Last night a host of nonhuman neighbors paid me a visit. First, two gray foxes sauntered up, including an older female who lost her tail to a leghold trap six or seven years ago. They trotted back into a thicker part of the forest, and a few minutes later a raccoon ambled forward. After he left I saw the two foxes again. Later, they went around the right side of a redwood tree as a black bear approached around the left. He sat on the porch for a while, and then walked off into the night. Then the foxes returned, hung out, and, when I looked away for a moment then looked back, they were gone. It wasn’t too long before the bear returned to lie on the porch. After a brief nap, he went away. The raccoon came back and brought two friends. When they left the foxes returned, and after the foxes came the bear. The evening was like a French farce: As one character exited stage left, another entered stage right.
Although I see some of these nonhuman neighbors daily, I was entranced and delighted to see so many of them over the span of just one evening. I remained delighted until sometime the next day, when I remembered reading that, prior to conquest by the Europeans, people in this region could expect to see a grizzly bear every 15 minutes.
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. Meanwhile the world is killed, species by species, biome by biome. And we are happy when we see the ever-dwindling number of survivors.
I’ve gone on the salmon-spawning tours that local environmentalists give, and I’m not the only person who by the end is openly weeping. If we’re lucky, we see 15 fish. Prior to conquest there were so many fish the rivers were described as “black and roiling.” And it’s not just salmon. Only five years ago, whenever I’d pick up a piece of firewood, I’d have to take off a half-dozen sowbugs. It’s taken me all winter this year to see as many. And I used to go on spider patrol before I took a shower, in order to remove them to safety before the deluge. I still go on spider patrol, but now it’s mostly pro forma. The spiders are gone. My mother used to put up five hummingbird feeders, and the birds would fight over those. Now she puts up two, and as often as not the sugar ferments before anyone eats it. I used to routinely see bats in the summer. Last year I saw one.
You can transpose this story to wherever you live and whatever members of the nonhuman community live there with you. I was horrified a few years ago to read that many songbird populations on the Atlantic Seaboard have collapsed by up to 80 percent over the last 40 years. But, and this is precisely the point, I was even more horrified when I realized that Silent Spring came out more than 40 years ago, so this 80 percent decline followed an already huge decline caused by pesticides, which followed another undoubtedly huge decline caused by the deforestation, conversion to agriculture, and urbanization that followed conquest.
My great-grandmother grew up in a sod house in Nebraska. When she was a tiny girl—in other words, only four human generations ago—there were still enough wild bison on the Plains that she was afraid lightning storms would spook them and they would trample her home. Who in Nebraska today worries about being trampled by bison? For that matter, who in Nebraska today even thinks about bison on a monthly, much less daily, basis?
This state of affairs is problematic for many reasons, not the least of which is that it’s harder to fight for what you don’t love than for what you do, and it’s hard to love what you don’t know you’re missing. It’s harder still to fight an injustice you do not perceive as an injustice but rather as just the way things are. How can you fight an injustice you never think about because it never occurs to you that things have ever been any different?
Declining baselines apply not only to the environment but to many fields. Take surveillance. Back in the 1930s, there were people who freaked out at the notion of being assigned a Social Security number, as it was “a number that will follow you from cradle to grave.” But since 9/11, according to former National Security Agency official William Binney, the U.S. government has been retaining every email sent, in case any of us ever does anything the government doesn’t like. How many people complain about that? And it’s not just the government. I received spam birthday greetings this year from all sorts of commercial websites. How and why does ESPN.com have my birth date? And remember the fight about GMOs? They were perceived as scary (because they are), and now they’re all over the place, but most people don’t know or don’t care. The same goes for nanotechnology.
Yesterday I ate a strawberry. Or rather, I ate a strawberry-shaped object that didn’t have much taste. When did we stop noticing that strawberries/plums/tomatoes no longer taste like what they resemble? In my 20s I rented a house where a previous resident’s cat had pooped all over the dirt basement, which happened to be where the air intakes for the furnace were located. The house smelled like cat feces. After I’d been there a few months, I wrote to a friend, “At first the smell really got to me, but then, as with everything, I got used to the stench and it just doesn’t bother me anymore.”
This is a process we need to stop. Milan Kundera famously wrote, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Everything in this culture is aimed at helping to distract us from—or better, help us to forget—the injustices, the pain. And it is completely normal for us to want to be distracted from or to forget pain. Pain hurts. Which is why on every level from somatic reflex to socially constructed means of denial we have pathways to avoid it.
But here is what I want you to do: I want you to go outside. I want you to listen to the (disappearing) frogs, to watch the (disappearing) fireflies. Even if you’re in a city—especially if you’re in a city—I want you to picture the land as it was before the land was built over. I want you to research who lived there. I want you to feel how it was then, feel how it wants to be. I want you to begin keeping a calendar of who you see and when: the first day each year you see buttercups, the first day frogs start singing, the last day you see robins in the fall, the first day for grasshoppers. In short, I want you to pay attention.
If you do this, your baseline will stop declining, because you’ll have a record of what’s being lost.
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.