Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Silent Spring


Silent Spring is a classic, a powerful broadside against synthetic pesticides.  Now, more than fifty years old, the book still packs a solid roundhouse punch.  With one book, one woman enlightened millions and spurred a loud outcry.  One woman inspired big changes.  Many of the pesticides she slammed have been banned or highly restricted.

Following World War II, Americans had big heads.  We had won the war, invented a terrible new weapon, our economy was booming, and life was great!  We succeeded at whatever we tried.  We were giddy with euphoria.  Then, Rachel Carson rolled a hand grenade into our dining rooms.  Suddenly, Sunday dinners at grandma’s looked far less delicious.  What were we eating?  Would it kill us?

During the war, researchers working on chemical warfare agents discovered substances that were highly toxic to insects.  After the war, greedy minds became fascinated by these super-poisons, and visions of big profits danced in their heads.  Synthetic pesticides were toxic to morals, ethics, and foresight.  And so, a new industry was born, and the production of pesticides increased five-fold between 1947 and 1960.

To control the elm bark beetles that caused Dutch elm disease, two to five pounds of DDT were sprayed on elm trees.  This killed the natural predators of the beetles, as well as 90 species of birds, and assorted mammals.  Worms ate the poison leaves, and the robins that ate the poison worms quit reproducing.  Elms kept dying.  More elms survived in places not sprayed.

To control gypsy moths, a million acres a year were sprayed with DDT.  Sprayers were paid by the gallon, not the acre, so some places were sprayed multiple times.  Bees died.  Cows ate DDT grass and produced DDT milk that was consumed by DDT humans.  Regulators did not block the sale of poison milk.  At the end of the expensive project, the gypsy moths returned.

To control fire ants, millions of acres were sprayed with two new poisons: dieldrin and heptachlor, which were far more toxic than DDT.  Newborn calves died after their first drink of milk.  Piglets were born dead.  Opossums, armadillos, raccoons, quail, songbirds, turkeys, livestock, poultry, and pets died.  In the end, there were more ants in Florida than before.

We know little about what these toxins do to the complex microorganisms in healthy topsoil.  Many of them interfere with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which provide an essential nutrient for all living things.  Some organisms are wiped out, leading to explosions of other organisms.  The chemicals persist in the soil for years, and build up with each new application.  Soil beneath an apple tree can contain 113 pounds (51 kg) of DDT.  Old-fashioned arsenic pesticides keep the soil toxic forever.

Yes, it’s a bummer that all spawning salmon died when New Brunswick’s Miramichi River got sprayed with DDT, while the terrible spruce budworms laughed at the embarrassed entomologists.  When Ontario sprayed to kill blackflies, they wiped out blackfly predators, enabling the fly population to explode 17-fold.  The same thing happened in Florida, where large areas in coastal regions are now uninhabitable because of hordes of pesticide-resistant mosquitoes.

“Resistant” is a keyword in this comedy of errors.  Big Mama Nature routinely produces organisms that are resistant to insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, antibiotics, and antivirals.  We can throw one poison after another at life, and life will become resistant to it.  Winning the war on life is impossible.  Resistance can develop in as little as two months.  The average time is three years.  Insects are reproductive champions, and can promptly refill the land with resistant offspring.  The breeding process in humans is much slower, so it will take us thousands of years to become resistant to pesticides. 

Silent Spring delivered two powerful messages.  It alerted us to the nightmare world of pesticides.  It also turned big floodlights on the incredible incompetence of our experts and regulators.  In 1960, almost everyone was blissfully ignorant about the toxic chemicals in their lives.  In those days, most folks still trusted their elected officials.  They trusted the experts who told them that DDT was harmless, and chlordane was a wonder of scientific genius.  Today, for good reason, we automatically doubt any statements made by leaders or experts because they, too often, have little or no relationship to the full truth.

Carson did not believe that the use of pesticides should be banned entirely, but she did recommend that we shift toward less toxic alternatives, like pyrethins and Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt).  Not surprisingly, malarial mosquitos are becoming resistant to bed nets treated with pyrethin-based insecticides, and many crop pests are now resistant to Bt.

She was fascinated by research in sterilizing male bugs, so that female bugs would not be able to tell the studs from the duds.  Chemo-sterilants were used to render millions of houseflies impotent.  Male gypsy moths found their lovers via sexy scents.  Researchers sprayed this scent all over the place, and were delighted to observe the flying lads falling deeply in love with wood chips that smelled like hot babes.  Ultrasonic sounds could be used to kill blowflies, mealworms, and yellow fever mosquitoes.

About half of the insects called pests are immigrants from foreign lands.  Here, they were not controlled by their natural predators from the old country.  Carson recommended importing the predators and parasites of notorious immigrant pests.  Moving organisms from one region to another is a mistake that has often led to unintended disasters, like the rabbits of Australia, the potatoes of Ireland, smallpox, and so on.  She thought that it was OK for humans to try to sit in the ecosystem’s driver’s seat.

Carson was fighting breast cancer as she finished her book, and she died in 1964, two years after it was published.  If she had lived longer, I think she would have recognized the serious shortcomings of the anthropocentric worldview of her era.  Living like the masters of the planet has been a reliable recipe for countless catastrophes, and it’s the core reason why seven billion people are standing on very thin ice today.

Ecological thinking is the antidote.  Forget control — adapt!  Carson was intrigued by the brilliant rascal Paul Shepard, who could have exorcised her anthropocentric demons, had she lived longer.  She quoted Shepard, who summed it up nicely: “Why should we tolerate a diet of weak poisons, a home in insipid surroundings, a circle of acquaintances who are not quite our enemies, the noise of motors with just enough relief to prevent insanity?  Why would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?”

PS: Locust is the story of how humans, for once, actually succeeded in driving a major crop-destroying insect pest into extinction — unintentionally — by simply living like civilized people. 

Carson, Rachel, Silent Spring — Fortieth Anniversary Edition, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 2002.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Overshoot


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Ostrich Factor


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Water Wheel


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Snake Oil: Fracking’s False Promise


When a dark and furious storm is racing in, and the tornado sirens are howling, smart folks stop staring at their cell phones, and head for shelter.  But what if the cell phones were streaming messages that the storm warnings were a hoax, and there was nothing to fear?  Twenty years ago, Peak Oil was a ridiculous absurdity conjured up by notorious idiots on the lunatic fringe.  Ten years ago, it had become an acceptable topic for polite conversation.  Today, an extremely effective disinformation campaign has inspired many to toss their energy concerns out the window.

This made Richard Heinberg hopping mad, so he wrote Snake Oil to set the record straight.  He’s been blasting the warning sirens for more than ten years, via a series of books.  Nobody sane disputes that fossil energy is finite and non-renewable.  Nobody sane disputes that our current path has an expiration date.  The argument is over when that date arrives.  For most folks, something that may become a problem 50 to 100 years from now is simply not worth thinking about.  Heinberg is getting strong whiffs of trouble right now.

The production of conventional oil and gas is close to peak, but new technology has enabled production of unconventional oil and gas.  We are now extracting oil and gas from shale.  We’re cooking oil out of tar sands bitumen.  We are drilling in deep waters offshore.  This energy is far more expensive to produce.

Today, for each barrel of new oil we discover, we consume four or five barrels pumped from elderly fields.  In 1930, oil was as cheap as four cents per barrel.  In 2002, a barrel of oil cost $25, and in 2012 it was $110 (with a $150 spike in 2008).  Deep water drilling is economically possible when the price is $90 or more.  Existing tar sands projects can continue production at $60, but new tar sands projects need at least $80.  Almost all drilling requires $70.  The era of cheap energy is over.

A hundred years ago, drilling in ideal locations led to mighty gushers of black gold.  It only took one unit of energy to extract 100 units of energy.  So, the energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) was 100:1.  By 1990, the EROEI of U.S. oil production had fallen to 40:1.  In 2013, it was about 10:1.  Tar sands, oil shale, and biofuels are all less than 5:1, and at this level, the economy gets dizzy, wobbly, and sweaty.

Every gold rush produces a few winners and legions of losers.  In order to drum up the necessary investment funding, it is customary to make highly exaggerated estimates of the immense wealth just waiting to be reeled in by wise guys (like you).  I recall industry hucksters once proclaimed that the Caspian Sea province contained up to 400 billion barrels of oil.  By 2001, after ten years of intensive work on prime sites, far less than 20 billion barrels were produced, according to petroleum geologist Colin Campbell.

Everyone agrees that the production of unconventional oil and gas has delayed our blind date with disaster a bit.  Is this delay years, decades, or centuries?  Heinberg introduces us to petroleum geologists who believe that U.S. gas and oil production will begin its decline by 2020.  “Production from shale gas wells typically declines 80 to 95 percent in the first 36 months of operation.  Given steep shale gas well decline rates and low recovery efficiency, the United States may actually have fewer than 10 years of shale gas supply at the current rate of consumption.”  In the North Dakota oil fields, 1,400 new wells have to be drilled every year, just to maintain current production, according to a story in Financial Times (27 Aug 2014).

Today, everyone has spent their entire lives in an era of rising energy production and economic growth, just like our parents did.  But economic growth is getting dodgy.  It’s being kept on life support by skyrocketing levels of debt.  As energy production approaches its decline phase, prices are sure to rise.  There will come a day when economic growth goes extinct.  Without economic growth, our way of life will eventually become a hilarious story told by the campfires of our descendants.

Should we be making serious plans for the coming challenges?  “Heck no,” says the energy industry.  Our treasure of unconventional energy is the equivalent of two Saudi Arabias!  We now have a 100-year supply of gas, according Daniel Yergin.  T. Boone Pickens says 160 years.  Aubrey McClendon says 200 years.  Even 100 years is daffy.  How was it calculated?  “Simply by taking the highest imaginable resource estimate for each play, then taking the very best imaginable recovery rate, then adding up the numbers.”  This results in projections that have no relationship to reality.

The Bakken and Eagle Ford deposits produce more than 80 percent of U.S. tight oil.  David Hughes, author of Drill, Baby, Drill, estimated that the combined production of both deposits will end up being the equivalent of ten months of U.S. consumption.  The U.S. Geological Service (USGS) estimated that Bakken contains 3.65 billion barrels of recoverable oil — about six weeks of current global consumption.  The U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) predicted that Bakken oil will peak in 2017.

Tim Morgan is a consultant who does a lot of work for investment bankers.  In his eye-opening 2013 report, Perfect Storm, he concluded, “the economy as we have known it for more than two centuries, will cease to be viable at some point within the next ten or so years unless, of course, some way is found to reverse the trend.”

Heinberg recommends that we shift to renewable energy with utmost speed.  Hmmm.  Solar panels and wind turbines have a limited lifespan.  Using them, repairing them, and replacing them requires the existence of an extremely unsustainable industrial civilization.  This civilization is unlikely to last long as it gets strangled by energy shortages and hammered by social unrest.  We’ll be forced to make a painful transition to muscle-powered agriculture, which cannot feed seven billion.  Somewhere along the line, televisions, laptops, and refrigerators will become useless ballast.  Even if scientists invented a way to extract affordable energy for another 200 years, it would be a foolish thing to do.  We’ve burned far too much carbon already.

I wonder if it might be more useful to voyage into the realm of unconventional thinking, on a sacred mission to explore a lot of big questions.  Over and over, we are told that cool people work really hard, become really prosperous, and buy lots of really cool stuff.  To me, that sounds like a tragic waste of the precious gift of life.  It’s causing lots of irreparable damage for no good reason.  We weren’t born to live like this.  We were born for a life of freedom, to enjoy a normal and natural standard of living.  Imagine that.

The book is short, full of helpful charts and graphs, well documented, and delightfully easy to read and understand.  The book’s Introduction can be read HERE.

Heinberg, Richard, Snake Oil — Fracking’s False Promise, Post Carbon Institute, Santa Rosa, California, 2013.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Thinking Animals


Paul Shepard (1925-1996) grew up in rural Missouri, during a primitive era that lacked television, internet, and cell phones.  He was lucky to live in a community where progress had not yet erased the wildlife.  Young Paul was fascinated by wild animals.  He collected butterflies and bird eggs.  He hunted and fished.  He adored the great outdoors.  It was a happy time.

World War II hurled him into the mass hysteria of modernity.  He survived D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge.  He spent 20 years at Pitzer College, close to the monstrous megalopolis of Los Angeles.  During his lifetime, population tripled, and nuclear bombs turned cities into ashtrays.  It was easy to see that old-fashioned rural society was starkly different from the industrial nightmare.  Modern society was insane.  Why?  Shepard explored this question in Thinking Animals (and in all his other books).

Over the passage of millions of years, evolution gradually increased the intelligence of many species.  As predators got better at tracking, stalking, teamwork, and killing, the herbivores got better at being escape artists.  For this balancing act to work, predators had to be slightly more clever than prey.  If predators got too good at hunting, or prey got too good at escaping, the ecosystem would plunge into chaos.  For both teams, intelligence and awareness were essential.

Our two-legged ancestors were not natural born carnivorous predators like lions, tigers, and wolves.  The two-legs had to play two roles, hunter and prey.  This required them to have the aggressive mindset of stalkers and killers, as well as the hyper-awareness of delicious walking meatballs.

Living in a healthy ecosystem was vastly more stimulating than staring at glowing screens.  Everything was alive, intelligent, alert.  The sky, land, and water were filled with living things.  The air was rich with music and fragrances.  Paying complete attention was a full time job.  A jaguar might be hiding behind any rock.  Just over the hill, a group of deer might be taking a nap.

Forests were not an ideal habitat for hunters, because large herbivores did not eat wood or leaves.  Savannahs, on the other hand, were a yummy all-you-can-eat buffet of nutritious grasses and forbs.  Grasslands attracted mobs of herbivores, as well as their sacred partners, the carnivores that kept them in balance.

Without weapons, two-legs could not kill animals that were ferocious or speedy.  The spear was invented by Homo erectus, maybe two million years ago.  Maybe they were tired of eating frogs, grubs, bird eggs, and assorted carcasses.  Maybe they were tired of losing their kin to big cats. 

Armed with spears, they could kill big game and survive on the savannah.  Spears also enabled them to kill the man-eaters that kept them in balance — a devilish whirl into dark juju.  In so doing, they stepped outside the boundaries of evolution, and the balance it provided. 

And so, to avoid overhunting and overbreeding, the spear-chucking two-legs had to become self-regulating.  They had to live with utmost mindfulness, year after year, without fail.  Today, it’s obvious that two-legs are far better at overbreeding than self-regulating.  There are still a few wild tribes skilled at self-regulation, but they are not doing well in their struggle to resist obnoxious outsiders.

Shepard sidestepped this discussion of our fateful experiment with weapon technology.  Instead, he focused on the growth of big brains and human intelligence.  He believed that complex language played a major role in activating our developmental turbo-thrusters.  We kept getting smarter and smarter and smarter.  Wow!  It was amazing — for a while — until it got stuck in the muck.  By and by, too smart two-legs began goofing around with a fateful experiment in plant and animal domestication.

The core of Shepard’s message was that we evolved in a world where we were surrounded by a variety of wild animals, and this played a central role in the development of human intelligence.  A healthy wild ecosystem was a fantastic place to live.  We learned about everything.  We named everything, and complex language made it easy to transfer large amounts of vital information from one generation to the next.

Humans were odd in that their throbbing brains spent more than 20 years in their immature phase.  Year after year, they got bigger and smarter.  A quirky aspect of extended childhood was that the immature phase did not automatically graduate into the mature phase.  This required a kick.  Wild cultures used initiation ceremonies to guide youths through this transition.  Modern societies tend to flub this up.  Endless youth often leads to infantile behaviors, or to neurotic hardening, “where rigidity and protective shells make a grotesque parody of true maturity.”

For Shepard, everything was cool until the dawn of domestication, the rebellion against evolution.  The wild ecosystem was replaced by a manmade landscape inhabited by enslaved and castrated animals.  Folks began hallucinating that two-legs were the masters of the world.  Of course, the theory of evolution, made famous by Darwin, blew this foolish homocentric nonsense completely out of the water.  Two-legs, indeed, are animals, but most continue to strongly deny this most embarrassing fact.

Wild animals were fascinating to observe, and they taught our ancestors many skills for living on the land — concealment, stealth, stalking, tracking, ambush, and so on.  Critters lived perfectly well by their wits and abilities.  They had no desire to be our friends, nor any need for humans whatsoever.  They were wild, free, intelligent, and alert.

Domesticated animals were the opposite.  Wild traits were undesirable, so they were erased via selective breeding.  This resulted in pathetic, pudgy, dim-witted, docile mutants.  Unlike barnyard fauna, wild animals were only submissive in their immature phase.  Similarly, modern folks, deprived of growing up in a healthy wild ecosystem, fail to develop in a healthy way.  We have a strong tendency to retain infantile or adolescent tendencies long past childhood.  Many spend their entire lives in an immature state.

Today, our bodies and minds are the end product of millions of years of hunting, foraging, and studying nature.  Our genes are at home in the wild, and every newborn is a wild animal, eager to enjoy a life of wild freedom.  We cannot develop normally when we are raised in abnormal circumstances.  This damages us.  We become frustrated, alienated adults, lacking a confident sense of self.

In an effort to compensate, we buy pets.  “The very concept is unknown among most of the world’s pre-industrial peoples, except… by an affluent minority.  …Only in this perspective of the rarity of the pet does the pet explosion in modern cities take on its full strangeness.”  Pets may dull the pain of modern life, but “keeping pets is a hopeless attempt to resurrect crucial episodes of early growth that are lost forever.”

Healthy childhood development requires successfully accumulating a sequence of time-critical experiences.  Adult attempts to reconnect with their missing childhood wildness might be partially successful, at best.  “The mind, like the body, is an organ with multiple ripenings, and going back is a pathetic, exceedingly difficult undertaking.”  To bypass this mess, kids should be raised very close to nature.  “The point of this book is to assert that animals have a very large claim on the maturing of the individual and his capacity to think and feel.”

Thinking Animals was published in 1978.  Eighteen years later, Shepard published The Others, which took a fresh look at the subject.  It’s a better book, and easier to understand.  Shepard’s wife, Florence, wrote a warm essay celebrating Paul’s life.  Click here.

Shepard, Paul, Thinking Animals — Animals and the Development of Human Intelligence, University of Georgia Press, Atlanta, 1978.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Wisdom Sits in Places


Wal-Mart, McDonalds, Shell, Safeway, the highway matrix — everyone knows these culturally significant features of our landscape.  Less well known are the natural features of the land: the hills, prairies, ponds, and streams.  Our landscape watched the mammoths roam, it watched the furious madness of civilization, and it will watch the manmade eyesores dissolve into ancient ruins.

Waking up in the civilized world each morning is a jolt — jets, sirens, the endless rumble of machines.  Most of us live amidst hordes of two-legged tumbleweeds, nameless strangers.  We are the people from nowhere, blown out of our ancestral homelands by the howling winds of ambition and misfortune.  Our wild ancestors never lived here.  Carson McCullers wrote, “To know who you are, you have to have a place to come from.”

Pssst!  Over here!  I’ve found the entrance to another realm, a temporary place of refuge, an escape from the madness.  It’s called Wisdom Sits in Places, and it was written by Keith Basso (1940-2013), an ethnographer-linguist.  In 1959, he began spending time in the Apache village of Cibecue, in Arizona.  He discovered a culture that had deep roots in the land, and a way of living that was far from insane.

The Apache culture also had entrances to other realms.  Many places on their land had names, and many of these named places were associated with stories, and many of these stories had ancient roots.  Everyone in Cibecue knew the named places, and their stories.  The voices of the wild ancestors could be heard whenever the stories were told, and their words were always conveyed in the present tense.  “Now we are in for trouble!”  Past and present swirled together.

The stories were a treasure of time-proven wisdom.  They often provided moral messages that taught the virtues of honorable living, and the unpleasant rewards of poor choices.  When people wandered off the good path, stories reminded them of where this would lead.  They helped people to live well.  Because of the power in the stories, the natives said, “The land looks after the people.” 

Most scholars who spend time learning about other cultures were raised in the modern world of nowhere.  These experts would study languages, ceremonies, food production, clothing, spirituality, and so on — but they paid too little attention to the relationship between culture and place, because this notion was absent in their way of knowing.  Often, the reports they published were missing essential components.

From 1979 to 1984, Basso worked on a project that blew his mind.  The Anglo world had zero respect for sacred places when there was big money to be made.  But natives didn’t want their sacred places destroyed, so they hired experts to document their culturally significant sites.  Elders took Basso to see these places, and record their stories.  He created a map that covered 45 square miles, and had 296 locations with Apache place names.

Ruth Patterson told Basso about her childhood in the 1920s and 1930s.  In those days, families spent much time on the land, away from the village.  They herded cattle, tended crops, roasted agave, and hunted.  As they moved about, parents taught their children about the land.  They pointed out places, spoke their names, and told the stories of those places.  They wanted their children to be properly educated.

Apaches used historic stories for healing purposes.  Nothing could be more impolite than directly criticizing another person, expressing anger, or providing unrequested advice.  Instead, the elders used stories to “shoot” healing notions.  During a conversation, they would mention the names of places having stories that would be good for the wayward person to remember.  Then, hopefully, he or she would reflect on the stories, understand their relevance, and make the changes needed to return to balance.

One time, three wise women sat with a woman who was too sad.  The first wise woman spoke a sentence that mentioned a place name.  Then the second mentioned another place.  So did the third.  The sad woman recalled mental pictures of those places, and heard the ancestors’ voices speak the stories of those places.  She reflected on their meanings, and the clouds lifted.  She laughed.  This was a gentle, effective, and brilliant act of healing.  They called it “speaking with names.” 

One day, Dudley Patterson was talking about stories and wisdom.  Basso asked him, “What is wisdom?”  Patterson replied, “It’s in these places.  Wisdom sits in places.”  In a long and beautiful passage, he told Basso how his grandmother explained the pursuit of wisdom.  Everyone is different.  Some are smart, some are half-smart, but only a few achieve wisdom.  Wisdom is acquired via a long dedicated quest; no one is born with it.

When elders become wise, people can see them change.  They are calm and confident.  They are not fearful, selfish, or angry.  They keep promises.  They pay careful attention, always listening for the voices of the ancestors.  Patterson’s grandmother summed it up something like this:

“Wisdom sits in places.  It’s like water that never dries up.  You need to drink water to stay alive, don’t you?  Well, you also need to drink from places.  You must remember everything about them.  You must learn their names.  You must remember what happened at them long ago.  You must think about it and keep on thinking about it.  Then your mind will become smoother and smoother.  Then you will see danger before it happens.  You will walk a long way and live a long time.  You will be wise.  People will respect you.”

Years later, when Basso sat down to write his book, Cibecue had changed.  The road to the village had been paved, and there was a school, supermarket, medical clinic, and many new houses.  Big screen televisions were a new source of stories, sent from the spirit world of corporations, not ancestors.  People were spending far less time wandering about, old trails had grown over, and the younger generations were losing their connection to the land and its old-fashioned stories.  They preferred the new and useful information provided at school.

So, the book invites us to contemplate a society far different from our own.  It calls up ancient memories.  Everyone’s wild ancestors once lived in a way something like the Apaches.  It’s inspiring to remember this.  Observing the world from a tribal perspective allows us to realize how far we’ve strayed.  The people from nowhere are paying a terrible price for the frivolous wonders of modernity, and the wreckage it leaves behind.

Basso wrote, “We are, in a sense, the place-worlds we imagine.”  Prince Charles said it a bit differently:  “In so many ways we are what we are surrounded by, in the same way as we are what we eat.”  In the traditional Apache world, the people were surrounded by a beautiful culture that encouraged respect, caring, and wisdom.  In the modern consumer world, we’re surrounded by a wisdom-free nightmare of hurricane-force infantile energy reminiscent of a Godzilla movie.  But all hurricanes die.  Our Dark Age will pass.  Think positive!

Basso, Keith H., Wisdom Sits in Places, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1996.