Thursday, July 21, 2016

Neanderthals, Bandits, and Farmers

Colin Tudge wrote Neanderthals, Bandits, & Farmers, a book that presents his theories on the dawn of progress and perpetual growth, focusing on how agriculture really began.  At the time, he was employed by the London School of Economics, an institution focused on capitalism, not ecological sustainability.
The book vibrates with cognitive dissonance.  Tudge has been studying agriculture for many years.  On one hand, it was a magnificent achievement that threw open the door to the wonders of modernity.  On the other hand, modernity has become a victim of its own success, with seven billion humans dangerously rocking the boat.  As Pandora once discovered, some magnificent achievements are best left in the box.
For most of the human journey, our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, whom Tudge likens to bandits.  They lived by their wits, snatched what the ecosystem had to offer, and had plenty of leisure time in their lives.  The prudent path was to live within the carrying capacity of their ecosystem.  If they had been ambitious and hard working, they would have wiped out their prey and starved.
Farmers were ambitious, hard working control freaks.  They manipulated the ecosystem to increase its carrying capacity, temporarily, via soil mining.  More work produced more rewards, and more food could feed more people.  Wild critters frequently molested their precious crops, so farmers responded with pest control — overhunting.  Eventually, the human mob got large, wildlife became scarce, wild land became cropland, and returning to hunting was no longer an option.
Agriculture emerged independently in at least six widely scattered locations.  It was not invented in Uruk by a demented genius.  It began maybe 10,000 years ago in the Middle East.  Tudge suggests that it developed gradually, as proto-farming, starting maybe 40,000 years ago.  Even primitive yokels could see that plants grew from seeds, and that clearing other vegetation away from food plants promoted their growth.  Proto-farming was done on a small scale, a pleasant hobby that left behind no enduring evidence for scientists to discover thousands of years later.
In Europe, Neanderthals had been big game hunters for hundreds of thousands of years.  While surviving a roller coaster of climate shifts, they lived within carrying capacity and did not wipe out the game.  Cro-Magnons were the Homo sapiens that later migrated into Europe, maybe 45,000 years ago.  Tudge theorizes that these foreign immigrants were proto-farmers.  Because they could produce their own food, they were less vulnerable to the consequences of overhunting.  Big game species began blinking out.  This eliminated the food supply for the Neanderthals, who were forced off the stage into oblivion.  (Stringer and Finlayson have other views on Neanderthals.)
By and by, proto-farming metastasized into a more virulent form, agriculture.  The economists leap to their feet with enthusiastic applause and cheering.  Civilization, here we come!  Whee!  The fuse was lit for a joyride of skyrocketing growth — onward to ten billion!  Well, this is the schoolbook version that everyone knows, and most believe.  (See Cohen on the shift to agriculture.)
Now, the plot thickens.  A growing number of scholars have been poking holes in the glorious myth of growth and progress.  Farming was miserable backbreaking work.  While hunter-gatherers benefitted from a diverse and highly nutritious diet, the farmer’s diet was the opposite, majoring in a few staple foods.  Farmers were shorter and less healthy.  In their remains, we find that “the toes and knees are bent and arthritic and the lower back is deformed.”
Tudge acknowledges the revisionists.  “People did not invent agriculture and shout for joy; they drifted or were forced into it, protesting all the way.”  Here’s my favorite line in the book: “The real problem, then, is not to explain why some people were slow to adapt agriculture but why anyone took it up at all when it was obviously so beastly.”
He believes that overhunting was the sole cause of the megafauna extinctions.  Native Americans had little self-restraint when it came to hunting mammoths and mastodons.  There is no evidence that climate change played any role in the die-off, he says.  But, at the end of the ice age, as the land warmed up, large areas of tundra were gradually replaced with dense forests.  This put the squeeze on species adapted to living on the tundra.
Did scruffy rednecks with homemade spears really hunt the speedy horses of North America to extinction — but not the bison, elk, and deer?  We’ll never know the full story, but I would be wary of dismissing the impact of radical climate swings, or the importation of Old World pathogens for which the American fauna had zero immunity.  (See Kolbert on extinction.)
Anyway, agriculture took root, because it worked more often than it failed.  Population gradually grew, which required more and more cropland and pasture.  Each expansion raised carrying capacity a bit, while soil depletion reduced it.  The growing mob had to work harder, and grow more.  In the cult of economists, “growth” is the god word.  Unfortunately, perpetual growth becomes a vicious spiral.  Tudge winces at the paradox.  “To condemn all of humankind to a life of full-time farming, and in particular arable farming, was a curse indeed.”  (See Montgomery, Manning, Dale, and Postel on agriculture’s drawbacks.)
Animal domestication, on the other hand, greatly benefitted the critters we enslaved, says Tudge.  For example, wild wolves are vanishing, but domesticated dogs have zoomed past a half billion.  Similarly, domesticated sheep can breed far more when well fed and defended.  If the population of a critter explodes, this is called biological success.  Dogs are a great success story, but their luckless wolf relatives keep smacking into bullets, stepping in traps, and eating poisoned bait.  Oddly, neither dogs nor sheep could survive in the wild, apart from humans.  (See Shepard on animal enslavement.)
It’s a great tragedy of history that the wild folks who adapted to their ecosystem, and lived within its carrying capacity, have been unable to withstand the constant pressure from growing mobs of farmers.  When Tudge wrote, we were approaching six billion.  The spectacular success of growth and progress was beginning to look like a Pyrrhic victory.  We might actually have real limits!  (See Bourne and Cribb on Peak Food.)
Clouds of doubt swirled in his head.  “Our earliest hunting ancestors must have been lazy, as lions are.  Perhaps we should learn from them.”  It’s touching and illuminating to watch the poor lad struggle with the conflict between powerful cultural myths and his growing awareness of reality.  This struggle is a necessary challenge on the path to growth and healing.  We must stand against the strong current.
The book is just 53 pages, and easy to read.  It would be a good text for courses in eco-psychology, environmental ethics, and critical thinking.
Postscript.  In a recent online video, Tudge reveals his grand solution, Enlightened Agriculture — small organic family farms raising a wide variety of crops.  By 2050, 9.5 to 10 billion will be coming to dinner.  Can we feed them?  “The answer is a resounding yes!”  We can feed them for decades, maybe indefinitely.  Profit-driven, energy-guzzling monoculture agriculture is fantastically unsustainable.  All we need is simply a total revolution in how we live, think, breed, and produce food — as soon as possible, please.
Tudge, Colin, Neanderthals, Bandits, & Farmers — How Agriculture Really Began, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1998.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

A New Green History of the World

A New Green History of the World (2007) is the new and improved version of A Green History of the World (1991), which was translated into 13 languages.  British historian Clive Ponting did a fantastic amount of research, and then refined it into a very readable, mind-altering 400-page book (a silver bullet cure for folks suffering from denial).  It spans the two million year saga of our hominid ancestors, devoting most attention to the last 12,000 years, the era of thunder footprints.

Ponting provides numerous charts displaying the skyrocketing growth of many unsustainable trends.  For example, world coal production was 10 million tons in 1800, 760 million tons in 1900, and 5 billion tons in 2000.  World oil production was 95 million tons in 1920, 294 million tons in 1940, 2.3 billion tons in 1970, and 3.8 billion tons in 2004.  Is it any wonder that the atmosphere is having convulsions?

For almost the entire human journey, wood was our fuel, a renewable resource.  With the shift to agriculture and civilization, we invented forest mining, which is unsustainable.  Industries making glass, ceramics, bricks, and metals rapidly obliterated forests.  By the 1550s, regional wood shortages began limiting growth.  The English were the first to begin the shift to coal.  Coal lit the turbo thrusters for the Industrial Revolution, which accelerated the process of urbanization, and ignited two centuries of pandemonium.

Until 1800, 95 percent of humans were paupers.  Ponting says, “Since the rise of settled societies some ten thousand years ago the overwhelming majority of the world’s population have lived in conditions of grinding poverty.  They have had few possessions, suffered from appalling living conditions, and have been forced to spend most of their very limited resources on finding enough food to stay alive.”  European commoners often lived in crude huts with dirt floors, and no windows or chimney.  Bed was a heap of straw.  No corpse was buried in usable garments.

Until 1800, most people travelled on foot.  Paupers couldn’t afford horses, or six acres (2.5 ha) of pasture to feed one.  Consequently, villages and towns remained small, close to their food supply.  Few places could afford even rudimentary sanitation services.  Village households dumped their night soil in the streets.  Almost any place was a restroom.  Fecal-oral diseases were popular, and bathing was not, especially in chilly months.  It was a wonderland for rats, fleas, flies, lice, and infectious diseases.

In 1652, the council of Boston banned residents from discarding the “entrails of beasts or fowls or garbage or dead dogs or cattle or any other dead beast or stinking thing” into the streets.  In the summer of 1858, the British House of Commons abandoned its sittings because of the unbearable “Great Stink” (all raw sewage went into the Thames).  The official residence for Britain’s prime ministers is 10 Downing Street, which didn’t have an indoor bathroom until 1908.  And so on.

With urbanization, the privileged class grew — folks who could afford horses, stables, carriages, and feed.  More horses were needed to haul more goods.  As cities grew, they got too big for foot travelers, so horse-drawn buses, trolleys, cabs, and coaches came into service.  Sprawling cities gobbled up nearby farms, increasing the distance between the inner city and their source of food.  More horses were needed to haul more food over more miles.  Eventually, farmers could no longer afford to have urban manure hauled to their distant fields, so it piled up in empty places.

By 1900, horses plopped 10 million tons of fragrant manure on British streets each year.  When it rained, the streets became yucky mucky smelly ponds.  In warm dry weather, the breezes carried manure dust for all to inhale.  The incredible filth attracted countless trillions of flies that took great delight in spreading typhoid.  New York City had to remove 15,000 dead horses annually.  Imagine the stench.

By the early twentieth century, Britain and France each had about 3.5 million horses.  The U.S. had 20 to 30 million, and feeding them required 88 million acres (36m ha) of farmland — about a quarter of the total.  These countries had little spare land to feed more urban horses; they were close to Peak Horses.  (Here’s an interesting stinky horse story.)

In 1900, London was the world’s biggest city, with 4.5 million.  New York City was second with 2.7 million.  Their streets were jammed with slow chaotic clippity-clop traffic, close to capacity, with little room for more.  The bubble of cheap and abundant horse feed was over.  Both cities had to switch from horse power to fossil power.  By 2000, Tokyo had 26.4 million, Mexico City had 18.4 million, and Mumbai had 18 million.  They cannot shift to horse power when motor vehicle extinction approaches.

Modern cities cannot function without nonrenewable fossil power.  It is needed to move folks from home to work, and from the ground floor to the thirtieth.  It moves water in, and sewage out.  It picks up the garbage and carries it to landfills.  It powers farms, ships, air travel, factories, mines, refineries, lighting, communication systems, and on and on.  The list includes everything essential for the energy-guzzling consumer lifestyle, and industrial society itself.

Our global civilization is completely addicted to ever-increasing quantities of finite nonrenewable resources.  Obviously, this can only be temporary.  We’ve had a high-speed joyride of insane growth, pollution, and ecological gang rape.  We’ve invented lots of fascinating gizmos, lived like crazy, and created a monster that has an expiration date.  It will disintegrate, sooner or later.  Ponting warns that we are approaching a major crossroads.

To make the coming decades even more exciting, climate change is knocking on the door, stopping by to collect our staggering karmic debts.  The Technology Fairy cannot give us the magic beans needed to remove the carbon from our emissions.  Ponting shrugs, “Global warming is the greatest threat that the world faces and finding a solution will be extremely difficult.”

The Technology Fairy also appears impotent to accelerate the crop yield gains necessary for feeding the projected mob in 50 years (see Cribb and Bourne).  Like the Green Revolution disaster, GMO crops require big inputs of fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation — large fields, expensive seeds, rich farmers, big machines, and lots of petrol.  Industrial agriculture is getting gray and wrinkled, its best days behind it.  Ponting has no faith in biotech miracles.

With the calm and objective voice of a venerable professor, Ponting lifts readers far above the intense roaring madness that we consider normal.  When we can observe the human journey from a perspective that spans thousands of years, it’s easy to see that our consumer lifestyle is an extreme deviation from the human journey.  Every student in every nation should take a class based on this book, every year.  The family of life is paying a terrible price for our ongoing ignorance of environmental history.  Few have a competent understanding of the path we have taken, or the predicaments that now threaten us.

I’ve only mentioned a few of the topics in Ponting’s book.  It’s a fascinating experience.  He did not include the obligatory chapter of brilliant solutions.  His conclusion: “The course of human history over the last two centuries has produced change at a rate never before experienced and brought together a series of interlinked problems that almost defy solution because of their complexity.”  Progress is wonderful, eh?

Ponting, Clive, A New Green History of the World: The Environment and the Collapse of Great Civilizations, Penguin Books, New York, 2007.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Black Gold

Albert Marrin is a history professor who has written dozens books for young readers.  In Black Gold, he discussed the geology of fossil energy, emergence of the oil industry, geopolitics, oil wars, environmental impacts, and future challenges.  I was intrigued by his perspective on geopolitics.

Before World War One, the British navy scrapped many coal-burning warships and began building modern boats that ran on oil.  This gave them a big advantage over the German navy.  The era of industrial warfare had arrived.  Nations with tanks, trucks, and planes could easily smash horse-powered enemies.

America joined the war in 1917, and brought lots of oil.  German ports were blockaded, their war machine ran out of fuel, and they were defeated.  In this new era, for the first time, oil became essential for military success.  Young Hitler grasped this, and so did the British.  A primary objective of the Brits was to seize control of Middle Eastern oil, a yet-to-be developed treasure that made greedy gits giddy.  They succeeded, invented new nations, and found obedient puppets to rule them (and loot them).

Of course, wealth and power frequently turns decent people into obnoxious monsters.  Troublesome puppets were replaced with new ones, Britain got very rich, and the Arabs and Persians developed an intense hatred of Brits.  In World War Two, Hitler launched his oil-powered blitzkrieg, made a beeline for oily Baku, and planned to grab the Persian Gulf.  In this war, American oil once again came to the rescue.

Germany and Japan learned the hard way that running out of oil is for losers.  Everyone knows this today.  U.S. presidents have poured trillions of dollars into maintaining control of oil, whilst jabbering about freedom, democracy, and weapons of mass destruction.  For some mysterious reason, millions of Middle Eastern folks now loath and detest the U.S.

In Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabis are a sect that perceives most of modernity as pure evil.  They don’t look fondly on the lavish lifestyles of the ruling Saud family.  Marrin asserts that the government agreed to subsidize the spread of Wahhabi schools into other regions.  In exchange for this funding, the Wahhabis agreed not to make trouble in Arabia — but trouble anywhere else was OK.  “In short, Saudi oil profits fueled terrorism.”

Russia now controls much of the natural gas that powers Europe, and Western powers are eager for an alternative, a pipeline from the Middle East that bypasses Russian control.  It would be reasonable to conclude that the coming decades are not going to be a sweet celebration of love, peace, and happiness.  Expect big drama as the age of hydrocarbons swirls the drain, climate change pounds the luckless, and Big Mama Nature hurls overshoot overboard.

The rear end of Marrin’s book was annoying.  The book is intended for use in schools.  He recommends that the U.S. should become energy independent as soon as possible.  The best solution, he says, is a combination of fossil fuels and alternative energy — solar, wind, biomass, hydro, geothermal, nuclear (no mention of sharply reducing consumption).  The assumption is that independence is possible, and that the consumer way of life will be free to continue down the path of mindless self-destruction.

Teachers, librarians, and parents should have an above average understanding of energy issues before selecting books on the subject.  These issues are going to have a staggering impact on the lives of the target audience, young readers.  It’s long past time to sit down with youngsters and have a highly embarrassing birds-and-bees discussion about the fact that the abundant energy bubble is going to turn into a pumpkin during their lifetimes.  Preserving their ignorance seems cruel.

In the book, readers learn that nuclear reactors can generate lots of electricity, but they occasionally barf large amounts of radiation all over the place.  Therefore, it’s very important to properly dispose of spent fuel because it’s extremely toxic.  Great idea!  How?  William and Rosemary Alley discussed this issue in Too Hot to Touch.  They note that today “there are some 440 nuclear power plants in 31 countries.  More are on the way.  Yet, no country on Earth has an operating high-level waste disposal facility.”

Obama cancelled plans for the Yucca Mountain site, which was as close to perfect as is possible — after 25 years of research at a cost of $10 billion.  Because it was cancelled, spent fuel rods continue building up, many of them temporarily stored in cooling ponds.  If the circulating pumps for the cooling ponds stop, the water boils, the pool evaporates, and the rods are exposed to air, melt, and release radioactive gasses.  The meltdowns at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima were triggered by overheated fuel rods.

Readers also learn that the U.S. has huge coal reserves, enough for 250 years at the current rate of consumption.  To understand why this is a meaningless statement, watch one of the many versions of Albert Bartlett’s famous lecture, Arithmetic, Population, and Energy on YouTube.  Every student and teacher should watch it.

Read Jeff Rubin’s book, The Big Flatline.  You’ll learn that the production of top quality anthracite coal peaked in 1950, and grade B bituminous coal peaked in 1990.  There is abundant grade C coal, lignite, which is especially filthy to burn.  Since lignite is so low in energy, it cannot be shipped long distances profitably.  It is absurd to use 100 calories of diesel to haul 100 calories of low quality coal.

This is an extremely important issue — energy returned on energy invested (EROEI).  The book doesn’t mention this.  EROEI is also highly relevant to oil.  Rubin and others note that in the good old days of high-profit gushers, it was common to invest one calorie of energy to produce 100 calories of oil (100:1).  By 2010, typical EROEI was about 17:1, and some are predicting 5:1 by 2020.

Rising prices enable the extraction of difficult and expensive non-conventional oil and gas.  At some point, declining EROEI makes extraction pointless, regardless of market prices.  Consequently, most of the oil in Canadian tar sands will be left where it is.  The EROEI of tar sands now in production is about 3:1, and 5:1 for shale deposits.

Readers learn about renewable energy, like wind, solar, and hydro.  See Ted Trainer’s book, Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society.  Learn about the significant shortcomings of the various types of alternative energy.  Discover why no combination of them will ever come anywhere close to replacing the energy now provided by fossil fuel.  Discover why we will not enjoy a smooth and painless transition to a sustainable, renewable energy future.

The education system, from grade schools to universities, seems to be largely committed to a “don’t scare the children” strategy.  We don’t want to fill kids with despair about their grisly inheritance.  Also, publishers want to avoid discussions that piss off poorly informed parents, or the politically powerful titans of industry.  The publisher did allow Marrin to drop hints that there might be some trouble in the future.  It’s a touchy game.  Sales can be harmed by too little reality, or too much.  The book’s takeaway message is that we have the solutions for our energy challenges, but we don’t have a lot of time to fool around.  Things will be OK, probably, maybe.  Is that likely?

Marrin, Albert, Black Gold: The Story of Oil in Our Lives, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2012.