How do we live with the fact that the world we knew is going and, in some cases, already gone?
By JON MOOALLEM APRIL 19, 2017
We seem able to normalize catastrophes as we absorb them, a phenomenon that points to what Peter Kahn, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, calls “environmental generational amnesia.” Each generation, Kahn argues, can recognize only the ecological changes its members witness during their lifetimes. When we spoke recently, Kahn pointed to the living conditions in megacities like Kolkata, or in the highly polluted, impoverished areas affected by Houston’s oil refineries, where he conducted his initial research in the early ’90s. In Houston, Kahn found that two-thirds of the children he interviewed understood that air and water pollution were environmental issues. But only one-third believed their neighborhood was polluted. “People are born into this life,” Kahn told me, “and they think it’s normal.”
A University of British Columbia fisheries scientist, Daniel Pauly, hit upon essentially the same idea around the same time, recognizing that as populations of large fish collapsed, humanity had gone on obliviously fishing slightly smaller species. One result, Pauly wrote, was a “creeping disappearance” of overall fish stocks behind ever-changing and “inappropriate reference points.” He called this impaired vision “shifting baseline syndrome.”
Such shifting baselines muddle the idea of adaptation to climate change, too. Adaptation, Kahn notes, can mean anything from the human eye’s adjusting to a darker environment within a few milliseconds to wolves’ changing into dogs over thousands of years. It doesn’t always mean progress, he told me; “it’s possible to adapt and diminish the quality of human life.” Adapting to avoid or cope with the suffering wrought by climate change might gradually create other suffering. And because of environmental generational amnesia, we might never fully recognize its extent. Think of how Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree, nimbly accommodating each of the boy’s needs, eventually winds up a stump.