“We seem able to normalize catastrophes as we absorb them,” writes Jon Mooallem in an article in the climate issue of the New York Times magazine (April, 2017). Mooallem cites Peter Kahn, professor of psychology at the University of Washington, who calls this phenomenon “environmental generational amnesia.” Kahn argues that each generation can only recognize—and appreciate—the ecological changes they experience in their lifetimes.
Some would argue that the inability to feel and connect beyond our immediate line of sight is a good thing—a kind of selective memory that allows us to adapt to each “new normal”. Mothers of several children can testify to the benefits of “forgetting” their hours of labour to give birth. Hence the ability and willingness to repeat this very painful experience.
Is this not part of successful biological adaptation in all of us? The ability to reset? But, for the environment and our relationship with it, it is never really a reset. It is more like quiet acquiescence as we whittle our environment—and ourselves along with It—one unobtrusive step at a time. I’m reminded of the lobster in the pot of water slowly coming to a boil. It doesn’t realize it’s dying until it does. And on some level, it doesn’t care—it is not sufficiently aware of its environment to appreciate what the incremental change means to its own survival. When does dis-ease turn to alarm? Who is to say that if that lobster wasn’t confined in a pot it would not have slowly edged away from the source of heat—like some of us deciding not to buy property in a 100-year floodplain?
Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree eventually ends up a stump. This is because it gives limb by limb as faithful friend to a disrespectful self-serving boy who evolves into a disrespectful self-serving man. The boy-man never sees the tree as more than something he can use for himself. Such a deliberate view permits him to rape this magnificent and beautiful tree with impunity and absolutely no regret. This is very much the current relationship of virtually all cultures of humanity with Nature: one of dominance and disrespect.
What Kahn calls “environmental generational amnesia” is really no more than the manifestation of total disconnection from and disrespect for our environment, which spans all generations and all times. And that is proving disastrous, because we are part of the environment. Our inability—our unwillingness—to participate respectfully with our “giving tree” is at the root of our amnesia.
How can we expect our children to understand or appreciate our longing for the diminishing quality of our fresh air when we smoke in front of them?
In witnessing the collapse of large fish populations on the west coast, University of British Columbia fisheries biologist, Daniel Pauly observed that people just went on fishing ever smaller fish, resulting in what he called a “creeping disappearance” of overall fish stocks. He called this impaired vision “shifting baseline syndrome,” a willing ignorance of consequence based on short-term gain. This is because we are not connected. And because we aren’t connected, we simply don’t care. The phenomenon described by Kahn’s environmental generational amnesia is not so much about not understanding or caring about the past, but of not being sufficiently connected to and caring about the present.
The history of our existence has long been veiled through a patriarchal androcentric filter that has limited our ability to value and celebrate all life, from bacteria and insects to the magnificent trees. To view our environment as participants—not to dominate but with which to co-exist and cooperate—is too humbling for many of us; it offends the “capitalist” spirit that feeds on growth, consumerism, debt and flow of capital. Can we use it? is the question posed. How is it useful to me?
Each generation has its chance to connect and make a difference. Each generation is its own “reset”, providing a fresh perspective, and free to connect in its own way. It is all about connection. To return to my example of the mother gladly giving birth again and again—it is not that she has forgotten the pain; it is rather that she chooses to relegate her memory of it behind something far more beautiful and wondrous to remember: the miraculous birth of her child. Environmental generational amnesia is really part of a larger amnesia, one that encompasses many generations; a selective memory driven by lack of connection and short-sighted greed.
In writing my book Water Is… my hope was that people would (re)connect to water and our environment—through story; connecting with fond memories and creating new ones. I grew up in a small rural town in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. I spent every day in the wild areas of our neighbourhood, the local woods, the parks, fields and empty lots. I explored the local stream and walked the railroad tracks. I made magic potions from nightshade flowers, moss and pond water. When I moved to the city of Vancouver to go to school and later to work, my childhood memories came with me, guiding me with Nature-wisdom. If I needed to find balance in my life, I sought out a forest, stream or lakeshore to meditate. I married a fisheries biologist and when we had our son, we spent much of it outdoors in Nature. My son and I roamed the wild parts of Vancouver, the empty lots, small parks and woods; we made magic potions out of nightshade flowers, moss and pond water.
The detrimental effects of “environmental generational amnesia” only exist in a world without connection. When youth truly connect and participate with their “giving tree”—no matter what stage it is in—they will care enough to act—and to “remember” environment’s legacy. Such connection has produced the likes of 12-year old Rachel Parent and 9-year old Ridhima Pandey: champions and fierce warriors for our Giving Tree. We’ll need many more like these brave girls to “school” those currently in power who apply their own version of amnesia to serve the wealthy few.
It is our children who will show us the way.
Niemann, Christopher. 2017. “The Deluge.” The New York Times Magazine, The Climate Issue, April 23, 2017.