In praise of shifting baseline syndrome
Why I find myself wanting to forget the world of my childhood
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I grew up in the south-east of Australia, on Ngunawal land in New South Wales. I have vivid childhoof memories of hiking in national parks like Tidbinbilla, Namadgi and the Budawangs. Finding a woozy red-belly black snake asleep by a frozen stream in the Snowy Mountains, dead leaves in thick drifts under the trees crunching underfoot, sparse grasses and the smell of smoke. The healthy, natural sounds and smells of the Australian bush.
So it's surprising and disorienting to learn that the bush I grew up with wasn't healthy or natural, at all.
Reading Victor Steffensen's excellent Fire Country was an illuminating journey into the world of Indigenous cultural burning and a wholly different understanding of country. Steffenson is a Tagalaka man who worked for many years on Kuku Thaypan land in the Cape York peninsula, learning traditional methods of cultural burning and land management. (It's a stunning book, and you should read it immediately.)
When Steffensen looks at land like the bush I grew up on, he sees a sick country, which he sometimes describes as 'upside-down country'.
'I call it upside-down country because it looks like the trees are upside-down. The long dead branches of the trees represent the roots sticking up in the air, while the thickened mess of invasive plants and dead vegetation on the forest floor represents the canopy.... Most of the plants and animals that make up those systems are not there anymore.
The regrowth of the particular dominant, invasive plant for each place is so thick that you can't walk through it. Not even a kangaroo can hop through its inherited trails through the land... The only place where the animals can find fresh grass is the man-made paddocks and private propeties. Even after decent rain the bushland still remains the same colour of dead, brown leaves. Nothing can grow through that rubbish, even after a good wet season.'
This is utterly different from the Australian landscape that Europeans first encountered at the end of the 18th century. That land was carefully managed and tended by Indigenous caretakers, and sustained a far greater variety of plant and animal life than it does today. What we consider 'natural' today is actually a landscape deeply out of balance.
The same is true in many parts of the world. The famed moors and heathlands of Scotland are the result of 18th century English colonists, who cleared forests and grazed the land with sheep. In North America, the huge forests that European settlers encountered in the 17th and 18th century had only a few decades earlier been agricultural land, before Native American farmers were decimated by disease in the 16th century.
I can't imagine what it must be like for Indigenous Australians to live on country so altered and distorted from their traditional understanding. For me, as a settler, learning that the country I grew up on is actually a recent invention is a disorienting feeling. It's an example of 'shifting baseline syndrome' - the idea that each generation benchmarks its own experience of nature as normal. Our parents grew up in a world that was ecologically much richer than our own - but we never knew that world. We were born into a degraded ecosystem, and for us, that's our baseline of normal. The next generation will set their baseline at an even lower level.
Even within a single lifetime, we constantly reset our idea of 'normal'. Environmental economist Frances Moore measured people's responses to unusual weather events, and determined that our reference point for 'normal' weather conditions is based on, 'weather experienced between 2 and 8 years ago'. All the records agree that the weather was colder in the 20th century - but I have trouble remembering it, in my body.
If a time-traveller from the 20th century arrived suddenly in the present day, they would be struck by the absence of animals and wildlife. Of course, we've all time travelled from that distance ourselves - we've just done it very slowly. At the pace we experience time, it's hard to keep the world of our childhoods fresh in our memory.
Many people say that shifting baseline syndrome is a dangerous kind of generational amnesia. David Roberts argues that shifting baseline syndrome makes it 'difficult for us to keep our attention focused on how much is being lost — and thus difficult for us to rally around efforts to stem those losses.' How can we fight for what we don't remember, or never knew?
I don't agree.
I don't think we need to focus on what's been lost in order to motivate us to fight. After all, our goal is to create a better future, not to restore a world that's now gone.
Secretly, I kind of resent older peoples' stories of the natural abundance they knew before I was born. So you got to experience a world of rich wildlife and healthy diversity that I'll never know? Good for you, but I don't need to hear about it.
Environmental collapse has been the constant background of my entire life. I don't need more reminders that I live in an impoverished landscape compared to the world of my parents and grandparents.
The truth is, I'm grateful for shifting baseline syndrome. It seems to me that our tendency to forget is good and healthy. We're not wired to remember the world over the timespan of our life - and that's a kindness, because we couldn't hold all of that grief. Instead we look at what's in front of us, what's ahead of us.
For me, that kind of memory is too much like nostalgia - and I'm scared of nostalgia.
We all know that the future is going to be a difficult place to live. Surviving in the the climate era will require a clear-eyed perspective on the world, a refusal to retreat into vague optimism or futile despair. In that context, I think that dwelling on memories of our youth is a kind of surrender.
If I could, I'd choose to forget that I once saw a family of koalas sleeping in a tree a few metres off the road in Tidbinbilla National Park. I'd forget about the time an echidna burrowed under the fence into our back garden in Giralang, and we put it in an icecream container and drove it to Black Mountain to release it. I'd forget the way that christmas beetles swarmed so thick that they'd fall from trees and cling to my t-shirt as I walked home from school.
These memories do not help. I wish I could let them go.
NEWS AND PROJECTS
Excited to announce that Reuben Ingall and I are presenting the second episode of You're Safe Til 2024 live on stage at the Canberra Theatre from 8-10 April.
Armed with a projector, family photos and a pile of sand, playwright David Finnigan and musician Reuben Ingall relate how 75 hours in modern Australia came to collide with an epic sweep of history during this compelling show.
At the end of 2019, Finnigan began writing a play about the six turning points that have brought us to this moment in time – our ecosystems transformed, our planet on the brink of unthinkable climate disaster. But then Canberra was hit by the fires.
In a performance that interweaves 75,000 years of humanity with their own personal accounts, Finnigan and Ingall call on scientific research, phone footage and storytelling to illuminate unprecedented global change and how we’ve arrived here. Shot through with humour, pop culture and a rich electronic soundtrack, You’re Safe Til 2024: Deep History speaks of resilience and hope.
This will be my first time onstage in over a year - wild times. Tickets and more information here.
I was invited by actor and environmentalist Tessa de Josselin to chat on her podcast The Nature Between Us. We talked about what it means to create work about environmental crisis, and why I was wrong about the power of the arts to change people's minds. It was a lovely chat, and it's a beautiful podcast - check it out here.
As ever, you can get more background on my practice in my New Rules for Modelling series, or you can check out my website. And if you have any questions or offers that might make my life more interesting, feel free to get in touch.