Thursday, November 14, 2013

Life, Vanishing

Richard Adrian Reese, a devoted environmentalist who writes with delightfully nimble alacrity at his blog WhatIsSustainable, has posted a review of William Stolzenburg’s book, Where the Wild Things Were.  His description is absolutely splendid, and germane to a topic of sporadic but ongoing scrutiny here at Wit’s End...when I stray off the topic of trees dying from ozone pollution and wonder, more broadly...why do we persist, so obstinately, in fucking up the world?  When did the barely nascent epoch identified as the Anthropocene morph in the blink of an eye - into the Endocene?
There seems to be an overwhelming consensus among the (relatively tiny number of) collapse aware (possibly mutant?) folk, (who largely exist and confer only in cyberspace) - whether they approach it from peak oil, overpopulation, climate change or ecology -  that modern culture is to blame.  The rationale frequently goes - if only we had remained peaceful, egalitarian, matriarchal, hunter-gatherer tribal societies, our ecopocalypse could have been averted.  The world is awash in articles extolling the idea that if only the current abomination of capitalism and income inequality were destroyed, our species, in the absence of such oppression, could achieve - or more precisely, return to - Utopia.  One much-acclaimed variant currently making the rounds is titled, Capitalism and the Destruction of Life On Earth; Six Theses on Saving the Humans...which is such an interminable sophomoric rant, I cannot read it.
Also just published - which I most emphatically DO recommend even though it has much the same premise - is Stephanie McMillan’s witty, angry, desperate and fierce call to revolution, which is now available online - those of course are her comics, above, and here is the cover:  

Even though I think the emphasis on class divisions and capitalism misses a much deeper and intractable explanation for our behavior, still I certainly do applaud her outrage at injustice, I share her grief at the fate of nature, and I admire her amazingly ingenious I absolutely think you should download your own pdf and read it - just go to the site and click I WANT THIS - and you can even name your own price.
To illustrate just how deeply ingrained our tendency to overshoot is, I have copied Richard Reese’s investigation of our role in nature, via the book he considers, with some wonderful portraits. Photographer Jimmy Nelson traveled to some of the world’s most remote locations to record images of indigenous people. whose way of life is at risk of vanishing. IS vanishing (but then so is just about everything else).  Collected in his book,  Before They Pass Away, the pictures are utterly gorgeous, uniquely rare and they reveal (at least to my mind) our common humanity - and the mythology of Utopia.
Here are people about as far as they can get from industrial civilization and yet, judging by their traditional clothing - from their adornments, their warpaint, their lovingly assembled collections of shells and bones and horns, the elaborate beaded jewelry and painstakingly arranged hair -  they are no different from modern people.  There are proud warriors with ferocious tattoos and masks, with all manner of weaponry including shields, spears, clubs, bow and arrow, a sword, and even guns.
Maori, New Zealand
The human brain is creative and we seek to distinguish ourselves, if only by the shape of our water jugs, and we like to display our status with whatever leopard skin we can obtain.
Karo, Ethiopia
For the most part, we help ourselves to the beautiful gifts Nature produces, including exotic feathers, and use them to display our rank.
If this were an upper-crust Briton, he would be castigated for hawking by animal rights groups.
Why are the high heels women squish their toes into any more deformed by patriarchy than stretched lips?  Why do we mock people who get plastic surgery but respect self-deformation of our ancestors?
Mursi, Ethiopia
The compulsive fetish for ostentatious materialism that is mocked in fashionistas like Imelda Marcos or Paris Hilton and all their mall-brat imitators is well deserved (for hilarity, see the Queen of Versailles!).
But somehow that just seems like an extension of a fundamental, even primal urge to stave off meaninglessness and death by amassing trinkets (I think of that classic scene from The Jerk).
If PETA caught someone in America doing this there would be cries of outrage:
Nenets, Russia
What would they say about all the fur?
Nenets, Russia
I don’t mean to disparage the subjects of these photographs, not in the slightest way.  It was my most fervent dream when I was young to have been born as Sacagawea and spend life exploring the forest.
Moreover, there are certain traits of humanity that elate and inspire me, despite feeling somewhat dour about the egregious shortcomings (you know...genocide, pedophilia, cannibalism, stuff like that).  I just recognize that even as there is a wonderful, occasionally sublime aspect to human capabilities, there is an exploitative side - and it is no better or worse in primitive people, despite our urge to romanticize them.
Mursi, Ethiopia
The difference is in scale.  Absent the concept of the noble savage, the accessories of the individuals portrayed in this series reveal that their desires and impulses are remarkably similar to the average person in Western civilization today.
To say that outside forces of politics or culture, or a sociopathology derived only recently, underlie our current trends towards global catastrophe is to deny the essence of who we are.
Only our expansive imagination allows us the pretense that we are intrinsically good and moral creatures with an ability to live sustainably.
We continually escape constraints depending upon our ability to overcome them with technology, whether it is using fire or nuclear power.
Illusory belief is what convinces us that we are apart from nature when in fact, we really are not and never have been.
Goroka, Indonesia
The mere fact that primitive people believe in supernatural explanations for natural phenomena means they, too, possess the fallacy that humans are exceptional. However, we are not - which can be a comforting idea, really, once you get used to it.  The following passages are from Richard Reese, in the aforementioned book review:
“For the first billion years of life on Earth, all of our ancestors were single celled.  One day, we aren’t sure why, a hungry organism ate a delicious bystander, and became the first predator.
“Predation inspired evolution to become very creative.  Some organisms became mobile by developing cilia or tails.  Others shape shifted into multi-celled life forms.
Dani, Indonesia
“Critters developed scales, spikes, shells, fangs, and many other clever defenses. Thus, one group survived by dining on the unlucky, and the bigger group survived by evolving every imaginable trick for cancelling lunch dates with predators.”
Maasai, Tanzania
“When predators became too powerful, they would wipe out their food supply, blush with embarrassment, and starve.  Prey that managed to survive evolved stronger defensive capabilities.  But if they got too good at this, their population would explode, deplete the available nutrients, and the vast mob would perish in an undignified manner.”
Kazakh, Mongolia
“Thus, evolution is an elegant balancing act.  If the prey gets one percent faster, the predator gets one percent faster, not two.  This balancing act is the subject of William Stolzenburg’s book, Where the Wild Things Were.
“More specifically, the book focuses on how humankind uses its brilliant technological innovations to bypass the limits of our current state of evolution, upset healthy balancing acts, and devastate ecosystems, often unintentionally.”
“In the early 1970s, zoologist James Estes travelled to the Aleutian Islands of Alaska to do research on sea otters.  Sea otters can grow up to four feet long (1.2 m), and they have incredibly soft fur.
“Stylish women with too much money loved wearing fur coats, and for 150 years, from Alaska to Baja, otter hunting was a serious business, and very profitable.  Somewhere between 500,000 and 900,000 otters lost their hides to the fashionable dames of high society.”
“The island of Amchitka had a healthy population of otters, and this is where Estes began his study, scuba diving in frigid water.  Beneath the waves were thriving jungles of kelp, a popular hangout for a number of aquatic herbivores.
“Kelp can grow up to 200 feet tall (61 m).  Urchins enjoy dining on kelp, and sea otters enjoy dining on urchins.  What Estes observed was a healthy balance between the kelp, urchins, and otters.”
Samburu, Kenya
“Later, he spent some time on the island of Shemya, where the great extermination had wiped out the otters.  Only a few had since recolonized there.  The ecosystem here was stunningly different from Amchitka.  In the absence of otters, the urchins exploded in numbers, and many were huge in size. The sea floor was wall-to-wall urchins, and there was no kelp at all.” 
“So, when the keystone predators (otters) live in peace, the ecosystem is healthy and balanced.  When they are eliminated, the ecosystem becomes a train wreck — a chain reaction known as a trophic cascade.  Predators are essential.”
“A similar scenario occurred when Zion National Park was established in Utah.  To make the park safe for tourists, the cougars (mountain lions) were exterminated.  In their absence, the population of mule deer exploded, and the land was stripped of vegetation.
Tsaatan, Mongolia
“The forests were dying, because young seedlings were devoured by deer.  Meanwhile, over the hill in North Creek Canyon, the cougars had been left alone, and the land was remarkably alive and healthy.”
“The Kaibab Plateau in Arizona became a game preserve in 1906.  Deer hunters were kept out, and 6,000 large carnivores were deleted.  The deer population skyrocketed from 4,000 to 100,000, and the vegetation was promptly vacuumed up.  In the winters of 1924 and 1925, 80,000 deer starved to death.  Ecosystems pay an enormous price for the stunning ecological ignorance of literate, educated people, who spend years in miserable classrooms carefully absorbing spooky illusions.”
Chukchi, Russia
“Wolves and grizzlies had been absent in the Tetons for quite a while.  Then, a few began drifting in from Yellowstone.  At first, the moose and elk had no fear of them.  Wolves calmly strolled into the herd and snatched their young.
“Before long, they learned that fearing predators was beneficial.  Something similar to this innocent fearlessness likely existed in every ecosystem when humans first arrived with their state-of-the-art killing technology.”
“In the 1950s, Paul Martin connected some archaeological dots.  The megafauna of the world, that had survived almost two million years of ice ages, suddenly blinked out whenever armed humans arrived in a new region.*  This realization gave birth to his Pleistocene Overkill hypothesis, “that man, and man alone, was responsible for the unique wave of Late Pleistocene extinction.”  Despite many loud objections, it has generally been accepted, but it fails to explain the large numbers of mammoths and rhinos found in Siberia and Alaska.  It also causes those who worship at the crumbling Temple of Human Omnipotence to become moody and irritable.”
Huli, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea
“Whatever your opinion on this controversy, it’s easy to argue that during the long era of warm weather (since 9600 B.C.), the pristine state of America was the Pleistocene, not 1492.  In 2005, a group of biologists published a paper on rewilding in the journal Nature. It recommended the reintroduction of missing species like cheetahs, camels, lions, and elephants.  The mainstream crowd soiled their britches and howled hysterically.”
“It was, like, totally groovy to reintroduce pretty butterflies, but the huge backlash boiled down to “no lions in my backyard!”  This was the lively kickoff for what will be a long and bumpy process of attitude evolution — or a fierce backlash from those who have yet to free themselves from the tiny cage of anthropocentric hallucinations.”
“I wonder if the systematic extermination of millions of predators over the years is associated in any way with the current explosion in the human population.  When climate change forced our ancestors onto the savannah, evolution had not prepared us for living amidst fast, powerful, heavyweight predators.
“We developed a highly unusual dependence on technology in order to survive, thereby knocking over the evolutionary balancing act.  ‘They would eventually wield the power to level mountains, to dam the biggest rivers, to coat entire continents in concrete and crops, to alter the climate as it had once altered them.’  The chapter on how we morphed into apex predators is fascinating.”
“Today, we almost never encounter man-eating predators running lose.  We no longer have to pay careful attention to reality, ready to react at any moment, fully present and alive.  The world has become safe for pudgy cell phone zombies — an empty, dull, and lonely place.  This is seen as normal.  I disagree.”
“* Megafauna survived in Africa because they evolved together with hominids, but there’s more to the story. Lars Werdelin, a specialist in African carnivores, has learned that there used to be far more large carnivores. Between 2 and 1.5 million years ago, many large carnivores went extinct.  This is about the time that tool-using, meat-eating Homo erectus appeared. (Werdelin, Lars, ‘King of Beasts’, Scientific American, November 2013, pp. 34-39.)”

Everything is vanishing.  The Daily Impact has a good summary of the AP investigation which reveals the ethanol program to be a green fraud, causing, among other disasters like nitrogen runoff, the disappearance of 5 million acres of protected land converted to corn fields.  Of course, they never even mentioned that ethanol emissions produce worse air pollution that fossil fuels which is too bad, because the government mandated inclusion of ethanol into gasoline could well be a major cause for the vanishing trees.  A report from the Worldwide Resources Institute on the precarious situation of the food supply mentions that soil is vanishing thanks to industrial agricultural processes.  It explains that another unpleasant byproduct is nitrous oxide emissions, but fails to integrate the role of NOx in the production of ozone - never mind what ozone in turn does to crop yield and quality...and trees.

Oh well.  Maybe once all the people vanish, the trees will recover.  Enjoy the film (if youtube takes it down, check the website:


  1. Gail, obviously there's more to your post than your photos, but wow! What great pictures! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Incredibly beautiful, I would be tempted to buy the book because there are hundreds I would love to see, but it's quite expensive. I've been noodling around at the website which has more information about the people - love this excerpt, a tribe that first made contact with the west in the middle of the last century (, so much for peaceful sustainability!

      "Legend has it that the Mudmen were forced to flee from an enemy into the Asaro River where they waited until dusk to escape. The enemy saw them rise from the banks covered in mud and thought they were spirits. The Asaro still apply mud and masks to keep the illusion alive and terrify other tribes."

  2. Here's another, speaking of shallow values (looks are vital!) and patriarchal hierarchy: "The Himba are an ancient tribe of tall, slender and statuesque herders. Since the 16th century they have lived in scattered settlements, leading a life that has remained unchanged, surviving war and droughts. The tribal structure helps them live in one of the most extreme environments on earth.
    Each member belongs to two clans, through the father and the mother. Marriages are arranged with a view to spreading wealth. Looks are vital, it tells everything about one’s place within the group and phase of life. The headman, normally a grandfather, is responsible for the rules of the tribe."

  3. The Huli: It is believed that the first Papua New Guineans migrated to the island over 45000 years ago. Today, over 3 million people, half of the heterogeneous population, live in the highlands. Some of these communities have engaged in low-scale tribal conflict with their neighbours for millennia.
    The tribes fight over land, pigs and women. Great effort is made to impress the enemy. The largest tribe, the Huli wigmen, paint their faces yellow, red and white and are famous for their tradition of making ornamented wigs from their own hair. An axe with a claw completes the intimidating effect.

  4. Attaway to keep bangin' out great posts, Gail. This is spectacular. I accept your point that there's no difference, essentially, in mankind anywhere but there are exceptions (but only of individuals and maybe a zen monastery). The problem is the exceptions have totally isolated themselves (by choice, by and large) from the rest of us - maybe because they see how diminished, infatuated, "clever" (but not wise), and how easily lead (and distracted) we've become. They still have to eat, find shelter, and do what they do - making them the same as the rest of us, using up resources and polluting - but the ones i'm thinking of (or imagining) are the loners who don't procreate, but rather walk away to be left alone. Wandering monks, the old zen masters, and the few who just walked into the woods and never returned along the timeline of humanity. At least they use as much as they can of whatever they have to kill to survive (and bless it's life in doing so - thanking the animal for being there for him) like the Eskimos, plains Indians of the northern hemisphere (with the buffalo), and others like nomadic tribes. So again, I see there isn't really any distinction when it comes down to our needs, but the worldview of the individual seems to have some important yet esoteric value - providing some kind of "meaning" to life (even if it's only imagined, at least it cherishes the life that they KNOW they are an intrinsic part of). At least the do as little harm as possible, or i'd like to imagine that anyway.

    The problem, to me has always been, since Ehrlich brought it up, population. We needed to take notice and reduce our numbers LONG before he saw where it was all going (and others saw this too) in the 1970's. I remember the zero population growth movement. Nobody listens, most of us are oblivious to the "big picture" until we're way up in years (if then any more) and very few can stay the course if they discover this as a young person. My wife fondly reminds me of how adamant I was about having no kids. Yeah, now that my oldest is in his early forties (I can't believe i'm this old) and the other two guys are well established, i'm a hypocrite myself. Men, we're so easy to manipulate. There really isn't any solution to our quandary, our predicament - it's supposed to end this way. It's how it is for all species, we know this, but somehow we're 'special' and it's not supposed to apply. Right.

    It was at least enjoyable to me - living, having thoughts (and what exactly are they), reading, laughing, being sociable and having friends and a wife and kids (and now two grandkids). Amazing. They all know how I feel 'cause I've been this way my whole life (a doomer). I really hate being right and pray that i'm wrong (to any god that will make it all better).


    1. Thanks Tom...I hope you know that I am referring to herd traits and the fact that most people who aren't sociopaths get dominated by those that are. An interesting point that you make, maybe those who are truly wise walk away and we never hear from them. Also, I should make it clear that I have nothing against "meaning" in life or even people who believe in "spirituality" - I have meaning in mine! I find it helpful to recognize though that I have invented that meaning because it makes me feel good. You have my email if you are interested in joining any doomer email circles or facebook groups? I gave up on the trolls at NBL but have found some other places to talk about stuff which is helpful for my sanity (what remains of it, ha!). witsendnj at yahoo

  5. Hey Gail:

    Right, I agree we create our own meaning via some genetic subroutines that cause our lives to follow a certain trajectory, and that the "big picture" has no such interpretation (beyond "play" for the creator, if one actually exists). I'm on enough sites already, but wouldn't mind at least viewing what others have to say on some e-mail circle. We can talk about it. Yeah, NBL is really attracting the trolls lately, some of whom target me specifically, but I don't care. They can't change what's happening and i'm just documenting it day by day there. Fukushima may be the trigger that starts the chaos and world-wide collapse into insanity on a global scale, but meanwhile we have news from the Arctic MEG that the Laptev Sea is pluming unheard-of amounts of methane now and another study has shown the ocean is acidifying at a ridiculous rate. It's all adding up to NTE in an ever-shortening time-span imho, and most are completely oblivious and carry on their little lives of delusion and distraction without the slightest concern. What a rude awakening that will be, eh?


    1. I saw that Laptev Sea graph first thing this morning and it pretty much ruined my day! On the other hand I watched this which I quite liked:

      He embraces the desire for immortality without having to believe it.


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