Monday, December 15, 2014

Encounters With Nature


Paul Shepard was a pioneer in human ecology, a young field that studies the relationship between humans and their habitats.  The decades of his career were an exciting time.  New research was challenging myths about low impact (“primitive”) cultures, and scholars were starting to contemplate environmental ethics.  He hoped that growing awareness might end humankind’s war on the planet, but as his hair got grayer, his disillusionment grew.  Enlightenment takes time.

Encounters With Nature is a collection of Shepard’s essays, some of which reveal his thinking near the end of his days.  It was compiled, edited, and published by his wife, Florence, after he died.  She summed up the book in one sentence:  “At the heart of our identity is a fundamentally wild being, one who finds in the whole of wild nature all that is true and beautiful in this world.”  The essays spin around two themes that shaped human development: animals and place. 

Our early pre-human ancestors lived in the trees of tropical rainforests.  Leaping quickly from limb to limb through the canopy required far more brainpower than herbivores needed to manufacture manure on the wide-open savannah.  Our time in the trees provided us with sharp minds, grasping hands, stereoscopic vision, and the ability to see in color.

Later, our ancestors moved to the ground, and became larger and stronger.  To defend themselves against predators, they became socially organized.  By and by, they came to walk erect.  They were hunters, but lacked speed, fangs, and claws.  Instead, they became long-distance runners.  Many herbivores were capable of amazing bursts of speed, but they couldn’t outrun hunters who doggedly pursued them for hours.  Some think that we lost our body hair to stay cooler while chasing lunch.  Our ancestors also evolved arms and shoulders that were well suited for throwing sticks and stones.

Our culture takes great pride in the Industrial Revolution and the Agricultural Revolution, but the most important revolution was the Hunting Revolution.  We moved onto the savannah, and learned how to hunt in packs.  Our ancestors were hunters long before Homo sapiens first appeared.  If you look in the mirror, you will observe the body of a tropical omnivore, fine-tuned for running and throwing — a hunter.  Imagine what you would look like if your ancestors had spent the last two million years on couches watching television.

When civilized folks look in the mirror, they don’t see a hunter; they see the crown of creation, God’s masterpiece.  We are taught that every other species is inferior and non-essential.  Only humans matter.  A chimp looking in the mirror sees a wild chimpanzee.  They have not lost their identity.  Coyotes have never forgotten how to be coyotes.

Shepard described three phases in the “identity formation” of each individual.  In the first phase, we bond to our mother.  In the second phase, between learning to speak and puberty, we have about a decade to bond with the living place we inhabit.  All of us are wild animals at birth, expecting to spend our lives in wild ecosystems.

Wild children are fascinated by other wild animals, which are far more interesting than rubber ducks and teddy bears.  Kids observe animals, learn their names, categorize them, imitate them, and study their anatomy when butchered.  They learn the daily and seasonal patterns of the others.  They watch the others transform from youngsters to oldsters, and a strong feeling of kinship develops.  “It is a family tie and carries responsibility.”

Shepard has little to say about the realm of plants, which is equally alive and fascinating.  Plants also play a major role in our bonding to nature.  By puberty, wild children are well rooted in place, feeling at-one with the flora and fauna of the family of life.  They have a profound sense of belonging that most modern tumbleweeds cannot begin to imagine, and will never experience.

Our bodies are those of hunters.  Likewise, our minds were formed and perfected by two million years of hunting and foraging.  We do not thrive in McMansions, malls, or cubicle farms.  We’re like zoo animals with rusty souls, enduring a dreary existence so far from home.  Condors are at home soaring with great joy above the mountains.  When imprisoned by humans, they become sad biological specimens.  A writer once concluded that condorness consisted of 10 percent condor and 90 percent place.  The same is true for us.

The third phase is initiation, the transition into adulthood.  “The youth is ushered into adult status by ceremonies that include separation from family, instruction by elders, tests of endurance and pain, trials of solitude, visions, dreams, and rituals of rebirth.”

What happens if the bond to mother is flawed?  In her book, The Continuum Concept, Jean Liedloff described how wild people raised happy children, and how civilized folks often fail to. 

What happens if we do not form a healthy bond to the family of life?  We become space aliens, and see the natural world as static scenery, or something to plunder.  Jay Griffiths described how wild children bond, and modern kids suffer, in her book, Kith.

What happens when adolescents aren’t initiated into adulthood?  They can remain immature and alienated, whirling in infantile anxieties, often for the rest of their lives.  The natural identity-forming process fails, and they assume a synthetic identity appropriate for the industrial culture.

For wild people, life was generous and giving.  Food was acquired without regular hard work.  The fruit, nuts, roots, and meat they got were gifts, for which they regularly expressed thanks and gratitude.  Meat was always shared.

For farmers, food was not a gift, but a wage received for months of backbreaking work.  If everything went well, there would be food to harvest at summer’s end.  Food could be stored and traded.  It became private property, and a source of wealth and power.  For modern consumers, food is not a gift, it’s a product sold at stores.  Many do not comprehend the link between pizza and the natural world.

The bottom line here is that we were normal and healthy at birth.  Evolution did not design us to be Earth-wrecking savages.  What turned us into freaks was our humanistic culture, which elevates us above all other animals, and celebrates our intelligence and technology.  This illusion is certain to take a beating as we move into the age of collapses, driven by peak energy, peak food, peak humans, and peak everything else.  Our crazy way of life is running out of time.

Our descendants are not going to hold humanistic culture in high regard, because its amazing bursts of cleverness could never outrun its tireless dark shadow.  It’s obviously a suicidal culture, and this will encourage its abandonment.  New and healthier modes of thinking are emerging, but have yet to go viral.  Mainstream academia seems determined to cling to the cult of perpetual growth as it swirls around the drain, lost in pipedreams of techno-utopia.

Shepard has sketched out suggestions of what needs to be nurtured, and what needs to be dumped.  This is precious information for people with imagination, who reject the orders to shop till they drop.  Creative minds understand that other cultures are possible, and that it’s time to envision them.  There is much to do before the lights go out.

Shepard, Paul, Encounters With Nature, Island Press, Washington, D. C., 1999.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Population Explosion


Following the publication of The Population Bomb in 1968, the new predicament of overpopulation was inducted into our gruesome mob of predicaments.  World leaders snapped to attention, contemplated their options, realized that promoting population control was political suicide, and chose to step around the messy issue.  The house was not on fire today, just some smoke.

The big exception was the Chinese, whose one-child program successfully prevented 350 million births.  It was sometimes heavy-handed, but ignoring runaway growth would have guaranteed a super-heavy disaster.  China had the same amount of cropland as the U.S., but four times the population, and the cropland was wearing out after centuries of organic farming.  The last thing they needed was more mouths to feed.

In 1968, there were 3.5 billion people, twenty years later 5.3 billion.  Paul and Anne Ehrlich realized that The Population Bomb had failed to inspire miraculous change, so they wrote The Population Explosion (1990).  The problems they had predicted earlier were now appearing in many places, and a new generation needed an excellent primer on overpopulation and its side effects.  This second book did not repeat the 1968 error of predicting timeframes.  It was much more substantial than the first, and is still illuminating to read today.  Readers will recognize that the raging bloody chaos of the twenty-first century is an obvious consequence of soaring overshoot.

In this second act, the Ehrlichs took readers into the ecological equivalent of an amusement park funhouse, where loud and scary ghouls and goblins frighten us at every turn — except that their eco-spooks were genuinely dangerous.  The trends in food production and population were not in any way encouraging.  In 1970, population was growing by 75 million per year.  By 1990, it was 95 million.

At the same time, staggering amounts of irreplaceable topsoil were being lost, aquifers were being depleted, and fields were being taken out of production because of salinization and waterlogging.  The Green Revolution surge in food production was peaking, whilst population continued to soar, setting the stage for crisis.  “We shouldn’t delude ourselves: the population explosion will come to an end before very long.”

North America produced 75 percent of the world’s grain exports, and the U.S. was the number one exporter.  In 1988, a severe drought reduced U.S. grain production from 300 to 200 million tons.  That year, Americans consumed more than they produced.  A stable climate was essential for crop production.  So was healthy topsoil, which was being lost at an estimated 24 to 26 billion tons per year.  So was cheap and abundant oil, and water for irrigation.

In 1990, the Ehrlichs were aware that global warming might become a serious problem some day, one that might disrupt agriculture, and spark major famines.  They knew that fossil energy was finite, and that we would be insane to burn it all.  But peak oil and climate change were not presented as current threats in this book.  The inevitable return to muscle-powered agriculture is certain take a huge bite out of food production, and an unstable climate will ensure unstable harvests.

Most of humankind lives in the northern hemisphere, in regions having a temperate climate.  These regions are where most of the world’s grain is produced.  Tropical regions are far more troublesome to farm, and they are home to most of the world’s hungry folks.  There is no winter to provide pest control.  Forest soils are typically thin.  Rains are often heavy, sweeping away soil, fertilizer, and pesticides.  The magic seeds of the Green Revolution do not thrive in the humid tropics.

A fascinating chapter reveals why it is so hard for us to take action on long-term issues.  It’s almost impossible to see, hear, touch, or smell greenhouse gasses, overpopulation, acid rain, aquifer depletion, soil destruction, or mass extinction.  These are not sudden, attention-grabbing events, like a charging rhino.  They are slow motion processes that are mostly perceptible via charts, graphs, and books.  We are tropical primates, and we evolved to pay close attention to the here and now, in the immediate vicinity.

Slow motion threats cannot be chased away with complaints or magical thinking.  We can’t seem to get interested in making enormous sacrifices today in the hope of theoretical benefits somewhere down the road, maybe.  Exponential growth can blindside us, because it’s slow at first, and gradually spins into a devastating whirlwind.  Evolution did not prepare us for civilized living.

The Ehrlichs are more homocentric than ecocentric.  Here’s a real boner: “The population problem is rooted in one of humanity’s greatest triumphs — overcoming natural controls on population size: predators, starvation, and disease.”  Triumphs?  Overcoming natural controls was the blunder that hurled us onto the path of doom!  Replace “triumphs” with “mistakes” and the line makes sense.  Natural controls work beautifully.  There are not 7.2 billion chimps staring at cell phones.

From 1968 to today, the main goal of the Ehrlichs has been to prevent the collapse of our global civilization.  In The Population Explosion, they fire hose readers with torrents of grim information.  Readers are likely to conclude that today’s global civilization is already far beyond the point of no return.  The solutions recommended require countless miracles, by next year, if possible — world leaders fully cooperating to rapidly reverse the course of humankind.

In a 2014 essay, they concluded that the odds of preventing collapse are now less than one percent.  Every civilization collapses, and not one has ever been anything close to sustainable.  Instead of rescuing civilization, wouldn’t a wiser goal be to quit destroying the ecosystem?  The early civilizations destroyed themselves by overexploiting renewable resources, like water, forests, and topsoil.  The newer ones are also extracting nonrenewable resources at an exponential rate.  We’re beating the stuffing out of the planet.

Sadly, the super-loony consumer lifestyle has been successfully marketed as being extremely cool.  Everyone in China, India, Africa, and everywhere else is eager to live as wastefully as possible, like Americans, but finite resources make this impossible.  Instead, Americans need to learn how to live like the people who pick their coffee beans, and we will, sooner or later.

Civilization appears to be speeding toward decades of collapses, yet most of us have little understanding of how we created our mob of predicaments.  Methinks it would be ideal to understand our boo-boos before the lights go out.  It would be great to quit repeating them.  Long ago, the introduction of plows increased carrying capacity.  Today, their continued use is reducing carrying capacity.  It’s important to understand this.

Here’s an essential sentence:  “The complacency with which our education system at all levels accepts the production of citizens hopelessly unequipped to understand the population explosion and many other aspects of the modern world is a national disgrace.”

Ehrlich, Paul R. and Ehrlich, Anne H., The Population Explosion, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1990.

In 2012, the Ehrlichs published a detailed essay, Can a Collapse of Global Civilization be Avoided? 

Other reviews of Ehrlich books:  The Population Bomb, The Dominant Animal.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Where We Belong


Where We Belong is a collection of Paul Shepard essays that discuss how we perceive the natural world, and how this influences the way we treat it.  Most of the essays were written between the 1950s and 1970s.  They include some ideas that evolved into major components of his classics.  Almost half of this book is devoted to provocative discussions of pioneer diaries, a special treat.

Humans evolved as hunters and scavengers on tropical savannahs.  Today, our genes are still those of Pleistocene hunter-gatherers — not Anthropocene cell phone zombies.  Shepard believed that the process of normal human development depended on experiences best provided by living close to wild nature.  Children need to be surrounded by a variety of wild species, to observe them, and learn from them.  They need to be outdoors, and experience how everything in their land is alive.

They need a culture that guides them through the transition from adolescence to adulthood, via rituals of initiation.  When this is not provided, “Self-generated substitutes created by adolescents are a virtual catalog of delinquency and neurosis … adolescents cannot discover their maturity in a city.”  They don’t understand that the all-natural dance of creatures eating creatures is normal and good.  They think that food comes from stores.  They are space aliens, as most of society is.

Some of the damage can be healed by spending more time with nature.  Emotionally impoverished city folks can “recover elements of human ecology warped by millennia of immersion in domesticated landscapes.  Paramount among these is the opportunity to be free of domestic animals both as social partners and as models of the nonhuman.”  We have a powerful desire to live in a wild landscape that is inhabited by wild animals — and parks and pets are a poor substitute.

Shepard was never a cheerleader for the domestication of plants and animals, because it spawned a way of living that was harmful to everything.  The relationship between the human and non-human shifted from one of freedom to one of human domination and control.  This led to profound changes in the way we perceived the world, and to destructive changes in behavior.

From the first civilizations, growing population fueled ongoing deforestation.  Sheep, goats, and cattle were then turned loose on the former forest.  These “hoofed locusts” gobbled up young seedlings, and ensured that the forest would never recover.  The exposed soil was then washed away by the rains, creating vast wastelands that modern visitors now perceive as natural and picturesque.  This resulted in a “lobotomy on the land, done not with a scalpel but with teeth and hooves.”  

The Minoan community of Jerash, a dusty village of 3,000, was once home to 250,000.  “No wonder Western consciousness is an overheated drama of God’s vengeance and catastrophe, preoccupation with sacrifice, portents and omens of punishment by a heavy-handed Jehovah.  Like the dinosaurs, which are known mainly for their vanishing, the ancestors we know best, and from whom we take our style, are those who seem to have lived mainly to call down calamity upon themselves.”

Much of the book is devoted to Shepard’s discussion of pioneer diaries from New Zealand and the Oregon Trail.  These essays are illuminating and disturbing.  In New Zealand, the English observed a gloomy, desolate, terrifying wildness, like “Caesar’s Britain,” that was dreadfully unimproved.  To their fundamentalist minds, wilderness was immoral and sinful.  The solution, of course, was to erase the existing ecosystem, and turn the land into a proper English countryside.  Settler Richard Taylor wrote, “The fern is like the savage; both are going down before civilization.”

On the Oregon Trail, early travelers from New England and the Midwest experienced landscapes that were beyond their imagination — vast wide-open spaces, and dark skies with billions of twinkling stars.  Their wagons were prairie schooners, sailing across the seas of waving grass.  At night, they sat around fires, fiddling and singing, listening to the hoots of owls, bellowing bison, and the music of the wind.  They were serenaded by enthusiastic choirs of wolves, howling and shrieking their ancient wild music. 

Folks used to existing in the bowels of civilization were jarred by feelings of isolation, solitude, and emptiness.  At times, the land was absolutely silent.  Then there were deluges, prairie fires, and tornados.  Humming clouds of the native mosquitoes were exceedingly friendly to the smelly travelers in funny attire.  “Everyone was deeply moved by the immense herds of buffalo as they roamed beside, toward, and even through the wagon trains.”

In hotter and drier regions, travelers found buffalo trails that looked like old roads, because of frequent use.  They saw rock formations that resembled castles, lighthouses, churches, palaces, and so on.  From a distance, they looked like manmade ancient ruins, ghost towns.  They wondered if the treeless landscape had once been cleared. 

It was spooky to experience a vast region showing no signs of being beaten and molested by civilization, except along the trail, which was strewn with litter.  Many began the pilgrimage overloaded with stuff, dumping ballast along the way, to make the journey less challenging.  Everywhere along the trail, people carved their names on rocks, stumps, skulls, and trees.

Readers get two impressions from these pioneer stories.  One is that the experience was precious and sacred, a very long trek through a healthy wild land.  Imagine how much people would pay today to experience a wild Nebraska where there were far more buffalo and wolves than humans — no highways, beer cans, motels, or fences.  The tales call up deep ancestral memories of how we all once lived, pleasant memories.

The other impression was that these travelers had not come to abandon civilization and return to wildness and freedom.  If the western plains had water, good soil, and forests, the travelers on the Oregon Trail would have stopped in their tracks, built cabins, and destroyed it.  But they knew that they could not survive on the plains, so they kept moving toward the promised land of salmon and forests, where their descendants would build Portland and Eugene, and create the ancient ruins of the future — enduring monuments to our experiment in civilization, warning signs to the distant generations yet-to-be-born.

The essays in this book discuss aspects of how civilized Western people interpret the natural world.  Their perspective is strongly influenced by our culture of wealth, alienation, and destruction.  What’s missing in this book is the perspective of people rooted in place, who have reverence and respect for the land they inhabit.

Okanagan elder Jeanette Armstrong is one of many who eloquently discuss the vital importance on having a healthy connection to place, community, and family.  She sees that our world is being disemboweled by alienated people who have no connection to place, people who have no hearts, because they are “dis-placed.”  Shepard put it like this, “Knowing who you are is impossible without knowing where you are.” 

Shepard, Paul, Where We Belong — Beyond Abstraction in Perceiving Nature, University of Georgia Press, Atlanta, 2003.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Population Bomb


In 1968, biologist Paul Ehrlich achieved infamy by publishing The Population Bomb, one of the most controversial eco-books ever printed.  Ehrlich has been condemned to spend eternity with Thomas Malthus, in a dungeon reserved for doom perverts.  To this day, professors still use the two lads as great reasons to never take seriously anyone who asserts that there are limits to growth.  We all know, of course, that humankind has no limits.  We have technology!

Actually, Malthus never predicted catastrophic famine.  He simply stated the obvious — when population reaches overshoot, the death rate will automatically rise to restore balance, one way or another (starvation, disease, conflict).  A thousand people cannot prosper if forced to share ten cheeseburgers a day.  The overshoot ceiling rises when food is abundant, and falls when food is scarce.  Malthus was not a doomer.  His cardinal sin was declaring the obvious — that there are limits to growth.

Ehrlich, on the other hand, actually did predict catastrophic famine, and soon.  The first lines in his book are, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over.  In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”  Millions indeed starved, but not hundreds of millions.  Everyone agrees that this prediction was inaccurate or premature.

When Ehrlich was writing, India was sliding toward catastrophic famine.  Only ten nations produced more food than they consumed in 1966.  In America, the postwar baby boom led to a freakish population spike of 55 million in 20 years.  The streets of 1968 were jammed with scruffy rebels protesting the Vietnam War, and our totally unhip way of life.  It was hip to be loud, brash, and vigorously opposed to the status quo.

At the same time, the Green Revolution was just getting rolling, and no one could foresee how well it would succeed at temporarily boosting grain production.  Norman Borlaug was the wizard of the Green Revolution, and his holy mission was to reduce world hunger.  He hoped that the new technology would give us 10 or 20 years to resolve our population issues.  We didn’t even try.  Those who recommend strict population control measures are called callous.  But the leaders who irresponsibly blew off an amazing opportunity were also callous.

Naturally, much more food led to many more people.  In 1968, there were 3.5 billion people, by late this morning there were 7.2 billion.  World hunger sharply increased, and many other problems worsened.  The Green Revolution had wonderful intentions, but its unintended consequences far exceeded its benefits, because we refused to seize the opportunity to confront and subdue the 800-pound gorilla.

The bottom line here is that Ehrlich’s predictions of catastrophe within a specific timeframe were wrong, but he succeeded in bringing a lot of attention to real and growing problems — population, pollution, and environmental destruction.  At the same time, he succeeded at pissing off almost everyone. 

Liberals hated him because he wanted to set population goals for poor nations, and withhold food aid for those who did not meet their goals.  He contemplated the notion of withholding food aid to nations that had zero chance of becoming self-sufficient.  He did not endorse the “right” of families to breed as they pleased — a right that was not handcuffed to responsibilities.

Religious people hated him because he believed that contraception and abortion should be legal everywhere, and that all children should receive rigorous training in sex education and family planning.  They hated him because he believed that fetuses were nothing more than potential humans.

Environmentalists hated him, because he was a lightning rod for criticism.  They believe that his fondness for bold statements made it hard for folks to trust anything that greens said.  He was a popular scapegoat to blame their failures on.  If Ehrlich had never been born, would we be living in a sustainable utopia today?

Conservatives hated him because he wanted to regulate pollution and pesticide use.  He advocated compulsory population control, because voluntary family planning has never been successful at stabilizing or reducing population.  Ehrlich detested their insane obsession with perpetual economic growth, which thrived on population growth, and disregarded ecocide.  But they loved him for being so loud and so bizarre.  He made it easy for them to label all greens as hysterical nutjobs.

Modern society is suffocating in information.  Everyone in a hunter-gatherer clan knew the entire collection of their cultural information.  Today, we don’t know a millionth of our cultural information, because knowing it all is impossible.  So, climatologists are freaked out about rising temperatures, while the masses are blissfully ignorant.  Petroleum geologists are freaked out about the looming specter of Peak Energy, while the masses are not.

Within the realm of his specialty, Ehrlich could perceive enormous threats that society was unaware of, and this freaked him out.  He was compelled to rattle cages.  If he had written a dry, mature, scholarly discourse on population, with 300 footnotes, it would not have reached a general audience and provoked lively and widespread discussion.  In modern society, suffocating in information, you get attention by flaming and screaming, like the election ads for candidates.  Whether or not it is honorable, it works.  In my opinion, Ehrlich’s opinions were sincere, and a bit inflamed, but not devious fabrications.

Ehrlich’s book was read by many, and it drew needed attention to a crucial issue.  A taboo subject was let out of the closet, for a while.  Others were inspired to write books.  Green organizations boldly called for action, but many checkbook activists promptly revolted by putting away their checkbooks.  So, the issue of overpopulation was handed over to Big Mama Nature to resolve, and she will.

While his ideas continue to outrage many, they do have a basis in cold, hard reason.  We could reward couples who don’t marry until 25, and those who space their children at least five years apart.  Childfree people could be eligible to win lottery prizes.  “There has been little effective criticism of the medical profession or the government for their preoccupation with death control… death control in the absence of birth control is self-defeating.”

It would have been cool if humans were purely rational, realized their mistake, and took bold action to divert disaster.  Ehrlich sighed.  “By now you are probably fed up with this discussion.  Americans will do none of these things, you say.  Well, I’m inclined to agree.”  He wrote because there was a wee chance for success.

Don’t read this book to learn about overpopulation and its side effects.  Hundreds of newer books are far more up to date.  Read this book to contemplate morals, ethics, taboos, ideologies, and communication.  Contemplate his critics, and why they are so determined to banish discussion on an issue that is a major threat to humankind and the planet (see the reader comments on Amazon.com).  The anger and pain that continues to swirl around this book provides a fascinating study in human nature — long-term survival vs. a mentally unstable culture. 

Ehrlich is an intelligent and charismatic fellow.  In 2008, on the fortieth anniversary of The Population Bomb, he reread his book and blushed a bit.  He had learned a few new things in the preceding forty years, but his overall impression was that in 1968 he had been far too optimistic.  He presented his current perspective in a lecture at Stanford, From the Population Bomb to the Dominant Animal (54 min.).

Ehrlich, Paul R., The Population Bomb, Ballantine, New York, 1968.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Topsoil and Civilization


Outside the entrance of the glorious Hall of Western History are the marble lions, colorful banners, and huge stone columns.  Step inside, and the popular exhibits include ancient Egypt, classical Greece, the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, Gutenberg, Magellan, Columbus, Galileo, and so on.  If we cut a hole in the fence, and sneak around to the rear of the building, we find the dumpsters, derelicts, mangy dogs, and environmental history.

The Darwin of environmental history was George Perkins Marsh, who published Man and Nature in 1864 (free download).  Few educated people today have ever heard of this visionary.  Inspired by Marsh, Walter Lowdermilk, of the Soil Conservation Service, grabbed his camera and visited the sites of old civilizations in 1938 and 1939.  He created a provocative 44-page report, Conquest of the Land Through Seven Thousand Years (free download).  The government distributed over a million copies of it.

Lowdermilk helped inspire Tom Dale of the Soil Conservation Service, and Vernon Gill Carter of the National Wildlife Federation, to write Topsoil and Civilization, published in 1955 (free download).  Both organizations cooperated in the production of this book.  Following the horror show of the Dust Bowl, they were on a mission from God to promote soil conservation.


The book’s introduction gets directly to the point, “The very achievements of civilized man have been the most important factors in the downfall of civilizations.”  Civilized man had the tools and intelligence needed “to domesticate or destroy a great part of the plant and animal life around him.”  He excelled at exploiting nature.  “His chief troubles came from his delusions that his temporary mastership was permanent.  He thought of himself as ‘master of the world,’ while failing to understand fully the laws of nature.”

Readers are taken on a thrilling tour of the civilizations of antiquity.  We learn how they developed new and innovative strategies for self-destruction.  Stops include Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Mediterranean basin, Greece, China, India, and others.  No society collapses because of a single reason, but declining soil health is always prominent among the usual suspects — no food, no civ.

The civilization of Egypt was the oddball.  It thrived longest because of the unique characteristics of the Nile Valley.  Then, in the twentieth century, they strangled the golden goose by building dams, which ended the annual applications of fertile silt, led to soil destruction, and shifted the system into self-destruct mode.

Mesopotamia (Iraq) was home to a series of civilizations that depended on irrigation.  Creating and maintaining irrigation canals required an immense amount of manual labor, which legions of slaves were unhappy to provide.  At the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, deforestation and overgrazing led to growing soil erosion, which flowed downstream, regularly clogging the canals.  Eroded soils have filled in 130 miles (209 km) of the Persian Gulf.  Today, the population in this region is only a quarter of what it was 4,000 years ago.

Over the centuries, the region of Mesopotamia was conquered and lost many, many times.  For the most part, replenishing soil fertility with manure and other fertilizers was a fairly recent invention.  In the old days, an effective solution to soil depletion was to expand into less spoiled lands, and kill anyone who objected.  Throughout the book, the number of wars is stunning.  The tradition of farming is a bloody one.  It always damages the soil, sooner or later, which makes long-term stability impossible, and guarantees conflict.

Rome, Greece, and other Mediterranean civilizations were all burnouts, trashed by a combination of heavy winter rains, sloping lands, overgrazing, deforestation, soil depletion, and malaria.  The legendary cedars of Lebanon once covered more than a million acres (404,000 ha).  Today, just four tiny groves survive.  “Deforestation and the scavenger goats brought on most of the erosion which turned Lebanon into a well-rained-on desert.”  Much of once-lush Palestine, “land of milk and honey,” has been reduced to a rocky desert.

Adria was an island in the Adriatic Sea, near the mouth of the Po River in Italy.  Eroding soils from upstream eventually connected the island to the mainland.  Today, Adria is a farm town, 15 miles (24 km) from the sea, and its ancient streets are buried under 15 feet (4.5 m) of eroded soil.  In Syria, the palaces of Antioch were buried under 28 feet (8.5 m) of silt.  In North Africa, the ruins of Utica were 30 feet (9 m) below.

Even now, in the twenty-first century, there are dreamers who purport that China provides a glowing example of sustainable agriculture — 4,000 years of farmers living in perfect harmony with the land.  Chapter 11 provides a silver bullet cure for these fantastic illusions.  “Erosion continues to ruin much of the land, reducing China, as a whole, to the status of a poor country with poor and undernourished people, mainly because the land has been misused for so long.”

The authors aim floodlights on the fundamental defects of civilization, and then heroically reveal the brilliant solution, soil conservation.  Their kinky fantasy was permanent agriculture, which could feed a gradually growing crowd for the next 10,000 years — a billion well-fed Americans enjoying a continuously improving standard of living.  Their vision went far beyond conservation, which merely slowed the destruction.  Their vision was about harmless perpetual growth, fully developing all resources, bringing prosperity to one and all, forever.  Oy!

At the same time, they were excruciatingly aware that humankind was ravaging the land.  “The fact is that there has probably been more man-induced erosion over the world as a whole during the past century than during any preceding thousand-year period.  There are many reasons for the recent rapid acceleration of erosion, but the principal reasons are that the world has more people and the people are more civilized and hence are capable of destroying the land faster.”  The book is more than a little bit bipolar.

For readers who enjoy the delights of mind-altering experiences, I recommend reading Topsoil and Civilization, a discourse on soil mining.  Also read its shadow, a discourse on forest mining, A Forest Journey, by John Perlin.  Your belief system will go into convulsions, and then a beautiful healing process begins.

You will suddenly understand that the stuff you were taught about the wonders of civilization was an incredibly delusional fairy tale.  The real story is one of thousands of years of accelerating population growth, ruthless greed, countless wars, enormous suffering, and catastrophic ecocide.  Suddenly, the pain of baffling contradictions is cured, the world snaps into sharp focus, and the pain of being fully present in reality begins — useful pain that can inspire learning and change.  Live well.

Soil erosion photo gallery: Gulley erosion.  Alabama cotton field.  Iowa sheepwreck.  Iowa sheet erosion.      

Carter, Vernon Gill and Dale, Tom, Topsoil and Civilization, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1974.  [First ed. 1955]

Friday, October 31, 2014

Plagues and Peoples


Nobody comprehends the universe, because it is almost entirely out of sight.  We also can’t see the universe of microorganisms here on Earth, or fully comprehend their powerful influence.  Historian William McNeill learned that disease has played a major role in the human journey, and he wrote a fascinating introduction to our intimate companions, the parasites, in Plagues and Peoples.

All critters eat.  Hosts provide food, and parasites consume it.  Large-bodied parasites, like wolves, are macro-parasites.  Wolves kill their hosts.  Micro-parasites include bacteria, viruses, and small multi-celled organisms.  If they quickly kill their host, the banquet is short.  A more stable strategy is to simply take a free ride on a living host, like the billions of bacteria that inhabit our guts, share our meals, and don’t make us sick.

In healthy ecosystems, stability is the norm.  Species coevolve, which encourages balance, like the dance of oak trees and squirrels, or the foxes and rabbits.  Balance is disturbed by natural disasters, like when an invasion of organic farmers overwhelms an ecosystem with their plows, axes, and enslaved animals.  A farming community is a mob of macro-parasites that weakens or destroys its ecosystem host over time.  When parasites disturb balance, McNeill calls this disease.  “It is not absurd to class the ecological role of humankind in its relationship to other life forms as a disease.”

The ruling classes in civilizations behave like macro-parasites when they siphon nutrients away from the working class hosts that they exploit.  To survive, the elites must keep enough farmers alive to maintain an adequate supply of nutrients.  Elites rely on violence specialists to protect their host collection from other two-legged macro-parasites, like the bloodthirsty civilization across the river.  In this scenario, the worker hosts are suffering from a type of disease (the elites) that is called endemic, because it allows them to survive.

Disease that kills the host is epidemic.  “Looked at from the point of view of other organisms, humankind therefore resembles an acute epidemic disease, whose occasional lapses into less virulent forms of behavior have never yet sufficed to permit any really stable, chronic relationship to establish itself.”

Our chimp and bonobo cousins continue to have a stable relationship with their ecosystem.  Consequently, there are not seven billion of them.  Like them, our pre-human ancestors evolved in a tropical rainforest, a warm and wet ecosystem with immense biodiversity.  This diversity included many, many types of parasites, and they lovingly helped to keep our ancestors in balance.  Life was good.  “The balance between eater and eaten was stable, or nearly so, for long periods of time.”

Then, some too-clever ancestors began fooling around with technology.  With spears, we were able to kill more prey, and foolishly eliminate many of the rival predators that helped keep our numbers in check.  By and by, our ancestors began leaving Africa, moving into cooler and drier climates.  We left behind many tropical parasites, and explored new lands with far fewer parasites.  We suffered less disease.  We moved into new regions as skilled hunters, and encountered game animals that had no fear of us.  With clever new technology, like clothing and huts, our ancestors could sidestep our biological limitations and survive in non-tropical habitats.

Antelope and tsetse flies are unaffected by the sleeping sickness parasites they carry.  Many species of burrowing rodents live with the bubonic plague bacteria harmlessly.  These relationships are old and stable, but a blind date with a new parasite can be fatal.  With the advent of animal domestication, there were many blind dates.  We began living in close proximity to other species, and their parasites, to which we had no immunity.  This gave birth to the deadly new diseases of civilization, and led to a long era of epidemics.

“Most and probably all of the distinctive infectious diseases of civilization transferred to human populations from animal herds.”  Aborigines, who did not enslave herd animals, did not suffer from infectious disease.  The same was true for Native Americans, even those who lived in the densely populated regions of Mexico, Central America, and the Andes.

Humans share many diseases with domesticated animals: poultry (26), rats and mice (32), horses (35), pigs (42), sheep and goats (46), cattle (50), and dogs (65).  In addition to the diseases of civilization are ancient rainforest diseases like malaria and yellow fever, which were introduced to the Americas by the slave trade.

From 500 B.C. to A.D. 1200, as civilizations developed in different regions of Eurasia, each area developed pools of civilized diseases, some of which became quite popular.  India has a wonderful climate for parasites, and it may be where smallpox, cholera, and plague parasites first entered human hosts.  Bubonic plague slammed into a virgin population in the Mediterranean basin.  The plague of Justinian (A.D. 542-543) hit hard, maybe killing 100 million, about half of Europe.

From 1200 to 1500, the isolated disease pools of Eurasia eventually connected with the others, creating one large pool of civilized diseases.  Nomads, like the Mongols, transported parasites back and forth between China and Europe.  Parasites also travelled by ship.  Black Death began in China around 1331.  Between 1200 and 1393, China’s population dropped by half.  The disease arrived in Crimea in 1346, spread across Europe, and killed about a third of the people.  Muslims believed that those killed by the plague were martyrs, chosen by the will of Allah.  They mocked the Christian infidels who successfully limited the spread via quarantines.

Between 1300 and 1700, a number of epidemic diseases became domesticated.  To survive, parasites required a steady supply of new hosts without immunity — these were mostly children.  A population of 500,000 or more was needed to produce enough new hosts to support an ongoing infestation of measles.  If a disease was too virulent, it would eliminate its hosts and die off.  Over time, a number of serial killers softened into childhood diseases, like mumps, smallpox, and measles.

From 1500 to 1700, Old World diseases discovered the New World.  Europeans and their African slaves were walking disease bombs, but they were mostly immune to the parasites they carried.  Native Americans were a virgin population, having no immunity whatsoever to the new parasites, they were blindsided by catastrophic epidemics.  The population of Mexico and Peru dropped 90 percent in 120 years.

Since 1700, science has made great advances in death control (not balanced by equal achievements in birth control).  Vaccinations have been effective in controlling smallpox and polio.  Antibiotics have temporarily provided several decades of relief from a number of infectious parasites.  Sewage treatment and water purification systems have also provided temporary relief, during the bubble of abundant energy.

Industrial society, with its radically unhealthy way of life, has created new diseases of civilization, like cancer and heart disease.  Influenza is a powerful wild card, because it rapidly mutates, sometimes into highly virulent forms.  By the time the vaccines are mass-produced, the pandemic is over.  Many new viral diseases, like Ebola and AIDS, are appearing, as the human swarm meets new and exciting rainforest parasites.

The plague bacterium still lives harmlessly in burrowing rodents and their fleas.  Over the years, it has spread around the world.  By 1940, it was carried by 34 species of burrowing rodents in America, and 35 species of fleas.  By 1975, it was found across the western U.S., and portions of Canada and Mexico.  Black rats are the vector that moves the parasites into humans.  As long as the gas-guzzling garbage trucks keep running regularly, we’ll be safe, maybe.

Modern consumers have had little exposure to epidemic disease, but our elaborate, energy-guzzling systems of death control only provide temporary protection.  Sewage treatment, water purification, effective antibiotics, and industrial agriculture have a limited future in a Peak Energy world.

McNeill, William H., Plagues and Peoples, Anchor Books, New York, 1998.  [1976]

Other reviews of books on health include:  Bird Flu, Epidemics, Health & the Rise of Civilization, The Antibiotic Paradox.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Silent Spring


Silent Spring is a classic, a powerful broadside against synthetic pesticides.  Now, more than fifty years old, the book still packs a solid roundhouse punch.  With one book, one woman enlightened millions and spurred a loud outcry.  One woman inspired big changes.  Many of the pesticides she slammed have been banned or highly restricted.

Following World War II, Americans had big heads.  We had won the war, invented a terrible new weapon, our economy was booming, and life was great!  We succeeded at whatever we tried.  We were giddy with euphoria.  Then, Rachel Carson rolled a hand grenade into our dining rooms.  Suddenly, Sunday dinners at grandma’s looked far less delicious.  What were we eating?  Would it kill us?

During the war, researchers working on chemical warfare agents discovered substances that were highly toxic to insects.  After the war, greedy minds became fascinated by these super-poisons, and visions of big profits danced in their heads.  Synthetic pesticides were toxic to morals, ethics, and foresight.  And so, a new industry was born, and the production of pesticides increased five-fold between 1947 and 1960.

To control the elm bark beetles that caused Dutch elm disease, two to five pounds of DDT were sprayed on elm trees.  This killed the natural predators of the beetles, as well as 90 species of birds, and assorted mammals.  Worms ate the poison leaves, and the robins that ate the poison worms quit reproducing.  Elms kept dying.  More elms survived in places not sprayed.

To control gypsy moths, a million acres a year were sprayed with DDT.  Sprayers were paid by the gallon, not the acre, so some places were sprayed multiple times.  Bees died.  Cows ate DDT grass and produced DDT milk that was consumed by DDT humans.  Regulators did not block the sale of poison milk.  At the end of the expensive project, the gypsy moths returned.

To control fire ants, millions of acres were sprayed with two new poisons: dieldrin and heptachlor, which were far more toxic than DDT.  Newborn calves died after their first drink of milk.  Piglets were born dead.  Opossums, armadillos, raccoons, quail, songbirds, turkeys, livestock, poultry, and pets died.  In the end, there were more ants in Florida than before.

We know little about what these toxins do to the complex microorganisms in healthy topsoil.  Many of them interfere with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which provide an essential nutrient for all living things.  Some organisms are wiped out, leading to explosions of other organisms.  The chemicals persist in the soil for years, and build up with each new application.  Soil beneath an apple tree can contain 113 pounds (51 kg) of DDT.  Old-fashioned arsenic pesticides keep the soil toxic forever.

Yes, it’s a bummer that all spawning salmon died when New Brunswick’s Miramichi River got sprayed with DDT, while the terrible spruce budworms laughed at the embarrassed entomologists.  When Ontario sprayed to kill blackflies, they wiped out blackfly predators, enabling the fly population to explode 17-fold.  The same thing happened in Florida, where large areas in coastal regions are now uninhabitable because of hordes of pesticide-resistant mosquitoes.

“Resistant” is a keyword in this comedy of errors.  Big Mama Nature routinely produces organisms that are resistant to insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, antibiotics, and antivirals.  We can throw one poison after another at life, and life will become resistant to it.  Winning the war on life is impossible.  Resistance can develop in as little as two months.  The average time is three years.  Insects are reproductive champions, and can promptly refill the land with resistant offspring.  The breeding process in humans is much slower, so it will take us thousands of years to become resistant to pesticides. 

Silent Spring delivered two powerful messages.  It alerted us to the nightmare world of pesticides.  It also turned big floodlights on the incredible incompetence of our experts and regulators.  In 1960, almost everyone was blissfully ignorant about the toxic chemicals in their lives.  In those days, most folks still trusted their elected officials.  They trusted the experts who told them that DDT was harmless, and chlordane was a wonder of scientific genius.  Today, for good reason, we automatically doubt any statements made by leaders or experts because they, too often, have little or no relationship to the full truth.

Carson did not believe that the use of pesticides should be banned entirely, but she did recommend that we shift toward less toxic alternatives, like pyrethins and Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt).  Not surprisingly, malarial mosquitos are becoming resistant to bed nets treated with pyrethin-based insecticides, and many crop pests are now resistant to Bt.

She was fascinated by research in sterilizing male bugs, so that female bugs would not be able to tell the studs from the duds.  Chemo-sterilants were used to render millions of houseflies impotent.  Male gypsy moths found their lovers via sexy scents.  Researchers sprayed this scent all over the place, and were delighted to observe the flying lads falling deeply in love with wood chips that smelled like hot babes.  Ultrasonic sounds could be used to kill blowflies, mealworms, and yellow fever mosquitoes.

About half of the insects called pests are immigrants from foreign lands.  Here, they were not controlled by their natural predators from the old country.  Carson recommended importing the predators and parasites of notorious immigrant pests.  Moving organisms from one region to another is a mistake that has often led to unintended disasters, like the rabbits of Australia, the potatoes of Ireland, smallpox, and so on.  She thought that it was OK for humans to try to sit in the ecosystem’s driver’s seat.

Carson was fighting breast cancer as she finished her book, and she died in 1964, two years after it was published.  If she had lived longer, I think she would have recognized the serious shortcomings of the anthropocentric worldview of her era.  Living like the masters of the planet has been a reliable recipe for countless catastrophes, and it’s the core reason why seven billion people are standing on very thin ice today.

Ecological thinking is the antidote.  Forget control — adapt!  Carson was intrigued by the brilliant rascal Paul Shepard, who could have exorcised her anthropocentric demons, had she lived longer.  She quoted Shepard, who summed it up nicely: “Why should we tolerate a diet of weak poisons, a home in insipid surroundings, a circle of acquaintances who are not quite our enemies, the noise of motors with just enough relief to prevent insanity?  Why would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?”

PS: Locust is the story of how humans, for once, actually succeeded in driving a major crop-destroying insect pest into extinction — unintentionally — by simply living like civilized people. 

Carson, Rachel, Silent Spring — Fortieth Anniversary Edition, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 2002.