Hut with a View – “Once again, we can breath”
Immediate thoughts after hearing of the passing of Steve Jobs. Concerning Steve Jobs, Allan Savory, Visionaries, Climate Change
I’m in a stone and concrete office with thatched roof – like all the buildings here – and the floor is shaking from the rumble of the diesel generator which once again kicks into gear when we loose ZESA (the word for electricity). It means Zimbabwe Electric Supply Authority. An October wind is blowing spring leaves, mindlessly of our predicament. I just came from an interview with Huggins Matanga, the Executive Director of the Center who stated that the ills of the world come from the deterioration of land, and just yesterday, Allan Savory mesmerized a group of senior NGO officials from around Africa by explaining to them that only wildlife and livestock properly managed would reverse desertification and climate change – not technology, not fire, not resting the land. Then I saw the email. It didn’t even have a body, just a subject line: “Steve Jobs passed away, my condolences to you”
“No!”, I screamed in reply. Not yet! Anger raged through me. Why? Why, am I so angry? Why do I feel like grabbing someone by the lapels and shaking them? Why? Is it because Steve was my North Star, who’s life I’ve followed for thirty years? Is it because I dreamed of someday working with him, or is it something else, something more? The feeling I get is this: We’re running out of time. Not just for me and my mentors, but all of us. We still have John Todd, age 72, we still have Allan Savory, age 76, but we aren’t paying proper heed. We need to pay attention. We need to act as if today were the last chance. Tomorrow may be too late. Humanity is heading for a desert planet with runaway global warming. The visionary thinking required to prevent that is the same type of thinking that Steve, in his short, and wildly successful life, became symbolic of. Steve wasn’t an environmentalist, and nor was I, really, when, I first started following him, but he was a successful iconoclast who believed in the power of creativity, simplicity, and durability. He built products that were meant to change your life, and to last. He was a man with a mission. Of course, the draping of business formality were necessarily imposed: business plans, marking campaigns, copyright protection, etc., but one doesn’t think business when they think of Apple, nor even machine, nor even computer. They think life. Freedom. Doing what you want, why you want. The liberation of ideas. That was Steve’s mission. Liberation.
This is still the mission at hand. Liberation from the mindset of confinement. There are people who are trying to turn the key that opens the cell door. We don’t have to accept a desert planet. We don’t have to believe that better technology or draconian social controls are our only answer to climate change. They aren’t, and in fact, they will only exacerbate it. The lesson I’ve gotten here is that ecosystem restoration is our only chance at sustaining a climate suitable for human survival, and, of which, we evolved. Yes, CO2 levels were much higher in the distant past, long before the dawn of humanoids, and even long before grazing mammals, but the world was vastly different then, and those CO2 fluctuations happened over millennium in consort with evolution. In the few cases were CO2 spiked suddenly (in relative terms – still thousands of years), there was wide spread extinctions. The most extensive CO2 buildups lead to the most severe extinctions – the foremost of which was the Permian Extinction, which occurred 240 million ago and eliminated approximately 90% of life on earth – including oceans and land. But, it wasn’t actually the CO2 that killed the life, because, as we know, plants inhale it. It was, instead, a far more sinister gas called hydrogen sulfide which was emitted from stagnant, oxygen-depleted oceans. The earth had, in essence, become a massive toxic swamp – without ocean currents, ice caps, or even much temperature variation. It was hot, still, and, except for certain bacteria which were having a field day, largely lifeless.
The fear of runaway global warming is not just of melting ice, loss of habitats, and climate refugees. Oh, if it were only so benign. The fear is of a totally different climate chemistry: a sulfur atmosphere versus an oxygen one, brought on by ocean stagnation. After all, it’s happened many times before, each time by natural CO2 spikes, and even then, those spikes were gradual by today’s standards. Our current course is heading to recreate the conditions necessary for a planet wide extinction episode – the melting of the ice caps, the stagnation of ocean currents, the desertification of grasslands, and the stifling of nature’s ability to damped the feedback cycle of warming. Without the land or ocean based ecosystems necessary to keep carbon in balance, physical and chemical processes will take over, forcing the climate ever warmer until there is a complete switch in climate chemistry and ecosystem regime. Oxygen loving life will be out, and sulfur loving life will take prominence. You, me, and anything human, will be long gone. You can forget about future generations.
Of course, none of that is inevitable. The climate catastrophe scenario can be averted by taking measures that restore land and ocean ecosystems. Counter to the drone of corporate propaganda, these steps can be taken cheaply and without disadvantaging anyone, except perhaps a few deeply invested stakeholders who are unwilling to see alternatives. Average citizens, including average investors, will be greatly rewarded, and, of course, future generations will be benefactors. Paybacks will be rapid and long lasting. No one will go broke betting on an ecosystem that is regenerative.
Getting back to Steve, there is definitely a lump in my throat and sadness in my heart. I thought he would overcome this cancer. I really thought that. I thought that the technology visionary would live on. He was young. Too young. Just four years older than me. I don’t want to die, and I don’t want to leave a life unfulfilled. I first started collecting magazines with Steve Jobs on the cover decades ago. I have that box somewhere, in my office, or in my cellar, or in a friend’s cellar. I’m not even sure any more. Where is all that stuff? The Time Magazine (several, I think), the Business Week Magazine (several, I think), and God knows how many others. The last I remember was Time, with the headline – Inside Steve’s Pad. Steve not only liberated computers, he also liberated movies, animation, and, of course, the phone. Some will say he also liberated music, but others might say the iTunes phenomena has actually hurt music, but in any case, it goes without saying that that industry and it’s marketing are forever changed. None of these changes, of course, happened with men in suites. They happened with Steve, in jeans, fueled by his passion. his quest, his zeal, his relentless optimism, even his naiveté. All these changes happened because he personally envisioned and advocated for them. When was the last person to look him in the eye and say, “Steve, you can do that”?
This is what we need more of now. The naive visionary – the car designer who never studied auto motives, the architect who never studied buildings, and, in the case of Allan Savory, the grasslands restorationist who never studied range science, and dared, no less, to implement livestock as a tool against desertification and global warming. It’s hard for me to accept that Steve has passed, but I guess there is solace in that happening, while I’m here, in Zimbabwe, at the African Center for Holistic Management, because I’ve known for a long time that I was making a transition, from my tech-futures perspective, to an eco-futures one. This, really, is my second quest. For the last thirty years I’ve been a technologist. I’ve believed the technology vision, and, of course, I still do. I will still be a technologist, and still love computing and gadgets, and the ability, in Bucky’s terms, to do more with less, and also, as Bucky says, you can never learn less. You can only learn more. So, I’m not abandoning the technology vision, but I am learning to see it in context – within an ecological vision in which our climate depends. Although technology will help us communicate, learn, calculate, and simulate, it won’t actually restore grasslands, the most important ecosystem on the landed surface of the earth. It will take wild animals to do that, or, as Allan Savory has shown, livestock managed in herds. This is, using a worn out phrase, an “inconvenient truth”, but only so, because our mindset, at least in the progressive environmental world, of which I and most of most colleagues are steeped, is so conditioned, and rightly so, to be repulsed by anything having to do with livestock. Even now, as I type, I find my gut somewhat recoiling – like “You can’t be serious?”. But, after we’ve had a sober pause, it isn’t livestock as we know – it’s livestock managed as herds to restore the grassland ecosystems which helped create the climate we enjoy. It’s the restoration of an ecosystem in which herds were so large, you could hear their thunderous approach for hours, and watch for days as there mass passed in full stride. We don’t have to have livestock. We can all go vegetarian, and move out of rural areas, and allow 100s of millions of buffalo and antelope and springbok and wildebeests to return to the vast planes of America and Africa and elsewhere around the world with similar game on similar terrain. That would be a choice. But, in any case, it’s that level of thinking that is required. Nuclear power may or may not be an adequate substitute for fossil fuel, but it won’t reverse desertification, and even if it never emitted an once of CO2, it won’t reverse global warming.
When I think of soil, I can see it as a type of technology. I envision of a massive network that is busily hurrying every carbon atom to get exactly where it is most needed, like luggage at an air port. I can entertain carbon sequestration as an optimization problem that nature just happens to have figured out. From this perspective, the ecological worldview is not necessarily antithetical with a technological one, allowing, of course, for a technological infrastructure, which is so advanced and interconnected, that it behaves like an ecosystem, with it’s own emergent properties and unpredictable behaviors. Perhaps the Internet is finally there, and I’ve long seen soil as a type of Internet. But, technology can’t evolve, yet, and it can’t inhale carbon and sunlight to make more of itself while retaining water and producing food for humans.
I miss Steve Jobs already. There is a loss of appetite. There is emptiness, and I won’t deny, a watering in my eyes. I want him here. I want him to know there are still visionaries. There are still people trying to turn the world upside down so that the candy we swallowed can fall out, and once again, we can breath.