Monday, March 26, 2012

Throwing Fire

Throwing Fire by Alfred W. Crosby is a history of the human use of projectiles that covers the whole spectrum, from stones to space ships.  Throwing projectiles was a key skill for the survival of our species, it played an important role in shaping what we have become, but it is increasingly a threat to the survival of our species, and many others.
Long ago, in the good old days, our hominid ancestors were tree-dwellers, swinging from branch to branch, and dining on nuts, fruit, lizards, insects, and other dainty delicacies.  The whole world was happy.  But cooler weather arrived, shrank the jungles, and expanded the grasslands.  Life in the trees had no future.  We got an eviction notice, became ground-dwellers, and learned to walk upright.  This was a crucial event in our history, step one on the Human Trail.
We were comically unprepared for living on the ground.  We didn’t have claws, big teeth, horns, or great speed.  On two legs, we couldn’t outrun a bunny, and we frequently fell down.  But walking upright turned our front feet into hands.  We compensated for our shortcomings by learning how to throw things, like rocks, sticks, and spears.  Any human, male or female, older than eight years old can throw projectiles farther and more accurately than any other species.  This ability gave us the power to effect change from a distance.  Well-thrown projectiles could drive away annoying predators or kill a plump bunny for dinner. 
We often forget that rocks are lethal weapons, because we have far better killing tools today.  But a few hundred years ago, Europeans visiting Samoa got a painful lesson in the superb stone-throwing skills of the natives.  Of the 61 men sent ashore, 12 were killed by well-thrown rocks.  Later, humans invented the rock-throwing sling, which was even more deadly, especially when loaded with lumps of lead.  Many of the conquistadors visiting Mexico had life-changing experiences while getting stoned by the excited sling-twirling Indians.
Throwing allowed us to become predators, and meat was another key to our success.  Gorillas were herbivores, and they had to spend much of their time gathering and eating enormous amounts of modestly nutritious vegetation.  Because of this, they never created a civilization.  Humans were omnivores, and we could digest more nutritious foods, so we spent far less time stuffing our faces and having enormous bowel movements.  Hunting encouraged us to learn an important new skill: teamwork.  We discovered that a shower of rocks was more likely to crack a skull than a single one.
We also became skilled at working with fire, another unique trait.  Fire provided heat, and enabled us to expand into cooler regions.  It enabled cooking, which greatly expanded the number of things that we could eat and digest.  It kept away insects and predators.  With hands, projectiles, teamwork, and fire, we scooted farther down the Human Trail.
An important turning point occurred about 40,000 years ago.  Tool-making activities shifted into fast forward.  We began painting in caves, making sculptures, and wearing fashionable attire.  Humans no longer behaved like ordinary animals.  Previously, our culture evolved slowly, because our genes evolved slowly.  But at this point, cultural evolution disconnected from genetic evolution, shifted into high gear, and sent us rocketing into the future, toward dangerous new possibilities.
We spread out across the world.  With the spear-throwing atlatl, we became able to kill large animals (and got too good at it).  An Incan warrior with an atlatl could send a spear completely through a conquistador wearing metal armor.  Bows and arrows also evolved into excellent tools for killers. 
We came to a fork in the road.  Hunter-gatherers stuck with tools that could be made beside a campfire using stone, plant materials, and animal parts.  They continued living in a manner that was pleasant, leisurely, stable, and relatively sustainable. 
Other humans explored a dark new path.  They domesticated plants and animals, built cities and civilizations, and employed military technicians to continue developing better tools for killing.  When invaders became a nuisance, walled cities appeared.  Then, clever invaders invented catapults and trebuchets to destroy city walls.  These were replaced by cannons when we acquired gunpowder technology, and on and on…  This path has become an unsustainable dead end, a global disaster.
The second half of the book describes the arms race that developed during the era of civilization — muskets, machine guns, rockets, atomic bombs, and projectiles shot to the moon with human passengers.  Like other harmful technologies, advances in military technology have greatly accelerated since the Industrial Revolution.  It’s a race that never ends, because the winners are more likely to survive.  Whenever an enemy gets better weapons, your future is at risk.  Stability is impossible.
Throughout the book, Crosby writes like a detached, objective, scientific reporter — just the facts.  He sometimes emits subtle whiffs of admiration for the fascinating cleverness of humankind (the last ten pages are a hopeful dream of space travel and colonization).  There are also occasional whiffs of foreboding: 
“Humanity equipped with atlatl and firestick was instrumental in the elimination of scores of species of megafauna.  Now, equipped with the long-range rocket and fission bomb (and in the next decade a vastly more powerful fusion bomb) man was capable of eliminating thousands upon thousands of species, including his own.”
I found this book to be illuminating, terrifying, and depressing.  As I write this morning, there are many thousands of people, all around the world, working on new and more powerful weapons.  We know it’s insane, but we can’t stop, because our civilization is insane.
We know that destroying the world’s soils is insane, but we can’t stop.  We know that continued economic growth is insane, but we can’t stop.  Population growth, recreational shopping, toxic pollution, deforestation, mining, burning fossil fuels — the list goes on forever — insane!  We refuse to stop because we have absolutely no alternatives, except for sanity, healing, slowing down, reconnecting with nature, remembering what it is to be human, and living a meaningful and joyful life.

Crosby, Alfred W., Throwing Fire — Projectile Technology Through History, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2010.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Harmless People

Folks who spend their lives staring at computer screens in vast corporate cubicle farms have a powerful tendency to drift off into vivid daydreams of gathering nuts, roots, and melons in wild country, with their hunter-gatherer ancestors, in a world without roads, cities, or alphabets.  For them, there is treasure to be found in Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ book, The Harmless People.  It’s a beautiful book. 
Elizabeth was 19 when she first met the Bushmen of southern Africa.  Her parents led three expeditions between 1950 and 1956 to study and film these people, who were among the last surviving hunter-gatherer societies in the world.  The family spent a lot of time living in Bushmen camps, learned their language, and really got to know them.  Elizabeth’s book is a respectful and affectionate diary of her experiences with these people, and it is easy and enjoyable to read.
The first expedition searched for several months before finding Bushmen, because Bushmen disappeared whenever they saw outsiders, who were a dependable source of trouble.  Black and white outsiders frequently kidnapped them, and forced them to spend the rest of their days as farm laborers.  They never returned home.  Police would arrest them if they killed a giraffe in the desert, because giraffes were royal animals protected by the law.  Arrested hunters were hauled away, and never seen again.  The Thomas expedition eventually gained their trust because they developed a reputation for being very generous with their gifts, and for being unusually decent white folks.
Long ago, Bushmen lived across much of southern Africa.  But black and white farmers and herders aggressively seized the best lands, forcing the Bushmen into the Kalahari Desert, an exceedingly difficult place to live.  Some places were so dry that the primary sources of water were melons, roots, and killed animals.  Some winter nights dipped below freezing, leading to sleepless nights for the nearly naked people.
Each group lived in a specific territory, sometimes several hundred square miles in area, which had clearly defined traditional boundaries.  They intimately know every bit of their homeland, every rock, every bush, and every notable variation of the terrain.  They knew exactly where different types of food could be found.  They often had to move their camp every few days.
Hunting was done with spears and bows and arrows.  Arrows were treated with a poison made from the pupa of a beetle, which could take several days to kill the prey.  After shooting, hunters waited two or three days, then tracked the wounded animal, hoping to find it dead.  One unlucky hunter was fully impaled on the long horn of an angry buffalo who wasn’t dead yet.  Amazingly, he survived.  Another time, hunters tracked a wounded wildebeest, and found it surrounded by 20 to 30 hungry lions.  Amazingly, they drove away the lions, finished off the animal, and carried the meat back to camp.
In the honey season, men climbed high into the trees to raid the hives, whilst being stung everywhere by a furious cloud of stingy bees.  There was a long tradition of fatal falls.  Hives that were frequently raided became fiercely defensive, viciously attacking all of the Bushmen on the ground, before the climbing began.  Honey was definitely not a free lunch.
Living in a harsh land, the Bushmen were very careful to sidestep the problems caused by overpopulation.  The stability of their society was more important than the survival of every newborn, and these cultural values enabled their way of life to be sustainable.  They believed that there was a period of delay between birth and becoming alive.  If the newborn was crippled or deformed, it was promptly buried and forgotten.  When conditions were strained, and it was not possible to feed more mouths, newborns were not kept.  The Bushmen had no tools for contraception or abortion.  To avoid the pain of infanticide, they frequently abstained from intercourse for long periods of time, when there was room for no more.  Usually, childbirth was a joyful event, because the number of pregnancies was voluntarily limited.
Thomas described the ongoing soap operas of camp life, and the inevitable friction that developed among people who lived in close contact with others all the time.  Camp life was not a never-ending love fest.  But great care was taken to avoid conflict, and to promptly defuse and resolve conflicts.  Belongings were constantly kept in circulation via gift-giving to avoid jealousy.  The fundamental keys to their success were cooperation and sharing.
She presented us with a fascinating description of thriving in a challenging land.  Bushmen life seemed to be far less dismal than life in corporate cubicle farms.  Bushmen enjoyed healthy, satisfying, and meaningful lives, despite their lack of televisions, computers, cell phones, automobiles; despite being a cruelly persecuted minority; despite being surrounded by lions and leopards who enjoyed having children for lunch; despite the blast furnace summer days when the sand burned their feet.  Life was good.  They had what they needed.
Thomas published her book in 1961.  She returned to the region in 1986 and 1987 and discovered that the Bushmen had been blindsided by what is called sustainable development (i.e., catastrophic destruction).  This inspired her to produce a revised edition, which was published in 1989, to bring us up to date.
The Bushmen had been driven off their land and forced into villages, where their superiors treated them like the scum of the Earth.  Their culture disintegrated into a nightmare of malnutrition, disease, alcoholism, homicide, and wage labor.  People quit sharing, ate in secret, and hid purchases.  
Thomas summed up the new reality:  “No Bushmen lack contact with the West and none is undamaged by it.  And their own way of life, the old way, a way of life which preceded the human species, no longer exists but is gone from the face of the earth at enormous cost to the individuals who once lived it.”  Welcome to industrial civilization!
Thomas, Elizabeth Marshall, The Harmless People, Vintage Books, New York, 1989.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Heart of the Hunter

Laurens van der Post (1906-1996) was born in South Africa and grew up to be a reporter, dairy farmer, soldier, writer, and television personality.  He was the godfather of Prince William, and was sometimes referred to as “Prince Charles’ guru,” because he was a mystical visionary with a wise old soul, quite skilled at thinking outside the box. 
He took great pleasure in creating fascinating stories intended to wake up people whose thinkers had fallen asleep.  The transformative power of his stories was far more important to him than 100% factual accuracy, and he sometimes “embellished” them to make them more forceful.  This was the storyteller’s job: creating amazing stories — not rigidly accurate scientific discourses.
Laurens was not universally loved by white South Africans, because he had an annoying habit of criticizing segregation, racism, and oppression.  He had special fondness for the Bushmen, who were sharply mistreated by everyone, both black and white.  Bushmen once inhabited all of southern Africa, but black and white newcomers drove them off their best lands, forcing them into the Kalahari Desert, an extremely harsh place. 
In 1955, Laurens did a documentary on the Bushmen for the BBC, and it was the second most popular program ever, only the queen’s coronation had a bigger audience.  He went on to write several books on Bushmen themes, including The Heart of the Hunter.  Passages from this book are often quoted by writers of the counterculture, because Laurens had profound respect for the ability of simpler societies to live lightly on the Earth, with great reverence.  He also had a robust contempt for modern industrial society, and he did not hesitate to express this.  He had a front row seat for World War II, and this adventure in industrial warfare took much of the shine off of civilization’s reputation.
Laurens introduced us to his beloved wild Bushmen, people of “irrepressible gaiety.”  One elder was “utterly at one with all the life that was and could ever be.”  Bushmen were incredibly in tune with nature, and could feel the presence of unseen animals.  They could sense danger from far away.  They could communicate telepathically.  They didn’t work hard, they didn’t have jobs, they didn’t have leaders, and they were free.  Free!  They had a culture that worked.  John Reader once wrote that the Bushmen were able to live in their ordinary manner during the third year of extreme drought that killed 180,000 people and 250,000 cattle. 
Unfortunately, the Bantu and European newcomers were farmers, herders, and assorted moneymakers — property freaks — and the way they treated Bushmen was similar to the relationship between Montana ranchers and prairie dogs.  Consequently, the Bushmen avoided all contact with the outside world, because the dominant culture treated them like sub-human vermin, or no-cost slaves, or future tax-paying peasants or diamond miners.
Laurens lamented modern society, with its vast hordes of property freaks, the tragic innocent victims of arrested development.  Because of our estrangement from nature, our minds had lost contact with core human instincts, we had lost our souls, we were starved for meaning, and we were mindlessly destroying system after system.  He decreed: “One look at the identical towns we are building all over the world ought to be enough to show us that this kind of progress is like the proliferation of a single cell at the expense of the rest, which produces the cancer that kills the whole body.” 
In 1961, Laurens did not think like the herd.  He celebrated wild freedom, and denounced the destructive insanity of industrial civilization.  Yet he was a popular and respected celebrity in Britain, and he sipped champagne with the richest and most powerful.  He was knighted in 1981, becoming Sir Laurens van der Post, an extraordinary achievement for someone who was so at odds with mainstream thinking.
The power of this book lies in its rebellious and unconventional attitude.  It’s OK to think.  It’s OK to question.  It’s OK to shout “Wolf!” when there are wolves as far as the eye can see.  It’s OK to be different, to prefer integrity over trendiness, to seek truth instead of mindless conformity.  If your heart is screaming about the senseless destruction of life on Earth, you aren’t crazy, you’re awake.  What’s crazy is our way of life, our culture.  This is an important concept to understand.
Creative people have a primary role to play in influencing the path of our society, because society permits them to think outside the box.  Popes, politicians, tycoons, and educators aren’t allowed to do this, because they have an obligation to protect and preserve the pathological belief system that is laying waste to the world.  Everything we need for healing can only be found outside the box, and creative people can help us find them, with luck.
The weakness of the book is that it doesn’t teach us a great deal about the Bushmen way of life.  Laurens knew few Bushmen, spent little time with them, and didn’t know their language.  The BBC documentary was almost aborted because Laurens and his team had a very hard time finding any Bushmen to film.  Finally they found one band, who allowed themselves to be seen, because they were close to dying from dehydration.  You could learn much more about the Bushmen by reading Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.
The Bushmen finally got their own official home when the Central Kalahari Game Reserve was created in 1961.  This Denmark-sized park was located in the middle of what is now Botswana.  But diamonds were discovered on the reserve in the early ‘80s, and this inspired the government to remove the Bushmen from their land.  In 2006, they won the right to return, but were forbidden to hunt or drink water.  In 2011, they won the right to drink water. 
Botswana promotes safari tours at the reserve, and this generates a lot of income for an extremely poor country.  Rich tourists want to enjoy a pure wilderness experience, gazing at giraffes from their hot tubs, and wild, naked, blood-spattered savages would simply spoil this demented fantasy.  Laurens would have a different opinion, of course.
van der Post, Laurens, The Heart of the Hunter, Harcourt Brace & Company, New York, 1961. 

Monday, March 5, 2012


I grew up across the street from a hardwood forest in Michigan.  When my family visited relatives in North Dakota, the vast wide open grasslands seemed so dry, empty, sad.  I just read Richard Manning’s book Grassland, and it was most illuminating — every chapter was rich with information that was new to me, and important to understand.  This book changed the way I think. 
There are four biomes in the ecosphere: tundra, forest, grassland, and desert.  Grasslands typically receive 10 to 30 inches of rain per year (20 to 60 cm).  Less than 10 inches is desert, and more than 30 is forest.  Generally speaking, there are two types of grasslands: tall grass (wetter) and short grass (dryer). 
Almost all of the original tall grass ecosystem in the US has been replaced with corn (maize), a domesticated tall grass that’s a magnet for government subsidy checks.  More of the original short grass ecosystem has survived, but much of it has been replaced with wheat, a domesticated short grass that generates better income than grazing. 
The process of converting grassland into cropland erased countless species of flora and fauna.  Healthy, diverse, soil-building wild ecosystems were replaced by soil-destroying, chemically-soaked, energy-guzzling monocultures of exotic plants — temporarily.  Today we beat the soil, and tomorrow the soil will beat us.  Plow cultures can never win in the long run.
Manning believes that climate change provided our hominid ancestors with a key to success.  An era of rising temperatures shrank the forests, and expanded the grasslands of sub-Saharan Africa, much to our benefit.  Grasslands produce far more meat than forests, and creatures that walk upright, and are taller than the grass, enjoy important advantages. 
Humans migrated into the Americas during the last Ice Age, when the sea level dropped, and the Beringia land bridge emerged.  Beringia was grassland.  Somewhere around the time of this migration, a number of large mammals went extinct, but not all of them.  Survivors included the bison, elk, deer, moose, grizzly bear, black bear, caribou, and antelope.  With the exception of the antelope, all of them migrated from Asia, and had long experience with living cautiously near humans.  The indigenous antelopes survived because they could run at speeds up to 70 miles per hour (112 kph), far faster than hungry spear-chuckers.  Wooly mammoths were not so quick.
Prior to the European invasion, this new cast of characters did a beautiful job of coevolving with the grassland ecosystem of the western US.  Manning suspects that there were about 50 million bison and 10 million elk in 1492.  The bison and elk were brilliantly able to feed themselves, fend off excessive predation, and enjoy satisfying lives — without fences, hay trucks, feed troughs, watering tanks, hormones, antibiotics, human managers, or huge government subsidies.
Today, the plains support 45.5 million cattle on the same land.  In the nineteenth century, western ranching tycoons began raising large herds of short-horned cattle from northern Europe.  The imported animals were accustomed to a moist climate, moderate summers, mild winters, and a diet that majored in forbs (broad leafed flowering plants).  But on the western plains, the climate was arid, summers were sizzling, winters were blast-freezers, and the vegetation majored in grasses, not forbs.  Frigid winters in 1885-86 and 1906-07 killed 50 to 75 percent of the cattle on the high plains — while the snow-frosted bison remained warm, well-fed, and secretly amused at the misfortune of the hapless newcomers.
Americans also imported thousands of species of exotic plants.  Cheatgrass is nearly nutrient-free, except in the spring, and it often wipes out and replaces nutritious indigenous vegetation.  Spotted knapweed spreads rapidly, and can suppress 95 percent of the grass.  Grazing animals won’t eat it.  Nor will they nibble on sulfur cinquefoil or leafy spurge.  Leafy spurge can completely dominate a landscape, reducing it to a biological desert.  Wildlife can die from malnutrition in places cursed with an abundance of exotics.  Killing invasive exotic vegetation is prohibitively expensive.  They are here to stay, and their plan is to spread.
To add insult to injury, we plowed up the tall grass prairies and planted corn, 70 percent of which is used to feed animals.  Corn makes cattle sick, but it fattens them for market faster, and makes a lot of rich people richer.  Today’s industrial corn production destroys the soil, pollutes the groundwater, encourages flooding, creates coastal dead zones, and countless other serious problems.  It’s not a process with a long term future.
The billionaire Ted Turner tried a different approach.  He bought the 110,000 acre Flying D ranch in Montana, sold off the cattle, tore down most of the fences, and brought in bison.  The bison cost half as much to raise, and sold for twice as much — while the health of the land improved at the same time.  Might there be an important lesson here?
Manning serves us story after story — the downside of horse domestication, the extermination of the buffalo, the ethics of animal rights thinkers, prairie restoration projects, the disasters caused by railroads and steel plows, the Dust Bowl, the fabulous damage caused by wheat farming on the Palouse Prairie, and on and on.  It’s an intriguing collection of ideas.
Here’s the bottom line.  Prior to 1492, the plains Indians had learned how to live with nature in a relatively balanced manner.  The Europeans, on the other hand, tried to manage the American ecosystems to work just like Europe.  Unfortunately, the European design was a time-proven disaster in Europe, and everywhere else it was tried.  The moral of the story is that winners learn how to live with nature, and losers try to control it and exploit it.  Losers repeatedly crash and burn, and they display a remarkable inability to learn from their mistakes.
All of the venerable visionaries of the west are unanimous in predicting a future of change.  Peak Cheap Energy will put the forks to industrial agriculture, and many other things.  Vast expanses of monoculture corn will follow the wooly mammoths — as will generous government subsidy checks, and maybe the government, too.  The Ogallala aquifer will be empty before long.  Grassland just may have a bright tomorrow.  Let’s hope so.
Manning, Richard, Grassland, Viking, New York, 1995.