This Year’s Thanksgiving Thoughts

It is the eve of Thanksgiving in the United States, and in keeping with my annual tradition, I’d like to remind you that Friday is Black Friday Buy Nothing Day (and also to let California readers know that our State Parks are offering free passes so you can enjoy some time out in the fresh air instead of shopping). And of course, there is yet more to say about the complex relationship between the land of North America/Turtle Island, the first people who came here over 10,000 years ago, and the more recent immigrants to this continent.
If you have been following the news from Standing Rock, you know that a new generation of indigenous land and water protectors is under attack from some of these more recent immigrants. What this says about our nation, our priorities, and our future ranges from inspiring to alarming.
But rather than focus on current events, I’d like to wander into the past for a bit. About a month ago, my friend Joe asked a question for a class he was teaching. He and his students wanted an anthropologist’s perspective about the first steps toward modern technological society in Europe, and what advantages Europeans might have had in “getting there first.” He was wondering if “Guns, Germs and Steel ” were some of the answers.
If you have not read it, Guns, Germs and Steel is actually well worth the read – good writing and some brilliant insights (though not without its critics, e.g. Tomlinson 1998).  The title is a bit misleading: guns and steel are part of the same issue (technological complexification). Guns actually had their origin in China, with the invention of gunpowder over 1000 years ago, and its use in weapons by 1200CE (Haw 2013). Guns made their way into European warfare by 1324CE (DeVries 1998). Steel was produced much earlier, with some evidence from western Asia (in what is now Turkey) as early as 1900BCE (Akanuma 2008).
Germs were SO much more of an issue in the European conquest of the Americas, resulting in a loss of perhaps 95% of the pre-Columbian human population (Montenegro & Stephens 2006). Many indigenous populations were in decline and disarray due to exposure to European diseases before they actually saw any Europeans (Diamond 1997). The reason Europeans had so many contagious diseases was due to the kinds of animals that could be domesticated in the ‘Old World’ (versus the paucity of domesticatable critters in the ‘New World’), and the high human population densities that went along with intensive, livestock-supported agriculture.
And it was that kind of agriculture, and the energy surpluses it yielded (starting with human and animal labor) that made increased technological complexity possible, leading to innovations like steel, guns and internal/infernal combustion. In Complexity, Problem Solving, and Sustainable Societies, Joseph A. Tainter (1996)  focuses on how and why complex societies collapse (short answer: diminishing returns on increased social complexity).
So, in essence, the indigenous peoples of the Americas were screwed because Europe’s aurochs could be easily domesticated into cattle, and American bison could not. Also, the first Americans had probably been involved in, and almost certainly were witnesses to, the early Holocene extinction of horses and camels in North America (had those indigenous species survived, it’s possible that North America would have been the first to develop complex civilizations, or at least been closer to on par with Europe, India and China). Despite the domestication disadvantage, several complex civilizations had come and gone in the Americas (Maya, Aztec, Inca).  Other North American peoples had a mix of agricultural and hunting/foraging subsistence  (Mississipian cultures, Pueblo cultures) or very rich foraging (Pacific Northwest cultures) as a basis for fairly high levels of complexification, including “permanent” settlements (sites occupied year-round, for decades or centuries), social stratification, pottery and metalworking.
Now, the reason it was western Europe, and not Persia or China or India or Egypt, that came to be the dominant culture of the last six or seven centuries is less clear.  I suspect it is mostly historical accident: Europe happened to be in a technological upswing as the other ‘Old World’ civilizations were in downswings.
One of the great challenges in looking at all this is (from this very recent perspective of the last several centuries) it seems like increased complexification and technological progress are normal.  From a deep-time anthropological perspective this is clearly not the case. About 96% of the time humans have been Homo sapiens (about 190,000 years), and among the vast majority of independent human cultures that were still intact a few hundred years ago, we’ve been low-complexity foragers with “stone-age” technologies and no “permanent” settlements.  Those are very successful, old-growth cultures. High-complexity cultures generally adopt a rapid expansion, weedy model of growth and invasion (even our choice of grain-based agriculture reflects this) – but there’s no evidence yet that such things can be built to last more than a millennium or two.
Undocumented immigrants Refuse to learn local language Still get food assistance - Undocumented immigrants Refuse to learn local language Still get food assistance  Lucky Pilgrims

So, one of the things you may be grateful for this holiday season is the opportunity to live at a time of such amazing social and technological complexification that we are able to investigate and consider the differences between old-growth cultures and weedy ones via nigh-instantaneous information access. Or, you know, you could be grateful for other stuff that’s maybe more pleasant (including our lovely California State Parks). Don’t forget Buy Nothing Day, and Happy Thanksgiving!

Ritual sacrifice with pie - Pangs (S4 E8):
References

Star Trek or Little House on the Prairie, the Red/Blue Divide, and Imagining Complexly

The US election results of 8 Nov 2016 were a bit shocking to me. David Wong at Cracked.com provided a strikingly insightful explanation of why I and my ivory tower, liberal left coast colleagues failed to see this coming.
John Michael Greer noted that the success of the Trump campaign in rural counties is a predictable result of the frustration and hopelessness that permeate the lives of people who have felt neglected by the powerful elites of the country’s urban centers. This deep cultural gulf between cities and small-town-America is an important consideration for successfully maintaining a symbiotic relationship between urban and rural communities (and remember, the cities need the countryside if they want to have things like food and water). Those of us who care about the future of this planet need to find ways to build a future that includes a vision of a better life that will appeal to the rural and ‘Rust Belt’ communities. And we can’t do this by objectifying or vilifying them. As John Green is fond of saying, we need to take the time to “imagine others complexly,” and a big part of that is learning to get better at listening to other people’s concerns. As with planting a tree, the best time to do tbest time to plant a tree.jpghis was twenty years ago (like, seriously), but the second-best time is now.
I started writing this post a while back, shortly after I had the good fortune to visit the Sustainability Institute at Pennsylvania State University. I put it on a back burner for a time, but realized that it had become even more important since the results.  While visiting Penn State, Jeremy Bean asked me a question that, ideally, everyone should ask and explore on a regular basis: What is your vision of a sustainable future? I realized with some surprise that no one had ever really asked me that question in that way. What I attempted to articulate was the ways in which I see a high-tech world and a deep permaculture world as being not just two alternatives, but in fact two tracks that can, should and perhaps must be run in parallel: not Star Trek* vs. Little House on the Prairie, but both at the same time.

 What is your vision of a sustainable future?

To elaborate somewhat on my response, I see these two directions or modes of improving sustainability (shiny high-tech on one hand, and an engaged horticultural society informed by both ecological science and more ancient ways of knowing on the other) as having the possibility not only to co-exist amicably, but in fact to synergize. Emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and additive manufacturing could release human resources to allow for a more hands-on (yet intellectually demanding) kind of small-scale, locally specific, intensive food production  (“Hello computer, make me a mattock head that will work the best around my hazelnut bushes and apple trees, and design a yoke I can use to team my mule and my llama”). We may need to consider alternative economic systems to accommodate this very different suite of human occupations.
I emphasize the plurals in the last sentence, because I think it is important to try to imagine the future complexly. Specifically, we should neither expect nor seek a monoculture. Resilience, and therefore our chances of suvival, are best served by the healthy pursuit of multiple strategies. Evolution works not by a steady chain of progress along a single line, but by the differential survival of diverse organisms. If we see human economic-social-ecological systems through this lens, diverse societies with different strategies will yield a much better chance of surviving and improving upon the present than a single, unified strategy.  So what I would advocate is for different locales and communities to seek alternative ways of balancing post-industrialism, agrarianism, pastoralism, and nomadic foraging economies, using either novel or traditional models. Some yak herders may use satellite imaging and GPS to make migration systems more efficient; some urbanites might rely on hydroponic produce and lab-grown proteins in complex systems based on the latest renewable energy and water management technologies; some rural communities may choose isolated self-reliance with a cap on technology at the 19th century level (as in some Amish communities), or perhaps earlier still (to connect with more ancient lifeways and traditions).
In general, I think the majority of people are unlikely to want to give up some of the benefits of our current global levels of knowledge and interconnectivity, and I would be personally opposed to any kind of enforced primitivism (or enforced techno-urbanism, for that matter). There are challenges to keeping lines of communication and personal options open between diverse economic-social-ecological systems, but these are not insurmountable. Even within more rural Transition Town strategies, a diversity of personal choices regarding technology may be able to co-exist harmoniously.
The question of technological reliance is but one factor. Other questions to be addressed in articulating a vision for sustainable futures engage more deeply with the meaning of sustainability: How do we save what needs to be saved?  What kinds of limits do we set? What technologies are most important and useful to a sustainable society, and which technologies should and could be effectively abandoned? What systems do we use to ensure we stay on a path towards future sustainability?
Maintaining healthy ecosystems is my highest priority. This may now require some fairly heroic efforts to preserve functioning biodiversity, especially in maintaining what remains viable in old-growth rainforests (both tropical and temperate) and aquatic habitats (coral reefs, lakes and rivers), especially in the face of at least some ongoing climate instability. This will mean committing ourselves to reducing harvesting of renewable resources (forest and ocean products, and anything that degrades air, soil or water quality) to below the rate at which they can be replenished or repaired. It will also mean eschewing extraction of non-renewable resources, and finding ways to recycle instead of wasting what has already been extracted.
At the same time, I also don’t want to lose our capacity to maintain and even advance the progress we have made in many of our complex technologies, and I definitely want to advance the benefits of science and these technologies to all humans (assuring not just basic subsistence, but also universal access to medicine, sanitation, communications, transportation, education, research and exploration). I expect that there are many important linkages between the technological achievements and the social progress of the last three centuries, and I do not relish a future in which those gains are abandoned.  I believe the challenge here will be to judiciously determine which technologies are most worth maintaining, and finding truly sustainable ways to maintain those while abandoning some technologies which are no longer ethical or viable.
As I’ve said in previous blog posts, it is clear we need to consider some deep transformations of our current economic system. The challenge is not small. An industrial/post-industrial economic system that supports and incentivizes sustainable behavior while dis-incentivizing unsustainable behavior has yet to be developed. Some may argue that only our current model of capitalist economy provides the proper freedom and incentives to maintain our spectacular rate of innovation. In some senses this may be true, and I also expect that in the coming decades, the pace of research and technological advancement may slow. However, we are have more brainpower now on the planet than ever before. Average IQs and similar test scores are going up (probably not the best way to measure actual individual intelligence, but somewhat indicitave of collective intelligence nonetheless). In 1950, there were only about 17.5 million people with any post-secondary education; by 2010 there were over 318 million – an increase of more than 18X (data from Barro and Lee, 2013).  We almost certainly have more PhDs alive now than the total number of people who ever had PhDs before 1950. In addition, we have the benefit of all of the accumulated information from this history, and increasingly improved ways to search and analyse it. So while innovations may not progress as quickly in the next fifty years as they did in the last fifty, it would be amazing if things slowed down by more than a little, at least when it comes to things that are important and useful to genuinely improving sustainable quality of life.
We don’t really know what these post-scarcity, post-growth economic systems will look like, we only know that we haven’t seen them yet. How would such systems intersect with emerging social and political systems? Can we find ways to get people working more on caring for the earth and caring for one another, and still assure that everyone can have a healthy and rewarding life?  There is no shortage of work to be done, in repairing damaged ecosystems, in re-inventing our food systems, in caring for children and the elderly, in educating those whose current or recent jobs are not sustainable. Perhaps new economic systems will find ways to better reward people who work toward a net-positive ecological ‘footprint,’ leaving ‘credits’ for indulgences (travel, amusing gadgets, more consumptive hobbies), rather than facilitating wealth concentration regardless of environmental harm.
While I cannot yet form a clear image of what will be required of us, I do see some blurry shapes that we might anticipate being resolved by our efforts. max_temkin_poster_550I suspect that most of us in the industrialized world will probably have to be ready to embrace things being  slower and less convenient. Hopefully, the trade-off will be less soul-crushing, meaningless drudgery for wage laborers (many of the people whose rage and distress were voiced in this week’s election results). I believe the best approach to healing the rifts that this recent U.S. election revealed will be to come together to develop more self-reliant, socially-engaged and emotionally rewarding ways for more people to make a living, recognizing the need for maintaining healthy rural communities and lower-tech options for those who prefer them. If we put our minds to it, we can figure this out.

*It turns out that Star Trek actually did presage this vision, at least in small ways. In 1990, an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “Family” showed something that might have surprised a lot of Trekkies – Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s brother as a Luddite, Slow Food movement kind of guy, getting along just fine as a traditional vintner in the 24th century – neither isolated nor unaware, just choosing to use less technology.

Other Trek universe episodes were likely to portray those who choose lower-tech lifestyles in an even less favorable light (e.g. “The Way to Eden“, “Paradise“), but at least they continued to acknowledge the possibility that some would go for voluntary simplicity despite the appeal of Star Trek’s techno-cornucopian society.

Link

THE WORLD IN 2050: CREATING/IMAGINING JUST CLIMATE FUTURES: A NEARLY CARBON-NEUTRAL CONFERENCE

THE WORLD IN 2050: CREATING/IMAGINING JUST CLIMATE FUTURESA NEARLY CARBON-NEUTRAL CONFERENCE 24 October – 13 November 2016

from Resilience.org : Introducing … The Nearly Carbon-Free Academic Conference: The World in 2050 by John Foran

Scholars from University of Calfornia, Santa Barbara, wanted to see if they could reap most of the benefits of an academic conference without the huge carbon footprint associated with air travel. They have launched an interdisciplinary, online conference about climate futures:

…a conference where anyone could give a talk, no one had to fly to, and which anyone could attend and even participate in wide open discussions about the talks.

They thought that asking people to think about what the world would be like in 2050 would get a conversation going, and so they called the conference “The World in 2050:  Imagining and Creating Just Climate Futures,” and they invited the whole world to attend for three weeks starting on Monday, October 24 by going to a website at

http://ehc.english.ucsb.edu/?page_id=14895

to see what was going on.

Then they stayed home and waited to see what would happen.

 

The Scale of Change Over Time

(or “The difference between rust and fire”)

Randall Munroe has given us a great way to look at climate change over a somewhat-deep-time perspective.  (Remember, I’m an anthropologist, so 20,000 years is trifling – it’s next to nothing in geologic time, and only about one-tenth of the time since the first Homo sapiens evolved in Africa.) Today’s XKCD walks the viewer through a very nice scale model of the 20 millennia since the last glacial maximum, with some key events from the geological, archaeological and even linguistic record.  I’ll admit I haven’t taken the time to fact-check his placement of these events, but the ones I’m familiar with seem to be in about the right place (tragic extinctions of saber-toothed cats and Pokemon, I’m less certain about).  Scrolling through 500-year chunks of time, and reading the events therein, leaves one with a clear sense of just how out-of-the-ordinary the change over the last 500 years – and especially the last 100 years – has actually been.

earth_temperature_timeline

It’s good to see that the associated explainxkcd has not yet descended into a flame war (as of 11am PDT on 12 September 02016).  Clear, popular and provocative explorations often attract the attention of professional climate-denier trolls – this even happened to me once, gentle readers, despite the fact that I have “dozens of loyal fans… baker’s dozens… they come in 13s.” Remember, when there is over 97% scientific consensus on something, it is about as close to proven as science can reasonably get.

As Randall Munroe had pointed out previously, the difference between the effects of regular corrosion and a car fire is simply a question of how fast the oxidization is happening.

oxidation

When it comes to climate change, extinctions and far too many other phenomena, the difference between Anthropocene changes and natural background rates of change are roughly on that scale of difference.  It’s time to be in emergency response mode if we are to have any hope of saving what’s left.

 

Cultivating Ecosystem Gardens of Health and Hope

This is a talk I gave last week at the conference “Spontaneous Beauties?” World Gardens and Gardens in the World at NTU (YouTube video of practice talk, and SlideShare of PowerPoints).

 

 

Three different approaches are transforming humanity’s relationship to the wider biosphere through innovative ecosystem stewardship, informed by our deepening understandings of ecology and complexity.  Microbiome management promotes human health by cultivating the ecologies of microorganisms in, on and around our bodies, seeking to encourage beneficial symbionts and discourage invasive microbes that can trigger illness. Permaculture is a philosophy of gardening, food production and homestead management that fosters beneficial ecological interactions to cultivate healthy habitats for humans and other species.  Rewilding is a strategy of landscape management that seeks to restore the balance and diversity of historic or prehistoric ecosystems by introducing species to fill trophic niches emptied by local extinctions.  These approaches represent a radical shift of the post‐industrial human role in nature, from one of dominance, produce maximization and pest eradication to one of regenerative alliance and collaborative cultivation.

Keywords: microbiome, permaculture, rewilding, ecosystem, biodiversity, complexity

 

 

The Myth of Bartering and the Realities of Sharing and Gift Economies

In their ethnographic research, anthropologists do not find barter economies among people who have never used money.  Much more prevalent are gift economies: a complex and time-extended form of reciprocal altruism.  Often there is a great deal of social pressure to participate and share, giving away any accumulation to others, wherein no insult is crueler than to say that someone is “stingy.”  For good examples, see

1990. Counts, David. Too Many Bananas, Not Enough Pineapples, and No Watermelon at all: Three 0bject Lessons in Living with Reciprocity. In The Humbled Anthropologist: Tales from the Pacific, Philip DeVita, ed., pp. 18-24. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

2006. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.  The Old Way: A Story of the First People. Farrar, Straus, Giroux.(see here and here for some specific examples)

There was also an intriguing article outlining the myth of bartering and the realities of sharing and gift economies in the Atlantic a few months ago, that included the following insights:

“No example of a barter economy, pure and simple, has ever been described, let alone the emergence from it of money,” wrote the Cambridge anthropology professor Caroline Humphrey in a 1985 paper. “All available ethnography suggests that there never has been such a thing.”

[The] barter myth “makes it possible to imagine a world that is nothing more than a series of cold-blooded calculations,” writes Graeber in Debt. This view is quite common now, even when behavioral economists have made a convincing case that humans are much more complicated—and less rational—than classical economic models would suggest.

But the harm may go deeper than a mistaken view of human psychology. According to Graeber, once one assigns specific values to objects, as one does in a money-based economy, it becomes all too easy to assign value to people, perhaps not creating but at least enabling institutions such as slavery (in which people can be bought) and imperialism (which is made possible by a system that can feed and pay soldiers fighting far from their homes).

Are gift economies possible in a civilization built around assigning specific values to objects (and maybe people)?  Are gift economies only workable in small communities of people who all know one another?  How do they differ from charity efforts?  Do efforts to ascribe value to ecosystem services help our efforts to save ecosystems more than they distort our real relationships to them?

Video

Why study ecology? Spontaneous poetry.

The brilliant, 100% Made of Awesome (no artificial colors or preservatives) Hank Green, somehow capturing exactly why the science of ecology is great, and hikes in the woods are even better.

Plus, pretty butterflies.  (And, ya’ know, predation, death, and decay, because nature.) Enjoy!

Some days it seems to me like the purpose of life is to convert energy into beauty.

~Hank Green (Vlogbrothers, SciShow, Crash Course and more)