Memory, The Most Important Overlooked Environmental Tool?


photo: Bhautik Joshi/Creative Commons

So much of environmentalism is about looking forward. Looking forward to the more socially and ecologically sustainable world we're trying to create. Looking forward via climate modeling, projections of energy use, resource consumption, and population growth, to attempt to foretell the type of world we, our children and grandchildren will have to deal with, adapt to, and live in.

That's important stuff, no doubt. But how much of that looking forward is constrained by our seeming inability to remember the past? Is our collective cultural memory (or sometimes lack thereof and oftentimes quickly diminishing) a critically important and neglected factor in environmental thinking? If you've gleaned where I'm going with this, that I do think we ought to be doing some more self-reflection, both personally and collectively, about what we remember, what our parents remember and what our societies remember, you're right.

What brings this to front of mind today is an interesting factoid that Andy Revkin highlights in his column over in the New York Times.

Revkin points out a study that talks about 'disaster memory' and relates it to the massive infrastructural expansion and concurrent energy use explosion that has occurred in so-called developed nations since World War 2 and continues at breakneck pace in China, India and elsewhere, in far too unquestioning mimicry today.

The point of relation is that it's taken decades of building nuclear power plants in places at risk of both tsunami and earthquake for the very word tsunami to appear in planning guidelines. It wasn't until 2006 that it appeared.

Could it be a lack of historically relevant disaster memory that caused the lapse in judgement?

Revkin writes,

One clue to the lack of concern might simply be the roughly 40-year period of relative seismic calm (in terms of a lack of great quakes in populous places) from the 1960s into the 2000s, as shown in the chart [below] from Bilham's report. (And note the remote locations of nearly all the great earthquakes from the middle of the 20th century--Alaska, southern Chile, far eastern Russia).


Report image via New York Times

In the original there are links galore supporting this theory, but the thing that strikes me is that this lack of disaster memory could just as easily and aptly apply to many other pressing environmental issues as well--inasmuch as what we consider normal levels of energy use, gadget use, clothing purchases, car usage, flying, et cetera etc etc in the really not so distant past were lower.

Just one example, air conditioning use. What once was considering a luxury is unquestioningly now called a necessity in more and more places--in the process ignoring entirely the fact that 1) air conditioning is a historically modern invention, 2) places used to be built with natural cooling in mind, 3) it simply isn't a necessity for the vast majority of people, however cooler we might feel on a scorching day ducking into an air conditioned building. Our collective memory of how to exist without air conditioning has been erased in the span of just a couple of decades.


photo: j_anet/Creative Commons

Other examples: How often people used to eat meat (hint, it's way lower than is done now, at least in the US and Europe), how many gadgets you need to be entertained, how to build communities not centered around de facto mandatory automobile ownership, how many fish used to swim in streams and the oceans, how many birds used to fly in the skies, how many bigger animals used to be in our forests.

I could go on and on. Be clear that what I'm not advocating is just a rosy-glassed version of the past, ignoring those things that are better today than a half century, century or more past. There have undoubtedly been changes that are positive for human development. But in continuing to support those positive changes in human development, maintaining them today and in the future, equitably expanding them where possible, let's remember to turn around and remember how things used to be done where appropriate. Doing so can only help that effort.

More on Sustainable Development:
Could Wind Powered Factories Make a Comeback?
Insulating Your Body Is Cheaper And More Effective Than Insulating Your Home

Tags: Air Conditioning | Energy | Natural Disasters

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