In 2016, the election slogan of TV star Donald Trump was “Make America Great Again!” One day, a pilgrim on the internet asked, “When was America great?” For someone deeply immersed in the study of ecological sustainability, the answer was obvious. America was great at least 15,000 years ago, when America resembled something like the Serengeti — a self-regulating (manager-free) wild ecosystem in a climax phase.
In those days, America was a paradise for the indigenous mastodons, wooly mammoths, wooly rhinos, short-faced bears, cheetahs, saber-tooth lions, jaguars, and many others who are now gone forever. They had inhabited this ecosystem for millions of years, and successfully coevolved in it. This was their ancient home and community.
I’m not exactly certain why there were so many extinctions, but all had survived hundreds of thousands of years of recurring ice age cycles. Experts with their high-tech gadgets assert that many disappeared from the stage in the same era that humans from Siberia arrived. Of course, other continents had similar experiences. Europe, Asia, and Australia were also great prior to the arrival of two-legged tropical primates, and then went downhill in the millennia that followed.
Evolution is brilliantly simple — as conditions change, species genetically adapt via natural selection, a slow and steady process that has worked very well for a few billion years. Our innovative tropical primate ancestors figured out how to sneak around this time-proven process. For example, learning how to preserve and control fire was a big juju shift that no other animals have made.
With fire, they were better able to fend off predators. They could stay warm in non-tropical climates. They learned how to cook, which made it easier to digest food. Cooking made many inedible substances edible, and these were added to their diet. Consequently, they could extract more calories from the same territory. So, the carrying capacity of their habitat increased, which led to more well-fed bambinos.
This process is called cultural evolution — a deliberate way of altering our relationship with the ecosystem via learning and innovation, a process for change that was far faster than genetic evolution. With clothing and shelters, they could survive in cooler lands. With weapons and teamwork, they could kill animals much larger than themselves. When they first arrived in new ecosystems, the wildlife had no instinctive fear of them, which made hunting ridiculously easy. This led to more well-fed bambinos.
Eventually, we became clever enough to live everywhere, even the Arctic. Cultural evolution gained momentum, transforming many societies of two-legs into ecological super storms. Technological innovation has given us the power to poison the oceans, erase vast forests, exterminate wildlife, and disrupt the planet’s climate systems — and we’re bloody proud of this. We call it Progress.
Our closest living relatives, the chimps and bonobos (like all other animals), did not board the runaway train of cultural evolution. Their ancestors have lived in the same tropical ecosystem for millions of years, without wrecking it. Our DNA is ninety-nine percent the same as theirs. All newborn humans are wild tropical primates, expecting to spend their lives in a thriving Serengeti, but most of their parents have been entranced. Most newborns squirt out of the womb into a batshit crazy culture.
This crazy culture imagines that one animal species (guess who) is superior to everything else in the universe, and no other species matters at all. In this culture, newborns grow up, go to school, get a job, and spend their entire lives wandering around amidst mobs of neurotic insecure tropical primates. Unlike wild humans, and other wild animals, consumers mature, reproduce, and die in a bleak space station culture of human supremacy.
I once spent nine years in the forest. Humans would build a cabin in bear country, and live as if they were in a sterile suburban cul-de-sac where everything wild had been exterminated. They’d put their garbage (bear food) on the porch, which would attract… (guess who). A hungry bear would dine on the wasted food, the moron would race of the cabin with a high-powered rifle, screaming obscenities at the “problem bear,” and blow it away. The moron perceived himself to be the lord and master of the ecosystem. This attitude is perfectly normal in our culture.
You see, the mastodons and wooly rhinos instinctively lived in an ancient time-proven manner — automatically, thoughtlessly, effortlessly — like the other species in the world. This is exactly why America was great. It worked! The American flora and fauna had succeeded in adapting to millions of years of ongoing changes of climate and habitat via evolution and coevolution. By staying on the traditional path, they did not nervously tap-dance through minefields of their own making.
By adapting fire, clothing, and weapons, two-legs had moved onto a terrifically dangerous path. They had become far more powerful than bonobos or chimps. They were en route to becoming the mightiest critters on the planet — via culture, not genes — a treacherous daredevil experiment with no safety nets.
To wisely avoid self-destruction, the innovative two-legs had to have foresight. They had to have respect and reverence for their ecosystem. They had to develop traditions and taboos that expected everyone to practice self-restraint. No other species had to struggle with these highly challenging responsibilities. Surprisingly, numerous human societies actually succeeded in living mindfully, until being clobbered by… (guess who). The Koyukon, Ohlone, Ojibway, and many other tribes carefully adapted to their ecosystems, and lived for thousands of years in a low-impact manner. Great, eh?
Today, I’m living in a culture that generates staggering amounts of scientific data, but has pathetically limited foresight. There is little respect for this ecosystem. Self-restraint is seen as a disgusting disability in a consumer culture obsessed with unrestrained self-indulgence, and an insatiable hunger for status and power. History is clear that cultures like this one routinely trump the wild cultures of reverence, respect, and restraint. Civilized cultures mindlessly mangle everything in their paths.
The Glowing Screen People inhabit a wonderland of technological progress — not a devastated ecosystem. They do not perceive the huge gaping holes in the family of life. They have no awareness of all that has been lost. They do not grieve the absence of giant condors, giant beavers, giant armadillos, giant bears. They have no memory of the great American Serengeti. They will barely notice the passing of the last lions and tigers and bears, and few will grieve their demise.
Well, gosh, we’ve inherited an interesting mess, and it’s getting worse. This is the opposite of great, methinks. Genes did not get us into this mess, culture did — it’s a buggy software thing. Our nightmare is a swirling roaring pandemonium of dysfunctional beliefs, ideas, fantasies, and illusions — toxic cultural baggage. But our society is not required to continue operating on Ecocide 1.0 until the bloody end. We have the option of creating an entirely different operating system, in theory. Attempting to dominate and exploit the entire family of life has been a catastrophic experiment in megalomania and embarrassing foolishness.
We’re not going to bring back the wooly rhinos and mastodons. America will not return to a healthy stable wild paradise for a very long time. People capable of thinking outside the box understand that the path to ecological sustainability travels in the opposite direction from the current path of windmills, solar panels, electric cars, nuke plants, voyages to Mars, and happy meals for eleven billion shoppers on antidepressants.
Anyway, I wonder if this was the profound vision of “great again” that Donald Trump struggled so clumsily to convey — turning out the lights, walking away from civilization, going home sweet home, and living happily ever after.