Just got back from a solo adventure in Death Valley National Park. I wasn’t supposed to go alone. Stephen Trinkaus and son Cody were to join me, but illness stopped them cold… the night before departure. I went anyway, completing, in addition to numerous day hikes, the 3-day, 2-night, 32-mile Cottonwood Canyon/Marble Canyon backcountry hiking loop.[If you’d like to read my trip write-up and view some of my photos, go HERE.]
Preparation for the wilderness loop brought me into the park’s visitor center in Furnace Creek, where I spent some time amidst their museum-like displays, showcasing the fauna and flora of the park; its natural and human history; its mining history; the oppression of Native Americans. Most everything was focused upon this question: how do humans, or any living thing for that matter, survive in this place of extremes… one of the hottest and driest places on earth?
One of the displays about human impacts included this language about our ability to modify our environment:
“OUR GREATEST SKILL; OUR BIGGEST LIABILITY.”
Their point seemed clear: human resilience, intelligence, tool-making and ingenuity allow us to survive in such extremes, but this skillset creates both incredible greatness and pathetic destruction.
What better way to experience the contrast between this double-edged sword than by flying into and out of Las Vegas, with 8 wilderness days sandwiched in between? A city on steroids located in a desert deserved of our nation’s largest National Park? Say what?
“There is no shortage of water in the desert, but exactly the right amount, a perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand. There is no lack of water unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.” – Edward Abbey
How can we rein in this apparent drive to over-develop? How can we sustain nature’s gift of the perfect ratio? Will voluntary restraint be enough? What about our laws and regulations? The answer is clear enough, given that these are the very tools that have resulted in Las Vegas; given that Las Vegas continues to gobble up more land and resources.
Does this mean we need stricter laws and regulations?
I can hear the screaming and imagine the lawsuits from the champions of commerce and their compensated spokespeople — often referred to as politicians. Can you hear the drumming, to the tune of ‘gobs of jobs’?
The problem appears to be that, as for all plants and animals, we’re driven to fill our particular ecological niche. Plants and animals fill their space. Same with humans, but our enormous cerebrums allow us to break through classic, natural barriers, thereby violating our perfect ratio. Simply put, humans fill their space… and then some. A whole lot of ‘some’.
“Plants and animals die to make room for your fat ass.” – Anonymous
Given our ‘gift’ of technology – our greatest skill – isn’t restraint essential to prevent it from becoming a liability? Without restraint, how else can we sustain something akin to nature’s perfect ratio and not over-develop? Seems as though a social mechanism to retain a sustainable limit to growth is essential if we are to avoid overshoot; if we are to sustain anything close to a perfect ratio.
My car ride from Death Valley to Las Vegas reminded me of WWU Professor Dan Warner’s comment that…
‘Growth is good for a while; then it’s not’.
So when should growth stop; when is it not good? Seems clear to me: growth beyond that which is sustainable violates a healthy ratio and restraints must be imposed. Restraints… laws and regulations duly enforced. Granted, laws and regulations would help if their intensity were proportional to the insanity of the ratio. Isn’t that the very logic of most all successful negative feedback systems? If you find yourself driving too fast, your foot’s brake pressure had better be proportional to the distance of an approaching cliff edge, eh?
Instead, mainstream culture keeps our accelerator jammed to the floor. ‘Grow or die’ remains the predominant world view. Ratios continue to deteriorate while captains of industry and their compensated spokespeople seem to care less. They consider personal freedom and access to private wealth more important than a healthy environment. Restraining growth, they claim, is not the foundation of this great country, disregarding the fact that over time things have changed… radically.
Since my birth in 1951 U.S. population has more than doubled and during that same footprint of time the square footage per person in newly constructed homes has tripled.
Now that’s some radical change! Two times as many people each wanting three times more space. Can the same rules apply? Is it any wonder that virtually all measures of environmental health are plummeting? Ratios be damned, say the fundamentalists or originalists: ‘we humans are in charge; to hell with Mother Nature!’
Sorry! Humans are not in charge, though some may think so. Approaching the cliff edge is clearly our direction of travel, and collapse will surely serve as the reset button on deteriorating, human-induced ratios. Sure wish we could reverse direction proactively instead of allowing our greatest skill to be overwhelmed by our biggest liability.
What faith do I have that humanity can re-establish healthy ratios?
Given our current performance and direction of travel, none frankly. We will grow and die. Then and only then will healthy ratios reassert themselves; the planet stripped of its biggest liability — us. Mother earth will do just fine without us, but I sure wish humans could remain part of its mix.
I’m no longer surprised by how polarized the political right has become. Their assault on reason feels necessary because they’ve got no other tool left; they seem no longer reason-able! Scientists are screaming ‘overshoot’ and the captains of industry simply don’t want to hear it anymore, so their style is to abrasively stand up and yell ‘shut up’. Or, worse yet, as Donald Trump just said to roaring applause in Las Vegas to a demonstrator who was ushered out of an event by his security guards… “I’d like to punch him in the face.” No dialog anymore, just shut up.
An essential step in the right direction is to remove money from the election process. Captains of industry cannot remain at the helm. Decades ago author Paul Hawken wrote that”… our business practices are destroying life on earth. Given current corporate practices, not one wildlife reserve, wilderness, or indigenous culture will survive the global market economy. We know that every natural system on the planet is disintegrating. The land, water, air and sea have been functionally transformed from life-supporting systems into repositories for waste. There is no polite way to say that business is destroying the world.”
Restraint is essential if we’re to manage healthy ratios.
This camper, for one, is not optimistic, and I will not shut up. I can still hope, at least.
“Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” – Vaclav Havel