Monday, August 26, 2013

Greenland Dreams

I recently took a mental voyage to Greenland, which began when I read Knud Rasmussen’s book, The People of the Polar North, published in 1908.  Rasmussen (1879–1933) was born and raised in Greenland, the son of a Danish minister and his Danish-Eskimo wife.  Most of Knud’s buddies were Eskimos (Inuit), and he fluently spoke both languages.  The family moved to Denmark when Knud was 14, and he soon realized that the wild frontier was far more healthy and alive than the noisy crazy crowds of civilization.

At the age of 23, he eagerly returned to Greenland.  His mission was to document the little known culture and history of his people, before they were overwhelmed by the intense madness of modernity, or driven to extinction by disease.  He had absolute respect for the indigenous culture, and he excelled at getting the wild people to trust him with their stories.  Reading this book struck some deep ancestral chords.  It was a magic portal into a saner and healthier world.  Stories like this are good medicine.  They put things in a clearer perspective.

In those days, Greenland was intensely alive — birds, fish, whales, seals, walruses, reindeer, bears — a precious treasure of abundance and vitality that is beyond the imagination of contemporary minds.  The spiritual realm of the Eskimos embraced the entire family of life, a realm in which humans were no more significant than lemmings or lice.  Humans were not the dominant animal, and Eskimo culture was perfectly free of self-important gods and goddesses.  Everything was alive, and all were related.

In the old days, all things animate and inanimate were alive, and all beings were able to communicate with each other.  People could change into bears, and bears could change into people.  There were far fewer boundaries.  Every community had at least one shaman, and he or she was kept busy attending to the affairs of the spirit world.  They understood the mysteries of hidden things, and had power over the destinies of men.  Rasmussen always sought out the shamans in his travels.

The Eskimos did not have permanent homes; they followed the food.  One group regularly waited for the walruses to come ashore at Taseralik, usually in September.  The huge slow-moving animals were sitting ducks on the rocks, and up to 50 were killed per hour.  The clan spent the long dark winters there, hunting for seals, and dining on the meat and fish they had stored.  In April, when the ice began breaking up, they moved to the mouth of the Ström Fjord, and hunted seal and walrus.  In June, they moved to Iginiarfik and caught capelin, small fish like smelt.  Then they returned to Taseralik to catch halibut.

Living near the Arctic was challenging for two-legged mammals that evolution had fine-tuned for living in the tropics.  By far, Eskimos were the most high-tech subsistence hunters that ever lived.  In open waters, they hunted and fished in kayaks and umiaqs.  When it was time to move camp or visit other villages, they traveled across the ice on dogsleds, which required thick ice.  There were many times when thin ice appeared to be thick ice, and this illusion shortened many lives.  During the long, dark winters, the average temperature was -25° F (-31° C).

Sila, the weather, was a power that dominated Eskimo life.  Greenlanders did not spend their days staring at cell phones, because Sila would blow them away with 150 mph (240 kph) winds, or bury them in sudden avalanches, or wash them away with flash floods, or drown them in stormy seas, or melt the ice they were sledding across.

There was also Nerrivik (“the food dish”), the woman at the bottom of the sea, who ruled the beings of the water world.  She was a moody power, and she often withheld the seals from hungry hunters.  When this happened, shamans were required to journey into her world, tidy her hair, and calm her down.

Rasmussen’s buddy, Peter Freuchen, took a nap during a storm when the temperature was -60° F (-51° C).  When he awoke, his feet were frozen.  This cost him a leg.  Rasmussen told the story of Qumangâpik, who had four wives and 15 children.  The first wife froze to death, the second was buried by an avalanche, the third died of illness, and the fourth froze to death.  Of his 15 children, one starved, four were frozen, and five died of illness.  Qumangâpik froze to death, with his wife and two little children.  Three of his kids outlived him.

In Greenland, it was ridiculously easy to die from brief lapses of attention or the fickle whims of luck.  When they ran out of meat, they ate their dogs.  Then they ate corpses.  Sometimes they killed and ate the weak.  Many times, everyone died.  They did not rot away in nursing homes.  For those who became a burden on the clan, the ride was soon over.  You were either strong and healthy, or you found enjoyment in the afterlife, which was a good place.  There was no Hell for heathen Eskimos.

There was no television, radio, internet, or cell phones.  There were no malls, roads, or cities.  There was no money.  There were no rich or poor.  Nobody starved unless everyone starved.  There were no lawyers, soldiers, farmers, herders, police, politicians, pimps, prostitutes, salespersons, miners, loggers, fashion models, or recreational shoppers.  Eskimos were purely wild and free people, living in a wild and free land, like undamaged human beings.

Eskimos pitied (and giggled at) the Danes, because they suffered from hurricane minds — they never stopped thinking.  Rasmussen once observed an Eskimo who appeared to be deep in thought.  Knud asked him what he was thinking about, and the man laughed.  The only time we think is when we’re running low on meat.  Their language included no tools for discussing abstractions or ideas.  They rarely made plans for tomorrow.  They warmly glowed with “an irresponsible happiness at merely being alive….” 

I also read Gretel Ehrlich’s book, This Cold Heaven, published in 2001.  She was an American who had made several extended visits to Greenland between 1993 and 1999.  She was fascinated by Rasmussen’s stories, and had read the 6,000 pages of his expedition notes.  The chapters of her book flip-flop between discussions of Knud’s life, and descriptions of the folks she met while visiting Greenland.

The recent decades had not been kind for Greenland, as the cancer of a cash economy spread, taking a heavy toll on the remaining wildlife.  But compared to her California home, it seemed like paradise.  Her friend Maria told her, “It’s too bad for you when you visit Greenland, because then you have to keep going back.  When you have been with those people — with the Inuit — you know that you have been with human beings.”

Robert Peary went to the North Pole in 1909.  Like many white lads, the incredible beauty of Inuit women inspired him, with immense throbbing excitement, to toss his Christian virtues to the wind.  In 1997, Ehrlich met two of his granddaughters at Thule.  They lamented that when the Europeans stomped ashore in 1721, there were 16,000 wild heathen souls in all of Greenland.  It wasn’t long before the population fell to just 110, thanks to smallpox.  Now there are 60,000, thanks to the industrial food system.

When Rasmussen traveled across northern Canada in the 1920s, he reported a vast herd of migrating caribou that took three days to pass.  During the warm months, the skies of Greenland were filled with millions of migrating birds that came to nest on rocky islands.  Happy people harvested many birds and eggs.  In 1933, the birds got their revenge.  Kivioq was an Arctic delicacy, consisting of dead auks stuffed into seal gut and allowed to rot for two months.  Rasmussen died from salmonella poisoning after gobbling down a bowl of it.  Urp!

Today, the era of nomadic living is over.  In 1995, the village of Uummannaq was home to 1,400 people and 6,000 dogs.  All settlements reeked of “dog shit, seal guts, and unwashed bodies.”  Epidemics of distemper periodically hammered down canine overpopulation.  Dogs were kept chained all the time, except on hunting trips.  Male dogs that broke free were a public nuisance, and it was the village dogcatcher’s job to simply shoot them on sight.

Ehrlich went on a few hunting trips, riding on a dogsled across the ice.  It felt like a prehistoric experience, but there was one huge difference.  The harpoons and bows had been replaced by high-powered rifles.  It was now far easier to kill seals and polar bears from a distance. 

People no longer hunted and fished for subsistence alone.  In addition to food and furs for their family, they also needed surplus, to pay for electricity, phones, ammunition, heating oil, groceries, computers, cigarettes, alcohol, etc.  The more wildlife they destroyed, the more money they could make, and the more cool stuff they could buy.  This vicious cycle grew into a mass hysteria.  Many people were hunting and fishing as if they were the last generation.

Trouble was born when the Danes first laid eyes on a thriving ecosystem.  Their civilized brains began spinning with excitement, calculating how much wealth could be reaped by exterminating Greenland’s wildlife.  It was impossible for their minds to contemplate the notion of turning around, going home, and leaving the Eskimos in peace.  

Even if the Eskimos had promptly hacked the first missionaries and traders into dog food, they were powerless to prevent the heavily-armed Danes from gang-raping their paradise, and poisoning their ancient culture with the insanity of mindless materialism.  When guns, knives, pots, and matches became available at trading posts, few wild folks anywhere rejected them.  We have a weakness for tools. 

Shortly after Ehrlich’s book was published, a mob of wildlife advocates discovered the reckless destruction in Greenland, and commenced to yowl and bellow.  Greenland shrugged.  It is, after all, the twenty-first century.

PS: In 1972, eight Eskimo mummies were discovered at Qilakitsog.  They date to 1460 AD, and were remarkably well-preserved by freeze-drying, including their clothing, tattoos, and even their lice.

Rasmussen, Knud, The People of the Polar North, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., London, 1908.

Ehrlich, Gretel, This Cold Heaven — Seven Seasons in Greenland, Pantheon Books, New York, 2001.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Living Within Limits

Garrett Hardin (1915-2003) was famous for an essay, The Tragedy of the Commons, written in 1968.  He thought that folks who kept their cattle on common lands had little concern for the condition of the pasture, while private pastures befitted from the careful stewardship of wise ranchers.  In 1998, in response to critics, he published The Tragedy of the Commons — Extension, in which admitted that a better title for his essay would have been The Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons.

I was unsure of his message.  Everyone understands that privately owned cropland is degraded with every pass of the plow, year after year, despite being managed by government rules and regulations.  Private land is often permanently ruined by mining and manufacturing enterprises.  Maybe the root of the tragedy was our civilized mindset — nature was created for human use, and the future doesn’t matter.

For years, I dismissed Hardin as a free enterprise gadfly.  I discovered I was wrong when I read Living Within Limits.  He was an enthusiastic critic of economic growth and population growth.  In this book, Hardin had a heroic goal — radically reforming industrial civilization before it disintegrated.  He read mountains of books, and generated an enormous stream of rational ideas and recommendations.

He plowed through multiple editions of Malthus, and concluded that the good Reverend was 95 percent right, which delighted me.  Hardin summarized the message of Malthus as, “Disaster is a natural outcome of perpetual population growth, but disaster can be forestalled if society can find the will to put an end to population growth.”  Poor Malthus has been widely hated for 200 years, most commonly by those who have never read him.  His great sin was in questioning the trendy belief that civilization was in the fast lane to utopia, where humankind would achieve flawless perfection.

Hardin learned that enlightening the befuddled world was a frustrating endeavor.  Questioning sacred norms instantly turned you into a dangerous nutjob.  Alas, the modern world was as rational as a loony bin — despite the fact that we were the most highly educated generation that ever walked the Earth.  The notion that there were limits was impossible to accept.  He believed that the only thing that’s truly limitless is debt.

Here we are, well into the twenty-first century, still pissing away billions of dollars in the ridiculous pursuit of colonizing other planets.  We need more space to grow, more resources to mine, fresh ecosystems to destroy.  Would you volunteer for a 400-year voyage in a small metal capsule?

Here we are, still feverishly determined to pursue economic growth by any means necessary.  Almost all economists suffer from the hallucination that endless economic growth is possible and desirable; resources are infinite.  The sun is setting on the cheap energy bubble, which will eventually bring growth to a halt, and shift it into reverse.  Well, let’s not think about that.

Here we are, several years beyond the peak of the global production of conventional oil, paying no attention to the foreseeable challenges ahead — production will continuously decline, whilst prices will continuously rise.  M. King Hubbert, a Shell Oil geologist, predicted this in 1948, and the crowd chuckled.  Hardin included a stunning graph that charts annual energy use, from 5,000 years past, to 5,000 years forward.  At the center of this 10,000 year timeline appears one icicle-shaped spike, lasting a few hundred years, then dropping back to normal (a chart of population would look about the same).  Of all the oil we will ever consume, 80 percent of it will have been extracted during a 56-year binge, roughly from 1969 to 2025.  Let’s not think about that.

Here we are, still refusing to seriously consider the huge problem of overpopulation.  Our boundless optimism has no doubt that miraculous technology will solve any problem.  For almost the entire hominid journey, the rate of population growth has been close to zero.  The rate rose a bit when ancestors got interested in tools, it rose more with the advent of agriculture, and it skyrocketed during the fossil fuel disaster — a reality that we consider to be normal.  Hardin imagined that we will be happier when the herd shrinks to a half billion or so, as it was in 1492.

The problem is that, one by one, we’ve eliminated many of the controls that used to keep our population in balance.  We killed off most man-eating predators.  We developed a food production system that reduces the risk of famine.  We built sanitation systems to prevent pandemics of fecal-oral diseases.  We invented vaccinations and antibiotics to cure or prevent contagious diseases. 

The remaining birth control options are voluntary, and Hardin insisted that voluntary efforts have always failed in the long run.  An effective solution can only be based on coercion.  We’re coerced to stop for red lights, aren’t we?  Talking about reproductive rights without equal regard for reproductive responsibilities is foolish.  Why hasn’t Congress fixed this problem already?

Hardin also detested immigration.  America is a high waste society, and it’s highly overpopulated.  Is it truly our obligation to care for everyone?  There are two billion poor folks in the world.  Shall we invite them all to join us?  Or, should we send them lots of food? 

Overpopulated poor countries are living beyond their carrying capacity, and this cannot not fixed by sending them food.  More food reliably results in even more hungry people.  Hardin thought this was dumb — we should simply mind our own business, let nature take its course, and allow balance to be restored.  He thought that the leaders of poor countries had an obligation to take responsibility for their overpopulation, and develop appropriate solutions.  It’s their job.

It’s been 20 years since Hardin’s book was published, and everything has rapidly gotten worse.  There is clearly a sense of frustration and despair in his words.  We’re heading for a bloody disaster, and nobody cares!  The problems are obvious, as are intelligent responses.  (Scream!) 

I used to feel that pain.  The pain was rooted in the expectation that modern society should behave in a rational manner, as we were taught in school.  I’ve since realized that this expectation was absurd and harmful.  We are who we are, and we’ll change when we run out of options.  The pain has faded. 

In theory, humankind is not fatally flawed.  Almost all of our ancestors lived in a relatively sustainable manner.  They developed voluntary methods of birth control that worked quite well.  Genetically, we are purebred hunter-gatherers, beautifully evolved for a low-impact life in the great outdoors.  Our experiment with civilization has been purely unnatural.  Our current problems emerged in the last few thousand years.  In theory, we can learn from our mistakes, and return to living in balance.  In the long run, it’s either balance or bye-bye.

By definition, an unsustainable population can only be temporary.  The same is true for continuous economic growth.  Time will fix these mistakes, with or without our assistance.  We should have listened to Hardin, but we didn’t, so we’ll leave more scars on the planet.  The scar of an unbalanced climate may not heal for a long, long time.  It’s quite possible that warming will force the human journey into a new and very different direction.  Should we think about it?

Hardin, Garrett, Living Within Limits — Ecology, Economics, and Population Taboos, Oxford University Press, New York, 1993.

Friday, August 9, 2013


The naked wild boy lived on his own, scampering around the jungle between Ahuachápan and Sonsonate, in El Salvador.  Villagers had been aware of him for a couple years, but efforts to catch him always failed.  He was a superb runner, swimmer, and tree climber.  Folks called him Tarzancíto (Little Tarzan).  The lad lived on a diet of wild fruit and raw fish.  He slept up in the branches to avoid becoming a warm meal for hungry predators.

When a woodcutter finally captured him in 1933, the boy was about five years old.  You must understand that Tarzancíto was not, in any way, delighted about his “rescue,” and he took every opportunity to escape.  He was a healthy, happy wild animal, and all he wanted to do was go back home, to the jungle.

He often attacked and bit his captors, but they were civilized people, and refused to let him go.  In their minds, it was intolerable to allow a young boy to be illiterate, unbaptized, naked, and free.  Proper young boys should understand words and numbers, sleep indoors, wear clothing, and eat cooked food on a clockwork schedule.  Tarzancíto hated this.

His life in the jungle had been enormously stimulating, because the land overflowed with an abundance of living beings, all of them fully alive, free, and dancing to the wild music of the big beat.  It was no different from living in paradise, because it was paradise.  Compared to the rapture of life in the jungle, life in a box in the village was crushingly empty, dull, and sad.

I think about Tarzancíto with great fondness.  The lucky lad was merely five years old, but he could live at one with the land, easily, confidently, and happily.  Indeed, the human journey originally began in a similar jungle, long, long ago.  The jungle is the womb of our species, our sacred home, the mother of our evolution.  Nutritious food was available year round, and we could enjoy a wonderful life without tools, weapons, clothes, fire, or cell phones.  We were simply ordinary animals, thriving in pure fairyland.

To this very day, all of our wild relatives in the family of life continue to exist as ordinary animals, living in a state of balance, innocence, and integrity.  Their populations are not exploding, they are not erasing vast forests, they are not poisoning the sacred waters.  Deer continue to live like deer, ducks continue to live like ducks, but most humans have forgotten how to live like humans.

The amazing thing is that all humans everywhere are still born as ordinary wild animals, ready for a thrilling life in the jungle.  Sadly, almost none of them are born into tribes of wild jungle people anymore.  Most are born into societies of consumers, where they are raised to be the opposite of wild, free, and healthy.

Ordinary animals rarely get the respect they deserve.  Exactly what happened to the countless millions of mastodons, wooly mammoths, Irish elk, sabre tooth tigers, cave bears, aurochs, and on and on?  Everyone agrees that they were not driven to extinction by ordinary wild animals.  A number of reputable scholars have concluded that most or all of the megafauna were exterminated by human tool addicts, notably lads with the deadly new stone-tipped lances — creatures that had abandoned ordinary, and had come to live outside the laws of nature.

Long, long ago, our ancestors started farting around with simple tools of sticks and stones.  So did the ancestors of chimps.  The ancient chimps were blessed with good luck, and never swerved into the tool addict lane.  Yes, they used sticks to fish for termites, but this useful trick never mutated into a dependency.  Chimps can still survive perfectly well without termite sticks.  Our ancestors were not so lucky.  Gradually, across long spans of time, our cleverness with tools increased.  Eventually, we became highly addicted to them, and could no longer survive without them.

Our ancestors were not evil.  It was with good intentions that they innocently slid deeper and deeper into the technology trap.  They invented better hunting tools, killed more critters, and ate very well, for a while.  Their numbers grew to the point where they could not all fit in Africa anymore.  Many clans packed up and migrated to other continents, into challenging non-jungle ecosystems where it was impossible to survive without new and improved technology.  We are the only species that wears clothes.

It was inevitable that we would wake up one day with our backs up against the wall — too many humans, not enough wild food.  We started farting around with domestication, and our success with it was the most unlucky event in the entire human journey.  This led to the emergence of civilizations, insane societies obsessed with a single idea — perpetual growth.  These runaway trains doomed the long-term survival of far less destructive hunter-gatherer groups, most of which have now blinked out.

There’s a very important lesson here.  In a number of ways, we remain ordinary wild animals.  Like every other species, humans have almost no powers of foresight, because animals who live within the laws of nature have no need for foresight.  I could be gazing at a group of wooly mammoths right now, if only the inventor of the stone-tipped lance had the foresight to imagine the consequences of giving weapons of mass destruction to a gang of scruffy-looking illiterate longhaired rednecks.  Lions and tigers and bears have no need for long-term thinking, because they live in their natural manner.  They simply hunt with tooth and claw, an ancient time-proven method that doesn’t rock the ecological boat.

Likewise, the first farmers could not begin to imagine the catastrophic changes that their clever new stunt would unleash.  New innovations that provided short term benefits tended to be highly contagious.  If your neighbors adopted guns, horses, or corn-growing, you would be wise to do likewise, in order to survive.  Few hunter-gatherers refused knives, pots, or axes.  Bows and arrows spread to just about everywhere.  In the wake of stone-tipped lances, the disaster of technological innovation snowballed exponentially, and has yet to slow down.

Today, our civilized world is rolling and tumbling into a turbulent era of collapse, downsizing, and healing.  There are far too many of us, living far too hard, but the temporary bubble of abundant energy is thankfully moving toward its conclusion.  The remaining days of extreme madness are numbered.  It would be grand if this led to great awakening, and inspired us to explore better ways of living.  If humans manage to survive the coming storms, they would be wise to remember the lessons of Tarzancíto — live as simply as possible, joyfully.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Humans Who Went Extinct

Clive Finlayson is an evolutionary ecologist and a champion skeptic.  He routinely rejects theories based on no evidence, even if they are solidly supported by popular whims, like the widely held belief in the inferiority of Neanderthals.  What science now knows about human evolution is something like finding 100 pieces of a 10,000-piece puzzle.

Experts have a strong urge to fill in the blanks with their opinionated imaginations, an approach that is far from trusty.  The mindset of mainstream modern science worships Homo sapiens like Hitler worshipped Aryans — the master race — whilst the holy species rips the planet to shreds right before their eyes.  For 300,000 years, Neanderthals had the good manners to remain in balance with life, as did most of our ancestors.  Good manners are important.

The whims of Ice Age climate patterns are the primary reason why you and I are not gorgeous, sexy, brilliant Neanderthals today, admiring a passing group of wooly rhinos, in a healthy world where bison far outnumber people.  Finlayson’s book, The Humans Who Went Extinct, convinced me to reconsider my perception of the human journey.  Not many books do that anymore.

The era we live in, the 10,000 years of civilization, human domination, and ecocide, is but an eye blink in the long human journey.  Our era is a freak, because the climate has remained relatively warm and stable for an amazingly long time.  The pattern of the last 70,000 years has been a roller coaster of surprising climate shifts, from milder & wetter, to colder & drier.  Shifts could occur within a single lifetime.

When the glaciers grew, sea levels plunged, forests shrank, countless animals died, and some went extinct.  The deer and hippos fled or died, and were replaced by wooly mammoths, wooly rhinos, musk ox, and reindeer.  Sea levels 30,000 years ago were 120 meters (400 feet) lower than today.  You could walk from England to Holland.

The Younger Dryas cold snap lasted a thousand years, and ended 11,600 years ago.  Warm weather melted the glaciers, life migrated northward, forests returned, and the land was filled with abundant megafauna.  This was the last waltz for many cold-tolerant megafauna.  The breezes were filled with the yummy aroma of sizzling mammoth meat.

In the Middle East, the Natufian culture was developing a sedentary way of life that majored in harvesting the abundant wild cereal seeds.  Within a thousand years, folks were experimenting with the dangerous juju of cultivation.  Tragically, they could never begin to imagine the unintended consequences of their cleverness.

Many have pointed to agriculture as the father of our disaster.  Lately, I’ve been more inclined to point to tool addiction.  Hominids were able to move out of the forests and survive.  The savannah offered immense amounts of meat, but acquiring it with bare hands was not easy

Once you get started with innovation, is it possible to stop?  Yes.  The macaques of south Asia break open shellfish with stone axes — they have been tool addicts for ages, but their excellent manners and beautiful small brains protected them from being flushed down the toilet by the Technology Fairy.

The ancestors of the chimps evolved large canine teeth for dining on meat, whilst early hominids developed meat-processing tools instead.  Baboons hunt small animals without weapons.  Tool-free small-brained monkeys of the American tropics eat a wide variety of jungle critters.

Could large-brained humans ever comprehend the healthy consequences of living tool-free, like the monkeys?  There is something deliciously appealing about the notion of living in harmony for millions of years without psych meds and cell phones.

And now, the plot thickens.  The Ice Ages did not hammer Africa, Australia, or India.  These southern folks continued living in the traditional human manner, as low density, low impact hunter-gatherers.  Northerners, on the other hand, stumbled onto a new and dangerous path.

Almost everyone has seen an image of the Venus of Willendorf.  She was carved by a member of the Gravettian culture of early humans, which thrived across the chilly treeless plains of Europe, from 30,000 to 22,000 years ago.  They were clever folks who loved reindeer stew.  They lived in huts with frames made of mammoth bones, covered with hides.  They made textiles, baskets, kilns, jewelry, and figurines.  They painted the caves at Chauvet and Les Garennes.

Finlayson laments that we modern civilized folks suffer to this very day from the curse of the Gravettians, “who lost their own way and all sense of their Pleistocene heritage.”  It was these far-too-clever white folks who created the most diabolical invention of all time — (gasp!) the storage pit.

Southern folks enjoyed a warm climate, and a year-round food supply.  Most foods could not be stored, because they would soon spoil.  The crazy Gravettians lived in a frigid climate, where all you could see in any direction was endless empty steppe-tundra.  Food appeared occasionally, like when migrating herds of reindeer passed through.  When they did, the Gravettians hunted like crazy, and stored surplus meat in pits that they had dug in the permafrost.

Finlayson referred to these pits as dangerous toys.  “They had found ways of producing surplus, something almost impossible in warm climates, and with it emerged an unstoppable drive to increase rapidly in numbers.”  If some surplus was good, then more was better, and you could never have too much.  Abundant food led to growing numbers and bad manners.  Finlayson emphasizes that our nightmare actually began 30,000 years ago, and agriculture was merely its hideous grandchild.

Later, the weather warmed, and the megafauna were gone.  Descendants of the Gravettians tried hunting small game for a while.  They learned how to enslave herbivores, which led to domestication.  Instead of storing meat in storage pits, they stored living critters in grassy prisons.  Others began growing plants for food, and storing the harvest in granaries.  By and by, ecosystems fell under human control.  Agriculture opened the floodgates to explosive population growth.  We embarked on an insane vision of “taming the future.”

Countless cultures and species were blown off the stage by climate shifts.  Finlayson insists that luck may be the most important factor in the evolutionary process.  Oddly, if luck had made Neanderthals the winners, and they had the good manners not to invent psych meds and cell phones, and the world of today was an incredible paradise — we’d still be long overdue for a turbulent climate shift.

Reading this book, I was impressed by the incredible resilience of life.  Over and over again, forest ecosystems were wiped out and replaced with treeless ecosystems that later changed back to forest ecosystems.  Countless species disappeared in this exciting tilt-a-whirl ride of climate shifts, and countless species adapted and evolved.  Our ancestors nearly died out 73,500 years ago, following the Mount Toba eruption.  A few thousand survived.  Today we’re at seven-point-something billion.

This is a small book, but it is jammed with information.  We really can’t know who we are, and where we came from, if we don’t understand the turbulent sagas of the Ice Ages.  The end of our entire way of life is just a climate shift away.  In the past, it was a zigzag between cold and warm.  Future zigzags seem likely to be between warm and roasting.  Hang on to yer arses, and the best of luck to ye!

Finlayson, Clive, The Humans Who Went Extinct — Why Neanderthals Died Out And We Survived, Oxford University Press, New York, 2009.