Death Valley Days

Land of Little Rain by Mary Hunter Austin, first publication 1903 by Houghton Mifflin.

The Librivox recording of this wonderful book from the first decade of the twentieth century is a pleasure to listen to. Mary Austin’s descriptions of the desert country east of the southern Sierra Nevada are beautifully clear, evoking the harsh land, the hardy plants and animals and the various humans who live among them. My favorite was the pocket hunter, a prospector traveling with his burros and a gold pan that is cleaner than his cooking pots, and who dreams of finding a strike rich enough to allow him to set up as a middle class Londoner. Twice, he made enough to visit England, but each time he returned, with only a pair of elegant green canvas traveling bags to show for the trips. He told how once in a blinding snowstorm he sought shelter with what he thought were a flock of domestic sheep. Looking about in the morning, he saw he had slept among wild mountain bighorns. They bounded away through the drifts like God’s own flock. Breathtaking.

Whether it is the denizens of a mining town or the native Paiute, among them the blind basket weaver and the Shoshone exile medicine man, who must be killed when he can’t prevent an epidemic of pneumonia from taking away a third of the band, Austin tells the stories simply and with evident deep compassion.

She has a soft spot for the coyote, that butt of Warner Brothers cartoons, but in her view far from a fool. She gives loving descriptions of the numerous desert rodents and the jackrabbits whose tracks lead to the waterholes like the spokes of giant wheels, along with their enemies the birds of prey and the scavengers who watch all that goes on from far above, waiting for the predator’s kill or the dying gasp of the starving.

Plants get just as careful attention, some of the best botanical description I’ve read. Whether in her neighbor’s field or on the mesa, she evokes the marvels of the California desert flora with its tough shrubs and delicate ephemerals that blossom only in years when enough rain falls to waken the seeds out of dormancy.

Everything about this book makes me want to visit this land.

Climate Change, Equity and Security

“Equity and Greenhouse Gas Responsibility” by Paul Baer et al. ( )

“Energy and Equity” by Ivan Illich ( )

David Lempert and Hue Nguyen, “The global prisoners’ dilemma of unsustainability: why sustainable development cannot be achieved without resource security and eliminating the legacies of colonialism” Sustainability: Science, Practice, & Policy 7(1): 16-30 (2011) ( )

I am a teacher of both natural sciences and liberal arts by training and experience. In that spirit, I offer some thoughts on climate change, energy and equity.

Baer et al. provide a succinct statement of the problem of preventing climate change through greenhouse gas regulation and conclude that any future international agreement must be based on principles of equity, specifically, “equal rights to common resources” and “polluter pays.”

They analyze a simplified version of the problem, as follows: They assume that to avoid unacceptable climate extremes it is necessary to keep global CO2 levels from exceeding twice the preindustrial levels; to do this it is required to hold annual greenhouse gas emissions to the equivalent of 0.3 T/capita, assuming a stable world population of 9 billion by about 2050. Current emissions they estimate to be about 1 T/capita, ranging from 5 T in a few developed countries to less than 0.1 T in some poor developing nations. The problem is how to allocate allowable emissions under a cap and trade or similar global arrangement. The Kyoto Protocol, they argue, is flawed because nation’s caps are based on past emission levels. This institutionalizes unequal access to common resources and allows some people to impose environmental damages on others, without penalty. Another way to look at this is that under such a scheme some people have greater access than others to a common resource, the atmosphere, and pay nothing for the priviledge.

The solution, they offer is a global per capita limit, which would be set at a value above the ultimate limit and then gradually lowered, until the required value [in their example, about 0.3 T/capita] is achieved. Those above the current limit would have to purchase the unused emissions allowances of those below the limit. Such an equitable scheme, based on equal access and “polluter pays,” is the only basis for achieving a worldwide agreement. They cite a number of treaties and national laws that operate on these principles. They acknowledge that the details of such a scheme and the would require much negotiation, and that considerations such as income, ability to pay and historic and current energy needs would be used to adjust targets and mechanisms for enforcing the limit.

Such a system is possible, with a great deal of administration and monitoring. It implies a fairly large transfer of wealth from developed to developing countries to pay for the emissions rights until zero-net-carbon energy sources can be deployed.

Baer et al. argue that ending fossil energy dependence globally is unlikely be negotiated except on equitable principles, but because their focus is on the environmental, and not the social and political effects of energy consumption, they leave unanswered a critical question: will the developed and developing nations opt for continued dependence on massive inputs of energy, only of “sustainable” character, or will they opt for minimal energy dependence and expanded (or restored) political freedom and equity?

In Energy and Equity, from 1973, Ivan Illich provides a starting point for a discussion of what sort of technology is compatible with living well, meaning, I think, living sustainably, in freedom and equality. I use this text in my courses, Environmental Issues and Green Politics, to lead students to reflect on what seems at first to be a technical environmental problem, but which turns out to raise much more fundamental questions. Illich observes that beyond a critical (and very low) threshold, continued expansion of energy dependence in societies leads to growing inequity and the loss of access to basic resources and freedom for the less favored.

Illich argues that large doses of energy, applied to problems like getting around, have counter-productive results. Industrial solutions, rather than serving as means to achieve ends we value, become a burden.

He begins the opening section:

The advocates of an energy crisis believe in… a peculiar vision of man. According to this notion, man is born into perpetual dependence on slaves which he must painfully learn to master. If he does not employ prisoners, then he needs machines to do most of his work. According to this doctrine, the well-being of a society can be measured by the number of years its members have gone to school and by the number of energy slaves they have thereby learned to command.

and continues:

This belief is… threatened by the obvious inequity, harriedness, and impotence that appear everywhere once the voracious hordes of energy slaves outnumber people by a certain proportion. The energy crisis focuses concern on the scarcity of fodder for these slaves. I prefer to ask whether free men need them.

His analysis takes humans’ ability to walk as a starting point and shows that new modes of travel have not improved on it by any net increase in range, economy of time or access for the disabled. Instead, he argues, once the power of the new modes crossed a threshold, they began to restrict, rather than enhance, mobility for all but a fortunate few. Part of the downside of this “Industrialization of traffic” is loss of freedom, as the new modes create barriers that make walking and other modes of self-powered transit difficult.

Another drawback is loss of time: powerful modes of travel impose a monopoly that requires most people to devote more time to transit and to earning the means to purchase it. He claims that in the early 1970’s the average American spent 1600 hours of total time in transit related activity, direct and indirect, while traveling an average of just 7500 miles, for a net speed of 5 mph, barely faster than a walk and much slower than a bicycle.

The “habitual passenger” feels frustration, but attributes it to lack of the latest technology, hoping always for better service, not seeing that his dependence on being served is the source of his frustration.

Greater speed demands more and more space for airports, freeways, high-speed rail, etc. More human effort and money must be spent on controlling the system, and as we saw in Baer et al. controlling the environmental effects. Escalating costs make it impossible that everyone can go the same speed as CEO’s.

Illich identifies the critical threshold of speed, beyond which industrialization of traffic imposes an ever increasing burden of lost time, lost freedom and lost equality on the society, as fifteen miles or twenty-four kilometers per hour. The source of this limit is simply the maximum speed that normal human muscle power, aided by technology, can maintain. In other words, the speed of a healthy cyclist on a good bicycle.

The bicycle symbolizes the choice between the “Radical monopoly” of industrialized transport, which he connects to other radical monopolies in areas such as education and medicine, and the autonomous mobility which self-powered transit offers, provided it is protected by a speed limit.

The essay concludes by suggesting that if motorized transport would keep within the threshold of speed (his actual number here is 25 mph/40 kph) it could supplement human-powered mobility, giving freedom to the disabled and carrying burdens too big for individuals to bear. He is not a Luddite. He is a radical, political critic, but not an enemy of technology as such.

How do citizens of a highly developed nation, respond to this? My students, exhibiting what Illich calls speed-stunned imagination, declare that such a limit is ridiculous and deny that their cars deprive them of lifetime. They maintain that we need better technology, so we can all move faster to more places.

Of course, there are doubts. These students see how roads, railways, parking lots and suburbs restrict them from walking and cycling. They experience the loss of time from being stuck in traffic, having a car break down or waiting for a bus. They are acutely aware of the struggle to pay for the services required by industrialized society: tuition, cars, insurance, traffic tickets, etc. They know they may someday have to pay, directly or indirectly, for the environmental damage. They propose many ingenious solutions, but all require increased social control over our lives.

Yet almost nobody at my college is more than a day’s ride away from home, at a speed of 40, or even 25 kilometers per hour. All weather, human-powered transit is certainly possible, but in New Jersey it is dangerous to take long trips under human power in current traffic conditions. There is a wonderful book about human-powered travel in this “Garden State” as New Jersey is known, Snowshoeing Through Sewers, by Michael Aaron Rockland (Rutgers University Press, 1994) which demonstrates this.

As for Illich’s larger claims, my students believe that radical monopolies can arise from the growth of technology, but they take a fatalistic attitude. The possibility of political action to free themselves does not seem real to them. The only solutions they can think of are technical or economic. Like my students, the climate negotiators from the major polluting nations avoid even the easier questions about energy and equity posed by Baer et al. Most of the world’s political, social and scientific leaders seem to avoid them, too. I believe they don’t see that they are the “habitual passengers” Illich describes. Until the citizens of the developed and developing countries can recognize their growing dependence on energy is curtailing freedom and creating greater inequality, it is unlikely that the gridlock over global warming can be broken.

There is a further complexity here, which is the relationship between security and the political choices about resource consumption and sustainability that are open to developed and developing countries. I quote here from what I think is a very important contribution on this topic, David Lempert & Hue Nguyen:

Rather than considering the destruction of the environment as a cause of war over dwindling resources, there may actually be a more complex relationship—a vicious cycle—in which the need to secure resources may actually be driving their overexploitation as a means to increase economic and military strength. This iterative process further drives competition over dwindling and disappearing resources. Moreover, this positive feedback loop, supported by ideologies and institutional structures that are the legacy of colonialism throughout the world, may itself be a Nash equilibrium that is now impossible to change because it is self-reinforcing through “rational” choices by governments and cultural groups. This outcome may also explain the “rational choice” of countries to begin to prepare for climate wars and further resource competition rather than to agree to the very frameworks for sustainability of the planet that are, ironically, also the key to maintaining globalization. In other words, the current approach to globalism does appear to be promoting its own breakdown because of a built-in contradiction in the approach to sustainable development.

I take this to mean that the militarized “security” approach to preserving our environment contains the seeds of its own destruction. Unless we can find means other than military force to ensure the common security of the resources that we all need to survive, we simply risk ever more antagonistic interactions, of the kind that now plague the Middle East and parts of Africa. Small countries are led to play the game because of the fear, too often realized, that stronger powers, and especially, superpowers, will simply impose their will by threat or violence (Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, etc.) It also encourages destructive insurgencies, leading ultimately to collapse of states (Somalia, Libya, Syria, Lebanon) Currently, the global response relies on shifting coalitions of powers that still operate much as the colonial powers of the 19th century did, being accountable only to themselves. Without structures of genuine equity, supported by collective guarantees and a system of settling disputes that doesn’t rely primarily on crippling sanctions, threats and force, we will not see much progress towards protecting our earth’s life-support systems.

The current climate talks are a worthy effort to build structures of cooperation; at the same time, the Catholic Church, via a recent Papal encyclical, has urged its communicants to reflect on the issue of the impact of climate change on those least able to protect themselves, as well as our overall relationship to the planet. There has been no discussion of Illich’s views in what I have read about the encyclical, but a quick search of the Internet finds a number of pieces that mention both. There are other positive signs that people are beginning to think about the limitations of a high-energy lifestyle. One is the popularity of car-free days in urban centers. As Illich put it:

Liberation from affluence begins on the traffic islands where the rich run into one another. The well-sped are tossed from one island to the next and are offered but the company of fellow passengers en route to somewhere else. This solitude of plenty would begin to break down as the traffic islands gradually expanded and people began to recover their native power to move around the place where they lived. Thus, the impoverished environment of the traffic island could embody the beginnings of social reconstruction, and the people who now call themselves rich would break with bondage to overefficient transport on the day they came to treasure the horizon of their traffic islands, now fully grown, and to dread frequent shipments from their homes.

Liberation from dependence starts at the other end. It breaks the constraints of village and valley and leads beyond the boredom of narrow horizons and the stifling oppression of a world closed in on itself. To expand life beyond the radius of tradition without scattering it to the winds of acceleration is a goal that any poor country could achieve within a few years, but it is a goal that will be reached only by those who reject the offer of unchecked industrial development made in the name of an ideology of indefinite energy consumption.

I hope that we will begin to hear more discussion starting from ideas like the ones expressed in these articles.

Along the Ohio

Ruben Gold Thwaites. Afloat on the Ohio: An Historical Pilgrimage of a Thousand Miles in a Skiff, from Redstone to Cairo.

If this book were made into a film, its musical score should be Antonin Dvorak’s New World Symphony. The varied settings and historical reflections match up well with its varied musical themes. This narrative is similar to his Historic Waterways, but this is a longer trip, with his friend the doctor and his wife and 10 year old son together the whole time. It is historic in that much of the text concerns events that occurred in the previous two and a half centuries. The Ohio Valley is also where the battle to expand the colonies and later the United States beyond the Eastern seaboard took place: the accounts he gives of the conquest and settlement of the region sent me to Wikipedia to learn about the beaver wars, the Northwest War and other conflicts that my school history classes and U.S. stamp collection only left me with a few names like Fallen Timbers and General Braddock. The voyage takes Thwaites and his companions past the sites of Native American towns, forts, trading posts, ambushes, battles and settlements. George Washington spent much time before the Revolutionary War in the Ohio country, both as a military officer and as a surveyor, marking out lands both for his own speculations and for others. The struggles of the colonists from Virginia and Pennsylvania to drive out first the French and then the British from the Ohio had effects on the larger global struggles of these two nations. These were among the bloodiest conflicts in our history, although the later wars with the plains Indians have garnered more attention, along with those in the Hudson Valley and central New York, thanks to James Fenimore Cooper

The other part of the story is of the valley as it appeared in the late nineteenth century: The country they passed through was much more heavily settled and industrialized than the rural regions of Wisconsin described in Historic Waterways. Beginning at Redstone on the Monongahela, the banks were lined with coal tipples, oil and gas wells, mills and factories as well as river towns large and small, and farms that range from prosperous to squalid. There is more river traffic, including a steady procession of steamboats making waves that threaten to swamp their skiff or flood their tent on the bank. These are not bucolic streams but busy waterways in what was, in 1897, the industrial heart of America. The resources of the country were being rapidly converted into goods to be floated up or downriver or loaded onto railcars, which were already displacing the steamboats. Everywhere the waste from mills, mines and wells was being dumped on the banks or poured into the river itself. Thousands of Eastern Europeans were coming to the factories to earn a fortune that they could take back to the homeland, according to Thwaites’s informants, and already there were complaints about the downward pressure on Americans’ wages.

Below Cincinnati and Louisville, though, the river flowed through less developed country, and the rural poverty on both sides made it hard to find the supplies they needed for daily sustenance. Still, there were many well-kept farms and moderately prosperous towns. There was also a stark reminder that this was during the successful counter-reconstruction period, when the hopes of freed slaves were being overturned by southern whites. Thwaites reports, without comment, an exchange between a group of blacks working on an island on the Kentucky side and a black man on the Ohio shore. Their taunts are silenced when the Ohio man points out that at least he has not been put to work doing gang labor on an island that he can’t leave.

As in Historic Waterways, there is rich detail about the river, the weather, the people they meet along the way. The rivermen especially, have that independence of mind, along with a penchant for repartee, that is found in Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi or Richard Bissel’s wonderful A Stretch on the River. There is less of natural history, although his wife avidly botanized at every opportunity and he describes the wildflowers they find. So much of the country had been emptied of wildlife a hundred years of uncontrolled exploitation, and the air and water so polluted by slag, mine tailings, coal smoke and oil that fish and birds were becoming scarcer all the time. A more recent account of the devastating changes wrought upon the fish of the Ohio River (and the Great Lakes) by development, channelization and drainage can be found (if you can locate a copy) in the introduction to The Fishes of Ohio by Milton Bernhard Trautman. Ohio State University Press, 1957.

Throughout, Thwaites makes reference to the early narratives of travel in the Ohio Valley, which he himself played a major role in editing and publishing. I think I may want to read some of those myself.

Amphibious reflections

I have been carrying out a study of wood frogs Rana (Lithobates) sylvatica for a couple of years now on the campus where I work. We’re trapping frogs as they move toward the small vernal pond where they breed, to see how far away from the breeding site they overwinter. Wood frogs are explosive breeders, doing all their mating and egg-laying in a few days in late winter, after the pond thaws. The other night, after checking the traps and releasing the captured frog into the water, we stood on the N side of the pond and listened as the occasional calls began, gradually building up to a full chorus. I reflected that these frogs must have been coming to this pond for thousands of years to put their eggs in this collective womb, where their embryos can grow safely. Late winter after late winter, they have rasped out their certainty that another spring will arrive. The next morning sitting and contemplating, another thought occurred to me.

How is a college like a frog pond? Female frogs bring eggs to put in pond; parents bring students to college. Males come to inseminate eggs. Faculty plant the seeds of learning in the students.

Eggs are not simply passive matter, as Aristotle thought: they contain half the genome and are in many ways already non-genetically programmed to develop along certain lines. Rarely, eggs may develop apomicticly, not accepting any of the genes of the male. Students come already full of opinions, beliefs and predispositions that reflect their culture, social environment and upbringing. Some may refuse to absorb anything new.

Some frog eggs may already be badly damaged goods, burdened with issues that may stunt development and prevent successful growth and metamorphosis. New students can be the same.

Male frogs are intensely competitive, trying to inseminate as many eggs with their own seed as possible. Some faculty want to create exact copies of themselves; whole departments and program can become like this. Luckily, unlike frog eggs, students can undergo multiple fertilizations. The faculty, like the frogs, are driven by eros. As Socrates’ friend Diotima says in Plato’s Symposium, love is the desire to beget immortal beauty, wisdom and human excellence in the soul of another, as it was once conceived in the teacher’s own soul. Like male frogs, faculty love to engage in noisy display at times.

The male frog does not fill the egg up with stuff and shape it into what it is going to become. The male brings another part of the heritage of the frog population, new material that complements and completes what is already there. Good teachers sow ideas and let them complement, complete or rarely overwrite what is already in the student, sometimes supporting, sometimes challenging their beliefs and opinions.

The pond is the womb of the frog embryos, before and after they hatch. It must provide all the nutrition beyond what is in the egg itself, if the tadpole is to metamorphose into a froglet. A good pond contains a rich stock of nutrients and an active ecological community. A good college is an environment for learning. Students are not force-fed predetermined packages of nutrition, but instead forage for themselves in a place that holds a great store of thought from the past, especially recorded works of words and symbols. Unlike tadpoles, the students must learn to read these recorded thoughts and feelings for themselves.

A pond may be polluted, undergo eutrophication from excess nutrients, be invaded by predators or parasites, drained or have its water supply diverted, be filled in with sediment or disrupted by careless small boys or scientists. Like the pond, the college may allow the problems of the outside world to overwhelm it, become over-enriched with amusements, fall prey to ambitious or self-aggrandizing leaders, have its critical resources drained away or diverted, be destroyed to build something else or muddied up in the name of assessment or accountability by people who don’t realize the delicacy and vulnerability of what takes place.  As when ruling a great nation or cooking a small fish, a college must be handled very carefully, and those to whom a college is entrusted have tremendous responsibility.

If all goes well, in a few weeks or months the tadpoles reabsorb their childish tails, put forth their limbs and venture out onto the land to face the challenges of adult life well prepared. Likewise students, if they are well nourished, will leave behind the juvenile stage and enter into the vigor of young adulthood. Unlike frogs, it may be possible for them to return periodically throughout life to the pond to refresh and renew themselves.

Contact, Conflict and Cooperation

Soderland, Jean R. 2015. Lenape Country. Delaware Valley Society Before William Penn. Phila. U. Penn. Press. Early American Studies Series. 249 pp.

An interesting, if somewhat repetitive, account of the period from 1630s to mid-1700’s, when Lenape and Susquehanna Indians, Swedes and Finns, Dutch and English contended for the trade in beaver skins, etc. coming down from Canada. Soderland’s point is that most of this struggle was peaceful or at least not open warfare and the Lenape managed to remain masters of the territory surrounding the Delaware (Lenapewihittuck or South) River, until William Penn’s sons and other land swindlers got the last large tract on the west side from them in the 1700s. For much of that time, Swedes, Finns and Lenapes formed an alliance against the Dutch and English, resisting their attempts to acquire and govern large areas of territory. The Europeans were largely confined to small outposts along both sides of the river up to the time that the Quakers began to acquire large tracts for settlers.

Part of her contention is that Penn’s treaty was not anything really new. The Lenape had been fairly skillful negotiators all along and willing to employ threats and force to keep the other groups from extablishing large settlements and plantations, as Europeans had in Virginia and New England. They also had to deal with threats from Maryland settlers, but here they were aided by the other Europeans. She repeatedly points out that the only sizable massacre in the lower Delaware region was near the site of Lewes, Delaware, in 1631, an early show of willingness by the Lenape to use violence to stop large scale settlement.

The Europeans learned not to assume that their concepts of ownership and transfer of rights were understood by the Lenape, and they preferred to keep negotiating peace for the sake of continued trade rather than revenging past wrongs or trying for outright conquest. This may have simply been due to lack of means. Their “companies,” back in Sweden, the Netherlands and England had limited resources and aims and often could not supply trade goods or support for the settlers. Still, she implies that some of the local directors and governors were simply more inclined to diplomacy than war and that the Lenape were more than willing to go along, despite the mockery of other tribes, especially those to the north, who were often agitating for war. She claims that at one point, around the time of Bacon’s Rebellion and King Phillips’s War in the 1670s, if the Lenape had joined the rest of the native Americans in an all out assault, they might have driven out the Europeans. Seems unlikely, but they certainly could have dealt a massive setback in the whole mid-Atlantic region, with unimaginable future consequences, for example for the French position in North America, etc.

The background to all this, of course, is the gradual decline of the native population due to epidemic disease. Does this stark fact lend credence to Jared Diamond’s guns, germs and steel theory? I’d like to not think so. Part of what’s missing in that view is the central role played by trade in keeping both sides in contact with each other throughout the period. The other point is that both sides suffered a lot from diseases, although Europeans may have been somewhat more resistant. There is no suggestion that the epidemics were an actual weapon. In fact, they instigated revenge killings (she calls it “mourning war”) and so were a source of friction between Europeans and Americans.

The other point is that the Lenape and the Europeans rather quickly began to intermingle in many ways – tools, agriculture, marriage. The Lenape didn’t like the Europeans’ domestic animals, which were often a cause of conflict, and they showed little inclination to become Christians, which led a lot of preachers to accuse them of devil worship. But particularly with the Swedes and Finns, there seems to have been a fair amount of cooperation. There are several cases described in the book of both sides handling criminal complaints about the other side in a way that worked fairly well.

One aspect that surpised me was the very low estimate of the number of European heads of household in West Jersey as late as the count in 1671: seven men and no women. Was some segment of the population simply being missed? Do other records indicate that there were Europeans living in some places where they were missed in the count? One of the recent books she criticizes is Bernard Bailyn’s The Barbarous Years. (Knopf 2012), may be worth a look.

Image: Nautical chart of the Dutch colony Zwaanendael and Godyn’s Bay (Delaware Bay), 1639 – Wikipedia