We were driving into Yosemite Valley from the south and had a dramatic panoramic view of one of our nation’s most recognizable landscapes, but my family and I were hardly noticing.
Our family — my wife, 20-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter — was involved in an animated discussion over the news from the morning’s paper that yet another attempt to stop the oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico had failed and it could be August until it would be permanently stopped and the cleanup could take years.
The image of the massive oil slick, blackened beaches and choked marshes could not have been a more dramatic contrast to Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, Vernal Falls and El Capitan.
Yosemite and the National Park System are one of the crowning achievements of a committed group of naturalists such as John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt who fought off strong opposition to their efforts by an influential group of developers and capitalists who thought that the natural environment was something to be exploited for their own personal financial gain.
Today, Yosemite is crowded with people but its beauty is preserved for all to see instead of spoiled with unchecked development and greed. Judging by the thousands of people who visit Yosemite, Yellowstone and other national parks each day, it seems that everyone is in favor of the National Park System, but it should not be forgotten that each of these preserves would not have been here without a dedicated group of individuals.
As we continued our tour of the Yosemite Valley, we could only wonder where such leaders are today. Over the past decade or so, instead of people like Muir or Roosevelt, we have had leaders who would permit deep ocean oil drilling without a strategy for controlling a leak.
This type of action is eerily reminiscent of the loosening of regulations on banks and other financial institutions that nearly led to our country’s economic collapse. Of course, our collapse is inevitable. As an archaeologist I can tell you that all civilizations have one thing in common — they all collapse.
Some civilizations last 100 years while others last 1,000, but they all eventually collapse because of environmental degradation, war, political unrest, etc.
The overall success of a civilization — measured in terms of how long it lasts — is dependent, however, on decisions made by leaders. What will our decisions be?
We humans have the rare ability to follow a variety of paths in our decision-making by either, as my mother used to say, following our good or bad angels. You take up with the bad angels when you make decisions based upon greed.
Most would agree that the unrestrained use of our natural resources and financial institutions knowingly taking action that leads to personal profits for a few at the expense of economic catastrophe for the rest of us, are examples of following our bad angels.
Although history teaches us that all civilizations collapse, it also teaches that wise decisions based upon our good angels can delay that collapse.
As our clothes became drenched from the mist of thunderous Vernal Falls, we could only hope that the spirit of those dedicated few individuals who preserved this treasure would inspire our good angels to help us make sure that our own collapse doesn’t happen during our watch.
James M. Skibo is a professor of anthropology at Illinois State University.