Friday, April 29, 2011


After a week of news of weird weather and wild wars, six year old skate boarder Asher Bradshaw shows how wild energy can be full of grace and joy.

The Venice Beach skatepark has this live-feed video stream. When the news gets too weird check it out for a few minutes and enjoy.

And please offer a prayer for those who are not so lucky.

Monday, April 25, 2011


To follow the unraveling mystery of biochar check out the International Biochar Initiative.

Mongabay's interview with Laurens Rademakers on the promise of biochar.

My "biochar reunion" with Kelpie Wilson in Brazil.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

                              A POEM FOR EASTER

I love Jesus, who said to us:
heaven and earth will pass away.
When heaven and earth have passed away,
my word will still remain.
What was your word, Jesus?
Love? Forgiveness? Affection?
All your words were
one word: Wakeup.
~ Antonio Machado ~

Saturday, April 23, 2011


The photos are from 1989 in the US but nowadays they are a common scene in Brazil and across the world. In Brazil, the adopted word for a mall is SHOPPING. They certainly got that right. I recall the days of emerging consumer culture well. Soon, Rio Branco will be getting is first modern large shopping mall and I'm sure it will be full of photo-ops. So stayed tuned.

Here are some notes from the photographer:

About this project

In 1989, following in the footsteps of Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, and William  Eggleston, I drove across the country and documented malls across America.  I had a cheap Nikon FG-20 and an even cheaper lens - but I had a lot of passion.

I shot about 30 rolls of slide film in malls from Long Island to North Dakota to Seattle.  It was hard to tell from the images where they were taken, and that was kind of the point. I was interested in the creeping loss of regional differences.  I thought a lot about Frank's "The Americans" as we drove from place to place without any sense of place.

Read more at the orginal post.



An “Unprecedented drought” drives “never-before-seen wildfire situation in Texas.”  What to do? “Today, Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) came up with an innovative solution — prayer,”

Perry issued an official proclamation drawing on his constitutional authority designating three days as Days of Prayer for Rain:
NOW, THEREFORE, I, RICK PERRY, Governor of Texas, under the authority vested in me by the Constitution and Statutes of the State of Texas, do hereby proclaim the three-day period from Friday, April 22, 2011, to Sunday, April 24, 2011, as Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas. I urge Texans of all faiths and traditions to offer prayers on that day for the healing of our land, the rebuilding of our communities and the restoration of our normal and robust way of life.
– Read the full ThinkProgress repost.

Of course, the droughts and wildfires are not limited to the American Southwest. We have seen them sweep across Australia and Russia in recent years and the latest NASA satellite view shows the dryness spreading across the Amazon forest.

NASA image reveals extent of 2010 Amazon drought

NASA has revealed a satellite image of the crippling effect of last year's record-breaking drought on the Amazon ecosystem. ... that's two record droughts in the Amazon Basin in 5 years. The 2010 drought appears more extreme than the drought of 2005 according to recent research.... (Read more at Mongabay)

As the dryness changes climate, "wildfires from the sky" started by lightning -- a phenomenon unknown in the previously moist rainforest -- begin to spread on a vast scale across the forest. In 2010, the damage caused by forest degradation and fires exceeded the damage caused by outright deforestation. Scientists say that the Amazon Basin is very close to the "tipping point" where about 40% will change from forest to savanna. As this occurs, the Amazon Basin will switch from being a carbon sink drawing down CO2 from the atmosphere to being a net source of greenhouse gases and trigger the world closer to global climate disaster.

In brief, the situation is SERIOUS!

And how might prayer assist this? The truth is that prayer alone won't do it. There's a mystery. Padrinho Sebastiao Mota de Melo -- the Santo Daime leader who was known as "The Man of the Forest" and who founded the large community in the Amazon called Mapia -- put it this way, "the mystery of prayer is not just to pray but to pray and to practice." He was also famous for saying that the justice of God does not change one iota. In other words, Nature is neither cordial nor negotiable. It is based on absolute laws.

Even though a great deal of damage has already been done, the good news is that there are remedies. They are three: 1) there must be a halt to further deforestation; 2) damaged areas must be reforested and restored; and 3) soil and water resources must be protected and renewed.

Unfortunately, under pressure from the agriculture sector, a revised national Forest Code has been proposed by a past Speaker of the House, Aldo Rebelo, and is waiting for a vote in the Brazilian Congress that would 1) dramatically increase the amount of allowed deforestation, 2) relieve the landowners of required reforestation of illegally deforested land and 3) reduce the amount of stream and river side protection for soil and water. Indeed, these proposed changes are exactly the opposite of what is desperately needed.

The Santo Daime religious tradition is certainly not unique in warning of a pending global catastrophe. Like most religions its messages -- here revealed through sacred music or "received" hymns -- include both bad and good news. Here is a recent hymn (and homage to Chico Mendes) of Solon Brito being sung in a small family church in the Amazon region of western Brazil.

The mystery, indeed, is not so mysterious. In the New Era of the Anthropocene, we have become co-creators with God. As the Nova Era hymn of Padrinho Alfredo says, "The Master is the one from Nazareth and the mystery is from Amazônia."

Let's pray.

And let's practice.

The New Era is the time for action.

Friday, April 22, 2011


Stopping the Belo Monte Monster Dam is the the iconic issue facing Brazil. Will it choose renewable sources of energy or wreck havoc on the peoples and places of Amazonia?

Here's the Earthday Action Alert from Amazon Watch

As you may know, last month I journeyed back to the Brazilian Amazon with James Cameron and this time, he brought Arnold Schwarzenegger. We returned to the Arara village on the threatened Big Bend of the Xingu River and were met by hundreds of villagers, the legendary Kayapo Chief Raoni, world-renowned climate scientists and local movement leaders. Their resounding message was the same: "We urge the Brazilian government stop the Belo Monte Dam and pursue truly renewable energy alternatives!"
Following the visit to the Xingu, we traveled to Manaus to the Global Sustainability Forum where world leaders, including Clinton, reminded Brazil that it is responsible for "the stewardship of the greatest rainforest of the world", and called on Brazil to lead the world on a green energy pathway.
"You need more electricity. You need it to be clean. You want to preserve native cultures and you need to preserve the rainforest. If you reach a critical juncture, you'll change it forever and it can't be recovered and the rest of the world is depending on you because about 20% of non ocean oxygen comes from you...The whole world needs you to resolve this."
Unfortunately, the Brazilian government doesn't appear to be listening. After dismissing demands from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States to suspend the dam's licensing process until serious human rights violations have been remedied, the government is fast-tracking the dam's full installation license and seeking to initiate construction as early as next month.
It is urgent that the Brazilian government hear the call from Brazilians and the international community to defend the Amazon, indigenous rights and reconsider its plans for the Belo Monte Dam and 60 other large dams planned for the Amazon. Energy efficiency and clean renewable energy, such as solar and wind, are viable and essential solutions to more dirty dams. The entire world depends on it. 

Watch and share this video. Take action today by signing and sharing a petition to the Brazilian government.


Oren Lyons  is the traditional Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Iroquois Confederacy. Unfortunately, his prophesy is unchanged.

In another incredibly present flash-from-the-past, here is Severn Suzuki at the 1992 UN Conference on the Environment in Rio.

Too bad that today we have so many MORE examples of the truth of her words. It used to give me comfort to think that, if fate determined that we must fall, that we could nevertheless choose whether to fall on a pillow or on a rock. But recent history has not been encouraging (was it ever?). Nor, is it as so many have said, "a question of values." It is about finding the will to bring actions and aspirations together.

Hope springs eternal. Here is Bill McKibben presenting the latest thrust for change. The youth have incredible energy. They are the wedge.

Truthfully, one never knows when or why a power shift occurs. One day the wall just comes down. Meanwhile, all we can do is show up and do our work and hope for action to catalyze sooner than later. Engagement and participation are the keys. Prayers are good too.

My own deep spring of inspiration still comes from those wonderful years on Bald Mountain.

Touch the Earth and Blessed Be

It is lovely, indeed

Thursday, April 21, 2011


The Green hing
The now and future generations demonstrating for the Green Thing in Brasilia

One of the joys of blogging is that you get connected with old friends. I know Donnie Dann from my days in engineering school in Chicago nearly 60 years ago. From time to time, he sends me his citizen activist conservation newsletter. Today, a real gem arrived about


I was in line at the supermarket and the cashier told the elderly woman ahead of me that plastic bags weren’t good for the environment. The woman apologized to her and explained, “We didn’t have the green thing back in my day.”

That’s right, they didn’t have the green thing in her day. Back then, they returned their milk bottles, Coke bottles and beer bottles to the store. The store sent them back to the plant to be washed and sterilized and refilled, using the same bottles over and over. So they really were recycled - but they didn’t have the green thing back in her day.

In her day, they walked up stairs, because they didn’t have an escalator in every store and office building. They walked to the grocery store and didn’t climb into a 300-horsepower machine very time they had to go two blocks - but she’s right. They didn’t have the green thing in her day. Back then, they washed the baby’s diapers because they didn’t have the throw-away kind. They dried clothes on a line, not in an energy gobbling machine burning up 220 volts – wind and solar power really did dry the clothes. Kids got hand-me-down clothes from their brothers or sisters, not always brand-new clothing - but that elderly woman is right, they didn’t have the green thing back in her day.

Back then, they had one TV, or radio, in the house – not a TV in every room. And the TV had a small screen the size of a pizza dish, not a screen the size of the state of Nebraska. In the kitchen, they blended and stirred by hand because they didn’t have electric machines to do everything for you. When they packaged a fragile item to send in the mail, they used wadded up newspaper to cushion it, not Styrofoam or plastic bubble wrap. Back then, they didn’t fire up an engine and burn gasoline just to cut the lawn. They used a push mower that ran on human power. They exercised by working so they didn’t need to go to a health club to run on treadmills that operated on electricity - but she’s right, they didn’t have the green thing back then.

They drank from a fountain when they were thirsty, instead of using a cup or a plastic bottle every time they had a drink of water. They refilled pens with ink, instead of buying a new pen, and they replaced the razor blades in a razor instead of throwing away the whole razor just because the blade got dull - but they didn’t have the green thing back then.

Back then, people took the streetcar and kids rode their bikes to school or rode the school bus, instead of turning their moms into a 24-hour taxi service. They had one electrical outlet in a room, not an entire bank of sockets to power a dozen appliances. And they didn’t need a computerized gadget to receive a signal beamed from satellites 2,000 miles out in space in order to find the nearest pizza joint - but they didn't have the green thing back then.

(Disclosure – I almost always write these newsletters myself but this crossed my desk and in sending it out I would certainly give appropriate attribution but I have no idea who originated it)

Donnie Dann at Facebook notes.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Blindness Toward War Easy for Americans

Pablo Picasso - Guernica - 1937 - Museum of Modern Art - New York

Blindness Toward War Easy for Americans

[Note: Phylis suggested this as an antidote for Roger Cohen's recent bashing of German opposition to the war in Libya and support for the less aggressive approaches of the BRICS and Brazil (Turkey too).]

To understand the utter absurdity of America’s intervention in the Libyan civil war, I recommend a visit to the Museum of Modern Art in New York to see its new exhibition of German Expressionism. It will be much more instructive than reading the media commentary about the president’s opening of yet another Mideast war.

I’m not merely referring to the surrealism (in the work of the artists Ernst Kirchner, Emil Nolde and Max Beckmann) of Nicolas Sarkozy’s “leading” a coalition of the righteous against the evil Moammar Gadhafi, who not so long ago was the French president’s honored guest in Paris. Nor am I alluding to the stupidity of entering a sectarian battle (the German Expressionists were deeply affected by the overthrow of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the factional fighting that followed in 1918-19) in which the goals and personalities of the opposition leaders are largely unknown; or even to the hypocrisy (the Expressionists were big on pointing out moral hypocrisy) of Barack Obama, once considered the anti-Bush, who now wages his very own “war of choice” without bothering to ask Congress for permission.

No. I’m talking about the growing divide between American illusion and the reality of war. Because we have been largely cut off from images of corpses and carnage since the invasion of Grenada — whether by official censorship or self-censorship by the timid U.S. media — Americans no longer have the capacity to connect military action with the casualties of war. Evidently, they think very little about the consequences of firing millions of bombs, bullets and missiles at distant targets occupied by unknown foreigners. Nowadays, with only 0.5 percent of Americans in the military (compared with 8.6 percent during World War II), we have relatively few witnesses to the butchery of soldiers and civilians who can come home to tell their stories.

I don’t know war up close. Thankfully, I’ve only gotten to hear the accounts of others who suffered through World War II and Vietnam. Even so, the MOMA exhibition grabbed me by the throat, since the German Expressionists, in particular Otto Dix and Max Beckmann, understood war quite well, having endured trench warfare during World War I.

The work of these artists before the war already wasn’t easy on the eye — their graphic style and printing techniques were disorienting, subversive and sometimes hideous — but the movement had sufficient idealism, says the MOMA show’s curator, Starr Figura, to believe “in art’s ability to transform society.” After the war, “Expressionism withered,” writes the historian Peter Jelavich. “As an art and a lifestyle, it was too dependent on an optimistic vitality that could not withstand the combined shocks of wartime and post-revolutionary trauma.”

The MOMA exhibition devotes an entire wall to 50 prints by Dix titled “Der Krieg” (“The War”). These terrifying pictures — the hideously wounded, a skull invaded by worms, monstrously disfigured faces, the dead and the living dead — confront the viewer with the fact that war’s impact stretches far beyond physical damage to buildings and flesh. Dix’s genius is in depicting the destruction of the human spirit that results from decisions made by politicians who never experience the direct effects of war. I applaud Rolling Stone magazine for publishing photos of Afghan civilians murdered by leering American soldiers (also Paris Match for its photo of two Libyan soldiers torn to pieces by NATO bombs), but Dix’s prints surpass photojournalism in their emotional reach.

Nowadays, with wars often waged from on high or from very far away by pilots, sailors and computer programmers who never encounter their victims, it’s easy to be blind. Phony talk about “targeted” and “precision” bombing, “no-fly zones,” “protecting civilians” with air strikes and “limited” war designed to prevent “massacres” (as opposed to the actuality of overthrowing the West’s favorite “reformed” Arab dictator to stabilize Libyan oil exports and boost Sarkozy’s low poll numbers) is intended to hide the horror of war. There’s no such thing as a wholly “just” war and certainly not a “clean” war.

Nevertheless, there is a paradox in Dix’s work and life that might help indifferent Americans empathize with the victims of war. Although Dix (a machine-gunner in the Kaiser’s army) was celebrated as an “anti-war” artist, he remained ambivalent about the organized killing that such statesmen as Obama and George W. Bush prefer to euphemize in slogans like “the war on terror.” In 1961, nearly four decades after “Der Krieg” appeared, Dix said that “the war was a horrible thing, but still something powerful. . . . Under no circumstances could I miss it!” Elsewhere, he said he had wanted to “experience everything very precisely. . . . Hence I am no pacifist. Or perhaps I was a curious person. I had to see everything myself.”

In justifying the attack on Gadhafi’s forces, our president piously declared that “some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries. The United States of America is different.”

Perhaps without knowing it, Obama has presented a wonderful opportunity to educate the citizenry, and with a patriotic justification to boot. From now on, all Americans should proudly open their eyes to atrocities committed by their armed forces abroad. For a little recent history, they could begin by traveling to Hanoi, Panama, Baghdad, Kabul and Benghazi. They would surely be edified by what they found, and maybe a little wiser.

John R. MacArthur is the publisher of Harper's Magazine. Among other books, he is the author of Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War.


Mist of the Clearing Storm

Last night, in ceremony with my Indian brothers and sisters, the forest connection that I had lost found me. And I received a great deal more. Quite beyond words, I can only say, "I am grateful." Mitakuye Oyasin


Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you,
If you leave it you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

David Wagoner (Riverbed)

Poem via Panhala

Tuesday, April 19, 2011



Today is the day that we honor our Amerindian brothers and sisters, the indigenous peoples of Brazil. We will celebrate tonight with our dear friend Shaneihu of the Yananawa tribe who is a good friend of the Santo Daime and many other spiritual traditions.

We will have in mind especially the indigenous peoples the Rio Xingu and their incredible struggle against the Belo Monte Monster Dam.

Here are photos and videos from one of his visits to the community of Fortaleza where he honored, with a pajélança presentation, our dear Luiz Mendes at the gathering celebrating his 70th birthday.


Pajélança is a musical healing tradition. More about it (in Portuguese) here and here.


The slideshow below begins Shaneihu singing for Luiz Mendes and ends with him administering the Indian snuff called rapé.


In fact, Rio Branco doesn't really have a beach except during high water times when the Acre River overflows. Many folks are still displaced from the low-lying neighborhoods but for most  the high water transformed the central district into a festive Sunday at the beach.

Monday, April 18, 2011


Poor Framing
Fuel prices and key-maker sign in Rio Branco AC Brazil

Yesterday, some very important new research was reported establishing that planting sugar cane on land previously cleared for cattle pasture in Brazil would have a cooling effect on the local climate and was better than clearing more native cerrado.

Unfortunately, one of the study authors and the editors at Nature Climate Change gave the findings an unsupported biofuel twist (perhaps in an effort to hook more Internet traffic).

Sweetening biofuel production

Expanding biofuel production into agricultural land reduces the need to clear natural ecosystems and can benefit the global climate through reduced greenhouse-gas emissions. A remote-sensing study of the Brazilian Cerrado now provides empirical evidence that sugar-cane expansion also cools local climate directly by altering surface reflectivity and evapotranspiration.

I caught up with the article when (the world's leading rainforest information portal) ran a report headlined, "Sugar cane ethanol cools climate when it replaces cattle pasture." I was concerned and wrote immediately to Mongabay editor Rhett Butler. Here is our exchange:


WOW! What a misleading title! I know the spin was given by Nature but why has Mongabay carried forth such an obvious ethanol ploy? Surely replacing cattle pasture with sugarcane plantations would have a cooling effect but there is nothing that suggests that doing it to produce ethanol would produce more local cooling than to do it to produce sugar.

Currently there is a crisis in ethanol production in Brazil. Soaring global sugar prices are sending the cane to sugar mills instead of ethanol refineries. Right now this has precipitated a supply crisis forcing Brazil to import 150 million gallons of US corn ethanol this month (and also import gasoline because the shortage of ethanol is causing owners of flex-fuel cars to go to gas).

One can be certain that the dual pressures of food and fuel will drive more land-grabbing from native cerrado or forest lands for agricultural production. Yes, there is a lot of degraded land that could be restored for agricultural production but it is still cheaper to grab intact ecosystem land with good soil than to pay the costs of soil renewal in degraded places.

The resulting land-use conversion is what ultimately drives carbon emissions and global warming and not whether the crops are used for food or fuel.

Lou Gold


Greg Asner and Scott Loarie have nothing to do with the cane ethanol lobby. The point of the paper is simply that converting cattle pasture to cane is better for climate than leaving it as pasture. The authors explicitly warn against converting natural vegetation, noting that loss of cerrado produces more warming than going from pasture to cane.


Asner and Loarie are outstanding scientists and, of course, they have nothing to do with the ethanol lobby. I am not charging conspiracy.

I have read the original at Nature Climate Change.

It is clearly framed as a statement about BIOFUEL along with a less prominent caveat against converting native lands.

The data show that sugarcane plantations are more cooling than cattle pasture. The data do not show anything about leakage or triggered land-use change or sugarcane expansion for ethanol versus sugar. We have three pressures here -- sugar, ethanol and beef. To favor any one is to push the others to new locations as long as global demand is soaring.

These ledes:

(from Mongabay) "Sugar cane ethanol cools climate when it replaces cattle pasture"

(from Reuters) "Sugarcane grown for fuel cools Brazil's climate"

are going to spread quickly across the global media as a counter argument to the established science showing that the cumulative impact of using cropland for biofuel production can trigger unfortunate consequences in the big picture.

Poor framing of good science can easily lead to more disinformation.

Why not be more careful?


Consistent with the editorial integrity that I have come to expect and depend upon from Mongabay, Rhett wrote back saying that I was right and that he was changing he title to "Sugar cane cools climate when it replaces cattle pasture."

It will be interesting to see if the editors at and the Carnegie Institution for Science are willing to make similar corrections.

Saturday, April 16, 2011


There's lots of information on vertical gardening on the Internet. Plants suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. Everyone has walls. Why not make beauty and do good works?


General Electric

This time they nailed GE and carried a chunk of the mainstream media along with their prank press release announcing that GE was returning a large US tax refund.

Here's the story from CBS News which in turn nailed the Associated Press as the fall guy.

The Associated Press and other news organizations have had to withdraw stories reporting that General Electric would pay a $3.2 billion tax refund to the U.S. Treasury after it was revealed that the stories were based on a hoax press release.

GE came under fire after a New York Times story that said despite $14.2 billion in worldwide profits - including more than $5 billion from U.S. operations - GE did not owe taxes in 2010. The story reported G.E. claimed a tax benefit that year of $3.2 billion. GE says the tax benefit claim is not true and that it received no rebate from the government on its 2010 taxes.

The hoax press release, which you can see here, claimed that GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt had informed the Obama administration that his company was returning $3.2 billion to the Treasury and "will furthermore adopt a host of new policies that secure its position as a leader in corporate social responsibility."

The release included what seem to be some pretty obvious fake quotes, including this, attributed to Immelt: "All seven of our foreign tax havens are entirely legal. But Americans have made it clear that they deplore laws that enable tax avoidance. While we owe it to our shareholders to use every legal loophole to maximize returns - we also owe something to the American people. We didn't write the laws that let us legally avoid paying taxes. Congress did. But we benefit from those laws, and now we'd like to share those benefits."

The AP nonetheless ran a four-paragraph story that began, "Facing criticism over the amount of taxes it pays, General Electric announced it will repay its entire $3.2 billion tax refund to the US Treasury on April 18."

The hoax press release included a contact phone number for "Samuel Winnacker," who is listed as a communications representative with GE. The first time CBS News called the number, the call went to voicemail with this recording: "Hey, you've reached Andrew and his prone to fail but nonetheless handy-dandy iPhone."

The second time CBS News called the recording was of a computerized-sounding British woman's voice claiming that the caller had reached GE media - which was closed.

Then someone called back claiming to be "Samuel Winnacker." He said the press release was in fact "very real."

Instructed that a previous call had resulted in a recording featuring an "Andrew" with a strikingly similar voice to "Samuel Winnacker," he said, "that is inexplicable to me, it should be a standard GE corporate message." He attributed the situation to the fact that his "team was scrambling right now" to deal with the day's news.

Andrew Williams, an actual GE spokesman, confirmed to CBS News: "It was a hoax."

The hoax was reminiscent of the Yes Men, whose stated goal is "Impersonating big time criminals to publicly humiliate them. Our targets are leaders and big corporations who put profits ahead of everything else."

A representative for the group, Mike Bonnano, told CBS News that the Yes Men are not directly responsible for the GE effort. He said they advised an "ad-hoc group" that "did most of the heavy lifting" - and that the group was trained through their "Yes Lab" project where they have trained activists to use their tactics.

"Samuel Winnacker," the fake GE representative, claimed he had just heard about The Yes Men today. Asked about their claims to be tied to the press release, he restated the release was real and said the Yes Men are "publicity hounds."

A group called US Uncut, which describes itself as "a burgeoning grassroots movement pressuring corporate tax cheats to pay their fair share," took credit for the hoax in a press release Wednesday afternoon.

"This action showed us how the world could work," US Uncut spokesperson Carl Gibson said. "For a brief moment people believed that the biggest corporate tax dodger had a change of heart and actually did the right thing. But the only way anything like this is really going to happen is if we change the laws that allow corporate tax avoidance in the first place."

The fake press release was posted to - which is just one letter off from where GE posts its actual press releases, According to Network Solutions, the domain was registered last week by an outfit in Utah.

Read more about The Yes Men at Wikipedia

Friday, April 15, 2011



Orang-Utan baby Boo is pictured in his enclosure at Madrid's Zoo on April 14, 2011. The nine-months-old Orang-Utan's name is inspired in the Sanskrit word 'bhoomi' (or 'bumi') which means Earth. By Pedro Armestre/AFP/Getty Images.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


According to a new in-depth investigative report by the NY Times, in the global finance crisis triggered by the US bankers, there have been No Prosecutions of Top Figures.

Once again, the term "systemic failure" is being muttered which is fancy-talk for "it's not working." What's not working? -- CAPITALISM

By the way, if you are having trouble with the NY Times capitalism, here is an easy, free and simple workaround.

(with best regards to Flavio)


"Death Of A Forest"_Pine Beetles Killed Millions of Trees in North America

The destruction of forests is taking place worldwide. The process begins with humans performing unsustainable deforestation; then local climate change stimulates more dryness and fire; then a tipping point is reached where vast forest systems no longer exist. We are reaching the point where ecosystem services like clean water and adequate rainfall are endangered not just for wildlife or forest peoples but for all.

Here is the situation in the Boreal Forests of North America and in the Amazon Forest of South America.

Historically, forest destruction starts with roads and agriculture but more recently an additional stress is coming from the insatiable demand for energy which is exploiting the tar sand oil in the Boreal and building hydro-electric dams in the Amazon.

The destruction can really move fast. Here's a slideshow of the expansion of roads and deforestation in the Brazilian state of Rondonia (next to Acre). The annual photos are from 2000 to 2009 and cover an area about 500km wide. The images are from the NASA Earth Observatory - World of Change


The city of Altamira seen from the air with seasonal high waters of the Xingu River flooding an area of the outskirts of the city. If built, the Belo Monte dam will make this and much more serious flooding a permanent reality, driving thousands from their homes. Photo credit: Marcelo Salazar / ISA

Here's an excellent news round-up and analysis of the increasingly desperate situation at the proposed Belo Monte Monster Dam -- re-posted from Amazon Watch

There is a dark cloud hanging over the city of Altamira and it has little to do with the Amazon's relentless seasonal rains. An oppressive feeling prevails through the city, linked to the imminent commencement of construction of the Belo Monte Dam complex on the Xingu River. Unlike an optimistic outlook on the promise of improved living conditions for the local population linked to a highly touted development initiative to accompany the construction of the dam, plans for the Xingu inspire uncertainty and anxiety for most. Such doubt springs from the lack of understanding of what is to become of the river and the cities and communities that depend on it. People are in the dark, bringing a gloomy sense of foreboding as the region braces itself for a storm.

At a time when many of the region's people need answers about Belo Monte, the dam-building consortium, known as Norte Energia or NESA, has maintained a startling lack of transparency. As mitigation projects intended to stave off the worst of the dam's impacts languish at the hands of the consortium, even its supporters have begun to ask serious questions about whether planners have any intention to soften the coming socio-environmental disaster that is Belo Monte. Yet, while such widespread doubt can demoralize and divide, it can also serve to vindicate those fighting tirelessly to defend the Xingu and its people, strengthening their resistance and determination.

Contrasts proliferate through Altamira. The recent visit of James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger to the Xingu, as well as ex-President Bill Clinton's criticisms of Brazil's hydropower plans for the Amazon have again brought the controversial project – and the reckless development model it represents – to the world's attention. Last week's ruling by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights demanding that Brazil immediately suspend Belo Monte's licensing process was a serious blow to the project, just as the government expected a definitive license for the dam's installation to be issued. Yet in Altamira there is no sign that the wheels set in motion when the project received its "partial" installation license in January will come to a halt. Much to the contrary: NESA appears hell-bent on ramming Belo Monte forward by any means necessary.

Altamira is experiencing its first waves of dam-related migration. But these aren't the construction workers that threaten to flood into the city by the thousands; the current arrivals are mainly representatives of engineering firms contracted by the NESA consortium to carry out surveying of terrain strategic to the early stages of construction. International rulings aside, the consortium still has the right and means to build Belo Monte's massive workers camps, aimed at making the project a fait accompli.

Intense speculation surrounds the road known as "Kilometer 25 crossing" a narrow and rugged dirt passage that juts off the Transamazon highway through forests and rich agricultural land to the large camp of the Brazilian parastatal company ElectroNorte, also the site of one of the mega-dam's main work camps. Nearby Pimental Island is intended to provide a foundation for the main wall of the dam, a 6 km long and 36 m high monstrosity that will divert 80% of the river's flow into artificial canals and a fetid reservoir, destroying a 100 km stretch of the Xingu known as the Big Bend. If Belo Monte is to proceed, this strategic road will need to be converted into a broad thoroughfare to accommodate heavy machinery and a steady stream of workers to and from the camp.

What's unclear is the extent to which NESA has already progressed on the road; some say the technicians are only performing detailed surveys while others claim they are already clearing forest and farmland to widen the road. While the season's heavy rains impede any serious progress, most agree that NESA will pounce on this area when the rains let up in June. At that point some fear the game is up, while others are quietly confident that it only signals a new intensified stage in the struggle to stop Belo Monte. What is clear is that the morally bankrupt NESA consortium and its government backers will continue to do what they can to crush resistance to the dam and sidestep any responsibility they have to preserving a semblance of social and environmental stability in the region.

Failing promises

While rumors swirl about the state of Belo Monte, concerns are growing over whether the NESA consortium will actually comply with its legal obligations to meet dozens of socio-environmental conditions prior the dam's construction. These include taking emergency measures to install infrastructure and social services adequate to meet the needs of a population that threatens to spike in coming months. The government expects that Altamira's population could double if the construction of Belo Monte begins, with the flood of over 100,000 people to the region in search of employment.

Recent reports have shown that more than 70% of the infrastructure projects that NESA is required to implement prior to initiating any form of construction have yet to begin. In addition to improving much needed basic services for the existing population, the projects are intended to help accommodate the enormous influx of migrants to Altamira and other municipalities.

Such projects, like new health clinics, schools, and sanitation works, are already in dire need in Altamira. The shocking fact is that projects offering basic services and a modicum of "development" to the region are only on offer because the government is determined to install an incredibly hazardous mega-project adjacent to the city. And it's highly questionable that the ambitious plans provide infrastructural and human development – planned to accompany the construction of the dam – will begin to mitigate the untold social and environmental costs of Belo Monte. As I passed through an Altamira neighborhood of palafita homes built on stilts along an igarapé (small river) accompanied by Toinha of the local women's movement, she stopped our car and said grimly "all this will be gone. And these people don't know where they will go." More than a third of Altamira could disappear under Belo Monte's artificial reservoir.

The imminent dangers posed by this mega-project require immediate solutions. Yet there is no indication that the same government promising such "development" to the people of the middle Xingu will encourage the NESA consortium to meet their obligations to mitigate the project's impacts. Indeed, the indifference and irresponsibility of the Brazilian government and NESA could spell disaster for the cities of the region, much as Belo Monte's critics have warned from the beginning.

Crisis and shared concerns

The potential for social crisis unfolding in Altamira has spawned an unusual relationship between Belo Monte's proponents and its detractors. Faced with the prospect of seeing cheerful promises of infrastructural development and investment in local businesses evaporate, local government and business leaders have begun to raise concerns about how benefits to local people will materialize. Most agree that the people of Altamira and surrounding cities and communities will pay a steep price for the construction of Belo Monte; the question is, what are the advantages?

According to Vilmar Soares, the coordinator of FORT Xingu, a group of local business interests that have supported Belo Monte, the installation of emergency infrastructure is occurring at an alarmingly slow pace. This is all the more disquieting, he says, because more than 10,000 migrants are expected to arrive in Altamira this year alone. "We can't start this dam project without having schools and health clinics to attend to the needs of this population."

If recent events on Brazil's Madeira River are any indication, the municipalities of the middle Xingu should be bracing themselves for social chaos of unprecedented proportions. In the Amazonian state of Rondonia, where the Brazilian government is executing its ill conceived plans to construct two mega dams on the Madeira River, workers at the Jirau dam site recently rioted against unjust and precarious work conditions, burning work camps and transport vehicles.

As signaled by the lawyer Felicio Pontes of Para's Federal Public Ministry – an institution that has filed ten lawsuits against the project – the social fallout of the Belo Monte project could exceed what we are seeing on the Madeira. "This is not Jirau, and it's not Rondonia," says Pontes. "The question of land tenure [in Pará] is much more problematic. Conflicts here could be five times as bad. We are champions of slave labor and the death of workers in the fields. And by moving forward with this project, without paying special attention to infrastructure projects, you can be sure that we are announcing countless future deaths."

While FORT Xingu and the Movimento Xingu Vivo Para Sempre (MXVPS) have highly divergent views about how to achieve equitable development for their region, they do share a concern for the health of their families and communities. Should NESA continue to sow doubt and confusion in Altamira, these conflicting local groups could find they have more in common than they think.

Yet at a time of so much ambiguity and anxiety, one thing is certain: the resistance of the MXVPS will not waver. Nor will the voices of the thousands of indigenous peoples, riverbank dwellers, farmers, and fisherfolk who call the Xingu home.

Development is a right, not a consequence

If you are to believe NESA and its sponsors at the top rungs of the Brazilian government, all of this is taking place in the name of "development" for an underdeveloped region in addition to meeting Brazil's growing energy needs. Belo Monte will offer local populations a dignified life where there had been misery, dignified housing and social services where there has been precariousness. Yet as Antonia Melo, the coordinator of the MXVPS, routinely points out, these are basic human rights that should be met independently of the plans for mega-projects. Should the residents of the Xingu have to sacrifice their river, their livelihoods, and indeed their way of life for what is already their right to a dignified life, enjoyed by any citizen?

Last week a friend from Brasilia, and a longtime supporter of Brazil's Worker's Party (PT), joined me in Altamira to spend a few days learning first hand about the grim story unfolding there. As we sat at a restaurant built on stilts over the high waters of the Xingu, he told me: "I'm shocked. I never expected the PT to inflict this sort of violence on local populations in the name of progress." The jovial restaurant owner joined us as we looked over a vast span of the powerful river. What a marvelous place, we agreed. But then he grew sad, casting a wistful gaze over the waters. I knew what his sadness meant; it was the same as I felt again and again from people in Altamira and it's surroundings: all this could come to an end.

In the distance dark clouds were forming another rainstorm. Yet unlike the driving rains that drain into the Xingu, its unclear how local communities will weather the building storm that is Belo Monte. Resistance to the project will remain fierce, without a doubt, as its foundations continue to be eroded by a stream of legal challenges, financial shortfalls, reputational challenges, and waning popularity as the Brazilian public increasingly learns the ugly truth about the dam. Yet the government's authoritarian and incredibly stubborn march towards the destruction of the Xingu will likely continue unabated, inviting tragedy in the turbulent heart of the Amazon.


Staged near my old green line subway route in Sao Paulo. "Paje" is a common Brazilian term for shaman.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


Truth or Consequences


The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the leading US agency providing up-to-date climate information, proposed last year year to create a new Climate Service. NOAA Director Thomas Karl outlined how the proposed service aligns with NOAA’s vision:

... of an informed society able to anticipate and respond to climate and its impacts to make the best social and economic decisions. He said that the NOAA Climate Service is designed to inform the mitigation and adaptation decisions needed to respond to the impacts of a changing climate. The Service aims to support decision-makers regionally to globally, on timescales of weeks to decades, in areas including public policy, resource management, infrastructure investment, business development, and decisions of individuals in their daily lives

Even though the NOAA proposal simply proposed to consolidate and reorganize the flow of climate information (adding no new programs), unfortunately but predictably, the US Congress torpedoed the Climate Service in the recent budget battle.

... an initiative that would add no net cost to the budget and would streamline the operations of a Federal agency ... was torpedoed when 227 Republicans and 6 Democrats voted in favor of an Amendment ... prohibiting any funding from being used to establish a NOAA Climate Service.

Why? Because accurate climate information is often inconvenient. Is this unique to the US Congress? Of course, not! The same phenomena occur worldwide as people from the ordinary folks to exalted leaders seek to suppress "uncomfortable conversation and dialogue."



[UPDATE - 14 April: Rio Branco's leading blogger Altino Machado gives an update as high water continues to displace families and Federal University professor Ecio Rodrigues notes that deforestation and the occupation of stream banks have made the situation worse.]

Following a below-average-rainfall March, April has come to Acre with the proverbial buckets of rain resulting in a very swollen Rio Acre and an emergency situation for the families living in low-lying areas.

So far about 250 families have been displaced and are receiving emergency shelter and support.

[UPDATE 13 April 2011: This morning the local media are reporting that the flooding is more widespread -- 11 neighborhoods in the city and 13 rural communities have been impacted and emergency measures are being mobilized to house, feed and care for the displaced.]



The water has risen toward the height of the bridge roadways but is not a present threat to them.


Boats have been towing the floating debris away from the bridge supports.



No one is sure how much more the river will rise so folks have been checking out the scene.



Let's hope that it all gets back to normal levels soon.


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

                   JARDIM DA SAUDADE

jardim da saudade

                   GARDEN OF LONGING

Saudade is a Portuguese language word that is impossible to translate adequately. It describes a deep emotional state of nostalgic longing for something or someone that was held dearly but is now lost. The feeling, somehow, is also very sweet because it recalls something truly loved that survives in the heart -- a loss that lives on and brings a guiding light.



via Real Clear World

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has a new report out highlighting global military expenditures. As the above chart indicates, the U.S. retains a healthy lead.

Regionally, defense spending in Europe has fallen 2.8 percent while spending in South America has risen by 5.8 percent and in Africa by 5.2 percent. Brazil drove a lot of the South American growth. Asia rose only a modest 1.4 percent, which the Institute said was slower than previous years. Overall, global military expenditures ticked up slightly at 1.3 percent, the slowest growth rate since 2001.

Monday, April 11, 2011


Fuel Prices - Rio Branco Brazil - 10 April 2011
Fuel prices per liter - Rio Branco AC Brazil - 10 April 2011

As the the wars in the Middle East cause a spike in global oil prices, gas is hovering around $4 per gallon in my old Oregon homeland. The news reports that this will slow economic "recovery" in the States. It's interesting to see how it looks from Rio Branco, the capital city of Acre state, Brazil.

Brazil has a global reputation for being self-sufficient in providing transportation fuel. This is achieved in part by regulated prices set by the national oil company Petrobras plus regional variations due to transport costs. Yesterday, the price for gasoline in Rio Branco was approximately $7.60 per gallon in a state where the per capital income (including the rural poor) is less than 15% of what it is in Oregon. In sum, it is very expensive to run a car in Acre -- about twice as much as in much richer Oregon.

Inexpensive fuel is essential to a higher standard-of-living in Oregon. To maintain the habitual levels of US consumption, wars have to be fought in places like the Middle East. Brazil doesn't have it so good materialistically and it thinks that it's wrong to intervene with bombs and missiles in faraway places.

Economic development is not inexpensive. It is always paid for somehow and somewhere.

Sunday, April 10, 2011


Hanging Out at the Market

The central market in Rio Branco is always full of photo opportunities. This one caught my eye on Saturday.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011


I've been following an extraordinary series of columns by George Monbiot of the Guardian UK as he provocatively challenges the Greens and takes a pro-nuclear energy stance in the midst of the Fukushima crisis but I never would have expected something like:

The unpalatable truth is that the anti-nuclear lobby has misled us all

I've discovered that when the facts don't suit them, the movement resorts to the follies of cover-up they usually denounce

by George Monbiot

[Note from Lou: This should not be taken as an argument that Nukes are risk-free. There can be very serious problems like the Fukushima situation described today by the NY Times. My understanding of Monbiot is that he wants the risks of ALL forms of energy production considered and compared honestly.]

Over the last fortnight I've made a deeply troubling discovery. The anti-nuclear movement to which I once belonged has misled the world about the impacts of radiation on human health. The claims we have made are ungrounded in science, unsupportable when challenged, and wildly wrong. We have done other people, and ourselves, a terrible disservice.

I began to see the extent of the problem after a debate last week with Helen Caldicott. Dr Caldicott is the world's foremost anti-nuclear campaigner. She has received 21 honorary degrees and scores of awards, and was nominated for a Nobel peace prize. Like other greens, I was in awe of her. In the debate she made some striking statements about the dangers of radiation. So I did what anyone faced with questionable scientific claims should do: I asked for the sources. Caldicott's response has profoundly shaken me.

First she sent me nine documents: newspaper articles, press releases and an advertisement. None were scientific publications; none contained sources for the claims she had made. But one of the press releases referred to a report by the US National Academy of Sciences, which she urged me to read. I have now done so – all 423 pages. It supports none of the statements I questioned; in fact it strongly contradicts her claims about the health effects of radiation.

I pressed her further and she gave me a series of answers that made my heart sink – in most cases they referred to publications which had little or no scientific standing, which did not support her claims or which contradicted them. (I have posted our correspondence, and my sources, on my website.) I have just read her book Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer. The scarcity of references to scientific papers and the abundance of unsourced claims it contains amaze me.

For the last 25 years anti-nuclear campaigners have been racking up the figures for deaths and diseases caused by the Chernobyl disaster, and parading deformed babies like a medieval circus. They now claim 985,000 people have been killed by Chernobyl, and that it will continue to slaughter people for generations to come. These claims are false.

The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (Unscear) is the equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Like the IPCC, it calls on the world's leading scientists to assess thousands of papers and produce an overview. Here is what it says about the impacts of Chernobyl.

Of the workers who tried to contain the emergency at Chernobyl, 134 suffered acute radiation syndrome; 28 died soon afterwards. Nineteen others died later, but generally not from diseases associated with radiation. The remaining 87 have suffered other complications, including four cases of solid cancer and two of leukaemia.

In the rest of the population there have been 6,848 cases of thyroid cancer among young children – arising "almost entirely" from the Soviet Union's failure to prevent people from drinking milk contaminated with iodine 131. Otherwise "there has been no persuasive evidence of any other health effect in the general population that can be attributed to radiation exposure". People living in the countries affected today "need not live in fear of serious health consequences from the Chernobyl accident".

Caldicott told me that Unscear's work on Chernobyl is "a total cover-up". Though I have pressed her to explain, she has yet to produce a shred of evidence for this contention.

In a column last week, the Guardian's environment editor, John Vidal, angrily denounced my position on nuclear power. On a visit to Ukraine in 2006, he saw "deformed and genetically mutated babies in the wards … adolescents with stunted growth and dwarf torsos; foetuses without thighs or fingers". What he did not see was evidence that these were linked to the Chernobyl disaster.

Professor Gerry Thomas, who worked on the health effects of Chernobyl for Unscear, tells me there is "absolutely no evidence" for an increase in birth defects. The National Academy paper Dr Caldicott urged me to read came to similar conclusions. It found that radiation-induced mutation in sperm and eggs is such a small risk "that it has not been detected in humans, even in thoroughly studied irradiated populations such as those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki".

Like Vidal and many others, Caldicott pointed me to a book which claims that 985,000 people have died as a result of the disaster. Translated from Russian and published by the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, this is the only document that looks scientific and appears to support the wild claims made by greens about Chernobyl.

A devastating review in the journal Radiation Protection Dosimetry points out that the book achieves this figure by the remarkable method of assuming that all increased deaths from a wide range of diseases – including many which have no known association with radiation – were caused by the Chernobyl accident. There is no basis for this assumption, not least because screening in many countries improved dramatically after the disaster and, since 1986, there have been massive changes in the former eastern bloc. The study makes no attempt to correlate exposure to radiation with the incidence of disease.

Its publication seems to have arisen from a confusion about whether Annals was a book publisher or a scientific journal. The academy has given me this statement: "In no sense did Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences or the New York Academy of Sciences commission this work; nor by its publication do we intend to independently validate the claims made in the translation or in the original publications cited in the work. The translated volume has not been peer reviewed by the New York Academy of Sciences, or by anyone else."

Failing to provide sources, refuting data with anecdote, cherry-picking studies, scorning the scientific consensus, invoking a cover-up to explain it: all this is horribly familiar. These are the habits of climate-change deniers, against which the green movement has struggled valiantly, calling science to its aid. It is distressing to discover that when the facts don't suit them, members of this movement resort to the follies they have denounced.

We have a duty to base our judgments on the best available information. This is not only because we owe it to other people to represent the issues fairly, but also because we owe it to ourselves not to squander our lives on fairytales. A great wrong has been done by this movement. We must put it right.

Sunday, April 03, 2011


Night-Blooming Cactus #2 - Matutu - 2006

I've been meditating on the potentials and problems of development as the contemporary peoples of the forest make the inevitable transition to modernity. In the process I found Steve Talbott's essay Hold a Blossom to the Light which itself is a meditation on one of my favorite books. The essay is a long but most worthy read. Hope you have time to check it out.

Hold a Blossom to the Light

This chapter contains reflections occasioned by the book, One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest, by Wade Davis (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996).

While traveling through the Ecuadorian Amazon as an ethnobotanist,
Wade Davis spent some time with the Waorani,
known earlier as the Auca Indians. Among the last peoples of
the Amazon to be contacted by outsiders, the Auca had made
headlines around the world when, in January, 1956, they
speared and killed five American missionaries — this despite
the missionaries’ practice of dropping gifts from an airplane
before their disastrous attempt at personal contact. The incident
was only one in a series of unfortunate exchanges
between the Auca and those who intruded upon their territory.
According to Davis, “as late as 1957 there had never been
a peaceful contact between the Auca and the outside world.”

A couple of decades later, during his stay with the Waorani,
Davis accompanied a young warrior named Tomo on a hunting
excursion. Highly skilled with a blowgun, Tomo had already, at
the age of five, been able to blow a dart through a hanging fruit
at thirty paces. As an adult, he could “drive a dart clear through
a squirrel at forty feet, knock a hummingbird out of the air, and
hit a monkey in the canopy 120 feet above the forest floor.”

After selecting a short blowgun (just over six feet long),
Tomo led Davis and a companion into the jungle. As Davis
tells the story, suddenly

Tomo froze, dropped into an attack crouch, and slipped
away from us, moving silently and steadily through a
thicket of heliconia until stopping at the base of an
enormous tree sixty feet from the trail. In a single gesture
he had withdrawn a dart, notched its tip, deftly
spun the kapok fiber around the base, and placed it in
the mouth of the blowgun that now hovered motionless
above his head. His cheeks suddenly puffed out with
tremendous pressure, which was released in an instant.
A moment later he was lunging through the vegetation,
laughing and shouting. By the time we caught up, he
held a rufous mot mot in his hand. The bird was still
alive. Tomo had managed to reach it before the poison
took effect. He dropped the frightened creature into his
basket and placed the dart conspicuously in the notch of
a tree so that all would know an animal had been taken.

The use of the blowgun is a highly developed art. The
Waorani routinely poison the tips of their darts with potent
toxins they extract from plants. They notch the darts using
the razor-sharp teeth of a piranha jaw, thereby ensuring that
the poisonous tip will break off in the flesh of the prey even if
the rest of the dart is swatted away. As for the gun itself, its
volume is less than a tenth the capacity of the lungs, so “it is
not force but control that counts, judging the distance to the
prey, the angle of ascent, the proper trajectory.”Up to a point,
a longer blowgun produces a higher velocity in the dart, but
beyond that point resistance in the gun takes over. “Finding
that perfect balance, the right length, is what they’re always
looking for.”

On Reading One’s Environment

The skills involved in Tomo’s hunting success were those
many of us in a more technological culture might envy. But
for Tomo himself the envy seemed to run in the opposite
direction. “Though a gifted hunter with a dart, Tomo confessed
that he, like most Waorani, preferred shotguns.”

An odd preference, you might think, considering that
most of the shotguns available to the Waorani were “miserable
weapons: single-shot breechloaders cursed with weak
firing springs that rarely lasted a year.” A small box of shells
cost what three blowguns did — the equivalent of a week’s
work (if work was to be had). A four-day journey was
required simply to make the purchase. Once obtained, the
shotgun might be useful for large terrestrial animals at close
range (assuming it didn’t misfire), “but for birds and monkeys
and anything that lived in the canopy, the blowgun was
by far the superior weapon.” So what was the appeal of the

The Waorani affection for shotguns had little to do with
efficiency. It was the intrinsic attraction of the object itself,
the clicking mechanisms, the polished stock, the power of the
explosion. As one Waorani hunter explained, “It makes such a
beautiful noise.”

In this regard, are we not all Waorani? It’s just that, as we
tire of one shiny object, we need another — preferably a more
“sophisticated” one, or at least a different one. Walk into any
high-tech emporium, from Radio Shack to The Sharper
Image, and (if you are at all like me) you will experience on
every hand “the intrinsic attraction of the object itself ” —
exactly the sort of attraction that makes a Waorani hunter
prefer a shotgun with its cool clicking mechanisms to the
blowgun that has become such an intimate and accustomed
part of himself.

This suggests what I think is largely true: the history of
technology is a history of walking away from ourselves. We
abandon old skills and ways of being. This is not in itself a bad
thing. Every individual’s life is an endless journey from what
he has been to what he is becoming.We are continually leaving
ourselves behind, and necessarily so. That’s what it means
to grow. It is the same with cultures.

The problem, it seems to me, lies in a profound shift of
emphasis — a shift that was not necessary. The issue here, however,
is difficult to grasp within an already technologized culture.

In mastering the blowgun, Tomo learned stealth and many
physical skills. He learned great care, whether in preparing
his poisons or notching his dart or avoiding what we like to
call “collateral damage.” He learned patience and well-focused
attention. But above all, he learned to read his environment
through a resonant inner connection with it: only
by understanding the ways of the forest, the character and
likely movements of his prey, the meanings carried upon the
ceaseless symphony of sounds enlivening the jungle — only
so could he find success in the hunt using a weapon such as
the blowgun.

The crucial point (it will emerge more clearly in what follows)
is that Tomo’s reading of his environment was thoroughly
qualitative. He had to understand what it was like to be
a certain animal. He needed to recognize the characteristic
gestures of its movement — and, indeed, of all its behaviors
— to know it from the inside, so to speak. The decisive detail
for a particular hunt, whatever it turned out to be, was very
likely available to Tomo without reflection or calculation,
because it was implicit in the larger, expressive pattern that he
grasped as a unified whole. Such “inner resonance” with one’s
surroundings is profound, subtle, and revelatory, a prerequisite
(though not the only prerequisite) for any full understanding
of the world.

The shift of emphasis I am concerned about is the sacrifice
of this qualitative attention to one’s environment in favor of
a strictly analytical and technical understanding. It’s the difference
between having information about someone, on the
one hand, and knowing him, on the other. Knowing gives us
a power of direct recognition; we can be more fully open to
the expressive qualities of the person or thing — which also
means being open to those same qualities in ourselves. We
overcome, in the moment of knowing, the barrier between
self and other. To experience the quality of a thing is necessarily
to experience it, to find its shape and movement and
significance reproduced within ourselves. This is what I
mean by “resonance.”

The Powers of Recognition

The ability to read nature in this qualitative sense, to know
its phenomena from the inside, is not restricted to primitive
cultures.While we may not know how to reconcile this ability
with the canonized procedures of science, we do often recognize
it as a mark of scientific genius. The primary subject of
Davis’ book, the legendary Harvard ethnobotanist, Richard
Evans Schultes, exemplified this sort of genius.

Schultes stood apart in his field. As Davis relates it, “even
the most highly trained botanists are humbled by the
immense diversity of the Amazonian forests”:

Confronted with the unknown, they collect specimens
and do their best to identify a plant to family or genus.
Only later, in the comfort of the herbarium and invariably
with the assistance of a colleague specializing in
that particular group of plants, will they figure out the
species and obtain a complete determination.

With Schultes, who collected more than 25,000 plants in
Columbia between 1941 and 1953, and who was the first to
record entire genera previously unknown to science, along
with hundreds of species, it was different. “He possessed what
scientists call the taxonomic eye” — an immediate ability to
detect significant variation within an overall pattern. He
occasionally demonstrated his powers of attention to such
variation in striking ways:

He was once in a small plane that took off from a dirt
runway, brushed against the canopy of the forest, and
very nearly crashed. A colleague who was with him
recalled years later that throughout the entire episode
Schultes had sat calmly by a window, oblivious to the
screams of the terrified passengers. It turned out that he
had spotted a tree, a new species of Cecropia, and had
scarcely noticed the crisis.

What all this meant, Davis comments, is that Schultes
could resolve botanical problems in the moment, write
descriptions in the field, realign species and genera just
by holding a blossom to the light. In the entire history of
Amazonian botany, only a handful of scientists have
possessed this talent.

“. . . just by holding a blossom to the light.” This is the essence
of qualitative knowledge. It’s the difference between going
laboriously through a set of analytical keys to identify a plant
or, based on direct and intimate familiarity with the plant
world, immediately recognizing the distinctive character of the
plant and its relations to other plants. In order to appreciate
what this means, think of how you would identify a face in a
crowd when all you had was a list of discrete features, and
compare that to recognizing an old friend. The recognition is
instantaneous, or nearly so, a single act drawing on the qualities
of an entire image, without analysis. And in that image
you may read a great deal about the kind of experience your
friend has just been through and how he is relating to those
around him.

We in fact exercise such powers of recognition all the time;
without them there would be no science. Yet a science that
long ago disavowed any concern with the qualities of things
has steadily pushed our acts of recognition to the periphery.
Mention these mundane, daily human performances in certain
scientific contexts and you will soon hear the muttered
epithet, “mystical.” Our technologies, with their emphasis on
automatically transferable information, persistently train us
in the disregard of subtle qualities. The steps in identifying a
plant analytically via a key are easily taught through a program.
What Schultes learned to see when he held a flower to
the light is not. The program yields clean, unambiguous, yesor-
no answers — and little else. The kind of understanding
Schultes employed when studying a blossom enabled him to
re-imagine and re-organize the relations upon which programmatic
keys are based.

Puzzling Knowledge

The tribes of the Amazon present numerous riddles that
are surely related to the difference between a qualitative and
analytic understanding. There is a plant called yagé whose
bark contains the beta-carbolines, harmine and harmaline. By
combining yagé with various other plants, the shamans of the
northwest Amazon long ago learned to concoct potent psychoactive
drinks. Investigating two of the auxiliary plants
employed in these concoctions, Schultes noted that they contained
tryptamines, “powerful psychoactive compounds
[writes Davis] that when smoked or snuffed induce a very
rapid, intense intoxication of short duration marked by
astonishing visual imagery.” (Neither Schultes nor Davis was
loath to verify such effects for himself.)

The problem is that, taken orally (the Indians drank these
potions), the tryptamines have no effect; they are denatured
by an enzyme in the human gut. But, as it turns out, the betacarbolines
in yagé inhibit exactly this enzyme. So when yagé is
combined with one of the admixture plants, the combination
produces dramatic hallucinogenic effects.

What astonished Schultes was less the raw effect of the
drugs — by this time, after all, he was becoming accustomed
to having his consciousness awash in color — than the underlying
intellectual question that the elaboration of these complex
preparations posed. The Amazonian flora contains literally
tens of thousands of species.How had the Indians learned
to identify and combine in this sophisticated manner these
morphologically dissimilar plants that possessed such unique
and complementary chemical properties? The standard scientific
explanation was trial and error — a reasonable term that
may well account for certain innovations — but at another
level, as Schultes came to realize on spending more time in the
forest, it is a euphemism which disguises the fact that ethnobotanists
have very little idea how Indians originally made
their discoveries.

The problem with trial and error is that the elaboration of
the preparations often involves procedures that are either
exceedingly complex or yield products of little or no obvious
value. Yagé is an inedible, nondescript liana that seldom flowers.
True, its bark is bitter, often a clue to medicinal properties,
but it is no more so than a hundred other forest vines. An
infusion of the bark causes vomiting and severe diarrhea,
conditions that would discourage further experimentation.
Yet not only did the Indians persist but they became so adept
at manipulating the various ingredients that individual
shamans developed dozens of recipes, each yielding potions
of various strengths and nuances to be used for special ceremonial
and ritual purposes.

Another example was the preparation of dart poison,
known as “curare”:

The bark is rasped and placed in a funnel-shaped leaf
suspended between two spears. Cold water is percolated
through, and the drippings collect in a ceramic pot. The
dark fluid is slowly heated and brought to a frothy boil,
then cooled and later reheated until a thick viscous
scum gradually forms on the surface. This scum is
removed and applied to the tips of darts or arrows,
which are then carefully dried over the fire. The procedure
itself is mundane. What is unusual is that one can
drink the poison without being harmed. To be effective
it must enter the blood. The realization on the part of
the Indians that this orally inactive substance, derived
from a small number of forest plants, could kill when
administered into the muscle was profound and, like so
many of their discoveries, difficult to explain by the concept
of trial and error alone.

Perhaps the trial-and-error hypothesis simply reflects a
long habit of ignoring the knowledge potentials of an attention
to the qualities of our environment. Such attention on
the Indians’ part could be quite remarkable. They recognized
many different kinds of yagé plants, all of which, so far as
Schultes could tell, were referable to a single species. The distinguishing
criteria made no sense botanically, and yet “the
Indians could readily differentiate their varieties on sight,
even from a considerable distance in the forest.What’s more,
individuals from different tribes, separated by large expanses of
forest, identified these same varieties with amazing consistency.”
Much the same was true of yoco, a caffeine-containing
stimulant. Schultes collected fourteen different types by the
Indians’ reckoning, “not one of which could be determined
based on the rules of his own own science.” Schultes, as Davis
reports it, was learning that

in unveiling the indigenous knowledge, his task was not
merely to identify new sources of wealth but rather to
understand a new vision of life itself, a profoundly different
way of living in a forest.

Seeking a New Balance

It is a long way from the mechanics of information processing
to the pursuit of a new vision — a new manner of seeing.
But what I am suggesting is that we urgently need to combine
this pursuit of a new, qualitative manner of seeing with
our more technical ambitions if we are to counter the
unhealthy one-sidedness of the latter. The meeting of the two
different ways of knowing proves undeniably fruitful, even in
strictly scientific terms. Look at what has been gained through
the contact of botany and medicine with native plant wisdom.
To take just one example: curare, the dart poison, led western
medicine to d-tubocurarine, a potent muscle relaxant. When
administered during surgery, it greatly reduced the required
levels of anesthesia. D-tubocurarine, Davis notes, “ended up
saving far more human lives than curare had ever taken.”
More broadly, native wisdom has presented us with sounder
images of the whole organism in its relation to health and disease:

For the Waorani, as for many indigenous peoples, good
or bad health results not from the presence or absence of
pathogens alone but from the proper or improper balance
of the individual. Health is harmony, a coherent
state of equilibrium between the physical and spiritual
components of the individual. Sickness is disruption,
imbalance, and the manifestation of malevolent forces
in the flesh.

Slowly, sometimes reluctantly, our own medicine has been
coming to terms with this awareness that illness and health are
matters of harmony, balance, equilibrium. The projection of
our fears upon “deadly” microorganisms as the sole and uncontested
causes of disease will eventually be recognized as a latterday
echo of our ancestors’ preoccupation with evil spirits.
When, by contrast, we turn toward the organism as a whole, we
will have to reckon with the fact that its harmony or disharmony
cannot be read from instruments. True diagnosis
requires nothing less than the kind of highly developed scientific
art and qualitative vision that Schultes demonstrated with
his plants.

Not many seem to recognize that in the age of digital technologies,
our ability to read the qualities of our surroundings,
detecting what is toxic and what is healing in them, what is in
balance and what is out of balance, is even more crucial than it
was for Tomo. It is also more difficult: the reading requires a
greater, more self-conscious effort on our part precisely because
our machines seem to make the effort irrelevant and futile. And
yet the penalty for neglecting our responsibility is that the inhuman
inertia of the machines will dictate our future.

It is not easy, after all, to read a collection of people sitting in
front of monitors. Tomo, we can imagine, might need to make
a quick, accurate assessment as to whether a group of warriors
encountered in the forest was a peaceful hunting expedition or
a raiding party. But how are we to gauge the friendliness of that
roomful of programmers or data-entry clerks? Are they preying
upon the larger society, or serving it? Are they working for the
next Enron, or moving in a very different direction? Yet we
must learn to read these things. The fact is that our social future
will be determined by the human qualities of the activities
being mediated through hundreds of millions of programmed
devices, and by our ability consciously to resonate with and
thereby to recognize these qualities.

Unfortunately, the devices themselves serve primarily to
conceal — and in some ways to nullify — the qualitative
dimensions of our activities. This is why, in a typical computer-
based work group, the art of communication and openness
to the other tends to give way to the mere manipulation
of technical information. The scheduling of activities is
tightly programmed. The budgeting and allocation of
resources fall more or less automatically out of a spreadsheet.
But the question remains: what do these databases and programs
and numbers mean for the workers involved, for the
surrounding community, for the global economy? What do
we want them to mean — or do our wants matter any longer?

To read the significance of our activities rather than being
lulled by the blank expressions of our machines — this is the
skill and art demanded of us today. The skill and art are hardly
new, however; it’s just that our fascination with the technical
aspects of our jobs encourages a much too narrow focus. Yet it
is not that difficult, amid all the email exchange and programmed
organization, to make an occasional inquiry of one’s
neighbor in the next cubicle: “How are you doing?” “How do
you feel about your work?” “Do you think the product we’re
working on will help to heal our society or instead debilitate it?”

If what all the employees in a large corporation actually
sensed, qualitatively, about their own work and the company’s
endeavors were a matter of common inquiry and group reflection,
could the business avoid going through a revolutionary
transformation? Could it any longer be the same business? If,
as a society, we cultivated anything like Tomo’s attentive openness
to the expressive qualities of his environment, surely the
transformation I refer to would be commonplace rather than
revolutionary. And the sudden surprise of an Enron would be
next to impossible.

But why bother when the program seems to be the only real
work? When the next email and next report and next milestone
demand attention, and the software can be trusted to
“take care” of the larger issues of coordination? Our own
functioning becomes comfortingly undemanding on the
qualitative and expressive level, with all the challenges
reduced to merely technical ones. But if the qualitative and
expressive level is where we discover both the noxious and
healing properties of our environment, it is also where we discover
the meaning of our work and the ethical nuances of our
relations with each other. It is no surprise when, having
replaced this level with the programmatic automatisms of
information processing, we find organizations running badly
off the tracks.

The Thrill of Cutting Down Trees

None of this is to say that we could get by in today’s world
without the newer technologies. But it is to say that we cannot
get by without recognizing the disciplines we must work ever
harder to develop in order to invest the ubiquitous programming
with our own purposes. And we also need to realize
when our preoccupation with technology is just plain fickle.

In 1975, when the flood of goods from outside was threatening
the Waorani way of life, the local missionaries tried to stem
the tide. But when they restricted the flow of radios, T-shirts,
sunglasses, and baseball hats, the Waorani simply expanded
their contacts with nearby oil exploration camps and tourists.
Going so far as to clear an airstrip at one location, “they
invented rituals, imitated the activities of an oil camp, and sang
songs to the helicopters, with the hope that they would unleash
a rain of gifts.”

Eventually the missionaries realized the hopelessness of the
situation. One of them, Jim Yost, remarked to Davis,

As romantics we idealize a past we never experienced
and deny those who knew that past from changing. We
forget perhaps the most disturbing lesson of anthropology.
As Levi-Strauss said, “The people for whom the
term cultural relativism was invented, have rejected it.”

The “cultural relativism” Levi-Strauss was referring to
includes the notion that every culture has its own distinctive
values worth preserving. Surely it does. Yet it is also true that
the members of the culture itself may prefer change over
becoming museum exhibits. We can hardly preserve them
against their will, whether by dictating their values to them or
artificially isolating them.

Davis hones the issue to a fine sharpness when he quotes
Yost as saying,

Nothing thrills the Waorani more than killing game and
cutting down big trees. It’s what so many people don’t
understand who haven’t lived in the forest.You don’t have
to conserve what you don’t have the power to destroy.
Harming the forest is an impossible concept for them.

When Davis interjects, “They don’t know what it means to
destroy,” Yost goes on:

They have no capacity to understand. In a world of such
abundance, the word “scarcity” has no meaning. It’s
what makes them most vulnerable. It’s the same with
their culture. When you’ve lived in complete isolation,
how can you understand what it means to lose a culture?
It’s not until it is almost gone and when people become
educated that they realize what’s being lost. By then the
attractions of the new way are overpowering, and the
only people who want the old ways are the ones who
never lived it.

You can easily imagine that a similar sense of the indestructible
abundance of natural resources must have seized
the early European settlers of the American West. And in a
rather different way, the inexhaustible supply of computing
power now invites the impoverishment of our cultural mores
and institutions through their transfer to the shallow and
much-too-automatic pathways of silicon.

Historically, there appears to be an element of tragedy in
all this. We stumble along in ignorance and, by the time we
realize the subtle ways our actions have caught up with us, the
damage and loss are already irrevocable.

But one function of tragedy is to shock us into wakefulness.
With this wakefulness comes a new ability to stand back and
look at ourselves critically in the very moment of acting. And
this in turn brings greater moral responsibility. Surely by the
time of the settling of the American West there was much less
innocence in the relations between settler and environment
than there was for the Waorani.And it would be hard to excuse
as innocent at all the widespread narcosis evident in the way
we have yielded so passively to mass media and digital technologies
today, allowing them to cut us off from vital openness
toward the full-fleshed qualities of our human and natural
contexts.We, after all, have as examples the Waorani and many
other cultures, not to mention a reasonably objective knowledge
of our own history. The Waorani had none of this.

Don’t Bemoan the Loss of Old Skills

All growth has a tragic element. Something is lost.
Catastrophe is a prime agent of maturation. Unwelcome as it
may sound, the Waorani had no choice but to “grow up.”
What enables one to say this is that every culture has no
choice but to grow up. Our own fascination with digital technologies
is no less naive, and no less a blind toying with cultural
catastrophe, than was the Waorani fascination with
shotguns and radios. The difference between us and the
Waorani of several decades ago is that, given our history with
such things, we ought to know better.

On one way of viewing this history, it confronts us with a
succession of tools giving us an opportunity to develop an
ever-expanding array of skills and capacities. Increasingly,
however, the peculiar challenge of our tools is that they invite
us to ignore the matter of skills and capacities. Disastrously,
they are advertised as labor-saving devices, and the main selling
point lies in what we no longer need to do, not in the new
skills we must develop if we truly want to master the new tools.

Bemoaning the loss of old skills is probably not the most
productive way to criticize the new technologies. The greater
need is to recognize that, precisely because of the labor-saving
capabilities of our high-tech tools, the art of mastery demands
greater skills and more arduous discipline than ever before.
Think of the retail clerk, nearly all of whose former responsibilities
in engaging the customer and providing feedback for
the operation of the business are now taken over by computers.
This clerk is as fully detached from an earlier set of skills
as was Tomo with a shotgun in his hands. So we have a choice:
simply to accept that the human being in this case is now little
more than a “dumb assistant” to “intelligent machinery,” or
else to tackle the huge task of re-visioning employees’ jobs, and
the business itself, along more humane lines. The challenge in
all this — if we accept it — puts us into continual tension with
the machines surrounding us. It is a tension that Tomo could
scarcely have noted with his blowgun.

But if we do accept the challenge, then I’m convinced we
will not really find ourselves abandoning the older skills —
not, at least, in the sense that counts. A qualitative and sensitive
openness to our environment today — the kind of openness
where we move beyond technical information about people
and things to a qualitative meeting with them, learning to
recognize their characteristic expressions and gestures, learning
what it is like to be in that other place, what are the poisonous
and the curative elements in our surroundings — this
is not so much a negation of Tomo’s skills as an extension of
them. And in cultivating these skills we will find not only that
our relations to the technologized world become healthier, but
so also our relations to the natural world that sustains us.1



1. The commentary in this chapter is focused upon a relatively few pages of Wade Davis’ large, sprawling work. The book primarily concerns Schultes and his many years of travel throughout the Amazon basin — and also the later travels of the author and another student of Schultes, Tim Plowman. There’s a great deal about the numerous psychotropic plants used by the natives (Schultes, with his unparalleled knowledge of these plants, garnered some notoriety during the psychedelic revolution in this country), about the critical quest for rubber by the Allies during World War II (in which Schultes played a central role), and about the culture of the native Americans and their grievous mistreatment by the colonists. All in all a highly stimulating book, well written and worth reading.


PS: Wade Davis' One River is a book I've read many times over, always with new discoveries and appreciations. Below are two TED talks by Davis:

Wade Davis on endangered cultures | Video on
  • With stunning photos and stories, National Geographic Explorer Wade Davis celebrates the extraordinary diversity of the world's indigenous cultures, which are disappearing 
Wade Davis on the worldwide web of belief and ritual | Video on
  • Anthropologist Wade Davis muses on the worldwide web of belief and ritual that makes us human. He shares breathtaking photos ...