Shifting Baselines: Visible with Age

I have not said much about my time with the visiting students a few weeks back. I was only with them as a central figure for a couple of hours, and it was an eye-opener.

Granted, most of them were in curricula related to marketing, communications and business and not biology. But their lack of knowledge and therefore of concern about or engagement towards the planetary conditions their generation will face was alarming. I was stunned.

And so I said a bit about this notion of creeping baselines–a luxury of indifference for the young to the wider range of facts that us older biology-watchers are burdened with. At least a few of us are. We have a broader range of comparison and know we are frogs about to boil. It makes us antsy. Not so these otherwise bright and polite young folk.

It adds considerable contrast to my baseline perceptions that I entered the discussion about the time that Rachel Carson made it clear to humanity that our one species actually could and already was causing measurable changes (with attendant mortality) to the living planet.

Until the mid-sixties, we could not fathom the idea of a planet or ecosystem that was not too big to fail. Silent Spring sounded the alarm. The first Earth Day in 1970 was to no small degree a response to that shocking look at Earth’s biochemical baseline creep.

Ocean acidification–”global warming’s evil twin”–is one of those invisible creeping changes that does not elicit much concern for the typical science-indifferent American consumer. The negative log of the hydrogen ion concentration does not mean much to spring-breaking students, especially as the pH number for ocean acidity has not changed many decimal places in their 20 years on the planet. And after all, with a pH of 8 point something, sea water is still basic and not acid, so what’s the big deal?

Think about this as you take your next dozen breaths.

Notice how some are deeper than others. We don’t typically take any notice of this fact. But the chief reason for this change in your breathing rate and depth is a finely tuned mechanism to either conserve or eliminate the hydrogen ions that enter our blood from the metabolism of our food. If too much H+ stays around, all sorts of health issues ensue. Our homeostasis in a state of good health deals precisely with our blood pH through our respiration because if it failed to do so, the out-of-balance state is called SICK.

Marine ecosystems, since I was born in 1948, have continued to become increaasingly sick because the vast majority of the CO2 we emit goes into the oceans (forming carbonic acid), along with most of the heat. And the oceans can’t breathe faster to maintain a steady state, so that…

 “the acidity of the oceans will more than double in the next 40 years. This rate is 100 times faster than any changes in ocean acidity in the last 20 million years, making it unlikely that marine life can somehow adapt to the changes.”[37] It is predicted that, by the year 2100, the level of acidity in the ocean will reach the levels experienced by the earth 20 million years ago.”

That’s more like baseline LEAP than creep, but it doesn’t directly affect me, so why worry about such geeky details? Or that the trees in the Amazon that have been the planet’s land-based lungs to take up CO2 are now failing to do that because they are dying younger due to the warmer climate?

The WHY of such worry is that we (you and me and those young students) are alive and conscious and at some level aware and capable of action at the 11th hour.

The good news is that, at a few seconds before midnight, we are waking up. We’re finding it hard to breathe (in all sorts of metaphorical ways) and we know why the planet and its living systems are sick and have some notion of what needs to be done.

We know that leaving carbon in the ground is where the future must begin. Given all the cards stacked against us, there is room for hope.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Please give us some anecdotes from this encounter with students. What was a satisfying moment for you? I surely hope there was more than one. Their encounter with you for two hours, at their impressionable age, can’t help but have affected at least one person. As a fellow teacher, I really take comfort knowing the invisible effect I had on my students was nonetheless an effect.