Thursday, January 19, 2017
Book Review: Big World, Small Planet: Abundance Within Planetary Boundaries – by Johan Rockstrom and Mattias Klum (Yale University Press, 2015)
This is a beautiful book by two Swedes. Rockstrom is an environmental scientist and Klum is a wildlife photographer and filmmaker. The book is filled with nice color plates of photos and of graphs. The book begins with the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit that is widely seen as a failure by those who thought an agreement could be reached. Rockstrom’s focus for that meeting and for this book is on defining ‘planetary boundaries’ – beyond which are encountered dangerous tipping points. There are several boundaries: climate, pollution, resource depletion, land use, etc. Their first book in 2012, The Human Quest: Prospering Within Planetary Boundaries, was presented to 130 heads of state at the 2012 Rio UN summit on sustainable development. They advocate a ‘new narrative’ of human development, one that is ‘bottom-up’ rather than ‘top-down.’ The book is divided into three parts: problems and their urgency, new sustainable ways of thinking about prosperity, justice, and happiness, and presenting practical solutions to the problems stemming from human development.
They begin with “Our Ten Key Messages”: 1) open your eyes (to the multiple situations where humans are stressing the ability of the earth to provide), 2) the crisis is global and urgent – population and economic growth keep rising making the problems worse, 3) everything is hyper-connected – what affects one thing likely affects many others, 4) expect the unexpected – they expect surprises with planetary change, 5) respecting planetary boundaries – keeping within fairly known tipping points, 6) global mind shift – correct attitudes toward sustainability need to be developed, 7) preservation of wild and natural areas is in everyone’s best interests, 8) we can turn things around – we have the technological tools to be both prosperous and sustainable, 9) unleashing innovation – by defining thresholds, boundaries, and limits to energy production and emissions, innovators can know what they need to overcome, 10) first things first – prioritize based on urgency – climate change, nitrogen and phosphorous overload, and biodiversity are the most urgent, they say.
Giving Ikea’s move toward solar and wind as an example they note a corporate world move toward sustainability in the forms of “resource efficiency, circular business models, low-carbon value chains, and environmental accounting.” Many mainstream companies now have sustainability strategies and goals.
Humans have faced climate dangers before as well as the effects of natural disasters like ice ages, asteroid/comet impacts, and super-volcanoes that manifested through climate changes. By comparison the last 11,000 years the climate has been predictably stable and calm. With the advent of the Industrial Age and to a much lesser extent before that with the advent of agriculture, the Holocene gave way to what is now often referred to the Anthropocene which has become characterized by environmental impacts from a vastly increasing population of humans. The authors give a series of twelve graphs to show the acceleration of human pressures on the planet. All show vast increases beginning with the Industrial Age. They are as follows: atmospheric CO2 concentration, atmospheric methane concentration, atmospheric N2O concentration, increase in stratospheric ozone depletion (although this one has stabilized since banning CFCs), global average surface temperature, ocean acidification, marine fish capture, shrimp aquaculture production (proxy for coastal zone alteration), nitrogen loading in coastal zones, loss of tropical forests, increase in ‘domesticated ‘ land, and terrestrial biosphere degradation. The ‘Great Acceleration’ of all these issues began in the mid-1950’s and parallels accelerations of population with its exponential growth. They note three indications of human social pressure on the planet: population, affluence (as measured by GDP), and technology (as measured by patent applications). All three have exploded since the mid- 1950’s. They also show what they call the ‘quadruple squeeze’ of global impacts. These are: human growth in terms of population and affluence, climate change, ecosystem degradation, and surprise or the risk of sudden unforeseen changes.
The loss of ecosystems includes tragic losses in rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia from palm oil plantations, bauxite mining, soy farming, and livestock grazing. Fires from land-clearing there for these purposes have also been devastating in their CO2 and pollution emissions. Sedimentation, soil erosion, nutrient loading, and loss of fish stocks have also resulted from these practices. In 2008, 30% of greenhouse gas emissions were due to Indonesian forest fires and the fires have also been very strong contributors in subsequent years. I don’t think that includes the loss of carbon sinks from deforestation there. More effort should be put forth to mitigate these issues. However, the particulate matter does form aerosols that lead to global cooling for a more temporary period so there is some offset of warming effects though overall the affect is warming.
They discuss tipping points and resilience in socio-ecological systems. Resilience is what keeps ecosystems from crossing tipping points that may change the overall state of the system. Resilience thus prevents things like positive feedbacks from being initiated. Regulations and preserving ecosystem services may promote resilience and prevent crossing tipping points. The earth’s biggest regular tipping point and regime-shift is thought to be its cycling from the glacial to the interglacial and back, from icehouse conditions to greenhouse conditions and vice versa. In the past this has been typically triggered by changes in solar irradiation due to planetary orbits and gravitation but now humans may be very well influencing changes. Deforestation and ocean acidification are happening at too fast rates. Although the authors state that some data has suggested that terrestrial and oceanic carbon sinks are taking up less carbon than before there is also evidence very recently that they are taking up more than thought so it is unclear and overall carbon budgeting is one of the uncertainties of climate modeling. The authors also note uncertainties in feedbacks as a reason to be more cautious although such uncertainties could go either way really. Increasing or at least stabilizing resilience of ecosystems is necessary, they say.
Defining planetary boundaries is a major goal of their work. This is somewhat similar to ‘carrying capacities’ of earth and earth systems but more specifically refers to prevention of positive feedbacks as tipping points are crossed. The goal is to “define a safe operating space for humanity on a stable planet.” Rockstrom worked with an interdisciplinary group off scientists to define planetary boundaries. Being within planetary boundaries is synonymous with remaining in a stable Holocene-like state. Tipping points are thresholds from stability to instability. These concepts can also be applied to individual ecosystems.
“Earth is a complex and self-regulating system, in which everything is connected to everything else. This means, in very simple terms, that when nature is in good shape, Earth’s resilience is high.”
He acknowledges that “defining planetary boundaries is difficult due to the broad ranges of uncertainty involved.” How much is too much? The most known of the thresholds is probably the climate threshold beyond which climate changes could become catastrophic. He pegs it somewhere between 350 and 450 ppm CO2 but some think it is higher. 450 is in-line with the 2 deg C limit agreed upon in the Paris Agreement. The complexity and interplay of so many variables in the climate system make it difficult to develop certainty. Only with more time and data and with more actual effects documented will higher levels of certainty develop. The interdisciplinary team here put the thresholds on the lower end as a precautionary approach – ie. they picked 350 ppm for CO2 and 1.5 deg C as boundaries. Therefore some might see their boundary thresholds as overly cautious. In 2009 the group defined nine planetary boundaries: 1) climate change, 2) stratospheric ozone depletion, 3) rate of biodiversity loss, 4) chemical pollution, 5) ocean acidification, 6) freshwater consumption, 7) land-use change, 8) nitrogen and phosphorous pollution, and 9) air pollution and aerosol loading. Of those, only extinction rate and nitrogen/phosphorous (especially nitrogen) are in the zone of certainty of having crossed a threshold. Others like climate are in the zone of certainty. Only three are in the safe zone: ocean acidification, freshwater consumption, and ozone depletion. They were unable to suggest boundaries for two of the nine variables: chemical pollution and aerosol loading, even after re-evaluation in 2014- due to lack of data and analysis. They renamed the chemical pollution boundary the ‘novel entity’ boundary indicative of new compounds being introduced into earth systems. They consider three of the boundaries as being hard-wired into the earth-system and thus having sharp well-defined boundaries: climate change, stratospheric ozone, and ocean acidification. These effects are all global. Another grouping is of four slower processes, what they call the slow boundaries: land-use, freshwater consumption, biodiversity loss, and interference with the nitrogen and phosphorous cycles. These have more regional and local effects. However, if those are multiplied enough around the world they could become global effects. The third grouping is of two human-induced threats: 1) aerosol loading in the form of pollutants like soot (black carbon), nitrates, sulfates, and other particles, and 2) chemical pollution (novel entities), mainly in the form of heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants (POPs). These are the two variables for planetary boundaries as yet unquantified.
One update they have noted is that two boundaries, climate and biodiversity loss, have the most potential effect on the earth system. They have also added regional-scale boundary levels so there are now twin definitions of the boundaries. For example freshwater consumption is not just a global boundary but boundaries can be defined for each watershed, river system, or region. They also redefined the climate planetary boundary as 1 watt per square meter of radiative forcing rather than by temperature rise or atmospheric CO2 concentration to take into account all greenhouse gases as well as aerosols that offset them with some global cooling effects. However, the boundary is about the same since the other warming gases (mainly methane and nitrogen oxides) are thought to cancel out the cooling aerosols. Reductions in aragonite concentrations in the ocean is used as a proxy for ocean acidification. Rates of species extinction (above geologic history background levels) is a proxy for biodiversity loss. Their boundary for land development is at 15% of available land with the current proportion being 12%. They switched their measure from max farm land added to minimum forest land required. They also revised their nitrogen and phosphorous thresholds, those that cause anoxic dead zones typically at river-ocean boundaries. About 1/6 of the Baltic Sea is such a dead zone. Phosphorous also threatens surface freshwater and comes not only from fertilizer but from treated water from sewage and water treatment plants. Interestingly, they note that we are moving from a focus on reducing emissions to one of managing the biosphere through efforts like carbon sequestration, habitat protection, and preparation to adapt to possible climate change effects.
The fear of runaway positive feedbacks is one of the major worries about climate change effects. In July 2012 the entire Greenland Ice sheet began to melt and in a few weeks changed to a darker surface color so that reflection was reduced off of the whiter ice. Although this was temporary and within one seasonal cycle, such a feedback could accelerate melting drastically if sustained. Glaciologist Jason Box and others refer to it as an early warning of things to come, although it has not happened since that period in 2012. Heating and ice loss in the Arctic has exceeded early estimates by a large amount – predicted 2030 levels of melt were seen by 2007 and 2008. Changes in Antarctica have been more debatable. Some predictions for sea level rise suggest that we are already locked into a 3.3 ft global sea level rise which would be slow over decades and perhaps centuries but also potentially catastrophic. The Arctic is seen as more vulnerable to warming but some researchers are questioning that. Certainly, current warming is happening at a much greater pace in the Arctic. Rainforests are seen as among the most vulnerable ecosystems. Their self-generating moisture due to their canopy can be compromised by opening up sections of rainforest where moisture could be lost, reducing the resilience of the ecosystem and drying parts of it into savanna-like states. Coral reefs are also vulnerable ecosystems and can be affected by overfishing, nutrient overload, and ocean warming. Ecosystems seem to operate best when certain organisms thrive, including top predators, pollinators, and soil bacteria.
They describe an unexpected effect. When EU rules changed fishing policies many of the commercial fishers moved to the West coast of Africa where there were already pollution problems and degradation of mangrove areas. When these fishers moved in they reduced the fish population enough that local fishers were not getting enough to feed local people. Thus, as trading patterns changed some people moved to eating ‘bush meat’ provided by hunters. Thus, zoonotic diseases like ebola began to rise. Reduction of wheat exports from Russia to the Middle East in 2011 due to a heat wave and subsequent rising food prices combined with rising fertilizer prices led to food riots which were one trigger to the Arab Spring. They see these events as climate triggered disruptions although in the fishing case one might see it as policy triggered.
Resource depletion is next explored in a chapter titled “Peak Everything.” There are many natural materials in high demand with future supplies uncertain so this is an important issue. They mention the metal indium, used in flat-screen TVs, laptops, and tablets. Metals availability is a big issue as technological advances may add more demand for metals as they have. However, other advances may reduce the need for such metals and more sources could be found. Product prices can change significantly based on supply and availability of components and metals. Computer chips, TVs, cell phones, and other digital gadgets may take up to 50 different metals to produce. The supply of some metals like indium, silver, and antimony is thought to be very low. There are also geopolitical effects – control of tantalum mines in the Congo was a feature of a recent war there. Since China controls production of 93% of rare earth metals, they could manipulate the price if sufficiently provoked, although there are other more expensive sources that could be developed. The development of the ‘circular economy,’ ‘cradle-to cradle’ strategies, and other recycling strategies for rare materials is an important factor.
They also mention ‘peak oil’ which was once oddly a controversial idea but is now more mainstream. However, the idea is based not only on the finite nature of the resource but a lack of appreciation for the changing nature of technology and economics. This has played out with new methods of producing oil and gas such as fracking and tar sands. While tar sands may well be more “dirty” than conventional oil, oil from fracking, it can be argued, is not. The authors wrongly note that fracked wells deplete very quickly compared to most conventional production. That is only partly true and their notion that as analysts have predicted, fracked resources will be depleted by the end of the decade is patently absurd. A few glances at resource maps, company acreage, well activity, and predicted demand will show otherwise by a huge factor. They are grossly misinformed in their estimates.
Peak phosphorous is another issue. Predictions are that we may have passed peak phosphorus and in 50-100 years we will be facing a shortage as reserves are depleted. Phosphate rock is the source. Recycling phosphorous is difficult and expensive currently. Overuse of phosphorus, or inefficient use perhaps, is a source of deadly algae blooms due to phosphorous loading. The washed away phosphorous ends up at the bottom of rivers, lakes, and the sea in sediments. Like oil, phosphorous is a dwindling resource and a pollutant. Some ways to conserve phosphorous include proper application of fertilizers to minimize waste due to runoff – applying at the right place, time, and amounts, reduction in meat consumption, preventing erosion of phosphorous-rich soil, and utilizing human waste/sewage since it is rich in phosphorous.
Matias Klum talks about Borneo, a place he has visited for 20 years. It is a place where rainforests are giving way to massive palm oil plantations and suffering from forest fragmentation, illegal logging, and illegal burning. He suggests that perhaps as much as 75% of the rainforest is now gone.
Quantifying ecosystem services or benefits is no easy matter but they are quite vast. This is also a type of ‘natural capital.’ Coral reefs, mangrove forests, tropical rainforests, and inland wetlands are probably the most valuable systems in terms of the benefits they provide and the cost it would take to restore them. They note one estimate of their global annual value (all ecosystem services) of about $125 trillion, about 1.5 times global annual GDP. They note the collapse of cod fishing in Canada’s Atlantic due to overfishing by ‘factory fishing.’ They also note that costly extreme weather events likely have been increased by global warming. They note that such events cost about $150 billion a year. However, how much of that is contributed by global warming is debatable. They note that in terms of ecosystem benefits the Earth is subsidizing the world economy. Quantifying loss of ecosystem services is also difficult but Robert Costanza and colleagues calculated $20 trillion in losses per year between 2007 and 2011. (27% of the global economy). They note new orgs trying to document and quantify such figures: The Natural Capital Project, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) initiative, and the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). They note a critical element to resilience: ‘response diversity.’ This refers to a species’ response to changes such as drought, temperature, or disease. Each species will respond differently.
Other ecosystem services they mention include top predators, or keystone species, like wolves, that keep populations of their prey down so that those animals such as elk and deer don’t over-populate and devastate local food and plant resources. That has apparently been the case in Yellowstone National Park as the wolves have reduced the elk population and the forest rather quickly regenerated from the years of overgrazing.
Next they mention corporate social responsibility (CSR), saying that CSR is dead and rather the new model requires sustainability to be built-in rather than added on. Their argument is that sustainability is good business. Indeed, the Scandinavians have pioneered such thinking. They favor a new narrative from one of “environmental protection” to one of “environmental stewardship” in the realization that we are really protecting ourselves as well as our business interests by protecting the environment. They are confident in a sustainable future. They think that 60% of the urban areas needed by 2030 have yet to be built so that sustainable features can be incorporated into new construction and new systems.
Growth and innovation are next explored. The notion of growth “within a safe operating space on earth” is advocated. Taking the name of the famous 1970’s book by the Club of Rome – Limits to Growth (which proved incorrect on several accounts) they changed to a focus on ‘growth within limits.’ Economic growth is necessary for people struggling with poverties including food poverty, resource poverty, and energy poverty. They ask the question whether we can accommodate all people without destroying global and local ecosystems. Innovation and new technologies will be required if we can. They suggest we are already operating about 25% beyond the basic bio-capacity of earth systems. They are optimistic, noting things like Moore’s Law (that computer processing power generally doubles every two years). They are optimistic about biotechnology, nanotechnology, communications, and new materials (such as graphene). Their five key global transformations potential are: energy, food, business, cities, and transportation. They note the recent German experiment of ‘going to scale’ with renewable energy. Increasing crop yields through technology will be required to feed a growing global population. They think the development of resilient food production systems where yields are increased and waste is reduced are possible, especially in Africa where yields are currently low and need is great. They call it ‘sustainable intensification.’ They see second-generation GMO technology (controlled by public orgs rather corporate interests in line with their Scandinavian social democratic inclinations) as an important factor. Their business model approach is a move toward ‘circular economies’ where waste is reduced and recycling is highly developed. Reverse production, meaning building things that are easier to take apart so that parts can be recycled, will be more important in the future. Incentives to return such products to recycling facilities will help. Re-designing new cities to be sustainable while retrofitting old ones will be important. Cities already provide many opportunities for efficiency and those could be expanded further. Sustainable transportation development includes increasing bicycle use and public transportation, particularly in urban areas and reducing urban car traffic. They do, however, note the rebound effects of technologies that were once thought to permanently increase efficiency – in many cases efficiency was eventually reduced overall as more resources were used due to lower costs which were partially due to the original efficiency innovations.
They do, however, advocate for strong environmental regulations, and think that this will also unleash innovation. Their proposals include: regulation that seeks to keep economic activities within planetary boundaries, a global price on carbon, global agreements on budgeting resources and activities that threaten planetary boundaries, promoting so-called ‘bottom-up’ approaches with citizen movements collaborating with top-down governmental approaches (there are problems with this one in my view as they prefer more democratic socialist approaches), utilizing metrics other than GDP to measure growth, and massive technology sharing to promote sustainable solutions. There is one metric called Gross Ecosystem Product (GEP) that they like, to work in tandem with GDP. A clear and predictable regulatory environment does make planning and profitability potential more predictable.
The authors are in favor of some sort of planetary governance pertaining to environmental matters. Perhaps the recent Paris climate agreement is one example where pledges were made, although they are non-binding. One feature of the Anthropocene they note is the crossing of planetary boundaries and the consequent compromising of the earth’s buffering systems. They call for “globally agreed-upon sustainability boundaries and targets.” This will support local and regional efforts but will require some sort of governance structure, they say. They like the UN structure and favor the UN Environment Program (UNEP) becoming an agency with global regulatory mandates much like the WHO or WTO.
They advocate more measurement of earth systems and processes. Here I agree wholeheartedly. Generally, the more data we can gather the more we can know. Scientists worldwide have established a Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) to better monitor these systems and integrate data from different sources. Noted are areas where we have knowledge gaps and uncertainties: the oceanic conveyor belt system of ocean circulation, oceanic-atmospheric energy exchanges, global biodiversity loss, melting of Antarctic, Arctic, and Greenland ice sheets, cloud dynamics, rainfall distribution, shifting weather patterns, and climate implications of air pollution – to name a few. Tracking biodiversity loss is important because it plays a big role in ecosystem resilience. Along with measuring comes collating results and communicating them along with their implications to society at large. They favor education about planetary boundaries but will such education also convey the uncertainties or will it merely become a platform for an environmentalist agenda? They note that environmental risks need to be properly understood. However, the degree of risk, or risk assessment is the basis of most disagreements about environmental impact – so that is easier said than done. But the science should be pursued as much as possible. They favor phasing out quarterly financial reports of corporations so that long-term growth and profitability is favored over short-term. However, many businesses and investors would disagree. They advocate an end to the idea of the ‘global commons’ since what we do on a global scale effects conditions on regional and local scales. Everything is connected.
The authors state that they are confident in a sustainable future. They note that Sweden is still economically healthy with the largest carbon tax in the world but their population is low and general close together and their economic health was previously established. Their neighbor petro-states help too and they have a fair amount of biomass energy from waste-to-energy projects, waste wood from the forestry industry, and some nuclear I think. The wood and waste pollute air far more than burning natural gas. They have had problems in the past with deforestation and the Baltic areas have been affected by acid rain and dead zones in the sea due to nutrient overload. They are right though that the Scandinavians (and the Germans and other European countries) have developed a sustainable outlook and this has probably helped more than hurt their economic health.
They point to studies that suggest fossil fuels can be phased by 2050. Without significant further technological advancements in renewable energy I am quite skeptical. They mention fossil fuel subsidies but these are often tax deferments and double taxation (since fossil fuels are way more profitable than renewables they are extensively taxed) as well as being vastly overstated. Phasing them out would simply raise the price of fossil fuels which would also help renewables but hurt consumers. Renewables are everywhere well subsidized, will continue to be, and should be. As well as being subsidized they are scarcely taxed compared to fossil fuels. What I am saying here is that loss of fossil fuel companies and production means loss of tax revenue, revenue which renewable energy is not in any position to replace. The bottom line is there is no way to demonstrate that fast fossil fuel penalization through carbon taxes and phase-out would not devastate energy consumers. Germany is hyper-subsidized by the current economically healthy government. They have made important strides but they still have energy problems. Also they have failed to reduce their carbon emissions overall and their air quality can’t be getting better by burning wood, lignite coal, and waste for energy. They also mention mass conversion to sustainable agriculture. That too is also easier said than done. Certainly big improvements can be made: smart fertilizer application, more efficient and less water-intensive irrigation, more use of no-till methods, agro-ecology techniques, better recycling of waste and nutrients, better applications of biotech, reduced food waste, and better soil building and conservation techniques. Nutrients, water, and soil need to be better managed and this will also improve yields. Regenerative agriculture is another technique where small trials have demonstrated that (at least temporarily) plots can be carbon sinks – currently crop lands are mostly carbon sources.
They mention the possibilities of green chemistry, bio-refineries, and bio-plastics to replace oil refineries. However, this would require more farming to do on a mass scale even if cultivating weeds. This means more farmland and less forests which means a reduction in carbon sinks. It is also currently far more expensive than refining oil or ethane to make plastics. The authors are excited about all the possibilities of biomimicry, or utilizing nature for innovation, another way of ‘discovering’ natural capital. But like wind and solar power, these technologies are not currently scalable. They also mention “insect-based waste management and health treatment” in the form of maggots which efficiently process waste, can then be used as high protein animal feed, and have applicability for wound healing. The garment industry is experimenting with using recycled fibers and even PET plastics for recycled clothing. (fleece has long been made from recycled plastic).
They mention the environmental issues with the Baltic Sea, possibly the world’s most ‘sick’ and polluted inland sea. Major problems include nutrient overload and overgrowth of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) due to their predator zooplankton being overly eaten by herring and sprat which increased in numbers as their predator cod disappeared. Decades of urban and industrial waste contributed to the problem. The water is murky and oxygen-poor. Melting glaciers to the north have added to the problem by making the brackish Baltic waters less brackish and warmer. About 1/6 of the Baltic is a dead zone. Sweden, Russia, Germany, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Denmark, and Finland all contribute to the runoff and things are finally being done about it – St. Petersburg Russia, the largest single pollution source, “opened its first modern wastewater treatment plant in late 2013.” That surprised me that they are so far behind.
They mention the great potential of cities and note Singapore as a city that has built-in resilience and recreational opportunities in a compact and densely populated place. They also mention the Brazilian drought which has made water dangerously scarce in Sao Paulo, a city of 20 million. This may well be influenced by climate change and perhaps particularly to Amazonian deforestation.
Agroforestry systems with nitrogen fixing trees have helped the African country of Niger to improve yields and secure food, increased biodiversity, increased resilience to drought and flood, increased the profits of farmers, and improved soil fertility. The use of biogas (from anaerobic digesters) in rural India has also reduced the burning of wood and dung for cooking and heat. This also preserves local forests, increases biodiversity, and improves the health of the cooks – mostly women and children. Part of this was developed with help from the U.S. State Department under Hillary Clinton with their clean stoves initiative. They think more regulation will stimulate further development in these nature-based solutions. I am sure it would but there are limitations to mass adoption for say biogas since there is only so much to go around. Biogas, or bio-methane also stinks and leaks with a high global warming potential. More of it leaks overall without digesting the biomass (manure, food waste, and other organic waste) but it carbonizes the atmosphere faster than if nature decomposed it.
They argue that the establishment of clear agreed-upon planetary boundaries and clear regulations taking into account the true costs of carbon, and the value of natural capital and ecosystem services – would spur sustainable development that is economical. The eventual goal is what they call the triple zero formula: zero emissions, zero loss of biodiversity, and zero expansion of agricultural land. Overall this is a good and useful book but it is idealistic.
Tuesday, January 17, 2017
Book Review: The Dance in Ancient Greece – by Lillian B. Lawler (Washington Paperback 1964, 1967)
This is an academic quality yet non-technical introduction and overview of Ancient Greek dance. Dance and rhythmic movement was very important to the ancient Greeks. Processions, games, and performances involving dance were popular and of course it was associated with music and verse. The muses were said to dance and to use gesture:
“the Muse Erato, says an ancient poet, ‘dances with the foot, with song, and with the countenance, and the Muse Polyhymnia ‘expresses all things with her hand, and speaks with a gesture.’”
Apparently they had a system of mudras, gestures and symbolic movements called cheironomia. Thus, music, poetry, and dance made up the art of the muses. Lucian traced the beginning of dance to the creation of the universe and the appearance of Eros, the god of love. The rhythmic movements of the planets in the sky were associated with dance and the patroness of the stars, Urania, was also a muse. Muses Polyhymnia and Terpsichore, whose name means ‘joy in the dance,’ were venerated as developers of dance. In mythology it was the titan goddess Rhea, wife of Cronos, who taught the dance to the Curetes in Crete and to the Corybantes in Phrygia (Asia Minor). The noise of the Curetes would hide the cries of the baby Zeus from Cronos who was known for devouring his children. The Curetes practiced armed military-style dance and later became priests of Zeus. Plato noted that dance derived from a desire to move in order to express joy. He also noted that dance was associated with the gods, particularly Dionysos and Apollo, as well as the Muses.
Lawler lists seven types of sources for her work: literary, metrical, musical, archaeological, epigraphical, linguistic, and anthropological. Literary sources are numerous and rich and she suggests reading them will give more insights into ancient Greek dance. Metrical sources include actual treatises on metrics as well as actual lines of verse used for dance. Much of the metrical material is fragmentary, unfortunately. Musical sources include discussions of music by writers as well as mostly fragmentary musical remains. (One excellent modern source is by the duo Ensemble de Organigraphia from their CD– Music of the Ancient Greeks. They even build replicas of ancient instruments to use, mainly lyres, flutes, and drums).
Musical sources include On Music, by Aristeides Quintilianus which dealt with musical structure, social aspects, and the math and science of music. Ancient Greek systems of musical notation are extant and scales/modes are known. Art objects depicting scenes such as carvings, jewelry, figurines, paintings on walls and pottery make up most of the archaeological sources. I am not sure how the info for instrument replicas mentioned above was sourced – real remains or depictions. She cautions that Greek art may not be realistic in its depictions, since stylized depictions were developed rather than realistic ones. The particular depictions with side profiles and frontal body might make it hard to determine if dancing is actually being depicted in some scenes. Sometimes limbs are depicted in impossible shapes. Other aspects of ancient Greek art as it relates to dance include depictions of women with arms flailing and heads thrown back dancing in a circle. This piece shown in the book really evokes motion. That style is easily recognized as dance. She notes that they did not make much use of perspective in the visual arts. Epigraphical sources are a branch archaeological sources but are numerous and widespread. One example she gives is an inscription on a wine pitcher that says the best dancer will get it as an award so there is evidence of dance contests. Linguistic sources include technical words and expressions related to dance. Examples are curious names of dances that give clues: “the itch,” “knocking at the door,” “the beggar,” “scattering the barley,” “stealing the meat,” and “the messenger.” Anthropological sources include comparative dances of people near in time and folk dances in similar areas in modern times. However, she notes that is not easy to determine as there are Turkish and Albanian influences in modern Greek folk dances. The ancient Greeks said that the Dionysian rites arrived from Thrace as did their dances. Modern Bulgarian dances thus may have some elements of Dionysian dances. The tarantella, a distinctive dance of the Greco-Italian city of Taranto, ancient Tarentum, may well be of Greek origin. The Greco-Iberian dancing girls of Cadiz (in southern Spain) were famous in classical times and elements of such dance may well be retained in Spanish, Mexican, and Latin American dance styles. Comparisons to the folk dances of other peoples, ancient and modern, may also shed light about ancient Greek dance.
From the 16th century onward there has been interest in Greek dances by scholars and ethnographers. In more modern times there were dance movements where ancient Greek styles and clothing were employed and dances reconstructed from depictions. The art of Isadora Duncan and the dance of Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn were such.
Late ancient Greek writers subdivided dance into three elements: phora, schema, and deixis. Plutarch uses these terms but even by his time the terms may have become obscured. He thinks phora referes to dance movements, schema to poses without movement, and deixis to pointing at something. From other evidence schema seems to refer to specific gestures, perhaps even brief movements so that schemas may grade into phora. Phora is movement or movement through dance steps. Deixis may also mean ‘to portray’ as in portraying a mythological figure. As noted previously, the system of dance gestures was called cheironomia.
Prehistoric Crete and its Minoan civilization from 3000 BCE to 1400 BCE is explored. Excavation of the Minoan palace at Knossos revealed an ancient artistic people likely of non-Greek (from Asia Minor or possibly even Phoenician) origin who enjoyed dance, music, and acrobatics as well as jewelry, elegant dress, and cosmetics. They venerated a great Mother goddess of fertility, possibly equivalent to the titan Rhea. Other Greek deities associated with Crete include Ariadne, the Minotaur (a monster), Zeus, and Dionysus. The Cretans were credited by the Greeks as the originators of dance. The military dances of the Curetes were credited as the oldest dances. A variant of the dance of the Curetes was the dance of the Dactyli of Phrygia (in Asia Minor), also protecting the young Zeus, clashing shield against shield.
She mentions noisy leaping dances and assigns them two purposes: fertility, with the leaps indicating the growing tall of plants, and the noise serving to frighten evil spirits. She thinks the original wild fertility dances later evolved into the armed military dances of the Curetes. Athenaeus mentions three other armed dances of the Cretan but it is not known if they were Greek or Minoan. There was also mention of a Cretan funeral dance called the pyrlis performed by armed men. The Homeric Greeks also had such dances. Circle dances were also known in Crete – Sappho mentions barefoot Cretan women holding hands and circle dancing performed around a pillar, altar, or tree. There is one depiction of women dancing about a lyre-playing male, the oldest known. However, it is not known if it is Minoan or Mycenaeans who had later come to rule the island. This motif would later be common as Apollo surrounded by the Muses or the Graces. She notes also that there is evidence of Cretan women making shapes – of a fleur-de-lis (flower sacred to the goddess) or a bunch of grapes – to be pictures offered to the goddess. Dancers with animal masks were common, particularly bird masks but also bull masks and demonic masks. The bull-masked figure may have given rise to the legend of the Minotaur. Later Greek writers mentioned labyrinth dances and the excavated palace at Knossos has been called maze-like. Some researchers think serpents are associated with maze dances (which are common among many peoples) as serpents and a depicted serpent goddess or possibly a snake-handling priestess, are associated with Minoan religion and there are maze-like caves near Knossos. Garland dances (with garlands of myrtle), line dances, and processionals are known from Crete from different sources. She thinks ecstatic trance through dancing was especially involved in fertility rites. Acrobats and tumblers are also depicted. Such were also known in Egypt. Egyptian artifacts have also been found in Minoan excavations and this certainly suggests trade. If there was a Phoenician population there that would explain the Egyptian influence since Phoenicians and Egyptians traded and were mostly friendly for millennia and even shared deities, particularly the goddess of music, dance, and drunkenness, the cow goddess Hathor. Egyptian metal sistrums were found as well. The origin of several Greek dances were attributed to Crete and even in classical times some Cretans considered that the religion of the Greeks derived from Crete although the Greeks disputed that.
The pre-classical Mycenaean civilization that conquered Crete after developing naval power is next explored. The Mycenaeans also conquered Troy and it is their civilization that is venerated in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. The Dorians from the north eventually conquered Greece. It is likely that Cretan dances were adopted by the Mycenaeans and eventually by the Dorians as well. There is a myth of the heavenly twins, Castor and Polydeuces, inventing an armed dance, one that young warriors often danced in their honor. The Cretan pyrlis, an armed funerary dance meant to imbue the dead with new life and ward off negative influences, was practices also by the Mycenaeans, and its origin was sometimes attributed to the Mycenaean hero Achilles, or to his son Pyrrhus, although the attribution to his son may have been a confusion of etymology. She suggests its true origin may have been the homology of leaping dancers to leaping flames (the Greek root pyr means fire). One difference between Cretan and Mycenaean styles is that Cretan men shaved their facial hair but Mycenaeans wore beards. Dances of maiden choruses were attributed to the Mycenaeans and to various myths. Lamenting dances were also known and the swinging of young girls high on swings was known as sympathetic magic for fertility among them and among Dionysians as well as possibly among the Cretans. Wedding dances are described in the Odyssey. There is a scene in the Iliad that describes a wedding processional and dance. The Iliad also describes a dance of picking and bearing fruit in baskets with leaps, whirling, and stomping the earth, likely another fertility dance as well as offering thanks. Mating dances were also described. These dances were described by Homer as being depicted on the shield of Achilles. Hesiod also wrote about some overlapping scenes in his poem, The Shield of Heracles. Euripides noted in his Electra, that the dance scenes depicted on Achilles’ shield were ‘ethereal dances of the stars.’ They often involved several youths and maidens. Lawler even suggests that the remote ancestors to many country dances and line dances might be of this type. Another dance that Greeks assigned to the mythological period was the geranos, which was said to be a maze dance with many dancers originally taught by Theseus and Ariadne and performed at Delos after they killed the Minotaur. It was said to be danced at night around a horned altar. A depiction on a vase shows many people holding hands in a long line perhaps swaying as a long serpent. The word geranos was thought to mean crane but some more recent writers think it comes from the root “to wind” and see it as a winding river or winding serpent form. They may have carried a rope or garland representing the serpent. Homer also describes ball-playing dances including one done by women as they sing. After dinner dancing was known to go on into the night. She also mentions the legend of Circe as an enchanter and prisoner of men. She as ‘mistress of animals’ drugs them and changes them into beasts. This suggests drug-induced ecstasy and masked dance.
There are also stories of “dance mania.” Most of these were associated with Dionysos, and aided by his sacrament, wine. Uncontrollable ecstatic frenzied dancing is described as spreading like a disease. In some cases it may have been the cure as well. The mysteries at Eleusis likely reached back to Mycenaean times as did some of the rites of Dionysus. Figures with bull heads or masks dating to 1200 BCE have been found on the island of Cyprus which was populated at the time by a mix of Greeks, Phoenicians, Egyptians, and Persians. One figure depicts three women dancing around a flute player. There are depictions of circle dances on mainland Greece as well. Funerary urns there depict mourning dances with gestures shown of people with their hands to their forehead, presumably in gestures of beating their brows and tearing their hair in response to grief. Instruments were mainly the lyre, flute, hand drum, and metal cymbals. The Minoan Cretans had a seven-stringed lyre but the Mycenaeans used a four-stringed version. However, in the seventh century B.C. Terpander of Lesbos was said to have added three strings for a return to the seven-stringed lyre.
Animal dances are the next subject. By classical times Greek religion was anthropomorphic and yet the gods and goddesses often had animal companions. Animals do have courtship dances, to attract prey, or for play and amusement. Hera was called “bull-faced” and Dionysus was called the “holy bull.” Athena had owls as companions. Dances in imitation of animals and to attract or ward off animals are known from many cultures. Bird dances were known among the Greeks including owl dances and cock dances. The turning of an owl’s neck and its piercing gaze were imitated. Famous plays like Artistophanes’ Birds and several others included large bird chorus dances. The Greco-Roman Mithraic Mysteries employed animal disguises and invocations. Snake dances were also known among Minoans, and Greeks of all periods. The orator Demosthenes and later the mother of Alexander the Great was said to carry live snakes in connection with the Phrygian Mysteries of Sabazius. St. Cyprian claimed to have taken part as a child in pagan snake mysteries associated with Athena in the 3rd century CE. A snake dance was associated with the story of Apollo slaying the python. There is thought to have been mimetic enactment of the battle accompanied by very specific flute music. Aristophanes and others mention a lizard dance from Lydia. Fish dances were known among Greeks and Romans. A pig or boar dance was known. A depiction on marble drapery with animal-headed women led by one with a pig’s head in a procession is associated with the mystery cult of the old goddess Despoina, “The Lady,” a mistress of animals. Thracian bear masks were made for their god Zalmoxis. There is evidence of bear dances in honor of Artemis, who was sometimes even called ‘the bear.’ There were lion dances as well although lions may not have been native to Greece – they encountered them in Asia Minor and Egypt. Lion-headed dancers are depicted from Minoan-Mycenaean times through Roman times. Later Mithraists roared like lions in rites. Local wolf cults were likely in some mountainous places like Lycosura which means ‘wolf’s tail.’ Deer dances are known from Sicily, Cyprus, and Thrace. Thracian Dionysians had deer dances and some had tattoos of deer and other animals. Thracian Dionysian revelers were associated with foxes and wore fox skins. The drapery mentioned above from Lycosura showed fox-headed dancers. The playful leaping and skipping demeanor of goats inspired various goat dances. There was reputed to be a horse mask dance with mock combat and emblems of death at a temple of Demeter. It was also said that real horses were trained to dance to flute music for entertainment at drinking parties in Greek cities. Donkey mask dances were known as well. Dionysian revelers sometimes wore panther skins and imitated the slinking motions of hunting panthers. Aristophanes included a frog dance in his comedy, Frogs. Animal sounds were made by dancers and ritualists often to ward of negative influences. Animal dancers might also rush at audience members. Crates comedy, Wild Beasts, had multiple animal masked dancers. Dancers and mummers were also associated with shapeshifting.
She turns next to drama beginning with Dionysian dances which were said to come from Phrygia in Asia Minor and Thrace. However, the name Dionysos, was found on Crete in Mycenaean times and Karl Kerenyi among others considers Crete, possibly Minoan Crete to be where Dionysus originated. The rites were wild enough to cause some kings to speak out against them. Frenzied dances, many of bands of women called Manaeds (mythological beings) with wands wrapped with ivy and tipped with pine cones were performed in the wild, sometimes in the dead of winter. Their ecstatic invocations of the god was referred to as en-theo-iasmos, ‘the state of having the god within one.’ This is the origin of our word, enthusiasm. The mad group of Manaeads was considered mass hysteria with violence including tearing apart live animals with their bare hands. Men would dance in honour of Dionysus as the god of wine, after taking much wine, of course. “Outstanding among these was the dithyramb – a song-and-dance performance, to the music of the double flute in Phrygian mode – a feature of the god’s spring festival.”
The performers were considered attendants of the god. Some dancers were called satyrs and took the form of these ‘goat-men.’ These dances too were frenzied and wild. Eventually they became somewhat tamer with specific songs and music rather than improvisation. Spoken verse came later. In some places it was a more civilized affair with contests and awards. The Greek dramas of tragedy paralleled this with their own choruses – all men, though sometimes depicting women. Tragedy was more like opera and filled with music and dances. She goes through the structure of the dramas and specific dance movements, or schema.
She mentions a unique dance introduced into tragedy: “the mystic “lyreless” binding dance of the chorus of Furies in the Eumenides of Aeschylus. With it there was a song addressed to “Mother Night” in the form of incantations and the attitude and gestures are threatening with the dreaded Furies. By the 2nd century B.C. it would appear that dancing had disappeared from tragedy to the chagrin of some (perhaps this is one reason Nietzsche thought that the art of tragedy had degraded in its later forms – the philosopher Diogenes of Babylon agreed).
Although comedy as an art form came after tragedy, some of its features were perhaps very old. Drunken men, animal dances, and processions with ‘village songs’ were a feature of early comedy. Eventually it made it to the theatre or dance place. In so-called Old-Comedy there were features like tragedy with elaborate costumes and dances. One feature unique to Old Comedy was parabasis, a direct address of the audience by the chorus. The characteristic dance of Old Comedy was the kordax, danced to double flute. It was said to be “lascivious, ignoble, and obscene” with “lewd rotation of the abdomen and buttocks.” There was even one Old Comedy that was said to feature the chorus dancing out the letters of the Ionic alphabet. Middle Comedy denotes a change to more allegorical forms. New Comedy was imbued more with plots and “types” drawn from everyday life. The kordax of Old Comedy continued to be used well into Roman times, although was often separate. It disappeared completely after the Christians arose in power and cursed its lewdness. There were also minor comedies that included comic performances of mythic stories. These involved mime, marionettes, and hilarity and included the phlyakes plays.
Another distinctive genre was the ‘satyr play,’ which was introduced in the 6th century B.C. These were short and imbued with verse and often involved a burlesque performance of a mythological theme. These were also loud, riotous, and full of obscenities. “The leader of the chorus always portrayed Silenus, who was elderly, fat, tipsy, and snub-nosed.” Pratinus, a dance teacher was said to be the inventor of the satyr play form. The dance in satyr plays was called the sikkinis, and was distinct from yet similar to the kordax. Satyr plays were different but also popular in Roman times and like the comedies were eventually suppressed as obscene by the Christians.
Throughout the world fertility rites and deities are associated with dance. Choruses of young girls danced ecstatically and sang in rites of Artemis. Apollo and Athena were also honored with dance. Hecate and Pan were honored with dance and wild frolic at night. Dances also figured in the rites of Aphrodite, particularly in her birthplace of Cyprus. In particular, the rites of Demeter and Persephone included much dance. Their mysteries at Eleusis no doubt included dance. The Orphic mysteries had characteristics of both Dionysus and Persephone. Orpheus descended into the underworld and returned. Other pagan ecstatic rites from Thrace, Phrygia, Syria, and Asia Minor were also popular among the Greeks and likely included trance, snake-handling, and self-mutilation. The Phrygian goddess Cybele was associated with such ecstatic rites, including self-castration. She was later equated with Rhea of Greece and the Great Mother of Asia Minor. Troupes of noisy dancers associated with Cybele were the Corybantes. They had several specific dances, including dances reputed to heal. Thracian goddesses Bendis and Cotyo were associated with mountain dances and baptism. Rites of Aphrodite and her lost lover Adonis included dancing and loud mourning on rooftops. Zalmoxis and Sabazius were other deities associated with wild dance. Wild orgiastic dance was thus common to many cults. Plato and others noted the healing nature of such dances, particularly psychological healing. As in the Dionysian dances, tossing back of the head was a common pose.
Shrines and festivals always included dance, by priests and priestesses and by trained dancers. In many rites the Muses and Graces were first invited to partake and inspired bodily movement as well as inspired verse were a feature. Muses and Graces were also thought to engage in dances. Verse and song were often accompanied by bodily movement. Epic hymns might be accompanied by processions, often solemn. Pantomime was a feature of some songs and dances. The island of Delos was known as a place to engage in dances to Apollo. Mariners would often stop to dance there and there was one odd rite where one would bite off a piece of the trunk of a sacred olive tree. This was done to avert danger. An all-night dance on the island of Samos was dedicated to Artemis where women carried sesame honey cakes. The pyrrhic dance was part of the training of warriors in Athens and Sparta. Spartans focused more on the military aspects while Athenians apparently focused as well on gracefulness of movements. There were also dances that mimicked the moves of wrestling and boxing, performed by nude boys in Sparta. Beautiful young girls were chosen to be ‘basket-bearer’ for rites of Demeter, Artemis, Athena, or Dionysus. The basket was held on the head and in some they danced in this configuration. There was also the kernos-carrier, where the maiden(s) would carry a vessel with milk, oil, grain, or wine in veneration of a goddess. This was thought to be Cretan in origin. Athletic and military victories had associated victory dances often devoted to Heracles. There was also a schema where the dancer clasped his or her hands behind the head. This was depicted in figures with Asiatic and Persian dress features is thought to have originated there.
At the Rural Dionysia was a curious dance called the askoliasmos which involved dancers jumping and hopping up and down on greased wine skins. She notes that secular and religious dancing were the same and any dance could be an offering to the gods. The rhythmic treading of the grapes to ready them for wine making was considered a dance. Wedding and funerary dances were popular among the people. Drunken dancers late into the night in the cities annoyed some. Other popular dances included one called the keleustes, or ‘the man who sets the tempo for the oarsmen,’ one in Sparta which consisted of kicking one’s own buttocks to the musical beat, high kicking dances, and slapping and kicking dances. There was a Persian dance similar to the Russian ‘squat-fling.’ There were many other dances as well.
There was a dance called the hormos, or ‘chain.’ Youths and maidens danced possibly alternating side by side or one in front of the other with the boys dancing militarily and the girls more gracefully so that the chain was woven with ‘manliness and sobriety.’ A trained youth would lead the maidens. Ancient Greeks learned dance at an early age. The great tragic poet Sophocles was well trained in dance and music and as a youth led the victory dance after the battle of Salamis. Plato and the philosophers considered training in dance to be indispensable. He did, however, classify dance into noble and ignoble forms. Grace and skill were associated with noble dances. He was not so fond of the Bacchic and comic dances. Socrates was quoted: “those who honour the gods most beautifully in dances are best in war.” Aristotle, as most Greeks, noted that professional status as dancers and musicians was the domain of slaves, freedmen, and foreigners, although one may become skilled. He noted that citizens should not overly pursue such arts. Most Greeks however did promote excelling particularly in playing the lyre. The idea was that civilized Greeks should not resort to music, dancing, and other arts to make a living. There were, however, paid professionals that danced as part of their temple duties, looked upon more as devotees of the gods rather than as professionals. In the third century B.C. there was a group of dancers, actors, poets, musicians, etc. that made up the Artists of Dionysus. It was considered a religious organization and its members, servants of the god. Among the professional dancers were slaves from Greek and non-Greek lands. Teachers would purchase them very young and train them. Many of them ended up courtesans at symposiums and dinner parties. Courtesan dances could be lascivious and/or employ the comedic moves of the kordax. Hip-swaying was a major feature. There are also statues of dancing dwarfs.
In Greco-Roman times there were complaints that the state of dance was deteriorating which seems to indicate that some found dances and dancers less beautiful than before. Newer pantomimic dances came to dominate Greco-Roman and later Roman times. These theater dances included elaborate costumes and many musical instruments. They were enacting stories related to tragedies but one dancer played all the roles. Their performances were extremely popular. Two slaves were said to have invented this type of dance, Bathyllus and Pylades. Pylades went on tours, opened a school of dance, and even wrote a book on his dance. The Cynic Demetrius challenged one mime to dance the story of Ares and Aphrodite without any musical accompaniment and was convinced of his ability to tell the tale with mime, noting that he seemed to be speaking with his hands. “At least one scholar has ventured the suggestion that the actual dance which Salome performed for Herod was a pantomimic version of the dance of the Thracian Nymphs around the severed head of the mutilated Orpheus.” The pantomime craze had also been imbued with corruption, with overly erotic, sensational, or horrifying performances. Their popularity gave them high pay. Christian and pagan moralists came to despise them and led eventually to their downfall. They left the cities as Christianity took over. The latest of the known pantomimic dancers was the courtesan Theodora in Constantinople. The emperor Julian was smitten by her and married her and made her his empress. The author notes that her conversion to Christianity can symbolically be seen as the end of the influence of Ancient Greek dance.