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Personal Experience and Environmental Change

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As we see during most heat waves, the number of people who believe climate change is happening peaking. During cold spells in the winter, the number dives. This reminds me of one of the biggest problem in creating long-term environmental reform–everybody believes their personal experience in the norm. There’s a Facebook cartoon I’ve seen a couple of people put up recently that tells everyone to shut up because it’s the summer and it’s supposed to be hot. Well, no. Or at least not like this. 2012 is almost certainly going to go down as the hottest year in the history of the United States. Most of the other leading years are also in the very recent past. There has basically never been a heat wave in the history of this country like the current one plaguing the eastern half of the country for the last month.

Never.

But we very quickly internalize this as normal.

This isn’t just climate. I was talking to a environmental scientist friend of mine recently who recalled a conversation with the owner I think of a timber operation. The guy didn’t understand why he needed to comply with stormwater drainage regulations. He said the rivers turn brown anyway. And my friend was like, that’s not natural! It’s the result of logging and erosion and other issues. But if you see it for more than a short time, you can easily internalize it and assume that you are not responsible.

That’s hardly a recent phenomenon. Whites moved onto the western Great Plains in large numbers in the late 19th century. Places like western Nebraska and eastern New Mexico became exciting spots to start a farm. It seemed like a great idea at the time because there was enough rain. Everyone assumed there would always be enough rain. But the 1880s and 1890s were unusually wet decades and when the land dried up, it became impossible to live out there. That’s why you see so many abandoned buildings in these places–they are the homesteads of people from 50, 70, 100 years ago who finally gave up on the land. Plus the farming out there had major environmental impacts, particularly the plowing of the sod to plant grains. When the drought came, nothing grew and the soil blew away, leading to the Dust Bowl.

I’m not sure what you do about this. But it’s really really hard to create policies to fight climate change when we assume our own experiences are normal. Combine this with the right-wing propaganda machine telling everyone climate change is a liberal myth and you have a recipe for doing nothing.

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