earthweal weekly challenge: A SONG FOR SHIFTING BASELINES

Nurse Damaris Silva plays the violin for coronavirus patients inside a Santiago, Chile, hospital on Thursday, July 2. Pablo Sanhueza/Reuters


The scroll of scary climate events continues apace—and why wouldn’t it? Pandemic may have temporarily flattened the carbon-spew curve, but there’s nothing in our eventual economic recovery to suggest there has been any real change in humanity’s infrastructure or appetite for oil.

Most scientists now find it highly unlikely we’ll be able to keep to 1.5 degrees C of warming by the end of the century; in fact, the consensus prediction is that we’ll pass that mark in a decade and be somewhere in the 4-6 degree C range by 2099.

Those are scary numbers, but does that budding knowledge make any difference? It’s not even clear that a significant immediate catastrophe will drive humanity toward decisive enough action. Six months after continent-consuming wildfires and the third bleaching event in the Great Barrier Reef in five years, Australia’s global warming woes seem almost forgotten Arctic fires are burning unabated, vicious rains fall on the far East and “unseasonable” heat (that’s a rich term nowadays) swelters the southern US. (God, it’s hot here today.)

Pandemic adds a double whammy for these problems; in places like Arizona where the infection rate is three times the national average, staying indoors to beat the heat just increases the chances for spreading. Here in Florida, disaster relief officials are scrambling to work out alternatives to group shelters in case of hurricane evacuation.

But double—or even triple—threats coming at us as the result of climate change don’t seem to stir much response from humanity; we just hunker down and get used to it. Nowhere is this as evident as in the US where its government turns a blind eye to the pandemic as it infects soaring numbers of citizens.

Maybe we got used to this head-in-the-sand tactic suffering through a Trump presidency. Someday he will get voted out, some day there will be a vaccine; til then it’s to the bunkers, mateys, where there’s streaming on Netflix.

Lord knows what the world will look like when we emerge …

David Roberts at Vox examined this bewildering lack of response to a crisis which will have lasting effect for thousands, perhaps millions of years.

Contrary to the notion which many climate activists have that when things get bad enough, people will change, Roberts wonders if such a change will ever come.

In July 9 post titled “The Scariest Thing About Global Warming (And Covid-19)”, he suggests a very scary alternate possibility:  “Humans often don’t remember what we’ve lost or demand that it be restored. Rather, we adjust to what we’ve got.”

No moment of reckoning arrives. The atmosphere becomes progressively more unstable, but it never does so fast enough, dramatically enough, to command the sustained attention of any particular generation of human beings. Instead, it is treated as rising background noise.

The youth climate movement continues agitating, some of the more progressive countries are roused to (inadequate) action, and eventually, all political parties are forced to at least acknowledge the problem — all outcomes that are foreseeable on our current trajectory — but the necessary global about-face never comes. We continue to take slow, inadequate steps to address the problem and suffer immeasurably as a result.

Roberts looks to conservation studies to back this up. In 1995 an ecologist studying depleting fisheries declared that fish were going extinct under the radar of observation due to what he called “shifting baselines.”

Consider a species of fish that is fished to extinction in a region over, say, 100 years. A given generation of fishers becomes conscious of the fish at a particular level of abundance. When those fishers retire, the level is lower. To the generation that enters after them, that diminished level is the new normal, the new baseline. They rarely know the baseline used by the previous generation; it holds little emotional salience relative to their personal experience.

… A given generation of fishers becomes conscious of the fish at a particular level of abundance. When those fishers retire, the level is lower. To the generation that enters after them, that diminished level is the new normal, the new baseline. They rarely know the baseline used by the previous generation; it holds little emotional salience relative to their personal experience.

In essence, a “generational amnesia” allows a fish to become smaller and rarer until it’s no longer known and then vanishes.

The same idea of shifting baselines applies to climate change. “Few people are aware, in a conscious way, of how many hot summer days were normal for their parents’ or grandparents’ generation. Recent research shows that “extremely hot summers” are 200 times more likely than they were 50 years ago. Did you know that? Do you feel it?”

Shifting baselines in the collective also repeat in the individual experience. There is a personal amnesia “where knowledge extinction occurs as individuals forget their own experience.”

“There is a tremendous amount of research showing that we tend to adapt to circumstances if they are constant over time, even if they are gradually worsening,” says George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon. He cites the London Blitz (during World War II, when bombs were falling on London for months on end) and the intifada (the Palestinian terror campaign in Israel), during which people slowly adjusted to unthinkable circumstances.

“Fear tends to diminish over time when a risk remains constant,” he says, “You can only respond for so long. After a while, it recedes to the background, seemingly no matter how bad it is.”

Roberts notes that big events, or “teachable moments,” can momentarily shock us into willingness to make big changes, but “a teachable moment is only a moment,” he says. “Once the fear is gone, the willingness to take measures is also gone.”

Is there anything we can do to prevent shifting baselines from allowing us to sleep through the climate emergency during its more dire and transformational decades? You would think so, as “the human propensity to rapidly adapt is part of our evolved cognitive and emotional machinery.” But we need a baseline, and for that we have to recall the past. We can’t rely on our innate memory; it only takes about two to ten years to erase our experiential reference points.

Traditional culture embodies memory in the land, language and the people. The wisdom of the tribe carried by the ancestors into the present. Much of that has been lost.

That kind of historical consciousness — a day-to-day awareness of the obligations that come with being a good ancestor — has faded. And modern consumer capitalism might as well be designed to erase it, to lock everyone into an eternal present wherein satisfying the next material desire is the only horizon.

In lieu of traditional culture, a nation’s leaders, their governance and laws can help regulate history and slow and perhaps reverse a rapid degradation of the baselines.

Studying and understanding the long arc of history, considering the experience of previous generations and the welfare of coming generations, making decisions with the long view — those are things leaders are supposed to do.

The most reliable way to stop baselines from shifting is to encode the public’s values and aspirations into law and practice, through politics. They can’t be held steady through acts of collective will. They have to be hardwired into social infrastructure.

Unfortunately, US politics has become almost completely unresponsive, which reinforces rather than ameliorates our slipping baselines. One crucial part of registering a crisis as a crisis is a sense of agency, and Americans increasingly feel that they have no ability to shape national policy.

One of the only places left where that can happen now is in the arts. (Roberts also says that journalism can play a role in this, but that’s for another tribe to address.) As sites of culture, our poems can preserve the view of history, the presence of elders among the living and the memory of an ensouled and enervated landscape.

Poetry can apply brakes to our acquiescence to loss, questioning the process of letting important things go without the disaster of grief, as in this classic by Elizabeth Bishop:


The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

—from The Complete Poems, 1926-1979

That’s the scope of this week’s challenge, anyway. Observe shifting baselines in your world, in climate change, your nation’s governance, the pandemic. How are we changing? What has been lost? Is there an experience which demonstrates the vanishing act between generation or in your own life story? Or write about the importance of poetry in a vanishing and increasingly silent world. What has the tradition of poetry lent to your life and the world about you? How have you passed it on to the young? How can poetry’s voice and authority be preserved?

We are fast losing the vestiges of our voice—this work is important! Else we join the rest of humanity frogging our boil.

— Brendan

earthweal open link weekend #28

Spraying for textually transmitted diseases.


Welcome to earthweal’s open link weekend #28.

Thanks again to Sarah Connor for handling this week’s challenge … A fine array of contributions and great to see some new faces!

Open link forums provide an opportunity to freshen the well with upwellings from many depths and cultures. Stay with this week’s challenge, comment on another or swim free-style in manner of your own choosing. What’s interesting, strange and/or wonderful around your barrier reef?

For a sense of the global involvement, include your location in your link. And be sure to visit your fellow linkers and comment.

Our open linkfest ends Sunday night at midnight EST to make room for the next weekly challenge.


earthweal guest weekly challenge: LOOKING FOR A NEW HIERARCHY

by Sarah Connor

I first came across Maslow’s hierarchy at college. I didn’t think too much about it – I had a lot of facts to learn, and this was just another one. Two or three times in my life I’ve learned the triangle well enough to be able to answer a multiple-choice question on it, if it should happen to come up. It has face validity. What more do you want?

You know Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, right? It’s been around since 1943. It’s been meme-ed.



Maslow stated that you move up through the hierarchy. You need to have your physiological needs met first, then safety, then love and belonging, esteem, self-actualization. The big joke these days is that you need to add a further foundation layer, usually labelled “wi-fi”.


It wasn’t until I came across a random tweet the other day that I even questioned this. The tweeter pointed out that Maslow was writing from a particular time and place (America in the 1940s), and his thinking was inevitably affected by the culture he was living in. She gave “ubuntu” as an alternative to self-actualization as the highest point on the pyramid.

I spent a happy half hour or so following up the comments, which led me to read a little more about ubuntu, and to the work of Max-Neef, who flattens out that hierarchy.

In fairness to Maslow, maybe he created a visual image that was just too powerful. We know (and he acknowledged) that this is not a rigid pyramid. You can be hungry and still take joy in great art, you can be homeless and still enjoy friendship, you can use creativity to manage your insecurities.

Ubuntu is a word from Southern Africa that can be translated as “humanity”. The philosophy of ubuntu was first developed by Jordan Kush Ngubane in the 1950s – again, an idea developed in a particular time and place, this time a continent developing a post-colonial identity. The basic idea of ubuntu is that I am human because you are human. We create each other’s humanity. This is a much more community, relationship-based view of what makes a complete human than the “self-actualization” we value so much in western society. Archbishop Desmond Tutu was an exponent of ubuntu, and it influenced his work on reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa. Here’s a description of ubuntu from him:

A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.

Why did I follow up this particular tweet? Why am I writing about these ideas? I brought them to earthweal because they struck a chord with me – because I’ve just been watching these ideas brought to life during the covid lockdown and as we emerge from that. At the moment, viewing all those videos of people throwing tantrums because they are being asked to wear masks in communal spaces and seeing reports of people rushing to beaches and other public spaces, crowding together and leaving literally tons of rubbish behind them,  makes me wonder if we’ve taken the whole “self-actualization” thing a bit too far.  Poor old Maslow. I don’t think he intended us to think that self-actualization meant prioritising our individual wishes over everything and everybody else, but here we are.

On the other hand, during lockdown it was our communities that we missed. The communities we form at work, with extended family, with friends, all of those were stripped away from us. What did we do? We formed virtual choirs. We did Zoom quizzes. We attended Teams meetings. We connected with people in new ways, different ways, ways that weren’t quite the same, weren’t quite as satisfying, but did go some way towards fulfilling that need to connect with others, to be acknowledged as human and to acknowledge others.

This is not a surprise. We know it takes a village to raise a child. We know that we are primates, we live in troops.  We’ve agreed that more than 15 days of solitary confinement is a cruel and inhumane punishment (and look at that word “inhumane” – that says it all). Social media is all about connecting. It uses the languages of relationships – liking, friends – and yet it leaves us wanting more. It’s not satisfying, it’s addictive. We crave the likes, when what we really crave is real connection. It’s not in Facebook’s interest to satisfy us. It wants us there, scrolling for connection. While we’re scrolling we’re seeing adverts, we’re having our data harvested. Twitter doesn’t want us to feel content. It wants us to come back for more. I’m not saying you can’t create community through social media, but I am saying there’s big money to be made out of our drive to connect with others.

At the same time, we all need moments of privacy. We’ve all kept secret diaries, we’ve all wanted to be alone. As poets and creators we need space to write and to create – and yet that writing and creating is ultimately a communication with others. As we try to effect change we have to take individual responsibility and individual action, but without a community of activists around us we are doomed to failure. There’s a balance here – movements are inspired by individuals, but it’s that movement that supports those individuals to make a difference. Greta Thunberg was admirable when she stood alone with her Skolstrejk för klimatet sign. She’s important because she inspired a movement around the world. Jane Goodall’s chimpanzee studies are fascinating, but she’s important because she communicated them and used them as a basis to advocate for environmental and community development.

Let’s try a little mind experiment. Go back to Maslow’s triangle. What would happen if we erased “self-actualization” and put “ubuntu” in its place? If we stated that fulfilling ourselves through our connections with others was the highest place on the pyramid? Now let’s take it a step further. What would happen if, instead of ubuntu, we chose a different word – a word that doesn’t exist yet – a word that means connecting with the whole web of life across this planet? What would it mean to state that the highest level of personal development came through connection with the whole eco-system?

This week, I’d like you to think about that balance between the individual and the community. Where do you stand on the spectrum between lone wolf and team-player? How does your community support you? What are the communities you’ve chosen? What are the communities that have been thrust upon you? Can we be human without other humans?  What are the threads that stitch us into place? They may be good or bad, or somewhere in between, but they are certainly there.

— Sarah

earthweal open link weekend #27

Welcome to earthweal’s open link weekend #27! Pop a cork and light a sparkler by linking a poem that best suits your own theme or mood, be it new or one of your greatest hits. Include your location in your link so we get a feel for the breadth of global reportage. And be sure to visit your fellow linkers and comment!

Open link weekend ends at midnight EST Sunday night to make room for next Monday’s weekly challenge. Sarah Connor takes up the reins this time with one titled LOOKING FOR A NEW HIERARCHY. You know will find it stimulating, fun and rewarding—poetic meat and a hoot.

Now everybody start linking!

— Brendan


A family in the flood-hit district of Assam in north-east Assam, June 29, 2020. Photo: PTI


Summer is in full swelter now, from Florida up to the Arctic. Dangerous heat indexes are forecast this weekend for the Gulf coast region of the US, with 100-degree heat across Texas and storms ratcheting across the Northern Gulf with tropical storm potential. Not hotter, though, than the Arctic circle, where a 6-month heat wave is fast melting summer ice and balding back massive tracts of permafrost. Elsewhere, southern China has seen 31 straight days of torrential rainfall, with reservoirs and dams giving out and some 15 million residents affected. Yangshuo, a tourist town known for its stunning mountain vistas, experienced a once-in-two-centuries burst of heavy rain on June 7. Flooding from heavy rainfall is also affecting the north-eastern Indian state of Assam, with 1.5 million residents in 2,000 villages affected. The flooding is hampering efforts to contain the Baghdan oil well fire which has been burning since June 9.

Though all of these events resulting from a heating climate are disturbing, the Arctic heatwave is the perhaps the most troublesome. The Arctic is warming twice as a fast as the rest of the world—much faster than scientists though it would in response to rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The high of 38 degrees Celsius (just over 100 degrees Fahrenheit) recorded on June 20 in the Siberian town of Verkhoyansk, just north of the Arctic Circle, was the highest temperature ever recorded in the Arctic, some 30 degrees F higher than previous recorded highs. If our climate had been stable, it would have been classified as 1-in-a-100,000-year event, but Arctic heating is nothing but an unproar.

On June 19, ground surface temps of 45C (113F) were recorded across the region—that’s 113F—ground temps are usually higher than air temperatures we normally see in weather analysis—but imagine that kind of heat on permafrost and sea ice. We saw that with the May 31 collapse of a Russian oil tank in Siberia due to melting permafrost, spilling some 20,000 tons of diesel fuel into the nearby Ambarnaya River. The spill was two-thirds the size of the Exxon Valdez spill, but the news was fleeting amid so many other catastrophes concurrent in our daily world.  (Like a COVID pandemic which, thanks to folks like us dum dum US citizens stuck in a spiraling first wave, is threatening to soon mount a second worldwide wave…)


siberian heat

Land surface temperatures (LST) in Siberia, June 19, 2020


Still, think of it: if global warming at 1.1 degrees C above the norm is producing this— and doing it at a speed we hadn’t expected for decades— what does that bode for our future? Current projections of staying within 2C of warming are withering fast; one analysis puts those chances now at .3 percent if Trump is defeated in November. (And if he wins re-election? .1 percent, or one in 1,000).

An Australian climate scientist still recovering from continent-engulfing wildfires earlier this year writes of an updated forecast of warming in Australia (based on 20 forecast models) of 4.5 degrees Centigrade by the end of the century, with a range between 2.7 and 6.2 degrees Centigrade. The 2 degree target is now forecast to pass around 2040. “If the new models turn out to be right, there is no way we can adapt to the catastrophic level of warming projected for a country like Australia,” he writes.

Some of our most precious ecosystems will never recover, including some of what was destroyed in Australia during our Black Summer. Gutted landscapes will struggle on, trying to regain some semblance of an equilibrium. But the truth is the destruction we have unleashed will reverberate throughout the ages.

We are witnessing the unthinkable. Facing the unimaginable.

The hard learning the United States is getting in Pandemic Essentials 101—what a failure here, especially in states like Florida where I live (10,100 new cases yesterday, a nationwide record and helping the US to set a new global record of 55,000 new cases for the day)—repeats an old lesson from my oracular blog namesake St. Oran: The way you think it is is not the way it is at all. Straight commonsense thinking doesn’t do much good when you’re playing 3D chess with the Devil. (What does that do to poetry of the heart, we have wondered.)

As an epidemiologist recently explained in a series of tweets, it isn’t the number of daily COVID tests related to test positivity rate which concerned her (the one I’ve thought refuted folks like Vice President Mike Pence’s complaint that testing is causing the pandemic), but what is swimming behind that data. “What we see in states like Florida is a sharp rise in the numbers of new cases,” she Tweeted. “It is the pace of growth that alarms me, and the fact that positivity is rising along with it. As policy hasn’t changed over the last few weeks, what stops it from rising more?” The shadow in the swarm in negative reverse is a diving peregrine falcon—how fast this COVID now spreads.

Similarly, the pace of climate change revealed in the current Arctic heatwave belies the simple linear graph of rising carbons and heat. David Wallace-Wells writes,

Making sense of climate change requires more than trying to determine where on a particular linear plot we are and where on it we are likely to be in ten years, or in fifty. It may require more profoundly revising our sense of linearity itself. In this way, global warming isn’t just scrambling our sense of geography, with Verkhonaysk, at least briefly, playing the role of Miami. It is also scrambling our sense of time. You may feel, because of the pandemic, that you are living to some degree in 1918. The arctic temperatures of the past week suggest that at least part of the world is living, simultaneously, in 2098.

Remember the Clockwork Green challenge here back in February? We tried to make sense of the asynchronous coincidental speeding wheelworks of climate change. It was dizzy stuff, and a theme which underlies news of five five-hundred year floods in Houston over the past five years or a hundred-thousand year heat event in the Arctic Circle, followed by what’s to come in a 2 or 3 or 4C hotter climate arriving faster than anyone believes (and exactly the way COVID feasts on beliefs). Wallace-Wells again:

Perhaps the most important lesson of the freakish Siberian heatwave is: However terrifying you find projections of future warming, the actual experience of living on a heated planet will be considerably more unpredictable, and disorienting.

Well, that’s what we’re here for, folks, shelter from upside-down storm and welcome to a bedraggled sense of things. Maybe what we struggle to say comes from the Earth itself. Great essay about the melt of Siberian permafrost by Heather Altfeld, “The Magical Substratum,” appearing in Earth Elegies, #73 in Bard College’s bi-annual Conjunctions series and published in 2019. (Sure wish I could find an online link, but sorry.) Daniel Fisher, a professor of paleontology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan, tells her,

We have translated the eco-crises in the Arctic into our own terms—terms that make sense to us, statistics of melt and temperature change, empiric projections—but these terms do not represent the animistic view of native Siberians. Our scientific terms to not capture the actual problem, which the Siberians would say is one of great disruption to the land’s spirit. The eco crisis we are experiencing involves many souls, because the land has a spirit, and if it is angry, and it can’t be appeased, then what are they supposed to do?

Altfeld reflects,

What is the point, then, between a cosmology that centers around the natural world, and one that centers around our importance in it? It is this: If the personification of an animal or a tree gives us the sense that we are all in this together, then their suffering is our suffering, their deaths are our deaths, and their souls are inextricably bound up with ours.

Things to brood over this weekend. Sarah Connor’s prompt on Monday will open wider doors for us all.

For now, I leave you with a poem by Joy Harjo, our current US poet laureate. May it, for now, suffice …


Joy Harjo

Once there were songs for everything,
Songs for planting, for growing, for harvesting,
For eating, getting drunk, falling asleep,
For sunrise, birth, mind-break, and war.
For death (those are the heaviest songs and they
Have to be pried from the earth with shovels of grief).
Now all we hear are falling-in-love songs and
Falling apart after falling in love songs.
The earth is leaning sideways
And a song is emerging from the floods
And fires. Urgent tendrils lift toward the sun.
You must be friends with silence to hear.
The songs of the guardians of silence are the most powerful—
They are the most rare.

from An American Sunrise: Poems (2019)