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The Fascinating but Forgotten Limbu People of Eastern Nepal and Their Unique Religion

On January 28, 2023, SBS Nepali ran a brief article with the intriguing title “Like the Vedas, the Mundhums are Limbu Community’s Hymns. Now It Has Been Published for the First Time.” Although the Vedas, the oldest texts of Hinduism, are very well known, the religious literature of the Limbu people is extremely obscure. It deserves more recognition, as do the people who created it. Numbering up to 700,000, the Limbu once had their own kingdoms (or kingdoms), recorded in their own annals and written in their own script. The study of Limbu history and the use of the Limbu script were severely curtailed after Limbuwan – the Limbu country – was conquered by the aggressive Gorkha Empire, later called the Kingdom of Nepal, in the late 1700s. Subsequently, many Nepali speakers streamed into the region, making the Limbu a minority in their own homeland. Today, Limbu scholars are reclaiming their rich history and Limbu activists are trying, although probably in vain, to create their own semi-autonomous region in Limbuwan.

The Limbu people form a subset of a larger group known as the Kirati people, who live in scattered areas of eastern Nepal and adjacent parts of India. The Kirati speak several languages, one of which is Limbu, but their tongues are closely related and they all have similar cultures and histories. Most other Kirati people follow the same ethnic religion as the Limbu, called Kirat Mundum, which has its own body of oral scriptures, some of which have now been published. This corpus is noted for its size, conceptual complexity, and the fact that it is not expressed in ordinary language. According to one recent study:

The mundum is the oral tradition among the Kiratis in east Nepal, and it is also a long-standing, and ancient, though not unchanging, ritual practice. But it is very difficult to say what the mundum is exactly. There are many issues about the mundum which so far have remained untouched by systematic and scientific publications.  …

The mundum language is also seen as a divine language, which is unlike the day-to-day language. It is used only for superhuman beings, like the ancestors, or special ritual ceremonies where the ancestors are evoked. The mundum language is different from the ordinary language in many respects, like the morphology of nouns, politeness register, chanting, etc.

A variety of ritual specialists, referred to as shamans in English, go to great lengths to master this intricate faith. Some must devote more than a decade to study and meditation before they are viewed as accredited practitioners. In the Kirat Mundum religion, nature is regarded as holy and a variety of deities are venerated, two of which, one male and the other female, are generally held as supreme. Some adherents focus their worship on a paramount goddess, Yuma Sammang (“Mother Earth” or “Grandmother”).

The survival of this indigenous religious complex in an area where most peoples long ago embraced either Hinduism or Tibetan Buddhism is rather remarkable. Where local faiths, collectively referred to as animism, persist in the Himalayan belt, it is generally among small-scale (or “tribal”) populations, found mostly in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. But the Limbu and other Kirati peoples retain their animistic beliefs despite having long had sophisticated states of their own that interacted extensively with neighboring kingdoms and empires.

Despite its complexity and persistence, the Kirat Mundum faith is all but cartographically invisible. World maps of religion typically portray Nepal as either entirely Hindu or completely Buddhist, with the better ones showing its as mostly Tibetan Buddhist in the high-elevation zone of the north and mostly Hindu in the lower elevation zones of the center and south. I did, however, find an impressive map world religion map that depicts the inhabitants of eastern Nepal as following an unspecified “folk religion” (see the detail of this map posted below). Unfortunately, I was unable to trace the origin of this map; it came up on an image search linked to a Vibrant Maps web page, but the map itself does not seem to be posted on that page.

The religious tradition of the Limbu and other Kirati peoples is by no means static or disconnected from modern currents of thought. In recent decades, a new syncretic form of the faith has emerged, drawing on Kirat Mundum practices and concepts but synthesizing them with elements from other religious and philosophical traditions. As the abstract of Linda Gustavson’s essay entitled “Yumaism: A New Syncretic Religion among the Sikkimese Limbus” reads:

This chapter discusses localized religious-modernist developments within the Limbu community in the borderlands of Buddhism in the eastern Indian Himalayas. It examines the invention of Yumaism by focusing on the Limbu middle class’ agency in relation to their lived contexts, through an actor-oriented and processual approach. Yumaism draws on elements from indigenous religious traditions, Tibetan Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, scholarly and orientalist discourses, and modernism in general. The proponents of Yumaism are similarly attempting to define their religion as such a way of life, a philosophy that is both rational and modern, while at the same time being steeped in the long historical tradition of the Limbus. While the process of modernization involved in the creation of Yumaism and the impact of Buddhism upon this process should not be underestimated, the dynamics of the modernization of the Limbu religion are grounded in local economic changes, politics, and ethnic relations.

Yumaism is not limited to the small Limbu community in the Indian state of Sikkim. It has evidently spread widely in Limbuwan proper and among other Kirati peoples of eastern Nepal. A pie chart of “religion in Nepal” (which I found on the website Retreatours.com) indicates that roughly 3% of the people of Nepal now follow it.

The Limbu are characterized by other unique and interesting cultural features, which are outlined in the Wikipedia article devoted to the ethnic group. They have distinctive clothing, architectural forms and decorative motifs, music, and athletic events. Matrilineal cultural patterns are clearly evident. As the Wikipedia article notes, “They believe that lineage is not transmitted patrilineally. Rather, a woman inherits her mother’s gods, and when she marries and lives with her husband she brings with her the deities that will then be recognized as the household deities.” Alcohol consumption, particularly of millet beer, plays a prominent social role: “Weddings, mourning, gift exchanges, and conflict resolution involve consumption of alcohol, especially the Limbu traditional beer popularly known as thee which is drunk from a container called tongba.” Limbu cuisine is especially interesting, meriting its own later GeoCurrents post. As a foretaste, it is notable that the Limbu are perhaps the most “lichenophilic” (lichen-loving) people in the world.

A relatively cosmopolitan people, the Limbu have spread widely across the globe. Their main social-service organization in Nepal, the Kirat Yakthung Chumlung, has branches in the UK, the United States, the UAE, Israel, Hong Kong, South Korea, Germany, Portugal, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Japan, Australia, and Macau. Among the main aims of the British branch of the Kirat Yakthung Chumlung are “To plan and carry out appropriate programmes in order to wipe out superstition and ignorance of people about health problems both in UK and Nepal [and] to work for human rights, indigenous rights, and women and child rights.”

Why the important Limbu people have been largely ignored and generally excluded from historical and geographical accounts of Nepal will be the subject of another GeoCurrents post.

The Cheetah: Vanishing from Africa but Returning to India

In 2016, National Geographic announced that the cheetah is “racing toward extinction,” with its population expected to decline precipitously over the next 15 years. Only around 7,000 cheetahs, the world’s fastest mammal, live in the wild. Their remaining habitat is dispersed and disjunct, with roughly 77 percent of it falling outside of protected areas. A recent scientific study found that outside of protected areas, cheetah populations are highly vulnerable and declining. The Asiatic subspecies, now limited to Iran’s arid Dasht-e Kavir, is now functionally extinct, its population limited to an estimated 12 individuals, nine of which are male.

Several hundred years ago, Cheetahs inhabited a vast area extending across most of Africa and southwestern Asia. (The map posted below, however, exaggerates and misconstrues the historical range, as is common in maps of this sort; cheetahs never lived in the dense forests of far north-central Iran or in the driest parts of the Sahara, and their range did not abruptly terminate at the modern political border between Iran and Armenia and Azerbaijan.) In prehistoric times, cheetahs also lived in Europe, where, according to one theory, they died out due to competition with lions. But as cheetahs easily coexisted with lions in historical times across most of Africa and southwestern Asia, this thesis is unconvincing. Regardless of where they lived, cheetahs evidently came close to extinction twice, once around 100,000 years ago and again around 12,000 years ago. Due to these near misses, cheetahs have extremely low genetic diversity, making them highly vulnerable to infectious diseases.

But just as cheetahs are vanishing from Africa, they are getting a new lease on life in India. In September 2022, eight cheetahs were transferred from Namibia to Kuno National Park in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, where they were personally released by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his 72nd anniversary. (One of these cats later came down with a kidney ailment is currently undergoing treatment.) On January 25, 2023, South Africa announced that it sill send more than 100 cheetahs to India. Whether Kuno is large enough to sustain a viable cheetah population is an open question, leading some biologists to express reservations about the entire initiative. In the future, they might also have to compete with lions. In the 1990s, Kuno was selected as the main site of the Asiatic Lion Reintroduction Project, which resulted in the removal 1,650 Adivasis (tribal people) from Kuno National Park. India’s – and indeed, Asia’s – only remaining lion population has long been restricted to Gir National Park in Gujarat, making it highly vulnerable to extinction. Gujarat, however, has successfully resisted the transfer of any of its lions to Kuno, even though its own population has overpopulated its restricted range.

Cheetahs have a celebrated history in India, where they were widely used by aristocrats as a semi-domesticated hunting animal. According to the Indian author Divyabhanusinh, the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great owned some 9,000 cheetahs over the course of his lifetime, although most experts think that this figure is greatly exaggerated. Regardless of numbers, tame Cheetahs figure prominently in Mughal art and were held in high esteem. But cheetahs were also killed in large numbers by elite Indian and British hunters. According to Wikipedia, “Three of India’s last cheetahs were shot by the Maharajah of Surguja in 1948. The same maharaja “has the notorious record of having shot and killed a total of 1,710 Bengal tigers, the highest known individual score.”

India was not the only place in which cheetahs were used extensively in hunting. Images from the third millennium BCE in both Mesopotamia and Egypt depict leashed cheetahs. According to the Indian blogger Rahultiwary, citing Wildcats of the World by Mel and Fiona Sunquist, “Later the cats were widely used in the Middle East, Afghanistan, southern Russia, Pakistan, India, and China. Tame cheetahs were used to hunt goitered [or black-tailed] gazelles, foxes, and hares in Russia and Mongolia, and the sport flourished during the middle ages in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. In 1474, one Armenian ruler owned 100 hunting cheetahs.” In Central Asia and the Caucasus, cheetahs here evidently exterminated in the 1950s, and by the late 1970s they were hunted out of the Arabian Peninsula as well.

The gradual disappearance of cheetahs from Africa, coupled with their reintroduction to India, has important lessons for conservation biology. Many environmentalists who warn about the impending “sixth wave of extinctions” also think that economic growth and development more generally are the root cause of the crisis. According to the noted Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, the primary drivers are “continued population growth, and overconsumption, especially by the rich” Continuing economic growth, such authors argue, entails the extraction of ever more resources, which will eventually – and quite soon in Ehrlich’s view – reach the point of exhaustion, resulting in a systemic collapse. Although their dire predictions have all failed thus far, eco-pessimists might be right in the long term , as only time can tell. But in the short term, they are almost certainly wrong. Rampant habitat loss and wildlife destruction is occurring primarily in the least developed parts of the world. Where economic development has reached an advanced stage, habitat is generally increasing and wildlife is rebounding. Economic development is also closely correlated with reduced human fertility; economically surging India now has a below-replacement-rate Total Fertility Rate of around 2.0, whereas in economically troubled Niger the figure stands at 6.6. To the extent that economic development is hindered in tropical Africa for environmental reasons, the destruction of nature can be expected to be intensified rather than reversed. Even in Europe, environmentally justified energy austerity programs are accompanied by increased environmental degradation. When people have difficulty affording power, trees can be quickly sacrificed for fuel, as is indeed occurring in some of Europe’s few remaining old growth forests.

India deserves credit for protecting and restoring wildlife and wild lands at a far higher level than might be expected on the basis on its raw developmental standing. Most of the world’s remaining wild tigers, for example, live in India, even though India accounts for a relatively small portion of the animal’s original range, and even though India is far poorer than most countries that had, or still have, viable tiger populations. The contrast in wildlife conservation between India and China is especially stark and has been apparent for hundreds if not thousands of years. The sad story of China’s long history of wildlife extirpation can be found in Mark Elvins’ well-researched book, The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China.

As a final note, North America had its own “cheetah” (Miracinonyx trumani) until the Pleistocene-Holocene Extinction Event circa 12,000 years ago, which wiped out roughly 85 percent of its large mammals. This large America cat was morphologically similar to the cheetah. It was likewise built for speed, as was its main prey, the pronghorn “antelope.” Recent genetic research, however, has shown that Miracinonyx trumani was much more closely related to the puma (cougar or mountain lion) than to the eastern hemisphere’s cheetah, and is therefore now properly deemed “the American cheetah-like cat.” It came to resemble the cheetah through convergent evolution, not from descent from a common ancestral species.

The Cannabis Conundrum: Is California a Pseudo-Green State?

[Note: This final post in the GeoCurrents series on cannabis legalization strays from the blog’s stated guidelines, which emphasize factual reporting and seek to minimize political interpretations and ideological stances. It also leaves its own arguments hanging, providing no solid answers to the two central questions: why does California’s government favor high-carbon corporate cannabis over low-carbon artisanal production, and why does it allow criminal organizations to undermine the legal regime that it has so arduously created? Such matters will be explored later in a separate forum devoted to opinion-based essays.]

According to conventional thinking, California is a deep-green state, its leadership unwaveringly committed to environmental protection. No state is going to greater lengths to reduce carbon emissions, regardless of the short-term sacrifices that they entail. Although many doubt that California will be able to fulfill its ambitious energy mandates, few question the sincerity of its agenda. Even those who are skeptical about climate change are convinced that California is doing everything it can to guard against it, unwisely in their opinion. By the same token, California is widely regarded as highly progressive, leftwing state, its leadership devoted to helping marginalized communities and willing to take on the corporate establishment to improve the lot of the common person. In the rightwing press, California is sometimes portrayed as leaning so far to the left as to verge on socialism if not communism.

But when one examines California’s cannabis industry, a different picture emerges. Here official policy is not merely indifferent to carbon emissions, but rather acts as if it wants to increase them. Indoor growing facilities with massive carbon footprints are favored, while full-sun cultivators who seek carbon neutrality are hounded out of business. By the same token, the monied corporate sector is rewarded, while smallholdings are seemingly slated for liquidation. In the process, entire communities are being systematically devastated, Humboldt’s County’s Garberville being the prime example. What little rural prosperity was found in the backwoods of the Emerald Triangle is withering away. Only the elite-focused winery districts and coastal tourist towns will emerge unscathed. When it comes to cannabis, California follows a policy agenda that in other domains would be regarded as rightwing if not reactionary.

The resulting ironies run an ocean deep. Poor and middle-class Californians are asked to make major sacrifices to reduce their carbon emissions, with rising fuel and electricity costs burdening millions and sending many into energy poverty. Yet in cannabis we find an economic sector that could realize a massive carbon reduction at virtually no cost to consumers. Low-carbon artisanal cultivators could easily supply the market with high-quality and reasonably priced goods, as indeed they did for years under the medical-marijuana program. For some unspecified reason, this is not the path that the state has taken under full legalization. But California’s preferred course is heading quickly into its own dead end. As its political logic plays out, even the favored corporate sector is floundering, unable to compete with tolerated illegal operations. These well-funded growers  flout all the state’s carefully crafted regulations, often trashing the environment, exploiting their workers, stockpiling guns and biocides, and delivering to the public untested and sometimes highly contaminated products.

Why should cannabis form an exception to the supposed goals of the Californian political model? Why would the state’s government turn a blind eye to such blatant assaults on everything that it supposedly holds dear? These are difficult questions with no easy answers. When I ask my friends and relatives in Silicon Valley, all of whom are loyal supporters of the Democratic establishment, I get feeble responses that focus on incompetence and unintended consequences. The root problem, I have been told, is a simple a lack coordination, with cannabis regulators not receiving adequate guidance from the state’s environmentally devoted leadership.

I remain skeptical, to say the least. The conviction that climate change is an immediate existential threat that demands unwavering action on all fronts is ubiquitous in the Democratic Party. As a result, the idea that those in charge of cannabis would have somehow forgotten about carbon emissions when crafting their regulations is ludicrous. If we are to resist special pleading, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that California’s political establishment does prioritize climate change when it is inconvenient to do so, and thus does not really regard it as an existential threat. Its environmental policies, in other words, are designed instrumentally to satisfy allies and make electoral gains, not out of conviction or principle. Put differently, California is a pseudo-green state, and it is by no means alone in this regard. It is also a faux-left state, as the data bear out. A few generations ago, California was a land of opportunity, noted its relatively egalitarian structures and lack of rigid socio-economic hierarchies. Today it has the fifth highest level of income inequality in the country, trailing only New York, Connecticut, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Its economic gap continues to widen, to a large extent because of rather than despite official policies.

Why would California’s political establishment pursue a pseudo-green, faux-left political agenda? I have clear ideas about these issues, but this is not the place to air them. Finding another publishing outlet, however, would prove difficult if not impossible. As a result, I have decided to add a new opinion-based essay section to this blog, which should appear in a few months if not sooner.

The Carbon Footprint of Artisanal Cannabis Cultivation in California

[Note: This post is mostly based on discussions with small-scale, legal cannabis growers in Mendocino County, California. I have spent a lot of time in Mendocino since the early 1960s, when my parents bought a very small share of a very large ranch near the town of Covelo – my boyhood paradise. Since 2001, I have co-owned a piece of property near Anderson Valley, which I use as a rural retreat. Most of my neighbors and friends in the area are cannabis cultivators, and they have been eager to talk about their farms and tribulations.]

Every economic activity comes at some carbon cost, and artisanal cannabis is no exception. Most organic growers use large amounts of commercial compost, which has its own modest production footprint and must be trucked to their farms. More significant, irrigation water is almost always pumped from deep wells, an energy intensive procedure. The cannabis itself must be transported to testing and packaging facilities, and ultimately driven to the dispensaries in which it is sold. The big energy draw, however, comes just after harvest. From early-October to mid-November, the flowers are hung in drying sheds, one of the trickiest aspects of the production cycle. The proper humidity levels must be maintained; if the air is too damp, Aspergillus mold can easily spread, contaminating everything. If the weather is moist, dehumidifiers must run constantly, and even in dry conditions, dehumidification is necessary at night.

A few growers go to great pains to reduce their energy expenditures. Some make their own compost and compost tea from plants found on their own farms. I know one who gathers winter rainwater from his rooftops and stores it for summer irrigation. There are no alternatives, however, to dehumidifying the drying sheds. For those whose properties are tied to the electrical grid, the carbon footprint here is relatively modest. It is more substantial on off-grid sites, although still minuscule in comparison to indoor facilities. Although most off-grid growers have a few solar cells, few have enough to power dehumidification. Generators must therefore be used, powered by diesel, gasoline, or propane. Here, no surprise, is where the government suddenly finds its environmental concern. Generator-using off-grid growers find themselves falling out of compliance, putting their cultivation licenses at risk. When it comes to artisanal cultivation, regulation tends to be unforgiving.

Although carbon dioxide emissions are inevitable, they can be offset by sequestering carbon in the soil. This is done by heating organic matter in the absence of oxygen, converting most of it to charcoal. Once infused with nutrients, the charcoal is transformed into biochar. Buried in the earth, biochar remains stable for thousands of years, greatly enhancing soil texture and fertility. Geographers and anthropologists have known decades that the indigenous peoples of the Amazon used charcoal to create large expanses of extremely productive terra preta soil in what is otherwise an area of impoverished soil. In California, small-scale cannabis cultivators can use biochar to become carbon neutral and potentially even carbon negative. Doing so is regarded by some as the ultimate investment, one that improves their land for millennia. Yet they get no credit for such eco-conscientious behavior, as carbon sequestration is not factored into California’s cannabis regulations.

[Illustration: biochar, in buckets, ready to be sequestered in an artisanal cannabis farm]

 

If off-grid cultivators are to come into compliance and retain their cultivation licenses, they will have to install full solar arrays, at a cost of some $50,000 to $100,000 per farm. Few can afford such expenditures, adding to their woes. But those lucky enough to have been unlucky enough to have been harmed by the anti-marijuana campaigns of the 1970s and 80s, a potential lifeline is offered through California’s “Cannabis Equity Grants Program for Local Jurisdictions.” As the program’s website explains:

The purpose of the Cannabis Equity Grants Program for Local Jurisdictions is to advance economic justice for populations and communities impacted by cannabis prohibition and the War on Drugs by providing support to local jurisdictions as they promote equity in California and eliminate barriers to enter the newly regulated cannabis industry for equity program applicants and licensees.

In the Emerald Triangle, many artisanal growers are eligible for such equity grants, and have been advised by local officials to use any funds that they might receive to install full solar arrays. Getting the money, however, is no easy matter. The necessary paperwork is so involved and extensive that some growers have been forced to hire consultants. Even so, their applications might linger for months are often rejected on technical grounds, forcing them to reapply. Some have reached the point of exasperation, suspecting that the program is little more than a cruel jest. As one grower told me, “It doesn’t matter what we do, as the government is determined to drive the hippies out of the hills.”

The Gargantuan Carbon Footprint of Corporate Cannabis

The huge carbon output of modern cannabis production is no secret. According to Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment, 1.3 percent of the state’s total annual carbon emissions stem solely from cannabis. A rigorously researched and widely publicized 2021 article in Nature Sustainability found that indoor production, the dominant form in many areas, generates “2,283 to 5,184 kg CO2-equivalent per kg of dried flower.” This staggering carbon output comes mostly from the voracious energy demands of indoor cultivation. Rather than relying on the sun for photosynthesis, artificial illumination is necessary; rather than relying on the wind for ventilation, industrial-scale fans must be used. Dehumidification is also needed, as is cooling during warm periods. In Southern California’s scorching Coachella Valley, the state’s emerging center of corporate cultivation, air-conditioning expenditures can be astronomical. Here even the local water supply requires energy-intensive purification. And, as if to add insult to injury, carbon dioxide is intentionally released into growing facilities to enhance production, some of which inevitably escapes into the atmosphere.

Bizarrely, large cannabis corporations and their cheerleaders sometimes brag about their energy use. Consider, for example, this 2016 article from the Coachella Valley Weekly entitled, “Canndescent: Setting the Bar for Cannabis Cultivation in Desert Hot Springs”:

Impressive at every turn, Sedlin gave a tour describing how the Canndescent facility intends to grow, clone and package premium weed.

He proudly, and probably with more detailed information than necessary, showed how the plants require the perfect temperature, water and light for maximum growth.

The facility is equipped with a 160-ton air conditioner. DHS [Desert Hot Springs] water, known for its award-winning minerals and taste, is not however good for cannabis, so Canndesecent has to use a reverse osmosis system with a 5,000 gallon water backup supply. Plant fertilization is electronically distributed. A shiny outdoor tank containing 1,000 gallons of liquid CO2 pumps the right mixture into sealed rooms producing the ideal growing environment. …

Canndescents’ grow rooms look like something on a Mars’ space station. Everything appears sterile, bright, well-organized and utilizes every inch of space with custom, stainless steel, movable grow beds. Hi-tech monitors are taking constant readings of the air quality. Fans insure the air is moving evenly.

When confronted with this outsized carbon footprint, indoor cannabis apologists typically point to their solar cells, arguing that they are doing their part to reduce their impact. This is simple greenwashing. Solar cells provide “clean” energy only in a relative sense, insofar as they substitute for fossil fuels. If they are used instead to replace sunlight, they are anything but green. Few indoor facilities, moreover, have enough solar cells and battery banks to provide all their energy needs.

In California, indoor cultivation accounts for only around thirty percent of cannabis production, less than in most states with a legal market. But outdoor growing, known in the business as “full sun,” accounts for an even lower share (see the graph posted below). Most California cannabis is grown in greenhouses under “mixed light” conditions. Here most of the energy needed for photosynthesis does come from the sun, but supplementary artificial lighting is used as well. Power-hungry ventilation is also necessary, as are other energy expenditures unknown in outdoor growing. In the final tally, mixed light is far less carbon intensive than indoor cultivation – but far more carbon intensive than outdoor growing.

There are several reasons why indoor and greenhouse production predominate. Outside of California and a few neighboring areas that have a Mediterranean climate, high-quality cannabis cannot be easily grown in the open air. Low humidity is necessary during the crucial late summer and early fall flowering period; otherwise, the flowers will be attacked by mold. Dry weather through September and October, however, is uncommon over most of the country. As federal anti-cannabis laws prevent interstate commerce, each state must produce its own crop, requiring in most cases enclosed growing environments and extensive dehumidification. Under a rational, environmentally sound cannabis regime, most production would take place in California and neighboring states; a state like New York would no more use massive, artificially illuminated buildings for cannabis production than it would for lemons or artichokes.

The triumph of high-carbon cannabis in California stems from both market pressure and government policies. When large-scale corporate cannabis began to flood the market a few years ago, artisanal cultivators came under increasing stress. To remain competitive, many took up mixed-light production themselves, as it allows multiple harvests per year and thus helped maintain profits as the wholesale price started to drop. More insidious are the pressures imposed by consumers in the retail marketplace. Most self-styled connoisseurs prefer indoor flowers, as they tend to be more uniform, visually appealing, and potent than those grown in the sun. As a result, indoor growers enjoy a pronounced price advantage, easily making up for their additional energy costs. The root problem here is the adolescent nature of the core cannabis market, where raw potency reigns supreme, while social, environmental, and cultural considerations, as well as flavor, are usually ignored. If alcohol operated under the same market constraints, fine wine and artisanal beer would be marginalized long ago by 190-proof Everclear.

But the more fundamental reason for the collapse of low-carbon cannabis in California is government policies that discourage and sometimes even prevent full-sun cultivation, while favoring indoor and mixed-light production. Many of these policies are covert, as they are ostensibly aimed at other issues. Some, however, are straightforward. As a recent MJBizDaily article notes:

Onerous regulations or outright bans on outdoor cultivation sites by many California counties also have made it harder for outdoor grow operations to expand their footprints.

Of the 26 counties in the state that have issued cultivation licenses to date, 14 haven’t awarded any to outdoor growers.

To say that California’s  cannabis policies are hypocritical is an understatement of the first order, as will be explored in the final post in this series. But first we need to consider one more issue: the carbon footprint of full-sun cultivation. Although very low by comparative measures, it is not negligible. Some growers, however, do everything they can to minimize their emissions, and a few might even achieve carbon neutrality and perhaps even negativity. Yet for all their efforts, they receive little if any credit, whether in the market, from regulators, or from environmental organizations.

Why Is Desert Hot Springs California’s Emerging Center of Corporate Cannabis?

When most people think of cannabis cultivation in California, they imagine a bucolic setting in the northwestern hills, with back-to-the-land cultivators tending tiny plots deep in the woods. That is indeed where the business originated, but, as noted and the previous GeoCurrents post, such artisanal growing is rapidly disappearing. The emerging center of the industry is as different as could be imagined. It is found in the scorching Coachella Valley of Southern California, where cultivation is carried out in nondescript industrial facilities scattered across a suburbanizing desert landscape. Although other parts of California, particularly Santa Barbara County, produce more cannabis, the Coachella Valley is becoming the focus of corporate cannabis — and corporate production is overwhelming the family-farming sector.

Like the tiny farms of the Emerald Triangle, these operations are suffering from the collapse in the wholesale price and are likewise finding it difficult to compete with large-scale illegal cultivation. But they also bear much of the blame for the oversupply that has undermined the legal cannabis market. As will be explained in a later post, they are also anything but green, coming as they do with a gargantuan carbon footprint. The current post takes on a much more straightforward topic: why has the little city of Desert Hot Springs emerged as such an important center of marijuana production?

The answer appears to be straightforward. The leaders of Desert Hot Springs made an explicit decision roughly a decade ago to make their city the most cannabis-friendly jurisdiction in California. As noted in the Wikipedia article on the town, “Desert Hot Springs was the first city in Southern California to legalize medical marijuana cultivation and has since been overwhelmed by marijuana developers and growers.” Desert Hot Springs has an entire business park devoted to industrial-scale cannabis production, and advertises it widely. A real-estate website focusing on this kind of development outlines the situation nicely:

Morongo Business Park is a master planned cannabis business park located in the light industrial district of the city of Desert Hot Springs, CA. At full build-out, it will feature over 200,000 SF of cannabis cultivation, manufacturing, processing, distribution, and non-storefront delivery. Phase Three has an approved conditional use permit (CU21-17) for 136,173 square foot building, which meets all requirements for CA state cannabis business licensing. Being the first city in the state of California to allow recreational cannabis operations, Desert Hot Springs is one of the most cannabis business friendly environments in California. The city has recently reduced their cultivation tax and have also eliminated city manufacturing tax. Call listing office for complete due diligence package.

 

Desert Hot Springs turned to cannabis after everything else had failed. In the mid 20th century, it was a thriving little town, noted for its boutique hotels, modernist architecture, and sulfur-free hot springs. But it failed to keep pace with the nearby resort community of Palm Springs, and subsequently experienced pronounced decay. In 2001, Desert Hot Springs filed for municipal bankruptcy. It simultaneously earned a reputation for crime, violence, and prostitution. Widely circulated rumors claim that the city intentionally opened its doors to convicted sex offenders who were being hounded out of other communities. I have found no evidence of this allegation, but Desert Hot Springs does have an inordinate number of sex offenders living within its boundaries. By 2009, the situation had become so worrisome that the city adopted a tool that would allow its residents to locate the homes of such individuals. According to a news report from that year:

There are currently 69 sex offenders living in Desert Hot Springs, according to KESQ Channel 3. The station reported that Desert Hot Springs is the first city in the Coachella to invest in the OffenderWatch, which has been around for about 10 years. Parents can conduct a computer search around schools, gyms, parks, day cares and homes to see if a sex offender lives nearby. Residents can also register addresses within the city, and the Web site will automatically monitor the address and send an e-mail alert if an offender moves to the area.

Not surprisingly, Desert Hot Springs developed an unwholesome reputation, which is readily evident in on-line discussion forums. In 2009, City-Data published the following conversation:

Question: I want to move from Connecticut to Riverside County to be near family. Is it safe living is Desert Hot Springs? The house prices are very appealing to me. Also, how are the school ratings?
Answer 1: NO, no and no. DHS is notorious for high crime, paroled felons, sex offenders and general blight. Home prices reflect the state of the city, which is just terrible. Recent budget cuts are taking police officers off the streets when there already aren’t enough to go around. Not a place for families trying to raise good, educated kids.

Answer 2: No. The houses are cheap for a reason. The area has the highest concentration of paroled offenders. Horrible City government. Terrible schools

To emerge from the hole in which it found itself, Desert Hot Springs turned to corporate cannabis. This experiment has been relatively successful, although more than twenty-five percent of its population remains below the poverty level. As the city’s official website notes, crime has declined significantly since 2015. Desert Hot Springs is currently experiencing substantial growth, its population expanding from 25,938 in 2010 to 32,512 in 2020.

Industrial-scale cannabis has undoubtedly brought benefits to the city. Its effects on the environment, however, are another matter altogether, as will be explored in the next GeoCurrents post

The Triumph of Illicit Cannabis Cultivation and Retailing In California and the Liquidation of the Artisanal Growers

Across much of the United States, legal cannabis firms are failing, and large sums of money are being lost. As noted in a recent Investopedia article, “Retail investors who once looked to cannabis to make them rich would now in many cases settle for getting their money back.” The collapse is most severe in the agricultural sector. Plummeting wholesale prices are driving most small-scale cannabis farms into bankruptcy. According to the same Investopedia article:

In California, … the wholesale price has wilted to less than $700 per pound. Some 60% of the pot farms in the Emerald Triangle, the traditional heartland of cannabis cultivation in northern California, have reportedly gone out of business since California legalized recreational use six years ago.

If anything, this article underplays the dire situation in the Emerald Triangle, a region usually defined as encompassing Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity counties in northwestern California. I know several artisanal cannabis farmers in the region who would be happy to receive $500 a pound, which is near their break-even point. Some cannot get more than $300, resulting in a substantial loss with each sale. A few years ago, they were receiving around $1200 a pound.

 

As might be expected, the wholesale price collapse is the result of oversupply, which stems from two main reasons. First, the state has awarded a sizeable number of cultivation permits to large, well-capitalized corporate farms, which have flooded the legal market. Second, illegal cultivation continues unabated in many areas. Illicit growers do not pay fees or taxes, nor do they fulfill the many onerous obligations faced by legal growers to remain in compliance. As a result, illegal operations often outcompete above-board farms, driving them out of business.

A downward spiral has thus emerged, with both county governments and the state losing the licensing fees and other revenues that they have been counting on. California now faces a lose-lose-lose situation, one in which scofflaws succeed while those who have gone to herculean efforts to become legal find that it has all been for naught. (I know retirement-age growers who had no computer experience whatsoever, as they had moved to the woods in part to get away from modern technological society. But to gain legal status they have had to master the intricacies of California’s online track-and-trace Metrc system, in which even leaves destined for the compost heap must be weighed and reported to the state. It has not been easy.)

The burdens placed on legal growers can be overwhelming, as will be explored in later posst. For now, a quote from an article by Kevin Rector, originally published in the Los Angeles Times, will suffice:

In place of handcuffs and prison sentences to deter cannabis cultivation, the state has established a vast system of taxes, fees and regulations to control it. The taxes are steeper and the rules more onerous than those in other agricultural sectors. … “Are all the small farmers destined to fail? That’s our biggest fear,” Casali said one recent morning at his farm. “It’s the War on Drugs Part II.”

But this a very different “War on Drugs” from the one that preceded it, as it focuses on those inside the law, while largely ignoring those outside of it. California’s political leadership feels guilty, for good reason, about the harms imposed on marginal members of society by the anti-marijuana campaigns of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. As a result, illegal growers are now largely tolerated. Small-business owners, however, are regarded differently, and are given much less consideration.

A recent Fox News article outlines many of the problems generated by illicit cultivation. It begins by describing a massive illegal grow in  Riverside County, which is also California’s new center of corporate cultivation. As the author writes:

“The illegal industry is competing with the legal industry and essentially putting them out of business,” says Sgt. James Roy, head of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department’s 12-person marijuana eradication team. “This place is no different than thousands of others we hit this year confiscating about a half-million plants in Riverside County alone,” Roy said…. Along with these growers, these illegal growers, comes a fair amount of violence and a lot of weaponry,” says Roy. “We serve warrants on operations like this every day. And in 80% of the locations, we are finding weapons, high-powered weapons, assault rifles, things like that.”

The same article tersely explains why legal growers cannot compete: “By requiring licenses to grow and transport pot, permits to sell it retail, and taxes to buy it, the state effectively imposed a 70% tax on legally purchased marijuana.”

One might expect the legal risks incurred by illegal cultivation to impose a stiff penalty of its own, thereby leveling the playing field. But that’s not how it works in California, where large-scale illicit growers, despite the violence, uncertain product quality, and environmental degradation associated with their operations, have little to worry about. No one in California is facing prison or even county jail for illegal cannabis operations, and the modest fines that are occasionally levied are just considered a part of doing business, if not just ignored.

It is not just cannabis farmers who are facing devastating competition from illegal operations, but also dispensaries. Particularly in the Los Angeles area, unlicensed and unregulated “trap shop” dispensaries have become widespread, and now significantly outnumber above-board operations. These illegal businesses are typically set up in conventional retail space and have the appearance of legitimate dispensaries. As a result, customers often have no idea that they are engaging in an illicit transaction. A recent article in cannabis.net outlines the problem:

Recently, an audit revealed that California’s 900 licensed cannabis operators have about 2,800 illegal competitors, more than three times the number of total legal sellers, which could be higher today. These unregulated stores, most of the time, have untested stock products that are not up to state-issued production standards, nor do they follow the state’s regulations for cannabis operations. Patronizing an unlicensed store is more or less the same as buying from a dealer around the block. You only get promises that you’re purchasing the best product in the area, whereas it’s basically junk.

Unlicensed dispensaries are so widely tolerated that Yelp has a page listing the “best illegal cannabis dispensaries near me.” (I cannot say, however, whether the dispensaries listed here are truly illegal.) For several years, the important cannabis website Weedmaps also listed unlicensed dispensaries, although that is no longer the case. If one wants to avoid patronizing illicit operations, the maps provided by Weedmaps are a good place to turn.

With these stories in mind, it seems that the root problem of the California cannabis crisis is a perverse set of attitudes on the part of the state’s political leadership. To put it simply,  California, and particularly its large cities, are tough on small legal businesses and lax on illegal ones. Under such a regime, it becomes extremely difficult – and often simply impossible – for the legitimate sector to compete with the underground one. As a result, the entire legalization experiment in California is failing. The expected revenues are not filling state and local coffers, and the myriad pathologies of the illicit market remain firmly ensconced.

The “soft-on-crime, hard-on-small-business” attitude is on its surface rooted in a left-wing political philosophy, one based on compassion for those who have supposedly been forced by circumstances beyond their control to engage in illegal activities. But, as will be explored later, what is actually encountered here is a form of pseudo-leftism, a perverse political philosophy that favors the corporate sector and is hostile to minuscule family farms and tiny retail firms.

Cannabis Legalization in the U.S. Elections of 2022

The 2022 midterm elections in the United States had mixed results for cannabis legalization. Voters in Maryland and Missouri approved legalization measures, easily in the first case and by a relatively narrow margin in the second (see the charts below). Missouri thus became the third solidly “red state” to allow cannabis consumption without a medical recommendation, following Alaska and Montana. Voters in Arkansas and South Dakota, however, rejected legalization, with a 56% “no” vote in the former state and a 55% “no” vote in the latter. The South Dakota vote took many by surprise, as just two years earlier a legalization referendum passed, which was later invalidated in court. South Dakota voters will again take on the issue in the fall of 2023, but indications for legalization are not positive. As reported by Benzinga.com, “a statewide poll conducted this summer revealed that South Dakotans’ general sentiment toward legalizing recreational marijuana has shifted over the past two years, signaling that a referendum on the issue this fall could fail.” At the federal level, meanwhile, congressional efforts to eliminate the de jure cannabis prohibition stalled out, yet again.

The failure of federal cannabis legalization, and in some states as well, seems to defy the general public will. Opinion polls conducted by a variety of organizations show overwhelming support. An October 2021 Gallup poll found that even 50% of Republicans favor full legalization, with Democrats and independents offering overwhelming approval (83% and 71%). Similar results have been obtained by other polling agencies. A 2022 CBS/YouGov poll found a 66% level of support for legalization at both the federal and state levels. According to this poll, Republicans overall narrowly oppose legalization (51% to 49%), but those below the age of 45 solidly support it (59%). A 2022 Pew survey found that only 10 percent of Americans think that cannabis should be illegal for all purposes. According to the same poll, Americans in every age bracket except that of the elderly (75+) favor full legalization.

Given these numbers, along with the fact that American voters are roughly evenly divided among Republicans, Democrats and independents, the persistence of federal anti-cannabis laws is difficult to explain. In this arena, seems that Congress is defying the public will. Quandaries also emerge at the state level. Even in deep blue Hawaii and Delaware, cannabis remains legal only for medical uses, and in several purplish states it remains fully illegal (Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Georgia). How can these results be squared with public opinion polls that shows overwhelming support for legalization?

A variety of factors are probably at play. Simple inertia probably plays a role, and as a result it seems likely that Hawaii and Delaware will opt for legalization before too long. More important, however, is the concerted opposition of anti-cannabis forces. A sizable minority of Americans is vehemently opposed, with many regarding marijuana as nothing less than the “devil’s weed.”* As is often the case, the desires a vehement minority can override the less passionate concerns of a substantial majority. It is significant that legalization has often occurred through popular referenda rather than through legislation, as legislators can be more easily swayed by interest groups than the voters at large.

But another factor may be involved as well. Legalization, it turns out, has often yielded discouraging or even disastrous results. With revenues much lower than expected, chaotic business environments, and a thriving black market, states like California demonstrate the potential hazards of a poorly formulated legal regime. As a result, some legislators, and many voters, may ultimately favor legalization, yet still reject whatever proposal is put before them, skeptical that it gets it right. These issues will be examined in much greater detail in later posts

*The term “devil’s weed” is used most often for Datura, or jimsonweed, which contains several powerful and poisonous psychoactive substances. For a religiously informed discussion of cannabis as the “devil’s weed,” see Marijuana – The Devil’s Weed?, by Dr. Joe Fawcett.

ARkStorm Fears Recede in California Despite Flooding; Anomalous Lack of Rain-Shadowing Explained by Weather West

Fears of an impending ARkStorm in California have receded, although much of the state has been receiving prodigious amounts of rainfall and the forecast remains wet for the next 10 days. In the most recent storm, the heaviest rains have fallen in the Santa Barbara and Ventura areas, northwest of Los Angeles. The map posted below shows total precipitation amounts of up to 14 inches in a 24-hour period; other reports indicate that a few areas have received more than 18 inches. As would be expected, floods and mudslides have hit the region, causing considerable damage and taking several lives. For the state as a whole, however, the damage has been less than has been reported in many sensational news articles. I have read stories and seen videos that describe California as being “devastated,” “drowned,” and “underwater.” Despite the localized destruction, which should not be minimized, the recent storms have been beneficial for the state as a whole, washing away a devastating drought, at least temporarily. Even in some of the hardest hit locations, some rain enthusiasts posting on the Weather West blog are joyful for what they have received.

From a climatological perspective, the most interesting feature of the map posted above is not the torrential rain in places like San Marcos Pass, which periodically receive heavy and extended downpours. More unusual are the relatively high figures in inland areas that are rain-shadowed by mountains, such as the Cuyama Valley. Cuyama is extremely dry, receiving only 8 inches of precipitation a year on average. As bands of rain typically move from the south or southwest to the north and east, they dump most of their moisture over the coastal highlands as the air rises and cools; as the air descends and warms on the lee side, precipitation rates plummet. This dynamic is especially noted under conditions of an atmospheric river, which brings a relatively shallow but extremely wet airmass streaming in from the subtropics. As the recent flooding rains in the Santa Barbara area came from a stalled atmospheric river, the relatively high level of rainfall in Cuyama was unexpected.

A more pronounced precipitation anomaly was found further to the north, just to the east of the Sierra Nevada crest in east-central California. A high range, the Sierra rings most of the water out of winter storms. And as result, the Owens Valley, lying just to east of the southern Sierra, is extremely dry. The town of Bishop in the northern valley receives less than 5 inches of precipitation in the average year. Yet over the course of a mere 24-hour period on January 9th and 10th, 2023 – under conditions of an atmospheric river – Bishop received over 3 inches. And the downpour continues; just 11 minutes ago, commentator Unbiased Observer noted in Weather West that Bishop is closing in on 4 inches. This oddity demands an explanation.

Fortunately, such an explanation was made available, again by Unbiased Observer, on the Weather West blog, run by meteorologist Daniel Swain. I have posted the pertinent information below from the blog’s discussion forum. Such sharing of information among a devoted community of weather watchers is one of the many reasons why Weather West is such a valuable resource.

Should California Be Bracing for a Possible ARkStorm?

The storm currently hitting California has not produced as much precipitation as was anticipated, irritating some Weather West readers (see yesterday’s post) while reducing flood concerns for the present. But the forecast remains extremely wet over the next week and beyond. As the maps posted below show, rain in the lowlands and snow in the mountains could fall in prodigious quantities, which would probably cause extensive flooding (note the 256 inches of snow over roughly two weeks forecasted on one of the maps posted below). If the current seven-day forecast verifies, and if the wet pattern remains entrenched, California might even experience what is known as an ARkStorm, an event that occurs on average once every several hundred years. In an ARkStorm, much of the Central Valley, California’s agricultural heartland and home to millions of people, could be inundated for weeks.

As noted in the previous post, California has been locked in a persistent drought, experiencing only two wet years out of the past 12. An abrupt end to a long-term drought by devastating floods would not be unprecedented. Indeed, this is precisely what happened in the mid 19th century. As reported by EarthDate:

In the 1840s and 1850s, California was exceptionally dry, so by the fall of 1861, California ranchers were hoping for rain in late November they got what they were wishing for and – then some. It didn’t stop raining for 43 days and by January 1862 the Central Valley was filled with an inland sea.

The Great Flood of 1862 was that an extraordinary event, one that affected much of the western United States. The Wikipedia article on it provides a good summary. As it notes:

The event dumped an equivalent of 10 feet (3.0 m) of water in California, in the form of rain and snow. .. An area about 300 miles (480 km) long, averaging 20 miles (32 km) in width, and covering 5,000 to 6,000 square miles (13,000 to 16,000 km2) was under water over a period of 43 days.

Although this was the biggest flood in California’s recorded history, geological evidence shows that even larger floods have occurred over the past several thousand years. Of particular note were the years 440, 1418, 1605, and 1750. The largest flood was that of 1605 (± 5 years). As noted in a 2017 Quarternary Research article, this event may have even produced a large lake in the Mojave Desert that lasted for several decades. The Quarternary Research article claims that this flood may have been linked to a global cooling cycle associated with this so-called Little Ice Age. As the authors note, “This cooling was probably accompanied by an equatorward shift of prevailing wind patterns and associated storm tracks.”

The current concern is that global warming will lead to increased flood risks in California – along with increased drought risks. As Xingying Huang and Daniel Swain wrote in an August 2022 Science Advances article:

Despite the recent prevalence of severe drought, California faces a broadly underappreciated risk of severe floods. Here, we investigate the physical characteristics of “plausible worst case scenario” extreme storm sequences capable of giving rise to “megaflood” conditions using a combination of climate model data and high-resolution weather modeling. Using the data from the Community Earth System Model Large Ensemble, we find that climate change has already doubled the likelihood of an event capable of producing catastrophic flooding, but larger future increases are likely due to continued warming. We further find that runoff in the future extreme storm scenario is 200 to 400% greater than historical values in the Sierra Nevada because of increased precipitation rates and decreased snow fraction. These findings have direct implications for flood and emergency management, as well as broader implications for hazard mitigation and climate adaptation activities.

(See the map made by Xingying Huang and Daniel Swain posted blow to compare historical ARkStorms and those predicted for the future.)

 

Daniel Swain’s avid followers at Weather West have noted how the current situation follows Swain’s recent ARkStorm article:

Many researchers are concerned that California is not doing enough to prepare for the possibility of devastating floods. One proposal for dealing with extreme precipitation events is to allow rivers to occupy more of their natural floodplains, as outlined in a New York Times article published today. Such an approach would also help recharge California’s aquifers, many of which are severely depleted. But as the author observes, this would be an expensive solution that would generate pronounced opposition. From an environmental perspective, however, it makes a lot of sense.

 

The Weather West Blog Community and the Possible End of the Great California Drought

One of my favorite blogs is Weather West: California Weather and Climate Perspectives, run by meteorologist Daniel Swain. Posting once or twice a month, Swain focuses on current and upcoming weather events and conditions. He delves into meteorological complexities but writes in an accessible manner that can be easily understood by non-specialists. More important for the concerns of GeoCurrents, Swain’s posts are always illustrated with informative and often striking maps. For those who appreciate the aesthetic properties of cartography, it can be difficult to beat meteorological mapping. I often find the patterns and colors almost mesmerizing.

Equally impressive is Swain’s devoted readership. Each of his posts receives thousands of comments. Many are deeply informed, and they are also often illustrated with useful maps and dramatic photographs. For weather enthusiasts such as myself, the cloudscapes that are periodically posted on Weather West are reason enough to follow the blog.

What I most appreciate about the Weather West community, however, is its idiosyncratic perspective on precipitation. Here we find a group of devoted people who love rain and fully understand just how essential it is. Given California’s seemingly interminable drought – 10 of the past 12 years have been dry, the last two exceedingly so – one might expect this attitude to be common in the state, but in my experience it remains rare. Even National Weather Service (NWS) forecasters in California sometimes write about the “threat of rain” during times of dire drought. A few years back I was so frustrated by such mindless wording that I wrote a letter to the NWS urging them to replace “threat” with “promise” under drought conditions. I was surprised to receive a reply, but it turned out to be defensive and entirely non-apologetic. But some people understand. The best birthday present I ever received was a CD put together by my wife filled with rain-positive song in many genres and from several countries. One of the most memorable was Luke Bryan’s raunchy country tune called “Rain Is a Good Thing.” As Bryan emphasizes, farmers certainly understand. As his song opens:

My daddy spent his life lookin’ up at the sky

He’d cuss kick the dust, sayin’ son its way to dry

It clouds up in the city, the weather man complains

But where I come from, rain is a good thing

When rain does come to California, the Weather West community exults. They post their own precipitation numbers with pride, and bitterly complain when their own locations are stinted, ending up in the dreaded “donut hole.”  Some tend toward pessimism and sometimes find themselves gently chided by those more hopeful about coming storms. Overall, they seek to teach and inform each other, and thus form a model blog-focused community. (“Model” is used as something of a pun here, as Weather West readers often urge each other to beware of “model riding,” or giving too much credence to particular meteorological model outputs. This is especially the case when the output in question refer to “fantasyland,” or the time beyond the period of relatively reliable forecasting.)

Currently, the Weather West community it very excited but also worried. California’s long-term drought has just broken, at least temporarily. December precipitation was pronounced over almost the entire state, and January looks to be wetter still. Swain’s most recent post, of January the 2nd, is titled “Major Norcal Storm Wed.; Potential High-Impact Storm/Flood Pattern to Continue for 10 Plus Day. Wet Antecedent Conditions Set Stage for Future Flood Risk.” Even the blog’s most rain-besotted commentators are now concerned that they may get too much of a good thing. Some are even sheepishly admitting that they are now hoping for a mid-winter ridge that would produce a spell of dry weather.

California’s abrupt transition from dry to wet this winter was not expected. Until quite recently, mid- and long-range models predicted yet another rainy season of little rain. As almost all the state’s precipitation falls between November and March, this is a crucial matter. Driving these dry forecasts was the fact that the Pacific Ocean is still in La Niña* conditions, which have persisted for the past two years. In La Niña winters, far Northern California often gets ample precipitation, but the rest of the state is generally dry. In these years, the jet stream is typically displaced to the north and must ride over a large high-pressure ridge somewhere in the eastern Pacific. If the ridge is displaced too far to the east, California is hard hit by drought. If the high-pressure zone is instead pushed westward, cold storms can ride over the ridge and produce moderate rain and decent amounts of mountain snow. Under the contrasting El Niño** regime, a different winter pattern typically prevails, with the jet stream ripping directly across the Pacific. El Niño years usually bring abundant precipitation, especially to Central and Southern California. What makes the current situation so unusual and perhaps even inexplicable is that California is now experiencing an El Niño pattern in a La Niña year, with one relatively warm storm after another lined up across the Pacific. Meteorologists are trying to figure out what is going on, and undoubtedly much more will be written on the subject.

If the current forecasts through January pan out, California could end up with full reservoirs and a very healthy snowpack in the higher elevations. But that does not mean that drought conditions will not necessarily return before the wet season ends. Last year, heavy precipitation in December was followed by a parched period stretching from January through March, generally the wettest time of the year. By the end of the summer, the state’s crucial reservoirs were frighteningly depleted.

But even if this February and March are dry, fears of a disastrously water-short summer of 2023 are currently being washed away. Indication for the 2023-2024 wet season also look promising, as La Niña is dissipating and El Niño looks like it might return. But El Niño sometimes fails to produce the predicted downpours, as was the case in the winter of 2015-2016. As U.C. San Diego Scripps Institute of Oceanography reported:

Most long-range forecast models predicted a potentially drought-ending deluge in California from the climate pattern known as El Niño in winter 2015-16, but the actual precipitation was far less than expected. … “Comparing this El Niño to previous strong El Niños, we found big differences in the atmospheric response across the globe, including California,” said Nick Siler, lead author of the study that was published in the Journal of Climate, and a postdoctoral scholar in the research group of co-author Shang-Ping Xie at Scripps. “We found that these differences weren’t all random, but rather were caused by tropical sea-surface temperature anomalies unrelated to El Niño.” … The results of the study suggest that El Niño events might not have as strong an influence on California precipitation as previously thought. They also suggest that recent warming might have had a hand in making El Niño drier. The Indian Ocean is known to be warming faster than other ocean basins

Climate change seems to be intensifying California droughts, just as it might be undermining El Niño rains. But it might also be making wet periods wetter, particularly those produced by so-called atmospheric rivers. As a result, the chances of a devastating “arc storm” are increasing. As we shall see in tomorrow’s post, Daniel Swain is one of the leading experts on this topic.

*Wikipedia Definition: “During a La Niña period, the sea surface temperature across the eastern equatorial part of the central Pacific Ocean will be lower than normal by 3–5 °C (5.4–9 °F).

**Wikipedia definition: “[El Niño] is the warm phase of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and is associated with a band of warm ocean water that develops in the central and east-central equatorial Pacific.

 

Turkey’s Dependence on Russian Energy, and Its Recent Natural Gas Discoveries

Turkey (officially, Türkiye) is an energy-poor country. Roughly 85% of its energy supply comes from fossil fuels, roughly equally divided among coal, oil, and natural gas. Coal is mined domestically and imported, but almost all of Turkey’s natural gas and oil comes from other countries. Russia supplies roughly half of its natural gas. Unlike most NATO countries, Turkey has not placed sanctions on Russia, and as a result its natural gas imports continue unabated.

Turkey also figures prominently in Russia’s global energy strategy. Two major pipelines transport Russian natural gas to Turkey, one of which (TurkStream) was recently completed (2020). Moscow and Ankara have hoped to turn Turkey into a major natural gas hub, allowing Russia to export gas to southern Europe without having to move it across Ukraine. The Ukraine War has complicated but not undermined such plans. As recently reported by Natural Gas Intelligence, “Russia is turning to Turkey as a potential natural gas hub partner with a new sense of urgency to find new export outlets for volumes left stranded by damages to the Nord Stream pipelines in September.” The Russian-Turkish energy partnership extends beyond natural gas. In 2021, Russia was Turkey’s second largest supplier of coal, following Colombia. Turkey’s first nuclear power plant (Akkuyu), has been jointly built by the Russian firm Atomstroexport and the Turkish construction company Özdoğu; it is expected to come online in 2023.  Financing has been almost entirely provided by Russian investors.

Political tensions between Russia and Turkey have periodically intruded on their energy collaboration. Most recently, Ankara irritated Moscow by asking for a 25 percent discount on natural gas payments and requesting that all payments be delayed until 2024 due to domestic economic problems. Building a Turkish hub for Russian gas exports also faces external economic and geopolitical obstacles, particularly from other NATO countries. As recently noted by Natural Gas Intelligence:

A Russia/Turkey gas hub would have to secure financing for the billions of dollars needed to construct new subsea pipelines under the Black Sea, which is currently in a war zone. Without access to Western technology and financing, a new pipeline project could take years to build.

Turkey’s energy prospects, however, have recently been transformed by substantial natural gas discoveries in its Black Sea Exclusive Economic Zone. In the final week of 2022, an estimated 170 billion-cubic-meter gas reserve was found at the Çaycuma-1 field. Combined with previous recent discoveries in the Sakarya field, Turkey’s natural gas reserves have been elevated to 710 billion cubic meters. Gas from these fields should become available sometime in 2023, alleviating Turkey’s energy crunch. Discoveries to date, however, are not adequate to meet long-term needs, as the country consumes 50 to 60 billion cubic meters of gas every year. To put recent Turkish discoveries in global context, Russia has proven natural gas reserves of some 50,000 cubic kilometers.

Coal remains one of Turkey’s major energy sources, thwarting its ability to decrease its carbon emissions. Turkey’s domestic coal industry is highly subsidized in order to reduce natural gas imports. Lignite, the least energy-dense and most polluting form of coal, predominates. Coal production surged from 2015 to 2019 but has declined since then. To meet the country’s growing demand, imports have surged in recent years. The war in Ukraine, however, has disrupted supplies and increased costs, generating economic hardship. Particularly hard hit is Turkey’s large and energy-intensive cement industry. CemNet reported in March 2022 that the Turkish cement industry was facing an “imminent crisis.”  In 2014, Turkey was the world’s fifth largest cement producer, following only China, India, the United States, and Iran.

Turkey has made relatively modest investments in renewable energy. Hydropower has long provided roughly 20 percent of its electricity, but recent droughts have reduced the supply. Turkey’s has good climatological potential for solar and wind, and wind power is now growing, providing about 10 percent of the country’s electricity. In 2021 the energy think tank Ember reported that “it is now cheaper to build new wind or solar for power generation in Turkey than running even the most efficient hard coal power plant that relies on coal imports.” Ember’s analysts thus foresee an accelerating transition to renewable power, with a “win-win-win situation” resulting in “lower import bills, lower emissions, [and a] lower carbon levy by the EU.” Such hopes may be overstated. Energy intermittency and the lack of economically feasible storage still poses a major obstacle to solar and wind energy development in Turkey – as in the rest of the world.

Are the Kurds Linked to the Bronze-Age Hurrians? Is Tattooing Evidence of This Connection?

The Kurdish national myth links the origin of the ethnic group to the ancient Medes, an Iranian people who supposedly carved out a large empire that was quickly supplanted by that of the much better-known (and closely related) Persians in the 6th century BCE. As the Wikipedia article on the Kurds notes:

Many Kurds consider themselves descended from the Medes, an ancient Iranian people, and even use a calendar dating from 612 BC, when the Assyrian capital of Nineveh was conquered by the Medes. The claimed Median descent is reflected in the words of the Kurdish national anthem: “We are the children of the Medes and Kai Khosrow.”

Few if any scholars give credence to this theory. The poorly documented language of the ancient Medes does seem to have been closely related to Kurdish, with both languages placed on the Northwestern side-branch of the Iranian branch of the Indo-European language tree. But the Median language does not seem to be any more closely related to Kurdish that it is to any of the other modern languages on the same branch. More to the point, historians increasingly doubt whether the Medes ever created a coherent state, let alone a vast empire. What little is known about their political organization comes from the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, with Assyrian cuneiform archives providing a little additional information. Herodotus certainly assigned a prominent position to the Medes, but otherwise evidence about their geopolitical role is essentially lacking.

The Kurdish emphasis on their supposed Median progenitors is not surprising. In ethno-nationalist discourse, powerful and illustrious peoples from bygone eras are often enshrined in an ancestral position to bolster feelings of national pride. Such self-serving stories usually have little historical support and are therefore regarded with suspicion or outright contempt by most impartial scholars.

But if there is no solid evidence that the Kurds are the descendants of the ancient Meads, that does not necessarily mean that they have no cultural, historical, or genetic roots in ancient ethnic formations. Scholarship on such topics is often precarious, however, as the evidence is generally murky and national ideologies tend to intrude. But as long as they are based on some reasonable evidence, such “primordialist” ideas should not be rejected out of hand. Many of them warrant further inquiry, regardless of whether they seem farfetched.

To my mind, the most intriguing thesis on ancient Kurdish roots is found in the early works of Michael Mehrdad Izadi, one of the world’s most preeminent historical and cultural cartographers (his map collection, found at Columbia University’s Gulf 2000 Project, is a cartographic treasure trove). Born to a Kurdish father and Belgian mother, Izadi has deep and abiding interests in the Kurdish people. Some of his early writings on this topic can be found at Kurdistanica.com. Here he expounds his thesis of partial Kurdish descent from the ancient Hurrians, a Bronze-Age people who were associated with a powerful state (or empire) called Mitanni. Although the Hurrians, unlike the Kurds, were not an Indo-European people, some of their leaders, experts in chariot warfare, evidently were; their personal names, and even some of their deities, link them to the Indic (or Indo-Aryan) branch of Indo-European language family.

If Izady’s thesis is correct, the Kurds would have originated from an amalgamation of the ancient Hurrians and more powerful, mostly male, Indo-European-speaking intruders (initially speaking an Indo-Aryan language and later speaking one or more Iranian language). In global historical terms, this scenario fits into a common pattern. The languages of more military powerful peoples often supplant those of less powerful peoples, but other cultural aspects of the original group often survive with relatively little change. This is what Izady sees when he peers into the distant Kurdish past:

The legacy of the Hurrians to the present culture of the Kurds is fundamental. It is manifest in the realm of Kurdish religion, mythology, material and martial arts, and even the genetics. Nearly three-quarters of Kurdish clan names and roughly half of topographical and urban names are also of Hurrian origins, ….  Mythological and religious symbols present in the art of the later Hurrian dynasties, such as the Mannaeans and Kassites of eastern Kurdistan, and the Lullus of the southeast, present in part what can still be observed in the Kurdish ancient religion of Yazdanism, better-known today by its various denominations as Alevism, Yezidism,and Yarisanism (Ahl-i Haqq).

Izady’s interpretation of Kurdish origins and religious beliefs, it must be noted, has been rejected by many experts in the field. The Wikipedia article on Izady includes some crudely dismissive comments, albeit made by some equally controversial scholars. In the long run, it is usually best to neither embrace nor dismiss evidence-based but non-mainstream interpretations of deep historical processes. Most of our key theories in both the natural and human sciences, after all, were once roundly rejected for contravening the established consensus.

When the language of an elite population replaces the language of a subordinated group, traces of the older language often persist in the form of vocabulary elements, sounds, and even grammatical structures. If Izady’s thesis is correct, one might expect to find such a Hurrian “substratatum” in the modern Kurdish language(s) (or, more precisely, a Hurro-Urartian substratum, as Hurrian’s only known relative was the language of the Iron Age Kingdom of Urartu in what is now eastern Turkey and Armenia). As it turns out, evidence does exist for such linguistic traces. Several years ago, the blogsite Within the Lands of Kurda ran a three-part series on this topic, entitled “The Hurro-Urartian Substratum in Kurdish.” Each of these posts is worth quoting:

It has long been shown by scholars that significant portion of Kurdish toponymy originates from Hurro-Urartian; examples are ”Barzani” which was name of a Hurrian god …

Indeed, there are hardly any cases where there is not a ”native” [i.e. Hurro-Urartian] Kurdish equivalent for the superimposed Irano-Kurdish words.

As can be seen, Kurdish language appears to be a creole language formed after an amalgamation of Hurro-Urartian and Iranic languages. The Hurro-Urartian layer, showing itself as an older substratum in which Urartian is stronger, while the Iranic layer, which began undoubtedly with the Scytho-Cimmerian invasion of Urartu emerges as a superstratum. The Iranic layer was further intensified with a wave of clearly identifiable Middle Persian loanwords under the Sassanid period, during which, Iranic aristocrats played a prominent role in local affairs

The author received some harsh criticism, however, in the comments section of the blog, particularly regarding the idea that Kurdish is a creole language. Linguists have very strict rules for determining such matters, and the author probably took a step too far. All that I can conclude from my own cursory investigation is that a major Hurrian-Urartian substratum in Kurdish as an intriguing possibility that deserves further inquiry.

Perhaps the most interesting line of evidence for the Hurrian roots of the Kurdish people comes from the realm of tattooing. Tattoos are haram, or forbidden under Islamic law, but Muslim Kurds – particularly women – have nonetheless maintained this ancient practice to this day, although it does seem to be slowly disappearing. Traditional Kurdish tattoos, primarily placed on the hands and face, are called deq. They are based on an elaborate symbolic system, sometimes deemed a “secret language.” Izady sees a clear Hurrian linkage here as well:

It is fascinating to recognize the origin of many tattooing motifs still used by the traditional Kurds on their bodies as replicas of those which appear on the Hurrian figurines. One such is the combination that incorporates serpent, sun disc, dog and comb/rain motifs. In fact, some of these Hurrian tattoo motifs are also present in the religious decorative arts of the Yezidi Kurds, as found prominently engraved to the wall at the great shrine at Lalish.

Regardless of any connections to the ancient Hurrians, deq tattooing is a fascinating topic in its own right. Several recent articles have focused on this endangered cultural tradition. I will  conclude this post with quotations from two of these publications. First, from The Bajer:

DEQ is a secret language, mainly among women. … In some cultures, tattoos stand for religion, power, and joy; others believe the practice of DEQ has therapeutic power. According to some women I have interviewed, DEQ is a reminder of loss, a way to immortalize their loved ones. They keep essential memories constantly in mind with powerful symbols on apparent parts of the body, such as the face, feet, arms, hands, and chest.

DEQ differs from the modern tattoo with its unique ingredients and recipe, which varies across different ethnic groups. DEQ tattoo ingredients include sheet metal soot or ash, coal dust, milk from a lactating mother who has weaned a female baby, which is believed to make the tattoo stick permanently, and liquid from an animal’s gallbladder. The application of DEQ includes embroidering the mixture into the skin through one to three needles.

Second, from Daily Sabah:

Deq symbols have different connotations but most of them are believed to protect women from evil forces. They are said to bring good health, cure illnesses and be associated with fertility and tribal affiliations. The figure of an eye is said to divert the evil eye, while an image of a gazelle brings luck. The figure of the sun or the moon refers to an endless and healthy life and an illustration of a millipede is associated with good housekeeping. For beautification, the figure of the moon or a star is preferred. The common “V” symbol is a tribal identifier. Certain geometrical figures or animal images refer to fertility. “Deq” is seen as an accessory, something that elderly women in Turkey’s southeast proudly show. Jodi Hilton, an American photojournalist, visited Syrians who have been displaced by the DAESH [ISIS] siege and now live at refugee camps in Turkey. There, she documented some of the last-remaining tattooed women from the Syrian town of Kobani.

Political Orientation and Attitudes Towards NATO (& NATO-Enlargement Map Sequence)

I recently gave a lecture on issues surrounding NATO in my Stanford University adult education class (Continuing Studies Program) on the history and geography of current global events. In preparing the lecture, I came across an interesting poll conducted by the Pew Research Center on attitudes towards NATO in different member states. This study found that in Europe those on the political right have a more favorable view of NATO than those on the political left. This divergence is especially notable in Greece, Spain, and Sweden, but less so in the United Kingdom. Contrastingly, in Canada and especially the U.S., support for NATO is associated with the political left. As can be seen in the chart posted below, American conservatives generally have a favorable view of NATO, but not nearly to the same extent as those on the left.

These findings are interesting but not necessarily surprising. The political left in Europe tends to be suspicious of the United States, and the U.S. is NATO’s dominant military power. On the other side of the Atlantic, American conservatives have been steadily abandoning their support for international military engagement and defense arrangements. To some extent, this change represents a return to the traditional Republican suspicion of foreign entanglements that was dominant before the Cold War.

But if Democrats and Republicans hold markedly different views on NATO, the U.S. public as a whole shows evidence of moving in the same direction regarding American foreign policy more generally. According to a recent Morning Consult poll, Democrats and Republicans alike decreasingly favor the deployment of American troops overseas and are increasingly suspicious of U.S. involvement in military conflicts abroad. The same poll found similar tendencies regarding fundamental issues of economic globalization. Apparently, Democrats and Republicans alike increasingly favored tariffs on foreign goods and barriers to foreign investment. Such convergence is evident in the policy realm. Despite their many deep political differences, the Biden and Trump administrations both pursued protectionist policies during their periods in power. It will be interesting to see if these trends continue and if they will play a significant role in the 2024 election.

Part of my lecture on NATO examined the creation and expansion of the organization. I was frustrated in my search for maps that could clearly portray the organization’s enlargement. As a result, I created my own map sequence, beginning before the creation of NATO and ending with a peek into the possible future of the organization. These maps are available here in PDF format.

NATO Creation and Enlargement Map Sequence

This winter I will be teaching again in Stanford’s Continuing Studies Program, offering a foundational political geography class entitled “The World Political Map.” It will be given remotely through Zoom and can be taken by anyone willing to pay the rather hefty fee. The description of the class can be found here.

 

Opposing Views on the U.S. Suburban Electoral Shift, and the New York/Philadelphia Paradox

The changing political orientation of the American suburbs has emerged as a major topic in recent electoral analysis. As a 2019 New York Times headline asked, “Are the Suburbs Turning Democratic?: The Political Dividing Line in America Used to Be Between Democratic Cities And Republican Suburbs; Now It Runs Through the Center of the Suburbs Themselves.” As this article correctly notes, since 2016 inner suburbs have generally moved in a Democratic direction, whereas outer suburbs have remained in the Republican camp. Just this week, the New York Times ran another headline proclaiming, “Democrats Retained Their Grip on Diversifying Suburbs: Modest Gains by GOP Can’t Reverse a Trend That Started In 2018.” Although the article contains some insightful analysis and is accompanied by two revealing maps (posted below), the implications of the headline are frankly bizarre. It implies that the authors can predict the future of electoral geography in the United States based on their analysis of recent trends. Such trends, as we all know, can pivot quickly. As recently as 2010, Newsweek ran a headline reading, “Dems Lose Grip on Crucial Suburbs,” with the article noting that, “When Long Island flipped from red to blue in recent years, Republicans looked unlikely to ever win another statewide election.”  Long Island, however, has flipped back and forth several times since this article was published.

The most recent New York Times headline, with the crucial word “diversifying,” might also be read as an implication that ethnic and racial diversification will determine the outcomes of future elections in American suburbs. This “demography is political destiny” thesis implicitly rests on the earlier works of Democratic analyst Ruy Teixeira, particularly his co-written 2004 book The Emerging Democratic Majority. Teixeira, however, has largely repudiated these ideas, based on his detailed demographic analyses of recent elections. He shows that minority voters, particularly Hispanic ones, have been drifting away from the Democratic Party, and he argues that this shift will likely continue unless the Democrats alter some of their positions, particularly on social and cultural matters. A recent article by Teixeira interprets suburban voting trends quite differently than the New York Times does. As he writes:

And just how much hold do the Democrats have on suburban voters anyway? In the AP/NORC VoteCast survey, the most reliable election survey available, Democrats carried suburban voters nationwide by a single point in 2022. That’s a slippage of 9 points from the Democrats’ 10 point margin in 2020. Interestingly, the slippage in Democratic support from 2020 to 2022 was actually larger among nonwhite than white suburban voters. These data indicate strongly that Democrats might not be in quite the catbird seat they think they are with suburban voters and therefore with the 2024 election. But they appear to have a touching faith that the anti-MAGA playbook will work anytime anywhere.

As both Teixeira and the New York Times writers fully understand, the American suburbs are by no means electorally uniform. One major discrepancy, highlighted by the Times, is that between New York and Philadelphia. In the 2022 election, the modest red shift in the Philadelphia suburbs was not enough to make up for a more substantial blue shift in previous elections. In the New York suburbs, on the other hand, “the four point shift towards the Democrats in 2020 was more than undone by the five point swing toward the Republicans in 2022.”

The 2022 shift toward the Republicans in the New York metropolitan area occurred in both suburban and urban districts. In the the 2022 New York State Assembly election (second map posted below), the shift in the Republican direction was been more pronounced in the outer boroughs of the city than in the Long Island suburbs.

The New York Times attributes the Republican gains in the New York suburbs to two main factors: “governor Kathy Hochul proved a weak Democratic standard bearer … while Republicans mounted a visceral campaign assaulting Democrats over crime.” While rising crime was no doubt an important issue in the New York election, one must ask why it was not equally important in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. Violent crime, after all, has risen more in Philadelphia than in most other major cities. Why then would Republicans be able to capitalize on this issue in New York but not in Philadelphia? Perhaps one factor is the more prominent role of the tabloid press in the former area (particularly the New York Post), which reports extensively on crime. Comments from readers who have more knowledge of these two metropolitan areas would be highly welcome.