Language, woke, pandemics & ecology: Snapshots vs the long view

Even if our culture often invites a snapshot view of things, a longer view can be far more informative.


I remember my uncle would complain about changes to the language at family dinners.

Even as a teenager, it didn’t make sense to me. Language changes. It changes with each generation, and even decade by decade and year by year.

He has a snapshot view of language based on what he learned and was used to when he grew up. The generations that came before him would see his language as different and perhaps judge it as bad and wrong. And the generations after him will likely view his language as old-fashioned. That’s just how it is.

Our language today is the product of a language that has changed for not only centuries and millennia but over hundreds of thousands of years. I imagine even the ones who first used what we would think of as language were judged by the older generations. Why do they use these weird cryptic sounds instead of grunts and body language?

So when my uncle judged the language of young people today, and incremental changes to sounds and grammar, what would he use as a standard? What was, in his view, the correct language? Was it the one he grew up with, just because he happened to grow up with it? Does the world revolve around him and his generation? Or was it ten generations ago? A hundred? Did he want to return to a time before verbal language, when we used body language and other kinds of sounds?

For me, a long view makes more sense. It helps me be a little more informed, see things in perspective, and realize that language is supposed to change. People younger than me use a different language than me. Some would even pronounce my last name differently from how I do it. And that’s OK. It’s more than OK. That’s the nature of language. That’s how we have the language we have today. That’s how we have language in the first place.


I love woke. Why?

Because the intention behind woke – the wish for kindness and inclusivity – is remarkable in a historical context.

Many if not most cultures have not been that inclusive. Often, certain people are excluded or oppressed for things they cannot change: their ethnicity, color of skin, sexual orientation, caste or socioeconomic status, and so on. Woke seeks inclusivity and that’s remarkable and something to be applauded.

Of course, woke can take somewhat immature forms. That’s the same with everything and it doesn’t disqualify it as something remarkable and something to applaud and support.

So why do I love woke?

It’s not because of the more immature expressions of woke. I am happy to speak up against those and encourage more balanced approaches.

It’s because I take a long view. I know how unusual and remarkable woke is. Strong forces want to suppress it, now and historically. Many with privilege, including white privilege, feel threatened by such inclusivity.

It’s because I know that inclusivity helps all of us. It creates a more vibrant society and culture. It allows me to be more who I am, since I too am outside the norm in different ways. (As we all are.) It helps me be more myself and embrace more of myself.

Also, it’s because I know that the anti-woke attitudes and orientation originate on the far right, even if it’s sometimes adopted – somewhat naively and misguidedly in my view – by some of the left. Why do some on the left adopt those views? Is it because they don’t have a long perspective?


When the pandemic happened, I was not surprised. I knew that another pandemic was due any time since they tend to come about once a century. (That may change now with continued human incursion into previously mostly intact ecosystems and changing climate. The first brings more human exposure to diseases previously limited to other species. A warming climate spreads previously tropical diseases to new areas.)

I was also not surprised by the pandemic measures implemented by governments around the world. Since I am familiar with epidemiology, I know what’s considered best practices in a pandemic: quarantine, limiting contact and exposure, vaccines, and so on. These are measures that have been shown to work historically. (Some went a little too far, like the Chinese government, and some didn’t do quite enough, like Trump and Bolsonaro.)

I was not surprised by the backlash to these from some. There will always be a backlash when the government implements restrictions, even if these are temporary and based on epidemiology. There are innumerable restrictions in our society that most people accept. (Laws against theft, killing, driving too fast, and so on.) Why do we accept these restrictions? Because most of them make sense and help society function better. When some reacted to the pandemic restrictions, I suspect it was largely because the restrictions were new. Many also seemed unfamiliar with epidemiology and common and effective responses to pandemics. They didn’t have the long view.

I was not surprised by the conspiracy theories that flourished in some subcultures. History shows that conspiracy theories flourish during any pandemic in just about any time and culture. That’s how people work. I assume it’s a way to deal with fear. Through conspiracy theories, some feel they have some kind of control, if only imaginary. (In reality, conspiracy theories distract from far more serious and urgent big-picture issues that we all know are happening, including global ecological overshoot.)

When it comes to vaccines, I also take a big picture and long view. We know from history and epidemiology that vaccines have had a huge and beneficial impact on our collective health in general. We also know that at an individual level, they occasionally lead to serious health problems and even death. That’s the case with all modern pharmaceutical medications. In rare cases, some individuals experience a strong reaction to a certain vaccine or medication. That’s to be expected and it’s widely known. That’s why I support vaccines in general, and why I am very selective in which ones I personally take and (often) don’t take. (Some anti-vaxxers seem to think – or pretend? – that this information is somehow hidden or not included in the equation when health authorities decide to approve or recommend certain vaccines or medications.)


With nature, we also often operate on snapshots. This is called the shifting baseline syndrome.

We grow up with our ecosystem looking and functioning a certain way, and that becomes the baseline for us. We may not be aware of how much this ecosystem has changed due to human impact, and how far it is from a state not impacted by human activity.

For instance, as a kid I loved being in the forest near our house. To me, it was nature, it was wild. Later, I realized that it’s cut down regularly and the trees are replanted. That’s why the trees are all the same size. That’s why there is not more diversity and life there. This forest, like most forests in the world today, is very different from a more untouched old-growth forest. It’s close to a monoculture.

I remember the garden from childhood full of insects of all types. Badgers and hedgehogs. Swallows and many types of birds. Today, it’s very different. They’re is almost no life here. I imagine many young people don’t realize the change that happened over two or three decades. They see the absence of life as normal.

This is why it’s important to learn about how nature has changed over time, where we are, and in other places. Visualizing how it used to be and comparing it to how it is now can be a shock, and it’s a useful shock. It can encourage us to support or work on regeneration and rewilding, which benefits not only the wider ecosystem but also humanity and ourselves as individuals.

I make a practice out of imagining how nature used to be where I am (approximately), and also visualizing how it can be with some efforts into regeneration and rewilding. I do this in nature and rural areas, and also in towns and cities.


In all of these cases and many more, the long view helps me find a more sober, informed, and kind view.

In addition to the examples above, there is one that’s even closer to home. When I look at my own behavior, trauma, and so on, it helps to see it in terms of culture and evolution.

My trauma is not (just) mine. It comes from my parents. Much of it has likely been passed on through generations, in variations of the same essence. It’s shared, not just in my family but likely among many in my culture. The essence of it is likely shared by many around the world.

When I look at behavior patterns I may not be completely happy about, for instance the tendency for comfort eating, that’s not just from culture and family. The stage was set by evolution. I am biologically predisposed to like fatty and sweet food. In an environment where that was scarce, the ones who craved it were a little more likely to survive and have surviving offspring.

“Read more” to see what ChatGPT has to say about some of these topics.


The concept of being “woke” originally emerged as a term within African American Vernacular English (AAVE) to describe a heightened awareness of social injustices and systemic inequalities. While it has since expanded in usage and can sometimes carry different connotations depending on context, at its core, being “woke” often represents a commitment to social justice, equality, and empathy.

Here are a few points in defense of the idea:

  1. Promoting Social Justice: Being woke often entails recognizing and advocating against various forms of oppression, including racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and other forms of discrimination. By raising awareness about these issues, individuals who consider themselves woke contribute to a more equitable and inclusive society.
  2. Fostering Empathy and Understanding: Woke individuals often strive to understand experiences and perspectives different from their own. This empathetic approach can lead to greater solidarity among diverse groups and foster meaningful conversations about privilege, power dynamics, and the need for systemic change.
  3. Challenging the Status Quo: Woke individuals question societal norms and challenge the status quo, pushing for progress and social change. By refusing to accept things as they are and advocating for a more just society, they play a vital role in pushing boundaries and creating space for marginalized voices to be heard.
  4. Encouraging Critical Thinking: Woke culture encourages critical thinking and self-reflection. It prompts individuals to interrogate their own biases, privileges, and contributions to systemic injustices, fostering personal growth and collective action toward a more equitable world.
  5. Supporting Marginalized Communities: Woke activism often centers on amplifying the voices and experiences of marginalized communities. By actively supporting and uplifting these groups, woke individuals work towards dismantling systems of oppression and creating environments where everyone can thrive.

It’s essential to recognize that like any cultural or ideological movement, the concept of being woke is not without its complexities and critiques. However, at its core, it reflects a commitment to social justice and equity, values that are crucial for building a more inclusive and compassionate society.


The shifting baseline syndrome, also known as “intergenerational amnesia,” is a concept in ecology that describes the phenomenon where each new generation perceives the environment around them based on the conditions they experienced during their upbringing, rather than what existed before. As a result, there’s a gradual but often unnoticed change in the perception of what is considered “natural” or “normal.”

To counteract shifting baseline syndrome, several strategies can be employed:

  1. Education and Awareness: Increasing public awareness about the historical state of ecosystems and the changes that have occurred over time is crucial. Education initiatives can include teaching about past environmental conditions, illustrating the impacts of human activities, and highlighting the importance of preserving biodiversity.
  2. Long-Term Monitoring: Implementing long-term monitoring programs allows scientists to track changes in ecosystems over time accurately. By collecting data on various environmental parameters, such as species populations, habitat quality, and ecosystem health, researchers can document trends and communicate findings to the public.
  3. Historical Records and Oral Histories: Utilizing historical records, such as written accounts, photographs, and maps, provides valuable insights into past environmental conditions. Additionally, gathering oral histories from local communities can offer perspectives on environmental changes that may not be captured in written records.
  4. Engaging Communities: Involving local communities in conservation efforts fosters a sense of stewardship and ownership over natural resources. Community-based projects, citizen science initiatives, and participatory monitoring programs can empower individuals to contribute to ecosystem conservation and management.
  5. Setting Restoration Targets: Establishing restoration targets based on historical reference points can guide efforts to restore ecosystems to more natural and resilient states. By aiming to restore biodiversity, ecosystem function, and habitat connectivity, restoration projects can help counteract the effects of shifting baseline syndrome.
  6. Policy and Management Interventions: Implementing policies and management strategies that prioritize ecosystem conservation and restoration is essential. This may include establishing protected areas, regulating resource extraction, implementing sustainable land-use practices, and promoting habitat restoration initiatives.

By employing these strategies, it is possible to counteract shifting baseline syndrome and foster a greater appreciation for the importance of preserving and restoring ecosystems for current and future generations.


A big picture, deep time, big history, or evolutionary psychology view can lead to a kinder perspective in several ways:

  1. Understanding Interconnectedness: Recognizing the interconnectedness of all life forms and ecosystems over vast spans of time fosters empathy and compassion towards other beings. When we understand that all living organisms share a common evolutionary history and are part of a larger web of life, we are more likely to extend kindness and respect towards other species and ecosystems.
  2. Appreciating Diversity: A big history view emphasizes the incredible diversity of life forms and cultures that have evolved over millions of years. This appreciation for diversity can lead to greater acceptance and tolerance of differences among individuals and societies. Understanding the evolutionary roots of human behavior can also promote empathy and understanding towards people from different backgrounds and experiences.
  3. Promoting Environmental Stewardship: Deep time perspectives highlight the long-term consequences of human actions on the planet. By understanding the impacts of human activities on ecosystems and the climate over geological time scales, we are motivated to take proactive measures to protect and preserve the environment for future generations. This can include advocating for conservation efforts, sustainable resource management, and reducing our ecological footprint.
  4. Cultivating Long-Term Thinking: Viewing human history and evolution through a long-term lens encourages us to think beyond our immediate concerns and consider the well-being of future generations. This can lead to a more ethical approach to decision-making, prioritizing actions that promote the long-term sustainability and flourishing of humanity and the planet.
  5. Recognizing Shared Humanity: Evolutionary psychology provides insights into the common cognitive and emotional traits that humans share across cultures and time periods. This understanding can foster empathy and a sense of shared humanity, as we recognize that all individuals are shaped by evolutionary forces and universal human experiences.

Overall, a big picture view of the world can promote kindness by encouraging empathy, appreciation for diversity, environmental stewardship, long-term thinking, and recognition of our shared humanity. By embracing these values, we can work towards creating a more compassionate and sustainable world for all living beings.


What we look at looks quite different to us depending on our background, worldview, and so on.

In our culture, it’s easy to take a snapshot view on things.

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