Monday, June 20, 2016

Fire: A Brief History

We live in a perplexing era.  On one hand, we are the most brilliant critters that ever existed.  On the other hand, we are knowingly destroying the ecosystem upon which our survival depends, which sane folks might see as the opposite of brilliant.  You and I descend from ancestors who, once upon a time, lived in balance with the family of life.  What happened?

Obviously, the industrial era has supercharged our eco-impacts.  The stage for the industrial era was set maybe 8,000 years ago, by the transition to agriculture, animal domestication, and civilization — a sharp turn away from low-impact living.  Was this our turning point?  Some think that we began to drift away from original harmony much earlier, maybe 30,000 to 50,000 years ago, with a Great Leap Forward, which brought complex language, innovative new tools, cave painting, body decorations, rituals, etc.

A few scholars have suggested that if space aliens had visited Earth 100,000 years ago, our ancestors would have appeared to be nothing more than ordinary animals.  For a long time, I accepted that.  Now I don’t.  I’ve been reading the work of Stephen Pyne, a scholar who has written 25 books on fire history.  He provided an introduction to his knowledge in Fire: A Brief History.  Those visiting space aliens would have noticed that one species — and only one — maintained fires in their encampments.  This behavior was not the slightest bit ordinary.

By learning how to preserve and manipulate fire, our ancestors acquired great power, far more power than they acquired from wooden clubs or chipped flint spearheads.  Fire eventually enabled them to colonize the entire planet.  Pyne says, “Without fire humanity sinks to a status of near helplessness, a plump chimp with a scraping stone and digging stick, hiding from the night’s terrors, crowding into minor biotic niches.”

My home, food, and belongings were created by machines that operated on domesticated firepower.  Without firepower, this city and civilization would not exist; the place I live would be a healthy forest in a vast wilderness.  If our ancestors had not acquired firepower, humans would still be living close to the tropics, and the Americas might be unknown continents.

Long, long ago, our early hominid ancestors frequently provided nice warm meals for the hungry leopards and hyenas that visited in the night.  Man-eating predators greatly benefitted our kin by helping them avoid embarrassing population explosions.  But on one quest for a yummy midnight snack, the hungry man-eaters were shocked when the ancestors began brandishing flaming torches and yelling discourteous suggestions.  Antelopes never did this!

Swartkrans Cave is near Johannesburg, South Africa.  It has been carefully excavated.  At the oldest lower layers, no charcoal is found.  It is an era before domesticated fire.  At this level, there are complete skeletons of big cats, and the scattered gnawed bones of the critters they ate, including hominids.  Higher up, charcoal is found in newer layers, the age of fire.  Here we find complete hominid skeletons, and the scattered bones of the critters they gnawed, including big cats.  With fire, hominids had taken over the cave, and the prey had become predators.

Fire requires three things: heat, oxygen, and fuel.  From very early times, maybe a billion years ago, heat was available in the form of lightning and volcanoes, but fuel and adequate oxygen were missing.  Modern levels of free oxygen emerged by 500 million years ago, but there was no fuel.  With the arrival of land plants by 400 million years ago, biomass was born, and fire became possible.

In the early days, our Homo erectus ancestors captured fire from lightning strikes, and very carefully preserved it.  If the fire ever went out, the unlucky brothers and sisters began to smell like cat food.  Later, some genius learned how to kindle fire, a revolutionary innovation.  There were three types of fire starters: the fire drill, the fire piston, and the fire striker.  The first friction match appeared in 1827.  Today, even slobbering tykes can easily burn down the house.

Every day, there are eight million lightning strikes.  When a bolt hits fuel that is not soggy, a fire can start.  Pyne refers to this wild natural fire as First Fire.  Second Fire is fire that has been domesticated by humans.  It blazes under our control.  Some regions have abundant biomass fuel, and other regions barely have any.  The amount of Second Fire that could exist at any time was always limited by the amount of biomass available.

Third Fire is the flame of industrial civilization, and it has given us the diabolical power to create countless catastrophes.  The fuel it consumes is fossil biomass.  Coal is rainforest vegetation that accumulated over the course of 60 million years.  Oil and natural gas come from dead phytoplankton that accumulated over 250 million years.  Of course, they are nonrenewable and finite.  We will rubbish the planet’s ecosystem before we can burn all of them (but we’ll try!).

There has never been more combustion on this planet than now.  We are burning enormous amounts of sequestered carbon as fast as humanly possible, and this is overloading the planetary ecosystem with staggering amounts of pollution — greenhouse gasses, acid rain, toxic ash, etc.  “Since the present is often unable to absorb it, the outflow spills into the future,” says Pyne.  “We have had the impact of a slow collision with an asteroid.”

Third Fire powers the machinery that mines the ore, crushes it, smelts it, rolls it, delivers it, stamps it, welds it, and creates automobiles and countless other daffy mistakes.  The controlled fire in engines doesn’t care about the weather.  It can burn in the desert, the rainforest, the arctic, in planes, and at sea.  We simply turn the ignition key, and the engines fire up.  Third Fire enables the production of almost every manmade artifact in our lives.

I’ve just scratched the surface here.  Pyne has spent a lifetime writing about the subject that fascinates him.  Fire enabled cooking, which makes food easier to digest, neutralizes toxins, and kills bacteria and parasites.  Fire was used to drive wild game animals into confined locations where hunters waited.

Early agriculture began on treeless floodplains, where a digging stick and seeds were all that was needed.  As our numbers grew, we ran out of mudflats to thrash.  So, we invented slash-and-burn to transform vast regions of ancient forests into additional cropland and pasture.  Nobody knows more about the history of slash-and-burn than Pyne.

In eighteenth century North America, the eastern portion of the Great Plains was tallgrass prairie.  On average, Native Americans fired this region every three years, to eliminate brush, and maintain excellent grazing habitat for the bison herds.  The tallgrass prairie had soils and climate that were perfectly suitable for forest.  When the Indians were obliterated by the diseases of civilization, they quit burning, and the forest expanded.

Agriculture encourages population growth, and its shadow, conflict.  For thousands of years, demented nerds have invented countless new ways of using fire to kill people.  Both ships and settlements were flammable, and fire was an excellent weapon for turning them to ashes.  For several thousand years, there has been an accelerating nonstop arms race to discover new and improved ways for barbequing enemies and innocent bystanders.

In the old days, towns were often surrounded by defensive walls or palisades.  Inside, wooden structures were packed closely together, and each contained hearths with open flames.  Often, when one structure burned, many burned.  Russian villages typically burned every 20 to 30 years.  Cities have always been fireplaces.  After every immolation, the survivors built a new collection of highly flammable buildings.  Pyne suspected that the Christian concept of a fiery hell was originally inspired by the firestorms common in that era — horror!

It’s a short, well written, mind expanding, unforgettable book.

Pyne, Stephen J., Fire: A Brief History, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 2001.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

How Did Things Get To Be This Way?

Ojibway elder Basil Johnston said that a good life is impossible for people disconnected from their history.  We must know who we are.  The venerable historian William Cronon was the son of a history professor.  One day, his father gave him the magic key for understanding the world.  He told his son to carry one question on his journey through life: “How did things get to be this way?”

Sometime, when you’re feeling a bit bored, eager for thrills and excitement, get a library card and spend the next 20 years reading.  Search for answers to Cronon’s question.  Read 500 books on environmental history, ecology, anthropology, night after night, year after year, and type thousands of pages of notes.

It’s a mind-altering experience, a spiritual journey.  In the process, you become something like a shaman, with the ability to pass through the veil, and discover important information in a non-ordinary state of consciousness.  When you return to the ordinary reality, you can share what you have learned, and guide your people closer to the path of healing — in theory. 

More commonly, finding real answers to Cronon’s question turns you into a notorious dolt, a filthy and disgusting pariah.  Doomer!  Go away!  You’re crazy!  Most folks prefer to remain in a world of illusions, a realm that has little in common with the power visions of the history shaman.  Illusions are comfortable.  The economy is recovering.  We’re zooming toward Utopia.  The best is yet to come.  Right?

Conservation writer Charles Little has given many lectures on tree death in America.  He is often asked one question: “A hand will be raised at the back of the room.  ‘But what can we do?’ the petitioner will ask.  Do?  What can we do?  What a question that is when we scarcely understand what we have already done!”  Indeed!  How can the human journey avoid one more cycle of repeated mistakes when we fail to understand most of the mistakes?

Biologist Paul Ehrlich once spent time among the Inuit of Hudson Bay, Canada.  He was shocked to discover that the entire knowledgebase of their cultural information was known by everyone — how to hunt seals, tan pelts, weave a net, sew a coat, and so on.  Yet, in our advanced civilization, nobody knows even a millionth of our cultural information.  You can get a PhD from Stanford and never learn anything about agriculture.  Food is one thing we truly need.  What is the plan for feeding eleven billion?  Is it possible?

Meanwhile, mainstream society has invented a comical joyride in magical thinking — if we simply call something “sustainable” enough times, then it is!  In the blink of the eye, forest mining becomes Sustainable Forestry™ and soil mining becomes Sustainable Agriculture™.  In a barrage of oxymorons, business as usual is kept on life support, by any means necessary, for as long as possible.  What should we do about this?  How can we revive the original meaning of sustainability?

In Against the Grain: How Agriculture has Hijacked Civilization, Richard Manning writes, “There is no such thing as sustainable agriculture.  It does not exist.”  He says, “The domestication of wheat was humankind’s greatest mistake.”  In Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, geologist David Montgomery concurs.  “Continued for generations, till-based agriculture will strip soil right off the land as it did in ancient Europe and the Middle East.  With current agricultural technology though, we can do it a lot faster.”  Contrary to common beliefs, history shamans have a hard time finding examples of genuinely sustainable agriculture.  Have you seen recent images of Uruk, the magnificent city of King Gilgamesh?

In Here on Earth, Tim Flannery said that we are like sheep in a pasture.  We no longer need big brains, because our shepherds take care of us.  We have become “helpless, self-domesticated livestock.”  “While we sit in our air-conditioned homes and eat, drink and make merry like cattle in a feedlot without the slightest thought about the consequences of our consumption of water, food and energy, we only hasten the destruction — in the long term — of our kind.”  Won’t it be a healthy change when the lights go out, and we are once again required to be fully present in reality?

Flannery said that our ice age ancestors had bigger brains than we have now — 10 percent larger in men, and 14 percent in women.  In Lone Survivors, Chris Stringer noted that the people of today have brains that average 1350 cc in size, and this is ten percent smaller than the average size of Homo sapiens brains 20,000 years ago.  The average Neanderthal brain was 1600 cc — much bigger than ours.  Could that imply something?

Anthropocentric scholars are fond of dismissing Neanderthals as dullards, because their tool kit changed little over 350,000 years.  For 350,000 years, they lived by killing megafauna, but failed to wipe them out.  Flannery noted, “Mammoths, straight-tusked woodland elephants, and two species of woodland rhinoceros coexisted with Neanderthals for hundreds of thousands of years.”  What was wrong with our incompetent cousins?

Today, every newborn that squirts out of the womb is a wild animal, with genes fine-tuned for life on a healthy tropical savannah.  Infants only become consumers by being raised in consumer society.  If we had been raised in a Neanderthal culture, would we live in balance? 

In The Tender Carnivore, Paul Shepard wrote that when scientists raised chimps in their home, along with their own children, the chimps were at least as intelligent as children, until the children were three or four, learned language, and left the chimps in the dust.  Different intelligence allows us to better comprehend the complexity of the world, but it also enables us to better destroy it.  Much of our cultural information will be lost forever when climate change pulls the curtains on life as we know it.  How can we preserve the tiny portion of this knowledge that is needed for a return to the path of good life?

Recently, I’ve become fascinated by our closest living relatives, the chimps and bonobos.  We share something like 99 percent of our genes with them.  Their ancestors have inhabited the same place for millions of years, without trashing it.  Imagine that!  They still enjoy a healthy life in a healthy place.  Is that really so terrible?  Once upon a time, our ancestors lived in the same region, in much the same way.  What happened?

Chimps and bonobos did not make serious weapons, wage war against ape-eating predators, spread around the world, invent agriculture, explode in numbers, live in filth, and die by the millions from infectious diseases.  They did not wage war against infectious diseases, soar into extreme overshoot, load the atmosphere with crud, and blindside the planet’s climate.  Instead, they inhabit a niche in their ecosystem, and live as they have for millions of years, without rocking the boat.  Is there something we could learn from their example?

Is it time to burn our Superman and Superwoman uniforms, apologize to the family of life for our furious rampages, return to the tropics, abandon words, clothes, and spears, and try to remember who we are?  Can we recover a mode of enduring simplicity and stability that would no longer require a history to guide us?  Can we someday heal so well that we never again have to ask “How did things get to be this way?”

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Myth of Human Supremacy

When an unlucky person has been swept away by the brainwashing of a wacko cult, concerned friends or family members sometimes seek the assistance of a skilled deprogrammer to exorcize the demons.  It’s a painful process.  The scrambled soul is blasted with a fire-hose of strong rational arguments, hour after hour, hammering away at the many contradictions in the cult’s beliefs.  Ideally, the shining power of truth blasts away the illusions, and opens the door to healing.

I was reminded of this while reading Derrick Jensen’s book, The Myth of Human Supremacy.  In his story, the wacko cult consists of human supremacists, zombies who have been indoctrinated to believe that humans are the miraculous conclusion of the long evolutionary journey.  Humans are the one and only species that is sentient, self-aware, intelligent, and able to make tools and communicate.

The cult of human supremacy has grown rapidly, and now includes a large portion of humankind.  The zombie mobs are mindlessly destroying the living planet that everything depends on for survival.  Jensen puts a spotlight on the demon: “Unquestioned beliefs are the real authorities of any culture.”  We are bombarded with supremacist ideas from early childhood.  They define our understanding of normality, and encourage us to live like there’s no tomorrow.  Only humans matter, a living planet does not.

By definition, human supremacy is about hierarchy: the white male God, white kings, white men, white women, minorities, mammals, birds, plants, insects, bacteria, etc.  Most of the community of life is inferior to you, resources for you to exploit or destroy.  The supremacist worldview has no concern for ecological health.  Civilization is a space station where all of our needs are magically met.

Jensen devotes many pages to revealing the cult’s creepy narcissism.  Research is discovering that plants and nonhuman animals are sentient, self-aware, intelligent, and able to make tools and communicate.  Slime mold can learn and remember, displaying more intelligence than a number of world leaders.  Plants do react when damaged, disproving the cult’s belief that organisms without brains can feel no pain.  The cult believes that communication means making funny noises with human lips, but trees communicate using chemicals.

Humans spray neurotoxins on their food, while boasting that we are the only ones who possess intelligence.  “Intelligence” is a slippery word.  From the supremacist perspective, it’s intelligent to create an industrial society that blindsides the planet’s climate.  Thanks to this intelligence, 98% of old growth forests are gone, 99% of prairies, 99% of wetlands, 90% of large oceanic fish.  “When others besides human supremacists look at us, they see the worst thing that has ever happened to this planet,” says Jensen.  “If animals could conceive of the devil, his image would be man’s.”

For thousands of years, agriculture has had a well-documented history of transforming healthy ecosystems into wastelands via deforestation, soil mining, wetland destruction, and water mining — a process that still continues.  Agriculture can never be sustainable.  “Plows are probably the single most destructive human invention ever, and agriculture was the single biggest — and least intelligent — mistake any creature has ever made.”  Humankind is in extreme overshoot right now, as the population skyrocket keeps zooming upward.

There are two flavors of technology: authoritarian and democratic.  Authoritarian technology is produced by complex, hierarchical civilizations.  This technology tends to control the society.  We must have electricity, electronics, sequestered carbon, and transportation devices to participate in modernity.  Consumers are hardcore electricity addicts.  Jensen screams!  Lack of imagination is a primary cause of the Earth Crisis.  We can’t imagine living without electricity, but we can imagine a world without rhinos or tigers.  Oy!

It takes imagination to challenge the unquestioned beliefs that inspire insane behavior.  Jensen’s doctor says that there can be no cure without a proper diagnosis.  Unquestioned beliefs often make an accurate diagnosis impossible.  They tell us that renewable energy, nuclear power, and geoengineering are brilliant solutions.  So, every unquestioned belief must be mercilessly questioned, and the dodgy ones sent to the shredder.

Democratic technology, on the other hand, is stuff that anyone can make, like a basket or bow and arrow.  Chimps use sticks to fish for yummy termites.  Vultures throw stones to crack ostrich eggs.  This is sustainable.  It doesn’t rock the boat.  But authoritarian technology is big juju.  Too often, even green activists have vivid fantasies of a sustainable future, whilst keeping many of the unsustainable goodies of civilization.  The line between naughty and nice can be blurry.

Lately, I’ve been reading about the Aztecs.  In 1492, Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) was one of the biggest cities in the world, with a population of about 200,000, five times larger than London.  They had no horses, oxen, plows, or metals.  The fields were tilled with digging sticks, and fertilized with human poop.  It was a highly sophisticated and authoritarian Stone Age civilization famous for cutting the beating hearts out of thousands of prisoners at a time.

Words can be slippery.  Throughout the book, Jensen frequently uses “stupid” when discussing the quirks of civilized humans.  Stupid means unintelligent, having a limited ability to learn and understand, an incurable handicap.  Maybe "ignorant" would have been more precise.  It means a lack of knowledge — a somewhat curable shortcoming.  Methinks that ignorance plays a major role in the bad choices we make.  In many ways our education system remains lost in a dream world of yesteryear.

Anyway, Jensen tackles and paddles many unquestioned beliefs.  We all suffer from them, to some degree, he says.  It’s hard not to, living in this culture.  Questioning is a powerful medicine that should be used daily.  When it comes to innovation, we are terribly clever.  At the same time, we are tropical primates, engaged in a phenomenally ignorant adventure in violating as many of the laws of nature as humanly possible, for no good reason.

The myth of human supremacy asserts that we are rational, moral, and ethical.  Wild animals have no interest in reason, morals, or ethics because they have no need for them.  They live sustainably by simply remaining in balance with the community of life.  They have no need for powerful 20-20 foresight, because they stay on a stable time-proven path.  Supremacists are ravaging Earth, but they look awesome in their smiling selfies.

Jensen's book reminds me of a defibrillator, the gizmo used when someone's heart stops beating.  Its two paddles are placed on the chest, and then a powerful electric shock is blasted into the victim, in an effort to restart the heart.  He doubts that his book will convince many of the living dead supremacists to question their beliefs.  Its main purpose is to encourage the pilgrims who understand that civilization is killing the planet.  We need to save as many species as we can.

The book is also something like a hearing aid.  It heightens readers’ ability to hear the supremacist voices that barrage us every day.  It’s helpful to better recognize the tireless jabber from the lunatic asylum.  And so, Jensen waves and rides off into the sunset.  “The more I learn about the real world, the more wonderful I think it is, and the more honored I am to be here.”

Jensen, Derrick, The Myth of Human Supremacy, Seven Stories Press, New York, 2016.