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  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.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


William Catton’s book, Overshoot, describes the process by which most modern societies have achieved overshoot — a population in excess of the permanent carrying capacity of the habitat.  It examines the long human saga, and reveals embarrassing failures of foresight that make our big brains wince and blush.  Catton drives an iron stake through the heart of our goofy worldview — the myths, fantasies, and illusions of progress.  Readers are served a generous full strength dose of ecological reality with no sugar coating.

Humans evolved to thrive in a tropical wilderness.  In the early days, we lived lightly, like bonobos, in a simple manner that supported a modest population density.  As the millennia passed, we learned how to increase carrying capacity by adopting ever-more-clever technology, like spears, bows and arrows, and fire — better tools, more food.  This was a blind leap into the unknown.  It pushed us out of evolution’s safety net, and required us to create cultural safety nets, based on enlightened self-restraint.  Our path became slippery.

Much later, we slipped into soil mining — agriculture — which sent our carrying capacity into the stratosphere — temporarily.  Topsoil is created over geological time.  From a human timeframe, it is a nonrenewable resource.  Soil mining often leads to water mining and forest mining.  It has a long history of spurring population growth, bloody conflict, and permanent damage to ecosystems.

Then, we slipped into metal making, and invented many new tools for raising carrying capacity even higher.  This was a big fork in the path.  Up to this point, we increased carrying capacity by takeover, expanding into new habitat and pushing out other species.  Now, we added drawdown to the game, by tapping into finite nonrenewable resources, and becoming heavily addicted to them.

When communities lived with enlightened self-restraint, salmon and bison could be renewable sources of food for tens of thousands of years, or more.  Iron, oil, and topsoil are not renewable.  Their extraction does not contribute to the real carrying capacity of the habitat.  What they provide is phantom carrying capacity, a boost that can only be temporary.

A habitat’s carrying capacity is limited by the least abundant necessity.  The limiting factor was usually food, but it can also be water or oil.  Writing in the late 1970s, Catton perceived that 90 percent of humankind was dependent for survival on phantom carrying capacity.  Today, that figure is certainly higher, with billions of people dependent on oil-powered agriculture and market systems.  As the rate of oil extraction declines in the coming decades, there will be many growling tummies.

Columbus alerted Europeans to the existence of an unknown hemisphere, the Americas.  This “New World” was fully occupied by Stone Age nations that survived by low-tech hunting, fishing, foraging, and organic soil mining.  They had no wheels, metal tools, or domesticated livestock.  European colonists, with their state of the art technology, vigorously converted wilderness into private property devoted to the production of food and commodities for humans.  This greatly expanded the carrying capacity of the Americas (for humans).  Colonists exported lots of food to Europe, and population exploded on both sides of the Atlantic.

A bit later, we developed a tragic addiction to fossil fuels, which led to the Industrial Revolution.  We began extracting solar energy that had been safely stored underground for millions of years.  Cool new machines allowed us to expand cropland, increase farm productivity, and keep growing numbers of people well fed.  The population of hunter-gatherers grew 0.09% per generation.  With the shift to agriculture, population grew 0.78% per generation.  Since 1865, it’s growing 27.5% per generation.

For four centuries, much of the world experienced a ridiculously abnormal era of innovation, growth, and excess — the Age of Exuberance.  This created a state of mind that perceived high waste living as normal, and expected it continue forever.  We were proud that our children would be able to live even more destructively than we could.  Our glorious leaders worked tirelessly to increase drawdown and worsen overshoot.

We have no limits.  We’ll grow like crazy until the sun burns out.  This is known as the cornucopian paradigm.  Cornucopians hallucinate that withdrawals from finite nonrenewable savings are income, and that wealth can be increased by withdrawing even more nonrenewable savings.  Cornucopians proudly refer to overshoot as progress.  Ecology, on the other hand, insists that our ability to survive above carrying capacity, in overshoot, can only be temporary.  We can refuse to believe in limits, but limits don’t care if we believe in them.

The Age of Exuberance was brought to an end by the oil shocks of the 1970s.  Our poor children now have a bleak future, a sickening descent into primitive barbarism — no SUVs, ATVs, RVs, PWCs, or McMansions.  It was fun having the wonders of industrial society, like bicycles, metal pots, books, and running water.  But these luxuries were provided by a system that has been surviving for 200 years on an exponential drawdown of nonrenewable resources.  It’s a way of life that survives by burning up posterity’s savings.  Catton warned us, “It was thus becoming apparent that nature must, in the not far distant future, institute bankruptcy proceedings against industrial civilization, and perhaps against the standing crop of human flesh.”

Sadly, the consumer hordes can’t wrap their heads around the notion that the Age of Exuberance is over.  Yes, things are a bit rough now, but recovery is just around the corner, probably tomorrow.  The crazy cornucopian pipedream has become the primary worldview in most societies.  It is still injected into the brains of every student, numbing the lobes related to enlightened self-restraint, often permanently.

We become anxious and angry as we slip and slide into more and more limits.  Catton noted that a worrisome reaction to this is to blame someone, to identify scapegoats, hate them, and kill them — but this is pointless.  “The end of exuberance was the summary result of all our separate and innocent decisions to have a baby, to trade a horse for a tractor, to avoid illness by getting vaccinated, to move from a farm to a city, to live in a heated home, to buy a family automobile and not depend on public transit, to specialize, exchange, and thereby prosper.”

While Catton was writing, 40 years ago, a new paradigm was beginning to appear on the radar — the ecological paradigm.  This rational mindset made it easy to understand our predicament, and to envision intelligent responses, but probably not brilliant solutions.  Society is not rushing to embrace the ecological paradigm, because any mention of limits is still pure heresy to the dominant paradigm.

Ecology is not titillating infantile twaddle created by big city marketing nitwits trying to sell you the keys to a treadmill way of life.  It’s as real as life and death.  In the game of ecology, there is no “get out of overshoot free” card.  There is no undo command.  The cost of overshoot is die-off, an unpleasant return to carrying capacity.  After the fever comes the healing.  This is an essential book for animals younger than 100 years old.

Catton, William R., Overshoot — The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1980.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Ostrich Factor

Garrett Hardin was a lad who not only thought a lot, but could also think well.  I recently discovered a Hardin book I had not heard of, The Ostrich Factor — Our Population Myopia (1998).  Hardin was an interesting blend of an ecological conservative, and a growth-hating political conservative who detested economists.  I hoped that this book would provide fresh insights on the huge and difficult problem of overpopulation.

After Living Within Limits was published in 1993, critics noted that Hardin complained about overpopulation, but failed to provide a remedy.  Hardin admitted that he had been intimidated by the explosive taboo on the subject, which incinerates every dreamer who blunders into it, foolishly preaching common sense.  Hence, the ostrich factor — never touch 800-volt issues that are surrounded by large piles of scorched skeletons.  You can’t win, so bury your head in the sand, and have a nice day!

There is a widespread fantasy, drilled into us by cultural myths, that our society is guided by reason and elevated moral principles.  It’s silly nonsense, but we have a hard time seeing this.  Many people waste their entire lives, sad victims of the tragedy of the consumers — powerful myths that compel us to spend our lives working, in order to move as much stuff as possible from nature to landfills, in order to gain the respect of our peer group, which suffers from the same mass hysteria.  Well-trained consumers never question 800-volt myths.

Modern society is focused on the individual, not the community or ecosystem.  I am all that matters.  If I can gain status and respect by wiping out forests or fisheries, or throwing the planet’s climate out of balance, I will.  I don’t care that I’m leaving behind a wasteland for future generations.  Of course, if future generations were able to vote today, or if we were raised in a sane culture, our world would be radically different and far healthier.

Hardin was fascinated by the poisonous power of taboos, and he invited an imaginary Martian into his book, to observe our society as an objective outsider.  (I wish he had used humans from the future.)  The two of them explored uncomfortable notions that will make some readers squirm and snarl.  They provide us with intense lessons about the powerful headlock that taboos have on our ability to think.  Taboos push many commonsense ideas off limits, severely handicapping our freedom to think, forcing many to live like two-year olds, ecological psychopaths, or chronically depressed shoppers.

Taboos vary from place to place and time to time.  I was surprised to see that Hardin only mentioned abortion once, with regard to a quote from 1886, describing a situation where abortion was legal, but contraception was not.  In that scenario, many physicians chose to break the law against providing contraception.

It is important to understand that many wild cultures had customs that encouraged population stability.  Their ongoing survival depended entirely on food from the surrounding wild ecosystem, and too many mouths led to painful problems.  Their utmost concern was the health and stability of the community, not the whims of individuals.  They shared and cooperated.  It was obvious to them that the carrying capacity of their ecosystem had genuine limits.  For us, living in a temporary wonderland of supermarkets, limits are hard to imagine — until we crash into them.

The emergence of agriculture redefined carrying capacity, which varied from year to year, depending on the harvest.  Limits on breeding weakened or vanished.  Hardin quoted Tertullian, a third century Christian thinker from Tunisia, who was spooked by the misery of overpopulation (when the global population was 150 million).

Tertullian wrote, “As our demands grow greater, our complaints against nature’s inadequacy are heard by all.  The scourges of pestilence, famine, wars, and earthquakes have come to be regarded as a blessing to overcrowded nations, since they serve to prune away the luxuriant growth of the human race.”

Like Tertullian, Reverend Malthus (1766-1834) also lived in an era of turbulent growth, and he became a notorious heretic for reminding society about the existence of carrying capacity.  Two hundred years later, he remains fiercely detested, mostly by people who have never read him, because he pointed out a serious 800-volt issue, a super-taboo.  Never, never, never suggest that there are limits to growth!

Perpetual growth on a finite planet is obviously impossible, obviously insane, and insanely destructive.  Sustainable growth is an oxymoron.  But few goofy myths are more powerful.  We are constantly reminded that perpetual growth is the purpose of life.  Grow or die!  Our official religion is Growth Forever.  Fanatical believers are called optimistic, and optimism is “good.”  Hardin disagreed, “At the present rate of population growth, it’s difficult to be optimistic about the future.”

With regard to population, our culture asserts two rights simultaneously.  (1) Right to life.  The UN decrees that “every man, woman, and child has the inalienable right to be free from hunger and malnutrition.”  (2) Right to limitless reproductive freedom.  “Every woman has the right — perhaps with the agreement of her mate(s) — to determine how many children she shall produce.”

There are no natural rights; rights are legal inventions.  Note that these two sacred rights are not accompanied by sacred responsibilities.  Hardin concluded that overpopulation would not be resolved by the voluntary choices of individual families.  In a finite world, unrestricted freedom is intolerable.  Survival is mandatory; freedom is not.  Effective solutions should be based on community-sensitive rules, ideally produced by a policy of “mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon.”  Our wild ancestors generally succeeded in doing this, because their cultures saw limits as being perfectly normal, not draconian.

Hardin knew that “coercion” is an obscene word in a culture that worships individualism, but he noted that we submit to coercion when we stop for red lights, or when we bike on the right side of the road.  Coercion is often reciprocal.  Money is coercion.  There are many things we will eagerly do for money that we would never do for free.  We are often coerced by nothing more than a sweet “pretty please.”

Hardin thought that one world government was impossible, because there is not a single world culture.  Trying to get different cultures to agree on anything is a challenge for advocates of multiculturalism.  Because of this, Hardin offered no silver bullet solution for the world.  Each culture will have to design its own method for limiting population.

Predicaments have no solutions, but problems do.  Overpopulation is merely a temporary problem, and there are two solutions.  (1) We can make a commonsense effort to live below carrying capacity.  (2) We can bury our heads in the sand, make no effort to influence the future, and let Big Mama Nature mercilessly do the dirty work.  The commonsense approach saves a lot of wear and tear on the ecosystem, and makes life far less hellish.  It is enthusiastically endorsed by the spirits of future generations.

Hardin, Garrett, The Ostrich Factor — Our Population Myopia, Oxford University Press, New York, 1998.

The Water Wheel

My great-grandfather, Richard E. Rees, was born in 1843 in the hamlet of Cwmbelan in the parish of Llangurig, Wales.  It had a stream with a waterfall.  Beside the waterfall was the flannel factory, built in the 1830s.  The factory was powered by a waterwheel, which had an iron frame.  Cwmbelan was in sheep country, and the flannel was made from wool.

In the wake of the last ice age, much of Britain was a lush rainforest.  It was home to animals like the beaver, boar, elk, reindeer, wisent (bison), antelope, lynx, wolf, bear, wolverine, lion, spotted hyena, elephant, black rhino, and hippopotamus.  They are all gone now, laments George Monbiot.  The rainforest was on the path to extinction by 2,100 years ago.  By and by, the land was infested with domesticated herbivores, the white plague, and they continue to prevent the forest from healing.  Monbiot calls this a sheepwreck.

Richard E. Rees worked in the factory as a boy.  Before Richard’s first birthday, his father died from “decline” at the age of 23.  Around 1853, his mother Sarah, and her three sons moved to Dowlais, in the hills of southern Wales, where there were booming coal and iron industries.  Richard mined coal for 10 years in Dowlais, 2 years in Pennsylvania, and 53 years in Ohio — 65 years!

The production of coal and iron enabled the rise of the Industrial Revolution.  It also enabled the rise of coal-powered mills in northern England, which led to the demise of the flannel factory in Cwmbelan.  In England, a coal-powered mill could spin as much yarn as 200,000 folks.  Many lost their livelihoods, as did Sarah Rees, who was a handloom weaver.  In Dowlais, she managed the Green Dragon pub.

So, was the waterwheel in Cwmbelan a sustainable source of energy?  Yes indeed, according to the trendy new definition of sustainable.  But the factory was part of an ongoing web of disruptive processes.  It was built in a former rainforest, the former home of many now-extinct species.  Domesticated sheep were such helpless dimwits that all wolves had to be exterminated.  The iron used to make the wheel was mined, smelted, and fabricated by intensely unsustainable industries.  Before the factory, flannel had been made by hand, in a low-impact manner.

Jeanette Armstrong is an Okanagan elder in British Columbia, and she is not at all fond of this new homocentric concept of sustainability — “sustaining the human abuse to a certain level, and keeping it at a level that it doesn’t quite destroy everything.”  Armstrong prefers traditional ecocentric sustainability, which cares for the wellbeing of the entire family of life.  This would be similar to the way the wild Welsh tribes lived long ago, in a healthy paradise — clean water, clean air, and abundant salmon and wild game.  Instead of controlling and exploiting their ecosystem, they adapted to it.

“Industrial societies are unsustainable,” concluded sustainability experts Michael and Joyce Huesemann in their book Techno-Fix.  “Long term sustainability can be achieved only if the use of limited non-renewable metals and minerals is discontinued or severely curtailed.”  This is obvious to those who understand ecological history, and to those raised in traditional societies. 

Our 10,000-year experiment in homocentric domination has been a spectacular failure.  Seven-point-something billion people are now approaching the brink of disaster.  It’s time to learn the original meaning of sustainability, as out-of-control climate change and peak energy push us into a slower, simpler muscle-powered future.