Sunday, August 30, 2015

Desert Solitaire

Edward Abbey (1927–1989) was an eco-wordsmith whose work is often compared to the classics of Aldo Leopold and Henry Thoreau.  His book Desert Solitaire has been called “the Walden of the southwest.”  Abbey was born in Pennsylvania, and went to school in New Mexico.  In 1956 and 1957 he spent the summers as a ranger at the Arches National Park, near Moab, Utah.  It was a mind-altering experience.  The young ranger fell in love with the desert, and kept extensive diaries.

Like Leopold and Thoreau, he had profound reverence and respect for the natural world.  All three watched in agony as industrial civilization worked so hard to mindlessly destroy it.  While the other two were respectable gentlemen, Abbey was a funny, rude, rowdy, loose cannon.

In 1845, Thoreau diagnosed the problem as a deficiency of timeless wisdom and intellectual refinement.  In 1949, Leopold recommended establishing a set of common sense rules to discourage gung-ho American halfwits from obliterating the future.  By 1968, Abbey was furious about the absurdity of it all.  Our culture was insane.  It was time to mercilessly beat the monster to a bloody pulp, but the monster was winning, and it was shape shifting into an invincible mass extinction steamroller.

At the Arches, Abbey’s ranger station consisted of a picnic table, house trailer, generator, and pickup truck.  It was far from the main entrance, and the dirt road was dusty, primitive, and pocked with potholes.  He spent the six-month tourist seasons in a place of immense beauty, constantly in awe of the magnificence of this gorgeous desert paradise.  The multi-colored sandstone had been sculpted into astonishing forms by a million years of snow and rain.  “I am twenty miles from the nearest fellow human, but instead of loneliness I feel loveliness.  Loveliness and a quiet exultation.”

The only turd in the tranquility was the daffy tourists, determined to see every national park in two weeks.  They yowled and whined about the terrible road.  They were Americans, by God, and paved roads and vast parking lots were guaranteed in the Constitution.  Many of these “wheelchair explorers” never stepped out of their cars, except to take a few snapshots and contribute to the litter.  Where’s the Coke machine?

They were unable to comprehend the treasure that surrounded them.  Their spirits did not soar, overwhelmed with amazement at the power of this sacred land.  It was as if their souls had been anesthetized by living in an industrial nightmare.  They were like fish that no longer felt at home in the water, preferring to reside on dry land and devote their lives to flopping and shopping.

Worse, the vision of the Park Service was to update its scruffy old parks into gleaming Disneyland National Parks — modern, clean, and convenient.  In 1956, President Eisenhower signed a bill to create the interstate highway system.  America had sold its soul, and its future, to the automobile.  Abbey was bummed.  He knew that the Arches were doomed.  After two summers, he quit, not wishing to stick around and watch the inevitable wreckage of progress.

He was right.  Several years later, planners designed a new and improved infrastructure that would allow the Arches park to accommodate 75,000 visitors per year — a vast increase from Abbey’s frontier days.  In 2012, the park had over a million visitors.  Traffic jams, noise, and air pollution have become serious problems.

Anyway, the book contains a collection of stories and rants.  The most important story was Down the River, which described floating down the Colorado River as the Glen Canyon Dam was being built.  Abbey and his buddy Ralph were among the last humans to observe the incredible canyons before they were submerged beneath the new Lake Powell reservoir.  It reminded me of our generation, taking a final cruise through what remains of the natural world, before it is composted by the unintended consequences of our brilliant techno-miracles.

Oddly, the reservoir was named after John Wesley Powell, an early explorer who actually loved the beautiful river.  “Where he and his brave men once lined the rapids and glided through silent canyons two thousand feet deep the motorboats now smoke and whine, scumming the water with cigarette butts, beer cans and oil, dragging the water skiers on their endless rounds, clockwise.”

Abbey and Ralph were delighted to leave modernity behind, “…the stupid and useless and degrading jobs, the insufferable arrogance of elected officials, the crafty cheating and the slimy advertising of the businessmen, the tedious wars… the foul, diseased, and hideous cities and towns we live in…” and on and on.  They had sweet fantasies of spending the rest of their days floating downstream in canyon country.  They also had sweet fantasies of blowing up the dam — fantasies that Abbey later expanded in his smash hit, The Monkey Wrench Gang.

The U.S. built several thousand major dams in the twentieth century.  These projects created many jobs during the Depression, unleashed flash floods of political sleaze, and made mobs of fat cats richer.  Glen Canyon Dam was intended to be a “cash register dam,” generating big revenues from hydropower sales, which could then be used to pay for vast irrigation projects.  The dreams were far brighter than the subsequent realities.

Hoover Dam was finished in 1936, creating the Lake Mead reservoir.  Today, this reservoir is at 37 percent of capacity, its lowest level since the 1930s, when it was being filled.  Farther upstream, the Glen Canyon Dam was finished in 1963, creating the Lake Powell reservoir.  Today, this reservoir is at 54 percent of capacity.  The flow of the Colorado River has been below average since 1999.  In 2002, the flow plunged to 25 percent of normal and 2003 was a bit higher.

There is growing concern that falling water levels will eliminate the thrust necessary to spin the power turbines at Glen Canyon.  While water levels fall, sediment levels are rapidly rising, as the river delivers 30,000 dump truck loads per day.  Eventually, sediment will permanently choke the power turbines.  While many wring their hands about the toll of ongoing drought, lots of water is also being lost due to evaporation and bank seepage (water soaking into porous sandstone).  Droughts can come and go, but rising temperatures seem to be here to stay for a long, long time — and some believe that this is the primary cause of falling water levels.

Up to 34 million people depend on water from the Colorado River basin.  The rapid development of Cheyenne, Albuquerque, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Tucson, Los Angeles, and San Diego was inspired by a cyclone of magical thinking.  Our well-educated nation suffers from a pandemic of ecological ignorance, and critical shortages of foresight.

Abbey had the ability to stand firm against the whirlwinds of magical thinking that constantly roar through our communities, making everyone sleepy and dreamy.  He understood that humans were not above and apart from the rest of nature, that anthropocentricism was a glaring symptom of lunacy.  It was obvious to him that new technology was best left in the box and promptly buried.  The culture that poisons our worldview is completely out of its mind.  Where’s the Coke machine?

Abbey, Edward, Desert Solitaire, Simon & Shuster, New York, 1990.  [1968]

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Civilization and Sludge

The emergence of domestication and agriculture allowed humankind to produce more food per area of land, but this innovation also resulted in myriad unintended consequences, many of which were unsustainable.  One of my favorite essays is Civilization & Sludge, by Abby A. Rockefeller.  It describes the evolution of how people dealt with the production of human excrement, a process that never ends.  Like everything else in the human saga, the history begins simple and sustainable, and over time degenerates into a system that is complex and energy-guzzling.  The following is mostly a summary of her 16-page essay.

Rockefeller learned that the simplest and most sustainable sewage treatment system was developed by nomadic foragers.  They utilized the same time-proven system used by non-human animals — depositing their feces and urine on the ground, in a widely dispersed manner.  This recycled vital nutrients, cost nothing, required no staff or infrastructure, did not pollute the water, kill the fish, encourage the spread of contagious water-borne diseases, or produce a single spoonful of toxic sludge.  This brilliant system works very well in societies having low population density.

With the advent of agriculture, the supply of food increased, the population increased, the output of sewage increased, and the old system failed completely.  This inspired the clever invention of smelly outhouses and cesspools.  This new technology recycled nutrients less effectively than the nomadic forager system.

The flush toilet grew in popularity during the nineteenth century, as municipal water systems came into fashion.  Municipal water systems increased the production of wastewater, which overwhelmed the old cesspools.  The cheap and dirty solution was open sewers — ditches beside the streets where sewage from the cesspools was drained.  It’s no coincidence that cholera became a very popular disease at this time.

This inspired the development of closed-pipe sewage systems, which moved the wastes out of town — into lakes, streams, and oceans, where nature would (in theory) purify it all.  On the plus side, cholera rates dropped.  On the downside, typhoid became popular among downstream residents who got their water from sewage-laden streams.  Once upon a time, the Thames River of England was filled with salmon, and supported a thriving fishery.  Then came the new and improved sewage systems, which killed the fish, and turned the Thames into one of the most polluted rivers on Earth.

This inspired cities to filter the drinking water pumped from tainted waterways.  Typhoid rates dropped.  But filtering did not remove the sewage from the rivers, and rapid growth in the industrial sector was adding large quantities of other pollutants, including toxics.

This inspired cities to treat waste before dumping it into waterways.  Treatment systems have been evolving over the years — each new design is more complex, expensive, and energy-intensive than its predecessor.  The wastes and nutrients that used to go into the river are now concentrated into toxic sludge.

Because the waste discharged from industry varies from place to place, and day to day, the toxicity of the sludge varies from moderate to extremely poisonous.  The sludge was dumped into the ocean, where the poisons created dead zones on the ocean floor.  Ocean dumping was outlawed in 1988.  At this point, sewage industry propagandists began presenting toxic sludge as a wonderful fertilizer — beneficial biosolids!  This was given to farmers free of charge.  Rockefeller has actually seen stores selling bags of sewage sludge pellets labelled “natural organic fertilizer.”

Toxic sludge is low in nitrogen, so it has to be applied in large quantities to serve as fertilizer.  Heavy metals and other toxins in the sludge move into the soil.  These toxins are absorbed by plants, and the animals that eat them.  In the soil, thousands of industrial chemicals can interact, creating a countless opportunities for unintended and undesirable consequences.

Following the application of toxic sludge at a Georgia dairy farm, the milk was contaminated with high levels of toxic thallium.  Another Georgia farmer watched his herd of 300 cattle die — his free beneficial biosolids happened to contain high levels of arsenic, heavy metals, and PCBs.  Sludge is a hazardous waste.  What do we do with it?  Answer: stop making sludge.  Human wastes need to be returned to the soil, and production of toxic industrial wastes needs to end.

What is the moral of this story?  Thou shalt keep society small and simple.  Ants and bees live well in large complex civilizations.  But humans are not insects.  This is an important fact to remember.

Rockefeller owns Clivus Multrum, a manufacturer of composting toilets.  Other Rockefeller essays:

Friday, August 14, 2015


Henry David Thoreau had a mind that was intelligent, complex, and rigidly righteous.  He was born in Concord, Massachusetts in 1817, into a family of uppity Unitarian abolitionists.  After attending Harvard, he worked as a schoolteacher for a few years.  Later, he lived with Ralph Waldo Emerson, serving as a tutor, handyman, and editorial assistant.  Emerson took him under his wing, and encouraged his literary efforts.  Emerson owned land on Walden Pond, and he allowed the young man to build a cabin there.  Living by the pond led to experiences that inspired Thoreau’s classic, Walden. 

Thoreau built the cabin at age 27, and moved out at 30.  His thinking was not yet set in concrete, and it wandered to many regions in the world of ideas, tirelessly searching for eternal truth.  He read the ancient classics in Greek and Latin, and discovered that enlightened philosophers preferred paths of voluntary simplicity.  He adored Native Americans, because they thrived in wildness and enjoyed a simple life.  He worshipped nature, and loved spending time outdoors.

Unfortunately, he was born during a diabolical hurricane of what is now called Sustainable Growth™.  Concord was becoming discord, as the ancient forest was replaced with gristmills, sawmills, cotton mills, a lead pipe factory, and a steam powered metalworking shop.  It was rare to stroll by Walden Pond in daytime and not hear whacking axes.  Railroads were the latest fad for rich folks.  Countless trees were hacked to death to provide millions of railroad ties.  By 1850, just ten percent of the land around Concord was forest, and wild game was getting scarce.

Obviously, the residents of Concord were not philosophers aglow with timeless wisdom.  They were also not wild folks who had lived in the same place for thousands of years without destroying it.  These new people acted crazy!  They were possessed, out of their minds, infected with the highly contagious status fever.  They burned up their precious time on Earth in a furious struggle to appear as prosperous as possible — fancy houses, cool furniture, trendy clothes.  If a monkey in Paris put on a traveler’s cap, then every monkey in America must do likewise.

Thoreau was not impressed.  “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”  In 1845, he moved into his tiny new cabin.  He hired a farmer to plow two and a half acres (1 ha), and then planted a bean field.  Using a hoe to control the weeds proved to be far more challenging than his fantasy of humble simplicity.  The net income for a summer of sweat and blisters was $8.12, far less than envisioned.  He learned an important lesson, and this experiment was not repeated.

A low-budget life of simplicity required a low-budget diet.  Thoreau’s meals majored in water and unleavened bread made from rye and corn meal.  Over time, he lost interest in hunting and fishing.  “I had rarely for many years used animal food, or tea, or coffee, etc.; not so much because of any ill effects which I had traced to them, as because they were not agreeable to my imagination.”

The second summer included a pilgrimage to Maine.  He had a gnawing hunger for genuine wilderness that Concord could not satisfy.  He also wanted to meet real live Indians, and be invigorated by their purity.  Alas, Mount Katahdin was a rugged wilderness without trails, and the philosopher from Harvard was shocked by how difficult it was. 

Big Mama Nature gave him a swift dope slap.  In The Maine Woods he recorded her harsh words.  “I have never made this soil for thy feet, this air for thy breathing, these rocks for thy neighbors.  Why seek me where I have not called thee, and then complain because you find me but a stepmother?”  This nasty wilderness “was a place for heathenism and superstitious rites — to be inhabited by men nearer of kin to the rocks and to wild animals than we.”

His experience with the Indians also disappointed him.  After 200 years of colonization, their traditional culture had long been bludgeoned by smallpox, whiskey, missionaries, and civilization.  “Met face to face, these Indians in their native woods looked like the sinister and slouching fellows whom you meet picking up strings and paper in the streets of a city.  There is, in fact, a remarkable and unexpected resemblance between the degraded savage and the lowest classes of the great city.  The one is no more a child of nature than the other.”

Sadly, Thoreau never experienced a community that was fully wild, free, and at one with the land.  He returned to Walden, a tame and comfortable place, and buried some fantasies.  He wasn’t at home in wilderness, and he wasn’t at home in civilization.  Could he find peace somewhere in between?  He soon packed up his stuff, left the cabin, and returned to the Emerson home.  He had learned a lot from 26 months of solitude, but he was wary of getting stuck in a rut.

After eight years of work, and seven drafts, Walden was published in 1854.  It caught the world’s attention, and he finally had a steady stream of income.  Thoreau’s sister died of tuberculosis in 1849.  His father died of tuberculosis in 1859.  In 1862 it killed Henry, at the ripe old age of 44.

He had spent his life trying to find a beautiful, healthy, and ethical way of living.  His education prepared him for a life in civilization instead, loading his mind with myths, hobbles, and blinders.  Thoreau was well aware that his society was on a dead end path.  Its citizens robotically submitted to the peer pressure of their culture.  They could imagine no other way to live.  The only thing they could change was their clothes.  Consequently and tragically, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

His core message was “explore thyself” — question authority, question everything, every day.  Never assume that you are crazy, and never assume that your society is normal and sane — it is not!  Stay away from status fever, and the living dead that suffer from it.  Go outdoors!  Live simply!  Live!  Live!  Live!

Thoreau’s world was deranged.  But viewed from the twenty-first century, it looks far less crazy than our nightmare.  He gathered chestnuts by the pond, a species that would later be wiped out by blight.  The skies were often filled with passenger pigeons, now extinct.  Millions of buffalo still thundered across the plains.  He drank water directly from the pond.  There were no cars or aircraft.  Most folks moved by foot or horse.  They did not live amidst hordes of strangers, they knew each other.  None spent their lives inside climate-controlled compartments, staring at glowing screens. 

Henry would have hated our world.  His mission was to live as mindfully as possible.  “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Thoreau, Henry David, Walden, Ticknor & Fields, Boston, 1854.  Download 

Thoreau, Henry David, The Maine Woods, Ticknor & Fields, Boston, 1864.  Download 

Sims, Michael, The Adventures of Henry Thoreau, Bloomsbury, New York, 2014.