Thursday, October 29, 2009

But it has Always Been this Way...

by Plant With Purpose Executive Director, Scott Sabin

Jared Diamond, in his book Collapse gives a frightening description of how the Polynesian culture of Easter Island deteriorated, largely as a result of deforestation. In fact, as he points out, deforestation was a major contributor to the collapse of most of the societies he examined in the book.

But particularly chilling is his speculation on the mindset of the islander who cut down the very last tree. Diamond imagines that he probably would not have even recognized its significance. By the time he came to that tree, trees would have long since lost their economic importance and their prominence in the landscape. No one would have even noticed its absence. Sadly, we have reached this point with many plants, animals and entire landscapes around the world.

Diamond has a name for this phenomenon: “landscape amnesia.” It has also been called the “shifting baseline syndrome” or creeping normalcy. Many might recognize it as the boiled frog syndrome. Changes happen so slowly that we do not notice them as they occur, and we forget what things looked like originally or what they are supposed to look like.

C. S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia and Mere Christianity, wrote a poem hinting at the same idea, titled “The Future of Forestry.” In it he imagines a time in the near future when children will have difficulty imagining what elms, chestnuts, and even autumn looked like during a legendary “age of trees” before concrete covered the land. I have witnessed this effect in Southern California, where the canyons and mesas of my home have been gradually reduced to a few thin slivers of park in the midst of housing developments. Most of the people who live here are recent arrivals and have no idea what a beautiful place this once was. They think Southern California has always been a sea of concrete. In the meantime, those of us who have grown up here look at photos from our childhood and are shocked at what we see, because the change has been so gradual yet so complete. What had been here for millennia disappeared in thirty years and we have barely noticed its passing.

The same thing is happening around the world. Flying from Nairobi, Kenya to Lake Victoria over the Rift Valley in a small plane, I saw no space that was unsettled, no land uncultivated. Tin roofs glinted in the sunlight from horizon to horizon. Lake Victoria has been badly damaged by deforestation, contamination, and the introduction of invasive species. Water hyacinth is choking out other life, while introduced Nile perch has eliminated most native species of fish. A group of friends who visited a month before me all contracted schistosomiasis after swimming in the water.

Yet the high-end resort on Rusinga Island manages to maintain the image of pristine beauty in the midst of remote wilderness, in part because their clients never saw what the lake used to look like. However, it has clearly become a shadow of its former self. We can only guess what Lake Victoria must have been like 150 years ago when John Speke first laid eyes on it. Since we are unable to compare its current state with its previous state, we fail to see the degradation.

Dr. Jeremy Jackson, professor of oceanography at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, writes, “The problem is that everyone, scientists included, believes that the way things were when they first saw them is natural.”

Knowing that we are prone to miss the big picture should be a cause for humility. As we read Jared Diamond’s account of the destruction of the ecosystem of Easter Island, and that society’s subsequent demise, we tend to be harsh judges of the short-sightedness of the islanders. It is always easier to see the faults in others. We should instead recognize the mirror it provides for us and our own situation. As stewards we are fallible and yet still responsible for how we care for God’s creation.

This article was posted on on 10/28/09.

1 comment:

  1. I discovered recently that when Toronto was a new settlement 150 or 200 years ago, bears used to be common on the shores of Lake Ontario and would occasionally be caught wandering the streets of the city. Bears! They are still common in the province, but you have to drive hours north to see them. I had just assumed, as per the shifting baseline syndrome, that southern Ontario was not part of their natural habitat.


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