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Peter H. Kahn, Jr.
Peter H Kahn Jr., Ph.D.

Why Do We Destroy the Nature We Love?

The problem of environmental generational amnesia

Saying no to some things makes possible saying yes to other things. The start of a new beginning. A blog.

I love trees. I like hugging them. I run high ridges. I walk along the ocean's edge. I love nature. We all do. How could it be otherwise? For tens and even hundreds of thousands of years, we as a species came of age through daily and intimate connection with the natural world. That propensity and need to connect - deeply and intimately - with nature is with us still.

It's part of our human nature.

If that's true - and I'm sure it's true, though the research evidence is only beginning to catch up to it - then why are we degrading and destroying nature at such an astonishingly quick pace? The partial answer I'd like to discuss here focuses on a problem that drives me half crazy. It's the problem of what I've called "environmental generational amnesia."

I started recognizing the problem some years ago. I was interviewing African-American children in the inner-city of Houston, Texas about their environmental views and values. In some respects, these children brought forward surprisingly rich accounts of their interactions with, and indeed moral regard for, nature close at hand. But I was especially surprised by one finding. A significant number of the children interviewed understood about the idea of air pollution; but they did not believe that Houston had such a problem even though Houston was then (and still remains) one of the most polluted cities in the United States.

In interpreting these results, I suggested that these children may have lacked a comparative experiential baseline from places with less pollution by which to recognize that Houston was itself a polluted city. Building on these results, I proposed in my book The Human Relationship with Nature that people across generations experience psychologically something quite similar to the children in Houston, that people construct a conception of what is environmentally normal based on the natural world encountered in childhood. The crux is that with each ensuing generation, the amount of environmental degradation can increase, but each generation tends to take that degraded condition as the non-degraded condition, as the normal experience. That's what I'm calling the problem of environmental generational amnesia.

A similar amnesia can happen within a generation, too. I've seen it enacted first hand over three decades, on mountain land in Northern California - land that has been my home, and where I reside when possible. Here is a synopsis of what I have seen. A family moves to a piece of forested land, say 640 acres, a square mile, which has already been logged numerous times in the last century. These are usually good people. They might well view themselves as environmentalists. They might be members of the Sierra Club. But like most of us, they need to make ends meet, and so they look around at the natural resources, the timber, and they say: "Well, there should be a way of taking some timber here, and still leave some good trees. You know, all of us use wood products, so it's kind of hypocritical to be saying no logging." So they log. Then they say, "You know, 640 acres, what are we really going to do with that much land? And if we sell some, then we can make our land payments." So they subdivide the land into four 160 acre parcels, keeping the nicest parcel for themselves. Families from more urban areas now buy each of the remaining 160 acre parcels. These, too, are usually good people, even environmentalists. And they say something like: "Well, there should be a way of taking some timber here, and still leave some good trees. You know, all of us use wood products, so it's kind of hypocritical...." So these families log the land, and afterward subdivide into 40 acre parcels, if the zoning laws allow. Notice how relative is the concept of "good." Each logging and subdivision degrades the land more, but each person assesses the health and integrity of the land relative to a more environmentally degraded urban setting, and not to the land's condition as it was even a year before.

The land above my cabin had been old growth when I was an adolescent. After it was logged for the fourth time, I cried. It has been logged since. The "big" trees that remain? - at their base, they measure 11 inches in diameter.

When people relocate and compare a degraded nature to a more degraded nature from where they came, the baseline shifts. But I think the baseline shifts most when it occurs across generations. For then an entire generation shifts its baseline downward.

I think environmental generational amnesia helps explain why we degrade and destroy the nature that we depend on for our physical and psychological wellbeing. But I recognize the evidence for it has not been as strong as it should be, which allows people to ignore the problem further. As an example, the National Park Service commissioned a report titled: A Critical Review of the Concepts of "Environmental Generational Amnesia" and "Nature Deficit Disorder." The latter is a term Richard Louv uses in his widely read book, Last Child in the Woods. The Park Service asked me to respond to their critique of environmental generational amnesia. Their critique was that I did not have strong enough scientific evidence. In my response I said that that was true. However, I also noted that in their document title they say they are reviewing the "concept" of environmental generational amnesia. But in their review they only examined its empirical base. I also reminded them that for more than 20 years the U.S. government said that there was not enough scientific evidence to substantiate the hypothesis about global warming. I pleaded with them to take a leadership role in enhancing the human relationship - both domestic and wild - with the wonderful park lands that are within their trust. My words fell short.

As a scientist, I still do not have the evidence that I would like to substantiate environmental generational amnesia. Let me then be a little more careful than I was in years past. Let me call it a hypothesis. In later posts, I hope to speak more about this hypothesis.

About the Author
Peter H. Kahn, Jr.

Peter H. Kahn, Jr. is Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington and the author of Technological Nature: Adaptation and the Future of Human Life.

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