The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins is an excellent permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. A Smithsonian website describes the exhibit as telling “the epic story of human evolution and how the defining characteristics of our species have evolved over 6 million years as our ancestors adapted to a changing world.”
Another Smithsonian website explains the exhibit to be “based on decades of cutting-edge research by Smithsonian scientists, and is the result of an international collaboration with over 60 research and educational organizations and over 100 researchers from around the world.” It says the Koch exhibition offers “an immersive, interactive journey through … scientific evidence for human origins and the stories of survival and extinction in our family tree during times of dramatic climate instability.”
Since the exhibit’s introduction in March 2010, I’ve had the opportunity to visit it twice. The exhibit contains videos, charts and graphs, sculptures, artifacts, busts of early human ancestors like Australopithecus and Neanderthal displayed as they probably looked, and much more.
The question that begs to be asked is this: Why did David Koch finance an educational exhibit in the nation’s capital while contributing to the campaigns of politicians who oppose public education, teachers, scientific research, any reforms to prevent future economic crises, and any regulations to reduce human contributions to climate change?
David and his brother Charles possess over $25 billion each from the success of their oil and coal empire Koch Industries. That’s about $4 billion more than just 2 years ago, and that seems to be all they are interested in. They invested hundreds of millions of those dollars in this year’s elections to defeat President Obama and other Democrats and independents. The Koch brothers’ political arm, Americans for Prosperity, was extremely successful promoting Fox-Republican-TEA Party candidates in local and state offices in Arkansas and elsewhere. Meanwhile, the gap between the plutocrats (the very wealthy) and the middle class continues to expand.
The Koch brothers financed candidates who support policies that historically have benefited primarily the plutocrats: 1) tax cuts and subsidies for the already rich and Big Business and 2) elimination of regulations that protect competitors, labor, public servants, consumers, and the environment. The plutocratic abuses of the Gilded Age, the Roaring Twenties, the Reagan-Bush Era, and the Bush-Cheney Regime all led to economic hardships for the masses and gave rise to progressive reforms to save capitalism from itself: Theodore Roosevelt’s Square Deal, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, Clinton-Gore’s attempt to pay off the Reagan-Bush debts, and the Obama-Biden responses to the Bush-Cheney Great Recession.
David and Charles Koch are no cretins. Both are educated, knowledgeable people who know that climate change is a clear and present danger. The emphasis of the Koch exhibit on the nation’s mall is that great advances in human evolution have come during times of great climatic change. What David H. Koch seems to hope is that visitors will leave his exhibit with the idea that all climate change is a natural, cyclical occurrence.
Nevertheless, there are two exhibit panels that clearly show that there is nothing natural about the current climate change. They show the drastic increase in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere that has occurred since the burning of fossil fuels began in earnest in the 1860’s. They also explain that carbon levels and the earth’s temperature have always coincided. Mr. Koch apparently feels that most visitors won’t wonder why the extreme acceleration of greenhouse gases has occurred – especially within the last 30 years.
In fairness, the Koch exhibit is not about climate change. It is about human evolution. However, the survival of our species depends on the political and cultural adaptations we employ today to deal with the obvious man-made contributions to the current global warming. Something must be done to limit the burning of fossil fuels like oil and coal and reducing their release into the atmosphere. Action is also needed to reduce the destruction of the rain forests around the world which absorb the carbon dioxide.
The general consensus is that we have already waited too long to limit the effects of future super-storms like Katrina and Sandy, extended droughts, forest fires, glacier melting, and rising ocean levels. This generation must take actions that will allow future generations to put a stop to increasing global temperatures and begin the long, gradual process of reducing the temperatures back to more tolerable levels.
In America, we all admire financial success. However, it’s what one does with his or her wealth that matters. Will the Koch brothers eventually have late-in-life conversions like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie? Will they stop using their billions to prevent anything from being done about climate change? Will they put some of those billions back into their own companies to reduce their own pollution and set an example for others? Will they begin to use some of their excessive wealth for the good of all or will they continue their present course? Sadly, they are both already well-past retirement age, but we can always hope.
by David Offutt
A version of this essay was published November 14, 2012, in the Arkansas Times and November 17, 2012, in the El Dorado News-Times.