Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Thinking Animals

Paul Shepard (1925-1996) grew up in rural Missouri, during a primitive era that lacked television, internet, and cell phones.  He was lucky to live in a community where progress had not yet erased the wildlife.  Young Paul was fascinated by wild animals.  He collected butterflies and bird eggs.  He hunted and fished.  He adored the great outdoors.  It was a happy time.

World War II hurled him into the mass hysteria of modernity.  He survived D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge.  He spent 20 years at Pitzer College, close to the monstrous megalopolis of Los Angeles.  During his lifetime, population tripled, and nuclear bombs turned cities into ashtrays.  It was easy to see that old-fashioned rural society was starkly different from the industrial nightmare.  Modern society was insane.  Why?  Shepard explored this question in Thinking Animals (and in all his other books).

Over the passage of millions of years, evolution gradually increased the intelligence of many species.  As predators got better at tracking, stalking, teamwork, and killing, the herbivores got better at being escape artists.  For this balancing act to work, predators had to be slightly more clever than prey.  If predators got too good at hunting, or prey got too good at escaping, the ecosystem would plunge into chaos.  For both teams, intelligence and awareness were essential.

Our two-legged ancestors were not natural born carnivorous predators like lions, tigers, and wolves.  The two-legs had to play two roles, hunter and prey.  This required them to have the aggressive mindset of stalkers and killers, as well as the hyper-awareness of delicious walking meatballs.

Living in a healthy ecosystem was vastly more stimulating than staring at glowing screens.  Everything was alive, intelligent, alert.  The sky, land, and water were filled with living things.  The air was rich with music and fragrances.  Paying complete attention was a full time job.  A jaguar might be hiding behind any rock.  Just over the hill, a group of deer might be taking a nap.

Forests were not an ideal habitat for hunters, because large herbivores did not eat wood or leaves.  Savannahs, on the other hand, were a yummy all-you-can-eat buffet of nutritious grasses and forbs.  Grasslands attracted mobs of herbivores, as well as their sacred partners, the carnivores that kept them in balance.

Without weapons, two-legs could not kill animals that were ferocious or speedy.  The spear was invented by Homo erectus, maybe two million years ago.  Maybe they were tired of eating frogs, grubs, bird eggs, and assorted carcasses.  Maybe they were tired of losing their kin to big cats. 

Armed with spears, they could kill big game and survive on the savannah.  Spears also enabled them to kill the man-eaters that kept them in balance — a devilish whirl into dark juju.  In so doing, they stepped outside the boundaries of evolution, and the balance it provided. 

And so, to avoid overhunting and overbreeding, the spear-chucking two-legs had to become self-regulating.  They had to live with utmost mindfulness, year after year, without fail.  Today, it’s obvious that two-legs are far better at overbreeding than self-regulating.  There are still a few wild tribes skilled at self-regulation, but they are not doing well in their struggle to resist obnoxious outsiders.

Shepard sidestepped this discussion of our fateful experiment with weapon technology.  Instead, he focused on the growth of big brains and human intelligence.  He believed that complex language played a major role in activating our developmental turbo-thrusters.  We kept getting smarter and smarter and smarter.  Wow!  It was amazing — for a while — until it got stuck in the muck.  By and by, too smart two-legs began goofing around with a fateful experiment in plant and animal domestication.

The core of Shepard’s message was that we evolved in a world where we were surrounded by a variety of wild animals, and this played a central role in the development of human intelligence.  A healthy wild ecosystem was a fantastic place to live.  We learned about everything.  We named everything, and complex language made it easy to transfer large amounts of vital information from one generation to the next.

Humans were odd in that their throbbing brains spent more than 20 years in their immature phase.  Year after year, they got bigger and smarter.  A quirky aspect of extended childhood was that the immature phase did not automatically graduate into the mature phase.  This required a kick.  Wild cultures used initiation ceremonies to guide youths through this transition.  Modern societies tend to flub this up.  Endless youth often leads to infantile behaviors, or to neurotic hardening, “where rigidity and protective shells make a grotesque parody of true maturity.”

For Shepard, everything was cool until the dawn of domestication, the rebellion against evolution.  The wild ecosystem was replaced by a manmade landscape inhabited by enslaved and castrated animals.  Folks began hallucinating that two-legs were the masters of the world.  Of course, the theory of evolution, made famous by Darwin, blew this foolish homocentric nonsense completely out of the water.  Two-legs, indeed, are animals, but most continue to strongly deny this most embarrassing fact.

Wild animals were fascinating to observe, and they taught our ancestors many skills for living on the land — concealment, stealth, stalking, tracking, ambush, and so on.  Critters lived perfectly well by their wits and abilities.  They had no desire to be our friends, nor any need for humans whatsoever.  They were wild, free, intelligent, and alert.

Domesticated animals were the opposite.  Wild traits were undesirable, so they were erased via selective breeding.  This resulted in pathetic, pudgy, dim-witted, docile mutants.  Unlike barnyard fauna, wild animals were only submissive in their immature phase.  Similarly, modern folks, deprived of growing up in a healthy wild ecosystem, fail to develop in a healthy way.  We have a strong tendency to retain infantile or adolescent tendencies long past childhood.  Many spend their entire lives in an immature state.

Today, our bodies and minds are the end product of millions of years of hunting, foraging, and studying nature.  Our genes are at home in the wild, and every newborn is a wild animal, eager to enjoy a life of wild freedom.  We cannot develop normally when we are raised in abnormal circumstances.  This damages us.  We become frustrated, alienated adults, lacking a confident sense of self.

In an effort to compensate, we buy pets.  “The very concept is unknown among most of the world’s pre-industrial peoples, except… by an affluent minority.  …Only in this perspective of the rarity of the pet does the pet explosion in modern cities take on its full strangeness.”  Pets may dull the pain of modern life, but “keeping pets is a hopeless attempt to resurrect crucial episodes of early growth that are lost forever.”

Healthy childhood development requires successfully accumulating a sequence of time-critical experiences.  Adult attempts to reconnect with their missing childhood wildness might be partially successful, at best.  “The mind, like the body, is an organ with multiple ripenings, and going back is a pathetic, exceedingly difficult undertaking.”  To bypass this mess, kids should be raised very close to nature.  “The point of this book is to assert that animals have a very large claim on the maturing of the individual and his capacity to think and feel.”

Thinking Animals was published in 1978.  Eighteen years later, Shepard published The Others, which took a fresh look at the subject.  It’s a better book, and easier to understand.  Shepard’s wife, Florence, wrote a warm essay celebrating Paul’s life.  Click here.

Shepard, Paul, Thinking Animals — Animals and the Development of Human Intelligence, University of Georgia Press, Atlanta, 1978.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Wisdom Sits in Places

Wal-Mart, McDonalds, Shell, Safeway, the highway matrix — everyone knows these culturally significant features of our landscape.  Less well known are the natural features of the land: the hills, prairies, ponds, and streams.  Our landscape watched the mammoths roam, it watched the furious madness of civilization, and it will watch the manmade eyesores dissolve into ancient ruins.

Waking up in the civilized world each morning is a jolt — jets, sirens, the endless rumble of machines.  Most of us live amidst hordes of two-legged tumbleweeds, nameless strangers.  We are the people from nowhere, blown out of our ancestral homelands by the howling winds of ambition and misfortune.  Our wild ancestors never lived here.  Carson McCullers wrote, “To know who you are, you have to have a place to come from.”

Pssst!  Over here!  I’ve found the entrance to another realm, a temporary place of refuge, an escape from the madness.  It’s called Wisdom Sits in Places, and it was written by Keith Basso (1940-2013), an ethnographer-linguist.  In 1959, he began spending time in the Apache village of Cibecue, in Arizona.  He discovered a culture that had deep roots in the land, and a way of living that was far from insane.

The Apache culture also had entrances to other realms.  Many places on their land had names, and many of these named places were associated with stories, and many of these stories had ancient roots.  Everyone in Cibecue knew the named places, and their stories.  The voices of the wild ancestors could be heard whenever the stories were told, and their words were always conveyed in the present tense.  “Now we are in for trouble!”  Past and present swirled together.

The stories were a treasure of time-proven wisdom.  They often provided moral messages that taught the virtues of honorable living, and the unpleasant rewards of poor choices.  When people wandered off the good path, stories reminded them of where this would lead.  They helped people to live well.  Because of the power in the stories, the natives said, “The land looks after the people.” 

Most scholars who spend time learning about other cultures were raised in the modern world of nowhere.  These experts would study languages, ceremonies, food production, clothing, spirituality, and so on — but they paid too little attention to the relationship between culture and place, because this notion was absent in their way of knowing.  Often, the reports they published were missing essential components.

From 1979 to 1984, Basso worked on a project that blew his mind.  The Anglo world had zero respect for sacred places when there was big money to be made.  But natives didn’t want their sacred places destroyed, so they hired experts to document their culturally significant sites.  Elders took Basso to see these places, and record their stories.  He created a map that covered 45 square miles, and had 296 locations with Apache place names.

Ruth Patterson told Basso about her childhood in the 1920s and 1930s.  In those days, families spent much time on the land, away from the village.  They herded cattle, tended crops, roasted agave, and hunted.  As they moved about, parents taught their children about the land.  They pointed out places, spoke their names, and told the stories of those places.  They wanted their children to be properly educated.

Apaches used historic stories for healing purposes.  Nothing could be more impolite than directly criticizing another person, expressing anger, or providing unrequested advice.  Instead, the elders used stories to “shoot” healing notions.  During a conversation, they would mention the names of places having stories that would be good for the wayward person to remember.  Then, hopefully, he or she would reflect on the stories, understand their relevance, and make the changes needed to return to balance.

One time, three wise women sat with a woman who was too sad.  The first wise woman spoke a sentence that mentioned a place name.  Then the second mentioned another place.  So did the third.  The sad woman recalled mental pictures of those places, and heard the ancestors’ voices speak the stories of those places.  She reflected on their meanings, and the clouds lifted.  She laughed.  This was a gentle, effective, and brilliant act of healing.  They called it “speaking with names.” 

One day, Dudley Patterson was talking about stories and wisdom.  Basso asked him, “What is wisdom?”  Patterson replied, “It’s in these places.  Wisdom sits in places.”  In a long and beautiful passage, he told Basso how his grandmother explained the pursuit of wisdom.  Everyone is different.  Some are smart, some are half-smart, but only a few achieve wisdom.  Wisdom is acquired via a long dedicated quest; no one is born with it.

When elders become wise, people can see them change.  They are calm and confident.  They are not fearful, selfish, or angry.  They keep promises.  They pay careful attention, always listening for the voices of the ancestors.  Patterson’s grandmother summed it up something like this:

“Wisdom sits in places.  It’s like water that never dries up.  You need to drink water to stay alive, don’t you?  Well, you also need to drink from places.  You must remember everything about them.  You must learn their names.  You must remember what happened at them long ago.  You must think about it and keep on thinking about it.  Then your mind will become smoother and smoother.  Then you will see danger before it happens.  You will walk a long way and live a long time.  You will be wise.  People will respect you.”

Years later, when Basso sat down to write his book, Cibecue had changed.  The road to the village had been paved, and there was a school, supermarket, medical clinic, and many new houses.  Big screen televisions were a new source of stories, sent from the spirit world of corporations, not ancestors.  People were spending far less time wandering about, old trails had grown over, and the younger generations were losing their connection to the land and its old-fashioned stories.  They preferred the new and useful information provided at school.

So, the book invites us to contemplate a society far different from our own.  It calls up ancient memories.  Everyone’s wild ancestors once lived in a way something like the Apaches.  It’s inspiring to remember this.  Observing the world from a tribal perspective allows us to realize how far we’ve strayed.  The people from nowhere are paying a terrible price for the frivolous wonders of modernity, and the wreckage it leaves behind.

Basso wrote, “We are, in a sense, the place-worlds we imagine.”  Prince Charles said it a bit differently:  “In so many ways we are what we are surrounded by, in the same way as we are what we eat.”  In the traditional Apache world, the people were surrounded by a beautiful culture that encouraged respect, caring, and wisdom.  In the modern consumer world, we’re surrounded by a wisdom-free nightmare of hurricane-force infantile energy reminiscent of a Godzilla movie.  But all hurricanes die.  Our Dark Age will pass.  Think positive!

Basso, Keith H., Wisdom Sits in Places, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1996.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Collapse of Western Civilization

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway are science historians, and they are hopping mad at folks who deny that humans are the primary cause of climate change.  Their outrage inspired them to write The Collapse of Western Civilization, which has been selling furiously in its first month on the market.  It’s a 112-page science fiction rant.

The story is a discourse on the Penumbral Age (1988-2093), written in 2393 by a Chinese historian.  The Penumbral Age was a time of paralyzing anti-intellectualism, when humankind failed to take action on an emerging climate catastrophe, which ended up sinking western civilization.  In presenting this story, the authors are rubbing the denialists’ noses in the steaming mess they created, similar to the process of housebreaking a crappy puppy.

By 1988, scientists could clearly see the approach of a huge storm, and they dutifully reported their findings.  They believed that once the public was informed, they would rationally do what needed to be done.  But the public shrugged, and the scientists were too dignified to run out into the streets, jump up and down, and scream warnings.  Also, the scientists were too conservative — temperatures ended up rising far more than they had predicted. 

Early in the twenty-first century, many more people could see the storm, but still nothing was done.  A dark villain moved to center stage — the carbon-combustion complex, a disgusting mob of slimy creeps who made a lot of money in activities dependent on burning fossil fuel.  They created think tanks that hurled excrement and insults at the annoying climate scientists.  Screw-brained economists hissed that government should take a long nap and let the invisible hand of the market magically make the bad stuff go away.  (My favorite line is, “The invisible hand never picks up the check.”)

And so, in a heavy fog of mixed messages, everyone resumed staring at their cell phones, and the world went to heck.  There were terrible storms and droughts.  The ice caps melted, and this opened the floodgates to the Great Collapse (2073 to 2093), when sea levels were eight meters higher (26 ft.).  Twenty percent of humankind was forced to move to higher ground during the Great Migration, about 1.5 billion people.  Thus, 100 percent of humankind would have been 7.5 billion — in 2073 — an amazingly high number!

I just let the cat out of the bag.  This book is a gusher of intoxicating hope and optimism.  While the Great Collapse blindsided the hopelessly rotten governments of the west, China did OK.  The wise leaders of the Second People’s Republic of China maintained a strong central government, free of corruption.  When sea levels rose, they quickly built new cities inland, in safe locations.  When leaders have integrity, miracles happen.

And it gets better.  In 2090, a female scientist in Japan created a GMO fungus that gobbled up the greenhouse gas doo-doo, the storm passed, and the survivors lived happily ever after.  Unfortunately, by that time, there was a total dieoff in Africa and Australia.  Luckily, the northern folks, who contributed heavily to the disaster, survived (minus the polar bears).

The authors note that it’s now too late to halt climate change; it’s time for damage control.  The whole thing could have been prevented if only we had rapidly shifted to non-carbon-based energy sources.  Really?  No expert with both oars in the water believes that renewable energy could ever replace more than a small portion of the energy we currently produce from non-renewable fuels.  If we phased out the extraction of fossil energy, our way of life would go belly up.  The status quo is a dead end, and rational change provides few benefits when it’s a hundred years too late.

Solar panels and wind turbines are not made of pixie dust, rainbows, and good vibes.  They are produced by high-impact industrial processes.  They require the consumption of non-renewable resources.  They produce energy that is used to temporarily keep an extremely unsustainable society on life support.  Hydropower dams are ecological train wrecks.  The authors lament that carbon-free nuclear energy became unhip because of a few wee boo-boos.

The book gives high praise to the precautionary principle, which is old-fashioned common sense with a spiffy title.  If you see an emerging problem, nip it in the bud.  If a new technology is not perceived to be 100 percent safe by a consensus of scientists, forget about it until its safety can be proven beyond all doubt.  Duh!  Common sense says that humankind made a huge mistake by ignoring the warnings of scientists in 1988.

The precautionary principle would also have blocked the development of nuclear technology.  It was spectacularly stupid to build 440 nuclear reactors before the wizards had a plan for storing the wastes, which remain highly toxic for more than 100,000 years.  By 2073, all of these reactors will be far beyond their designed life expectancy.  Decommissioning can take decades, and it can cost more than the original construction.  If the 440 reactors are not decommissioned before the grid shuts down, each will do a lively impersonation of Fukushima, and spew deadly radiation forever.  Or maybe they will be disastrously decommissioned by war, earthquakes, terrorists, or economic meltdown.

Imagine a graph that spans 4,000 years, from A.D. 1 to 4000.  The trend line is fairly flat, except for a brief 200-year period in the middle, which looks like a tall spike, as narrow and sharp as an icicle.  As I write in 2014, we’re very close to the tip of this icicle.  This spike is the petroleum bubble, and its trend line is nearly the same as the bubbles of food production, human population, and resource extraction.  What’s important to grasp here is that the way of life we consider normal is an extreme deviation in the 200,000-year human journey.  It’s a temporary abnormality, and it can never again be repeated.

Oil production is quite close to peak.  The huge deposits are past peak.  Today we are extracting oil from lean, challenging deposits, and the output is expensive.  Costs will rise, production will decline, and economies will stumble until Game Over, which seems likely well before 2050.  Industrial agriculture has an expiration date.  (See The Coming Famine by Julian Cribb.)

Unfortunately, after the peak, our carbon problems are not going to fade away in a hundred years.  The book imagines that the global temperature in 2060, fanned by positive feedback loops, will be 11° C warmer than in 1988.  It’s hard to imagine agriculture surviving such a huge transition, consequently a population of 7.5 billion in 2073 seems impossible.  While the authors wring their hands about rising sea level, Brian Fagan (in The Great Warming) warns that the far greater threat of warming is megadroughts, like one in California that began in A.D. 1250 and lasted 100 years.

The bottom line here is that, even if our enormous carbon emissions were perfectly harmless, we have created such a cornucopia of perplexing predicaments that the coming years are certain to be exciting and memorable.  By definition, an unsustainable way of life can only be temporary.  It’s fun to dream, but I have a hunch that reality may not fully cooperate with the story’s imaginary hope and optimism.  Reality bats last.

Oreskes, Naomi and Conway, Erik M., The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future, Columbia University Press, New York, 2014.