Sunday, August 20, 2017

Planting A Personal Forest

"If you appreciate the effort it takes for a single individual to become carbon-neutral, you can appreciate what it might take to balance the carbon footprint of a modern city of tens of millions of individuals."

In 1979, with the birth of my second child, my mother followed me to Tennessee and bought 88 acres near our budding ecovillage. Since our intentional community used to sharecrop that land, the fields had been contour terraced and swaled in the late 1970s with The Farm’s bulldozer and road grader, using guidance from the local soil conservation service (another Roosevelt relic), so it was already in pretty good condition from a keyline management point of view. I took the local USDA extension agent’s suggestion and planted loblolly pine (Pinus taeda), which, it turns out, was good advice. The loblolly is hardy, fast growing, drought-tolerant, and its range is expanding as the Southeast warms. I also planted hybrid American chestnut, mulberry, hardy citrus and bamboo.

In 1977–78, even before my mother purchased her farm, I began experimenting at my home with fast-growing hybrids of poplar, developed in Pennsylvania, comparing their growth characteristics with native tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera). I was looking for a sustainable winter heating supply and a substrate for mushroom production that could be harvested by coppice and pollard. In 1985 I applied that knowledge to plant a shelterbreak of hybrid poplar along one border of my mother’s property.

Walnut Hill Farm

Interior of the Prancing Poet, under construction in 2012
 In 1998, I planted out 3000 hybrid walnuts, comparing grafted rootstock developed by Purdue University for veneer with native black walnut used primarily for furniture and hardwood flooring and secondarily for a prodigious, oily nut crop. Nearly all of the expensive hybrid plantings were lost within 5 years to rabbits, insects, drought, and ice-storms. The native walnuts succeeded, and so have become a lasting part of my forest design at what our family now calls Walnut Hill Farm. We are using the oily husks this winter to stain the interior trim in a new addition to The Farm’s Ecovillage Training Center.

The late 1990s also saw the introduction of many bamboo stands, along the swales and in “canebreaks” where creeks would overflow in high water. I put in a half-dozen varieties in discrete patches, spread over about 20 acres. These have multiplied so quickly that they alone more than offset all the annual carbon consumption at Global Village Institute, including the Ecovillage Training Center and all its employees, visitors and volunteers, and all my annual travel around the world giving courses and workshops. Counting sequestration both above and below ground, 10 acres of bamboo locks up 63.5 tC/yr (metric tons carbon per year). 

I am told by Peter Bane, author of The Permaculture Handbook, that six tC/yr is consistent with back-of-the envelope figures for maize, another C-4 photosynthesizer. The difference with bamboo is that being an annual, edible corn is harvested and consumed each year and the stover decomposes rather quickly, releasing briefly stored carbon as greenhouse gases. Maize is therefore actually a greenhouse pump, because it draws soil carbon into the thick-rooted plant and makes it more readily available to the atmosphere. Bamboo, if it is landscaped into groves or incorporated into furniture, buildings or biochar, lingers much longer in the terrestrial environment.

The Albert Bates Forest (we do not call it that; I am being facetious) now occupies some 30 acres. After my mother died, the Institute leased 44 acres from Walnut Hill for the project and planted fruit trees, berry bushes, bamboos and cactus, as well as the tried-and-true local trees. We know that climate change will cause many of our most familiar tree species to out-migrate, and we are working to fill the void by planting species more likely to survive in semi-tropical conditions, albeit punctuated by winter blizzards.

Planting trees is not as easy as it seems when your experience is mainly hardy transplants of Loblolly pine provided by the Forest Service in tight little bundles. Most trees resist being transplanted and have to be encouraged and pampered. Oliver Rackham, in Trees and Woodlands in the British Landscape (2001) says “planting a tree is akin to shooting a man in the stomach.” His point is that trees are uniquely adapted to the angle of the sun, the flow of subsurface water and nutrients, the community of the forest and other factors we seldom consider. Starting trees in situ from seed or small seedling is often more likely to succeed than transplanting them as grafted rootstock or even semi-mature trees.

My planting method relies heavily on natural regeneration, followed by selection for desirable traits. Because of the poor highland soil in our region, cedars are a common pioneer species. Tulip poplar and black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) are also common. Most disturbed ecosystems will revert to woodland through natural succession if left un-grazed and un-mowed. We have mowed those areas we wanted to reserve for planting stands of higher value. Self-sown trees are generally stronger and grow faster than planted trees, so by allowing space between patches, we left plenty of room for natural succession through self-seeding.

Most tree work is done in our dormant season, roughly from mid-November to the end of April. My son now has a nursery established at Walnut Hill where he starts seeds in containers in polytunnels in the summer months, transplanting seedlings out in winter. He is good at scavenging plant leftovers from nursery sales and farmers markets, and although those trees have diminished survival rates from excessive handling and neglect, some always manage to survive and mature. From these, new generations are cultivated and encouraged.

I have been planting at densities of about 100 trees per acre, but those densities will increase substantially as the forest fills itself in. I imagine 400–1000 trees per acre to be more typical at climax, plus a wide range of understory plants. I asked Frank Michael, Global Village Institute’s engineer, to run these numbers for me. He used several approaches to cancel out the various unknowables. This is part of a work in progress that he plans to publish as a book in the near future.

 

Calculating Carbon Sequestration

For a mature mixed-oak-hickory mesophytic forest of the type we are planting in the Highland Rim region of south central Tennessee, hard data is not readily available, but the appendices to the First State of the Carbon Cycle Report of the US Climate Change Science Program (2007) are very helpful. Studies aggregated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggest that 400 trees (one acre at maturity) would structurally absorb 2.6 tons of carbon per year (2.6 tC/ac-y or 5.84 tC/ha-yr,), based on studies at 6 sites over 34 years. Our 30 acres are now at about 5% of the eventual biomass density, so they are sequestering 3.9 tC/yr. At maturity they would sequester 78 tC/yr. Foresting the full 44 acres would sequester 114.4 tC/y.

Another approach is to use a coefficient for average forest sequestration. A standard reference for this work is Akihiko Ito and Takehisa Oikawa’s “Global Mapping of Terrestrial Primary Productivity and Light-Use Efficiency with a Process-Based Model,” in Global Environmental Change in the Ocean and on Land, M. Shiyomi et al., Terrapub, Eds. (2004), pp. 343–358. If we apply the number Ito and Oikawa cite — 0.5–0.6 kgC/m2-yr for second growth Northern woodland — to our 44 acres (178,000 m2), we arrive at 89–107 tC/yr at maturity, which is in the same ballpark as estimating structural mass using NOAA’s figures. Since we are only at 5% maturity on 30 acres, the forest is presently saving about 3 tC/yr.

Using the carbon calculator on the Dopplr web site, and tracking my average annual travel for the past five years, I produce about 10 metric tons/yr of CO2, or 2.72 tC, from my jet-setting lifestyle. In order to also include all the embodied energy amortized into my food, clothing, gadgets, workplace and home, let’s call it 5 tC/yr, although that is likely an over-estimate. So, at this point in time my tree plantings are not covering my footprints, although my bamboo plantings are, and I am also neglecting to mention my experiments with algae in constructed wetlands. Algae and bamboo are the number one and number two fastest photosynthesizing plants we know of.

The estimate of potential average annual sequestration by my forest at maturity, even without bamboo or algae, is 89–114 tC/yr at a stocking density of 400 trees/acre, in perpetuity. That will erase my footprints with the soils of time.

 

Step-Harvest 

By 2050 this forest should be relatively mature, and so would only continue to stock carbon at the same rapid rates it did as a juvenile forest if it were to be selectively harvested. In The Biochar Solution I described the method proposed by Frank Michael for step-harvest. I presume that most of the wood harvested at that point would be used in buildings or for biochar, further sequestering its carbon rather than oxidizing it back to the atmosphere through decomposition or burning.

In the step-harvest method, mixed locally-native species are planted in a tight grid spaced to reach closed canopy in 4–6 years, at which point half the young trees are harvested and used for biochar manufacture (and accompany heat capture); the biochar is returned to the patch. In nine years, the remaining trees again close canopy, and half are harvested for biochar and lumber. This cycle is repeated at 12, 16.5, and 24 years, etc. At each point, there are several options:

 1. Harvest all the trees and start a whole new planting cycle;
 2. Insert a farming/gardening rotation in the open areas, adding mulch, compost teas, biochar and compost as soil amendments; or
 3. Allow remaining trees to mature and re-enclose the canopy, while allowing or adding useful understory plants.
 The first option yields greater than 6.2 times the biomass per unit of time and area than a conventional commercial forestry plantation.
“I tried to discover, in the rumor of forests and waves, words that other men could not hear, and I pricked up my ears to listen to the revelation of their harmony.” — Gustave Flaubert, November
My hope is that long after I am gone, my life’s forest will continue to provide valuable ecological services of all types to those who inhabit it after me, whether that is for climate mitigation or for the sense of wonder that growing up among tall trees can give to a child.

I recognize that it is an extraordinary luxury for one human to have access to 40 acres of land and be able to devote the resources required to establish a lasting, productive and climate-resilient forest. I don’t wish to suggest that everyone could or should do this — just multiply 40 acres by 7.2 billion people and you see how impossible that would be. 

What I am saying is that the carbon footprint of millions of people who live at the standard of living I do, racking up air-, sea- and ground-miles and using server farms powered by fossil energy slaves to book our next business trip, will not just go away by itself. Earth’s carbon cycle is profoundly out of balance (as are the nitrogen, potassium and other cycles) — so much so that those conditions now threaten our extinction. 

If you appreciate the effort it takes for a single individual to become carbon-neutral, you can appreciate what it might take to balance the carbon footprint of a modern city of tens of millions of individuals. Reports that city dwellers are more ecological than their country cousins often overlook this kind of calculus. 

So what is the prescription? While not everyone can plant a personal forest, everyone can estimate their own greenhouse footprint and begin reducing it. I have been giving seminars in how to heat your home with stoves that make biochar, and how to use biochar in your garden to grow more biomass, including winter fuel. I am also active in the ecovillage and transition towns movements, which are pioneering a brighter, happier, cooler future. Planting trees helps. More forests are better. That just may not be enough.

 This is the second of a two-part piece. The series was first published to The Great Change in January 2013.
 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

A Personal Forest

"Every year on New Years Day I write down my annual electric meter reading, chart the milage of whatever vehicles I used, including buses, trains and airplanes, and also quantify my use of propane gas, firewood, etc. From that I determine how many trees I need to plant in the coming year to offset the climate impact of my lifestyle."


 When I was a young boy my parents moved from the Chicago suburbs to a hardwood forested area of Connecticut, which is where I grew up. My back yard was those woods, and I used to have play forts, many different camping or hiding areas, and a succession of tree houses. I liked to overnight on a mattress of pine needles in a small grove of pines, and sometimes even did that in a foot of fresh, powdered snow. My parents also let me climb trees and play on an old rug covering scrap timber I had placed across the lower boughs of a large post oak. Later I built a round pole tipi in that tree and spent many summer nights living there, learning to climb up and down with ropes. 

I guess you could say trees are as family to me. They remain a part of my life wherever I go. When I was 17 I learned to work horses on the long line, and later, when I arrived at the Farm in Tennessee, fresh out of grad school, I put those skills to use snaking logs from the forest with a team of Belgian mares. I built a tent home for my bride on a platform of hand hewn oak logs acquired that way. People would sometimes come to the Ecovillage Training Center at The Farm and marvel at the small-diameter round poles used for rafters on the very large living roof spanning our Green Dragon tavern, but I knew when I built that roof that round poles were much stronger than milled lumber. They were like the tree limbs that had supported my tree houses.

Deep Well Injection

In my thirties I was a pubic interest attorney fighting against a chemical company in a town 15 miles from The Farm. The company was manufacturing organophosphate pesticides and herbicides and injecting its waste products, including its bad batches, into a deep well. The State Water Quality labs had tested the green luminescent effluent and said it was the most toxic they’d ever encountered. A single drop dripped into their fish tank killed all the fish within 24 hours. 

That deep well went nearly a mile down and pressure fractured bedded limestone — it “fracked” it — to make the rock more receptive to millions of gallons of this witches’ brew. The fracturing also opened pathways into the Knox Aquifer, one of the largest underground rivers in North America, and presumedly went on to contaminate other large, potentially important, fresh water reserves for the Southeastern United States over a very large area. Each test well the company drilled showed that the contamination had already travelled farther away from the site than the company was willing to track. The State did not have the resources to drill million-dollar test wells, so the full extent of the damage may never be known. As well water in the area gradually turned fluorescent green, the company bought out the landowners and sealed their wells.

When our local environmental group sued the company, the company told the judge that there was no reason to protect the aquifer because the Southeast region had plenty of fresh water on or close to the surface. In written briefs, I made two arguments against that: population and climate change. Freshwater resources were valuable, and would only become more so.

This was the early 1980s, and there I was, going into a Tennessee court and trying to make a case for global warming. It forced me to read nearly every study I could get my hands on and to contact experts and beg them to come and testify. I tried to simplify an extremely complex subject so that the average judge or juror could understand it, despite confusing and confounding webs of arcane psuedoscience spun by company lawyers, and exceptions in the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act that you could pump a lake through.

As it turned out, the case never went to trial. The Tennessee Department of Health and Environment contacted me and persuaded me I should help them draft regulations banning deepwell injection and hydro-fracking, which I agreed to do. That was a much less costly route for the local environmental group, letting the State bear the expense of experts to fight off the well-funded and unscrupulous industrial lobby. We had won, although it took a few years before the victory was sealed and the chemical companies packed up and left town. Their toxic waste is still down there, for now.
In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self purification; and direct action. — M.L. King, Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963).
In that time I had spent reading and speaking with experts I had scared myself. Global warming was a much bigger deal than I originally thought. We were up only a half-degree over the prior century at that point, but already there were signs the poles were melting, sea levels were rising, and more frequent droughts were coming to mid-continents. In 1988, the Mississippi River had gotten so low that barge traffic had to be suspended. My young congressman, Al Gore Jr., opened hearings on Capitol Hill. Scientists began going public to sound the alarm. Big Oil and Coal began funding campaigns to undermine the smear those scientists and to poison the public debate with bogus studies and conspiracy theories. The Bush Administration’s official policy was climate science censorship. All these signs were ominous.

Carbon Sinks

Fossil fuels have had such a profound change on civilization that it is difficult to imagine giving them up voluntarily. They issued in the industrial revolution and globalized the world with railroads and steamships. They ended a particularly odious practice that had been the traditional method of Empire-building for the previous 5000 years, supplanting the long tradition of human slaves with “energy slaves” and “energy-saving” home appliances. The American Civil War was a last gasp of plantation economics, and it ended with a crushing victory for steely industrialists and their fossil energy, who went on to extend their new empire with the Spanish American War and all the resource wars thereafter. Does the end of coal and oil mean a return to human slavery or can we learn to craft an egalitarian society within a solar budget? Time will tell.

On the other side of the ledger, there are a few promising signs that something can be done to reverse the effects of three centuries of oil and coal addiction. The forests of North America remain a net carbon sink, but when land goes from forest to farm, it generates a huge spike in atmospheric carbon. In Mexico, which is losing more than 5000 km2 of forest every year, logging, fires and soil degradation account for 42% of the country’s estimated annual emissions of carbon. In addition to the carbon lost from trees, soils lose 25–31% of their initial carbon (to a depth of 1 m) when plowed, irrigated and cultivated.

In the US, croplands increased from about 2500 km2 in 1700 to 2,360,000 km2 in 1990 (although nearly all of that occurred before 1920). Pastures expanded from 1000 km2 to 2,300,000 km2 over the same period. The fabled era of the cowboy was between 1850 and 1950, and the pattern was repeated in Canada and Mexico. But then something different happened.

Partly because of the Dust Bowl and the organized responses of the Roosevelt Administration, partly because of the Great Depression, and partly because of an emerging conservation ethic, after 1920 many farmlands were abandoned in the northeast, southeast and north central regions and 100,000 km2 were reforested by nature. Between 1938 and 2002 the US gained 123 million acres of forest from farm abandonment while losing 150 million acres to logging, primarily in the Southeast and Pacific Northwest. This trend, net marginal loss, continues today in the US and Canada, in contrast to Mexico which is rapidly destroying its forests, and not re-growing them anywhere.

TABLE: Carbon budget for Harvard Forest from forest inventory and eddy-covariance flux measurements, 1993–2001. Positive values are sink, negative values are source. From Barford, C.C., et al., Factors controlling long- and short-term sequestration of atmospheric CO2 in a mid-latitude forest. Science, 294:5547;1688–1691 (2001).
TABLE: Comparison of net ecosystem exchange (NEE) for different types and ages of temperate forests. Negative NEE means the forest is a sink for atmospheric CO2. Eighty-one site years of data are from multiple published papers from each of the AmeriFlux network sites, and a network synthesis paper (Law et al., 2002). NEE was averaged by site, then the mean was determined by forest type and age class. SD is standard deviation among sites in the forest type and age class. From The First State of the Carbon Cycle Report (SOCCR): The North American Carbon Budget and Implications for the Global Carbon Cycle. A Report by the U.S. Climate Change Science Program and the Subcommittee on Global Change Research. A. W. King, L. Dilling, et al, eds. (2007), Appendix D, p 174.

The net sink effect of a recovering forest is variable but the average for Eastern deciduous successional forest it is 200 grams C per m2 per year, or two metric tons per hectare. This is calculated by considering annual growth and mortality above and below ground, the chemical changes in dead wood, and net changes in soil carbon. (Pacla S., et al., Eddy-covariance measurements now confirm estimates of carbon sinks from forest inventories, in King & Dilling, 2007).

Sometime around 1985 I began planting trees to offset my personal carbon footprint. Today that forest is about 30 acres (12 ha) and annually plants itself. I wrote a book, Climate in Crisis, pulling together my legal research and laying the climate science out in lay terms that non-scientists, such as myself, could grasp. In 1995, I retired from law to become a permaculture teacher and ecovillage designer. I continued to attend scientific meetings and international negotiations on climate, and I contributed a blog, many magazine articles and books to the discussion. I kept myself current with the latest findings, always exploring pathways that might provide solutions, not just for my personal footprint, but also to the coming climate catastrophe for us all.

Atmospheric Scrub Brushes

We could spend print here discussing geoengineering, replacements for fossil energy, biochar, and shifting to some form of ecological agriculture, but the truth of the matter is, nothing can heal our global chemical imbalance faster than trees.

As I wrote in Climate in Crisis, and later in other books, forests are scrub brushes. They absorb CO2 from the air, transform it to O2 with the magic of photosynthesis, and sequester the C in lignin and cellulose. They also transfer it deep into the ground through their roots and the soil food web. 
We, the humans, might be able, under optimal conditions, to get up to sequestering as much as 1 gigaton of carbon (petagram C or PgC) annually by switching to “carbon farming:” holistic management; compost teas; keyline; and organic no-till. Biochar’s full potential is estimated at 4 to 10 PgC per year, if the world were to widely employ biomass-to-energy pyrolysis reactors.


Forests, with all-out reforestation and afforestation, have a potential yield of 80 PgC/yr.

The climate cycle, with 393 ppm C in the air [this was written in January 2013. The number now is 407], is currently adding 2 parts per million to the atmosphere annually. That represents an additional retention of 3.2 PgC over what Earth is able to flush back to the land or the oceans. The oceans are acidifying — at a disastrous pace — because of the excess C being flushed, so what needs to happen is that more C needs to be taken from both the oceans and the atmosphere and entombed in the land, which is, in point of fact, where the excess came from in the first place.

Going Beyond Zero

To get back to 350 ppm — Bill McKibben’s goal — we need to lower atmospheric carbon by 42 ppm, or 67.4 PgC. If we wanted to accomplish that goal as quickly as say, 2050 (37 years from now), we would need to average a net C removal rate of 1.82 PgC/yr. So we need to go from plus 3.2 to minus 1.8, on average, over about 40 years. Of course, many, myself included, don’t believe 350 is good enough to pull our fat from the fire. I would prefer we aim for 320 ppm by 2050 if we want to escape the worst Mother Nature is now preparing to dish up.


A 320 goal in 37 years means we need to lower atmospheric carbon by 72 ppm, or 115 PgC; an average a net C removal rate of 3.1 PgC/yr. In other words, we need to flip from adding 3.2 PgC greenhouse gas pollution every year to removing about that amount. We have to go net negative, for at least the next 40 years. 

Organic gardening and soil remineralization, as Vandana Shiva, Elaine Ingham, Dan Kittredge and others are so enthusiastic for, will not get us there, although it is a good start and an important wedge, with many other benefits. Biochar could get us there, but the industry is immature, poorly understood by environmentalists, and dependent on financing that may or may not be available in an era of de-growth and economic collapse. To scale up to 3 or 4 PgC/yr is likely to take longer than 40 years. 
Tree planting is our best bet. Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps planted massive shelterbelts to end the Dust Bowl, and the jobs provided helped lift the USA out of the Great Depression. The same could be done in Spain and Greece, not to mention Africa. And, lest we forget, two of the world’s greatest reforestitians, Christopher Columbus and Genghis Khan, demonstrated our species’ ability to rapidly change climate. They showed that we could even jump start a minor Ice Age if we wanted. Talk about air conditioning! Fageddaboutit.

Right now, the planet is still rapidly losing forest. I drew this illustration for my newsletter, Natural Rights, in the mid-1980s:


In 1988, borrowing from federal agency reports being suppressed from publication by the first Bush administration, I drew graphics to show what would happen to the Eastern forest in a 5 degree warmer world, and the kind of species migrations that might be expected:


A more important point, which I raised in Climate in Crisis, was that individual forest patch compositions are less important than the synergies that are lost when those compositions are broken up. It matters what happens between patches, and it is not just about plants, either. We need to consider the pollinators and seed storing animals. They can’t just have food in one season, they need it in all seasons, or they will leave. Some plants and animals are fast migrators (armadillos and spruce) and some are much slower (leafcutter ants and ginkgo). When you force a rapid system change, the network of connections is broken, and it may take some time to find new equilibrium. In the meantime, biodiversity crashes and ecological services are impaired. The web unravels.

GHG Footprints

In the early Nineties I used to quip that before I wrote my book on climate my greenhouse pollution footprint had been in steady decline for 10 years. After I wrote my book it went through the roof. Invitations to speak continue to increase, even now, 23 years later.

Every year on New Years Day I write down my annual electric meter reading, chart the milage of whatever vehicles I used, including buses, trains and airplanes, and also quantify my use of propane gas, firewood, etc. Using a conversion formula from the book, I convert my personal energy slaves into tree-years. From that I determine how many trees I need to plant in the coming year to offset the climate impact of my lifestyle.

Planting trees as a personal offset requires a bit of advance planning, because the calculation depends on how long a tree will grow, how big it will become, and what it will likely give back to the atmosphere at the end of its life. Also, one has to anticipate the changing dynamics ushered in by rapid climate change. This led me to arrange for a long-term contract of some land and to acquire new knowledge on how best to plant and manage a climate-resilient forest.

I now have the benefit of visits to the Pioneer and Alford forests in the Ozarks, which I describe in The Biochar Solution (2010), as well as to wilderness old growth in Scotland, British Columbia, Northern Queensland in Australia, Muir Wood in California, the Darien Peninsula of Colombia, the Mesoamerican highlands and the Amazonian Basin, to name a few. I have studied permaculture, with special reference to the work of Christopher Nesbitt, David Jacke and Eric Toensmeier in designing a methodology for building food-resource forests. But, back in 1985, I had none of that, and so I began on a part of my parents’ farm that was in the process of transitioning from vegetable field production to low brush. 

In the second installment of this series, I will describe the planting of my personal forest and how I calculate its carbon sequestration impact.

Apologies to regular followers of our blog who may read the above when it was first published in 2013. We are re-running this two-part series this week and next while absorbed teaching a Permaculture course in Ireland.
 

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Is God Serious?

"How ironic is it that having cornered some seemingly unique absence of reality, adherents cannot tolerate views that cling to a different absence of reality?"


We confess we have always found delicious humor in the tall tales that religions tell. If you are a certain kind of Muslim you may believe that the Prophet, may his name be blessed, ascended to his heavenly throne mounted on a centaur.

If you are Christian, you take it as an article of faith that 2000 years ago there was an Arab with a Mexican name (usually portrayed as handsome, white and with a stubbly goatee) who had more powers than Superman (although making time go backwards in Superman-I was pretty cool). The Naz, as Lord Buckley called him, was born from a virgin, could heal the sick, raise the dead (including himself), and turn water into wine (which is way better than having to run down to the package store in the middle of the party).

According to the Book of Mormon, young Joseph Smith used x-ray glasses provided by the Angel Moroni to locate the buried golden plates, inscribed in a heretofore unknown Egyptian dialect, which he translated with the assistance of seer stones. The plates revealed to Smith that the indigenous peoples of the Americas were actually descendants of the lost tribe of Israelites that left Jerusalem at the urging of God c. 600 BC. It was good advice, because the Babylonians showed up 14 years later and laid waste to the city. The escape of the Nephites was sort of like Arthur Dent getting tractor beamed out of the way of the Vogon Destructor Fleet that was clearing the path through Earth's orbit for a hyperspace bypass. 

The Book of Mormon said God cursed the Lamanites by turning their skin dark for disobeying him and rewarded the Nephites by making their skin “white and delightsome.” Presumedly the Native Americans of Smith’s time had drifted a bit from their more obedient ancestors.

Hindus, Buddhists, and Druids share with Jews, Christians, Mormons and Muslims the notion of an eternal soul, although the former believe it reincarnates and the latter think it gets to dwell in a heavenly or hellish afterlife. Mormons are especially cute in how they ritualistically rehearse entry into that afterlife, within the lily white bowels of their tabernacles.


So how is it that otherwise reasonably literate and well-educated people, some of them scientists, scholars or rational professionals, are so willing to believe this claptrap?

One explanation could be the yearning for tribe that we discussed here last month. Chalk it up to the modern world of alienated youth, helicopter parents and cyberamphibian cocooning.

While somewhat satisfying from an evolutionary biology perspective, it still would not explain, for instance, the Middle Ages.
Neurobiological adaptation, on the other hand, might. 

At a chance meeting tapside during a science conference in 2005, Danny Brower, insect geneticist, posed an unusual idea to Ajit Varki, evolutionary glycobiologist. Brower said he believed he could explain the origins of human uniqueness among the world’s species.

Brower asked Varki a question the latter couldn’t answer. Given the amount of spare brain capacity, Brower asked, why is there no humanlike elephant, crow or dolphin, despite millions of years of evolutionary opportunity? Why is it that humans alone seem to be able understand the minds of others?

Setting aside the anthropocentric hubris and physiological arrogance in that question, Brower and Varki’s book, Denial, proposed that when humans gained not just self-awareness but an understanding that other individuals are also self-aware and have independent minds, they suddenly became aware of their own mortality. Okay, we can accept that.

Muhammad’s ascent into the Heavens, a journey known as the Mi’raj, as depicted in a copy of the Bostan of Saadi.
Brower and Varki put forward the hypothesis that the overwhelming fear that such knowledge produced simultaneously developed a coping mechanism — a neural pathway for denying reality.

According to Denial Theory, this convergence of self-awareness and self-delusion was a highly unlikely event that has happened only once in the evolution of life on our planet. While some other species demonstrate features of self-awareness, the book argues that humans are unique in the mental ability to deny reality, which has led to the development of religiosity, death rituals and theories of an afterlife.

Of course, this is a long way from proven. We don’t know, for instance, that dolphins are not religious or that elephants do not fret about their own mortality, especially when administered 296 mg of LSD in CIA mind-control experiments. What is not easy to explain is why does every religion have a life after death story? And why are humans the only species that appear to need these? Varki explains that belief in life after death originates from a mutation to deny the reality of mortality and this improbable mutation has occurred so far in only one species.

Reality denial actually has profound physical benefits — allowing those near death to have tranquility, endowing healing powers through faith and well-documented “mind over matter” phenomenon. Some of these benefits extend to social cohesion, encouraging altruism and camaraderie, and self-improvement regimens.

There is also a dark side, and it is very, very dark. Suspension of belief in a scientific reality is grist for the mills of demagogues. It permits unethical manipulators of the faithful to get elected by denying climate change and peak everything or claiming that Russia’s leader possesses supernatural powers to control the rest of the world. 

The apostle Paul decreed that the persons who practice adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, “and such like” “shall not inherit the Kingdom of God”(Galatians 5:19–21).

Once you install a bouncer at the Pearly Gates, you can sell indulgences, demand unquestioning obedience to an arcane creed and slaughter apostates. Or simply anyone you don’t like. “Moral hazard” is a ready-made tool for tyrants.

Or, you can simply use your denial gene to ignore moral hazard. How cool is that?

Writes Varki:
As a consequence of this evolutionary quirk we now deny any aspects of reality that are not to our liking-we smoke cigarettes, eat unhealthy foods, and avoid exercise, knowing these habits are a prescription for an early death. And so what has worked to establish our species could be our undoing if we continue to deny the consequences of unrealistic approaches to everything from personal health to financial risk-taking to climate change. On the other hand reality-denial affords us many valuable attributes, such as optimism, confidence, and courage in the face of long odds.
If anxiety about death leads to belief in the afterlife and associated behavioral taboos, it also leads to religions that proclaim themselves exceptional, and not just from the laws of biology and physics.

Mormon membership is over 15 million and rapidly growing, yet Mormons consciously and intentionally retain their identity as a “peculiar people,” believing their unique relationship with God helps save them from “worldliness,” despite all the outward trappings of consumerism. 

Ditto Judaism. Ditto Catholicism. The list goes on. 

The division between Pakistan and India is all about religion. Same for Ireland, Rwanda, China and Tibet. Same for most of the conflicts in the Middle East. Choose an historic genocide and you will find religious intolerance at its root. How ironic is it that having cornered some seemingly unique absence of reality, adherents cannot tolerate views that cling to a different absence of reality?

There are, among all these strange fantasy cults, a few strains of stoical acceptance, non-attachment, magnanimity in the face of mortality. You can find such gnostic sects hidden away in most of the big religions. If there are heroic martyrs in human history, surely they are the Atheists. They don’t deny death. The higher power they clutch is called science.

Sooner than the 99 percent imagine, the exponential curve of human population will flip to its inverse. It must, because the physical world we inhabit has limits and we ignorantly (as in, to ignore) passed them by decades ago. In that cascading Age of Consequences, with out-scaled megacities nine meals from anarchy, will our religions console us or make matters even worse? 

Is coping with the hard realities of existence by supernatural feats of denial really a genetic endowment we should be thankful for?


Superman I




 

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