Raymond Dasmann (1919–2002) was a professor of conservation biology, and the author of many books. The poor fellow suffered from a devastating mental disturbance known as rationality, a condition that affects dozens of people in the civilized world. He frequently experienced painful attacks of foresight and common sense. Living in California, he was on the front line of the world war against the planet, an ecological blitzkrieg. “When this war is finally won, the consequences will be as severe and irreversible as though we had fought a nuclear war,” he said.
Dasmann was born in San Francisco, in an era when there were few cars, the neighborhoods were pleasant, and men, women, and children felt perfectly safe, day or night, almost everywhere. He was cursed to be born whilst the fossil energy blip was skyrocketing toward its climax, creating a bewildering whirlwind of immense change. Young folks perceived the whirlwind to be normal, while older folks remembered better times, and were sickened by the senseless destruction, and the profound decay of society.
He wrote The Destruction of California when he was 45. During his lifetime, the state’s population had grown six fold, spurred by a tsunami of immigration. This was not good. In the book, he described the various crises that were propelling the state toward disaster. He wanted people to better understand the consequences of perpetual growth. The book was published in 1965, 50 years ago.
Before colonization, California had been a cool scene for thousands of years. Over time, the native hunter-gatherers learned how to live in a careful and respectful manner, and the ecosystem enjoyed jubilant health. Their children were lucky to receive superb educations, which inspired them to live mindfully, in balance with the land. The lasting marks that tribes left on the land were mostly mounds of discarded shells.
Later, the Spanish arrived, built missions, enslaved the Indians, introduced contagious diseases, and forced the natives to accept a foreign religion obsessed with world domination. With the invaders came livestock and shipments of hay, which included the seeds of Spanish weeds. The weeds were mostly annuals, and they were well adapted to thriving in a Mediterranean climate similar to California. The grasses indigenous to California were primarily robust perennials that provided an excellent source of nutrition.
During drought times, there was less vegetation for the Spanish livestock to eat, leading to overgrazing. The weed seeds sat patiently in the dust, waiting for a year when the rains returned. Sadly, the weeds won. The indigenous grasses are nearly extinct now. Decade by decade, the quality of rangeland declined. “In some places all that was left was worthless tarweed, star thistle, or cheat grass.” Today, few people cruising through ranch country are capable of perceiving this glaring ecological train wreck.
Eighty years after the Spanish settled, a swarm of Americans rumbled into California, and they were out of their minds with Gold Fever. They didn’t enslave Indians; they shot them. Indians had been known to trade gold for glass beads, because gold was not super-big juju in their culture. But gold made white folks crazy. They would kill for it. Gold was a magical rock that gave crazy people enormous illusions of grandeur. With hydraulic mining, they channeled flowing streams through high-pressure nozzles and washed away entire mountains to extract the shiny rocks.
Early visitors to California were overwhelmed by the incredible abundance of wildlife. Portions of the Central Valley looked like the Serengeti — herds of tule elk, pronghorn antelope, and black-tailed deer. There were many wetlands. “Here were birds in the tens of millions that darkened the sky when migrations sent them winging northward.” In 1852, a man in Humboldt sat on a hill and observed 40 grizzly bears below. The swarm of gold digging crazy people inspired other crazy people to get into the meat business via full-scale industrial hunting. By 1910, the wildlife was in tatters.
Crazy people also became giddy with greed at the sight of 4,000 year old redwoods, 27 feet (8m) in diameter. They sharpened their axes and went wacko. Profits were invested in technology that enabled them to cut more and more. There was no plan to leave anything for future generations. The plan was to make as much money as possible, as fast as possible. Floods washed away highways, bridges, and entire communities. Fish perished in the silt-choked streams. When Dasmann was writing, it looked like the old growth would be gone in 16 years. At the same time, the community of Arcata was fiercely resisting the proposed creation of Redwood National Park.
Hordes of well-educated elites, who did not suffer from rationality, were delighted to get rich quick promoting the rapid growth of ghastly megacities in arid regions having minimal freshwater resources. As the consumer mobs swelled in size, more streams were dammed, new aqueducts were built, rivers were pumped over mountains, and ancient water was removed from aquifers. Nobody questioned this. “Since growth is by definition progress, and progress is by definition good, this is deemed to be answer enough for any but a fool.”
Dasmann was driven out of his wits by this highly contagious pandemic of Get Rich Quick Fever. Yet he was not an eco-revolutionary who recommended turning the clock back 400 years. He didn’t preach the gospel of ecological sustainability. His dream was quite modest; stop making things worse — think! He worried about environmental destruction, the growing populations of people and automobiles, and the ongoing threat of water shortages. Today, we can add to this list climate change, economic collapse, and growing limits on energy and other resources. It’s 50 years later, and the crazy growth has not stopped.
The Indians lived in the same land for thousands of years without destroying it. This is called “primitive.” If whites had never arrived, the land would still be incredibly healthy. But the blitzkrieg arrived in 1769, and the destruction has been accelerating at an exponential rate. This is called “progress.” The root problem here is not genes, but culture. During the pilgrimage from womb to grave, every human floats in the currents of culture, like fish swim in water.
Indian children received superb educations because they lived in rational cultures that were mindful about not rocking the ecological boat. Today’s kids are taught to work hard, shop like there’s no tomorrow, and leave the bill for their descendants. Those who rock the boat the hardest earn the highest social status. This screwy ritual is reinforced by teachers, preachers, peers, parents, the media — everywhere, all the time. To break out of this toxic trance, a cultural meltdown is required. Maybe we’ll be rescued by a beneficial calamity.
It’s difficult to question the madness. We have a hard time comprehending how destructive and irrational our society is. It’s nearly impossible to wrap our heads around the notion that the Indians enjoyed a way of life that had a long future. It’s very hard for us to understand ecological intelligence, and desire it. Thinking outside the box requires us to summon our inner power and leap into the unknown. We have nothing to lose.
Dasmann, Raymond F., The Destruction of California, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1965.