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Reshaping Baselines for a Better Tomorrow

Buck looking at me, helping me establish wildlife baselines

Early in my life I witnessed a lot. Not quite like the young Amish boy in the eighties movie, Witness, but in the sense of how my grandparents and older adults generally arranged their lives. An early memory I hold is of my grandfather, “Pappy” building a tool shed. And of my grandmother, “Grammy” sowing tomato and pepper and squash and lettuce seeds in the “kitchen garden” as they called it. In this semi-rural setting I recall hearing birdsong and sighting fox and deer.

In some way, these early memories and experiences have informed my worldview—how I judge and perceive cultural trends and the like. They’ve left an imprint on my assessment of what’s right and wrong, ill-conceived and wise. These early exposures to making and doing no doubt influenced my take of Illich’s concept of the vernacular. You could say that these early encounters helped establish my “baseline” against which I judge future “progress.”

The first person to use the word “baseline” in this way was fisheries scientist, Daniel Pauly.  He coined the term “shifting baselines” by describing how

“every generation begins its conscious life by assessing the state of the world and society around it and using what it sees as a baseline to evaluate changes that occur subsequently.”

Or in plainer language, that what we experience as children informs how we judge things that change over the course of our lives. If when growing up “socializing” meant face-to-face conversation, we’re likely to find Facebook “sharing” unsatisfying today. If when growing up “visiting the wild” meant watching the drug-addicted on Skid Row, we’re not likely to miss the vanishing turtles, and frogs, and bats in our backyards today. 

One discouraging aspect of “shifting baselines” is that many of the baselines worth preserving or resuscitating are beyond the experience of those of us alive today. Few of us know anyone whose baseline memory of the Great Plains includes roaming buffalo. And fewer of us recall a time when work didn’t mean working for wages.

And in an increasingly ahistorical culture, this is a problem. As administrators excise natural history courses out of university courses, fewer people take up history as a career, and those in power promote STEM, should we really wonder why the young folks at Google can’t dream beyond an automotive future?

Each generation struggles to see how walking and cycling places was once viable and popular. People fighting for livable wages forget how before wage-labor, Illich reminds us that

“most of the environment had been considered as commons from which most people could draw most of their sustenance without needing to take recourse to the market…this transformation is in the blind spot of political economy.”

Memories of people working together to create community commons have receded under the weight of the motorist agenda. Convivial places where people made their lives have transformed into spaces where we must consume or get lost—”no loitering!”

Natural activities like cooking become pastimes that Michael Pollan feels compelled to remind us about. Communal entertainment becomes pre-packaged and standardized “stimulation.” Art is now something people called “artists” do; music, an act that “musicians” perform.

But you know, not all shifting baselines or “collective forgetfulnesses” are disparaging. Many of our LGBT brothers and sisters can now legally marry; smoking in enclosed public spaces has become strange and unwelcome; and today’s kids know little of the pre-80s trash-riddled landscape.

However, it’s sad these same kids and nearly all of us know little of the fox and bear and buffalo that once roamed in our backyards. We all lack direct experience of a world not dominated by rolling machines. Growing numbers of us will never know a time before rumbling jets didn’t puncture our afternoon reverie. Today’s children already find foreign an embodied pre- Instagram and -Snapchat social world.

One hope I hold onto is that more and more kids today will know birdsong and troubadours as readily as they understand bitcoins and iPads. After all, what is culture but an arrangement of human activity? As essayist, Rebecca Solnit writes in Wanderlust

“We tend to consider the foundations of our culture to be natural, but every foundation had builders and an origin—which is to say that it was a creative construction, not a biological inevitability.” 

Exactly. Culture isn’t biological, it’s cultural. We can and must change it.  And a wise “cultural shift” should begin with young people. Their early experiences inform their “baselines”, which inform their worldviews, which inform the way the are in the world. We can teach children skills like knitting, canning, constructing, gardening and plumbing as readily as we can teach them robotics and coding.

Kids should be allowed to wander alone and with friends through wooded patches and along streams and rivers. Together, we can ensure that the baselines kids judge any future against is full of meaningful social relationships, nature, wonder, discovery, and purposeful activity. Together, we can resuscitate a vernacular world.

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