Celebrating Our Species Progress

We have so much to be grateful for, something that becomes clear when you take control.

Celebrating the state of our species came to mind after learning of the loss of P-22, the legendary cougar of the Santa Monica Mountains and Griffith Park. He was mercifully euthanized by a team of caring veterinarians last month after sustaining injuries from being hit by a car. The news caused me to think about the multi-million dollar wildlife crossing bridge soon to be built over Highway 101 near Liberty Canyon in Los Angeles County. I wondered if someday wolves would be using the bridge, wolves from the pack that has been finding its way into California due to our efforts to reintroduce the species in Yellowstone National Park.

What accounts for these incredibly expensive and heartfelt efforts to care for species that used to be our competitors, our predators, creatures that once made living in North America a seriously dangerous affair? There was good reason Native Americans celebrated the Spanish having their guns – it made living in California much safer by dispatching the great terror of the landscape, the California grizzly bear. Not only did grizzlies kill humans, but the bears raided the valuable stores of acorns many tribal groups collected and depended upon for food.

But after thousands of years of civilization, many nations have become wealthy enough, secure enough, to view Nature as something to cherish, rather than fear.

We are experiencing a unique time in human history when a large percentage of the population values wildness, Wilderness, and all the non-human species we share this planet with. Beginning with the creation of Yellowstone National Park, followed by the efforts of John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt to protect even more, there is now broad public support for preserving Nature.

Such positive change is not restricted to our relationship with Nature. As Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has pointed out, “Extreme poverty has been decimated: It’s gone from 90 percent of the world’s population to 10 percent. Literacy has increased from about 15 percent to more than 85 percent. Prosperity has increased; longevity has increased from about 30 to about 71 years worldwide, and 80 in the developed world.”

Even a superficial understanding human history reveals how far we’ve moved away from our standard operating procedures of violence, slavery, murder, and mayhem. And despite the not-so-small hiccup after the collapse of Rome, the positive advancements in philosophy, science, and politics, especially the little experiment in democracy, have been breathtaking. Empirical thought has replaced witchcraft and mythology.

Because of this progress, we have the luxury of taking for granted so many improvements in our lives, as simple as Band-Aids and Neosporin, soap, and toothbrushes, advances that have nearly eliminated what were once two common causes of death; infections from cuts and tooth decay. The remarkable scientific response to COVID-19 was highlighted by Dr. Anthony Fauci recently in a recent LA Times interview when discussing the stubborn persistence of new strains of the virus “… the science has been an overwhelming success story when it comes to therapy and prevention. So am I discouraged? No, I think it’s cause for celebration.”

Millions of lives have been saved by the science Fauci is celebrating. What was not adequately communicated in the interview was that this celebration extends back to the 1980s when Fauci played a key role in solving the AIDS crisis. That experience was instrumental in helping us tackle COVID so quickly. A lot of us owe our lives to Anthony Fauci.

Sadly, such positive achievements get little attention. Our genetic predisposition to focus on the negative has been exploited by media and politicians alike to catastrophize every minor event for their own purposes, creating conspiratorial sociopaths and yet-to-be mothers who fear the future so much that raising a family is too terrifying to contemplate. Being able to notice, react, and remember the rattlesnake provides a selective advantage over enjoying the wildflowers. Those who want our attention, and our money, know this.

The headline for the positive LA Times story on Fauci mentioned above? “Fauci warns we’re in an ‘anti-science era.” The headline should have been, “Science achieved overwhelming successes in battle against COVID.”

It’s difficult to get relief from this maelstrom of negativity, no matter the source. Of the two dominant voices in America, one predicts Armageddon if the principles of the Enlightenment continue to guide us, the other demands fealty to the temple of social grievance where shame and self-loathing are utilized to seek retribution for past and current trespasses.

Such paranoia and angst doesn’t square with the data, nor with our lousy record for predicting the future.

The feared collapse of civilization, or at least the stock market, as we entered Y2K two decades ago, didn’t pan out, as usual. It was actually a great time to be invested. The nuclear holocaust that we were sure was to occur within the hour during the 1960s led to weekly bomb drills under school desks, air raid siren tests, and backyard fallout shelters. None of it would have mattered. Regardless, we’re still here. The wildfires over the last decade that have supposedly destroyed forests, like the redwoods in Big Basin Redwoods State Park in 2020? The redwoods are fine and the forests are returning (just not on our schedule), the only exception being when post-fire “management” occurs (Mahdizadeh and Russell 2021).

Natural disasters like wildfires are the ultimate headline grabbers, providing fodder for a wild array of catastrophizing platitudes. What is not reported is our remarkable progress in reducing the number of people killed by these disasters.

Wildfire reporting is especially prone to cherry picking information in order to maximize a story’s impact. No matter the wildfire, reporters inevitably find some quality that fits into the “worst-ever” category. Wildfire stories typically show a dramatically up-trending graph of acres burned per year, starting in the 1980s or sooner, supported with quotes from a fire official or forestry professor claiming, “We’ve never seen fires like this before,” “This fire is the worst in my career,” or, “The fire was so hot it sterilized the soil.” Myopia, mythology, or both.

Let’s take a look at a full century of acres burned per year to reveal the true story.

By including the full data set, fires in recent decades are not the anomaly they are claimed to be. The early 1900s had huge fires and large numbers of acres burning as well. By leaving out this period, important evidence is hidden that would reveal the actual cause of increased acres burned: when it gets warm, there are more fires. Increased acreage burned has nothing to do with past fire suppression and the supposed accumulation of vegetation, the favored explanation by those who have a vested interest in logging and habitat clearance (i.e. Cal Fire, US Forest Service, fire scientists funded by grants, biomass corporations).

Warm or Cool PDO in the graph represents the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, which is a measurement of the surface temperature of the Pacific Ocean. This has a direct impact on weather in the western US, and consequently, wildfires. The trend has basically flat lined since 2012 where the graph stops.

What does the future hold? Climate change will likely sustain the increased flammability of the landscape in the western states, and thus more acres burned, for longer than previous warm PDO periods.

Climate change is definitely an ongoing threat. What do we do, as individuals, with that knowledge? Understand the science. It’s interesting. Help others understand if they are willing to listen. Take the personal actions you feel are important. Then embrace the principle that all those who have recovered from debilitating addictions follow: Accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.

And remember, our predictions of the future are subject to the same laws of probability that your Lotto tickets are. We desire certainty, so we are naturally attracted to soothsayers and the guy who predicted the last Wall Street crash (he’ll miss the next one). We depend on experience and the present to predict. So, what was one of the most terrifying predictions in the late 1800s? We were going to be buried in shit, literally.

With the increasing density of humans and horses in cities, there were all sorts of catastrophizing predictions about how horse shit was going make cities uninhabitable. The solution? It was a solution no one predicted because it was too far beyond the paradigms at the time to even enter conscious thought – the internal combustion engine. All the wasted worry, angst, and depression, was, well, just a bunch of horseshit.

The living earth has gone through much worse than what climate change may wrought, and came out of it with magnificence. After all, mammals are the product of the last great extinction event 65 million years ago. Had that not happened, neither would have the life forms that dance across the planet’s surface today nor the wonders we have created and enjoyed. This reflects a basic, unavoidable principle of life – change is the crucible of evolution (both biological and social).

Be an activist. Seek to make the world a better place. But have fun doing it.

The following graph illustrates the impact of succumbing to catastrophizism; life becomes surreal, dominated by irrational pessimism. Perception becomes reality.

The insatiable desire for negativity also leads to demonizing individuals, regardless of the validity of the criticism. We have written about how John Muir has been subject to such demonization.

To check your own susceptibility to this phenomenon, think about your view of Christopher Columbus. Here’s a quote from his journal about the Indigenous people he met, a repeated theme throughout. “I believe that in the world there are no better people or a better land. They love their neighbors as themselves, and they have the sweetest speech in the world; and [they are] gentle and are always laughing.”

Columbus was constantly anguished over the atrocities committed by men who constantly disobeyed him, going on rampages in his absence – men whose names have been long forgotten.

Five ways to surround ourselves with the truth,
be able to put things into proper perspective,
and default to celebration

1. Kick the news addiction. Adam Mastroianni, a post-doc from Columbia University who studies conversation and theories of change, wrote in his recent essay, Reading the News is the New Smoking, “People used to reach for cigarettes when they felt stressed or bored; now they reach for CNN. Some people couldn’t even get out of bed without a smoke, while today some people can’t get up without checking the news first. I can’t promise that quitting the news is just as good for your lifespan as quitting cigs, but it is way easier, and people who do it universally report positive results.”

Try this. It works. As a replacement to reading the morning news, I read books, like the one I just finished, Columbus and the Quest for Jerusalem. I’m finding it’s a lot more fun than being fed negativity every morning.

Much of this news addition is of course related to our smartphones – and “news” includes everything we habitually check on our phone. Unchain yourself and get smarter. The research on this is clear as a recent paper explains. The title says it all. Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity. In addition, research has also revealed that people who turn to social media to escape from superficial boredom are unwittingly preventing themselves from progressing to a state of profound boredom, which opens the door to more creative and meaningful activity (thanks to fellow Chaparralian Alexander Kunz for both references).

2. Check before believing or passing along. The news media constantly gets it wrong. We’ve learned this over 20 years by reading articles about wildfires and other issues about which we have personal knowledge. It has never failed to amaze us how inaccurate the news can be. If the truth isn’t dramatic enough or doesn’t create a conflict, we’ve experienced many reporters just walk away. And this is from the news organizations that are not hyper-partisan. So, before passing along something you’ve read or heard, be smart, do your homework, especially if it confirms what you already believe.

3. Understand that they know not what they do. It is reasonable to assume that those of us who value science have been saddened over the past few years by the loss of friends or family who do not. Personally, I have lost friends for accepting the value of COVID vaccines, for placing science over mythology when it comes to Native American fire use, and for advocating holding government officials criminally responsible for placing people in harm’s way when they approve developments in wildfire corridors.

It’s difficult not to emotionally react when being called ignorant, a racist, or a wide variety of other ad hominems when you question perspectives that wilt under the light of empiricism. Forgive those who persist in judging you and dismiss the scientific truth you share, but stay strong and remain true to yourself. You have nothing to apologize for. It can be discouraging at first, but in the long run you’re better off by letting go those who demand allegiance to whatever flag they might be flying. Calmly offer your wisdom, be satisfied with that, then celebrate the knowledge you have attained in the process. That’s the approach we’ve taken in dealing with the sometimes-withering rejection in response in our fight to protect the chaparral.

The ease at which we now focus on celebrating our efforts, the one thing we can control, is affirming. We’ve found an abundance of new, wonderful friends who have become available because we have space for them in our lives – we no longer expend emotional energy in the service of pessimism. Optimism, laughter, and confidence, in both yourself and the future, are the most powerful creators of friendship.

4. Embrace Nature. Nature provides a baseline for life. The birds singing in your yard or nearby park, the harvester ants hibernating ’til spring, and the nascent inflorescences of the manzanita, all march forward in their own beautiful ways. Nature surprises. And in those surprises, our minds are suddenly removed from dwelling on what ails us, and instead are propelled into contemplating the wonder of life.

5. Love your animal friends. One of the quickest, most convenient ways to connect with Nature is to hang out with our pet. If you have an animal companion, we need say no more. You know how much they mean to you, how much they calm your soul. For us, it’s Cooper, the Chaparral Institute’s Chief Spiritual Officer.

The importance of Cooper in our lives has been brought into sharp focus recently. Our loyal companion is 14-years-old now. He’s been having a rough patch over the last couple of weeks. We never walk by him anymore without reaching down and giving him a gentle touch and whispering in his ear how much we love him.

Don’t wait. Choose to touch more in your life.

Wishing you a wonderful, happy new year,
Rick and Cooper

P.S. If you enjoy reading our journal, please support our work by becoming a member of the California Chaparral Institute in 2023.

6 Comments on “Celebrating Our Species Progress

  1. Dear Rick,
    Thank you for your inspiring words, One of the things I’m so grateful for is the much-needed rain we’re finally getting this winter. Even though problems are created up north, which maybe would not occur if there were better attention to mudslides, what causes them and how to prevent them. That’s a big subject that you have more expertise to expound upon.

    You’re certainly right about how the news media looks for stories and often blows things out of proportion for effect. The local news in San Diego had a ridiculous story a day ago about someone’s house in the middle of being built that is suffering from the rain damaging its construction, something his contractor. in the normal course, was taking care of. Is it better that we have no rain? This man obviously has a house elsewhere to stay dry in. What nonsense to focus on!

  2. Hello again

    I live in Descanso, San Diego County. There is a house here in Descanso with an exterior fire sprinkler system that you have promoted. I would love to see this installation.

    Is there a way to get in touch with the owner?



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