Beginning Again

I still may be blogging very irregularly for a few days, but I wanted to share my thoughts on David Ehrenfeld’s 1993 book Beginning Again with you. I hope to have time to join the conversation on my Resilience Open Thread soon; in the meantime, these thoughts will have to do.

Ehrenfeld is an old fashioned sort of guy, a bit nostalgic for memories from his own youth and from what he has gleaned the world must have been like before it became what it is today. By trade he is a biologist, and you may recall I quoted him once before on his love for the giant green turtles of Costa Rica:

Because the turtles [I was studying in Costa Rica] come out to nest after dark, much of my work was done at night. There was a great deal of waiting between turtles, plenty of time to sit on a driftwood log and think. In the first years of my research I was often the only one on the beach for miles. After ten or twenty minutes of sitting without using my flashlight, my eyes adapted to the dark and I could make out forms against the brown-black sand: the beach plum and coconut palm silhouettes in back, the flicker of the surf in front, sometimes even the shadowy outline of a trailing railroad vine or the scurry of a ghost crab at my feet. The air was heavy and damp with a distinctive primal smell that I can remember but not describe. The rhythmic roar of the surf a few feet away never ceased — my favourite sound. I hear it as I write in my landlocked office in New Jersey. And then, with ponderous, dramatic slowness, a giant turtle would emerge from the sea.

Usually I would see the track first, a vivid black line standing out against the lesser blackness, like the swath of a bulldozer. If I was closer, I could hear the animal’s deep hiss of breath and the sounds of her undershell scraping over logs. If there was a moon, I might see the light glistening off the parabolic curve of the still wet shell. Size at night is hard to determine: even the sprightly 180-pounders, probably nesting for the first time, looked big when nearby, but the 400-pound ancients, with shells nearly four feet long, were colossal in the darkness. Then when the excavations of the body pit and egg cavity were done, if I slowly parted the hind flippers of the now-oblivious turtle, I could watch the perfect white spheres falling and falling into the flask-shaped pit scooped into the soft sand.

Falling as they have fallen for a hundred million years, with the same slow cadence, always shielded from the rain or stars by the same massive bulk with the beaked head and the same large, myopic eyes rimmed with crusts of sand washed out by tears. Minutes and hours, days and months dissolve into eons. I am on an Oligocene beach, an Eocene beach, a Cretaceous beach — the scene is the same. It is night. The turtles are coming back, always back; I hear a deep hiss of breath and catch a glint of wet shell as the continents slide and crash, the oceans form and grow. The turtles were coming here before here was here. At Tortuguero I learned the meaning of place, and began to understand how it is bound up with time.

Ehrenfeld is a very religious man, and the purpose of his book was to be, in the tradition of Schumacher and Orwell, a prophecy for the next century. “The business of prophecy” he says, “is not foretelling the future; rather it is describing the present with exceptional truthfulness and accuracy” to the point that “broad aspects of the future have become self-evident”.

His description of the present is eccentric, steeped in his personal observations about life in the sciences and in academia, but intriguing. He loathes “pervasive overmanagement”, which he sees as ruinously wasteful and the cause of horrifically bad decisions (we need only look at Katrina to see the wisdom of this view). Bureaucracy and hierarchy, he says, has allowed an entire unproductive and massive segment of our population to bog down and interfere with real work, and the “failure of unfavorable information to move upward in any administration” is a direct cause of many modern man-made crises. He laments the illusory belief that technology will magically solve our energy or environmental problems, and the unwitting loss of deep, centuries-old skills and knowledge that he believes will be sorely needed in the future. He sees our contemporary society as “power-worshipping, dominated by the myth of total control”. He believes (after witnessing first-hand the valiant but often ignorant and inadvertently destructive actions of the Exxon Valdez clean-up team) that there is no way to prepare for disasters — our only hope is to prevent them.

He is deeply concerned about loss of biodiversity, which he believes makes the ecosystem brittle and extra vulnerable to crisis. He disdains ‘experts’ who fall victim to the propensity either to pontificate about causes and about the future in complex-system disciplines where to do so is absurd and dangerous (he cites economics, long-term weather forecasting and psychology as such disciplines) or to veil themselves in “dignified retreat” and refuse to say anything outside their narrow specialty — both methods designed to protect the cachet of expertise, and both useless at best in dealing with contemporary problems where their (modest) expertise might really be of value.

Finally, in the last three chapters, he begins to prophesy — tentatively at first, then with great energy. After lauding the pragmatism of Garrett Hardin’s essay Tragedy of the Commons, he applies it — the only viable solution to human overpopulation, he says, is “restrict the right to multiply”. Nothing else will work. By all means try voluntary measures first, but if they don’t work, “limit some human freedoms to preserve others more precious”. The solution to the Green Revolution, which, he believes, has depleted and poisoned the soil and water and “destroyed farm culture and farm communities and forced millions of knowledgeable farmers to abandon farming and leave their land, in rich and poor countries alike”, is Wes Jackson’s “dream of herbaceous perennial polyculture” —

… a grain field that would lie under the same live vegetative cover year after year like a pasture. And, like a good pasture, it would not be seeded to monoculture, but to a mixture of plants, not only to in increase productivity, but to increase the range of nutritive value, to reduce the dependence on purchased nitrogen, to reduce vulnerability to pests and diseaseóin short, to benefit in every possible way from the principle of diversity.

Bold, a wedding of technology and natural wisdom, working with the land instead of against it, needing no fertilizer, no chemical weeding, no seeding, no pesticides, no irrigation. But the mix of new yet natural plants that would be planted, once, in each area would be determined by the local farmers who know this land best, so that instead of another imposed and dislocating solution, this polyculture becomes their ticket back to the land they love and know. No coward, Mr. Ehrenfeld.

The final chapter begins with a cautious rebuttal of the adequacy of both “protection” and “management” approaches to conservation, and asserts:

The ultimate success of all our efforts to stop ruining nature will depend on a revision of the way we use the world in our everyday living when we are not thinking about conservation… a way that is compatible with the existence of the other native species of each region.

Then he prophesies two scenarios, one pessimistic and the other optimistic. He thinks, based on what he could see in 1993, that the optimistic scenario was the more likely. But he says that if population and industrial growth, urbanization, cultural homogenization, corporate conglomeration, consumerism, military spending and mechanism of agriculture continue to increase much beyond 2020, “it becomes a fairly easy job to predict the fate of species and habitats on Earth.” What will prevail under this ‘unlikely’ scenario, he says, is “the weeds, the pests and the vermin… the resilient species, the species of upheaval, the ones we do not like and which are not good for us”. The explosion of information and the Internet will have limited impact because most of this information, he says, is simply not useful, and because information alone is insufficient to bring about change in culture, behaviour and institutions.

Even back in 1993 he could see the future of the US: “The American empire, while nominally intact, has been taken over by its creditors as the US sinks into a bottomless pit of debt”. Barring a change in human cultural direction in the next 25 years there will have to be “disintegration of the extremely complicated and finicky economic, industrial, social and political structure…supported by resources, especially petroleum, that are waning, and by an environmental and cultural legacy we foolishly took for granted, squandered and lost”, initially evidenced by “a global economic collapse”.

“It is like a massive flywheel, spinning too fast for its size and construction, coming apart in chunks as it spins”. This is the Long Emergency, the Slow Crash, the Fourth Turning that twelve years later other writers are describing in greater and surer detail than Ehrenfeld could in 1993. What follows is an astonishing (coming from someone who makes such a fetish of brutal honesty and unemotional objectivity) heartfelt rant:

There goes a chunk — the sick and aged along with the huge apparatus of doctors, social workers, hospitals, nursing homes, drug companies, and manufacturers of sophisticated medical equipment, which service their clients at enormous cost but don’t help them very much.

There go the college students along with the VPs, provosts, deans and professors who have nor prepared them for life in a changing world after formal schooling is over. There go the high school and elementary school students, along with the parents, administrators and frustrated teachers who have turned the majority of schools into costly, stagnant and violent babysitting services.

There go the lawyers and their hapless clients in a dust cloud of the ten billion codes, rules and regulations that were produced to organize and control an increasingly intricate, unorganizable and uncontrollable society.

There go the economists with their worthless pretentious predictions and systems, along with the unemployed, the impoverished and the displaced who reaped the consequences of theories and schemes with faulty premises and indecent objectives. There go the engineers, designers and technologists, along with the people stuck with the deadly buildings, roads, power plants, dams and machinery that are the experts’ monuments.

There go the advertising hucksters with their consumer goods, and there go the consumers, consumed with their consumption. And there go the media pundits and pollsters, along with all those unfortunates who wasted precious time listening to them explain why the flywheel could never come apart, or tell how to patch it even while increasing its crazy rate of spin.

The most terrifying thing about this disintegration for a society that believes in prediction and control will be the randomness of its violent consequences. The chaotic violence will include not only desperate ruthless struggles over the wealth that remains, but the last great rape of nature. What will make it worse is that, at least at the beginning, it will take place under a cloud of denial and cynical reassurances.

It is not hard to see 9/11 and Katrina as “chunks” of this inept, massive flywheel. It is not hard to see Chernobyl, Bhopal, Rwanda, and Darfur as chunks, either: “In the undeveloped world, many of these processes of decline are already well underway with brutal effect.”

But you want to hear about the other scenario, right? The optimistic one that Ehrenfeld believes is more likely?

This second alternative is a transformation of the dream of progress to one of honesty, resilience, appreciation of beauty and scale, and stability, based in part on the inventive imitation of nature… It will be advanced by countless people working separately and in small groups, sharing only a common dream of life. They will tend to be flexible, inventive and pragmatic, and most will have practical skills — carpentry, the building of windmills and small bridges, design and repair of engines and computers, the recognition and care of soils, the ability to teach. Nature will have entered their lives at an early age and will remain as a source of joy. They will welcome the challenge of the world that Orwell hoped for, a simpler, harder world. They will devote their first energies to the places where they live.

Well, maybe. I take some consolation from a growing awareness that, despite protestations from all sides to the contrary, it is apparent that no one is in control, no one knows what is going on. So this is not a political battle against power, but more like a game of dodge ball, where the objective is to be one of the few with the resilience, the intelligence, the new world survival skills and the passion to evade the flying chunks of the flywheel we call civilization, and, with the benefit of knowledge of what did not work, to begin again.

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2 Responses to Beginning Again

  1. Richard Albury says:

    Breathtaking. I don’t know why more people don’t feel this fierce and stubborn love for the world and for each other, the hope that the future will bring real improvement in the human condition for all people, the determination to see it through despite the difficulty, the willingness to set aside personal gain for the greater good.

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