Zombie Apocalypse

 Anyone notice that Urban Wildland was on hiatus for a while?...Thought not.

Notwithstanding your lack of attention, I will explain. For the last ten weeks I have been co-teaching an on-line course with my pal Will Reed at the Viridis Graduate Institute – a feisty start-up focused on eco-psychology helmed by Lori Pye, a lecturer in Environmental Studies at UCSB and part of the core faculty at Pacifica Graduate Institute.

As the sun moves ever south and its rays are spread lower and wider we have emerged, here in Upper Ojai, from the thrall of summer, but on this Thanksgiving day it is expected to reach into the high 80’s before we sit down to our mid-afternoon feasts. Someone, no doubt, will mutter something about global warming as we gorge on the seasonal turkey and pie.

Will and I were guilty of a great deal of muttering over the duration of our course, Re-designing Ecosystems: Cities and Communities, and it is conceivable that one or other of us may have mentioned the fact that our climate has warmed about one degree centigrade since 1860 and that this can reasonably be attributed to the 500 billion tons of Co2 Civilization has dumped into the atmosphere since we got serious about burning fossil fuels. Will, or I, may even have noted that this may increase to one trillion tons by mid-century and that by the end of the century the planet will likely have experienced a further average rise in temperature of 2 or 3 degrees centigrade.

Let me tell you, we tried hard to be neither sanctimonious nor alarmist (the one, hand-maiden to the other) – but if you think about the prospects for ‘sustainability’ (which was the un-spoken subtext of our course) with any amount of seriousness for even ten weeks, you will begin to think some very dark thoughts.

In the middle of spinning tales of doom - our Decameron – I flew to San Antonio. From the very back seat of a Bombardier CR1900, flying at an altitude of 30,000 feet, the badlands of West Texas appeared white-threaded with tracks and the sinuous black line of some tributary to the Rio Grande – or perhaps the great border river itself - lay like a loose strand of some mad-woman’s knitting on the land. Parallel tracks of an interstate headed for a group of buildings where deep pools of shade cast by irrigated trees foxed the unrelenting beige of desert. Most striking were the festoon of white lines that laced together rectangular patches of intaglio, white against brown. Branching chaotically, the mess appeared as though snow-white Christmas lights had been strewn across the land, perhaps by that same woman whose single strand of discarded wool it was we had flown over minutes before. Here, I knew, nodding donkeys lapped from deep beneath the desert crust where, in the Permian Basin, stew metamorphosed plants and animals from the Cretaceous – Texas Oil!

I was staying at the Grand Hyatt, eighteen stories of standard convention hotel with glassy condos above, in San Antonio’s down town -right across from a tired urban mall anchored by Macy’s and just a block and a half from the Alamo - on my way far beyond the traditional oil fields of the Permian Basin in West Texas, to the new frontier of the Eagle Ford Shale, deep in the south of the state. Cotulla, the county seat of La Salle County had once, it seemed, been a charming, if faded, Western cattle town. There are the remnants of its old main street with store-fronts right out of The Last Picture Show, but the action is now on Interstate 35, the great NAFTA highway that slices through the heart of the country from Duluth Minnesota to Laredo on the Mexican border. It also serves as the conduit between San Antonio and the oil fields of the Eagle Ford shale. Close to Cotulla, on I-35, are sixteen hotels with another seven under construction. Walmart and H-E-B, the giant Texas supermarket chain, are on their way.

Away from the highway, the mesquite brush that covers the South Texas plains (fire suppression has allowed the thorny trees to predominate the once more open savannah) is widely punctuated with two or three acre plots where hydraulically fractured wells pump oil from the narrow stratum of the Eagle Ford shale formation that lies between 7,000 and 14,000 feet below. Petrohawk Energy developed the first frac’ed well in 2008 and now over two hundred operators are involved in this ‘play’ with 268 drilling rigs active as of the week before Thanksgiving.

We began our on-line course with a recounting of the transition from the Paleolithic mega-fauna hunters of the last ice age to the hunter-gatherers of the Neolithic and onwards to what Jared Diamond calls the worst mistake in human-history – the development of agriculture. He suggests that,

“the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered. With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism that curse our existence”.

David Korten (The Great Turning, From Empire to Earth Community, 2006) takes up this theme by characterizing the last 6,000 years as a male-dominated, exploitative social pathology he calls Empire - in contrast to early hunting-gatherer settlements that were marked by the worship of female deities, egalitarianism and a profound lack of separation between human consciousness and the universal energies of the natural world, which he calls Earth Communities.

Will and I were both determined that before there was any consideration of “Re-designing….Cities and Communities” our students gain a thorough understanding of the impact of human activities on the world’s eco-systems over the last 10,000 years. Our primary ally in this endeavor was my old stand-by, Clive Ponting’s A New Green History of the World, 2007 (No Soft Landing). Ponting is blunt in his assessment, suggesting that since the end of the last ice age humanity has undertaken “the rape of the world”.

As we were developing the course outline, I read The Derrick Jensen Reader, 2012, and was tempted to make it one of the assigned texts, but ultimately decided against it. Jensen picks up where Edward Abbey (The Monkey Wrench Gang, 1975) left off and promotes active opposition to what he calls the death culture of industrial capitalism whereby the living planet is turned into dead ‘products’. On reflection, it was the right decision, but it now seems to me that a discussion of Jensen’s work, specifically Endgame, volumes I and II, 2006, would make an appropriate coda to our course.

Jensen suggests that Civilization is inherently un-sustainable and it is immoral to stand idly by as the world burns. He suggests that we act as enablers of the serial abuse of the planet unless we actively oppose Civilization, which, in its various iterations for at least six millennia, is founded on that abusive relationship.

The rape of South Texas is being undertaken deep below the earth where nine inch oil casing pipe runs horizontally for up to a mile and a half in each direction from the well head in multiples of six lines, 300 feet apart. Each of these lines has been perforated by frac’ing guns prior to the injection of thousands of gallons of water and sand that simultaneously open up and prop veins in the tightly packed shale which then, for as long as three decades, bleed oil into the pipe. It is an operation of bewildering complexity, technological sophistication and ruthless efficiency. It represents a stellar achievement of a Civilization, that for the last two hundred and fifty years, has been super-charged by the energy extracted from fossil fuels.

Beneath the mesquite brush, where white-tailed deer, javelinas and quail are still hunted (and stray bullets occasionally whine across the oil-well pads) this ‘play’ represents the last throes, perhaps, of a global oil industry in which North America has increased its production in the exact amount of the declines in other oil-producing countries.

Miraculously, this country’s Co2 emissions have been reduced by 4% (back to levels not seen since 1993) due to the rate of new natural gas-fired power plants coming on-line and conversion of old coal burning plants – all due to the downwards pressure on natural gas prices exerted by increased production from fractured wells.

Last time I checked, a gallon of gas was below three bucks – due to Saudi Arabia’s turning up the spigots in an attempt to drive marginal producers out of business. Ain’t working in South Texas, where the shale ‘play’ is viable down to $50 a barrel.

Like Zombies, amidst good news and bad, we continue to lurch towards the Apocalypse.