Planet Earth/8a. Otzi’s World or What Sustainably Looks Like.
Death on the MountainEdit
A cold wind blew across the high mountain of Gamskarkogel in the high Austria Alps. For Helmut Simon, the wind was a jarring cold wind for October and the coming winter, as he hiked along the high alpine path in the fall of 2004— his footing stumbling along the path at his advancing age. The thin cold alpine air ran through and tossed his gray beard, invigorated his steps, as his hiking boots with new soles and his wind breaker coat with its thick layers protected him from the elements; he pressed onward up the steep mountain slope. Helmut Simon loved to take different routes on his accent up the mountain, never happy with the well-worn foot path crawled by so many tourists and weekend hikers. A casual hiker was not Helmut Simon, instead he was a stubborn climber, a mountaineer. He navigated up the jagged rocks between the steep towering pinnacles, across paths rarely traversed, but offering an incredible intoxicating view of the mountain tops, and tiny valleys and glaciers that wove down below through the deep ravines. He was an experienced climber, having ascended the mountain numerous times before, up to its cross-bearing top. Little mattered that day, because the strong wind pushed him beyond his capacity to balance himself and he slipped off the rock, losing his footing, and finding himself plunging 300 feet to his death.
Helmut Simon’s body lay at the base of the steep ravine, snow- and ice-covered contents of his possessions entombing him. A backpack, made with nylon fabric sourced from petrochemicals, equip with a metal zipper, forged from iron ore mined thousands of miles away on the other side of the Earth in Michigan, and painted with dyes bound by latex rubber from plants grown in the Amazon rainforest. Inside the pack, was a water bottle, sealed with neoprene, made by the polymerization of hydrocarbons from oil buried deep below the North Sea. A hand full of copper and zinc coins sourced from mined ores found in gigantic holes dug in America and Africa with monstrous machines. His clothes, not sewn by his own hands, but weaved from cotton grown in the hot crop fields in Mississippi, and transported to Vietnam to be spun into thread, and dyed with pigments from Pakistan to be then tread together into gigantic fabric sheets, sewn on machines and with armies of workers he had never meet. His shoes, were leather, from cattle that had lived in South America, harvested and processed in a large meat-packing plant in Buenos Aires, the leather sent to China, and cut into patterns and glued onto latex rubber and petrochemicals sourced from West Texas. His socks, worn and holey from his frequent hiking, made from cotton grown in India, a place he never visited. His backpack contained more complex items, like a cell phone, filled with microscopic parts, sourced from nearly every country in the world, assembled in a giant factory in China and transported to Austria. Its gleaming reflective black screen made of silica, sand melted to its purist form, with zinc mined from the Congo, and gold from the Canadian Rockies, and other conductive metals intricately woven together with an internal processor, that he had never really known how it worked and why. Even the food he carried with him was sourced from widely spaced places on Earth. A food bar, formed by oats and wheat grown in Russia, and grounded down in gigantic factories, and glued together from Iowa corn, processed into corn syrup, and sugar from Cuban. The wrapper, covered in aluminum, a metal that would be so rare and valuable, but people had discovered a process to make it into thin sheets from bauxite ore from Australia. It had become disposable, to be tossed aside after eating the food held inside, to just serve the temporary duty of keeping the food bar fresh. A metal flash light, containing an alkaloid battery, made in Japan, from chemicals and parts from the United States and Mexico, including potassium hydroxide mined from Utah. Nothing Helmut Simon carried with him could be found in the local environment that he lived within, near the mountain top he had died on. No item was made by himself, it was all purchased and traded for. Everything was globally sourced from every continent on the Earth, and even from beneath the ocean. Items made by thousands of workers all located across the Earth coming together to make the wondrous items Helmut Simon carried with him the day he died.
If Helmut Simon was alive, he would know the irony of his demise. Death while hiking in the Austrian mountains was familiar to him. In 1991, while hiking in the Ötztal Alps with his wife, they stumbled upon an ancient frozen body in the ice, exposed from the melting glacier that once encased the corpse. It was mummified, the red body poking out of the ice, with preserved tattooed skin, still associated with his clothes and belongings of this ancient hiker and fellow mountaineer. Radiocarbon dating revealed that the body was over 5,000 years old. A geologic instant in time, still within the modern Holocene Epoch, the age of modern humans, but from a simpler time in the past. The contents of what this Iceman carried within him, contrasts with that which Helmut Simon carried with him on the day he died. The ancient man’s belongings were scattered around the half-frozen body in disarray. They included a long bow and arrows with a quiver. The bow made of yew, a conifer tree native to the region known for its flexible, but strong wood. The ancient man had been working on the bow himself, carving it down with the tools he carried with him. The quiver was made of deer hide that he himself had killed on a hunt. Its leather tong sewn into a tight seem. The arrow shafts made from the branches of the wayfaring tree and cornelian cherry, native in valley floor below. Flint arrowheads were fixed to two of the shafts, banded in plant fibers, and held with birch tar sap from birch trees that lived near his home. The feathered fletching, glued with birch tar as well, kept his arrows straight. He carried a flint dagger, the handle made of ash wood, with a flint blade that was picked up 90 miles away, shaped by a stripped branch of a lime tree grown in the southern lowlands less than 100 miles south, and traded with for some skins. Deer antlers were carved down, to shape and sharpen his flint blade. His most prized item was his two birch bark containers, which held maple leaves and burning embers of charcoal that could be used to light a fire in the night. His backpack was made of two wooden sticks, and two broad wooden planks, that supported a deer hide sewn together to carry his belongings. Among his smaller items was a dolomite stone with a drilled hole, and woven leather strips used to carry caught birds, and birch mushrooms, used to treat scratches and injuries as a first aid kit. The most valued and complex item was his copper bladed axe, which was formed from copper ore (native copper) mined in South Tuscany, about 275 miles away. By far the farthest sourced item in all his possession. Everything he died with was local.
Only 5,000 years divide Helmut Simon and the Iceman (famously named Ötzi), yet the items they carried with them on the day they died reveals the major shift in human consumption of the modern age. Indeed, all humans, even the ancient Iceman Ötzi used natural resources from the Earth, and were dependent upon them for their survival. But the items carried with Helmut Simon were sourced from a broad global network, that involved thousands of people that the Iceman could only dream about. In contrast, the Iceman’s ancient items are all locally made from the plants, animals and rocks that could be found nearby or traded with. In our modern eyes, the ancient Iceman was living a sustainable life, with little if any impact on the Earth. The Iceman was not simple person, but showed great knowledge in understanding the world around him and the ability of surviving using those limited local items.
Sustainability is the ability of a society to maintain its current rate and level of growth. Sustainability in the age of the Iceman was likely based on the availability of food and the danger of overhunting and competition with other tribes and groups. In fact, from what we know of the Iceman’s death, he was murdered, shot with an arrow during a battle on the high mountain, over what grievous we don’t know. The life and death of the Iceman was harsh and cruel. He suffered from parasites and illness, with a much shorter life expectancy than modern humans living today. We may find his lifestyle of zero waste and living off the land, something to emulate in the modern age, but given the much larger population of individual humans living today, the required space, forests, plants and animals necessary for this primitive lifestyle exists no more, having been stripped for timber, mined and developed with road and asphalt streets and fenced under private ownership.
The story of the Earth’s transformation under an ever-growing population of humans is one that has played out in tragedy after tragedy in the short period of the last several centuries. The Earth stripped of its natural resources has become a landscape that forces humans to adapt to ever unsustainable practices. Open pit mining, oil and gas development, timber and forestry, industrial scale agriculture and the urban growth of cities have all lead to an Earth that is very different from the age of the Iceman 5,000 years ago. The modern age of humans on the Earth of today was created from the extraction of its resources for the establishment of a single species, a species that has grow to dominance on the planet, unparalleled throughout Earth’s long history.
Earth has conclusively transformed with the widespread presence of humans on its surface. There is little that separates the natural wild lands of the ancient past, and the urban industrial centers of the modern age. Earth can no longer be said to be divided into nature and non-nature, of cities and wilderness, for wilderness has become so altered and changed, disturbed by the meteoric rise of populations and the demand for resources from the Earth, and the churning waste and pollution that has metamorphosed Earth today. Ultimately the rise of humans cannot be uncoupled from the complex interaction of the Earth’s atmosphere, solid interior, oceans and water, and the multitude of other organisms that humans share the Earth with. You are destined for an Earth that is filled with impulsive fears, anxiety and insecurities that are reflect in our own depression and deprivations in the modern age, and guilt over this transformation of the Earth.
It is important to remember several factors in this transformation of the Earth by the hands of humans. First, humans are made of the Earth itself, and have evolved through the natural processes that have operated on Earth’s surface for its billions of years. You and your ancestors, and those before them, have been part of the cycle of life on Earth. Earth is our home and place in the universe. A candy wrapper in a field, is equivalent to a fallen leaf from a tree, both refuse from Earthlings, of living organisms composed of material found on Earth, and changing and altering to its current state. Earth differs from most other planets in its ever-dynamic change and transfiguration, part of this is brought about by its life forms. The rise of an oxygen rich atmosphere, transformed the way life evolved, just as the rise of a carbon rich atmosphere will further transform life into the future. Plants will flourish longer, climates will warm, even if humans die with choking breath, and mass graves are dug.
Second, Earth has no obligations to maintain its environment or habitability for humans to exist within. The Gaia and Medea theories of a balanced environment at equilibrium, or a chaotic cataclysm of death and the apocalypse, are views along a continuum. The Earth can be balanced, or knock on to its side, or somewhere between. There are unintended consequences for our actions, often actions that received little thought or foresight to those that are appointed to make these decisions.
The third important factor in the transformation of Earth’s surface by humans is that we face this change with unhappiness. It is, after all, difficult not to feel restless, hesitant, and unhappy when imagining Earth changing from the world before human alternation, into what it is today. However, this unhappiness is a result of a pervasive lack of imagination for Earth’s future. Much of this unhappiness can be set aside if we can overcome and solve the pressing issues facing the Earth, its habitability, and making it a better place to live within for ourselves and the many diverse life forms that live on our planet.
This next section of the textbook will examine humanity and its complex interactions with the Earth through its consumption of natural resources.