Linking the Past with the Present: Resources, Land Use, and the Collapse of Civilizations

When man interferes with the Tao,
the sky becomes filthy,
the earth becomes depleted,
the equilibrium crumbles
creatures become extinct
(Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, ca. 550 BCE)

The human role in extinction of species and degradation of ecosystems is well documented. Since European settlement in North America, and especially after the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we have witnessed a substantial decline in biological diversity of native taxa and profound changes in assemblages of the remaining species. We have ripped minerals from the Earth, often bringing down mountains in the process; we have harvested nearly all the old-growth timber on the continent, replacing thousand-year-old trees with neatly ordered plantations of small trees; we have hunted species to the point of extinction; we have driven livestock across every almost acre of the continent, baring hillsides and facilitating massive erosion; we have plowed large landscapes, transforming fertile soil into sterile, lifeless dirt; we have burned ecosystems and, perhaps more importantly, we have extinguished naturally occurring fires; we have paved thousands of acres to facilitate our movement and, in the process, have disrupted the movements of thousands of species; we have spewed pollution and dumped garbage, thereby dirtying our air, fouling our water, and contributing greatly to the warming of the planet. We have, to the maximum possible extent allowed by our intellect and never-ending desire, consumed the planet. In the wake of these endless insults to our only home, perhaps the greatest surprise is that so many native species have persisted, thus allowing our continued enjoyment and exploitation.
Although insults by Homo sapiens since the Industrial Revolution are well documented and widely acknowledged, abundant archaeological evidence indicates similar actions in the more distant past have led to the rise and fall of 23 major civilizations. Humans clearly have impacted their environments since initially appearing on the evolutionary stage, and human impacts have grown profoundly since the development of agriculture and subsequent technologies (as reviewed by Charles Redman’s 1999 text, Human Impact on Ancient Environments and, in more accessible prose, by Jared Diamond’s 2005 book, Collapse). Concomitantly, the environment has influenced the development of humans and their societies. The interaction between humans and their environments and the relative roles of culture and resources on human societies have received considerable attention from archaeological scholars. (The word “resources” is problematic because it implies materials are placed on this planet for the use of humans. We see finite substances and the living planet as materials to be exploited for our comfort. For efficiency and familiarity, I reluctantly use the word throughout this essay. I’ll save the full rant for another post while pointing out that my perspective is less imperial, and less Christian, than the traditional view.) The expansive literatures on resources, culture, and human-environment interactions indicate the important role of resources in constraining the development of several societies in the North American Southwest (as described particularly well by Timothy A. Kohler and colleagues). Exploitation of ecosystems, even to the point of destroying fertility of soils, has constrained subsequent food production (as described most notably by J.A. Sandor and colleagues). Although I recognize the importance of these topics, I leave the continued study and discussion of culture, resources, and human-environment interactions in the distant past to scholars with more interest and expertise than me, and instead turn my attention to recent and ongoing assaults by humans on the living planet.
If we accept that humans played a pivotal role in loss of species and degradation of ecosystems — and both patterns seem impossible to deny at this point — we face a daunting moral question: How do we reverse these trends?
Maintenance of biological diversity is important to our own species because present and future generations of humans depend on a rich diversity of life to maintain survival of individuals and, ultimately, persistence of our species. In addition, as architects of the extinction crisis currently facing plant Earth, we have a responsibility to future Homo sapiens and to non-human species to retain the maximum possible biological diversity. We must embrace our capacity and capability to sustain and enhance the diversity and complexity of our landscapes. The substantial economic cost of maintaining high levels of biological diversity will pale in comparison to the costs of failing to do so, which potentially include the extinction of humans from Earth.
Reintroducing ecological processes with which species evolved, and eliminating processes detrimental to native species, underlie the ability to maintain and perhaps even restore species diversity. Specifically, the management of wildland ecosystems should be based on maintenance and restoration of ecological processes, rather than on structural components such as species composition or maintenance of habitat for high-profile rare species. In fact, a focus on the latter goals — a fine-filter approach — may clog the coarse filter necessary for landscape-scale management of many species and ecosystems.
Drivers of Change
The proximate drivers underlying changes in land cover during the first few decades after European contact were mineral extraction, agricultural expansion, timber removal, and introduction of nonnative species (most importantly, livestock). The quest for silver and gold drove the Conquistadors to dismember, rape, and murder native peoples throughout the New World. The effects of mining on natural ecosystems were no less dramatic. Even before fossil fuels were employed to ease the extraction of metals from the ground, waterways were diverted and steam-powered water cannons were used to blast soil from mountains. Every tree within several dozen miles of a mining operation was cut down or pulled from the ground to power steam-powered stamp mills. Trees that escaped the eye of mine operators rarely got away for long. The western expansion of the human population across North America drove great demand for construction lumber, railroad ties, paper products, and heat from the hearth. These changes and their consequences have been well documented in a wide variety of publications (see, for example, People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, One with Ninevah by Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich, and The Diversity of Life by Edward O. Wilson).
Farmers and ranchers followed frontiersmen, trappers, and miners into western North America. Whereas frontiersmen left a relatively small ecological footprint and the operations of trappers and miners tended to be limited in spatial scale, agriculture dominated virtually every acre of the North American West. Row-crop agriculture covered areas with fertile soil that could be fed by irrigation systems, including nearly all rivers. The massive, arid expanses unable to sustain row crops supported the dominant form of agriculture: livestock. By the early twentieth century, cattle and sheep had trampled nearly every wildland acre in search of forage. Stockmen (and, rarely, stockwomen) led the charge to exterminate perceived predators and potential competitors for forage: wolves, bears, coyotes, eagles, and prairie dogs were among the species slaughtered in the pursuit of safe environs for livestock and those who grew them. Perhaps more important than direct mortality from shooting and trapping were pronounced changes in site conditions that resulted from the collective action of millions of mouths and hooves.
Livestock have had pronounced negative impacts throughout North America. Livestock still loom large, and other biological invasions have transformed western landscapes. Some, like livestock, are politically “untouchable” despite adverse impacts on native species and ecosystems (e.g., “sport” fishes and various species of turf grasses critical to the golf-course industry). Others are universally undesirable but seemingly intractable because of ecological, rather than political, reasons.
It is not surprising that we are largely unable to manage, much less eradicate, nonnative species. After all, there are more than 50,000 nonnative species in the United States alone, invading terrestrial ecosystems at the rate of 700,000 hectares each year at an annual cost of $120 billion; they threaten 400 species with extinction (these figures come from the excellent scholarship of David Pimentel and colleagues, most notably including their 2005 paper in the journal Ecological Economics titled, “Update on the environmental and economic costs associated with alien-invasive species in the United States”). To make matters even more challenging, every species on Earth is capable of invading other sites (as assured by biotic potential), and every site is subject to invasion by at least one, and potentially many, nonnative species. Because biological invasions depend exclusively on the “match” between characteristics of biological invaders and characteristics of sites, and because there are an infinite number of potential “matches” between species and sites, solutions to the problem of biological invasions are specific to species and sites.
Given the disinterest in environmental issues displayed by citizens and their elected representatives, I doubt we will seriously address the problem of biological invasions before we cause the extinction of own species. As such, this disinterest in environmental issues reflects ignorance or disdain for the living planet that sustains our own species. It represents, in other words, omnicide that will almost certainly prove fatal.
The transition to modernity brought infrastructure, notably cities and the ever-widening, increasingly well maintained roads between them. Thus, within the last few decades, early drivers of change such as mining and agricultural expansion have been supplanted in importance by alteration of fire regimes, urbanization, and global climate change. Herein, I focus on the relatively simple impacts of each of these factors in isolation. As with historical drivers of change, interactions between these factors are complex, under-studied, and undoubtedly critically important.
A large and growing body of knowledge and empirical evidence indicates that fire was historically prevalent in North America, except in the driest deserts and the coldest tundra. It is clear that native species on the continent have evolved adaptations to periodic fires. Historical prevalence of fire ensures that even those species that seem most intolerant of fire have evolved in the presence of recurrent fires, as described in abundant ecological literature. Adaptations to fire are many and diverse, and include escape (e.g., distributions limited to rocky areas where fire rarely occurred), tolerance (e.g., thick bark), and rapid recruitment in post-fire environments (e.g., widely dispersed seeds and ability to establish in open environments).
Recognition that virtually all native species in North America evolved in concert with periodic fires leads to two general conclusions: (1) Native species have developed adaptations to fires that occur at a particular frequency, season, and extent; and (2) maintenance or reintroduction of the fire regimes with which these species evolved should assume high priority for those interested in maintaining high levels of biological diversity. A corollary to the first conclusion is that classification of native species along a gradient of adaptation to fire is simplistic and potentially misleading. Native species are “adapted” to recurrent fires, and classifying some as more tolerant than others suggests that fire is “good” for some species and “bad” for others. A more appropriate view is that recurrent fires, at the appropriate frequency, season, and extent (i.e., components of the historical fire regime), are part and parcel of these ecosystems. A corollary of the second conclusion is that reintroduction of ecological processes should be a relatively efficient and comprehensive strategy for retaining native species in extant ecosystems. Indeed, the historical prevalence of fire in these ecosystems suggests that fire is a necessary component of any comprehensive strategy focused on retention of biological diversity. Because fire was — and is — a dominant process in these systems, restoration of fire regimes would seem to be an important first step toward maintenance of high levels of biological diversity.
Urbanization and the associated transportation infrastructure have divided formerly large, contiguous landscapes into fragmented pieces. Fires that formerly covered large areas are constrained by fragmentation, and animals that necessarily range over large areas, such as mountain lions, bison, and grizzly bears, have suffered expectedly. These changes have been particularly pronounced since Oil War II, largely as a result of government subsidies that have promoted growth of the human population and suburban development. These trends will be reversed within the next few years because the Oil Age is drawing to a close. Unfortunately, our near-term inability to burn fossil fuels on a large scale probably will come too late to save many of the planet’s species from the effects of runaway greenhouse.
Ultimately, the story of western civilization is the story of fossil fuels. Profound changes in land use and land cover have been enabled by access to inexpensive oil and its derivatives (e.g., coal, uranium, ethanol, photovoltaic solar panels, wind turbines). Dramatic fluctuations in the price of oil within the next few years, coupled with steadily declining global supplies of this finite substance, likely will cause a complete collapse of the world’s industrial economy, which might usher in a new era with respect to species assemblages and land cover. Given the dependence of humans on fossil fuels for power, water, and food (including production and delivery), it seems inevitable that many people will die and the industrialized world’s vaunted infrastructure will collapse, thereby giving other species a slim and dwindling chance to make a comeback. Although the pattern of dwindling access to resources and subsequent collapse of civilizations has been thoroughly described in the archaeological record, the ongoing collapse obviously exceeds previous others with respect to geographic scale, as well as the number of species and the number of humans impacted.
Peak Oil and the Collapse of Industrial Civilization
Oil discovery and extraction tend to follow bell-shaped curves, as described by M. King Hubbert more than 50 years ago. The easily reached, light oil is extracted first. Heavier oil, often characterized by high sulfur content, is found at greater depths on land and also offshore. This heavier oil requires more money and more energy to extract and to refine than light oil. Eventually, all fields and regions become unviable economically and energetically. When extracting a barrel of oil requires more energy than contained in the barrel of oil, extraction is pointless.
The top of the bell-shaped curve for oil extraction is called “Peak Oil” or “Hubbert’s Peak.” We passed Hubbert’s Peak for world oil supply in 2005 and began easing down the other side, with an annual decline rate of 0.5% between 2005 and 2008 leading to a record-setting price of $147.27/barrel in July 2008. The International Energy Agency, which had never previously acknowledged the existence of a peak in oil availability, predicted an annual decline rate in crude oil in excess of 9% after 2008. The current economic recession resulting from the high price of oil led to a collapse in demand for oil and numerous other finite commodities, hence leading to reduced prices and the rapid abandonment of energy-production projects. Many geologists and scientists predict a permanent economic depression will result from declining availability of oil and the associated dramatic swings in the price of oil. It seems clear the permanent depression is already here. The absence of a politically viable solution to energy decline explains, at least in part, the absence of a governmental response to the issue even though the United States government recognizes peak oil as a serious problem (along, no doubt, with many other governments of the world).
Without energy, societies collapse. In contemporary, industrialized societies, virtually all energy sources are derived from oil. Even “renewable” energy sources such as hydropower, wind turbines, and solar panels require an enormous amount of oil for construction, maintenance, and repair. Extraction and delivery of coal, natural gas, and uranium similarly are oil-intensive endeavors. Thus, the decline of inexpensive oil spells economic disaster for industrialized countries. Demand destruction caused by high energy prices is affecting the entire industrialized world.
Viewed from a broader perspective than energy, economic collapses result from an imbalance between demand and supply of one or more resources (as explained in considerable depth by Jared Diamond in Collapse). When supply of vital resources is outstripped by demand, governments often print currency, which leads to hyperinflation. In recent history, the price of oil and its refined products have been primary to rates of inflation and have played central roles in the maintenance of civilized societies.
Addressing the issue of peak oil while also controlling emissions of carbon dioxide, and therefore reducing the prospect of “runaway greenhouse” on planet Earth, represents a daunting and potentially overwhelming challenge. Peak oil and the effects of runaway greenhouse are the greatest challenges humanity has ever faced. Tackling either challenge, without the loss of a huge number of human lives, will require tremendous courage, compassion, and creativity.
There is little question that the decades ahead will differ markedly from the recent past. From this point forward, Homo sapiens will lack the supply of inexpensive energy necessary to create and maintain a large, durable civilization. The fate of western civilization is in serious question, given our inability to sustain high levels of energy extraction. The population of humans in industrialized countries probably will fall precipitously if oil extraction turns sharply downward, as predicted by the International Energy Agency. The benefit of a massive human die-off is the potential for other species, and even other cultures, to expand into the vacuum we leave in our wake.
This post is extracted and modified from a forthcoming book chapter celebrating 20 years of archaeological research in the North American Southwest. To improve accessibility for this audience, I have removed references to the primary literature (if you’d like a copy of the academic version, please send me an email message). The book will be published by the Colorado University Press. Thanks to Carla Van West for inviting my participation in the Southwestern Symposium held in Tempe, Arizona, January 2008, and for soliciting my chapter for the book. Thoughtful comments on earlier drafts were provided by Dana Backer and Paul Taylor.
This essay is permalinked at Energy Bulletin, Speaking Truth to Power, Island Breath, mostly water, StumbleUpon, and (sans links) the website of the Western Watersheds Project.

Comments 31

  • Long term the planet doesn’t really stand a chance, sad really, it’s only hope is if we take ourselves out…

  • mass species extinction = 10 million year speciation peak/recovery
    A study of marine fossil diversity bears this out. Nearly a decade ago, James Kirchner of the University of California, Berkeley, and Anne Weil of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, took a database of all known marine fossils and used it to work out how closely peaks of speciation follow peaks of extinction (Nature, vol 404, p 177). “We went into this thinking, like everybody else, that when you have an extinction, you begin repopulating almost immediately,” says Kirchner, now at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research in Birmensdorf. Instead, they found that speciation peaks lagged about 10 million years behind extinction peaks. “We pretty much fell out of our chairs,” he says.
    In fact, for the first few million years after an extinction the speciation rate actually falls. “That suggests to us a sort of wounded biosphere. Extinction events don’t just remove organisms from an ecosystem, leaving lots of opportunity for new species to diversify. Instead, what we think happens is that the niches themselves collapse, so you won’t have new organisms emerging to occupy them. The niches themselves don’t exist any more,” says Kirchner.
    new scientist

  • Hi Guy —
    I am on the advisory board of the Western Watersheds Project ( I don’t know the Arizona director (Greta Anderson) personally, but I know that she specializes in range management and biodiversity issues, especially on public lands (BLM, US Forest Service) and WWP initiates litigation to force better management of lands through the courts. If you want to get involved to some extent in Arizona, I would be happy to make some inquiries within the advisory board and board of directors of WWP to see if this can be arranged. This is just an exploratory thought and you are invited to contact me privately if you are interested… We have some very good ecologists on our team, including several with PhD’s and advanced degrees. One of my favorites is Deb Donahue, a professor of law at the University of Wyoming, who also has a master’s degree in wildlife biology. Deb wrote a book seven or eight years ago called “The Western Range Revisited”, which reviews the Taylor Grazing Act of the 1930’s and subsequent history in terms of ecological and economic impacts of livestock grazing in the Arid West. The book was so despised by the livestock industry that one Wyoming state legislator proposed to defund the entire University of Wyoming School of Law in order to cost Deb her job. She specializes in environmental law and she is fantastic, just like others on our team.
    Your posting reminds me of my all-time hero, Aldo Leopold, for a couple of reasons. First, Leopold wrote an essary long ago called “Pioneers and Gullies”, which described the almost-immediate impact of livestock on the fragile grasslands of Arizona and the desert Southwest. Prior to White Europeans and livestock, the riparisn areas of Arizona were full of fish and beaver and fur bearers and grasses as tall as the bridles of horses. It did not take very long for the forage to get chewed up, the soil to be terrigbly eroded, the waters to be polluted and warmed and for paradise to be spoiled permanently. Leopold pointed out that aridity has a major role in recovery from ecological damage, and in extremely dry environments, such as Arizona’s deserts, Aldo said that recovery from extreme damage could take place only within geological time frames.
    And Leopold proposed the Land Ethic as a mindset that could allow the beginnings of a solution as follows: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the beauty, the integrity and the stability of the biotic community. A thing is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
    I have loved Aldo Leopold’s writings and thoughts ever since I was first exposed to them by becoming an apprentice in raptor research to his only female graduate student, Fran Hamerstrom of Wisconsin.
    Leopold had a fantastic way of putting things, like “I love trees, but I am in love with pines.” And many others. It has been my privilege to become friends over the years with Leopold’s daughter, Nina, the widow of the late Dr. Charles Bradley, who still lives at the Leopold property at Baraboo, Wisconsin. I am always delighted to exchange correspondence with Nina Leopold Bradley and feel a spark of wonder still emanating from that family.
    I am afraid to say that we are in the beginnings of another mass extinction event that (this time) may very well bring down our own species. It pains me to think of the charasmatic species of our planet that may not survive another hundred years, including polar bears, Asian tigers, even southwest Asian Gyps vultures, and so many less charasmatic, and some even uncatalogued life forms that will go extinct before we even recognize them. If man does go extinct in the next few decades, it will be well-deserved because the lessons of history are there and have been there for us to observe. We chose to ignore them in our search for more consumption and luzury and it will cost us dearly, even if we do survive as a species.
    Stan Moore

  • Wouldn’t it be funny, in a darkly comedic sense, if the whole world was wiped clean of all life forms tomorrow by some cosmic radiation blast, or asteroid or some other such item?
    To add spice, let’s say some random scientist somewhere has just figured out, thanks to his morning coffee, how to ameliorate human environmental issues and solve peak oil to create a totally sustainable existence for the human race JUST before the impact vaporizes him into an invisible cloud of atoms.
    That’s how I’d write it. But I’m feeling snarky today. So, let’s just be glad I’m not the Grande Author of it all.
    Sustainable life, bah-humbug.

  • Guy,
    I am a little confused regarding the two opposing paths you lay out in your current post. The first path suggests that while extensive damage has been done to the western ecosystem, especially via the effects of livestock, non-native invasive species, and habitat fragmentation, it is still fixable via enlightened management. Similarly, the problems of peak oil and climate change can be addressed and presumably mitigated if we only have enough “courage, compassion, and creativity.” Generally, the message of this first path is hopeful and forward looking suggesting that, while changed in fine detail, things can be brought back into balance. The second path, however, gives only the dark statement that we will be unable to change our ways and many more species will become extinct from the effects of our human created catastrophic climate change. So which is it, hope or no hope?

  • I really do not understand Charlene’s point. Every one of our bodies replaces its cells regularly. Your body today is made of entirely different cells than it was a few years ago. Yet, by metabolizing nutrients and taking in oxygen and water we sustain our lives. We may move to another state or country, marry a different partner, receive a heart transplant, but life itself is sustainable.
    I do not think the earth itself will become a lifeless planet. Species may come and go, including ours. But within our species we have seen cultures that persisted for long periods of time. It seems possible to me that our species could produce cultures that are sustainable.
    Sustainable does not mean absent of change. We change with every breathe, every bite, every thought. I am in the process of attempting a great change (for me). My recent visit to the doctor revealed through a blood test that my medications were not adequately controlling my blood pressure or my blood glucose. I am now considered a Type II diabetic. I am not sick and show no symptoms, but if I do not make some major changes, that will change. I got hold of a very interesting book by Dr. Richard Bernstein that deals specifically with managing blood glucose, primarly by diet. Dr. Bernstein himself is a long-time diabetic with Type I diabetes and he taught himself through experimentation to control blood sugars by reading his blood glucose levels several times per day after meals and medications, etc. He has a system of dietary and lifesytle planning that has worked (sometimes “miraculously”) for many people. For me, it is going to require a whopper of a change. No more Whoppers at Burger King! No more Whoppers (chocolate malted milk balls) at the movies! No more potatoes or rice or grain or bread or fruit for me whatsoever! Meat and veggies in moderation and strict control. Two years ago I could not make the changes. Now I think I can because I think I am finally ready. I want to sustain my life and health a bit longer.
    I have had encouraging results right off the bat by good fidelity to the new dietary principles for two or three days. Changing to become sustainable is probably what life itself requires for all of us.
    Stan Moore

  • Matt,
    Your quote from James Kirchner was extremely interesting especially as an extension of Guy’s post. 10 million years is a long time, a hundred times longer than Homo sapiens has been on this planet, and almost two thousand times longer than we’ve been “civilized.” But I do have two questions about how Kirchner’s work describes the current, human caused, mass extinction.
    First, in places like the Amazon hundreds of species are falling into extinction. Many of these, to date, occupy small geographic ranges that are subject to disruption by logging and agriculture (e.g. consider a species of beetle limited to a 20 square mile patch of jungle that is clear-cut to raise cows for hamburgers). Kirchner’s team was examining mass extinctions of marine organisms that were presumably widely distributed. Does your understanding equate the small-scale and large-scale niche destruction? Or does Kirchner not address the current situation?
    Second, again regarding niche destruction, consider sharks. Am I right in assuming that Kirchner would say that when we finish killing off all the sharks (extinction via over fishing) we will have also destroyed the shark niche for 10 million years? Does that mean the niche (which is occupied/exploited by the sharks) only exists when there is some organism occupying it? For example, if you killed off all the small fish that the sharks eat there would be no food for sharks and therefore the niche would not exist. However, if you only kill off the sharks, but not the shark food, does the niche still exist but remain unfilled?
    Thanks for including these ideas. I’d be interested in your thoughts.

  • Michael
    I am the bane of ecologists and environmental planners everywhere
    – I am a Landscape Architect!
    I am in no intellectual position to answer those
    questions. The article I decanted is very interesting.
    There is (was) an assumption that when certain species
    decline, those niches left behind are exploited by other species.
    Perhaps this lazy (somewhat hopeful) assumption has been debunked.
    I would say that with an extinction rate of 50-60,000 species
    per year we have created a mass extinction event (anthropocene)
    greater than any other time in the history of the planet.
    The consequences of which we will never be able to understand.
    It’s a reductionists (scientist) delusion to believe that we can truly fathom the complexity of an ecology.

  • Look, I’m not saying that everyone should take a big fat dose of fukitol and tell the environment to kiss off. I’m just saying there really isn’t any way to exist in a state that is perpetually sustainable. Our bodies manage balance for a while, but we still die.
    Trying to survive for as long as possible in the least offensive possible way is a wonderful idea. I’m not against it. I couldn’t be more “for” it as a matter of fact. Really, we need to change strategy, have a paradigm shift, whatever else. But the creation of some future culture capable of tossing off entropy is about as realistic as cheating death through some futuristic Singularity fantasy. Not saying I wouldn’t like it to happen, but it doesn’t seem likely given the way the world works on most days of the year.
    Two things in life that you can bet on: entropy and death.
    To hell with taxes, they don’t have anywhere near the longevity of the aforementioned two.

  • I don’t think any civilization ever died from entropy as I understand entropy. Our planet is a home that is well-equipped to support life indefinitely from a human time frame. Someday the sun will lose its heat and the earth will freeze, but that is not within the time frame of human concern at present. The civilizational collapses in recorded history were typically related to the opposite of entropy, the overexploitation and overpopulation of finite resources.
    Now, we could make an argument that the human genome biases us towards self-extinction because of the same human traits that allow us to persist in difficult situations and environments, but again, this is not entropy as I understand it.
    I see no reason that sustainability is intrinsically impossible for humans in certain cultural paradigms that are already established, if not sometimes forgotten. The periodic discovery of “missing tribes” in remote portions of the planet is good evidence that humans can live sustainably if not polluted by self-limiting culture.
    Stan Moore

  • Stan, are you aware of any communities or cooperatives in California that are trying to create an off-the-grid lifestyle such as Guy’s? When I lived in the Sacramento area I was disgusted by the rampant consumerism around me. Here we were in a state that has a reputation for being “environmentally conscious”, and yet I never saw anything that would support that reputation. The natural environment there is more capable of sustaining life than most places I’ve lived and yet I didn’t even know anyone besides myself who was trying to grow a garden. Surely there are pockets of people with sense. Probably they have the sense to be not only off the grid but under the radar as well.

  • photosynthesis = entropy undone = free lunch!
    when you put slivers of silver and gold into electronic
    components the entropy law has fucked you over
    ie from low to high/increasing entropy
    air will always deflate form a tyre not the reverse
    cheer up Charlene,
    cheat entropy and plant a tree!

  • Luckily Portland’s capitalists are getting their act together fast, finally buying equity in a city-wide worm farming project in all 95 Portland neighborhoods, along with the city government’s help.
    The objective is to amend yards with living soils, followed by fruit and nut tree plantings, and fast-growing fruit vines like grapes and kiwis.
    Thus, food security and carbon sequestration in a single pass, all while building local resilience and hyper-local community using technology and guidance, including small groups of classes for neighbors at the street-by-street level.
    The goal is 20% participation by home owners and renters over the next two growing seasons. At $25 (retail) per pound of red wigglers, it’s the new caviar. We buy worms wholesale for $10 per pound, creating a market incentive for people to become worm farmers using simple methods or full-bore operations using their existing resources (garages, yards, food waste, cardboard, shredded junk mail).
    We also pick up food waste from restaurants, boosting free inputs for worms and eliminating waste disposal fees, reducing operating costs for restaurants at the same time.
    We give a portion of the worm castings to local farmers who in turn provide local produce back to participating restaurants.
    This is the most fun I’ve ever had! We are making money by tackling peak oil, climate change, and liquid fuels disruption all at the same time, and documenting everything over at

  • In answer to Wendy —
    I do not have personal knowledge of any such communities, particularly where people live together and share from a common, shared pool of resources.
    I recently moved to a 43 acre privately owned property near Sebastopol, CA which used to be a CCC camp and later a commune, the owner told me. There are little abandoned cabins on the property, but the county apparently does not allow such arrangements.
    I have seen community gardens, even in suburban areas. I am certain that there are mutually supportive communities seeking self-sufficiency, but they would probably do best to stay private out of self-preservation.
    I apologize for not being able to say more. I had hoped my previous situation would be permanent, but the landlord got greedy and decided to up the rent and make my rental more fancy, so I had to leave. I think I can join a communal garden on my new location next spring. Right now I am rearranging my diet and lifestyle anyways — I actually ate steamed broccoli and green beans for breakfast this morning, which is a feat that a few months ago would have been impossible :)
    Stan Moore

  • Thanks for the comment and question, Michael. If it seems I’m schizophrenic — as it must have seemed since the earliest days of this blog — it’s because I’ve been monitoring our prospects very closely. We’re in a campaign for our lives, and for the persistence of our species. One day it appears we’ll bring down the industrial economy in time to save our species. The next day, it appears we’re committed to an average global temperature increase of 3.5 C, which spells extinction for our species.

  • Hope or no hope?
    I just took a look at the Wildlife Society’s website for its recent annual meeting. In particular, I looked at various papers on sage grouse, their management and conservation. I cannot recall seeing mention of the word “cow”. But if you talk to Dr. Clait Braun, who lives in Tucson after his retirement as avian program director for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, you would find that livestock grazing is probably the single most critical factor for sage grouse persistence in intact habitat. My point is that the wildlife profession finds a way to look beyond critical issues because of political realities, such as the heavy influence of the grazing industry.
    This is an old issue, as Guy stated in his latest essay. But it continues to be unresolved because of a lack of political will.
    Amazingly to me, huge issues that place human survival are on the table, but keep getting ignored, passed over, or dealt with minimally in comparison with the scale of the problems. I recall that two or three years ago a Department of Defense report revealed their knowledge that the threat to national security from global warming exceeded the threat to national security from “terrorism”. Yet we keep pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into vain wars against “terrorism” while stalling on action to mitigate global warming because it is declared to be too expensive or harmful to the economy!
    All this makes me believe that we are beyond hope in terms of saving our civilization.
    Yet, even so, I believe it is better to act and live as if there were hope than the opposite.
    I also believe that, while the civilization will sink, we individually and in small groups (tribes or communities) can survive and even prosper. That is what can keep us going even if hope for preserving our entire civilization is gone.
    Stan Moore

  • Stan, thanks for your answer. I’ve been through Sebastopol a number of times on my way to and from the Casini Ranch at Duncans Mills. It’s a lovely area and I wish you the best as you settle in and also as you tackle your new healthy eating lifestyle. You’re off to a great start!
    Guy, so what shall we do when faced with these “exciting scientific findings” (as they so cheerfully introduced the knell of doom)? Throw our hands in the air and party til the fat lady sings? Hole up in our bunkers? I suppose the eternally optimistic pessimist in me will insist on continuing to spit into the wind.

  • Matt and Guy,
    Thanks for your comments. I’ve read and re-read your remarks and each time my thoughts skip off in a different direction. I’ll try to get my ideas together later today but right now its getting light and I have to be out the door; the woodpile, a stone wall, and horse manure are calling. Its 19°F this morning and winter seems really close.

  • Thinking more in terms of social entropy…not so much physical energy but what it would take to keep multiple generations of people on the same page, following the same mindset, pursuing the same system in perpetuity.
    Say the current system blows apart, then other systems come to replace it. Of course, all of these systems would be “sustainable” because everyone would have gotten religion over the whole mass-die-off experience. How many generations do you think it would take for the descendants of the people who witnessed a die-off to adopt a habits which were harmful to the environment? How many generations for another build up and another collapse and another die-off?
    That’s all.

  • I’m not sure who first forwarded the notion of living “as if,” but it seems an excellent idea in this age. We should live as if our actions make a difference, knowing they probably don’t. When Rosa Parks sat in the front of the bus, she was acting as if she had the right.
    Turns out she did.
    There are many other examples we know about, and probably many more that never made the news or the pages of history books. But we should act as if we can bring down the industrial economy and we should act as if we can save our species beyond century’s end.
    These are the greatest moral issues of our time. We can act, or we can twitter while the planet burns.

  • Obama as Nobel Peace Prize winner?
    Did he make peace with the Republicans?
    the Democrats?
    the Taliban?
    Al Qaeda?
    North Korea?
    I don’t quite get it, but I am sure they wouldn’t have awarded that distinguished prize for some sort of symbolic reasons, would they?
    Stan Moore

  • What an interesting discussion. There are a number of threads here that I have been trying to braid together into a rope, a lifeline if you will, to hang on to. For me, Guy’s later response regarding living “as if” is the key.
    Randy White is involved in a worm farming based system in Portland, and I know the value of that because I raise worms in my kitchen. The extension of the system throughout the city and its environs is exciting. But Wendy asks if there are any communities making significant progress toward living sustainably and suggests there aren’t. So in effect she is saying that the worm system won’t make up for the destruction caused by 21st century Portland as a whole. For example, how many worms have to be raised by how many people to balance out the daily commute in Portland? But that’s not the point. The point is that Randy is living “as if” what he is doing is going to make a difference over the long term.
    Stan is changing his life style and beginning to eat “as if” doing so will make a difference for him personally over time.
    Matt, semi-serious, reminds us of the value of planting trees “as if” doing so will fight back against chaos.
    Charlene, however, is a problem. Or maybe I should say entropy is a problem. Yes, entropy happens. However, as long as the sun keeps pumping energy into the system we are building up negative entropy within the system (making it more complex rather than less complex). It will all come to naught in the future but that future is a on a geologic time scale and therefore not relevant to humans—our species will be long gone by then.
    So what? Well, throwing in current events, both Desmond Tutu, and Lech Walesa commented on Obama’s Nobel Peace Price and were talking about it being based on the “promise” of change for the better rather than a reward for accomplishment. Both Tutu and Walesa are examples of people who acted “as if” what they were doing would make a difference. Living “as if” fights entropy by making a promise to the future that things can and will change if we do our part.
    So I guess I’m trying to live more “as if” raising worms will make a difference rather than “as if” the best response is to up my daily dose of fukitol (thanks for that Charlene).
    Oh, and Stan, yup they award it for that too.

  • Entropy is pretty well misunderstood by the public. It’s a measure of the unavailability of energy as it changes from one form to another. The arrow points only one direction: less available. For example, plants capture the heat/light of the sun and transform the energy into a less available form. In cosmological time, the end of the universe is called heat death, where all the current hot spots — burning stars — dissipate their heat relatively evenly through space. There is no such thing as negative entropy. To say entropy doesn’t function in a human timescale pretty much overlooks the glaringly obvious fact of peak oil and finite resources.
    If you want to complicate matters further with talk of fusion, fission, and quantum energy, be my guess. But realistically, once we’ve used up the energy captured (at a loss) over millions of years and laid down in the form of fossil fuels, there is no handy, ready substitute. That’s the law of entropy: the energy we consume/transform becomes less available.

  • A positivist does practical things to make his/her life better.
    Worms will make a positive impact in the sphere that you control.
    Too many people are focused on expanding a sphere that is full of junk.
    We push those limits without a solid foundation. (The normative choice.)
    We run away instead of learning to grow through trusting ourselves.

  • Did some wise man say that happiness is found within oneself, or was it me? :)
    I sometimes engage in a vigorous self-debate: one side says I should let go of anxiety and care and focus on happiness; the other side says it is selfish to seek one’s own happiness and one must struggle to right wrongs, expose lies, battle greed.
    One side of me says: you can’t save the world because it does not want to be saved, but the other side says I must try regardless.
    Overall, my training from an early age says I should do what is right, even at personal cost and I try to do that most of the time (using my subjective view of “what is right”.
    Of course, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney did what they thought was right, and so does most everyone else, I suppose. In the end, it all sorts itself out, some way, somehow. In the final analysis, we die and most of us are eventually forgotten.

  • Memo to Our Stan:
    The answer to your first question above–I must humbly confess–it
    was I that said that.Glad to be of service old buddy.
    I’m about to depart for my favorite Mexican restaurant(owned by two Greek brothers,go figure)where I enjoy a great Margarita,and a bottle of Bohemia,the world’s best beer from Mexico.Fosters is a close second matt.I recommend you do likewise Stan.
    Helpful Frank

  • Brutus,
    Thanks for clearing that up. Being only a member of the public I thought entropy was the tendency of systems to go from a state of order to a state of disorder.

  • Sorry for the Jack Handey moment, but you’ve got to have those from time to time.

  • Guy, Stan, Charlene, et al,
    Thank you! (And thanks to Jay for linking to this blog today). I’m seeing 40 years of inquiry and living/learning/(denying at times) summarized so well here….I just recalled reading “Silent Spring” about 40 years ago, and the sense of wonder continues to grow….just read 3 of Guy’s posts, and feel (almost) overwhelmed by the futility and folly of it all….then I read the comments and see I’m not the only one coming to grips with these feelings and facts. Nothing more to add today, a bit overwhelmed….and grateful for the insights of “non-dual philosophy” (consciousness is all) to maintain serenity while I “act as it”….

  • So, it’s a cycle — rise and fall of civilizations. And we’re on the downward side of the cycle. Can’t go backwards, history tells us. Can’t stop it — too big, too far gone.
    Glad my kids are taking up farming! And they like me.