I've talked more than once in these essays about the challenge of discussing the fall of civilizations when the current example is picking up speed right outside the window. In a calmer time, it might be possible to treat the theory of catabolic collapse as a pure abstraction, and contemplate the relationship between the maintenance costs of capital and the resources available to meet those costs without having to think about the ghastly human consequences of shortfall. As it is, when I sketch out this or that detail of the trajectory of a civilization’s fall, the commotions of our time often bring an example of that detail to the surface, and sometimes—as now—those lead in directions I hadn’t planned to address.
This is admittedly a time when harbingers of disaster are not in short supply. I was amused a few days back to see yet another denunciation of economic heresy in the media. This time the author was one Matt Egan, the venue was CNN/Money, and the target was Zero Hedge, one of the more popular sites on the doomward end of the blogosphere. The burden of the CNN/Money piece was that Zero Hedge must be wrong in questioning the giddy optimism of the stock market—after all, stock values have risen to record heights, so what could possibly go wrong?
Zero Hedge’s pseudonymous factotum Tyler Durden had nothing to say to CNN/Money, and quite reasonably so. He knows as well as I do that in due time, Egan will join that long list of pundits who insisted that the bubble du jour would keep on inflating forever, and got to eat crow until the end of their days as a result. He's going to have plenty of company; the chorus of essays and blog posts denouncing peak oil in increasingly strident tones has built steadily in recent months. I expect that chorus to rise to a deafening shriek right about the time the bottom drops out of the fracking bubble.
Meanwhile the Ebola epidemic has apparently taken another large step toward fulfilling its potential as the Black Death of the 21st century. A month ago, after reports surfaced of Ebola in a southwestern province, Sudan slapped a media blackout on reports of Ebola cases in the country. Maybe there’s an innocent reason for this policy, but I confess I can’t think of one. Sudan is a long way from the West African hotspots of the epidemic, and unless a local outbreak has coincidentally taken place—which is of course possible—this suggests the disease has already spread along the ancient east-west trade routes of the Sahel. If the epidemic gets a foothold in Sudan, the next stops are the teeming cities of Egypt and the busy ports of East Africa, full of shipping from the Gulf States, the Indian subcontinent, and eastern Asia.
I’ve taken a wry amusement in the way that so many people have reacted to the spread of the epidemic by insisting that Ebola can’t possibly be a problem outside the West African countries it’s currently devastating. Here in the US, the media’s full of confident-sounding claims that our high-tech health care system will surely keep Ebola at bay. It all looks very encouraging, unless you happen to know that diseases spread by inadequate handwashing are common in US hospitals, only a small minority of facilities have the high-end gear necessary to isolate an Ebola patient, and the Ebola patient just found in Dallas got misdiagnosed and sent home with a prescription for antibiotics, exposing plenty of people to the virus.
More realistically, Laurie Garrett, a respected figure in the public health field, warns that ”you are not nearly scared enough about Ebola.” In the peak oil community, Mary Odum, whose credentials as ecologist and nurse make her eminently qualified to discuss the matter, has tried to get the same message across. Few people are listening.
Like the frantic claims that peak oil has been disproven and the economy isn’t on the verge of another ugly slump, the insistence that Ebola can’t possibly break out of its current hot zones is what scholars of the magical arts call an apotropaic charm—that is, an attempt to turn away an unwanted reality by means of incantation. In the case of Ebola, the incantation usually claims that the West African countries currently at ground zero of the epidemic are somehow utterly unlike all the other troubled and impoverished Third World nations it hasn’t yet reached, and that the few thousand deaths racked up so far by the epidemic is a safe measure of its potential.
Those of my readers who have been thinking along these lines are invited to join me in a little thought experiment. According to the World Health Organization, the number of cases of Ebola in the current epidemic is doubling every twenty days, and could reach 1.4 million by the beginning of 2015. Let’s round down, and say that there are one million cases on January 1, 2015. Let’s also assume for the sake of the experiment that the doubling time stays the same. Assuming that nothing interrupts the continued spread of the virus, and cases continue to double every twenty days, in what month of what year will the total number of cases equal the human population of this planet? Go ahead and do the math for yourself. If you’re not used to exponential functions, it’s particularly useful to take a 2015 calendar, count out the 20-day intervals, and see exactly how the figure increases over time.
Now of course this is a thought experiment, not a realistic projection. In the real world, the spread of an epidemic disease is a complex process shaped by modes of human contact and transport. There are bottlenecks that slow propagation across geographical and political barriers, and different cultural practices that can help or hinder the transmission of the Ebola virus. It’s also very likely that some nations, especially in the developed world, will be able to mobilize the sanitation and public-health infrastructure to stop a self-sustaining epidemic from getting under way on their territory before a vaccine can be developed and manufactured in sufficient quantity to matter.
Most members of our species, though, live in societies that don’t have those resources, and the steps that could keep Ebola from spreading to the rest of the Third World are not being taken. Unless massive resources are committed to that task soon—as in before the end of this year—the possibility exists that when the pandemic finally winds down a few years from now, two to three billion people could be dead. We need to consider the possibility that the peak of global population is no longer an abstraction set comfortably off somewhere in the future. It may be knocking at the future’s door right now, shaking with fever and dripping blood from its gums.
That ghastly possibility is still just that, a possibility. It can still be averted, though the window of opportunity in which that could be done is narrowing with each passing day. Epizootic disease is one of the standard ways by which an animal species in overshoot has its population cut down to levels that the carrying capacity of the environment can support, and the same thing has happened often enough with human beings. It’s not the only way for human numbers to decline; I’ve discussed here at some length the possibility that that could happen by way of ordinary demographic contraction—but we’re now facing a force that could make the first wave of population decline happen in a much faster and more brutal way.
Is that the end of the world? Of course not. Any of my readers who have read a good history of the Black Death—not a bad idea just now, all things considered—know that human societies can take a massive population loss from pandemic disease and still remain viable. That said, any such event is a shattering experience, shaking political, economic, cultural, and spiritual institutions and beliefs down to their core. In the present case, the implosion of the global economy and the demise of the tourism and air travel industries are only the most obvious and immediate impacts. There are also broader and deeper impacts, cascading down from the visible realms of economics and politics into the too rarely noticed substructure of ecological relationships that sustain human existence.
And this, in turn, has me thinking of buffalo.
In there among all the other new stories of the last week, by turns savage and silly, is a report from Montana, where representatives of Native American peoples from the prairies of the United States and Canada signed a treaty pledging their tribes to cooperate in reintroducing wild buffalo to the Great Plains. I doubt most people in either country heard of it, and fewer gave it a second thought. There have been herds of domesticated buffalo in North America for a good many decades now, but only a few very small herds, on reservations or private nature sanctuaries, have been let loose to wander freely as their ancestors did.
A great many of the white residents of the Great Plains are furiously opposed to the project. It’s hard to find any rational reason for that opposition—the Native peoples have merely launched a slow process of putting wild buffalo herds on their own tribal property, not encroaching on anyone or anything else—but rational reasons are rarely that important in human motivation, and the nonrational dimension here as so often is the determining factor. The entire regional culture of the Great Plains centers on the pioneer experience, the migration that swept millions of people westward onto the prairies on the quest to turn some of North America’s bleakest land into a cozy patchwork of farms and towns, nature replaced by culture across thousands of miles where the buffalo once roamed.
The annihilation of the buffalo was central to that mythic quest, as central as the dispossession of the Native peoples and the replacement of the tallgrass prairie by farm crops. A land with wild buffalo herds upon it is not a domesticated land. Those who saw the prairies in their wild state brought back accounts that sound like something out of mythology: grass so tall a horseman could ride off into it and never be seen again, horizons as level and distant as those of the open ocean, and the buffalo: up to sixty million of them, streaming across the landscape in herds that sometimes reached from horizon to horizon. The buffalo were the keystone of the prairie ecosystem, and their extermination was an essential step in shattering that ecosystem and extracting the richness of its topsoil for temporary profit.
A little while back I happened to see a video online about the ecological effects of reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone Park. It’s an interesting story: the return of wolves, most of a century after their extermination, caused deer to stay away from areas of the park where they were vulnerable to attack. Once those areas were no longer being browsed by deer, their vegetation changed sharply, making the entire park more ecologically diverse; species that had been rare or absent in the park reappeared to take advantage of the new, richer habitat. Even the behavior of the park’s rivers changed, as vegetation shifts slowed riverine erosion.
All this was narrated by George Monbiot in a tone of gosh-wow wonderment that irritated me at first hearing. Surely it would be obvious, I thought, that changing one part of an ecosystem would change everything else, and that removing or reintroducing one of the key species in the ecosystem would have particularly dramatic effects! Of course I stopped then and laughed, since for most people it’s anything but obvious. Our entire culture is oriented toward machines, not living systems, and what defines a machine is precisely that it’s meant to do exactly what it’s told and nothing else. Push this button, and that happens; turn this switch, and something else happens; pull this trigger, and the buffalo falls dead. We’re taught to think of the world as though that same logic controlled its responses to our actions, and then get blindsided when it acts like a whole system instead.
I’d be surprised to hear any of the opponents of reintroducing wild buffalo talk in so many words about the buffalo as a keystone species of the prairie ecosystem, and suggesting that its return to the prairies might set off a trophic cascade—that’s the technical term for the avalanche of changes, spreading down the food web to its base, that the Yellowstone wolves set in motion once they sniffed the wind, caught the tasty scent of venison, and went to look. Still, it’s one of the basic axioms of the Druid teachings that undergird these posts that people know more than they think they know, and a gut-level sense of the cascade of changes that would be kickstarted by wild buffalo may be helping drive their opposition.
That said, there’s a further dimension. It’s not just in an ecological sense that a land with wild buffalo herds upon it is not a domesticated land. To the descendants of the pioneers, the prairie, the buffalo, and the Indian are what their ancestors came West to destroy. Behind that identification lies the whole weight of the mythology of progress, the conviction that it’s the destiny of the West to be transformed from wilderness to civilization. The return of wild buffalo is unthinkable from within the pioneer worldview, because it means that “the winning of the West” was not a permanent triumph but a temporary condition, which may yet be followed in due time by the losing of the West.
Of course there were already good reasons to think along those unthinkable lines, long before the Native tribes started drafting their treaty. The economics of dryland farming on the Great Plains never really made that much sense. Homestead acts and other government subsidies in the 19th century, and the economic impacts of two world wars in the 20th, made farming the Plains look viable, in much the same way that huge government subsidies make nuclear power look viable today. In either case, take away the subsidies and you’ve got an arrangement without a future. That’s the subtext behind the vacant and half-vacant towns you’ll find all over the West these days. That the fields and farms and towns may be replaced in turn by prairie grazed by herds of wild buffalo is unthinkable from within the pioneer worldview, too—but across the West, the unthinkable is increasingly the inescapable.
Equally, it’s unthinkable to most people in the industrial world today that a global pandemic could brush aside the world’s terminally underfunded public health systems and snuff out millions or billions of lives in a few years. It’s just as unthinkable to most people in the industrial world that the increasingly frantic efforts of wealthy elites to prop up the global economy and get it to start generating prosperity again will fail, plunging the world into irrevocable economic contraction. It’s among the articles of faith of the industrial world that the future must lead onward and upward, that the sort of crackpot optimism that draws big crowds at TED Talks counts as realistic thinking about the future, and that the limits to growth can’t possibly get in the way of our craving for limitlessness. Here again, though, the unthinkable is becoming the inescapable.
In each of these cases, and many others, the unthinkable can be described neatly as the possibility that a set of changes that we happen to have decked out with the sanctified label of “progress” might turn out instead to be a temporary and reversible condition. The agricultural settlement of the Great Plains, the relatively brief period when humanity was not troubled by lethal pandemics, and the creation of a global economy powered by extravagant burning of fossil fuels were all supposed to be permanent changes, signs of progress and Man’s Conquest of Nature. No one seriously contemplated the chance that each of those changes would turn out to be transient, that they would shift into reverse under the pressure of their own unintended consequences, and that the final state of each whole system would have more in common with its original condition than with the state it briefly attained in between.
There are plenty of ways to talk about the implications of that great reversal, but the one that speaks to me now comes from the writings of Ernest Thompson Seton, whose nature books were a fixture of my childhood and who would probably be the patron saint of this blog if Druidry had patron saints. He spent the whole of his adult career as naturalist, artist, writer, storyteller, and founder of a youth organization—Woodcraft, which taught wilderness lore, practical skills, and democratic self-government to boys and girls alike, and might be well worth reviving now—fighting for a world in which there would still be a place for wild buffalo roaming the prairies: fought, and lost. (It would be one of his qualifications for Druid sainthood that he knew he would lose, and kept fighting anyway. The English warriors at the battle of Maldon spoke that same language: “Will shall be sterner, heart the stronger, mood shall be more as our might falters.”)
He had no shortage of sound rational reasons for his lifelong struggle, but now and again, in his writings or when talking around the campfire, he would set those aside and talk about deeper issues. He spoke of the “Buffalo Wind,” the wind off the open prairies that tingles with life and wonder, calling humanity back to its roots in the natural order, back to harmony with the living world: not rejecting the distinctive human gifts of culture and knowledge, but holding them in balance with the biological realities of our existence and the needs of the biosphere. I’ve felt that wind; so, I think, have most Druids, and so have plenty of other people who couldn’t tell a Druid from a dormouse but who feel in their bones that industrial humanity’s attempted war against nature is as senseless as a plant trying to gain its freedom by pulling itself up by the roots.
One of the crucial lessons of the Buffalo Wind, though, is that it’s not always gentle. It can also rise to a shrieking gale, tear the roofs off houses, and leave carnage in its wake. We can embrace the lessons that the natural world is patiently and pitilessly teaching us, in other words, or we can close our eyes and stop our ears until sheer pain forces the lessons through our barriers, but one way or another, we’re going to learn those lessons. It’s possible, given massively funded interventions and a good helping of plain dumb luck, that the current Ebola epidemic might be stopped before it spreads around the world. It’s possible that the global economy might keep staggering onward for another season, and that wild buffalo might be kept from roaming the Great Plains for a while yet. Those are details; the underlying issue—the inescapable collision between the futile fantasy of limitless economic expansion on a finite planet and the hard realities of ecology, geology, and thermodynamics—is not going away.