Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Grizzly Years

Doug Peacock grew up in rural northern Michigan.  As a boy, he spent a lot of time alone outdoors, exploring the woods, swamps, and streams.  Later, he fell in love with the West, especially the Rockies.  He enjoyed fishing and rock climbing.  His plan was to become a geologist, so he could wander around in the great outdoors and get paid for it.  But one day he realized that his dream career would likely involve working for oil and mining companies, “whose rape of wild country repelled me.”  Sadly, he abandoned the plan, and volunteered for an exciting job with the U.S. government.

Peacock loved the central highlands of Vietnam.  It was a gorgeous region, inhabited by good people.  Then, the war spread there.  He was employed as a medic in the Green Berets, an elite combat unit.  His job was to provide first aid to injured soldiers and villagers, and the fighting kept him very busy.  He witnessed far too much senseless death, destruction, and suffering, far too many dead children.

By and by, he came down with a devastating case of war rage, which he has been struggling with for most of his life.  Back in American society, it was no longer possible to blend into the crowd, and feel at home.  He couldn’t talk to his family.  He spent a lot of time in the woods, trying to pickle his demons with cheap wine.  Finally, he bought a jeep, and headed west, to pursue two powerful medicines: solitude and wildness.

For American soldiers, Vietnam was not as safe and secure as strolling through a shopping mall.  There were tigers, vipers, snipers, booby traps, and Vietcong.  The odds for survival were boosted by good luck, common sense, being with experienced warriors, remaining as silent and invisible as possible, and maintaining a state of heightened awareness.  Survivors slept lightly, easily awakened by snapping twigs and other irregular sounds.  Survivors developed an acute sense of smell, because an odd whiff could warn of danger.  Survivors frequently stopped, looked, and listened.

Similar skills were useful when moving through grizzly bear country, where Peacock spent many post-war years.  Near the beginning of his wilderness quest, he hiked around a corner and discovered that a large brown grizzly was approaching, and it was not at all happy to see him.  The bear’s head was swinging back and forth, jaws gnashing, ears flattened, hair standing up on his hump — the ritual that precedes charging, mauling, and a bloody hot lunch.

Peacock slowly pulled out his large caliber handgun, had second thoughts, and lowered it.  His shooting days were over.  He was ready to die.  Something happened, the energy changed.  “The grizzly slowly turned away from me with grace and dignity and swung into the timber at the end of the meadow.”  It was a life-changing experience.  He became a grizzly tracker.  He acquired a movie camera and began filming them.  He did winter lecture tours, wrote about bears, and told his story in Grizzly Years.

Importantly, the book reminds us of a forgotten reality, living in wild country amidst man-eating predators — the normal everyday reality for our wild ancestors, whose genes we inherited.  Outside my window each morning, the blue jays stop by for a pumpkin seed breakfast.  Before they glide down from branch to porch, they look in every direction for winged predators and pussy cats.  They don’t live in a constant state of fear and paranoia, they simply live with prudent caution, look before leaping, and never do stupid things.

In grizzly country, Peacock stayed away from animal trails, and slept in concealed locations.  He tried to remain invisible and silent.  He tried to approach bears from downwind, so his scent would not alert them.  He spent years studying bear behavior, and the quirks of individual animals.  He was charged many times, but never mauled.  He learned how to behave properly during close encounters.  Never run, climb trees, make loud noises, move suddenly, or look weak and fearful.  Instead, act dignified, and display peaceful intentions without appearing docile.  Calmly talk to the bear, while keeping your head turned to the side.

Peacock’s tales are precious, because they encourage readers to imagine wilderness as their true home, and to contemplate the normal everyday tactics used by our wild ancestors to avoid being eaten.  Grizzly country was one place where humans were not the dominant critter.  The bears could kill you and eat you whenever they wished.  This ongoing possibility freed Peacock from wasting hour after hour in self-indulgence — thinking, analyzing, daydreaming.  It demanded that he always pay acute attention to the here and now.

Americans expect wilderness to be as safe as a mall.  We don’t want to be killed and eaten when visiting a national park, yet parks foolishly build trails and campgrounds in high-risk locations.  If a hiker is mauled, bears are killed.  Now, if a cat kills a blue jay, we don’t kill the cat.  In automobile country, the streets are lined with busy enterprises selling chunks of dead animals.  So, why are government bureaucrats so uptight about what God-fearing American bears choose to have for dinner in the privacy of their own homes?  Why do delicious primates from Chicago expect to be safe in grizzly country?

I’ve never seen a “Save the Grizzlies” bumper sticker.  To maintain a pleasant Disneyland experience, and avoid lawsuits, the Park Service kills aggressive bears, and bears that beg for snacks.  Backcountry outfitters kill them.  Ranchers kill them.  Violators get light punishment from judges in redneck country.  Bear numbers are in decline, and this infuriates Peacock.

In Vietnam, he had a ringside seat at a contest between a full-blown industrial civilization and a society that practiced muscle-powered subsistence farming.  He witnessed the indiscriminant massacre of countless innocent villagers and children.  Back in the U.S., he saw that the same monster was obliterating western ecosystems, from mines in the Rockies, to developers in Tucson.  He had escaped from the Vietnam War, but there was no escape from the American war on America, where “greedy scumsuckers” were raping and desecrating “the last refuge of sanity on the planet.”

Peacock wasn’t the only Vietnam vet with war rage who found sanctuary in the mountains.  Other vets were equally pissed at the scumsuckers.  They had lost many friends while defending the freedom and democracy of God’s most cherished nation.  And so, in those mountains, angry American vets defended the sacred American ecosystem against the atrocities of the “syphilization” they had been trained to serve.  When loggers built bridges that had not been authorized by the angry vets, the bridges were mysteriously demolished.  So were helicopters used for oil exploration.

Peacock did not become a corporate geologist, and spend the rest of his life shopping with the herd.  It was a great gift to live so many years outside the walls.  He was able to observe the insane monster that lurks behind the cartoonish fa├žade of the American Dream, and he was able to explain the horrors that so many folks inside the walls were unable to see, feel, or imagine.  In wild country, Peacock was careful to never be seen, or reveal his plans.  “If I got into serious trouble, I didn’t want to be rescued.  My considerable carcass could feed the bears.”

Lots of additional information can be found at his website.  He’s also the star of numerous YouTube lectures and interviews.

Peacock, Doug, Grizzly Years — In Search of the American Wilderness, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2011.  [Originally 1990]

Friday, November 13, 2015


The following is a rough draft of the introduction to my third book.

Welcome to Understanding Sustainability!  On the following pages, you will find reviews of books that explore many facets of ecological sustainability, an extremely important subject that remains largely unknown in our society.  You will meet authors with gifts for thinking outside the box, writers who can give us keys to treasure chests of vital knowledge.  It’s sad to wreck the ecosystem for no good reason — or any reason at all.  It’s especially sad that the masterminds of the great demolition are among the world’s “best-educated” people, and they have countless “well-educated” collaborators.

In its original meaning, a sustainable way of life is one that can continue for millennia without causing permanent degradation to the ecosystem.  All animals have succeeded at living in this manner, and they have done so for millions of years.  They can satisfy their essential needs (food and shelter) without damaging the community of life, a precious skill.

But one species has spawned several billion smarty-pants renegades who have stumbled far from the path of balance.  This outlaw society is zooming into deep trouble, and it barely understands why.  If we understood why, there is a fair chance that we would behave in a manner that was less destructive.  There is a fair chance that we would abandon myths that hobble our ability to think clearly and live responsibly.

Outlaw society is heavily addicted to extracting nonrenewable resources, like coal, oil, gas, metals, phosphates, potash, and on and on.  The reserves of these resources are diminishing every day, while the cost of extracting them increases.  Obviously, this approach can only operate temporarily.  It has an expiration date, a point at which the goodies are depleted, the bubble bursts, and the machine melts down.  No other animals suffer from addiction to nonrenewable resources, because they continue to live in their traditional manner.  They did not get lost.

Outlaw society is also heavily addicted to depleting renewable resources at rates faster than nature can replenish them.  We’re exterminating forests, mass murdering fish, destroying topsoil, draining aquifers, and pumping rivers dry.  This is also a dead end.  Other animals don’t mutilate the ecosystem.

Outlaw society generates many wastes and emissions at levels far beyond the ecosystem’s ability to harmlessly absorb them, and this is causing serious irreparable damage — melting icecaps, acidic seawater, coastal dead zones.  No wild animal has basic needs that require high-impact amusements like automobiles, computers, or electricity — these are “wants” not “needs,” and we don’t need wants.  Needs are basic and simple, wants include everything money can buy.

Most of humankind is in overshoot, because our population and way of life far exceeds the long-term carrying capacity of Earth’s ecosystem.  Every day, the planet’s carrying capacity shrinks, as the ongoing ecological wreckage accumulates, and this worsens the overshoot.  Nature has a low tolerance for overshoot, and outlaw society is too lost to comprehend why it’s swirling the drain.  Luckily, there are effective cures for ignorance, and they are most often found outside the walls of the outlaw culture.

In the following pages, you will not find The Solution.  Only problems have solutions — sleepiness is a problem that can be solved by taking a nap.  Predicaments, on the other hand, cannot be effectively eliminated by solutions.  There are no rituals, medicines, or gizmos for undoing climate change, or inspiring educators to abandon their diabolical obsession with perpetual growth.  We are way over our heads in predicaments. 

Every civilization collapses, and ours will too, one way or another, suddenly or gradually.  This is perfectly normal.  Industrial civilization was designed to grow like crazy, flame out, and collapse.  And we were thoroughly trained to devote our lives to it, so don’t be embarrassed, be annoyed.  The consumer way of life was a grand adventure in soul-killing foolishness.  The squirrels in the tree outside my window are so much healthier and happier.  They live in the here and now, satisfying their needs, playing with great enthusiasm, celebrating the perfection of creation.

Now, if these yucky ideas make you twitch and squirm, there is an effective distraction — magical thinking!  The well-educated wizards of outlaw society have a thrilling answer for everything — sustainable growth, sustainable fish mining, sustainable soil mining, sustainable forest mining, and on and on.  I call this ersatz sustainability, a murky elixir of snake oil loaded with mind-numbing intoxicants.  We see and hear the word sustainable many times each day, and this is what it usually refers to.  Sustainability can be anything we want it to be!  If we call something “sustainable” enough times, then it is!  Whee!

The devious wizards are giddy with joy, because humankind has finally completed the long and difficult journey to Utopia.  This is it!  We are the luckiest generation of all!  Wild predators no longer devour our friends and relatives.  Pandemic disease and world wars are ancient history.  More and more babies survive to maturity and reproduce.  Natural selection no longer weeds out the weaklings and mutants, because science has rendered evolution obsolete.  We’re working hard on a cure for death.

A growing population is wonderful, because it allows more and more to enjoy the Utopian delights.  Feeding ten billion will be no problem, thanks to science and technology.  Eliminating climate change will be a piece of cake.  The transition from fossil energy to renewable energy will be smooth and painless.  Ingenious innovation will make all the bad stuff go away, and we’ll all be able to continue enjoying a wondrous high tech lifestyle without any major sacrifices.  Electric cars, green energy, and all the latest gadgets can now be made from sustainable fairy dust and good vibes.  Utopia is awesome.

The Sustainable Development cult has billions of converts.  Its holy mission is to keep industrial civilization on life support for as long as possible, at any cost, and leave the bills for the kids.  It’s about enduring jobs you don’t like, to buy stuff you don’t need, to impress people you don’t respect.  It’s about living as if we are the last generation, without a thought for those who come after us.  It’s a sustainable suicide cult. 

Nobody reading these pages in 2015 will experience humankind’s return to genuine sustainability.  Healing will take centuries, and success is not guaranteed.  Luck is fickle.  Our closest living relatives, chimps and bonobos, share about 99 percent of our genes.  Their ancestors have lived in the same place for two million years without trashing it.  They did not get lost.

Humans strayed onto a very different path, and the way that most of us now live is the opposite of sustainable.  Yet every day we are bombarded by grand proclamations of ersatz sustainability, thundering geysers of bull excrement.  My mission here is to provide intelligent pilgrims with tools that increase their ability to recognize the difference between ecological sustainability and ersatz sustainability.  Where we belong is so far from where we are. 

It is deeply troubling to contemplate the staggering implications of ecological sustainability, because they blow the fundamental illusions of our culture to smithereens.  We are indeed animals, and we are indeed living in an unbelievably harmful manner.  Should we think about this?  Should we talk about this?  What should we do?  Well-fed minds and clear thinking are vital.

The reviews in Understanding Sustainability will introduce you to dozens of books that might be of interest.  Reviews only provide hints of the contents.  They are never a substitute for reading the full work.  Authors that intrigue you may have written other books or essays.  They may be the stars of online videos.  Critical thinking is essential for any adventure in learning.  I do not agree with every idea in every book reviewed here.

Understanding Sustainability is a companion to my previous book, Sustainable or Bust, another collection of book reviews.  Both supplement my first book, What is Sustainable, an introduction to environmental history and good old fashioned fundamentalist sustainability.  If you like one, you’ll like them all.


Thursday, October 29, 2015

Lone Survivors

A million years ago, our Homo erectus ancestors consisted of maybe 20,000 breeding individuals, according to wizards who speculate on the hidden secrets of DNA.  This is similar to the current population of chimpanzees or gorillas.  The ancestors lived in scattered pockets of Africa, at a time when Earth was a paradise of abundant life.  From these ancient roots, a number of hominid species evolved, but only Homo sapiens still survives, at seven-point-something billion and growing.  The chimps and gorillas continue to live in a manner similar to their ancestors of a million years ago.  What happened to us?

Chris Stringer is one of the venerable grandfathers in the study of human evolution.  He’s read the papers, attended the conferences, examined the skulls, and had a ringside seat at the noisy catfights.  This field of knowledge is far from finished.  New specimens continue to be found, and new technology provides deeper insights.  Stringer’s book, Lone Survivors, discusses some primary issues, and the scholarly disputes surrounding them, as they stood in 2012.  He does a pretty good job of providing an overview to a huge and complex subject, but readers with little background are advised to wear life preservers.

I learned a lot about Neanderthals.  They survived 400,000 years on a climate change roller coaster.  They hung out with hippos in warm forests near Rome, and they chased wooly mammoths on frigid treeless tundras.  They had short, stocky bodies that were good for preserving heat, but which required more calories.  Males and females were about the same size, suggesting little division of labor, everyone joined in the hunt. 

The Neanderthal diet majored in the flesh of large game.  Readers who have hunted hippos with wooden thrusting spears know that his is very dangerous.  One site in Croatia contained the remains of 75 Neanderthals, and none were older than 35.  In their clans, there were probably many orphans and few grandparents.  The scarcity of elders, and the small size of their groups, sharply restricted the flow of cultural information from one generation to the next, and from clan to clan.

Some say that Neanderthals lacked shoes and close-fitting clothing.  When Darwin visited chilly Tierra del Fuego, at the bottom of South America, he was shocked to see natives wearing little or no clothing and sleeping naked in the open.  Stringer noted that modern Europeans seem to be poorly adapted to the cold, physiologically.

Cro-Magnons were the Homo sapiens that moved into Europe maybe 45,000 years ago.  European Neanderthals disappeared around 30,000 years ago.  Neanderthals went extinct in the Middle East, Siberia, Gibraltar, and Britain at different times, probably for different reasons.  This was an era of frequent climate zigzags.  When temperatures plummeted, habitable territories shrank, and fewer folks could be fed.

Cro-Magnons apparently had footwear and warm, fitted clothing.  They had better tools for hunting, so their diet was more diverse and dependable.  They were able to extract more nutrients from an ecosystem, so they could survive in places where Neanderthals could not.  They lived in larger groups, and more of them survived to middle age or old age, so more cultural information could be passed to the young.

Large populations are better at preserving cultural knowledge, acquiring new information from outsiders, and generating innovations.  More busy minds interact, exchange ideas, compete, and imagine cool ways for living even farther out of balance.  Witness the city of Los Angeles, where 14 million animals with hunter-gatherer DNA are temporarily able to survive because of a highly complex system of innovative technology.  Note that this innovation has no relationship to foresight or wisdom.  Time is running out on Los Angeles.

On the other hand, less innovation occurs in smaller simpler groups, and that’s often a blessing.  Innovators can be dangerous loose cannons, introducing risky new ideas that result in horrid unintended consequences — like cell phones, automobiles, or agriculture.  Nothing is more precious than a stable, sustainable, time-proven way of living, where the secret to success is simply imitating your ancestors, conforming to the norm, and enjoying life, like the chimps and gorillas do.

When the planet heated up 14,000 years ago, rising sea levels submerged the land link between Australia and Tasmania, terminating the exchange of people, ideas, and gadgets.  Tasmania’s traditional way of life was also squeezed as the warmer climate spurred the expansion of heavy forest.  The natives experienced a cultural meltdown.  “Tasmanians appear to have led an increasingly simplified life, forgoing apparently valuable skills and technologies, such as bone and hafted tools, nets and spears used to catch fish and small game, spear throwers and boomerangs, and anything but the simplest of skin clothing.”

Will climate change have a similar effect on industrial civilization in the coming decades?  Will it slash food production, sharply reduce population, eliminate travel between regions, pull the plug on modern technology, and erase lots of obsolete and unsustainable cultural information?  Could collapse have a silver lining?

Climate change can derail any culture, and drive species to extinction.  It can also produce beneficial conditions, like the unusually favorable climate of the last 10,000 years.  Natural selection rewards species that can adapt to change, and it deletes those that fail.  There is another important variable that is often overlooked — genetic drift — mutations that happen all the time when slight boo-boos occur during cell division.  These tiny defects can provide a barrel of surprises.

We are repeatedly taught that humans are nature’s flawless masterpiece, the glorious conclusion of three billion years of evolution.  But, if Big Mama Nature had experienced slightly different moods over the eons, we might be Neanderthals or Denisovans today (or maybe slime mold).  Climate change and genetic drift are purely random.  The fact that Homo sapiens is the lone survivor among the hominid species is not absolute proof of superiority, but it does indicate a temporary streak of good luck.

Homo heidelbergensis was an ancestor that lived 500,000 years ago.  They had brains ranging in size from 1100 to 1400 cc (modern brains average 1350 cc).  The average Neanderthal brain was 1600 cc — much bigger than ours.  Stringer noted that our brains today are ten percent smaller than our Homo sapiens ancestors of 20,000 years ago.  Is there a message here?

Without words, chimps and gorillas can express contentment, affection, irritation, excitement.  But without complex language, they are more trapped within themselves.  Language took us “into new and shared worlds that were unknown to our ancestors.”  We can talk about the here and now, the past, the future, abstract concepts, feelings, imaginary worlds, and so on.

Later, innovative geniuses invented the use of symbols.  Now we can convert words into patterns of squiggly lines, for example: “computer.”  Writing enables us to communicate with folks in faraway places.  I can read words written by Julius Caesar, and so might the generations yet-to-be-born, in theory.  Industrial civilization cannot exist without symbols — numbers, graphs, pictures, status symbols.  Progress abounds with powerful and dangerous juju.

Stringer is a mild mannered humanist.  And so, he portrays the human journey as one of admirable advancement (the chimps fall down laughing).  On the last page, he confesses a profound doubt.  “Sometimes the difference between failure and success in evolution is a narrow one, and we are certainly on a knife edge now as we confront an overpopulated planet and the prospect of global climate change on a scale that humans have never faced before.  Let’s hope our species is up to the challenge.” 

Stringer, Chris, Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth, Times Books, New York, 2012.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Abstract Wild

In 1964, plans were being discussed for the creation of the Canyonlands National Park, near Moab, Utah.  Some wanted to include the Maze in the park.  The Maze is a stunning network of desert canyons, and it was extremely inaccessible at that time.  Few living people had ever seen it.

Jack Turner and his buddy were young rock-climbing adventure hogs.  Their plan was to fly into the Maze, land the plane on a long-abandoned bulldozer scrape, take some cool photos, and sell them to National Geographic.  Both survived the botched landing.  While wandering around in the Maze, they found ancient pictographs of life-sized human images.  The paintings had a striking presence, and the lads were mesmerized.  They had walked into a different dimension, a place alive with a strong aura of spirit power.

Today, the aura has faded.  The Maze is mapped and tamed.  Visitors can drive in and hike around on happy trails.  The pictographs have become photo opportunities for intrepid ecotourists.  The sacred wildness of the place has become banal, like a museum exhibit.  For the wild painters, who lived several thousand years ago, this place “was their home in a sense we can no longer imagine,” said Turner.  “Whoever they were, they knew how to express and present something we have lost.”

Later, Turner worked as a philosophy professor in Chicago, a soul-killing bad trip.  One day, he read a deep ecology essay by Arne Naess, and had a great awakening.  He suddenly realized that he was on the wrong path.  He escaped from the nightmare, and spent many years travelling around the world climbing mountains.  This included at least 16 years as a guide at Grand Teton National Park.

Deep ecology helped him understand the crucial difference between ecocentric thinking (the entire ecosystem is sacred) and anthropocentric thinking (only human desires matter).  This echoes the huge gap between the wild Maze painters and the civilized ecotourists.  It’s essentially the difference between sustainable and unsustainable cultures.

Wandering around the world taught him another vital lesson.  He visited cultures that were similar to the Maze painters, cultures with a profound spiritual connection to the past, the future, their community, and their sacred home.  All of their needs were provided by the place they inhabited.  Consequently, they lived with great care, striving to remain in balance with the land.

Today, the ecosystem is being hammered.  Typically, the designated villains include capitalism, greedy corporations, corrupt politicians, the evil enemy-of-the-day, and so on.  Turner rejected this.  The planet is being pummeled by a culture that is infested with absurd abstract ideas — more is better, get rich quick, grow or die.  This culture has reduced the natural world to an abstraction, a machine that must be controlled — a jumbo cookie jar for the amusement of infantile organisms.

So, Turner’s enemies are not the designated villains.  His enemies are abstractions, like the hallucinations that perceive a sacred old growth forest to be a calculable quantity of board feet, worth a calculable quantity of dollars.  Abstractions are the foundation of the madness, and they are formidable opponents.  They can make clear thinking impossible, and inspire remarkable achievements in foolishness.

In his book, The Abstract Wild, Turner describes why he has become a “belligerent ecological fundamentalist,” and why he stands on the side of the grizzly bears and mountain lions.  “Abstraction” is a word meaning mental separation, not a concrete object.  Wildness is “the relation of free, self-willed, and self-determinate ‘things’ with the harmonious order of the cosmos.”

There are eight essays in the book.  One examines wilderness management, a hotbed of professional control freaks.  This work is done under the banner of Science, a way of knowing that can understand processes and predict their activities.  What a joke!  We don’t understand friends or lovers.  We don’t understand ourselves.  Ecosystems are vastly more complex and chaotic.

Wildlife biologists have a history of making wildly incorrect predictions, often leading to embarrassing disasters.  Their clumsy conjuring is no more “science” than is astrology.  Humans should always avoid fooling around with DNA, atoms, or wilderness management.  “We are not that wise, nor can we be.”  Instead of trying to control nature by using a strategy based on hope, wishes, incomplete data, and misunderstanding, Turner recommends that we should get out of the way and leave the job to Big Mama Nature, who has a billion years of experience.  (The experts howl!)

Another essay snaps, snarls, and spits with rage.  Civilization has been brutally molesting the planet for 10,000 years, at an ever-increasing rate.  Over the centuries, we have responded to these assaults on wildness by forgiving and forgetting.  We’re now moving into the end game.  Despite being blasted by a fire hose of depressing news, we remain pathetically timid, helpless victims.  We accept a wrecked planet as normal, and refuse to utter a peep of protest.

Turner screams.  Enough forgiving and forgetting!  It’s time for some healthy rage.  It’s time to raise hell against the senseless destruction.  This is spiritual business, so it takes precedence over society’s laws.  Nature is sacred, and must be defended.  Destroying the planet is evil and unacceptable, even if it’s perfectly legal and great for the economy.

There are thousands of eco-books, and most tend to focus their attention on symptoms — climate change, deforestation, mass extinction, overpopulation, and so on.  To control these symptoms, they suggest a variety of treatments, including new government policies, techno miracles, lifestyle changes, and rebellion.  Turner has lived much of his life out of doors, and he feels a profound reverence and respect for wildness.  His book is rare for presenting this perspective, which is getting dimmer with every decade.

This perspective can help us move toward healing.  “We only value what we know and love, and we no longer know and love the wild,” he says.  “What we need now is a culture that deeply loves the wild earth.”  But the inmates of modernity have little intimate experience with wild nature, and almost no comprehension of what has been lost.  Wildness is something seen on TV.

We must rejoin the natural world.  This is still possible.  Turner succeeded.  Cool books, nature documentaries, and ecotourism cannot provide us with all we need to recover our wildness.  What’s needed is direct experience with a place, over time, complete immersion — observing the bird migrations, animal mating, leafing of trees, climate patterns, and so on.  A week in the mountains is never enough.

In the end, Turner presents us with a tantalizing bittersweet enigma.  He reveals to us the one and only silver bullet solution that can actually heal us, and guide us back home to the family of life.  But this solution is impossible, as long as there are so many people, living so hard.  The shamans have much work to do, to redirect our hearts toward healthy paths.  It’s time for the clans of creative folks to seize their power, work to exorcise our culture’s terrible demons, and rekindle forgotten love.

Turner, Jack, The Abstract Wild, University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 1996.

The book’s first chapter, the Maze story, is online.  Click on “Read Excerpt” beneath the book cover HERE.

To view a 100-minute video of Turner, click HERE.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Destruction of California

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 22, 2015


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Man the Hunted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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