Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Gallic Wars

After a long and crazy joyride in overshoot, enormous bills are coming due.  Industrial civilization is sliding toward foreclosure.  Capitalism gets the blame, but the roots of the madness go far deeper, older than ancient empires.  Many public buildings in America imitate the architecture of the Roman Empire, with their rows of tall stone columns.  Like ancient empires, our economic tentacles reach far into distant provinces, sucking up the wealth.  Like them, we are obsessed with perpetual growth, by any means necessary, to avoid being absorbed by competing empires.

Empires must constantly resist competitors.  Empires behave like alpha male chimps defending their harems.  Alphas live amidst numerous horny alpha wannabes, who carefully wait for the moment when the big boy stumbles.  Julius Caesar was a famous alpha, and The Gallic Wars is the story of his glory days, when he turned hundreds of thousands of folks into wolf chow and compost.  His book gives us a glimpse of life in Western Europe more than 2,000 years ago (51 B.C.).

Chimps fight for dominance with fists, feet, teeth, and teamwork.  Killing is not the objective.  Caesar’s troops were professional killers, well equipped with state of the art swords, spears, helmets, armor.  Fighting was face-to-face.  Warriors had to “come to grips” with their foes, and get splashed with blood and sweat.  Those who were aggressive, strong, experienced, and lucky were more likely to see another day.  Today, we fight more with technology — triggers, pushbuttons, and mouse clicks.

In a nutshell, this book is a play-by-play description of Caesar’s efforts to conquer the world.  He immodestly boasts about his brilliant victories, conquering the Celtic tribes of Gaul (France) and Belgae (Belgium).  The Gallic tribes had agriculture and cities, which chained them to a place they had to defend.  Roman trade networks gave them access to luxurious status trinkets.  The Belgae lived farther from empire, and were more scruffy and dangerous.  (MAP)

There were two groups in Gaul’s upper class, Druidic priests and warriors.  The priests provided spiritual guidance, resolved conflicts, and oversaw sacrifices.  Their training, which took up to 20 years, required them to memorize a large collection of verses.  Druids shunned writing, because it weakened memory, a crippling handicap.  Consequently, we know almost nothing about them today.  Caesar noted that human sacrifices were common, an excellent way to reward criminals.  Men were sometimes burned alive in wicker baskets.

Gallic warriors had no fear of death, because souls never die, they move to other bodies.  Their tribes clashed like Los Angeles street gangs.  If the Gallic tribes had been unified, they could have turned the Romans into wolf chow, but they figured this out too late in the game.  They eventually merged their armies together under Vercingetorix, and 40,000 Gauls attacked Caesar.  At the end of the battle, only 800 Gauls survived (according to Caesar).

When Caesar conquered a tribe, they were forced to pay tribute to Rome.  They also had to provide conscripts for the Roman legions.  The legions largely consisted of lads from the provinces, not indigenous Romans.  In Rome, the citizens enjoyed many luxuries, thanks to the massive wealth extracted from the provinces.  Military expansion generated many prisoners, who were either executed or sold into slavery.  Around 30 to 40 percent of the residents of Rome were slaves (similar to low wage workers today).  They were often treated brutally.  Today, our school children are taught that Rome was cool, a role model for a great nation.

Caesar took his troops to England.  Along the southern coast, there were colonies of Belgae farmers, who lived much like the Gauls.  North of the coast lived the indigenous Britons, who were skilled at hit-and-run guerilla warfare.  They would swarm out of the forest, kill disorganized troops, and return to the forest, where Romans dared not follow.

Few Britons grew grain.  They were herders and hunters who lived on milk and flesh.  They were clothed in animal skins, and the men had long hair and moustaches.  Warriors applied woad to turn their skin blue, causing opponents to wet their pants with fear.  The effort to conquer England failed when most of the Roman ships were destroyed by a powerful storm.  Caesar was almost defeated, and barely managed to escape.

German tribes were the scariest opponents.  Most of them lived east of the Rhine River, but some had crossed the river, and conquered portions of Gaul.  This was a serious threat to empire turf.  Caesar attacked the 120,000 German intruders, transforming most of them to wolf chow.

He then built a wooden bridge across the Rhine, spent 18 days molesting Germans, returned to Gaul, and destroyed the bridge.  Roman legions did not haul tons of food with them on their campaigns.  They acquired food along the way, snatching it from farms and towns.  This didn’t work in Germany, where little grain was grown and stored.  Also, wilderness warfare gave the Germans a huge advantage.  Protected by the mighty river, they were lucky to remain wild and free longer than other regions.

In those days, Germany was a land of vast forests and wetlands.  Caesar jabbered about the numerous stags and elk.  The aurochs (wild cattle) astonished him.  He said they were a bit smaller than elephants, and impossible to tame.  “Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied.”  The “wild and savage” Germans “were men of huge stature, of incredible valor and practice in arms.”  They were hunters, herders, and warriors.  Their diet majored in milk, cheese, and flesh.  They wore deerskin cloaks that left much of their bodies exposed, even in cold weather.

Chieftains assigned parcels of land to clans and families every year.  Everyone had to move annually, so nobody constructed McMansions (cool idea!).  The best parcels never stayed in the same hands, and this wisely prevented some from getting richer than others.  Equality breeds contentment and cooperation.  On the other hand, robbing others was OK.  Raiding outsiders was a good way to improve useful skills, grab booty, and cure boredom.

Conquest was also OK.  It pushed back folks who might raid your livestock.  Life was more secure when outsiders lived nowhere close.  The best neighbors were those who lived far away, and were never seen.  The Suevi tribe was the largest, most warlike, and most feared.  On one side of their territory, there was an uninhabited region that was 600 miles long.  Smart people didn’t mess with them.

As discussed in my review of Germania, tribes that became dependent on agriculture and/or herding increased the carrying capacity of the land.  Thus, population increased, as did social tensions.  Livestock were valuable status trinkets that presented an irresistible temptation for rustlers.  Raiding and tribal warfare were common in this era.  The same pattern emerged in the American west (and everywhere else) when tribes acquired domesticated horses and livestock.  Anthropology reports that nomadic hunter-gatherers avoided much craziness by owning very little.  They were egalitarian — the opposite of empire.

Anyway, everyone in Rome was amazed by Caesar’s astonishing success in war.  Then, when he returned to Rome, he was assassinated by nobles.  The end.

Caesar, Julius, The Gallic Wars, London MacMillan, London, 1908.  Translated by T.  R.  Holmes.

Saturday, November 5, 2016


Everyone everywhere has tribal ancestors.  Folks with European roots know little about their kin who lived in the countless centuries of wild freedom.  Tacitus gives us a glimpse at their world, as it was over 1,900 years ago.  He was a Roman historian, born in A.D. 56, and died in 117.  He wrote Germania in 98.  It provided a brief overview of several dozen Germanic tribes of the era, as viewed from a civilized perspective.  For example, the Batavi, Chatti, Usipii, Tencteri, Chauci, Fosi, Cimbri, Anglii, and Varini.  (MAP)

In the days of Tacitus, Germania was a vast wild frontier of forest and marsh, “a land rude in its surface, rigorous in its climate, cheerless to every beholder and cultivator, except a native.”  The mighty Rhine River separated the German motherland from the tribes of Belgica (Belgium) and the Celtic tribes of Gaul (France).  Since there were no bridges in those days, the treacherous fast-flowing river provided an effective security barrier.

The Rhine protected Germania from the evil Empire.  Moving armies across the wild river was a serious challenge, and the barbarians on the other side were notoriously ferocious.  The German side was heavily forested.  The Roman war machine excelled at fighting in open country, and avoided engagements near forest, where they lost their tactical superiority.  So, the badass Germans remained proud, wild, and free, whilst the tribes of Gaul and Belgica, who surrendered to Empire (to avoid annihilation), were obligated to pay tributes and taxes, and provide numerous young conscripts to fight in the Roman legion.

Throughout Germania, the people had the appearance of a pure unmixed race.  They had reddish hair, blue eyes, large strong bodies, and were not weakened by cold or hunger.  They raised herds and flocks, and grew a little grain.  Their diet majored in meat, cheese, fruit, and beer.  Warriors took great delight in fighting, hunting, feasting, and oblivion drinking.  Dreary laborious toil was the domain of women, old men, and slaves.

Germanic spirituality majored in reverence for nature.  They worshipped in the living temple of the great outdoors — not inside walls.  Their deities inhabited sacred groves that were the tribe’s place of origin.  Folks would gather in the grove and offer sacrifices, which were sometimes human.  A number of tribes had festivals honoring Ertha (Big Mama Earth), a deity always present in their lives.

Notably, they were still animists — they did not imagine their deities to have human form.  Centuries later, as Indo-European influences intensified, a pantheon (family) of humanlike deities evolved in German metaphysics.  In this new culture of human supremacy, a powerful male god ruled over a colorful mob of lesser gods, goddesses, and tricksters.  This tradition spread from Greece (Zeus), to Rome (Jupiter), Germany (Wotan), and Scandinavia (Odin).

Germania was not a realm of love and peace.  “They actually think it tame and stupid to acquire by the sweat of toil what they might win by their blood.”  Raids and conflicts were common, and tribes depended on their warriors for survival.  In their rites of initiation, the transition of a boy into a man was marked by giving him a shield and spear.  From then on, the man was not allowed to cut his hair or beard until the day he killed his first foe.

Year after year, tribes invested much time and effort in killing folks from other tribes.  Romans were delighted by the fact that Germans worked so hard to kill other Germans.  They had to fight to survive.  The Cherusci were seen as foolish and cowardly, because of their deep love of peace — they were exterminated.  It was common for conquered tribes to go extinct; survivors were sold into slavery.

The Batavi avoided gangster raids by inhabiting an island in the Rhine.  The Suiones felt so safe and secure that they didn’t carry arms all the time — they had a pleasant life by the sea, centuries before the era of seaborne Viking terrorists.  Some tribes enjoyed safety by inhabiting remote locations in vast primeval forests.

The Hercynian forest once spanned east from the Rhine, across modern Germany, to the Carpathians, and all the way to Dacia (present-day Romania).  A quick traveler could cross the forest north to south in nine days, but it was very long, from east to west.  In 51 B.C., Julius Caesar noted, “There is no man in the Germany we know who can say that he has reached the edge of that forest, though he may have gone forward sixty days’ journey, or who has learnt in what place it begins.”  Pliny also mentioned it:  “The vast trees of the Hercynian forest, untouched for ages, and as old as the world, by their almost immortal destiny exceed common wonders.”

Every ecosystem has a limit to how many humans it can support.  In the time of Tacitus, the carrying capacity was quite low, because large-scale forest mining and soil mining were not yet possible.  Iron axes were still rare luxuries, and the moldboard plow would not come into common use for another thousand years.  Forest soils were too heavy for digging sticks.

Aurochs (wild cattle) inhabited a range spanning from England to China.  Bulls were up to 6 feet (180 cm) tall at the shoulder, much larger than modern cattle.  They were very strong, terribly aggressive, and loved to disembowel passing humans, wolves, and other annoyances.  Hence, the Germans preferred to enslave passive, dim-witted domestic cattle and sheep, which could be confined close to home.  By milking the livestock, they could extract four times more calories from their enslaved animals, compared to simply eating them.  Cheese could be stored for later use.

Nobody owned aurochs, or confined them to pastures, but somebody did own the horses and livestock.  These animals were an important form of wealth, and stealing them from neighbors was an exciting way to get rich quick, or die trying.  Hence, raiding was a popular pastime.  Naturally, it was a good way to make enemies, and ignite long-term feuds.  By majoring in herding, and building no permanent settlements, tribes could pack up and move when life got too hot.

In a world of tribal warfare, there was strength in numbers.  Family planning increased vulnerability.  “To limit the increase of children, or put to death any of the later progeny is accounted infamous.”  Thus, limited carrying capacity, plus population pressure, plus the crazy-making juju of hoarding wealth hurled Germania into a bloody cesspool, similar to the far larger one we’re soaking in today.

Our cousins the chimps do not enslave domesticated animals to inflate carrying capacity.  They respond to the tensions of crowding with kicks, punches, and bites — sometimes killing competitors.  Germans did increase carrying capacity, did not limit births, made enemies with raiding, nurtured feuds, and resolved tensions with spears, javelins, and long knives — intending to kill competitors.  This was not the only possible strategy, in theory, but it has been common around the world.  Crowded critters get crabby.

Tacitus described one tribe of good old-fashioned hunter-gatherers, the only example of fully wild and free Europeans I have found.  The Fenni (Finnish) enjoyed a life of magnificent simplicity in the great white north.  Their culture was so complete and well balanced that they had no need to wish for anything.  Listen:

“The Fenni live in a state of amazing savageness and squalid poverty.  They are destitute of arms, horses, and settled abodes: their food is herbs; their clothing, skins; their bed, the ground.  Their only dependence is on their arrows, which, for want of iron, are headed with bone; and the chase is the support of the women as well as the men; the former accompany the latter in the pursuit, and claim a share of the prey.  Nor do they provide any other shelter for their infants from wild beasts and storms, than a covering of branches twisted together.  This is the resort of youth; this is the receptacle of old age.  Yet even this way of life is in their estimation happier than groaning over the plough; toiling in the erection of houses; subjecting their own fortunes and those of others to the agitations of alternate hope and fear.  Secure against men, secure against the gods, they have attained the most difficult point, not to need even a wish.”

Tacitus, Caius Cornelius, edited by Hadas, Moses, Complete Works of Tacitus, The Modern Library, New York, 1942.  Germania is a short work, and free downloads are available on the web in PDF and text.  Amazon has a free Kindle version.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Make America Great Again

In 2016, the election slogan of TV star Donald Trump was “Make America Great Again!”  One day, a pilgrim on the internet asked, “When was America great?”  For someone deeply immersed in the study of ecological sustainability, the answer was obvious.  America was great at least 15,000 years ago, when America resembled something like the Serengeti — a self-regulating (manager-free) wild ecosystem in a climax phase.

In those days, America was a paradise for the indigenous mastodons, wooly mammoths, wooly rhinos, short-faced bears, cheetahs, saber-tooth lions, jaguars, and many others who are now gone forever.  They had inhabited this ecosystem for millions of years, and successfully coevolved in it.  This was their ancient home and community.

I’m not exactly certain why there were so many extinctions, but all had survived hundreds of thousands of years of recurring ice age cycles.  Experts with their high-tech gadgets assert that many disappeared from the stage in the same era that humans from Siberia arrived.  Of course, other continents had similar experiences.  Europe, Asia, and Australia were also great prior to the arrival of two-legged tropical primates, and then went downhill in the millennia that followed.

Evolution is brilliantly simple — as conditions change, species genetically adapt via natural selection, a slow and steady process that has worked very well for a few billion years.  Our innovative tropical primate ancestors figured out how to sneak around this time-proven process.  For example, learning how to preserve and control fire was a big juju shift that no other animals have made.

With fire, they were better able to fend off predators.  They could stay warm in non-tropical climates.  They learned how to cook, which made it easier to digest food.  Cooking made many inedible substances edible, and these were added to their diet.  Consequently, they could extract more calories from the same territory.  So, the carrying capacity of their habitat increased, which led to more well-fed bambinos.

This process is called cultural evolution — a deliberate way of altering our relationship with the ecosystem via learning and innovation, a process for change that was far faster than genetic evolution.  With clothing and shelters, they could survive in cooler lands.  With weapons and teamwork, they could kill animals much larger than themselves.  When they first arrived in new ecosystems, the wildlife had no instinctive fear of them, which made hunting ridiculously easy.  This led to more well-fed bambinos.

Eventually, we became clever enough to live everywhere, even the Arctic.  Cultural evolution gained momentum, transforming many societies of two-legs into ecological super storms.  Technological innovation has given us the power to poison the oceans, erase vast forests, exterminate wildlife, and disrupt the planet’s climate systems — and we’re bloody proud of this.  We call it Progress.

Our closest living relatives, the chimps and bonobos (like all other animals), did not board the runaway train of cultural evolution.  Their ancestors have lived in the same tropical ecosystem for millions of years, without wrecking it.  Our DNA is ninety-nine percent the same as theirs.  All newborn humans are wild tropical primates, expecting to spend their lives in a thriving Serengeti, but most of their parents have been entranced.  Most newborns squirt out of the womb into a batshit crazy culture.

This crazy culture imagines that one animal species (guess who) is superior to everything else in the universe, and no other species matters at all.  In this culture, newborns grow up, go to school, get a job, and spend their entire lives wandering around amidst mobs of neurotic insecure tropical primates.  Unlike wild humans, and other wild animals, consumers mature, reproduce, and die in a bleak space station culture of human supremacy.

I once spent nine years in the forest.  Humans would build a cabin in bear country, and live as if they were in a sterile suburban cul-de-sac where everything wild had been exterminated.  They’d put their garbage (bear food) on the porch, which would attract… (guess who).  A hungry bear would dine on the wasted food, the moron would race of the cabin with a high-powered rifle, screaming obscenities at the “problem bear,” and blow it away.  The moron perceived himself to be the lord and master of the ecosystem.  This attitude is perfectly normal in our culture.

You see, the mastodons and wooly rhinos instinctively lived in an ancient time-proven manner — automatically, thoughtlessly, effortlessly — like the other species in the world.  This is exactly why America was great.  It worked!  The American flora and fauna had succeeded in adapting to millions of years of ongoing changes of climate and habitat via evolution and coevolution.  By staying on the traditional path, they did not nervously tap-dance through minefields of their own making.

By adapting fire, clothing, and weapons, two-legs had moved onto a terrifically dangerous path.  They had become far more powerful than bonobos or chimps.  They were en route to becoming the mightiest critters on the planet — via culture, not genes — a treacherous daredevil experiment with no safety nets.

To wisely avoid self-destruction, the innovative two-legs had to have foresight.  They had to have respect and reverence for their ecosystem.  They had to develop traditions and taboos that expected everyone to practice self-restraint.  No other species had to struggle with these highly challenging responsibilities.  Surprisingly, numerous human societies actually succeeded in living mindfully, until being clobbered by… (guess who).  The Koyukon, Ohlone, Ojibway, and many other tribes carefully adapted to their ecosystems, and lived for thousands of years in a low-impact manner.  Great, eh?

Today, I’m living in a culture that generates staggering amounts of scientific data, but has pathetically limited foresight.  There is little respect for this ecosystem.  Self-restraint is seen as a disgusting disability in a consumer culture obsessed with unrestrained self-indulgence, and an insatiable hunger for status and power.  History is clear that cultures like this one routinely trump the wild cultures of reverence, respect, and restraint.  Civilized cultures mindlessly mangle everything in their paths.

The Glowing Screen People inhabit a wonderland of technological progress — not a devastated ecosystem.  They do not perceive the huge gaping holes in the family of life.  They have no awareness of all that has been lost.  They do not grieve the absence of giant condors, giant beavers, giant armadillos, giant bears.  They have no memory of the great American Serengeti.  They will barely notice the passing of the last lions and tigers and bears, and few will grieve their demise.

Well, gosh, we’ve inherited an interesting mess, and it’s getting worse.  This is the opposite of great, methinks.  Genes did not get us into this mess, culture did — it’s a buggy software thing.  Our nightmare is a swirling roaring pandemonium of dysfunctional beliefs, ideas, fantasies, and illusions — toxic cultural baggage.  But our society is not required to continue operating on Ecocide 1.0 until the bloody end.  We have the option of creating an entirely different operating system, in theory.  Attempting to dominate and exploit the entire family of life has been a catastrophic experiment in megalomania and embarrassing foolishness.

We’re not going to bring back the wooly rhinos and mastodons.  America will not return to a healthy stable wild paradise for a very long time.  People capable of thinking outside the box understand that the path to ecological sustainability travels in the opposite direction from the current path of windmills, solar panels, electric cars, nuke plants, voyages to Mars, and happy meals for eleven billion shoppers on antidepressants.

Anyway, I wonder if this was the profound vision of “great again” that Donald Trump struggled so clumsily to convey — turning out the lights, walking away from civilization, going home sweet home, and living happily ever after.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Topography of Ireland

One grouchy grumpy day, Pope Adrian IV got honked off at Ireland.  The Irish were not paying their tithes, and they were Catholic in name only, living in abominable moral decay.  So, he ordered England’s Henry II to conquer the rowdy heathen barbarians.  Along with the invasion went a secretary, Giraldus Cambrensis (1146 – 1223), a Welsh priest and scholar.  (“Giraldus Cambrensis” was Latin for “Jerry of Wales.”)  Father Jerry arrived in Ireland in 1185, and wrote a description of the emerald isle, Topography of Ireland.  It captured a rare snapshot of what life was like more than eight centuries ago, when the Irish were still tribal people.

At that time, Ireland was a remote and isolated frontier, largely off the radar of civilization.  The landscape majored in forests, bogs, lakes, streams, and swamps.  Boats were the easiest mode of travel.  Stags feasted on the lavish banquet of foliage, becoming chubby and less speedy.  Wolves dined on the abundant boars and wild pigs.  The air and water were clean, and the rivers were loaded with fine salmon, trout, muddy eels, and oily shad.

The tribes of Ireland were wild chiefdoms, and the lads and lasses were primarily cowboys and cowgirls.  The climate was mild, rainfall was gentle and abundant, and the grass was green all year.  Snows were rare, and soon melted away.  It was a paradise for herbivores and herders.  Herders needed no structures to protect the livestock from the cold, and they had no need for cutting, drying, and storing hay.  Organic milk, grass-fed meat, wild fish, and little else, were on the menu every day of the year.

The wild folks had no interest in adapting the latest European fashions — dainty, frilly, colorful attire.  They refused to invest endless hours in the tedious drudgery of spinning and weaving fabric of flax or wool.  Sensible people are not trend junkies, and dressing up in silly duds made you look like a goofy geek from Liverpool.  It was simply too embarrassing.  Sensible people wore skins and furs, which were comfortable, durable, attractive, and suitable for all occasions.

There were veins of ores, including gold-bearing quartz, but the cowboys ignored them.  Mining was brutally hard work, and their cattle refused to eat gold.  Their lands were home to majestic forests, but the cowboys weren’t interested in forest mining.  They had no need for lumber or paper, and their finicky cattle would eat neither boards nor money.  A good deal of the countryside was potentially suitable for use as cropland, but very little was tilled and sown.  Cowboys knew that soil mining was miserable, backbreaking work, and their traditional way of life worked just fine.  Cattle were perfectly happy to eat the delicious grass.

Tribes had abundant leisure time for making a joyful noise.  Father Jerry had travelled as far as Rome, and he considered the Irish to be the finest musicians of all.  Irish music was lively and rapid, and the harmonies sweet and gay.  They mostly played the harp and tabor (a small drum).  In those days, music was still genuinely sustainable.  Musicians did not need huge tour buses, or dozens semis to haul speakers, amplifiers, lighting systems, stages, mega-screens, and dumpsters of cocaine and heroin.

The people were strong and healthy.  They did not waste years in lingering sickness and decline.  They preferred to leap directly from good health to their deathbeds, and promptly get it over with.  They did not know the days of the week, the names of the months, or what year it was.  They kept time by the sun, moon, and seasons.

The Irish have never been fond of Father Jerry’s writing, because he was an obnoxious gaseous sphincter.  For example, “The Irish are a rude people, subsisting on the produce of their cattle only, and living themselves like beasts.”  Or, “This people, then, is truly barbarous, being not only barbarous in their dress, but suffering their hair and beards to grow enormously in an uncouth manner… indeed, all of their habits are barbarisms.”

Father Jerry was certain that the world was very old, close to its end.  He was stunned and perplexed by the Irish indifference to salvation and eternal life.  You see, Saint Patrick had successfully converted all the tribes before he died in 485.  Yet seven centuries later, most of the Irish savages had forgotten everything about sin, damnation, and guilt.  Many Irish remained unbaptized and unmarried — shameless, adulterous, incestuous, illegitimate bastards.  (Writer Michael Ventura heard of an Irish grandmother who, in the 1950s, still referred to Christianity as “the new religion.”)

Anyway, King Henry’s invasion of Ireland was the kickoff for centuries of bloodshed — similar in many ways to English colonization of New England or Australia.  The Irish were low-tech guerilla warriors, skilled at hit and run ambushes.  They used slings to hurl stones with skull-splitting accuracy.  They had spears, javelins, and axes.  The English were state-of-the-art warriors, having chain mail, armor, archers, and deadly swords.  For example, “He who had seen how John de Courcy wielded his sword, with one stroke lopping off heads, and with another arms, must needs have commended him for a most valiant soldier.”

Long after Jerry’s death, after more than 450 years of fighting, the conquest was complete.  The English victors seized the estates of Irish nobles, and gave them two options.  They could move to a reservation, or be executed.  Thousands of Irish women were sold to the owners of Caribbean sugar plantations.  Countless lads were hung.  One observer noted, “You may ride 20 miles and discern anything or fix your eye upon any object, but dead men hanging on trees and gibbets.”

History is clear that civilization trumps tribes.  It also trumps healthy wild ecosystems.  It trumps the wellbeing of generations yet to be born.  But even before Henry and Jerry washed up on shore, tribal Ireland was not a place of love, peace, and happiness.  Ireland was divided into many túatha, or petty kingdoms, the domains of chiefdoms.  The borders often fluctuated, as chiefs ambitiously pursued the glories of perpetual growth.

History is clear that the accumulation of property, including domesticated livestock, is a routine cause of wealth inequality, social friction, and war.  Before becoming cowboys, the Irish hunted and fished.  They could not capture and hoard wild stags or boars, so they avoided status-seeking mania, and the dark juju of bossy rich jerks.  Countless millions have perished in countless wars resulting from the insatiable obsession of insecure people for more, more, and more.  Today, many blame our woes on capitalism, but the roots of the monster are far deeper.

Father Jerry wrote with flamboyance.  The translation I read was clear and understandable.  However, he was not skilled at remaining focused on his subject, and frequently wandered away to jabber about whatever came into his head.  He wrote many books, including The History of the Conquest of Ireland.  The Historical Works of Giraldus Cambrensis contains both of his books on Ireland, and his two books on Wales.  A free download is HERE.

Cambrensis, Giraldus, The Historical Works of Giraldus Cambrensis, George Bell & Sons, London, 1905.

Hegarty, Neil, The Story of Ireland, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2012.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Seeing Like A State

As centuries passed, and the human herd swelled, the strains on society increased, often sparking friction.  In an effort to discourage chaos, many societies became more structured — codes of rules, conflict resolution systems, hierarchies of control and coercion.  Tribes formed alliances with others, and these confederations often merged into states.  In a shark pool of ongoing growth and overshoot, weak states were vulnerable sitting ducks.  The struggle for survival was a never-ending challenge.  It encouraged better defenses, stronger offences, technological innovation, and tough leaders.

To nourish their strength, states had to focus on maximizing tax revenues, conscripting fresh cannon fodder, and promptly smashing uprisings.  To do this effectively, they needed detailed censuses listing the names and residences of all citizens.  They needed maps that illustrated the boundaries and fields of landed property, the names of the owners, and the economic output generated on each estate.  They needed accurate street maps of cities.  The better a state understood the society it controlled and exploited, the richer and more powerful it could become.

James Scott is a political science professor at Yale.  In his book, Seeing Like A State, he presents a tragi-comical exposé of bloopers and blunders performed by a variety of ambitious states in their quest for greater efficiency, order, and prestige — modernization.

Chapter one takes readers on an illuminating visit to eighteenth century Germany.  Prior to the coal age, wood was the essential source of energy and building materials — no wood, no civilization.  Today, it’s impossible for anyone to know the actual amount of oil that remains underground, but in the forests of old Germany, the reserves of standing trees were perfectly visible to everyone, and they were getting smaller.  Yikes!  Folks having more than a few brain cells realized that if they wiped out the forests, they would wipe themselves out.

Unlike modern society, which is fatally addicted to nonrenewable energy, old Germany had better options, in theory.  Forests were renewable, in theory.  Forests were complex self-regulating ecosystems, and their long-term health was seriously harmed by persistent attacks from gangs of vicious ax murderers.  Unfortunately, the bureaucrats of the state didn’t understand this at all.  When they looked at a forest, they saw precious treasure to be taken, and they throbbed with giddy adolescent excitement.

Healthy, happy undisturbed forests included diverse communities of tree people, most of which were not valuable grade-A species, in the minds of greed-heads.  In a sparkling shower of light, a brilliant solution fell out of the sky — scientific forestry!  The treasure could be maximized by growing nothing but grade-A trees!  Simply erase the messy old forest, and replace it with plantations of Norway spruce.  These trees could be planted, evenly spaced, row after row, century after century.  Every year, the volume of wood grown would equal the volume of wood removed, in theory.  By 1900, scientific forestry had been adapted by cutting edge nations around the world.

Whoops!  Well, the first generation of plantation trees was awesome, having been planted in the fabulously fertile soil produced by thousands of years of old growth forests.  The second rotation was less than awesome, and went downhill from there.  Monocultures were always a magnet for pests and diseases.  Spruce trees become chronically depressed slackers when planted in abused and depleted soils.  Unhealthy root systems encouraged blow downs.  This inspired the birth of a new word — Waldsterben (forest death).

In other types of projects, growing states fooled around with strategies similar to scientific forestry.  Scott says that these strategies were the offspring of an accident-prone control freak mindset, which he called the high-modernist ideology.  It proclaimed that the path to utopia was lit by science, technology, and reason.  He takes readers on a breathtaking whitewater raft ride through a number of high-modernist catastrophes, designed by a mob of half-clever smarty-pants.

Vladimir Lenin, a leader in the Russian Revolution, was a devious super-ambitious control freak, determined to create a high-modernist utopia, by any means necessary.  In order to rapidly industrialize the new state, he needed to rapidly industrialize agriculture, to keep the heroic factory workers well fed.  The age of tractors had arrived, and many nations were becoming very excited about industrial agriculture.  In the twentieth century, the Industrial Revolution was having powerful orgasms, and the entire planet was ravaged by a highly contagious epidemic of drug-resistant get-rich-quick fever.

A fatal flaw in the high-modernist ideology was that it intensified civilization’s merciless war on ecological sustainability.  Yes, scientific forestry was foolish, but so was the traditional low-tech forest mining it replaced.  Scientific forestry just accelerated the wreckage.  Yes, industrial agriculture was foolish, but so was the organic low-tech soil mining it replaced.  The modernists could not comprehend the serious irreversible consequences of the well-intended mistakes they were making; they focused their full attention on utopian fantasies.

Joseph Stalin brutally collectivized Russian agriculture.  Millions of peasants were forced to work on huge mechanized farms.  They were like slaves, even more oppressed than during the bad old days of the czars.  Idiot bureaucrats, who knew almost nothing about the farms they managed, established impossible production quotas.  If factory workers didn’t meet their quotas, they were still fed.  The same was not true for farm workers.  They starved.  Folks who complained were deported or executed.  This adventure in high-modernism resulted in at least 20 million deaths.

The new Brazilian capital, Brasília, was a perfect city, in theory.  It was designed by notorious geniuses, and then built on a bulldozed forest.  It was the pinnacle of modernity, reminiscent of Albert Speer’s monumental designs for Hitler’s Berlin.  Comically, the city that dazzled the avant-garde intelligentsia was despised by the thousands of miserable government workers forced to live in it.  Life in Brasília was painfully bleak.  Eventually, they built an unplanned city around the edges of perfect hell, where they could roll their socks down and enjoy life.

Like a cat with nine lives, high-modernism refuses to die.  Today’s modernist buzzwords include sustainable agriculture, sustainable forestry, sustainable cities, sustainable development, and so on.  The ideology has thoroughly infected the cultures of the civilized world.  It’s taught in every school, so the kiddies are prepared for a soul-killing life of sustainable consuming.  In every facet of our lives, every minute of the day, the air is constantly buzzing with modernist memes.  They define the specifications for how normal, well-adjusted, planet-thrashing consumers think and behave.  Questioning is unacceptable.  Don’t!

Scott’s book is loaded with descriptions of quirky high-modernist escapades.  It’s powerful medicine for folks who are beginning to experience doubts about the sanity of our age of astonishing wonders.  No, you’re not crazy; you’re coming out of the trance.  Good job!  Welcome to reality!

A free PDF of the book can be downloaded HERE.  YouTube has an interesting 38-minute video of Scott HERE.

Scott, James C., Seeing Like A State — How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1998.

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Hidden Life of Trees

As a young lad in Germany, Peter Wohlleben loved nature.  He went to forestry school, and became a wood ranger.  At this job, he was expected to produce as many high quality saw logs as possible, with maximum efficiency, by any means necessary.  His tool kit included heavy machinery and pesticides.  This was forest mining, an enterprise that ravaged the forest ecosystem and had no long-term future.  He oversaw a plantation of trees lined up in straight rows, evenly spaced.  It was a concentration camp for tree people.

Wohlleben is a smart and sensitive man, and over the course of decades he got to know the tree people very well.  Eventually, his job became unbearable.  Luckily, he made friends in the community of Hümmel, and was given permission to manage their forest in a less destructive manner.  There is no more clear-cutting, and logs are removed by horse teams, not machines.  In one portion of the forest, old trees are leased as living gravestones, where families can bury the ashes of kin.  In this way, the forest generates income without murdering trees.

Wohlleben wrote The Hidden Life of Trees, a smash hit in Germany.  It will be translated into 19 languages.  The book is built on a foundation of reputable science, but it reads like grandpa chatting at fireside.  He’s a gentle old storyteller explaining the wondrous magic of beautiful forests to befuddled space aliens from a crazy planet named Consume.  He teaches readers about the family of life, a subject typically neglected in schools.

Evergreen trees have been around for 170 million years, and trees with leaves are 100 million years old.  Until recently, trees lived very well without the assistance of a single professional forest manager.  I’m serious!  Forests are communities of tree people.  Their root systems intermingle, allowing them to send nutrients to their hungry children, and to ailing neighbors.  When a Douglas fir is struck by lightning, several of its close neighbors might also die, because of their underground connections.  A tribe of tree people can create a beneficial local climate for the community.

Also underground are mycelium, the largest organisms yet discovered.  One in Oregon weighs 660 tons, covers 2,000 acres (800 ha), and is 2,400 years old.  They are fungi that send threads throughout the forest soil.  The threads penetrate and wrap around tree roots.  They provide trees with water, nitrogen, and phosphorus, in exchange for sugar and other carbohydrates.  They discourage attacks from harmful fungi and bacteria, and they filter out heavy metals.

When a limb breaks off, unwelcome fungal spores arrive minutes later.  If the tree can close off the open wound in less than five years, the fungi won’t survive.  If the wound is too large, the fungi can cause destructive rot, possibly killing the tree.  When a gang of badass beetles invades, the tree secretes toxic compounds, and sends warnings to other trees via scent messages, and underground electrical signals.  Woodpeckers and friendly beetles attack the troublemakers.

Forests exist in a state of continuous change, but this is hard for us to see, because trees live much slower than we do.  They almost appear to be frozen in time.  Humans zoom through life like hamsters frantically galloping on treadmills, and we blink out in just a few decades.  In Sweden, scientists studied a spruce that appeared to be about 500 years old.  They were surprised to learn that it was growing from a root system that was 9,550 years old.

In Switzerland, construction workers uncovered stumps of trees that didn’t look very old.  Scientists examined them and discovered that they belonged to pines that lived 14,000 years ago.  Analyzing the rings of their trunks, they learned that the pines had survived a climate that warmed 42°F, and then cooled about the same amount — in a period of just 30 years!  This is the equivalent of our worst-case projections today.

Dinosaurs still exist in the form of birds, winged creatures that can quickly escape from hostile conditions.  Trees can’t fly, but they can migrate, slowly.  When the climate cools, they move south.  When it warms, they go north, like they are today — because of global warming, and because they continue to adapt to the end of the last ice age.  A strong wind can carry winged seeds a mile.  Birds can carry seeds several miles.  A beech tree tribe can advance about a quarter mile per year (0.4 km).

Compared to trees, the human genome has little variation.  We are like seven-point-something billion Barbie and Ken dolls.  Tree genomes are extremely diverse, and this is key for their survival.  Some trees are more drought tolerant, others are better with cold or moisture.  So change that kills some is less likely to kill all.  Wohlleben suspects that his beech forest will survive, as long as forest miners don’t wreck its soil or microclimate.  (Far more questionable is the future of corn, wheat, and rice, whose genetic diversity has been sharply reduced by the seed sellers of industrial agriculture.)

Trees have amazing adaptations to avoid inbreeding.  Winds and bees deliver pollen from distant trees.  The ovaries of bird cherry trees reject pollen from male blossoms on the same tree.  Willows have separate male trees and female trees.  Spruces have male and female blossoms, but they open several days apart.

Boars and deer love to devour acorns and beechnuts.  Feasting on nuts allows them to put on fat for the winter.  To avoid turning these animals into habitual parasites, nuts are not produced every year.  This limits the population of chubby nutters, and ensures that some seeds will survive and germinate.  If a beech lives 400 years, it will drop 1.8 million nuts.

On deciduous trees, leaves are solar panels.  They unfold in the spring, capture sunlight, and for several months manufacture sugar, cellulose, and other carbohydrates.  When the tree can store no more sugar, or when the first hard frost arrives, the solar panels are no longer needed.  Their chlorophyll is drained, and will be recycled next spring.  Leaves fall to the ground and return to humus.  The tree goes into hibernation, spending the winter surviving on stored sugar.  Now, with bare branches, the tree is far less vulnerable to damage from strong winds, heavy wet snows, and ice storms.

In addition to rotting leaves, a wild forest also transforms fallen branches and trunks into carbon rich humus.  Year after year, the topsoil becomes deeper, healthier, and more fertile.  Tree plantations, on the other hand, send the trunks to saw mills.  So, every year, tons of precious biomass are shipped away, to planet Consume.  This depletes soil fertility, and encourages erosion.  Plantation trees are more vulnerable to insects and diseases.  Because their root systems never develop normally, the trees are more likely to blow down.

From cover to cover, the book presents fascinating observations.  By the end, readers are likely to imagine that undisturbed forests are vastly more intelligent than severely disturbed communities of radicalized consumers.  More and more, scientists are muttering and snarling, as the imaginary gulf between the plant and animal worlds fades away.  Wohlleben is not a vegetarian, because experience has taught him that plants are no less alive, intelligent, and sacred than animals.  It’s a wonderful book.  I’m serious!

Wohlleben, Peter, The Hidden Life of Trees — What They Feel, How They Communicate, Greystone Books, Berkeley, 2016. 

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Call of Distant Mammoths

I’ve long been interested in the megafauna extinctions of Pleistocene North America.  A number of books endorse Paul Martin’s “Pleistocene Overkill Hypothesis,” which asserts that the early humans on the continent were “super predators” who launched a blitzkrieg of overhunting.  Hunting began in northwest Canada, and spread south and east like a wild fire.  Within 2,000 years, at least 33 genera (50 species) of large mammals went extinct — many more than in the preceding three million years.  At first contact, large animals who had never before seen odd-looking humans, did not sense danger.

In other locations, when humans first arrived, extinctions followed — for example, Australia, New Zealand, Madagascar, and Caribbean islands.  Hunting, and hunting alone, was the cause, said Martin.  His ideas really pissed off Native Americans, like Vine Deloria, because overkill implied that Indians were as foolish as Euro Americans.

Deloria blasted the hypothesis, pointing to the fantastic number of bones found in northern Siberia — mammoths, mastodons, rhinos, horses, bison.  Chinese have been hauling away mammoth tusks since medieval times, and this ivory is still being mined today; a high-quality tusk can fetch over $40,000.  The white keys on grandma’s piano might be mammoth ivory.

These bones were not the result of a blitzkrieg.  Mastodons had been living in Siberia for 400,000 years, and woolly mammoths for 250,000 years.  The frigid climate helped to preserve their remains.  In central Russia, more than 70 mammoth bone huts have been found.  One hut had 385 bones, and weighed 20 tons.

I just read The Call of Distant Mammoths by paleontologist Peter Ward, and learned a lot about extinction and evolution.  I’ve often wondered how hairy lads, on foot, with wooden spears, were able to exterminate every horse in all of North America within 2,000 years.  Bison were also residents of the open plains, able to sprint up to 35 miles per hour, and they did not go extinct — and horses could run even faster.

Ward introduces us to the climate change hypothesis.  During the two million year Ice Age (the Pleistocene), there were at least 18 glaciation cycles.  Until the last cycle, the megafauna had mostly survived.  The last one began 18,000 years ago, and it was the most intense of all.  It ended 12,000 years ago.  The ice pack melted, forest advanced, and habitats rapidly changed.  The mammoth tundra fragmented and shrank, which split the herbivore population into isolated groups.

Ward also studied the extinction of dinosaurs.  They roamed the Earth for 160 million years, and then disappeared.  Ward was an early advocate of the notion that the dinosaur mass extinction was sudden, caused by an asteroid strike near Chicxulub, Mexico.  Some say it resulted in a decade of near-freezing temperatures on a planet that was largely tropical.

Throughout the dinosaur era, small mammals also existed — insect eating night creatures.  The extinction of dinosaurs eliminated large animals, and made the age of mammals possible.  If not for the asteroid, humans and elephants would have never evolved.  Mammoth country once ranged from France to Siberia to New York.

Our primate ancestors evolved in the trees.  Their tropical homeland was eventually chilled by an era of glaciation.  It thinned the rainforest, and expanded savannahs, which encouraged the evolution of large mammals, including our hominid ancestors.  Thus, you and I are the children of climate change and asteroids.

Evolution is a process that creates and deletes species.  New species can only emerge when a group becomes isolated, evolves unique traits, and eventually becomes unable to interbreed with their old kin.  Homo sapiens come in many sizes, shapes, and colors, but all belong to the same species, because we can all interbreed.  Ward expects white skinned people to disappear in a few thousand years, because of their increasing vulnerability to skin cancer.

Our cultural myths tell us that humans are continuously getting smarter.  Ward believes that the brains of modern humans are essentially the same as the first Homo sapiens in Africa, 125,000 to 200,000 years ago (but we’ve learned lots of stuff since then).  Once a new species emerges, it changes little thereafter.  Humans are the last species of the hominids, and this has risks.  A gene pool has better odds for long-term survival when it diversifies into multiple species, as the ants have.

Another way for critters to avoid extinction is to become generalists, like humans, rats, and cockroaches, who have adapted to many different ecosystems around the world.  Today, humans live everywhere.  There is no place a group could remain isolated for millennia.  So, there is little chance for a new hominid species to emerge.

Evolution is random, like tossing dice.  The process is influenced by ongoing environmental change, natural selection, and genetic drift (chance genetic changes).  Evolution has no foresight; it can’t anticipate coming changes.  It’s not always progressive.  Greenland ice core data tells us that there have been times when global temperature changed up to 18°F in a few decades.  Many gene pools that work well in one set of conditions will fail to adapt to sudden shifts.

The golden rule of evolution is adapt or die.  Ward doesn’t discuss cultural evolution, which is a million times faster than genetic evolution, and has catapulted humankind onto extremely thin ice, by overloading our tropical primate brains with way too many half-smart ideas.  We are, by far, the world champion resource parasites.  We are hurling countless species into the abyss in our insane impossible quest for perpetual economic growth.

In an extremely quirky twist, Ward celebrates human supremacy at causing mass extinction.  “We are the comet now.  And not only have we won the game of evolution; we control the rules of the game,” he wrote.  “And to this winner, in my view, goes an even greater prize: species immortality.  It is my opinion that no matter where on the board we humans land and no matter what card we draw, we cannot be knocked into extinction.”  Who could disagree?

The book was written 20 years ago, when resource limits and climate change were still dumb ideas among the lunatic fringe — rational people.  Ward is employed in academia, which remains a militant hotbed of radicalized human supremacists.

OK, back to the megafauna.  Doubts are growing about the overkill hypothesis.  Martin claimed a sudden 2,000-year rampage wiped out the megafauna, but this was based on data generated by obsolete dating technology.  Improved dating does not confirm sudden extinction.  Martin claimed the extinctions fanned out in a wave, beginning in Alberta — so kill sites far from there should be more recent.  They aren’t.  We have only discovered a dozen sites where human artifacts are found with mammoth remains.

Dan Fisher has studied of mammoth tusks in Michigan and Ohio.  Tusks have annual rings inside, like tree trunks.  Rings are thin in hungry years.  In female tusks, rings mark each pregnancy, providing a birth rate.  If climate change had killed the mammoths, the rings would indicate malnutrition, but Fisher found that the last mammoths were “fat, fit, and well fed.”

Ward suspects that the mammoths were not the victims of a blitzkrieg.  Unlike bunnies, mammoths were slow to mature, and had low reproduction rates.  If hunters had regularly taken just two percent of the animals each year, the extinction process would have taken 400 years — too slow for each generation of hunters to notice.  Hunting alone could have wiped them out.  Ward thinks that if there had been no hunting, mammoths would probably have survived the warming climate.

In the 1990s, editors adamantly insisted that manuscripts like Ward’s include brilliant solutions and happy endings, because bummer books didn’t sell.  So, his mammoth book ends with a happy visit to the year 3001.  Population was well below its peak of 11 billion.  The U.S. grain belt was a desert.  African survivors were healthy vegetarians with solar panels and pedal-powered transport.  The rainforest was long gone, replaced with endless fields of GMO crops.  Wildlife and livestock had been eliminated by starving hordes.  Happily, the human species survived — hooray!

Compulsory happy endings meant that vital knowledge was deliberately withheld from an entire generation, who are now teachers, reporters, and leaders.  Even today, a “don’t frighten the children” strategy remains common among educators, and young minds are still being infected with a carcinogenic worldview.  Bummer!

Ward, Peter D., The Call of Distant Mammoths, Copernicus, New York, 1997.