Monday, April 21, 2014

A Sideways Look at Time

In the realm of wild nature, there are countless cycles of change.  Geese arrive at winter’s end, build nests, raise goslings, and depart in autumn.  Apple trees leaf, blossom, fruit, and drop their leaves.  The sunlight has daily cycles and annual cycles.  The moon and women flow through their monthly rituals.  This is circular time, round and round and round.  This is wild time.

Once upon a time, the whole world was wilderness, and every creature was free.  The planet danced in wild time, and all was well.  Wild people caught salmon when the fish came home.  They killed reindeer when the herds passed through.  They ate blackberries when the fruit was ripe, and gathered nuts as they fell.

Wild people clustered in flourishing nutrient-rich ecosystems that were scattered here and there across the planetary wilderness.  All was well… until the accidents.  In a few of these clusters, clever smarty-pants, with wonderful intentions, devised strategies for forcing their land to produce more food.  Why be content with paradise?  Let’s fix it.

We are finally starting to realize that some incredibly brilliant ideas should be flushed down the loo immediately (probably all of them).  Here we are in the twenty-first century, and the world is the opposite of a vast wilderness.  It has been reduced to a bruised and beaten landscape by an ever-growing swarm of hungry two-legs.  Wildness struggles to survive in scattered shrinking pockets.  Wild tribes are nearly extinct.

As civilization became rooted, clock time gradually pushed wild time into the background.  Clock time is linear, not circular — a straight path with a starting line (paradise) and a finish line (apocalypse).  This throbbing straight line has phallic vibes, the same frequency used by patriarchal empire builders awash in raging torrents of testosterone.  It’s a furious dance of endless growth, and it inevitably jitterbugs into a minefield of bleached skeletons.

The incredibly brilliant notion of endless growth should have been flushed down the loo immediately.  Endless growth is insane, fantastically irrational, and always ends in tragedy.  But it’s a lot of fun at first.  Take a deep toke.  The endless growth jitterbug is a soaring mania with no off switch.  It stops when it dies.  Any society that mindfully chooses to quit jitterbugging becomes a helpless sitting duck for its jitterbugging neighbors, who are always hungry for more and more and more.

Jay Griffiths wrote A Sideways Look at Time, which discusses the mutation of time that followed in the wake of domestication, and rapidly accelerated with the emergence of the industrial era.  She thinks very highly of wild time, because it is normal, natural, and good.  With regard to linear time, she offers this sensible recommendation: “Drown your watch.”

The big three multinational, patriarchal, monotheistic religions run on linear time.  Their myths begin in a golden age of innocence and harmony, and go downhill from there, on a dead end road.  Griffiths was raised in a Christian home, but she lacked the gift of blind faith.  The church taught that God’s creation was a place of evil.  The kinky male clergy denounced lust, joyful sex, and women of power.  Their icon was a dying man nailed to a dead tree.  Wild time, wild people, and wild places were the realm of the devil.

As civilizations grew, years were assigned ID numbers.  In Rome, year #1 was the date of the city’s founding.  Numbering enabled better record keeping, and provided time markers for historians.  Calendars enclosed days and years, and sundials enclosed hours.  Later came mechanical clocks, and clanging church bells, factory bells, and school bells.  The sweet freedom of childhood was enclosed by rigid schedules, as kids were herded into education factories to have their minds filled.

To keep large restless mobs under control, law and order is essential — police and clocks.  Industrial civilization is impossible without synchronizing the mob to march in lockstep to the steady beat of the time machines.  All around the world now, the current hour will conclude at the same moment.

Today, the wristwatch people are isolated from nature.  They spend their lives in rectangular climate-controlled compartments with artificial lighting.  Blackberries, nuts, and salmon are available every day of the year.  Clocks and wristwatches were fabulous ideas, if the objective was to elevate stress and anxiety.  The Lakota have no word for “late,” and the Micmac have no word for “time.”  Native Americans were astonished by the wacky behavior of the colonists, who robotically obeyed the demands of ridiculous schedules.

In stable wild societies, older people became respected elders, folks with long memories who provided wise counsel.  They could foresee problems, and recommend solutions.  But in the lands of the wristwatch people, speed is of the essence, and the rate of change is dizzying.  In modern times, much of the knowledge that older people possess is obsolete and useless.  So, the elder’s role is waning, at the same time that people are living longer.  Progress has left them behind.

In a culture obsessed with youth, women with gray hair become invisible.  Cosmetic surgery is very expensive, and its results are temporary.  Tightly stretched facial skin is spooky looking, like “linoleum with lipstick.”  Hormone treatments promise the appearance of perpetual springtime.  Griffiths laments that many women avoid the elder’s path of wisdom and power.  The era of patriarchy has not been kind to the ladies.

In the minds of the wristwatch people, the notion of progress is as real as the Grand Canyon.  They have no doubt that the world is always getting better and better, because experts are tireless in their pursuit of continuous improvement.  We are so lucky to live in an age of endless miracles.

Actually, progress is a smiley-face mask that disguises a parasite.  Progress doesn’t shine on the salt of the Earth.  The lands of the U’wa people of Colombia are being destroyed to extract the precious oil needed to fuel the insatiable excesses of the world’s elite.  Chinese women are dying from the solvents used to make cell phones, and women in Bangladesh are crushed when their garment factory collapses.

The parasite devours anything in its path, and never rests.  The single thought on its mind is more now, more now, more now.  Only the present matters, a mindset that Griffiths calls “chronocentric.”  Bleep the future.  The grandchildren will simply have to adapt to living with radioactive wastes that remain highly toxic for 100,000 years.  It’s not our problem.

Of course, it’s heresy to voice doubts about progress.  Doing so transforms you into a knuckle-dragging mouth-breathing dolt.  The sacrifices needed to radically reduce the harm we cause are just too great.  It is our God-given right to indulge in every imaginable excess to the best of our ability.  It says so in the constitution.  Well, it’s time for gifted shamans to perform a magic act on our worldview — swap the dunce cap to progress, and the halo to sustainability.  It’s OK to be respectful to unborn generations of all species.  It’s normal.

So, that’s a little peek into where this fascinating book takes us.  Griffiths helps us remember what has been lost.  Unlike the predicaments of peak cheap energy, peak food, and climate change, our time problems are nothing but ideas, and ideas can be flushed down the loo.  A healthy life does not require seconds, minutes, and hours.  We can do just fine with sunrise and sunset, full moon and new moon, solstice and equinox, wildness and freedom.

Hark!  The bell has rung.  This review is over.  It’s a cool book.

Griffiths, Jay, A Sideways Look at Time, Jeremy P. Tarcher, New York, 1999. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Future Eaters

After spending more than 20 years reading hundreds of books describing various aspects of the Earth Crisis, The Future Eaters by Tim Flannery stands out.  It provides a sliver of hope for the future that is not built on magical thinking.  Flannery is a lad who is madly in love with the Australian region, and he dreams that it will eventually heal, far down the road someday.

Here’s the story.  Hominids evolved in Africa, and later migrated into Eurasia, where they lived in some regions for a million years before Homo sapiens drifted in.  In ecosystems where the fauna coevolved with hominids, the critters clearly understood that two-legs were predators, and they behaved accordingly.  But when Homo sapiens first appeared in Australia, none of the critters had ever seen a two-leg before, so they had no fear.

The fearless elephant seals on King Island weighed up to four tons.  They would calmly sun themselves while humans killed the animal sitting beside them.  On Kangaroo Island, men could walk up to fearless kangaroos and dispatch them with clubs.  Millions of birds were killed with sticks.  Flannery referred to these hunters as future eaters.  Future eaters were Homo sapiens that migrated into lands where the ecosystem had not coevolved with hominids.  Australians were the first future eaters, but far from the last.

The first phase of future eating was to hunt like there’s no tomorrow.  For example, New Zealand was loaded with birds.  Moas were ostrich-like birds that could grow to 10 feet (3 m) tall, and weigh 550 pounds (250 kg).  Future eaters arrived between 800 and 1,000 years ago, and by 400 years ago the moas were extinct.  Today we have found many collections of moa bones, some containing the remains of up to 90,000 birds.  Evidence suggests that a third of the meat was tossed away to rot.  Obviously, the birds were super-abundant and super-easy to kill.

Meanwhile, well-fed future eaters gave birth to growing numbers of baby future eaters.  More killers + less prey = trouble.  The party got ugly.  Friendly neighbors became mortal enemies.  Moas disappeared from the menu, and were replaced by Moe and Mona from a nearby village.  Cannibalism beats starvation.  Overhunting and overbreeding, followed by bloody social breakdown, was a normal pattern in the world of the future eaters.

Following the crash, the survivors had two options: learn from their mistakes, or fool around with new mistakes.  The New Zealanders didn’t have time to get their act together before they were discovered by palefaces.  It was a different story in New Caledonia, where the future eaters arrived 3,500 years ago.  They partied hard, crashed, did the warfare thing, adapted to their damaged ecosystem, and were having a nice time when Captain Cook washed up on shore.

Future eating contributed to extinctions.  In Australia, large animals were going extinct by 35,000 years ago.  Most megafauna in the Americas vanished 11,000 years ago.  In New Caledonia, it was 3,500 years ago.  In recently settled New Zealand, big animals went extinct 500 to 800 years ago.

In Africa, Asia, and Europe, some megafauna managed to survive, because of coevolution.  The unlucky ones were domesticated, which led to radical changes in our way of life.  Enslaved horses facilitated the bloody spread of the Indo-European culture from Ireland to India.  Along with oxen, horses enabled the expansion of soil mining.  Vast forests were eliminated to make room for growing herds of hooved locusts.

Australia is an unusual continent.  It has been geologically static for 60 million years.  Most of the soil is extremely old, and very low in nutrients.  Consequently, the fauna that won the evolution sweepstakes were energy efficient, majoring in marsupials and reptiles. 

On other continents, soils often contain twice as much phosphate and nitrates.  Lands having rich soils produced energy-guzzling ecosystems, including large numbers of megafauna.  The most energy-intensive species of all are warm-blooded carnivores like us.  Europe has 660 million people, and Australia has 17 million.

In addition to feeble soils, Australia has spooky weather, driven by the El NiƱo Southern Oscillation (ENSO).  The climate unpredictably swings between droughts and floods.  Droughts can last for many years, and then be washed away with a deluge.  These freaky swings encourage cautious lifestyles, weed out energy-guzzling species, and make agriculture especially unreliable. 

Flannery wonders if it’s moral to “live as a vegetarian in Australia, destroying seven kilograms of irreplaceable soil, upon which everything depends, for each kilogram of bread we consume?”  This question is relevant in all lands.  There is no free lunch in farm country.

Anyway, before humans arrived in the Australian region, the ecosystems were self-sustaining.  Then came the future eaters.  Extinctions included species that had performed essential ecosystem functions, like controlling woody brush.  When brush got out of control, it reduced grazing land for herbivores, and encouraged devastating wildfires.

To reduce this new imbalance, Aborigines periodically lit fires to keep the fuel from accumulating.  Unfortunately, during burns, soil nutrients went up in smoke, especially nitrogen.  Exposed soils were vulnerable to wind erosion.  The land got drier.  Centuries of burning produced a downward spiral that was largely irreversible.  There was no undo command.

The hunters must have had turbulent times as the initial era of plenty and prosperity dissolved into scarcity.  Then, “for 60,000 years Aborigines managed the crippled ecosystems, preventing them from degenerating further.”  For the last 12,000 years, surviving evidence suggests that they lived in a stable and sustainable manner.  They succeeded at this by learning the most important trick of all — adapting to their ecosystem.  They were forced to return their future eater badges and uniforms, and they were glad to do so.

Meanwhile, back in Eurasia, the nutrient rich soils were sprouting the biggest and craziest mob of future eaters to ever walk the Earth.  For the last 12,000 years, they have exploded in number, exterminated the megafauna, laid waste to forests and fisheries, and spilled oceans of blood.  Then, they discovered Australia, and imported the future eater mindset, with predictable results.

Today, the human population of the planet is almost entirely future eaters.  Our binge of plenty and prosperity is wheezing, bleeding, and staggering.  Climate change and the end of cheap and abundant energy will derail civilization as we know it.  We are proceeding into an era of scarcity and conflict.  When the smoke eventually clears, we would be wise to learn the most important trick of all. 

On the plus side, we are the first future eaters to comprehend the catastrophic effects of our future eating lifestyle.  It’s never too late to learn, think, and grow.  There’s never been a better time to question everything.  In a thousand years, if we make it, we may be asked to return our badges and uniforms.  There is hope!  Hooray!

Flannery, Timothy Fridtjof, The Future Eaters — An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People, George Braziller, New York, 1995.

Thursday, March 20, 2014


Jay Griffiths soared away on a seven-year pilgrimage to forage for the knowledge that illuminated her book Wild.  She spent a lot of time with wild tribes, and with conquered people who still had beautiful memories of wildness and freedom.  As she bounced from place to place, both modern and indigenous, she became aware of a glaring difference between wild people and the dominant culture — their children.

This presented her with a perplexing riddle.  “Why are so many children in Euro-American cultures unhappy?  Why is it that children in many traditional cultures seem happier, fluent in their child-nature?”  Her dance with this riddle gave birth to her book, Kith.

Griffiths is English, and the book’s title refers to the old phrase, “kith and kin.”  Kin means close family.  Kith originally meant knowledge or native land, the home outside the house.  When peasants lived on the land, their knowledge was rooted in the living place around them, not in mysterious juju like mathematics, economics, or engineering.  In recent centuries, most peasants have been driven out of their home, and their traditional knowledge has been forgotten.  Today, the meaning of kith has been reduced to extended family and neighbors.

Like “sustainable,” kith was once a beautiful word of great importance, now reduced to a toothless ghost.  Both words are lifesavers, if we could just remember them.  They are not forever lost.  Griffiths reminds us that “the past is not behind us, but within us.”

In this book, kith is used in its ancient form, a sacred word of power.  Why are kids so unhappy?  They have no kith.  They are dreadfully impoverished.  In our society, kids (and adults) are unwell because they have largely been exiled from nature.  They live indoors in manmade environments.  Nature is an essential nutrient for health and sanity.  Kith is life.

Griffiths and her brothers spent much of their youth playing outdoors, wandering across the land, getting wet and dirty, without adult supervision.  They rarely watched television.  She fears that her generation may be the last to experience the remaining vestiges of a normal childhood.  But I think that the game will change radically after the lights go out.  Mass insanity may not be our closing act.  After the plague comes healing.

Evolution prepared our species for a life of hunting and foraging.  All infants born today are wild animals fine-tuned for thriving outdoors in a tropical climate, surrounded by wild flora and fauna.  Being surrounded by nature is what all animals require for a normal and healthy life.  Like all other animals, young humans need to explore, play, learn.  Children need nature like fish need water.  They need a place where they belong, a home, a land that will be “mentor, teacher, and parent.”

They need to grow up in lands that still have their original parts — deer, birds, snakes, frogs, coyotes — our relatives who have not forgotten how to live.  They have so much to teach us.  Pets are unacceptable replacements for our wild and free relatives.  Cities are unacceptable substitutes for healthy places to live.  Zoo animals have miserable lives.  Confinement in industrial civilization is devastating for tropical primates of all ages.

Several centuries back, Griffiths’ ancestors lived in villages near commons.  The commons were open lands where the people could hunt, fish, pick berries, gather wood, and graze livestock.  Today, the commons are nearly extinct.  They have been eliminated by a process called enclosure, whereby wealthy lords fenced off the commons, replaced forests with sheep pastures, evicted most peasants, and burned down their humble cottages.

Enclosure is the diabolical anti-kith.  Modern kids no longer have abundant open spaces in which they can mature in a healthy manner.  Space has been enclosed and denatured.  So has freedom, the essence of childhood.  They are no longer free to spend their days wandering where whimsy leads them.  Modern childhood is now rigidly scheduled.

Community has also been enclosed.  Kids used to be raised in villages where there were no strangers.  Kids were mentored and parented by neighbors and extended family.  Modern kids grow up in a world of automobiles, strangers, and nuclear families.  Outdoors, behind every bush, are tweakers, psychopaths, perverts, and predators.  Kids spend much of their lives under house arrest.

Kids have immense interest in learning, but we give them “a school system that is half factory, half prison, and too easily ignores the very education which children crave.”  They major in obedience, punctuality, self-centeredness, and the myths of civilization.  They spend their childhood years indoors, in classrooms, and graduate knowing nearly nothing about the ecosystem they inhabit, their kith.

This is quite different from how children in traditional societies are raised.  Wild children are in constant human contact until they learn to walk, some sleep with their parents for the first five years or so.  They are never left alone to cry themselves to sleep.  They are never scolded, beaten, or given commands.  They are socialized, respected, treated like adults.  Socialization teaches them to be respectful of others, and nurture good relationships.  They develop confidence and self-reliance.

Importantly, wild cultures do an excellent job of guiding youths through a healthy transition into adults.  Every person is born with a unique personality.  We all have different gifts, interests, and destinies — trackers, herbalists, counselors, scouts, singers, dancers, drummers, shamans, storytellers, healers, slackers, morons, lunatics. 

Elders carefully help youths find their paths in life.  “Every child needs their time in the woods, to find their vision or their dream.  Yet most children today have no such rite, no way of negotiating that difficult transition into adulthood.”

The first generation of enclosure victims were painfully aware of all they had lost.  Their city born descendants have little or no awareness of the lost treasure of kith, and the harsh poverty of their consumer prosperity.  They are “denied their role as part of the wildlife.”  Many may go to their graves without ever experiencing the beauty that is the sacred birthright of tropical primates, and every other living thing.

Griffiths learned to talk and read at a very early age.  She has a great passion for words and learning.  You get the impression that she has read 10 or 20 books a week since she was crawling around in nappies.  She writes with flourish and flamboyance.  Kith is not an instruction manual for childrearing, but it provides a wealth of important insights for tropical primates who live in modern society.  It’s an excellent companion to Jean Liedloff’s masterpiece, The Continuum Concept. 

Here is a 20 minute video of Griffiths talking about her book.

Griffiths, Jay, Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape, Hamish Hamilton, London, 2013.

NOTE: The U.K. edition of Kith is now in print.  Australians can get the Kindle version only.  The U.S. edition will be published by Counterpoint Press, and released by the end of 2014, they say.  Non-Europeans can buy the British edition from Amazon via third party vendors.  Amazon U.K. is forbidden to sell the Kindle version to Yanks (they’re still sore about the Revolutionary War).

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Deep Water

The completion of the Hoover Dam in 1935 was a head-snapping experience — something like the moon landing, or the atomic bomb — history-making techno-craziness.  It was the greatest construction project in human history, and the world’s biggest power plant.  It was a giant leap forward in humankind’s crusade to enslave and abuse Big Mama Nature, and leave behind enormous messes for the kids.

Legions of hustlers were thrilled to realize the fabulous new opportunities for becoming rich whilst not getting their hands dirty.  From 1935 to 2000, about 45,000 large dams were constructed in 140 nations.  In his book, Deep Water, Jacques Leslie takes readers to India, Africa, and Australia to explore the dark world of the dammed.

In India, we meet Ms. Medha Patkar, a charismatic full-throttle activist determined to stop the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River.  It would flood the homes of 200,000 to 300,000, many of whom were indigenous tribal people.  Tribal folks were happy to live in the roadless forest, where the Hindus didn’t molest them.  In the Hindu world, tribal people were assigned a status even lower than the untouchables.  Tribes had zero political power.

The primary villain in this book was the World Bank, which poured billions of dollars into dam projects, to spur what is comically referred to as sustainable development.  Devious bureaucrats in India were highly skilled at diverting a good portion of this flood of money into their own pockets.  The politicians of India were so corrupt that they made American officials almost look virtuous.  Social and environmental concerns went out the window.

In India alone, dams have displaced somewhere between 21 and 55 million people (40 to 80 million worldwide).  In the relocation game, officials promised the sun and moon to the families to be displaced, like five acres (2 ha) of good land and a government job.  What they actually ended up getting was screwed.  Their fields were under water, and they were prohibited from fishing in the reservoir.  Often the tribes scattered to the winds, and ended up in urban nightmares.

India’s population is projected to be larger than China’s by 2050.  The privileged folks hunger to enjoy a planet-trashing consumer lifestyle, and have little concern for what happens to the politically invisible.  The nation has already built 4,300 large dams, and has plans for 700 to 1,000 more.  Dam building is easier and more profitable than population management.

The next section of the book takes us to Southern Africa, where we meet anthropologist Thayer Scudder, who spent decades as a consultant specializing in the resettlement of unlucky people who resided in future reservoirs.  He was skilled at creating high quality resettlement plans, and disappointed to see them all mostly ignored.  Once again, the natives were screwed, the officials pocketed a lot of money, and the ecosystem was damned.

Scudder had no doubt that dams were cool, in theory.  In theory, it was not impossible to create water projects that were fair, equitable, beneficial, and environmentally sensitive.  On the other hand, he believed that 70 percent of the world’s 45,000 large dams should have never been built.  Decade after decade, he nurtured a fantasy that some day he would be involved in creating just “one good dam.”  Instead, the great triumphs of his long career were his successes in killing a few stupid projects.

The last stop is Australia, where we meet water commissioner Don Blackmore, and get a thorough analysis of his frustrating struggle to keep the dying ecosystem of the Murray-Darling Basin on life support.  It’s the continent’s only major river system, but its annual flow is a wee trickle compared to the Amazon.  Australia was an especially unsuitable place to transplant the British way of life, and many experiments have fallen far short of their lofty goals, agriculture for example.  Much of the continent is arid, droughts are common, the ancient soils are low in nutrients, and the supply of fresh water is far from dependable.

Before the colonial invasion, thirsty Australian forests prevented most precipitation from reaching the water table in the Murray Basin.  When the white lads chopped down 15 billion trees to create cropland, the water table surged upward, as much as 75 feet (23 m), mobilizing the salts stored in the soil, and poisoning large areas of land.  The soils in the basin contain 100 billion tons of salt.  It would be a terrible place to attempt large-scale irrigation, but they did. 

Radical reductions of water diversions would slow the growing damage, but without water, farming is impossible.  Climate change presents a new wild card.  It could add major strains to a system that’s already staggering.

Leslie spent a day with an Aborigine man, Tom Trevorrow.  He lives in the Coorong, a 90-mile (145 km) lagoon near the mouth of the Murray.  When he was young, the land was thriving with abundant wildlife.  Today, with 75 percent of the water diverted upstream, the Coorong is very salty, and the habitat for birds, fish, and trees is devastated.  He wants the dams removed.  “The River is a living thing.  When you start interfering with it, everything dies.”

Aborigines managed to survive with an unrestricted free-flowing river for 50,000 years.  They survived because they learned how to live with the land, an extremely intelligent strategy.  They were not possessed with unhealthy impulses to temporarily control and exploit nature.  And this, ladies and gentlemen, is the powerful wisdom that our ancestors forgot — wisdom that we damn well need to remember if humankind is to have any chance for sticking around for a while.

This book is a powerful parable.  Readers are given a backstage tour of the hideous world behind the dazzling magic show of endless growth and sustainable development.  The heroes of our culture, the wealthy pioneers of progress, without their makeup and glittering costumes, are sad creatures, like spoiled two-year olds.

Every single one of those 45,000 dams will die, sooner or later.  About 5,000 large dams are more than 50 years old.  As they age, the costs of maintenance rise, eventually eliminating profits.  Investors must make an important decision — should they abandon the dam, or come up with billions of dollars to safely decommission it?  It often costs more to decommission a major hydropower dam than it did to build it.

Many dams are nearly impossible to safely decommission.  Exactly where do you dispose of billions of tons of accumulated sediment, mud often loaded with pollutants?  Abandoned dams become the responsibility of taxpayers, who may not have the expertise, funds, or desire to safely decommission them.  Earthquakes may decommission some dams.  So might terrorists or wars.  Old age and normal decay will certainly remove many.

The good news here is that we enjoy a surplus of super-important lessons to learn.  We currently have access to outstanding tools for learning and teaching.  We have a ridiculously out-of-balance culture to practice on, and little to lose.  We have been presented with a fabulous opportunity to become the most beloved generation of ancestors ever.

Leslie, Jacques, Deep Water — The Epic Struggle Over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2005.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Cadillac Desert

Marc Reisner’s classic, Cadillac Desert, takes us for a walk on the wet side, revealing far more than you ever wanted to know about dams, flood control, irrigation, and municipal water systems — and the serious long-term drawbacks that came along with building thousands of water projects in the frenzied pursuit of short-term wealth and power.  It’s a brilliant, funny, and annoying expose of government corruption.  It’s an ecological horror story.  It’s a collection of powerful lessons for our society, lessons on how not to live, warning signs.

The western regions of the U.S. tend to be dry.  Agriculture is risky where annual rainfall is less than 20 inches (50 cm).  Locations like Phoenix, Reno, or El Paso, which get less than seven inches (18 cm), are especially poor places to settle, let alone build cities.

Native Americans in the west were blessed with excellent educations, and they wisely lived in a manner that was well adapted to the ecosystem, for thousands of years, without trashing it.  Europeans suffered from dodgy educations that celebrated the magnificent civilizations of the Fertile Crescent, all of which transformed lush oases into moonscapes and went extinct.  Almost all of these dead cities were hard-core irrigation addicts. 

Around the world, most civilizations arose in arid regions.  Desert soils were often highly fertile, because the nutrients were not leached out by centuries of significant rainfall.  Desert farmers did not need to clear forests before planting.  All they needed to do was add water.  Irrigation turned their deserts green, but it also accelerated the growth and demise of their societies.

By the late nineteenth century, Los Angeles was growing rapidly, but it was doing this by mining the groundwater, a practice that had no long-term future.  The city finished the Owens Valley project in 1913, which brought in water from 223 miles away (359 km), and included 53 miles (85 km) of tunnels.  Drought hit in 1923, and the head of the water department frantically urged the city to stop the growth immediately, even if this required killing everyone in the Chamber of Commerce.  They ignored him, so he began pressing for an aqueduct from the Colorado River.

To make a long story short, America built a couple thousand major dams between 1915 and 1975.  Many were built during the Depression, to put the unemployed to work.  In congress, water projects became an extremely popular form of “pork.”  A great way for me to get your support for my bill would be to amend the bill to include a water project in your district.  This got out of control, to ridiculous proportions.

Many worthless projects were built at great expense to taxpayers and ecosystems.  Corporate America refused to invest in dams, because they were unlikely to pay for themselves, let alone generate reliable profits.  So, the west became a socialist utopia, dominated by militant free market conservatives who adored massive government spending in their region, and howled about it everywhere else.

By the time Jimmy Carter came into office in 1976, the national debt was close to a trillion dollars, and inflation was in double digits.  It was time to seriously cut spending, and Carter hated water projects, because they were so wasteful.  He attempted to terminate 19 water projects, and promptly became the most hated man on Earth.  He was a president with above average principles, a serious handicap.

Ronald Reagan took a different principled approach — no more free lunches.  He thought that those who benefitted from the welfare should fully repay the government for the generous help they received, both capital costs and operating expenses.  States should pay a third of the costs of reclamation projects, up front.  Pay?  Legions burst into tears.  The keg was empty, and the party ended.

I was amazed to learn that Carter was special because of his sense of history.  “He began to wonder what future generations would think of all the dams we had built.  What right did we have, in the span of his lifetime, to dam nearly all of the world’s rivers?  What would happen when the dams silted up?  What if the climate changed?” 

Well, of course, great questions!  As victims of dodgy educations, our graduates do not have a sense of history, a tragedy for which we pay dearly.  What right did we have to build 440 nuclear power plants that cannot be safely decommissioned?  What right did we have to destroy the climate?  What right did we have to leave a trashed planet for those coming after us?  A sense of history is powerful medicine, an essential component for an extended stay on this planet.

We know that any dam that doesn’t collapse will eventually fill with silt and turn into an extremely expensive waterfall — no more power generation, no more flood control, no more irrigation.  Every year millions of cubic yards of mud are accumulating in Lake Mead, the reservoir at Hoover Dam.  Many reservoirs will be filled in less than a century.  In China, the reservoir for the Sanmexia Dam was filled to the brim with silt in 1964, just four years after it was built. 

We know that irrigation commonly leads to salinization.  Salts build up in the soil, and eventually render it infertile, incapable of growing even weeds.  This often happens after a century of irrigation.  Salinization played a primary role in the demise of the ancient Fertile Crescent civilizations.  China’s Yellow River Basin is an exception, because of its low-salt soil.  It’s a serious problem in the Colorado River Basin, the San Joaquin Valley, and many other places.  It’s sure to increase in the coming decades, following a century-long explosion of irrigation around the world.

We know that the Ogallala aquifer will eventually become unprofitable for water mining.  This ocean of Ice Age water lies primarily beneath Texas, Kansas, Colorado, and Nebraska.  Following World War II, diesel-powered centrifugal pumps enabled farmers to pump like there’s no tomorrow.  A 1982 study predicted problems after 2020.  When the irrigation ends, many will go bankrupt, many will depart, and some will return to less productive dryland farming, which could trigger another dust bowl.  Water mining has become a popular trend around the world, a short-term solution.

Stonehenge was built between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago, and it was a durable design.  It had no moving parts, no electric-powered controls, and it was not required to prevent billions of gallons of water from normally flowing downstream to the sea.  How long will our dams last?  The Teton Dam did a spectacular blowout two days after it was filled.

Typhoon Nina blasted Asia in the summer of 1975.  Near China’s Banqiao Dam, a massive flood resulted from 64 inches (163 cm) of rain, half of which fell in just six hours.  The dam collapsed, and the outflow erased a number of smaller dams downstream.  Floods killed 171,000 people, and 11 million lost their homes.

In 1983, a sudden rush of melt water blasted into Glen Canyon Dam, damaging one of its spillways.  The dam did not fail that day.  It did not take out the Hoover Dam downstream with a huge wall of water.  It did not pull the plug on agriculture and civilization in southern California. 

As we move beyond Peak Oil, and energy production goes downhill, industrial civilization will wither.  It won’t be able to make replacement parts for dams, turbines, the power grid, and so on.  Will the nation of the United States go extinct some day?  The status quo in California is dependent on the operation of many pumping stations, which depend on the operation of hydro-power dams.  The Edmonston station pushes water uphill 1,926 feet (587 m), over the Tehachapi Mountains, using fourteen 80,000 horsepower pumps. 

As I write, the west coast is experiencing a serious drought.  Reservoirs in California are dangerously low.  Droughts can last for decades, or longer.  There is a good chance that climate change will increase the risks of living in extremely overpopulated western states.  So might earthquakes.

A wise man gave this advice to California governor Edmund Brown: “Don’t bring the water to the people, let the people go to the water.”

Reisner, Marc, Cadillac Desert — The American West and Its Disappearing Water, Penguin Books, New York, 1986.

Sunday, February 16, 2014


Welcome to our all-you-can-eat buffet of eco-predicaments, a remarkable achievement brought to you by our old friend, technological innovation.  Our friend isn’t evil.  He’s a hilarious charismatic trickster who excels at making comical mistakes.  Every brilliant idea blows up in his face, flattens him with a boulder, or rockets him over a cliff.  He never gives up.  He never learns from his mistakes.  He never succeeds.

Like the trickster, Americans are famous for our manic techno-optimism.  Economic growth and material progress make us giddy with delight, and seventy-two percent of us believe that the benefits far outweigh the harms.  The planet doesn’t matter.  Technology will certainly enable the kids to have a somewhat life-like experience, riveted to their glowing screens.  A sane person can only conclude that we live in a world of illusions.

Techno-Fix, by Michael and Joyce Huesemann, takes us on a voyage through the hall of illusions.  It provides readers with magic x-ray glasses that allow us to see right through heavy layers of encrusted bull excrement and clearly observe our way of life in its bare-naked essence.  It delivers a super-sized serving of precious common sense that should be a central part of every youngster’s rite of passage, but isn’t. 

The human species invented techno-addiction, a dangerous habit that seems impossible to quit; we always need bigger doses.  This addiction has put quite a kink in our evolutionary journey, repeatedly blowing up in our face.  Science and technology are the mommy and daddy of most of our severe problems.  No other species has developed a fascination with endless growth.  The other critters have remained in balance for millions of years, limited by predators and food supply, nature’s brilliant time-proven design.

The Huesemanns note that we took a different path.  “Humans have used powerful technologies to escape these natural constraints, first by using weapons to eliminate large predators, then by inventing agriculture to increase food supplies, and finally by employing sanitation and medical technologies to increase their chances for survival.”

Our devious experiments at controlling and exploiting nature have created a thousand nightmares.  We’ve zoomed right past seven billion, giving the planet quite a fever.  Still, the mainstream mindset is convinced that life is always getting better and better, and that technology will overcome any challenges on our joyride to utopia.  We have no doubt economic growth can continue until the sun burns out, and nothing will ever slow us down.  According to Huesemann’s Law of Techno-Optimism, “Optimism is inversely proportional to knowledge.”

The mainstream mindset is so weird — it celebrates the benefits of technology, and steps around the stinky messes, pretending not to see them.  Innovation is never a free lunch.  Every benefit has costs, and it’s impossible to predict every unintended consequence.  When serious problems are discovered, we tend to resolve them with additional innovation, which generates additional unintended consequences.  We can delay paying the bills for our mistakes, but every debt must and will be paid.  It’s something like quicksand.

A century ago, the benefits of the automobile were immediately apparent, and the staggering unintended consequences were not.  This technology has caused huge damage to our health, our families and communities, the ecosystem, and the unborn.  Car problems are still growing, as billions of people in the developing world are eager to live as foolishly as Americans do.  The car and the television are our two biggest techno-bloopers, according to the Huesemanns.

Foolish fantasies are the deliberate consequence of the mass media and advertising, which are tremendously successful at persuading folks that the purpose of life is to transfer as much stuff as possible from nature to landfills.  “Needs” are what is necessary for survival and health, like food, shelter, and community.  “Wants” are things we have no need for, stuff we have sudden impulses to acquire.  They are infinite in number, constantly changing, generally frivolous, and often useless.

The path to consumer happiness and high status involves devoting a substantial portion of our lives to doing various sorts of work.  For many, the work is less than meaningful or satisfying.  The reward is trade tokens, which are used to acquire wants, and each purchase provides a brief consumer orgasm.  The thrill is soon gone, the gnawing returns, and we are compelled to go back to the mall and get another fix. 

No matter how hard we thrash our credit cards, we never arrive at our destination — wholeness and contentment.  “We are chasing a mirage, thereby remaining forever dissatisfied and unhappy.”  In the last 50 years, rates of depression in the U.S. have increased tenfold, and continue to rise (rates among the Amish are far lower).

Depression is also a result of our mobility and isolation.  Until the industrial era, most people spent their entire lives in stable communities, and formed long-term social bonds with the people around them.  Before the hell of automobiles, daily life included pleasant face-to-face encounters with others.  Before the hell of glowing screens, people spent little time sitting alone.

Luckily, technology has a daffy response for any problem.  It’s far easier to develop techno solutions than social solutions.  Rather than attempting the social challenge of creating a way of life that isn’t so lonely and dreary, technology can simply chase away depression and anxiety with happy pills.  It’s easier to build new road systems than it is to convince people to give up their cars.  It’s easier to provide life-saving surgeries than it is to encourage people to vacate their couches and eat a healthy diet.

The Huesemanns harbor special loathing for the medical industry.  It’s extremely expensive, and remarkably ineffective.  Intelligent, low cost preventative care is not the focus.  New treatments are constantly being developed.  The dead generate no profits, so we keep very sick people alive on machines; we transplant organs.  Death must be delayed by any means necessary, regardless of cost.  “If it can be done, it should be done.”  We need to remember that old age and death are normal and natural.

The last section of the book provides the theoretical solutions to our predicaments.  This plan requires world leaders that will eagerly cooperate in rapidly and radically reconfiguring the way we live and think.  It requires a humankind that is spiritually connected to nature, people who abhor pollution and mindless consumption, folks willing to make enormous sacrifices in order to ensure the wellbeing of future generations of all species.  Energy will be renewable, non-renewable resources will be shunned, and all wastes will be safely biodegradable.  The Huesemanns warn us that the transition might not be easy. 

Huesemann, Michael and Huesemann, Joyce, Techno-Fix — Why Technology Won’t Save Us or the Environment, New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, B.C., Canada, 2011.

Saturday, February 8, 2014


Early white settlers on the high plains of the western U.S. were always bummed out when colossal swarms of locusts dropped by for lunch.  The sky would darken, and the land would be filled with the roaring buzz of millions of fluttering wings.  Within an hour or so, everything was covered with them, including the settlers, who frantically tried to brush off the hundreds of hungry insects that were chewing apart their clothing.

They were Rocky Mountain locusts, a North American species that lived west of the Mississippi — and the stars of Jeffrey Lockwood’s book, Locust.  When swarming, these insects were a horror show.  A swarm could devour 50 tons of greenery in a day.  Trains couldn’t move because the tracks were too greasy.  Swarms were like tornadoes, wiping out one area while leaving other neighbors in the region untouched.

In June of 1875, folks in Nebraska observed a swarm that was 1,800 miles long (2,900 km), 110 miles wide (177 km), and between a quarter and a half mile deep (0.4 to 0.8 km).  It devoured 198,000 square miles (512,000 sq. km), an area almost as large as Colorado and Wyoming.  The swarm took five days to pass.  Lockwood estimated that it might have been 10 billion locusts — possibly the biggest assemblage of animals ever experienced by human beings.

Normally, maybe 80 percent of the time, locusts stayed in their home base, in the river valleys of the northern Rockies, a habitat that may have consisted of a mere 2,000 acres (809 ha).  They ate, reproduced, and enjoyed life.

Periodic droughts would reduce the available food supply, causing locusts to crowd into pockets of surviving greenery.  Dry weather eliminated the population control provided by fungal diseases.  Drought also concentrated the nutritional value of vegetation.  Warmer temperatures meant that locusts grew to maturity more quickly, so they spent less time in the nymph stage, when predators took a heavy toll on the helpless youngsters.  The swarming process was triggered by crowding.  They could either starve or see the world.

A hungry swarm of two million American settlers moved into the high plains in the 1870s, and ravaged the short grass prairie with cows and plows.  They planted lots of wheat, and then discovered that locusts preferred wheat to everything else on the menu. 

They exterminated the bison that were perfectly adapted to the ecosystem, and brought in cattle that were unsuited for the arid climate, did not fancy the native vegetation, and died like flies during frigid winters.  They exterminated the wolves, and other wild predators, because they enjoyed owning and exploiting helpless dimwitted domesticated herbivores.

Settlers attempted to import their Western European way of life to an ecosystem where it could not possibly thrive.  Instead of trying to adapt to the ecosystem, they expected the ecosystem to adapt to their exotic fantasies — a traditional recipe for failure.  In their dream world, locusts were pests, wolves were pests, bison were pests — death to all pests! 

The Indians perceived locusts, wolves, and bison as being sacred relatives, not pests.  The Indians enjoyed a time-proven culture that was well adapted to the ecosystem.  Can you guess who the Indians considered to be pests?

Long ago, in the wilderness of Judea, there was a holy roller named John.  One day, he baptized a lad called Jesus.  The heavens opened up, a spirit appeared, and led Jesus away to the wilderness for a life changing 40 day vision quest.  The Baptist had a wild diet: “And the same John had his raiment of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.”  (Matthew 3:4)

To the Indians, locusts were not pests, they were a sacred source of nutritious food.  Their tasty flesh was rich with calories and 60 percent protein.  In an hour, they could forage 200 pounds (90 kg) of dried insects, storing away 273,000 calories.  It was faster, easier, and safer than hunting large, strong, speedy herbivores with sharp horns that took great pleasure in trampling and disemboweling hunters.

At the Great Salt Lake, Mormons discovered that locusts couldn’t swim.  Millions would drown, and then the winds would push their bodies to the shore, in piles six feet high (1.8 m) and two miles long (3.2 km).  As the corpses rotted, memorable fragrances wafted on the air.  While a tremendous source of excellent food rotted away, the settlers complained about the stink.

White settlers loathed the locusts.  Comically, everything they tried to exterminate the swarms failed — flooding, rollers, dynamite, trawlers, poisons, flamethrowers.  During the swarming phase, resistance was futile, the insects were impossible to control.

Eventually, entomologists were summoned to combat the insects with science.  Several chapters shine spotlights on famous entomologists who strove to understand locusts, and render them harmless to the devastating swarms of white settlers.

As more settlers moved into the high plains, the locust numbers declined.  There were fewer swarms.  Attention shifted to other challenges.  Eventually, entomologists realized that nobody had seen a locust in a long time.  The last Rocky Mountain locust died in Manitoba in 1902.  They went extinct, but folks didn’t notice for quite a while.  It was unimaginable that critters that existed in such enormous numbers could completely disappear within a few decades.

A number of half-baked theories attempted to explain the spooky extinction, but Lockwood was the one who finally solved the mystery.  He visited several “grasshopper glaciers” where layers of dead locusts could be observed, and found locusts that died 800 years ago.  Swarming was not caused by settlers. 

One day, he had an insight.  Monarch butterflies are vulnerable to extinction because the forests where they spend the winter are being eliminated, and this is a bottleneck.  The bottleneck for the locusts was their home base along northern river valleys — arable lands, exactly where whites preferred to settle.  Irrigation, tilling, and cattle grazing hammered the locusts where they were most vulnerable, home sweet home.

Entomologists around the world work tirelessly to discover new methods for exterminating agricultural pest species, and the insects always succeed in outwitting the wizards.  The Rocky Mountain locust is the one and only major insect pest to be completely wiped out, and they were driven to extinction unintentionally.

They were only “pests” in the eyes of the civilized.  Prior to white settlement, there were no plowmen, ranchers, pests, or entomologists, just a wild ecosystem living in its traditional manner.  Maybe entomologists should help us exorcist the pests in our nightmare worldview, teach us how to live in balance, and call an end to the futile poisonous war on our insect relatives.

Lockwood mused that crowding also inspires bizarre behavior in humans.  We have powerful urges to escape from the neurotic mob, and fly away to places of refuge, to pure unspoiled suburban utopias.

He noted that while locust populations sometimes soared to enormous peaks, vast numbers did not guarantee long-term survival.  He noted that the human population is currently at an enormous peak.  Both humans and locusts are generalists that can migrate and adapt.  Locusts dined on at least 50 varieties of plants.  Humans, on the other hand, largely depend on three plants: rice, wheat, and corn.  Will climate change be our bottleneck?

Lockwood, Jeffrey A., Locust, Basic Books, New York, 2004.

A 2:22 minute video of a minor locust swarm in Madagascar is here.

Lockwood’s condensed version of his locust story is here.