In California, three nearly two-millennia-old redwood trees have fallen in a decade. The culprit turns out to be humans with good intentions fiddling with systems they didn’t understand. The fate of these majestic trees teaches us about how fragile valuable traditions can be and how easily they are lost.
Redwood trees can tower up to 379 feet with a width of up to 29 feet. They have evolved to fit the unique climate of California, with long periods of drought and frequent wildfires. Originally, they covered an area of two million acres. Due to logging by settlers and gold miners in the 19th century, 90% were cut down by 1968 when the Redwood National Park was established, ending all further logging.
Recently, political pundit Bill Whittle visited this park and learned that three giant trees had fallen within a few years. Before this, conservationists had created a plan to remove other trees to protect tourists and make the site more accessible. It turned out that the other vegetation protected the redwoods from wind and flood rain by absorbing excess precipitation. By removing it, they had inadvertently caused the demise of three Redwoods. No one knows how many others will soon fall due to this mismanagement.
Whittle instantly understood the relevance of this tragedy to culture and human flourishing. Even in the hands of people with good intentions, subtle changes may cause disaster. In some cases, the damaging effect is immediately recognizable. In others, the damage is more subtle and needs more careful analysis. Most people were excited when social media arrived on the scene in the early 2000s. What was not to like? Only 15 years later, mental health has collapsed, and suicide rates have exploded among the youngest. Around a fourth of young teens show anxiety, depression, or behavior disorders.1 Dr. Jonathan Haidt traces these trends to social media and proposes a 16-year law-enforced age limit.
The introduction of the welfare state arguably had an even more significant detrimental effect, causing cycles of broken families, perpetual dependency, illiteracy, crime, and other social problems. Dr. Thomas Sowell has argued that “a vastly expanded welfare state in the 1960s destroyed the black family, which had survived centuries of slavery and generations of racial oppression.”
Since the turn of the millennium, America has experienced an opioid epidemic primarily among working-class non-Hispanic white Americans. The causes are still not fully understood, but there is a significant correlation between opioid abuse and outsourcing industry jobs to China. Global trade has brought many advantages to most, but could one of its adverse side effects have been the decohesion of the American working class?
What Whittle stumbled across in the Californian wilderness was an insight captured by Edmund Burke in response to the French Revolution. Burke is widely regarded as the founder of modern conservatism. He noted that the revolutionary zeal to tear down existing institutions and traditions to replace them with brilliant ideas cooked in the minds of intellectuals had detrimental effects.
He argued that although the power of human reason was immense, it was not so great that it could do away with empirical reality and experience altogether. Every idea has unintended consequences that are almost impossible to calculate in advance, even for the most brilliant thinkers. That’s why most new ideas are harmful, and only when they are rigorously checked against reality for generations can we say that they have survived the test of time.
However, the trouble with traditions is that by the time they have become well-tested and proven practical, no one knows precisely why. It is often all too easy for an arrogant intellectual to gain prominence for attacking traditions. Only when they are gone and replaced with the most recent fad does the utility of such traditions become apparent. Sadly, we only learn this lesson through negative consequences, such as the collapse of ancient redwood trees.
- Centers for Disease Controls and Prevention, Data and Statistics on Children’s Mental Health