Bill Totten's Weblog

Monday, December 31, 2007

The Future That Wasn't, Part One:

"The Sunset-Drowning of the Evening Lands"

by John Michael Greer

The Archdruid Report (December 26 2007)

Druid perspectives on nature, culture, and the future of industrial society

I'd planned to devote this week's Archdruid Report post to the fine and practical art of composting, and for good reason. It's one of the most important and least regarded techniques in the ecotechnic toolkit, and it's also a near-perfect model for the way that today's mindlessly linear conversion of resources to waste can be brought back around in a circle, like the legendary ouroboros-snake that swallows its own tail, to become the sustainable resource flows of the human ecologies of the future.

Still, that profoundly worthwhile topic will have to wait a while. Even the most mercenary writer is now and then at the mercy of his muse, held hostage by some awkwardly timed bit of inspiration that elbows other projects aside, and I think that most of us who write for a living learn sooner or later to put up with the interruption and write out what has to be written. If this sudden veering from the pragmatic issues central to the last few posts needs a justification, that's the only one I have to offer.

Well, maybe not quite the only one. The holiday season now lurching past is not a time I particularly enjoy. Our solstice ceremony a few days back was a bright spot, mind you; midsummer is a more significant occasion in my Druid faith, but it's as pleasant as it is moving to gather with local Druids in the circle of the sacred grove to light the winter solstice fire and celebrate the rebirth of the sun in the depths of winter. Nor do I find anything in the least offensive in the Christian celebrations of the season. As human beings, we're all far enough from the luminous center of things that we have to take meaning where we can find it; if someone can grasp the eternal renewal of spirit in darkness through the symbol of the midwinter birth of Jesus of Nazareth, I can't find it in myself to object. From my perspective, though not from theirs, of course, we're celebrating the same thing.

Nor, for that matter, do I turn Scroogelike at the thought of gifts, big dinners, and too much brandy in the egg nog. I can't think of a human culture in the northern temperate zone that hasn't found some reason to fling down life's gauntlet in the face of winter with a grand party. Whether it's the Saturnalia of the ancient Romans, when cold grim Saturn turns back just for a moment into the generous king of the Golden Age, or the Hamatsa winter dances of the Kwakiutl nation of Canada's Pacific coast, when the cannibal giant Baxbakualanooksiwae, "Eater of Men at the River Mouth", is revealed as the source of mighty spiritual gifts, this sort of celebration reflects a profound set of realities about our life in the world. Besides, I'm fond of brandy, and egg nog, and a good party now and then, too.

No, what makes the midwinter holidays a less than rapturous time for me is the spectacle of seeing the things I've just listed redefined as artificial stimulants for a dysfunctional economy supported by nothing so straightforward as honest smoke and mirrors. When front page news stories about Christmas center on whether consumer spending this holiday season will provide enough of an amphetamine fix to keep our speed-freak economic system zooming along, I start wishing that Baxbakualanooksiwae and his four gigantic man-eating birds would consider adding corporate vice-presidents and media flacks to their holiday menu. And that, dear readers, is what sent me for refuge to Oswald Spengler. A mild depression can be treated with Ogden Nash poems and Shakespeare comedies, but when things get really grim it's time for the hair of the dog; the same effect that leaves the soul feeling oddly lighter after taking in a Greek tragedy, or listening to an entire album of really blue blues, hits a history geek like myself after a chapter or two of Der Untergang des Abendlandes.

I insist on the German title, by the way. The splendor of Germany's literature and the curse on its history come from the same source, the brilliant but sometimes misleading way the German language naturally expresses abstract ideas in concrete, sensuous terms. Untergang, which gets turned in English into the anemic Latinism "decline", is literally "going under", and calls to mind inevitably the last struggles of the drowning and the irrevocable descent of the sun below the western horizon. Abendland, the German for "the West", is literally "the evening land", the land toward sunset. Put them together and the result could be turned into a crisp line of iambic pentameter by an English poet - "the sunset-drowning of the evening lands" - but there's no way an English language book on the philosophy of history could survive a title like that. In German, by contrast, it's inevitable, and for Oswald Spengler, it's perfect.

Spengler has been poorly treated in recent writings on the decline and fall of civilizations. Joseph Tainter's The Collapse of Compex Societies, for example, takes him to task for not providing a scientific account of the causes of societal collapse, which is a little like berating Michelangelo for not including accurate astrophysics in his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. Spengler was not a scientist and never pretended to be one. He was a philosopher of history; in some ways, really, he was an artist who took the philosophy of history for his medium in place of paint or music. This does not make his contributions to our understanding of history less relevant. It's only in the imagination of the most fundamentalist kinds of scientific materialism that scientific meaning is the only kind of meaning that there is. In dealing with human behavior, above all, a sonnet, a story, or a philosophical treatise can prove a better anticipation of the flow of events than any scientific analysis - and the decline and fall of our present civilization, or any other, is preeminently a story about human behavior.

Tainter's critique also fails in that Spengler was not even talking about the fall of civilizations. What interested him was the origin and fate of cultures, and he didn't mean this term in the anthropological sense. In his view, a culture is a overall way of looking at the world with its own distinct expressions in religious, philosophical, artistic, and social terms. For him, all the societies of the "evening lands" - that is, all of western Europe from roughly 1000 CE on, and the nations of the European diaspora in the Americas and Australasia - comprise a single culture, which he terms the Faustian. Ancestral to the Faustian culture in one sense, and its polar opposite in another, is the Apollinian culture of the classic Mediterranean world, from Homeric Greece to the early Roman empire; ancestral to the Faustian culture in a different sense, and parallell to it in another, is the Magian culture, which had its origins in Zoroastrian Persia, absorbed the Roman Empire during its later phases, and survives to this day as the Muslim civilization of the Middle East. Other Spenglerian cultures are the Egyptian, the Chinese, the Mesopotamian, and the two great New World centers of civilization, the Mexican-Aztec and the Andean-Incan.

Talking about the rise and fall of a culture in Spengler's sense, then, isn't a matter of tracing shifts in political or economic arrangements. It's about the birth, flowering, and death of a distinctive way of grasping the nature of human existence, and everything that unfolds from that - which, in human terms, is just about everything that matters. The Apollinian culture, for example, rose out of the chaotic aftermath of the Minoan-Mycenean collapse with a unique vision of humanity and the world rooted in the experience of the Greek polis, the independent self-governing community in which everything important was decided by social process. Greek theology envisioned a polis of gods, Greek physics a polis of fundamental elements, Greek ethics a polis of virtues, and so on down the list of cultural creations. Projected around the Mediterranean basin first by Greek colonialism, then by Alexander's conquests, and finally by the expansion of Rome, it became the worldview and the cultural inspiration of one of the world's great civilizations.

That, according to Spengler, was also its epitaph. A culture, any culture, embodies a particular range of human possibility, and like everything else, it suffers from the law of diminishing returns. Sooner or later, everything that can be done from within the worldview of a culture - everything religious, philosophical, intellectual, artistic, social, political, you name it - has basically been done, and the culture fossilizes into a civilization. Thereafter the same things get repeated over and over again in endless combinations; disaffected intellectuals no longer capable of creativity settle for mere novelty or, worse still, simple shock value; artistic and intellectual traditions from other cultures get imported to fill the widening void; technology progresses in a kind of mechanical forward lurch until the social structures capable of supporting it fall away from underneath it. Sooner or later, the civilization falls apart, basically, because nobody actually believes in it any more.

What made this prophecy a live issue in Spengler's time was that he placed the twilight of Western culture and the beginning of its mummification into Western civilization in the decades right after 1800. Around then, he argued, the vitality of the cultural forms that took shape in western Europe around 1000 began trickling away in earnest. By then, in his view, the Western world's religions had already begun to mummify into the empty repetition of older forms; its art, music, and literature lost their way in the decades that followed; its political forms launched into the fatal march toward gigantism that leads to empire and, in time, to empire's fall; only its science and technology, like the sciences and technologies of previous cultures, continued blindly on its way, placing ever more gargantuan means in the service of ever more impoverished ends.

Exactly how the Faustian culture would metastasize into a future Faustian civilization he did not try to predict, but one element of the transition seemed certain enough to find its way into his book. The society that would play Rome to Europe's Greece, he suggested, was none other than the United States of America. In the brash architecture of American skyscrapers and the casual gesture that flung an army across the Atlantic to save France and England from defeat in the last years of the First World War, he thought he saw the swagger of incipient Caesarism, the rise of the empire that would become Faustian culture's final achievement and its tomb.

It was a common belief at that time. Interestingly enough, it also shaped the thought of Spengler's counterpart and rival, the British historian Arnold Toynbee, whose ten-volume A Study of History stands like hoplites in a Greek phalanx not far from the couch where Spengler and multiple cups of good oolong offered some consolation for the wretched orgy of economic excess and hallucinated well-being playing itself out outside my windows. For Toynbee, who shared Spengler's cyclical theory of history but rejected all his philosophy and most of his conclusions, the natural next step in the unfolding of history was the transition from a time of troubles to a planetary empire, and like many English intellectuals in the twilight of the British Empire, he expected an alliance between the United States and the British Commonwealth to become the seed of that empire-to-be.

As it turns out, though, this plausible and widely held belief was quite incorrect, and the actions taken by three generations of politicians and intellectuals in response to that belief are all too likely to play out with disastrous results in the fairly near future. We'll discuss that in next week's post.

The Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), John Michael Greer has been active in the alternative spirituality movement for more than 25 years, and is the author of a dozen books, including The Druidry Handbook (Weiser, 2006). He lives in Ashland, Oregon.

Bill Totten

Sunday, December 30, 2007

The price of a living forest

by Mark Lynas

New Statesman (November 22 2007)

The blunt economic truth is clear: deforestation can never be stopped as long as trees are worth more dead than alive

The two environmentalists never stood a chance. As they drove into the small Honduran town of Guarizama on 20 December last year, armed men forced Heraldo Zúñiga and Roger Iván Cartagena to the side of the road, dragged them from their car, stood them against a wall next to the municipal building in full view of passers-by, and shot them. Although at least forty shots were fired, Zúñiga survived long enough to denounce those who had hired the assassins - the timber barons who are making a fortune by razing the region's pine forests and exporting wood to the United States.

Such is the price of taking on the power of the illegal timber trade. But almost as shocking as the murders of those who try to protect the forests in countries such as Honduras is that neither the US nor the EU has any enforceable means of stopping illegal timber imports.

Now, after a long campaign, the Environmental Investigation Agency is supporting a rare bipartisan legislative effort in the US Congress to choke off domestic demand for imported illegal wood products. Promoted by Republicans and Democrats alike, as well as by an unusual coalition of environmental and industry groups, the Legal Timber Protection Act would make it a crime to import or sell illegally sourced timber. The EU is also on the way to similar legislation.

Despite these positive moves, however, the blunt economic truth is clear: deforestation can never be stopped as long as trees are worth more dead than alive. As Andrew Mitchell, director of the Oxford-based Global Canopy Programme, points out, the only thing that can safeguard the survival of tropical forests in the long term is a market value. This means generating hard-currency income flows to countries and communities that host forests, in recognition of the "ecological services" that these intact woodlands provide to the rest of humanity.

Mitchell is co-sponsor of the Forests Now Declaration - an attempt to persuade governments meeting at the UN climate negotiations in Bali next month to bring forests into the world's emerging carbon markets and thereby put a price on their protection. Deforestation accounts for a fifth of global greenhouse-gas emissions - more than the entire transport sector, including international aviation - and yet emissions avoided by reducing deforestation are not eligible for carbon credits. Indeed, because its forests are being so rapidly cleared and burned down (in part to produce supposedly climate-friendly palm oil for biofuels), Indonesia is the world's third-largest carbon emitter after China and the United States. With billions now circulating in carbon markets around the world, Indonesia can potentially be paid to keep its forests standing rather than chop them down. Major forest countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Papua New Guinea have already lent the proposal their support.

Climate change presents humanity with a non-negotiable requirement to live within the planet's ecological limits, but these limits also include the need to protect finite resources such as the world's remaining forests. Bali presents governments with an ideal opportunity to address both issues at the same time - and to ensure that other environmental problems are not aggravated in our rush to tackle climate change.


Mark Lynas is a climate change writer and activist, author of the acclaimed book High Tide (Tandem, 2004) and fortnightly columnist for the New Statesman. He was selected by National Geographic as an 'Emerging Explorer' for 2006, and blogs on

Bill Totten

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The White Plague

An excerpt from "The Spread of European Settlement", Chapter 7 of
A Green History of the World (Penguin, 1991) by Clive Ponting

Despite the rise in population and the large extension of the settled area, Europe in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries remained a backward region, on the margins of the main developments of world history. China was the most populous and advanced country in the world and the Islamic states of the Mediterranean and Near East, about to be revived under the Ottoman empire, were culturally far in advance of a relatively impoverished Europe. The crusades were a short-lived enterprise and Christian control of parts of the Levant, in most places maintained for no more than a few decades, passed almost without disturbing the Islamic world. In 1241 the Mongols reached the river Oder and western Europe only avoided invasion after the Mongol victory at the battle of Wahlstatt because of the death of the Mongol leader Ogodai and the resulting internal confusion within the empire. Nevertheless a few decades later the Mongols ruled the most extensive empire the world had ever seen stretching from the Volga in the west to China in the east and taking in large parts of south-west Asia. The rise of the Ottoman Turks in the fourteenth century destroyed most of the last remnants of the Byzantine empire (which had already been undermined by the conquest of Constantinople by the western Christians during the Fourth Crusade in 1204), although Constantinople itself survived until 1453. But the Turks pushed further westwards and defeated the Christians at the battle of Nicopolis in 1396 to extend their control over most of the Balkans and later conquered Cyprus and other islands in the eastern Mediterranean. At the same time the Chinese were also exploring further westwards - the eunuch admiral Cheng Ho led seven armadas of sixty-two vessels and 37,000 soldiers, between 1405 and 1430, to twenty countries as far apart as Kamchatka in the north and Zanzibar off the east coast of Africa. If it had not been for the death of the Emperor and the subsequent faction fighting at court that brought about a new policy of shunning external contacts, the Chinese might well have gone on to 'discover' much of the world before Europe did so.

The remarkable transformation in the fortunes of Europe that was to lead not just to a reshaping of the political map of the world but to extensive control over the world's resources began in the fifteenth century. The great advantage for the countries of western Europe was that exploration westwards encountered no strongly organised states like those in the Mediterranean and further east which were able to challenge European power. Spain and Portugal, the first nations to explore the eastern Atlantic and launch the long period of European expansion overseas, established control over the Atlantic islands (the Canaries and the Azores) in the fifteenth century and the Portuguese continued their voyages down the west coast of Africa. Once they had rounded the Cape in 1488 they were able to make use of the already well-established trade routes of the Indian ocean to obtain goods for sale in Europe. The Portuguese, with a population of only about one-and-a-half million, had little military power and were not able to challenge seriously the existing states of India and south-east Asia. They were, however, able to capture a few key trading sites - Goa (1510), Malacca (1511) and Hormuz (1515) - their main aim being not conquest of territory but trade and exploitation of the wealth of the area. The Spanish, moving westwards into the Caribbean after Columbus's voyage in 1492, encountered only relatively primitive tribes on the various islands. When they reached the mainland they found more advanced states in the Aztec and Inca empires but, because of the slow development of complex societies in the Americas, technologically these indigenous empires were still at least three thousand years behind the Europeans. Conquest, also taking advantage of internal dissension within the empires, was therefore a relatively easy task even for the small number of Spaniards involved. The Portuguese found people at a level equivalent to those of the Caribbean islanders in Brazil after 1500 and soon established settlements along the coast.

The first phase of European expansion, from 1500 to about 1700, was largely confined to the Spanish and Portuguese conquests of central and south America, the settlement of north America, principally by the British and French, and the extension of trade along the African coast and into the Indian ocean and south-east Asia. The second phase, lasting from about 1750 to 1850, saw the British defeat the French for control over the Indian sub-continent, growing trade between Europe and China and the settlement of Australia and New Zealand. In the last phase after 1850 attention was concentrated on carving up Africa and in 1919, after the defeat of the Ottoman empire in the First World War, France and Britain established control over most of the Near East. The last European war of conquest came in 1935 when Italy defeated the long-lived empire of Ethiopia. Throughout this period there was a wave of European settlement spreading across the globe. The settlers of North America pushed westwards to the Pacific, the new colonies of Australia and New Zealand were founded and the colonial settlements along the coasts of South America pushed further inland. In parallel with these developments came the great expansion of Russia moving out from its narrow enclave in the north centered around Moscow. In 1552 and 1554 the Khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan on the Volga were conquered, opening up the regions to the south and east of Moscow to settlement. For the next three centuries Russians from the north and Ukrainians from the west moved into this wooded steppe area and by the early eighteenth century a quarter of the Russian population was living in the region. At the end of the eighteenth century the defeat of the Turks opened up the grass steppes around the Black Sea to settlement. In the first half of the nineteenth century about fifty million acres of new land were brought into cultivation by farmers in the Ukraine and Volga areas. But the Russians were also moving eastwards. In 1581 they crossed the Urals and parties of traders and developers rapidly moved across Siberia, covering over 3,000 miles in sixty years, founding Tomsk in 1604 and reaching the Pacific coast at Okhotsk in 1649. By 1707 Kamchatka was conquered and thirty years later settlements in Alaska were established. This process was nominally under state control but in practice, especially outside the towns, Russia was as much a frontier society as the United States.

Although the Spanish easily conquered the societies of the Caribbean together with the Aztec and Inca empires, the extension of European settlement was a slow process. In Africa new settlements were largely confined to coastal trading posts until well into the nineteenth century. In China influence was restricted to a few trading stations until the middle of the nineteenth century. Even in North America, European settlement was almost entirely in an area to the east of the Appalachians until about 1800. By that date only a small number of Europeans had settled abroad. The white population of North America was about five million, that of South America some 500,000 and Australia 10,000 (New Zealand had still not been settled). Few of these were free settlers. About two-thirds of the whites who went to America before the Revolution were indentured servants forced to work for their masters for a period of years before being granted their freedom - if they lived long enough, and most did not. Until the 1830s the majority of emigrants to Australia were convicts and only New Zealand was entirely settled by free people. The great wave of European emigration did not begin until the 1820s when the combined pressures of rapidly rising population in Europe, poor food supplies and a low standard of living (plus better transport) all encouraged emigration. Between 1820 and 1930 about fifty million people emigrated from Europe. Apart from the White Highlands of Kenya, and Costa Rica, few settled in the tropics; most went to the United States and the white colonies of Canada, Australia and New Zealand together with South America. The same upsurge can be seen in the movement of people from Russia to the sparsely populated and difficult lands of Siberia. In the early eighteenth century the total population of Siberia was about 250,000 (although European settlers already outnumbered the natives). A hundred years later there were 1.5 million people living there, and the figure was nine million by 1914. It is now over thirty million.

The expansion of Europe resulted in a complex clash of cultures. The long-established, advanced and culturally secure societies such as India and China survived best, although they eventually succumbed in differing degrees to European political, military and economic power. (Only Japan was able to maintain its independence politically and economically.) The people who suffered the most were the less developed societies, in particular the population of the Aztec and Inca empires, and the native peoples around the globe who were still gatherers and hunters or primitive agriculturalists. Many indigenous societies disintegrated under European pressure when they were not deliberately destroyed. The stark truth is that the native peoples lost their land, livelihood, independence, culture, health and in most cases their lives. Despite differences in approach the common themes running strongly through European attitudes to the process were a disregard for the native way of life and an overwhelming urge to exploit both the land and the people. In every continent people such as the native Indians of North and South America, the Aborigines of Australia and the islanders of the Pacific found that their societies collapsed under European influence. The story of the natives under the impact of Europe is one of soaring death rates brought about by disease, alcohol, and exploitation together with social disruption and the decline of native cultures, especially under the influence of the missionaries. The Europeans showed little or no interest in native beliefs or customs until anthropologists in the last hundred years tried to investigate the remains of the shattered societies.

Just how rapidly the vulnerable native societies in the Americas could collapse is demonstrated by events on Santo Domingo, one of the first islands to be discovered by Columbus. At the time of the Spanish conquest the population was about one million yet within forty years, after intense exploitation, slavery and many deaths through European diseases, there were only a few hundred natives left. The same happened on an even larger scale in Mexico after the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs in 1519. There the population fell from about 25 million in the early sixteenth century to some six million by 1550 and to one million about 1600. The complex culture which had evolved over thousands of years could not withstand such catastrophic losses. The people were unable to come to terms with this disaster and their way of life and beliefs disintegrated. Many of the surviving natives were enslaved even though native slavery was technically illegal in the Spanish empire after 1542. In the first half of the sixteenth century over 200,000 Indians were taken from Nicaragua alone as slaves. Slavery continued on the borders of the Spanish empire for centuries - the Araucanians in southern Chile were used as slaves until the 1680s and the Apache, Navaho and Shoshoni in the north until the nineteenth century. After the conquest of the Incas in Peru in the 1530s the native population fell to about a quarter of its pre-conquest level under the pressure of the forced extraction of food, slaughter of the flocks of llamas, new European diseases and labour exploitation by both the Spanish civil and religious powers. The natives were forced into two highly dangerous occupations. The first - cultivation of the coca plant took place in the lowlands where the natives from the Andes found it very difficult to live. About half of the workers died during their spell at the plantations, most from 'mal de los Andes', a wart-like disease spread by an insect, that destroyed the nose, lips and throat. The second area where the Spaniards exploited native labour was in the silver mine at Potosi, 12,000 feet up in the Andes. It was discovered in 1545 and forced labour was introduced in 1550, after the Spanish found that African slaves could not live at this height. By the early seventeenth century about 60,000 Indian labourers were employed at any one time in wretched conditions. They were forced to stay underground for a week at a stretch without coming up to the surface. Not surprisingly such treatment, together with the miserly rations they received and the use of highly toxic mercury in processing the metals, produced a very high death rate. In both Mexico and Peru the indigenous culture was destroyed, much of it simply to secure loot. Nearly all the great treasures of the Aztec and Inca states were melted down and shipped to Europe. Altogether between 1500 and 1650 Spain imported about 450,000 pounds weight of gold and thirty-five million pounds weight of silver from the Americas.

Like the Spaniards, most of the Portuguese regarded the Indians as inferior beasts to be exploited as much as possible. The missionaries wanted their souls (but also their bodies for work) and others just wanted their land and labour. Even when the number of European settlers had increased significantly and the number of Indians was reduced, the disregard of the natives' rights and welfare continued. The first settlers did not plan to work themselves and expected the Indians to do it for them. The Indian attitude, like so many gathering and hunting groups, was that they had no need to work because they already had the goods that they needed. The Portuguese rapidly captured and enslaved as many Indians as they could and when the supply proved to be inadequate moved in people from Africa as slaves. As one early commentator on the Portuguese immigrants in the mid-sixteenth century wrote:

'The first thing they try to obtain is slaves to work the farms. Anyone who succeeds in obtaining two pairs or half a dozen of them has the means to sustain his family in a respectable way, even though he may have no other earthly possessions. For one fishes for him, another hunts and the rest cultivate and till his fields.'

By 1610 in the province of Bahia there were 2,000 white settlers, 4,000 black slaves and 7,000 Indian slaves on the large-scale sugar plantations that were already well established. In 1600 when almost all the eastern seaboard of Brazil was under Portuguese control there were about 50,000 white immigrants but 100,000 slaves. Many of the coastal Indians died of disease or migrated to the interior so that by the 1630s when the Dutch captured north-east Brazil they found a largely deserted land - along 800 miles of coast where a century earlier there had been hundreds of thousands of Indians there were a mere 9,000 left.

As the Indians moved inland to avoid the white settlement, large slaving expeditions were set up to find the slaves the whites still wanted. There was a long tussle between the Jesuits, who set up 'missions' that were effectively sugar and cattle plantations where the Indians were forcibly converted, and the settlers over who should have control of the remaining Indians. The Jesuits organised some of these slaving expeditions (the rebuilding of the cathedral of Sao Luis in 1718 was financed by one of them), branded the natives on capture and forced them to work on their missions. In the seventeenth century white settlement was moving away from the coast into the dry sertao inhabited by the Tapuia Indians who were forcibly removed as large cattle ranches were set up. In the 1690s the discovery of gold in north-east Brazil brought on a gold rush in which the local Indians were enslaved and exploited by the prospectors. Even though slavery was abolished at the end of the nineteenth century in Brazil, the exploitation and destruction of the natives continued. Numbers fell rapidly - about half the tribes still in existence in 1900 are now extinct and the Indian population, which probably numbered about two-and-a-half million in 1500 before the arrival of the Portuguese, is now less than 200,000 and still declining. Since independence the Brazilian government has made only token gestures towards protecting the Indians. In 1967 the official government agency for protecting the Indians (SPI) had to be disbanded after an investigation showed that it had carried out deliberate genocide by introducing disease amongst the Indians and joined with speculators in large-scale robbery and murder. It was described by the Brazilian Attorney-General as 'a den of corruption and indiscriminate killings'. Its successor FUNAI has done little to protect the Indians. The attitude of the Brazilian government is best summed up by an official spokesman who said:

'When we are certain that every corner of the Amazon is inhabited by genuine Brazilians and not by the Indians, only then will we be able to say that the Amazon is ours'.

The Indians of North America suffered as much as those further south. In 1500 the native population of the current area of the United States was about one million, with a wide variety of cultures and ways of life. Within four hundred years these had virtually been wiped out. The Indians were able to adapt to some of the things that the Europeans brought with them such as horses and metal tools. The plains Indians abandoned agriculture, domesticated the horse and used it to hunt buffalo. Others such as the Iroquois used European weapons to establish a large empire, covering present day New York, Pennsylvania and the upper Ohio valley. Many of the first European settlements such as Jamestown actually depended on the Indians for their very survival in their early stages but once they were firmly established the latent hostility of the settlers soon surfaced. Within a few years of the first settlements in New England, the Puritans, who believed God was on their side in killing the heathen Indians, were at war with the local tribes. Already in the seventeenth century the first 'reservations' were established to remove the Indians from land the Europeans wanted and all along the eastern seaboard Indian numbers were in decline. Of the early settlers only the Quakers in Pennsylvania treated the Indians with any degree of decency and humanity.

From very early in the European settlement of North America a pattern in the treatment of the Indians emerged. The first contacts were usually with European fur traders, who encouraged the Indians to trap animals and trade them for a variety of European goods. This phase of relative prosperity rarely lasted long and the Indians soon came under pressure from the advancing frontier of European settlement. In many cases the Europeans at first bought land from the Indians but, sooner rather than later, war broke out, which, even if they had a few initial successes, the Indians eventually lost and they were then forced to cede large amounts of land. Once they were in decline the Indians would be forced to give up more and more land until they were no longer able to support themselves on what remained of their ancestral territory. Then they migrated westwards (putting more pressure on other tribes) or were forced onto reservations where the poor land, combined with disease, alcohol and massive cultural disruption, led to very high death rates and often extinction of the tribe. For the first two hundred years of European settlement this encroachment was largely confined to the area east of the Appalachians. From the early nineteenth century the Indians had to face the full weight of American expansion. Although land sales were enforced (at nominal prices) this method proved inadequate in clearing the amount of land the whites wanted. In the southern United States, as the pressure to extend cotton cultivation increased, the Cherokees, who had adopted a settled and reasonably prosperous way of life with schools and even their own newspaper, remained a major obstacle to white exploitation of their land. A forced removal bill was passed through Congress; the Cherokees were paid half a million dollars in compensation and a total of 90,000 Indians were forced westwards by the army. About 30,000 died as a result of conditions on the march. The process continued with other tribes and in other parts of the country. For example, between 1829 and 1866, the Winnebagos were forcibly moved westwards six times and the population fell by a half. By 1844 there were less than 30,000 Indians in the whole of the eastern United States, most of them living in a remote around Lake Superior.

In a series of brutal wars in the 1860s and 1870s the Indians on the Great Plains were brought under control and removed from all the best land. About twenty-five tribes were relocated to 'Indian Territory' (now Oklahoma), where rudimentary attempts were made to make them break with the past and lead settled lives but most of the government assistance was squandered by corrupt contractors. When Oklahoma was opened for white settlement in the early twentieth century the Indians were removed to even worse land. Between 1887 and 1934, the Indians lost two-thirds of their remaining land (86 million acres) and were left with the worst desert or semi-desert parts that the whites did not want. Conditions on the reservations were terrible and most Indians had to exist on meagre government grants at the bottom of the social and economic ladder and with their institutions and way of life rapidly disintegrating. Despite some improvements in the 1930s and after, the Indians remained the most depressed minority in the United States, suffering from discrimination, a very low standard of living and high infant mortality, and left largely dependent on federal government welfare.

The impact of the Europeans on the peoples of the Pacific was equally dramatic. Before the arrival of the Europeans the area was not quite the Arcadia that some accounts, and European wishful thinking (particularly prevalent in the eighteenth century) about an idealised primitive existence, suggested. Warfare and cannibalism were, in fact, widespread but the area was relatively free of disease - it had no smallpox, measles, typhus, typhoid, leprosy, syphilis or tuberculosis - subsistence was obtained with little effort and the way of life was easy going. The European impact from the late eighteenth century meant the arrival of alcohol and a host of fatal diseases and the onset of massive cultural disruption. By 1900 the native population had collapsed to about a fifth of its level before the arrival of the Europeans. The population of Hawaii fell from about 300,000 at the end of the eighteenth century to 55,000 in 1875 and that of Rarotonga in the Cook Islands went from 7,000 in 1827 to 1,850 in 1867. In places the native society was effectively wiped out altogether. For instance, when the Russians arrived in the Aleutian Islands in the 1750s they forced the natives to work, hunting sea otters, so that the furs could be sent back to Europe and China. As a result, the animals were virtually extinct within thirty years and when the native population had collapsed to about five per cent of its original level, the survivors were resettled on the Pribilof Islands to continue working for the Russians.

The story of Tahiti is an illustration of what happened across the whole of the Pacific in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. On his second visit to the island in 1773, Captain James Cook was already worried by the impact the Europeans were having on native peoples, as he wrote in his journal:

'We debauch their morals already prone to vice and we introduce among them wants and perhaps diseases which they never before knew ... If any one denies the truth of this assertion let him tell what the natives of the whole extent of America have gained by the commerce they have had with Europeans'.

The violent crews of the whalers which called at the island (about 150 a year by the 1830s) introduced prostitution, venereal diseases and alcohol but the changes deliberately imposed by the first missionaries after 1797 had the effect of permanently undermining the islanders' way of life. The native religion was abolished and Tahitian music, tattooing and the wearing of floral garlands were banned. The natives were forced to wear European clothes and to work gathering coconut oil for export. Within a relatively short period the population was drastically reduced and the local culture was destroyed. In the 1770s, when the first Europeans arrived, the population was about 40,000: it had dropped to 9,000 when the islands were annexed by France in the 1840s and eventually fell to less than 6,000. When the author of Moby Dick, Herman Melville, visited the islands in the 1840s whilst working on a whaler, he was shocked at the condition of the islanders, as was the painter Paul Gaugin when he arrived in the 1890s:

'The natives, having nothing, nothing at all to do, think of one thing only, drinking ... Many things that are strange and picturesque existed here once, but there are no traces of them left today; everything has vanished. Day by day the race vanishes, decimated by the European diseases ... there is so much prostitution.'

On one of his voyages to the Pacific Captain Cook also visited Australia where he came across the Aborigines still living in much the same way as when they first arrived on the continent 40,000 years earlier. He was impressed by the friendliness of the natives and their way of life, writing that, 'they may appear to some to be the most wretched people on earth but in reality they are far happier than we Europeans'. The botanist on the expedition, Joseph Banks, reached the same conclusion: 'Thus live these I had almost said, happy people, content with little, nay, almost nothing'. The British government, though, decided to turn the country into a penal colony and the first fleet of prisoners arrived in what is now Sydney Harbour in 1788. The Aborigines tried to live their lives in the face of a wild frontier society run by slave labour and violence and up against a continually expanding area of European settlement, but coexistence proved impossible. All land was declared a possession of the Crown but the natives could not understand the idea of land ownership, which was utterly alien to their traditions, and could not adjust to that or the equally strange new legal system introduced in the colony. The indigenous population were denied any claim to the land or to the same rights as Europeans. For example, in 1805, the colonial authorities decided that since the Aborigines could not understand European law there was no need to put them on trial and they could therefore be dealt with by immediate settler 'justice'. As the Europeans took more and more of the land, the Aborigines resisted but the conflict was hopelessly one-sided - some 2,000 Europeans were killed along the frontier but about 20,000 Aborigines died. Those who were not killed on the frontier or forced to retreat into the more inhospitable parts of the country were left as beggars and prostitutes, ruined by alcohol, on the edges of the towns. By the 1840s in the Sydney area there were just a handful of survivors.

When a Pole, Count Strzelecki, visited the country in the 1830s, he left an account which contrasts vividly with Captain Cook's experience only sixty years before. This time the Aborigines were described as:

'Degraded, subdued, confused, awkward and distrustful, ill concealing emotions of anger, scorn or revenge, emaciated and covered with filthy rags; these native lords of the soil, more like spectres of the past than living men, are dragging on a melancholy existence to a yet more melancholy doom'.

That doom came first on Tasmania. Sporadic warfare between the Europeans and the natives, who numbered about 5,000 at the end of the eighteenth century, began in 1804 and continued with a long series of atrocities committed by the whites. By 1830 only about 2,000 Aborigines were left alive but the Governor of the island decided to remove them altogether from the settled central part of the island. A seven week drive across the island by a line of troops and settlers captured only a small number of Aborigines but by 1834 all of them had been expelled from Tasmania to Flinders Island in the Bass Strait. There, thoroughly disoriented, particularly by the attempts of evangelical Christians to make them wear European clothes and give up their native habits and traditions, they declined rapidly. By 1835 there were only 150 of them left alive and by 1843 just forty-three remained. The last lonely and neglected survivor of the Tasmanian Aborigines died in 1876. The Aborigines on the mainland declined too as their ancestral lands were expropriated by the white settlers and they were forced into ever less hospitable country, attacked by the whites or left on the fringes of white society. A few managed to preserve their way of life in the more remote areas but all of them suffered from extensive discrimination.

The last major area of the world to fall under European domination was Africa. Although the sheer scale of the continent and the problems of access made it difficult to wipe out whole peoples and cultures, the results of European intervention and eventual control were still drastic. The slave trade was the main form of contact between Europe and Africa for the first three hundred years after the Portuguese made their voyages along the coast, and economic exploitation was to remain at the core of the relationship. Unlike the native Americans and the inhabitants of the Pacific, the Africans were part of an area subject to many of the same diseases as Europeans and so did not suffer the rapid decline in numbers experienced by the other groups - indeed the Europeans suffered more, especially from tropical diseases. In the areas where the Europeans did choose to settle, a common feature was expropriation of native land. In Algeria 20,000 French settlers took six million acres of the best land and left 630,000 natives with twelve million acres of poor land. In Southern Rhodesia 50,000 whites owned 48 million acres and 1.5 million blacks had 28 million acres. In South Africa the blacks (over three-quarters of the population) were left with just twelve per cent of the land and nearly half of that was in semi-arid areas. When South Africa took over the former German colony of south-west Africa in 1919 under a League of Nations mandate, sixteen per cent of the population was white but they owned sixty per cent of the land including all the best farm land, the mineral deposits and the ports. As Leutwein, the first German Governor, wrote in July 1896, in a moment of candour: 'Colonization is always inhumane. It must ultimately amount to an encroachment on the rights of the original inhabitants in favour of the intruders.'

The Europeans also brought with them an innate sense of superiority, tinged with a strong degree of racism. Although some Europeans tried hard to improve life for the natives through medical and educational programmes, many undermined the local culture by forcing them to adopt European ways. Few seemed to be worried by the decline of native culture. The British Commissioner of Kenya wrote in 1904: 'There can be no doubt that the Masai and many other tribes must go under. It is a prospect which I view with equanimity and a clear conscience.' Beneath the surface, and often not even well disguised, was a contempt for the Africans, well expressed in a petition from the German settlers in south-west Africa to the Colonial Office in July 1900:

'From time immemorial our natives have grown used to laziness, brutality and stupidity. The dirtier they are, the more they feel at ease. Any white man who has lived among natives finds it almost impossible to regard them as human beings at all in any European sense.'

The history of German south-west Africa (now Namibia) gives a striking picture of the realities of European colonialism. It is an important example because it took place not in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries but at a time when Europe prided itself on being the most advanced society in the world. South-west Africa was inhabited by three main tribal groups - the Ovambo in the north, the Herero (nomadic cattle raisers) and the Nama, who had been forced into the region by the expansion of white settlement in South Africa - and there was continual conflict between the different tribes. The area was allocated to Germany at the 1884-1885 Berlin Conference, which divided most of the remaining independent parts of Africa between the European powers. Within twenty years the Africans were dispossessed of all their land and turned into an underclass of labourers living in appalling conditions. German settlement remained small - 2,000 in 1896, 4,700 in 1903 and 14,000 in 1913 - compared with a native population estimated at 500,000 in the 1890s. German control was exercised through a steadily expanding area of direct military administration and indirect rule through the tribal chiefs. The German plan for the colony was to set up large-scale cattle ranches owned by the settlers and employing cheap African labour. This inevitably involved taking over tribal land, dispossessing the natives and disrupting African life. The outbreak of a rinderpest epidemic in 1897, which killed ninety per cent of the Herero's cattle, followed by a malaria epidemic brought about the disintegration of Herero society. During the next seven years the Germans showed no concern with preserving the native way of life even in the areas allowed to them and were in the first stages of establishing an apartheid society with the Africans confined to native reserves.

In 1904 the Herero and Nama, faced with a bleak future as labourers on land they once owned, rose in revolt. In response the German authorities embarked on a policy of suppressing and destroying the African inhabitants. At the end of a brutal military campaign the Herero were reduced from a population of about 80,000 to 16,000 after many were imprisoned in camps that were little better than death camps. The Nama revolt lasted till 1907 and by the end half the tribe were killed. A large part of the remaining Herero and Nama tribesmen were pursued into the desert where, as the official German report commented: 'The arid Omaheke [a desert in north-east Namibia] was to complete what the German army had begun: the extermination of the Herero nation'. All land still occupied by Africans was expropriated, they were banned from raising cattle and all tribal organisations were dissolved. The Africans were turned into a class of landless labourers needing an identity card and travel permit to move around the country and ninety per cent of males were forced to work for Europeans. In 1915 a survey showed that three-quarters of the Africans were either paid wages insufficient to buy a subsistence diet or instead given food that was similarly inadequate for their needs. The Africans were, therefore, reduced to scavenging to try and survive. With their culture and native way of life destroyed and continuing to suffer a low level of violence and killings from the white settlers, the Africans had been reduced to an underclass. There was no change for the better when the territory was administered by South Africa after 1919.

The expansion of Europe was a disaster for the native peoples of those areas of the world which could hot survive as independent, or quasi-independent entities or restrict the amount of European contact. Some, such as the Tasmanian Aborigines, were exterminated, others suffered a huge fall in numbers through various different combinations of disease, warfare, alcohol and economic and social disruption. All saw their native culture and way of life undermined and often destroyed by Europeans determined to impose their own values. This saga of displacement and destruction was not confined to the early stages of European expansion and colonialism but continued throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. In many areas of the world it is still continuing as newly independent states continue the assault on the few remaining native tribes in the world who still try to maintain their old way of life. The expansion of Brazilian settlement and economic exploitation into the Amazon has resulted in the extermination of some tribes and the few now remaining are on the verge of destruction. Indonesia's vast transmigration programme - the move of settlers from the densely populated central islands such as Java to the outlying islands - has meant tribespeople have been attacked and killed.

The spread of European settlement overseas opened up huge new areas of the world for exploitation, with a devastating impact on the flora and particularly the fauna of the world. It also meant a recasting of economic relations and increasing European domination and manipulation of other economies so that they grew the food and produced the goods that Europe required. As part of the same process European ideas have also come to dominate the world. What ideas about the relationship between humans and the rest of life on earth had Europe inherited and how did it develop, transform and add to them?

Bill Totten

Friday, December 28, 2007

Liberals, Labor give up on global warming

by Renfrey Clarke

Green Left Weekly (November 02 2007)

The scientists are horrified. But not being media-savvy publicists, they generally leave their shocking findings in scientific journals. The politicians quote cautious statements issued by scientific committees early in the decade, and worry about scaring off corporate funding. The business executives look for the chance of new profits, and hire public relations experts to advise them on cultivating a green image.

Meanwhile, the public drifts in a fog of apprehension, worried, but hoping that somehow things might still turn out all right. Just once in a while some hard fact pierces the mist.

In September, for example, it was revealed that Arctic sea ice had been melting at a completely unanticipated rate. Then in October, climate author and current Australian of the Year Professor Tim Flannery pointed out that new data showed total greenhouse gases in the atmosphere already at levels that could cause dangerous climate change.

"That's ... beyond the worst-case scenario as we thought of it in 2001'', Flannery was quoted as saying. "We already stand an unacceptable risk ... the need for action is ever more urgent".

One signal after another is pointing to a greenhouse emergency much more dire than is commonly perceived or admitted. A drastic, world-scale re-organising of economic and social structures and priorities is needed, starting immediately. But you'd never guess it from the climate change positions of the Liberal and Labor parties.

After years of denying human responsibility for global warming, the Howard government finally admits that some response is needed - but not so far-reaching as to affect economic growth or profits. The federal Liberals refuse to set any firm target for future Australian greenhouse emissions. Instead, they promise an emissions trading scheme by 2011.

For true believers like PM John Howard and his deputy Peter Costello, the market provides all the answers - and if it doesn't, you've asked the wrong questions.

Kevin Rudd's ALP is only nominally better. Labor too promises a market in greenhouse emissions, to be operating by 2010. In addition, the ALP sets the goal of cutting Australian greenhouse emissions by sixty percent by 2050. But this target - which is to underpin the price of carbon emissions in Labor's trading scheme - is grossly inadequate.

The truth is that the Liberal and Labor parties, like the top business circles whose priorities shape their thinking, have given up on global warming. They simply aren't prepared to take the steps needed to preserve a planet anything like the one we know at present.

In the business pages of right-wing newspapers, such perspectives are occasionally revealed with startling frankness. "We should abandon our fantasies, acknowledge that carbon emissions will continue to grow, and plan accordingly", an October 18 article in Rupert Murdoch's Australian concluded.

Needless to say, the politicians don't phrase their thoughts as bluntly as this. Their statements are full of soothing platitudes about responsibility to future generations. And to reassure the sceptical-minded, concrete proposals are generally accompanied by claims of scientific backing.

The ALP's key document on greenhouse gas reduction is a media statement entitled "Labor's Greenhouse Reduction Target - Sixty Percent by 2050 Backed by the Science". Issued by the party's environment spokesperson Peter Garrett on May 2 this year, the statement has since been painstakingly analysed in a Carbon Equity posting by journalist David Spratt, available at

Garrett's statement is a strangely evasive piece of work. It has little to say about the findings of climate scientists, especially in recent times, and fails to establish clearly why the "Sixty by 2050'' target was chosen.

Is this target designed to limit world temperature increases to a particular figure? Is it, perhaps, linked to the increase of two degrees Celsius - relative not to the present, but to pre-industrial temperatures - that scientists consider the maximum allowable if we are to avoid setting off dangerous additional warming mechanisms?

Garrett's statement, however, nowhere mentions the figure of two degrees Celsius.

What is the maximum level of atmospheric greenhouse gases, expressed as parts per million (ppm) by volume of carbon dioxide equivalent, that Labor sees as permissible if further climate change is to be averted? This is not clearly spelled out.

Garrett cites a number of scientific studies as backing his position, but the one that is given prominence is a 2000 report by the British Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution.
Climate science has come a long way since 2000. And as Spratt observes, the British Royal Commission report itself relied on data from a United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report from 1995. At that time, the study of climate change was in its relative infancy. Predictions of temperature rises and of their impacts were tentative, and calls to action muted.

While making heavy use of outdated science, the ALP's statement ignores or misrepresents more recent findings. In particular, Spratt establishes, the use that the statement makes of a 2006 CSIRO report on climate change is misleading and deceptive. In citing the report's predictions for temperature rises, Labor ignores the rise of 0.6 degrees Celsius that occurred during the Twentieth Century. The difference is fundamental - between a rise that might be bearable, and one that would propel global warming to dangerous heights.

Meanwhile, what would the ALP's "Sixty by 2050" target be likely to result in, if applied uniformly by the countries that are major greenhouse gas emitters?

When he quotes the 2000 report by the Royal Commission, Garrett in oblique fashion identifies "Sixty by 2050" with stabilising world atmospheric greenhouse gases at a level of 550 ppm. As Spratt relates, the consensus of recent studies is that these gases need to remain at a much lower level if temperature rises are to stay below two degrees Celsius. For example, P Baer and M Mastrandrea in a 2006 paper conclude that "450 ppm CO2-equivalent has a fifty percent chance of staying below two degrees Celsius; 550 ppm CO2-equivalent has a ten to twenty percent chance of staying under two degrees Celsius".

British science writer George Monbiot quotes the British government's Environment Department in 2003 as concluding that "with an atmospheric carbon dioxide stabilisation concentration of 550 ppm, temperatures are expected to rise by between two and five degrees Celsius".

Labor's greenhouse reduction target, we may conclude, would almost certainly see world average temperatures rise far into the danger zone. Summarising the evidence, Spratt states that "Labor's Sixty by 2050 policy is consistent with a temperature target of three degrees Celsius".

What would a world three degrees hotter than at present be like? It would not include the Great Barrier Reef, bleached and dead at temperatures little above those of today. Nor would it have a place for the forests of the Amazon, even now on the brink of being transformed into savannah. Nor, after a hundred years or so, would it include large areas of today's coastal cities, or most of Holland and Bangladesh. The last time global temperatures were three degrees higher than at present was in the Pliocene period some three million years ago. At that time, there were no icecaps in the Northern Hemisphere, and sea levels were around 25 metres higher than they are now.

Such a planet would be much less capable than now of sustaining billions of human beings. Most of today's temperate farmlands would be arid, or would have turned into tropical savannah, where agriculture is notoriously difficult. The biosphere, drastically simplified by the extinction of many of today's species, would be radically unstable.

If temperatures were to rise to three degrees above present levels, would they stay there, and not rise further? We can have no guarantees.

One reason why climate scientists are now so definite on the need to limit greenhouse gas concentrations is that today's science has an increasingly sophisticated grasp of "positive feedback mechanisms" and "tipping points". Earlier analyses often treated climate processes as "linear" - that is, as involving steady, relatively gradual change. But in nature, gradual quantitative change often ends in abrupt shifts. As human-produced greenhouse emissions cause the Earth to heat up, the danger is that natural processes will kick in that turn the biosphere itself into a huge additional source of warming.

There are many such potential "tipping points". With only a slight increase on present temperatures, soils that now are carbon sinks will become carbon sources. When Arctic permafrost melts - as is now starting to happen - rotting peat generates the potent greenhouse gas methane. Other factors to be considered range from the burning of drought-ravaged Amazonian forests, to possible releases of vast quantities of methane from cold mud on the Arctic seabed.

Naturally, predictions of how such mechanisms might operate in a very different future can only be approximate. But the possibilities include the ultimate disaster scenario - a rerun of the Permian Extinction of 251 million years ago, when only a small minority of complex life-forms managed to survive.

When we face the potential for such outcomes, there can be no weighing of profits, or even of general economic prosperity, against the measures needed to halt further increases in greenhouse gas levels. As Flannery has indicated, we are already into the danger zone where even with present emissions concentrations one tipping point or another could be passed, and runaway global warming could begin.

What is now required if a more or less recognisable planet is to be saved? In his 2006 book Heat, British writer George Monbiot has performed the vital work of summarising the recent science and calculating the emissions cuts that will be needed.

Citing a study by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact in Germany, Monbiot concludes that to have a good chance of holding global temperature rises to less than two degrees Celsius, we need to stabilise greenhouse gas levels below 440 ppm of carbon dioxide equivalent. The present level is close to 460 ppm.

While still requiring profound changes, the task of cutting greenhouse gas concentrations to a little under present levels might not seem too daunting. Unfortunately, things are not so straightforward.

The trouble is that the biosphere is steadily losing its capacity to soak up carbon. Warmer seas and soils absorb less carbon dioxide, as do water-stressed forests. Instead of the current four billion tonnes of carbon locked away each year, the British Meteorological Office predicts the biosphere of 2030 will be able to absorb only 2.7 billion tonnes.

By 2030, the Earth's population is expected to have increased to 8.2 billion. That means that for carbon stabilisation, emissions must be cut to no more than 0.33 tonnes per person per year.

Billions of the world's people are currently responsible for emitting much less than this. If total world emissions of carbon into the atmosphere now stand at more than seven billion tonnes per year - nearly three times the level needed for eventual stabilisation - that is because the developed countries emit much higher amounts per capita, ranging up to the appalling figure of 5.63 tonnes per person per year in Australia.

It would not be fair to demand that the world's poorest people give up on raising their living standards in order to keep the world's rich driving SUVs. Indeed, any attempt to insist on this would mean that no country cut its emissions, and that the world proceeded directly to climatic Armageddon. Consequently, countries like Australia must cut their emissions drastically by 2030 to meet the stabilisation target of 0.33 tonnes per capita. For Australia, that means a cut of 95%. Our country has to aim at ending almost all its net carbon emissions over the next 22 years.

It cannot be that the ALP's policy researchers are ignorant of the real situation. The "Sixty by 2050" position has been chosen for political reasons, not scientific ones. Labor leaders have clearly calculated that "Sixty by 2050" will reassure the public that Labor is responding to the challenges of global warming, while not putting big business offside by suggesting that the ALP's climate change policies will substantially affect profits.

Off the record, Garrett and his front-bench colleagues might argue that the overriding task is to defeat the Howard government, which refuses to name any emissions target. But once in office, are the Labor leaders going to turn around and admit that they lied to voters? And would Labor confront the corporate rich, who subtly but unmistakably let it be known that they will fight any move that cuts significantly into profits? Loyalty to the capitalist class, to its interests and perspectives, is incorporated into the brains of ALP politicians at a molecular level.

Nor have the Greens, who call for reductions of thirty percent below 1990 levels by 2020 and of eighty percent by 2050, really confronted the necessities of the age. Of nationally organised Australian political parties, only the Socialist Alliance with its target of ninety percent reduction by 2030 puts forward a demand anywhere close to what is needed.

It is not by chance that it is only a socialist party, that takes no responsibility for the interests of big capital, that accepts the reality and pledges to act on it.

Bill Totten

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Agriculture: Closing the Circle

by John Michael Greer

The Archdruid Report (December 18 2007)

Druid perspectives on nature, culture, and the future of industrial society

Our modern faith in progress embodies a rich harvest of ironies, but one of the richest unfolds from the way it redefines such concepts as improvement and advancement. To most people nowadays, the way things are done today is by definition more advanced, and therefore better, than the way things were done at any point in the past. This curious way of thinking, which is all but universal in the industrial world among people who haven't though [thought through?] its implications, starts from the equally widespread belief that all of human history is a straight line that leads to us. It implies in turn that the only way into the future that counts is the one that involves doing even more of what we're already doing right now.

It's easy to see why this sort of self-congratulatory thinking is popular, but just now it may also be fatal. The entire industrial way of life is built on the ever accelerating use of non-renewable resources - primarily but not only fossil fuels - and it therefore faces an imminent collision with the hard facts of geology, in the form of non-negotiable limits to how much can be extracted from a finite planet before depletion outruns extraction. When that happens, ways of living that made economic sense in a world of cheap abundant resources are likely to become non-viable in a hurry, and beliefs that make those ways of living seem inevitable are just another obstacle in the way of the necessary transitions.

Agriculture, the foundation of human subsistence in nearly all of the world's societies just now, offers a particularly sharp lesson in this regard. It's extremely common for people to assume that today's industrial agriculture is by definition more advanced, and thus better, than any of the alternatives. It's certainly true that the industrial approach to agriculture - using fossil fuel-powered machines to replace human and animal labor, and fossil fuel-derived chemicals to replace natural nutrient cycles that rely on organic matter - out-competed its rivals in the market economies of the twentieth century, when fossil fuels were so cheap that it made economic sense to use them in place of everything else. That age is ending, however, and the new economics of energy bid fair to drive a revolution in agriculture as sweeping as any we face.

What needs to be recognized here, though, is that in a crucial sense - the ecological sense - modern industrial agriculture is radically less advanced than most of the viable alternatives. To grasp the way this works, it's necessary to go back to the concept of ecological succession, the theme of several earlier posts on this blog.

Succession, you'll remember, is the process by which a vacant lot turns into a forest, or any other disturbed ecosystem returns to the complex long-term equilibrium found in a mature ecology. In the course of succession, the first simple communities of pioneer organisms give way to other communities in a largely predictable sequence, ending in a climax community that can maintain itself over centuries. The stages in the process - seres, in the language of ecology - vary sharply in the way they relate to resources, and the differences involved have crucial implications.

Organisms in earlier seres, to use more ecologists' jargon, tend to be R-selected - that is, their strategy for living depends on controlling as many resources and producing as many offspring as fast as they possibly can, no matter how inefficient this turns out to be. This strategy gets them established in new areas as quickly as possible, but it makes them vulnerable to competition by more efficient organisms later on. Organisms in later seres tend to be K-selected - that is, their strategy for living depends on using resources as efficiently as possible, even when this makes them slow to spread and limits their ability to get into every possible niche. This means they tend to be elbowed out of the way by R-selected organisms early on, but their efficiency gives them the edge in the long term, allowing them to form stable communities.

The difference between earlier and later seres can be described in another way. Earlier seres tend toward what could be called an extractive model of nutrient use. In the dry country of central Oregon, for example, fireweed - a pioneer plant, and strongly R-selected - grows in the aftermath of forest fires, thriving on the abundant nutrients concentrated in wood ash, and on bare disturbed ground where it can monopolize soil nutrients. As it grows, though, it takes up the nutrient concentrations that allow it to thrive, and leaves behind soil with nutrients spread far more diffusely. Finally other plants better adapted to less concentrated nutrients replace it. Thus the fireweed becomes its own nemesis.

By contrast, later seres tend toward what could be called a recycling model of nutrient use. The climax community in those same central Oregon drylands is dominated by pines of several species, and in a mature pine forest, most nutrients are either in the living trees themselves or in the thick duff of fallen pine needles that covers the forest floor. The duff soaks up rainwater like a sponge, keeping the soil moist and preventing nutrient loss through runoff; as the duff rots, it releases nutrients into the soil where the pine roots can access them, and also encourages the growth of symbiotic soil fungi that improve the pine's ability to access nutrients. Thus the pine creates and maintains conditions that foster its own survival.

Other seres in between the pioneer fireweed and the climax pine fall into the space between these two models. It's very common across a wide range of ecosystems for the early seres in a process of succession to pass by very quickly, in a few years or less, while later seres take progressively longer, culminating in the immensely slow rate of change of a stable climax community. Like all ecological rules, this one has plenty of exceptions, but the pattern is much more common than not. What makes this even more interesting is that the same pattern also appears in something close to its classic form in the history of agriculture.

The first known systems of grain agriculture emerged in the Middle East sometime before 8000 BCE, in the aftermath of the drastic global warming that followed the end of the last ice age and caused massive ecological disruption throughout the temperate zone. These first farming systems were anything but sustainable, and early agricultural societies followed a steady rhythm of expansion and collapse most likely caused by bad farming practices that failed to return nutrients to the soil. It took millennia and plenty of hard experience to evolve the first farming systems that worked well over the long term, and millennia more to craft truly sustainable methods such as Asian wetland rice culture, which cycles nutrients back into the soil in the form of human and animal manure, and has proved itself over some 4000 years.

This process of agricultural evolution parallels succession down to the fine details. In effect, the first grain farming systems were the equivalents, in human ecology, of pioneer plant seres. Their extractive model of nutrient use guaranteed that over time, they would become their own nemesis and fail to thrive. Later, more sustainable methods correspond to later seres, with the handful of fully sustainable systems corresponding to climax communities with a recycling model of nutrient use and stability measured in millennia.

Factor in the emergence of industrial farming in the early twentieth century, though, and the sequence suddenly slams into reverse. Industrial farming follows an extreme case of the extractive model; the nutrients needed by crops come from fertilizers manufactured from natural gas, rock phosphate, and other non-renewable resources, and the crops themselves are shipped off to distant markets, taking the nutrients with them. This one-way process maximizes profits in the short term, but it damages the soil, pollutes local ecosystems, and poisons water resources. In a world of accelerating resource depletion, such extravagant use of irreplaceable fossil fuels is also a recipe for failure.

Fortunately, as last week's post showed, the replacement for this hopelessly unsustainable system - if you will, the next sere in the agricultural succession - is already in place and beginning to expand rapidly into the territory of conventional farming. Modeled closely on the sustainable farming practices of Asia by way of early 20th century researchers such as Albert Howard and F H King, organic farming moves decisively toward the recycling model by using organic matter and other renewable resources to replace chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and the like. In terms of the modern mythology of progress, this is a step backward, since it abandons chemicals and machines for compost, green manures, and biological pest controls; in terms of succession, it is a step forward, and the beginning of recovery from the great leap backward of industrial agriculture.

This same model may be worth examining closely when it comes time to deal with some of the other dysfunctional habits that became widespread in the industrial world during the fast-departing age of cheap abundant fossil fuel energy. In any field you care to name, sustainability is about closing the circle, replacing wasteful extractive models of resource use with recycling models that enable resource use to continue without depletion over the long term. It's a fair bet that in the ecotechnic societies of the future - the climax communities of human technic civilization - the flow of resources through the economy will follow circular paths indistinguishable from the ones that track nutrient flows through a healthy ecosystem. How one of the more necessary of those paths could be crafted will be the subject of next week's post.


The Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA), John Michael Greer has been active in the alternative spirituality movement for more than 25 years, and is the author of a dozen books, including The Druidry Handbook (Weiser, 2006). He lives in Ashland, Oregon.Tuesday,

Bill Totten

Linux is about to take over the low end of PCs

by Steven J Vaughan-Nichols (December 07 2007)

Sometimes, several unrelated changes come to a head at the same time, with a result no one could have predicted. The PC market is at such a tipping point right now and the result will be millions of Linux-powered PCs in users' hands.

The first change was the continued maturation of desktop Linux. Today, no one can argue with a straight face that people can't get their work done on Linux-powered PCs. Ubuntu {1}, PCLinuxOS {2}, MEPIS {3}, OpenSUSE {4}, Xandros {5}, Linspire {6}, Mint {7}, the list goes on and on of desktop Linuxes that PC owner can use without knowing a thing about Linux's technical side. People can argue that Vista or Mac OS X is better, but when Michael Dell runs Ubuntu Linux on one of his own home systems {8}, it can't be said that Linux isn't a real choice for anyone's desktop.

Another change occurred when Nicholas Negroponte proposed the so-called $100 laptop, the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) machine {9}. He couldn't get them built for quite that price - they cost about $200 {10} - but that's still remarkably cheap and they're available today.

Not long after OLPC was announced, Intel and other companies came up with their own take on an inexpensive PC: the Classmate PC {11}. By 2007, it had become clear that you could build a laptop that was good enough to run desktop Linux for about $200.

That gave other hardware vendors an idea. If you could build a no-frills PCs that ran Linux, why not make sub-$500 computers with a bit more power and sell them to consumers? That's exactly what Asus did with its Xandros Linux-powered ASUS Eee UMPC (Ultra Mobile PC) {12}, which lists for about $400. At about the same time, Everex introduced its gOS TC2502 gPC {13}. Available first only from Wal-Mart, these $199 desktop systems are also now also available from ZaReason {14}, an open-source VAR.

And how are these sub $500 computers and laptops doing? Everex is building them as fast as it can and has announced that its forthcoming laptop version, the CloudBook, has already been picked up by a major US reseller. At the same time, according to an unconfirmed report, ASUS is planning on selling 3.8 million Eees in its next fiscal year {15}.

While all this has been going on, broadband Internet connectivity has become almost as easily available as cell phone coverage. It is a small town indeed where there's not some kind of free Wi-Fi available at a local coffee shop or library. You may have to pay for Wi-Fi at the airport or in your hotel, but Wi-Fi is almost always there. And, at home, well I'm living on a rural mountain overlooking a national forest and I have 3M-bps DSL coming in to my house.

Google has made billions from this simple fact. It's not just about search and ads anymore, though. Google has found that there's a big demand for its office Google Apps. And not just from home users; Capgemini {16}, a multibillion dollar international consulting company, is using GAPE (Google Apps Premier Edition) {17} for one of its offices.

Four trends: user-friendly Linux desktops, useful under-$500 laptops and desktops, near-universal broadband, and business-ready Internet office applications. Put them together and you have a revolution.

For the last two decades, we've been buying expensive desktop operating systems on business PCs running from $1,000 to $2,000. On those systems, we've been putting pricey desktop-centric office suites like Microsoft Office. That's a lot of money, and the convergence of the above trends is about to knock it for a loop.

Here's the business case. You tell me if it's not compelling. You can buy 100 $500 PCs running a free version of Linux, hook them to a high-speed Internet connection for a $1,000 a year and use GAPE at $50 per user account per year. Finally, we'll throw in a grand for a Linux server. That's $57,000 for your equipment, your connectivity, your operating system and your applications.

Now, let's say you want to run Vista Business. First, you'll need 100 PCs that can run it. The cheapest deal I can find today for machines I'd consider adequate for Vista Business, which is to say they must have at least two gigabytes of RAM, is for the Dell OptiPlex 320 at $707 a PC. Of course - unlike with Linux, which always includes an office suite, OpenOffice - for those times when the Internet is down, you'll need to buy an office suite. If you went with Microsoft Standard 2007, with a little shopping you can get it for the upgrade price of about $200 per copy. So, on the PC side alone, we're looking at $90,700.

All done? Not quite. To get the most from Microsoft Office 2007, you really need to be operating it with a minimum of Microsoft Server 2003 ($4,994 base price plus 100 CALs [client access licenses]), Exchange 2007 ($7,399 base price plus 100 CALs) and SharePoint 2007 ($13,824 base price plus 100 standard CALS). If you're running Windows you probably already have Server, so we won't count it. Throw in another two grand for the Exchange 2007 and SharePoint 2007 servers, and a grand for the Internet connection, and (insert sound of old-fashioned adding machine) the final total is $114,923.

So, by my calculations, all those trends have joined together to make a Linux-based small business using Google applications instead of Exchange and SharePoint cost less than half its Microsoft-based twin.

Worse still, if you're Microsoft, you can't really defend yourself. Linux desktops run just dandy on low-end, under-$500 PCs. Vista Basic, which comes the closest to being able to run on these systems, is unacceptable since it doesn't support business networking. Office 2007 also won't run worth a darn on these systems. And somehow, I can't see Microsoft optimizing its applications to work with Google Apps instead of Exchange and SharePoint.

Put it all together, and here's what I see happening. In the next few quarters, low-end Linux-based PCs are going to quickly take over the bottom rung of computing. Then, as businesses continue to get comfortable with SAAS (software as a service) and open-source software, the price benefits will start leading them toward switching to the new Linux/SAAS office model.

You'll see this really kick into gear once Vista Service Pack 1 appears and business customers start seriously looking at what it will cost to migrate to Vista. That Tiffany-level price tag will make all but the most Microsoft-centric businesses start considering the Linux/SAAS alternative.

Microsoft will fight this trend tooth and nail. It will cut prices to the point where it'll be bleeding ink on some of its product lines. And Windows XP is going to stick around much longer than Microsoft ever wanted it to. Still, it won't be enough. By attacking from the bottom, where Microsoft can no longer successfully compete, Linux will finally cut itself a large slice of the desktop market pie.




















Ziff Davis Internet Linux & Open Source Editor Steven J Vaughan-Nichols has been using and writing about technology and business since the late 1980s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way. He can be reached at

Bill Totten

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Post-Oil Economy

After The Techno-Fix

by Peter Goodchild (December 22 2007)

"Even when grappling with the idea of economic disintegration, Americans attempt to cast it in terms of technological or economic progress: eco-villages, sustainable development, energy efficiency and so on. Under the circumstances, such compulsive techno-optimism seems maladaptive." -- Dmitry Orlov, "Our Village"

The path beyond petroleum begins by considering five principles: that alternative sources of energy are insufficient; that hydrocarbons, metals, and electricity are inseparable; that advanced technology is part of the problem, not part of the solution; that post-oil agriculture means a smaller population; and that the basis of the problem is psychological, not technological.

Everything in modern industrial society is dependent on oil and other hydrocarbons. From these we get gasoline, heating fuel, fertilizer, pesticides, lubricants, plastic, paint, synthetic fabrics, asphalt, pharmaceuticals, and many other things. Speaking in more general terms, we can say that we are dependent on hydrocarbons for manufacture, for transportation, for agriculture, for mining, and for electricity. The peak of world oil production is (or was) about thirty billion barrels a year, supporting a human population of nearly seven billion. In the entire world, there are perhaps a trillion barrels of oil left to extract - which may sound like a lot, but isn't. By 2030, annual oil production will be less than half of what it was at its peak.

1: Alternative Sources of Energy Are Insufficient

Alternative sources of energy will never be of much use, mainly because of the problem of "net energy": the amount of energy output from alternative sources is not sufficiently greater than the amount of energy input (which is hydrocarbons). Alternative sources are not sufficient to supply the annual needs of "industrial society" as the term is generally understood.

The use of unconventional oil (tar sands, shale deposits, heavy oil) poses several problems. The first is that of insufficient net energy. The second is that of extreme pollution. The third is that is even if we optimistically assume that about 700 billion barrels of unconventional oil could be produced, that amount would equal only about fifteen years of global oil demand.

Fuel cells cannot be made practical, because such devices require hydrogen derived from hydrocarbons. Biofuels (for example, from corn) require enormous amounts of land and still result in insufficient quantities of net energy. Hydroelectric dams are reaching their practical limits. Nuclear power will soon be suffering from a lack of fuel and is already creating serious environmental dangers.

Solar, wind, and geothermal power are only effective in certain areas and for certain purposes. Such types of power, in any case, are of significant value only when converted into electrical energy, requiring the use of disposable batteries and some very rare metals. In terms of ecology (that is, the relationship between population and resources), these types of power are therefore no better than the hydrocarbon-based power they are intended to replace.

The world uses fifteen terawatts of power every year. It's hard to imagine how much energy that is; it's more than "a lot". By 2030 the world's oil supply will be so depleted that the Industrial Age will be over, for all practical purposes. Yet proponents of "alternative energy" hope to transform the entire planet in a time frame that would be implausible even in a work of science fiction.

The quest for alternative sources of energy is not merely illusory; it is actually harmful. By daydreaming of a noiseless and odorless utopia of windmills and solar panels, we are reducing the effectiveness of whatever serious information is now being published. When news articles claim that there are simple painless solutions to the oil crisis, the reader's response is not awareness but drowsiness. We are rapidly heading toward what has been described as the greatest disaster in history, but we are indulging in escapist fantasies.

2: Hydrocarbons, Metals, and Electricity Are Inseparable

Iron ore of the sort that can be processed with primitive equipment is becoming scarce, and only the less-tractable forms will be available when the oil-powered machinery is no longer available - a chicken-and-egg problem. Copper, aluminum, and other metals are also rapidly vanishing. Metals were useful to mankind only because they could once be found in concentrated pockets in the earth's crust; now they are irretrievably scattered among the world's garbage dumps.

Electricity is not a source of energy; it is only a carrier of energy. That energy comes mainly from coal, natural gas, nuclear power plants, or hydroelectric dams. Coal is terribly inefficient; only a third of its energy is transferred as it is converted to electricity. At the same time, the electrical grids are perpetually operating at maximum load, chronically in need of better maintenance and expensive upgrading. The first clearly marked sign of "the end" may be the failure of electricity.

Hydrocarbons, metals, and electricity are all intricately connected. Each is inaccessible - on the modern scale - only when the other two are present. Any two will vanish without the third. If we imagine a world without hydrocarbons, we must imagine a world without metals or electricity. There is no way of breaking that "triangle".

3: Advanced Technology Is Part of the Problem, Not Part of the Solution

Whatever choices may be available in the future, they will not be found in advanced technology, in "high-tech" solutions. There are three reasons why that is so. In the first place, any "alternative-energy" devices would have to be created from plastics and metals. Secondly, they would have to be controlled by electricity. Finally, they would have to be created by large and sophisticated machines and transported over long distances. But the whole point in speculating about "alternative energy" in the first place is to find an answer to that particular crisis - the fact that none of those three factors will exist in future years.

In addition, all that we think of as "modern industrial society" has its "sociological" components: intricate division of labor, large-scale government, and high-level education. Without hydrocarbons, metals, and electricity, we will find ourselves in a pre-industrial world in which there is no material infrastructure allowing those "sociological" components to exist.

Advanced technology is part of the problem to be solved, not the solution itself. There may be some form of technology that can save us from the depletion of hydrocarbons, but it is certainly not "high". To speak of "high-tech methods" as if they were largely synonymous with "methods employing alternative sources of energy" is ultimately self-contradictory and self-defeating.

We cannot enter a "post-carbon" world. Life on Earth has been "carbon" for at least half a billion years. It will not change in the next decade or so.

4: Post-Oil Agriculture Means a Smaller Population

Modern agriculture is dependent on hydrocarbons for fertilizers (the Haber-Bosch process combines natural gas with atmospheric nitrogen to produce nitrogen fertilizer), pesticides, and the operation of machines for harvesting, processing, and transporting. The Green Revolution was the invention of a way to turn petroleum and natural gas into food. Without hydrocarbons, modern methods of food production will disappear. Food production will be greatly reduced, and there will be no practical means of transporting food over long distances.

The starting point is to think in terms of a smaller radius of activity. The globalized economy has to be replaced by the localized economy. In the post-oil world, most food will be produced at a local level. The catch, however, is that most of the world's surface is permanently unsuitable for growing food: the climate is too severe, or the land is too barren.

Nevertheless, a small human population might survive on agriculture, at least if it reverted to some primitive methods. Some Asian cultures brought wild plant material from the mountains and used it as fertilizer, thereby making use of the N-P-K (et cetera) of the wilderness. Many other cultures used wood ashes. The nutrient "source" of the wilderness fed the nutrient "sink" of the farmland. (This is one of the basic principles behind all "organic gardening", although few practitioners would admit it or even know it.)

Using primitive technology, it will not be possible to feed a world population that has anywhere near the present size. Even the "alternative" catch-phrases harbor a number of misconceptions. "Intensive gardening", for example, is possible only with a garden hose and an unlimited supply of water. "Organic gardening" relies on sources of potassium, phosphorus, and other elements that will not be available without modern techniques of mining and transport. The maximum population that can be supported, therefore, is about four people per hectare of arable land.

5: The Basis of the Problem Is Psychological, Not Technological

As the oil crisis worsens there will be various forms of aberrant behavior: denial, anger, mental paralysis. There will be an increase in crime, there will be strange religious cults or extremist political movements. The reason for such behavior is that fundamentally the peak-oil problem is not about technology, and it is not about economics, and it is not about politics. It is partly about humanity's attempt to defy geology. But it is mainly about psychology: most people cannot grasp what William Catton refers to as "overshoot".

We cannot come to terms with the fact that as a species we have gone beyond the ability of the planet to accommodate us. We have bred ourselves beyond the limits. We have consumed, polluted, and expanded beyond our means, and after several thousand years of superficial technological solutions we are now running short of answers. Biologists explain such expansion in terms of "carrying capacity": lemmings and snowshoe hares - and a great many other species - have the same problem; overpopulation and over-consumption lead to die-off. But humans cannot come to terms with the concept. It goes against the grain of all our religious and philosophical beliefs.

Further Reading:

BP Global Statistical Review of World Energy. Annual.

Campbell, Colin J. The Coming Oil Crisis. Brentwood, Essex: Multi-Science, 1997.

Catton, William R, Jr Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. Champaign, Illinois: U of Illinois P, 1980.

Deffeyes, Kenneth S. Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2001.

Gever, John, et al. Beyond Oil: The Threat to Food and Fuel in the Coming Decades. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Ballinger, 1986.

Meadows, Donella H et al. The Limits to Growth: a Report for the Club of Rome's Project on the Predicament of Mankind. 2nd edition. New York: Universe, 1982.


Peter Goodchild is the author of Survival Skills of the North American Indians (Chicago Review Press, 1999). He can be reached at

Bill Totten