You don’t pick your ancestors

As Forterra continues our exploration of what we can do to help this region become sustainable through our work on the Next Wave of the Cascade and Olympic Agendas, I am learning to pick my words carefully. I have been guilty of saying that we can evolve into a sustainable society. Not a chance – at least according to the scientific definition of evolution. Sustainability requires a clear understanding of the current world and the direction we need to head. It is a trip with a purpose. Evolution is a random walk, and looking backwards, it is a mindboggling meandering path indeed.

Consider recent discoveries about dinosaurs, as we called them in our innocent youth. Scientists now call them non-avian dinosaurs and — get ready for this — avian dinosaurs is just another name for birds. And if that isn’t enough, recent fossil finds clearly show that several, if not all species of Tyrannosaurus had proto-feathers. So the Anna’s hummer at your feeder can trace its family tree directly back to the Tyrannosaurus Rex. That’s right, from our .2 ounce gossamer marvel back to your worst nine ton nightmare. Who knew? (BTW, that’s a size difference of roughly 18 million percent.)

Could two members of a family seem less related? The ancient Tyrannosaurus with its sorry, wispy feathers turns out to be the great-to-the-nth-power grand uncle of our present day hummers, with their iridescent feathers that have a neat trick of splitting light. The elder, an earth bound giant, propelled itself with massive hind legs and had tiny forelegs suitable only for grasping carrion. The younger, a sprite of the air, reverses this order and propels itself masterfully with once-upon-a-time forelegs and has tiny hind legs suitable only for gripping a twig. As with so many families, what seems common to both is attitude. Watch an Anna’s hummingbird chase a competing Anna’s from its food source, with no quarter given or taken for their gracile body plan. Clearly they inherited T. Rex’s temperament. Even Rube Goldberg would have been confounded by the evolutionary route from T. Rex to A. Hummer.

Right about here you might be expecting me to get back to the matter of sustainability with a warning that if we are not careful we all will go by way of the dinosaurs. But you’d be wrong. Like I just wrote, they are still right here with us, having traded forelegs for a pair of wings and hiding underneath a raiment of feathers. Evolution ambling along on in its random, unknowable way.

At last, you now may be thinking, I will conclude with a flashing warning that evolution works over geologic time, but thanks to our meddling, climate is changing at an ever so much faster pace. So, shoving re-fashioned dinosaurs aside, oblivion’s knocking. Wrong again. We are the most adaptable species earth has ever witnessed, so the smart betting is we survive. Take note here, that’s survive, not flourish.

Like evolution, I have meandered a bit, but I’ve had my fun and here’s my point with no more word games. A meager, scratching-by survival in an impoverished world bereft of nature’s richness is a real prospect if we do not change our conduct, and dramatically so. Everything is at risk: near weightless hummers, two-hundred ton blue whales, 4,500 year old bristle cone pine trees. Everything. Our better choice, in fact our only real choice, is to understand what’s at stake and to move with deliberation toward a sustainable, livable world. The Next Wave is our purposeful step in that direction.

  • Gene Duvernoy

    Gene Duvernoy is President of Forterra. He’s spent more than 30 years working on land conservation and building community, founding Forterra in 1989 in his attic. Since then he’s led the organization to national prominence by creating bold, innovative and successful programs that improve the quality of life for all residents.
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