Sunday, October 25, 2020

The Great Pause Week 32: Deficit Spending

"Many people reject the notion that we could already be beyond carrying capacity, but try to picture it like a marathon runner becoming dehydrated."

 “In the last 3 weeks we’ve seen as many new cases as in the previous 8 months.”

 — Wisconsin Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes, October 15, 2020
“During the 1950’s, people used twice as much oil as during the 1940’s. During the 1960’s, we used twice as much as during the 1950’s. And in each of those decades, more oil was consumed than in all of man’s previous history combined.”
 — US President Jimmy Carter, November 8, 1977
In the fall of the first year of the 21st century coronavirus pandemic, the President of México delivered to his Beatitude, Pope Francis, a request for apology from the Catholic Church on behalf of the indigenous peoples of México, for the genocide they had endured by the edicts of his predecessors.

On the one hand, the request, and whatever response His Holiness may give, can be viewed as merely symbolic. They have no significance to the cultures that were exterminated; to the many languages lost; to cultivated ecologies that continuously regenerated food, fuel, climate and a wide community of diverse lifeforms; to the wisdom gathered over millennia and then scratched out as if it had never existed to begin with. A Pope’s apology will not unburn Mayan codices. It will not restore the carved and polished exterior stones to the pyramids of Tenochtitlan. It will not recover the chinampas of Xochlmilco or refill Lake Texcoco.

Today the number of independent nations in the world fluctuates at around 200. At the time of the Spanish Conquest, it may have been more than 3000. According to carved stone monuments erected in Sri Lanka and on the Malabar coast of India, and to contemporaneous journals (1403–1430), “3,000 countries large and small” (Duyvendak’s first translation) were contacted on the diplomatic voyages of Admiral Zheng He (郑和) on behalf of Ming Emperors Zhu Di (成祖 朱棣), Zhu Gaochi (朱高熾), and Zhu Zhanji (宣宗 朱瞻基) in 1405–1433. 

By the start of the second millennia, Ireland contained a dozen separate kingdoms. The Armenian region of the Eastern Mediterranean and the India/Tibet region each contained a similar number. There were scores of Swahili and Bantu kingdoms and city-states in Southeastern Africa. Alliances or conquests of many nations separately comprised the Holy Roman Empires of Italy and Germany, the Caliphates of Northern Africa and Arabia, the Ghaznavid Empire, and the Volga-Bulgar, Kara-Khanid, and Khazar Khanates.

There were likely more than 100 separate Pre-columbian sovereign nations just within the borders of present México, as nearly as different from one another as Borneo and Switzerland. Even today there are more than 20 distinct Mayan linguistic groups.

Map of the nations before Columbus created by Victor G. Temprano 

As in other parts of the world, great empires waxed and waned in Central America. Hernán Cortéz conquered the vastly superior army of the Aztec Triple Empire by allying with smallpox. Pizarro happened upon an Incan Empire devastated by plague and civil war. Many nations and alliances were never militarily conquered, merely converted to Catholicism and culturally absorbed into something called New Spain. “Catholic” literally translates from Latin as “homogenizing”; “including a wide variety of things”; or “all-embracing” and that was its strategic genius. In addition to demanding that conquered peoples bend the knee (and bend backs as perpetually impoverished slaves), the priests bent their own narratives to bring in a Black Madonna, a Mestizo Madonna, and a Corn Goddess. Ritual offerings where mendicants kneel together to drink the blood of Christ (if you were ever Christian you can relate) were different in place more than in kind to ritual bloodlettings by an ash-covered shaman standing atop a pyramid temple. 

Aaron Carapella’s map of Mexico before Columbus

The unspeakably cruel genocide of native peoples unleashed in the second half of the second millennium of Christ was not the worst sin of the Catholic Church in México, however. Worse was the sin of overpopulation. 

From that Biblical command flowed all the serpents of our present impending doom: climate chaos; the Sixth Great Extinction; illegal migration; deforestation and desertification. The Vatican edict on birth control demanded Mexicans of every descent, in whose blood flowed genetic histories of hundreds of different nations, go forth and be good Catholics by having many children, and even more grandchildren, and many times that number of great-grandchildren. It was their Christian duty as servants of The Lamb.

The colonization of México is not unique, of course. Nor is peer-pressed fecundity confined to the worshipers of Jesus of Nazareth, who was celibate as far as we are told. In many parts of the Muslim world, polygamy — in the limited “poly” sense of one rooster and many hens — is still sanctioned and confers social status. Fundamentalist (Christian) Mormons call it “celestial marriage.” These marriages produce far more offspring than dyadic arrangements even in the serial mode rather than parallel, and when coupled with child marriage, more generations within a single lifetime. A grim reaper of planetary proportions emerges from fecund families in Senegal, Indonesia and Utah and scythes through land fertility, threatened species, forests, and whatever remnants of hospitable climate may remain. Heirloom orchards fall to make room for cement subdivisions, single use plastics flow from rivers into bays, and more caves and canopies spill their viral inventories into the bloodstreams of invaders and domestic livestock.

In a recent piece for The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum relates a story of how when it came time to vote for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, Saudi Arabia abstained because the document supported everyone’s right to “change their religion or belief.” In several branches of Islam, even today, choosing to leave the faith is a capital crime. So it is with the Catholic prohibition on birth control— by all means cut your foreskin if it marks you Judeo-Christian, but sever testicular tubing at peril of excommunication. In many countries, having greater numbers of children or grandchildren benefits political candidates (US presidents have 4.1 on average), as if fecundity signaled foresight instead of its opposite.

In the exponential sequence, numbers double to a given cadence — hourly, daily, weekly or whatever. 128 becomes 256 at the same interval as 2 became 4. Then 256 becomes 512, becomes 1024, and so on. As we get up into the higher numbers, the doublings are less easy to ignore. 8 billion becomes 16 billion becomes 32 billion. They come at us with speed AND power. 

When I was born in 1947, the world held 2.5 billion humans. That seemed a large amount, but it took less than 40 years, or until 1988, to double to 5 billion. We may have already gone beyond Earth’s carrying capacity for such a troublemaking species by our 30th doubling to 1 billion. My father was born in 1908, just after that doubling. I may live to see the 33rd, to 8 billion. The exponential function, by the way, is also why SARS-CoV-2 is still so dangerous.

Many people reject the notion that we could already be beyond carrying capacity, but try to picture it like a marathon runner becoming dehydrated. If they pick up some water along the route and drink it, their body will refresh. If not, they’ll draw down reserves and go into deficit energy spending. Performance drops, then they get dizzy and start to stagger. Vision blurs. They may collapse. Up to some point the body can recover and regain its former strength. Carried beyond that, permanent damage can be done. We, as a species, have been doing permanent damage. 

We are deficit spending when we do mountaintop removal. We are deficit spending when we take a fish population below the point of reproductive recovery. We are deficit spending when we release the Fukushima wastewater to the Pacific or Hanford tank farm plutonium to the Columbia River. These are not debts our children and grandchildren can repay. They are permanent damage. 

Climate chaos, the Sixth Great Extinction, deforestation, and desertification, migrant border camps and zoonotic spillovers are all symptoms of the disease that Pope Francis should really be apologizing for spreading.

The Catholic Church has been the Donald Trump of the population pandemic.

Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. My latest book, Plagued, is out now. A children’s version of Dark Side of the Ocean called Making Waves, may be out by Christmas. Please help if you can.


Sunday, October 18, 2020

The Great Pause Week 31: The Inevitable Glide Path

"This week I am starting to build raised beds from street rubble and found bottles."

I gave a talk on Tuesday of this week at the Scaling Biochar Forum put on by the Sonoma Ecology Center in California. I canned the talk at the end of September and posted it to YouTube because I worried I would not have sufficient bandwidth to Zoom into the conference and give the keynote in person. Two hurricanes 5 days apart proved the strategy prescient. 

My video is unlisted so it doesn’t appear on my YouTube channel page. It also won’t appear in YouTube search results unless someone adds it to a public playlist, but you can see it here:

Going back now to watch it I think, “Well, I could have taken that part out and made it tighter,” or “I wish I had said something more about that,” or “that scroll runs much too fast and you lose the information.” But you can get the idea. This is a work in progress, and it served its purpose. The audience was climate wonks, investors interested in carbon capture, engineers, activists, and agronomists. I immediately started getting mail from forum participants wanting to know how they could get more involved in our Belize Cool Lab.

In September the Lab applied for a round of funding from the Rasmussen Fund but I was notified Monday that we had not made the cut. Our chances going in were 1 in 10 and the house won. This is the latest of many such rejections this year, but we are far from dispirited. These exercises, even when unsuccessful, hone our fundraising skills and better define our project with each rewriting. Gradually, we elaborate our budget and time targets. We write more annexes to our white paper. This is something that will happen, if not as quickly as we’d like, or the world needs.

Parque San Bernardino de Sisal, Valladolid. Hurricane Gamma 2020

I am just back from evacuation to Valladolid and restoring my little palapa after the storm. I lost some plants and trees to the winds and flooding, but my new biochar cement roof came through Gamma’s meter-deep rainfall and Delta’s 150-mph winds unscathed. This week I am starting to build raised beds from street rubble and found bottles so that next time all my plants can survive. 

There is not yet good water pressure or reliable internet here, but our power and cell-service is restored so I can get on my laptop if I set up my phone as a hotspot. This is a great improvement over Hurricane Wilma in 2005, when I could only use devices that could recharge from my small portable solar array. Back then, with a MacBook, a 12V adapter, and no intermediate battery, I wrote The Post Petroleum Survival Guide in the 2 months it took to fully restore services. I sympathize with the folks in Southern Louisiana who are going through that kind of long-haul ordeal now, with the pandemic thrown in, but maybe a few of them have that book.

Covid testing and contact tracing is not something they do in rural Mexico, much like North Dakota. You may get tested if you are hospitalized, but typically once you lose taste and smell and your lips turn blue it is assumed you’ve got it. If you survive, you get tested on the way out of the hospital to make sure you are not contagious.

Our Covid support group of four people that used to meet every day to encourage each other to stay vigilant — our little “quaranteam” — is now 75% Covid positive. Sandra, who led the way, emerged and is presumed relatively immune after the ordeal. Diana nearly died but is out of critical care now. Anna took Diana to the hospital in Cancun when she developed blue lips and lost feeling in her limbs, per the protocol. That was during the Gamma/Delta evacuation I described last week, and now, a week later, Anna came down with early symptoms and is in home care. Of our four I am the only one still untouched.

Many of the residents here are quite angry with local officials who oversaw the evacuation because scores who may have been symptomatic and were forced from their home isolation were made to stand in the same long lines and board the same crowded boats and buses as hundreds of us with potential vulnerabilities of age or disease histories. We hope that this experience, and the angry response now, will change how it goes the next time.

But one could say that of the Spanish Flu of 1918. It had all the lessons we needed — a president (Woodrow Wilson) who refused to cancel War Bond parades or order masks and closures; how to expect and treat a cytokine storm; and a rewriting of history so that World War I is remembered for brutal trench warfare and poison gas until the doughboys arrived to save the allies with a daring exhibition of American Exceptionalism, instead of by the flu they brought from Kansas that so infected the armies it ended the war. Will this be the same: rebranded as our finest hour? Barring some miracle vaccine we may have a few years to think about that.

Stay safe and be prepared. We live in interesting times.

Help me get my blog posted every week. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. My latest book, Plagued, is out now. A children’s version of Dark Side of the Ocean called Making Waves, may be out by Christmas. Please help if you can.


Sunday, October 11, 2020

The Great Pause Week 30: Dawn after Delta

"The trick to mental preparation is to keep your focus when everyone around you is losing theirs."


STORM SURGE: A life-threatening storm surge will raise water levels in areas of onshore winds by as much as 9 to 13 ft above normal tide levels along the northern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula from Cabo Catoche to Progresso, and 6 to 9 ft above normal tide levels along the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula from Tulum to Cabo Catoche. Near the coast, the surge will be accompanied by large and destructive waves.

Since March, after running a permaculture workshop in furtherance of our prototype Cool Lab in Belize, I have been holed up in a small cottage in a sand-street island village in the Mexican Yucatan where I have in past years come to write my books in winter months. This has been an exceptionally long winter — 30 weeks now — but at 73 and having heart and lung conditions that predispose me towards a quick demise should I contract the SARS-CoV-2 virus, I have remained sheltered in that place, 8 miles out into the Atlantic, from an abundance of caution.

I don’t know that age necessarily confers wisdom. I know several fellow seniors that I consider pretty obtuse. Not to say I have any special position from which to judge, mind you, because I find myself pretty obtuse at times as well, and in hindsight could have done better making many decisions. Still, I feel age confers experience, and sometimes maybe I see things that younger friends may not. I often wish I could have had time at this age to have discussions with my parents, because by the age I had attained when they passed I was incapable of even asking the right questions.

Having gone through a number of experiences where my life hung in the balance, I am not too bold in saying I can offer good advice to people when they find themselves suddenly plunked into danger.

My first bit of advice is as simple as the Scout motto: be prepared. Footnote: if the Scouts had been prepared for dealing with pedophiles they wouldn’t be in liquidation proceedings now. The second rule is you are never prepared. At least, never perfectly provisioned. You can always be mentally prepared.

The trick to mental preparation is to keep your focus when everyone around you is losing theirs. Stop. It may not seem like there is time to pause, but pause anyway. Threat matrix. Inventory. Sequence of coming events. What will you need and when will you need it? Make a quick plan, you can revise and improve it later. Then execute, firmly, without hesitation. Don’t get distracted. If there were a third rule, it would be to keep your sense of humor because funny stuff will happen.

There are many caveats. Having a team is to be preferred, but teamwork carries its own hazards. By way of example, I went to Washington for the Clinton-Gore First Inaugural. I went by the transition office where Al had left me a pass to the swearing-in bleachers. I was deeply honored to be admitted to a viewing seat at that moment in history. 

On the morning of the Inauguration I met with a lawyer friend and we decided to drive out along the Virginia route Bill and Al’s excellent adventure bus was taking into the city. We had the list of their planned stops, some where there would be a podium and speeches, and some where the bus just pulled off the road and they got out to shake hands with those gathered. Towards evening there would be a White House reception and the public could attend, first come, first serve if you got in line early. So our plan was the morning bus stop meet and greet, midday witness to the swearing in, and then directly to the reception line.

I was not surprised to see at the first stop in a small town square that people had to pass through a Secret Service metal detector. I went through the portal and was collecting my belt and coins on the far side when my friend, who reminds me a little of the Brown Buffalo Samoan Dr. Gonzo (based on Chicano activist Oscar Zeta Acosta) in Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was held up because of the metal ring on his hash pipe. In his shirt pocket. Full of bud. 

I thought, “Was he born that stupid or did he learn it?” And that was pretty much the end of that day for me. Funny stuff happens.

This past Monday afternoon I got the word that we were in the direct path of Delta and she would be arriving for supper on Tuesday. I had last looked at the NHC track that morning when Delta was forecast to cross Cuba, presenting little danger to us. I had spent the day cleaning up damage from Gamma, which had delimbed my Uva del Mar, flooded my yard (not my house) and taken my septic tank off line so my toilet and shower were off limits. I was working to drain down the yard with a sump pump and Lysol my bathroom when it started to rain hard. Then came the news.

NOAA predicted a storm surge of 9 to 13 feet. The highest point of my island was 1.7 meters — 5 foot 6 inches.

There was no time to waste, but back to rule #1. Pause and take stock. I made a plan and executed it. I am executing it still, in that I am living out of my suitcase and ready to move again in 5 minutes if required. I know what I have and what I lack.

Living on a sandbar 8 miles into the Atlantic Ocean, I already had a hurricane plan, so that part was easy. I filled waterproof plastic tubs with all my stuff and stacked them above where the waterline had been for Wilma, the largest Atlantic hurricane on record. Everything I owned and could move went above that mark.

My new biochar-ferrocement roof was an improvement over the thatch I’d had during Wilma but I tarped everything inside anyway. I steel-cabled my footlocker to a roof beam. Darkness descended to the sound of the police department’s only vehicle going street-to-street with loudspeakers blaring to tell everyone a mandatory evacuation order was in effect for Tuesday.

Gamma exits into the Gulf as Delta approaches

I kept prepping, having time now to go out and rescue some of my recent plantings — ginger, tumeric, moringa, neem, coffee — and get them on shelves. I brought in all my garden tools and my bike and put them above the Wilma line. I elevated furniture. Then I packed my jump kit, prepared to leave, and slept until dawn.

This is where it starts to get complicated. The next part of the story goes back to lifetime experience and what I said earlier about choosing your partnerships. On Monday when I learned about the storm track changing, I messaged my friend, with whom I had earlier discussed evacuation planning. I asked her what she intended. My friend, at 68, is only recently recovered from a month-long bout with Covid and awaiting a postponed surgery, having no cartilage in one knee. She is not infectious and likely swimming in antigens. Traveling is safer for her than for me, albeit more painful. She said she planned to go to Valladolid but did not invite me. Later she texted and asked if I would come with her to assist with her dogs. My threat analysis:


She has her own car, and traveling that way will be much safer than public transportation.
She is not going to be infectious.
Our mutual friend owns a nice hotel in Valladolid and there are rooms available for us there. It is far enough South to be leeward of the hurricane wind, most likely. 
She is psychologically stable.
We get along.


Six dogs. 
High Stress. 
Walking only with great pain and difficulty. 
Once we embarked, there would be mutual dependence. 
Her timetable, not mine.

On balance I took the risk and accepted her offer. I had another kind offer from a close friend in Solferino, a town about 15 miles inland. I could stay in her home, which would be closer, and promptly return to the island after the storm passed. My life experience again entered upon my thoughts. During Hurricane Wilma in 2005, my close friend Maria had been living in Solferino and decided to remain there rather than leave. Her hurricane experience was like a horror film. Flying pigs. Drowning chickens, cats and dogs. She had to climb to the second floor to stay above the rising water. Should I evacuate to that location now? No, and I told my friends to leave, too. 

Per agreement with my travel companion, I was preparing to leave home early Tuesday and rendezvous at the dock. The streets were all badly flooded from Gamma and the rain overnight but I had packed lightly and was ready to go. She was not. The hours ticked by as I tinkered about making fast more of my stuff that was not tied down or otherwise well secured. Finally at 9 am she said she needed help and asked me to come to her house.

Me: Can you send the carrito? My bike is hung up and I will have to lock up and take my bag if I leave. [Carritos are the golf carts used on an island that prohibits automobiles.]

Her: There is no carrito [it had been moved inside and the sliding doors sealed with plywood]. Please just come and find a CanAm [off road taxi] on your way.

Me: I don’t know how. I could lock my bag in my house and then come back for it. I will have to wade there barefoot. I have not seen many CanAms. 

Her: Need help.

Me: Yes, but I am on the far side of town and there are lakes. I can help but will need to find a way to get there. How will you get to the boat if there is no carrito? All the taxis are being put on shelves or barged to the mainland. 

Her: Find a way Albert.

Fair enough. You make your choices in life, then you have to live with them. I locked my bag in my house and took a good staff for a long wade 12 blocks to her house. It took a half hour. Once there, I saw she was still directing a 3-man crew attaching plywood battens to her windows and doors. The dogs were leashed and ready to go. Her bags were packed. She sent me wading to the main road to find a taxi. I flagged down three CanAm taxis but they were all en route to get customers who had phoned, so I returned and asked if she could call for one. We both tried phoning around to find a taxi but were unsuccessful. By this time most taxis were being placed on boats to leave or driven up inside buildings. We sat in silence. I suggested we hire the plywood guys as porters but she obviously couldn’t walk, and they were getting anxious to bug out themselves. So I volunteered to walk back to the central taxi stand 6 blocks away, and then the port, another 8 blocks, if necessary. I got to the taxi stand but it was empty, no surprise there. Delta’s landfall was now expected in 9 hours and once the seas got rough the boat-lift would end.

Hasty roller bag tracks on an empty beach

At the port I figured I only had to wait until a taxi discharged its clients and then it would be available. I was wrong. The driver had a list from a dispatcher and went on to pick up the next customer, and with each drop there were fewer and fewer as they were taken out of service and mothballed above floodline. It was now 11 am and the port resembled a scene from the beach at Dunkirk or the Wildlings’ last stand on the beach in Game of Thrones. Finally my friend texted. She had gotten her taxi order in and told me to meet her at the port. 

Fine, I said, I would return to my house and get my bag. I was back at 11:30 but by then she had not only arrived but had been put aboard a boat, ahead of the queues. She said to get a boat and meet her on the mainland. I did. As we were entering the mainland port however, our boat slowed to let another ferry go by. It was filled with Covid isolation patients. I could see the lights of waiting ambulances in the port and knew there were too few. The rest of the patients, if they were ambulatory, would be seeking taxis. Walkers. Questions of contaminated interiors and surfaces buzzed through my mind. I was careful not to touch the railings as I disembarked the boat, not knowing whom it might have been in contact with that day. A light rain fell.

I was able to locate my friend easily by her six dogs but we were not permitted to bring her car to the dock so we had to slowly and painfully make the 200 yard walk to where it was parked. And then, finally, we were safely inside a bubble again and driving away from the chaos behind.

Queueing for buses inland

On the 3 hour drive to Valladolid we were in one continuous swath of flooding and downed tree limbs from Gamma. A harder rain began to fall, more Gamma than Delta, but the two were now behaving as a single combination — jab and swing. A one-two knockout.

I hold the memory of recovery from Hurricane Wilma in 2005 and it is a valued one. The scene after we were allowed back to the island was heartbreaking. Beautiful spa hotels had been reduced to piles of rock on the beach. Some streets were canyons 15 feet deep. Others were crisscrossed with utility poles. Fishing boats are heaved up on rooftops. The dead animals had been removed but garbage still smelled. Power remained off another month, internet even longer. The cell towers were down. The water pipe from the mainland was broken. All the golf cart taxis had been electric before, but soon they would be replaced with 2-stroke diesel. Anything electric was fried. The fishing fleet was wrecked. The ferries and truck barges were aground.

And yet, inside of 2 years, the island was back to normal. Over the next decade the population grew 3 times larger, with 5 times more hotel rooms. These are not all good things, but it showed how resilient people were, and determined to keep living there, hurricanes or no.

I am writing this on Thursday morning from a hotel room in Valladolid. My friend and I, and her six dogs, are all well and good, or at least not showing any symptoms of infection (which could be up to 2 weeks away in any event). The news from the island is promising, with fishermen reporting it was not damaged as badly as in 2005 and should be open again in a few days, rather than weeks. We were lucky this time and no one was hurt. We came away better than many others have this year, as climate chaos takes another step up the ladder of intensity. All too soon, these will be the good old days.

Help me get my blog posted every week. All
Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. You are how we make this happen. Your contributions are being made to Global Village Institute, a tax-deductible 501(c)(3) charity. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. My latest book, Plagued, is out now. A children’s version of Dark Side of the Ocean called Making Waves, may be out by Christmas. Please help if you can.


Sunday, October 4, 2020

The Great Pause Week 29: In Our Jeans

"Once tribal loyalism was baked into our genes there were ramifications."


The whole world is festering
With unhappy souls,
The French hate the Germans,
The Germans hate the Poles,
Italians hate Yugoslavs,
South Africans hate the Dutch,
And I don’t like anybody 
Very much.

 — Sheldon Harnick, The Merry Minuet, 1949

In social psychology experiments, subjects made aware of a border between insiders and outsiders will rapidly bond with those on their own side and reject those outside it. They’ll judge insiders to be fairer than outsiders. They’ll describe insiders as having “broadly positive” traits and outsiders as possessing “broadly negative” ones. They’ll notice variation among insiders but not among outsiders. 
The line between outsider and insider does not have to accurately correspond with shared interests or meaningful characteristics between people on one side and those on the other. Awareness of a border triggers biases regardless. In social psychology experiments, researchers have divided subjects into two groups based on arbitrary grounds such as a coin toss or the color of the t-shirts they’re wearing, or their preferred ice cream flavor, it makes no difference. Subjects will exhibit bias towards those on their side and discriminate against those on the other side.

 — Sonia Shah, The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move, 2020.

Is it any wonder then, that when an elderly, overweight, diabetic, stalwart Republican attending a rally is taunted to throw away his or her mask, they do so? Or that they join in a chant to “Lock her up!” at the mention of the former Secretary of State, heedless of chanting’s proven ability to spread the airborne virus? Or that they can completely block the image of bird-caged Latino immigrant children, crying for their parents whom they may well never see again, or cheer on cue when informed, obliquely, they will be losing their health care coverage?


The fact that an overwhelming majority of voters in my home state are expected to wait in lines at polls to cast ballots for Donald Trump does not shock or offend me. I grew up during the lunch counter protests. I had a cross burned on my lawn for having had the temerity to rudely question the governor of Alabama. I was in Belfast in August, 1969 when white, middle-class Protestants and their foreign mercenary police took to the streets to assault white, middle-class Catholics like they were the foreign invaders. I witnessed police officers beating a handcuffed prisoner in the Manhattan Tombs, and when I complained to my superiors at the New York Appellate Division I was nearly terminated. I have visited any number of strongly caste societies and been in homes and offices where snobbery and class are de rigueur. 

I am all too aware of the policy of the Bush and Obama administrations to inter 22 harmless Chinese Uigher refugees at the extrajudicial Guantánamo torture camp for 12 years, including the 5 years under Obama after Judge Merrick Garland, writing the unanimous opinion of a three-judge panel, had ordered them released. They were unconstitutionally held without any rights solely out of contagious xenophobia.


But if our tribal instincts become destructive of our tribe — and world — and selves — why? And what is to be done?
Over the last million years or so, humans evolved the ability to learn from other humans, creating the possibility of cumulative, non-genetic evolution. These capacities were strongly beneficial in the chaotic climates of the Pleistocene, allowing humans to culturally evolve highly refined adaptations to rapidly varying environments. However, cultural adaptation also vastly increased heritable variation among groups, and this gave rise to the evolution of group beneficial cultural norms and values. Then, in such culturally evolved cooperative social environments, genetic evolution [of] new, more pro-social motives. 
We think that the evidence suggests that after about 100,000 years ago most people lived in tribal scale societies. These societies are based upon in-group cooperation where in-groups of a few hundred to a few thousand people are symbolically marked by language, ritual practices, dress, and the like.
We think cultural evolutionary processes constructed a social environment that caused ordinary natural selection acting on genes to favor empathetic altruism, and a tendency to direct that altruism preferentially to fellow members of symbolically marked groups. These social instincts evolved in the late Pleistocene but the radically new social institutions that have evolved in the Holocene were (and continue to be) both enabled and constrained by them.

 — Boyd, Robert, and Peter J. Richerson. “Culture and the evolution of the human social instincts.” Roots of human sociality (2006): 453–477.

As we periodically emerged from glaciations and migrated into more abundant ecosystems, or gradually retreated from frigid regions as Earth entered upon another Ice Age, conflict over land, food, and other resources was always present. In such an environment, smaller, more cooperative groups could outcompete larger, less cooperative, and therefore less clever or adaptive, groups. Communication and willingness to cooperate and strategize provided advantage. Non-cooperators might be punished by reduced status, fewer friends, and fewer mating opportunities. 

“Cowards, deserters, and cheaters may be attacked by their erstwhile compatriots and shunned by their society, made the targets of gossip, or denied access to territories or mates,” says Boyd. 

…moralistic punishment can stabilize any arbitrary behavior — wearing a tie, being kind to animals, or eating the brains of dead relatives. It does not matter whether or not the behavior produces group benefits. All that matters is that, when moralistic punishers are common, being punished is more costly than performing the sanctioned behavior, whatever it might be.
[Suppose] that groups are made up of close relatives. Selection can favor the genes that give rise to prosocial behavior because the benefits of prosocial acts are non-randomly directed toward others who carry the same genes. Thus, the benefits of the act raise the average fitness of the genes leading to the prosocial behavior, and if this effect is big enough to compensate for the cost, selection will lead to the evolution of the behavior. 

Once tribal loyalism was baked into our genes there were ramifications. Care for the sick has been shown to be more effective in family settings than in impersonal clinics. Home birth has fewer complications than hospital birth. Child development improves in extended families. Income-sharing groups out-perform and out-last income-competitive groups during the difficult pioneer phase of community development.

Studies of dog behavior have shown that all domestic dogs, regardless of breed, crave social contact with humans. They will choose affection from humans over food, even when close to starvation. This is as true of packs of stray dogs in the streets of Moscow or Mumbai as it is of pampered apartment poodles. The same cannot be said of wolves, who, even when they have formed a lifetime association with particular humans, will tend to maintain distance except for short intervals of affectionate interaction. 

The difference between domestic dogs and their wolf ancestors is a tropism towards trans-species caressing over pack loyalty. Likewise, modern humans are captives to their unique genetic tribal instincts, and will make up some group to attach it to — by skin color, religion, neighborhood, club, shared antipathy, or sexual perversion — to fill that need. Fetishist dominatrices are driven by the same deep urges as nuns of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance. So are MAGA-hat wearers, Miami Heat fans, and skinhead bikers.

I used to imagine we could overcome this maladaptive tropism the same way humans control their tendencies towards violence and selfishness in order to live in civil society. We just needed to expand our loyalties from clans, nations and races to all sentient beings, and it seemed to me, in the Sixties, that was precisely where cultural evolution (assisted by mycopharmacology) was pointing us. We just needed to love — or at least extend compassion towards — our “enemies.”

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Livin’ life in peace
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one.

 — John Lennon, Imagine, 1971

He’s a Catholic, a Hindu, an Atheist, a Jane
A Buddhist and a Baptist and a Jew
And he knows he shouldn’t kill
And he knows he always will
Kill you for me my friend and me for you
And he’s fighting for Canada
He’s fighting for France
He’s fighting for the USA
And he’s fighting for the Russians
And he’s fighting for Japan
And he thinks we’ll put an end to war this way

 — Buffy Sainte-Marie, Universal Soldier, 1964

The hippies believed there should be no discrimination between people based upon gender, race, color, ethnicity, belief, or social position. The problem is, we hippies see ourselves as tribe. The Woodstock Nation. There is us, and then there is The Man. The Squares. The Establishment.

You can put patches on patches but it’s always there, even in your bell-bottomed jeans.

It’s in our genes.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves….” 

 — William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene III, L. 140–141

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