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Too far out over our skis

"One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple." ~ Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums.

Writing is driven by a selfish need to make sense of the world. But then, most people spend most of their time trying to do that in one way or another—to make sense of their life, their choices or lack of, other people, their job… whatever. Paradoxically, the answers often come at the most unexpected times.

I was recently reading about how, about 66 million years ago, what we call “The Age of Dinosaurs” (which had lasted 165 million years) came to an abrupt end when an asteroid the size of Mount Everest hit the planet near the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. Its force was equivalent to about a billion nuclear bombs. It took 300,000 years for the world’s ecosystems to recover, after which everything had changed.

As the story goes, this disaster opened the door to the rise of mammals. We went from being small rodents scurrying around in the leaf litter to the dominant species during the ensuing global recovery and beyond. This eventually led to us; the biggest-brained ones who now totally dominate the planet. The standard telling is always a success story.

The problem is, looking around at the world these days makes me feel that the assumptions about the positive benefits of the “big-brained” thing seem questionable.

We’re dominant but are we evolved?

The moment of the asteroid disaster is marked in the geological record by a layer of iridium dust that covered the entire planet, after impact. The fossil record changes dramatically above that line and scientists have been studying the rise of mammals, and a certain type called the placentals (with their young nurtured in a womb; there were others that reached evolutionary dead ends), carefully, to understand how mammalian dominance came into being.

The scientific assumption has traditionally been that it was the development of bigger brains that led to the competitive advantages that helped mammals dominate. But the fossil record does not agree.

It turns out that the relative brain size of our mammalian ancestors were laughably small, even compared to those of the pre-asteroid mammals that lived among the dinosaurs. It turns out our ancestors became dominant because of their brawn and aggressiveness, first and foremost. The fossil record shows that it was their brains that had to grow larger just to keep up with their physical growth, not vice versa--the opposite of what we've traditionally believed.

Metaphorically speaking, it seems mammals were bulls in a china shop.

A few million years ago, the first "humans" appeared (Authralopithecus afrarensis, also known as "Lucy") who struck a superior balance between brains and brawn, but the analogy remains apt. Our story has been one of increasingly wreaking havoc on the planet, its species, and each other in what has been an extremely short time-frame.

Our short history is overflowing with brutality, hatred, war, exploitation, and ruthless competition. And for all our achievements, which are indeed incredible, to this day, when faced with unforeseen challenges or rapidly changing conditions, we still quickly revert to brute force and overly simplistic, black and white, yes or no thinking, when more idiosyncratic, cognitively dissonant, nuanced solutions are required.

It seems that tribalism, strident ideologies, divisiveness, prejudice, scapegoating, and worse come more naturally to us than working toward a common good.

We’ve built a world filled with dazzling technological gadgetry, in which newly-minted billionaires compete to get to Mars and beyond, yet we seem incapable of figuring out how to house and feed and care for people or our planet.

Mankind has amassed the biggest arsenal of weapons imaginable, yet global peace is (hopefully) only held together by a shared distaste for “mutually assured destruction,” rather than by a vision of a better world.

The U.S. is the richest country in the world, yet almost a fifth of our population lives in functional poverty and almost the same percentage of children go to bed hungry every night.

Our federal government has spent over $5 trillion on overseas wars, in the past 20 years, but less than $420 billion subsidizing affordable housing with tax credits in that same time.

The world is super-heating and the oceans are rising (and degrading from toxins and acidification), yet according to the IMF, "fossil fuels account for 85 percent of all global [economic] subsidies" and the U.S. spends $649 billion a year of taxpayer money subsidizing fossil fuels, while only spending $25 billion subsidizing alternative energy.

There are probably 1000 times more people who know what Amber Heard and Johnny Depp said on the stand, this week, than have ever heard of much less read the most recent UN International Panel on Climate Change Report about the state of our planet.

And we own more guns in this country than we have people, but we’re still unable to protect our children and have already had 212 mass shootings, this year. (Last year, we had 693.)

We continue to find ourselves too far out over our skis for our own good; blindly forging ahead, fighting our way, undaunted by red flags and barreling along, looking away from the collateral damage in a world of shiny objects and endless distractions, in pursuit of short-term survival goals but ignoring long-term consequences.

Yet, there are moments when something horrific happens, shaking us out of our unconsciousness; when we see the deep flaws in our world and we vow to change things. But those moments tend to be fleeting. As a species, we are simply too pain-intolerant to hold that for too long. We push it down and soon forget noble goals and go back to our comfort-seeking, money-making, consumption-driven lives.

Certainly, there are some very bad people in this world. But we're not all bad people. Most of us try hard to make a difference by how we lead our everyday lives and how we treat each other.

But, are our flaws too deeply embedded in our nature to outweigh the good in us?

And so, it goes. And nothing seems to change. And every day, the glue that holds us all together—feeling safe, a sense of purpose, and a belief that justice is attainable—becomes more and more fragile and, individually, we risk growing more numb to it all and feeling more and more helpless, frustrated, and angry.

Enough. Ban all assault weapons, now… period.

Bob Silvestri is a Marin County resident, the Editor of the Marin Post, and the founder and president of Community Venture Partners, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit community organization funded by individuals and nonprofit donors. Please consider DONATING TO THE MARIN POST AND CVP to enable us to continue to work on behalf of California residents.