Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Last of the Nomads



Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to introduce you to Yatungka and her husband Warri, the last two Mandildjara people to live in the traditional way on the Western Gibson Desert of Australia.  William Peasley wrote their saga in The Last of the Nomads.

Aborigines have one of the oldest continuous cultures on Earth.  They have lived in Australia for at least 40,000 years, some say 60,000.  Nomads first inhabited the more fertile regions, leaving the deserts for later.  Folks have lived in the Gibson for maybe 20,000 years.  Most readers, if dropped off in the Gibson, naked, with a spear and boomerang, would be dead in a day or three.  Water is extremely scarce.  For the paleface colonizers, the desert is dangerous, miserable, a land of horrors.  For Aborigines, it was home sweet home, where they belonged, a sacred place.  They had an intimate understanding of the land, and learned how to live in balance with it.

Yatungka and Warri spent most of their adult lives as pariahs, because their relationship violated a tribal law that defined permitted and forbidden marriages.  Laws were taken very seriously.  If they returned to their people, they might be beaten, or even killed.  So, their family lived away from the tribe, wandering from waterhole to waterhole, hunting and foraging.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the government made efforts to move the Aborigines into settlements, where intense culture shock led many to lose their identity, become massively depressed alcoholics, and abandon their ancient traditions.  The sons and kinfolk who stayed with Yatungka and Warri eventually moved off to civilization, but the outlaw couple feared to join them.

Anyway, in 1977, it was the third year of an extreme drought, the worst in a century, maybe the worst in many centuries.  The kinfolk of the outlaw couple were worried about them.  Mudjon was a respected elder who had been raised on the desert in the traditional way.  He knew all the waterholes, and cared about Yatungka and Warri.  His dream was to take the Mandildjara people back to their desert paradise, return to the old ways, and preserve their traditions.  Few of the young were interested.

Mudjon asked a white friend to help him search for the couple, and he agreed.  Mudjon was joined by five white lads, including Peasley.  They loaded up three vehicles and took off across the vast roadless desert.  Mudjon knew that this was probably his last visit to the territory of his people, and the last time a traditional Aborigine would drink from each well, or leave footprints in the dirt.  Peasley noted, “It was very sad for him to move through the land where once his people hunted and laughed and sang around the campfires.”

The chapters describing the long search contain some fascinating passages about the old way of life.  Mudjon was a master at reading the land, noticing the countless slight details that provided strong and detailed messages to him, but were invisible to the whites.  Without a map for the 1,500 km (932 mi) journey, he guided the team from waterhole to waterhole, looking for signs of the couple.  It was a powerful experience for him, to see old campsites, windbreaks, caves, springs, rock paintings, and other artifacts — the remains of an ancient culture.

Eventually they found signs of the missing couple.  At several locations, Mudjon started a brushfire that sent smoke high into the sky, where it would have been visible from up to 160 km (99 mi) away.  Warri did not respond with a smoke signal.

It was an ancient custom of the desert people to routinely light brushfires as they journeyed from waterhole to waterhole.  This had three benefits.  (1) Fire flushed out hidden game.  (2) It signaled their progress to other groups.  (3) It regenerated the earth and stimulated plant growth.  Fresh green sprouts attracted game.  Wildlife became dependent on burning.  This was called firestick farming.  In recent decades, in regions no longer visited, the burning has ceased, the water holes are not kept cleared, and animal and bird life largely disappeared.

One happy day, they saw smoke from Warri, and drove to his campsite.  When Mudjon greeted him, there were no smiles, hugs, or handshakes.  Warri was about 150 cm (5 ft) tall, naked, extremely thin, and both eyes were inflamed.  He wasn’t strong enough to hunt, so they were living on quandongs (peach-like fruit).  Yatungka returned from foraging with several dingo dogs.  She displayed no signs of excitement.  She was about 165 cm (5’ 5”) tall, younger, naked, very thin, but in much better physical condition.

They would not survive much longer at the waterhole.  The rescue party knew that the nearest well that still had some water was 150 km (93 mi) away, an impossible journey on foot.  The couple agreed to return to the Wiluna settlement with Mudjon and company.  They wanted to see their sons again.  Mudjon assured them that there would be no drama about the taboo violated long ago.

In Wiluna, many folks came to look at the long-missing couple, and were stunned to see their emaciated condition.  “There were no greetings, no shouts of joy, in fact there was no sign of recognition on either side, and yet the sons of Warri and Yatungka were within a few meters of their parents.”  Tears streamed down the cheeks of Warri and many others.  A few months later, Mudjon got very sick, declined, and died.  A year after their return, Warri and Yatungka caught a disease.  He died in April 1979, and she died a few weeks later.

For me, this was a powerful book, not primarily for what it said, but for the silent message unperceived by the white heroes who came to the rescue.  Peasley spent his boyhood on a farm in Australia, and he sometimes discovered signs of prehistoric campsites.  He felt sad that, after more than 40,000 years on the land, the people had not been able to leave behind anything more significant than simple campsites, grinding stones, rock paintings, and so on.

For me, this low impact living was an amazing achievement.  They successfully adapted to a hot dry ecosystem, and it was a wonderful home for them.  What a terrible problem!  The Gibson Desert that the rescue party drove across looked nearly the same as it did 1,000 years ago, or 10,000.  The silent message screams “genuine sustainability, beautiful, healthy culture!”

Humans are also capable of adapting to godforsaken nightmares like Chicago, jammed together with millions of isolated, anxious, stressed out, depressed strangers… ah, the wonders of progress!  The rescue party was proud of their advanced technology, which gave them the ability to dominate, exploit, and rubbish the continent.  What significant artifacts will they leave behind to impress the youngsters of generations yet to be born?  Will the land be in no worse condition in another 1,000 or 10,000 years?  These questions are taboo, heresy in a culture whose god-word is Growth.

Peasley did confess to having some uncomfortable thoughts.  When the rescue party knew that the couple was alive and nearby, he realized, “We were about to intrude into the lives of the last nomadic people in the Western Gibson Desert, and in doing so, it was possible that we might be responsible for bringing to an end a way of life that had gone on for several thousand years.”

Peasley, William John, The Last of the Nomads, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, Australia, 1983.

The Last Nomads is a 45 minute Australian documentary of this story.

The Future Eaters provides an environmental history of wild Australia, the early human impacts, the mass extinctions, and the lessons painfully learned.

The Life and Adventures of William Buckley tells the story of an Englishman who abandoned civilization and spent 32 years as a hunter-gatherer in the early days of Australian colonization.

The Life and Adventures of William Buckley



William Buckley was born in Cheshire, England in 1780.  He was trained to be a bricklayer, but the monotonous work bored him.  He joined the militia and was a soldier for four years.  Then, he met some scruffy lads, and got busted for receiving stolen property.  In 1803, he was rewarded for his mischief with a one-way nine-month pleasure cruise to a luxurious resort for white trash in Middle of Nowhere, Australia.  He never saw his family again.

It was not a high security penal colony, because fleeing into the vast wilderness was essentially suicide.  In just three months the prison routine got unbearably boring, and Buckley joined three other lads in a great escape.  One was shot by a guard, and the two others soon lost their courage and gave up.  Buckley was a stubborn cuss, not an obedient bootlicker.  He refused to surrender, bid farewell to his cowardly mates, and abandoned the British Empire.  Good luck Willy!

A mile or two later, in an incredible act, he passed through a time warp, and entered a vast Stone Age wilderness inhabited by cannibals, venomous snakes, and vicious packs of dingo dogs.  He was free as can be, suddenly a clueless unarmed hunter-gatherer in a reality quite similar to 40,000 B.C.  For the next 32 years, he never saw a civilized person, forgot his mother tongue, ceased knowing what year it was, and continuously worked to improve his survival skills.  Fresh air, sunshine, and absolute freedom.  Imagine that!  His escape inspires pleasant fantasies for daydreaming corporate inmates trapped in cubicle farm workstations.

In the next several months, Buckley ate shellfish and occasionally observed a few passing natives.  One day he stumbled upon a grave with a spear sticking out of it — Lucky Willy’s salvation.  He took the spear, and used it for a walking stick.  Later, while having a pleasant nap, he was spotted by two native women, who returned to their camp with wondrous news of a white man.  Everyone came to see him, and he was given the name Murrangurk, the name of the corpse in the grave, previous owner of the spear.  They believe that after death, souls return as white men.  They were very happy to find him, and Willy now had relatives who held him in great awe.

Over time, he mastered their language.  He learned a great deal about hunting, fishing, and foraging.  He now dined on organic swans, emus, shellfish, shrimp, opossums, squirrels, large ants, roots, wombats, kangaroos, black snakes, grubs, lizards, toads, rats, and mice.  Yum!  Technology included long spears, short spears, spear throwers, boomerangs, tomahawks, shrimp nets, and fire-making sticks.  Their portable mansions were bark tents.  They weren’t too interested in clothing, fashionable folks wore a few strips of hide.

His saga often mentions seeing gatherings of 100, 200, and 300 natives, which surprised me.  My minimal knowledge of Aborigines, based on twentieth century commentaries, led me to believe that they lived in small groups in a harsh land where food was scarce.  Buckley indicated that they were intimately attuned to the cycles of the seasons, knowing when and where abundant food was likely to be found, for a temporary span of time.  They lived a wandering life, trying to move from one food banquet to the next, improvising along the way.

Buckley arrived in Australia in 1803, just one year after the first non-Australian arrived in the wilderness.  Willy spent 32 years with the Wathaurong Aborigines in the Port Phillip and Geelong districts (near Melbourne), and then made contact with sailors in 1835.  In about 1849, as he neared the end of his life, he told his story to impoverished journalist John Morgan.  Buckley could not read or write.  The saga he told was based entirely on memory, long after the events occurred.  He especially remembered the events that had made the deepest impressions on him — conflict and bloodshed.

Throughout the short book, he describes numerous violent events.  Many folks were speared to death, and many of their corpses were eaten.  Very often, women were the cause of bloody disputes.  These conflicts were commonly resolved by spearing the woman, or the man who was with her, who was not her husband.  Whenever someone was speared, the family of the victim was obliged to seek revenge, immediately, or at a convenient opportunity in the future.  If the chief offender was not available, a member of his family would do.  Sometimes two tribes clashed in large rumbles, and several died in the process.

Buckley reported that all deaths were believed to be the result of human agency, never natural causes.  For example, when a man from an enemy tribe died from a snakebite, Buckley’s tribal brother-in-law was suspected of sorcery or something.  The enemies attacked and speared the family that had kindly adopted him.  Buckley became an orphan in a dangerous world, and he cried and cried for hours.

He felt safe and relaxed when living alone by a river or shore, but dangerous people could suddenly appear at any hour.  Any day he could become the main course at dinner.  One white man who met him later in life said he was of “a nervous and irritable disposition, and a little thing will annoy him much.”  Another noted that he “was always discontented and dissatisfied.”

His wild days ended when he met some sailors on the shore.  They were utterly surprised to see a dirty, nearly naked, six foot five inch (2 m) white man with long flowing hair, and a spear.  It took him some time to remember English.  He was greatly relieved to return to civilized society.  He worked as an interpreter for colonists.  Their mission was to meet native chiefs, and buy their land for a pile of trinkets.  The natives had no chiefs, and no concept of owning land or selling it, but they did have a fondness for blankets, knives, and stuff.  They did not understand what these transactions actually meant.

Buckley the bricklayer built the chimney for the first brick house in a primitive frontier settlement now known as Melbourne.  Before long, a steady stream of ships was unloading settlers.  Pissed off natives found exciting new opportunities in sheep rustling, looting, and spearing terrorists.  There were many conflicts, and the well-armed terrorists eventually conquered the Aborigines, and profitably began mining the soil, grassland, forests, and wildlife.  Buckley married the widow of a friend who had been speared.  Soon after, he got typhus.  In 1856, he died of injuries received from being run over by an ox cart in Hobart.  The end.

This is a short book, and Morgan was not a master wordsmith.  The book is a unique snapshot of a time, a place, and a life — a reminder of the era of low impact living.  It’s an effective antidote for those who suffer from the illusion that wild tribes of hunter-gatherers universally enjoyed idyllic lives of love, peace, and happiness.  It’s also sad. 

Today, two centuries later, the wild ecosystem of 1803 has been severely and permanently damaged.  This is not a path with a long future.  The Aboriginal path very closely resembled genuine sustainability.  All paths include some conflict and bloodshed, some coherence and happiness.  We live in interesting times.

Morgan, John, The Life and Adventures of William Buckley, 1852, Reprint, William Heinemann Ltd, Melbourne, 1967.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Against the Grain



James C. Scott teaches political science and anthropology at Yale.  He’s a smooth writer and a deep thinker.  A while back, he decided to update two lectures on agrarian societies that he had been giving for 20 years.  He began studying recent research and — gasp! — realized that significant portions of traditional textbook history had the strong odor of moldy cultural myths.  So, a quick update project turned into five years, and resulted in a manuscript that I found to be remarkably stimulating, from cover to cover —  Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States.

While the human saga is several million years old, and Homo sapiens appeared on the stage maybe 200,000 years ago, the origin myth I was taught began just 10,000 years ago, with domestication and civilization.  We were transformed from hungry, dirty, dolts into brilliant philosophers, scientists, and artists, who lived indoors, wore cool clothes, and owned lots of slaves.

As a curious animal interested in ecological sustainability, I’m amazed that every other animal species has, for millions of years, lived on this planet without destabilizing the climate, spurring mass extinctions, poisoning everything, and generally beating the <bleep> out of the planet.  These are the unintended consequences of our reckless joyride in a hotrod of turbocharged progress.  They define the primary aspects of a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, the era when tropical primates with huge throbbing brains left permanent scars on the planet.

Experts argue about when the Anthropocene began.  Did it start with the sorcery of nuclear fission, or the curse of fossil-powered industry?  Many point to the domestication of plants and animals, and the birth of civilization.  Scott is among the few who say it began with the domestication of fire, which occurred at least 400,000 years ago, sparked by our Homo erectus ancestors.  Every other species continues to survive via the original power source, the sun’s wildfire.  Plants grow green solar panels that produce the nutrients that keep the fauna alive and happy, a perfectly brilliant design.

Imagine waving a magic wand, and eliminating everything in the world made possible by domesticated fire — no metal, no concrete, no plastic, no glowing screens.  Would humans still be around?  Fire historian Stephen Pyne concluded, “Without fire humanity sinks to a status of near helplessness.”  We wouldn’t be able to survive outside the tropics.  The plant and animal species that enabled civilization lived north of the tropics (see THIS).  Without domesticated fire, we’d still be wild and free — and far less crowded.

Scott focused on southern Mesopotamia, because it was the birthplace of the earliest genuine states.  What are states?  They are hierarchical societies, with rulers and tax collectors, rooted in a mix of farming and herding.  The primary food of almost every early state was wheat, barley, or rice.  Taxes were paid with grain, which was easier to harvest, transport, and store than yams or breadfruit.  States often had armies, defensive walls, palaces or ritual centers, slaves, and maybe a king or queen.

The moldy myths imply that domesticated plants and animals, sedentary communities, and fixed-field agriculture emerged in a close sequence.  Wrong!  There is scattered evidence of sedentary hunter-gatherers by 12,000 B.C.  Domestication began around 9000 B.C.  It took at least four thousand years (160 generations!) before agricultural villages appeared, and then another two thousand years before the first states emerged, around 3100 B.C.

Moldy myths assume that the Fertile Crescent has been a desert since humans first arrived.  Wrong!  Southern Mesopotamia used to be wetlands, a cornucopia of wild foods, a paradise for hunters and gatherers.  There was so much to eat that it was possible to quit wandering and live in settled communities.  “Edible plants included club rush, cattails, water lily, and bulrush.  They ate tortoises, fish, mollusks, crustaceans, birds, waterfowl, small mammals, and migrating gazelles.”  In a land of abundance, it would have been absolutely stupid to pursue the backbreaking drudgery of agriculture.

Moldy myths often give us the “backs-to-the-wall” explanation for the shift to agriculture, which was far more work.  Simply, we had run out of new alternatives for feeding a growing mob, while hunting was producing less meat, and wild plants were producing less food.  We had no choice!  But in the Middle East, there appears to be no firm evidence associating early cultivation with the decline of either game animals or forage. 

Cultivation seems to have emerged in regions of abundance, not scarcity.  Every year, floods deposited silt along the riverbanks, moist fertile soil ready for sowing.  So, flood-retreat farming would have required far less toil than tilling fields, while producing useful nutrients.  More nutrients enabled further population growth, which eventually pressed the shift to miserable labor-intensive irrigated agriculture.

The root of “domestication” is “domus” (the household).  In early Mesopotamia, “the domus was a unique and unprecedented concentration of tilled fields, seed and grain stores, people, and domestic animals, all coevolving with consequences no one could have possibly foreseen.”  As a result of living on the domus, animals (including humans) were changed, both physically and behaviorally.  In this process, wild species became domesticated.  Over time, some species became “fully domesticated” — genetically altered, entirely dependent on humans for their survival.  Domestication was also about deliberate control over reproduction, which “applied not only to fire, plants, and animals but also to slaves, state subjects, and women in the patriarchal family.”

Domesticated sheep have brains 24 percent smaller than their wild ancestors.  Pig brains are a third smaller.  Protected from predators, regularly fed, with restricted freedom of movement, they became less alert, less anxious, less aggressive — pudgy passive dimwit meatballs.  They reached reproductive age sooner, and produced far more offspring.

“The multispecies resettlement camp was, then, not only a historic assemblage of mammals in numbers and proximity never previously known, but it was also an assembly of all the bacteria, protozoa, helminthes, and viruses that fed on them.”  The domus was a magnet for uninvited guests: fleas, ticks, leeches, mosquitoes, lice, and mites.  Unnatural crowds of animals spent their lives walking around in poop, and drinking dirty water.  It was a devilishly brilliant incubator for infectious diseases.  Humans share a large number of diseases with other domus animals, including poultry (26), rats and mice (32), horses (35), pigs (42), sheep and goats (46), cattle (50), and dogs (65).

Other writers have noted that, prior to contact, Native Americans had no epidemic diseases.  With very few domesticated animals, they lacked state of the art disease incubators.  Scott goes one step further, asserting that prior to the domus, there was little or no epidemic disease in the Old World.  “The importance of sedentism and the crowding it allowed can hardly be overestimated. It means that virtually all the infectious diseases due to microorganisms specifically adapted to Homo sapiens came into existence only in the past ten thousand years, many of them perhaps only in the past five thousand.”  Thus, the humans that first crossed from Siberia to North America 13,000 years ago were free of disease because little or no infectious disease existed anywhere in the world!

Dense monocultures of plants also begged for trouble.  “Crops not only are threatened, as are humans, with bacterial, fungal, and viral diseases, but they face a host of predators large and small — snails, slugs, insects, birds, rodents, and other mammals, as well as a large variety of evolving weeds that compete with the cultivar for nutrition, water, light, and space.”  Once harvested and stored in the granary, grain could be lost to weevils, rodents, and fungi.  The biggest vulnerability of states was that they were almost entirely dependent on a single annual harvest of one or two staple grains.  Crops could be wiped out by drought, flood, pests, storm damage, or crop diseases.

Mesopotamian life was largely human powered.  Workers grew the grain that the tax man hauled away to the plump elites.  More workers meant more wealth and power for the big shots.  In screw-brained hierarchical cultures (including ours), it’s impossible to have too much wealth.  Therefore, peasants and slaves were husbanded like livestock.  The diabolical “more is better” disease was devastating.  Some believe that monumental walls were built as much for defense as to prevent taxpayers and slaves from escaping to freedom.

Early states were vulnerable in many ways, and they frequently collapsed.  Collapse sounds like a tragedy.  But it could simply mean breaking up into smaller components.  Larger was not necessarily better.  A drought might cause a state’s population to disperse.  For the non-elites, life in a Mesopotamian state could be oppressive and miserable.  Sometimes, collapse was a cause for celebration.  Yippee!

Anyway, the book is fascinating.  Readers also learn about the tax game, the vital slave industry, trade networks, deforestation, erosion, soil salinization, irrigation, looting and raiding, mass escapes of workers, the challenges and benefits of being surrounded by large numbers of aggressive nomadic herders, and on and on.  It’s an outstanding book!

WARNING:  The expensive Kindle edition contains numerous charts, maps, and diagrams.  When downloaded to the Kindle for PC application (v 1.20.1), most are unreadably small, even on a 24” monitor.  Clever nerds can tediously capture the images to another application, expand them, and read them.  Strong reading glasses (3.75 lens or higher) also work with a big monitor.

Scott, James C., Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2017. 

Four Domestications is a free PDF download, the 48-page text of a lecture Scott gave at Harvard.  It includes some of the foundation ideas for his new book.

Seeing Like a State is a free PDF download of Scott’s 1998 book, a companion for his new book.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Surviving the 21st Century



In the old Three Stooges comedies, whenever Curly did something dumb, angry Moe gave him a dope slap (SMACK!).  With regard to humankind’s war on the future, a number of thinkers have been inspired to write passionate dope slap books, including Man and Nature (1864), Conservation of Natural Resources (1910), Checking the Waste (1911), Our Vanishing Wild Life (1913).  Dope slap books are a two-step: (1) describe the terrible growing harms, and (2) provide a motivating pep talk loaded with rational solutions — based on the assumption that the society is rational.

In the last 30 years, a tsunami of dope slap books have flooded the market.  The latest comes from Australian science writer Julian Cribb, Surviving the 21st Century.  He does a great job of providing a competent and sobering introduction to ecological reality in 2017 — vital knowledge that every 16-year old (and their teachers) should know (but don’t).  He’s good at explaining complex challenges in an understandable way.

The book has ten chapters, each discussing a category of serious risks.  (1) Dangerous overconfidence in human brilliance.  (2) Mass extinctions.  (3) Degrading the planet.  (4) Industrial warfare.  (5) Climate change.  (6) Pollution.  (7) Feeding an overgrown herd.  (8) Urban growth and disease.  (9) Moronic beliefs that trump scientific facts.  (10) It’s time for action — think like a species.

Humankind’s current mass hysteria has an oxymoronic name, Sustainable Growth™, and its destination is oblivion.  We are going to be slamming head-on, at high speed, into crucial limits — a magnificently irrational course of action.  Cribb prefers a mindful Plan B, a gradual, managed, and cooperative path to a slower, simpler, far less crowded future.

All humans have a hardcore addiction to food.  In his 2010 book, The Coming Famine (reviewed HERE), Cribb described the enormous degradation caused by feeding an ever growing population, and presented readers with many rational suggestions.  In the following seven years, the naughty world largely disregarded his recommendations.

In this new book, Cribb dreams of miraculously doubling food production, and feeding the growing mob until we hit Peak People, at ten or twelve billion, in 2060.  All nations will heroically cooperate in rapidly making many rational (and extremely radical) changes, we’ll avoid total catastrophe, and proceed with a bumpy but tolerable decline to a sustainable population of somewhere between two and four billion by 2100.  That’s a big dream.

Is it really possible to feed ten billion?  Readers learn that there are no new plant breeding miracles on the horizon.  In the 1960s, the Green Revolution research had noble intentions — temporarily boost food production, so humankind would have an extra ten years to resolve its embarrassing orgy of overbreeding.  It was a beautiful dream.  Food production actually doubled.  Unfortunately, the population problem was swept under the bed, and the human herd more than doubled, intensifying the original problem.

Hopium addicts have no doubt that the wizards of science will save the day.  GMO plants have been a stunning success at boosting the sales of toxic agrochemicals, but they have had minimal impact on harvest volumes.  The current rate at which we are depleting underground aquifers, and other freshwater resources, is going to crash into limits before 2030.  Destruction of the planet’s remaining topsoil continues at an impressive rate.  Food production trends are not encouraging.

“Outside of a nuclear war or asteroid collision, the biggest shock in store for the human population in the 21st Century will be the impact of climate change on the food supply.”  Luckily, readers discover a plan for doubling food production by solving big problems.  We’ll create a new form of agriculture that can survive in an unstable climate, produce lots of excellent food, and do so sustainably — without using a spoonful of fossil fuel!  We’ll make sustainable oil from algae.

The required inputs for algae farms are sunshine, salt water, and urban wastes.  “Algal oil… can be made into anything you can make from fossil petroleum — ‘green’ fuel, plastics, textiles, chemicals, drugs, food additives.  Furthermore, researchers have calculated, algae could supply the world’s entire transport fuel requirement from an area of 57 million hectares — which is a bit smaller than Switzerland — and can mostly be in the ocean in any case.”

Belief is the subject of the fascinating chapter nine, and something I’ve thought a lot about.  Belief may very well be the biggest threat to the survival of our species, worse than all the other threats combined.  Even the most ridiculous, insanely stupid, self-destructive beliefs can be highly contagious, readily passing from one generation to the next, fully resistant to reason, common sense, or factual reality.  Belief trumps reason.

Belief insists that human-caused climate change is impossible.  Humans do not share common ancestors with chimps and baboons.  Technology can solve any problem.  Perpetual growth is possible on a finite planet.  Good consumers must gain respect and honor by devoting their lives to working hard (at soul killing jobs), recklessly borrowing, impulsively spending, proudly hoarding trendy status trinkets, and promptly discarding trinkets the moment they cease being trendy.

Cribb believes that foresight is our ultimate skill, enabling us to perceive potential dangers, avoid them, and survive.  Wild humans, intimately attuned to the complex patterns of their ecosystem, excelled at foresight.  We don’t.  We are cursed to inhabit an industrial culture that mutates at a furious rate.  New technologies are often obsolete in five or ten years.  We can never become intimately attuned to something similar to a high-speed runaway train.

We’re trapped in a cycle of repeated mistakes, perpetually erecting new empires, watching them self-destruct, and never learning.  We’ve installed at least 440 nuclear power plants before we’ve built a single facility for safely storing the radioactive wastes that can remain highly toxic for a million years.  Nobody had the foresight to predict the staggering consequences of the Ford Model T, or the microchip, or metal smelting.  Hey, let’s colonize other planets!

Crusty old farts like myself, who have been reading dope slap books for 30 years, and observing how little they inspire society, no longer shout and cheer when the latest vision rolls by.  Cribb does an excellent job describing the challenges.  His grand vision requires humankind to undergo an amazing transformation, from the pathetic dullard Homo delusus (self-deceiving human) into the new, wise, and beautiful Homo sapiens (wise human).

Cribb has no doubt that “solutions to all of these challenges exist or can be developed.”  Today, essential information can be instantly shared with people everywhere in the world.  Scientific knowledge grows exponentially every decade.  Intelligent change is entirely possible!  Around the world, young women are having fewer children — voluntarily!  We are not obligated to commit mass suicide.

Understand that this is a textbook for college students.  Universities are monasteries that instruct the next generation in the management of Sustainable Growth™.  They require textbooks that reinforce the loony beliefs of the hopeless Homo delusus.  Cribb makes a heroic effort to tap-dance across a ballroom where the entire floor is covered with greased marbles.  It’s obvious that he is acutely aware of the growing challenges of reality (which are heretical nonsense at the monastery).  He knows that the young novices are likely to learn little or nothing about these challenges — unless he cleverly sneaks them into a gospel that appears to be orthodox.

Today’s novices are 100 times smarter than slobbering geezers over 30.  They are acutely aware that they have inherited a catastrophe.  They don’t need a dope slap.  They know that transforming all of nature into toxic landfill dreck is insane.  Hopefully, Cribb’s book will help the novices bombard the abbots with high-powered questions, and encourage our species to shift toward becoming Homo sapiens.  Good luck!

Cribb, Julian, Surviving the 21st Century: Humanity’s Ten Great Challenges and How We Can Overcome Them, Springer International Publishing, Switzerland, 2017.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Safety Nets



Today, a few billion humans live in affluence.  Their unsustainable societies have social safety nets made possible by nonrenewable energy.  When they are disrupted by hurricanes, earthquakes, or famine, food relief is usually shipped in from other regions, preventing mass starvation.  For most of the human saga, each clan or community was on its own, far less likely to be rescued by outsiders.

The San people have the oldest DNA of any living culture.  Their DNA is the genetic foundation of nearly all modern humans.  Until recent decades, they had a sustainable safety net, but herders, farmers, and others have pushed them off most of their traditional territory.  The San now inhabit the Kalahari Desert.  On average, two of every five years are drought years, and severe droughts occur one in every four years. 

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas has spent a lot of time with the San.  She wrote her first book about them in 1958, and her third book in 2006.  Like any intelligent culture, their safety net included careful family planning, to avoid the suffering caused by overpopulation, and its trusty companions: environmental degradation, hunger, and conflict.

Because of low body fat and hard work, San women began menstruating later.  Some did not have monthly periods.  Children were usually nursed for about four years, which further reduced mom’s fertility.  Most of the women had one to four offspring.  Nomads moved frequently, and belongings and infants had to be hauled long distances.  A woman could only carry one infant, so just one twin was kept.

When a child could not be kept, the woman gave birth alone, away from the camp, and buried the newborn before it drew breath.  In their culture, a newborn did not immediately become alive, so disposing it was OK.  Crippled or badly deformed infants were not kept, because they would be a drain on the wellbeing of the band.  To avoid unwanted pregnancies in harsh times, it was common for folks to abstain from intercourse. 

Richard Lee wrote about the San.  Their primary food was mongongo nuts, which dropped once a year, but could be gathered all year long.  Their secondary food was meat.  The Kalahari provided them with about 100 edible plant species, which they were careful not to overuse.  The San expected periodic times of scarcity, so they reserved some plant species for drought food.  Portions of their territory were set aside for lean times.

John Reader wrote about an extreme drought in Botswana that lasted three years, resulting in the deaths of 250,000 cattle and 180,000 people.  The San didn’t starve.  Each week they spent 12 to 19 hours foraging for their sustenance.  They knew how to live.

The outlook for our highly unsustainable society is daunting.  It depends on a stable climate, and ever-diminishing energy resources.  Our safety net is something like a time bomb — tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock…

The San thrived by carefully adapting to their wild ecosystem.  Consumers thrive by eliminating wild ecosystems and replacing them with forest mines, soil mines, mineral mines, permanent settlements, and complex industrial systems.  Our way of life cannot survive a three year disconnect from fossil energy, or three years of abnormal weather.

In the far north, the Eskimos also had safety nets.  The super-frigid arctic was an immensely challenging habitat for hairless tropical primates.  Beyond seasonal eggs and berries, little foraging was possible.  Meat was the primary food, and hunting was never reliable.

Storing meat or eggs in a treeless land inhabited by hungry polar bears and wolves was not easy.  Their food preservation methods would gag suburban consumers.  In Greenland, Knud Rasmussen got salmonella after eating kivioq, a yummy delicacy made from dead auks sewn inside a seal gut and left to rot for two months.  This was before antibiotics.  He died.  

Life was hard.  Knud told the story of a man named Qumangâpik, who had four wives and 15 children.  The first wife froze to death, the second was buried by an avalanche, the third died of illness, and the fourth froze to death.  Of his 15 children, one starved, four were frozen, and five died of illness.  Qumangâpik froze to death, along with his wife and two little children.

Knud’s buddy, Peter Freuchen, went to Greenland in 1906, built a trading post, married a native woman, and wrote about wild Eskimos — before their traditional lifestyle had been destabilized by disease, guns, booze, bureaucrats, and missionaries.  In the 1920s, during a severe storm, his sled dogs refused to continue.  So he crawled under the sled and took a nap.  When he awoke, his left leg was frozen solid.  It thawed, rotted, and had to be amputated.

In the arctic, safety nets had to rely far more on population management.  Survival depended on the lads who brought the meat home.  Without hunters, everyone starved.  Second in importance was their wives, who could bear more children once the lean times had passed.  Least important were the elderly and children, especially female youngsters, who would not grow up to be hunters.  There were times when starving mothers strangled and ate their own children.

When hunting was bad, suicide was common.  Elders would take one-way walks into the frigid night.  Old women sometimes asked a son or daughter to stab them in the heart with a dagger.  Old men sometimes asked a son to hang them.  At the conclusion of a joyful farewell party, father and son would rub noses, and then dad would be hoisted up, to begin his journey to the other side, where game was always abundant. 

“There is absolutely no cruelty connected with this,” Freuchen emphasized.  “Fear of death is unknown among them, they know only love of life… they believe themselves to be the happiest people on earth living in the most beautiful country there is.”  There was no shame in eating the dead, or killing and eating children and dogs.  Survival required it.  It was OK.

Vilhelm Moberg described family planning in heathen Sweden.  When a child was born, the father decided its fate.  If he allowed it to live, it was sprinkled with water and given a name.  Sickly and deformed infants were exposed (abandoned outdoors).  In times of famine, even healthy newborns were exposed, especially girls.  The old and infirm were dispatched by pushing them off the ancestral cliff (ättestup) or by clobbering them with the ancestral club (ätteklubbor).

Anyway, contact with civilization has now succeeded in eliminating most sustainable cultures.  Infectious diseases have hammered wild people everywhere.  Outsiders introduced the San to dogs and horses, which made overhunting far easier.  They now live in permanent villages where alcoholism, individualism, and violence are common.  Their traditional way of life is essentially over.

Initially, Freuchen and Rasmussen were proud of their efforts to help the Eskimos enjoy the wonders of modernity.  Guns made it far easier to hunt (and overhunt).  Guns made so much noise that they scared caribou away — they abandoned their normal migration routes, and entire communities starved.  Loud gunfire scared seals away.  Seals shot with guns often sank, and were lost.  By 1908, Rasmussen had profound regrets.  The Eskimos appeared to be on the path to extinction.

Gretel Ehrlich visited Greenland several times between 1993 and 1999.  Unlike the Kalahari, Greenland had valuable resources to attract greed freaks — cod, seals, walrus, birds, minerals, and so on.  Natives became addicted to the money economy, and now enjoy year round access to edible food-like substances imported from elsewhere, fueling population growth.  By killing extra fish and wildlife, they earn the money needed for TVs, electricity, telephones, cigarettes, booze, snowmobiles, motorboats, guns, ammo…  Many were hunting and fishing as if they were the last generation.

Please note that the sustainable wild cultures mentioned above would perceive our obsession with perpetual growth, our insatiable hunger for status trinkets, and our weirdness about abortion to be absolutely insane.  An Eskimo gent once told a white foreigner, “Alas, you are a child in your thoughts.”  Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock…

Image: “Greenland Storyteller,” from Rasmussen’s book.

Ehrlich, Gretel, This Cold Heaven — Seven Seasons in Greenland, Pantheon Books, New York, 2001.

Freuchen, Peter, Book of the Eskimos, World Publishing Company, Cleveland, 1961.

Freuchen, Peter, Arctic Adventure — My Life in the Frozen North, 1935, Reprint. The Lyons Press, Guilford, Connecticut, 2002.

Lee, Richard B., The Dobe !Kung, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York, 1984.

Moberg, Vilhelm, A History of the Swedish People, Pantheon Books, New York, 1970.

Rasmussen, Knud, The People of the Polar North, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., London, 1908.

Reader, John, Man on Earth, Perennial Library, New York, 1990.

Thomas, Elizabeth Marshall, The Harmless People, Vintage Books, New York, 1989.  Second edition. 

Thomas, Elizabeth Marshall, The Old Way — A Story of the First People, Farrar Straus Giroux, New York, 2006.

Extra credit homework:

Friday, August 25, 2017

Sustainability Primer


I was recently interviewed via email by a group of ecologists in France.  I’m sharing it with English-speaking folks because it provides an easy map for learning, a basic introduction to environmental history and ecological sustainability.

My blog now contains reviews of 170+ sustainability-related books, and dozens of essays — stuff that would take more than a month to read.  Over the years, a number of important reviews have gotten buried in the pile, and get fewer views than recent work.  In the following interview, I have included links to my reviews of a number of important books.  Most reviews are less than three pages.  Bookworms may discover some neat books to add to their reading list.  Have fun!

1. How would you define the concept of sustainability?

There are two varieties of sustainability.

(1) The form you encounter many times every day is what I call ersatz (fake) sustainability — sustainable forest mining, sustainable fish mining, sustainable soil mining, sustainable development, sustainable growth, sustainable cities, and so on (even “sustainable mining!”).  Ersatz sustainability is oriented to the ongoing viability and profitability of business enterprises.  It’s a deceptive marketing buzzword intended to befuddle the clueless, and grease the wheels of destruction.

Recently, I watched a video of Derrick Jensen being interviewed.  He said, “Somewhere along the way, environmentalism stopped being about protecting the Earth, and it became about ‘sustainability,’ which is about continuing this culture that’s killing the planet.”

(2) The rare form is the essential one — ecological sustainability.  An ecologically sustainable way of life is one that can continue for millennia without causing permanent degradation to the ecosystem.  All (normal) animals have succeeded at living in this manner, and they have done so for millions of years.

For example, the San people of the Kalahari, in southern Africa, have been living in a very low-tech manner for maybe 100,000 years.  Until recent decades, they did not use nonrenewable resources, and they did not overuse renewable resources.  See The Art of Tracking, and Great Leaps.

2. The “dominant” society or culture, based on the ideology of unlimited growth that now proposes (because it needs evermore primary resources) to mine meteorites, the moon or the ocean floor isn’t very sustainable, would you agree?

I agree!  Understand that we don’t “need” more nonrenewable resources; we “want” more.  What all living things “need” is simple, stuff like food, water, air.  What modern consumers “want” is everything in the world.

Other important words include finite, carrying capacity, drawdown, renewable, nonrenewable, bottleneck, and overshoot.  To understand these, Overshoot by William Catton is outstanding.  The Essential Exponential by Albert Bartlett does a superb job of debunking the idiotic fantasies of perpetual growth.

Afterburn, Snake Oil, and The End of Growth, by Richard Heinberg, introduce readers to Peak Oil, and the dangers of creating a super-complex civilization that is fatally dependent on finite nonrenewable resources.  Scarcity by Christopher Clugston discusses the current consumption and remaining reserves of other nonrenewable resources that are essential to industrial civilization.

Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society by Ted Trainer explains why alternative energy cannot replace the current levels of energy consumption provided by sequestered carbon (fossil fuels).  Too Hot to Touch by William and Rosemarie Alley reveals a super-important challenge that gets far too little attention — the failure of industrial civilization to figure out how to safely store nuclear waste, which remains highly toxic for a million years or so.

Limits to Growth by Meadows and Randers was a classic, warning humankind of troubles ahead.  Living Within Limits by Garrett Hardin contributed to this discussion.  Foolishly disregarding limits led to a growing human mob.  The Population Bomb and The Population Explosion by Paul and Anne Ehrlich sounded alarms.  The Ostrich Factor by Garrett Hardin, and The Rapid Growth of Human Populations by William Stanton, provided additional insights.  In Old Fashioned Family Planning I commented on approaches used in different civilizations.

3. What do you think of the fact that most people believe in “progress” despite the growing social unrest and the unraveling of numerous ecological crises?

Do fish believe in water?  No, fish spend their lives in water.  When youngsters learn the meanings of words, they begin to absorb the beliefs of their culture, and imprint its worldview, which almost everyone will carry throughout their lives.  The worldview’s memes are constantly reinforced by education, religion, government, mass media, advertising, and everyone around them.  They tell us that our way of life is excellent, and the best is yet to come.  There is no challenge that technology cannot remedy.  Acceptance of this worldview makes you appear to be sane and normal.  To question it is heresy, lunacy, or stupidity.  In The Myth of Human Supremacy Derrick Jensen vigorously questions it.

Too Smart For Our Own Good by Craig Dilworth introduced the Vicious Circle Principle.  “Humankind’s development consists in an accelerating movement from situations of scarcity, to technological innovation, to increased resource availability, to increased consumption, to population growth, to resource depletion, to scarcity once again, and so on.”  It was a merry-go-round that kept spinning faster and faster.

A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright was a best-selling critique of the myth of progress.  We have fallen into a “progress trap.”  The benefits of innovation often encourage society to live in a new way, while burning the bridges behind them as they advance.  Society can find itself trapped in an unsustainable way of living, and it’s no longer possible to just turn around and painlessly return to a simpler mode.

The Earth Has a Soul by Carl Jung examined how modern urbanization packs humans together in stressful density — insectification.  “The most dangerous things in the world are immense accumulations of human beings who are manipulated by only a few heads.”  Growing crowds multiply the stupidity level, and create psychic epidemics.  “We have plunged down a cataract of progress which sweeps us on into the future with even wilder violence the farther it takes us from our roots.”

4. What would you say to those who believe that happiness is a recent phenomenon?

Many observers who have spent time in uncivilized cultures were often surprised by the happiness of wild people.

In The Continuum Concept, Jean Liedloff described the natives she met in South America.  The Tauripan people of Venezuela were the happiest people she had ever met.  All of their children were relaxed, joyful, cooperative, and rarely cried — they were never bored, lonely, or argumentative.  The Yequana people seemed unreal to Liedloff, because of their lack of unhappiness.  As an expedition was moving up a challenging jungle stream, she noticed that the Italians would get completely enraged at the slightest mishap, while the Yequana just laughed the struggles away.  Their daily life had a party mood to it.

Peter Freuchen spent a lot of time with the Eskimos, and married into their culture.  In Book of the Eskimos, he wrote that “they always enjoy life with an enviable intensity, and they believe themselves to be the happiest people on earth living in the most beautiful country there is.”

In his book, In Search of the Primitive, Lewis Cotlow visited Eskimos in arctic Canada.  One night, he spent several hours talking to local officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  They kept repeating one idea in different ways: “The Eskimos are the happiest people in the world.”

Colin Turnbull spent years with the Mbuti Pygmies, and described them in The Forest People.  He was amazed by their joyful way of living — he said that Pygmies laugh until they can no longer stand, then they sit down and laugh.

In The Human Cycle, Turnbull compared how Pygmies and Westerners move through the phases of life.  Pygmies do it beautifully, but Western culture damaged its occupants.  We tend to regard our childhood as a golden age of innocence and joy — before we’re shipped off to dreary schools, jobs, and nursing homes.  The Pygmies did not idolize childhood, “because, for them, the world has remained a place of wonder, and the older they get the greater the wonder.”

In Original Wisdom, Robert Wolff described the Sng’oi people of Malaysia.  They knew each other’s unspoken thoughts, communicating telepathically.  “They had an immense inner dignity, were happy, and content, and did not want anything.”  They loved to laugh and joke.  They were often singing and smiling.  Angry voices were never heard.

Daniel L. Everett was sent to the Amazon to translate the Bible into the language of the illiterate Pirahã hunter-gatherers.  He described his efforts in Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes.  He eventually realized that it was pointless “to convince happy, satisfied people that they are lost and need Jesus as their personal savior.”  He became an atheist.  “I would go so far as to suggest that the Pirahãs are happier, fitter, and better adjusted to their environment than any Christian or other religious person I have ever known.”

IMPORTANT:  In the above, I am asserting that happiness is not new.  I am not suggesting that wild people were angelic beings, flawlessly wise, and always lived in perfect harmony.

5. What would you say to those who think that human beings in the distant past led sad and painful lives?

Misfortune is a normal part of every life.  Wild people got sick.  They got injured.  They starved.  They had conflicts.  In The Falcon, John Tanner described the 30 years he lived with the Ottawa and Ojibwa Indians, from about 1790 to 1820.  He was kidnapped at nine years old, fully integrated into their culture, became an excellent hunter, and forgot his first language.  Whites resented his Indian aspects, and Indians resented his white heritage.  His life was a harsh one.

The philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) believed that without the beneficial protection of government, primitive folks lived in “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  Hobbes was not a hungry, dirty peasant, but most people in his society were, and their quality of life really sucked, despite the presence of government.  Twentieth century anthropologists, who actually spent time in wild societies, reject Hobbes’ belief.

A New Green History of the World by Clive Ponting is an amazing 400-page summary of environmental history.  He concluded that life in civilization was often nasty, brutish, and short.  He wrote, “Since the rise of settled societies some ten thousand years ago the overwhelming majority of the world’s population has lived in conditions of grinding poverty.  They have had few possessions, suffered from appalling living conditions, and have been forced to spend most of their very limited resources on finding enough food to stay alive.”

We’re living in a bizarre era, soaring on a joyride of extreme waste, a temporary onetime-only explosion of mindless consumption, made possible by a reckless binge of energy guzzling.  We’re hammering the planet in ways never before possible.  When the fuel gauge approaches empty, the floor will drop out from under seven-point-something billion people.  Life will get exciting.

6. What would you say to those who believe that human existence has recently become cooler, and indeed has become bearable thanks to the washing machine, the refrigerator, the car and industrial medicine?

My path to becoming a wordsmith began with fat black pencils, followed by ballpoint pens, huge manual typewriters, the highly unstable word processing software of the late 1980s, and my current laptop, which has miraculous, incredibly amazing functionality.  Now we have the internet.  My writing is available to several billion, a quarter million have viewed my blog, and I have friends in dozens of nations.  In one sense, this is very cool; in another sense, a costly mistake.

Five days ago, I had surgery on my right eye, which removed a cataract-clouded lens.  Today, the world is strikingly clear.  I can see like an eagle.  I’m astounded by the improvement.

When I was born in 1952, there were no personal computers, color TVs, nuclear power plants, satellites, cell phones, shopping malls, or birth control pills.

When my father was born in 1913, there were no antibiotics, plastics, air conditioners, chainsaws, televisions, radios, missiles, or jet planes.  Almost all agriculture was organic.

When my grandfather was born in 1885, there were no airplanes, automobiles, refrigerators, or aluminum products.

When my great-grandfather was born in 1843, there were no oil wells, metal boats, tractors, telephones, electric lights, sewing machines, repeating rifles, or dynamite.

When my great-great grandfather was born in 1818, there were no railroads, cameras, bicycles, wooden matches, or telegraph systems.  Detroit and Chicago were trading posts in the wilderness.

When my great-great-great grandfather was born in 1798, there were 900 million people on Earth, and Los Angeles had 300 residents.

Note that none of the benefits cited above were sustainable.  All had enormous ecological costs and numerous unintended consequences.  Humans lived sustainably for tens of thousands of years without any of these amazing things.  In my 64 years, I have sent a mountain of trash to landfills, and I am not proud of this.

Carl Jung summed it up nicely: “Unfortunately, there is in this world no good thing that does not have to be paid for by an evil at least equally great.”  The Earth Crisis is a planet-wrecking disaster created by the unintended consequences of countless clever innovations.  There is no “free lunch,” everything has a cost.

Civilization would be impossible without the clever discovery of how to kindle and control fire, a technology that all other species have avoided.  Fire: A Brief History by Stephen J. Pyne is fascinating.  He wrote, “Without fire humanity sinks to a status of near helplessness, a plump chimp with a scraping stone and digging stick, hiding from the night’s terrors, crowding into minor biotic niches.”

Techno-Fix by Michael and Joyce Huesemann does a good job of analyzing our toxic obsession with technology.  Huesemann’s Law of Techno-Optimism states, “Optimism is inversely proportional to knowledge.”

Health & the Rise of Civilization by Mark Nathan Cohen describes how domestication and civilization ushered in the era of deadly infectious diseases.  Bird Flu by Michael Greger reveals how current methods for raising livestock and poultry encourage the emergence of deadly new strains of influenza viruses that could zoom around the planet in days, killing hundreds of millions.  The Antibiotic Paradox by Stuart Levy tells readers why we’re moving into the post-antibiotic era, when our wonder drugs will quit working.  Once again, bubonic plague will be incurable, and infections caused by tiny paper cuts could be fatal.

The history and harms of soil mining are discussed in Topsoil and Civilization by Tom Dale and Vernon Gill Carter, Against the Grain by Richard Manning, and Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations by David Montgomery.  A Forest Journey by John Perlin is a great book on the history of forest mining.  Water mining is the subject of Pillar of Sand by Sandra Postel, and Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner.

Fish mining is the subject of The End of the Line by Charles Clover, The Mortal Sea by Jeffrey Bolster, and Sea of Slaughter by Farley Mowat.  Swimming in Circles by Paul Molyneaux reveals the dark side of fish farming (aquaculture).

A number of factors indicate that we are not too far from Peak Food.  There are enormous obstacles to producing enough food to feed the expected mob of 11 billion.  Today, feeding a mere 7.4 billion is intensely unsustainable and destructive.  Three books on the subject include The End of Plenty by Joel Bourne, The Coming Famine by Julian Cribb, and Who Will Feed China? by Lester Brown.

7. What would you say to those who imagine that freedom and democracy are recent inventions?

My focus has been on sustainability, not philosophy or politics.  I would think that freedom is not an invention, but the normal state for wild organisms.  Abstractions drive me crazy.  Are the chimps who are subordinate to the alpha male not free?  I don’t know.

Hunter-gatherer clans require teamwork, so it’s important for them to avoid conflicts, and to be good at conflict resolution.  Some tribes made decisions by consensus, all agreed.  Was this democracy?  Other tribes allowed dissent — lads who didn’t want to join a war party were not forced to.  John Tanner mentioned this in The Falcon.

I was taught that democracy was invented in Greece.  The democracy of Athens in the fifth century B.C. allowed 30,000 to 40,000 people to participate, but excluded 80,000 to 100,000 slaves.

8. What would you say to those who have difficulty imagining a world where life couldn’t be enjoyable living generation after generation within a society, culture, which doesn’t feel the need to innovate frantically just for the sake of innovation?

This is complicated.  In Cradle of Humankind, I discussed our ancestors’ shaky beginnings as bipedal apes on the savannah.  We were slow, weak, and highly vulnerable to large predators.  Innovations like spears and fire increased our odds for survival, and this was a shift away from the traditional lifestyles of all other primates.

In Great Leaps I discussed how moving out of tropical Africa, into colder climates, presented us with new challenges — preserving and storing food, and surviving cold winters.  Hunters living in tropical savannahs needed no tools for killing fish, seals, or seabirds, but the pioneers did, and innovation provided them.

The Food Crisis in Prehistory by Mark Nathan Cohen described how growing population and diminishing wildlife eventually led to the domestication of plants and animals.  Growing crowds also led to growing conflicts between groups.  Innovation provided ongoing technological improvements for both offense and defense.  This led to a nonstop, continuously accelerating arms race, brilliantly described in Throwing Fire by Alfred W. Crosby — our journey from throwing stones to throwing nuclear weapons.

Today, in a consumer economy, innovation boosts survival in a different way.  The objective is no longer getting meat, but a maniacal pursuit of wealth and status, via inventing, manufacturing, and selling stuff like smart phones, self-driving cars, big screen TVs, and a million other varieties of silly nonsense.

9. What would you say to those who believe that, throughout time, all human cultures have destroyed their environments?

Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich described a trip to Hudson Bay, Canada, where he spent time with Inuit hunter-gatherers.  He was astonished to realize that every person in the group knew the tribe’s cultural information in its entirety.  They all knew how to tan hides, clean fish, weave baskets, and so on.  Yet, in our advanced civilization, nobody knows even a millionth of our cultural information.

Few in modern America receive a competent education in environmental history and ecological sustainability.  I’ve taken two online sustainability courses from reputable universities, and both were very low quality.  Universities train the teachers who will educate the school kids, so grand myths of magical thinking cascade from one generation to the next.  Thus, almost the whole population is largely ignorant, handicapped by dodgy beliefs.  The belief that humans are inherently stupid and destructive is false, but many use the belief as an excuse for our current consumer savagery.  “Hey, we can’t help it, we’re humans!”

I’ve communicated with a number of professors, and the impression I get is that most pursue a “don’t scare the students” approach.  If we tell them the truth, they will be overwhelmed with despair, and give up (as if they are currently trying).  Most people don’t smoke because we’ve taught them the truth about smoking and cancer — fear inspires intelligent life decisions.  Why wouldn’t teaching the truth about the Earth Crisis have similar benefits?  Unfortunately, the global economy and perpetual economic growth are more important than a living planet, or the generations that come after us.  So, the truth would be inconvenient, therefore we sweep it under the bed.  Let’s go shopping!

10. What would you say to those fatalistic people who believe that humanity is vowed to this path of destruction no matter what?

What is the alternative?  Is humankind likely to suddenly wake up and unite in revolutionary change?  Are we eager to see coercive birth prevention programs?  Are we ready to stop soil mining, forest mining, and fish mining?  Will we voluntarily cease burning sequestered carbon?  What will happen when the cooling ponds evaporate, and many tons of nuclear fuel are exposed to the air, and begin burning?  Guy McPherson wrote, “Civilization is responsible for life-destroying, abrupt climate change.  Turning off civilization kills us all faster.”

Our present way of life is extremely unsustainable, and therefore temporary.  A sustainable future is inevitable, because only the sustainable can endure.  We are zooming toward a solid wall of resource limits and other surprises.  Many agriculture-based civilizations collapsed, regrouped, and resumed, in several cycles, until their land base was reduced to a wasteland.

Like every civilization, our industrial civilization will also collapse, but depleted resources (energy, minerals, groundwater, topsoil, etc.) ensure that our super-intensive way of life will be a onetime catastrophe.  We’ll try like crazy to keep it on life support, but it will never again be so complex, because the planet has been pounded so hard.  Muscle power will eventually become humankind’s primary energy source once again.

So, we’re on the path to a bottleneck, in which the carrying capacity for humankind will be lowered to levels suitable for the new, much simpler, way of life.  Humans are both clever and remarkably adaptable to a wide variety of living conditions.  But, in addition to resource depletion and ecological devastation, another enormous predicament is emerging at the same time, climate change.

There is compelling evidence that humans are able to survive without smart phones, automobiles, and nuclear reactors.  Food, on the other hand, is an absolute necessity.  All food-producing plants and trees can only survive within a range of conditions — temperature, moisture, soil nutrients.  One source suggested the threshold temperatures for the three primary grains: wheat 26°C (78.8°F), corn (maize) 38°C (100.4°F), and rice 34°C (93.2°F).  Too much heat or aridity affects plant growth, pollination, and reproductive processes.  When crop yields decline, famines increase, and the herd downsizes.

Near Term Extinction is, by far, the most visited post on my blog.  This community is also known as Near Term Human Extinction (NTHE).  They are certain that the final generation of our species is alive today.  A prominent NTHE spokesperson is Dr. Guy McPherson.  They have a support group on Facebook.  I have no doubt that this will be a tumultuous century, but I have not been convinced that some humans won’t make it through the post-industrial bottleneck.

11. And finally, what do all of the sustainable cultures you have studied have in common?

They don’t utilize nonrenewable resources, like metallic minerals or sequestered carbon (coal, oil).  They don’t overuse renewables, like wood, freshwater, or wildlife.  They comprehend the carrying capacity of their ecosystem, and they mindfully strive to limit their numbers, when needed.  Most are nomadic, which discourages the accumulation of belongings, competition for status, and the bloody conflicts it generates.

The safest approach is adapting to your ecosystem, rather than attempting to control it.  Growing annual or perennial food crops, in dense concentrations or monocultures, creates ideal conditions for pests and plant diseases (like Ireland before the blight).  Agriculture based on tilling is a destructive process — soil mining.  Agroforestry seems to work in Tikopia, but the island is extremely isolated, and less likely to be visited by exotic pests and diseases.  It is vulnerable to rising seas, super storms, and an unstable climate.

I don’t recall reading about sustainable cultures that possessed domesticated livestock.  Tribal Ireland might have been ideal for mindful low impact herding (once they eliminated the wolves).  Topography of Ireland by Giraldus Cambrensis (1146 – 1223) was written when the island was still mostly rainforest, and the tribes raised cattle.  Wildlife was still abundant.  Fish, flesh, and milk were all they ate, and they wore nothing but animal skins.

The Irish 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.  When Cambrensis wrote, population pressure was growing, and tribes had mutated into warrior cultures.  A few centuries earlier, it might have been a happier story.

Germania by Tacitus described tribal Germany in A.D. 98.  They were also herders, and very warlike.  They kept the Roman Empire from spreading to their side of the Rhine.  In general, around the world, nobody owned wild grazers, but domesticated livestock were someone’s private property.  The more animals you owned, the richer you were, and the higher your social status.

Richard Manning once noted that telling a Samburu herder he is overgrazing is telling him he has too many cattle, which in his terms is like saying he’s too rich.  Telling him to protect wildlife is telling him to harbor the enemy.

There was no benefit in capturing and slaughtering 100 wild cattle at once, because most of the meat would be wasted.  But the lad that owned and confined 100 domesticated cattle or horses could exploit his livestock more efficiently.  He was wealthy, respected, and envied, but grazing enslaved animals was likely to degrade the grassland over time.  A Plague of Sheep by Elinor Melville discusses overgrazing in Mexico.  The Roots of Dependency by Richard White talks about Navaho country.  Grassland by Richard Manning examines the damages caused by the grazing industry in the American west.

Paul Shepard had a lot to say about our relationship with wild animals.  In his brilliant book, The Others, he described the importance of having daily exposure to wild animals, and how their presence is essential for our normal psychological development.  Shepard was not at all fond of domesticated animals.  In Where We Belong, he raged against the “total potato-heads,” the “hoofed locusts” (sheep, goats, asses, horses, cows, mules, yaks, camels) that scalped the slopes.  “Their dexterous tooth work and footwork buried cities” (with eroded soils).

“The magnificent forests of the Mediterranean rim and islands were progressively demolished and their seedlings and root-shoots chewed and trampled by livestock.”  The Minoan city of Jerash, a village of 3,000, was once home to 250,000, before the soil was trashed.  “Like the dinosaurs, which are known mainly for their vanishing, the ancestors we know best, and from whom we take our style, are those who seem to have lived mainly to call down calamity upon themselves.”

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest written story ever discovered.  King Gilgamesh was the madman who built the city of Uruk in the Fertile Crescent.  He destroyed the ancient forest, which led to catastrophic erosion and flooding.  Today, Uruk is a crude pile of brown rubble sitting amidst a desolate barren moonscape.

Man and Nature, by George Perkins Marsh, was published in 1864.  It was an early masterpiece of environmental history.  He visited the sites of many ancient civilizations, and was shocked to realize that they were all victims of self-destruction.  Marsh saw ancient seaports that were now 30 miles (48 km) from the sea.  He saw ancient places where the old streets were buried beneath 30 feet (9 m) of eroded soil.  He stood in mainland fields, 15 miles (24 km) from the sea, which used to be islands.  He tried to warn America that they were following the same doomed path.  America ignored him.

Finally, what (almost) all sustainable cultures have in common is that they have gone extinct — absorbed or destroyed by the unsustainable cultures that overwhelmed them.  Throughout history, civilization has trumped wild cultures.  Folks with jets and missiles will not be massacred by folks with spears and bows.  One exception is the Sentineli who fiercely resist colonization (and are extremely lucky to inhabit a place worthless for colonization and resource mining).  I will offer no magical solutions today.

All the best!