Saturday, August 20, 2016

Are We Smart Enough




Primatologist Frans de Waal has made a career out of pounding his head against the rugged wall of human exceptionalism — the belief that humans are the only species that is conscious, self-aware, rational, cooperative, goal-oriented, empathetic, and so on.  This wall of calcified grandiosity has resisted change for a long time, and has inspired an abusive relationship with the rest of the family of life.  With his new book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, de Waal has launched a new assault on the cult of exceptionalism.

In the 1970s, when de Waal was in college, behavioral psychology was the hot trend.  It asserted that animals were mindless, machine-like organisms that did nothing more than robotically respond to stimuli with responses.  Animals were incapable of cognition — knowing based on perception and judgment.  They could not have desires or intentions.  Many scholars remain reluctant to consider the possibility that animals possess various forms of intelligence.  Whoops, I meant non-human animals.  In our culture, the two categories of fauna are humans and animals (not wombats and non-wombats).

In the last 20 years, new research has been inspiring doubt in many long-held beliefs, including the notion that rationality is exclusively human.  Yet “animal cognition” is still an obscene four-letter word, a diabolical heresy.  Smart scholars wait until they have tenure before they come out of the closet and study it.

The illusion of exceptionalism has deep roots.  By the time children reach the age of 8 or 10, their worldviews are largely solidified for the rest of their lives.  The culture constantly reinforces this worldview, and only a few can summon the power to question it.  So, youngsters absorb the worldview, grow up, and raise their children with it, generation after generation.  Entrenched belief is immune to conflicting evidence.

Humans are extremely proud of our complex language and abstract thought, but these are just two tools in a big box of mental functions used by animals.  De Waal believes that some species use forms of intelligence that we are still unaware of — intelligence beyond our imagination.  The absolute bottom line for any species is basic survival, and ants and termites excel at this.  No animal needs alphabets, numbers, or glowing screens.

Irene Pepperberg had a parrot named Alex, who was remarkably capable of advanced cognition.  When she pointed at a key, Alex said “key.”  He pronounced words precisely.  He could add numbers.  Alex didn’t just memorize names, he could listen to questions, think, and answer correctly.  He was asked, “What color is corn?” when no corn was present.  “Yellow,” he replied.

Other birds are also extremely smart.  “The Clark’s nutcracker, in the fall, stores more than twenty thousand pine nuts, in hundreds of different locations distributed over many square miles; then in winter and spring it manages to recover the majority of them.”  Could you do that?

Crows, jays, magpies, and ravens are corvids, “a family that has begun to challenge the cognitive supremacy of primates.”  One biologist caught and banded many crows, which really pissed them off.  They recognized him wherever he went, and they regularly scolded and dive-bombed him.

Ayumu the chimp was trained to use a touchscreen.  On the screen, a number appeared for a quarter second, then another, in a rapid sequence.  Ayumu could remember the sequence of numbers, and then tap them in the correct order.  Without practice, he was far better than any human at memory tests — even a memory expert who could remember the sequence of cards in a deck.  Harrumph!  The supremacists soiled their britches and muttered obscenities.  Eventually, a frantic researcher practiced, practiced, and practiced and was finally able to score as well as a chimpanzee.

In Japan, chimps were taught a computer game, similar to rock-paper-scissors, which required them to anticipate their opponent’s choices.  “The chimps outperformed the humans, reaching optimal performance more quickly and completely than members of our own species.”

Like many social animals, primates excel at imitation and conformity, which can have great survival value.  Youngsters note what their mothers eat, and what they avoid.  Chimps readily imitate the behavior of high status chimps, but not low status ones.  When apes are raised in a human home, they are as good at imitating humans as children are.  They “spontaneously learn to brush their teeth, ride bicycles, light fires, drive golf carts, eat with a knife and fork, peel potatoes, and mop the floor.”

Humans are pathological conformists, abandoning personal preferences when they conflict with the current whims of the majority, whims that are typically manufactured by a slimy mob of marketing shysters.  When a celebrity dyes her hair pink, her fans do too.  Respectable people must travel everywhere in gas guzzling motorized wheelchairs — bicyclists, bus riders, and walkers are low status slugs.  Mindless imitation is the life force of consumer society, and the death force of Earth’s biosphere.

When de Waal gives a talk on primate intelligence, he is frequently asked, “What sets humans apart?”  Consider an iceberg, he responds.  Almost all of it is submerged, only a wee tip is visible above the surface.  We have many cognitive, emotional, and behavioral similarities with our primate relatives, and a few dozen differences — the tip.  Academia focuses most attention on the tip alone.  “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the smartest of them all?”

Animal intelligence books annoy me.  Why do we need scientists to inform us that animals are not robots?  Wild people, and others who live close to nature, never doubt the powerful intelligence of deer, ravens, foxes, and weasels.  I know outdoor living.  I have watched healthy wild animals survive long frigid winters without tools, fire, or clothing — a way of life that would promptly kill me.

We are like fish out of water, space aliens.  The best way to discover the intelligence and coherence of the family of life is to abandon our climate-controlled cubicles and go back home to the wild.  But there are way too many of us.  Books and videos cannot substitute for fulltime direct experience.  It’s no fun being a space alien.  The Koyukon tell us “Every animal knows way more than you do.”  A shaman once told Knud Rasmussen “True wisdom is only to be found far away from people, out in the great solitude.”

De Waal’s book jabbers a lot about experiments done in zoos and research centers, on enslaved animals.  I’m not a fan of animal imprisonment.  I’m a fan of wildness and freedom.  The ancestors of chimps and bonobos have lived in the same place for millions of years without trashing it — a demonstration of profound intelligence.  Send the researchers to the rainforest, so we can learn from our brilliant relatives, and rigorously question our entrenched beliefs.

There is an enormous quirk in this book.  The core premise is that humans are a highly intelligent species, and that the other animals are not as dumb as we think.  Are ants seriously destabilizing the climate?  Are termites acidifying the oceans?  Are chimps sending billions of tons of topsoil into the sea?  In this discourse on animal intelligence, the fact that human animals are knowingly bludgeoning the planet is never once acknowledged.

De Waal says, “Cognition is the mental transformation of sensory input into knowledge about the environment and the successful application of this knowledge.”  Cognition is about the process of acquiring and applying knowledge.  “Intelligence refers more to the ability to do it successfully.”  Among the propeller heads of science, “success” includes the bad juju of overpopulation, overshoot, and overconsumption.  My definition of success requires long-term ecological sustainability.

Waal, Frans de, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2016.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Dawn of World Renewal


My ancestors include tribal people who inhabited the ancient forests of Norway, Wales, and Germany.  Bits and pieces of their myths and folkways have managed to survive the passage of centuries.  These people lived close to wild nature, and venerated oak trees, salmon, wolves, ravens, mistletoe, thunder, rainbows, and so on.

Their cultural heroes were a pantheon of human gods and goddesses who possessed metal weapons, chariots, and domesticated horses.  Clearly, these stories were not from the era of hunter-gatherers.  Their deities were not all knowing and omnipotent; they could be deceived, or make foolish mistakes.  They were mortals who would someday die.

Like many triumphant sagas, these heroes eventually became victims of their own success.  Prophecies had long predicted the twilight of the gods.  Their fatal mistake was fettering the four forces of nature — Surt the giant (volcanoes and earthquakes), the Midgard Serpent (turbulent seas), the Fenris wolf (powerful animal wildness), and Loki the trickster (fire and air).

With nature fettered, the world tumbled out of balance.  Wolves swallowed the sun and moon.  Fimbulwinter brought nonstop snow for three seasons, followed by three seasons of nasty weather.  Earthquakes pulverized mountains, and the world was covered with a thick layer of ice.  Society plunged into helter-skelter.  One day, the four forces of nature broke free, and obliterated the gods at the battle of Ragnarök.

Surt the giant spread fire over the whole world, leaving behind nothing but naked soil.  Flames purified the land.  Then the rivers and seas rose up, and all dry land was submerged by a huge flood.  In Norse Mythology, Peter Andreas Munch described the dawn of world renewal with a beautiful line: “Out of the sea there rises a new earth, green and fair, whose fields bear their increase without the sowing of seed.”

Later, a new deity arrived, when the black robes from civilization forcibly penetrated northern Europe.  They had just one god.  He created the world and all living things.  Humans were his masterpiece, made in his image.  Our original home was a wilderness paradise, the Garden of Eden.  At this point, we had everything we needed — food, water, clean air, a magnificent ecosystem, and a hot date.

Like any other healthy wild animal, Adam and Eve were naked and not ashamed.  The lad and lass were permitted to eat the fruit of any tree, except one — the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Like many other animals, they really liked apples.  The creator was a peculiar stranger.  Imagine telling a wolf not to eat the bunny of good and evil.  What does “good” and “evil” mean to naked wild animals?

A serpent, another mysterious stranger, highly recommended the forbidden fruit, “…your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”  They indulged.  Suddenly, they were extremely embarrassed about their beautiful animal bodies.  The creator gave them some leather clothes, and threw them out of paradise, “to till the ground from whence he was taken.”  The punishment for disobeying the creator’s instructions was to be condemned to the drudgery of farming.

The troublesome humans had many children, grandchildren, etc.  The growing mob really got on the creator’s nerves.  Man was unbelievably wicked, and “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”  Humans were a terrible mistake, and the creator regretted creating us.  “I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air.”

The creator told Noah to build an ark and load it with wild critters.  Then it rained for forty days and forty nights, and the mountains were covered.  The flood lasted 150 days.  Everything not on the ark died.  The creator was happy again.  Yet the surviving humans were still flawed critters.  He realized this, but took pity on his imperfect boo-boos.  “I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done.”  He told Noah’s family to “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.”  You and I are their flawed descendants.

There are many versions of this story, and Genesis was included in the Bible.  Another version is The First Book of Adam and Eve.  In it, the two humans were motivated to eat the forbidden fruit by a “desire for divinity, greatness, and an exalted state.”  The creator told Adam that before he impulsively ate the apple, “thou hadst a bright nature within thee, and for that reason couldst thou see things afar off.”

The Hebrew flood story is similar to the story of the nearby Sumerians.  The Sumerian version says that the gods were drunk when they created humans.  This is why every human has at least one serious defect.  Eventually, the gods could no longer tolerate humankind, because we made too much noise.  The gods couldn’t sleep.  At this point, Ziusudra (a mortal human) was instructed to build a large barge, gather up specimens of the various animal species, and spare them from the coming floods.

There literally were great floods in the ancient Fertile Crescent.  Archeologists have discovered a heavy layer of silt in the region, which dates to around 2900 B.C.  Because the civilizations converted vast ancient forests into fields, flooding must have been frequent, and sometimes catastrophic.

Anyway, the Teutonic, Hebrew, and Sumerian stories describe, in various ways, the notion that humans are flawed.  Certainly, in these three cultures, humans did not live in harmony with the family of life, and their stories throbbed with weird vibes.  In all three stories, the prime troublemakers (and countless innocent critters) were drowned, setting the stage for world renewal, a beautiful healing.

Portions of the Jesus saga offer a more wholesome message.  One day, he dropped out and headed for the hills.  After being baptized by a wild holy man, Jesus was filled with spirit power.  He went to the wilderness, and spent 40 days in the perfection of creation.  This experience flooded his heart with profound knowledge.  He realized that the civilization around him was insane, and he decided to illuminate his neighbors.  Give away your wealth and live a life of unconditional love.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

The Jesus movement fragmented into many variants as it spread.  In the Roman variant, the patriarchs worked aggressively to eliminate all competitors.  They selected an official collection of sacred texts, which was a small subset of the writings generated by the Jesus movement.  The banished texts included a number of gospels — the Gospel of Peter, Gospel of the Hebrews, Gospel of the Egyptians, Gospel of James, Gospel of Mattheus, Gospel of Truth, and Gospel of Mary.

In 1945, a farmer found an ancient jar near Nag Hammadi in Egypt.  Among the papyrus pages in this jar was the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of 114 sayings of Jesus.  Here is saying 113:  His disciples said to him, “When will the kingdom come?”  Jesus said, “It will not come by waiting for it.  It will not be a matter of saying ‘here it is’ or ‘there it is.’  Rather, the kingdom of the father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it.”

Look!  Paradise is where your feet are standing.  This sounds remarkably similar to the mindset of the Pygmies, Anishinabe, Inuit, and other wild folks.  Wild cultures don’t tell stories reeking of human supremacy.  The creator might be a frog.  Humans are among the youngest critters in the family of life, mischievous two-year olds playing with plutonium.  We have so much to learn from our older relatives.

It’s interesting to contemplate what a wholesome creation story would sound like.  Imagine a story where we skipped the toxic apple, remained in the garden, and lived in balance with the family of life, like the deer and ravens.  When we inform our offspring that they were flawed before they were born, the result is the world outside your window — a bloody lunatic asylum.

And so, today, we’re zooming down the Ragnarök Expressway, and Big Mama Nature will once again hurl the crazy mob into oblivion, big brains and all.  When the storms pass, fires burn out, and floodwaters recede, the dawn of world renewal will rise once again, “a new earth, green and fair.”

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Neanderthals, Bandits, and Farmers

 
 
Colin Tudge wrote Neanderthals, Bandits, & Farmers, a book that presents his theories on the dawn of progress and perpetual growth, focusing on how agriculture really began.  At the time, he was employed by the London School of Economics, an institution focused on capitalism, not ecological sustainability.
The book vibrates with cognitive dissonance.  Tudge has been studying agriculture for many years.  On one hand, it was a magnificent achievement that threw open the door to the wonders of modernity.  On the other hand, modernity has become a victim of its own success, with seven billion humans dangerously rocking the boat.  As Pandora once discovered, some magnificent achievements are best left in the box.
For most of the human journey, our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, whom Tudge likens to bandits.  They lived by their wits, snatched what the ecosystem had to offer, and had plenty of leisure time in their lives.  The prudent path was to live within the carrying capacity of their ecosystem.  If they had been ambitious and hard working, they would have wiped out their prey and starved.
Farmers were ambitious, hard working control freaks.  They manipulated the ecosystem to increase its carrying capacity, temporarily, via soil mining.  More work produced more rewards, and more food could feed more people.  Wild critters frequently molested their precious crops, so farmers responded with pest control — overhunting.  Eventually, the human mob got large, wildlife became scarce, wild land became cropland, and returning to hunting was no longer an option.
Agriculture emerged independently in at least six widely scattered locations.  It was not invented in Uruk by a demented genius.  It began maybe 10,000 years ago in the Middle East.  Tudge suggests that it developed gradually, as proto-farming, starting maybe 40,000 years ago.  Even primitive yokels could see that plants grew from seeds, and that clearing other vegetation away from food plants promoted their growth.  Proto-farming was done on a small scale, a pleasant hobby that left behind no enduring evidence for scientists to discover thousands of years later.
In Europe, Neanderthals had been big game hunters for hundreds of thousands of years.  While surviving a roller coaster of climate shifts, they lived within carrying capacity and did not wipe out the game.  Cro-Magnons were the Homo sapiens that later migrated into Europe, maybe 45,000 years ago.  Tudge theorizes that these foreign immigrants were proto-farmers.  Because they could produce their own food, they were less vulnerable to the consequences of overhunting.  Big game species began blinking out.  This eliminated the food supply for the Neanderthals, who were forced off the stage into oblivion.  (Stringer and Finlayson have other views on Neanderthals.)
By and by, proto-farming metastasized into a more virulent form, agriculture.  The economists leap to their feet with enthusiastic applause and cheering.  Civilization, here we come!  Whee!  The fuse was lit for a joyride of skyrocketing growth — onward to ten billion!  Well, this is the schoolbook version that everyone knows, and most believe.  (See Cohen on the shift to agriculture.)
Now, the plot thickens.  A growing number of scholars have been poking holes in the glorious myth of growth and progress.  Farming was miserable backbreaking work.  While hunter-gatherers benefitted from a diverse and highly nutritious diet, the farmer’s diet was the opposite, majoring in a few staple foods.  Farmers were shorter and less healthy.  In their remains, we find that “the toes and knees are bent and arthritic and the lower back is deformed.”
Tudge acknowledges the revisionists.  “People did not invent agriculture and shout for joy; they drifted or were forced into it, protesting all the way.”  Here’s my favorite line in the book: “The real problem, then, is not to explain why some people were slow to adapt agriculture but why anyone took it up at all when it was obviously so beastly.”
He believes that overhunting was the sole cause of the megafauna extinctions.  Native Americans had little self-restraint when it came to hunting mammoths and mastodons.  There is no evidence that climate change played any role in the die-off, he says.  But, at the end of the ice age, as the land warmed up, large areas of tundra were gradually replaced with dense forests.  This put the squeeze on species adapted to living on the tundra.
Did scruffy rednecks with homemade spears really hunt the speedy horses of North America to extinction — but not the bison, elk, and deer?  We’ll never know the full story, but I would be wary of dismissing the impact of radical climate swings, or the importation of Old World pathogens for which the American fauna had zero immunity.  (See Kolbert on extinction.)
Anyway, agriculture took root, because it worked more often than it failed.  Population gradually grew, which required more and more cropland and pasture.  Each expansion raised carrying capacity a bit, while soil depletion reduced it.  The growing mob had to work harder, and grow more.  In the cult of economists, “growth” is the god word.  Unfortunately, perpetual growth becomes a vicious spiral.  Tudge winces at the paradox.  “To condemn all of humankind to a life of full-time farming, and in particular arable farming, was a curse indeed.”  (See Montgomery, Manning, Dale, and Postel on agriculture’s drawbacks.)
Animal domestication, on the other hand, greatly benefitted the critters we enslaved, says Tudge.  For example, wild wolves are vanishing, but domesticated dogs have zoomed past a half billion.  Similarly, domesticated sheep can breed far more when well fed and defended.  If the population of a critter explodes, this is called biological success.  Dogs are a great success story, but their luckless wolf relatives keep smacking into bullets, stepping in traps, and eating poisoned bait.  Oddly, neither dogs nor sheep could survive in the wild, apart from humans.  (See Shepard on animal enslavement.)
It’s a great tragedy of history that the wild folks who adapted to their ecosystem, and lived within its carrying capacity, have been unable to withstand the constant pressure from growing mobs of farmers.  When Tudge wrote, we were approaching six billion.  The spectacular success of growth and progress was beginning to look like a Pyrrhic victory.  We might actually have real limits!  (See Bourne and Cribb on Peak Food.)
Clouds of doubt swirled in his head.  “Our earliest hunting ancestors must have been lazy, as lions are.  Perhaps we should learn from them.”  It’s touching and illuminating to watch the poor lad struggle with the conflict between powerful cultural myths and his growing awareness of reality.  This struggle is a necessary challenge on the path to growth and healing.  We must stand against the strong current.
The book is just 53 pages, and easy to read.  It would be a good text for courses in eco-psychology, environmental ethics, and critical thinking.
Postscript.  In a recent online video, Tudge reveals his grand solution, Enlightened Agriculture — small organic family farms raising a wide variety of crops.  By 2050, 9.5 to 10 billion will be coming to dinner.  Can we feed them?  “The answer is a resounding yes!”  We can feed them for decades, maybe indefinitely.  Profit-driven, energy-guzzling monoculture agriculture is fantastically unsustainable.  All we need is simply a total revolution in how we live, think, breed, and produce food — as soon as possible, please.
Tudge, Colin, Neanderthals, Bandits, & Farmers — How Agriculture Really Began, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1998.



Thursday, July 14, 2016

A New Green History of the World




A New Green History of the World (2007) is the new and improved version of A Green History of the World (1991), which was translated into 13 languages.  British historian Clive Ponting did a fantastic amount of research, and then refined it into a very readable, mind-altering 400-page book (a silver bullet cure for folks suffering from denial).  It spans the two million year saga of our hominid ancestors, devoting most attention to the last 12,000 years, the era of thunder footprints.

Ponting provides numerous charts displaying the skyrocketing growth of many unsustainable trends.  For example, world coal production was 10 million tons in 1800, 760 million tons in 1900, and 5 billion tons in 2000.  World oil production was 95 million tons in 1920, 294 million tons in 1940, 2.3 billion tons in 1970, and 3.8 billion tons in 2004.  Is it any wonder that the atmosphere is having convulsions?

For almost the entire human journey, wood was our fuel, a renewable resource.  With the shift to agriculture and civilization, we invented forest mining, which is unsustainable.  Industries making glass, ceramics, bricks, and metals rapidly obliterated forests.  By the 1550s, regional wood shortages began limiting growth.  The English were the first to begin the shift to coal.  Coal lit the turbo thrusters for the Industrial Revolution, which accelerated the process of urbanization, and ignited two centuries of pandemonium.

Until 1800, 95 percent of humans were paupers.  Ponting says, “Since the rise of settled societies some ten thousand years ago the overwhelming majority of the world’s population have lived in conditions of grinding poverty.  They have had few possessions, suffered from appalling living conditions, and have been forced to spend most of their very limited resources on finding enough food to stay alive.”  European commoners often lived in crude huts with dirt floors, and no windows or chimney.  Bed was a heap of straw.  No corpse was buried in usable garments.

Until 1800, most people travelled on foot.  Paupers couldn’t afford horses, or six acres (2.5 ha) of pasture to feed one.  Consequently, villages and towns remained small, close to their food supply.  Few places could afford even rudimentary sanitation services.  Village households dumped their night soil in the streets.  Almost any place was a restroom.  Fecal-oral diseases were popular, and bathing was not, especially in chilly months.  It was a wonderland for rats, fleas, flies, lice, and infectious diseases.

In 1652, the council of Boston banned residents from discarding the “entrails of beasts or fowls or garbage or dead dogs or cattle or any other dead beast or stinking thing” into the streets.  In the summer of 1858, the British House of Commons abandoned its sittings because of the unbearable “Great Stink” (all raw sewage went into the Thames).  The official residence for Britain’s prime ministers is 10 Downing Street, which didn’t have an indoor bathroom until 1908.  And so on.

With urbanization, the privileged class grew — folks who could afford horses, stables, carriages, and feed.  More horses were needed to haul more goods.  As cities grew, they got too big for foot travelers, so horse-drawn buses, trolleys, cabs, and coaches came into service.  Sprawling cities gobbled up nearby farms, increasing the distance between the inner city and their source of food.  More horses were needed to haul more food over more miles.  Eventually, farmers could no longer afford to have urban manure hauled to their distant fields, so it piled up in empty places.

By 1900, horses plopped 10 million tons of fragrant manure on British streets each year.  When it rained, the streets became yucky mucky smelly ponds.  In warm dry weather, the breezes carried manure dust for all to inhale.  The incredible filth attracted countless trillions of flies that took great delight in spreading typhoid.  New York City had to remove 15,000 dead horses annually.  Imagine the stench.

By the early twentieth century, Britain and France each had about 3.5 million horses.  The U.S. had 20 to 30 million, and feeding them required 88 million acres (36m ha) of farmland — about a quarter of the total.  These countries had little spare land to feed more urban horses; they were close to Peak Horses.  (Here’s an interesting stinky horse story.)

In 1900, London was the world’s biggest city, with 4.5 million.  New York City was second with 2.7 million.  Their streets were jammed with slow chaotic clippity-clop traffic, close to capacity, with little room for more.  The bubble of cheap and abundant horse feed was over.  Both cities had to switch from horse power to fossil power.  By 2000, Tokyo had 26.4 million, Mexico City had 18.4 million, and Mumbai had 18 million.  They cannot shift to horse power when motor vehicle extinction approaches.

Modern cities cannot function without nonrenewable fossil power.  It is needed to move folks from home to work, and from the ground floor to the thirtieth.  It moves water in, and sewage out.  It picks up the garbage and carries it to landfills.  It powers farms, ships, air travel, factories, mines, refineries, lighting, communication systems, and on and on.  The list includes everything essential for the energy-guzzling consumer lifestyle, and industrial society itself.

Our global civilization is completely addicted to ever-increasing quantities of finite nonrenewable resources.  Obviously, this can only be temporary.  We’ve had a high-speed joyride of insane growth, pollution, and ecological gang rape.  We’ve invented lots of fascinating gizmos, lived like crazy, and created a monster that has an expiration date.  It will disintegrate, sooner or later.  Ponting warns that we are approaching a major crossroads.

To make the coming decades even more exciting, climate change is knocking on the door, stopping by to collect our staggering karmic debts.  The Technology Fairy cannot give us the magic beans needed to remove the carbon from our emissions.  Ponting shrugs, “Global warming is the greatest threat that the world faces and finding a solution will be extremely difficult.”

The Technology Fairy also appears impotent to accelerate the crop yield gains necessary for feeding the projected mob in 50 years (see Cribb and Bourne).  Like the Green Revolution disaster, GMO crops require big inputs of fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation — large fields, expensive seeds, rich farmers, big machines, and lots of petrol.  Industrial agriculture is getting gray and wrinkled, its best days behind it.  Ponting has no faith in biotech miracles.

With the calm and objective voice of a venerable professor, Ponting lifts readers far above the intense roaring madness that we consider normal.  When we can observe the human journey from a perspective that spans thousands of years, it’s easy to see that our consumer lifestyle is an extreme deviation from the human journey.  Every student in every nation should take a class based on this book, every year.  The family of life is paying a terrible price for our ongoing ignorance of environmental history.  Few have a competent understanding of the path we have taken, or the predicaments that now threaten us.

I’ve only mentioned a few of the topics in Ponting’s book.  It’s a fascinating experience.  He did not include the obligatory chapter of brilliant solutions.  His conclusion: “The course of human history over the last two centuries has produced change at a rate never before experienced and brought together a series of interlinked problems that almost defy solution because of their complexity.”  Progress is wonderful, eh?

Ponting, Clive, A New Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations, Penguin Books, New York, 2007.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Black Gold




Albert Marrin is a history professor who has written dozens books for young readers.  In Black Gold, he discussed the geology of fossil energy, emergence of the oil industry, geopolitics, oil wars, environmental impacts, and future challenges.  I was intrigued by his perspective on geopolitics.

Before World War One, the British navy scrapped many coal-burning warships and began building modern boats that ran on oil.  This gave them a big advantage over the German navy.  The era of industrial warfare had arrived.  Nations with tanks, trucks, and planes could easily smash horse-powered enemies.

America joined the war in 1917, and brought lots of oil.  German ports were blockaded, their war machine ran out of fuel, and they were defeated.  In this new era, for the first time, oil became essential for military success.  Young Hitler grasped this, and so did the British.  A primary objective of the Brits was to seize control of Middle Eastern oil, a yet-to-be developed treasure that made greedy gits giddy.  They succeeded, invented new nations, and found obedient puppets to rule them (and loot them).

Of course, wealth and power frequently turns decent people into obnoxious monsters.  Troublesome puppets were replaced with new ones, Britain got very rich, and the Arabs and Persians developed an intense hatred of Brits.  In World War Two, Hitler launched his oil-powered blitzkrieg, made a beeline for oily Baku, and planned to grab the Persian Gulf.  In this war, American oil once again came to the rescue.

Germany and Japan learned the hard way that running out of oil is for losers.  Everyone knows this today.  U.S. presidents have poured trillions of dollars into maintaining control of oil, whilst jabbering about freedom, democracy, and weapons of mass destruction.  For some mysterious reason, millions of Middle Eastern folks now loath and detest the U.S.

In Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabis are a sect that perceives most of modernity as pure evil.  They don’t look fondly on the lavish lifestyles of the ruling Saud family.  Marrin asserts that the government agreed to subsidize the spread of Wahhabi schools into other regions.  In exchange for this funding, the Wahhabis agreed not to make trouble in Arabia — but trouble anywhere else was OK.  “In short, Saudi oil profits fueled terrorism.”

Russia now controls much of the natural gas that powers Europe, and Western powers are eager for an alternative, a pipeline from the Middle East that bypasses Russian control.  It would be reasonable to conclude that the coming decades are not going to be a sweet celebration of love, peace, and happiness.  Expect big drama as the age of hydrocarbons swirls the drain, climate change pounds the luckless, and Big Mama Nature hurls overshoot overboard.

The rear end of Marrin’s book was annoying.  The book is intended for use in schools.  He recommends that the U.S. should become energy independent as soon as possible.  The best solution, he says, is a combination of fossil fuels and alternative energy — solar, wind, biomass, hydro, geothermal, nuclear (no mention of sharply reducing consumption).  The assumption is that independence is possible, and that the consumer way of life will be free to continue down the path of mindless self-destruction.

Teachers, librarians, and parents should have an above average understanding of energy issues before selecting books on the subject.  These issues are going to have a staggering impact on the lives of the target audience, young readers.  It’s long past time to sit down with youngsters and have a highly embarrassing birds-and-bees discussion about the fact that the abundant energy bubble is going to turn into a pumpkin during their lifetimes.  Preserving their ignorance seems cruel.

In the book, readers learn that nuclear reactors can generate lots of electricity, but they occasionally barf large amounts of radiation all over the place.  Therefore, it’s very important to properly dispose of spent fuel because it’s extremely toxic.  Great idea!  How?  William and Rosemary Alley discussed this issue in Too Hot to Touch.  They note that today “there are some 440 nuclear power plants in 31 countries.  More are on the way.  Yet, no country on Earth has an operating high-level waste disposal facility.”

Obama cancelled plans for the Yucca Mountain site, which was as close to perfect as is possible — after 25 years of research at a cost of $10 billion.  Because it was cancelled, spent fuel rods continue building up, many of them temporarily stored in cooling ponds.  If the circulating pumps for the cooling ponds stop, the water boils, the pool evaporates, and the rods are exposed to air, melt, and release radioactive gasses.  The meltdowns at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima were triggered by overheated fuel rods.

Readers also learn that the U.S. has huge coal reserves, enough for 250 years at the current rate of consumption.  To understand why this is a meaningless statement, watch one of the many versions of Albert Bartlett’s famous lecture, Arithmetic, Population, and Energy on YouTube.  Every student and teacher should watch it.

Read Jeff Rubin’s book, The Big Flatline.  You’ll learn that the production of top quality anthracite coal peaked in 1950, and grade B bituminous coal peaked in 1990.  There is abundant grade C coal, lignite, which is especially filthy to burn.  Since lignite is so low in energy, it cannot be shipped long distances profitably.  It is absurd to use 100 calories of diesel to haul 100 calories of low quality coal.

This is an extremely important issue — energy returned on energy invested (EROEI).  The book doesn’t mention this.  EROEI is also highly relevant to oil.  Rubin and others note that in the good old days of high-profit gushers, it was common to invest one calorie of energy to produce 100 calories of oil (100:1).  By 2010, typical EROEI was about 17:1, and some are predicting 5:1 by 2020.

Rising prices enable the extraction of difficult and expensive non-conventional oil and gas.  At some point, declining EROEI makes extraction pointless, regardless of market prices.  Consequently, most of the oil in Canadian tar sands will be left where it is.  The EROEI of tar sands now in production is about 3:1, and 5:1 for shale deposits.

Readers learn about renewable energy, like wind, solar, and hydro.  See Ted Trainer’s book, Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society.  Learn about the significant shortcomings of the various types of alternative energy.  Discover why no combination of them will ever come anywhere close to replacing the energy now provided by fossil fuel.  Discover why we will not enjoy a smooth and painless transition to a sustainable, renewable energy future.

The education system, from grade schools to universities, seems to be largely committed to a “don’t scare the children” strategy.  We don’t want to fill kids with despair about their grisly inheritance.  Also, publishers want to avoid discussions that piss off poorly informed parents, or the politically powerful titans of industry.  The publisher did allow Marrin to drop hints that there might be some trouble in the future.  It’s a touchy game.  Sales can be harmed by too little reality, or too much.  The book’s takeaway message is that we have the solutions for our energy challenges, but we don’t have a lot of time to fool around.  Things will be OK, probably, maybe.  Is that likely?

Marrin, Albert, Black Gold: The Story of Oil in Our Lives, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2012.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Fire: A Brief History







We live in a perplexing era.  On one hand, we are the most brilliant critters that ever existed.  On the other hand, we are knowingly destroying the ecosystem upon which our survival depends, which sane folks might see as the opposite of brilliant.  You and I descend from ancestors who, once upon a time, lived in balance with the family of life.  What happened?

Obviously, the industrial era has supercharged our eco-impacts.  The stage for the industrial era was set maybe 8,000 years ago, by the transition to agriculture, animal domestication, and civilization — a sharp turn away from low-impact living.  Was this our turning point?  Some think that we began to drift away from original harmony much earlier, maybe 30,000 to 50,000 years ago, with a Great Leap Forward, which brought complex language, innovative new tools, cave painting, body decorations, rituals, etc.

A few scholars have suggested that if space aliens had visited Earth 100,000 years ago, our ancestors would have appeared to be nothing more than ordinary animals.  For a long time, I accepted that.  Now I don’t.  I’ve been reading the work of Stephen Pyne, a scholar who has written 25 books on fire history.  He provided an introduction to his knowledge in Fire: A Brief History.  Those visiting space aliens would have noticed that one species — and only one — maintained fires in their encampments.  This behavior was not the slightest bit ordinary.

By learning how to preserve and manipulate fire, our ancestors acquired great power, far more power than they acquired from wooden clubs or chipped flint spearheads.  Fire eventually enabled them to colonize the entire planet.  Pyne says, “Without fire humanity sinks to a status of near helplessness, a plump chimp with a scraping stone and digging stick, hiding from the night’s terrors, crowding into minor biotic niches.”

My home, food, and belongings were created by machines that operated on domesticated firepower.  Without firepower, this city and civilization would not exist; the place I live would be a healthy forest in a vast wilderness.  If our ancestors had not acquired firepower, humans would still be living close to the tropics, and the Americas might be unknown continents.

Long, long ago, our early hominid ancestors frequently provided nice warm meals for the hungry leopards and hyenas that visited in the night.  Man-eating predators greatly benefitted our kin by helping them avoid embarrassing population explosions.  But on one quest for a yummy midnight snack, the hungry man-eaters were shocked when the ancestors began brandishing flaming torches and yelling discourteous suggestions.  Antelopes never did this!

Swartkrans Cave is near Johannesburg, South Africa.  It has been carefully excavated.  At the oldest lower layers, no charcoal is found.  It is an era before domesticated fire.  At this level, there are complete skeletons of big cats, and the scattered gnawed bones of the critters they ate, including hominids.  Higher up, charcoal is found in newer layers, the age of fire.  Here we find complete hominid skeletons, and the scattered bones of the critters they gnawed, including big cats.  With fire, hominids had taken over the cave, and the prey had become predators.

Fire requires three things: heat, oxygen, and fuel.  From very early times, maybe a billion years ago, heat was available in the form of lightning and volcanoes, but fuel and adequate oxygen were missing.  Modern levels of free oxygen emerged by 500 million years ago, but there was no fuel.  With the arrival of land plants by 400 million years ago, biomass was born, and fire became possible.

In the early days, our Homo erectus ancestors captured fire from lightning strikes, and very carefully preserved it.  If the fire ever went out, the unlucky brothers and sisters began to smell like cat food.  Later, some genius learned how to kindle fire, a revolutionary innovation.  There were three types of fire starters: the fire drill, the fire piston, and the fire striker.  The first friction match appeared in 1827.  Today, even slobbering tykes can easily burn down the house.

Every day, there are eight million lightning strikes.  When a bolt hits fuel that is not soggy, a fire can start.  Pyne refers to this wild natural fire as First Fire.  Second Fire is fire that has been domesticated by humans.  It blazes under our control.  Some regions have abundant biomass fuel, and other regions barely have any.  The amount of Second Fire that could exist at any time was always limited by the amount of biomass available.

Third Fire is the flame of industrial civilization, and it has given us the diabolical power to create countless catastrophes.  The fuel it consumes is fossil biomass.  Coal is rainforest vegetation that accumulated over the course of 60 million years.  Oil and natural gas come from dead phytoplankton that accumulated over 250 million years.  Of course, they are nonrenewable and finite.  We will rubbish the planet’s ecosystem before we can burn all of them (but we’ll try!).

There has never been more combustion on this planet than now.  We are burning enormous amounts of sequestered carbon as fast as humanly possible, and this is overloading the planetary ecosystem with staggering amounts of pollution — greenhouse gasses, acid rain, toxic ash, etc.  “Since the present is often unable to absorb it, the outflow spills into the future,” says Pyne.  “We have had the impact of a slow collision with an asteroid.”

Third Fire powers the machinery that mines the ore, crushes it, smelts it, rolls it, delivers it, stamps it, welds it, and creates automobiles and countless other daffy mistakes.  The controlled fire in engines doesn’t care about the weather.  It can burn in the desert, the rainforest, the arctic, in planes, and at sea.  We simply turn the ignition key, and the engines fire up.  Third Fire enables the production of almost every manmade artifact in our lives.

I’ve just scratched the surface here.  Pyne has spent a lifetime writing about the subject that fascinates him.  Fire enabled cooking, which makes food easier to digest, neutralizes toxins, and kills bacteria and parasites.  Fire was used to drive wild game animals into confined locations where hunters waited.

Early agriculture began on treeless floodplains, where a digging stick and seeds were all that was needed.  As our numbers grew, we ran out of mudflats to thrash.  So, we invented slash-and-burn to transform vast regions of ancient forests into additional cropland and pasture.  Nobody knows more about the history of slash-and-burn than Pyne.

In eighteenth century North America, the eastern portion of the Great Plains was tallgrass prairie.  On average, Native Americans fired this region every three years, to eliminate brush, and maintain excellent grazing habitat for the bison herds.  The tallgrass prairie had soils and climate that were perfectly suitable for forest.  When the Indians were obliterated by the diseases of civilization, they quit burning, and the forest expanded.

Agriculture encourages population growth, and its shadow, conflict.  For thousands of years, demented nerds have invented countless new ways of using fire to kill people.  Both ships and settlements were flammable, and fire was an excellent weapon for turning them to ashes.  For several thousand years, there has been an accelerating nonstop arms race to discover new and improved ways for barbequing enemies and innocent bystanders.

In the old days, towns were often surrounded by defensive walls or palisades.  Inside, wooden structures were packed closely together, and each contained hearths with open flames.  Often, when one structure burned, many burned.  Russian villages typically burned every 20 to 30 years.  Cities have always been fireplaces.  After every immolation, the survivors built a new collection of highly flammable buildings.  Pyne suspected that the Christian concept of a fiery hell was originally inspired by the firestorms common in that era — horror!

It’s a short, well written, mind expanding, unforgettable book.

Pyne, Stephen J., Fire: A Brief History, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 2001.
 
 

Saturday, June 11, 2016

How Did Things Get To Be This Way?



 
Ojibway elder Basil Johnston said that a good life is impossible for people disconnected from their history.  We must know who we are.  The venerable historian William Cronon was the son of a history professor.  One day, his father gave him the magic key for understanding the world.  He told his son to carry one question on his journey through life: “How did things get to be this way?”

Sometime, when you’re feeling a bit bored, eager for thrills and excitement, get a library card and spend the next 20 years reading.  Search for answers to Cronon’s question.  Read 500 books on environmental history, ecology, anthropology, night after night, year after year, and type thousands of pages of notes.

It’s a mind-altering experience, a spiritual journey.  In the process, you become something like a shaman, with the ability to pass through the veil, and discover important information in a non-ordinary state of consciousness.  When you return to the ordinary reality, you can share what you have learned, and guide your people closer to the path of healing — in theory. 

More commonly, finding real answers to Cronon’s question turns you into a notorious dolt, a filthy and disgusting pariah.  Doomer!  Go away!  You’re crazy!  Most folks prefer to remain in a world of illusions, a realm that has little in common with the power visions of the history shaman.  Illusions are comfortable.  The economy is recovering.  We’re zooming toward Utopia.  The best is yet to come.  Right?

Conservation writer Charles Little has given many lectures on tree death in America.  He is often asked one question: “A hand will be raised at the back of the room.  ‘But what can we do?’ the petitioner will ask.  Do?  What can we do?  What a question that is when we scarcely understand what we have already done!”  Indeed!  How can the human journey avoid one more cycle of repeated mistakes when we fail to understand most of the mistakes?

Biologist Paul Ehrlich once spent time among the Inuit of Hudson Bay, Canada.  He was shocked to discover that the entire knowledgebase of their cultural information was known by everyone — how to hunt seals, tan pelts, weave a net, sew a coat, and so on.  Yet, in our advanced civilization, nobody knows even a millionth of our cultural information.  You can get a PhD from Stanford and never learn anything about agriculture.  Food is one thing we truly need.  What is the plan for feeding eleven billion?  Is it possible?

Meanwhile, mainstream society has invented a comical joyride in magical thinking — if we simply call something “sustainable” enough times, then it is!  In the blink of the eye, forest mining becomes Sustainable Forestry™ and soil mining becomes Sustainable Agriculture™.  In a barrage of oxymorons, business as usual is kept on life support, by any means necessary, for as long as possible.  What should we do about this?  How can we revive the original meaning of sustainability?

In Against the Grain: How Agriculture has Hijacked Civilization, Richard Manning writes, “There is no such thing as sustainable agriculture.  It does not exist.”  He says, “The domestication of wheat was humankind’s greatest mistake.”  In Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, geologist David Montgomery concurs.  “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.”  Contrary to common beliefs, history shamans have a hard time finding examples of genuinely sustainable agriculture.  Have you seen recent images of Uruk, the magnificent city of King Gilgamesh?

In Here on Earth, Tim Flannery said that we are like sheep in a pasture.  We no longer need big brains, because our shepherds take care of us.  We have become “helpless, self-domesticated livestock.”  “While we sit in our air-conditioned homes and eat, drink and make merry like cattle in a feedlot without the slightest thought about the consequences of our consumption of water, food and energy, we only hasten the destruction — in the long term — of our kind.”  Won’t it be a healthy change when the lights go out, and we are once again required to be fully present in reality?

Flannery said that our ice age ancestors had bigger brains than we have now — 10 percent larger in men, and 14 percent in women.  In Lone Survivors, Chris Stringer noted that the people of today have brains that average 1350 cc in size, and this is ten percent smaller than the average size of Homo sapiens brains 20,000 years ago.  The average Neanderthal brain was 1600 cc — much bigger than ours.  Could that imply something?

Anthropocentric scholars are fond of dismissing Neanderthals as dullards, because their tool kit changed little over 350,000 years.  For 350,000 years, they lived by killing megafauna, but failed to wipe them out.  Flannery noted, “Mammoths, straight-tusked woodland elephants, and two species of woodland rhinoceros coexisted with Neanderthals for hundreds of thousands of years.”  What was wrong with our incompetent cousins?

Today, every newborn that squirts out of the womb is a wild animal, with genes fine-tuned for life on a healthy tropical savannah.  Infants only become consumers by being raised in consumer society.  If we had been raised in a Neanderthal culture, would we live in balance? 

In The Tender Carnivore, Paul Shepard wrote that when scientists raised chimps in their home, along with their own children, the chimps were at least as intelligent as children, until the children were three or four, learned language, and left the chimps in the dust.  Different intelligence allows us to better comprehend the complexity of the world, but it also enables us to better destroy it.  Much of our cultural information will be lost forever when climate change pulls the curtains on life as we know it.  How can we preserve the tiny portion of this knowledge that is needed for a return to the path of good life?

Recently, I’ve become fascinated by our closest living relatives, the chimps and bonobos.  We share something like 99 percent of our genes with them.  Their ancestors have inhabited the same place for millions of years, without trashing it.  Imagine that!  They still enjoy a healthy life in a healthy place.  Is that really so terrible?  Once upon a time, our ancestors lived in the same region, in much the same way.  What happened?

Chimps and bonobos did not make serious weapons, wage war against ape-eating predators, spread around the world, invent agriculture, explode in numbers, live in filth, and die by the millions from infectious diseases.  They did not wage war against infectious diseases, soar into extreme overshoot, load the atmosphere with crud, and blindside the planet’s climate.  Instead, they inhabit a niche in their ecosystem, and live as they have for millions of years, without rocking the boat.  Is there something we could learn from their example?

Is it time to burn our Superman and Superwoman uniforms, apologize to the family of life for our furious rampages, return to the tropics, abandon words, clothes, and spears, and try to remember who we are?  Can we recover a mode of enduring simplicity and stability that would no longer require a history to guide us?  Can we someday heal so well that we never again have to ask “How did things get to be this way?”