Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Sixth Extinction


I didn’t rush to read Elizabeth Kolbert’s book, The Sixth Extinction, because I imagined it would be a gloomy expose on the unfortunate consequences of way too much half-baked cleverness — and it was.  But it’s also a fascinating story about the long saga of life on Earth, and the unclever antics of the latest primate species.  It’s an outstanding book.

We have soared away into a fantasy world, where godlike humans spend their lives creating brilliant miracles.  But when observed in a 450 million year timeframe, from this moment when a new mass extinction is gathering momentum, the wonders of progress and technological innovation lose their shine.  Kolbert rips off our virtual reality headsets, and serves us powerful medicine, a feast of provocative news.

The frog people have lived on this sweet planet for 400 million years, but many are now dying, because of a fungus called Bd.  This fungus can live happily in the forest on its own, without an amphibian host, so endangered frogs rescued by scientists cannot be returned to the wild.  The crisis began when humans transported frogs that carried the fungus, but were immune to it.  There was money to be made in the frog business, and so the fungus has spread around the globe.

This is similar to the chestnut blight of a century ago.  Entrepreneurs profitably imported chestnut seedlings from Asia.  The Asian species was immune to the fungus it carried.  American chestnut trees were not immune, and four billion died, almost all of them.  The fungus persists, so replanting is pointless. 

North American bats are dying by the millions from white-nose, caused by fungus that is common in Europe, where bats are immune to it.  It was likely carried across the Atlantic by a tourist who dropped some spores in Howe Caverns, in New York.  By 2013, the die-off had spread to 22 U.S. states and five Canadian provinces. 

Welcome to New Pangaea!  Once upon a time, long before we were born, all seven continents were joined together in a single continent, Pangaea.  Over time, it broke apart, and ecosystems on each continent evolved in a unique way.  In recent centuries, highly mobile humans have moved countless organisms from one ecosystem to another, both deliberately and unintentionally.  The seven continents no longer enjoy the long-term stability provided by isolation.

On another front, many colonies of humans have become obsessed with burning sequestered carbon on an enormous scale.  This is overloading the atmosphere with carbon, which the oceans absorb and convert to carbonic acid.  Carbonic acid is a huge threat to marine life, except for lucky critters, like jellyfish.  The world’s coral reefs are dying.

Tropical rainforests are treasure chests of biological diversity.  Tropical oceans generally are not, because of low levels of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus.  Coral reefs are the shining exception.  They provide habitat for thriving ecosystems, home to more than 500,000 species.  This reminded me of beaver ponds, which are also sanctuaries of abundant life. 

Coral polyps and beavers give us excellent examples of reciprocity.  They create relationships that are mutually beneficial for many species.  Reciprocity is a vital idea that most human cultures have forgotten.  Our dominant culture has no respect for the wellbeing of ecosystems.  It has a tradition of displacing or exterminating the indigenous species on the land, and replacing them with unsustainable manmade systems.

Evolution is fascinating.  Rabbits and mice have numerous offspring, because they are vulnerable to predators.  Other species have deflected the predator challenge by evolving to great size, like mammoths, hippos, and rhinos.  Big critters have long lifespans and low birth rates.  This made them highly vulnerable when Homo sapiens moved into the neighborhood. 

Kolbert imagines that the megafauna extinctions were not the result of a reckless orgy of overhunting.  It probably took centuries.  Hunters had no way of knowing how much the mammoth population had gradually dwindled over the generations.  Because they reproduced so slowly, they could have been driven to extinction by nothing more than modest levels of hunting.  An elephant does not reach sexual maturity until its teens, and each pregnancy takes 22 months.  There are never twins.  Deer are still with us, because they reproduce faster.

Sadly, Neanderthals are no longer with us.  They lived in Europe for at least 100,000 years, and during that time, their tool collection barely changed.  They probably never used projectiles.  They have acquired a reputation for being notorious dimwits, because they lived in a stable manner for a very long time, and didn’t rubbish the ecosystem.  Homo sapiens moved into Europe 40,000 years ago.  By 30,000 years ago, the Neanderthals were gone.  The DNA of modern folks, except Africans, contains up to four percent Neanderthal genes.

Homo sapiens has lived in a far more intense manner.  In the last 10,000 years, we’ve turned the planet inside out.  Kolbert wonders if there was a slight shift in our DNA that made us so unstable — a “madness gene.”  I wonder if we’re simply the victims of cultural evolution that hurled us down a terrible path.  If we had been raised in Neanderthal clans, would we be stable, sane, and happy?

Kolbert laments, “The Neanderthals lived in Europe for more than a hundred thousand years and during that period they had no more impact on their surroundings than any other large vertebrate.  There is every reason to believe that if humans had not arrived on the scene, the Neanderthals would be there still, along with the wild horses and wooly rhinos.”

Cultures have an amazing ability to put chains on our mental powers.  Kolbert describes how scientists (and all humans) typically struggle with disruptive information, concepts that bounce off our sacred myths.  Bizarre new ideas, like evolution, extinction, or climate change, are reflexively dismissed as nonsense.  As evidence of reality accumulates, increasing levels of absurd rationalizations must be invented.  Eventually, someone actually acknowledges reality, and a paradigm shift is born. 

For most of my life, human extinction has not been on my radar.  By the end of Kolbert’s book, readers understand that our extinction is more than a remote, theoretical possibility.  What is absolutely certain is that we are pounding the planet to pieces.  Everything is connected, and when one type of tree goes extinct, so do the insects that depend on it, as well as the birds that depend on the insects.  When the coral polyps die, the coral reef ecosystem disintegrates.

The sixth mass extinction is clearly the result of human activities.  The driving forces include the things we consider to be our great achievements — agriculture, civilization, industry, transportation systems.  This is highly disruptive information, and everyone is working like crazy to rationalize our nightmares out of existence.  Luckily, a number of people, like Kolbert, are beginning to acknowledge reality.  Will there be a paradigm shift?  Will we walk away from our great achievements, and spend the next 100,000 years living in balance with the planet?

Kolbert, Elizabeth, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2014.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The End of Plenty


Nothing is more precious than balance, stability, and sustainability.  Today, we’re hanging by our fingernails to a skyrocket of intense insane change, and it’s the only way of life we’ve ever known.  Joel Bourne has spent his life riding the rocket.  He grew up on a farm, and studied agronomy at college, but sharp changes were causing many farmers to go bankrupt.  Taking over the family farm would have been extremely risky, so he became a writer for farm magazines.  Later, he was hired by National Geographic, where he has spent most of his career.

In 2008, he was assigned to cover the global food crisis, and this project hurled him into full awareness of the big picture.  The Green Revolution caused food production to skyrocket, and world population doubled in just 40 years.  Then, the revolution fizzled out, whilst population continued to soar.  Demographers have told us to expect another two or three billion for dinner in 2050.  Obviously, this had the makings of an excellent book, so Bourne sat down and wrote The End of Plenty.

The subtitle of his book is “The Race to Feed a Crowded World,” not “The Race to Tackle Overpopulation.”  A growing population thrills the greed community, and a diminishing herd does not.  Overpopulation is a problem that can be solved, and will be, either by enlightened self-restraint, by compulsory restraint, or, most likely, by the vigorous housekeeping of Big Mama Nature.  Feeding the current population is thrashing the planet, and feeding even more will worsen everything, but this is our primary objective.  We are, after all, civilized people, and enlightened self-restraint is for primitive savages who live sustainably in roadless paradises.

As incomes rise, the newly affluent are enjoying a more luxurious diet.  To satisfy this growing demand, food production must double by 2050.  “We’ll have to learn to produce as much food in the next four decades as we have since the beginning of civilization.”  Meanwhile, agriculture experts are not bursting with brilliant ideas.  “Producing food for more than 9 billion people without destroying the soil, water, oceans, and climate will be by far the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced.”  Bourne’s book describes a number of gigantic obstacles to doubling food production — or even maintaining current production.

Automobiles are more addictive than crystal meth.  Europeans guzzle biodiesel made from palm oil.  Americans are binging on corn ethanol.  The 2005 Energy Tax Act mandated the addition of biofuels to gasoline.  From 2001 to 2012, the ethanol gold rush drove corn prices from $1.60 to $8.28.  Not coincidentally, in 2008 food riots erupted in twenty countries.  The Arab Spring revolts began in 2011, a year of record harvests and record prices.  Today, almost 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop is being fed to motor vehicles — enough corn to feed everyone in Africa.  Experts predict that we’ll need four times more land for biofuels by 2030.

Crops require cropland, and almost all places ideal for farming are already in use, buried under roads and cities, or have been reduced to wasteland.  Every year, a million hectares (2.4 million acres) of cropland are taken out of production because of erosion, desertification, or development.  So, 90 percent of the desired doubling in food production will have to come from current cropland.  At the same time, the farm soils still in production have all seen better days.  Agriculture is an unsustainable activity that normally depletes soil quality over time.

Another obstacle is yield, the amount of food that can be produced on a hectare of land.  Between 1961 and 1986, cereal yields rose 89 percent, due to the Green Revolution.  But per capita grain production peaked in 1986.  Since then, population has been growing faster than yields.  Crop breeding experts are wringing their hands.  A number of indicators suggest that we are heading for “agricultural Armageddon,” but the experts remain silent, praying for miracles.  The biotech industry is focused on making huge profits selling seeds and poisons, not boosting yields.

Agriculture guzzles 70 percent of the water used by humans.  Irrigated fields have yields that are two to three times higher than rain fed fields.  Demand for water is projected to increase 70 to 90 percent by 2050, but water consumption today is already unsustainable.  “Over the next few decades, groundwater depletion could cripple agriculture around the world.”

Crop production is already being affected by climate change.  Research indicates that further warming will take a substantial toll on crop yields.  If temperatures rise 4°C, maybe half the world’s cropland will become unsuitable for agriculture.  Rising sea levels will submerge large regions currently used for rice production.

Meanwhile, population continues to grow, and some hallucinate it will grow until 2100.  In a nutshell, our challenge is “to double grain, meat, and biofuel production on fewer acres with fewer farmers, less water, higher temperatures, and more frequent droughts, floods, and heat waves.”  This must be done “without destroying the forests, oceans, soils, pollinators, or climate on which all life depends.”

Ladies and gentlemen, this is an outstanding book, and easy to read.  Most people have blind faith that innovation will keep the supermarkets filled forever.  Those who actually think a bit are focusing on stuff like solar panels, wind turbines, and electric cars.  Food is something we actually need, and it gets far less attention than it deserves.  By the end of the book, it’s impossible to conclude that everything is under control, and that our wise leaders will safely guide us through the storm.  Surprisingly, a few additional super-threats were not discussed in the book.

Bourne mentions that insects and weeds are developing resistance to expensive GMO wonder products, but stops there.  Big Mama Nature is the mother of resistance.  She never tires of producing new forms of life that are resistant to every toxin produced by science: insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, rodenticides, antibiotics.  Every brilliant weapon we invent will only work temporarily.  In terms of breeding new varieties of plants that are resistant to the latest biological threat, there are only so many tricks available.  The low-hanging fruit has already been used.  Just three plants enable the production of 80 to 90 percent of the calories we consume: corn, rice, and wheat. 

The global food system is heavily dependent on petroleum fuels, which are finite and nonrenewable.  There is no combination of biofuels or alternative energy that will come anywhere close to replacing oil.  In the coming decades, we will be forced to return to a muscle-powered food system.  We are entirely unprepared for this, and the consequences will be very exciting for people who eat food.

There is a similar issue with fertilizer.  Of the three primary plant nutrients, reserves of mineral phosphorus will be depleted first, and this will blindside conventional agriculture — no phosphorus, no life.  A hundred years ago, Chinese farmers used zero commercial fertilizer.  Every morning, long caravans of handcarts hauled large jugs of sewage from the cities to the fields.

In the end, readers are presented with two paths to the future.  One path looks like a whirlwind of big trouble, and this is not just a comic book doomer fantasy — it’s already blowing and rumbling.  The other path is happy and wonderful.  Humans will discover their legendary big brains, turn them on, shift industrial civilization into reverse, speed down the fast lane to genuine sustainability, and live happily ever after.  Place your bets. 

Bourne, Joel K., The End of Plenty: The Race to Feed A Crowded World, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2015.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Eye of the Crocodile


In February 1985, Val Plumwood was having a lovely time canoeing by herself in Australia’s Kakadu National Park.  The ranger had assured her that the saltwater crocodiles, notorious man-eaters, never attacked canoes.  It was a perfect day, gliding across the water in a beautiful land, no worries.

She was a scholar and writer who focused on feminism and environmental philosophy.  The Earth Crisis was pounding the planet, and it was obvious to eco-thinkers that this was caused by a severely dysfunctional philosophy.  Her book, The Eye of the Crocodile, is a fascinating voyage into the realm of ethics, values, and beliefs.

Plumwood understood that the ancient culture of the Aborigines was the opposite of insane, and she had tremendous respect for it.  It presented a time-proven example of an ethic that had enabled a healthy and stable way of life for more than 12,000 years.  Australia was blessed with a bipolar climate that often swung between drought and deluge, making low-tech agriculture impractical.  The land escaped the curse of cities until you-know-who washed up on shore.  (As her canoe gently drifted, a floating stick slowly moved closer.)

Plumwood grew up in a rural area.  She was home schooled, and enjoyed a fairy tale childhood outdoors, delighted by the “sensuous richness” of the forest.  She was unlike most of her generation, because “I acquired an unquenchable thirst for life, for the wisdom of the land.”  Thus, her appreciation of the Aboriginal culture was not merely intellectual — it was real and deep.  Unlike most of her generation, she enjoyed a spiritual connection to the land.  (The floating stick had two beautiful eyes.)

The stick with two eyes was a crocodile, nearly as big as the canoe, and it was five minutes to lunchtime.  Suddenly, the reptile began ramming her canoe.  She rushed toward shore, but the crocodile leaped and grabbed her between the legs.  Three times it pulled her underwater, trying to drown her.  Miraculously, she managed to escape, severely injured, and survived.

It was a mind-blowing life changing experience.  Intellectually, she had understood food chains, predators, and prey.  But this was the first time in her life that she was nothing more than a big juicy meatball — impossible!  She was far more than food!  The crocodile strongly disagreed.  Its sharp teeth drove home the message that she was not outside of nature.  She was a part of the ecosystem, an animal, and nourishing meat — no more significant than a moth or mouse.

She wrote, “In the vivid intensity of those last moments, when great, toothed jaws descend upon you, it can hit you like a thunderclap that you were completely wrong about it all — not only about what your own personal life meant, but about what life and death themselves actually mean.”

She was blindsided by the realization that an entire highly educated civilization could be wrong about subjects so basic — animality, food, and the dance of life and death.  The crocodile painfully drove home the point that the entire modern culture was living in a fantasy.  Our highly contagious culture was ravaging the planet, and we didn’t understand why.  Each new generation was trained to live and think like imperial space aliens.

Plumwood was educated by the space alien culture, but the crocodile was a powerful teacher from the real world, the ecosystem.  Darwin revealed that humans are animals, but this essential truth harmlessly bounced off a long tradition of human supremacist illusions.  It was easy to see that those who were demolishing the planet were radicalized space aliens who believed that human society was completely outside of nature, and far above it.

The Aboriginal people inhabited the real world.  They were wild two-legged animals who had learned the wisdom of voluntary self-restraint.  For them, the entire land was alive, intelligent, and sacred; even the plants, streams, and rocks — everything.  Nobody owned it.  Mindfully inhabiting a sacred place required a profound sense of respect.

Space aliens drove them crazy.  Colonists in spandex jogged mindlessly across sacred land, listening to electronic pop music.  Reverence was absent.  They did not belong to the land, and were unaware of its incredible power.  Some of the traditional folks wanted to ban these disrespectful intrusions.  The colonial era had been a disaster.

The colonial worldview had many layers of hierarchy.  At the summit were the elites.  Below them were women, peasants, slaves, and the colonized.  Beneath the humans were animals.  Some critters, like dogs, cats, and horses, had special status.  If they obediently submitted to human domination, they were not meat.  Below them were meat class animals that had no consciousness.  Especially despised were man-eating animals, and critters that molested human property.  They were mercilessly exterminated.  Beneath animals was the plant world, a far older realm.

The foundation of the dominant worldview was human supremacy, and this mode of thinking had been the driving force behind a growing tsunami of ecological devastation.  Plumwood saw two alternatives to supremacist thinking.

(1) Ecological animalism was the realm of crocodiles, Aborigines, our wild ancestors, and the rest of the natural world.  All life was food, including humans.  In an ecosystem, “we live the other’s death, die the other’s life.”  Our bodies belonged to the ecosystem, not to ourselves.  The spirits of animate and inanimate beings had equal significance.

(2) Ontological veganism did not believe in using animals or eating animal foods.  This ethic was an offshoot of human supremacy.  It did not condemn the dogma of human/nature dualism.  It denied that humans were meat, despite the fact that a number of large predators have been dining on us for countless centuries.  It believed that animals were worthy of moral consideration, but the plant people were not.

Ontological veganism was queasy about predation; it would prefer a predator-free world.  It believed that human hunting was cultural (animal abuse), while animal predation was natural (instinctive).  But every newborn human has a body carefully designed by evolution for a life of hunting.  We are capable of smoothly running for hours on two legs, and we have hands, arms, and shoulders that are fine-tuned for accurately throwing projectiles in a forceful manner.  What you see in the mirror is a hunter.

Plumwood was a vegetarian because she believed that the production of meat on factory farms was ethically wrong.  She had no problems with Aborigines hunting for dinner.  All of the world’s sustainable wild cultures consumed animal foods.  She was well aware that her plant food diet was not ecologically harmless.

Cultures rooted in human supremacy have achieved remarkable success at rubbishing entire ecosystems.  This is not about flawed genes.  It’s about a bunch of screwy ideas that we’ve been taught.  Sustainable cultures perceive reality in a radically different way.  Luckily, software is editable.  Plumwood recommended that creative communicators bring new ideas to our dying culture; stories that help us find our way home to the family of life.  This is an enormous challenge.

Plumwood also wrote an essay, Prey to a Crocodile, which is not in the book.  It provides a detailed discussion of the attack.  The rangers wanted to go back the next day, and kill the crocodile.  She strongly objected.  The crocodile had done nothing wrong.  Predation is normal and healthy.  She had been an intruder.

A free PDF of the entire contents of The Eye of the Crocodile is available online.  It’s just 111 pages.  A paperback edition is still in print.

Plumwood, Val, The Eye of the Crocodile, Australian National University Press, Canberra, 2012, ed. Lorraine Shannon.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind


There will come a day when the consumer way of life dissolves into an embarrassing freak show episode of history.  Our descendants will struggle to survive on the devastated planet they inherited.  They will resent their crazy ancestors, and repeatedly ask, “What were they thinking?”

History professor Yuval Noah Harari provides answers to this question in his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.  It documents common perceptions of mainstream consumer society, a culture famous for its remarkable advances in irrational exuberance and cognitive dissonance.  This culture imagines that humans are gods, our technology is miraculous, and the best is yet to come.

Readers learn how humans soared to the top of creation in three leaps — the Cognitive Revolution of 70,000 years ago, the Agricultural Revolution of 12,000 years ago, and the Scientific Revolution of 500 years ago.  Prior to this, we were “insignificant” animals, much like our closest living relatives, the bonobos and chimps, with whom we share more than 98 percent of our genes.  They have remained insignificant, living in the same place for two million years without destroying it.  What was wrong with them?

I disagree with the “insignificant” tag.  Technological innovation artificially catapulted our humble ancestors into the elite club of apex predators.  This transition was not the result of genetic evolution gradually providing us with better teeth and claws.  It was the result of bypassing the limitations of our genes.  We manufactured prosthetic teeth and claws.  This opened the gates to a joyride in tool making that has grown to staggering proportions.  Thus, our ancestors were significant ecological oddballs even before Homo sapiens appeared.

Harari is not a cheerleader for the Agricultural Revolution, which he refers to as history’s biggest fraud.  Farming was backbreaking work, not a brilliant invention.  It did not provide a way of life that was more secure.  The diet was less nutritious.  People were less healthy.  Farming spurred population growth and conflict.  The costs have exceeded the benefits.

Like the consumer culture in which it was born, the book is primarily humanist in viewpoint.  Ecology only gets brief moments on stage.  The devastating environmental impacts of agriculture are not mentioned.  Readers are not encouraged to contemplate why sustainable agriculture is an oxymoron.  Here are some words not found in a search of the book’s text: erosion, deforestation, overpopulation, sustainable, materialism, climate change, methane, dioxide, acidification, anthropocentricism.

Agriculture was an unfortunate experiment, but highly addictive.  Each generation continued marching in the same dirty rut.  By the time the game had become hopelessly miserable, there were way too many people, and nobody remembered the path of simple living.  The same is true for consumerism, a fad designed to fan the flames of perpetual economic growth.  It has become the lifeblood of our economy, and most consumers have no memory of simple living.

Consumers have been brainwashed into believing that shopping like crazy is the golden path to fulfillment and happiness.  They go deeply in debt buying unnecessary status-boosting stuff, and promptly discard it with every shift in trendy styles.  Like hamsters racing on a treadmill, they spend their lives chasing impossible expectations, whilst gobbling Prozac by the fistful.  There is no socially acceptable alternative.  Living in a frugal manner is indisputable evidence of demonic possession.

Harari is not a fan of the consumer lifestyle.  It is just the tip of an ancient iceberg that he barely mentions, the skanky duet of stuff and status — a major blunder in the human journey.  Hunter-gatherers owned almost nothing, and had zero interest in hoarding belongings.  In those days, nobody owned the aurochs, and the aurochs were free to live as they pleased.  Eventually, we reduced them into passive, half-bright domesticated cattle.  They became personal property, and the more you owned, the higher your status.

Status was more important than the health of the grassland.  This led to overgrazing and desertification.  The rustling of cattle and horses became a widespread enterprise, and the cause of countless bloody conflicts.  The emergence of private property created insanely destructive status cults.  The hunger for status turns people into idiots who stampede to the latest bonanza, eager to get rich quick via gold, gems, oil deposits, or smart phones.  Status seekers gaze at a forest of ancient redwoods and see a gold mine.

Agricultural civilization provided an unstable foundation for the turbulent centuries that followed.  Harari describes how science, empire, capitalism, and intolerant religions have brought us to the brink of both consumer utopia and ecological helter-skelter.  The benefits of our great achievements have all come at great cost.  Was it worth it?  Are consumers happier than the cave painters of 30,000 years ago?  “If not, what was the point of developing agriculture, cities, writing, coinage, empires, science, and industry?”  Wow!  Super question!

I would add more questions.  Are we happier than the bonobos who enjoy abundant food, no jobs, no money, no bosses, no governments, and have sex all the time?  What good is a happiness that requires a ridiculously destructive dead-end way of life?  Sustainability is far better proof of intelligence, wisdom, and success.

In the last five paragraphs of the book, Harari reveals his concerns about the dark side of the human juggernaut.  He concludes that we are lost, discontented eco-terrorists.  Looking back over the human journey does not make us glow with pride.

But we’re not merely a clown act.  Look at us!  We are the wealthiest generation of all!  Human genius has enabled us to consume ever-growing amounts of energy.  We have discovered “inexhaustible energy resources,” and now enjoy access to “practically limitless energy.”  Modern medicine miraculously saves lives (largely by reducing mortality from the diseases of civilization).  Humans are far less violent today, international war is nearly extinct, and large-scale famine is now rare.  Everyone joyfully celebrates demise of patriarchy.

This review began with the question, “What were they thinking?”  The book provides answers, a recognizable portrait of today’s consumer society.  This mindset is a whirlwind of human exceptionalism, acute awareness, and magical thinking.  We’re smart, and we’ve learned how to do many cool things.  Yes, there are also some serious problems, but the overall story here is one of progress, not foolish incompetence.  This is exactly what consumer society wants to hear.  The book is selling well, and reader comments are primarily praise.

The bedrock fantasy of consumer culture is that technology will solve all challenges, the future will be powered by safe, clean renewable energy, and the consumer way of life can continue on its current path, without any sacrifices, until the sun burns out.  Edward Abbey once wrote, “Where all think alike, no one thinks much.”

I wish that Harari had been raised in a sane society.  I wish that his history had documented a clear thinking culture on a far healthier trajectory — well educated, wide awake people who understood the mistakes of their ancestors, and were fully committed to a return to genuine sustainability.  We’re long overdue for a fourth revolution, a homecoming, a healing.

Harari, Yuval Noah, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Harper, New York, 2015.

Here is Harari giving a 15-minute TEDx talk.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Braiding Sweetgrass


Science is a painfully tight pair of shoes.  It perceives the family of life to be little more than a complex biochemical machine.  It has created powerful tools for ravaging the planet’s ecosystems, creating a hard path for our descendants.  It gives us knowing, but not caring.  It’s not about wisdom.  It’s about pursuing the wants and needs of humans, with less concern for the more-than-human world.

Robin Kimmerer is a biology professor.  After being trained in the rigid beliefs of science, she heard a Navajo woman talk about the realm of plants from the perspective of indigenous knowledge.  For that woman, plants were not subjects, but teachers.  In a flash, Kimmerer realized the shallowness of her scientific training.  It only provides a pinhole view of reality.  Science is not enough.

Her grandfather was Potawatomi.  When he was a boy, the government sent him away to the Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where he was trained to become an English-speaking wageworker.  He forgot his language and culture and drifted away from his people.  He never felt at home in either world.

Kimmerer has worked hard to reconnect with her Native American roots, because traditional indigenous cultures are blessed with a far more holistic relationship with the family of life.  All people on Earth have tribal ancestors who once lived close to the land, but so much has been lost with the passage of centuries.  Her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, is a collection of stories that focus on living with respect and reverence for the land.

She once asked a city lad where his sense of place felt strongest.  He immediately responded, “My car.”  Her book is especially important for the impoverished millions, who have grown up indoors, in a ghoulish netherworld of glowing screens.  She has a strong and respectful relationship with the land, and she describes it beautifully.  It’s a perspective that is almost absent in our culture, and without it, a long-term future for humans is impossible.  We must remember.

While explaining the culture of sharing, respect, and gratitude, she does not conceal her scientist badge.  So, readers are less tempted to automatically dismiss her stories as daffy rainbows of New Age woo-woo.  Science is not worthless.  In the centuries of restoration that lie ahead, it can offer some useful ideas, if we keep it on a short leash.  Nature will play a primary role in healing the land as much as possible — it knows what to do.  The far bigger challenge is dealing with the monsters that inhabit the goop between our ears.

In the native world, when a patch of ripe strawberries is discovered, the plants are warmly greeted.  The people ask permission to take some berries.  If the response is yes, they take only what they need, never more than half of the fruit.  The plants are thanked for their gift, and the pickers leave an offering of tobacco.

Gifts and responsibilities are two sides of the same coin.  The berry pickers now have an obligation to promote the wellbeing of the strawberry people, by depositing their seeds in good locations (not a toilet).  This is a relationship of reciprocity between berries and people.  The berry eaters need the plants, and the plants need the berry eaters.

On the other hand, the relationship between mainstream people and nonrenewable resources is not reciprocal.  The oil, coal, iron, and other minerals do not need the miners, nor is their wellbeing improved by the mining.  The planet’s atmosphere does not appreciate our toxic offerings of carbon emissions.  The ecosystem does not enjoy being treated like an open pit mine.

Cultures that enjoy a direct and intimate relationship with their ecosystem have far more respect for it than those that forage at malls and supermarkets.  Consumer culture receives enormous gifts from the land, but gives almost none in return.  Kimmerer’s students clearly understand that the relationship between consumers and nature is abusive.  It’s difficult for them to imagine what a healthy relationship would look like. 

Kimmerer lives in the Onondaga Nation.  At the school, the Haudenosaunee flag blows in the breeze, not the stars and stripes.  There is no pledge of allegiance to a political system that claims to provide “liberty and justice for all.”  Instead, each day begins with the Thanksgiving Address, in which the students express gratitude for all of creation.  It helps them remember that, “everything needed to sustain life is already here.”  We are wealthy.

I had one issue with the book.  Natives from corn-growing cultures see corn as sacred.  Corn was a recent arrival to the region of the eastern U.S.  Its expansion spurred population growth and conflict.  We know that hunter-gatherers could succeed in achieving genuine sustainability when they lived with the wisdom of voluntary self-restraint.  But environmental history has not documented a culture achieving sustainability via intensive agriculture.

Potawatomi legends describe a dangerous spirit called the Windigo.  It wanders across the land in the lean months of winter.  It is always hungry, and never stops hunting.  It’s a selfish spirit that is obsessed with its own survival, by any means necessary.  The Windigo is notorious for having an insatiable hunger.  The moral of the story is to share, to take care of one another.  Don’t be a greedy butthead.

Much to the horror of the natives, the colonists imported a diabolical spirit of incredible self-destructive overindulgence — Super Windigo.  In white society, mastering the madness of insatiable consumption was seen as an admirable mark of success!  Kimmerer winces.  “We spend our beautiful, utterly singular lives on making more money, to buy more things that feed but never satisfy.  It is the Windigo way that tricks us into believing that belongings will fill our hunger, when it is belonging that we crave.”

After a lifetime of shopping and discarding, we don’t return our bodies to nature.  The dead are placed in heavy caskets and buried deep in the ground, where nature will struggle for centuries to retrieve the nutrients.  I’ve always hoped that my corpse would be eaten by mountain lions in a wild location, an offering to an ecosystem upon which I have lived far too hard.

From other books, I have learned about cultures that did something like this.  Carl Jung noted that the Maasai tribe did not bury their dead.  Corpses were left outdoors for the hyenas to eat.  John Gunther wrote that the Bakutu people of the Congo recycled corpses by laying them on a termite hill.  In sky burial, corpses are fed to the vultures.  This is done in Tibet, and in Zoroastrian communities in India.  Evan Pritchard noted that the Western Algonquin people also practiced it.

Over the years, Kimmerer has heard the Thanksgiving Address recited countless times.  It is so inspiring to listen to people express gratitude for all of creation.  She longs for the day “when we can hear the land give thanks for the people in return.”  So do I.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall, Braiding Sweetgrass, Milkweed Editions, Minneapolis, 2013.

Questions for a Resilient Future is a 17-minute talk given by Kimmerer.

Returning the Gift is a brief essay.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Original Wisdom


Original Wisdom is an unforgettable book.  Like all humans, author Robert Wolff was born a wild animal, ready to enjoy a pleasant life, romping around in a tropical wilderness.  He grew up in Sumatra, the son of Dutch parents.  His father was a doctor.  The young lad suffered the misfortune of being educated by the dominant culture.  It trained him for an unnatural life of schedules, destinations, and anxiety.  His wildness was paved over, and his consciousness became disconnected from All-That-Is.

Wolff was interested in healing, and hoped to become a doctor, but World War II interrupted his plans.  After the war, he became a social psychologist, and worked on a number of government projects.  Work included numerous visits to rural villages in Malaysia, where life was very laid back.  The people were “soft, gentle, polite.”  Villagers were the opposite of city people, who tended to be “crude, loud, insensitive.”

Oddly, the patients in Malaysian mental hospitals included whites, Indians, and many Chinese — but no Malays, who were half of the population.  Malay villages had a healthy sense of community.  They accepted the presence of people who were odd; there was never a thought of sending them away.  Everyone knew the village thief, and no one reported him to the police, because he belonged where he was.  Malays respected one another.

Wolff was grateful that he had learned to speak several languages, because this ability expanded his awareness.  Languages are unique products of the cultures in which they evolve.  Different cultures perceive reality in different ways, and many ideas cannot be accurately translated from one language to another.  Consequently, it was clear to him that the Western worldview was not the one and only way of interpreting reality.  Most Western people never learn this.  Insanity seems perfectly normal to the inmates of the loony bin.

His career began in the 1950s, the dawn of the most horrific era in human history.  Population grew explosively, as did the ecological blitzkrieg.  Traditional cultures were being exterminated by a plague of bulldozers.  Wolff worked hard to learn and record the knowledge of traditional healers.  He believed that their skills were the time-proven results of thousands of years of trial and error.  A tremendous treasure was on the verge of being lost forever.

He remembered the days before antibiotics, when Western doctors were little better than witch doctors.  He detested modern healthcare, where doctors practiced medicine, not healing.  They were highly skilled at temporarily postponing death via extremely expensive treatments — even if the additional weeks or months of existence were meaningless.  Not long ago, most of those with fading spirits would simply have been allowed to pass to the other side in peace.

In his crusade to preserve ancient knowledge, he met a number of healers who had not been the apprentices of venerable elders.  They acquired their skills via inner knowing.  Intuition told them what herbs to use, and the way to prepare them.  These healers told Wolff to relax; a treasure was not being lost.  The wisdom was always accessible.  When it was needed, someone would find it.  This notion gives Western folks cramps, because they process reality via thinking.

One day, Wolff learned about a tribe of hunter-gatherers who lived in a remote mountain forest — the Sng’oi (or Senoi or Sakai).  Meeting them opened the door to a series of life-changing experiences, a great healing.  They were masters of intuition and inner knowing.  They lived in a spiritual reality, “where things were known outside of thinking.”

Their camps were not close to the road.  Whenever Wolff arrived unannounced for a visit, one of the Sng’oi would be waiting for him in the forest.  The guide would stand up and, without a word, lead him to the village.  This baffled Wolff.  How did they know he was coming?  When asked, they told him that they had no premonition of his arrival.  They had experienced a feeling to go to a place and be there.  When Wolff appeared, they understood why they were there.

They knew each other’s unspoken thoughts, communicating telepathically.  Their shaman could sometimes foresee future events.  In the mornings, the Sng’oi discussed their dreams.  Once, Wolff described a dream.  Its message, they told him, was that he was needed at home.  He returned to his family, and learned that a child had had a medical emergency.

“They had an immense inner dignity, were happy, and content, and did not want anything.”  They loved to laugh and joke.  They were often singing and smiling.  Angry voices were never heard.  Each new day was a blank slate — no plans, no jobs, nothing that had to be done.  They floated, inspired by feelings.  Life in a tropical rainforest was not a tough job.

One evening, while sitting in a group, Wolff went into a trance, and spoke to the others, an experience he did not remember.  A Sng’oi shaman recognized that Wolff had shamanic powers, and offered to open spiritual doors for him.  His name was Ahmeed, and his job description was “to bring new knowledge to the People.”  Wolff accepted his offer.

The learning process involved long, silent walks in the forest, with no food or water.  Wolff was frustrated, because he was thinking like crazy.  It was impossible to still his furiously roaring mind.  He could not hear his inner voice.  At the end of the walks, he was exhausted; his mind fried.

Eventually, his thinker got more and more flaccid, and he learned to pay attention.  Some days, he could float away from his mind, and vividly experience the sounds and smells of the forest.  Everything changed.  The world became intensely alive.  He ceased being an observer, and became a living part of All-That-Is.

After months of practice, he gradually remembered how to be a human being.  “The all-ness was everywhere, and I was part of it.  I cannot explain what went on inside me, but I knew that I had learned something unbelievably wonderful.  I felt more alive than I had ever felt before.  All of me was filled with being.”  He felt great love for the people.  The trees and mosquitoes were his family.

Back in the civilized world, Wolff was no longer the same person.  Inner knowing could be painful, and sometimes had to be turned off.  He could sense the feelings of the people around him, and this could be overwhelming.  “It was frightening to discover how many people think nothing at all, but feel waves of anger, resentment, and bitterness — although they act as if they are deaf and blind to their own feelings.”

As the years passed, Wolff became whole and confident, as his humanness recovered.  Being human was so much healthier than being civilized.  That’s his message.  Even adults can heal.  It’s never too late to try.  Knowing inside is not something unusual; it is how we are.  All humans can have that connection with All-That-Is.  The connection is within us.”  Cultures without the connection are on a bleak path.

Wolff’s website is here, and many of the stories in his book are here.

Wolff, Robert, Original Wisdom — Stories of an Ancient Way of Knowing, Inner Traditions, Rochester, Vermont, 2001.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society


We live in a fantasy world.  We have blind faith that we’ll be able to sustainably feed nine or ten billion people in 2050, a wish-based belief.  We have blind faith that technology will vaporize all challenges that appear in our path over the coming centuries.  Economic growth will continue forever.  We’ll celebrate a glorious victory over climate change by switching to safe, clean renewable energy, in a smooth and painless manner.  Our high standard of living will keep getting better and better as we zoom toward utopia.  The best is yet to come!

Australian professor Ted Trainer is not entranced by blind faith, and he explained his heresy in Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society.  Attempting to transition to a future powered only by renewable energy, while maintaining our current mode of high waste living, would be the opposite of smooth and painless.  Indeed, it’s impossible, he says.  Renewables simply can’t produce as much energy as we currently get from burning enormous amounts of sequestered carbon (fossil fuel).

In modern societies, electric power is highly reliable for both households and industries.  Power companies generate electricity, feed it into their distribution grid, and send it to consumers.  Excess electricity cannot be stored, and insufficient electricity leads to brownouts.  So, utilities must be very careful to generate electricity at levels that closely match the swings in demand.  Today’s centralized power systems are designed to do a good job of this, but they are not designed to reliably distribute electricity generated by decentralized sources, like wind farms or solar facilities.

Coal-powered plants can run at full capacity all the time, and they can be built anywhere.  Solar and wind facilities can run at full capacity only during ideal conditions.  For example, a solar thermal plant can run at peak on a hot summer day, but its average annual production is just twenty-five percent of peak.  The capacity of solar and wind facilities is highly dependent on location.  They cannot be built anywhere, and the ideal locations are chosen first.  The potential for future expansion is limited.

Photovoltaic panels convert sunlight directly into electricity.  They produce little or no energy at dawn, dusk, night, or during cloudy periods.  For large-scale generation, solar thermal is better, because it generates heat, which can be stored for use during off-peak periods.  Ideal locations for solar thermal are deserts, like the Sahara, or the U.S. southwest.  The drawback is that ideal locations are typically distant from population centers, and significant energy is lost when power is sent thousands of kilometers away.  Even in ideal locations, output during summer is five times higher than winter.

Wind power is even less consistent.  Wind velocity varies from year to year, from season to season, and from minute to minute.  For 54 days in 2002, a wind farm in Denmark had zero production.  A farm in Australia was nearly windless for five straight days.  Winds can suddenly go calm over a wide region.  Ideal locations are on hills and ridges.

This hard-to-predict variability is a serious obstacle to a renewable energy future.  Neither wind nor solar can produce electricity sufficient to meet current demand, in a dependable manner.  To provide dependable power, backup capacity is needed.  One mode of backup is to use the surplus power, generated during peak hours, to pump water uphill into reservoirs, where it can later be used to generate hydroelectric power.  For most regions, this is not an option.

Surplus electricity can also be used to generate hydrogen, to be stored for later use.  Storing energy in hydrogen is highly inefficient, expensive, and problematic.  Putting one unit of hydrogen energy into a fuel cell requires at least four units of wind or solar energy.  Hydrogen atoms are tiny, which makes them especially prone to leakage.  A big tanker truck can only carry 288 kilograms (634 pounds) of hydrogen.  Hydrogen does not make economic sense.

Backup electricity can also be generated by burning sequestered carbon, but this would result in undesirable greenhouse gas emissions.  In a renewable energy future, for each megawatt of wind or solar capacity, systems would also need almost a megawatt of backup.  The backup systems would be expensive, and they would be idle much of the time.  They cannot be quickly cranked up to respond to demand surges, or to supply shortfalls due to clouds or calms.

A number of well-paid respectable-looking nutjobs are preaching that the cure for climate change is nuclear energy.  But eighty percent of the energy used today is not electricity.  Trainer concluded, “If all electricity was generated by nuclear reactors, carbon dioxide emissions might be reduced by thirty percent.”  Uranium is nonrenewable, the supply is finite, and the top quality ores are gone.  All facets of the nuclear industry are designed and operated by accident-prone tropical primates.  Meanwhile, spent fuel remains intensely toxic for more than a million years, and we have yet to discover how to safely store it.  A more mature option would be to focus intense attention on how we live and think.

The variability of wind and solar generation is a huge challenge to a renewable energy future.  A far greater challenge — the death blow — is the issue of liquid fuels.  Liquid fuels are used to power cars, trucks, trains, planes, ships, wars, and our food system.  Under perfect conditions, renewable energy might be able to generate ten percent of the energy currently produced by petroleum.  Options include ethanol, methanol, and hydrogen fuel cells.  Trainer discusses the serious drawbacks.

Clearly, a smooth and painless transition to a renewable energy future that allows us to continue living like crazy is an intoxicating fantasy.  In addition to being impossible, it’s also unsustainable.  The “clean,” high-tech wonderland will continue extracting non-renewable resources for wind turbines, solar panels, transmission lines, roads, tractors, fuel cells, air conditioners, cell phones, and so on.  It will do nothing to wean us from soil mining, water mining, forest mining, and fish mining — or shift population growth into reverse.

The consumer way of life is a dead end path.  While reading, I kept thinking about my four grandparents, all of whom were born into non-electric, car-free households.  They lived good lives.  Food is a genuine need, but unsustainable energy is a devastating addiction — lots of fun at first, but deadly in the long run.

Trainer thought along the same lines.  The big problem is that the dominant culture programs us to be competitive, acquisitive, individualists.  He presented a dreamy vision called The Simpler Way, a joyful utopia of voluntary frugality, stress-free lifestyles, lovely gardens, and small cooperative communities — and we don’t even have to give up modern technology!  Really?

Instead of struggling to continue living like crazy, for as long as possible, by any means necessary, the intelligent option would be to slow down — to really slow down!  That’s the message here.

In 2012, Trainer wrote an updated 22-page summary of his analysis of renewable energy, Can Renewable Energy Sustain Consumer Societies.  In 2011, he helped write a 48-page description of his vision for a happy green future, The Simpler Way Report.

Trainer, Ted, Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society, Springer, Dordrecht, The Netherlands, 2007.