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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