Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The K-T Boundary Revisited

I like to envision people like us as the tiny proto-mammals scurrying around the feet of the bohemoth dinosaurs during the final days before the end of the Cretaceous and the beginning of the Tertiary period of geologic history, the killer asteroid already visible during daylight hours. Too small to draw any notice, too small to be worth the calories spent catching us, flexible, adaptive, highly mobile. Our ancient ancestors, whose feathers were just becoming hair-like and whose skin was probably, platypus-like, just starting to secrete a milky fluid not yet localized to a nipple, were never considered to be a threat to the dominance of the giants that ruled the Earth. In fact if dinosaurs could laugh they probably would, at those strange early proto-mammals, and step on them just for fun.

Then the rock hit the Yucatan, shook the very ground beneath their feet, and ejected massive amounts of dust into the atmosphere. But it was the aftermath of that catastrophe, not the catastrophe itself, that really changed the world. The skies were darkened for years after the impact, plants were starved for light, the seed bank was largely exhausted in vain, food chains collapsed, dinosaur prey starved, and the irrepressible masters of Earth fell from glory forever. They had filled up the construct, maximized the calorie load on offer while the hot Cretaceous sun poured down on a green ferny earth, grown to gigantic proportions, and when food started coming up short, the ones who couldn't adapt screamed and thrashed about, but perished nonetheless. And, as Paul Stamets says, fungi inherited the Earth.

Our deep ancestors that managed to stay low and out of the way of the violent starving beasts, the ones who were able to adapt their diet to the offerings still available - largely detritus, carrion, and mushrooms I would imagine - survived to pass on their genes. And after about 60 million years, the hominids descended upon the landscape with their predatory binocular vision, their complex brains, opposable thumbs, upright bipedal posture, and an ability to cooperatively exploit the rest of Earth's biota that was previously unknown.

And we got good at it. Too good.

First agriculture and meat animal domestication, then horse power, which greatly increased our ability to work and travel (spend energy), and dairy, which greatly increased the number of calories we could derive from the maintenance of one animal. Villages, cities, mutual politics and religion, which in turn drove an ideology that justified military action against the "infidels" - i.e. pretty much anyone who didn't share our politics and religion. And over time a local culture based on village life, farming, horse power, sky god worship, and expansion, took over where the dinosaurs left off. We are the ones who have now filled up the construct during sunny weather. We're the ones who developed the ability to utilize every energy source on offer, strained all the food animals out of the ocean, and suppressed and murdered anyone and anything in the way. Our mental monoculture has damaged, infested, and destroyed the bulk of humanity's languages, food crops, art and literature, biodiversity, fresh water, and topsoil.

Which is completely natural! We are just another biological population among millions after all. And that's what biological populations do. They consume and expand, and eliminate resource competition, until they overshoot the carrying capacity of their ecosystem. Only this time we had millions and millions of years of ancient solar power stored up in stable, highly portable forms to exploit on the way up. The background human carrying capacity of planet Earth has never been more than one billion. ONE BILLION humans who lived close to nature and within her diffuse energy budget. Those billion humans knew intricately the seasonal patterns and fluctuations of food and medicinal plants, the movements of animals for food and power, had no electricity, no internal combustion engines, no Farmville. They ate what they hunted, gathered, and grew, lived simply, made art and pottery, told stories, went to church and other village rituals, and their energy use didn't even register compared to ours.

Peak oil was our K-T boundary. It was the upper limit on cheap energy expansion. Our population will crash at some point. Whether that's catastrophically, or through a managed multi-generational descent, is anyone's guess. But it will happen. There's nothing out there in the stars that is better than what we have right here. Not for all of us anyway. I like to imagine a small pioneering group of humans soldiering on into the galaxy, meeting other life forms, maybe even finding a planet hospitable enough to live on. But if we can't make it work on Earth, we're not going to make it work on Mars, or Europa, or Titan, or Alpha Centauri's worlds. It's fun to dream about, but it'll never happen.

However, anyone who's read my blog for any length of time knows that I believe there's a silver lining in this story. Those small proto-mammals that were able to adapt survived and went on to fame and riches that even the dinosaurs could have never imagined. Earth's human population will collapse. Wider nature will recover. Dams will break and fish will spawn upriver again. Mature complex forests will regrow. Concrete and glass cities will crumble over time. Levies will fail and floodwaters will rejuvenate bottomland once again. The remaining humans will eat cleaner food and have far less need for pills; obesity, cancer, and diabetes will loosen their iron grip on us. Empires will revert to states, states to chiefdoms, and chiefdoms to tribes. Layer after layer of parasitic bureaucracy will disintegrate. Round-up will be something we do with livestock, not something we spray to kill other living things. Topsoil will accumulate and water will run clean again. Evolution will undergo a flowering event. All of this will happen in an energy descent pattern. Already IS happening.

We're four years into the pattern now, and there's not a damn thing anyone can do to stop it. And that makes what we're doing just that much more exciting to me. We are the advanced guard of planetary restoration. Geoff Lawton would say that we are the weeds that can repair the Earth. All we have to do is be resourceful, adaptive, and stay out of the way of those hungry thrashing dinosaurs.

The last couple of weeks should remind us that we have one job left to do that will not necessarily take care of itself. When nuclear power plants crumble like the rest, radioactivity will severely threaten our chance to make things right. But once again there is hope in the Kingdom Fungi. Many mushrooms in Europe and western Asia were highly radioactive after Chernobyl, but they were able to digest the radioactivity over time. Mushrooms are vanguard species, feeding on death and toxins, dropping spore and attracting insects, which attract birds, which leave manure and seeds that mature into thriving ecosystems, and like the years following the K-T boundary, they will no doubt be major players in the dark uncharted territory of energy descent. I encourage all of you to engage the fungi, form alliances with them, and enhance your food production systems with this much-maligned group of misfits. They saved our asses before and they'll probably do it again. Stamets' books Mycelium Running and Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms are two titles I highly recommend. Be the mushrooms or be the proto-mammals, but the last thing in the world you want to be right now is a dinosaur...

Twenty-five posts and one year of blogging...thank you for being part of it!


  1. Hard to be a farmer and not see the magic renewal of life itself, death is not static it is driven merely by perspective. Congratulations on the year of blogging and thank you for so generously sharing your experience. When I saw the photos of your emerging new gardens I had such a rich remembrance of my own experience of first breaking ground on my own land here in VT in 1988. Although I cherish everyday I spend on my land there is a certain magic the first season, like the first time I kissed my sweetness Jill.
    Thanks again Tripp,


  2. It's been my pleasure, Nathan. Thanks for reading my ramblings. And I do hope we can get to Vermont to check out your place before things get too localized again. And meet your sick snowboarding sweetness Jill;)

  3. Congratulations on your postings and contributions to the emerging new realities.

  4. Absolutely loved your post today. I am one of the few in my circle who looks beyond this blip in time to the possibilities of the future without oil. It is nice to read an article that points out not only that we have had a history before oil but that there will also be a future without it. Makes me feel a little bit less like an odd duck.

  5. Tim, thanks for the props! Been fun - the blogging AND the emerging new realities.

    Zenobia, I don't know, I checked out your blog, and I still think you're an odd duck;) Just my kind of freak. You follow my wife's blog too, that's cool, AND listen to Thistile and Shamrock, our favorite. Yeah, I don't know, everyone's so busy being down about all the things they're going to lose, that most of them completely miss all the wonderful things they're going to gain!

  6. Tripp,
    You made me smile from ear to ear! I guess what I need to do is make sure I flock with birds of a feather, right? ha ha. I found Thistle and Shamrock thanks to your wife. Totally awesome!

    I just got back from vacation and will be loading up pictures on my site of the abandoned cabin I will be living in this summer and my ideas of what I am going to create in the near future. I am a wee bit stoked!

  7. Brought here by your reply to my comment on JHK's blog, and after reading this post, I assume you are a person of fair intelligence and worth. Clearly enlightened and aware of the looming issues we are all going to have to deal with, I'm terribly sorry that your exemplary efforts are likely to be for nought.

    I began the journey to awareness of our circumstances by a very circuitous path, searching across the web for any foundations to rumored conspiracies that surely must have had some validity, pretty much as soon as I hit the WWW - I've never liked witheld knowledge or information.
    It was during my early ventures into cyberspace that I came upon peak-oil and the reams of material that could be either easily discredited and discounted or accepted and taken onboard. What made it easier to finally accept was that acceptance clarified so many inconsistencies in world geopolitical and industrial behaviour, much of which seemed to me to be counterproductive, dangerous and incoherent. (my own background is checkered, but I've spent much of my previous working life in construction and potrochemical industries, so I've seen some odd and inexplicable decisions made from on high - peak-oil explains them all)

    For some years now I've vacillated between optimistism and pessimism on the final outcome but recent events have shoved me into the negative realm. My previous optimism had been enforced by the regular discovery of noble and informed individuals who seem to understand the perils we all face, such as yourself. However, there have been other perils I'd not considered deeply enough or known much about that have suddenly appeared, and they are not problems that can be addressed with any kind of resolution outside of a miracle, and I don't believe in miracles.

    After much recent frenetic research I've discovered that the nuclear industry is as corrupted and dangerous as he petrochemical industry, and the only ourtcome I can see is the end of all life on the planet. The cumululative result of the release of all the radioactive material that is scattered across the world is enough to eradicate every order of living creature in the biosphere, even down to the fungi and bacteria at the bottom of the chain. Even were the lowliest organisms able to survive, and the atmosphere to reinvigorate to a point where evolution were able to start down the path toward higher lifeforms, the billions of years required would likely see the sun use up the last vestiges of its hydrogen and our planet would become a cinder.

    I still hope for the best outcome, by a thread, but considering the masses who are ignorant and uninformed, and the masses who are informed and morally corrupt, I don't know that we are even worth saving...

    (yours, icurhuman2)

  8. I also saw your post on Kunstler's blog and came here. But I don't agree with icurhuman about the futility of doing anything other than fretting.

    Gardening is great therapy if nothing else, and it's hard to feel doomy and gloomy when working the soil. In Georgia you're months ahead of us in Minnesota- so I have major zone envy while looking at your freshly tilled plot. We still have snow here!

    Loving our little patch of ground is a survival strategy, but it's more than that- it's love and it's a beauty that can't be found on a smart phone or a laptop.

    Love your writing by the way- keep it up. I have barely a month in blogging about my corner of the planet- about cold climate organic gardening and urban sustainable living. Take a look at: http://eighthacrefarm.blogspot.com and tell me what you think. It's always good to hear from more experienced bloggers.


  9. icurhuman2, I also posted this link to noted permaculturalist Toby Hemenway's website early Monday morning before Mr. Kunstler posted his weekly dose of doom:


    It's a logical history- and ecology-based prognostication, not some Pollyanna, all-is-well view of our plight. I hope you read it. Makes sense to me. Like you I have waffled back and forth between hope and despair since I discovered the pattern, but I definitely lean toward some version of hope these days. With good reason I think. Though, admittedly, the nukes are beyond scary.

    JZ, like your blog. Beautiful children you have. Jealous of the maple syrup too. I have a ton of respect for urban farmers. Started out that way myself, but couldn't pass on the offer to join this "little family farm" in my home town. And because of the generosity we've received, we are now able to underwrite the continuation of our urban project with the city house. An older Danish gentleman is there now, doing amazing things with almost no money. Energy descent has more silver linings than I can keep up with.

    If you don't know him, familiarize yourself with Geoff Lawton. You'll really dig his perspective. "All your problems, all your supply line needs, can be solved in the garden. Most people today don't actually know that."

    But those of us who do know that there is still hope: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=npB8qltaB6g&p=66C1D27668E75F30&playnext=1&index=14

    Keep up the good work!

  10. Sorry the replies took so long this week. We've been without power for 2 days following that nasty storm early Tuesday morning. Glad I posted early this week! Been kind of a nice energy descent holiday though - even if it pointed out some scary weaknesses in our system...