Shifting baseline syndrome: When we don’t realize how much nature is changing & learning to see with deep-time eyes

Yes, this is a big concern. Most of us don’t realize how much nature has changed over the centuries and even over the last few decades. We see nature and don’t realize how impacted it is by human activity.

CHANGES OVER THE LAST FEW DECADES

When I grew up in Norway in the ’80s, the garden was brimming with insects, birds, badgers, hedgehogs, and more. We had the windows and doors open in the summer, and the inside of the windows became full of insects when we closed them. We drove a few minutes in the car, and the windshield was covered in insects. After one drive, we had to clean it.

These days, there is very little life of any kind. There are very few insects. I hardly see any on the windshield. The inside windows have just about none. I don’t see any grasshoppers, ladybugs, butterflies, crickets, daddy longlegs, or any of the very familiar insects from my childhood. I don’t see any swallows anymore.1

I suspect most young people don’t realize how much this has changed and how quickly. They didn’t experience it for themselves. This is all they are familiar with. This lack of life is what’s normal for them.

CHANGES OVER CENTURIES AND MILLENNIA

This is also happening over longer timespans. When I look at the rolling hills here in Southern Norway, it’s beautiful in its own way. For my inner eye, I see something else. I see the rich and diverse old forest that very likely was there before humans, or when there were only a few humans there thousands of years ago. I see a multi-layered old forest full of animals, birds, and insects. I imagine the ocean similarly full of life.

When I walk through my childhood forest, I experience it differently from when I was a child. Back then, I thought this was wilderness. Now, I see a monoculture planted for profit. The trees are all the same type and of the same age, planted too close together for much else to grow there. It’s far from the rich diversity of a natural old-growth forest.

CITIES

When I walk in a city or town, I imagine how it looked before humans built it. I imagine walking through the rich and multi-layered forest that used to be there. (Or whatever ecosystem it was.)

LEARNING TO LOOK WITH DEEP TIME EYES

For me, it’s important to learn the basics of how mature and rich ecosystems look, and how it was where I am before humans had a huge impact. It’s important for me to learn to see landscapes and places with deep time eyes.

IMAGINING HOW IT CAN BE

It’s also important for me to learn to imagine how I can be. If we engage in regeneration and bring back a mostly native and rich ecosystem, how would it look? How would it look right here?

GRIEF, HOPE & ENGAGEMENT

If I look at the past, it brings up sadness and grief, and that’s a natural and healthy response. I am nature grieving itself. I am a part of this planet and ecosystem driving the loss of so much of itself.

That’s why I also make a practice out of imagining how it can be. I imagine the place I am in full of life and a rich and mature ecosystem, with human settlement as an integral part of it.

That’s also why I make a practice out of doing something in my own life. When I do something to bring it about, in however small a way it may be, I am part of the solution. It’s meaningful. It brings hope. I get to see that something can be done.

IN MY CASE: SOME OF THE SMALL THINGS I DO

What are some of the small things I do?

In my mid-teens, I got deeply into systems views and deep ecology. In my teens and early twenties, I also got into ecospirituality, the Universe Story, the Epic of Evolution, and so on. I learn to see with deep time eyes. I learned about how the ecosystems used to be before they were hugely impacted by humans. I learned to imagine how it can be, with regeneration and sustainability efforts.

I shifted how I see myself in relationship with nature. I am nature. I am part of this seamless living planet. I am part of this evolving universe. I am the local eyes, ears, thoughts, and feelings of the universe. I allow this to work on me, and I invite in a deepening visceral experience of it. (Deep ecology, universe story, epic of evolution.)

I learned how we can create a more life-centered and ecologically sustainable civilization. I learned about how our current economic system doesn’t take ecological realities into account (assumes nature is infinite), and how that can and needs to change.

I do small things in my life. I recycle. Use dishwater and shower water for plants. I walk or take public transportation when I can. I try to limit my consumption.

I make connections with and learn from like-minded people.

I have been engaged in several sustainability community projects in the past, especially when I lived in Madison, Wisconsin. (EcoTeams, NWEI discussion groups, Practices to Reconnect, Sustain Dane.)

I am also gifted with being the steward of land in the Andes mountains, and I am engaged in the regeneration of this land. (Roughly a thousand native trees will be planted as soon as the rain returns, and we are also developing a food forest.) We are also using natural building techniques (rammed earth), we use mostly local and/or recycled materials, we will collect rainwater and use it to water the plants, we plan on installing solar power, and so on. It’s a gift and a great privilege to be able to do this.

NOTES
(1) Why is the loss happening? The general reason is that we – in our Western civilization – are in ecological overshoot. We use far more resources than nature can keep up with and replenish. The more detailed reasons are many: Use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers to grow food. Monoculture. Loss of old forests. Reduced diversity in the gardens. (When I was little, many gardens had wild areas and in general had a lot more trees, bushes, and flowers.) More houses. Less wild (semi-wild) areas.

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