Last week my daughter showed us a glimpse of the Empire State Building from her friend’s dorm room. Every time I see that building, I think of the original black and white movie, King Kong. The image of that poor animal atop what was then world’s tallest structure getting pummeled by machine gun fire sticks with me for some reason. Maybe it’s because it was unfair. That creature was captured from his homeland and brought to America only to be gunned down? What kind of society does this?
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FAREWELL TO THE KING
Merian C. Cooper got the idea of King Kong from the French-American explorer and anthropologist, Paul Du Chaillu. He was the first of European origin to confirm the existence of Central African gorillas in 1860. This made him a much sought-after speaker in the late 1800s, and his books were immensely popular. Cooper’s uncle gifted the then six-year-old nephew with one, Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa. It tells of one gorilla locals noted for its “extraordinary size”:
“They believe, in all this country, that there is a kind of gorilla — known to the initiated by certain mysterious signs, but chiefly by being of extraordinary size — which is the residence of certain spirits of departed natives. Such gorillas, the natives believe, can never be caught or killed.”1
And then, while Du Chaillu was out hunting with locals, an encounter occurred. As Du Chaillu recalls,
“When he saw our party he erected himself and looked us boldly in the face . . . with immense body, huge chest, and great muscular arms, with fiercely-glaring large deep gray eyes, and a hellish expression of face, which seemed to me like some nightmare vision: thus stood before us this king of the African forest.”2
And so, they did what they believed to be impossible but predictable. Du Chaillu continues,
“[The gorilla] advanced a few steps— then stopped to utter that hideous roar again- advanced again, and finally stopped when at a distance of about six yards from us. And here, just as he began another of his roars, beating his breast in rage, we fired, and killed him.”3
Cooper went on to call this creature King Kong and made a movie about him. He wanted King Kong to be portrayed as being 50-60 feet tall. After all, he was kidnapped from a fictional small island that was also home to dinosaurs.
It turns out a gorilla that size is biologically impossible. For every doubling of height comes a tripling of weight. The joints and bones of a creature of this size simply could not bear his weight. King Kong was also impossible to portray on the big screen. Animators and cinematographers had difficulties portraying an animal of that size in the 1930s. Consequently, King Kong ends up appearing much smaller. Instead of weighing a couple hundred tons, let’s assume this mythical beast was shorter and weighed something more like 15 tons.
Still huge, that would be about two times the mass of an elephant requiring about 12,000 watts of metabolism to survive. And that is just the energy required to keep the organs running and nothing else. Around the time the original King Kong was being released, a biologist named Max Kleiber was plotting various animals’ metabolic rate and mass on a graph. To his surprise, the dots on the graph loosely aligned along a straight line sloping upwards with a mouse near the origin and an elephant to the upper right.
Kleiber had discovered a scaling law in nature known now as Kleiber’s law. For most animals, their metabolic rate scales to the 3⁄4 power of the animal's mass. Put another way, for every doubling of size the energy needed to survive decreases by ¼. Theoretical physicist and former President of the Santa Fe Institute, Geoffrey West, and his colleagues, believe ¾ scaling occurs due to the nutrient distribution through the efficiency seeking fractal-like structures of the circulatory system. The ‘3’ in ¾ comes about, it is believed, because the particles needed to arrange these mechanisms exists in a three-dimensional geometric universe.
Animals observed in the wild maximize their energy to survive. Every bit of energy spent above and beyond what is required for their body to function only pushes their caloric needs into debt. GPS tracked tigers, for example, reveal highly optimized search strategies over space and time in their hunt for prey. A lounging cat may appear lazy to us, but their maximizing their energy.
Early human hunter-gatherers were seemingly not that different. For similar reasons, they had to be deliberate about the energy they used. However, as their cultures evolved, along with their brain, they became increasingly effective at harnessing that energy. They used some of their energy to fashion spears, arrows, and hooks out of wood, bones, and rocks. They also used wood to make fire for heating, cooking, and controlled grassland burns to promote plant harvest renewal. In doing so, they were not only expending their own energy, but also the energy stored in that wood and other forms of biomass.
The appropriation of elements of the ecosystem for energy to support biological and social well-being, like plant harvesting, animal domestication, or consumption of biomass like wood and coal, is called social metabolism or sociometabolism. The social metabolism of these early societies sometimes had small effects on the ecosystem, but other times catastrophic. For example, the misuse of fire could lead to imbalances in ecosystems with detrimental cascading effects on plant and animal populations.
The arrival of North America’s first homo sapiens, as another example, coincided with the extinction of 33 species of large animals. Similar extinctions occurred upon the arrival of humans in South America and Australia. It turns out even the earliest human colonizers had detrimental impacts on the environment.
PLOTTING THE PLODDING AND MARAUDING
By studying existing hunter-gatherer societies, scientists can estimate the social metabolism of ancient hunter-gatherers. Geographer Yadvinder Malhi analyzed this data and determined,
“The energy use per capita of a hunter-gatherer is about 300 W, and this is almost entirely in the process of acquiring food for consumption, and to a much lesser extent other materials and the use of fire. This sociometabolism is greater than the 80–120 W required for human physiological metabolism, because of the inefficiencies in both acquiring foodstuffs, and in human conversion of food into metabolic energy, and also in the use of biomass energy sources for fuel.”4
Malhi then plotted where a hunter-gatherer would sit on a Kleiber plot relative to the biological metabolism of other animals. A typical hunter-gatherer’s combined biological and social metabolism puts them just between a human and a bull.
The social metabolism of homo sapiens continued to grow steadily, and along with it their capacity to harness nature for their lifestyle. And then, 5,000-10,000 years ago, during the Neolithic revolution, a simultaneous innovation occurred around the world – farming. The start of the Holocene witnessed the emergence of agriculture in Mesopotamia and Anatolia, the Yangtze valley, New Guinea, West Africa, Meso-America, and the Andes. The end of the ice age softened the earth, human language and communication had evolved and spread, and coincidently the colonization and exploitation of ecosystems.
Agriculture, the colonization of plants, allowed for geographically condensed energy to be grown which could support larger populations of people. This put a huge dependency on area of land needed to support and grow plants and animals. But these new densities of biomass reduced the amount energy required to roam large distances hunting and gathering. As a result, many hunter-gatherer societies could not compete, and Iron Age plant and animal farmers came to dominate. These clusters of agrarian societies grew around the world and with them languages and cultures. Soon the age of the agrarian came to dominate human existence. Using data from a well documented 18th century Austrian agrarian society, Malhi went to work to plot where a typical ‘agriculturist’ may fit on the Kleiber plot. He surmises:
“Compared to the hunter-gatherer sociometabolic regime, by the 18th century human sociometabolism per capita had increased by one to two orders of magnitude.” Given the population density such a society could support, the “per unit area energy consumption” grew “three to four orders of magnitude greater than that of a hunter-gatherer society.”
This plops the typical human agriculturalist below a rhino on the Kleiber plot. In other words, an active member of an 18th century agrarian society would have consumed as much energy as a resting animal nearly 10 times their mass. It seems over-consumptive human habits started early in our evolution.
Agrarian societies and hunter-gather societies were both constrained by land area. While agriculturalists were more efficient with land use than hunter-gatherers, they were nonetheless constrained by land. This is especially true for their primary source of fuel for heating and cooking – trees. That all changed with the birth of the Industrial age and the discovery of coal.
The potential energy in trees is stored solar energy from the relatively recent past. Coal is solar energy stored in biomass that accumulated and fossilized over millions of years in the deep layers of the earth’s outer crust, the lithosphere. For the first time in history, humans could exploit energy stored in deep time. Coal could more easily be transported over great distances. In theory, this would reduce the need to further exploit land and wood, but instead their destruction increased.
The Industrial age brought new forms of locomotion and transportation networks accelerated the expansion of colonization, land development, and the destruction of grasslands, swamps, and wooded areas. Healthy, thriving ecosystems were sacrificed for new and expanding cities and farms. Coal powered machines extracted elements from nature to make fertilizers, sawed, split, and planed trees into lumber, and stamped, squeezed, and shipped goods around the world feeding growing economies and their consumers. Fossil fuels accelerated and intensified the destruction of the biosphere and continue to do so to this day. The energy use of the biomass past to support today’s social metabolism puts in question the biomass of the future, including its human consumers.
CAPITALIZING ON A MONSTER APPETITE
Malhi identifies two key factors of industrial social metabolism:
The amount of biomass needed for biological metabolic survival (i.e. food) is small compared to fossil fuels and other high-density energy sources.
Fossil fuels used for building transportation networks meant population centers need not be co-located with food and energy production.
So where does the typical ‘industrialist’ sit on the Kleiber plot? Just above an elephant. That is, the amount of metabolic energy needed for a human to lead a typical industrialized lifestyle today is the equivalent of a resting elephant. Imagine the streets of the most populated cities being roamed by humans the size and weight of an elephant. Streams of cars on the freeway being driven by a five-ton mammal with an insatiable appetite. That’s us. Well, many of us, anyway.
Those numbers are for the average ‘industrialist’ in the UK where Malhi teaches. American’s stereotypically love our exceptionalism, and we are certainly exceptional in this regard. Sorry, Canadians, you’re implicated too. North American’s are the King Kong’s of energy consumption. Our dot on the Kleiber plot sits where a mythical 15-ton mammal would sit. The typical human in the United States and Canada consumes energy like King Kong. That’s well over 100 times the mass and energy needed for basic survival and 10 times more than agriculturalists that existed just 200 years ago.
When Du Chaillu and his native guides shot the king of the forest, Du Chaillu did not exploit the energy of that innocent animal as food. He instead chose to eat the deer they also killed. But the local hunters, who allegedly had long pursued the so-called king of the jungle, did. Including his brain. Eating the brain from the skull of a gorilla, Du Chaillu reported, was believed to bring “a strong hand for the hunt…and success with the women.”
Perhaps this played into Cooper’s storyline in King Kong. After all, it was a native tribal king on Skull Island who offered to trade six tribal women for the attractive American blonde woman, Ann Darrow, accompanying the crew on their expedition. She is then captured by a band of natives and offered up to King Kong as a sacrifice. But King Kong is felled by a gas bomb by American explorers and shipped back to New York to be put on display. King Kong then breaks from his chains and hunts down Ann. That’s what leads to the iconic scene of King Kong getting massacred atop the Empire State Building. War pilots fire machine guns from their planes as King Kong swats at them like flies while intermittently fondling the captive heroin, Ann.
King Kong, the movie, has since been interpreted as a story of race (King Kong as a metaphor for a Black man stolen from his homeland in bondage), sex (a white blonde woman who, fetishized as a sexual object pursued by Indigenous and Black men, must be saved), and rebellion (King Kong, as a Black man, breaks from his shackles and must be violently subdued). He has rebelled and therefore must be killed.
But before this interpretation, King Kong was said to represent FDR’s ‘New Deal’. Cooper was a devote anti-communist and conservatives like him regarded the New Deal as a menace – an imprisoned import of a policy from a faraway land unleashed on society. Just like King Kong. It must be killed.
I’ll offer my own interpretation:
King Kong is an outsized mythical beast so absurdly huge that it can’t bear its own weight. When it does manage to move, it destroys the environment in its path. What is erected before us, since the dawn of the Anthropocene (or is it the Capitalocene), is an over exploitive and consumptive way of life that is off the charts. It has ‘an immense body, huge chest, and great muscular arms.’ It has ‘fiercely-glaring large deep gray eyes, and a hellish expression of face.’ It ‘seems to me like some nightmare vision.’ What stands before us is this king of environmental destruction. And it must be killed.
Living Dangerously. Mark Cotta Vaz. 2005.