I'm a pilot. So last week, as our Thirtieth Anniversary present to each other, my wife Jan Schakowsky and I packed up our two golden retrievers in a rented Cessna 182 and headed off to spend a week in the mountains of Montana.
Our destination was the Hawley Mountain Guest Ranch -- a small facility located in the Gallatin National Forest just adjacent to a million acres of federally protected Wilderness Area. Our plan was to base ourselves there and explore trails in the Wilderness Area on horseback.
On the way we stopped for the night in Rapid City, South Dakota, where we took a side trip to Mount Rushmore. If you've only seen pictures, you really can't fully appreciate the extraordinary achievement the monument represents -- carved over 14 years into the side of a mountain. Nor can you really experience the power of its testament to American values.
Of course there is George Washington -- the Revolutionary War General and first President who made America possible. There is Thomas Jefferson, the founder of the Democratic Party, and author of the Declaration of Independence. There are two Republicans. Abraham Lincoln symbolizes America's commitment to equal opportunity and liberty for all. And there is Theodore Roosevelt -- the Republican President who more than any other embodied our commitment to conserve and protect our natural environment and prevent its destruction for short-term commercial profit.
Roosevelt not only championed setting aside National Parks and other protected areas similar to the one we were about to visit. He also took on - and broke up - the "Trusts" -- the giant corporate semi-monopolies that dominated America's economy as it entered the 20th Century.
It is really pretty remarkable to ponder how far the modern Republican Party has strayed from the vision of Lincoln, the Great Emancipator -- and Teddy Roosevelt, the Conservationist and Trust Buster.
For decades now, the Party of Lincoln has transformed itself into the Party of Strom Thurmond and Jim DeMint. The party that once authored the 14th Amendment to the Constitution that guaranteed that any child born in America was guaranteed full rights of citizenship, has become the party that campaigns to eliminate that right for no purpose other than rounding up some mid-term votes by pandering to fear. It has become the party that has attempted to transform a planned Muslim Community Center two city blocks away from New York's Ground Zero into a "desecration of sacred ground" -- all in the service of short-term political gain.
But the Republican abandonment of the values of Theodore Roosevelt is just as remarkable. The gulf between the vision of Teddy Roosevelt and the Party of "drill baby drill" is as vast as the Grand Canyon.
Our trip to a Wilderness Area in Montana last week has reminded me just how important Roosevelt's vision was to the future of America -- and for that matter to the well-being of the planet.
We spent the week riding trails through pristine forests. No gum wrappers or soda cans scattered along the way. Just Lodge Poll pine trees, wild flowers, streams with cool crystal clear water, and vast mountaintop meadows. The thing that is most striking to urban dwellers is the silence. When the wind is still, and the horses stop, the silence is palpable.
Throughout my life I have found that reconnecting with the natural world does more to nourish your spirit than just about anything you can do.
Federally protected wilderness areas are one of a number of different categories of land that has been set aside and is not available for commercial development. These include the eighty-four million acres of National Parks and Monuments that were visited over 285 million times last year. For millions of kids, the National Parks provide the most immediate and memorial lessons in understanding science, wildlife and the natural world.
The National Forests set aside millions of acres of trees and forest environment from unregulated commercial exploitation. They are intended to preserve and protect the forest resources that - after all - belong to all of us.
But wilderness areas go further. Almost all mechanical presence is excluded from wilderness areas. Most have few roads. You don't hear the sounds of chain saws. You can go there on foot or horseback, but the idea is to allow some areas of our country to exist in their unspoiled state -- allowing the natural eco-system to function without substantial human intervention.
But rather than pursue the vision of Theodore Roosevelt, the modern Republican Party has made an alliance with the energy companies and others who demand that public lands be sold off or leased commercial development. Those forces want to exploit every morsel of land and natural resource for their own short-term individual gain. They favor drilling in the Alaskan Natural Wildlife Refuge. They oppose creating protected areas like national parks, forests and wilderness areas. And those positions are more than simply an affront to the beauty of nature.
Roosevelt's vision - his commitment to setting aside land to protect and nurture our fellow species and especially to protect our forests is critical to the success -- and even the survival -- of human beings on our small interdependent planet.
Pulitzer Prize-winning physiologist and ethno-geographer Jared Diamond's book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed documents the causes of the collapse of human societies.
The story he tells of Easter Island is particularly compelling.
We are all familiar with Easter Island because of the hundreds of large, stylized statues that had been erected there by people who had no large domesticated animal power. They had nothing but their own muscle to transport and mount stone statues weighing many tons.
Easter Island was occupied about a thousand years ago as part of the great eastward expansion of Polynesian peoples into the Pacific. It is, however, the most remote piece of real estate out there and for that reason, there is no archeological evidence that its people had contact with the inhabitants of any other island - or any other human period - after it was first settled, until Europeans made contact there in the early 1700s.
At its peak, there were apparently about 15,000 people living on an island about nine miles in diameter. When they arrived, the archeological evidence indicates that the colonists found an island loaded with tall trees that were suitable to make large ocean-going canoes, for construction, and to make rope and cloth. The trees also provided various edible fruits, prevented soil erosion from brisk winds, and provided habitat for various land birds. They also found at least 25 nesting seabird species, making it formerly the richest breeding site in all of Polynesia. It was a great place for the seabirds because its isolation kept them free of predators - at least until the humans arrived.
For centuries, as their population grew, Easter Islanders received much of their protein from porpoises that they speared in deep water from the ocean-going canoes. Most fish came from deep-sea fishing, since Easter Island is too far from the equator to support coral reefs that would allow shallow-water fishing.
The Easter Islanders developed agriculture based on many of the crops common to other Polynesian societies. They also brought chickens and developed intensive chicken production. Their agricultural production allowed Eastern Island society to produce adequate food surpluses to feed the large numbers of laborers who were required to transport and erect the statues for which the island is famous. The island itself was divided into 12 pie-shaped zones, each run by a tribe with a chief. These groups apparently engaged in peaceful competition over who could build the largest, most elaborate carvings. Those were placed on even larger platforms and apparently used for religious (ancestor worship) and other communal events.
The Easter Islanders began gradually clearing the forests - both for agriculture and to harvest wood - shortly after they arrived. According to the archeological record, deforestation reached its peak around 1400 and was virtually complete between the 1400s and 1600.
According to Diamond, "The overall picture of Easter Island is the most extreme example of forest destruction in the Pacific and among the most extreme in the world: the whole forest is gone and all of its tree species extinct. Immediate consequences for the islanders were losses of raw materials, losses of wild-caught foods, and decreased crop yields."
Probably most important, without the large tree trunks, they could no longer make large ocean-going canoes. As a result, large ocean-going porpoise and other deep-sea fish disappeared from their diet. The islanders had to depend more on birds for protein and on smaller, shallow-water fish. The birds quickly disappeared. Land birds disappeared completely, and sea birds were reduced to relic populations. Wild fruits from trees were dropped from their diet. Deforestation led to soil erosion and decreased crop yields. Wood, the major source of fuel, disappeared. Easter inhabitants were reduced to burning herbs, grasses and sugarcane scraps. Funeral practices changed. Easter Islanders were among the only Polynesian societies to cremate their dead, but this had consumed huge quantities of wood. When the wood was gone, they turned to mummification and bone burial.
The consequences of deforestation and these other human impacts were starvation, population crash, and a descent to cannibalism-the last major remaining source of animal protein besides chickens. The crisis caused the masses to lose faith in the chiefs and priests, and around 1680 they were overthrown by military leaders. Easter Island's formerly complex, integrated society collapsed into an epidemic of civil war.
In the years before the collapse of the old order, the environmental crisis had been exacerbated by attempts to build bigger and bigger statues in an ever more urgent attempt to appeal to ancestors for help. But, of course, the production of bigger statues also consumed huge quantities of wood and bark to construct the wooden "ladders" used to transport the statues across the ground and rope to pull them.
Like many other societies, Easter's collapse swiftly followed the society reaching its peak population, monument construction and environmental impact.
By the time of the first recorded European visit to the Island, in 1722 by Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, most of the great statues had been "thrown down" and broken by competing clans. The Europeans were greeted by tiny canoes that were not ocean-going and a population that had shrunk to between 6,000 and 8,000. The landscape that Roggeveen saw was a wasteland, without a single tree or bush over 10 feet tall.
The contacts between the Europeans and the Easter Islanders resulted in further disaster. Europeans brought smallpox that killed thousands of Islanders who, of course, had no immunity. In 1862-63, two Peruvian ships abducted 1,500 of the remaining Easter Islanders to work as slaves in Peru's guano mines.
By the time Catholic missionaries took up residence on Easter Island in 1872, there were 111 islanders remaining. The society had collapsed. It collapsed as a result of deforestation, the destruction of the bird population and the political and social factors that led to the decisions that made these things happen. This was complicated by the fact that there was no possibility of emigration from the Island-an escape valve that did not present itself because of its isolation.
Collapse was not inevitable, since other island societies faced with potential deforestation developed communal forest management programs that protected their most valuable asset for future generations.
Diamond raises the question: "What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it? 'We don't have proof that there aren't more palms somewhere else on Easter? We need more research? Or your proposed ban on logging is premature and driven by fear-mongering?'"
I'll conclude this story with Diamond's summary of why the story of Easter Island is so compelling.
The Easter Islanders' isolation probably also explains why I have found that their collapse, more than the collapse of any other pre-industrial society, haunts my readers and students. The parallels between Easter Island and the whole modern world are chillingly obvious. Thanks to globalization, international trade, jet planes, and the Internet, all countries on Earth today share resources and affect each other, just as did Easter's dozen clans. Polynesian Easter Island was as isolated in the Pacific Ocean as the Earth is today in space. When Easter Islanders got into difficulties, there was nowhere to which they could flee, nor to which they could turn for help; nor shall we modern Earthlings have recourse elsewhere if our troubles increase.[i]
The Easter Islanders destroyed their environment and society with stone tools and their own muscle power. One of the great challenges of the 21st century is to assure that billions of people with metal tools, machines, nuclear energy and exploding technology do not destroy ours.
The key to the Easter Island story is not just what can happen to a society, but the human decisions that created the disaster.
The Republican President Theodore Roosevelt instinctively understood this. The modern Republican Party - despite the benefit of an additional century of scientific research -- does not.
One question before us in this falls election is whether the monument that embodies American values will be the bold carvings on the side of a verdant Mount Rushmore or the statues on a barren, windswept Easter Island.