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{originally published at Gazette.Com}

Evolution is strange. It gave us two contradictory traits: A passion to believe things true, and an intelligence to show things false. Humans are wired to believe, but are also capable of reasoning with evidence. Today is a good opportunity to reflect on the tension between the two.

Earth Day taps into an abundance of myths of the human psyche, what the psychologist Carl Jung called “archetypes.” The most obvious one is Apocalypticism: The idea that humans are destroying the planet. We are living on The Brink, and life as we know it will come to an end unless we change our ways. Apocalypticism is common in virtually every culture known to recorded history, so it’s no surprise we see it today.

The scientific evidence for environmental apocalypticism, however, is woefully lacking. Humankind definitely impacts the planet, but the scope and nature of the policies pushed by the save-the-planet crowd are way out of proportion to what we know and what is likely to happen.

Then there is the myth of the “Ecologically Superior Native People Who Lived in Harmony With Nature Before Modern Civilization Came Along and Messed Everything Up.” Societies throughout history all hearken back to a golden age when people were better and life was simpler.

The best example of the modern version dates from my childhood. Anybody remember the first Earth Day in 1970, and the famous “Keep America Beautiful” TV ad? It featured an American Indian who sees trash thrown on the ground. He turns to the camera, in full feathered headdress, and sheds a tear. William Conrad solemnly intones: “People start pollution, people can stop it.” The words may have been true, but the ad was a lie. The man in the headdress acted under the name Iron Eyes Cody, but he was born Espera de Corti, the son of Sicilian immigrants. He was no more American Indian than I am.

And while we’re on the subject, remember Chief Seattle’s stirring speech about the sanctity of the Earth? Al Gore quoted it in “Earth in the Balance.” Unfortunately for Prince Albert, the speech is completely fraudulent. It was written over a century after Chief Seattle’s death by a Hollywood hack. Score: Myths 2, Reality 0.

Telling lies for a greater good is often part of mass persuasion. But that doesn’t make it right. On Earth Day, we’ll get an earful of how indigenous populations lived in harmony with nature. Like the myth of Apocalypticism, belief in the Nobler Ancestor is both a human universal and contradicted by evidence.

The best works on this issue are “The Ecological Indian: Myth and History”, Shepard Krech, and “Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony”, by Robert Edgerton. These works can only be summarized here, but let me encourage you to read them in full.

In brief, the evidence suggests that primitive societies were just as savage, just as brutal, and just as, well, primitive, as the worst scourges of tribal violence and genocide today. Conservation and environmentalism weren’t practiced by primitive peoples, because they are modern ideas. Yes, native tribes had various forms of nature worship. But belief in reincarnation allowed them to believe that animal spirits would be replaced. When given the opportunity to hunt animals to near extinction, they happily did so.

Even the image of Indians as non-polluters is wrong. Archaeological digs show huge garbage piles near Indian settlements. These are consistent with a pattern of simply breaking camp and moving on once their site became too polluted. Whether our myth-believing brain likes it or not, things like Earth Day and environmentalism are modern luxuries. What makes them possible? Physics. Climatology. Capitalism. Biology. Ecology. Individual rights. Economics. Private property. Wealth. Tort law.

These are all artifacts of the modern world that human reason helped create. A proper celebration of the 40th anniversary of the first Earth Day would see us one step closer to the painful but necessary step of abandoning myths that our midbrains want to believe. Provided the evidence from our forebrains tells us to.