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Energy and ecology: why societies really succeed and fail

Throughout the urban phase of human history societies have expanded and then contracted, succeeded and then failed, sometimes to expand again at another time. The concept of a society ‘collapsing’ is a relative one. In his book “Collapse,” Jared Diamond defines the phenomenon as “a drastic decrease in human population size and/or complexity, over a considerable area and for an extended time.” By this definition every social group in history except modern technological society has at some point in their history collapsed, so there is nothing unusual about it.

Why do societies collapse? The apparent or proximate reason is often social strife, either within a formerly cohesive social group, or actual open warfare with an external enemy. But, all complex, urbanized societies are ultimately dependent upon agriculture; no army fights for long without food. In fact the Mayans, who had no pack animals and therefore no way to transport large quantities of food, would periodically break off battles to return home and harvest corn. This agricultural base is in turn dependent on the ecological health of the home environment, especially on fertile soil and adequate water. Thus the ultimate cause of collapse is often the deterioration of the ecosystems that feed human societies.

The best worst example of societal collapse is the Polynesian culture that arose on Easter Island. Easter Island happens to be one of the most isolated chunks of ground on the planet. It is a smallish island, 66 square miles in size (6 miles wide and 11 miles long), perched by itself in the South Pacific, 2300 miles from Chile and 1300 miles from the nearest neighboring island group.

In spite of its isolation, Easter Island was discovered by Polynesian seafarers intent on colonizing new land about 1400 years ago (in approximately 700 AD). The estimated 20-30 colonists that found the island had brought with them the resources necessary to establish a community, including chickens, sweet potatoes, yams, taro, banana and coconut. Of these foods, only sweet potatoes thrived in the sub-tropical environment, and so sweet potatoes and chickens became the foundation of their diet.

Over time their population increased, and a number of separate villages emerged, scattered across the island. Initially competition between the villages seems to have taken the form of monument building. From as early as 800 AD, villages began to erect stone platforms, known as ahus, with large human statues on them, called moai. These may have been monuments to living or dead local leaders, as some ahu contain tombs. As these societies grew, religious and political hierarchies developed. Over time this became an elite class that was supported by the farmers.

By 1500 the population reached an estimated 15,000 people. The size of the elite class and the number of stone statues both continued to grow. All of these factors increased the pressure on both the land and the laborers to produce ever more food. Forested areas were continually cleared to make land available for agriculture.
A total of 900 stone statues have been found on the island, the largest of them 70 feet tall and weighing 270 tons. All of the statues were carved out of basalt at one location on the island and then transported to sites all along the 30-mile coastline. This was accomplished by large groups of laborers dragging the moai over dirt roadways on wooden rollers, made by felling trees in the subtropical forest that originally covered the entire island. One recent study found that 50-70 people could haul a 20-ton statue miles miles in a week. Trees and shrubs would also be cut down for canoe building, firewood, house construction, and for the timbers and ropes needed in the movement and erection of statues. Due to ever-increasing use of wood, by 1700 the island was completely deforested.

Initially progressive deforestation would have led to an increase in farmable land, in food production, and therefore to an increase in the human population on the island. But over time the lack of forest cover caused soil erosion, decreasing crop yields, and a reduced carrying capacity (the number of people the island could support sustainably over a long period).

The absence of trees meant the islanders could no longer build sea-worthy boats to catch fish and dolphins, until that point a primary source of protein for the population. Competition for ever scarcer resources increased, warfare and famine became commonplace, and the complex society on Easter Island collapsed. The last moai were erected in about 1620, and by about 1680 rival clan factions were pulling them down. When the first European ship encountered the island in 1722, there were an estimated 2000 islanders left alive, living in defensible caves and surviving on cannibalism. The formerly complex culture had disintegrated so thoroughly that survivors on the island had no idea of the significance of the statues or who had built them.

The history of human culture on Easter Island fits our definition of collapse: “a drastic decrease in human population size and/or complexity, over a considerable area and for an extended time.” From an ecological perspective, the causes of this disintegration can be understood from both proximate (immediate) impacts on the island ecosystem, and from ultimate, or long-term factors.

The proximate cause of collapse on Easter Island was overshoot of the carrying capacity of the ecosystem, and the resulting environmental damage to that system, which then reduced the carrying capacity and exacerbated the condition of overshoot.

All species modify the environment in which they live, but they are all also dependent upon the healthy functioning of that environment for their survival and health. For example, all animals need oxygen, which exists in the atmosphere only because plants put it there. Conversely, all plants need carbon dioxide, which exists in the atmosphere because animals give it off as waste product. Thus plants and animals are dependent upon one another for their very existence. Every ecosystem has a carrying capacity for each species, which is the maximum population of that species that can be supported on a sustainable basis without damaging the ecosystems capacity to support the species.

One of the classic example of the overshoot of carrying capacity in the annals of biology is the story of caribou on St. Matthew’s Island, which is off the coast of Alaska, and similar in size to Easter Island. In 1944 the U.S. Coast Guard installed a navigation station and placed 19 men on the previously uninhabited island. Later that year the Coast Guard released 29 caribou on the island as a backup food source.
The animals landed in caribou paradise. Lichen is the primary food for this species, and lichen mats four inches thick carpeted the island. The men of the Coast Guard station were the caribou’s only potential predators. In fact the men left before they had the chance to shoot any of the animals, and the caribou were left alone to “be fruitful and multiply.”

A biologist visited the island in 1963 and found it overrun with caribou; he counted 6000 of them. The island ecosystem was seriously degraded, with the lichen mats eaten to the ground and plants heavily grazed and browsed. When the biologist returned in 1966, he found the island covered with skeletons. They counted only 42 live caribou, 41 females and one male with abnormal antlers that probably wasn't able to reproduce. The population had crashed by 99 percent. By the mid 1980s the caribou of St. Matthew Island died out completely. This unintended experiment in population dynamics and range ecology ended as it began -- with winds howling over a place devoid of any large mammals. As on Easter Island, the proximate causes of the collapse on St. Matthew’s Island were, 1) overshoot of carrying capacity, and 2) environmental damage, which reduced the initial carrying capacity.

The ultimate causes of collapse on Easter Island were: 1) Genes: All living creatures are genetically programmed to maximize their reproductive potential. In humans this is augmented by enhancing personal status through power and possessions, and through subservience to those more powerful in the clan. This is why humans accumulate wealth far beyond what is necessary for a comfortable life, and why people typically engage in leader-worship and do as they are told to do by authority figures, and, 2) Mind: the human capacity for thought and rationalization largely functions in service to the dictates of the genes. From the perspective of carrying capacity, and especially in conditions of overshoot, this creates a conflict between ecology and biology, between the ecological limits to growth and the biological urge to maximize reproduction. Yeast in a wine vat will grow in number until they have consumed all of the food in the container and they have poisoned the environment with their own waste. The question has been posited more than once, are humans smarter than yeast? On Easter Island humans were not smarter than yeast.

Ecological factors determine limits to growth. What exactly is ecology? The short answer is, Interrelationship. All life lives in a web of interrelationship with the earth, the sun, and the living environment in which it is embedded. The most basic principles of ecology are 1) energy, which is critical for life, comes from the sun, 2) the resources necessary for life are limited and must be constantly cycled through the ecosystem, 3) soil is the basis of life on land, and 4) all ecosystems have a limit, a carrying capacity for each species.

So what happened on Easter Island? If we look at our outline of proximate and ultimate causes of collapse, the story is clear. The population of the island grew from the original 30 settlers to 15,000, reaching a density of 227 people per square mile. Every individual needed food and heat and shelter, some (the elites) more than others. The aggregate demand exceeded the carrying capacity of the land. Meanwhile mind-constructed belief systems that functioned to unite clan members conflicted with ecological reality. For example, in the end every single large tree on the island was cut down to move hundreds of 20-ton stone statues, statues that served no purpose other than enhancing clan unity and the power of the elites. In the end mind-based belief structures overwhelmed ecological reality, and the culture collapsed.

Obviously this self-destruction on the part of the Easter Islanders was not an intelligent act. But, humans should be considered in an evolutionary context. The entire universe is in a state of constant flux, constantly changing and evolving greater complexity. After all, in the beginning there was only one element extant, simple hydrogen. Now there are 94 naturally occurring elements, each new one created more complex than the previous. Humans belong to an evolutionary line that has been evolving now for four billion years; we are a work in progress. Our brains are staggeringly complex, made up of some 100 billion neurons—cells that create and transmit messages—plus billions of other kinds of cells. Growth in brain size gave increased capacity for abstract thought and conceptualization and an ability to provide increasingly sophisticated technological solutions to problems. Early in human history these solutions included fire, clothing, and tool making. The capacities of the human mind are still developing and emerging.

The first archeological evidence of the use of abstract thought beyond the fashioning of tools appears in Shanidar Cave in northern Iraq, where a burial of Neanderthals 50,000 years ago appears to have been accompanied by copious quantities of flowers. Those conducting the burial were contemplating the implications of death, and mourning those who had passed. At the same site emerges the first evidence of human compassion; several of the skeletons bear signs of chronic disabilities and wounds that had time to heal. Apparently the clan was caring for the old and infirm. The important point here is that these emotional and conceptual qualities evolved over time; for most of evolutionary history they did not exist; now they do. New, unpredictable phenomena are constantly emerging from the existing matrix of the universe.

For 99% of human history Homo sapiens have been hunter-gatherers. Archeological studies indicate that it was a highly effective lifestyle except in times of famine. Women tended to work three hours a day and spend the rest of the time leisure activities. Men might hunt for a week and then take three weeks off. Efforts to transform hunter-gatherers into farmers illustrate how attractive the nomadic life can be. “Why should we want to plant when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world?’” asked a Kalahari Bushman. The Portuguese in Brazil found that the Indian tribes would only work for them until they had earned enough to buy metal tools, and then they wanted to enjoy their extra leisure. Similarly, when the Nez Perce chief Smohalla was asked settle his tribe on a plot of ground, he responded, “My young men shall never work….You ask me to plow the ground. Shall I take a knife and tear my mother’s breast?”

Hunter-gatherers did and do still harness the imagine-making power of the mind to serve the genetic imperatives of clan unity and optimized reproduction. A striking example of this today is the Surma tribe in Africa, which slits the upper lip of young girls and inserts a small clay disk in the opening. Over time larger and larger disks are inserted, so that by adulthood married women have what appear to be dinner plates inserted in their mouths. Tribal members are conditioned to perceive these disks as objects of great beauty—the larger the better—but they are repulsive to neighboring tribes and help prevent abduction while Surma women are out gathering food.

Our own urban-industrial culture often perceives hunter-gatherers as being relatively benign members of their ecosystems, living within the carrying capacity of the land. Most available evidence indicates that this is a myth. Over 86% of the original large animals in Australia have gone extinct in the last 100,000 years, the majority disappearing soon after the arrival of the aborigines 50,000 years ago. 80% of the large animals of South America and 73% of those in North America disappeared in the first 2000 years after the arrival of humans on these continents. Within a few hundred years of the settlement of Madagascar most of the larger animals, including a big flightless bird and a hippopotamus, were extinct. On Hawaii within a thousand years of human settlement 39 species of land birds had become extinct. In New Zealand 24 species of moa (a flightless bird) were extinct soon after the arrive of the Mauri. There is little doubt that many of these extinctions were the result of human intervention

Agriculture did not evolve because it is an easier option than hunting and gathering. It requires far more effort in clearing land, sowing, tending and harvesting crops and in looking after domesticated animals. It does not necessarily provide more nutritious food. The one advantage agriculture has over other forms of existence is that in return for a greater degree of effort it can provide more food from a smaller area of land. The explanation for the appearance of agriculture that best fits modern knowledge is based on increasing population pressure. The population of the world 10,000 years ago was about four million, and it rose to about five million by 7000 years ago. It then began doubling every millennium, to reach 50 million by 1000 BC and 200 million by 0 AD. The upward trend has continued every since, so that agriculture today supports a world population of almost seven billion.

The adoption of agriculture was the most fundamental change in human history. Hunting and gathering societies were essentially egalitarian. Sedentary communities, almost from the beginning, resulted in increased specialization and the emergence of religious, political and military elites with the power to direct the rest of society. Genetic proclivities to harness the mind to fabricate an abstract set of beliefs for the purpose of unifying individuals ensured obedience to group leaders and group values. Agriculture also gave rise to the concepts of property and ownership.

Agriculture arose independently in three core areas of the world—southwest Asia, China and Mesoamerica. By 7500 BC one of the first known agricultural villages, Jarmo, had emerged in northern Iraq. Jarmo was a collection of about 25 houses, the inhabitants of which depended on a system of mixed farming and husbandry. They grew domesticated barley, emmer and peas combined with herding sheep and goats, while hunting provided only about 5% of their total food.

Agriculture in China arose originally on the Loess Plateau about 6000 BC. The original grains were millet and dryland rice. It appears the earliest domestication of plants in Mesoamerica occurred about 7000 BC, including tomatoes, squash, beans, avocados. But not until about 2000 BC was productivity great enough to support village life.

The development of effective mechanisms for the production of agricultural surplus took time to appear. The emergence of irrigation in Mesopotamia enabled higher output from less land and larger communities. Centralized control was necessary to organize construction and maintenance of irrigation, storage and distribution of food, and powerful belief systems were concocted to achieve and maintain this control. By 4500 BC large food surpluses enabled the building of very large huge temples. By 3000 BC the Mesopotamian city of Uruk had a population of 50,000. Smaller cities were growing as well: Ur, Kish, Lagash, Umma.

While the city-states were raising temples and armies, irrigation water was raising salt from underground to the surface, due in part to the intense heat of the region (120 degrees in the summer) and resulting evaporation. Crop yields fell 42% between 2400 and 2100 BC. By 2000 BC there are written reports that ‘the earth turned white’ from accumulating salt. Soon after crops experienced decline, an ecologically weakened Sumer was conquered by invaders from the north. By 1800 BC, when yields were only about 1/3 of the level obtained in the Early Dynastic period, the agricultural base of Sumer had effectively collapsed, and the focus of Mesopotamian society shifted permanently to the north. Sumer declined into insignificance as an underpopulated, impoverished backwater of empire.

The Roman Empire began as a small farming village, populated by people who were aware of their interrelatedness with the natural world around them. This awareness took the form of a multitude of gods who needed to be attended to and appeased . There were gods for all occasions, big ones for the earth and sky, and lesser gods for the fields, the house, the streams, the crops, and even for the compost pile. One way to interpret this multiplicity of imagined intermediaries between nature and people is that the developing human consciousness was seeking to understand its relationship to ecological reality.

As agricultural production increased, non-farming political and military classes arose, and the gods-as-intermediaries began to disappear. As power was concentrated in Rome and empire expanded, the sense of interrelatedness with the natural world vanished, to be replaced by a monotheistic god demanding loyalty and obedience; a useful technique for controlling large masses of people.

The expansion of the empire required an expanding navy, which in turn required large quantities of wood. After 300 BC, the Roman navy grew rapidly and the forests shrunk. By the turn of the millennium much of Italy was deforested. Soil loss followed so rapidly that several port cities (Paestrum, Ravenna) lost their access to the sea due to siltation of their harbors. Much of Libya and the Near East were slowing transformed from savannah to desert in an effort to maintain wheat yields. The population of Rome leapt to over a million people, while supplying the ever-growing army and aristocracy put increasing demands on the soil.

The Christian writer Cyprian asserted in the 3rd century AD that “the World itself is in decay…the springs have less freshness and the soil less fecundity….this loss of strength and loss of stature must end, at last, in annihilation.” What Cyprian was in fact observing was the loss of topsoil and soil nutrients, resulting in lower and less nutritious yields.

After expansion ceased, the loot from vanquished cultures ceased to flow into Rome, and the Roman economy floundered. The emperors adopted a strategy of debasing the currency (in their case adding cheap metal to coins), shifting the cost of current crises to future taxpayers. Such a strategy assumes that the future will be one of rapid growth to overcome debts from the past. But with the ecological foundation of the domain now degraded, growth was finished. The empire became progressively weaker, succumbing to the depredations of nomadic tribes in 476 AD. In succeeding centuries, the population of Rome fell from a high of one million down to 30,000 residents, a collapse of colossal proportions.

Mayan civilization in Central America is another example of a rise from uncomplicated, hunter-gatherer beginnings to a large, sophisticated and complex society, followed by an almost complete collapse. Social disintegration was so complete that the many cities that had been carved out of the jungle disappeared back into the tropical forest and were forgotten after the downfall.

The people of Mayan society built vast cities and ornate temples. At its peak around 900 AD, the population numbered 500 people per square mile in rural areas, and more than 2,000 people per square mile in the cities—comparable to modern Los Angeles County.

From pollen trapped in ancient layers of lake sediment, scientists have learned that around 1,200 years ago, just before the civilization's collapse, tree pollen disappeared almost completely, and was replaced by the pollen of weeds. In other words, the region became almost completely deforested. Without trees, erosion would have worsened, carrying away fertile topsoil. The changing groundcover would have boosted the temperature of the region by as much as six degrees. Those warmer temperatures would have dried out the land, making it even less suitable for raising crops. Mayan kings sought to outdo each other with more and more impressive temples, reminiscent in turn of the extravagant conspicuous consumption by modern American CEOs.

By 1 AD overpopulation combined with loss of topsoil and deforestation were taking a measurable toll on Mayan society. In Tikal there was a marked difference between the skeletons of elites and commoners by this date. The former were much better fed, and were several inches taller than commoners. After 700 AD all skeletons show an increase in deficiency diseases as food production fell, leading to increased conflict and then even less food production. The Maya were able to build a complex society capable of great cultural and intellectual achievements, but they ended up destroying their soil base and then all that they had created.

Like the Mayans in Central America, the Anasazi of Chaco Canyon in the American Southwest constructed a complex culture which persisted for hundreds of years, only to collapse and disappear.

Agriculture arrived in what is now the United States from the south, with corn appearing about 2000 BC, squash present by 800 BC, and beans by about 400 BC. The first settled agricultural villages in the American southwest were established around 1 AD. Agriculture took root in Chaco Canyon because it is a low area that drains adjacent uplands in several directions. Thus while it may have often lacked perennial flowing water, it would dependably receive runoff from any of the erratic and localized summer storms that occur in the region. Over time an advanced culture developed that was highly adapted to this landscape in that it optimized food production in the areas with suitable moisture in any given year, and distributed the resulting harvest throughout its domain.

Between 600 and 1100 AD, a large ceremonial center grew in the center of Chaco Canyon that housed the spiritual and political elite of the society, while farmers and laborers lived in outlying villages. Elaborate rockwork became a hallmark of Chaco culture. The Chacoans erected the tallest buildings in North America prior to the advent of skyscrapers; the enormous Pueblo Bonito being seven stories tall and containing over 800 rooms.

Because Chacoan civilization had disappeared completely by the time the abandoned ruins were discovered by Euro-Americans, it has been no small task to examine the shreds of evidence available in order to gain a sense of the culture and interpret the cause of the crash. One unexpected source of information has been packrat middens, the stick-pile domiciles of this rat-like rodent that is common throughout the arid west.

Individual packrats nests are used through several generations, for a total period of 50-100 years. Being largely vegetarian, packrats drag surrounding plant life to the midden for consumption, leaving the seed shells and husks in the nest. In the arid environment of the American west the abandoned middens do not decay for a very long time; some old nests have been dated at 40,000 years old.

An examination of the flora gathered in the packrat middens over the centuries indicates stark vegetational changes in Chaco Canyon around 1000 AD. Prior to that date packrats were feasting on pinyon pine nuts and juniper berries; after 1000 AD all evidence of these two tree species disappears. Apparently the Anasazi had deforested the area in their search for building material and fuel. Subsequent investigations confirmed that while early construction in Chaco utilized pinon and juniper, after 1000 AD beams were made of ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and spruce. The first forests of these tree species are 50 miles away from the primary building sites in the canyon. In the later years of the Chaco culture, 200,000 ponderosa, fir & spruce logs weighing up to 700 lbs each were carried from 50 or more miles away by human muscle power alone.

In spite of the loss of the local food, fuel, and building material that pinyon pine and juniper had supplied, the population of Chaco Canyon continued to grow for another 150 years. Removal of trees and shrubs lead to soil erosion and declining harvests. Chaco became an energy and material sink into which goods were imported, but from which nothing tangible was exported. It turned into a mini-empire, divided between a well-fed elite living in luxury and an inadequately-fed peasantry doing all of the physical work and raising the food. One example of the relative opulence of the aristocracy emerged from a room excavated in the Great House Pueblo Bonito at Chaco. This one room held burials of fourteen individuals accompanied by 56,000 pieces of turquoise jewelry and thousands of shell decorations.

Why would outlying settlements have supported the Chaco center? For the same reasons that societies support power centers today; the workers were psychologically conditioned to the status quo. As one perceptive observer expressed it, “He who is born in a cage will weep for a cage.” Genetic imperatives would have dictated allegiance to the existing order. At the same time the ecological foundation of the society, the soil and natural resources, were increasingly impaired. By 1110 AD there are signs of strife, including formerly open rooms and buildings being walled in. Skeletons at a distance from the ceremonial center show growing signs of nutritional deficiencies. Warfare became intense; dwellings were built on cliffs, far from fields, skeletons are found with arrowheads inside the body cavity and scalp marks on the skull.

The final blow for Chacoans was a drought that tree rings show to have begun around 1130. They had survived other droughts, but now there were more people and less land. Water tables dropped, crops failed, and people went hungry. Sometime between 1150 and 1200 Chaco was completely abandoned.

The proximate cause of collapse once again was overshoot of the carrying capacity of the ecosytem. The invisible force that drove overshoot was the genetic imperative encoded in all humans to optimize their own reproduction and to obey the mores of the clan.

Tikopia is a tiny, isolated tropical island in the southwest Pacific Ocean which has a different story to tell. It has a total area of only 1.8 square miles and yet it manages to support 1200 people, which is a population density of 800 people per square mile of farmable land. The island has been occupied continuously for 3000 years, without any dramatic collapse over that time. The Tikopians do have chiefs, but the degree of wealth stratification is minimal; chiefs work in their own gardens and do their own fishing, with little accumulation of wealth.

Overpopulation is most often the cause of ecological overshoot and collapse. If Tikopia was settled by a relatively few people 3000 years ago, and had even a slow growth rate of 1.4%, it would now have a population of 25 million people, an obvious impossibility. How have these people managed their population? Apparently the natives had some sense of limits to growth, probably gained through painful experience. The island is so small that it because clear long ago that birth control was a necessity for survival. They practice panoply of non-industrial birth control techniques, including coitus interruptus, abortion (induced by placing hot stones on the belly), infanticide, and celibacy (younger sons & daughters of families with poor land are often non-reproductive).

Tikopians had to learn how to create a sustainable culture. Archeological evidence shows that early settlers drove six bird species to extinction, quickly eliminated all fruit bats (by eating them), and in short order eroded the supply of fish and shellfish offshore. In response, tribal mores evolved that monitored and guarded natural resources. Pigs, which were brought by the first settlers, became the most important protein source. But oral tradition claims, and archeological evidence confirms, that in about 1600 AD a conscious decision was made to eliminate pigs, which were destructive to gardens, wildlife and to native plant life, and were themselves an inefficient food source, taking ten pounds of plant material to produce one pound of pig.

Perhaps because of the diminutive size of their island home, the Tikopians were better able to see the negative impact of overpopulation and other biologically natural but ecologically destructive actions. In choosing to limit the size of their population, husband resources and alter customs when they proved to be harmful (such as removing pigs from the island), Tikopians were able to use their cognitive abilities to override genetic imperatives and consciously choose a lifestyle that stayed within the carrying capacity of their resource base.

In 1908 a college professor from England wrote a book called Farmers of Forty Centuries: Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan. Franklin King observed that while many societies lost first their soil and then their viability, the Chinese had been able to maintain soil fertility for 4000 years. In actual fact one would not want to overstate this claim; the Yellow River is so named because of the continuing soil from the deforestation of the Loess Plateau, where Chinese agriculture first arose. Nevertheless until recently China has been able to feed its ever-growing population, at least in times of peace, from soil in the lowlands that has been farmed continuously for thousands of years.

How did they do it? The answer is that they farmed ecologically; they used only energy from the sun to work the ground, and they scrupulously cycled all nutrients that came out of soil back into it. Over the centuries of their culture the Chinese have been compelled by crowded conditions and lack of access to mechanized transport and external sources of soil nutrients to develop a closed system of agriculture. What this means in real life is that for 4000 years they have been recycling human excrement, which is high in the very nutrients plants require to grow (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium), back into ground. They accurately mimicked natural ecosystems, which are closed and circular in relation to their resources.

Note that what has been said about China is that it has been able to maintain its soil fertility. Chinese culture has persisted for 4000 years, but it has experienced multiple expansions and contractions of the population which could well be considered multiple collapses. Today China manages to feed its current population of 1.3 billion through the use of fossil fuels for energy and nutrient inputs, and by importing food for outside the country. As fossil fuels decline, it will be a struggle for China to feed its people.

Amish culture in North America invites scrutiny because of its conscious choice of lifestyles. It has rejected many of the accoutrements of the modern industrial society which surrounds it, consciously choosing the level of technology that seems to be the most conducive to a healthy, meaningful, and durable sustainable society.
Amish society is bound together by a shared belief system, that being the interpretation of the Christian bible as offered by their founder, Jacob Amman. The case could be made that some of the most powerful precepts which define their world view are ecological in nature, in that they value community and interrelationship over the importance of the individual, a reiteration of the biology/ecology dichotomy outlined above. Amish society strives to minimize the personal ego and maximize community cohesion. It is for this reason that Amish do not use electricity in the home, nor do they have telephones or automobiles. These trappings of modern society were judged by the Amish to increase the power and pride of the individual at the expense of community cohesiveness.

The Amish family is comprised of a large extended group, usually composed of two parents, seven children (since no birth control is used), and often grandparents and close relationships with cousins, brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles. Amish farms typically have a "Grandpa House." The Grandpa House is the additional building or addition to a house built to care for grandparents after retirement. After many years of work, the grandparents can be taken care of by their family while they in turn care for the grandchildren.

The Amish are famously good farmers, much of their skill stemming from the accumulated knowledge of generations working the land. They have some understanding of the cyclical nature of nutrients, and are careful to return all available plant material and manure to the soil, while minimizing chemical fertilizer inputs. Typically they do not recycle humanure, but rather flush it into septic systems, where the nutrients and organic matter are largely lost to the active soil layer. Their current average of seven children per couple yields a doubling time for the population of 20 years, impossible to maintain on a finite planet. Over a longer period of time than the current 300 year duration of their culture, they will have to correct the leakage of vital resources out of their ecosystem, as well as address the issue of an unsustainable birthrate, if they wish to create a sustainable, and not just a durable culture.

Looking briefly to modern industrial society, it can be seen that the conundrum of the individualistic, biological imperatives of the human genome is in some conflict with ecological principles, those being, as enumerated previously, 1) energy for life comes from the sun, 2) the resources necessary for life are limited and must be constantly cycled through the ecosystem, 3) soil is the basis of life on land, and 4) all ecosystems have a limit, a carrying capacity for each species.

Industrial society gets its energy not from the sun but rather from fossil fuels, which are finite in quantity and are now declining in quality. Resource use in modern society is linear; materials are mined or otherwise acquired, fabricated into material goods, which are used relatively briefly and then disgarded in a “dump.” After the nutrients critical for plant life—nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium—pass through the human body, they are disposed of in waterways rather than cycling them back to the soil for renewed plant growth. The current world population is approaching seven billion people, while the estimate for the human carrying capacity of the planet under sustainable conditions is two billion people. We find ourselves in a condition of considerable overshoot.

In a development analogous to population overshoot, modern society constructed a financial system based on the biologically-driven urge for endless growth. A financial system whose foundation is debt (transferring costs incurred today to the future) and interest (which compounds the debt owed in the future) can only persistent in an economy that grows constantly. From an ecological perspective such perpetual growth is impossible, as the earth and all of its ecosystems are finite. Sociologist Hazel Henderson called modern economics “a form of brain disease,” because it has constructed a quasi-religious belief system based on perpetual growth on a finite planet.

Most members of modern society are also currently psychologically bound by the genetic command to obey the dictates of the clan; they are largely incapable of thinking and acting from an ecological perspective. World military expenditures illustrate this point; while the ecological and humanitarian needs of the world go begging, global society taken as a whole spends two trillion dollars a year on technologies and organizations whose function is the destruction of living organisms and ecosystems. This sum represents the majority of human discretionary wealth and resources. Individuals who wish to rectify this misguided abuse of available resources will want to make other arrangements for the assets flowing from their lives. Sustainable human culture will be impossible until the individual’s first allegiance is to the earth and ecological integrity.


A human society that aspires for long-term sustainability will want to live in accord with basic ecological principles: energy comes from the sun; all resources are constantly cycled such that there is no waste whatsoever; fertile soil is the foundation of terrestrial life; and a sustainable population of a given species is one that is maintained at or within the carrying capacity of the ecosystem.

All through history human cultures have failed to live within the spacious confines of ecological reality, as the genetic imperatives of the individual have overwhelmed the nascent cognitive capacity of the still-developing human brain. It is as if we have been thinking with the wrong head. However the universe never stands still. The trajectory of human evolution is towards increasing comprehension that as individuals we are indeed not islands, we are in fact “a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” It will take a little courage to look at where we came from (the earth, in case you wondered), where we will return to, and what a viable relationship is with the earth and sky. Wendell Berry expressed this relationship well when he noted, “What I stand for is what I stand on.”

Recommended Reading:

Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change, William Catton, 1982, $24.00. Perhaps the best book ever written on the humanity’s ecological conundrum. Catton's book, written in 1980, remains as visionary and relevant today as the day it was published. 'Overshoot' provides a solid background of research and a realistic view of what the likely consequences of humanity's failure to notice that we have entered into "overshoot" of the earth's carrying capacity.

The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure, Joe Jenkins, 2005, $16.50 One of the best ecological treatises ever written, humorous, scientific and vital. How many ecologists do you know that recycle their humanure? I can answer that for you: none. This is because they are ecologists in word only. Joe Jenkins lives and breathes ecology and therefor he scientifically recycles the life-giving nutrients that pass through his body.

A New Green History of the World, Clive Ponting, 2007. An excellent evaluation of history from an ecological perspective.

The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, Etienne De La Boetie, originally published in 1550, current editions available through Amazon and on the web. The overview at is better than the book. The author’s questions are more important today than they were when he wrote them: Why do people do as they are told instead of living according to their own highest ethical standards?

Editorial Notes: See the original article at Methow Biodiversity Project for a version with photos. The publication is a quarterly journal that has been going for 14 years. Author Dana Visalli is a biologist/ecologist. -BA

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