Editor's note: This is the first part of a package that will appear in three parts at www.hcn.org over the coming week. The next installment will appear on March 11, and the entire package can be found in the March 16 print edition of High Country News.
Part I contents: Introduction
Westerners faced brutal challenges 15,000 years ago. They had to scratch out a living in the resource-scarce Ice Age, competing against the likes of saber-toothed tigers, cave bears, dire wolves, mastodons, woolly mammoths and giant beavers. In order to survive, they had to make a technological breakthrough.
They painstakingly collected stones such as flint and chert, fractured them and flecked chips off the pieces to form thin, narrow triangles. These stone triangles had long-lasting sharp edges and tight grooves at the bottom where they could be securely lashed to the ends of sticks. In other words, our ancestors created kickass spears, which enabled them to effectively kill larger animals for food, clothing and other needs.
Today, we call this technique "bifacial percussion flaking," and the resulting spear points are known as Clovis points, after the New Mexico town where they were discovered in 1929. Clovis points have since been found in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Washington, as well as in South America -- proof of the technology's widespread success.
Clovis points were only the beginning. The West's Folsom people developed even better spears about 12,000 years ago. And the Chaco Canyon people, in what we now call New Mexico, designed a spectacular city about 1,100 years ago -- more than 50 million stones precisely stacked to make thousands of condo-style rooms, in 15 complexes rising up to four stories tall.
Maybe it's the West's inspiring scenery, or the sense that some kind of predator is always nearby, or something magical in the region's waters. At their best, Westerners have a genius for coming up with inventions and new ideas.
And the innovations that originate out here are often, literally, earthshaking: the modern environmental movement (the first national parks and the original environmental group, the Sierra Club), modern tourism (from Disneyland and Las Vegas to outdoor playgrounds like Aspen and Moab), nuclear bombs, Hollywood movies, pretty much the entire computer sector (Apple, Microsoft, Google, YouTube, Craigslist, Facebook, everyone else in Silicon Valley), and the renewable energy gurus (Amory Lovins and his Rocky Mountain Institute, plus the National Renewable Energy Labs, both in Colorado). We're even responsible for the frozen french fry as a basis for global fast food (Idaho's J.R. Simplot). And we helped pioneer modern daredevilry as mega-entertainment (Montana native Evel Knievel, for example, attempting to jump the Snake River Canyon on a jet-powered motorcycle in 1974, and Larry Walters, the Californian who in 1982 became the first man to fly by attaching helium balloons to a lawn chair).
Our region has tremendous cultural tolerance for experimenters. Our people are ready and willing to try new ideas that are sometimes a little crazy, and we are energetic about shooting off in new directions -- not hampered by musty, cobwebbed, traditional thinking, the way New England and the Midwest and the South can sometimes seem.
So let's honor this Western trait -- and make good use of it. The timing couldn't be better. The world is gripped by huge economic, energy and environmental crises, including climate change, and threatened by widening class differences and gaps in access to technology and education. We need innovators now more than ever. Here's a small sampling of the many Westerners who are shaking up things right now.