A History Thicker Than Paper

I’ve been a bit of a two-fisted reader lately. The books dovetail, through no planning of my own. One is Robert Fillmore’s Geological Evolution of the Colorado Plateau in Eastern Utah and Western Colorado. A fun read. The other is Elizabeth Kolbert’s slightly less somber near-term prophecy The Sixth Extinction.

Fillmore’s book deals with a tangible reality. I’ve been to Utah and saw the entire Pennsylvanian Epoch compressed into a few hundred feet of rock. Kolbert is a bit more of a futurist. She delves into the tangible reality of the five past extinctions. Then she looks at our somber present and asks the logical question: Will we be here 100,000 years from now? Hell, will we be here 100 years from now? The answer is: that depends.

Compared to a single geological epoch, human existence is barely the hint of a whisper. Still, we will leave behind an indelible record. Our damming and dredging, our wars and nuclear blasts, our mass consumption of hydrocarbons—or, put into an energy equation, the fact that the 2500 calories we need to survive each day requires millions of more calories to produce—and our toxically clustered population centers, will tell a story. It will not be much of one since we will not be here that long. But it will be there none the less. As Kolbert put it: “…a hundred million years from now, all that we consider to be the great works of man—the sculptures and the libraries, the monuments and the museums, the cities, and the factories—will be compressed into a layer of sediment not much thicker than a cigarette paper.”

Not much thicker than a cigarette paper.

To get to at least that thickness, we need to change our template. The human mind does not readily adapt to new information. So we create templates and skew them around over ancient information to make it fit. It’s like that puzzle piece we know doesn’t quite belong there. We press it hopefully into place and move on. Then, as the problem becomes more obvious, we finally analyze things. Our current template is meant to sell us a bill of goods. It’s called Rugged Individualism. At first glance, it seems sturdy enough. Ayn Rand was able to form it into a 900-page pile of bullshit called Atlas Shrugged. But like the book, it’s nothing but paper. We need a template from deeper in our past. A template based on unity.

It’s a simple idea. And it’s one America once believed in. We liked it so much we coded it in Latin and engraved it on our currency. E Pluribus Unum. From the many, one.

The year I was born we changed that. In my lifetime our money, ironically, has been inscribed with In God We Trust. In all that trusting time I watched on TV as we turned fire hoses on, and turned police dogs on—and killed in their churches—disenfranchised people who wanted nothing more than to fully participate in the promise of democracy. And I don’t mean just this past year. Nothing much has changed since the Sixties. I watched as we sent 55,000 young men to their deaths fighting a bogeyman in southeast Asia. And then it was Nicaragua, and Kuwait, and Iraq, and Afghanistan. And Iraq again. Of course, the body count goes down, at least on our side, because we have drones now. Sure there is the euphemistic collateral damage. But what are you gonna do?

While trusting in god, I watched family farms disappear from the countryside, their inefficiencies replaced by corporate farms. After all, if we need to process sentient creatures into protein on the same scale we use for turning iron ore into lug nuts we can’t have Farmer John doing it.

And those are just from the jittery, amplified newsreel. On the quiet side, those fifty years of trust have brought a dearth of leadership, fallacious economic theories that we refuse to stop following, and a continued downward spiral of devaluing human life. Yet somehow the stench of it all has failed to reach the nose of the object of our trust.

If you are not feeling hopeful yet, stick with me.

Our place on this planet is not because we are the fastest or strongest or the most stealthy. It’s not even because we’re the smartest. Although we are pretty damn smart. And it’s not because we have superb communications skills. It’s not even because of all the technology that we trust in now even more than the god who has been absent everywhere but on our money. Nope. It is because we once cooperated.

True, the oversize brain and advanced vocalizations were great tools to have. Are great tools to have. And being able to pass technology from one person to another, from one group to another, lifted the whole. But without that core cooperation, we would never have made it off the savanna. There would not even have been a layer of rock as thick as cigarette paper to tell the story.

Cooperation, though, has become a 21st-century miasma. The mass media assigns names to cooperation, all of them bad: Communist; Socialist; Union organizer; Community organizer. Oddly, they have few bad names for capitalism. And capitalism isn’t even whispering sweet nothings in our ears while it sodomizes us. Yet the laundry soap sponsored media assures us that we don’t need to effect a breakup. That is some decidedly strange crosstalk. Maybe it’s time to strip the bad associations from words that encourage cooperation and get back to what has ensured human success for the past couple of mega-annum.

Back on the savanna, leadership came from those who led. We weren’t sophisticated enough to follow the careful triangulation of politicians or fund managers telling us what we want to hear—or worse, the lies we already believe. Maybe we need to get back to that. Back to a message that, while less palatable, is more simple, more squarely aligned with the story already recorded in layers of stone: You and I, sisters and brothers, need each other. We need to band together to keep moving on. The people who paid for the microphone don’t have our best interests at heart. Oh, yes, and as Bob Dylan said, we need to tell it and think it and speak it and breath it.

My message of hope? We get to decide the thickness of the stone that records our passage on this planet. Something a little thicker than cigarette paper would be nice. For that, we need to get back to what got us this far to begin with. Just like the past 100,000 generations, we were born with the only tools we need. We just have to add some heart.


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