Thursday, April 7, 2016

Hierarchy in the Forest

Christopher Boehm is a professor of anthropology and director of the Jane Goodall Research Center at the University of California.  He has read hundreds of anthropological studies on a variety of human societies.  He also spent time with Goodall at Gombe National Park, observing the behavior of wild chimpanzees.  These experiences inspired him to speculate on our evolutionary journey, and to attempt the daunting challenge of defining “human nature,” the core essence shared by all humans.  He presented his ideas in Hierarchy in the Forest.
Before we begin, the goal of my work is to help people who are interested in learning about ecological sustainability.  Boehm’s book pays little attention to ecology, and I quit reading about 75 pages before the end.  Folks who are eager to learn about the various trends and controversies in cultural anthropology should put it on their reading list.  I was intrigued by some of the passages I read.  My plan is to jabber a bit about these, and then call it a day.
There are numerous types of societies, ranging from egalitarian (no bosses) to hierarchical (some have more power than others).  Among hierarchical societies, some have many layers of rank and status, like wolf packs.  At the extreme, despotic societies have a dominant alpha to whom all others must submit, like chimps or Nazis.  Boehm presented theories on the evolution of politics and morality among chimps, bonobos, gorillas, and humans.  Based on how the four species behave today, he imagined that the common ancestor of all four, who lived seven million years ago, was innately despotic — and that all four today remain near the despotic end of the political spectrum.
He believed that humans took a strange path.  In the beginning, we were hierarchical.  Later, for much of the hunter-gatherer phase, we were egalitarian.  Then, around 12,000 years ago, with the domestication of plants and animals, hierarchy returned to ascendance, and grew to monstrous proportions over the centuries.  This was not black and white, some early societies of herders or horticulturalists remained egalitarian, despite having private property and unequal wealth.
Oddly, egalitarian societies were also hierarchical.  Civilized societies have pyramid-shaped hierarchies, with the powerful at the top, and the dominated masses spread out below.  Egalitarian societies have an upside down pyramid, a “reverse dominance hierarchy.”  When someone began behaving in an inappropriate manner, the entire group united to confront the misbehaving oddball.
Cooperation was fundamental to the success of hunter-gatherer societies, so conflict avoidance was imperative.  Upstart males, exhibiting impulses to dominate others, were a serious threat to the stability and survival of the society.  Nothing was more uncool.  The antidote to disruptive upstarts was sanctions — criticism, ridicule, disobedience, ostracism, shunning.  Sanctions often helped the upstart get the message, and return to conformity.  If these failed, the upstart might move to a different group.  If all else failed, he might be executed.
Hunter-gatherer cultures had time-proven methods for encouraging conformity, and discouraging the impulses of problem personalities.  It was always uncool to be boastful, arrogant, or overbearing.  When a hunter brought home excellent meat, he would apologize for the worthless crap that was unfit for dog food.  Self-depreciation helped to level out differences, and discourage painful swellings of pride.
Once upon a time, Boehm had succeeded in earning the trust of Navajo elders, in his quest to learn about mental illness in the tribe.  One day, he realized that he had left a watermelon in his car, which he had bought to be a gift.  He ran out, got it, ran back, offered it to the elder — and immediately obliterated the trust he had carefully earned, terminating his research.  His action had been too sudden, and was perceived as aggressive.  The Navajo have a low opinion of white people, and are highly distrustful of them.  In Indian country, people are expected to be calm, composed, dignified, and respectful.
One passage especially touched me.  Jean Briggs was an anthropologist who spent more than a year with the Utku Eskimos of northern Canada.  She apparently behaved like an ordinary American, who had moody days, and sometimes displayed a flash of anger when irritated.  This freaked out the Eskimos, who sometimes ran out the cabin when she was crabby and hissing.  In that society, folks were expected to smile, laugh, and joke — to behave like happy people.  Nothing was more uncool than showing your emotions, because strong thoughts can kill or cause illness.  Anger was dangerous juju, highly toxic.
The Eskimos tolerated a lot of extremely inappropriate behavior, because Briggs was a visitor from a tribe that was notoriously loony.  They gave her hints for behaving more politely, but she missed their meaning.  Eventually, they reached their limits, and Briggs became a nonperson.  She simply could not learn how to conform.
Briggs was brought up in a hierarchical culture, where we all compete against one another to acquire, hoard, and display the most status trinkets.  Self-centeredness is the expected norm.  Most of us live amidst hordes of perfect strangers, and the sight of strangers must make our tropical primate brains squirm and sweat.  When chimps see a strange male, they don’t welcome him with smiles and hugs; they kill him.  Gorillas are also impolite unknown visitors.  Of course, humans take great delight in savagely killing foreigners by the millions.
It’s hard for us to imagine spending our entire lives among a small group of people, where survival depends on cooperation, where competition and conflict were toxic.  The Eskimos were not merely “acting” happy.  They were raised in a culture where it was normal and healthy to mindfully maintain respectful relationships with all others.  They had to spend long dark winters in close quarters, so it was impossible to tolerate selfish spoiled brats or infantile tyrants.  Everyone’s highest responsibility was to maintain the stability of the group.
Boehm’s book was published in 1999.  Most research on wild bonobos occurred after 2003.  Early studies had to be abandoned, because of a civil war that raged between 1994 and 2003, claiming three million lives.  Based on incomplete information, Boehm assumed that bonobos were at the despotic end of the spectrum, but later research revealed that they were remarkably egalitarian.  Also, they were not egalitarian in the sense of “reverse dominance hierarchy.”  For bonobos, egalitarian behavior was normal, natural, almost effortless.  Humans are closely related to both despotic chimps and egalitarian bonobos.
Why are chimps and bonobos so different?  Ecology may be the primary factor.  Bonobos enjoy an ideal habitat, with abundant food, and no serious competitors in their niche.  Chimps live in leaner lands, and compete for food with gorillas and baboons.  Scarcity creates tensions, and territorial boundaries must be aggressively defended against trespassers.  Crowding is the mother of conflict.  Extreme crowding turns humans into bloodthirsty mass murdering maniacs.
Boehm, Christopher, Hierarchy in the Forest, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1999.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Understanding Sustainability

Dearest Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a great honor to announce the release of my new book, Understanding Sustainability, a collection of seventy-four reviews of sustainability-related books.  It’s vital that humankind develops a competent understanding of ecological sustainability, and pursues it with all deliberate speed.  A sustainable way of life is one that can continue for millennia without causing permanent degradation to the ecosystem. 

The path we are on now is exactly the opposite.  It has no long-term future.  It’s not even fun.  Mainstream society continues wobbling and staggering in a twentieth century stupor, blind drunk on a rotgut elixir called sustainable development.  Sustainable development is nothing more than ordinary <bleep> the future development dressed up in a cheap green suit, with a foolish smirk.

Ecological sustainability is something like kryptonite, a powerful antidote to the pathological superpowers of industrial society.  Humans are the proud owners of legendary big brains, and the lucky ones have gifts for thinking outside the box, and asking questions that really matter.  Where can they find answers?  The neighborhood library or bookstore is unlikely to provide a robust collection of books on ecological sustainability.  Local classrooms are mostly home to lectures praising technological innovation, sustainable development, and perpetual growth.  Yuck!

Unfortunately, my book does not reveal quick and easy solutions to our eco-predicaments.  Mainstream culture is out of its mind, the zombie offspring of ignorance and tradition.  But culture is software, and it’s possible to change software.  Understanding Sustainability is intended to be a resource for outside the box thinkers who are eager to learn.  It exposes pilgrims to a wide variety of outside the box writers.  It supplements my two previous books, What Is Sustainable and Sustainable or Bust.

Understanding Sustainability is available as a modestly priced paperback, and as a bargain priced Kindle download.  Kindle downloads can be read on your computer, tablet, or phone using free software — you don’t need to buy a Kindle gizmo.  Amazon Prime members can “borrow” the Kindle version from Amazon, free of charge.

Please feel welcome to post reader reviews at Amazon and Goodreads.  They are very helpful to curious shoppers who are nervous about inviting new authors into their minds.

Best of all, Understanding Sustainability is the perfect gift for all occasions — graduations, birthdays, retirement parties, weddings, anniversaries, hot dates, and baby showers.  Buy it by the dozen, and avoid aggravating time-consuming visits to the mall.


Saturday, January 30, 2016


The following is the rough draft of the last section of my upcoming third book.

So, here we are in the twenty-first century.  We are not a generation born wild and free, running around naked in lush tropical rainforests, nibbling on fruit, nuts, and grubs.  We inherited an age of challenges, the result of a long string of risky experiments.  Negative consequences have piled up over the centuries, and we now stand in the dark shadow of a mountain of predicaments.

Humans are not cursed with defective genes, but we have succeeded in creating a highly unsustainable way of living and thinking — a defective culture.  The clock is running out on this troublesome experiment.  It would be wise to acknowledge this, and mindfully explore saner ways of living and thinking.

Like all other animals, humans focus their attention on the here and now, the immediate vicinity.  Many animals are capable of foresight.  Some know that panthers hunt at night, so they sleep in the trees.  With regard to the manmade realm of techno-innovation, foresight is largely impossible.  Nobody could have imagined the enormous consequences of metal making, fossil energy, or the domestication of plants and animals.  A few wild cultures still live sustainably with barely any technology.

Low impact cultures do not believe in human superiority.  They do not suffer from a persistent itch to hoard personal property.  They have exactly what they need.  They do not control and exploit the ecosystem, they adapt to it.  They have time-proven cultures in which everyone practices voluntary self-restraint.  In this manner, they could enjoy extended periods of real sustainability, living in a healthy wild ecosystem.

High impact cultures, by definition, cannot have a long-term future.  In their spooky fantasies, the primary goal is to pursue economic growth, by any means necessary, for as long as possible, without regard for the generations yet to come.  Nothing is more important than perpetual growth, at any cost.  This is the dominant paradigm in consumer societies, where it is perceived to be perfectly normal and intelligent.

But deviants on the fringe, who enjoy an amazing ability to recognize the obvious, warn us that normal is insane.  For revealing this inconvenient truth, they are called doomers.  But the consumer hordes, who are enthusiastic lifelong participants in the most destructive culture in human history, are the true champions of doom.

Consumers are annoyed by the truth tellers, and denounce them for their negativity, but it’s actually the other way around.  Sending tons and tons of waste to landfills, via a lifetime of recreational shopping, in an effort to gain social status, is a heartbreaking tragedy.  It’s a path of ferocious negativity.

The truth-telling deviants are not doomers, they are simply more present in reality.  For them, the foolishness in our culture becomes less invisible.  Being present in reality, in the fullness of the darkness, puts them in a far better position to think clearly and make wise decisions.  They become less vulnerable to peer pressure.  They become less willing to mindlessly do what a mindless society expects of them.

In the process of healing from acute ignorance, you cross a painful threshold.  One day, you realize that the consumer fantasyland has little relationship with reality.  Big storms are coming, and the future will not be a prosperous and pleasurable joyride.  This realization hurts.

When this occurs, despair is an appropriate response.  It’s OK to grieve for the loss of a major long-held illusion.  At the same time, it’s also appropriate to celebrate your mind-expanding awakening, your successful return from the realm of the living dead.  Despair is like a hangover, a painful headache resulting from an unhealthy binge.  It’s a normal temporary experience on the long journey to growth and healing.

The consumers scream, “We can’t go back,” and that’s true.  We also cannot indefinitely remain on our current dead-end path.  John Trudell, the Santee Sioux activist, summed it up nicely.  “There is no old way, no new way.  There is a way of life.  We must live in balance with the Earth.  We must do it.  We have no choice.”

Eight words precisely describe the one and only sustainable destination, “We must live in balance with the Earth.”  That sacred destination has never been farther from where we now stand.  So, what should animals with legendary big brains be doing?  Obviously, we need to change how we think and live.

At the moment, consumer society feels little or no desire to question its mode of living and thinking.  Many have chugged the Kool-Aid of the techno-wizards, and have a blind faith in the wondrous solutions promised by clever experts.  Many others have little or no understanding of reality, because they suffer from ignorance, or limited ability to think.  Still others can sense the growing darkness, but are paralyzed with fear and powerlessness, and block out the yucky feelings with false hope.

Nothing can stop the coming storms of change, all paths lead to turbulence.  You can’t save the world.  You can’t fix everything, but you can use your gifts, and do what you can to confront ignorance, protect your ecosystem, and lessen the long-term damage.  There are infinite opportunities for doing beneficial work.

It’s time for unlearning, identifying the silly nonsense we’ve absorbed over the years, and hurling it overboard.  It’s time for learning, continuing our exploration of reality.  It’s time for communicating, helping each other learn.  It’s time to get outdoors, without electronic distractions, and develop an intimate relationship with the planet of our birth.  It’s time to grow and heal.

We are living in the most momentous century in the entire human experience.  It will be a time of immense learning and awakening.  As our glorious house of cards disintegrates, we will experience a beautiful die-off — countless idiotic myths, fantasies, and illusions will lose their hypnotic power, tumble into the tar pits, and never again entrance us.

It will be a century of huge lessons, an era of tremendous enlightenment.  No, climate change was not a hoax!  Yes, there really are limits!  Concepts like carrying capacity and overshoot will become well understood by any who survive.  The powerful storms of the Great Healing will inspire a great tide of questioning, critical thinking, and clear understanding.

No matter what we do, the Great Healing will eliminate a number of key predicaments, even if we don’t change our ways.  Whether or not we get serious about rapid population reduction, the current population bubble will become an ex-predicament.  Finite resources will certainly strangle the mass hysteria of consumer mania.  As we move beyond the era of climate stability, every ecosystem will be hammered by big changes.  The consumer lifestyle will no longer be an option.

Big Mama Nature has little tolerance for overshoot.  One way or another, sooner or later, some form of balance will be restored, with or without us.  But if we summon our power, and strive to live with responsibility, we may be able to prevent some destruction.  It’s essential to understand the mistakes that got us into this mess, so we will not be tempted to repeat them.  Learn!  Think!  Heal!

Friday, January 15, 2016

Psychic Epidemics

I read the news today, oh boy… we seem to be living in an age of craziness, all around the world.  I am reminded of the famous psychologist, Carl Jung, and his notion of psychic epidemics.  He was born in 1875, as the Industrial Revolution was turning many societies inside out.  It was a gold rush for psychologists, because mental illness was soaring in advanced societies.

Urbanization led to the “insectification” of city dwellers, which fueled the emergence of mental imbalances.  The human mind evolved to function nicely in small groups, not large crowds.  The neurotic urban hordes bore no resemblance to the Pueblo Indians that Jung had met in New Mexico.  He was fascinated by his encounter with these shockingly sane and content humans, and he spoke fondly about them throughout his life.  “Such a man is in the fullest sense of the word in his proper place.”

Three issues spooked Jung.  The world wars, with their new and improved technology, took death and destruction to unimaginable new levels.  Nuclear war was a big threat, but it was avoidable, in theory.  What scared him most was population growth, a runaway train with no brakes.  World population nearly doubled in his lifetime.  It had soared to almost three billion when he died in 1961.  “Masses are always breeding grounds of psychic epidemics.”

Jung was horrified by the rise of Hitler.  “The most dangerous things in the world are immense accumulations of human beings who are manipulated by only a few heads.”  Germany suffered from an inferiority complex following its defeat in the First World War.  The collective unconscious of the Germans begged for a savior, a Messiah.  Hitler helped them compensate for their shame by leading them on a heroic adventure in megalomania.  He had a remarkable ability for bringing the nation’s unconscious into his conscious awareness.  He told the people exactly what they wanted to hear.

After Hitler’s defeat, Jung concluded, “The phenomenon we have witnessed in Germany was nothing less than the first outbreak of epidemic insanity, an eruption of the unconscious into what seemed to be a tolerably well-ordered world.”  I don’t believe that this was “the first” such epidemic.  Many, like the Inquisition, preceded the Nazis.

Jung died 55 years ago, before the first Earth Day.  Since his death, population has more than doubled again, and continues to soar.  Climate change is getting warmed up for unleashing centuries of big surprises.  The sixth mass extinction is now officially recognized.  The list of ongoing catastrophes is long and growing.  On his deathbed (1961), Jung had a disturbing vision.  In 50 years (2011), “I see enormous stretches devastated, enormous stretches of the earth.  But, thank God, it’s not the whole planet.”

Jung warned that, “It is becoming ever more obvious that it is not famine, not earthquakes, not microbes, not cancer, but man himself who is man’s greatest danger to man, for the simple reason that there is no adequate protection against psychic epidemics, which are infinitely more devastating than the worst of natural catastrophes.”

Jung was perplexed by the notion of consciousness, a slippery concept.  Consciousness includes being aware of what our senses are telling us about the here and now.  It allows us to think about people and events in different times and places, and share this knowledge with others.  We are very self aware, and know that we will die.  We can think in words, and use words to assemble reasoned concepts and abstract ideas.

Among our wild ancestors, the development of consciousness was minimal.  They had what Jung called the “original mind.”  A wild lad could put on a lion mask and literally become a lion, in his mind.  Modern insurance salespeople can’t do this, because they have been trained in the differentiated consciousness of civilization, which makes the original mind unconscious.

Jung believed that consciousness in humans developed slowly over a very long time.  By 4000 B.C., consciousness in civilized societies was approaching its modern form.  He noted that primitive people were less conscious than we are.  At the same time, even in its advanced form, consciousness remained highly unstable, far from finished.  Consciousness is merely the mind’s thin surface, floating on an unconscious ocean.  Throughout every day, our minds flutter in and out of consciousness, frequently drifting off into daydreams and fantasies.  Conscious thought is tiresome, requiring deliberate effort, while fantasyland is effortless.

Education factories indoctrinate students with the notion that reason is the guiding force in our nation’s affairs.  But our ability to reason is flimsy.  Like the Germans of the 1930s, we are always vulnerable to slick talking advertisers, politicians, and woo-woo hucksters.  Those with skills for prodding unconscious fears, doubts, and desires will find many sitting ducks to corral and exploit.  Here’s my favorite Jung line: “Our present lives are dominated by the goddess Reason, who is our greatest and most tragic illusion.”

Jung was an important pioneer in exploring the unconscious, home of the ancestral soul, which stores content that is millions of years old.  We drift into the unconscious whenever we dream, or daydream.  When we remember dreams, we can bring unconscious content into the realm of our consciousness.  This content can provide important guidance, or solutions to inner conflicts.  Instinct can often see the elephant that the conscious mind blocks out.  Instinct is our ally.

Jung believed that, “Loss of instinct is largely responsible for the pathological condition of contemporary culture.”  We are cut off from our roots, making us childish and infantile.  Some primitive people remain connected to their ancient instincts, and are therefore more stable.  Their dreams guide them through life.  They inhabit a reality that is sacred, beautiful, and alive with wonder. 

Non-human animals obviously have some degree of consciousness, but a form far different from that of the glowing screen people.  Unlike many domesticated critters, wild animals are not neurotic basket cases.  Nor are primitive people, who do not suffer from advanced stages of consciousness.  People with advanced consciousness have conquered the Earth, but Jung wasn’t sure if “this is an advantage or a calamity.”  He could not escape the paradox that consciousness is “both the highest good and the greatest evil.”

Sometimes, Jung wondered if the solution was to deliberately pursue the further development of consciousness, complete our unfinished quest, and become perfectly reasonable.  But based on his long experience with many damaged souls, this notion seemed to be ridiculous and impossible.  At the same time, “we cannot develop backwards into animal unconsciousness.”  But we are, in fact, animals.  When we squirted out of the womb, our standard issue equipment included an animal mind, with an excellent instinct collection.  This mind was fully capable of spending its entire existence operating without words, tools, fire, or clothing, like all other animal minds.

In both wild kids, and kids born in captivity, rudimentary self-aware consciousness (ego) emerges when a child is about four.  Kids born in civilization go on to absorb a highly unstable civilization-grade form of consciousness.  It’s fascinating to contemplate children who did not receive consciousness programming, like the girls raised by wolves, or the wild boy Tarzancíto.

For Jung, the magic word was individuation, which means becoming who you are, like a unique acorn develops into a unique oak tree.  Every newborn is a unique being, not a blank slate.  The mass mind of industrial society could care less about that unique being.  The mass mind expects everyone to become mindless status seeking robo-consumers.  But the ancient original mind expects us to use our gifts, and pursue our calling.  Individuation allows us to develop a strong and healthy relationship with the rest of the family of life, so we can avoid being swept away by psychic epidemics.

Individuation does not happen automatically, it requires effort to set foot on your own path.  Our ancestors benefitted from initiation ceremonies, in which adolescents received important visions that revealed their identities and destinies.  Modern society provides no such assistance, hence the mobs of robo-consumers.

“People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls.”  The path to healing requires looking inward.  Deliberately move away from the torrents of distractions that bombard our society.  Seek solitude and nature.  “Imagination and intuition are vital to our understanding.”  Intuition is perception via the unconscious.  It opens channels to the unconscious, and draws up the life.  Humankind has enormous conflicts to resolve.  The experts of our society are largely out to lunch, still lost in toxic hallucinations of perpetual growth and material wealth.

So, Jung does not give us the secret formula for mass enlightenment and a heavenly utopia.  Instead, he gives us a mirror.  Humankind can only heal individual by individual.  There are mountains of books describing the ecological damage we cause.  Far less attention has been given to the psychological twists and turns that have brought us to the brink.  Maybe we don’t need to study Mars.

The Earth Has a Soul is an excellent book that presents Jung’s commentary on our relationship with nature.  In Man and His Symbols, he explains his core ideas to general readers.  Jung wrote the autobiographical Memories, Dreams, Reflections.  C. G. Jung Speaking presents a series of notable interviews and letters.  Diagnosis: Psychic Epidemic is an essay by Paul Levy.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

In the Shadow of the Sabertooth

Doug Peacock, the grizzly bear expert, lives near the Yellowstone River in Montana.  In 1968, the largest collection of Clovis artifacts was found not far from his home, on the Anzick ranch.  The Clovis culture of Native Americans existed for about 300 years, from 13,100 to 12,800 to years ago — during the era of megafauna extinctions.  Of the 35 genera of large mammals that went extinct in America, half of them vanished in a 500-year period, from 13,200 to 12,700 years ago.

The Clovis culture developed a new and improved design for the flaked stone points used as spearheads.  The long broad sharp points made it much easier to kill large animals, like mammoths and mastodons.  Amazingly, this new technology spread to every corner of North America within just 200 years.  Clovis points are sometimes found close to the remains of extinct animals.  Clovis technology appeared suddenly, and vanished suddenly.

Today, the waters of the Bering Strait separate Siberia from Alaska.  During ice ages, sea levels dropped, and the strait became dry land, called Beringia.  Around 20,000 years ago, the last era of glaciation peaked.  The glaciers made it impossible to travel from Beringia to warmer regions in the south.  Few, if any, humans migrated into America prior to 15,000 years ago.

About 14,700 years ago, the climate changed when the Bøling-Allerød warming period began.  At that time, sea levels were 450 feet (137 m) lower than today.  During the warm period, thawing opened up a corridor to the south, vegetation recovered, and by 13,100 years ago, it became possible to migrate from Beringia to Alberta and northern Montana.

The human immigrants from Siberia did not live at the top of the food chain.  They often had lunch dates with hungry sabertooth cats, lions, dire wolves, American cheetahs, grizzlies, and short-faced bears.  Short-faced bears weighed a ton, and when they stood on their hind legs, were 15 feet tall (4.5 m).  Maybe Clovis points were invented to reduce losses to predators.  Better weapons also made it easier to hunt large animals.

After 1492, the early European explorers were astounded by the incredible abundance of wildlife in the Americas, compared to the battered ecosystems back home.  But what they saw in America was actually a biosphere that was missing many important pieces.  The zenith of American wildlife was prior to 13,000 years ago.

So, the Clovis period began, existed for 300 years, and vanished.  It ended when the frigid Younger Dryas period began, 12,800 years ago.  The Younger Dryas lasted 1,300 years.  When warmer times returned, some clever people began fooling around with plant and animal domestication, which blew the lid off Pandora’s Box.  We’re still living in this warm phase, an unusually long period of climate stability.  We’re long overdue for another ice age, but industrial civilization has seriously botched the planet’s atmosphere, and we’re sliding sideways into an era of ecological helter-skelter.

There are four theories about the megafauna extinctions, and this subject is the source of decades of loud shouting and hair-pulling.  One theory asserts that a comet or asteroid strike filled the atmosphere with dust, causing a very long winter.  Where’s the crater?  There is none, because the impact hit a glacier.  Why did the short-faced bears vanish, but not the other bears?  How did moose, bison, elk, and humans manage to survive?

The disease theory notes that some viral pathogens, like influenza or cowpox, are sometimes able to transfer from one species to another.  Maybe species that migrated from Asia smuggled in some virulent viruses.  But species-to-species transfers are more likely to happen in confined conditions, like barnyards and livestock herds.  During the extinctions, a variety of browsers, grazers, and carnivores disappeared, from an entire continent, in a short stretch of time.

The climate change theory notes that when the Younger Dryas blast freezer moved in 12,800 years ago, the Clovis culture suddenly vanished.  Eventually, “nearly every animal over 220 pounds (100 kg) died off and only animals weighing less than that survived this extinction.  A notable exception was the grizzly, along with modern bison, moose, elk, caribou, musk ox, polar bear, and chunky humans.”  Why hadn’t numerous earlier ice ages caused similar mass extinctions?

Paul Martin was the father of the Pleistocene overkill theory, which asserts, that man, and man alone, was responsible for the unique wave of Late Pleistocene extinctions.  He believed that the American extinctions occurred rapidly, in a “blitzkrieg” of overhunting.  He argued that across many thousands of years, extinction events corresponded to human colonization — in Australia, the Americas, Tasmania, New Zealand, the Caribbean, and so on. 

Hunting clearly played a role, but it’s hard to believe that all of the horses and wolves in America were driven to extinction by hunters with spears.  Blitzkrieg seems like too strong a word.  Unlike mice and bunnies, large mammals have low rates of reproduction.  “If hunters remove just 4 or 5 percent of a population of slow-reproducing wildlife, those animals are on a road headed toward extinction.”  The megafauna extinctions could have occurred gradually, over decades and generations, too slowly to raise alarm.

Climate shifts can spur extinctions.  The hills near Peacock’s home are red, because pine beetles are killing the whitebark pines.  The beetles are thriving because warmer winters enable more to survive.  For grizzlies, pine nuts are a dietary staple.  He worries that the bears might be driven to extinction by tiny beetles that benefit from the emissions of consumer society.

Let’s zoom back to the Clovis site discovered near Peacock’s home in 1968.  He didn’t learn about the site until the mid-1990s.  Scientists had hauled away a bunch of artifacts, but didn’t return to perform a thorough excavation.  Peacock was able to encourage additional work at the site, which began in 1999.  This inspired a years-long adventure in learning, which eventually resulted in a book, In the Shadow of the Sabertooth.

The Anzick site was the richest discovery of Clovis artifacts.  Among the findings was the skeleton of a boy, about 18 months old, the only remains of a Clovis human ever found.  It is also the oldest human skeleton found in the Americas.  The results of DNA sequencing were published in 2014.  “The Montana Clovis people are direct ancestors to some 80 percent of all Native North and South Americans living today.”  This line came from Northeastern Asia.  The boy’s genes strongly resemble those of a 24,000 year old skeleton from Lake Baikal in Central Siberia.

“The one unmistakable lesson of the Late Pleistocene extinction is that human activity combined with global warming is a potential, ageless, deadly blueprint for ecological disaster.”  Today, the disaster we’re creating will be of far greater magnitude, and technology will not be able to rescue us.  It’s time to rise up and defend this planet.

For readers who have a comprehensive working knowledge of paleontology, this book might be easy to understand.  It summarizes the highlights of decades of scholarly research, and comments on the major controversies.  General readers (like me) are more likely to struggle with the non-linear presentation.  Be sure to look at the revised edition (2014), not the first edition (2013).  The first edition was printed before Peacock could review, correct, and polish the manuscript, due to a health crisis — and the text was a mess.  The Kindle version is the first edition.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Indian Summer

Thomas Jefferson Mayfield (18431928) was among the first Americans to move into California’s San Joaquin Valley.  He arrived in 1850, when he was six years old.  His family had moved west to get rich quick in the Gold Rush, but the gold belonged to the land, and it cleverly hid from the loony looters.  His father shifted to raising livestock, assisted by his two older sons.  Young Thomas and his mother stayed at their small shanty, near Kings River.

The wild valley was a magnificent wonderland, millions of colorful flowers, with snow-covered mountains in the background.  Neighbors included elk, deer, antelope, grizzly bears, black bears, raccoons, rabbits, gophers, ground squirrels.  The sky swarmed with clouds of blackbirds.  There were billions of geese, and flocks passing overhead might be four square miles in size (10 km2).  Huge flights of pigeons would block out the sun.  Wetlands were loaded with tules (bulrushes) that grew 20 feet tall (6 m).  Along the streams were unbroken forests of ancient oak trees.  Nearby was Tulare Lake, which was filled with fish and waterfowl.  The region around the lake was home to a fantastic abundance of wildlife.

The Yokut Indians who lived across the river from the Mayfield’s shanty were friendly.  They generously brought food to the family (…so the strangers wouldn’t shoot their guns and disturb the wildlife).  Within a year of their arrival, Mayfield’s mother died.  The Yokuts offered to take care of the young fellow, and his father agreed.  The boy spent almost ten years among the Indians.  He fluently spoke their language, dressed like them, ate their food, and had almost no contact with white society.  He helped them hunt and fish, and spent lots of time playing with the other boys.

The Indians were warm people.  They rarely quarreled, often laughed, shunned gossip, respected their elders, and only spoke when something meaningful needed to be said.  Honesty was the norm, and theft was unknown.  Mornings began with a bath in the river.  In the hot summer months, much time was spent in the cool water.

The Indians built houses made with tule mats, and some lodges were 100 feet long (30 m).  Acorns were stored in elevated cylindrical granaries.  Mostly, they lived outdoors.  Homes were only used for sleeping, and for shelter from bad weather.  Cooking, eating, and other activities were done outside.  Food was cooked in watertight baskets heated with hot rocks.  They stored dried fish, dried meat, dried grasses, acorns, and many kinds of seeds.  Tule roots were a staple food.

Around 1855, the Americans began rounding up Indians and moving them into concentration camps, known as reservations.  Prior to the roundup, many had already died from the diseases of civilization.  In captivity, living indoors made them miserable, and many died from tuberculosis and measles.  Whiskey led to painful social breakdown.  In 1850, at the beginning of Mayfield’s stay, there were over 300 in the tribe, but ten years later only 40 survived.  In 1862, his father was killed in an Indian war, and the young man said goodbye to the Yokuts and drifted away into white society.

Mayfield almost took his story to the grave.  He spent much of his life in the valley, but never told anyone about his childhood.  White folks hated Indians, and he would have been stigmatized by revealing his story.  But in 1928, Frank Latta was working on an oral history of the San Joaquin Valley, heard about the 85-year old Mayfield, and went to visit him.  For the first time, Mayfield had an eager listener, and he gushed stories for several months, until he died.

Indian Summer is the story of his time among the Yokuts.  It’s just 123 pages long, with large type.  The writing is simple, just the facts.  His story is the only eyewitness account of a colonist who knew California Indians when they were still wild and free, living in their traditional manner.  It provides a wealth of details about how the Indians lived.

Even after Mayfield was a teen, old enough to take care of himself, his father left him with the Indians.  “He said that I was in better company with the Indians than I would be staying around the white towns with him.  There I would be in contact with saloons, gamblers, drunks, bums, and many other undesirables that I would not know at the rancheria.”  Whites were notoriously untrustworthy, and masters in the fine arts of vulgarity and profanity.

When he was in his eighties, Mayfield said, “There is no use trying to deny that the Indians I knew were, for the most part, naked savages.  But I have found that in the sixty-six or more years since I left them that just wearing a lot of clothes does not make people decent.  Neither does going around naked necessarily make people indecent.”  He added, “I knew the Indians in their natural state and I know that they were the finest people that I have ever met.”

In the good old days, Tulare Lake covered Kings County, and portions of Tulare and Kern counties.  It was the biggest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, and it sometimes swelled to cover 760 square miles (1,968 km2).  A thriving fish mining industry was established by the Americans.  Four rivers once emptied into the lake, but water-mining farmers and land speculators diverted their flows, and the lake disappeared by 1910.  Tulare Lake is now called the Tulare Lakebed, flat dry land, mostly cotton fields.  In extremely wet El Niño years, like 1997, the former lake temporarily holds some water.  Now the Americans are pumping out the groundwater, and the land is sinking.  Some locations are falling two inches per month.  Roads are cracking, and pipelines are breaking.

There were 16 subcultures of the Yokut people, and there may have been up to 50,000 of them in the San Joaquin Valley 200 years ago.  Abundant wildlife and plant foods allowed them to live in high density for hunter-gatherers — in good health, usually peaceful, with a leisurely lifestyle.  By 2010, the valley was home to 3,971,659 Americans, and it had air pollution comparable to Los Angeles and Houston.  The current way of life does not have a long-term future.

Thomas Jefferson Mayfield was born in 1843, the same year as my great-grandfather, Richard Edward Rees.  Richard’s granddaughter Martha lived until 2009, and she remembered him well.  The Yokut people had lived in balance for several thousand years, but civilization furiously obliterated the wild paradise in less than three generations.  Bambi was splattered by a runaway freight train, and nobody lived happily ever after.  There may be important lessons here.

A huge and glaring omission from the book is California’s wars of extermination on the Indians.  The Tule River War was waged against the Kings River Yokuts at the time Mayfield was staying with them.  In the first 20 years of the American occupation of California, 90 percent of the Indians died.  Bounties were paid for the scalps and heads of Indians.  Who omitted the genocide — Mayfield, Latta, or the publisher?

Mayfield, Thomas Jefferson, Indian Summer, Heyday Books, Berkeley, 1993 (Original 1929).

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Remembering John Trudell

John Trudell has passed to the other side on December 8, 2015.  He was a Santee Sioux activist and a spoken word artist.  Trudell had a profound influence on my thinking.  Over the years, I’ve stashed away a collection of information about him.  The following is a sampler.


Trudell, Appaloosa Pictures, 2005, directed by Heather Rae, starring John Trudell.  This is a full-length documentary about John Trudell, very well done.  It’s available on YouTube.  The commercial DVD includes additional material.

Trudell:  The spirit of life is almost nonexistent in the perceptional reality of the society that we’re in.  It’s almost nonexistent.  They got religion, they got civilization, they got military, they got politics, education.  They got all the stuff.  They don’t have the spirit to live.


“Crazy Horse, We Hear What You Say” is an essay that Trudell wrote, which was used as the introduction to Of Earth and Elders, by Serle L. Chapman, Mountain Press, Missoula, Montana, 2002.  It’s a clear and strong five page summary of his perception of reality.  Here are a few snips:

The coherency of our future depends upon us knowing who we are — and truly understanding who we are — because our relationship to reality and our relationship to power is based upon that understanding.  Today we live in an industrial society and this technological perception of reality, this shadow world, presents a serious crisis: it is a reality where we don’t remember who we are, so therefore we don’t know who we are, we speak a language we don’t understand and because of this, we don’t know where we are.  We are part of an evolutionary reality but part of the purpose of this technological civilization is to erase our memories and erase our identities.  <snip>

If we truly recognized who we are, this society we exist in and the way we live would be different.  We all live on a reservation now, an industrial reservation that stretches across the world, and the alienation you can find in extreme forms on an Indian reservation — the loneliness, alcoholism, drug abuse and violence — is being replicated more and more throughout industrial society.  <snip>

We all share a common collective experience: we are all the descendants of tribes.  Back in the time of the original dreams we were all members of tribes and we were all the earth’s children and we all knew that the earth was our mother.  We were part of a spiritual reality.  We were physical in a spiritual reality.  Whoever we are today, we carry the genetic experience of our lineage from the very beginning, encoded within our DNA.  It’s like our genetic memory and somewhere hidden in there we all come from a people that understood that we lived in a spiritual reality and because of that realization everyone of our beginning ancestral peoples understood that life was about responsibility; so we were responsible for the past and the future as well as the present.  So we knew who we were, we understood what we were saying, we knew where we were and we knew our purpose, and this reality lives in our genetic memories.  The purpose of technology is to erase our realities and make us powerless but ancestral power is real.  <snip>

The gift we’ve been given to protect ourselves as humans is our intelligence.  Our intelligence is our medicine.  We were not put here, defenseless, to be eaten up by this mining process.  This mining process takes place through our intelligence, so if we understand the value and power of our intelligence we can influence our evolution.


Rezamerica in the Shade of Blue — A Conversation With John Trudell by Ben Corbett.  This interview went extinct online.

Corbett:  And that means taking responsibility?

Trudell:  That’s exactly right.  That spiritual reality is based upon responsibility.  Religious realities are not spiritual.  The religious reality that exists in these technolgic industrial perceptions are not about responsibility, they’re about authoritarianism and guilt and sin and blame, domination and submission.  They’re not about responsibility.  Look at the situation and condition that the world is in and you can tell that they’re not about responsibility.  They accumulate wealth, they create their own authoritarian systems, they use their authoritarian systems and accumulated wealth to influence economic and political decisions that get made.  They use their resources, they use their authority and accumulated wealth to influence military decisions that get made.  Every behavior they have is really and truly not about responsibility.  <snip>

Corbett:  In other words, by being authoritarian, what you do is you take the responsibility away from the people and then the people feel there’s no need to take responsibility because somebody else is doing it for them?

Trudell:  Well they feel disconnected.  They don’t really know what the meaning of responsibility is.

Corbett:  Do you think that’s one of the biggest challenges facing the human race?

Trudell:  Yeah, actually I do.  It may be the biggest one.  Becoming reconnected to reality.  <snip>

Corbett:  What do you think it’s gonna mean for the future?

Trudell:  That’s still to be decided.  Because when we look at the non-native people here, remember they all came from tribes.  And the civilizing process took that memory away from them.  So it happened 3000 years ago.  Now we’ve been put into that same process, but we’ve been in it for 500 years.  So if we can keep our identity, our spiritual identity, if we can keep our identity as human beings, then we’ll be okay.  But if we can’t keep that identity, then we’ll go the way of the descendants of the tribes of Europe.  The future will be decided by what kind of coherency we pass to the next generation.  <snip>


This interview with WOJB’s Lori Townsend took place on February 28, 1998, before Trudell performed in concert in Kyle, South Dakota, part of the 25th Anniversary of Wounded Knee. 

Townsend:  I know that people have said, this is to commemorate a time of healing, from that time when there was a lot of division.  People were separated by the very nature of the struggle.  What have you seen in 25 years, as people come together, being able to heal from that time?

Trudell:  (laughs) That’s a hard one to answer.  I think we’ve learned more.  And I think that learning is the healing itself.  In pragmatic, practical terms, there are still personality differences and political differences that different individuals have.  So on one level, it doesn’t look like it’s been healed.  But on another level, we can all come back into one environment together and be together.  Whatever our opinions and attitudes are, they don’t get in the way of us all being together.  That’s like, there is some type of healing that has taken place.  But I’ve never really approached it myself so much from the healing aspect, as the survivor’s aspect.  Here’s who survived, here’s who still standing.

I look at it like that.  I think healing, in a way, is an individual process.  It has to happen in an individual before it can happen in a community.

Again, if we learn from our experiences, then we have more knowledge.  To me, that’s always essential to healing — knowledge and understanding.  Very essential.  But on the other hand, you can’t have real healing if one does not look within themselves and start that healing process.  <snip>

Townsend:  Well, how should people pick their battles now?  As you said, if you get too involved in politics, you become a politician.

Trudell:  I said you can get involved in politics, but you don’t have to be a politician.  It’s a mental thing.  People start working on political issues and then, at some point, they say, “I’m a political activist,” and that becomes their identity; that’s where the problem comes.

The question you started to ask, whatever it is that we have to do, how we’re going to approach it, I think we should think it out.  Look at it from every direction.  It’s almost as if we’re stepping out of our minds, out of ourselves, and looking at the whole thing, with us in it, as neutrally and as objectively as we can.  That way we’ll have some clarity to go after it as clearly as we can, rather than emotionally, or limited by these identities that we impose on ourselves around an issue.

It’s going to take clarity to see our way through these things, to the future that is coming.

It is in our best interest to use our intelligence intelligently.  But we don’t do that enough; 99.9 percent of us use our intelligence to manifest our fears, and our insecurities on a daily basis.  <snip>

Townsend:  What can be done?  It sounds too bleak.

Trudell:  I don’t look at it as bleak.  I think it’s best to recognize reality for what it is.

What did I say about the cannibals?  Let’s recognize that reality for what it is and the reality of who we are.  We have intelligence.  We have spirit.  We have the ability to think our way through this.  I think it’s more optimistic to see how dark it really is, and know what reality is, and then I won’t be fooling myself about what I must do.

Wouldn’t it be better to understand that if I’m going to do something, I’m not going to lie to myself about what I’m doing, whether it’s glorious or ugly.  I’m not going to fix it up, romanticize it, or make it clean.  If I’m doing it, I’m going to be as honest about it as I possibly can.  If I can’t live with it, then I stop.  If I lie to myself, then I’ll find ways to live with it and continue to do it.  That obstructs our clarity.

Always tell ourselves the truth.  Learn from mistakes.  Don’t judge ourselves.  We’re not in the judging business.  Trust our ability.  If we use our intelligence as coherently as we can, we will create the solutions.

If we go back in our history, our ancestral understanding, we always understood we had a purpose to be here.  That purpose is to take care of life the best we can.  What has changed is the harshness of the environment.  It was hard, not romantic back then.

The hard now is the predatory civilization that surrounds us.  Our ancestors trusted themselves, they respected themselves.  Pride today is the mask people hide behind when they feel no respect for themselves.

Trust ourselves.  Like ourselves.  I like myself.  I always don’t like what I do.  There is no collective solution without an individual solution.

The darkest thing I see for the future is all these people that are hoping and wishing and don’t want to see what’s coming.  That’s the darkness.  But they say they are bringing light and being optimistic, but to me these people are the ones bringing the darkness because they don’t want to deal with reality.  These are the ones who will perish.  These are the ones that will be fed upon and eaten up.

If one really thinks about it, we can romanticize being here before the white man came.  We were free, we could do what we wanted, we had responsibilities, but I tell you what, you see the storm we’re having right now.  It was hard surviving back then.  So this is just a different hard.  These cannibals are just a different hard.  But they can be dealt with.

I think if we really understand self-respect, we would look at this and say, “this is the challenge and I’m up to meeting it.”


Protecting the Earth — An interview with John Trudell by John Bowling, Earth First! Journal, May 1, 1998.  This interview went extinct online.

Bowling:  The new generation of EF! activists are arguing over whether or not nonviolence is the most expedient strategy for the movement.  People are discussing whether or not it would be appropriate right now to employ more self-defensive, possibly even violent means of defending the Earth.  What effects do you think that would have on the movement?

Trudell:  I think we need to have an understanding of what violence is because a great many people say they are against violence, yet they live off of the fruits of violence...  We live within systems that are violent.  We live in excess.  We are part of an excessive consuming society.  That’s the result of violence against the Earth…  The reality is that even though we say we are against violence, we still consume the products of violence against the Earth.  Anytime that we have more than we need, anytime that we live a life that we are consuming all we want, especially in the material sense, then we are perpetuating violence.

Bowling:  You’re familiar with Gandhi’s work and the civil rights movement.  What then is your opinion of Gandhian-style non-cooperation?

Trudell:  Gandhi was operating in a different situation than here.  So, I think that there are elements of what he was doing that work here.  But, what Gandhi did in India is not going to work here because this isn’t India.  We aren’t Gandhi.  But, I think lessons can be learned.  I think it is really about non-cooperation in the long run.

Say it became Earth First!’s objective, on behalf of the Earth, as a means of raising environmental awareness, to organize on one agreed upon day that we didn’t spend any money.  We went to work.  We did whatever else it is we do...  but we don’t spend any money.  Look on a national level and try to get 25 percent of the population to do it.  Everything we do violently or nonviolently is feeding into the economic system.  We’re attacking the issues but we’re not dealing with the reality of what’s behind the issues and that is the economic system.

Let’s say 25 percent of the population is involved...  That would add up to incredible number that would affect the daily economic reality...  You look at the economic system.  It is in such a fine line balance anyway.  If people would just one day say, “Hold on, I’m not going to consume,” then they would really understand what kind of power they have in this society, which goes way beyond the power of the vote.  I think it could be accomplished...  There doesn’t have to be any party line, no one idea that is prevalent other than protecting the Earth, standing fast with the Earth.  It’s a fast for her.  If somebody’s issue is the river or if somebody’s issue is the trees or if somebody’s issue is toxic waste, they can still talk those issues...  To me it goes into the area of non-cooperation.  It’s not about violence or nonviolence or obedience or civil disobedience.  We just won’t cooperate.


My first blog about Trudell was posted in 2013: HERE.  There are many videos of Trudell on YouTube.  His recordings are for sale at his website.