Category Archives: Environment

Decline of Ancient Ancestral People of the Sonoran Desert


At Casa Grande Arizona, a steel and concrete canopy was built in 1932 to protect what remained of the Great House from the elements.

As I mentioned earlier  the great puzzle is why were these magnificent structures and elaborate towns abandoned in favor of smaller communities after about 1450 C.E.

Some have speculated that some catastrophe caused the people to leave. There is evidence that the area experienced significant floods between 1300 and 1450.  Those were followed by intense periods of drought. Severe climate change in other words.

Archeologists use multiple kinds of evidence to answer such questions, or at least shed some light on the questions posed. As a result, they have been studying salt discharge on the Salt and Gila rivers, as well as the increasing soil salinity, diseases, and evidence of malnutrition. It is likely that environmental conditions changed and the Ancestral people of the Sonoran Desert (formerly Hohokam people) did what all smart people do, they adapted to changed conditions. That is how people survive. That is a lesson we moderns are beginning to experience. How will we adapt is not so certain.

The evidence does show that the extreme flooding deepened the Gila River Channel making it more difficult for canals to carry water to fields where water levels were low. Part of the canal system was abandoned while other parts were extended miles upstream to maintain proper water flows. Around 1350 C.E., the time of the Great House, a combination of factors may have triggered a breakdown of Hohokam society and undermined their leadership.

It is probable that as a result of all of these factors, the survivors of the floods and droughts abandoned large sites like Casa Grande in favor of smaller settlements along the Gila River. Today’s O’odham people believe that they are the descendants of the Hohokam people. As a result, Hohokam society never disappeared it just adapted and changed to a lifestyle that was better suited to the changed conditions. This change was likely to one more similar to their ancestors. They changed to a simpler life. Perhaps that is what we will be compelled to do.

There is a lot to be said for a simpler life.

Collapse of Society


For reasons that are subject to debate, during the period of 1400 to 1500 A.D. large community centers were abandoned in the American southwest, as were many canals. The people did not die out, they moved instead to smaller villages in small groups. They spread throughout much of the Southwest, including northern Arizona. They adapted to some changed conditions in other words.


What really interests me is why this occurred. It is one of the genuine mysteries of North American archaeology. I believe it has continuing important significance for our modern societies. There are lessons for us to learn here. Will we learn them?

They may have left because of environmental collapse. For example, because the ancestral people of the Sonoran desert were so successful at farming they may have produced too many people for the land to sustain.  People around the world need to learn modesty and humility. That certainly applies to us moderns as well.

When Spanish missionaries arrived at the end of the 17th century, they found only an empty shell of the once flourishing village of Casa Grande (as the Spanish called it). Over the next two centuries, many visitors visited the site and damaged it over and over again. Some were like vandals ruining what they saw. We could see graffiti from this time on the walls.  In the late 1800s scientists pressed for its formal protection and in 1892 Casa Grande Ruins National Monument became America’s first archaeological reserve. To this day, the Great House keeps the secrets of the Ancestral People of the Sonoran Desert within its protected walls.

We all must learn that societies collapse. Everyone has done that and so will ours.

Humans are Sleep walking towards the edge of a cliff


It doesn’t take much thought to realize that nature is the basis of all life on the planet. And everything we have constructed is built out of the building blocks of nature. Without nature we are done.

Yet there is little evidence that we understand that. Our actions indicate that we do not understand this simple fact or we just don’t care. Either way it is clear that we are dismally ignorant.

Our current attitude to nature stinks. That’s why we urgently need a new one.

In recent years the World Wildlife Fund (‘WWF’) has reported on the astonishing effect that our species has had on all other species. As reported by Damian Harrington of The Guardian, recent study by the WWF reached this uncomfortable conclusion:

“Humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970, leading the world’s foremost experts to warn that the annihilation of wildlife is now an emergency that threatens civilisation.”

Let that statement sink in please. In other words, since Chris and I met in 1970 humanity has wiped out more than half of all mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles.[1] That conclusion was reached in a major report produced by the WWF and 59 scientists from around the world. They also say the cause is the enormous and growing massacre of wildlife as a result of humans expanding consumption of food and resources that is destroying the web of life that nature took millions of years to produce. We are destroying “the web of life, billions of years in the making, upon which human society ultimately depends for clean air, water and everything else. We are destroying what we most need!  As Mike Barrett the executive Director of science and conservation at WWF said,

We are sleepwalking towards the edge of a cliff. If there was a 60% decline in the human population, that would be equivalent to emptying North America, South America, Africa, Europe, China and Oceania. That is the scale of what we have done. This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is he said…This is actually now jeopardising the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is our life-support system.”

It is astonishing that we are  doing this. But we are.  We could do something about this, but we have chosen to ignore it. This reminds me of the people at Easter Island that kept cutting the trees on their island which they desperately needed for their survival until the trees were all gone. They actually did that. Is that what we are doing on a planetary scale? It sure looks like it. How can we deny that our society is declining? Is it surprising that I call my current tour “the Grand Finale Tour”?

 To say that we need a new attitude to nature seems hopelessly understated.

[1] I should mention that the numbers are little more subtle and not quite as grim than this suggests as Ed Yong demonstrated in a fascinating article for The Atlantic in Oct. 31, 2018

Wasting Food is a Sin


Driving through the United States on the way to Arizona where we hoped to stay for the winter, we were often reminded about how much Americans waste. In particular, they waste a lot of food.  In Texas, we saw signs advertising 72 of steaks?  How many people ate that? Portions in almost all restaurants are absurdly large.  A half-pound burger is standard fare. Does that make sense?

Wasting food is a sin. In a world with such immense poverty and undernourishment to waste food is intolerable. Yet—we tolerate it—all the time!

This is an issue that deeply concerns Vaclav Smil a famous University of Manitoba Professor. Chris and I had the pleasure of hearing him speak live on the subject. Part of Smil’s thesis is found in the title to his recent book Numbers Don’t Lie. And they don’t. Sometimes it is not easy to interpret them correctly, but numbers are important. Life cannot be reduced to numbers, but life should not ignore numbers. This is what Smil wrote ,

“The world is wasting food on a scale that must be described as excessive, inexcusable, and, given all of our other concerns about the state of the global environment and quality of human life, outright incomprehensible.


According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization the world loses (wastes) 40-50% of its root crops, fruits, and vegetables. Let that sink in please. Nearly half of all root crops, fruits and vegetables are wasted!

Of course, that is not all the food that is wasted. We also waste, according to the UN 35% of our fish, 30% of our cereal crops, and 20% of our oilseeds, meat, and dairy products. As Smil pointed out, “This means that, globally at least one-third of all harvest food is wasted.

That is done while billions of people go hungry each day! And our political leaders don’t want to talk about this. Many of them, especially here in the United States, would rather talk about gendered bathrooms!

I was reading Smil’s  book while I was in the USA and Smil is hard on them in his criticism. But Canada is very bad too. If I recall correctly, he told us at his lecture in Canada that we Canadians waste about 25% of our food. But as Smil said in his book, “Not surprisingly the United States is a leading offender.” In the US about 40% goes to waste.


Wasting by Design

We did actually get out of Kansas. From my posts people might have thought we were stuck there forever, when actually we just drove right through.

On our way to Arizona, at breakfast in the hotel in Amarillo Texas where we spent the night, we marvelled at the immense waste. Each item came in its own plastic container or wrapping that was used only once. Was this a hangover form Covid? Or was it merely a sign of the wasteful society we lived in? Everything seemed designed to avoid any human contamination.  This is what Philip Roth called “the human stain.” Everything used once was sent to the landfill. We are filling the world with garbage, but no one pays attention to the rising garbage. We all accept it as “normal.” This waste by design.

Vaclav Smil is a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba where I was a student years ago and taught a half course at the faculty of law for about a decade. I have had the pleasure of hearing him speak in person. He is brilliant. Perhaps the greatest professor ever at the University. Bill Gates has called him one of the 10 best writers ever. He also said, “There is no other author whose books I look forward to more than Vaclav Smil.” Smil is frequently asked to speak around the world. If you have not read him, you should.

One of the things he spoke about at the lecture Chris and I attended was food waste. This is something that bugs him. He has written 40 books. One of his more recent ones is Numbers Don’t Lie. In one article about wheat in that book he said, “we would need substantially less wheat if we were to be able—finally—to reduce our indefensibly high food waste.”

I will post more about this.


Fossil Fuels and Despotism go together like shit and flies



In 2022 we in  the west have learned first hand about the ugly consequences of oil and gas addiction. That addiction can lead individuals and countries into some nasty places to deal with some nasty people.


Even British Prime Minster, Boris Johnson, not a shining genius, has come to understand that the addiction to oil by western countries, has brought us to disaster. Weaning off this challenge will be particularly difficult. This is especially painful for Europe which is heavily dependent on oil and gas from Putin who has used that money to disrupt Europe like it has not been disrupted since the Second World War. By the time the west had given 1 billion of aid dollars to fight Putin, Europe had paid Putin $35 billion for Russian oil.  Does that make sense?


In fact, Prime Minister Johnson made the revelation that he had realized the absurdity of this on a trip to Saudi Arabia  where he gone to try to persuade Arab countries to help out the west by increasing oil production. Of course, why would they do that? These countries liked the new higher oil and gas prices that had started to rise before the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Naturally, after the invasion, those price rose even more sharply. It sucks to be us in the west. Literally. We were literally left sucking the hind teat.


Somebody who understands this is Bill McKibben of the organization and other activist organizations such as The Third Act, an environmental organization for those of us over 60.  He was interviewed by Mark Kelly on CBC radio’s The Current. He understood clearly that Boris Johnson was taking the wrong approach. It was the traditional approach, but it was badly out of date and all of us must come to understand that. More of the same is what has got us into so much trouble, and continuing that approach will lead us directly to our doom.


As McKibben said, “It’s a reminder that fossil fuel and despotism often go hand in hand.” I think a better metaphor would be so say, fossil fuel and despotism go together like shit and flies. As McKibben said,

“The War in Ukraine is not a war for fossil fuel in the way that so many of America’s Middle East adventures have been, but it very much a war about fossil fuel. Vladimir Putin couldn’t have built an army without it. 60% of his export earnings come from oil and gas. You can tell that by looking around your house for something to boycott. There’s nothing there. Maybe a bottle of vodka in the old liquor cabinet. That’s about it. His main weapon for 20 years has been the threat to turn off the taps to western Europe. If we are serious about standing up to Putin we have to figure out a way to end all of our dependence on oil and gas. It’s a global market and as long as we are depending on it, he and people like him, such as the King of Saudi Arabia, the Koch brothers, you name it, are more powerful than they deserve. “


For quite some time Alberta has argued that its oil is the only ethical oil. But really, that is like saying, I am ethical because I am better than Jack the Ripper. Not the most convincing argument.


The one good thing , as McKibben pointed out, is that this dependency is no longer necessary. “Thanks to science and engineering in the last 10 years, the price of renewable energy has dropped by about 90%! It’s now the cheapest source of energy on earth.


McKibben said we could get off fossil fuels right now if we set our minds to it. We have to act like we are in a war. And we are in a war so that should be easy.  Business as usual, is no longer a viable option. Those, like Boris Johnson who are pushing that are continuing to lead us to disaster. They are only postponing it a little bit. We have to avoid the vested interests that want to keep us hooked. That’s what pushers do. But there is a better way.

It won’t be easy. Europe relies on Russia for about one third of its oil and about 40% of its natural gas. We need more than good intentions to get to the heavenly city of release from this dependency. What do we do to get there?

McKibben  says investments by the American Energy Department have been so successful that millions of heat pumps could be produced in a few months. The technology is there. All we need is the will. And like all addictions, we must resist what appears to be an easier route, but this is really the way to ruin. Heat pumps are really just air conditioners you can also run in reverse. The technology is not complicated, according  to McKibben. They could be installed in Europe quickly. North Americans have a lot of spare capacity and  can also produce a lot of insulation, also needed in Ukraine if we want to resist this addiction controlled by cartels. We in North American should do more than produce weapons Ukraine needs weapons right now, but they also need other weapons to fight their enemies. One of those is to voluntarily cut the oil pipelines depriving their enemy of the funds it needs to oppress them. Only in such a way can people effectively get free from the oppression of people like Putin and his ilk.

Europe and all of us in the developed world must learn there is a better way.


A Pandemic in Slow Motion


We are all familiar with the Covid-19  pandemic. The world economy shut down to deal with it. Who ever thought that was possible?  Why was it possible? Only because the world realized this was an emergency and as a result the world took emergency measures.

There are actually bigger problems out there. One is climate change; another is bad air quality. There are others too. They require emergency measures as well.

Beth Gardner wrote an informative article on air pollution in National Geographic.  Not exactly a left wing rag. The National Geographic called “air pollution… a pandemic in slow motion.” People just don’t realize how dangerous it is and because it is stealthy, except in some very large cities like Beijing, Mumbai, Los Angeles and Phoenix, we seldom take notice of it.  I know I did pay attention when I lived in Phoenix. It bothered me to see that constant haze in the atmosphere when I drove into the city from the suburbs where we lived for 3 months.

As leader writers for her article said, “Dirty air is a plague on our health, causing 7 million deaths and many more preventable illnesses worldwide each year.” But the solutions are clear.” So far, in over a year of the Covid-19 pandemic which I do not want to make light of, nearly 5 million people have died world-wide.  And, of course, we hope the disease is nearing the time in which it will be controlled because of vaccines. Dirty air is really a big problem, we just don’t realize it yet.  We will.

We could tackle dirty air  too and actually it would cost us a lot less money than fighting Covid-19.

We seem better at tackling fast moving pandemics than the slow ones.


A stealth Enemy: Air Quality


In early 2020 the world changed–we experienced Covid-19. This was something new an international pandemic that hit home to everyone except the most obtuse virus deniers, religious fanatics, anti-science cranks, and conservatives and their fellow travelers.

Covid-19 was big. It changed the world. In many respects the world changed including massive economic slow-downs or even lockdowns. For more than a year we were required to wear masks in most social settings. Many of us were not able to work. An international Marshall plan was established to work on vaccines. Millions of people died while millions of people denied the reality of their illness or the efficacy of the vaccines created to stem the tide. Yes, the world was different.

In the midst of this pandemic and the international response it was difficult to see anything else. As a result, we missed some pretty important things. For example, few paid attention to air quality. That was a mistake.

Rebecca Solnit was the first to draw my attention to this disturbing fact. As she reported in The Guardian,

While Covid ravaged across the world, air pollution killed about three times as many people. We must fight the climate crisis with the same urgency with which we confronted coronavirus.”


I was shocked to read that. It couldn’t be true. Could it?

After all at the time she wrote, 2.8 million people had died as a result of Covid-19 and it captured our entire attention. Whether we believed it or not, clearly covid-19 was the issue. Since then of course, millions more have died, and we are nowhere need done with this pandemic.

What most of us did not know is that during the first 15 months of the pandemic that Solnit was writing about “3 times as many people died from air pollution.”

While Covid ravaged across the world, air pollution killed about three times as many people. We must fight the climate crisis with the same urgency with which we confronted coronavirus.


According to a recent scientific study, 8.7 million people per year die of the effects of air pollution. And part of the problem is that most of us are unaware of this disturbing fact. Air pollution is a largely invisible enemy unless you visit some place like Phoenix Arizona as I did for nearly 10 years in a row. You can see it there. Air pollution usually arrives by stealth. As a result, unlike Covid-19 the world has not rallied to defeat it. There have been no lockdowns or mask requirements because of air pollution. Largely this stealth attack has gone unnoticed and unquestioned.  We have normalized the havoc by treating it as what Solnit called “moral background noise.” Instead Covid-19 gets all the attention. Solnit says we should treat air pollution like an emergency, like we have done with Covid-19. She does not say attention to Covid-19 was misplaced.

The first thing we must realize is that there is more than one serious consequence to burning fossil fuels.  We must also recognize that  climate change is not the only serious effect of our determination to burn fossil fuels. Climate change is a serious problem, perhaps the most serious in the world right now, notwithstanding Covid-19, but so is air quality.  The problem is that burning fossils fuels is to deep a part of the status quo that we don’t really see it. We are blind to it and have come to believe there is no reasonable alternative.

As Solnit said,

“We are designed to respond with alarm to something that just happened, that breaches norms, but not to things that have been going on for decades or centuries. The first task of most human rights and environmental movements is to make the invisible visible and to make what has long been accepted unacceptable. This has of course been done to some extent, with coal-burning power plants and with fracking in some places, but not with the overall causes of climate chaos.”


We cannot let this stealth bomber slip under the radar.  Climate change creates similar problems as until we experience dramatic effects as when wild fires consume British Columbia and California forests, or ice bergs break off continents, birds disappear, or in my case, beautiful flowers come earlier in spring, we often fail to take note of the serious changes. It is also difficult to notice when some of the richest and most predatory corporations in the world pay huge sums of money to pundits for hire to confuse the science and persuade these problems are not real.

We must be alert to these problems and the consequences they foist on us. We must dissent from the normal. We must resist the fake reality that predatory capitalist firms try to impose upon us.  As Solnit said,

“According to CNBC, at the outset of the pandemic, “New Delhi recorded a 60% fall of PM2.5 from 2019 levels, Seoul registered a 54% drop, while the fall in China’s Wuhan came in at 44%.” Returning to normal means drowning out the birds and blurring out the mountains and accepting 8.7 million air pollution deaths a year. Those deaths have been normalized; they need to be denormalized.”

Solnit also reminded us that,


“A lot of attention was paid to whatever actions might have caused Covid-19 to cross from animals to humans, but the actions that take fossil fuel out of the ground to produce that pollution that kills 8.7 million annually, along with acidifying oceans and climate chaos, should be considered far more outrageous a transgression against public health and safety.”


One of the excuses these corporations have tried to get us to believe is that we can’t afford to change. One thing Covid-19 has showed us is that we can afford to spend the money that it takes to fight off disaster. Hugely impactful changes require huge responses. We can do it. We must. We must not tolerate a “normal” that costs the lives of 8.7 million people every year (in addition to all the other horrific effects of fossil fuel consumption.

Rebecca Solnit left us with some hope in her important essay:

“My hope for a post-pandemic world is that the old excuses for doing nothing about climate – that it is impossible to change the status quo and too expensive to do so – have been stripped away. In response to the pandemic, we in the US have spent trillions of dollars and changed how we live and work. We need the will to do the same for the climate crisis… With a drawdown on carbon emissions and a move toward cleaner power, we could have a world with more birdsong and views of mountains and fewer pollution deaths. But first we have to recognize both the problem and the possibilities.”


We need to get serious about climate change and air pollution and stop ignoring the problem or paying lip service to them as we have been doing in Canada. It is time for change. It is time to realize that this is not a future problem—this is happening now. This is apocalypse now.

Welcome to the apocalypse: Doom is Here


For a number of years now we have been hearing, seeing, and reading predictions of doom. There have been so many such predictions that many people have stopped listening, watching, or examining such claims. People have doom fatigue.

I know a good friend of mine who said to me, quite a few years, “We are fucked.”  Sorry for the bad word. He used it so I feel I must tell you the truth. Frankly, I always thought he was exaggerating. Now I know he was telling the truth.

In fact, now I would go one big step farther than that. Doom is here. It is not something my grandchildren will have to worry about. I will have to worry about it. and I am an old man who will die soon as I was once told.

That has never been clearer than it is in this year 2021. The apocalypse is here.  What convinced me of that was the incredible weather this year. In particular, the off the charts heat wave in British Columbia convinced me of that. British Columbia is of course the last place we expect heat waves. British Columbia is famous for mild weather. Mild winters and mild summers. Perfect climate in other words. Well not this year. In fact, not in the last few years.

It is for that that reason that Sir David King the former U.K chief scientific advisor said, “Nowhere is safe…who would have predicted a temperature of 48/49C in British Columbia?”  The answer is obvious–no one would have predicted that.

In fact, I heard a climate scientist say that those temperatures did not appear on any of the climate models, not even the most extreme. It was not only unexpected, it was basically incomprehensible.

Welcome to apocalypse now. You don’t need to wait for it; it’s here. We are doomed. I want to explore this topic in future posts.


Clean Air


When we were in Paris a couple of years ago we noticed that there were places in the city where the government had provided electrical sites to charge their electric cars. Manitoba does this as well but to a very limited extent. In discussions with an American he asked me, “why should the government pay for that? ”Why should I have to pay for someone else to charge his car?” I would say in response that we should all pay for that because we all want a clean environment. Clean air is a public good and we should all pay for it. Besides, the government spends billions (many billions) subsidizing the fossil fuel industry. Surely it can spend a little to subsidize cars that don’t pollute the air and don’t increase our greenhouse gas emissions. Though I recognize that electric cars are not all good either. Life is rarely that simple. We all have to realize that there are many public goods that are important to a good life on this planet. We must all pay for those. The French have learned this. Canadians and Americans not so much.

One good thing about the Covid-19 pandemic is that we are starting to appreciate (not nearly enough of course) that the common good is important. Often more important than private goods, no matter what those who hoard the private goods tell us. It’s time to start thinking for ourselves.