Ecoforming and 1493

I enjoy creating useful neologisms. I’ve floated several on this blog: kafkatrapping, collabortage, politicism, chomskyism, and prospiracy. One could argue that my take on the term “error cascade” is neologistic.

Today, another one: “ecoforming”. By analogy with “terraforming”, this is what humans do when they deliberately modify an ecology to suit their purposes. The term is intended to include the introduction of non-native species, the deliberate use of fire as a technique for ground-clearing, and the sculpting of landscapes by selective planting and suppression of local wild flora, but to exclude cultivation of domesticated plants.

I’ve been thinking about this sort of thing because I’ve been reading a fascinating book titled 1493 by Charles C. Mann. This is a history of what he calls the “Columbian exchange” (borrowing the term from pioneering biohistorian Alfred W. Crosby), the transplantation of New World species to the Old World and vice-versa after Columbus’s voyage in 1492. Mann makes a persuasive case that the shock of that contact has been reverberating through the Earth’s biosphere ever since, reshaping human societies and much else in its wake. He tells well-known stories such as the way that the introduction of the potato to Europe enabled the rise in population that led to the Industrial Revolution. Also, many more (previously) obscure ones, such as the way that the introduction of American food plants produced ecological catastrophe in China, leading to the fall of the Ming Dynasty.

But more interesting still is Mann’s discussion of ecoforming, though he doesn’t use the word. He argues that one of the ways European settlement displaced American Indians and destroyed their societies was by introducing not just non-native plants but species such as the European honeybee and the earthworm that actually altered the ecology of settled areas by Europeanizing it. This created a landscape that Europeans could exploit, but which no longer supported the animals and food plants that were mainstays for the natives.

One of the most interesting points Mann makes is that every human culture does this – even those operating at a Neolithic level. He explains that the Jamestown colonists who thought they were living in an untamed wilderness were wrong; the landscape around them had been ecoformed by the natives for thousands of years. In an extremely eye-opening section near the end of the book, he explains how large sections of the Amazon jungle that appear completely wild to Europeans have actually been ecoformed extensively by the natives and a far larger population of their mixed-race descendents in the covert communities called quilombos. An example he didn’t cite, but could have, is the use of fire-clearing by Australian aborigines to ecoform swathes of the Australian outback.

But it gets better. Mann proposes that native ecoforming in the Americas was so consequential that a prompt second-order effect of the introduction of European diseases was a radical change in the ecological mosaic of the New World. Here’s how the causation works: Europeans arrive, accidentally transmit smallpox and half a dozen other plagues to the natives, 95% of the Amerinds die off, and regular fire-clearing of inhabited areas ceases. The consequence is that the open, park-like forests reported by the earliest Europeans change character in an eyeblink, becoming near choked with secondary growth. The mix of tree species shifts rapidly, because fire tolerance is no longer an adaptive edge. The mix of fauna changes, too, notably from large game to smaller animals.

And it gets better still. Mann reports reason to suspect that the drop-off in carbon emissions when New World fire-clearing ended may have caused the Little Ice Age! (Despite my contempt for today’s AGW junk science, I think this is somewhat plausible, though it would be out of scope for this essay to explain why. Mann’s proposal would obviously be less problematic for AGW true believers.) This leads directly to what I think is the most bracing and welcome thing about 1493. To explain it, I first need to set up in opposition to it the romantic view of nature.

According to the romantic view of “unspoiled nature”, there is a natural equilibrium state of any given ecology (or the biosphere as a whole) which changes only on timescales of a kiloyear or longer. This pristine state is what the ecology tends to return to after major shocks such as volcanic eruptions. Humans are not part of this pristine state. Fortunately, pre-industrial humans have neither the power nor the desire to greatly alter it, and walk lightly on the land. Nevertheless, human presence degrades the pristine state into something that is inevitably less complex, valuable, and natural.

This romantic view has dominated Western popular culture since the early 1800s and underpins a great deal of the silliness and anti-human hostility evident in the modern environmental movement. It motivates, as one very current example, hostility to “unnatural” GM crops and intensive agriculture in general.

Without ever announcing the intention to do so, Mann takes a poleaxe to the romantic view of “unspoiled nature” and dispatches it without mercy. First, he shows how pervasive ecoforming is as a cultural practice. Then, he shows how ecoforming or its sudden cessation can lead to rapid, profound transformation of ecosystems on a continental scale. Then he proposes a not-too-implausible coupling between large-scale ecoforming by neolithic-level savages and the entire planetary climate!

In reality, there is no almost “pristine” nature anywhere on Earth humans can survive with pre-industrial technology. When we look at almost any “wilderness”, part of what we are seeing is the results of millenia of ecoforming by the humans that came before us. And, while attempts at ecoforming sometimes have destructive consequences (salinized soils in the Middle East; rabbits in Australia), as often or more often they lead to a net increase in ecological complexity and resource richness. Mann is not afraid to show us that the world is a better place because, for example, capsaicin peppers native to the New World are now naturalized all over Eurasia and have become important to dozens of Old World cuisines.

The book has much else in it that is worthwhile. There’s a long digression on the craziness of Imperial Chinese monetary policy and how this led directly both to the silk trade, the opium wars, and an eco-catastrophe with which modern China still struggles. Mann’s observations on the economic history of Spain and the bootstrapping of the first truly global trade networks would fill entire books from less capable historians.

Good books on really large-scale history are rare, and this is the best I’ve seen since Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. I rather suspected when I read it that Mann had an eye on that book as a model, and he has confirmed this in an email exchange. 1493 stands comparison with Diamond’s book quite well.

80 thoughts on “Ecoforming and 1493

  1. Are you not hostile to GM _the way it is currently done_ ? I.e. closed-source, licenced agriculture of the Mosanto type where you can get sued if the winds blow seeds from your neighbor’s land to yours? I find closed-source licenced agriculture especially dangerous and as long as the “boo unnatural GM food” is just a marketing trick to get the people who lack the intellectual ability to understand why is it extremely dangerous (in the legal sense) to sow IP-protected seeds up against them then so be it..

  2. >I.e. closed-source, licenced agriculture of the Mosanto type where you can get sued if the winds blow seeds from your neighbor’s land to yours?

    I’m opposed to that, but it’s not what anti-GM types are talking about when they rant about “frankenfood”. They lost me at that bit of demagoguery.

  3. Makes me think about the exclusion zone around Chernobyl, which might have a chance of going pretty far towards the ‘pristine’ state, give or take a few layers of radionuclides in the soil. Then again, people will likely figure out ways to make use of the land long before the radioactivity has decayed to background levels.

  4. Well, I wonder how proponents of idea of Gaia explain a total extincion that almost happened in primordal ooze, namely almost death of all biosphere from the excess of oxygen produced by “plants”. Only the fact that evolution created “animals” which are consumers of oxygen saved biosphere. I guess it is a bit of anthropic principle at work.

    Also it is not only humans that do ecoforming. Beaver dams change ecology significantly – nb. it is something that Dawkins calls “extended phenotype”.

  5. Sounds more than a little hypocritical.

    Today, you claim we have the Global Climate Coincidence and you fight any influence of carbon dioxide on current climate to the death. But it is “plausible” to pass it as a cause of global cooling in the 1500s.

    The different fuel economics do not affect the way carbon dioxide influences the climate. And your error cascade still requires more evidence than “this is what suits me now”. Given your history in atmospheric physics, I will not hold my breath on the way you want to explain this plausibility.

    You know what I believe, that Libertarians are wimps that will refuse to face any problem they cannot solve within their view of the “State-less Free Market”. If your “Free Market” cannot solve it without state intervention, it cannot be a problem at all. And all scientists are fools anyway. So science can simply be ignored and replaced by reporters and politicians as “unbiased” bringers of truth.

    (Note: this comment was not about Climate Change, but about Libertarians)

  6. Humanity, and all it does, *is* natural. Smoke *that*, ecomarxist scum. :-)

  7. >Today, you claim we have the Global Climate Coincidence and you fight any influence of carbon dioxide on current climate to the death.

    Wrong, thanks for playing. I don’t dispute the direct component of CO2 greenhousing, which is tiny – but just possibly large enough to explain the Little Ice Age. The bullshit, as I’ve explained repeatedly before, is in the the supposedly self-reinforcing coupling between CO2 and water vapor, which is supposed to kick in annnny year now and produce catastrophe.

  8. >Also it is not only humans that do ecoforming. Beaver dams change ecology significantly

    Quite right. I nearly mentioned this.

  9. @esr
    “The bullshit, as I’ve explained repeatedly before, is in the the supposedly self-reinforcing coupling between CO2 and water vapor, which is supposed to kick in annnny year now and produce catastrophe.”

    I have no idea what you read, but it is pure fiction and unrelated to climate research. Current climate models are explaining changes in current weather patterns (precipitation) from current carbon dioxide levels. Any “Venus Catastrophe” run-away heating is strictly for future consumption.

    The temperature change in the “little ice age” is comparable to the predicted increases for the comming decades. And they have comparable bad consequences.

    But I know why libertarians are attracted to straw men. And why they consider all scientists fools. See previous post.

  10. Mikko,

    My understanding is that there ARE people living in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Only a few, and those in the less-eradiated areas, but they do exist. On the other hand, I have read that there is a city inside the zone, fairly near the edge, that they have tried to re-populate because the radiation levels of that area have dropped off to (somewhat) safe levels, but people refuse to live there.

    s

  11. As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m currently in the Australian Outback.

    http://firewatch.dli.wa.gov.au/landgate_firewatch_public.asp

    There are 100s or 1000s of acres I pass by on a weekly basis that are burning, or have burnt in the last 2-4 weeks. These fires are (almost) all started by aboriginals for one reason or another. These fires are, at least according to some legends, their traditional way of managing the land.

    These are from further north, and earlier in the year. A while back we took a (roughly) 1000 mile drive, and I don’t think we were out of sight of a plume of smoke or two the whole time.

    http://www.nasaimages.org/luna/servlet/detail/nasaNAS~10~10~67724~172588:Early-Dry-Season-Fires-in-Northern-

  12. Sorry, didn’t read close enough. Those were from June of 2004.

    Doesn’t change the point though.

  13. @Winter: You use the term “Libertarian”, but your beef seems to be with “libertarians”. So I’ll go with the latter.

    The interplay between libertarians and “unsolvable” problems is a deliberate part of the libertarian philosophy. The philosophy maintains that, when facing a problem for which very low information exists, any given action may be as likely to be beneficial as any other action. It’s like looking at a message you know is encoded by a one-time pad; the correct decoding might be “attack at dawn”, or it might be “my hovercraft is full of eels”; you can’t tell.

    Given that, a libertarian says “see if you can know more about the problem; meanwhile, act as if the problem barely exists”. That’s because a libertarian knows it is not the only problem in existence, and other problems may be more pressing and more actionable. A libertarian would rather put food on the table than consider whether that food’s production is affecting initial conditions in a sensitive iterative ecosystem. It’s not wimpy at all; it’s a rational response to a situation with multiple potential threats and scarce resources to address those threats.

    The process of addressing those threats includes the application of the scientific method, and so we have to choose which problems get the science and which are left fallow for now. Libertarians like science and scientists as much as they like anybody else, but they realize it has a cost, and therefore, science is subject to market forces. Which in turn means that if the market is partially controlled, science is subject to that control. That’s where the libertarian distrust comes in.

    That control on science is disproportionately controlled by a small group, which, by the rules, marches to the tune of whoever grabbed the group last. This manages to stumble along fine in its own way when that group changes hands frequently, but it’s still like a firehose with two speeds: full, and off. It results in a very jarring behavior in the direction taken by science, transparent in that you can see who controls the science by the solution being proposed.

    The libertarian’s lament is two-fold, then: one, that science isn’t applied optimally, and two, that that non-optimal application threatens the reputation of science itself. To add to the confusion, the second-order effect of criticizing this application of science is misunderstood as a distrust of science itself, when in fact it is nothing more than that same response any libertarian has to multiple threats and scarce resources to assess them.

    This is why I think the Libertarian/libertarian distinction doesn’t matter in your case. Perhaps you’re only talking about Libertarians, on the premise that they’re not thinking far enough ahead and are backing the cause out of laziness. To which I say that characterizes 90% of the population, not just Libertarians; Democrats (or liberals or progressives if you prefer) have no monopoly on care for other human beings unfettered by such inconveniences as scarce resources and individual desires. So it would be a meaningless criticism. So I’m working from the premise that you’re criticizing the philosophy rather than the American political party.

  14. @Paul Brinkley
    “To add to the confusion, the second-order effect of criticizing this application of science is misunderstood as a distrust of science itself, when in fact it is nothing more than that same response any libertarian has to multiple threats and scarce resources to assess them.”

    I have actually read the Classical book on Scepticism by Sextus Empiricus (c. 160-210 AD, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sextus_Empiricus). And on that level, I am a sceptic myself.

    But our honored host has stated many times he bases his distrust of science on his own pet theory of “error cascade”. Furthermore, he does not actually reads the primary literature in the field.

    There is no sensible definition of “Scepticism” that includes “All scientists are fools, unless they agree with me”, which is what his “error cascades” basically is. Our host dismisses the evidence based on a generalizing dismissal of thousands of people who have made it their profession to be sceptical. And that without a shred of evidence. Not weighting the evidence when it does not suit you is not scepticism.

    All those “Climate Sceptics” are liars. They already made up their mind and have chosen a position. That is not sceptic, but dogmatic.

  15. I suspect you’re mischaracterizing ESR’s stand on error cascades.

    And again, you’re ignoring over half of the players when you criticize climate change skeptics. Those who support the notion of AGW had similarly made up their minds and chosen positions. Your criticism is meaningless so long as you insist on only asserting it only exists on the side you happen to disagree with. Doing so furthermore casts similar suspicion upon your authority on the matter. If you want to appear objective, you’re going to have to start from shared premises.

    Gotta go to work; I might take this up later.

  16. >But I know why libertarians are attracted to straw men. And why they consider all scientists fools. See previous post.

    You’re still wrong, and still projecting beliefs on me that I do not hold. But that is no more than I expect from a self-described “good commie”.

    Furrther dispute about AGW and libertarianism is declared off-topic for this thread and will be deleted.

  17. @esr
    “You’re still wrong, and still projecting beliefs on me that I do not hold. But that is no more than I expect from a self-described “good commie”. ”

    So we both misunderstand each other? Sounds plausible to me.

  18. Haven’t read 1493 yet, but Mann’s 1491 was one of those historically grandiose attempts in a book that worked 100%. Brilliant reading.

  19. Ecoforming is a fine word, although you may wish to explicitly contrast it homesteading and permaculture.

    “And, while attempts at ecoforming sometimes have destructive consequences (salinized soils in the Middle East; rabbits in Australia), as often or more often they lead to a net increase in ecological complexity and resource richness.”

    That is a true statement, however it is quite weak. No reasonable person would assert that human intervention in ecologies is always harmful. Reasonable environmentalists assert that specific practices are short sighted and harmful, i.e. strip mining, factory farming, fracking, et. cet.

    To put it another way, it makes no sense to lump the ecoforming practices of a neolithic (or even pre-industrial) culture into the same basket as modern monoculture farming.

  20. Winter Says:
    > You know what I believe, that Libertarians are wimps that will refuse to face any problem they cannot solve within their view of the “State-less Free Market”.

    Not really, we just look at the big picture and know that when the camel sticks his nose in the tent, that before long he invites his friends to your place for a party, and he is raiding your refrigerator and liquor cabinet, and charging pizza to your credit card.

    Camel noses are occasionally helpful, camel parties rarely are. Shame you can’t have one without the other.

    > If your “Free Market” cannot solve it without state intervention, it cannot be a problem at all. And all scientists are fools anyway. So science can simply be ignored and replaced by reporters and politicians as “unbiased” bringers of truth.

    Jonah Goldberg wrote an interesting column on the accusation, in fact the underlying assumption, that conservatives are anti science, and liberals are just following the data. To be clear, I am not a conservative, but I though his take was interesting.

    I assume things are different in the low countries, but here in America I assure you, reporters and politicians a rarely assets for libertarians.

  21. I find it encouraging for the state of modern academia that this is all acknowledged at a textbook level my the field of anthropology. My anthro professor two semesters ago described the state of California prior to colonization as “a huge garden.”

  22. Bah, should read “acknowedged at a textbook level BY the field of anthropology.” I’m used to having an edit button.

  23. @Winter: I believe ESR was referring to this comment where you called yourself a good commie. Because communism is wrong in so many other ways as far he can tell, he expects flawed arguments from any self described communist and isn’t surprised to see them. You claimed that libertarians believe that if the free market can’t solve it then it isn’t actually a problem at all. That is ascribing a belief to Eric he doesn’t hold, and is wrong as description of general libertarian belief, so I don’t see any point where “You’re still wrong, and still projecting beliefs on me that I do not hold. But that is no more than I expect from a self-described “good commie”. ” indicates that he misunderstood you.

  24. Eric,

    Given your praise of “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” I’m curious about your reaction to Diamond’s other book: “Collapse”.

    I found it very interesting, yet frustrating. Most of the societial collapses he looks at were pre-literate, so it’s harder to get deeply into the social dynamic that would be the case for one that left good written records. Even the failure of the Greenland settlement does not appear to have been well-documented through written records. And the parallels he tries to draw with modern society seem strained, since a global society has far more flexibility and reserves than a local one.

    Another book I highly recommend is Tony Horwitz’ “A Voyage Long and Strange”. It’s a light, easy-read history of the period 1493 – 1620 in North America, a period that tends to be ignored by the general public.

    I bring up this book here because one of the things he explores, especially in the chapter on De Soto, is the really high population density of First Nations peoples and how different it was from the modern notion of a few lone Indians living in the wilderness (which of course is the result of the 95% population reduction you mentioned in the OP).

    He also talks about the impact of the pigs that De Soto brought on his journey, which may have been a major trigger of the plagues.

  25. @phlin
    Eric’s ideas about my political views have no connection with reality. They could not have because no one here has any idea about who I am. Picking a sentence out of context and interpreting it in the USA frame will not bring you any closer.

    My conclusion on the L word were my own interpretation of observed behavior. Which could be completely wrong, but this is what I experienced here.

    Eric’s rash dismissals of my views based on some fragments of comments is a case in point.

  26. Boy, this guy wouldn’t last a minute against Derrick Jensen. Again, the Tolowa: they lived in place for 12,500 years (or forever, depending on who you ask), they lived on salmon runs so thick you literally could not see the bottom. Along comes the dominant culture, and 180 years later there are almost no wild salmon.

    I’ll see your neologism and raise you a new one: “terrorforming”, the deliberate destruction or disruption of ecosystems in order to impose political will. Terrorforming is what happened to the wild buffalo and the wild salmon, in order to control the peoples who lived on these animals and impose scarcity- and ownership-based capitalism across the continent.

  27. Wait what? Talk about AGW is off limits? Mkay, it’s your blog so your rules but that’s just odd in this context.

    Me, I’m thinking we can fix GW (A or otherwise) via geoengineering. Regardless of your stance on the A part of GW or political viewpoint it strikes me as reasonable to invest resources into geoengineering (ecoforming if you prefer) given that climate change is observable in the form of retreating glaciers.

    I don’t really care the source of the environmental changes but I do care if it negatively impacts US food production or quality of life in my kids’ lifetime. Yeah, I’m selfish that way…I’m human.

  28. You’re a goldmine, Jeff. This blog wouldn’t be the same without you. :)

  29. @Jeff: Hmm… “terrorforming” doesn’t really speak to me, at least when we take it in isolation (terror + forming), and not as play on “terraforming”. Pity that “ecoterrorism” has established different meaning…

    @Cathy: About Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”. There are examples of IIRC state-controlled undoing of deforestation in Japan (historical, but I think with written records), of two parts of Haiti (contemporary).

  30. @Esr: typo “tern”. Fascinating.

    Someone relayed that weeds are becoming resistant to the anti-weeding sprays to which the GM foods are resistant. The point is nature routes around closed-sourcing, or any paradigm that is less efficient at maximizing “independent outcomes”, i.e. the independent probabilities in the entropy equation.

    @Jeff Read: I don’t know the specifics of that case, but perhaps the owner-based capitalism was a necessary step towards maximizing industrialization, which was a step towards the computation machines we have now, which is a step towards maximizing the independent knowledge we can create on this fiber-optic network. Point is that the free market is always working, even when it is creating cases of local order that seem counter-trend when viewed from any particular lens which is not the overall entropy of the planet.

  31. Jeff,

    >Terrorforming is what happened to the wild buffalo and the wild salmon, in order to control the peoples who lived on these animals and impose scarcity- and ownership-based capitalism across the continent.

    Please provide evidence for the “in order to control peoples” part. Occam’s Razor would predict simpler reasons for doing so, such as 1) actually eating buffalo or salmon meat or feeding it to domestic animals 2) making room for other species, or protecting domestic crops from grazing buffaloes, or any other non-natives-related reason for removing them.

    Occam sez screwing people by killing their prey animals is just too complicated. There are probably easier ways of screwing them. There are probably other reasons for killing their prey animals, too.

  32. @Paul, your discussion is pretty good, but I think Thomas Sowell’s discussions in *A Conflict of Visions* and more recently in *Intellectuals & Society* is clearer and more to the point. Many, possibly *most*, social problems cannot be “solved” because different “solutions” require different tradeoffs which, too many people, especially liberals, are not willing to admit. And which different people would make the “trades” very differently. Old-fashioned conservatives and libertarians work around this by minimizing the scope of “solutions”, by making them private (market-based) or at worst localized decisions.

    Liberals, socialists, communists, whatever you want to call the arrogant centralizing control freaks, want to, and when they can actually try to, hammer everybody into accepting the same tradeoffs, without even admitting that tradeoffs were made.

  33. I’m reminded of the famous opening words of Longfellow’s epic poem “Evangeline”:

    This is the forest primeval…

    (referring to the unsettled parts of 18th-century Nova Scotia).

    Except, as you note, it wasn’t “primeval forest”.

    There’s a lot of rhetoric about preserving “old-growth forest” as if it was primeval. It isn’t, and that shouldn’t be the basis of thinking about it. “Old-growth forest” is desirable for many reasons, but it’s as much a human artifact as the “second growth forest” which filled in a lot of the eastern U.S. as early as the Civil War. This was land had been cleared and farmed in the colonial period, and then was abandoned for much better land west of the Appalachians.

    One such area became a savagely contested battleground: the northwestern corner of Spotsylvania County in Virginia, just south of the Rappahannock. It was (in Shelby Foote’s words) “a tangle of second-growth scrub oak and pine, choked with vines and brambles that would tear the clothes from a man’s back…”, and though its conditions were the result of human activity – it was called “the Wilderness”.

    If we choose to preserve “old-growth forest” over such “second-growth forest”, we should do so because we like it better, or because it has characteristics we value – not because it’s more “natural”, and because we mistakely call one or other “wilderness”.

  34. Boy, the strawmen and derails are coming thick and from the word “go” – one suspects that this post might have hit a nerve. XD

  35. “…and the sculpting of landscapes by selective planting and suppression of local wild flora, but to exclude cultivation of domesticated plants.”

    Why exclude that? It was important too. (Example: Plowing the American prairies and planting wheat led to the 1930s Dust Bowl.)

    @Shenpen: It is an unfortunate fact of American history that hunters were encourage to kill off the buffalo (actually American bison) in order to starve the plains Indians into submission. This policy originated with General W. T. Sherman.

  36. I don’t think you need theories about “terrorforming” to explain overhunting; it suffices merely to observe that with the orders-of-magnitude in improvement in hunting technology that Europeans brought with them, combined with orders-of-magnitude improvement in the ability of Europeans to consume the hunted goods (by shipping them long distances quickly enough that the recipient could still use the result profitably), that one would expect an extremely sharp shock to the population of the population suddenly being hunted by said technologies and cultures, potentially unto the point of extinction. Native Americans did it themselves to the yet-more-megafauna before Europeans got here, when they were the orders-of-magnitude more efficient hunters upon their first arrival.

  37. Jeff Read said: Terrorforming is what happened to the wild buffalo and the wild salmon, in order to control the peoples who lived on these animals and impose scarcity- and ownership-based capitalism across the continent.

    Show your work, please.

    By which I mean, demonstrate the motive you assert.

    Deliberate weakening of the Amerindian population by getting rid of buffalo appears, by all available evidence, to be at best a secondary motive, and possibly more like a tertiary one.

    (The State certainly seems to have wanted that, but they didn’t actually do the work, so their desires, while of historical import, are not very relevant.)

    Market hunting for the widely-demanded skins, and clearing for ranching and railroads are significantly more important, as far as I can tell.

    (And while market hunting is part of “scarcity-based capitalism”*, it’s not a Cunning Scheme to impose it.

    * Is there any other kind? And indeed, aren’t even non-capitalist economic structures inherently “scarcity-based”, if only because scarcity is [currently and for all of human history so far] simply unavoidable?

    And thus isn’t that just a pretty cheap rhetorical shot?)

    I am unaware of any evidence at any level that salmon populations were deliberately reduced, just that it was a side-effect of beaver trapping and related politics. (EG. the Hudson’s Bay Company sending out trappers to kill every beaver they could, to make the Northwest unattractive to American trappers who had newly granted treaty access.

    They didn’t give a damn about salmon, and probably had no idea that beaver dams were a significant mode of support for the salmon population.)

  38. I have a question about carbon dioxide and oxygen released by burning plants (and how burning or lack of burning can alter climate, for example, to bring about the Little Ice Age as described in the book). It was my understanding that, except in the rare cases where plant material is turned into peat and coal (or oil in the ocean), all or most the CO2 absorbed by the plant is released during decomposition, and the chemical process of that decomposition absorbes the oxygen released during the plants life. The decomposition is, in effect, extremely slow combustion, which is why large piles of decomposing plant material become very warm in the center. In other words, neither burning nor planting trees or shrubs increases or decrease net oxygen or C02, at least over the length of time it takes a tree to decompose.

  39. And it gets better still. Mann reports reason to suspect that the drop-off in carbon emissions when New World fire-clearing ended may have caused the Little Ice Age!

    Not as convincing as the alteration of solar output from the Maunder Minimum.

  40. >Why exclude that? It was important too.

    Because we call that “farming”. The term “ecoforming” is useful precisely because points at the manipulation of what we think of as “wild” biomes.

  41. Stuart the Viking

    My understanding is that there ARE people living in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Only a few, and those in the less-eradiated areas, but they do exist. On the other hand, I have read that there is a city inside the zone, fairly near the edge, that they have tried to re-populate because the radiation levels of that area have dropped off to (somewhat) safe levels, but people refuse to live there.

    Yes, I’m aware that there are people living in the exclusion zone, but my understanding is that these are a small number of elderly people who refused to leave their homes. The radioactive stuff fell down in a very spotty manner, and there is a lot of land inside the exclusion zone that is not dangerously radioactive. On the other hand, there are contaminated spots outside of the zone very far from Chernobyl, even outside of Russia and Belarus.

    I know that there are plans to make use of the land for different purposes, as you might expect with such a large area. I guess it remains to be seen how that works out, since dealing with that kind of contamination on a large scale is unprecedented in a lot of ways. E.g. the radioactive caesium has been found to accumulate in soil and plants in unexpected ways.

    It’ll also be interesting to see how the Japanese will deal with the problem in comparison to the Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians. Russia especially has land to spare and they had created vast radioactive ‘nature reserves’ accidentally already before Chernobyl (the 1957 Mayak disaster), seemingly without being too badly disadvantaged by it. Japan is a different story, and I should think that they have much more of an incentive to try to clean up and make use of the contaminated areas. I find it telling that Japan is stretching the radiation safety limits much further than the Soviets ever did, which seems strangely incongruous, given that the Soviet Union tried to hide the Chernobyl disaster for days and in Japan the accidents took place on live video for the whole world to see. Japan has allowed kids (the most vulnerable part of the population) to go to school in places that would have been considered absolute no-go hot spots in the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

  42. An example of “good intentions” detrimental ecoforming. Preventing any fires in U.S. forests led to extreme fire hazard, and to rare but larger and uncontrollable (and much more destructive) forest fires.

  43. esr,

    > Furrther dispute about AGW and libertarianism is declared off-topic for this thread and will be deleted.

    If you don’t enforce it will this policy be followed? I wanted to break it and haven’t. Others have broken it. May I?

    Yours,
    Tom

  44. Sigh…I want an atomic space yacht.

    Obviously we are a part of; and integral to our surroundings. Those who worship at the altar of their surroundings, shall perish before the cascade of solar fusion.

    Me…I want genetic engineering and atomic space craft…I want off the altar…the fools can have it.

    Not that I really think I’ll get past that event horizon…but we all have to believe in something.

  45. @Chris Green

    It was my understanding that, except in the rare cases where plant material is turned into peat and coal (or oil in the ocean), all or most the CO2 absorbed by the plant is released during decomposition, and the chemical process of that decomposition absorbes the oxygen released during the plants life … In other words, neither burning nor planting trees or shrubs increases or decrease net oxygen or C02, at least over the length of time it takes a tree to decompose.

    Think about it in terms of the carbon cycle. The carbon atoms move from the atmosphere, into the biosphere, and back. You have X carbon in the atmosphere and Y carbon in the biosphere. At equilibrium the amount of carbon going into the biosphere is matched by the amount of carbon returning to the atmosphere.

    Now burn down a forest, which releases z carbon into the atmosphere. Now the atmosphere has (X + z) carbon and the biosphere has (Y – z) carbon.

    Another way to look at it: carbon spends x% of its time in the atmosphere and (100-x)% of its time in the biosphere. If the total carbon in the carbon cycle is Z, then atmospheric carbon is (Z * x%). Burning the forest reduces the size of the biosphere, so now carbon spends x’% > x% of its time in atmosphere.

    @ Tom DeGisi:

    I took esr’s warning to apply to disputes about (agw AND libertatianism). Comments about (climate AND ecoforming) are still on topic.

  46. >If you don’t enforce it will this policy be followed? I wanted to break it and haven’t. Others have broken it. May I?

    Pete is pushing it, but I haven’t seen anyone outright break it since I issued the fiat.

  47. I’ll see your neologism and raise you a new one: “terrorforming”, the deliberate destruction or disruption of ecosystems in order to impose political will. Terrorforming is what happened to the wild buffalo and the wild salmon, in order to control the peoples who lived on these animals and impose scarcity- and ownership-based capitalism across the continent.

    You need to spend less time hanging around pot smoking hippies. The major reason for the dwindling of the wild buffalo populations had little to do with controlling the Native American population and everything to do with high demand for buffalo hides. While there were certainly some horrible things done to the Native American populations, including the distribution of smallpox-infected blankets, the taking of land by force and forced relocation to other regions of the country, the killing of buffalo was hardly done for this reason, if at all.

  48. @Chris Green

    If all you do is grow and burn trees, then yes, the total amount of carbon stays the same. What we are doing, though, is burning carbon that has been buried underground, out of the system. By mining coal and pumping oil, we are adding to the total carbon available to the biosphere.

  49. >Pete is pushing it, but I haven’t seen anyone outright break it since I issued the fiat.

    Sorry about that, I though I was well within bounds. Could you perhaps clarify, because I’d quite like to hear what Tom has to say.

  50. esr,

    > Pete is pushing it, but I haven’t seen anyone outright break it since I issued the fiat.

    Guess I’m too strict then. Got it from my Dad. But he can keep a secret much better than I, judging by his ability to conceal his work on classified stuff so well that we had to guess based on travel destinations. And he still never admitted it. Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos, why do you ask?

    pete,

    > because I’d quite like to hear what Tom has to say.

    Thanks.

    Yours,
    Tom

  51. I do not see why people find ecoforming on a planetary scale so appealing. The described case study killed 95% of the population on two continents.

    In modern terms, it would mean the two Americas would end up with 50 million inhabitants (15+20+15) instead of the current 900 million. North America would end up with less people than Canada has now.

    I used to think that such thing would be filed under “Mega Disaster”. Not something to be tried again.

  52. @LS and Pete

    I’m not trying to discuss the implications of burning fossil fuels. I’m only trying to discuss how ecofarming, specifically, burning forests and brush can put net carbon in the air and alter climate, a topic discussed in the book. I suppose if you burn a forest, and keep burning it down, so that it never really grows back, you can affect CO2 levels. However, in the time it takes the plant material to grow back, the carbon is re-absorbed. The post, particularly the part about ecofarming affecting the climate just got me thinking.

    I agree with the main gist of the post. Even hunter-gatherers can radically change the environment they are in. The Mayas probably farmed huge tracts of what we consider pristine rain forest in Central America and most of what we think of as pristine is probably not untouched primeval forest. Natural is however we define it. I think the somewhat developed parts of Appalachia where you have forest interspersed with many farms and small towns are much prettier than the parts that are just a blanket of unrelieved dark green and the attachment of certain groups to the idea of preserving large amounts Terra in it’s supposedly pre-man state does have a bit of a crazy flavor to it. People want something to believe in and fight for, and when you toss the human-centric Judeo-Christian God out of the picture, something else is bound to take its place.

  53. @Chris Green
    “I suppose if you burn a forest, and keep burning it down, so that it never really grows back, you can affect CO2 levels.”

    The “Standing Crop” storage of carbon of a tropical forest with trees 50 m high is much bigger than the standing crop storage of cultivated land. In the tropics, that translates mostly to the weight of the forest versus the weight of the farm crop. In temperate and boreal zones, you have to account for the underground storage of carbon in the humus layer and root systems. In polar regions the peat layer can store substantial amounts of carbon, generally storing much more than the overlaying vegetation.

  54. @Chris Green

    I suppose if you burn a forest, and keep burning it down, so that it never really grows back, you can affect CO2 levels.

    Yep, that’s exactly it. Generally the forest doesn’t get to grow back, except when The Plague kills everyone.

  55. @Winter:

    I do not see why people find ecoforming on a planetary scale so appealing. … In modern terms, it would mean the two Americas would end up with 50 million inhabitants (15+20+15) instead of the current 900 million.

    I have never discussed this with any “green”-minded person, but I suspect that most of them do not believe the reduction in population would be necessary: somehow, modern magicians —by which I mean engineers & scientists— will discover how to keep everyone alive “once the pressure is on”. (I just realized this could also explain the dichotomy between climate science fact and science reporting. Could it be that those doing the reporting think that a solution will magically appear if they only [pun intended] “turn up the heat”?)

    The other possibility is that the do not realize the powerful positive feedback inherent to our information and wealth generation systems and believe that decimating the population would mean that they personally become many times richer.

  56. I understood the Spörer and Maunder Minimums to be significant contributors to the Little Ice Age. Spörer in particular started in the same sort of time period as you’re talking about for the mass Amerind depopulation.

    I’d been fishing for a word for this; I was on “humaniforming”, but that too strongly suggests making something shaped like a human, rather than shaped to suit people. “Ergonomiforming” means the right things, but was way to ugly to catch on.

    I do share the view of others that deliberately excluding farming is not going to stick – farming is a subset of reshaping the ecology, as is wild ecoforming.

    All ecologies on Earth are heavily shaped by human activity – which, of course, is your point – and that reshaping needs a name. Ecoforming is a good one, but you’re not going to stop people using it as the superset for both agriculture and wild ecoforming. Of course, urban environments are ecoformed too – there are several species that are highly adapted to the urban environment (the most obvious being the pigeon, of course, but also urban foxes, house martins, sparrows, rats, mice, certainly a number of insect and arachnid species, not so sure about plants, but there are surely some) and urban environments continue to develop in ecology – a notable recent example is the arrival of the urban fox, which were almost unheard of a century ago.

  57. @Richard: +1

    Tangent: would be cool if all blogs had a feature like stackoverflow, so we can vote comments up or down (but not force a filtering on these counts by default for all readers). Then we will get feedback on the efficacy of our exposition. And I also wish stackoverflow let me see who votes on what, because for example I would like to know who are the 4 people who don’t know the difference between call-by-sharing and call-by-value in the context of computer language evaluation strategy.

  58. Morgan Greywolf Says: While there were certainly some horrible things done to the Native American populations, including the distribution of smallpox-infected blankets…

    Never happened. OK, may have happened once in the 1700s. (A British commander may have tried it against a French-allied tribe.)

    Yet it is referred to over and over again as if it was SOP for the U.S.

    In fact, the policy of the U.S. was to prevent smallpox among the Indians. Congress appropriated funds to send vaccinators out among the tribes. This is well-documented. (The reason was that the Indians were the chief suppliers of pelts to the big fur trading companies. If they all died off, Astor et al would have been out of business.)

    (It’s bad enough when historical falsehoods are repeated. It’s intolerable when outrageous libels are casually repeated as fact.)

  59. Winter Says:I do not see why people find ecoforming on a planetary scale so appealing. The described case study killed 95% of the population on two continents.

    You seem to have trouble reading. The post-1492 population crash in the New World had nothing to do with “ecoforming”. It was due to the introduction of Old World contagious diseases, to which Amerinds had no resistance. This is explicitly referenced in ESR’s posting: “Europeans arrive, accidentally transmit smallpox and half a dozen other plagues to the natives, 95% of the Amerinds die off.”

    This relates to ecoforming because vast areas previously ecoformed by Amerinds then fell into pseudo-wilderness for want of maintenance.

  60. @Rich Rostrom
    I just take diseases as part of the ecosystem. Especially as they all originated in animals.

  61. >OK, may have happened once in the 1700s. (A British commander may have tried it against a French-allied tribe.)

    Even this is doubtful. There’s an extant letter in which a British commander discusses the possibility, but no evidence it was implemented.

  62. Pingback: Debunking the notion of “unspoiled nature” « Quotulatiousness

  63. Slightly off-topic, but a neologism I came across at booksbikesboomsticks, “GANGSTALKING” The mother of all paranoid delusions.

  64. It’s interesting that many of the neologisms created by esr are steeped in political baggage. It seems most are designed to be deployed as weapons of one sort or another in a cultural war against the gramscian left.

  65. >Generally the forest doesn’t get to grow back, except when The Plague kills everyone.

    North America has been massively re-forested over the past century.

  66. >North America has been massively re-forested over the past century.

    How much is “massively”? Wasn’t Pre-Columbian North America about 50% forest?

  67. @TomM
    Obviously, all ideas of the “the left” must be destroyed, a word at a time.

    But it can backfire. Changing the composition of the atmosphere is ecoforming too.

    And it is easy to generate new words that are less pleasant. Say, “Iraquization”, what happens to a thriving country after it is liberated by american conservatists. The Libyans seem to understand this.

  68. >Changing the composition of the atmosphere is ecoforming too.

    No, it isn’t. Ecoforming is intentional. Changing the composition of the atmosphere is not.

  69. @TomM:
    It could be incidental (not intentional), because afaics there are cases where it is impossible to speak factually about the environment without implicitly attacking the environmentalists. Environmentalists seem to share the logic of the feminists, in that when they speak against something calling for collective force, they are actually speaking for the phenomena they are against. For example, they want to protect some species, but this can cause the entropic efficiency for other species (esp humans who have the most information content, i.e. entropy) to decline more significantly. So it is difficult to see them as anything over than ignorant of entropy as the fundamental force of nature. I don’t say this with any spite in my heart, it is just logic. My proof is that all centrally managed collective action raises uniformity of information and thus lowers “entropic efficiency”, and entropy is now proven to be the most fundamental force of nature we current know of (which was my published theory since 2008). However, collective action is a local semi-closed order of nature too, i.e. it is a feature of the larger open-system’s global optimization (annealing) of entropic efficiency. Velinde has derived Newton’s F=ma from the entropic force, and he explains the semi-closed local orders here:

    But a theorem by Prigogine states that the dynamics of the system will adapt itself so that entropy production is minimized. Yes, really minimized. This may appear counterintuitive, but I like to look at it as that it seeks the path of least resistance.

  70. @esr
    OK. I missed the intentional part. But i am afraid ecoforming will be like medicinal drugs. The intended effects might not be the most pronounced.

  71. Ecoforming is intentional. Changing the composition of the atmosphere is not.

    That relates to my prior comment (we were posting at same time), in that using centrally managed collective action to force the latter to be intentional, radically reduces the entropy (degrees-of-freedom, thus information content) of the former and thus overall. If there was a free market need (i.e. individual cost payoff) for humans to control the composition of the atmosphere, then humans would do it without any central force. Collectivists will argue that we need collective action to account for costs that aren’t individualized, but this promise of lower overall costs is always a lie long-term, because it always lowers the entropic efficiency in the long-run. However, the semi-closed orders can be more expedient (path of least resistance) in the short-run, e.g. the current western collectivist debt bubble, before the implosion of that local order comes (Coase’s Theorem). What I am saying is I think collectivism is necessary, as it is nature’s way of motivating the free market to develop disruptive technologies. This is why I tolerant everyone’s view, even though I can make some statements about what I think is the long-term outcomes. I am inherently against religion (group-think) because it is centralization of thought, thus a lower information content. In short, there isn’t supposed to be some static perfection ever– and I like that. Sorry for rambling.

  72. @Shelby
    “it is impossible to speak factually about the environment without implicitly attacking the environmentalists. Environmentalists seem to share the logic of the feminists, in that when they speak against something calling for collective force, they are actually speaking for the phenomena they are against.”

    When I step out of the door, I am walking on former see floor. You want to teach us about ecoforming? We create our own nature to protect. To us, the world is a park which has to be managed to keep everyone alive. And give me a reason why you consider my country a failure. An not your mad debt talk, my country exists for over 400 years as a political unity. If it has not collapsed by now, why would it collapse in the near future?

    @Shelby
    “Collectivists will argue that we need collective action to account for costs that aren’t individualized, but this promise of lower overall costs is always a lie long-term, because it always lowers the entropic efficiency in the long-run.”

    Wrong, without collectivist action, I will drown in a few weeks. The Netherlands would not even exist without collectivist action. And you might give me a good reason why a corporation is not collectivist? It is very dictatorial, but still collectivist.

  73. @Winter:
    Agreed the corporation coordinates development, and thus exists, where exists transactional costs to be coodinated.

    Agreed, I understand your country largely exists because of some collective cost of levees that I assume facilitated more prosperity than they cost (I was born in New Orleans which is similar, although I think the cost is paid by the Feds and Corps of Engineers). And my point is that collectivism is natural in that sense (for the short-run of 400+ years in this case), and motivates technological disruption, due the overriding global entropic force (now known since 2010 to be the fundamental force). The global entropy is trending to maximum. 400 years out of a million+ for the universe, is just a blip.

    The Netherlands’ dependence on collectivist levees will be erased by technology in the future, maybe not in our lifetimes. Levitating cities might do it. Or it might be an information revolution that removes some key competitive cost advantage for most people living there in the subsidy. I don’t know exactly what form the disruption will be. The book 1493 documents examples that such disruptions occur rather suddenly on epochal scale.

  74. @Winter: the implication is the debt is not necessary to maintain the levees, because I assume the productive output of the Netherlands exceeds the cost. Also the implication that the initial impetus for collectivism seems to rise from some justified (positive economics) paradigm of shared cost structure. So to the extent that technology can disrupt shared cost structures, then the efficiency of entropic force proceeds without the boom & bust of those local orders which were disrupted, yet new shared cost structures emerge. For example, the onset of the technology for levees enabled your country to form with a new shared cost structure.

    The greater concern is collectivism grows a constituency, which then diverges to an Olsen scramble of vested interests, which is symbiotic with the boom & bust debt+insurance+bonds syndrome. And the divergence is sometimes quite severe, i.e. the mega-death outcome. Maybe this overshoot of collectivism is nature’s most efficient way of culling the herd, or perhaps that is motivation for us to develop technology to mitigate the short-run economic viability of debt and taxes if possible, since those seem to be the major mode of overshoot. Okay that is too much rambling for today. Apologies.

  75. Let add my quickly written rambling conceptual understanding of the math involved, without getting too precise. These near-term “paths of least resistance”, which are semi-closed local orders, are essentially local minima or maxima in the global N dimensional solution space, where N are the independent probability terms in the equation of entropy, i.e. the degrees-of-freedom. Gradient path solutions tend to be non-optimal local valleys that are traps, because the gradient solving wants to always move downhill. Only the random “jump” experiments of simulated annealing can find a distant deeper valley in the solution space. So these gradient moves of the local orders, can be seen as the most efficient (more efficient than randomly jumping around within a valley) way of finding local minima. Whereas, the global trend of the entropic force is trending to maximum N (entropy), and the solution to this space is simulated annealing, which is the only global optimization technique when the structure of the solution space is not known a priori (which it can’t be since N is always increasing). Hope that makes sense, as I didn’t take time to think about how this plays in the mind of the reader, nor formalize it.

  76. 1493 has all sorts of good stuff in it: Chinese silver importation, Samurai legally allowed two swords in baroque Mexico (please Hollywood, this kung-fu flic must be made) , chinese making fake chinese pottery in west Mexico, the possiblity that Cortez could have left a huge economic powerhouse if he’d known when to quit chasing undiscovered empires (but honest Injun, if you were Cortez, would you?), the praus that led the Spanish to China, the spread of tobacco, potato famine caused by the loss of lazy-bed furrows (International Harvester, if you’d like to make a few billion, just start selling plows that leave lazy-bed furrows), Neal Stephenson’s contact list (if I was CIA I’d steal it)- but wait! There’s yet a corner of the Internet not yet infested with Liberals / Liberatarian slashfic!

  77. Derrick Jensen on how the Amerinds actually lived and shaped their environment:

    There are many differences between indigenous and nonindigenous ways of being in the world, but I want to mention two here. The first is that the indigenous had and have serious long-term relationships with the plants and animals with whom they share their landscape. Ray Rafael, who has written extensively on the concept of wilderness, has said that Native Americans hunted, gathered, and fished “using methods that would be sustainable over centuries and even millennia. They did not alter their environment beyond what could sustain them indefinitely. They did not farm, but they managed the environment. But it was different from the way that people try to manage it now, because they stayed in relationship with it.”

    That last phrase is key. What would a society look like that was planning on being in that particular place five hundred years from now? What would an economics look like? If you knew for a fact that your descendants five hundred years from now would live on the same landbase you inhabit now, how would that affect your relationship to sources of water? How would that affect your relationship with topsoil? With forests? Would you produce waste products that are detrimental to the soil? Would you poison your water sources (or allow them to be poisoned)? Would you allow global warming to continue? If the very lives of your children and their children depended on your current actions—and of course they do—how would you act differently than you do?

    Source. Lumping in the indigenous Americans’ behavior with the European milieu of treating the land as a thing to be exploited and disposed of is not only wildly inaccurate, it’s a rank insult born of ignorance. The dominant culture has blanketed the earth in its own excrement, and now <a href="http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/2011/10/why-not-space/&quot;.it has no place left to expand into. What do you suppose will become of it then?

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