future.  All of us accept the notion that we’ll die someday.  So will our way of life.  The sun rises every morning, the stars come out at night, and all civilizations have expiration dates.  They grow like crazy, deplete their resource base, and become ancient ruins. 

Several weeks ago, it occurred to me that Wild, Free, and Happy was a ridiculously inappropriate title for this book.  It had little to do with the flow of ideas between the covers, but it sounded nifty a few years back.  I’m going to keep it.  Discovering the islands of flightless birds radically altered my perception of reality.  These ecosystems evolved in isolation for millions of years.  They were 100% cleverness free, virgins unmolested by cultural evolution, and they actually existed on this planet.  Imagine that!

We’ve learned that it’s possible for bird species to live for millions of years without wings.  Can humans live without cleverness?  Can we forget everything we know, return to Mother Africa, throw out our clothes, and humbly start over?  Can humans survive the powerful pandemonium we have conjured into existence?  Time will tell.  Whatever happens, genetic evolution will continue, and guide the survivors down the long and winding path to healing.

Bon voyage!



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