Climate Amnesia: How We Misperceive Chaos and Change

The scariest thing about global warming (and Covid-19)

 Proving the ‘shifting baselines’ theory: how humans consistently misperceive nature

David Roberts opens his impressive Vox piece this way: We lost 2,800 souls to Covid just last Thursday, more than died on 9/11. Instead of jumping to respond to “an unbearable collective national tragedy,” we adjust mentally to it and give it a kind of tacit acceptance. There’s no real national mobilization; half the population goes maskless; millions travel for Thanksgiving. Almost 3,000 deaths? Business as usual.

We’ve adjusted to the virus like we adjust to the inscrutable nature of climate change. Our acquiescence puts the lie to the commonly accepted notion that some horrible sequence of climatic events will shake us out of our torpor. It may be a new normal that the world could not adequately recognize the terrifying apocalyptic fires in Australia last year.

We are victims of what researchers call shifting baselines. Meaning that “our ‘baseline’ shifts with every generation, and sometimes even in an individual. In essence, what we see as pristine nature would be seen by our ancestors as hopelessly degraded, and what we see as degraded our children will view as ‘natural.’”

Roberts explains the behavior this way:

Consider a species of fish that is fished to extinction in a region over, say, 100 years. A given generation of fishers becomes conscious of the fish at a particular level of abundance. When those fishers retire, the level is lower. To the generation that enters after them, that diminished level is the new normal, the new baseline. They rarely know the baseline used by the previous generation; it holds little emotional salience relative to their personal experience.

And so it goes, each new generation shifting the baseline downward.

When the fish finally goes extinct, “No generation experiences the totality of the loss. It is doled out in portions, over time, no portion quite large enough to spur preventative action. By the time the fish go extinct, the fishers barely notice, because they no longer valued the fish anyway.”

Look at the opening sequence of this video for another way of putting it. I remember fishing in Florida in the late 1950s, and the fish were indeed very much larger and more prevalent than they became.

This is about climate amnesia, which operates on both an individual and generational level. We lose our cognizance of the past without being aware of the loss. Roberts asks how in the world can

Americans simply accommodate themselves to thousands of coronavirus deaths a day? As writer Charlie Warzel noted in a recent column, it’s not that different from the numbness they now feel in the face of gun violence. “Unsure how—or perhaps unable—to process tragedy at scale,” he writes, “we get used to it.”

This climate and cultural amnesia is such a common human failing that it’s hard to imagine a way to surmount it. Roberts thinks that finally “there is no substitute for leadership and responsive governance. . . . The most reliable way to stop baselines from shifting is to encode the public’s values and aspirations into law and practice, through politics.”

Well now, since Trump has totally disabled our political system, many have lost hope as well as any coherent sense of the past. I watched Biden on CNN Thursday night, and he did demonstrate a sense of competence and a willingness to look toward the past for solutions. We will need that from him and more.

One Reply to “Climate Amnesia: How We Misperceive Chaos and Change”

  1. Sad but true, I’ve been thinking about this for a while, noticing our passivity in the face of so many ongoing and devastating events.
    Thanks for this post, John, time to thing harder and make some changes!

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