Friday, July 31, 2015

A Sand County Almanac

Aldo Leopold’s book, A Sand County Almanac, is near the top of many lists of environmental classics.  It was published in 1949, and has sold over two million copies.  He was born in Iowa in 1887, when Earth was inhabited by just 1.4 billion humans.  It was an era before radio, television, automobiles, airplanes, computers, DDT, nuclear fission, and antibiotics.  Most roads were dirt.  Vast ancient forests still thrived.  On the first page, Leopold informs us that this is a book for people who cannot live without wild things.

Part one is a series of twelve sketches, one for each month.  They describe how the land changes during the circle of the seasons — the return of the geese, the mating ritual of the woodcocks, the rutting of the deer, the bloody snow where predators snatched prey.  They describe what life was like in simpler times, before the sprawl, the malls, the highways, the tsunami of idiotic consumer crap.  People were more in touch with the life of the land, because it had not yet been deleted.

In 1935, Leopold bought a farm in Wisconsin.  The previous owner had tried and failed to make a living tilling the lean sandy soil.  The place was cheap, far from the highway, worthless to civilization, but a precious sanctuary for a nature-loving professor.  Luckily, the soil mining enterprise perished quickly, before it had time to exterminate the wildness.

Leopold loved the great outdoors.  He loved hiking and hunting.  Birds fascinated him.  He spent many years working for the U.S. Forest Service, and later became a professor of Game Management at the University of Wisconsin.  Sadly, he lived in a culture that was waging full-scale war on nature, and this drove him mad.  It was so senseless.  During his life, the population had grown from 1.5 to 2.4 billion, an era of staggering out of control disruption.

Part two presents observations, made in assorted times and places, about the damaged relationship between Americans and nature.  This relationship was often abusive, because it lacked love.  There often was no relationship at all.  Many folks had no sense of connection to the rest of the family of life.  For them, nature was nothing more than a treasure chest of resources that God created for the amusement of ambitious nutjobs.

Leopold was saddened by the trends.  He learned to never revisit places that had amazed him in his youth.  It was too painful to see the damage that commerce and tourism were tirelessly inflicting.  It was best not to turn sweet memories into heartbreaking nightmares.

He was raised in an era when it was perfectly normal to kill wolves, coyotes, and other predators at every opportunity.  These “vermin” killed too many game animals, depriving hunters of their rightful harvest.  The most famous essay in this book is Thinking Like a Mountain.  Having just shot a wolf, the gunman noticed a fierce green glow in its eyes.  With the wolves eliminated, the deer multiplied in numbers, stripping the vegetation off the mountain, and wrecking the ecosystem.  Deer lived in fear of wolves, and the mountain lived in fear of deer.

Part three is essays describing the need for a land ethic.  Cultures have ethics to define right and wrong.  Traditionally, these defined person-to-person interactions, or the interactions between individuals and society.  Leopold lamented that American culture lacked a land ethic, rules for living with the natural world, the family of life.  In our culture, as long as the land was not claimed and defended by someone else, you were free to do whatever you pleased.

Mainstream education was close to useless, because it was incapable of recognizing the glaring defects in the mainstream worldview.  It loaded young minds with the crash-prone software of infantile self-interest.  Generation after generation was being programmed to spend their lives as robotic servants to our economic system.  The education system and the economic system were the two primary threats to the health of the land.  Today, 65 years later, the lunacy has become a roaring hurricane.  Leopold would be horrified and furious.

Leopold was a pleasant lad, glowing with love for the natural world, and a gifted storyteller.  But this should not be the only ecology book you ever read.  Since 1949, there has been an explosion of research in anthropology, archaeology, ecology, and environmental history.  Many important discoveries have been made about hunter-gatherers, agriculture, deforestation, civilization, finite resources, climate change, and ecological sustainability.  Today’s deep ecologists will sneer at a few statements in the book, but in 1949, no one was more radical than Leopold.

At the time, he knew we were on a bad path, and we needed to pay serious attention to where it was taking us.  He clearly understood what we needed.  He wrote, “Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.  He was sketching out a concept now known as ecological sustainability.  Here’s his land ethic in a nutshell: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”  Great!

Since the book was published, population has skyrocketed from 2.4 to 7.3 billion.  Our leaders, educators, and the vast human herd remain lost in a dream world where perpetual growth is the only channel on the glowing screens.  This story has paralyzed our culture, and condemned our descendants, but it’s running out of time.  Hopefully, in its aftermath, important lessons will be learned and never forgotten.

Leopold’s book was written “for people who cannot live without wild things.”  As the swelling mobs surge into vast cities, our disconnection from wild nature is almost complete.  We have forgotten who we are, and where we came from.  Well, we’re wild animals, and we came from wild nature, like every other critter.  Darwin revealed this embarrassing secret, but it still makes us uncomfortable, since it clashes with our deepest, darkest myths, our grandiose illusions of superiority.

These anthropocentric myths have ancient roots in every civilized culture, and they are like venomous brain worms that turn us into planet thrashing monsters.  In 1949, few expressed doubts about these myths, but Leopold did.  He was a flaming radical in his day.  He often dreamed that the progressive movement would eventually grow, flourish, and address the primary challenges of our time, but reality hasn’t cooperated.

His vision of a land ethic would have been a first step, but not a miraculous cure.  No other animal needs a formal system of rules and regulations to discourage self-destructive behavior.  Like our chimp and bonobo cousins, the others have never forgotten who they are, or how to live.  Thinking like an animal has worked perfectly for millions of years.  Thinking like a conqueror has been a disastrous failure.

Leopold, Aldo, A Sand County Almanac, Oxford University Press, New York, 1989.  [1949]

Tuesday, July 21, 2015


McKenzie Funk’s book, Windfall, explores the question, “What are we doing about climate change?”  Readers are introduced to ambitious speculators who are eager to make enormous profits on new opportunities resulting from a warming planet.  They are not investing in research for sharply reducing carbon emissions.  They are obsessed with keeping the economic growth monster on life support.  Climate change investment funds will soon become gold mines, creating a flood of new billionaires.  The future is rosy as hell.

Mining corporations are slobbering with anticipation as Greenland’s ice melts, providing access to billions of dollars worth of zinc, gold, diamonds, and uranium.  A defunct zinc mine, which operated from 1973 to 1990, provides a sneak preview of the nightmares to come.  The Black Angel mine dumped its tailings into a nearby fjord.  The zinc and lead in the runoff was absorbed by the blue mussels, which were eaten by fish, which were eaten by seals.  Investors won, the ecosystem lost.

Other entrepreneurs are anxious to turn the torrents of melt water into hydropower, providing cheap energy for new server farms and aluminum smelters.  Meanwhile, the tourism industry is raking in big money serving the growing swarms of disaster tourists.

As the Arctic ice melts, sea levels could rise as much as 20 feet (6 m).  A number of low-lying islands are already on death row — the Maldives, Tuvalu, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Seychelles, Bahamas, and the Carteret Islands.  Islanders are pissed that faraway rich folks are destroying their home.  Bath time is also predicted for large portions of Manila, Alexandria, Lagos, Karachi, Kolkata, Jakarta, Dakar, Rio, Miami, Ho Chi Minh City, and a fifth of Bangladesh.  There may be a billion climate refugees by 2050.

Five nations have shorelines on the icy Arctic Ocean: Canada, Russia, Norway, Denmark (Greenland), and the United States (Alaska).  Beneath the rapidly melting ice are billions of dollars worth of oil, gas, and coal.  We would be wise to leave this energy in the ground but, of course, we won’t.  There will be abundant testosterone-powered discussion over borderlines in the region, and this might include blizzards of bombs and bullets.  Both Canada and Denmark claim ownership of Hans Island.  Russia has planted a flag on the North Pole.

A melted Arctic will also provide a new shipping lane, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific, providing a much shorter and much cheaper alternative to the Panama Canal.  Both sides of the Northwest Passage are owned by Canada, but other nations, like the U.S. and China, disagree that Canada owns the waterway.  They prefer it to be an international route of innocent passage, like Gibraltar.  Funk took a cruise on the Montreal, a frigate of the Royal Canadian Navy.  They were engaged in Arctic war games, which included an exercise that seized a naughty American ship.

The core driver of climate change is simple: “add carbon, get heat.”  As carbon emissions skyrocket, so does the temperature of the atmosphere.  We can’t undo what has already been done, damage that will persist for centuries, but it would be rather intelligent to quit throwing gasoline on the fire.  Unfortunately, the titans of capitalism have a different plan.  Renewable energy cannot power our nightmare, and environmental activism has failed.  Governments are careful to ignore the prickly issue, because voters delight in living as wastefully as possible.  Technology is our only hope.

Cutting emissions would blindside our way of life (and so will not cutting emissions).  But cleverly adapting to climate change will greatly enrich the titans, temporarily.  There’s growing interest in seawalls, storm surge barriers, and floating cities.  Israelis are making big money selling snowmaking and desalinization equipment.  Biotech firms are working like crazy to produce expensive drought resistant seeds.  India is building a 2,100 mile (3,380 km) fence along its border with Bangladesh, to block the flood of refugees that are expected when rising seas submerge low-lying regions.

Others dream of making big money creating monopolies on the supply of freshwater, which is diminishing as the torrents of melting ice rush into the salty oceans.  There are two things that people will spend their remaining cash on, water and food.  Crop yields are sure to drop in a warming climate.  This will lead to rising prices, and create exciting opportunities for profiteering.  A number of wealthy nations are ruthlessly acquiring cropland in third world regions.

Funk visited Nathan Myhrvold, a Microsoft billionaire, who now runs Intellectual Ventures.  His plan is to keep economic growth on life support by creating a virtual volcano called StratoShield.  Volcanoes spew ash into the atmosphere, which reduces incoming solar heat, and cools off the climate.  StratoShield would spray 2 to 5 million metric tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere every year.  This would make the sunlight one percent dimmer, and enable life as we know it to continue, with reduced guilt, for a bit longer (maybe) — hooray!

Funk also visited Alan Robock, who opposes the plan.  Volcanic ash is not harmless.  The goal of StratoShield is to block heat.  The catastrophic side effect is that it’s like to severely alter rain patterns in the southern hemisphere, spurring horrendous droughts, deluges, and storm systems.  On the bright side, life in Microsoft country, the Pacific Northwest, would remain fairly normal, and the sulfur dioxide sunsets would be wonderfully colorful.

Funk didn’t mention that the geoengineering, if it actually worked, would have to be done permanently.  Beneath the shield, ongoing emissions would continue to increase the atmosphere’s carbon load.  If the shield was discontinued, and full sunlight resumed, the consequences would not be pleasant.

Myhrvold’s former boss, Bill Gates, is running a foundation that’s spending billions of dollars to eradicate disease.  The mosquitoes of the world are nervous, fearing near term extinction.  The foundation is dedicated to promoting the wellbeing of humankind.  Oddly, it has spent nothing on research to cut carbon emissions.  Folks will be spared from disease so they can enjoy drought and deluge.  There is no brilliant win/win solution.  The path to balance will be long and painful.

Funk finished his book in 2012, a very hot year for climate juju all around the world.  He had spent six years hanging out with tycoons, “the smartest guys in the room.”  All were obsessed with conjuring highly complex ways of making even more money by keeping our insane civilization on life support, for as long as possible, by any means necessary.

Climate change is a manmade disaster, and those most responsible are the wealthy consumers of the north.  Funk imagines that the poor folks of the south will be hammered, while the primary perpetrators remain fairly comfortable.  It’s a wicked problem because “we are not our own victims.”  We feel no obligation to reduce our emissions or consumption.  We care little about misery in far away places. 

I am not convinced that the north will get off easy.  Anyone who spends time studying the Earth Crisis will eventually conclude that humans are remarkably clever, but pathologically irrational.  We’ve created a reality far too complex for our tropical primate brains.  We’ve created a culture that burns every bridge it crosses.  Funk reminds us that, “We should remember that there is also genius in simplicity.”  I agree.

Funk, McKenzie, Windfall — The Booming Business of Global Warming, Penguin Press, New York, 2014.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Future

Al Gore’s book, The Future, is fascinating and perplexing.  The world is being pummeled by enormous waves of change, and most are destructive and unsustainable.  What should we do?  To envision wise plans, it’s important to know the past, and understand how the present mess evolved.  The book presents a substantial discussion of six megatrends that are influencing the future:

EARTH INC is the global economy, dominated by a mob of ruthless multinational corporations.  It’s pushing radical changes in the way we live, work, and think.  Many leaders in the world have become its hand puppets, shamelessly selling influence in exchange for treasure and power.  Earth Inc. is the monster that’s killing the ecosystem.

GLOBAL MIND is the worldwide web that enables communication between people everywhere.  Two billion now have access to it.  It provides access to a cornucopia of fresh information — knowledge from sources outside the walls of culture and propaganda.  The Global Mind is our single hope for inspiring rapid, intelligent, revolutionary change.

BALANCE OF POWER is changing.  Following World War II, the world was happy, as America provided virtuous leadership that helped maintain stability in the world.  Today, the U.S. is no longer respected.  Power is shifting away from Western nations to new powerhouses, and from national governments to corporate interests.

OUTGROWTH is the explosion of unsustainable growth in almost everything — population, pollution, consumption, soil mining, water mining, extinctions, and on and on.  Earth Inc. is fanatically obsessed with perpetual growth, and aggressively flattens anything that stands in its path.  Bummer growth must be replaced with the benevolent growth of Sustainable Capitalism.

LIFE SCIENCE is providing us with technology to manipulate biological processes in new ways.  We’ll cure more diseases and live much longer.  Our ability to deliberately alter the genes of any living organism allows us to play a significant role in controlling the planet’s evolutionary journey.  Of course, evolution must be manipulated cautiously, to avoid embarrassing calamities.

THE EDGE is the catastrophically dysfunctional relationship between humankind and the ecosystem.  On the down side, trashing the atmosphere and climate has created a monster we cannot control.  On the plus side, it’s inspiring many enlightened efforts to guide civilization back into balance with the ecosystem.

Al Gore is a charming lad with a good sense of humor.  The son of a senator, Gore has spent much of his life amidst the barbarian tribes of Washington.  He eventually became the vice president and a wealthy tycoon.  While at Harvard, one of his professors was a pioneer in climate change research, a big juju subject, and a primary influence on Gore’s career path.  Gore is a senior advisor to Google, and a board member at Apple.  He is exceptionally well informed about the digital world, climate change, ecological challenges, global politics, and the shenanigans of the rich and powerful.

In the book, Gore sometimes jabbers like a politician giddy with optimism.  Yes, things are a big mess, and the status quo is in need of speedy, intelligent, radical reform.  We can fix it!  Politicians rarely win elections when their objective is damage control (Jimmy Carter’s mistake).  The way to win is to wear a big smile and promise hope, solutions, and better days ahead.  I sometimes wonder if damage control might accomplish more.

Much of the book is impressive, but its optimism for the future is not well supported by compelling arguments and evidence.  Readers learn that it’s not too late to nip climate change in the bud.  We simply need to reduce greenhouse emissions by 80 to 90 percent.  But how could we do this without blindsiding the system that enables the existence of seven-point-something billion people?  Easy!  Create a carbon tax.  Shift subsidies from fossil energy to renewables.  Require utilities to use more alternative energy.  Create a cap and trade system.  If every nation eagerly did this next week, our worries would be over.

Population continues to grow exponentially.  Gore recommends that we “stabilize” population.  It would be risky to actually reduce population, because this might trigger a “fertility trap,” a terrible downward spiral of population free-fall.  When there are too many seniors, and not enough taxpayers, pension systems collapse.

But stabilizing an enormous population raises serious questions about how much longer we can continue to feed so many people.  Agriculture is currently engaged in “strip-mining topsoil” on a staggering scale.  Each kilogram of Iowa corn costs 1.5 kilograms of topsoil, a precious nonrenewable resource. 

Gore asserts that this can be corrected by a transition to crop rotation, and to organic low-till technology.  But low-till cropping is designed for conventional agriculture, and works well with heavy applications of herbicide.  Organic low-till is still in the experimental phase, and is extremely difficult to do successfully, because weeds are not wimps.

While water usage is increasing, water resources are declining, because underground aquifers are being depleted in many highly productive farming regions.  Gore recommends drip irrigation, wastewater recycling, and cisterns for rainwater storage.  Considering the current scale of water mining, and the cost of high tech irrigation, it’s hard to see these options as effective solutions.  When the water is used up, farm productivity drops sharply, or completely.

Meanwhile, another monster is rising on the horizon — global phosphorus reserves are moving toward a crisis.  Because phosphorus is an essential plant nutrient, this will have huge effects on conventional agriculture.  Oh, we also need to get the nations united behind reversing deforestation, fish mining, and mass extinction.  

Gore says that it would be insane to burn the fossil energy we’ve already discovered, because this would worsen the effects of climate change.  But we’re unlikely to stop.  Experts aren’t sure when Peak Oil will arrive, but it will, and it will be followed by an era of increasing turbulence, as industrial civilization is painfully weaned.  Most of the easy oil has already gone up in smoke, and what remains is far more difficult to extract.  Expensive oil means expensive food, and many poor people can barely afford food today.  Spikes in food prices led to food riots in 2008 and 2011.

Gore adores civilization’s two magnificent achievements, democracy and capitalism, but he laments that both have been “hacked” by the evil slime balls of Earth Inc.  If we don’t fix this, we’re doomed.  It’s time to fetch our pitchforks and chase the slime balls away.  The solution to our problems is to restore dynamic democracy, and then create a utopia of Sustainable Capitalism, which will allow Sustainable Growth to continue forever!  The best is yet to come!

The book provides an impressive discussion how we got into this mess.  It’s unique in that it comes from a card-carrying member of the global elite, not a hungry dirty radical.  Readers are given a rare opportunity to enjoy the view from the top of the pyramid.  I hope that the second edition clarifies some questionable assumptions in this otherwise fascinating book.

Gore, Albert, The Future — Six Drivers of Global Change, Random House, New York, 2013.