Kombucha: A symbiotic mix of yeast, bacteria and the naturalistic fallacy



If you grew up in the seventies, you may remember the same food fads as I do. There was the oat bran buzz that was replaced by the wheat germ movement, the family fondue set and the homemade yogurt maker. And for a while I remember my father making what I called “aquarium water” – a foul-looking jug sitting on the kitchen counter with a gelatinous white mass floating on top. Despite the assurances it was good for me, I declined the taste tests. They didn’t push it and I never volunteered to drink this “cure all”. I thought kombucha had gone the way of gelatin-based salads and entrees, until a friend told me she was drinking it. Not only is it still a home-brew darling, kombucha isn’t just for hippies: There’s probably some for sale at your local organic grocery. Yet after a bit of digging, kombucha culture still seems mired in the 1970’s. It’s still touted as a panacea, and it’s still one of the more questionable folk remedies out there.

I understand the intrinsic appeal of the folk remedy. In an era where we can buy everything we possibly need, there’s something meaningful and satisfying about making your own food from scratch. I prefer bread, particularly sourdough – but I’m not making any health claims. Like food recipes, some home remedies are handed down from generation to generation, or passed on by word-of mouth. The attractiveness is both an appeal to antiquity combined with pattern-seeking and anecdotes. We remember the “hits” of those home remedies but not the misses. And we never test causality. Is it possible that kombucha could have medicinal effects? Sure. Beer and wine didn’t come out of a medicinal chemistry laboratory either – and look how helpful those fermented products are. As a fan of beer, cheese, sauerkraut, and yogurt, I’m strongly pro-fermentation. So while we can’t make Tylenol in our bathtub, or grow our own antibiotics, how about an odd-flavoured tea-based beverage filled with the magical healing properties of yeast and bacteria? I’m told it’s all about the microbiome, so perhaps they were on to something in the 1970s. Authentic and artisanal is where it’s at today, and what could be more artisanal than home fermentation of a remedy?

As with most folk remedies there are multiple claims for kombucha’s ancestry, from the Ukraine to Asia, from “millennia ago” to a few hundred years ago. However or whenever it occurred, the recipe is similar. Kombucha is sweetened black tea fermented by a mixture of yeasts and bacteria that form what looks like a “mat” on the surface. Sometimes called a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY), the “mushroom” or simply the “mother”, this “zoogleal mat” ferments the sugar, producing alcohol, vinegar, and other by-products. To get started, you need to obtain a starter mat – you can order them online, or ask someone that already grows their own. The result of fermenting on your counter is exactly what I remember growing in our kitchen, though it actually looks more brackish than I remember.  After fermentation it’s lightly carbonated. Taste reports of kombucha vary from “refreshing apple cider” to “vomit”.

Like other folk remedies, kombucha’s efficacy is apparently legion. HIV, aging, hair growth, gout, diabetes, hemorrhoids, memory loss, PMS, cancer, hypertension, and the perennial “boosting” the immune system are no match for the healing and restorative power of kombucha.

What is that growing on and in my drink?

Several researchers have examined the bacteria and yeast in the kombucha mat. Content can vary considerably, based on the geography, climate, and local bacteria and yeasts. Bacteria include Bacterium xylinum, Bacterium gluconium, Acetobacter hetogenum, Pichia fermentons. Sometime antibiotic-producing bacteria like Penicillium species can be detected. And then there’s the toxic bacteria that has been detected, such as Bacillus anthracis – anthrax. Yeasts include Schizosaccharomyces pombe, Torulaspora delbrueckii and Zygosaccharomyces bailii.  Contamination with Aspergillus fungus has also been reported, as well as Candida. Yes, that fungus that’s poisoning us all (according to alternative medicine proponents). Various Candida species including C. albicans, C. kefyr, and C. krusei are also found in kombucha.

The final ingredients vary with the bacteria and yeast in the mat, as well as the extent to which fermentation has taken place. Analyses have identified small amounts of alcohol (usually under 0.5%), substantial acetic acid (vinegar), ethyl acetate, glucoronic acid, and lactic acid. There’s some residual sugar, depending on how long it’s been fermenting. Caffeine is still present and may be responsible for some of the energy claims. It’s claimed to contain B vitamins, though I could locate no reliable source to confirms this.


The kombucha "mother"
The kombucha “mother”


The evidence

Despite the hundreds of thousands of posts on kombucha praising its medicinal and health effects, I was unable to identify a single clinical trial for any specific use. There’s a systematic review by Edzard Ernst dating to 2003 that also failed to find any clinical trials or even case series that suggest kombucha has medically beneficial uses. So there is no evidence to demonstrate or even hint at efficacy. Based on what’s known about the active ingredients, there’s no reason to expect it would offer any medicinal effects other than the consequence of low levels of alcohol or caffeine.

The toxicity

Given this is usually a home-brew concoction, there is the significant risk of contamination. In contrast to the lack of benefit, there is good documentation of the potential for harms associated with kombucha:

  • an alcoholic developed jaundice after two weeks, which resolved after discontinuation
  • dizziness, nausea and vomiting that resolved with discontinuation and restarted with rechallenge
  • toxic hepatitis that resolved with discontinuation
  • metabolic acidosis and disseminated intravascular coagulopathy, resulting in subsequent cardiac arrest and death
  • metabolic acidosis, cardiac arrest (with recovery)
  • anthrax infections of the skin through topical application of kombucha
  • lactic acidosis and acute renal failure
  • lead poisoning secondary to making it in a ceramic pot

Given the potential for kombucha to grow potentially dangerous pathogens, it’s particularly important for those with compromised immune systems to avoid the product. Given the risks, pregnant or lactating women should avoid kombucha as well.

Kombucha sells out

Kombucha isn’t limited to the home brewer anymore, there are several commercial suppliers such as Synergy (touted by Dr. Oz, of course) and the requisite story of the breast cancer survivor who credits kombucha for her health (but not the chemo and radiation she also accepted). The claims come fast and furious: the fermented liquid heals all and cures all – digestion, immune system “boosting”, amino acids that “detoxify”. You can now find it combined with different juices and flavors, for those that don’t like the taste of the original.  The recipes are the same, and the final products are not pasteurized, a situation that caused products to be pulled in the United States until producers found ways to stop the alcohol from exceeding 0.5%.

The bottom line

The best that can be said about kombucha is that it probably won’t kill you. There are no documented health benefits, so unless you really like the taste, there’s no clear reason to consume it. As I have written before, health decisions should be based on an evaluation of the risks and benefits. In the case of kombucha, the benefits, other than the subjective, are unsubstantiated. The risks are real, but also rare. So if that bet still looks attractive, kombucha may be for you. To each his own fermentation. As for me, I’ll stick with my own favourite fermentations: IPA and wheat beer, and pass on the moonshine panacea.
Photo from flickr user parkerthompson and flickr user Jasonunbound used under a CC licence.

Posted in: Nutrition

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117 thoughts on “Kombucha: A symbiotic mix of yeast, bacteria and the naturalistic fallacy

  1. windriven says:

    “Sometimes called a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY)”

    Ruh Roh. :-)

    I have a sourdough starter that I’ve kept going for 15 or more years now. It has always been received wisdom in the bread baking community that these ferments do not contain unpleasant organisms but given this: “Various Candida species including C. albicans, C. kefyr, and C. krusei” and “bacillus anthracis” I wonder how wise this is? Of course my bread is baked in a 400F oven to an internal temperature of ~200F. Still…

    Any thoughts?

    Is kombucha fed like a bread starter? If so, what is it fed?

  2. goodnightirene says:

    Anything that replaces the “gluten free” craze is okay with me. (Not really, but anything that lessens the assault of the “gluten sensitive” will be welcome).

    1. goodluck says:

      Why does it upset you that others remove gluten from their diet?

  3. goodnightirene says:

    I also have a sourdough starter of several years and have the same question as windriven. I actually quit making bread because the last three times I got a stomach cramps shortly after eating the bread, although my husband did not. I am still feeding the starter, but have been looking for information about the safety of starter–without success.

    On another note, I have an amusing anecdote that is relatively relevant:

    I had dinner last night with a friend I’ve mentioned before whose is concerned that her son (who sees a “holistic” MD) is in a cult. The son now wants to go to medical school and has enrolled in pre-med courses including organic chemistry. My friend is very happy that her son will now be studying “the truth about organic food”(!). By this she means that organic is “better” for you because “it doesn’t have pesticides” and “it’s healthier because the soil is not “depleted”. It also took us 20 minutes to order our food while she questioned the server about gluten (turns out they have a separate gluten-free menu!) so that she could take home “safe” food for the “allergic to gluten” son. I tried to explain about “organic” chemistry, but I don’t think she got it.

    Wonder where the son gets his cultish inclinations? Even more, I wonder where I get my friends.

  4. Angora Rabbit says:

    There was a kombucha fad with some of our students awhile back, so I had one of them present on the research in our grad seminar. As I recall the data were pretty trivial. She ended up having to research the claims surrounding some of the ingredients rather than the kombucha itself. I recall being less than impressed with the literature (she did a great job).

    With the explosion in microbiome research, this is a topic worth investigating in a few years. One could speculate that might not be the metabolite components per se, so much as recolonizing the gut with a more “appropriate” microflora. Thanks to high-throughput sequencing we can actually figure out who’s in the gut and which microflora are associated with outcomes risk for conditions such as CVD, insulin resistance, obesity, IBD, etc. We’re not at the translational stage yet, but the literature is a fascinating read. So there might be a science-basis for this one – we just don’t know which aspect it is, yet.

    Having said this, looking at the photos, this stuff is disgusting. Microbiology put me off brie, and ditto for this stuff. Plus concerns about potential contaminants. I wouldn’t drink it, let alone hold it. I’ll stick with the unfiltered IPA, too.

    On the third hand, if folks are drinking this instead of sugary Coke etc, then I won’t complain. It’s not always the foods that you eat. It can also very much be the foods you displace and no longer eat.

  5. Angora Rabbit says:

    “The son now wants to go to medical school and has enrolled in pre-med courses including organic chemistry.”

    Heh. He’ll be in for a surprise when he finds out what organic chemistry really means. I like to point out that all nutrition is organic. Drives ‘em crazy.

  6. goodnightirene says:

    @Angora Rabbit

    I always point out that vomit, shit, and AIDS are “natural” (organic).

  7. goodnightirene says:

    Oh-oh, I should have said “poop”–I’m in moderation!

  8. windriven says:

    @Angora Rabbit

    “Microbiology put me off brie”

    Glad I never took microbiology! ;-)

  9. zumda says:

    Kombucha is alive and well. Carpe Diem, a subsidiary of Red Bull, is selling it (and other “functional” beverages like “Vitalising Botanic Water”) all over Europe.

  10. DugganSC says:

    So that’s what that stuff was… there was a jug of that on our counter at one point, from someone in my mother’s quilt group (or possibly her La Leche group. All of those adult females blended together for me at that age). We were told that it was “Friendship Tea”, probably as a conjunction to the “Friendship Bread” (for those unfamiliar, it’s a very sweet sort of bread with the name coming from a tradition of passing the starter colonies on to others like a chain letter, but my mother always made it from yeast bought from the store). We were barred from drinking any of it due to the possibility of alcohol, but I remember wondering about it, and letting my mother know that it was “going bad” when I saw the scum building along the top.

  11. rork says:

    Brie is placebo. Proof: folks will let you bring it indoors.
    Adult gut needs Miesbacher for optimal health.
    I am the Gesundheitsführer, and confirm the truth of this.

  12. Chris says:

    It looks like the stuff I found when I helped clean out my son’s first college apartment. Sometimes drinks, like bottles of sweetened caffeine drinks, get put on a window sill and forgotten. Yeah, there was lots of that “mother” stuff stuff, though not that size and I wasn’t going to touch it. It went into the trash since I gagged at the thought of emptying and rinsing them for the recycle bin.

  13. Alia says:

    This reminds me of Herman cake – – that my mother baked several times in the early 90s. But at least it tasted nice, rather like all other yeast-based cakes that she bakes. And it was baked. On the other hand, as a nurse, my mother would never ever drink anything like kombucha.

  14. migrainegirl says:

    I had a beer the other night made with kombucha and raspberries. Tasty stuff! Not sure I would drink straight kombucha, though.

  15. mgmcewen says:

    If you enjoy the flavor of kombucha you might also like cocktails made with shrub (a vinegar concoction), Flemish red beers, and drinking vinegars (the pok pok som ones are trendy now).

    All of the cases of adverse reactions I’ve read occurred in immunocompromised individuals, who also need to avoid a host of other foods that are perfectly enjoyable for a normal person like certain cheeses, sushi, and cured meats.

  16. Vasha says:

    I happen to be quite fond of the flavor of storebought kombucha, which is mildly sour and refreshing (tip for first-time drinkers: don’t shake the bottle, leave the dregs at the bottom). I don’t even read the health claims on the label, though!

    I imagine the issues of controlling which organisms are present and avoiding contamination are not much different for kombucha-makers than other brewers and fermenters, except that there’s a lot less body of established knowledge. It can’t be easy to do at home, going by the experience of a friend of mine who was into making mead — the results were not always drinkable.

  17. Fermented food intake is recommended for maintenance of good digestive health. Studies have shown that increased biodiversity of the intestinal microflora improves gastrointestinal function and healthy immune system. Kombucha is rich in microorganisms, some of which are unique to the kombucha culture : Gluconacetobacter kombuchae and Zygosaccharomyces kombuchaensis. Together with other acetobacter, saccharomyces and lactobacillus species they enrich the kombucha drink with beneficial microorganisms.


    an alcoholic developed jaundice after two weeks, which resolved after discontinuation

    I had to laugh. An alcoholic developing jaundice, what a surprise. Clearly the fermented drink is to blame not the half gallon of hard liquor that he plonked in that week.

  18. windriven says:


    “Brie is placebo. Proof: folks will let you bring it indoors.”

    I’m still chuckling over this :-) Gesundheitsführer, too.

  19. Angora Rabbit says:

    @rork – come to Wisconsin. We have limburger sandwiches. At restaurants.

    I will add natto to the list. One of the most disgusting Iron Chef episodes ev-ahr.

    But Belgian ale? We love Belgian ales. Since it is often unfiltered, maybe the good stuff is in there too?

  20. windriven says:

    Mmmm natto – that indescribably delicious blend of mucus and lumpy vegemite.

    1. NorrisL says:

      Windriven, are you Australian? After all, ONLY a child brought up on vegemite from shortly before birth could possibly want to eat or be capable of eating vegemite. When I was at school I would be given vegemite sangas (sandwiches) for lunch for the first half of the year and peanut butter in the second half. Ths went on for 12 years of school no wonder I no longer eat vegemite, which, upon reflection, is probably why I no longer eat vegemite. It seems to me that vegemite, being a “yeast extract” could perhaps rate as a type of kombucha.

  21. rork says:

    Leader of the Alternenheilmethodenabteilung, a.k.a. der Voomacht. “Heilkräute für alle leute.”

  22. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    Balut? The fertilized, partially-developed fetal chick-in-egg prized throughout Asia for it’s gelatinous, crunchy texture (from what I’ve heard, like chewing on an ear)?

    Bird’s nest soup? The solidified saliva of a cliff-dwelling swallow, soaked and washed to remove the feces, vomit, feathers and other excreta (also akin to chewing on an ear)?

    Luktefish? Fish soaked in alkaline brine until it degrades to a paste? Still sounds gross Chris.

    Mortified deer flesh? Herbivores strung up after death until mold grows on the hide, in order to tenderize the meat? (you cut off the mold)

    I’m just listing gross stuff, there’s no real fermentation involved. I’m just continually amused at what people will put in their mouths.

  23. elburto says:

    @WLU – I give you Casu Marzu:

    I also remember the Hermann/Friendship Cake trend from the early 80s. Like a smelly, bubbling chain letter.

    My mother had one of those home yoghurt makers, the output was disgusting. It had a delightfully 70s aesthetic, all brown and orange plastic. It was considerably less convenient to make than shop-bought yoghurt, didn’t taste as nice, and was a total waste of time and money.

    The infernal fermenting device ended up in the hall cupboard, minus the plug.

    I’m glad she didn’t encounter Kombucha. The grapefruit halves craze was bad enough.

  24. goodnightirene says:

    @Angora Rabbit

    Didn’t know you were in Wisconsin–Madison? M’waukee here, where the Belgian beer is a fairly new addition to the nasty and boring old Miller, of which Lite (gag) is the most popular version.


    Too bad you weren’t a second generation German kid whose parents and grandparents thought that beer (small quantities, of course) was good for kids. My mother would balk at times, but Grandpa always overruled her, and we got our beer in those tiny mugs that were meant as toothpick holders.


    Fermented food is all the rage now and may soon overtake probiotics or gluten free–which would be a relief. Any proof of health claims just doesn’t matter to the gullible who will be marketed to for all they are worth. I have eaten sauerkraut all my life and like it, but I suppose it will soon be labeled “aids digestion” and “supports immune system”.

    I always thought it was just what people did with all the leftover cabbage to get them through the winter months on the farm.


  25. windriven says:


    I’ve done the birds nest soup. Shark fin too. No idea what the allure is. Same with luktefisk. The Swedes have a version that is at least as disgusting. And the Koreans do a rotten fish delicacy with skate (a type of ray) – sort of like a mixture of library paste and ammonia but with more texture.

    But this: Mortified deer flesh? How is that different from well aged beef? I toured the meat locker, kitchen and wine cellar at Bern’s Steak House in Tampa once. I can attest to the fact that there is mold on the carcasses in the meat locker – all carefully hand-trimmed in the kitchen. The steaks there are awesome – a word I seldom use in any context.


    Your German is light-years better than my own. But when I’m there for a couple of weeks it sometimes surprises me how easily I slide into it. Anyway, you are hysterical! Voomacht?! I will steal that shamelessly and use it somewhere, sometime, I guarantee. Possibly with attribution but no promises ;-)

  26. Narad says:

    there are several commercial suppliers such as Synergy

    This has been going on for a while. Synergy now has two lines, the original, which requires an ID to purchase (something like 3% ABV, increasing if kept at warm temperature), and the grocery-shelf item. There’s even a start-up in the local no-carbon-footprint scene.

  27. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:


    I know about Casa Marzu, edited the wikipedia page. Comes up in every single discussion of gross foods…but balut still wins. IT’S LIKE EATING AN EAR. DONE.

    Oh, and I think my mom had the same yogurt container.


    The only difference appears to be refrigeration, it’s exactly the same thing as dry-aging, and uses the same process – a controlled, sterile breakdown of the muscles by their own enzymes. Dry aging is superior to wet aging, which is similar chemically (but no mold) but less costly – sealing it in plastic means no evaporation, which means no flavour concentration, but does save money if sold on a per-weight basis.

    Food is awesome.

  28. windriven says:


    There is an Alsatian dish called Bakenoff. It is a simple braise that was left in the community baker’s oven while off doing church. The braise often includes a pigs ear (at least in the brasseries where I’ve eaten it) and I must say it is delicious. The texture is unusual to the North American palate but it is definitely worth giving a try.

  29. windriven says:


    Casa Marzu may be the most disgusting, ahem, food that I’ve ever read of. This from the wikipedia entry:

    “Derived from Pecorino, casu marzu goes beyond typical fermentation to a stage most would consider decomposition, brought about by the digestive action of the larvae of the cheese fly Piophila casei. These larvae are deliberately introduced to the cheese, promoting an advanced level of fermentation and breaking down of the cheese’s fats. The texture of the cheese becomes very soft, with some liquid (called lagrima, from Latin for “tear”) seeping out. The larvae themselves appear as translucent white worms, about 8 millimetres (0.3 in) long.[1] When disturbed, the larvae can launch themselves for distances up to 15 centimetres (6 in). Some people clear the larvae from the cheese before consuming while others do not. The cheese, along with one of its Sardinian makers, Giovanni Gabbas, received attention on Andrew Zimmern’s Bizzare Foods. Zimmern described the taste of the cheese as “so ammoniated” that “…it scorches your tongue a bit.” The cheese is known to leave an aftertaste for a duration of up to several hours.”

    You’re effing kidding me. Right? RIGHT???

  30. muffins says:

    @ goodnightirene

    Sorry, I know this is off topic, but I feel I should address this. Your friend’s son may turn out alright. I was in a similar situation 2 and a half years ago, except I wanted to go to naturopathic school instead of medical school. I was encouraged by lots of people in my circle to do it (including my MD and my mom who’s a nurse, ugh). It was actually when I went to the AANMC information session that I decided NOT to go the route of naturopathy because they encouraged me to take my premed classes at one of their schools instead of a regular school. This (amongst other things) set off red flags because they made a big deal in their presentation about having the same requirements to apply for their schools as med schools, but when I talked to a recruiter afterwards, he told me not to do my premed at a regular school because they may have me do “extra” coursework I don’t need.

    Anyways, I when I entered premed, I figured I could still got to naturopathic school if in the end that’s what I wanted (or maybe be an “integrative” doctor). But two and a half years later, I’ve finished a very rigorous postabc with killer grades, and I’ve made a complete 180. I’ve learned so much about what real science is through my coursework and labs. More importantly, I’ve learned about what actual doctors do. Three years ago I thought I had doctors all figured out: they’re arrogant, don’t care about patients, only “treat the symptoms not the cause”. But after shadowing and helping with research–and just talking to doctors–I’ve learned about how doctors make decisions, make sure patients understand the treatments, and how they take things into consideration that I never would have thought of. I’m so happy to be (hopefully) joining the profession, and my close call with naturopathy may even push me into getting a masters in bioethics along with an MD.

    So basically, there’s hope for your friend’s son. If you’re close, guide him gently and make sure he takes his studies seriously. :)

  31. elburto says:


    I’m pretty much desensitised after seventeen years online. Used to look at in the old days, tubgirl and goatse raise no more than a “Meh”. I used them all to torment the lads at the job I had during Uni, when they made comments about “weak girls”.

    But Casu Marzu? OH HELL NO. There was a BBC programme featuring it, the victims wore industrial safety goggles to shield their eyes.

    I can take spitting oil from a stir-fry, ice-cream headache, curryfarts, etc. I’ll take them on like a brave warrior woman, but maggots in my cheese? I’d rather play with spiders. I say that as someone with such rotten Arachnophobia that our neighbours once reported my terrified screaming to the police. To be fair, it was 4am, they’d had every right to sleep without my earsplitting wails.

    @WLU – I have donned a hat so that I can doff it in your general direction. Editing that particular wiki should earn you a medal of some sort.

  32. JBean says:

    I thought that kombucha was disgusting, but apparently there are several things worse. I get a little queasy handling raw chicken. I do happily turn leftover red wine into vinegar, but the mother looks a lot like a nice healthy placenta. Urggh. I also love my sourdough culture which I started from a locally grown apple. I’m sure it expresses the true terroir of Anaheim. However after I got sucked into aerated compost tea (garden-woo, it cures all plant disease, you know), I started thinking about the rodents that probably visited my compost bin and how I was culturing mouse-poo bacteria. I threw away all the equipment and everything that had touched the stuff.

  33. RebelAlley says:

    Hey FastBuck
    “I had to laugh. An alcoholic developing jaundice, what a surprise. Clearly the fermented drink is to blame not the half gallon of hard liquor that he plonked in that week.”

    I think the key fact there is that the jaundice started with the kombucha drinking and stopped when the kombucha drinking was discontinued. Assuming he was drinking alcohol beforehand, during, and continued afterwards, then the only change was his komnbucha intake hence I think it’s fair to say there was probably a connection. Now, would the patient have developed jaundice without his drinking problem? Probably not, but if people are advocating it as a treatment for disease this is a good example of where it may have exacerbated an existing health condition.

  34. Artour says:

    Back in Russia, when I was a kid, I used to drink up to 1-2 liters of kombucha per day, especially during hot summers. It has a nice taste and is easy to make: just add sugar to cold tea and leave to ferment. It was and is very popular in many parts of Russia.

    In many places of Russia, kombucha competes with “kvas” (fermented bread crumbs) for the most popular drink that is free from alcohol.

  35. DugganSC says:

    Ah, I got mildly hooked on KBAC when I was in Russia on an exchange trip. Sadly, I hear the street corner tanks are being shut down under specious claims of sanitary concerns (the traditional vendor will either fill your bottle for you or give you a glass which they then wash and re-use) in favor of a Coca-cola version which does not taste half so great.

  36. goodnightirene says:


    Thank you for the reply. Your story is the most encouraging I’ve heard in a long time. I am not close to the friend’s son, or even the friend for that matter, as I’ve taken to distancing myself from the woo-types at the outset in order to avoid more serious confrontation later on. Yesterday, the friend went on at length about how much she enjoys watching Dr. Oz on TV, so I think it’s time to limit seeing her.

    Why am I a woo-magnet? Why? Do I look stupid? Am I too nice to people I’ve just met? This is truly starting to bug me. :-( So, thanks again for your very encouraging story–it helps. Sounds as though you will be a very fine doctor. I hope your previous mentors will not be disappointed!

  37. elburto says:


    I get a lot of attention from wooligans. I seem to have a nasty habit of being referred to woo-promoting consultants. Actual specialists, men who’ve dedicated their lives to medicine, who either try to diagnose me with a DBD* on sight because I’m a woman and I’m in my mid-thirties, or try to offer crap like acupuncture as a bloody first-line treatment.

    The last one wasn’t too happy when I rejected his on-sight diagnosis** and then laughed in his face when he offered up woo, when what I needed was methotrexate. He wasn’t used to being challenged, and claimed there was “ample evidence” for the woo. Years of reading SBM and RI have taught me well, so I asked for pubmed links to peer reviewed studies, or Cochrane Reviews. He changed the subject.

    *Dustbin Diagnosis. My white/female/36 status means I’m often tagged with one immediately, rather than as a diagnosis of exclusion.

    **Just as well, or I’d be dead right now, instead of just crippled. I literally owe my life to internet woo-busting.

  38. fishchick says:

    If this stuff can sometimes grow penicillin type fungus, would it be possible that someone with an allergy could have a reaction to it? Would it make a difference as to “homemade” or the commercially available kind? I have a severe reaction to penicillin so I am curious. (Not that I think I’ll be drinking this stuff anytime soon. )

  39. Narad says:

    I had to laugh. An alcoholic developing jaundice, what a surprise. Clearly the fermented drink is to blame not the half gallon of hard liquor that he plonked in that week.

    Are we talking about this?

  40. Narad says:

    (A “half gallon of hard liquor … in that week” looks to be nine standard drinks per day, BTW. Cipher harder, FBA.)

  41. Thor says:

    I was on a Kombucha phase (frenzy) once about 20 years ago. Made all my own. Drank glasses of it daily. I just couldn’t resist the claims being made for it. After several months, I had to stop as my gut was ballooning out as if I was pregnant. Just couldn’t handle the cocktail of micro-organisms being ingested. Many don’t do well with such fermented foods/drinks, especially those with compromised, sensitive digestive systems. Anyway, the bloating symptoms kept getting worse and worse; it took about a week to normalize after quitting. Not to single out Kombucha, the same symptoms occurred when I went on a homemade fermented ginger ale and root beer phase (again frenzy) ala’ recipes from Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon, that silly ‘bible’ cookbook of the silly Weston Price people. All these drinks can have delicious, interesting tastes, can be refreshing, have sweet effervescence. Plus, there’s something fulfilling about making homemade brews, as beer and wine makers know.
    BUT………it’s pretty much all been said. Health claims? Can’t something just plain taste good without ascribing miracle cures to it?
    Oh, as a point of interest, Kombucha grows and grows and won’t stop. It will completely cover the entire surface area of the liquid it is placed upon. For example, if placed in a bathtub full of medium (water, tea, sugar), a small piece of Kombucha will grow fairly rapidly to cover the whole surface area of the tub. Now that’s freaky!

  42. Alia says:

    Over here people have recognized curative properties of fermented foods for ages. Especially, the sauerkraut juice and water from a jar of pickled cucumbers are believed to be the best cure for hangover. Or, alternatively, sauerkraut soup, served hot. Which probably makes some sense. After all, they are liquids, so they are hydrating, they contain some salt and other minerals, and the sour taste is quite refreshing. As a kid, I liked to take cucumber water with my dinners.

  43. @RebelAlley and Narad

    A 55-year old woman with an 8-year history of heavy alcohol consumption presented with jaundice of six weeks duration. She started drinking two glasses of Kombucha tea a day 2 months earlier. At the onset of jaundice she stopped drinking the tea and reduced her alcohol intake.

    Attention to details!

    I had a look at other cases. One patient was taking thyroid hormones and injecting estrogen, and who knows what else. The one who had elevated white blood cell count likely had an allergic reaction to the bacteria byproducts in Kombucha. As with any probiotic, there is a chance the body will have an adverse immune reaction to the bacteria or the yeast ingested. She probably has the same reaction to yogurt and pickles. The issue with these patients is not the fermented food they are currently taking but the fermented food they were NOT taking while they were younger. Their immune system did not get trained to recognise which bacteria is harmless and beneficiail. I recommend reading An Epidemic of Absence: A New Way of Understanding Allergies and Autoimmune Diseases

  44. Narad says:

    Attention to details!

    Which, as noted, is something you weren’t doing in the first place, having not even bothered to look for the case, assuming that this is in fact the one that Scott Gavura was referring to. I take it for granted that everyone knows that IANAD. But the problem here is that there doesn’t seem to be enough data presented, such as a time series of LFTs or a real consumption history, to rule out the one glaring difference.

    As with any probiotic, there is a chance the body will have an adverse immune reaction to the bacteria or the yeast ingested.

    See the 1:48 mark here.

    Their immune system did not get trained to recognise which bacteria is harmless and beneficiail.

    You misspelled “beneficifail.”

  45. RebelAlley says:

    Hey FastBuck, I did say “assuming.” If the patient did stop change her drinking habits, I agree you can’t really say what played a role in the cause or discontinuation of the jaundice. I haven’t read that book, but it seems about as likely an explanation as kombucha causing that jaundice.

  46. Narad says:

    If the patient did stop change her drinking habits….

    Again on the assumption that we’re discussing the correct item, this sentence is important: “At the onset of jaundice she stopped drinking the tea and reduced her alcohol intake.” The kombucha intake is stated. The alcohol intake is not. The characterization is “an 8-year history of heavy alcohol consumption.” However, FBA seized upon the word “alcoholic.”

    OK, so what happens next? Again, we don’t know where the enzymes are now, but she’s been branded, right? “Scared straight,” that’s the idea? One is stuck with the problem here that, for this to work, the dependence couldn’t have been all that bad to start with.

    Let’s remember that FBA, in what I can only assume is his most compassionate healing-vibrator style, led this trip off with “I had to laugh.” (Read: You’re not using the magic right.) Without even attempting to figure out what was being talked about, including the sex of the person he was referring to. With, plainly, not a thought that there might might exist a thought to be spotted in the clearest blue sky about the mechanisms of acute hepatic failure. Instead, turpentine and dandelion wine.

  47. rs199208 says:

    I never tried Kombucha until I found a Kombucha ginger beer ‘American Wild Ale’. Very tasty!

    I also researched Kombucha and found no reason to drink it since I already use greek yogurt for the healthy cultures and drink many types of beer.
    I am currently waiting for my order of Kombucha beer IPA aptly called a KPA.
    Here is a review of the Unity Vibration KPA.

    The MI brewery that makes Kombucha beer.

  48. BrewandFerment says:

    Re sourdough containing live bacteria:

    I seriously doubt that it is still alive after baking if you confirm the inner temperature to be 210 F by an accurate instant thermometer. My recipe has it going into a 500 F oven, directly placed upon a baking stone that has been preheating nearly an hour or so, and then the oven is immediately reduced to 450 F and it bakes for about 30 minutes.

    I don’t buy into any of the assorted health claims about fermented food as regards sourdough–it just is my favorite tasting bread, especially with mayo, gorgonzola, romaine lettuce and sun-dried tomatoes (not the oil soaked ones, just dried). But it does seem to be rather low on the glycemic index, if that’s a concern of yours:

    WLU: I see you on balut (ugh, had to carry in my teeth during wog day…) and raise you fried silkworm. They writhe and undulate slowly until speared and dunked in hot oil, apparently they are crunchy on the outside and gooey on the inside. Wasn’t willing to get drunk enough to try it.

    Durian, meh, not spectacular enough to get past the stink again. But fish head stew is pretty tasty…

  49. Narad says:

    Looks like a form of Pruno to me.

    A more practical description.

  50. @ Mark Crislip

    Looks like a form of Pruno to me.

    I dont know where you see the similarity.
    Pruno is made of fruit , Kombucha is fermented tea.
    Kombucha is very low in alcohol (less than 1%)

  51. Narad says:

    Kombucha is very low in alcohol (less than 1%)

    Which, of course, is why the original Synergy product has to be sold in the liquor department nowadays.

  52. @Narad Some makers add more sugar and yeast to it to give it more of an alcohol kick, the traditional drink is low-alcoholic.

  53. Narad says:

    @Narad Some makers add more sugar and yeast to it to give it more of an alcohol kick, the traditional drink is low-alcoholic.

    You’re talking out of your posterior to salvage a meaningless, contrarian position. It’s trivial to get the stuff to 3% ABV. Do you think the “traditional drink” was pasteurized and recarbonated? No, I didn’t think so. So it’s all in the home fermentation. It’s tea-based small beer. Get over it.

  54. ozob says:

    Narad, you don’t need to be such a jerk. Sheesh.

    Kombucha can be anything that the fermented wants and/or is able to make it: a sugary soft drink; an alcoholic country wine, cyser or mead; or a vinegar, or any mix of the above. It all depends on how you ferment it: temperature, time, with or without a starter, the amount of aerobic vs anaerobic fermentation.

    Yes, the trend to market kombucha as a health-tonic is kinda funny. At best, it is like a live vinegar. At worst, it is like any other tranditionally-fermented soft drink. The availability of refined sugars accounts for much of the boost in alcohol content. With enough sugar, you can turn it into something rivaling a strong wine in alcoholic content, if you are so-inclined, or the equivalent wine vinegar.

    You can make it with wintergreen leaves and it will taste like root beer and obtain many of the plant’s medicinal qualities.

    You can make it as a ginger beer, also levering the medicinal qualities of that flavoring.

    It is as dangerous or safe as any other food. I don’t see how it is inherently MORE dangerous than any other food. As a soft drink, it’s probably generally leaps and bounds healthier than anything Coke or Pepsi throws at us (but is that really saying much?).

    People who drink gallons of it each week need to check themselves, they are being stupid. Our bodies take foods best in moderation. Only recently in human history (past 10,000 years or so) have we started to depend on this ridiculous thing we call agriculture and staple diets and “silver bullet” cure-alls.

    The rest, like so much else in this society, is just fanatics, marketing and the resultant skeptical backlash.

  55. @ozob Amen to that. I find it really funny that people who routinely chug gallons of soda, disgusting slop which quite literally kills you, or even worse, mix coke with vodka or gin to create a “cocktail” that any healthy animal would vomit immediately.

    But a fermented tea? eeew, that looks gross! there could be some fungus in it, or even worse, some dihydrogen monoxide, science-based smartarses dont touch this stuff, they think it will make their skin turn yellow :)

  56. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:


    Try looking up FastBuckArtist’s comments on other threads going back to January, then see if Narad is over-reacting, or annoyed at FBA’s persistent promotion of CAM and knee-jerk criticisms of mainstream medicine.

    Does wintergreen have any medicinal qualities? In addition, if kombucha is being treated like medicine, is that valid since it’s actually food?

    Food is food, at best it’s only “medicine” over the long-term, in rare cases. A healthy diet isn’t medicine, it’s just good for you.

  57. ozob says:


    thanks for the context. if you are asking this forum to be free of trolls and trolling behavior, then i must ask you in turn: why should this forum be so special? Huh???

    In answer to your questions: Yes, methyl salicylate is converted by the body into an NSAID. From wikipedia:
    30 ml (about 1 fl oz) of oil of wintergreen is equivalent to 55.7 g of aspirin, or about 171 adult aspirin tablets (US). This conversion illustrates the potency and potential toxicity of oil of wintergreen even in small quantities.

    I chew a couple of leaves if I’m dealing w/an inflammatory response, instead of taking ibuprofen. It works, and its more gentle on the stomach (probably because of its “delivery vehicle” is a leaf w/other complex properties vs a pill — the straight oil even in a similarly diluted dose i bet is not so gentle). It’s also a great astringent.

    The line between food, medicine and poison is more blurry than you propose. For example, the therapeutic dose of digitalis (foxglove) for treatment of heart conditions is ~70% of the toxic (deadly) dose. Likewise, the body safely metabolizes minute quantities of mercury. And I’m sure you’ve heard of water toxicity :)

    So, “food is [not simply] food.” Our current ignorance of food and our unsophisticated relationship with the rest of the natural world is representative of thousands of years of deskilling and divorce from our landbase, which natives of the Pacific Northwest called the Earth’s Blanket.

  58. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    Does anyone eat foxglove salad? How many leaves does one need to chew to consume 1 fl oz of oil of wintergreen? We had all these herbs and foods before, yet the life expectancy of people climbed dramatically once real medicine was invented. While herbs might have physiological effects, particularly in large quantities, I’d rather have a medicine that is precisely dosed with known toxicities and interactions. Plus, their ability to treat acute, serious illness is extremely limited (I would be tempted to say “null” were it not that I’m not an expert). However, of all the CAM approaches, herbalism has the greatest potential to actually do something (though again something I’d rather see in a standard dose with known pharmacokinetics).

    The natives in the Pacific Northwest were also prolific slavers; Prairie Indians set the entire plains afire and the smoke could be seen from Europe; native “healers” of South America would cut open the skin of their sick, break their ribs and pour in water, shaking the body to remove the ills. I’m always reluctant to embrace the “wisdom of tribes” since they never really knew anything we don’t (or can’t learn, much more quickly and thoroughly). Calling our profound understanding of how the natural world interacts through the lithosphere, hydrosphere, food web, evolution, weather and passage around the sun “unsophisticated” seems, for lack of another word, wrong. Easter Island was the product of ecological collapse, due to truly unsophisticated natives, the same with the collapse of the great Mayan civilization. Ancient Mesopotamians had to switch primary grains because of the salination of their fields. In fact, the history of Natives in North and South America is little more than a continuous series of exhaustions of the carrying capacity of the areas they lived in, followed by war, migration and starvation.

    I would also question the statement that we’re currently ignorant of food. We know what vitamins are, amino acids, we know why you need to eat beans in combination with corn, the difference between macro and micro nutrients, the difference between different sorts of fats, and far, far more. We’re currently attempting to address the effects of excesses of nutrients, versus the deficits and starvation from years past – all the while life expectancy continues to climb.

  59. ozob says:

    Wow. While we’re talking about “knee-jerk criticisms…”

    “We had all these herbs and foods before, yet the life expectancy of people climbed dramatically once real medicine was invented.”

    False. It’s a fallacy to claim that civilized people are “healthier.” Almost all “real medicine” is based on traditional medicines. Why do you think there is a mad rush to patent nature down to individual genotypes and phenotypes? Disease rates skyrocket in civilization, but we’ve found ways to put ourselves on life support. The main difference in average lifespan isn’t medicine, it’s that we no longer live a rough-and-tumble life. Read Jason Godesky’s Thirty Theses if you want to learn about a subject of which you obviously know very little. It’s a good read.

    “I’d rather have a medicine that is precisely dosed with known toxicities and interactions.” Our knowledge here hasn’t evolved much. Even if you are popping precision-manufactured pills, as soon as you pop them, you are taking the experiment out of the lab into the real world, introducing infinite variables that we can never account for.

    “The natives in the Pacific Northwest were also prolific slavers” Yeah, so are civilized humans — much more so in the balance. Using your own logic to reject other cultures, you just nullified all of your argument. Congratulations!

    “Prairie Indians set the entire plains afire and the smoke could be seen from Europe;” Yes, it’s a good reason we don’t have to worry about the danger of raging fires, now that we have mastered the art of fire suppression. (of course I’m joking, it’s common scientific knowledge that our accidental fires burn hotter and larger because of our fire suppression; as well as common scientific knowledge that many ecosystems depend on fires for renewal. For example, many species of berries are prolific after fires).

    “Calling our profound understanding of how the natural world interacts through the lithosphere, hydrosphere, food web, evolution, weather and passage around the sun “unsophisticated” seems, for lack of another word, wrong.”

    I don’t question the knowledge. Yet, here we are, in a civilization that is, like every other civilization throughout human history (and without exception), on the verge of collapse hoist by its own petard. The reason: pure naivete. We can ramble off equations and molecular structures but we can’t, for the life of us, figure out how to live within a solar budget. I would call that “rather unsophisticated.”

    “Easter Island was the product of ecological collapse, due to truly unsophisticated natives, the same with the collapse of the great Mayan civilization. Ancient Mesopotamians had to switch primary grains because of the salination of their fields.”

    I don’t get what you are trying to accomplish here. What you are actually accomplishing is proving my point: civilization leads to collapse. Inevitably. Ours is no different. Global warming, deforestation, overfishing, rampant loss of topsoil, hyperdependence on waning fossil fuels…do you honestly think we are an exceptional case? but I have to call this out for complete ignorance:

    “In fact, the history of Natives in North and South America is little more than a continuous series of exhaustions of the carrying capacity of the areas they lived in, followed by war, migration and starvation.”

    Wow. The ignorance of this statement is breathtaking. Agriculture-based societies create civilizations that expand, exhaust their carrying capacity, go to war for more resources, and collapse. It doesn’t matter what the color of skin of the people is. Societies that are not based in agriculture do not do this (with a few exceptions). Here’s a quick, accessible primer for you (presented by a former molecular biologist!):

    Even ignoring the permacultural evangelism, the historical presentation is informative.

    You know, thanks for the reminder that dogma comes in many forms…

  60. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    False. It’s a fallacy to claim that civilized people are “healthier.”

    Well, except for the fact that we don’t die of smallpox, get paralyzed by polio, or have our babies poo out all of their electrolytes due to preventable diarrhea. Or, if they do have diarrhea, they don’t die because we know to rehydrate them with high electrolyte solutions. We don’t die of blood clots, death due to bacterial infection is much lower (though climbing now, thank you very much evolution), deaths due to malnutrition are essentially zero in first world countries, and dropping in third world countries (and would be dropping faster if GMO crops weren’t so irrationally opposed). People with cancer die much less frequently, and in some cases, survivors of pediatric cancers will develop secondary cancers because of their treatments – which is horrible, bar the fact that they got at least an extra 20 years of life in there, which is great. Obesity and type II diabetes are certainly on the rise, but these are primarily disease of excess – living long enough to get so obese it is a problem. People would live even longer if they followed the mainstream recommendations of lots of fruits and vegetables, minimal processed foods, and exercise. It’s a pity they don’t.

    Almost all “real medicine” is based on traditional medicines. Why do you think there is a mad rush to patent nature down to individual genotypes and phenotypes?

    Monoclonal antibodies are traditional medicines? From my minimal understanding, the patenting of geno and phenotypes is more of an “in case” issue than because they’re spectacularly useful (and a stupid thing in my mind, I wish the courts wouldn’t allow it).

    Certain plants have effects on the human bodies, and by purifying the active molecules, we can make them more effective (though increasing side effects too). In many cases, chemical tweaks can make them better too – fewer adverse effects, improved absorbability, longer half life, etc. But nature doesn’t exist to serve our needs – mint doesn’t care if we live or die, and menthol evolved to keep animals (are insects animals?) from eating the leaves. We’re just lucky that in small doses it can have positive effects (and in large doses, like any drug, it has adverse effects).

    Disease rates skyrocket in civilization, but we’ve found ways to put ourselves on life support. The main difference in average lifespan isn’t medicine, it’s that we no longer live a rough-and-tumble life.

    Some disease have skyrocketted, in particular cardiovascular disease and cancer – mostly because we live long enough to develop them. Cancer is a disease of old age, and we’re no longer dying of other things. Certainly diseases caused by infectious organisms are at a near-all-time low.

    Read Jason Godesky’s Thirty Theses if you want to learn about a subject of which you obviously know very little. It’s a good read.

    Can you cite a specific section? It looks quite long, and it also looks like a lot of philosophy. I prefer empirical research.

    Oh, and thanks for the condescension, it really drives your point home.

    Our knowledge here hasn’t evolved much. Even if you are popping precision-manufactured pills, as soon as you pop them, you are taking the experiment out of the lab into the real world, introducing infinite variables that we can never account for.

    If we’re recommending reading topics, you should look into how they actually test drugs. Certainly the variables are not infinite, and with the advent of individual genotyping, we’re probably within the generation that will be much better able to identify who will have idiosyncratic reactions to medications on the basis of a blood test. We know what the common side effects of drugs are. Even the uncommon ones for many drugs. Unfortunately the rarer adverse effects are polluted with lots of extremely rare events, many of which we can’t be certain are due to the drug or something else.

    I’m curious why you apply this to rationale to a pill, which has precisely-tuned doses of single molecules, but not to plants, which have uncertain doses of a large number of uncertain molecules, depending on specific genetics, growing conditions, plant stresses, predation and more.

    Yeah, so are civilized humans — much more so in the balance. Using your own logic to reject other cultures, you just nullified all of your argument. Congratulations!

    Actually, my real point was that you can’t say “X culture is good”. Each behaviour has its own good and bad points. And slavery is far less common in modern times than in centuries past, huzzah! I’m not sure where you get the idea that it’s more common now, unless it’s one of those post-modern forms of slavery (“we’re all slaves to the system, man!”) that’s not really slavery.

    Yes, it’s a good reason we don’t have to worry about the danger of raging fires, now that we have mastered the art of fire suppression. (of course I’m joking, it’s common scientific knowledge that our accidental fires burn hotter and larger because of our fire suppression; as well as common scientific knowledge that many ecosystems depend on fires for renewal. For example, many species of berries are prolific after fires)

    Yep, certainly we have learned this, scientifically. Many species only produce viable seeds after fires. Of course, Native groups did it for reasons of hunting or slash-and-burn agriculture, not because they understood the ecosystem. Because modern knowledge is empirical and adaptive, efforts are now made to selectively allow controlled burns whenever possible. It’s not possible to have absolute control, but the Lamarckian nature of modern knowledge means we’ll keep incrementally improving.

    I don’t question the knowledge. Yet, here we are, in a civilization that is, like every other civilization throughout human history (and without exception), on the verge of collapse hoist by its own petard. The reason: pure naivete. We can ramble off equations and molecular structures but we can’t, for the life of us, figure out how to live within a solar budget. I would call that “rather unsophisticated.”

    On what basis is civilization on the verge of collapse? We are approaching peak oil, and recognize it. As oil gets more expensive, efforts will shift to apply empirical knowledge to find non-oil sources of energy. Efficiency gains and conservation measures are recognized and encouraged. Efforts are made to reduce dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico. Fishing is restricted in areas of stock collapse. Your scenario assumes that trends will continue indefinitely, which ignores several key factors – the use of empirical research, the reactivity of humans, the interconnectedness of the world and the declining birth rates of countries as they become more educated. The sad truth is, it will probably take large-scale starvation to force the adoption of GMO crops on a world-wide scale, which will be a tremendous boon to the world.

    Every other civilization that existed previously is not like ours. Ours is the first to apply empirical research on a grand scale. To call this a game-changer is an understatement.

    I don’t get what you are trying to accomplish here. What you are actually accomplishing is proving my point: civilization leads to collapse. Inevitably. Ours is no different. Global warming, deforestation, overfishing, rampant loss of topsoil, hyperdependence on waning fossil fuels…do you honestly think we are an exceptional case? but I have to call this out for complete ignorance:

    Civilization may lead to collapse. It doesn’t have to. And in our case, the first civilization to adopt empirical research on a widespread scale, the first civilization to allow reality rather than philosophy to determine success, really is truly different. Deforestation is being recognized and addressed, tree planting occurs on a large scale. Global warming is a major issue being debated regularly (a couple more massive hurricane seasons and public opinion may sway dramatically). I’ve addressed fossil fuels above. I honestly do think we are an exceptional case, because we investigate to determine why these things are happening, and then how to fix it.

    Wow. The ignorance of this statement is breathtaking. Agriculture-based societies create civilizations that expand, exhaust their carrying capacity, go to war for more resources, and collapse. It doesn’t matter what the color of skin of the people is. Societies that are not based in agriculture do not do this (with a few exceptions). Here’s a quick, accessible primer for you (presented by a former molecular biologist!):

    It’s not just agriculture-based societies that do this, hunter-gatherer societies do this as well (read Brian Fagan’s The First North Americans, which is a long list of civilizations that move through this “arrival, expansion, starvation, relocation” cycle). In fact, most hunter-gatherer societies are forced to switch to agriculture because of expanding populations (or there’s always infanticide). Fortunately our modern practice of education, preventive medical care and nutritional awareness has a direct and dramatic impact on the size of populations, and by the end of the century populations will probably be much lower. And yes, the colour of the skin doesn’t matter – but empirical research does. And empirical research works no matter the colour of anyone’s skin.

    You know, thanks for the reminder that dogma comes in many forms…

    You’re welcome!

    1. ozob says:

      This is getting way off topic, but a quick response than I’m done:

      Why are we close to collapse? Loss of the world’s topsoil. Running out of phosphate (an essential agriculture nutrient). Global warming. Acidification of the world’s oceans. Collapse of the world’s fisheries. Anthropogenic mass extinction and resultant loss of global biodiversity. Rampant overpopulation w/continuing population growth and/or overconsumption. And plenty more…but that’s just off the top of my head. None of those things are controversial, either. There is plenty of consensus that they are happening (the controversy seems to be about assigning blame, e.g., for overfishing or algae blooms due to agricultural runoff).
      the entire thing is worth watching, but i’ll quote particularly at 6:15
      “in fact psychologists have almost no evidence that data changes people’s decision-making. we tend to exhibit confirmation bias, embracing facts that reinforce our worldview, and disregarding the facts that don’t. it’s how we make sense of our world.”

      Which means the rest of this will be incredibly difficult for you to digest, if you do at all…because, you know, you’re as statistically likely to embrace confirmation bias as the rest of us ;)

      This civilization is *no different* in its “scientific” or “empircal basis” than any other civilization that has collapsed previously. The Roman, Arab and Mayan empires all had extremely advanced scientific communities and projects. Read Joseph Tainter’s “Collapse of complex societies.” It is a great complement to Diamond’s newer “Collapse” book. Speaking of Diamond: Agriculture (the basis for civilization) is the worst mistake in human history…

      You might appreciate Tainter’s approach more, but that’s just a hunch. Both are evidence-based. If you want someone to (lovingly) hit you over the head with the brutal truth, then Derrick Jensen’s Endgame is a thorough critique of how ultimately fucked up civilization is. That isn’t to say uncivilized societies are NOT, or can’t be, fucked up. They can be, in various ways. But if they are messed up, it tends to be localized :)

      Likewise, uncivilized societies can have INCREDIBLY sophisticated medicine systems, down to precise dosage, drug interactions, etc. Stating otherwise simply indicates your lack of anthropological knowledge. Please do your research, first. I can give you recommendations if you are genuinely interested in learning more about this topic. Likewise, many civilizations (including this one, as you know) have their own enduring forms of medical quackery, such as that which produces “red skin syndrome.” The difference is, one form of society destroys its environment, and the other does not. In a matter of a few decades, the ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest of the USA have been completely decimated. Now we are literally eating fossil fuels to survive… Wouldn’t you rather live in a sophisticated society that also kept its air breathable, its water drinkable and its ecosystem intact? I would…

      Patriarchy is perhaps one of the primary entrant factors into agricultural production and civilization. When women lose control over their bodies and lives, then populations go from stable/steady-state (sustainable) to steady growth. The resulting population density creates the need for agriculture, which creates the need for more labor and land, etc etc. You know the rest of the story…there is no (and never was a) civilization that is (or was) not patriarchal. They go hand-in-hand.

      And, yes, slavery is rampant today. The historical record is replete, for example, with first-hand accounts of attempts to escape civilization during the colonization of the united states, both from the point of the defectors and of the enforcers, for example, in prisoner trades (where the white people uniformly did NOT want to go back). Jensen covers this topic thoroughly in his book. This society has destroyed almost every opportunity to defect as its “final solution” to that problem (since holding people at gunpoint didn’t seem to be so effective). If that isn’t grounded enough for you (read Jensen’s book, or if you ask nice I might type up some quotes), then consider this: In direct contradiction to your COMPLETELY BASELESS statement about slavery, it is more rampant today than it has been at any other point in human history. Kevin Bales gives a fairly conservative estimate of 27 million. Google something like “slavery today” or “how may slaves are there today” and you’ll get some more specifics. Trafficking is rampant in the US, too — child/women for sex, and men/women (and sometimes even children) for labor.

      So please don’t throw baseless assertions around like that. You’re supposed to be non-dogmatic and evidence-based! Huzzah! ;)

      Lastly, uncivilized US natives had an incredibly sophisticated ecological, biological and horticultural understanding of their environments that extended into a long-resident working relationship lasting thousands of years. You say that they burned prairies as if they didn’t know what they were doing. What civilized society can make that claim w/o lying? Yes, there were also civilized natives, and they exhibited the same characteristics of every other civilization. Growth, imperialism, collapse.

      No single culture is good. Place-based cultural diversity is good. Civilization destroys place-based cultural diversity, and when/where it is bad, it’s REALLY bad, really widespread and egregious. Civilization also destroys itself (but it also destroys entire ecosystems in the process). Let’s keep the sophistication w/o civilization. We don’t need agriculture to be evidence-based. In fact, there’s some circumstantial evidence that indicates we have greater opportunity to be evidence-based outside of civilization.

      So we’re not talking about white vs brown. We’re not talking about scientific openness vs dogma. We’re not talking about medical effectiveness vs quackery. We’re not talking rich vs poor (but the definition of wealth). We’re not talking about US vs (somewhere else). We’re talking about agricultural patriarchy (excuse the redundancy) vs horticulture/hunting/gathering.

      I support “science-based medicine” if you define science broadly by its general process and principles. But you know what? Tons of uncivilized people do. I would *suspect* that most of your opposition actually comes from within civilization.

      And back on topic: I stand by my assertion that the lines between food, medicine and poison are blurry. Water is food, but it can be poisonous. Some food is also medicine when given in higher doses or concentrations or simply outside of a normal food context (such as garlic). Anything that is medicine and food can also be poison at a certain point. I honestly don’t know what reason you have for disputing that. The concept of nutritional synergies and dosage are well-established in our knowledge base.

      1. weing says:

        “Likewise, uncivilized societies can have INCREDIBLY sophisticated medicine systems, down to precise dosage, drug interactions, etc.”

        Yeah. I’m uneducated about this. You have references for this claim?
        BTW, why so anti-patriarchal and farming? How many people do you want to starve so you can exist as a hunter-gatherer until the next ice age?

  61. Dave S says:

    I think infant and childhood mortality have been vastly helped by civilization and modern medicine as has obstetrical mortality. Improved sewage systems and vaccinations have been a real boon to humanity. Certainly the average expected lifespan is better nowadays although I think you can argue about the maximal possible lifespan. Personally I really like some aspects of civilization especially toilet paper and flush toilets, indoor plumbing, libraries, books and music, and the fact I’m not crawling with lice. I suspect there was a lot of coughing and pulmonary disease in the lodges in winter from heating with a fire on an open hearth and I know from my experiences in the outdoors (which are pretty extensive – I live in rural Montana and am an avid rock climber, hiker, fly fisherman, kayaker, backpacker and cross country skier, and incidentally do heat my own place largely with a wood stove, which really beats an open hearth, and I’ve eaten my share of elk, deer, grouse, ducks and pheasant) that it’s really nice to sleep behind screens which keep out mosquitoes rather than in the smoke of a smudge fire. Read the journals of Lewis and Clark for more about this. WUL, being Canadian, probably has his own stories about black flies. I think it’s also true to say it’s easier in a civilized society to get fat, diabetic, out of shape and hypertensive and it’s certainly easier to get overpopulated but harder to starve or freeze to death. Mixed blessing but I wouldn’t idealize primitive living too much.

    It’s true a lot of modern medicines are derived from plants, including digoxin but that’s not a great example. It was shortly before I enetered medical school that digoxin could be prescribed as dig leaf and the dose was increased until nausea occurred, then reduced a bit. Digoxin is not used very much nowadays because it’s too toxic and not that effective. The heart rate of atrial fibrillation is now controlled mostly with calcium channel blockers and beta blockers. Dig used to be used a lot for heart failure but studies have failed to show that it prolongs life in this condition and ace inhibitors and beta blockers are now more the standard of care. Bottom line, yes, a lot of meds come from plants, it is also true that plants can be very toxic, especially some mushrooms, but it’s also good we have modern pharmaceuticals.

  62. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    I seriously doubt there’s ever been any selection pressure for longevity, certainly there’s not a lot for healthy longevity, which is why we have so many diseases of old age (like cancer). The difference is that now we’re living long enough to get them, and long enough to reach our immutable life limits (Hayflick perhaps?) rather than dying because of spear through the belly, septic wounds, botflies burrowing into our brains and other parasitic or infectious means.

    I live in the wrong part of Canada for black flies, thankfully.

    Have you seen this?

  63. Dave S says:

    Thanks for the link. Being surrounded by many thousands of acres of beetle killed trees, hundreds or thousands of acres of which go up in smoke each year from wildfires, makes me less anxious about the environmental impact of people burning a few in the winter for heat, especially when the homes are spread far apart, and getting rid of any dead trees near human habitation is a fire protection strategy. The trees are going to burn sometime anyway. Wood or pellet stoves have replaced fireplaces out here. Open fireplaces are a heat sink.

  64. daedalus2u says:

    This is interesting. It sounds like kombucha is a pre-scientific form of vaccination. A crude, broad-spectrum vaccine against unknown agents taken by mouth in large uncontrolled doses rather than by injection in carefully calibrated doses. A disease that pre-scientific people needed to worry about was bubonic plague, Yersinia pestis. It had such high mortality that it was not endemic, but there were episodic plagues that would sweep into an area and kill everyone who was susceptible. Having a pot of fermenting stuff that would get inoculated and grow up what ever was in the air, could give people who regularly drank it some immunity.
    Oral attenuated Yersinia strains do seem to work as a vaccinating agent. Yersinia pestis is reported to have significant genomic instability. Growing Yersinia pestis in a rich and complex media at non-body temperature at pH, osmotic strength, O2 tension, macro and micronutrient media very different than living human blood, might encourage and select for strains evolved to grow on that media and de-select for strains capable of being infectious.

    1. A crude, broad-spectrum vaccine against unknown agents taken by mouth in large uncontrolled doses rather than by injection in carefully calibrated doses

      Yes it is. “Unknown agents” are not necessarily pathogenic and contain beneficial bacteria that can colonise the gut, aid digestion and inhibit growth of harmful organisms. So its more than a crude substitute for injected vaccines.

  65. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:


    I think you should ask “are we close to collapse”. Both the ecosystem and humanity is reactive, in ways that didn’t exist in the past. In fact, for most of the issues you raise, it is science that identifies the problem in a meaningful way and provides solutions (often in the form of legislation). While the issues you raise are important, they are not an inevitable trend and the very fact that you are aware of them is an indication of the social power and prominence of science.

    Romans were excellent engineers, but were far too practical to be interested in abstract reasoning. The Arabs were transitorily good scientists, particularly in chemistry and math, but eventually involuted and turned back to religion. The Mayans may have had an interesting calendar, but were not, by any stretch of the imagination, scientists. Did any of these civilizations realize the atomic nature of matter? The elemental nature of atoms? The distortions in time due to changes in space? The existence of invisible cells that cause disease? The fact that there was a continent on the other side of the ocean? The existence of an atmosphere? All existed for centuries, and in that entire time they produced no advances even remotely comparable to the advances of a truly empirical culture – because their frameworks were not empirical.

    As someone who exists and can eat because of agriculture, I rather disagree that it’s a mistake. Saying we don’t need agriculture to be evidence-based is rather like saying you don’t mind starving. I do. I want the agriculture that feeds me to be sustainable, low-impact and intensive in order to allow more land to revert to wilderness, or have some other form of use. That requires empirical research and civilization – money, reading, communications, infrastructure and the like. I love it, and I love the way it changes over time – in modern times to become more empirical and in many ways much better. I love civilization for denouncing slavery, for having a social safety net, for supporting science and medicine, for demanding equal rights for men and women, for condemning cruelty to animals, for being so interconnected that war becomes difficult and disparaged, for providing me with entertainment, for learning about the past, for making it easy for me to get to and from my house, for making my house so comfortable, for making me able to get ingredients and recipes from all over the world, for criticizing patriarchy and now for criticizing feminism.

    If uncivilized societies are so incredibly medically sophisticated, it’s amazing they die in droves when exposed to novel diseases. It’s amazing they don’t understand the need to boil water. It’s amazing their skeletons show signs of malnutrition, the world over. Uncivilized societies repeatedly, in the Pacific Northwest, expanded beyond the carrying capacity of their lands and were forced to relocate, start wars, or simply starved. Meanwhile, the population growth of the planet is slowing and looks to peak at 2050, at which point it will begin to decline, without massive starvation. It is when sophisticated medicine and scientific knowledge arrives that cultures go from high birth/high death to low birth/low death rates, usually within a generation or two.

    27 million out of 6 billion is 0.45%, rather less than the 10% estimated in, say, the Pacific Northwest Aboriginal tribes of centuries past. You can’t throw out absolute numbers and have them be meaningful. The slavery that exists in North America is also hidden, because it is illegal. Yes it exists, and it’s seen as contemptible, versus the socially sanctioned forms that existed in years past.

    You can keep your hunter-gatherer lifestyle and your tribes, I’ll take modern civilization any day. It’s what gave you the education and equipment to decry it’s failings on the internet.

    1. ozob says:

      I disagree with nothing about your last statement regarding slavery. The estimate is actually as high as 25% of some populations, by the way, not 10% :) But again, both sustainable and unsustainable societies both practiced slavery, for widely different reasons. Ancient Greece and Rome had incredibly high slave rates, as well. Civilization tends more toward chattel slavery due to the relatively high investment in calories input per calories output (Diamond and Tainter both cover this point). Most of the US economy depends on some form of slavery, pauperization (which translates to urbanization) and/or (less and less) serfdom.

      “If uncivilized societies are so incredibly medically sophisticated, it’s amazing they die in droves when exposed to novel diseases.”

      Civilizations eventually select for strong immune systems by virtue of population densities and animal domestication:
      “In a systematic review of 1,415 pathogens known to infect humans, 61% were zoonotic.”

      “It’s amazing their skeletons show signs of malnutrition, the world over.” This statement is accurate if applied to agricultural societies, in general. Read Diamond or Godesky.

      You are fetishizing “our” accomplishments as if they were our own. For example, the European Renaissance was made possible by the Arab Empire:
      etc etc

      It’s as naive as saying that Thomas Edison invented the light bulb.

      The rest of your post, likewise, is so full of lies, myths, half-truths and other ignorance that it seems to me you are more interested in holding onto your unfounded belief in the inherent superiority of agriculture-based societies than you are in honestly understanding the pros and cons to each form of human existence with more than a cynical, dismissive sneer about “hunting and gathering.” You are a testament to the very things you say you despise. If you truly cared about “science-based medicine” you would be seeking to understand the wisdoms of other cultures and what they have to teach us, instead of dismissing them wholesale as somehow inherently inferior. Diamond covers this in “Guns, Germs and Steel.” You are an interesting conundrum!

      Weing: Read “limits to growth: the 30 year update” and “overshoot: the ecological basis for revolutionary change” if you want to explore some answers to your questions.

      Keep working for more ecological solutions to the food/wildlands problem (permaculture and related frameworks are probably essential there), population reduction and the end of slavery. Awesome, we’re in agreement about those.

      1. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

        Yeah, our current, highly-interconnected world-spanning civilization is by far the most advanced the world has ever seen. Slavery isn’t that common, particularly in the most advanced countries. It’s rather reviled in fact. America, which rather reviles slavery, also has a significant social safety net and further – isn’t the center of the world. Slavery has been replaced, for the most part, by mechanization, brought to you by empirical research, yet another way civilization makes things better.

        Yeah, somehow we managed to take the Arab transmission and development of Greek ideas and leap ahead of this by orders of magnitude. Comparing Arabic learning and knowledge when that civilization was at its height, and before it involuted towards scriptural dogma, with our current civilization, is simply incorrect. A word I chose because it’s politer than my instinctive choice. The point is, the world civilization that is currently dominant, is not one based on regional cultures – it’s based on empirical research that can be replicated anywhere so long as you are willing to embrace the idea that the data drives the knowledge. That is what is responsible for the dramatic successes and development of modern civilization. It’s historical accident that the idea for empirical research happened to come out of Europe, it’s kind of amazing it didn’t come out of China which has a far longer and richer history of civilization, empire and learning (and racism, war, decadence and navel-gazing self-involvement). But now, Chinese scientists debate with Korean scientists and issue joint publications with African scientists working in American universities on projects being conducted in Switzerland. The method transcends culture and unites us in ways no other ways of learning ever have.

        I think there are certain good things about hunters and gatherers, but their cultural and in particular food practices are inefficient uses of space. They were profoundly ignorant, warlike and culturally narcissistic. They knew nothing beyond their borders, nothing of the microscopic world, nothing of the worlds beyond the Earth. They may have societies that functioned within their own narrow biome, but that functioning was extremely rigid, ignorant and could not develop beyond that point. I may respect their vivid oral traditions and abilities to live independently within their natural environment. I have naught but contempt for their grasp of the truths of the world. Pretending they had some sort of ineffable wisdom we lack is patronizing. I can respect their right and desire to live according to their current lifestyles, I’m not going to pretend they somehow have access to more wisdom, learning, ethics or laws than any modern society. You’re welcome to live among them, I’ll take a middle class existence in any country on the planet. Heck, I’d even take low-income in a first-world country, where I’ll be guaranteed a life longer than theirs, a world of entertainment, the ability to travel distances they can’t even conceive of, foods they don’t have words for, and thanks to my library, the thinking of the most brilliant minds 6 billion people can produce. Certainly, I’m never going to believe they have anything to tell me about medicine. Even me, with an undergraduate education and some popular reading on the subject, know far more about medicine, diseases and sanitation than they do.

        And incidentally, your fetishizing hunter-gatherer societies, in addition to being hopelessly unrealistic and inaccurate, often results in efforts to fix them in time and culture. They deserve the right to change and adapt, they shouldn’t be incentivized to avoid change. Perhaps they would like knowing the truth about humanity’s common roots, the 4.5 billion year history of the Earth, the 15 billion year history of the universe, the vast, unimaginable void that surrounds our not-so-fragile planet, the dance of continents, the dance of molecules, the arts, cuisine, fashions and thinking developed the world over, the flavour of Coke, the comfort of sneakers, the rhythms of pop music, conversations with people who think completely unlike them. All cultures have had to change, the idea that there is some sort of natural state that a group should be locked into merely because of their genetic and cultural descent, strikes me as racist and wrong.

        I’ve read Guns, Germs and Steel, I’ve read 1492, I’ve read histories and archeology of extinct civilizations throughout time and space with considerable interest. The take-home message for me is that it’s unrealistic and stupid to pretend we can stop the world from changing, and given the arc of the modern world, why should we? In large part, it just keeps getting better. People live longer. Foods are more diverse. Information is more available. Creativity is enhanced. We’ve caused diseases to go extinct! Distribution systems are almost unimaginable. Individuals can humiliate and bring down whole states. Transparency increases with distributed computing and smaller and smaller cameras. Wars are less frequent (even, unfortunately, as news coverage of them increase). The majority of the world recognizes and works against climate change. Wars have rules. Just because the world isn’t perfect doesn’t mean we’re better off living like hunter-gatherers. You’re welcome to go live like one. You can have it.

        1. ozob says:

          You can spew as much crap as you want, but please don’t put racist words in my mouth and then accuse me of racism. I NEVER said that cultures don’t change and adapt, or that they don’t need to, or that they are “fixed in time.” Long-term resident horticultural / gatherer societies (have you ever noticed how we say “hunter/gatherer” as if the hunting were more important than the gathering? ahh, that’s a problem when male anthropologists from a patriarchal culture study non-patriarchal societies…) can and will continue to develop in time. Many — most — have been systematically dismantled by civilization, though, and all of humanity is losing the knowledge and diversity they were protecting and developing (I’m not saying they’re perfect, just that they know a lot that we don’t and will never know).

          One of the single biggest differences between civilizations and long-term resident cultures is that civilizations fail to adapt to their environment, and instead force the environment to adapt and assimilate to their needs, which is an ultimate cause of collapse. Again, read Tainter and also Crosby. I have no idea where you are pulling out these myths that you spew…Our food is more diverse? Crap for most people most of the time in civilization, which is why there is so much rampant malnutrition and large-scale famine compared to non-agricultural societies.

          Your failure to understand long-term resident cultures includes an ignorant assumption that they willingly give up and participate in the destruction of their own communities and land bases (including the diversity of their food supply) to participate in the pyramid scheme of civilization, and that they are really as ignorant as you say they are (which is actually a racist blanket statement). And assuming the inherent superiority of YOUR culture is racist. And assuming that the “nasty, brutish savages” WANT to assimilate as a “natural” part of their “cultural development” is likewise racist.

          Our civilization is only a few hundred years old, an infant in the history of human societies. The longest civilizations have lasted only a couple thousand years before collapse. But you’re right, somehow you’re special, exceptional, different. You just have yet to find a reason that isn’t a myth.

          Again, this is off-topic.

  66. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    all of humanity is losing the knowledge and diversity they were protecting and developing

    Knowledge like…what? At best they might have knowledge we could rediscover (replicate, extend, purify and improve) through pharmacognosy. Otherwise, what knowledge do hunter-gatherers have that satellites can’t give us, besides irrelevant myths? Sure, the myths are neat, but beyond a transitory “oh, that’s neat”, they don’t add anything material. I would regret the loss of those myths, but in the grand scheme of things, they’re not really important (not to mention there are myriad myths that have disappeared over the lifespan of humans).

    Plus, we’re about the only civilization where a substantial part of the population would decry that loss – and actually has specialists whose job it is to document and preserve this knowledge. So tell me again how horrible our civilization is.

    If their knowledge is real, we can rediscover it, and discover the why, a step not taken by any historical group. If it’s not real, if it’s just a fanciful twist of consciousness and history, I feel about as much sorrow as I do over not knowing why the artists of Lascaux did what they did.

    Incidentally, it is not racist to accuse another of wanting to preserve a culture against change. Racism would be trying to preserve the illusory and imaginary culturally constructed category of race against change. If you don’t understand the difference between race and culture, then you might be racist, but in this case I’m going to assume you’ve made an error in word choice.

    Civilizations certainly do make the environment better for humans. Nature then adapts. The civilization I live in, quite happily and proudly, notes the changes their actions have on the environment over the short and long term, and reacts in term.

    Every day I consume three to four different species of fruit, and eight to ten different species of vegetables. Over the year, I consume plants and animals that come from every continent but Antarctica, prepared in recipes from the same number of continents. Before 1492, the world wasn’t even aware these continents even existed. I can eat like this whenever I want. They grow bergamot oranges in South America, rubber trees in China, apples in Australia, oranges in Florida, turkeys in Turkey, soy in the United States, and so it goes. Yes, our food is more diverse in quality and growing locations. You can’t deny this. You can pretend that first-world societies eat nothing but mass manufactured chocolate bars and ultraconformist pringles, but you’re simply wrong. Food fadism is a very popular, very visible representation of the fetishization of increasingly exotic ingredients from increasingly remote parts of the world – and it’s rather popular. Even the CAM nonsense is evidence of this – quinoa, Acai berries, goji berries, Himalayan pink rock salt, coffee passed through the gut of a civet cat, there’s a tremendously diverse amount of food available to us that you seem to be glossing over. Fortunately, the world in general is getting wealthier, meaning even third-world countries are increasingly able to buy more food and different food. Hooray!

    I understand long-term resident cultures, at least some of them. And I know they regularly practiced swidden agriculture, and relocated to new farming areas when the soil was no longer productive. Something they could do because their populations densities were so low they were surrounded by space they could move into.

    I don’t really think my culture is superior. I like it, but it’s awfully ethnocentric (not that there’s any other culture on the planet that’s not equally so, or worse – as a Canadian we’re usually seen as pretty tolerant and celebratory of ethnic diversity and inclusion to the national identity). I do think my epistemology is vastly superior to any other system available at any other point, past or present. Certainly better than hunter-gatherers. And certainly, in the few centuries that “my” culture has existed, it has outstripped the entire history of the planet before that. And you keep calling it “my” culture – it’s not. Anyone can have the same success as “my” culture, they just need to follow the precepts of “my” epistemology – let the data drive you.

    Could you start calling me “culturist” by the way, instead of “racist”? Any race can adopt “my” epistemology, it’s not tied to genetic descent. At least get your epithets right.

    1. ozob says:

      Your comments about our impact on the environment, as well as on other cultures, are nonsense. You are creating baseless straw-men arguments by criticizing other agricultural societies (e.g., when talking about slash and burn, lack of sanitation, nutritional deficiencies, etc) and ignoring instances when your criticisms apply equally to civilization, including “this one.” You have yet to define this culture yet except in preaching that it is somehow inherently superior without offering any real evidence to support that inane assertion.

      The winners write history to glorify their culture and glorify their own accomplishments. An epistemology based on control and domination is a part of the problem of civilization and its tendency toward imperialism (cultural, ecological, geographical, etc). Christian de Quincey covers this topic extensively and has done significant (though not sufficient) work to explore alternative ontologies, epistemologies and sciences that do not inherently require domination of other systems — in other words, systems that are less inherently sociopathic and more relational and sensitive in the process and structure of knowledge construction.

      You might look into the difference between alpha, beta and gamma diversity before you make more blanket statements about our food being “more diverse.” Intraspecies diversity is plummeting, we are in the middle of mass extinction events, and agriculture tends toward the destruction of alpha, beta and gamma diversity since it is technically a form of biotic cleansing, which is a key component of ecological imperialism. In some instances, yes, gamma diversity has increased, but so has our vulnerability to famine, as is the case for every agricultural society. Famine in non-agricultural societies is typically a very different experience than in agricultural societies, and does not include mass starvation, malnutrition and die-off.

      Otherwise, yes, you might have access to commodity foods that only grow outside of your current bioregion, but I can guarantee you that those foods are not backed by the genetic or geographic diversity to survive in fluctuating climatic conditions such as those we are creating through global warming.

      Exceeding the solar budget of a land-base does not make a culture better, it just makes it more belligerent. Superior belligerence does not a superior epistemology make. “More” is not “better.” Agriculture focuses on quantity, not quality. More food, more people, more efficiency, more destruction and drawdown of our resources. Agriculture destroys ecosystems, destroys soil, destroys biological diversity, destroys water quality, air quality. It’s only redeeming quality is that it can temporarily supply food to an overpopulated world, consisting of overconsuming 1st world cultures that maintain economic control over most of the world’s resources despite being a small minority of the overall global population. What are you going to do when rock phosphate runs out? Colonize space?

      You talk as if other cultures have a choice. They don’t. “This culture” does not allow others to exist on their own terms. Why does MEND exist in the Niger River delta? Royal Dutch Shell, Euro-American economic imperialism and the cronyism of their own government thugs.

      Think of everything in this world you hold dear — that you deeply care about. What would you do if someone showed up and said, “We’ll pay you for it.” And you refused to sell. So they threatened you. Would you fight back? What if they destroyed your home and killed and raped the women and children you know and love? Would you still fight back?

      “The butchery began with Columbus. He slaughtered the native people of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) by unimaginably brutal means. His soldiers tore babies from their mothers and dashed their heads against rocks. They fed their dogs on living children. On one occasion they hung 13 Indians in honour of Christ and the 12 disciples, on a gibbet just low enough for their toes to touch the ground, then disembowelled them and burnt them alive. Columbus ordered all the native people to deliver a certain amount of gold every three months; anyone who failed had his hands cut off. By 1535 the native population of Hispaniola had fallen from 8m to zero: partly as a result of disease, partly as a result of murder, overwork and starvation.”
      (ignoring the annoying “white savior” narrative of the Avatar movie also referenced in the article — these insane atrocities are well-documented. This culture still celebrates “Columbus Day” — what does that tell you about this culture? It tells me that it is sociopathic) I’m not saying the cultures that Europeans did this to were perfect, they weren’t. But that doesn’t excuse this level of socipathic, mechanistic, unthinking, unfeeling genocidal tendencies that we still alternatingly celebrate, ignore, or refuse to believe.

  67. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    I’m not really defending a culture, I’m defending a method and what that method has allowed the world to achieve. It’s a method that unites humanity rather than dividing it, and allows us to appreciate our similarities and differences. It’s superior to every other method of gathering information and arriving at correct conclusions than any previously developed. It’s not about Europeans, Chinese, Africans, Mayans or Australian Aborigines – it’s about reality. Culture, in my mind, is about the myriad ways humanity meets the needs that we all have – needs identified scientifically and empirically.

    Your claims about history being defined by the winners is amusing given the fact that much of the criticisms of modern societies are self-inflicted. We’re trying to do better, we’re acknowledging our flaws. The Aboriginal policy in Canada, which is stupid and perpetuates perverse incentives and suffering to no good end, is such an example of trying to do better (and succeeding at little more than perpetuating problems, sadly). it would be nice if the incentives of the system were based on something meaningful like poverty, rather than the meaningless current setup – race.

    There’s no such thing as “sciences”. There is one science, with multiple topics. Other forms of knowledge are not scientific. Anyone can apply the scientific method and will arrive at the same results, irrespective race or culture, if they do it long enough.

    One of the trends in agriculture, if we can get away from organic farming, is towards more food on less land, allowing more land to return to wild-type. I think this is a good thing. Hopefully tools like GMO and science can increase this trend. It’ll allow us to more efficiently take advantage of each square foot of sunlight, thus allowing more sunlight to fall on unused lands that can revert a less human-driven, more ecologically diverse state.

    More food is actually much better, over the long-term. More food means greater food security and less starvation; in combination with better medicine and sanitation, it means more people are comfortable having fewer children, which means the population of the world will continue it’s slow, leveling-off and gradual decline. The alternative is starvation, involuntary sterilization, or some other method which I doubt will be pleasant. I expect that each time we encounter a new problem where old solutions become uneconomical, we will solve it in new and innovative ways.

    Yep, fights over resources suck. I hope that the states with the resources cease to splinter and infight and unite, to adopt some of the measures that have proven successful in advanced nations – an educated populace, democratic action, unionization, collective action and assertion. Even this trend seems to be increasing, smaller and less powerful nations are beginning to assert themselves on the world stage, including the United Nations. Excellent.

    Yep, Columbus Day is stupid, he didn’t discover America (as schools are increasingly teaching), and he was probably an asshole like most of his brutal compatriots. Isn’t it nice that this isn’t the case anymore? Most resources are now purchased, not stolen (speaking of my own country and America, I don’t know about Australia). I think it’s kinda dumb the way it is, but at least property rights are now being respected and Indigenous groups are now being paid to remove resources from their lands. I think it’s a stupid and racist system still, but it’s certainly better than force and slaughter. If the groups involved educated themselves and collectively bargained, it’s possible they could form independent companies that truly benefited residents in ways beyond a passive transfer of wealth. Are Europeans still sacrificing 13 Indians to the apostles? I think the religion the Europeans imported to the Americas is stupid and backwards, fortunately now many Europeans are becoming atheists and Christianity is far less of a force throughout the world. Hopefully the trend continues as science demonstrates more and more how unnecessary religion is.

    Progress, not perfection. Two steps forward, one step back is still one step forward.

    Avatar was terrible. Ugh, awful film.

    1. ozob says:

      Oh, I see, you’re a technological optimist, although at least you recognize limits to growth (unlike Julian Simon). Alf Hornborg’s Power of the Machine shows that cultural fetishism is still alive and well, and may in fact be an inherent component of civilization. According to the trajectory of our society, it seems to be the case. GMO crops are a distraction at best. I appreciate the intent behind your support of them (more “wild lands”), but “wilderness” is part of the myth of civilization. “1491” shows that much, at least. We don’t need “wilderness” — we need to find a mode of relating to others that is nurturing (non-destructive), sensitive and social (not sociopathic). “Wilderness” is the same concept as “separate but equal” and a natural outgrowth of the ideas that humans are somehow “separate from nature” and also cannot or must not live with or within nature. That is a ridiculous and ultimately suicidal belief.

      Progress? Sure. Progress is more drinkable water and breathable air than we had yesterday. Progress is a reversal of global warming trends. It is human depopulation of the earth, using fewer resources per capita than before in the wealthiest states. It is the empowerment of women and the increase of alpha, beta and gamma diversity amongst non-humans. It is less moving every 5 years and more living like you intent to stay. It is reforestation of anthropogenically desertified or desertifying areas (like much of the middle east, the dust bowl, etc):

      It is the destruction of all anthropogenic dams (even the World Bank has called it quits on dam construction because they cause so much economic destruction and so few economic returns). It means internalizing rather than externalizing the harms we cause (“sanitation” systems required by cities are a great example of externalities…yeah, whoever thought that pooping in our drinking water was a great idea is an asshole and an idiot. Joseph Jenkins has the full report on that).

      Progress means using appropriate technologies, not this enduring technological fetishism that seems to underly civilization’s imperialistic growth tendencies.

      And yes, plural sciences. plural ontologies and plural epistemologies. Christian de Quincey and many cultural anthropologists know this. We might consider indigenous knowledge frameworks “factually wrong” (e.g., how the whale got on the mountain side) but they are incredibly practical and effective in cultivating and conveying essential place-based ethics, skills and other knowledge and wisdom. That is their purpose. Amongst any population, you will probably find the literalist (fundamentalists) and the pragmatists of the belief systems, just like we have with any belief system (of which science is another example…you do have a lot of faith in science…). I would call you a scientific fundamentalist :)

      The intent of the knowledge system is the question. Secondary is its effectiveness, and tertiary is its “accuracy.”

      What good is an idealistic knowledge system if it is based in a culture that threatens, endangers and destroys the very things that the knowledge system purports to understand (a little bit) about, and even aids in that control and destruction? There is more to science than replicability (control). Vivisections? The Tuskeegee experiments? C’mon. Enduring racism. Enduring sexism:

      A few years ago, women were property of men. Property. And of course, they weren’t allowed to vote or “own their own property.” (although I would call into question whether it is beneficial or ethical to own anything or anyone). We aren’t that far away from these attitudes, and it’s complicated: they are both causal factors of the situation we’re in as well as necessary elements of (temporarily) sustaining the systems of destruction that we currently depend upon for our survival.

      But pragmatism alone isn’t enough. As you pointed out, the Romans were (in general, with several substantial exceptions) generally pragmatic, and that pragmatism was geared (necessarily) toward imperialistic tendencies. Civilizing the savages, taming the “wild lands” etc.

      Likewise, place-based ethics aren’t enough, either — as you point out, there were bustling (sustainable, even!) slave trades amongst long-resident cultures, although the nature of that form of slavery is fundamentally different than the acute brutality of chattel slavery and the global slave trade, so it’s a bit misleading to equate them without further qualification:

      I’d say our society has done a better job at externalizing slavery than we have done eliminating it. That efficiency translates into greater vulnerability of collapse. The most significant event in the history of human civilization in the decline of human and animal slave labor was the discovery of fossil fuels, an incredible low-entropy form of matter-energy that we are using up (wasting, even) at a likewise incredible rate. We simply changed from chattel slavery to thermodynamic slavery (aka, energy slavery):

      Without modifying the underlying systems which required the class, caste and slave systems to function. Which in turn is part of a global system of thermodynamic imperialism (see Hornborg for more on that one! I wish he wrote more accessibly, but the math is solid). It reveals how much of a euphemism “global trade” really is, at the very least.

      Again, what happens to agriculture when rock phosphate runs out and fossil fuel inputs are no longer possible? Hopefully, something like permaculture is what happens, but it takes people working NOW to ensure that it’s not something more nightmarish, like a reversion back to the ways of Columbus and his ilk (as if they were somehow exceptional characters), a possibility that is lurking just under the surface, such as in our incredibly high rape and domestic violence statistics (1 in 6 and 1 in 4, respectively).

      There’s lots of work to do, no doubt.

  68. weing says:

    “Progress is a reversal of global warming trends. It is human depopulation of the earth, using fewer resources per capita than before in the wealthiest states.”

    OK. How do you plan to achieve human depopulation? Starve them? Reverse global warming and have an ice age kill them off?

  69. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    There’s no such thing as plural sciences. There’s one science with multiple specialization areas. It has one epistemology and one ontology – one reality exists and we’re finding more about it. By doing so, we can successfully manipulate our environment in ways that benefit humans. It’s far better than starvation and death at an early age. Anyone can do it. It works extremely well and supports human happiness by reducing starvation, increasing mobility, interconnecting groups and providing for their needs. It has delightful fringe-benefits in uniting humanity, uniting the genders and improving our lives in ways far more practical than the ignorance of hunter-gatherers. The true origin of humanity confronts the ethnocentrism so potent in tribal societies. And the primary goal of the system is not effectiveness, it’s accuracy. Less accurate knowledge can be useful, but more accurate knowledge is more useful. You keep placing mythical perfection before realistic progress. You keep comparing past civilizations, which bear no resemblance to our own and lacked the scientific method, to this one – which doesn’t condone slavery, which promotes equality of women, which attempts to reduce farmlands, which meets more needs of more people, which reduces death rates, which controls fertility, which reduces war, far more than any civilization in the past. With Sam Harris’ latest venture (which is the popular tip of a much more scholarly iceberg) we might even get scientific systems of ethics, which will be delightful.

    Yes, reduces war – wars become civilized, with rules. Death rates are proportionately far lower (participation and death rates due to war in hunter-gatherer socieites were proportionately worse than modern wars, even if their absolute numbers were smaller because they were much worse at feeding people and keeping them alive – Edgerton’s delightful dismantling of the Noble Savage’s Sick Societies), and wars are more limited. It’s not perfect, but it’s a lot better than it was.

    You can go ahead and have your kinder, gentler slavery among Native American groups, I would prefer to avoid it altogether. Even the slavery described by Christina Snyder in Slavery in Indian Country (which incidentally changed over the centuries of contact to become chattel slavery) is still slavery, and I’d rather like to avoid being sacrificed upon the death of my owner.

    Energy slavery isn’t the same thing as human slavery, you’re reaching. The sole reference in that page (which should be deleted) doesn’t even use the term. A molecule of propane doesn’t suffer, and I’m optimistic that once peak oil is reached, increases in efficiency and alternative electricity sources will be incentivized dramatically. Perhaps not, but the reality-based science is the best hope for humanity. You can’t honestly argue with success.

    My personal hope is that they will genetically engineer plants capable of extracting nitrogen from the atmosphere and creating their own fertilizer. The impact of economics on scientific and business incentives give me lots of hope.

    As always, it’s hard to take seriously the decrying of the flaws of civilization from a rather obvious first-world located, native English-speaking, computer literate, free-time-having, educated person. There’s a lot of ingratitude towards the civilization that makes your comfortable, first-world-problem-filled life possible, and a lot of fetishization of cultures which, if you lived in them, would probably be less than the ideal utopia you seem to think they are.

    1. ozob says:


      A great overview of many of the points of discussion. Empower women, and populations at the very least stabilize, and often decline. A steady-state economy that has already overshot its resource base is of no use, which is why the decline is necessary. Either we do it willingly, or it will be done to us.

      WLU: You have no idea of my life circumstances beyond my ability to use a computer. You are spinning stories in your head, again, to buttress your extant confirmation bias! It seems you have to dismiss the message by any means necessary, regardless of its viability. Here’s an important difference between us: I hope I’m wrong, and I hope you’re right. But you hope you’re right, and are not willing to consider the possibility that you are wrong and that your understanding of the state of the condition of civilization is actually somewhat upside-down from much of its fundamental reality.

      “Utopia” and “dystopia” are both the same thing. I don’t want either. I admire socieities that are capable of living within a steady-state solar budget, many of which are extinct due to the belligerent expansion of civilization, for that ability alone, not because I believe they are somehow magical and perfect “utopias.” I’ve spent

      Energy slavery is not the same as human slavery, duh. It has temporarily replaced human slavery, and whenever it is not possible to sustain it, we have two choices:

      1. Finally end the societal institutions that required the slavery in the first place (requiring a massive decentralization of institutionalized authority and destruction of many or most of society’s social hierarchies), or
      2. Revert back to vastly-intensified forms of human and animal slavery (aka what we euphemistically called “domestication” of non-humans and “civilizing the savages”).

      #2 is certainly easier, since it requires very little change from the current status quo.

      Again, at the risk of being a broken record, this is off-topic…

  70. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    Interestingly, science shows us that women and men (and the intersexed) vary along continuums of ability, thus confronting and essentially demolishing the belief in qualitative differences between the genders and sexes. It’s wonderful at attacking the prejudices embedded in cultures that force humans to occupy specific social roles, mostly by reliance on empirical findings rather than relying on inherited knowledge to evaluate reality. It’s also great at permitting humans to take control of their reproduction, not to mention providing the kinds of robust health and disease prevention that permits steady-state populations, low childhood mortality and overall planning. Your statements about empowering women ignores the role that science and technology employs in this very empowerment.

    I don’t need to dismiss your message, I just think it’s wrong in a lot of ways, full of vague pronouncements and woefully lacking in specifics – meanwhile I’ve found it rather trivial to provide counter-examples. It’s easy to proclaim the wisdom of hunter-gatherers, but I’ve yet to see you provide a concrete example of that wisdom, particularly a form of wisdom that science isn’t able to identify and improve upon. It looks like we’re essentially agreeing to disagree, and that’s fine.

    Your “energy slavery” scenario is missing an option:

    3. Discover alternative sources of renewable energy such that humans are far less efficient and useful sources of work than machines for repetitive, exploitive tasks, allowing society to meet human needs with less suffering or reliance on monotonous, damaging tasks.

    In fact, your neat false dilemma ignores a multitude of alternatives, like all false dilemmas do.

    1. ozob says:

      Science has also “shown” that women (and blacks, and natives, etc) were “Inferior” in the past. More important than the science is the pre-analytic vision and other social nad political context in which it exists, which determines whether a given system of knowledge will be used to control or liberate a particular people or species. In other words, what are we assuming in the absence of knowledge? Because confirmation bias plays an awfully big role in scientific paradigms. Science can be revolutionary, but so can Christianity (see, for example, “Am I Sleeping with the Enemy?” and “Freeing the Oppressed” by Ron Clark), or any system of belief for that matter.

      I’ve given you many rigorous references to follow up on. Again: Christian de Quincy, Nancy J Turner, Joseph Tainter, Derrick Jensen, Alfred Crosby, Jason Godesky (one of the many you dismissed outright without reading for unfounded reasons), Erich Fromm.

      Paul Feyerabend wrote “Against Method” as an interesting historical study of both the reality and need for scientific plurality. You might find it an interesting read.

      I will remind you that YOU brought the discussion into a “civilization vs non-civilized” framework, I was only pointing out some significant drawbacks of civilization and the need to look for fundamental alternatives.

      You keep mentioning examples of civilized superiority that have significant caveats which you keep leaving out:

      1. Contraception is the latest example. See, for example, black and blue cohosh (unrelated species named similarly probably for their medicinal properties of women’s reproductive regulation):

      Like everything, potentially dangerous but when used appropriately, safe and effective.

      Non-patriarchal societies have, by-definition, empowered women who over thousands of years develop an incredibly sophisticated approach to reproductive health and by extension population stability. That is, until patriarchies and other elements of civilization dismantle those knowledge communities. Now, native american women face unprecedented levels of rape and domestic violence, a complex mixture of continued vulnerability to white oppression and legal loopholes and internalized oppression (although the new VAW Act should hopefully help with that a little).

      2. Another example is you mentioning a superior approach to disease management. You say that civilization is “causing diseases to go extinct,” but that is only one part of a larger narrative of civilization creating and enhancing many diseases through high population density, high mobility, poor sanitation and zoonosis (i.e., animal domestication).

      3. You also mention “technological efficiency” and “renewable energy,” both of which pose further threat to human life support systems within the current cultural paradigm. Why? Because technological efficiency is a description of how effectively technology consumes resources. Likewise, renewable energies will likely promote further population growth (even though we have long surpassed earth’s sustainable carrying capacity) AND increased per-capita resource consumption. We need less of both of those, not more! That doesn’t happen without a fundamental attitude shift.

      4. Also, annual agricultures mine the soil for productivity and are by-definition unsustainable. They depend on the natural capital of perennial ecosystems but create a ~75% net nutrient loss. I’m not saying that production beds or machines are bad, but we need balance (which means far fewer humans, machines and annual crops). The trophic levels model is probably appropriate as a rough guide.

  71. weing says:

    “Science has also “shown” that women (and blacks, and natives, etc) were “Inferior” in the past.”
    References, please.

    1. ozob says:

      Weing: Start here and google or take a history of sciences class that includes an honest, balanced survey if its stumbles

      Three paragraphs in particular:
      “Science can be a powerful ally in the fight for equality for women. What other institution than science, after all, can expose society’s prejudice against women for what it is? What other institution than science can both justify the replacement of this prejudice with a more adequate perspective, and also move society to accept the replacement? For the most part, however, science has done more to perpetuate and add to the problems women confront than to solve them. For example, psychology’s central assertion, historically, has been that women are inferior to men–intellectually, socially, sexually, and even morally. And biology historically has set for itself the task of explaining the basis and origin of this inferiority in terms of what is basically unchangeable–biology. This has had the effect of justifying–and thus, helping to perpetuate–women’s inferior educational and employment opportunities as well as women’s inferior positions in the family, government, and other social institutions.

      Consider women’s intellectual capacity, for example. For centuries it was claimed that women are intellectually inferior to men, and for centuries the basis for such inferiority was sought in biology. In the seventeenth century, women’s brains were claimed to be too “cold” and “soft” to sustain rigorous thought. In the late eighteenth century, the female cranial cavity was claimed to be too small to hold a powerful brain. In the late nineteenth century, the exercise of women’s brains was claimed to be damaging to women’s reproductive health–was claimed, in fact, to shrivel women’s ovaries. In the twentieth century, the less “lateralization” (hemispheric specialization) of women’s brains was claimed to make women inferior in visuospatial skills (including mathematical skills). And the research continues. During the 1980s and 1990s, for example, scientists claimed that women’s brains are smaller than men’s, even after taking into account average differences in body size, that the corpus callosum (the mass of nerve fibers connecting the right and left cerebral hemispheres) is more slender in women’s brains than in men’s, that the splenium (the region of the corpus callosum found at the back of the head) is more bulbous in women’s brains, more tubular in men’s brains, and so on. And these differences were again being linked to differences in intellectual capacity (that people with smaller brains have lower IQ test scores, that greater splenial bulbosity means less lateralization, and hence, less visual-spatial ability, and hence, less mathematical ability, etc.). And the research still continues.

      But fields like psychology and biology are not the only source of the view that women are inferior to men–demonstrably inferior, scientifically demonstrable. The historical sciences, too, have supported this view of women’s inferiority through their mode of representation of the past, a mode of representation marked by heroic exploits and spectacular accomplishments of men counterpoised with lackluster doings and non-accomplishments of women. Consider archaeology. Archaeologists “have contributed to and perpetuated certain limited and ethnocentric (i.e. sexist) views on women and gender relations.” Take, for example, what archaeologists recognize as the “hallmarks” of human evolution–tools, fire, hunting, food-storage, composite tools, language, agriculture, metallurgy, and so forth. Most of these hallmarks of human-ness are associated with technological control of the environment (technological control, after all, has always defined the “Ages of Man”: Paleolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age), and all of these hallmarks of human-ness have until very recently been at least tacitly associated with males (e.g., “The most visible activity in the archaeological record is stone tool fabrication, an exclusively male endeavor.” etc., etc.). As a result, male-as-active, instrumental (as in man-the-toolmaker), male-as-provider, male-as-innovator, male-as-quintessentially-human, are made to seem natural, inevitable. At the same time, female-as-outside-the-domain of-technological-innovation-and-control, female-as-not-active (that is, passive) and less-than-quintessentially-human, are made to seem natural and inevitable as well, and thus capable of explaining (and justifying) the gender inequalities we still find today.”

      For contemporary look at the social context of scientists (again “confirmation bias” I think is a relevant concept):

      WLU: I agree, science can be self-correcting, but not without social and political struggle! Kuhn, Feyerabend, and other historians of science all cover this topic.

      The alternative to overpopulation is not starvation. It is interesting to me that you see them as alternatives to one-another when the latter is really an inevitable conclusion of the former. An inevitable leveling of population growth isn’t really saying much considering we are already overpopulated. not only that, but the wealthiest 20% consume the vast majority of the planet’s resources — far beyond what we estimate to need in order to have a high quality of life. What’s up with that? “Limits to Growth: 30 year update” covers the “population leveling off” scenario amongst many others. I suggest you read it if you are interested in this topic.

      You might also be interested in “The Spirit Level” which is another interesting and provocative sociological summary of the negative benefits of global inequality *for everyone* (even the wealthiest among us).

      “Fortunately, medicine, proper sanitation, vaccination and good overall health all reduce disease transmission.” For some people, some of the time. The benefits of these institutions are unequally distributed across a highly stratified global society. The lines of that stratification are the colonial/invading powers, and the impetus behind that colonization and theft (and continued transfer) of resources is civilization. Alf Hornborg covers this point quite a bit.

      Black cohosh worked just fine for the people who used it. Also on that list of hepatoxins: Green tea. Damn. I’d better stop drinking it! This gets back to one of the original points of dispute between us: the lines between “toxin” “medicine” and “food” are blurry — not just because one can be the other in different doses, but also effective doses can have both toxic and therapeutic effects. Aspirin/ibuprofen as classic cases of this.

      Here’s another study casting doubt on hepatoxicity of BC:

      I won’t speak toward CONTEMPORARY uses, because much of popular herbal knowledge is muddled and sloppy compared to many of the traditional contexts in which they were used. I think one of the reasons is the infusion of capitalist economics provides powerful profit motive to lie and reframe. You get a bunch of people pedaling snake-oil, whether they are multinational corporations redefining use of a botched medicine (e.g., let’s make ED a big thing to salvage a defective drug:; ED is much more complex than a simple issue of blood flow) or people selling gorilla hands and powdered rhino horns in the street market to the naive and hopeful :(

      “Renewable energy makes continued population growth with a high standard of living possible”

      The idea of having “sustainable population growth” is as insane today as it was when Julian Simon trumpeted it (Herman Daly is a bad-ass!):

      “education, access to birth control and the realization that all your children stand an excellent chance of reaching adulthood reduce population growth.”
      I don’t want my children droning on in a classroom like mindless automatons. I want them to have choice and develop a sense of responsibility and critical thinking from day-one. When their development is properly supported, for example, uncivilized children are capable of safely handling and using sharp blades as young as age three (anthropologist Sorensen covers this in some of his works about liminal consciousness)

      Access to birth control is available in many ways that do not directly depend on civilization.

      And you are misunderstanding the nature of human population growth. Read “The Last Taboo” article that I mentioned in my last post. The people you are talking about are more complex than you us credit for.

      “Technological efficiency is about consumption of resources relative to production. It’s not like we’re burning oil just to burn oil.”

      “Production” is a euphemism for the destruction of natural capital. We need *less efficient* production. Hand saws, not chain saws, are appropriate technology.

      Any society can be sophisticated or unsophisticated, regardless of whether it is “civilized,” and I have yet to see you refute (let alone address) any of the serious externalities, weaknesses and threats of civilization addressed by the authors cited above. Do we drone on and pretend that resources are finite or do we wake up and realize that we need to fundamentally change the way we relate to one-another and the earth?

      It’s time to abandon civilization. It’s not a magical switch. It’s a process that takes time. It requires depopulation and gender justice. It requires switching to alternative food systems, as Toby Hemenway suggests in his address to Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. It requires rethinking the role (and even definition) of technology in our society. What we have right now is not necessarily better. It is just different, and inherently unsustainable. Some of the knowledge that civilization has accumulated is helpful for this purpose, too (although it may have been less necessary had we managed to avoid the rise of civilization in the first place).

      Abandoning civilization doesn’t mean abandoning logic, reason or sophisticated forms of inductive inquiry, either. But it does mean decentralizing and localizing systems of knowledge production so that they are appropriate to the ecological context in which they exist.

  72. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    Are there any contemporary references to the relative inferiority of any groups of humans? Have any modern scientists used such references to advocate for exclusion of such groups from any part of society? The nice thing about science is it is self-correcting, so even if it was wrong in the past, it improves.

    I agree a pre-analytic vision is important, particularly when it forces some people into pre-ordained conclusions.

    Given the number of people on the planet, the alternative to civilization (in addition to being extremely boring) would be starvation. I’d rather not, thanks.

    The nice thing about science is it can test the properties of black cohosh, demonstrating such things as a lack of evidence to support its claims (1), hepatotoxicity (2) and hypertension (3). Thankfully it doesn’t seem to cause breast cancer (4). It can also find out why it works and improve upon it, so we’re not stuck with an impure, uncertain dose of a substance with significant side effects.

    I think the thing that did the most to stabilize populations were the high death rates during child birth, as well as due to infectious diseases in the first ten years of the kids’ lives.

    Yes, high mobility, high population densities, zoonotic diseases and poor sanitation all increase global transmissability of diseases. Fortunately, medicine, proper sanitation, vaccination and good overall health all reduce disease transmission. Despite having international travel and the highest population the planet has ever seen, death rates due to infectious diseases are incredibly low. Yay for science, yay for civilization!

    Renewable energy makes continued population growth with a high standard of living possible, education, access to birth control and the realization that all your children stand an excellent chance of reaching adulthood reduce population growth. Technological efficiency is about consumption of resources relative to production. It’s not like we’re burning oil just to burn oil.

    Yes, fewer (but better-educated) people is a good thing. Therefore it’s awesome that due to disease management, food security and education the population growth is starting to level off.

    Yes, annual agriculture (all agriculture, all plants) strip the soil of nutrients and convert it into food. That’s why we use fertilizer.

  73. weing says:

    “Weing: Start here and google or take a history of sciences class that includes an honest, balanced survey if its stumbles”

    I don’t see where science showed women to be inferior. There were men who would make that claim but there were no scientific studies that showed such. No scientific studies showed that exercise of women’s brains caused their ovaries to shrivel. That women score lower on SATs, doesn’t mean they are inferior. And science is trying to find out why. Same with blacks and SATs. Unfortunately, study of these things is so charged in the US, that very little funding is allotted for it.

  74. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    For example, psychology’s central assertion, historically, has been that women are inferior to men–intellectually, socially, sexually, and even morally

    See, it’s one thing to claim that this is psychology’s central assertion. Can you provide an example of any recent publication making this claim? More importantly – can you point to any scientific consensus document making this claim? Can you point to any attempt to use science to deprive women of rights equal to that of a man? Any? Any at all?

    Yes, science identifies average biological differences between men and women. So what? One of the commonly-cited trends in education is rising enrollment of women and falling enrollment of men. If you reasonably take education as a marker for some sort of intelligence, that suggests that perhaps we’re now seeing a favouring of women’s intelligence. Or not. No matter what, identifying biological differences between men and women is vital to medicine, including psychiatry, since it helps correct the previously-imbalanced, male-focussed research of years past. But thanks for linking to the gawker which linked to a press release which linked to the actual PNAS study which indicated a need to correct a problem. In other words, you’re kinda using science to prove that science is correcting a problem identified by science within science. You’re rather undercutting your point that science perpetuates a sexist system with a publication complaining that science is currently sexist and needs to change. Not to mention, did you notice the word “subtle” in the title of the paper? Progress, not perfection. Thanks to science.

    If we can currently feed the population of the planet, that suggests the planet isn’t in fact overpopulated. As for why rich societies consume so much – it’s because they can, because they produce things that people want. Poorer societies also want them, and fortunately many poorer societies are seeing improvements in their GDP (in many cases because companies are leaving rich societies due to the cost of labour – I look forward to a world where the cost of labour is essentially even in all areas, which will probably go a long way towards leveling out incomes).

    Ah colonialism, something we can all feel guilty about. Poorer societies lack the infrastructure and expertise to develop and produce the sophisticated medical products needed to promote health. Despite this, even awareness of the univerally-applicable measures of sanitation and vaccination can improve things. Not to mention richer nations (and the UN) subsidize the distribution of vaccines and medicines to poorer nations – and some of the poorer nations are simply stealing the IP to do so, which I heartily endorse for basic preventive health care (I just hope they don’t re-sell it to cheap bastards in the richer nations).

    Actually, the research is that black cohosh didn’t work for people. They may have thought it did, but they were wrong. If there is no difference between a group given black cohosh and people told they were given black cohosh, no matter how much wisdom of the ages exists, that means black cohosh doesn’t work. Also, your 2009 paper is a case series, my 2013 paper is a more recent review article and it wins.

    The lines between food and medicine are rather distinct. Food is not medicine. Any foods sufficiently refined and concentrated to have a medicinal effect is medicine. Neither aspirin nor ibuprofen are foods.

    Holding up traditional herbal knowledge as superior to actual scientific herbal knowledge is funny, particularly when you characterize pharmacognosy as “sloppy” in comparison. The thing is – pharmacognosy starts sloppy. It improves and changes. Traditional knowledge – doesn’t. Not to mention, it’s often simply wrong.

    Viagra, by the way, is a failed heart drug. It’s a wildly successful erectile dysfunction drug. It works to increase blood flow to the penis. Yes, there’s a lot more to erectile dysfunction than that – but viagra works. Unlike snake oil, gorilla hands and rhinocerous horn. If people abandoned traditional cures of floppy penises and used viagra instead, wouldn’t that be a tremendous boon to the gorilla, rhino and tiger populations who are killed for their hands, horns and penises? I think so. I hope Pfizer starts distributing little blue pills for reduced or low cost in the cultures that would happily cut up an endangered animal for their ineffective body parts. That’d be a great act of corporate charity.

    You are correct about my error – rather than saying sustained population growth I should have said levels. Thankfullly population growth is leveling off and should start to decline in the next couple decades. Hopefully we can reach a steady-state in the 1-3 billion range. Enough people to continue to do research and learn, not enough to strain renewable resources or drain nonrenewable ones. In fact, with more research we may even be able to renew nonrenewable ones! That’d be awesome!

    I don’t consider urban residents of Calcutta to be hunter-gatherers.

    Anyway, the rest of your post is more of the same, demonizing civilization and fetishizing the extremely difficult (and boring) life of a low-technology society. You can have it, I don’t want it. I plan on having one kid, doing my best to raise them to realize the limitations of their world (and the wonders of science, and just how damned lucky they have it), taking the bus to school, buying products that last a long time and not replacing them if I can help it, and generally doing what I can to reduce my impact on the world while not reducing my standard of living to a level I am uncomfortable with. I recognize that this is selfish of me. Frankly, all I can do is recognize this fact and move on, because I’m unwilling to live in a mud hut and risk regular starvation.

    The nice thing is – if you’re right, life will go on. Humans may die (which would suck, we’re the only part of the universe that can think about itself) but the rest of the planet would continue to exist and life would rapidly evolve to fill any emptied niches. If we’re really lucky, some other species (I’m betting racoon) will evolve human-level intelligence, making the world a little more interesting again. It would be nice if they learned from our mistakes.

    Please, feel free to relocate to sub-Sahara and live with the Maasai, subsisting on a diet of milk, blood and meat. In the event of an apocalypse, they might stand a chance of surviving (though personally I’d put my money on cannibals). I’m sticking with civilization, thanks.

    1. ozob says:

      Individual action is great for feeling better, but accounts for very little of the overall destruction. You know how in droughts consumers are told that they need to “conserve water” by not watering lawns, taking shorter showers, not flushing the toilets? Well, when consumers use 10% or less of the overall water, shaving that in half isn’t much of an impact. God forbid we practice more sane forms of food production that do not pit us against the life support systems we need to survive, let alone thrive.

      We all have a moral imperative to transform the economic, political and cultural systems behind the rampant destruction of the life support systems we need.

      Yes, you’re right, life will go on regardless of what we do. Deep Green Resistance is great and all, but saying that we’re doing it for anything less than selfish reasons is stupid. We’re not “saving the planet.” We are acting on a moral imperative to stop self-destruction and the destruction of the last-remaining landbases that our children and children’s children will need.

      We agree that 1-3billion is a good target goal for population. If we can do that in a timely manner, improve the bottom line of quality of life for societies that have been conquered and destroyed (e.g., Why so much violence in Iraq? Ask that bastard Winston Churchill), and reduce per-capita consumption from its insane levels down to levels that are adequate to maintain high quality of life (we’ve far surpassed that limit), then I have few or no complaints about civilization. I don’t think it’s possible, though. Maybe I am naively essentializing civilization the same way you are naively essentializing non-civilized societies.

      But we have to do more than hope — hope is for things that we perceive beyond our control. It strips us of agency and accountability. You “hope the plane doesn’t crash,” for example, because you probably didn’t do the pre-flight safety inspection yourself.

      Right now the burden of the evidence shows that we favor the status quo and inaction (or action after it’s too late): (ignoring the attention grabbing headline, the “if-then” analysis is pretty rigorous and sound).

      LOL at your “my 2013 paper has a higher number than your 2009 paper, therefore it’s better!” Wow. I hope that was a joke :)

      And science is a tool of society. It is not directly used to deprive anyone of rights — it simply can be used to justify or dispute those policies, beliefs and behaviors. I’m not going to write you a history of policy debates referencing sexist scientific conclusions — if you’re interested, you can seek them out yourself. We both know they exist!

      Science isn’t inherently good. It is value neutral. If the society lacks sensitivity and wisdom, and shows enhanced signs of narcissism and sociopathy, it will use science to do things like vivisections, create atom bombs, or “enhanced interrogation techniques,” microwave crowd control weapons, and, say, uhh, unprecedented domestic spying programs, “improved” ways to exploit people and lands, etc etc, in addition to “good things” that you mention (even many of them have significant consequences). Even apart from that, confirmation bias is always an uphill battle, and science is used to justify weird or insane things at least as much as it is used to dispute them.

      I really don’t think we are arguing much, here. I’m ignoring your continued ignorant comments about uncivilized societies being insufficient alternatives to civilized societies.

      1. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

        Nope, I’m serious – a case series is inherently a lower-quality document than a systematic review, meta-analysis or other paper that synthesizes a topic.

        Science also has a directly iconoclastic role within society. By consistently referring to empirical results, it overturns previous beliefs – far better and less violently than the means by which societies changed in the past. I would also argue that it is inherently good – it allows greater control over the world, and it allows truths to be known (within given degrees of precision). Truths are preferred over falsehoods and inaccuracies. Science also doesn’t justify weird or insane things – it merely exposes facts about them, uniting those facts into a framework. If you find them weird or insane, then your intellectual framework needed adjusting.

        In ignoring my comments about uncivilized societies, you’re also consistently failing to demonstrate they are false, and you still haven’t managed to produce a single fact that hunter-gatherers could know that science couldn’t know better, faster, with more nuance and with more accuracy (and with less magic). Hunter-gatherers aren’t magically better at knowing things than the farmers that succeeded them, but both are materially worse at it than the industrialists that succeeded the farmers. Fetishizing them as somehow “wise” is simply incorrect. They’re ignorant of anything but their immediate surroundings, and their knowledge of that is normally wrong in both large and small details.

        1. ozob says:

          you need to justify those sweeping statements about uncivilized societies. it sounds like you’re just throwing crap against the wall and hoping nobody calls it out for what it looks like and smells like.

          and, stop putting words in my mouth. Please reference where on this page I “fetishized [uncivilized societies] as ‘wise.'” Oh, that’s right, you can’t, because it doesn’t exist. You made that up, as if you’re having converesations in your head and then projecting them onto this dialogue.

          Arguments that I have made are that 1. civilization is inherently unsustainable (which includes a lack of wisdom and sensitivity), and 2. amongst the limitless possibilities that uncivilized societies take, there are sustainable and just options for us to explore.

          weeding through your garbage is getting annoying. you’re making ridiculous claims about uncivilized societies, citing nothing but your own preconceptions. and when you do cite something, it has nothing to do with uncivilized societies, but a review of contemporary uses of herbalism. i have nothing to dispute with that, but it’s not even relevant. in contrast, i’ve given you a hefty list of authors of rigorously formed histories, treatises or other works to look into, most of which you’ve ignored or stated that you are “unwilling to read.” if that’s not acceding to ignorance, i don’t know what is.

          then, another category of citations where you just read whatever random conclusion you want to to bolster the argument you are making in support of your belief system and your perceived position in the discussion. Black cohosh is the latest example:

          there are studies that are inconclusive and studies that are conclusive, like pretty much everything that we study.

          where here does it say, “black cohosh is dangerous and ineffective” or “native societies that used black cohosh were full of shit and didn’t know what the fuck they were doing with all those plants to whom we’ve now given fancy latin names” or the like? quite the opposite — the summary uses the word “encouraging.”

          also, it is specious to assume that its use in modern, industrialized “alternative medicine” was anything like its use in uncivilized indigenous societies, where they often controlled for dosage using knowledge based on hundreds of generations of experience, and used it in a synergistic context with other medicines to produce varied and desirable results. whether rates of effectiveness were comparable to than anything that industrial medicine does is a question we really can’t know. but industrial medicine doesn’t have a great batting average on a lot of stuff, either. in the best cases, we’re honest about it: “well, you can try this, but according to what we know there’s a good chance it won’t work or will make things worse” etc etc. that’s just being honest. civilization definitely doesn’t have a monopoly on honesty.

          1. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

            where here does it say, “black cohosh is dangerous and ineffective”

            – “the currently available data are not sufficient to support a recommendation on the use of black cohosh for menopausal symptoms.”
            – “Study results are mixed on whether black cohosh effectively relieves menopausal symptoms. An NCCAM-funded study found that black cohosh, whether used alone or with other botanicals, failed to relieve hot flashes and night sweats in postmenopausal women or those approaching menopause.”
            The implication is that prescientific societies were wrong.

            Your statements about alternative medicine are common special pleading used to defend ongoing use or “more research” in the face of consistent failure to demonstrate improvements over placebo. Eventually one must admit one was wrong, that the herb doesn’t work, or you’re just wasting time and money.

        2. ozob says:

          as an example of the speciousness of equating modern “alternative” practices with traditional practices, i’ll cite nixtamalization of maize. natives cooked it in lye (if I were a European at that time I might have said, “wtf, mate?”) and drastically changed the availability and balance of essential amino acids.

          when Europeans took corn back to Europe with them, they ignored or dismissed its preparation process, for hundreds of years. idiots. anyway, a good example of why the knowledge of long-term resident cultures is often important to acknowledge and preserve, as argues Wade Davis:

          and also an example of how you can’t extract an object from its ethnic context and expect it to behave the same.

          His introductory statement is brilliant. It’s a sad irony that the technologies communicating this understanding are part and parcel to the destruction of the ethnosphere they are only beginning to describe in the zenith of its disappearance.

          Here’s a selected quote:
          ” the thing about tryptamines is they cannot be taken orally because they’re denatured by an enzyme found naturally in the human gut called monoamine oxidase. They can only be taken orally if taken in conjunction with some other chemical that denatures the MAO. Now, the fascinating things are that the beta-carbolines found within that liana are MAO inhibitors of the precise sort necessary to potentiate the tryptamine. So you ask yourself a question. How, in a flora of 80,000 species of vascular plants, do these people find these two morphologically unrelated plants that when combined in this way, created a kind of biochemical version of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts?”

          and yes, there is a blurry line between food, medicine and poison. when i eat lactuca virosa or serriola at a young age in a mixed green salad, it is a nutrient dense food. when i pick wild lettuce later in its life-cycle and make a tea out of it, it is a painkiller. if i distill that painkiller, or dry the latex, i might OD on it, i.e., it becomes a poison.

          what’s the point of trumpeting a sophisticated system of worldly study when it destroys (or exists upon a foundation that destroys) the very things it purports to study?

          1. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

            The people who brought corn back to Europe and started raising it as a crop – were they scientists? Do scientists currently think that mixing corn with lye is a stupid idea? Or did science not only validate this act, but explain why it worked to improve the nutritional value of the food, to a degree far surpassing the understanding of Aboriginal groups? How did Wade Davis arrive at his conclusions? Did the native groups explain it to him, and describe what a MAO was?

            Science starts with observation and moves on to testing, replication, extension and validation. Nonscientific observation starts and stops there.

            There is nothing a native group can discover that science can’t discover better, faster and improve upon.

            1. ozob says:

              Rrright. “Sufficient lack of scientific evidence” is a pretty flimsy (ok, that was generous, more accurately “nonexistent”) critique of the knowledge of long-term resident cultures.

              Why is it that science is still playing catch-up with incredibly advanced Polynesian wayfinding techniques that existed thousands of years ago, when European scientists and navigators were still afraid of falling off the flat edge of the world?

              You are mistaking “We don’t know” with “this doesn’t work” and then extending that conclusion to “this didn’t work for anyone, anywhere, because we know best” based on a largely unproven (and largely disproven) preconception that “there is nothing a native group can discover that science can’t discover better, faster and improve upon.”

              It is a deductive argument you are making, not an inductive argument. Deduction is intuitive, not scientific. You are violating your own precepts in effort to win an argument.

              You’re either throwing the baby out with the bathwater, or you’re drowning the baby in the bathwater. There are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

            2. ozob says:

              FWIW, I like this blog. I loved the article on the complexity of gender, sex and sexuality (too bad I couldn’t comment on it for some reason!). I like science. But I don’t like your attitude, which is part and parcel to,

              “…ethnocide, the destruction of people’s way of life, is not only not condemned, it’s universally, in many quarters, celebrated as part of a development strategy.” (Wade Davis)

              You lose the culture, you lose the knowledge, and you start over from scratch. Its as ass-holish as it is stupid. Speaking of which, here’s a definition of asshole that I agree with:

              It’s nothing personal.

              Wade Davis learned from the natives. He is simply translating their knowledge into a framework that people like you will understand, and, perhaps more importantly, accept as legitimate. The scientific description is not a prescription, though — if science says it doesn’t work, it doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t work. Most of science has an incredible amount of external and internal bias, error and qualified limitation anyway:

              You are, to paraphrase the second citation above, banging your head against the limits of your current theory of science. I suggest it’s time for a Kuhnian revolution in your head :)

              Good luck!

  75. Carmen says:

    oh, I love kombucha! Especially with chia seeds!! I’ve had been making it for years but recently stopped because of the (perceived) sugar content in it. I’d really like to know just how much of the sugar I’m putting in the tea is metabolized by the scoby and how much I’m actually drinking.
    Does anyone know if there are other ways to make it without sugar? Fruit? Whatnot? Thanks

  76. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    It’s alcoholic content is always based on the breakdown of sugar, either in simple (glucose) or complex (starch) forms. You could theoretically make it with meat (via glycogen) but I wouldn’t drink it. So you’re always making it with sugar, irrespective the source (fruits have considerable amounts of sugar in them). Even if all the sugar were broken down into alcohol, you’ve still got problems depending on why you are avoiding sugar:
    – alcohol actually has a fair amount of calories in it (more than sugar, 4 calories per gram versus 7 calories per gram)
    – alcohol has health consequences if consumed in large quantities

    From what I can tell from the googles, alcohol doesn’t have a high glcyemic index (and may lower the glycemic index of the meal it is eaten with).

    As far as I know, you couldn’t make it without sugar, you’d have a very different drink. The energy for the bacteria has to come from somewhere, and normally it’s coming from sugar. I can’t imagine what it would be like to make an equivalent drink with the other two macronutrients (fats or proteins), I’m not even sure you could make an alcoholic beverage with those two sources of energy. And at that point it wouldn’t be kombucha. Even alcoholic milk drinks are using the sugar to create alcohol. The only way you could get rid of sugar would be to distill it out, at which point you’re quite literally drinking whiskey or something quite similar, not kombucha.

    1. ozob says:

      Not all sweeteners are the same, WLU…I suspect (and assume) Carmen meant “refined/table sugar” vs other carbohydrate sweeteners, like agave or maple syrup or honey, corn syrup (yech!), etc.

      In this case, the answer is: Yes! You can make it with honey (which is considerably lower on the glycemic index). You could also theoretically make it with fruit juice.

      Think of it this way: With the same ingredients, you are either making a soft drink (high sugar, low alcohol, low acid, naturally carbonated), an alcoholic beverage (low sugar, high alcohol, low-moderate acid, carbonation optional), or a vinegar (low sugar, low alcohol, high acid, no carbonation).

      Kombucha tends to fall in-between all the above three: moderate sugar, low alcohol, moderate-high acid. You can influence the outcomes by influencing when, where and how the ferment has access to sugars and oxygen.

      1. ozob says:

        I should clarify: raw honey is lower, refined honey can rival other high-glycemic sweeteners. You can make kombucha from a low-glycemic sweetener, as long as it is a carbohydrate-based sweetener (i.e., not an alcohol-based sweetener/laxative like sorbitol or xylitol)

  77. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    Europeans didn’t think the earth was flat, that’s a myth. Christopher Columbus, after all, was trying to circumnavigate the globe, because he knew it was round. Polynesians might have been great navigators – but we’re still doing it better via GPS. Comparing what Polynesians accomplished centuries ago to what prescientific Europeans did was never my point – it’s that now we are better at it. And we even managed to find a way of determining objective position several centuries ago, which I’m not sure Polynesians did. They did settle Easter Island though, then managed to deforest it. Not very wise.

    Both deductive and inductive reasoning are valid forms of scientific reasoning. One moves from general to specific, the other from specific to general. Facts > basic principles, versus basic principles to prediction of facts. Hypothesis testing versus hypothesis generating.

    Wade Davis isn’t reframing the argument or explanation, he’s explaining the biochemical processes that underlay an empirical finding. The difference between “planting in poo makes my corn grow better” and the Haber-Bosch process. The natives don’t know what a molecule is, or what monoamino oxidase is, or what tryptamine is. They knew they could get high on the plants. Incidentally, I am opposed to deliberately exterminating cultures. I just think the global, scientific culture has a lot to offer (far more than any of its predecessors), that it’s a lot better at finding out facts, and that it helps cultures adapt and change in interesting and uniting ways. Far more than the ethnocentric hunter-gatherer, feudal and nationalistic cultures that exist today and in the past. I value the truth that is found in science far more than the myths humanity used in it’s ignorant infancy.

    1. ozob says:

      GPS: Good Position, Sometimes. I wasn’t talking about Columbus re: flat earth — more pre-Rennaissance into Classical periods.

      Science is *still* playing catch-up to the place-based knowledge systems we’ve supposedly-assimilated, and mostly destroyed. Sure, scientifically, we know *about* nixtamalization, but how many people practice it? Science tells us about stuff, there is a huge disconnect between theory and practice, though, on every level: individual, societal, policy, etc. Global warming is a wonderful example of that. Meadows, et al and Tainter have demonstrated why civilized societies are so slow to accept and respond to important feedback.

      Wade Davis isn’t reframing, you’re right. Another example, among many, of you putting words in my mouth and creating straw-men arguments to refute things I never said nor intended to say. I said he’s translating between two completely different (and often incompatible) ways of being in and understanding the world, and I stand by it. Wade Davis says as much himself, I’m merely paraphrasing him. You, however, are reframing the knowledge that Wade Davis has already translated to distort it for argumentation’s sake, which is patronizing, ignorant, reductive, inaccurate and disingenuous. Reducing myths to “scientific inaccuracy” is itself an ethnocentric practice that does little to advance true understanding of both cultural diversity and the reasons why it evolved, and why it may be necessary into the future. Mal intent.

      The lens through which you see the world is neither right nor wrong, neither superior nor inferior, but is simply one of many that has its time and place. Mind you, I’m not saying “it’s all relative,” so please stop with the straw men.

      I wish you best of luck in all your endeavors!

  78. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    We don’t need to practice nixtamalization because our agricultural systems produce enough food of adequate calorie and nutritional content. It would be good if we did practice it since we would be more efficient in our calorie consumption. Yes, there is a tremendous imbalance between theory and practice, which is a relatively recent thing. Hopefully politicians will grasp the importance of listening to scientists. A few more massive tropical storms on the coasts might do it.

    It may be hurtful for hunter-gatherers to learn that their myths are wrong. But their myths are still wrong. Humans are often wrong, but have a hard time admitting that to themselves. It’s a pity, we would advance more quickly. Cultural diversity is reducing, because we are now joined together by globe-spanning communication systems, so our knowledge of the world is no longer limited by whoever we happen to live next to. Loss of cultural diversity is a shame, but it has happened thousands of time due to conquest, assimilation, extinction, starvation and abandonment.

    No, science is far more right than any other system that has existed in the past. It’s not “all relative, maaaaaaan!” Science produces more correct knowledge than any other system of knowledge, which is obvious from human success in medicine, engineering and every other field of knowledge since science became adopted the world over. I don’t believe you grasped the point of Ionidas and Ethan’s work – hypotheses are often wrong because we must make predictions and test them. Scientific theories are tentative and subject to change. Unless we get it right the first time, which is unlikely, of course our theories will be wrong. The important thing is that we test them and change them based on the evidence. SCAMsters never change, indigenous people just get it wrong, meanwhile science progresses.

    Also, it’s hardly surprising that, in a jungle, natives would happen to eat two different plants then notice they got really high. Does Davis indicate that the natives had some sort of a priori way of knowing they would get high? Because otherwise their discovery is about as impressive as noticing sugar water turns into alcohol if left long enough, and that discovery was made repeatedly by nearly every culture on the planet.

    And finally, we are in many ways superseding the plant-based discoveries of years past, we’re now on the edge of creating medical molecules out of whole cloth. We’ve been doing it with nonmedical molecules for years. We’ve created new elements for that matter. And pharmacognosy has also illustrated that many of the beliefs about herbs turned out to be wrong. Kava kava doesn’t improve memory, dried mugwort doesn’t have magical effects when burned, black cohosh doesn’t improve menopause symptoms, echinacea doesn’t cure colds, saw palmetto doesn’t cure prostate cancer. There are some successes, willow bark and St. John’s Wort for two, but mostly a lot of failures.

  79. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    Why is it that science is still playing catch-up with incredibly advanced Polynesian wayfinding techniques that existed thousands of years ago

    How is science playing catch-up? We have ships that can circumnavigate the planet without refuelling. Our maps are much more accurate, covering the entire planet. Polynesians weren’t even aware of the Atlantic ocean, nor the Arctic. You’re mistaking “we’re not sure with how they did it” with “they are better navigators than us”. You can’t say the builders of the pyramids were better engineers than us merely because we don’t know how they built it (my money is on internal ramp). I’m not arguing with the accomplishments of prescientific cultures. I’m just saying we’re better than they were at learning things, learning correct things, making things, curing diseases, communicating, really just about anything.

    You are mistaking “We don’t know” with “this doesn’t work” and then extending that conclusion to “this didn’t work for anyone, anywhere, because we know best” based on a largely unproven (and largely disproven) preconception that “there is nothing a native group can discover that science can’t discover better, faster and improve upon.”

    Amusingly, you attempted to use Wade Davis’ summary of scientific research to prove I was wrong on this point. The scientists involved managed to discover after a couple years, what hunter-gatherers didn’t after centuries. The compounds found in two different plants have a synergistic chemical effect that gets you high by interfering with monoamino oxidase. Please show me the source that demonstrates hunter-gatherers know what monoamino oxidase is.

    You’re either throwing the baby out with the bathwater, or you’re drowning the baby in the bathwater. There are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

    Any fact assumed to be true by a hunter-gatherer can be tested and confirmed by science if it’s actually true. But intellectually honest investigation must be willing to concede that perhaps they were wrong. While the universe is indeed vaster and weirder than anything I can imagine, I’m still a lot closer to the truth than any hunter gatherer on the planet, now or in the past. It’s not turtles all the way down, it’s a rocky ball held together with gravity, held in orbit by gravity around an enormous ball of mostly hydrogen that is consistently fusing into helium, releasing massive amounts of energy in the process.

    Global warming is a wonderful example of that. Meadows, et al and Tainter have demonstrated why civilized societies are so slow to accept and respond to important feedback.

    1) It’s “climate change”, while the overall planet is getting warmer, parts experience reduced temperatures (indeed, if the Greenland ice sheet melts then I think England is supposed to become uninhabitable).
    2) Please show me any evidence that hunter-gatherers realized they lived on a globe.
    3) I will refer you to Brian Fagan’s The First North Americans again, to demonstrate the history of North American hunter-gatherer groups was one of repeated arrival, expansion, starvation and relocation. Ours is not the only society to exhaust the carrying capacity of the land, despite the alleged “wisdom” of hunter-gatherers.
    4) Scientists are near-universal on the reality of climate change, the problem is politics. Please illuminate me on how the public being wrong and misunderstanding the science is a validation of the wisdom of hunter-gatherers, or a failing of science.

    1. ozob says:

      If science is based in civilization, then it doesn’t matter, because civilization is unsustainable and it destroys everything that science studies. Sometimes, science participates directly in that destruction. It always participates indirectly, such as the need for marine ecologists to use complex metal machines to take measurements. Those machines were mined from ecosystems that were stolen from other peoples, who in turn became a part of the pauper class reduced to urban slums and confined to factories to produce the crap that you say enriches your life:

      If it’s not based on civilization, then you have nothing to worry about, and no reason to argue. Your continuing willingness to argue indicates to me a belief on your part that science (as you define it, at least) is, indeed, based on civilization. Thus, given your fundamentalist devotion to it, and your perception of dependence on it and other institutions of civilization, it is fundamentally too scary for you to address any of the large number of very real scenarios that civilization is creating the conditions for its catastrophic collapse without substantial intervention. That’s pretty much a summary of the subtext of your argumentation to point.

      I again ask you to stop changing the subject and address any of the well-researched arguments made by Jensen, Tainter, Crosby, Hornborg, Godesky, Meadows, et al

      If you are either unable or unwilling to do this, then I take it as a concession that you are, without having the chutzpah to come out and say it, just avoiding uncomfortable realities that undermine your belief in the superiority of civilization. Instead, you deflect, reframe, create tons of straw-men, spear some red herrings and otherwise throw a temper tantrum anytime someone challenges your belief system. The fact of the matter is, our disagreement on other societies is irrelevant to this discussion, which is focused on the viability of civilization (and, according to you, the viability of “science” [as you define it] by extension). Your argument thus far has been, “it must be viable, because there is no alternative [that i know of or am willing to accept!]” Pretty convincing. You should write a book about it! Anyway, everything else is just you trying to spear some red herrings in order to bolster your own belief system.

      All this because you refuse to acknowledge that various substances can be food, and/or medicine, and/or poison simply by virtue of any number of factors. Wowzas!

      Climate change vs global warming? poh-tay-toh, poh-tah-toh. There are good arguments for either one. Again, mala fide on your part. It’s not science that’s always right. It’s you! Hooray for WLU! You are a wonderful mascot and cheerleader for Science (as you define it)! Keep up the good work!

      1. weing says:


        Why this animosity towards civilization? I prefer a philosophy of hope. What got us into this mess, may get us out of it too. Derrick Jensen is not a scientist, he may have arguments that need to be considered, but science is not really based on arguments. I have no doubt that civilization can collapse and the world revert to to stone age. Why would you think that would be an improvement? Hopefully science can prevent that. I get the impression, that you are looking forward to that. Correct me if I am wrong. I see civilization as better than the hunter-gatherer state where when two people meet and speak to each other only in order to figure out whether to kill the other or not. I am reminded of the old saw about the difference between communism and capitalism. In capitalism, man exploits his fellow man, in communism it’s the other way around.

        1. ozob says:

          no, Derrick Jensen is not a practicing scientist (his past in mineral engineering physics aside, which probably relates to his systematic and analytical approach to argumentation). But the evidence that he cites is both historical and scientific.

          there is no such thing as a “reversion.” (except maybe in the minds of reactionaries)

          communism and capitalism are both civilized systems of organization. Capitalism is a bit more flexible form of exploitation, which is why it is taking longer to collapse (which is a shame, because it is resulting in more destruction).

          Civilization is, by definition, based on resource exploitation, resource depletion and growth. Which means it destroys, expands, conquers, and finally collapses. sitting on one’s ass in a cubicle, working one’s ass off for the elite so we can scrape by, watching TV and playing videogames (“bread and circuses”), air pollution, allergies, mass starvations, malnutrition and global inequalities, overpopulation, overconsumption, rampant disease (e.g., mobility, population density, poor sanitation [ref. Joseph Jenkins on this one], zoonosis), undrinkable water and water depletion, loss of topsoil, collapse of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems — these are not “progress” yet they are part and parcel to every civilization that has existed, including ours (and to a much greater degree). They are a result of agriculture-based societies who traded “quality” for “quantity.” Sure, people live longer now. But are we happier? Some of us are — those who have the privilege and power to externalize miseries to poorer areas of society or the globe.

          Those who have spent their entire lives in civilization have no idea what they are missing with the experience if living in an intact community structure, surrounding by everyone (human and nonhuman) you love. Not every uncivilized society, but it’s definitely not possible in civilization with its high mobility and social alienation.

          It’s also the most common form of society on the planet right now, which makes it potentially unpopular to bash, no matter how true the bashing might be.

          I want progress. I want people to have opportunities to live their lives in intact communities. And if someone decides not to, then they have no right to a lifestyle that impedes someone else’s right to life within an intact community and ecosystem. Civilization, when you come down to it, sets up an awful lot of fundamental roadblocks to progress, and i have yet to hear from WLU or any others how this society is really any different. He says we have empiricism. True, but my unanswered questions:

          1. What good is rigorous evidence when the rest of society ignores it?
          2. What good is understanding something when, by understanding it, you destroy it (as civilized science does, sometimes directly, and always indirectly through its participation in the civilized economy of destruction)?

          1. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

            What’s wrong with working in a cubicle? I work in a cubicle. It’s a bitchin’ cubicle. I work with nice people. I like my job. I make enough money. I don’t experience disease, and in fact most diseases are trending downwards, particularly the ones we can vaccinate against. Smallpox is gone, polio is close. I am quite happy, thanks, despite not being a member of “the elite”. I think I’m much happier than I would be as a farmer, and probably as a hunter-gatherer (certainly my ration of happiness to knowledge is much better, but perhaps you believe living in ignorance is superior).

            Those “intact community structures” you so admire also tend to pigeonhole people rather dramatically. You are allocated a limited number of social roles. You always know the same people – which is OK if you like those people, but if they make your life miserable you’re kinda screwed. You say mobility like it’s a dirty word, but you can recreate yourself, meet new people, interact over the internet with people on the other side of the planet with whom you share far more interests than people in the same house. Civilization means for most of my needs I don’t have to rely on family and friends, the state provides for a lot of them such that I’m not limited by who I know. And I would be rather curious to see what the degree of patriarchy and gender equality is overall within these societies. Not isolated anecdotal examples, on average for all hunter-gatherer societies.

  80. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    You assume that civilization is unsustainable. You can’t compare past societies to the current one because of the use of empirical research, it’s a game-changer. Other societies exhausted soils by not understanding the impact of their farming. We do, and we compensate for it.

    In general, if a population is sitting on a source of metal without exploiting it, they probably didn’t know about it. You’re bringing in land claims now. Your stretch from marine biologists relying on metal instruments to the tearing of land away from aboriginal groups would be amusing if it weren’t so histrionic. Do you think the marine biologists deliberately choose the source of their instruments based on which company exploits the natives best?

    I’m not saying science is based on civilization, I’m saying science is a method which has allowed the current world-spanning civilization to achieve the greatness it has, as well as do the damage it has (and will allow it to correct the damage as well). You can do science without civilization, but it’s much harder (and unlikely given the parochial, insular, naive and simply wrong beliefs that accompany most hunter-gatherer civilizations, not to mention the lack of surpluses allowing specialization and an educated class). I just don’t think you can really point to any other knowledge or civilization that has achieved anything close to the current one, particularly hunter-gatherers.

    I again ask you to give an example of a hunter-gatherer society that accomplished anything near our level of knowledge, or even any knowledge that was actually correct. Rather than dealing with the extensive theories presented in your books, I prefer to provide counter-examples found in real life. Concrete is better than abstract. I’m not upset by you challenging my beliefs, I just think you’re wrong. It’s not that I’m unwilling to accept alternatives, you have yet to provide an alternative that’s convincing. Yes, previous societies and civilizations have collapsed, but none of them adopted a knowledge-seeking approach like ours. They’re not comparable. That’s where all of your examples fail.

    I’m frequently wrong. Science is usually right. When I draw from science, the degree to which I’m right increases. That’s why I trust and rely on it so much.

    1. ozob says:

      “You assume that civilization is unsustainable. You can’t compare past societies to the current one because of the use of empirical research, it’s a game-changer. Other societies exhausted soils by not understanding the impact of their farming. We do, and we compensate for it.”

      That’s what all the evidence appears to indicate. Then show me some well-researched arguments that do indicate indicate that the current permutation of civilization is significantly different than all the others that have collapsed before, after a few hundred – few thousand years, and how those differences are significant enough to mitigate all the others factors that threaten collapse.

      For example, show me someone who demonstrates how Tainter’s research somehow does not apply to this civilization, as Meadow’s, et al research strongly suggests it does. I’d be genuinely interested in reading it, if it exists. The interesting thing about Meadows, et al is that it was supposed to be the bridge to policy, to prove your hopes correct. 40 years ago, that is. But we did nothing. And we continue to do *nothing* of significance to turn away from the current trajectory even as destruction escalates exponentially (funny thing about those exponential growth curves and doubling times…). Not just policymakers and politicians (whose interests are entrenched in the systems of destruction they are supposed to be reigning in or changing), but also plenty of “activists” who believe strongly in collapse. Anecdotally, I’ve seen how many of them don’t know how to be effective agents of change by virtue of the fact that they are otherwise living pretty comfortable lives. In other words, they’re being self-righteous and dishonest (as Derrick Jensen points out very eloquently).

      This is a pretty good critical review of Tainter’s argument:
      (see the end re: the “lack of imagination” statement) but it still points to missing evidence as to *why civilizations, over and over again, are unable to changing from their course of collapse, i.e., why they are fundamentally based on growth, expansion, imperialism, and then collapse in the face of diminishing marginal returns*

      The answer’s kind of embedded in the argument, though — entrenched interests x increasingly complex bureaucracies x population growth x increasing per-capita resource use = inability to change from any present course. Another example is how ecological economics (a much more sophisticated, science-based economic framework) is still a marginal practice and little, if any, influence on policy and institutions.

      Meadows, et al provide a few nice tidbits to fill in the blanks. Lack of responsiveness to evidence, no matter how empirical or convincing, is one of the most ironic ones. I agree, science has given us much evidence of how and why we are heading toward collapse, and the read of #($*#@! civilization is business as usual: ignore, and go about your day. What? Economic growth has SLOWED? CONSUME! CONSUME! How can a society that is so fundamentally scared of even the prospect of a steady-state economy survive for more than a few centuries?

      Seriously, dude, I hope you’re right and people wake up and see the evidence. But it seems like there is a cultural dogma (amongst many other systemic and institutional factors) embedded in civilization that creates resistance to it.

  81. weing says:

    I think he is referring to the concept of traditional ecological knowledge. While that knowledge developed by adapting to their environment. I suppose if you spend a lot of time in the ocean you may be able to detect subtle differences in waves to give you an idea that an island is nearby, etc.

    1. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

      Yep, and European seagoers used to tell where they were in the Mediterranean based on the smell of the winds – but a compass is more reliable, and a GPS more reliable still. Traditional knowledge is interesting, it can surprise us (which is more our failing than anything else, “traditional” people are genetically the same as us and just as smart/stupid), but that doesn’t make it right. This “traditional” knowledge is often an island of accuracy in an ocean of incorrectness (in at least two senses – it’s geographically isolated, and the individual facts that are correct are surrounded by myriad facts that are not). No traditional population I am aware of had a means of establishing their absolute position on the planet, and it took European explorers until the 18th century to be able to do so.

      None of this is limited by genes, or even culture – anyone can do it, if they adopt the method, and they will be successful. And that, is why science and empiricism is better than traditional knowledge.

      The best and most useful traditional knowledge is of local plants that are not found in other areas of the planet. However, this must be tested through pharmacognosy. Further, once our ability to understand and model the proteome, rather than being at the mercy of whatever plants happen to produce that we can co-opt, we will be able to design and produce them on much larger scales.

      Certainly they have nothing to tell us about the origins and makeup of the world and universe, or how to feed and organize 7 billion people. When you’ve lived your entire life in the company of the same several dozen people, can you even conceive of a thousandth of that number? Does the word “stranger” even mean anything to you, or is it just a synonym for enemy?

      1. ozob says:

        I just came across this:

        I have yet to read it in-depth, but it’s definitely risen to the top of my list. Very interesting.

  82. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    Then show me some well-researched arguments that do indicate indicate that the current permutation of civilization is significantly different than all the others that have collapsed before, after a few hundred – few thousand years, and how those differences are significant enough to mitigate all the others factors that threaten collapse.

    Do you know what the Haber-Bosch process is? And also, as I’ve been saying repeatedly – the scientific process alone is enough to change the game completely. Let’s not forget that we know what electricity is, which allows electronics, which allow the internet. There is safe, effective birth control, and safe, effective medicine, both of which lead to decreases in human populations (the Mother Jones article you mentioned a while ago underscored the importance of having both, not just the latter). Your assumption that civilization will collapse is an assumption based in turn on the assumption that the patterns of the past will persist. Perhaps you are correct, I doubt it. If you are correct, then you may have your satisfaction during the midst of some sort of catastrophic cannibalistic collapse of civilization.

    but it still points to missing evidence as to *why civilizations, over and over again, are unable to changing from their course of collapse, i.e., why they are fundamentally based on growth, expansion, imperialism, and then collapse in the face of diminishing marginal returns*

    I would argue that civilizations are unable to change because they are not aware of why they are collapsing. Not to mention, much of the world-civilization that is based on empiricism and science is in fact world-spanning. Its growth is in terms of production now, not geography. And many nations are learning the benefits of mutual trade over war, which is great. The US seems to be a bit of an exception.

    1. ozob says:

      So, your answer is “no, I don’t have any examples.” Haber-Bosch isn’t an example — it is an extremely energy-intensive process that has substantial unaccounted externalities both in production and in application. It is part of a reductive approach toward environmental destruction — in the same category as replacing intact forests with fields of mechanical “carbon scrubbers.” More of the same.

      WLU — I’m not disputing the BENEFITS of being a privileged member of civilization (and, yes, if you work in a cubicle in Canada, you’re probably part of the global elite). Yes, it is an assumption based on a burden of historical AND contemporary evidence. Not one that I take pleasure in, mind you, but definitely something I am anticipating and preparing for given the (wait…for…it…) preponderance of scientific (as well as historical) evidence indicating that collapse is likely. And hopefully, enough people finally start taking the evidence into account and defect from, destroy or transform the growth-based foundations of civilization to create better societies that are actually sustainable. Right now, the picture is pretty grim, though :(

  83. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    Oh well then, guess we’ll have to wait and see if there’s an apocalypse. I hope I’ll still have internet.

    1. ozob says:

      haha. technically, apocalypse is one “collapse” scenario amongst many. If we take into account evidence (as you hope and believe we do) then the “collapse” will look an awful lot more like a “transition,” complete with a bunch of histrionic doofuses who will feel compelled to argue along the lines of, “see, there was obviously little or no risk of collapse at all!” (well, no, we aren’t magically exempt from the laws of thermodynamics, we just took the risk seriously and acted accordingly).

      You should be happy about that, though, since it drastically increases your odds of being right and me being wrong! yes, please, feel free to brag as much as you damn well please, if teh interwebz permit.

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