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Roger Kennedy, the former head of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and former Director of the US National Park Service, is so eloquent that Walt Kelly based a “Pogo” character on him (the bear P.T. Bridgeport, whose speech balloons are circus posters).
Roger Kennedy’s most driving current interest is the long-term effects of long-term abuse of natural systems, and he means seriously long term.
Kennedy knows politics. For decades a major player himself in Washington DC, he has written redefining biographies of Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and Aaron Burr. Kennedy knows history. Besides writing and hosting a number of television series on American history, he wrote Rediscovering America and Hidden Cities: The Discovery and Loss of Ancient North American Civilization. And Kennedy knows natural systems. As a highly popular Director of the National Park Service, he pushed the whole Park System toward greater emphasis on science.
Roger Kennedy also found the mountain in Nevada where The Long Now Foundation aims to build the 10,000-year Clock. In this talk he defines the continental frame of the Clock.
Most of Roger Kennedy’s audience Friday night had no idea that a multi-millennia sequence of major cultures, cities, and earth monuments of enormous size once occupied the Mississippi valley and areas in Ohio and the Southeast. They had never heard of the vast ruins at places such as Poverty Point and Cahokia. But American founding fathers Washington and Jefferson knew of the ancient works and honored them with new-made earth mounds at Mt. Vernon and Monticello.
The continent was seething with activity before whites arrived. The native woodland farmers of the Great Lakes who were driven west into the plains by the Chippewayan tribes were transforming into fierce horseback warriors known as the Sioux. The Iroquois League was building into a major military empire. Apaches and Navahos were streaming down from the northwest and challenging the dry farming Pueblo tribes. From time to time whole areas, such as Ohio, had their carrying capacity exceeded and emptied out of people and were afterward known as “cursed” regions.
Misuse of natural systems was common of old on the continent. It has accelerated lately. Roger focussed in particular on the new levels of hazard to people from wildfire, caused by “sprawling into danger”— the growth of human habitation (often government subsidized) into known highly flammable environments. The situation is akin to what was finally figured out about flood plains. Roger expects some disasters with thousands killed unless the mechanisms of prudence are figured out. Every small increment of climate warming will greatly increase the danger. At the intense dinner with Sponsors later, Roger urged a tax revolt against the government paying for people’s losses to wildfire. If private insurers won’t give coverage in some flammable areas, the government should not either.
Roger jolted the San Francisco audience with frequent Christian quotes and allusions, noting the MORAL reverence of natural systems advocated by Genesis, by Saint Francis, and by the great New England pilgrim preacher Jonathan Edwards.
Roger noted that Americans occasionally get their nerve up and change the nation’s behavior at a profound level. In 1830 most American men went to bed drunk. By a decade later, the alcoholism had been cut by 60%, without draconian laws. In the 1860s moral force overcame economic force, and slavery was abolished, at great cost eventually deemed wholly worth it.
Yet another gathering of nerve is needed, Roger opined, to deeply adjust our behavior in relation to the continent’s natural systems. He sees signs that the moral strength needed is indeed building.-- by Stewart Brand