Friday, July 31, 2015

A Sand County Almanac


Aldo Leopold’s book, A Sand County Almanac, is near the top of many lists of environmental classics.  It was published in 1949, and has sold over two million copies.  He was born in Iowa in 1887, when Earth was inhabited by just 1.4 billion humans.  It was an era before radio, television, automobiles, airplanes, computers, DDT, nuclear fission, and antibiotics.  Most roads were dirt.  Vast ancient forests still thrived.  On the first page, Leopold informs us that this is a book for people who cannot live without wild things.

Part one is a series of twelve sketches, one for each month.  They describe how the land changes during the circle of the seasons — the return of the geese, the mating ritual of the woodcocks, the rutting of the deer, the bloody snow where predators snatched prey.  They describe what life was like in simpler times, before the sprawl, the malls, the highways, the tsunami of idiotic consumer crap.  People were more in touch with the life of the land, because it had not yet been deleted.

In 1935, Leopold bought a farm in Wisconsin.  The previous owner had tried and failed to make a living tilling the lean sandy soil.  The place was cheap, far from the highway, worthless to civilization, but a precious sanctuary for a nature-loving professor.  Luckily, the soil mining enterprise perished quickly, before it had time to exterminate the wildness.

Leopold loved the great outdoors.  He loved hiking and hunting.  Birds fascinated him.  He spent many years working for the U.S. Forest Service, and later became a professor of Game Management at the University of Wisconsin.  Sadly, he lived in a culture that was waging full-scale war on nature, and this drove him mad.  It was so senseless.  During his life, the population had grown from 1.5 to 2.4 billion, an era of staggering out of control disruption.

Part two presents observations, made in assorted times and places, about the damaged relationship between Americans and nature.  This relationship was often abusive, because it lacked love.  There often was no relationship at all.  Many folks had no sense of connection to the rest of the family of life.  For them, nature was nothing more than a treasure chest of resources that God created for the amusement of ambitious nutjobs.

Leopold was saddened by the trends.  He learned to never revisit places that had amazed him in his youth.  It was too painful to see the damage that commerce and tourism were tirelessly inflicting.  It was best not to turn sweet memories into heartbreaking nightmares.

He was raised in an era when it was perfectly normal to kill wolves, coyotes, and other predators at every opportunity.  These “vermin” killed too many game animals, depriving hunters of their rightful harvest.  The most famous essay in this book is Thinking Like a Mountain.  Having just shot a wolf, the gunman noticed a fierce green glow in its eyes.  With the wolves eliminated, the deer multiplied in numbers, stripping the vegetation off the mountain, and wrecking the ecosystem.  Deer lived in fear of wolves, and the mountain lived in fear of deer.

Part three is essays describing the need for a land ethic.  Cultures have ethics to define right and wrong.  Traditionally, these defined person-to-person interactions, or the interactions between individuals and society.  Leopold lamented that American culture lacked a land ethic, rules for living with the natural world, the family of life.  In our culture, as long as the land was not claimed and defended by someone else, you were free to do whatever you pleased.

Mainstream education was close to useless, because it was incapable of recognizing the glaring defects in the mainstream worldview.  It loaded young minds with the crash-prone software of infantile self-interest.  Generation after generation was being programmed to spend their lives as robotic servants to our economic system.  The education system and the economic system were the two primary threats to the health of the land.  Today, 65 years later, the lunacy has become a roaring hurricane.  Leopold would be horrified and furious.

Leopold was a pleasant lad, glowing with love for the natural world, and a gifted storyteller.  But this should not be the only ecology book you ever read.  Since 1949, there has been an explosion of research in anthropology, archaeology, ecology, and environmental history.  Many important discoveries have been made about hunter-gatherers, agriculture, deforestation, civilization, finite resources, climate change, and ecological sustainability.  Today’s deep ecologists will sneer at a few statements in the book, but in 1949, no one was more radical than Leopold.

At the time, he knew we were on a bad path, and we needed to pay serious attention to where it was taking us.  He clearly understood what we needed.  He wrote, “Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.  He was sketching out a concept now known as ecological sustainability.  Here’s his land ethic in a nutshell: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”  Great!

Since the book was published, population has skyrocketed from 2.4 to 7.3 billion.  Our leaders, educators, and the vast human herd remain lost in a dream world where perpetual growth is the only channel on the glowing screens.  It’s a 10,000-year old story.  It has paralyzed our culture, and condemned our descendants.  It’s running out of time.  Hopefully, in its aftermath, important lessons will be learned and never forgotten.

Leopold’s book was written “for people who cannot live without wild things.”  As the swelling mobs surge into vast cities, our disconnection from wild nature is almost complete.  We have forgotten who we are, and where we came from.  Well, we’re wild animals, and we came from wild nature, like every other critter.  Darwin revealed this embarrassing secret, but it still makes us uncomfortable, since it clashes with our deepest, darkest myths, our grandiose illusions of superiority.

Knowing what he knew in 1949, Leopold’s mantra was to think like a mountain.  In other words, think like a professor of wildlife management — put a leash on progress.  This notion has failed in a culture that thinks like a stampede of maniacal shoppers.  Leopold often dreamed that the progressive movement would eventually grow, flourish, and address the primary challenges of our time, but reality hasn’t cooperated.

For most of the human journey, most cultures lived in a way that was relatively sustainable, leaving far smaller footprints, if any.  The mantra in the good old days was to think like an animal — pay attention, eat and be eaten, enjoy the journey.  That worked very well for a long, long, long time.

Leopold, Aldo, A Sand County Almanac, Oxford University Press, New York, 1989.  [1949]

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Windfall


McKenzie Funk’s book, Windfall, explores the question, “What are we doing about climate change?”  Readers are introduced to ambitious speculators who are eager to make enormous profits on new opportunities resulting from a warming planet.  They are not investing in research for sharply reducing carbon emissions.  They are obsessed with keeping the economic growth monster on life support.  Climate change investment funds will soon become gold mines, creating a flood of new billionaires.  The future is rosy as hell.

Mining corporations are slobbering with anticipation as Greenland’s ice melts, providing access to billions of dollars worth of zinc, gold, diamonds, and uranium.  A defunct zinc mine, which operated from 1973 to 1990, provides a sneak preview of the nightmares to come.  The Black Angel mine dumped its tailings into a nearby fjord.  The zinc and lead in the runoff was absorbed by the blue mussels, which were eaten by fish, which were eaten by seals.  Investors won, the ecosystem lost.

Other entrepreneurs are anxious to turn the torrents of melt water into hydropower, providing cheap energy for new server farms and aluminum smelters.  Meanwhile, the tourism industry is raking in big money serving the growing swarms of disaster tourists.

As the Arctic ice melts, sea levels could rise as much as 20 feet (6 m).  A number of low-lying islands are already on death row — the Maldives, Tuvalu, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Seychelles, Bahamas, and the Carteret Islands.  Islanders are pissed that faraway rich folks are destroying their home.  Bath time is also predicted for large portions of Manila, Alexandria, Lagos, Karachi, Kolkata, Jakarta, Dakar, Rio, Miami, Ho Chi Minh City, and a fifth of Bangladesh.  There may be a billion climate refugees by 2050.

Five nations have shorelines on the icy Arctic Ocean: Canada, Russia, Norway, Denmark (Greenland), and the United States (Alaska).  Beneath the rapidly melting ice are billions of dollars worth of oil, gas, and coal.  We would be wise to leave this energy in the ground but, of course, we won’t.  There will be abundant testosterone-powered discussion over borderlines in the region, and this might include blizzards of bombs and bullets.  Both Canada and Denmark claim ownership of Hans Island.  Russia has planted a flag on the North Pole.

A melted Arctic will also provide a new shipping lane, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific, providing a much shorter and much cheaper alternative to the Panama Canal.  Both sides of the Northwest Passage are owned by Canada, but other nations, like the U.S. and China, disagree that Canada owns the waterway.  They prefer it to be an international route of innocent passage, like Gibraltar.  Funk took a cruise on the Montreal, a frigate of the Royal Canadian Navy.  They were engaged in Arctic war games, which included an exercise that seized a naughty American ship.

The core driver of climate change is simple: “add carbon, get heat.”  As carbon emissions skyrocket, so does the temperature of the atmosphere.  We can’t undo what has already been done, damage that will persist for centuries, but it would be rather intelligent to quit throwing gasoline on the fire.  Unfortunately, the titans of capitalism have a different plan.  Renewable energy cannot power our nightmare, and environmental activism has failed.  Governments are careful to ignore the prickly issue, because voters delight in living as wastefully as possible.  Technology is our only hope.

Cutting emissions would blindside our way of life (and so will not cutting emissions).  But cleverly adapting to climate change will greatly enrich the titans, temporarily.  There’s growing interest in seawalls, storm surge barriers, and floating cities.  Israelis are making big money selling snowmaking and desalinization equipment.  Biotech firms are working like crazy to produce expensive drought resistant seeds.  India is building a 2,100 mile (3,380 km) fence along its border with Bangladesh, to block the flood of refugees that are expected when rising seas submerge low-lying regions.

Others dream of making big money creating monopolies on the supply of freshwater, which is diminishing as the torrents of melting ice rush into the salty oceans.  There are two things that people will spend their remaining cash on, water and food.  Crop yields are sure to drop in a warming climate.  This will lead to rising prices, and create exciting opportunities for profiteering.  A number of wealthy nations are ruthlessly acquiring cropland in third world regions.

Funk visited Nathan Myhrvold, a Microsoft billionaire, who now runs Intellectual Ventures.  His plan is to keep economic growth on life support by creating a virtual volcano called StratoShield.  Volcanoes spew ash into the atmosphere, which reduces incoming solar heat, and cools off the climate.  StratoShield would spray 2 to 5 million metric tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere every year.  This would make the sunlight one percent dimmer, and enable life as we know it to continue, with reduced guilt, for a bit longer (maybe) — hooray!

Funk also visited Alan Robock, who opposes the plan.  Volcanic ash is not harmless.  The goal of StratoShield is to block heat.  The catastrophic side effect is that it’s like to severely alter rain patterns in the southern hemisphere, spurring horrendous droughts, deluges, and storm systems.  On the bright side, life in Microsoft country, the Pacific Northwest, would remain fairly normal, and the sulfur dioxide sunsets would be wonderfully colorful.

Funk didn’t mention that the geoengineering, if it actually worked, would have to be done permanently.  Beneath the shield, ongoing emissions would continue to increase the atmosphere’s carbon load.  If the shield was discontinued, and full sunlight resumed, the consequences would not be pleasant.

Myhrvold’s former boss, Bill Gates, is running a foundation that’s spending billions of dollars to eradicate disease.  The mosquitoes of the world are nervous, fearing near term extinction.  The foundation is dedicated to promoting the wellbeing of humankind.  Oddly, it has spent nothing on research to cut carbon emissions.  Folks will be spared from disease so they can enjoy drought and deluge.  There is no brilliant win/win solution.  The path to balance will be long and painful.

Funk finished his book in 2012, a very hot year for climate juju all around the world.  He had spent six years hanging out with tycoons, “the smartest guys in the room.”  All were obsessed with conjuring highly complex ways of making even more money by keeping our insane civilization on life support, for as long as possible, by any means necessary.

Climate change is a manmade disaster, and those most responsible are the wealthy consumers of the north.  Funk imagines that the poor folks of the south will be hammered, while the primary perpetrators remain fairly comfortable.  It’s a wicked problem because “we are not our own victims.”  We feel no obligation to reduce our emissions or consumption.  We care little about misery in far away places. 

I am not convinced that the north will get off easy.  Anyone who spends time studying the Earth Crisis will eventually conclude that humans are remarkably clever, but pathologically irrational.  We’ve created a reality far too complex for our tropical primate brains.  We’ve created a culture that burns every bridge it crosses.  Funk reminds us that, “We should remember that there is also genius in simplicity.”  I agree.

Funk, McKenzie, Windfall — The Booming Business of Global Warming, Penguin Press, New York, 2014.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Future


Al Gore’s book, The Future, is fascinating and perplexing.  The world is being pummeled by enormous waves of change, and most are destructive and unsustainable.  What should we do?  To envision wise plans, it’s important to know the past, and understand how the present mess evolved.  The book presents a substantial discussion of six megatrends that are influencing the future:

EARTH INC is the global economy, dominated by a mob of ruthless multinational corporations.  It’s pushing radical changes in the way we live, work, and think.  Many leaders in the world have become its hand puppets, shamelessly selling influence in exchange for treasure and power.  Earth Inc. is the monster that’s killing the ecosystem.

GLOBAL MIND is the worldwide web that enables communication between people everywhere.  Two billion now have access to it.  It provides access to a cornucopia of fresh information — knowledge from sources outside the walls of culture and propaganda.  The Global Mind is our single hope for inspiring rapid, intelligent, revolutionary change.

BALANCE OF POWER is changing.  Following World War II, the world was happy, as America provided virtuous leadership that helped maintain stability in the world.  Today, the U.S. is no longer respected.  Power is shifting away from Western nations to new powerhouses, and from national governments to corporate interests.

OUTGROWTH is the explosion of unsustainable growth in almost everything — population, pollution, consumption, soil mining, water mining, extinctions, and on and on.  Earth Inc. is fanatically obsessed with perpetual growth, and aggressively flattens anything that stands in its path.  Bummer growth must be replaced with the benevolent growth of Sustainable Capitalism.

LIFE SCIENCE is providing us with technology to manipulate biological processes in new ways.  We’ll cure more diseases and live much longer.  Our ability to deliberately alter the genes of any living organism allows us to play a significant role in controlling the planet’s evolutionary journey.  Of course, evolution must be manipulated cautiously, to avoid embarrassing calamities.

THE EDGE is the catastrophically dysfunctional relationship between humankind and the ecosystem.  On the down side, trashing the atmosphere and climate has created a monster we cannot control.  On the plus side, it’s inspiring many enlightened efforts to guide civilization back into balance with the ecosystem.

Al Gore is a charming lad with a good sense of humor.  The son of a senator, Gore has spent much of his life amidst the barbarian tribes of Washington.  He eventually became the vice president and a wealthy tycoon.  While at Harvard, one of his professors was a pioneer in climate change research, a big juju subject, and a primary influence on Gore’s career path.  Gore is a senior advisor to Google, and a board member at Apple.  He is exceptionally well informed about the digital world, climate change, ecological challenges, global politics, and the shenanigans of the rich and powerful.

In the book, Gore sometimes jabbers like a politician giddy with optimism.  Yes, things are a big mess, and the status quo is in need of speedy, intelligent, radical reform.  We can fix it!  Politicians rarely win elections when their objective is damage control (Jimmy Carter’s mistake).  The way to win is to wear a big smile and promise hope, solutions, and better days ahead.  I sometimes wonder if damage control might accomplish more.

Much of the book is impressive, but its optimism for the future is not well supported by compelling arguments and evidence.  Readers learn that it’s not too late to nip climate change in the bud.  We simply need to reduce greenhouse emissions by 80 to 90 percent.  But how could we do this without blindsiding the system that enables the existence of seven-point-something billion people?  Easy!  Create a carbon tax.  Shift subsidies from fossil energy to renewables.  Require utilities to use more alternative energy.  Create a cap and trade system.  If every nation eagerly did this next week, our worries would be over.

Population continues to grow exponentially.  Gore recommends that we “stabilize” population.  It would be risky to actually reduce population, because this might trigger a “fertility trap,” a terrible downward spiral of population free-fall.  When there are too many seniors, and not enough taxpayers, pension systems collapse.

But stabilizing an enormous population raises serious questions about how much longer we can continue to feed so many people.  Agriculture is currently engaged in “strip-mining topsoil” on a staggering scale.  Each kilogram of Iowa corn costs 1.5 kilograms of topsoil, a precious nonrenewable resource. 

Gore asserts that this can be corrected by a transition to crop rotation, and to organic low-till technology.  But low-till cropping is designed for conventional agriculture, and works well with heavy applications of herbicide.  Organic low-till is still in the experimental phase, and is extremely difficult to do successfully, because weeds are not wimps.

While water usage is increasing, water resources are declining, because underground aquifers are being depleted in many highly productive farming regions.  Gore recommends drip irrigation, wastewater recycling, and cisterns for rainwater storage.  Considering the current scale of water mining, and the cost of high tech irrigation, it’s hard to see these options as effective solutions.  When the water is used up, farm productivity drops sharply, or completely.

Meanwhile, another monster is rising on the horizon — global phosphorus reserves are moving toward a crisis.  Because phosphorus is an essential plant nutrient, this will have huge effects on conventional agriculture.  Oh, we also need to get the nations united behind reversing deforestation, fish mining, and mass extinction.  

Gore says that it would be insane to burn the fossil energy we’ve already discovered, because this would worsen the effects of climate change.  But we’re unlikely to stop.  Experts aren’t sure when Peak Oil will arrive, but it will, and it will be followed by an era of increasing turbulence, as industrial civilization is painfully weaned.  Most of the easy oil has already gone up in smoke, and what remains is far more difficult to extract.  Expensive oil means expensive food, and many poor people can barely afford food today.  Spikes in food prices led to food riots in 2008 and 2011.

Gore adores civilization’s two magnificent achievements, democracy and capitalism, but he laments that both have been “hacked” by the evil slime balls of Earth Inc.  If we don’t fix this, we’re doomed.  It’s time to fetch our pitchforks and chase the slime balls away.  The solution to our problems is to restore dynamic democracy, and then create a utopia of Sustainable Capitalism, which will allow Sustainable Growth to continue forever!  The best is yet to come!

The book provides an impressive discussion how we got into this mess.  It’s unique in that it comes from a card-carrying member of the global elite, not a hungry dirty radical.  Readers are given a rare opportunity to enjoy the view from the top of the pyramid.  I hope that the second edition clarifies some questionable assumptions in this otherwise fascinating book.

Gore, Albert, The Future — Six Drivers of Global Change, Random House, New York, 2013.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Sixth Extinction


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 15, 2015

The End of Plenty


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Eye of the Crocodile


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is Harari giving a 15-minute TEDx talk.