All Our Relatives

Image by R. Crumb

“The Ecotopian Solution” in R.Crumb’s triptych is the world I dream of when I envision finding my way to bioregionalism. Small scale, low-tech, organic, close to the earth. In fact, this is the only way of life that has any possibility of continuing in a world of finite resources.

I learned about bioregionalism in anthropology classes in graduate school, where I studied Athabaskan and Inuit cultures that lived a life we would call bioregional, but for which they had no name. It was just life. Later, I learned more about this lifeway today from Alaska native people in their villages.

81k1efmrzwlsl1500_600Athabaskan society was, and still is to a large extent, organized around kinship groups who live along the river systems of Alaska, Canada and the United States Pacific northwest. Theirs is a matrilocal clan-based society, that is organized around a moiety, or division of clans into two main groups, either eagle and raven, or wolf and raven. They live in villages on the river banks of watersheds, along which they count their kin as being more closely related than others of clan and moiety on other watersheds.

Clan-based societies often have what is called a social storage system based on activating fictive kinships in times of need. This means that when a village or villages in a bioregion suffer food or other resource shortages, the members of the village can go to other villages that have more and find clan members who will help them, whether or not they are blood kin. These “cousins” will be recognized in the village, even if no one has ever seen them before, a grave situation in a land where strangers are viewed with extreme suspicion.

This social storage system is supported by cross clan marriages, meaning that a clan member from one moiety, eagle/wolf or raven would marry a member of the opposite clan on the opposite moiety, in this case raven. The way it works in a family is that girls are raised in their mother’s clan and marry a man from their mother’s opposite clan, usually their father’s clan. Boys are raised by their mother’s brother and marry a women, often a cousin, who is from his mother’s clan.

When there is a death in the family, members of the opposite clan of the person who has died prepare the body for burial, arrange the funeral and present gifts to the family. The family of the deceased gives gifts to all the members of the opposite clan who took part in the funeral. A year after the death, the opposite clan throws a memorial potlatch for the dead, at which gifts are exchanged between the two clans.

This social system creates mutually intertwined relationships of obligation that help to prevent intervillage conflict. It’s hard to attack your neighbors when they’re also your kin.

The clan system is uniquely adapted to bioregional living, where animals and plants are viewed as relatives as much as men, women and children. When you depend on kin for your health and well-being, and they depend on you, you’re less likely to inflict injury on them or deprive them of needed resources.


Standing with Our Toes Over the Edge

What we humans optimistically call civilization these days is only the most recent of many civilizations that have come and gone, rising to shine briefly, then slowly decline, fail and disappear into the basement storage room of history. Our turn is coming, perhaps sooner than anyone expects.

Not long after I escaped from my obligatory military service in the 1970s, I studied Earth Science at a small “Normal” school (what we now call a teacher’s college) in Western Nebraska. My major professor, Dr. Larry Agenbroad, was a charismatic figure in the classroom and the field, much the favorite of the female contingent of our academic cohort. And he was wise in the ways of Earth and Mankind. Alas, he is no longer alive to pass on his knowledge.

In classes in geomorphology he taught us some very practical geological wisdom, such as don’t build your house in a flood plain or on the slope of an “extinct” volcano.

He also taught us that modern industrial agriculture had been developed during a geologic period of unusually stable, warm and wet weather, called the Holocene, and that one of these days conditions would change and we would be unable to grow enough food to feed an exponentially expanding human population.

In a petroleum geology class, he taught us about, as you might guess, petroleum, the sticky remains of ancient sunlight, turned into a concentrated energy source by time, pressure, temperature and Standard Oil. He mentioned in passing that this resource is finite, that when it is gone there will be no replacement, and we had better be thinking of making it last as long as possible if want to keep on the current path of civilization.

Dr. Agenbroad’s vision has come back to haunt us all.

Our civilization has two great challenges before it right now, challenges that have no solutions, that humans cannot forestall, that are as  inevitable as sunrise and sunset:  Peak Oil and Climate Change.

Peak Oil is the point at which annual oil consumption surpasses the annual amount of oil we discover in new oil fields. This point has passed globally. Climate Change is the slow change of global climate conditions through the phases of glacial and interglacial periods that the world has experienced for the past 2.6 million years.

The “oil crisis” of the early 1970s brought Peak Oil to public attention. There’s nothing like sitting in a long line of cars at a gas station to make you realize oil is a finite resource. At about the same time, meteorologists noticed that global temperatures were declining and they began talking about the dangers of global climate variation.

These two observations got some people to start thinking about the future of civilization. Unfortunately, those doing the thinking were an integral part of the military-industrial complex, and the result was the oil wars of Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan, attempts to consolidate control of the last large untapped oil reserves in the world.

This new direction in United States foreign policy was hatched in George W. Bush and Dick Cheney’s Energy Task Force, officially called the National Energy Policy Development Group (NEPDG) of 2001. In over 10 months of secret meetings, government officials met with petroleum, coal, nuclear, natural gas, and electricity industry representatives and lobbyists to decide how to conduct the future energy polices of the United States government.

Meanwhile, the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Bank, who up to then had pretty much held a stranglehold on the global economy, suddenly realized that if world petroleum supplies ran short, the Global Economy was going into the toilet in a big way. The result was the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), created to give policy advice to world governments on how to deal with human caused climate change (aka Global Warming).

That advice was, and is, rich countries give lots of money to poor countries, as guilt payment for the climate change the rich countries have caused, to bring poor countries into the Global Economy before it collapses under the weight of its own impossibility.

All of these national and international shenanigans were a last ditch attempt to control the uncontrollable, to solve the problems for which there are no solutions, and to try to avoid those unavoidable realities of Peak Oil and Climate Change.

As Albert Einstein noted in the 1940s:

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Peak Oil is the result of building a high energy, high consumption civilization on a finite resource, with insufficient resources to continue when the finite source runs out. It’s as if I won a lottery and bought a mansion that requires more monthly expenses to maintain than I make in my regular salary. Once the lottery winnings are spent, I don’t have enough money to pay the regular expenses, and the house is foreclosed.

The IPCC is an attempt to find a technological fix for climate change, to “stop” global warming” so our burgeoning population and it’s constantly growing economy can continue indefinitely.

But climate change is not the problem. Climate change has continued for millennia, long before humans came on the scene. The problem is that humans have built a civilization based on the assumption of a static climate, that will continue into the future indefinitely, as it has for the past 100 years.

A simple geology class would disabuse even a freshman college student of that myth.

The twin challenges humans face today, Peak Oil and Climate Change, we ourselves created by way of our highly technocratic civilization. Our energy intensive technology is the problem, not the solution. Further technology cannot “solve” these problems, they can only make them worse.

When you’re standing on the precipice with your toes dangling out over the edge, you can do one of two things: you can take a step backwards, or, if you don’t like moving backwards, you can turn around and take a step forward.

Signs of the Decline

In this critically important analysis, World Oil Production at 3/31/2014-Where are We Headed? Gail Tverberg points out the instability of global oil production leading to ultimate declines in oil availability and increases in prices.

“The fact that the selling price of oil remains flat tends to lead to political instability in oil exporters because they cannot collect the taxes required to provide programs needed to pacify their people (food and fuel subsidies, water provided by desalination, jobs programs, etc.) without very high oil prices.”

The general trend is a global decline in oil production amidst unstable to declining production worldwide. The disparity between the cost of production and the price that consumers are able to pay increases the instability of global oil prices.

As I’ve said many times in the past, Peak Oil is far more immediately threatening to human societies than climate change. In fact, the economic results of Peak Oil will largely negate the contribution of human greenhouse gases to observed climate variation.

Two Worlds… on one planet

In Two Worlds: #203 / A Two Worlds Analysis, Gary Patton states:
“My own belief is that global warming is ‘real,’ and is caused by human activity, and that global warming poses a major threat to human civilization.”

It is true that climate variation (aka, Global Warming) is real. It is inaccurate to say that it is “caused” by human activity. Climate variation continues apace, as it has done for millennia. Human activity, particularly production of greenhouse gases and modifications of the landscape that affect atmospheric water vapor, modify, to a greater or lesser extent, this natural climate variation.

There are many factors that pose major threats to human civilization, in addition to climate variation. The most immediate threatening factor is Peak Oil, which will change human civilization much sooner and much more drastically than will climate variation.

It is certain that oil will soon become an uneconomical source of energy. It is certain that human civilization is unalterably based on abundant, inexpensive oil and other finite fossil fuels. It is certain that renewable energy sources are less energy dense, less portable and less reliable than fossil fuels. It is certain that no combination of renewable energy sources can replace the amount of energy now consumed by our civilization at present population levels, let alone with any future population growth.
The effects of present and future climate variation are uncertain. Beyond consideration of the accuracy and precision of numerical global climate models, which are only as good as their data inputs, climate variation is chaotic and nonlinear, and thus, virtually impossible to predict with less than hemispheric accuracy over a limited time period.
It seems to me that the one problem facing us, Peak Oil, will cancel out the other, human modified climate variation. Either we will find a way to lower our energy demands and switch to renewable energy sources, thus lowering our “carbon footprint,” or we won’t, thus lowering our “carbon footprint.” The former will allow some maximum cultural continuity, the latter will entail considerable cultural chaos and collapse.
Laid out thusly, in glowing black and white phosphors, the choice seems clear to me. We must do everything we can to lower our energy demands while at the same time using our remaining fossil fuel energy sources to develop as much renewable energy as possible… and here’s the catch: We must accomplish all this without laying waste to the natural biosphere that supports all life on this planet.
It’s a big prescription, to be sure. One way or the other, a thousand years from now, all will be well, as humans will have found a way to live within natural cycles of resource availability and waste assimilation, either by our own determination, or by Nature’s own resolute requirements.

The Irrelevant in the Living Room


This week’s “Presidential” debate featured an animal that is seen more frequently clopping clumsily through the halls of the Grand Old Benevolent National Asylum for the Helpless in Washington, DC, The Irrelevant.
The Irrelevant is a four-legged beast, one end elephant, the other end jackass. One end never forgets the past, the other end can never remember the present. Both are stitched together at the hips in a tapestry of lies and misdirection provided by the sponsors of this longest of TeeVee soap operas, the Corporate Oligarchy.
The Irrelevant has lost touch with the people of the United States. You remember them: “Of the people, by the people and for the people?” The Irrelevant has forgotten just who we are, confusing “corporate personhood” with real live, flesh and blood constituents, who live, breathe, work for a living, and raise their children amongst the crumbling remains of the American Empire.
The Great American Dream, if it was ever real, is faded and torn like a flag left too long in the sun and weather. The promise of consumerism has proven to be The Great American Lie, as the people are beginning to realize that all consumerism does is fill your two-car garage full of junk so you can’t get your shiny new SUV in out of the weather. As the Government turns outward to defend The Empire, the people are turning inward, to family, neighborhood and community, finding satisfactions at home that have long gone missing on the national front. As gasoline prices hit $4.75 a gallon in California this week, the people are beginning to make choices about where to spend their overtime pay, and deciding that the latest frippery at the Big Box store is not quite so attractive after all.
What’s a Global Economy to do when the peasants refuse to play Follow the Leader?
The Irrelevant can’t discuss the realities of Peak Oilresilient communities, natural climate variation, limits to economic growth, finite resources and excessive population growth. To do so would mean whipping the blanket off the midsection of the beast, thus revealing the lie of the “Two-Party” political system and its inherent dominion under the economic thumb of corporate consumerism. So The Irrelevant talks out of both ends at once, each end pretending to be different from the other, but emanating the same stinking flatulence.
In the end, we must acknowledge The Irrelevant in the living room, and admit to ourselves that the course of “Progress,” if that’s what it is, is not a viable path to the future. In a world of finite resources, the mania for continued growth is insanity. We can no longer afford to use precious resources faster than they are naturally replenished, nor can we produce wastes faster then they can be naturally returned to the Earth. This is the sane and perfectly natural process that applies to all species on this planet, including and most importantly to Homo sapiens.

It’s time for a new image to inspire our lives, The Relevant, the creature that Recycles, Reuses, Rebuilds, and Reinhabits the world shared by all in the Web of Life.

Comeuppance Time

When I contemplate the gross ignorance, unceasing apathy and general yokel stupidity that characterizes our modern culture, I am thankful for climate change culminating in the next ice age, Peak Oil, famine, disease and die-off that wait patiently around the corner.  
It’s time for Homo sapiens to take its rightful place in the biosphere, one among many species on equal terms with all the rest. The Great Return cannot begin too soon nor progress too swiftly.
All other species earn their keep in this web of life. Only Homo sapiens sits up at night to admire itself, demands special dispensation for its profligate ways, invents mythical gods and goddesses to forgive its sins against the rest of Life, and acts as if it is the only species on this Earth.
Comeuppance time is at hand. Nature suffers fools poorly. There’s no free lunch, no excuses, no hall passes to go to the bathroom. 
Those that can will simplify, accommodate, learn to live within the Earth’s means.
Those that can’t, won’t.
It’s hard and it’s fair.

The Titanic is sinking and there are no lifeboats.

On April 15, 1912, RMS Titanic, the largest ocean liner ever built, struck an iceberg and sank in frigid Atlantic waters, killing 68% of the passengers and crew aboard. The shock of this failure of technology put a lasting pall on an era of untrammeled human industrial growth and development. 

Today, we face a similar nick point in human history. This time the ship is the Earth and its inevitable sinking puts the lives of billions of its passengers and crew at risk. Our Earth ship has hit the iceberg of ultimate limits to human growth and consumption of the Earth’s finite resources.

The impact of Homo sapiens on this planet is a function of two main variables, Population growth and consumption of natural resources. Human impact on the Earth is a function of the per capita rate of resource consumption multiplied by the total human population. At present, both numbers are increasing geometrically.

Population Growth
Human population, at this moment, is 7,086,000,000 and increasing at the rate of 78,840,000 per year, slightly more than an average of 1% per year. Some countries have a population growth rate more than twice the global average.

Consumption of Natural Resources
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, human beings devour an estimated 45 billion tons of minerals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass per year, an average of 6.5 tons per person per year. Highly industrialized countries such as the United States, Japan and more recently, China, consume resources at up to 40 tons per capita. Increases in consumption also produce rapid increases in pollution in the form of waste products introduced into the biosphere, many of which are new to the evolution of life on this planet.

Habitat Loss

The rapid increase in human population and consumption results in an expanding rate of natural habitat loss, as more and more habitat is converted to human infrastructure for cities, transportation and agriculture. Modern corporate agriculture results in topsoil loss at the rate of up to forty times faster than topsoil formation. What little soil is left is depauperate of natural soil organisms and minerals necessary for healthy plant growth and for the health of herbivores and their prey species.

Species Extinctions
As a result of the above, the rate of species extinctions has increased from 100 to 1,000 times the normal background extinction rate. E.O. Wilson estimates that, at present rates, within 100 years as much as half of all species on Earth will have gone extinct.

Biodiversity loss
The combination of habitat loss and species extinction is drastically reducing overall biodiversity on the Earth. In some ecosystems biodiversity is reduced to such an extent as to threaten ecosystem collapse. The complex web of life is much more than the sum of its component species. Disruption of a single species can have cascading affects on all other species.

Climate Change
Whether or not caused by human action, climate variation is natural, real and happening all the time. Human actions introduce new variables into the complex patterns of climate change, adding new feedback systems with both positive and negatives influences. In a world wounded by pollution, habitat loss, species extinctions and biodiversity loss, climate change adds more stresses to already overburdened ecosystems.

Peak Oil
Finally, and perhaps, most importantly, fossil fuels are finite resources that are rapidly approaching the end of their economic utility in human societies, known as Peak Oil. Reduction in fossil fuel use will ultimately reduce emissions and resource depletion fueled by fossil energy sources. However, human civilization is based on fossil fuel energy sources, which cannot be entirely replaced by renewable energy sources. As Peak Oil becomes more evident, human economic system will be faced with extreme changes in conduct and outcome.

What can be done to “solve” these approaching crises?
There is only one set of actions that can have any meaningful and timely influence on the inevitable collapse posed by the natural challenges outlined above. 1) Significantly reduce human population, and 2) significantly reduce per capita consumption.

It’s a simple zero sum game. The total impact of human growth and development is a function of total human population multiplied by per capita consumption. The only way to reduce that impact to less than what it is today (to compensate for ecosystem effects already in the “pipeline” that will continue after we stop producing them) is to reduce population and consumption to the point where humans consume less resources than are replenished naturally and produce less waste than can be dispersed and recycled naturally.

Reduction of human growth (economic as well as physical) will reduce the driving force creating so much environmental destruction. Reduction in human consumption will relieve the pressure on all aspects of the biosphere, including the human world.

We must come to the realization that the ship of human civilization is sinking and decide the only recourse is to build life rafts and abandon ship. Otherwise more that 68% of the passengers and crew will be lost.

In a following post, I will analyze the ways we profligate humans may go about achieving the goals of decreasing population and consumption… or not.

Global Warming is Cool!

As with most polarized issues, Climate Change has adherents on both ends of the spectrum: on the one hand those who lay the cause of climate variation at human feet (and cars, factories, power plants and airliners); and at the opposite extreme, those who minimize or eliminate human causation and insist on natural explanations.

Of course, as one might expect, the reality lies somewhere in between.
Does human activity affect climate variation? Certainly. Does climate vary in the absence of human forcing? Most certainly. What does this mean for human civilization and the future of the Earth’s environments? We-e-e-ell, it’s hard to say. Prediction is a tricky business, especially with respect to the future.
As an archaeologist, I view climate variation from a different time scale than that discussed by most climate change enthusiasts on both sides of the argument. 17, 20, 50, 100 years is an eye-blink in geologic time, even in the evolutionary history of Homo sapiens. When we look at long series data, such as the Vostok ice core records, it’s clear that the current warming phase is the most recent warming in a cycle that goes back 1.5 million years. We’re about to the top of the cycle, ready for the long plunge into the next “ice age” that will bottom out in about 20,000 years.
Coupled with Peak Oil and the incipient decline in fossil fuel resources, human contributions to Global Warming will decline within the next 100 years. If human activity has delayed the onset of the next cooling period, this will certainly come to an end within the lifetime of many people now alive. That doesn’t mean glaciers will start marching across Fargo, North Dakota anytime soon. Rather, it means that Anthropogenic Global Warming will not continue indefinitely, atmospheric CO2 levels will decline as the cooling ocean absorbs the excess, and the Earth will slide gently into the next cycle of Global Cooling.
What does that mean for humans alive on this Earth right now?
Given the overwhelming force of natural climate change exhibited in long term climate cycles, there’s nothing humans can do to forestall the ultimate descent into the next cooling phase. At present, science, politics and public policy is focused on mitigation of observed increases in global average surface temperature, perceived to be caused by anthropogenic CO2. While this is ultimately futile, the economic and technological changes necessary to reduce anthropogenic CO2 will have the unintended consequence of also decreasing some human caused pollution, habitat loss and biodiversity reduction caused by fossil fuel exploitation.

However, reduction in fossil fuel use must be accompanied by increases in “renewable” energy resources such as wind, solar, tidal and geothermal, which have their own demands on natural resources, critical natural habitats and the species that live therein. There’s no “clean” energy source to replace fossil fuels that will eliminate negative consequences to non-human species.
Whether the coming changes in human societies be aimed at reducing global warming, preparing for the inevitable global cooling, or learning to live as a part of the Earth, not apart from the Earth, humans must develop resilient societies capable of accommodating to a variable environment shared by myriad other living beings. This means a drastically smaller human population, consuming considerably less energy and natural resources than we do today.

Rather than fighting among ourselves over the last bite on the plate, and wasting billions of monetary units from our declining economies, why not just do the right thing that we should have been doing all along? That is, reduce our impact on the natural world so as to increase the chances of all species surviving indefinitely into the future.
Now would be a good time to start.

Coming to Grips with a Finite World

Bolivia Climate Change Talks to Give Poor a Voice
Indigenous peoples gather in public talks in Cochabamba to deal with the effects of economic colonialism, disguised as Climate Change.


Governments Starting to Worry About Peak Oil
Oil Company executives and government officials gather in secret to figure out how to profit from Peak Oil.

Coming to the wrong conclusions about Peak Oil

This article from Australia Demand for oil to outstrip supply within two years conflates Peak Oil with energy demand, assuming that Peak Oil means oil demand exceeds supply. Peak Oil actually means that point at which oil production irreversibly declines. Current projections, based on rather iffey reserve estimates, suggest that global Peak Oil will be realized some time in the next five years.

The article in “Perth Now” reaches the following conclusions:

“Energy will be king in the coming decades, and we must exploit our (bountiful) resources wisely, while preparing ourselves for much higher prices and potentially lower domestic economic activity (aside from coal and LNG exports).”

Energy has always been king in human societies, whether it was for hunting mammoths, domesticating animals, building steam engines or flying across the Atlantic. Our major human “revolutions:” agricultural, industrial and informational have all revolved around and been inspired by energy concerns.

As to exploiting “our” bountiful resources, it seems there’s been too much of that going on around our poor beleaguered planet of late. Who says they’re our resources to exploit in the first place, anyway? Seems like us Johnny-Come-Latelys on the evolutionary scene owe a bit of forbearance to those species who preceded us and made it possible for us to keep on evolving, if indeed, we ever did.

Economic activity and prices are inventions of this one particular species egotistically called Homo sapiens. They’re not real, at least in the same way that air and water and sun and photosynthesis are real, important and essential. We got along quite well for 100,000 years or so without economics and prices. Seems like the neighborhood has gone rapidly downhill since their invention.

Can we get along with “much higher prices and potentially lower domestic economic activity?” Sure we can. We did quite well during World War II. Prospered even. Well, some of us did anyway. That’s part of the problem.

The whole idea of steadily increasing domestic activity is oversold, and a bad deal to begin with that never got any better. It may have temporarily lined the pockets of a few, while others, including furred and feathered and scaled others, two-legged, four legged and finned, have done rather poorly. Their prospects don’t look any better for the future.

Unless, of course, we get off this obsession with growth for growth sake and devolve back to some semblance of balance, real balance, not the right-wing “I get more balance than you do” concept. “Much higher prices and potentially lower domestic economic activity” will help considerably in that regard, of course, encouraging folks to consume less, stay at home, walk and bicycle more, work fewer hours, grow gardens full of good food and flowers, increasingly contemplate the natural scenery of their neighborhoods with sublime satisfaction. Gather up all the growth maniacs and put them on a secluded island somewhere, ringed with all of our excess military hardware so they cant’ escape. Let ’em grow there, in isolation.

Energy will indeed become king in coming decades, but in terms of saving it rather than expending it. The relaxing “clop,clop” of horses hooves will replace the mind-altering roar of captive automotive horses, with sound systems set on stun. Our streets will return to the commons, where we will meet with our neighbors for convivial conversation, where our dogs will bask undisturbed in the sun, where trees will provide welcome shade, moisture and beauty, where the edges will be marked with flowers and grass rather than hard concrete curbing.

With the End of the Age of Oil we will also come to the End of the Age of Automomotive Oppression.