Declining Baselines

Declining Baselines

The following is an excerpt from Woodland Manitou: To Be on Earth.






Environmental activist Derrick Jensen writes:

This phenomenon is something we all encounter daily, even if some of us rarely notice it. It happens often enough to have a name: declining baselines. The phrase describes the process of becoming accustomed to and accepting as normal worsening conditions. Along with normalization can come a forgetting that things were not always this way. And this can lead to further acceptance and further normalization, which leads to further amnesia, and so on.

His example of this phenomenon is watching a pair of foxes poke around his forest cabin, as well as a raccoon, another visit from a fox and and a black bear, all in one evening.  He recalls being enchanted in the moment of witnessing this conglomeration of non human life thriving outside his door, and rightly so.  There is always room for celebration and enchantment when we see beautiful things like life thriving in nature.  And then the next day he remembered that he once read that people in his area, before the Europeans settled it, typically saw a grizzly bear every 15 minutes.

Declining baselines.  For many of us it is normal to encounter only birds and squirrels over the course of weeks or even months.  Regular interaction with wildlife, for multitudes of the population, is no longer normal.  Now the unusual thing is to see a wolf or a bear in the wild.

I grew up in a part of the world that sees hard, long, cold and windy winters.  It snows in November and doesn’t start to green up again until May.  But when I look back at the years my daughter, age three, has been alive, this is no longer the case.  We still get snow, and cold and wind, to be sure.  But we also regularly get 50 degrees in December and this year we are still waiting for a hard freeze, two weeks before Thanksgiving.

Declining baselines.  I often wonder what the weather patterns will be like when Eva is an adult.  Will she remember seasons as I do?  Or will her baseline be completely different?

And finally this week the world has witnessed once again an act of violence and terror that is hard to fathom for those who are on the other side of the ocean.   Life was lost, fear is rampant and the world seems further from peace than ever before.  I can’t help but see this too as a decline in what we see as normal.  In the last 20 years acts of unthinkable violence against myriad groups across the world have become, as much as I hate to type the words, common.  It will never be “normal” to inflict harm on another human being, but it has somehow become common.  Eva will never know a world where September 11 didn’t happen and she will probably always have to take her shoes off to fly on a commercial airplane.  She will never know a world where the word “terrorist” and “refugee” weren’t once a regular part of dinner conversations all over the world.

The world events that we hear about over all forms of media, and those events that even sometimes personally affect us, still seem unthinkable to me.  But I’ve noticed that I’m no longer surprised when they happen.

Declining baselines.

Jensen goes on to say, in his standard “no sugar coating it” way:

Do not go numb in the face of this data. Do not turn away. I want you to feel the pain. Keep it like a coal inside your coat, a coal that burns and burns. I want all of us to do this, because we should all want the pain of injustice to stop. We should want this pain to stop not because we get used to it and it just doesn’t bother us anymore, but because we stop the injustices and destruction that are causing the pain in the first place. I want us to feel how awful the destruction is, and then act from this feeling.

And I promise you two things. One: Feeling this pain won’t kill you. And two: Not feeling this pain, continuing to go numb and avoid it, will.

Omid Safi writes:

In the afternoon I took my children out for a long, slow walk in the woods. We took time to reflect on the trees, the light, the fallen leaves. In the midst of grief, there is still time to hold a friend’s hand, to hold a beloved in the heart, and go for a gentle stroll.

I don’t have the answers.[…] But I do know this: at the end of the day, love and unity will have the victory. If we are to get there, we have to remain fully human.

If we close our hearts to love, to each other, to nature… we have already lost. There is grief in the city of light, and in so many cities of light. But in the midst of the grief, in the late hour of Fall, a beauty lingers. Love shall have the victory at the end of days. Let us welcome light into our hearts, and be agents of healing.

I can only hope that by allowing our grief, our confusion, and our love for the earth and each other to be truly felt…I can only hope that can be enough for this sometimes very broken world to start to heal.

Baselines can be slippery.  We best hold onto the ones that remind us what being human is supposed to feel like.