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About ecological intelligence and facewash


The Slate headline on July 20 was rather ominous:

Earth’s Most Famous Climate Scientist Issues Bombshell Sea Level Warning 

James Hansen, NASA’s former lead climate scientist, heading a study group of 16 colleagues, now fears that glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica will melt 10 times faster than previous estimates, resulting in sea level rise of at least 10 feet in as little as 50 years. We conclude that continued high emissions will make multi-meter sea level rise practically unavoidable and likely to occur this century. Social disruption and economic consequences of such large sea level rise could be devastating. It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization.

On August 5 Rolling Stone echoed his warning and summed up several equally worrisome facts: The Point of No Return: Climate Change Nightmares Are Already Here

The worst predicted impacts of climate change are starting to happen — and much faster than climate scientists expected. The article points to record-setting heat waves in Pakistan and India that each killed more than 1,000 people and to the fact that the rain forest in Washington State caught fire for the first time in living memory. In California, suffering from its worst drought in a millennium, a 50-acre brush fire swelled seventy-fold in a matter of hours, jumping across the I-15 freeway during rush-hour traffic. Then, a few days later, the region was pounded by intense, virtually unheard-of summer rains. 

These are certainly all issues of such magnitude that they could make you lose a lot of sleep over them but last week I stumbled upon a news item that scared the living daylight out of me. I really thought I was fully aware that plastic is an environmental disaster of the highest order. Muriel has been on the barricades for two decades fighting the use of plastic bags on Bali and for some five years I have been reading up on the Great Pacific garbage patch. It is estimated that plastic bags and water bottles take up to 400 years to disintegrate.  Then, what caught my eye on was the headline

This Earth Day, Ditch the Microbeads for Wildlife’s Sake

It turns out that a few years ago, major cosmetics and hygiene product manufacturers devised a way to make facial wash products even more refreshing. Tiny plastic microbeads were added to increase abrasion and exfoliation. These microbeads proved to be popular with the consumer public and soon found their way into hand soap and even toothpaste. The problem is in their small size and the long life span of polyethylene or polypropylene plastics. Municipal water treatment facilities are not equipped to filter such small pollutants out of the water and in the end the microbeads flow unimpeded into our streams, lakes and rivers. The beads look like food to fish and amphibians, but because of the chemicals used to manufacture them as well as the pollutants they absorb in the water, including DDT and poly-chlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), they are highly toxic to living organisms. When the smaller creatures that eat the beads get eaten by larger animals, the particles make their way up through the food chain, eventually making their way to humans…I could not help wondering who came up with this madcap idea in the first place.

Although the saying goes that ignorance is bliss and sometimes it is better not to know things, from Muriel’s library I picked up Ecological Intelligence by Daniel Goleman. (Penguin Books 2010) Ecological Intelligence examines the environmental, social, and health consequences of everyday consumer choices and Goleman makes a long plea for what he calls radical transparency

When it comes to the full cost of ecological ignorance in the market place, we endorse the vital lie that what we don’t know or what we don’t see does not matter. In fact our indifference to the sum total of what we buy and do, and our unexamined habits as consumers drive a vast number of threats to the environment and to health….Today’s threats demand that we hone a new sensibility, the capacity to recognize the hidden web of connections between human activity and nature’ systems and the subtle complexities of their intersections…

We face an evolutionary impasse: the ways of thinking that in the ancient past guided our innate ecological intelligence were well suited to the harsh realities of prehistory. It was enough that we had a natural urge to gobble as many sugars and fats as we could find to fatten ourselves against the next famine, sufficient that our olfactory brain would ensure that toxins triggered nausea and disgust in response to spoiled food, and that our neural alarm circuits made us run from predators. That hardwired savvy brought our species to the threshold of civilization.

But ensuing centuries have blunted the survival skills of the billions of individuals who live amid modern technologies….Any of us may excel in a narrow range, but we all depend on the skills of experts –farmers, software engineers, nutritionists, mechanics- to make life work for us…Each one of us needs the help of others to navigate the complexities of ecological intelligence. We need to collaborate.    

Goleman argues that our ‘green’ thinking about hazards, like toxins in toys, threats like global warming, and the impacts of the stuff that we manufacture, distribute, consume, and discard has been one-dimensional, focusing on a single problem in isolation from everything else. He suggests that we make the effort to understand the adverse consequences of the products of modern society in three interlocking realms: the geosphere of soil, air, water and climate, the biosphere of our bodies, those of other species and plant life, and the sociosphere of human concerns such as conditions of workers.

While carbon footprints are relatively easily calculated and satisfy some concerns about climate change, the scope of environmental impacts from a product goes far beyond carbon use. This means assessing a product over the full course of its life cycle, from manufacture (and even before that to the origins of its components and extraction or creation of its ingredients) to disposal. The complexities are indeed staggering. There can be fifty or more ingredients in a bottle of shampoo, and the same goes for the type of plastic in a bottle. The ecosystem within our bodies involves immensely complicated interactions between our genes and the everyday industrial chemicals we take in through what we eat, breathe and touch…


Goleman laments the phenomenon of greenwashing. Take the claims that can’t be supported such as household lamps that trumpet ‘energy efficiency’ on their packaging without the least shred of supporting evidence. Or claims that are simply too vague, like ‘eco-conscious’ shampoo, or poorly defined, like ‘chemical-free’ insecticide. (No product is free of chemicals altogether so what kinds of chemicals does this label refer to?)…Greenwashing pollutes the data available to consumers, gumming up the market place efficiency by pawning off misleading information to get us to buy things that do not deliver on their promise…  

The author then makes the case that by boosting ecological intelligence through this concept of radical transparency’, companies will incrementally shift their practices, moving our society toward sustainability and changing things for the better.

The remedy for a vital lie is always to face the truth it obscures. In our consumer purchases the truth takes the form of the countless hidden impacts that the things we buy have during their manufacture, their use and their disposal. At present we are largely blind to those consequences…Radical transparency offers a way to unleash the latent potential of the free market to drive the changes we must make, by mobilizing consumers and executives to use data to make more virtuous decisions…For companies radical transparency can create a vibrant new competitive playing ground, one where doing the right thing also means doing better…  

Goleman introduces Dara O’ Rourke, the industrial ecologist and founder of GoodGuide as the person who is leading the charge in the arena of radical transparency. is a comprehensive, authoritative resource for information about the health, environmental and social performance of consumer products and companies.  GoodGuide has evaluated 250,000 products and now even offers an iPhone app that enables consumers to retrieve ratings of products and allows them to make informed choices at the point of sale, based on their own preferred filters of social, ecological and/or health concerns.

The subtitle of the book is The Coming Age of Radical Transparency and on the back cover the Financial Times calls it refreshingly optimistic. Personally I am ready to believe things when I see them happen but I am not from the tribe of serious optimists. I remain a pessimist, albeit one with a smile on his face (and in the interest of full disclosure, I use Sensodyne cool gel toothpaste).

The World until Yesterday


In the prologue Jared Diamond comes as usual straight to the point. This is a small book about a big subject: potentially all aspects of human culture, of all peoples around the world, for the last 11,000 years. Yet the subtitle of the book makes perfectly clear what his real purpose was when he set out to write a sequel to ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ and ‘Collapse’: What can we learn from traditional societies?
In eleven chapters Diamond discusses nine topics through which we may find potential lessons both for individuals and for society as a whole.
Traditional societies represent thousands of millennia long natural experiments in organizing human lives. We can’t repeat those experiments by redesigning thousands of societies today in order to wait decades and observe the outcome; we have to learn from the societies that already ran the experiments. When we learn about features of traditional life some of them are ones that we feel relieved to be rid of, and that make us appreciate our own societies better….
When we learn about traditional dispute resolution, child-rearing, treatment of the elderly, alertness to dangers and routine multilingualism, we may also decide that some of those traditional features would be desirable and feasible for us to incorporate.
In part one Diamond discusses the boundaries and concludes that traditional societies of the past behaved like tiny nations. They maintained their own territories, visited and received visitors from the outside and defended and patrolled boundaries as rigorously as do modern nations. However they were far more restricted in their knowledge of the outside world than are citizens of modern nations. Therefore they divided other peoples sharply into friends, enemies and strangers. They intermarried and traded with outsiders but political and social motives played an even larger role in these relationships than they do in ours. Generally speaking in traditional societies the networks of social relationships tend to be more important and longer lasting than in western state societies.
Part two deals with PEACE AND WAR and comprises three chapters on dispute resolution.
In the absence of centralized state governments and their judiciaries, traditional small-scale societies resolve disputes in either one of two ways, one of which is more conciliatory, the other more violent than dispute resolution in state societies….If a dispute in a small scale society is not resolved peacefully between the participants the alternative is violence or war because there is no state justice to intervene.
Justice in traditional societies tends to be the do-it-yourself variety arranged by the disputants themselves and by their respective supporters and focuses on compensation rather than retribution. The re-establishment of the relationship between individuals and their clans is more important than establishing someone’s guilt or negligence. Punishment is not the main issue.
The flip side of that overriding emphasis on social networks in traditional societies is our greater emphasis on the individual in modern state societies, especially in the United States. We not only permit, we actually encourage individuals to advance themselves, to win, and to gain advantage at the expense of others…Even children’s games in the U.S. commonly are contests of winning and losing. That is not so in traditional New Guinea society, where children’s play involves cooperation rather than winning and losing
The overriding goal of modern state justice is to maintain society’s stability by providing an established and mandatory alternative to do-it-yourself justice. Western justice is essentially a system to determine right and wrong according to a state’s laws. Diamond accentuates the difference by quoting Chief Justice Robert Yazzle of the Navajo nation, one of the largest native communities of North America:
Western adjudication is a search for what happened and who did it; Navajo peace –making is about the effect of what happened. Who got hurt? What do they feel about it? What can be done to repair the harm?
Diamond dedicates a short chapter to what he calls a ‘tiny war’, a series of battles and raids between different bands of New Guinea’s Dani people, who live in the densely populated Grand Valley of the Baliem River , as it was actually observed and even filmed by anthropologists from Harvard University in 1961. Among the Dani tribal warfare is a frequent occurrence.
Boys are trained already in childhood to fight, and to expect to be attacked. It is important to enlist allies, but alliances shift frequently…..Warfare involves the whole population rather than just a professional army of adult men…Military efficiency is low by the standards of modern warfare, as a result of the availability of only short-range weapons , weak leadership, simple plans, lack of group military training, and lack of synchronized firing. However because warfare is chronic, it has omnipresent consequences for people’s behavior. Finally absolute death tolls are inevitably low from the small size of the populations involved, compared to the populations of modern nations, but relative death tolls as a proportion of the population are high.
Diamond then dedicates a longer chapter about the many wars that have been and are still being fought by state governments. He discusses the different forms of warfare, the mortality rates, and the difficulties of ending warfare but there is no great lesson to be learned from the Dani in the Papua Highlands, who mainly fight their wars over women and pigs and often personally know their opponents.
The taunts that Dani warriors shouted at each other in the battles included personal insults…Readers of the Iliad will recall how opposing Greek and Trojan leaders addressed each other by name before attempting to kill each other in battle – a famous example the speeches of Hector and Achilles to each other just before Achilles fatally wounded Hector.
This may be a small book about a big subject but while Jared Diamond applies a wonderfully wide-angled view to history he does focus very precisely on the essential elements of our human existence and to me the most important lessons are in part three of this book that deals with YOUNG AND OLD, bringing up children and the treatment of old people. There are so many valuable lessons here that I find it impossible to summarize the substance into a few sentences. I must urge you to buy the book. You may end up to purchase several copies and give them away to your friends.
In the course of a thorough comparison of current child-rearing practices in western countries against those in traditional societies Diamond first discusses the differences in weaning and birth interval, the on-demand nursing and the infant-adult contacts of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
In hunter-gatherer groups in which nursing has been specifically studied it is often “on demand”. That is, the infant has constant access to the mother’s breast, is held in contact with the mother during the day, sleeps with the mother at night, and can nurse at any time it wants, whether or not the mother is awake….Nursing hunter-gatherer mothers usually do not conceive for several years after a child’s birth, even if the mother resumes sexual activity. Evidently something about on-demand nursing acts as a contraceptive….
When moving around, nomadic hunter gatherer mothers had to carry an under-three-year old child, probably a load of wild vegetables, several ponds of water plus some utensils as well, so it was physically impossible to care for more than one child less than two years old simultaneously.
A cross cultural sample of 90 traditional societies identified not a single one with mother and infant sleeping in separate rooms…virtually all infants in human history until the last few thousand years did sleep in the same bed with the mother and usually also with the father…
One of the commonest Western devices for transporting the child is the stroller which provides no physical contact between baby and the care giver. In many strollers the infant is nearly horizontal and sometimes facing backwards. Hence the baby does not see the world as the caregiver sees the world…In contrast, traditional carrying devices such as slings, or holding a child on one’s shoulders, usually place the child vertically upright, facing forward, and seeing the same world that the care giver sees…raising-kids-the-primitive-way
The investment of fathers in caring for their offspring varies greatly among animal species and among human societies there is also much variation in the involvement of fathers, partly related to a society’s subsistence ecology. Paternal involvement is highest in societies in which women spend time obtaining most of the food.
While in modern Western societies a child‘s parents are typically by far its dominant care givers in hunter-gatherer bands others are involved within the first hour after birth.
Newborn Aka and Efe infants are passed from hand to hand around the campfire, from one adult or older child to another, to be kissed, bounced, and sung to and spoken to in words that they cannot possibly understand….Hunter-gatherer mothers share care of infants with fathers and grandparents, aunts, great aunts, other adults and older siblings…Thus a major difference between small-scale societies and large state societies is that responsibility for children becomes widely diffused beyond the child’s parents in the small scale societies.
Philosophies about how to respond to crying infants differ among western countries and differ from generation to generation within the same country but it will come as surprise to most people that observers of children in hunter-gatherer societies commonly report that if an infant begins crying, the parents practice is to respond immediately…
Related to the debates about spoiling a child by promptly responding to its crying are the familiar debates about spoiling a child by avoiding punishing it…
As for variation between contemporary neighboring societies consider Western Europe today. Sweden forbids spankings; a Swedish parent who spanks a child can be charged with the criminal offense of child abuse. In contrast, many of my educated liberal German and British friends and American evangelical Christian friends believe that it is better to spank a child than not to spank….Describing the practices in traditional societies Diamond notes that there does seem to be a broad trend: hunter-gatherer bands do minimal physical punishment of young children, many farming societies do some punishment and herders are especially likely to punish.

A typical hunter-gatherer band numbering around 30 people will on the average contain only about a dozen pre-adolescent kids, of both sexes and various ages. Hence it I impossible to assemble separate age-cohort playgroups, each with many children as is characteristic of large societies. Instead all children in the band form a single multi-age playgroup of both sexes…


In such groups both the older and the younger children gain from being together. The young children gain from being socialized not only by adults but also by older children, while the older children acquire experience in caring for younger children. That experience gained by older children contributes to explaining how hunter-gatherers can become confident parents already as teenagers. While Western societies have plenty of teen-aged parents, especially unwed teenagers, western teenagers are suboptimal parents because of inexperience. However, in a small society, the teenagers who become parents will already have been taking care of children for many years.

In addition Diamond points out that generally speaking people in small time societies spend far more time talking to each other than we do and spend no time at all on passive entertainment such as television, smartphones or books. They are forced to start honing their social skills from an early age and the adolescent identity crises that plague Western teenagers are not an issue for hunter-gatherer children.
In Chapter 6 Diamond discusses the Treatment of Old People and accentuates the choices starkly in three single words: Cherish, Abandon or Kill?
Obviously there is no universal definition of the age at which one becomes ‘old’. It varies among societies and with one’s personal perspective. In most countries that Diamond describes by the acronym WEIRD, (that is: Western, educated, rich and democratic) the government generally defines old age as beginning at age 65 but the author juxtaposes his personal perspective as follows:
When I was in my teens, I looked up to people in their late 20s as being seemingly at their peak of life and wisdom, people in their 30s as already middle aged, and anyone from 60 onward as old. Now that I am 75 years old I regard my 60s and early 70s as the peak of my own life, and old age as likely to start sometime around 85 or 90, depending on my health. In rural New Guinea however, where relatively few people reach the age of 60, even 50 year-olds are regarded as old.
Diamond extensively describes the harsh realities in nomadic hunter-gatherer bands where old people become a serious handicap endangering the whole group’s safety to the point of being neglected, abandoned, or worse. This represents a moral choice that has not entirely disappeared in modern times.
In fact many of you readers of this book have endured or will endure a similar ordeal when you find yourself forced to decide whether to tell the physician caring for palliative care.
Yet even in many traditional societies the elderly do remain useful. One important service they render is babysitting, which frees their children and children-in-law to spend more time foraging or hunting. Usually the elderly are also skilled in making tools, weapons, baskets, pots and woven textiles.
Other areas in which abilities grow with age include medicine, religion, entertainment, relationships, and politics. Traditional medicine men and midwives are often old, as are magicians and priests, prophets and sorcerers, and the leaders of songs, games, dances and initiation rites. Pre-literate societies must rely on human memory so old people are the main repositories of information.
Compared to the status of the elderly in traditional societies older people today enjoy on average longer lives, better health and far less grief from deaths of their children than at
Life expectancy averaged over 26 First World countries is 79 years, with the highest expectancy of 84 years in Japan – approximately double the value in traditional societies…
The problem for society as a whole is to use older people for what they are good at and like to do, rather than requiring them to continue to put in the 60 hour work weeks of ambitious young workers, or else of going to the opposite extreme of stupidly imposing mandatory retirement at some arbitrary age (as remains regrettably widespread in Europe. The challenge for older people themselves I to be introspective, to notice the changes in themselves, and to find work utilizing the talent that they now possess.

Part Four deals with DANGER AND RESPONSE and if you believe that it is a real risk that you would become the victim of a terrorist attack yourself you should definitely read what Diamond has to say about ‘constructive paranoia’.

Part Five deals with RELIGION LANGUAGE AND HEALTH and if you are intrigued about the heading of chapter nine: “What Electric Eels Tell Us About the Evolution of Religion” you should definitely read this book.
The heading of chapter ten is “Speaking in Many Tongues”. If that happens to be your thing, as it is mine, Diamond’s reflections on the multilingualism in traditional societies will cheer you up, as may reading about the reports that life-long bilingualism seems to protect against Alzheimer symptoms.
Chapter eleven deals with “Salt, Sugar, Fat and Sloth”. No good, cut down on the first three and do not indulge in the fourth. This article is already much longer than I intended it to be so I shall not repeat what Diamond says about hypertension and diabetes.

Yet I am pleased to finalize by reporting that I have reverted to a sleeping habit similar to the rhythm of our pre-electricity ancestors. First sleep nine to twelve; second sleep one to five; a good nap in the afternoon. I can recommend this to everyone.

How the environment molded history


Over the years I have had to buy four copies of “Guns, Germs and Steel”. When good old friends come to visit and the discussion seriously turns to issues of a philosophical nature it still happens that some do not yet know his work and invariably I end up giving my own book away. I am doing this for a good reason. Jared Diamond is one of the most important scholars of our time and I dare to say that his books should be compulsory material in every department of every University on the planet.

We live in an era that the word University has lost its original meaning and as far as I know there is no longer any syllabus anywhere on the planet that even remotely comes close to include ‘the whole of human knowledge combined into one’. Nowadays institutions of higher education turn out what I call ‘expertologists’, people who know absolutely everything within a narrow field but are myopic laymen in most other sciences. In this environment Jared Diamond is an extremely rare bird (and as an ornithologist he is unlikely to be offended by this classification). Some have called him the Charles Darwin of our time because his work offers great insight into a wide field of multiple disciplines from archaeology to zoology. While the discipline of history is generally not considered to be a science but something closer to the humanities, Jared Diamond convincingly makes a difference by approaching history with near-scientific precision and concentrating on the underlying factors to the broadest patterns of human history. In his analysis he brilliantly touches on the links to evolutionary biology, biophysics, geography, ecology, climatology, cultural anthropology, sociology and linguistics. Yet throughout he remains a classic scholar in the Socratic tradition who formulates key questions and then sets out to answer them.

 Why did one species of primate, unremarkable until 70,000 years ago, come to develop language, art, music, nation states and space travel? Why did history unfold differently on different continents? Why did Europeans conquer the Americas, Africa and Australia, instead of the other way around?

 I have been a history buff all my life but when I first read Guns, Germs and Steel, I came to the conclusion that I had lived some forty years in an unfortunate cultural ‘wilderness’ that divided the human past in history and pre-history. I had studied history in the mold of Arnold Toynbee where everything begins with the ‘rise of civilization’ and primarily focuses on the advanced literate Eurasian civilizations of the past 5000 years. The emergence of writing around 3200 BCE most certainly was a key turning point in our common past but it was not something that fell from the sky and neither was the wheel.

The subtitle of the book is ‘a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years,’ and Diamond first condenses into a single short chapter what probably happened from the time some seven million years ago that evolutionary human history began, as something separate from the history of our closest living relatives, the great apes. He mentions that the fossil record indicates how the evolutionary line leading to modern man had achieved a substantially upright posture about four million years ago but shies away from making definite claims about the earliest proto-humans or when Homo erectus evolved into Homo sapiens. Importantly however, he does hypothesize that sometime between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago small evolutionary anatomical changes in the larynx and the human tongue may have triggered the emergence of human language, which in turn may have led to changes in the neural wiring of our brain. He further mentions as an important milestone, the time some 50,000 years ago, that he calls the Great Leap Forward when there are signs of standardized stone tools and the first preserved jewelry in the form of ostrich shell beads. In his view the Neanderthals were not a separate species of apelike brutes living in caves. Diamond emphasizes they had brains slightly larger than our own and left behind evidence that they were burying the dead and caring for the sick.

 A suitable starting point from which to compare historical developments on the different continents is around 11,000 BC. This date corresponds approximately to the beginnings of village life in a few parts of the world, the first undisputed peopling of the Americas, the end of the Pleistocene era and the last Ice Age, and the start of what geologists term the Recent Era. Plant and animal domestication began in at least one part of the world within a few thousand years from that date.

The central tenet of Guns, Germs and Steel is that history followed different courses for different peoples because of the differences in their environment and not because there were any significant biological differences between these peoples. Civilization was not the result of any superior intelligence, but the outcome of a set of preconditions.

For most of the time since the ancestors of modern humans diverged from the ancestors of the living great apes all humans on earth fed themselves exclusively by hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants. What changed the world was food production. Agriculture first arose in the Middle East about 8500 BC because that is where the wild plants were found that people first successfully managed to domesticate, such as emmer wheat, peas and olives. It is also where sheep and goats were found, the animals that turned out to be the easiest to domesticate. Farmers and herders can feed many more people than hunters and gatherers and it was food production that led to population growth, to the development of complex societies, to literacy, technology and eventually to advanced civilizations. Europe and the Middle East had good soil, plenty of easily domesticable animals and plants, and a main axis running east-west, instead of north-south, meaning that crops, livestock and tools could spread easily, unhindered by big changes in climate or day length.

Diamond convincingly argues that Eurasian civilization was not the result of ingenuity, but of opportunity and necessity. Europe was able to grow a level of food production that allowed the emergence of political states with great military power. The transformation of warfare by horses began with their domestication around 4000 BC in the steppes north of the Black Sea. On horseback people could cover far greater distances than others on foot, attack by surprise and flee before a superior defending force could be gathered. Over the centuries Europeans developed guns and greatly improved maritime technology. In fact, the title of the book serves as shorthand for the underlying factors that enabled modern Europeans to conquer peoples of other continents. Over time humans living among farm animals had developed immunity to the diseases these animals carried. By the time they encountered other societies, their military power, metal tools and, above all, their deadly germs gave them the decisive advantage.

The importance of lethal microbes in human history is well illustrated by the European conquest and depopulation of the New World. Far more Native Americans died in bed from Eurasian germs than on the battlefield from European guns and swords…For instance, in 1519 Cortes landed on the coast of Mexico with 600 Spaniards to conquer the fiercely militaristic Aztec Empire with a population of many millions…What gave the Spanish a decisive advantage was smallpox, which reached Mexico in 1520 with one infected slave arriving from Spanish Cuba. The resulting epidemic proceeded to kill nearly half of the Aztecs, including Emperor Cuitláhuac.

Like Darwin, Diamond has his critics. Some traditional historians resent the notion that individuals did not play conclusive roles in the grand sweep of historical affairs, but accidents of geography and environment brought about the domination of whites of Eurasian origin. Those who see history in a framework of dynasties, successions, treaties and alliances, object that he only deals with Alexander of Macedonia in a few separate paragraphs and does not even mention Genghis Khan at all.

However Diamond does devote an entire chapter to what he calls ‘the collision at Cajamarca’ when Pizarro, leading a ragtag group of 168 Spanish soldiers faced Atahuallpa, the Inca Emperor who commanded an army of 80,000.

Pizarro’s military advantages lay in the Spaniards’ steel swords and other weapons, steel armor, guns and horses. To those weapons, Atahuallpa’s troops, without animals on which to ride into battle, could oppose only stone, bronze, or wooden clubs, maces and hand axes, plus slingshots and quilted armor. Such imbalances of equipment were decisive in innumerable other confrontations of Europeans with Native Americans and other peoples. 

Nowadays I keep Guns, Germs and Steel on my desk and I use it frequently when I need a refresher on some of those typical questions like how China became Chinese or how Africa became black…with Jared Diamond you never stop learning… 

How societies choose to fail or succeed


Whenever someone asks for a suggestion of study material in the realm of sustainability my advice is to read “COLLAPSE” published in 2005 as a follow-up to “Guns, Germs and Steel”. In Guns, Germs and Steel Jared Diamond primarily explores the factors contributing to a society’s rise, but in “Collapse” he focuses on the downfalls. He examines in detail how several civilizations came to an end and he comes to the conclusion that more often than not humans were playing a role by ignoring the realities of their natural environment. In case after case, Diamond describes how a combination of factors, such as deforestation, fragile ecosystems, climatic change, hostile neighbors and, ultimately, bad decision making, led to societies driving themselves over the cliff. The question Diamond asks is: What can be learned from history that could help us avoid joining the ranks of those who declined swiftly?

We must expect the answers to be complex, because historical reality is complex: while some societies did indeed collapse spectacularly, others have managed to thrive for thousands of years without major reversal. When it comes to historical collapses, five groups of interacting factors have been especially important: the damage that people have inflicted on their environment; climate change; enemies; changes in friendly trading partners; and the society’s political, economic and social responses to these shifts. That’s not to say that all five causes play a role in every case. Instead, think of this as a useful checklist of factors that should be examined, but whose relative importance varies from case to case. For instance, in the collapse of the Polynesian society on Easter Island three centuries ago, environmental problems were dominant, and climate change, enemies and trade were insignificant; however, the latter three factors played big roles in the disappearance of the medieval Norse colonies on Greenland.

Deforestation was a bigger factor in the breakdown of societies than commonly understood. Because trees take so long to regrow, deforestation has more severe consequences than crop failure, and can trigger disastrous erosion.To illustrate this Diamond devotes an entire chapter to Easter Island as the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by exhausting its own resources.

Easter Island is one of the most remote places on Earth. The nearest land is the coast of Chile 2,300 miles to the East and the nearest island is Pitcairn at 1,300 miles to the West, at the very least a two and a half week journey in a sailing canoe.  At the tail end of the Austronesian and Polynesian migration into the Pacific it was effectively at the end of the world and from the moment the Polynesian sailors had arrived, which is estimated to have been around 900 AD, the colonists probably remained without any contact with outsiders until the island was sighted by Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen on Easter Day of 1722 (April 5th). The island that Roggeveen found was a wasteland without a single tree or bush over 10 feet tall and he mentions in his logbook that the islanders’ only watercraft were small and leaky canoes, no more than 10 feet long and capable of carrying only two persons. He found a population of only a couple of thousand people and was baffled by the question how these islanders without any access to long and heavy timbers or any materials to make ropes could have erected the giant statues dotting the shoreline. He mentions there were no domestic animals larger than chickens.

The explanation of this mystery as it has now emerged, includes evidence unearthed by archaeologists and paleontologists that for hundreds of thousands of years before human arrival Easter was not at all a barren wasteland but a subtropical forest of tall trees and woody bushes. Excavations of garbage deposits have yielded evidence about the diet and lifestyle of Easter’s early colonists. The island has a rugged shoreline that drops off steeply without coral reefs so there were few places to catch fish by net or hand line in shallow water. The primary food source was the common dolphin, a porpoise that lives in deeper water out at sea and could only be harpooned offshore in big seaworthy canoes built from tall trees.

There is no indication that the early settlers brought any dogs or pigs but in all likelihood they carried the seeds of several Polynesian crops. However the new environment did pose several challenges. Some tropical crops that are important elsewhere in Polynesia, such as coconuts, grow poorly in the cooler climate and the surrounding ocean is too cold for coral reefs and the associated fish and shell fish. Clearly there were fewer food sources available to the Easter Islanders than to the inhabitants of other Pacific Islands. In addition they found that rainfall on Easter is much lower than elsewhere in Polynesia and the rain that does fall percolates quickly into the volcanic soil so freshwater supplies were limited. It was necessary to create water diversion systems but in the end the colonists did manage to develop intensive agriculture with large scale plantations that produced sufficient food surplus for a rapidly growing populace. The community thrived and it is estimated that at its peak the population of Easter came to about 15,000.

As elsewhere in Polynesia the society was divided into chiefs and commoners. Both oral traditions and archaeological surveys suggest that over the centuries the society divided into twelve clans, each with its own territory and its own chief. Each clan had its own ceremonial platform on which statues were erected. The clans competed by seeking to outdo each other in building larger platforms with bigger statues. In itself that followed an existing Polynesian tradition. Similar platforms with temples, shrines and statues are found elsewhere in Eastern Polynesia and the architecture on Easter Island differs mainly from other islands in the platforms and statues being larger and not supporting a temple. Apparently the exercise became an obsession to the Easter Island chiefs and today, scattered around the quarry where the giant statues were carved, there are still 397 of them, in all stages of completion, mostly between 15 and 20 feet tall, but the largest measures 70 feet and weighs 270 tons. It is self-evident that the scale of the operation to carve these statues in a quarry up in the volcano, transport them to the waterfront and finally erect them on to a platform required a huge work force. Feeding these people was a feat made possible by food surpluses produced in the upland plantations that were controlled by the chiefs.Comparison of early garbage deposits from the days of the first settlers with later ones reveals big changes in those initial bountiful food sources. Apart from porpoises, fish, shellfish, land and sea birds the early settlers had a varied diet including seal and turtle. In the later stages porpoises and open ocean fish like tuna completely disappear from the islanders’ diet. Diamond writes:

All those delicacies were cooked over firewood that can be identified as having come from Easter’s subsequently vanished forests. Charcoal samples from pre-historic ovens prove directly that the giant palm and all other now- extinct trees disappeared because they were burned as firewood. The trees were also being burned to cremate bodies: Easter crematoria contain remains of thousands of bodies and huge amounts of human bone ash, implying massive fuel consumption for the purpose of cremation…..Forest clearance began soon after human arrival, reached its peak around 1400 and was virtually complete by dates that vary locally between the early 1400s and the 1600s…..The overall picture for Easter is the most extreme example of forest destruction in the Pacific, and among the most extreme in the world: the whole forest gone and all of its tree species extinct. Lack of large timber and rope brought an end to the transport and erection of statues, and also to the construction of seagoing canoes.

Once the island was stripped of its trees it allowed the wind to blow off the thin topsoil and the further consequences included starvation, a population crash and eventually a descent into cannibalism…Diamond juxtaposes the history of Easter Island with the 500 year colonization of Greenland by the Norse and in his conclusion the Viking leaders were equally blind to their own ultimate fate. His rundown on the Maya civilization is similarly to the point and in a letter that Diamond wrote to the New York Times he summarizes his conclusions:

Maya Native Americans of the Yucatan Peninsula and adjacent parts of Central America developed the New World’s most advanced civilization before Columbus. They were innovators in writing, astronomy, architecture and art. From local origins around 2,500 years ago, Maya societies rose especially after the year A.D. 250, reaching peaks of population and sophistication in the late 8th century.

Thereafter, societies in the most densely populated areas of the southern Yucatan underwent a steep political and cultural collapse: between 760 and 910, kings were overthrown, large areas were abandoned, and at least 90 percent of the population disappeared, leaving cities to become overgrown by jungle. The last known date recorded on a Maya monument by their so-called Long Count calendar corresponds to the year 909. What happened?

A major factor was environmental degradation by people: deforestation, soil erosion and water management problems, all of which resulted in less food. Those problems were exacerbated by droughts, which may have been partly caused by humans themselves through deforestation. Chronic warfare made matters worse, as more and more people fought over less and less land and resources.

Why weren’t these problems obvious to the Maya kings, who could surely see their forests vanishing and their hills becoming eroded? Part of the reason was that the kings were able to insulate themselves from problems afflicting the rest of society. By extracting wealth from commoners, they could remain well fed while everyone else was slowly starving. What’s more, the kings were preoccupied with their own power struggles. They had to concentrate on fighting one another and keeping up their images through ostentatious displays of wealth. By insulating themselves in the short run from the problems of society, the elite merely bought themselves the privilege of being among the last to starve.

But before we let ourselves get depressed, we should also remember that there is another long list of cultures that have managed to prosper for lengthy periods of time. Societies in Japan, Tonga, the New Guinea Highlands and Central and Northwest Europe, for example, have all found ways to sustain themselves. What separates the lost cultures from those that survived? Why did the Maya fail and the shogun succeed?

Half of the answer involves environmental differences: geography deals worse cards to some societies than to others. Many of the societies that collapsed had the misfortune to occupy dry, cold or otherwise fragile environments, while many of the long-term survivors enjoyed more robust and fertile surroundings. But it’s not the case that a congenial environment guarantees success: some societies (like the Maya) managed to ruin lush environments, while other societies – like the Incas, the Inuit, Icelanders and desert Australian Aborigines – have managed to carry on in some of the earth’s most daunting environments.

The other half of the answer involves differences in a society’s responses to problems. Ninth-century New Guinea Highland villagers, 16th-century German landowners, and the Tokugawa shoguns of 17th-century Japan all recognized the deforestation spreading around them and solved the problem, either by developing scientific reforestation (Japan and Germany) or by transplanting tree seedlings (New Guinea). Conversely, the Maya, Mangarevans and Easter Islanders failed to address their forestry problems and so collapsed.

What lessons can we draw from history? The most straightforward: take environmental problems seriously. They destroyed societies in the past, and they are even more likely to do so now.

History also teaches us two deeper lessons about what separates successful societies from those heading toward failure. A society contains a built-in blueprint for failure if the elite insulates itself from the consequences of its actions. That’s why Maya kings, Norse Greenlanders and Easter Island chiefs made choices that eventually undermined their societies. They themselves did not begin to feel deprived until they had irreversibly destroyed their landscape.

In contrast, the elite in 17th-century Japan, as in modern Scandinavia and the Netherlands, could not ignore or insulate themselves from broad societal problems. For instance, the Dutch upper class for hundreds of years has been unable to insulate itself from the Netherlands’ water management problems for a simple reason: the rich live in the same drained lands below sea level as the poor. If the dikes and pumps keeping out the sea fail, the well-off Dutch know that they will drown along with everybody else.

The other deep lesson involves the need to re-examine long-held core values, when conditions change and those values no longer make sense. The medieval Greenland Norse lacked the willingness to do so; they continued to view themselves as transplanted Norwegian pastoralists, and to despise the Inuit as pagan hunters, even after Norway stopped sending trading ships and the climate had grown too cold for a pastoral existence. They died off as a result, leaving Greenland to the Inuit.

While Guns, Germs and Steel was seen as an affront to political correctness by some historians, Collapse was met by indignant mutterings from several expertologists in the field of anthropology who were disconcerted by the logic and common sense in Diamond’s analyses and criticized him for offering what they denounce as a hugely oversimplified view on mankind and history. I shall return to that in my next post about Diamond’s most recent book “The World Until Yesterday”. Its subtitle: What can we learn from traditional societies?  

A rough ride to the future and a policy paper even more uncomfortable with the truth

kevin harnack

This week we read two remarkable publications. The first was a brilliant new book by a 94- year old scientist who remains gifted with an astonishingly agile mind:

The second was a policy paper produced by a global project team of 157 experts in eight leading research institutes. Based on the advice from a 15 member Economics Advisory Panel, they condensed the input from over 100 organizations into a report to the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. The synthesized 72 page version of the report goes by the name BETTER GROWTH, BETTER CLIMATE. The full report will go into history under the name The New Climate Economy, and the collective authors refer to this important milestone in the anthropocene as ‘the flagship project’. We read the short version.

The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate consists of 23 international luminaries, either former heads of government or finance ministers, plus leaders in the fields of economics, business and finance. The report is certainly mandatory reading if you belong to the tribe that makes the yearly pilgrimage to Davos. Its true identity is revealed in the introduction on page 12 where it states as follows:

The question the project has sought to explore is not “how can greenhouse gas emissions be reduced?” but “how can economic decision-makers achieve their principal goals while also reducing their impact on the climate?”
The report does not try to be comprehensive: its focus is on the areas where the relationship between economic growth and climate risk is largest and most pressing. It does not focus on how economies should adapt to the climate change that is already occurring.

Those who remain ideologically devoted to economic growth at all costs will find much to applaud in the consistently optimistic tone in the report and the cheerful talk about the side benefits of ’low-carbon’ policies like lower energy costs, fewer premature deaths from air pollution and reduced medical bills. In long pages full of wishful thinking and self-evident truths we certainly did find some sensible recommendations (and an action plan is better than nothing) but occasionally the suggestions veer into the absurd. Listen to this:

By requiring investors to conduct climate (and wider environmental) risk assessments of their portfolios as part of their fiduciary duty, stock exchanges and financial regulators could drive significant behavior change throughout the global economy.”

Should we laugh-out-loud or cry our eyes out?

It is utterly ridiculous and grossly unfair to everyone, when we compare an international policy paper painstakingly created to offer an acceptable level of consensus across international borders on the contentious subject of climate change with a book that brilliantly summarizes the reflections of a scientist who is the author of several standard works on the subject and who has a fifty year track record of 200 scientific papers in his name.

Lovelock portrait

James Lovelock is without a doubt one of the most influential thinkers of our age. In 1979 he published Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. The Gaia hypothesis proposed that the earth is more than a mere ball of rock and in fact a self-regulating ‘super-organism’ that automatically maintains optimal conditions for life. Today the concept of a living Earth is no longer just hypothesis and although not yet fully embraced by the scientific episcopacy, it is usually referred to as the Gaia Theory and has become an important area of research in biogeochemistry. It is not absurd or inappropriate to compare Lovelock with Darwin. Lovelock, now in his nineties, is an independent scientist who works from home, as did Darwin. Living in the English countryside both were astute observers of nature before they developed their theories. Evolution by natural selection and Gaia were each proposed at a time when the basic ideas were far ahead of the evidence necessary to confirm them. The two theories are plainly related. The best way to understand Gaia is to think about evolution in the widest possible perspective.

In his previous book The Vanishing Face of Gaia published in 2009, Lovelock’s message still had been unambiguously pessimistic: dark clouds were looming on the climate horizon. Our gravest dangers are not from climate change itself, but indirectly from starvation, competition for space and resources, and from tribal war. It has come as a surprise to many that five years later his tone has changed. With habitual candor, in the very first words of the introduction to A Rough Ride to the Future he comes straight to the point: This is not a book about climate change and what we should be doing to improve our carbon footprints. It becomes clear that as a disciplined scientist Lovelock has carefully reviewed the actual observations and he now readily acknowledges that his own earlier warnings may have exaggerated the immediacy of global warming. However he still believes that global warming is equally as inevitable as population growth and tongue-in-cheek reminds us that we are a part of the problem ourselves:  Did you know that as you exhale your breath contains 40,000 parts per million (p.p.m.) of CO2? This is 100 times as much as is in the air and is comparable with the exhaust of your car – and there are 7 billion of us doing it, together with our pets and livestock.

Lovelock convincingly argues that the year 1712 was a crucial turning point in the history of our planet when an English blacksmith by the name of Thomas Newcomen invented the steam engine. In evolutionary terms he calls the event as significant as the emergence of the first photo-synthesizers three billion years ago. What heralded the Anthropocene was the moment that mankind started burning coal, suddenly producing ten times more energy than before with the same mass of wood.
I see this as the start of a new evolutionary process that soon became one million times faster than Darwinian evolution by natural selection, and it was one that proceeded in parallel…In the last three centuries we have changed our planet in a way reminiscent of one of the great changes that punctuated the evolution of the Earth since life’s origin billions of years ago.
Yet Lovelock argues that the release of massive amounts of the Earth’s stored energy was an event waiting to happen and rather than feeling guilty about climate change and the explosion of human population we should understand that these events were in fact responses of the great Gaia Earth System. He suggests it set in motion a new accelerated evolutionary process that is irreversible and quite different from all that came before. However Lovelock flatly dismisses the notion that we merely have to ‘decarbonize’ the Earth’s atmosphere through sustainable development and the use of renewable energy and that global warming would be under control as a result.
There are no feasible ways to restore the climate to what it was nor to reduce our numbers…. Even if we reduced all emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to pre-industrial levels there would be no rapid return to the past climate and the less turbulent Earth we once knew…
Lovelock points out that global warming does not simply make it uniformly hotter everywhere. The increase of heat occurs mostly at the poles and hardly at all at the Equator.
The best course of action may not be sustainable development but sustainable retreat…The survival of the air-conditioned nests of termites in the Australian desert provides a fine example of how we might approach the problem of survival in a hotter world…Perhaps the world population should prepare to replace their inefficient sprawling cities with efficient compact cities designed to sustain an optimal internal climate, and leave the land and ocean to the Earth system to regulate as it has always done…
As a case in point he mentions that Singapore with 5.6 million inhabitants already has a natural climate 12.5 C hotter than the global average, even today far warmer than expected for most of the world by the end of the century. Life for the inhabitants in the city-state is kept comfortably cool without inordinate expense.
We can even put our farms in nests; indeed this is already extensively done in the Netherlands. The horticultural greenhouse is a nested farm that can be air-conditioned, even changing the gas composition in the air by adding CO2

Lovelock did inspire several generations of environmentalists but nowadays the relationship is strained because of his support for fracking and nuclear power. Mainstream media regularly quote his statement that environmentalism has become a religion and does not pay enough attention to facts. In the book Lovelock devotes an entire chapter to the myths of environmentalism and its consequences…
He views wind and photo-voltaic energy as ‘second-hand sunshine’ and sees nuclear energy as the only source available that offers a long-term solution. He argues that radioactivity occurs in nature, may even be good in small amounts, and that it is unfortunate how dogmatic fear of radiation keeps confounding common sense.

Consider the incontrovertible fact that we inhabit a universe that is nuclear powered. All the stars draw energy from nuclear reactions; out there in the cosmos there is no such thing as renewable energy or sustainable development; the second law of thermodynamics forbids it.

Few other people alive today could have a deeper understanding of the role humanity as a whole has been playing in the recent history of our planet, so Lovelock can afford to speculate about the next stage of inflationary evolution Gaia may  be entering and when he does he is at his best. To fully appreciate this you really must read the book yourself…

Because we are full of pride and see humanity firmly established as the rulers of the solar system we tend to think that nothing more powerful, more moral and more delightful, or in any way better than we are, could possibly come after us. Most of us find it difficult to even contemplate we are fulfilling a role like that of the feathered egg-laying reptiles who were the predecessors of the birds. But the signs are there: we already talk, first in fiction but now in science about artificial intelligence. There are many possible forms of life and evolutions of Gaia beyond the ones we know.

Now is a critical moment in Gaia’s history. It is a time of ending, but also a time of new beginnings. Despite the mess that we have made, carbon based life still flourishes, and is likely to do so for tens of millions of years. This is more than long enough for electronic life to evolve and then either continue alone or in symbiosis with carbon life. Civilization may collapse, but there have to be enough humans, or intelligent successors, surviving to give Gaia the wisdom to proceed to the next step, whatever that may be, with or without us as the lead species…

You think this far-fetched? Lovelock has lived with a pacemaker since 30 years…
I can see it’s only a matter of time before my body is on the internet and receiving spam…We wish James Lovelock many more years of good health and clear thoughts!

Dispatches from the front-lines of evolutionary biology


When you visit new and unfamiliar territory it does not make much difference whether you are an anthropologist, a biologist or simply a tourist. It is always easy to describe in detail all the differences that you observe. Yet truly experienced travelers do know that in the end it is perhaps more interesting to discover what we have in common with those other people we encounter in foreign places rather than what we find different.

Now let us take this thought one step further. When we explore natural ecosystems we soon realize that what is alive in any particular environment not only interacts with all others but also shares characteristics with them. That is why we call the science biology. The sub-field that is concerned with the study of how organisms evolve through natural selection is called evolutionary biology.

This week we stumbled on two separate articles that described exciting new discoveries in this field. They give insight in the evolutionary processes that have produced the enormous biodiversity on the planet and also provide further proof of how directly we are related to all other life on Earth.The first article reports on the results of research conducted at Yale, Berkeley and Stanford, jointly published in the scientific journal Nature on Aug. 28th. The researchers compared data from the human genome to those of the fruit fly and the roundworm, and found distinct arrangements in the genetic architecture that were shared by all three species, particularly for genes that control reproduction and development. As Mark Gerstein, Professor of Biomedical Informatics at Yale University, the lead author on one of the papers pointed out: “The special thing about the worm and fly is that they are very distant from humans evolutionarily, so finding something conserved across all three -human, fly and worm – tells us it is a very ancient, fundamental process.”

The second article reports on an experiment that was conceived and executed by Emily Standen, who specializes in evolutionary biomechanics at McGill University in Ottawa. The study involved research into the question what could have generated the evolutionary transition from fish to animals that walked on land.

The fossil record has shown that about four hundred million years ago the first fish species started exploring land and evolved into four-limbed vertebrates, today’s amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. One intermediate step in that evolutionary transition from water to land may have been marked by the so-called ‘Tiktaalik roseae’. This was a fish that resembled a crocodile and lived 417-354 million years ago. Well-preserved fossils of this animal were found in 2004 on Ellesmere Island in the Nunavut Territory of Canada, which is 600 miles above the Arctic Circle but was a subtropical marsh at the time, 400 million years ago. Tiktaalik was a true transitory animal and the paleontology experts were able to determine that it could breathe using a combination of gills and lungs.

The research team at McGill University carried out an experiment on a group of Polypterus, a type of freshwater fish that live in various areas in Africa. These remarkable fish also have a set of lungs alongside functioning gills, and can even crawl across land. They are considered the closest living relatives to the predecessors of the four legged tetra-pods.The researchers raised about a hundred juvenile fish permanently on land in only a millimeter of water for nearly a year with the purpose to study if, and how, they would adapt to the terrestrial environment. A control group was raised in a standard aquarium. In less than a year, they found that the fish that were raised on land showed significant anatomical and behavioral changes. They learned to raise their heads higher and more securely plant their fins on the ground. Their bone structure was even seen to change over time, with shoulder blades growing slightly longer than average and what appeared to be the slow development of a neck. 


In the words of Darwin:
“We must, however, acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities… still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.”

Some species do have a purpose on our planet but…

blue whale

An article on forced us to return our attention from the forest back to the ocean. It points to a recent scientific paper by the University of Vermont’s Joe Roman and nine other whale biologists from around the globe. Published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment their study came to the unsurprising conclusion that whale populations play an important role in what amounts to the largest single ecosystem of our planet. Whales provide vital ecosystem services and are seen as a stabilizing force against the expected effects of climate change.

While Homo sapiens undoubtedly has the widest distribution of any species on earth, having spread out over all continents except Antarctica,  whales are no less omnipresent and found all over in the oceans . They are fellow mammals that evolved over the course of millions of years from land dwelling animals to inhabitants of the sea, which in fact represents one of the most dramatic transformations in evolutionary history. Their ancestors walked and hunted on land but now whales are found in all of the world’s oceans; each year they migrate long distances from their cold-water feeding grounds to warm-water breeding areas.

Like all mammals, whales breathe air into lungs, are warm-blooded and feed their young milk. Depending on the species their average lifespan ranges from forty to a hundred years but their rate of reproduction is slow. Whales spawn few offspring but calves do have a high probability of survival. Once a calf is born the mother whale will feed her new-born by producing a thick milk (which is about 35 to 50% fat) in her mammary glands; she will squirt it through the water into her baby’s mouth. The nursing period for baby whales lasts over a year and there is a very strong bond between mother and calf. Females mature in about five to seven years; males between seven and ten. Generally young whales do have a reasonably good chance of surviving to maturity since to them the only real predators are humans… Whales come in two varieties: baleen and toothed whales. Baleen whales have a comb-like strainer on the upper jaw, which is their system to filter plankton, small fish and crustaceans from the water. Generally they are the larger species. In fact the very largest living animal on earth is the blue whale which can grow to be over 100 ft. long and weigh 180 tons. Toothed whales are smaller. They have teeth and hunt fish, squid, and other marine mammals. They sense their surrounding environment through echolocation. Whales also communicate with each other using sounds. Depending on the species some of these ‘whale-songs’ can be heard for many miles underwater. The largest brain on earth belongs to the sperm whale, the same species as the main character in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The adult sperm whale brain is about 8,000 cubic centimeters, six times the size of our own 1300 cubic centimeters. The large brain supports the complex intelligence required for a socially complicated and highly communicative lifestyle.

The recently published study now points to the crucial role whales perform towards ocean health and the state of fisheries around the world. Whales recycle nutrients by feeding in deep waters and releasing fecal plumes near the surface. This whale waste supports plankton—a cyclical phenomenon described as a “whale pump.” Whales also transfer nutrients thousands of miles by feeding at high latitudes and calving at lower latitudes. Finally there is the role they play in death. When their carcasses drop to the sea floor, they sequester carbon and support numerous scavenger species. The researchers argue that dozens, possibly hundreds, of species depend on these “whale falls” in the deep sea. As long-living species, a slowly recovering population of whales will assist in stabilizing  the oceans against the expected effects of climate change.

Of course it remains impossible to determine the total global population with any degree of accuracy but it is estimated that there are today still over one million whales swimming through the world’s oceans. Regrettably many of the eighty different species are now considered endangered. A ban on commercial whaling was introduced in 1986 with the establishment of the International Whaling Commission but there remain loopholes that allow some countries to carry on with commercial whaling and over the past thirty years, in spite of the ban, over 30,000 have been killed. Japan, Norway and Iceland still slaughter 2000 whales between them each year; the whalers from these ‘advanced’ nations operate vessels that are akin to warships and usually employ grenade harpoons. They subject their prey to a particularly violent and cruel death.

Commercial whaling is totally different from what has been practiced for hundreds oflamalerahunt years in places like Lamalera, on the south coast of Lembata in the Indonesian archipelago. Here hunts are still carried out in a traditional manner, with bamboo spears from small wooden outriggers, built without nails and with sails woven from palm leaves. The whales are killed by the harpooner leaping from the boat onto the back of the animal to drive in the harpoon. The preferred quarry is the sperm whale but catching these with hand-thrown harpoons from small open boats is no easy task and it is by no means an uneven contest between man and whale. The tail flukes of a whale can easily smash the hull to smithereens. Boats are often overturned by their prey and harpooners have been disabled or killed. After a successful hunt the traditional rules ensure that every part of the animal is used. About half of the catch is kept in the village; the rest is traded in nearby markets. Such traditional whaling also takes place on the island of Bequia in the West Indies, where a few diehard whalers still go out on wooden rowing boats with hand-held harpoons whenever migrating whales are spotted. Similarly such small scale subsistence whaling is carried out by various Inuit groups in Canada but their hunt is not intended for commercial purposes and the meat caught is for local consumption only.

We do not object to these aboriginal practices but the Japanese charade of‘scientific’whaling is a shameless lie and government subsidized commercial whaling by other advanced modern countries like Norway and Iceland does not make any sense either.     IT ALL HAS TO STOP !

Japan_Factory_Ship_Nisshin_Maru_Whaling_Mother_and_Calf (1)

This picture shows  the factory ship Nisshin Maru hauling in a Minke whale mother and a one year old calf . It  was taken in the Southern Ocean by agents from the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service vessel. The commercial hunting of whales is prohibited in the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary, which was designated by the International Whaling Commission in 1994, but Japan catches the animals there under a “scientific research” loophole in the moratorium. The results of the research the program is carrying out are not readily available but Japan  makes no secret of the fact that they end up on plates and we do note that Japan’s whaling mother ship has been awarded a halal certificate to prove the whales it takes from the Antarctic Ocean are slaughtered in accordance with Muslim law.  (Agence France Presse – Huffington Post – 22 Jan 2014)

Some species do have a purpose on our planet but Homo sapiens does not seem to be one of them.

how positive thinking can bring change to the forest


You will be forgiven if you have the impression that our blue log is narrowly focused on what swims in the ocean, what sails on the seven seas or just how two hydrogen atoms bonded to a single oxygen atom reflect light from the sun….

Please do forgive us for having pointed to these basic facts first since water is indeed what sustains life and makes up more than half of our body weight. Blue is how man observes his environment: the sky is blue, the ocean is blue and the earth seen from the universe is as blue as can be. So the previous entries into our log were mainly concerned with the waters that cover three quarters of the surface of the planet and that form the world’s single largest ecosystem. As the oceans play a central role in supporting life on earth we shall regularly return to the subject but once again: in our worldview the term ‘blue economy’ as recently adopted by many governments and organizations has nothing to do with what can be extracted from the sea. While blue thinking did certainly develop from a green foundation it goes several steps further. The central plank in the platform of traditional green environmentalism has always been that mankind should simply cut back on energy use and do what is necessary to reduce air and water pollution. However the environmental challenge of today is not merely a matter of mitigating levels of carbon dioxide to reduce global warming. That will neither repair our habitat nor remediate the damage done in the past. Open source blue environmentalism searches for solutions. It is imperative that we bring about fundamental change in our lifestyles and apply solutions-oriented thinking to limit the damage and build sustainable systems for the future. That is really what the term blue economy is all about.

Today we make our ‘landfall’ on Kalimantan, the third largest island in the world after Greenland and New Guinea. Its rain-forest has been there for 130 million years, making it the oldest in the world, 70 million years senior to the Amazon. Kalimantan, or Borneo, as it is called by the rest of the world, is home to some 15,000 species of flowering plants, 3,000 species of trees, 221 species of terrestrial mammals and 420 species of resident birds. It is the only remaining natural habitat for the endangered Bornean Orangutan.

Unfortunately over the past quarter century huge areas of Borneo have been subject to massive deforestation. Rain-forests have been cut and degraded by a voracious global demand for timber, palm oil and coal. The palm oil industry has been one of the biggest drivers of this deforestation and close to half of the original natural forests have been converted to palm-oil and timber plantations, mainly financed by wealthy outsiders. In addition illegal logging has become a way of life for some of the local communities, with timber being taken from wherever it is accessible, sold to collectors and processed in huge sawmills. In the absence of sufficient alternative economic development, this remains an irresistible lure for these local communities. As part of a billion dollar carbon swap agreement with Norway the Indonesian Government has imposed a moratorium on further exploitation but there are loopholes in the law and the moratorium only covers primary forests and excludes existing concessions. Because of corruption and weak law enforcement the burning of key peat-land areas continues unabatedly, mainly to clear land for agriculture and plantations.

The news from this environmental battlefield is always rather gloomy but in the last couple of days we did receive some reports of a more positive nature.

About a year ago Google alerted us to the birth of the Rimba Raya Biodiversity Reserve adjacent to the Tanjung Puting National Park near Pangkalanbun on the Kalimantan South coast. is a project of Hong Kong based NGO InfiniteEARTH . By leveraging REDD+ carbon credits they embarked on a project to save over 640 square kilometers of peat swamp forest from the encroaching palm oil industry. We just found out that they are doing well:

Another story that really warmed our heart was a report from Clare McAlaney
This describes the work of Dr. Kinari Webb. As an undergraduate biology major, Webb had first come to West Kalimantan fifteen years ago in order to study the orangutan in his native habitat. She had seen with her own eyes how the forest was slowly deteriorating because of the incessant illegal logging. At the same time she found out that to the loggers themselves the rape of the forest was merely a matter of survival and of supporting their families. Webb also noticed that the general health of people living in a decaying forest was extremely poor and it became clear to her that the human and environmental health problems were linked. The forest people were trapped in a vicious circle, trading expensive timber to the outside world against equally expensive western medicines.  Seven years ago Webb returned to West Kalimantan with a vision that has proven to be both stunningly simple and spectacularly successful. Her brainchild was a comprehensive program that tackled the problems of environmental and human health with integrated solutions. It goes by the name of Health in Harmony and is based on the principle that healthcare can be a powerful tool enabling communities to be free from disease while using their natural resources in sustainable ways. High-quality healthcare is offered through conservation-oriented barter deals or at a very low cost. Key ingredients in the program are education, community involvement and capacity building. Loggers were promoted to Forest Guardians. Organic farming and sustainable agroforestry programs that provide an alternative livelihood make up for the loss in income and have led to a 68% decline in illegal logging. Villagers can exchange woven mats, manure, baskets or seedlings for healthcare and the collective income is sufficient to cover the cost . Read all about it here:

Health in Harmony is a brilliant example of blue thinking at its very best.

Join Mission Ocean

Today there are fewer fish in the sea than ever before…


On June 23 the Global Ocean Commission, an independent initiative made up of 17 leaders from around the world, released a blood-chilling report. In the second alinea of the introduction the authors come straight to the point:

“Our ocean is in decline. Habitat destruction, biodiversity loss, overfishing, pollution, climate change and ocean acidification are pushing the ocean system to the point of collapse. Governance is woefully inadequate, and on the high seas, anarchy rules the waves. Technological advance, combined with a lack of regulation, is widening the gap between rich and poor as those countries that can, exploit dwindling resources while those that can’t experience the consequences of those actions. Regional stability, food security, climate resilience, and our children’s future are all under threat.”

The report describes in detail the madness that mankind has embarked upon in the last 25 years. Without subsidies, the high seas fleets would not make a profit. Citizens of countries providing subsidies to their high seas fleets pay twice for their fish: as tax payers and as consumers. According to the commission even Indonesia spends 235 million dollars a year in fuel subsidies to a tuna fleet that brings in 463 million dollars of catch (and then the Government officials call this ironically ‘the blue economy’..)

The full report, or a summary, can be viewed or downloaded on Most importantly the commission makes eight specific proposals that include calls for mandatory tracking of all vessels fishing in the high seas, a ban on the transshipment of fish at sea, measures to end pollution from plastic waste, and binding standards for the regulation and control of offshore oil and gas exploration and exploitation.

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing on the high seas has significant negative ecological, economic and social impacts, and disproportionately affects developing countries. To effectively combat IUU fishing, the illegality of the practice needs to be uniformly established, the likelihood of being caught needs to be increased and market access for IUU fish needs to be cut off.

MY Sustainable Solutions urges you to join the mission and sign the petition that asks UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to propose new laws for high seas protection in September 2014

about the last wild animals we eat

For most of the time since modern man stood up up and walked out of Africa we have been hunters and gatherers but nowadays for most people fish is the last wild food they ever eat. Apart from mushrooms, that is…

Mankind has been foraging for food in rivers and off beaches for about 150,000 years and we developed the first actual fishing techniques some 90,000 years ago.  Roughly 10,000 years ago came the switch to farming and the domestication of animals but until the 20th century there remained a single source of animal protein that throughout the ages seemed absolutely inexhaustable: the fish we were able to catch in the wild.


The advent of the industrial revolution did have an early impact on fishing stocks but that was merely local. In the North Sea, steam ships equipped with trawling nets reported catches more than six times greater than those of sailing ships. It is now understood that industrial fisheries require only 10–15 years to reduce fish populations to one-tenth of their pre-fishing size.

Yet it is a relatively recent development of only the last 50 years that mankind engaged in a mad scramble to ruthlessly over-exploit all that has been living much longer than us in the oceans anywhere on planet earth. Despite warnings of a slowdown in the marine catch in the 1970’s and 80’s, the global industry has continued to increase fishing efforts and technology kept advancing.  Boats are more powerful, fish are located electronically through sonar, larger trawling nets are used and longline hooks are dangling at greater depths. Industrial factory ships are going further offshore and have now even extended their operations throughout the vast expanses of the southern ocean.

Of course this is purely driven by the economics and the rampant overfishing is a direct result of the huge demand from the seven billion potential seafood consumers who are alive today. Worldwide, per capita consumption of seafood  has doubled since the 1960s and the inhabitants of the US now eat almost five times more fish than they did 100 years ago. In Asia, about 1 billion people rely on fish as their primary source of protein.

However the realities of the global fishing industry are mind boggling and the inefficiences  are bordering on the absurd. Today fishing fleets  are twice the  necessary size. The industry could go back to the smaller, fewer boats of 1970 and still produce the same yield. The overcapacity is global: Norway’s fleet  is 60 percent  larger than necessary, while the European Union is 40 percent over the top.  Meanwhile European fisheries are so depleted that in several member states it has been estimated that the cost of fishing to the public exceeds the total value of the catches. That means that more money is spent to keep the industry afloat than comes in from the resulting yield.

In the old days fishermen would return to harbor mainly with the fish they had targeted. Some specialized in herring or cod; others in tuna. Modern fishing methods are much more random so there is usually a large bycatch of other species. Drift nets are a spectacular example. These monster nets (50 feet by up to 65 km) kill all that they encounter. They are banned by every fishing country within its own territorial waters. However the combination of Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese drift nets cast every night in international waters reaches about 48,000 km–enough to encircle the globe.

The greatest paradox is in the fact that nowadays 36 percent of all captured wild fish is processed into fish meal. This in turn is partly used for fishfarming or other types of aquaculture  but ultimately the practice is inefficient. Farmed salmon consume more wild fish than they generate as a final product. Other negatives  regarding  the long-term sustainability of aquaculture include disease, genetic weakening of stocks and coastal habitat destruction. In the end the combined nonhuman appetite for fish equals our own. Chickens and pigs consume two times more seafood than the Japanese, six times more than the Americans…

The expansion of fishing activities into deeper waters is unquestionably one of the principal threats to the world’s ocean health.  Most deep-sea fisheries are unsustainable not only for target species but also for non-target fauna and their habitats. Unless some radical changes in governance and management are being made, damages to deep-sea ecosystems will soon be irreversible. The United Nations have recognized this issue and urged governments and Regional Fishery Management Organizations to assess the impact of deep-sea fisheries on vulnerable marine ecosystems.

Currently, more than 99% of the world’s oceans are open to fishing; this should be reversed, and the open ocean should be closed to industrial exploitation. The continental shelves and coastal waters should be the privileged reserve of the small-scale fishermen who use low-tech gear and are coast-bound.  It is estimated that the small-scale sector has the capacity to catch roughly the same amount as the industrial sector but it employs nearly 25 times more people.

Fishing should be the privilege of the poor rather than a right of the rich.

It is up to the Governments of the fishing nations to abolish subsidies and negotiate international agreements instead. Their common goal must be to downsize fleets and set catch limits. All we can do ourselves is to try and make a small difference by being well-informed consumers. Don’t buy species of fish that are over-exploited. If you have the time and patience for a long lecture on the subject  you will find it here: