Why invisible dangers are the hardest to face

Evolved as humans are, we’re terrible at solving problems we can’t actually see.

 

About 55 million years ago, tiny shrew-like mammals began combing the forest canopies in search of food. These were the precursors of primates, fruit foragers whose survival depended on swift movement through the trees, deft hands and acute vision. The vision thing is especially important, because as our ancestors strengthened their ability to see in the dimensions required for canopy life, they developed color vision, a rarity among mammals. This allowed them to perceive what birds and insects had long known: that among the leaves were bright fruits and flowers, wondrous delicacies that could keep them alive.

Dale Chess, a limnologist for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s Lake Management Department, retrieves a water sample from the southern end of Coeur d’Alene Lake, near Plummer, Idaho, to test the oxygen levels during a research trip last October.

Eventually, these early frugivores became omnivores and evolved into us. We developed language and culture and intercontinental ballistic missiles, but we never really lost our reliance on vision. Today, humans favor sight well above any other sense, including common. “Seeing is believing,” we say, gluing ourselves to a global television industry whose revenue topped $265 billion last year. We can distinguish 10 million colors, their impact and import hard-wired into our shrewd minds.

Unfortunately, this over-reliance on sight makes us more susceptible to invisible dangers. This issue’s cover story is about one such phenomenon. Visually, Coeur d’Alene Lake lives up to its reputation as the gem of Idaho. It is long and deep and lovely, with popular beaches and a tourism industry that relies on the beauty of bald eagles and chinook salmon. What we can’t see, Associate Editor Emily Benson writes, is the danger below the surface — a potent concoction of mine-drainage toxins, locked into the bed of the lake by a fluke of chemistry. Under the wrong circumstances, the lake could turn deadly. But the people of Idaho either can’t or won’t face this danger, at least not yet.

Brian Calvert, editor-in-chief
Brooke Warren/High Country News

Other stories in this issue warn of hard-to-see hazards, including, it seems, our own government, so fervently dedicated to obfuscation. With the help of diligent Freedom of Information requests, editorial fellow Jessica Kutz has begun investigating an Interior Department program that has operated with little oversight or transparency, as rangers are moved from parks and refuges to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border. And writer Gabriel Furshong reminds us of the power of self-delusion — another vision problem — and asks why Montanans are so enamored of their vigilante origins.

Meanwhile, of course, the greatest danger continues to grow, out of sight and out of control. In May, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached 415 parts per million. If we don’t act, we’ll soon have a planet that hasn’t been this warm for hundreds of millions of years — well before those bright-eyed shrews took to the trees and started all this trouble.

 

High Country News Classifieds
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -