Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Destruction of California

Raymond Dasmann (1919–2002) was a professor of conservation biology, and the author of many books.  The poor fellow suffered from a devastating mental disturbance known as rationality, a condition that affects dozens of people in the civilized world.  He frequently experienced painful attacks of foresight and common sense.  Living in California, he was on the front line of the world war against the planet, an ecological blitzkrieg.  “When this war is finally won, the consequences will be as severe and irreversible as though we had fought a nuclear war,” he said.

Dasmann was born in San Francisco, in an era when there were few cars, the neighborhoods were pleasant, and men, women, and children felt perfectly safe, day or night, almost everywhere.  He was cursed to be born whilst the fossil energy blip was skyrocketing toward its climax, creating a bewildering whirlwind of immense change.  Young folks perceived the whirlwind to be normal, while older folks remembered better times, and were sickened by the senseless destruction, and the profound decay of society.

He wrote The Destruction of California when he was 45.  During his lifetime, the state’s population had grown six fold, spurred by a tsunami of immigration.  This was not good.  In the book, he described the various crises that were propelling the state toward disaster.  He wanted people to better understand the consequences of perpetual growth.  The book was published in 1965, 50 years ago.

Before colonization, California had been a cool scene for thousands of years.  Over time, the native hunter-gatherers learned how to live in a careful and respectful manner, and the ecosystem enjoyed jubilant health.  Their children were lucky to receive superb educations, which inspired them to live mindfully, in balance with the land.  The lasting marks that tribes left on the land were mostly mounds of discarded shells.

Later, the Spanish arrived, built missions, enslaved the Indians, introduced contagious diseases, and forced the natives to accept a foreign religion obsessed with world domination.  With the invaders came livestock and shipments of hay, which included the seeds of Spanish weeds.  The weeds were mostly annuals, and they were well adapted to thriving in a Mediterranean climate similar to California.  The grasses indigenous to California were primarily robust perennials that provided an excellent source of nutrition.

During drought times, there was less vegetation for the Spanish livestock to eat, leading to overgrazing.  The weed seeds sat patiently in the dust, waiting for a year when the rains returned.  Sadly, the weeds won.  The indigenous grasses are nearly extinct now.  Decade by decade, the quality of rangeland declined.  “In some places all that was left was worthless tarweed, star thistle, or cheat grass.”  Today, few people cruising through ranch country are capable of perceiving this glaring ecological train wreck.

Eighty years after the Spanish settled, a swarm of Americans rumbled into California, and they were out of their minds with Gold Fever.  They didn’t enslave Indians; they shot them.  Indians had been known to trade gold for glass beads, because gold was not super-big juju in their culture.  But gold made white folks crazy.  They would kill for it.  Gold was a magical rock that gave crazy people enormous illusions of grandeur.  With hydraulic mining, they channeled flowing streams through high-pressure nozzles and washed away entire mountains to extract the shiny rocks.

Early visitors to California were overwhelmed by the incredible abundance of wildlife.  Portions of the Central Valley looked like the Serengeti — herds of tule elk, pronghorn antelope, and black-tailed deer.  There were many wetlands.  “Here were birds in the tens of millions that darkened the sky when migrations sent them winging northward.”  In 1852, a man in Humboldt sat on a hill and observed 40 grizzly bears below.  The swarm of gold digging crazy people inspired other crazy people to get into the meat business via full-scale industrial hunting.  By 1910, the wildlife was in tatters.

Crazy people also became giddy with greed at the sight of 4,000 year old redwoods, 27 feet (8m) in diameter.  They sharpened their axes and went wacko.  Profits were invested in technology that enabled them to cut more and more.  There was no plan to leave anything for future generations.  The plan was to make as much money as possible, as fast as possible.  Floods washed away highways, bridges, and entire communities.  Fish perished in the silt-choked streams.  When Dasmann was writing, it looked like the old growth would be gone in 16 years.  At the same time, the community of Arcata was fiercely resisting the proposed creation of Redwood National Park.

Hordes of well-educated elites, who did not suffer from rationality, were delighted to get rich quick promoting the rapid growth of ghastly megacities in arid regions having minimal freshwater resources.  As the consumer mobs swelled in size, more streams were dammed, new aqueducts were built, rivers were pumped over mountains, and ancient water was removed from aquifers.  Nobody questioned this.  “Since growth is by definition progress, and progress is by definition good, this is deemed to be answer enough for any but a fool.”

Dasmann was driven out of his wits by this highly contagious pandemic of Get Rich Quick Fever.  Yet he was not an eco-revolutionary who recommended turning the clock back 400 years.  He didn’t preach the gospel of ecological sustainability.  His dream was quite modest; stop making things worse — think!  He worried about environmental destruction, the growing populations of people and automobiles, and the ongoing threat of water shortages.  Today, we can add to this list climate change, economic collapse, and growing limits on energy and other resources.  It’s 50 years later, and the crazy growth has not stopped.

The Indians lived in the same land for thousands of years without destroying it.  This is called “primitive.”  If whites had never arrived, the land would still be incredibly healthy.  But the blitzkrieg arrived in 1769, and the destruction has been accelerating at an exponential rate.  This is called “progress.”  The root problem here is not genes, but culture.  During the pilgrimage from womb to grave, every human floats in the currents of culture, like fish swim in water.

Indian children received superb educations because they lived in rational cultures that were mindful about not rocking the ecological boat.  Today’s kids are taught to work hard, shop like there’s no tomorrow, and leave the bill for their descendants.  Those who rock the boat the hardest earn the highest social status.  This screwy ritual is reinforced by teachers, preachers, peers, parents, the media — everywhere, all the time.  To break out of this toxic trance, a cultural meltdown is required.  Maybe we’ll be rescued by a beneficial calamity.

It’s difficult to question the madness.  We have a hard time comprehending how destructive and irrational our society is.  It’s nearly impossible to wrap our heads around the notion that the Indians enjoyed a way of life that had a long future.  It’s very hard for us to understand ecological intelligence, and desire it.  Thinking outside the box requires us to summon our inner power and leap into the unknown.  We have nothing to lose.

Dasmann, Raymond F., The Destruction of California, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1965.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015


Once upon a time, Richard Heinberg was a mild-mannered college professor in northern California.  In 1998, he happened to read an article in Scientific American that revealed the peak oil theory.  A small clan in the lunatic fringe had been discussing the notion, but it was now being yanked out of the closet by a number of retired petroleum geologists — respectable experts having front line experience with an increasingly ominous reality.

Peak oil was terrifying.  The geologists were telling us that our way of life was racing toward the cliff.  Dignified ladies and gentlemen naturally swept it under the carpet, because the notion was certainly impossible in this age of techno-miracles.  Anyway, the anticipated calamity was still 20 or 30 years away, so there was no need to think about it.

In 2003, Heinberg published The Party’s Over, which explained peak oil to a general audience.  Since then, he’s made a career out of exposing the dark side of growth, progress, and other mischief.  Eventually, he left the university and joined the Post Carbon Institute.  His message is that resource depletion, climate change, and economic meltdown will blindside our way of life in this century.  He suggests that now is a great time to pay closer attention to reality.

Decades of explosive economic growth were only possible because of cheap and abundant energy, abundant high quality mineral resources, and highly productive oil-powered agriculture.  Today, the perpetual growth monster is kept on life support by pumping it up with trillions of dollars of debt.  Back in the 1960s, a dollar of debt boosted the GDP by a dollar.  By 2000, a dollar of debt boosted GDP by just 20 cents.  Today, the tsunami of debt is creating a new stock market bubble, and its collapse may be worse than the crash of 2008.  The notion that “growth is over” inspires the titans of finance leap from tall buildings.

Well-paid goon squads of spin-doctors are effectively conjuring doubts about peak oil.  What they don’t mention is the energy returned on energy invested (EROEI).  A century ago, it took one calorie of energy to produce 100 calories of petroleum.  The EROEI was 100:1.  Today, the EROEI of U.S. production has plummeted to 10:1.  Tar sands, oil shale, and biofuels all are less than 5:1.  Most fossil energy will be left in the ground forever, because of low or negative EROEI.  Imagine having a job that paid $100 a day, but the bridge toll for getting there was $105.

It’s already too late to cleverly pull the plug on climate change and live happily ever after.  Our current strategy, ignoring the problem and denying it exists, is the preferred policy of our glorious leaders.  It might be possible to soften the worst-case scenario if we reduced our fossil fuel consumption by 80 to 90 percent by 2050, a daunting challenge.  The transition to renewable energy will be turbulent, because of its numerous shortcomings.  For example, trucks, planes, and agriculture cannot run on electricity.  Many uses of oil have no substitute.

Welcome to the subject matter of Heinberg’s latest book, Afterburn.  We’re living in the final decades of a one-time freak-out in human history, the Great Burning.  For two centuries, we’ve been extracting and burning staggering amounts of sequestered carbon, for no good reason.  What were we thinking?  It’s nonrenewable, so using it as the core energy source for industrial civilization could only have a crappy ending.  For thousands of years, Arab herders traveled across regions containing oceans of oil, left it alone, and enjoyed a good life.  Self-destruction is not mandatory.

The book takes readers on an up-to-date tour of the unintended consequences of the Great Burning, and presents reasonable arguments for why it’s moving into the sunset phase.  The final chapters of Afterburn contemplate life after the burn.  What can intelligent people do to prepare for a way of life that will be far smaller, simpler, and slower?

In the 1930s, a Nazi control freak named Joseph Goebbels revolutionized mind control via high-tech propaganda.  This was made possible by the latest consumer fad, radio.  One person spoke, and millions listened, day after day.  Today, with the internet, and hundreds of TV channels, many millions are speaking at once, presenting a fantastic variety of viewpoints.  Truth (if any) can become a needle in the haystack.

Many huge ideas have been born in the lunatic fringe, presented by heretics like Galileo and Darwin.  At the same time, the fringe produces oceans of idiotic balderdash.  At the opposite end of the spectrum is the mainstream world, where the one and only thing that matters is ongoing economic growth.  Other issues, like climate change and resource depletion, are nothing more than annoying distractions that must be stepped around.

Heinberg is interesting because he camps in the no-man’s-land between shameless mainstream disinformation and the wacko hysteria of the fringe.  He’s a likeable lad, and a clear writer who makes an effort to be respectful and fair-minded.  Until recently, it’s been compulsory for eco-writers to include hope and solutions, even if they’re daffy, because bummer books gather dust.  It’s encouraging to see an emerging trend, in which the emphasis on hopium is becoming unhip, and readers are served larger doses of uncomfortable facts with no sugar coating.

Afterburn includes small servings of magical thinking, but overall it lays the cards on the table.  A way of life can only be temporary if it is dependent on nonrenewable resources, or on consuming renewables at an unsustainable rate.  An economy requiring perpetual growth is insane.  Nature will fix our population excesses and eliminate overshoot.  The lights will go out.  All civilizations collapse.  Ours will too.  We won’t be rescued by miraculous paradigm shifts.  The biggest obstacle to intelligent change is human nature.  Folks with food, money, and a roof don’t worry about threats that are not immediate.  There is a possibility that humankind will no longer exist by the end of this century.  And so on.

Yes, things can look a little bleak, but don’t surrender to cynicism and give up.  We can’t chase away the storm, but we can do many things that make a difference.  Learn how to do practical stuff, like cook, sew, and garden.  Become less reliant on purchased goods and services.  Develop trusting relationships with your neighbors.

Today is a paradise for folks interested in changing the world.  Imagine cool visions of a new and improved future where we could nurture cooperation, eliminate inequality, mindfully manage population, and minimize environmental injuries.  Unfortunately, visioning is limited by the fact that the future is certain to be radically different.  What can we say for sure about 2050?  I remain stubbornly confident that there will be sun and moon, mountains and oceans, bacteria and insects.

When civilizations die, most or all of their cultural information also dies.  Today, much of this information is stored in electronic media, or printed on acidic paper that has a short lifespan.  Heinberg believes that it’s essential to protect our books, because they are vital for cultural survival.  He fears that the amazing achievements of the Great Burning will be forgotten.  “Will it all have been for nothing?”

A far better question is, “What cultural achievements would we want to be remembered by?”  During the Great Burning, we’ve learned so much about environmental history and human ecology.  We are coming to understand why almost every aspect of our way of life is unsustainable.  (Our schools should teach this!)  The most valuable gift we could give to new generations is a thorough understanding of the many things we’ve learned from our mistakes, and the mistakes of our ancestors.  They need a good map of the minefield.

Heinberg, Richard, Afterburn — Society Beyond Fossil Fuels, New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, British Columbia, 2015.

The book’s introduction is HERE.  Two other reviews of Heinberg books are Snake Oil: Fracking’s False Promise and The End of Growth.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Man the Hunted

Not long ago, I came across a book that looked interesting, Man the Hunted: Primates, Predators, and Human Evolution, written by two anthropologists, Donna Hart and Robert Sussman.  Almost half of the book discussed the many varieties of man-eating predators who for millions of years have enjoyed transforming our delicious ancestors into steaming feces.  Would it shed light on the drastic reduction in man-eating predators?  Would it explain why we plunged into our disastrous experiment with tool making, which has brought us to the brink of planetary disaster?  It did not, but it was both interesting and odd.

In the deepest, darkest auditoriums of academia, the wizards of primatology are engaged in a yowling catfight over the primary factor that influenced the course of human evolution.  The choices are: (a) being hunters, or (b) being prey.  Apparently, (c) all of the above, is rewarded with a dunce cap and a paddle whack.

The authors believe that the general public, and a sizable mob of halfwit professors, have been stupefied by the trendy Man the Hunter myth.  It proclaims that our ancestors were bloodthirsty hunters, and hunting encouraged us to become aggressive, violent, sociopathic killers, and monstrous oppressors of women.  Folks entranced by this myth also believe that their human ancestors were never eaten by predators, because they were far too smart to be killed by lions, leopards, or wolves.

The authors are on a mission from God to torpedo the Man the Hunter myth and illuminate readers with the shining truth — Man the Hunted.  Our ancestors were slow, weak, and lacked fierce teeth, sharp claws, and long horns.  On the ground, they were easy prey.  Thus, our evolutionary journey was largely influenced by being yummy meatballs in a hungry cathouse.  This encouraged us to live in groups, pay close attention to reality, cooperate with one another, and become smart, lovable, feminist hominids.

Readers discover that it was impossible for our ancestors to consume meat prior to the invention of cooking, because we lack the teeth and digestive system of carnivores.  Well, actually, we’re omnivores, like our chimp, bonobo, and baboon relatives, all of whom eat both plant and animal foods, uncooked.  Maybe our smaller teeth evolved following the invention of cooked food. 

It’s impossible to accurately determine when we began manufacturing spears, controlling fire, cooking food, or using complex language.  These interesting and unusual innovations had enormous unintended consequences.  They unlocked the entrance to a fantastically dangerous path.

I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that bonobos and chimps, our closest living relatives, have managed to inhabit the same ecosystem for two million years without trashing it.  They wisely avoided the temptation to fool around with technology beyond sticks and stones.  The book revealed an even more astonishing success story, the crocodiles, critters that have a special fondness for inattentive humans.  Today’s crocs are nearly identical to the crocs that lived in the dinosaur era, 200 million years ago.  They live in the water, floating close to the surface, and patiently wait for a thirsty critter to stop for a drink — a simple and awesomely brilliant strategy.

Bonobos and chimps provide us with an important lesson.  Their territories are separated by the Zaire River, so they’ve never met.  The bonobos are like free love hippies, whilst the chimps sometimes act like brutal biker gangs.  Why the difference?  The two species are almost genetically identical, and they inhabit the same ecosystem.  But in bonobo country, there are no chimps, baboons, or gorillas.  So, they have more food, less competition, and life is grand.  In chimp country, it doesn’t pay to be a gentleman.  The most aggressive male is always first in line at the buffet, as well as the primary sperm pump.

The authors lash out at Demonic Males, by Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson, a gospel of Man the Hunter.  It discusses species that kill their own kind, like orangutans, chimps, gorillas, and humans.  For these species, aggressive behavior could provide some benefits, so this trait has not been discouraged by natural selection.  This infuriates Hart and Sussman, because blame is shifted to the females, who shamelessly burn with desire for demonic males, and then give birth to cute little baby demons.

All parties agree that bonobos were dealt an unbeatable hand and won the jackpot.  If humans had been dealt a similar hand of luxurious abundance, we’d probably be running around naked in an African paradise, having sex ten times a day.  Instead, we got a crap hand — the queen of technology, the joker of excess cleverness, and the ace of self-destruction.

All parties agree that, in theory, humans could mindfully choose to outgrow their rough habits, and transform into adorable sweeties.  Our unpleasant behavior is learned, not genetic.  The Pygmies, Bushmen, and other hunter-gatherers were generally good-natured.  Hunting doesn’t automatically turn us into monsters.

All parties agree that humans are not crazy-violent by nature.  Competition, crowding, scarcity, and anxiety trigger our belligerence.  So, what the heck is this argument about anyway?  Certainly, the demonic male meme has the pungent funk of Judeo-Christian juju, the crabby old sky god who never tires of exterminating city dwellers and other despicable deviants.  Where’s the science?  Well, the science of human evolution provides us with a few hundred pieces of a 100 billion-piece puzzle, and numerous versions of the story are continuously being rewritten, hence the hissing primatologist catfights.

With brains substantially larger than Homo sapiens, Neanderthals managed to live on this planet for maybe 200,000 years without leaving permanent scars.  Scientists sneer at their embarrassing lack of technological innovation (dullards!), and disregard their stunning success at sustainable living (who cares?).  Scientists are quirky folks obsessed with stuff like space colonies and computer-driven electric cars.  (I was surprised to learn that Neanderthals may have gone extinct because they ate too much meat.)

The book is about genetic evolution, not cultural evolution.  Cultural evolution is what has blown the human journey off the rails, ignited the turbo thrusters, and sent us skyrocketing into the dark unknown.  Cultural evolution provided shortcuts that gave us spears and hammers far faster than genetic evolution could enhance our anatomical assets.  Today, the pace of techno-innovation has grown to furious hurricane force.  So, does the hunter vs. hunted catfight really matter?  The planet is not being destroyed by naughty genes.  Wouldn’t it be wiser to yowl and hiss about our toxic culture instead?

Humans evolved in a healthy, wild, natural world.  Our ancestors’ lives were highly adapted to the ecosystem they inhabited.  Survival required being constantly alert to the ever-changing sights, sounds, and smells.  Humankind still exists because our ancestors were acutely aware.  Infants born today have genes that evolved during our hunter-gatherer era, genes fine-tuned for thriving in a tropical savannah amidst hungry leopards, hyenas, snakes, and crocodiles.

But look at us.  We now live in a brutally lobotomized ecosystem where being eaten is no longer a normal everyday possibility.  We live amidst crowds of strangers.  We hunt and forage in supermarkets.  We spend the last years of our lives filling diapers.  Imagine what we’d look like if we spent the next 100,000 years sitting on our butts, staring at glowing screens, and guzzling soda pop.

Many species of bipedal hominids have evolved over seven million years.  Humans are the last of the line.  Few of our bipedal cousins survived as long as the chimps have; they flamed out.  The happy ending here is that a perfect storm of manmade predicaments seems destined to yank the rug out from under our culture.  We won’t have to spend the next 200 years having loud catfights over climate change, contraceptives, or evolution.  Humankind will be dealt a very different hand of cards.  Will we be lucky?

Hart, Donna and Sussman, Robert W., Man the Hunted — Primates, Predators, and Human Evolution, Westview Press, New York, 2005.

Wrangham, Richard and Peterson, Dale, Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 1996.

Wrangham, Richard, “Out of the Pan, Into the Fire: How Our Ancestors’ Evolution Depended on What They Ate,” Tree of Origin, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2001.