14 October 2009

53 Days - Climate Change and "Environmental Generational Amnesia"

I find myself often saying, when talking about global climate change, that it is already happening even though ...
• we (in many parts of the world) can't see it yet
• it's not happening in our own backyards
• it hasn't affected us yet.

But I'm starting to think we're just blinding ourselves to the impacts of global climate disruption — and that's
because of shifting baselines, or environmental generational amnesia. Whenever I discuss it with someone older
than 80, they definitely remember a time when there were more butterflies, for example. And
then so do I.
(And I'm not talking about false memory syndrome here. One of my best ever memories was watching thousands
and thousands of monarch butterflies flock together as they headed south on their migration. Wow!)

The term "shifting baselines" was first used to describe the habit of comparing today's fisheries numbers to a time
when they had already been depleted, rather than comparing today's fisheries with the numbers of fish in streams prior to industrial exploitation by humans, for example. It has become widely used to describe the shift over time in the expectation of what a healthy ecosystem looks like. (Visit
Shifting Baselines to learn more, and especially to watch Pristine, a brilliant slideshow that explains shifting baselines poignantly.)

When we tie this in with environmental generational amnesia, the loss of perception of change that occurs when each generation redefines what is "natural" or normal, we can see why the impacts of climate change in developed countries aren't registering for us. The impacts are still mostly gradual for us, and because we don't have an oral tradition of passing on natural history knowledge from one generation to another (thereby reminding each other and remembering together), subsequent generations just don't know what their bioregion used to be like.
"[P]eople construct a conception of what is environmentally normal based on the natural world encountered in childhood. The crux is that with each ensuing generation, the amount of environmental degradation can increase, but each generation tends to take that degraded condition as the non-degraded condition, as the normal experience. That's what I'm calling the problem of environmental generational amnesia.... When people relocate and compare a degraded nature to a more degraded nature from where they came, the baseline shifts. But I think the baseline shifts most when it occurs across generations. For then an entire generation shifts its baseline downward."
Nowadays the notion of generational amnesia and shifting baselines could easily be applied to water courses, glaciers, snowpacks, etc. Each generation will think what they have is normal. Alas....

Intergenerational projects that bring seniors together with young learners should always include the middle-aged (teachers, parents, community members, archivists) as participants and learners, since they need to have their childhood memories jogged so that they can pass on the knowledge when the older generation passes on.

In the meantime, I'm mourning the beautiful cedar trees in my community, which I swear have started dying just in the last few years. And so I'd better start pointing out some remaining healthy ones to my students, so that they'll have a memory of green and healthy cedar trees, rather than the orange and yellow they're turning now.

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I would appreciate hearing your thoughts or questions on this post or anything else you've read here. What is your take on courage and compassion being an important part of the solution to the climate change emergency?