A New England angler argues that cod have never been more abundant; that limiting their harvest is a cultural attack, not scientific necessity1. In the Gulf of Mexico, generations of fisherman are pictured beaming beside trophy catches—but the size of the prize has fallen from fish the size of men to trophies just a few feet long2.

How can we think a population is abundant when in fact it has collapsed? How can what’s “normal” change precipitously without the recognition of observers? How can we be so blind?

Researchers in Houston—one of the country’s most polluted cities—found that even when children understood what pollution was, they didn’t believe they were directly affected. In the researchers’ words, “…if one’s only experience is with a certain amount of pollution, then that amount becomes not pollution, but the norm against which more polluted states are measured.” Later they note: “The crux here is that with each generation, the amount of environmental degradation increases, but each generation takes that amount as the norm.”

Environmental amnesia prevents us from understanding what nature is, was, or could be. Like medical amnesia, it’s destructive: we lose liberties and experiences we never knew we had. Like other forms of loss, it’s tragic.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Populations of the ocean’s largest fish, including cod, have in fact declined by nearly 90 percent
  2. See Loren McClenachan’s research. By analyzing photographs, ship logs, and newspaper accounts, she documented the dramatic decline of fisheries over time—just gradual enough to not spur sufficient action, and just significant enough to cause total collapse