There's a concept in environmental studies called the "shifting baseline" that explains how we end can miss radical changes in an ecosystem because they happen over a long period of time. Each year there are a few less fish in a fishery and no one notices, then boom, no more fish. Each summer the temperature rises a fraction of a degree and few complain, and then we stop, look back a decade, and realize we're on a crash course with devastating climate change.
Shifting baselines happen in politics, as well. Political scientists often talk about the Overton window, meaning the range of ideas that are considered a part of acceptable political discourse. Back in 2008, for example, President Obama said marriage should probably stay between a man and a woman; eight years later he's lighting up the White House as a rainbow. Just two weeks ago no one thought a orange haired buffoon could be President; now here we are discussing his cabinet appointments.
The problem with shifting baselines is that they can end up normalizing radical change. In nature and in politics, that means we lower our standards, accepting a degraded state of affairs as "normal," when in fact, it represents a dramatic shift from a previous era. Snorkelers will come back happy to have seen a few fish, not knowing that the coral reef, now bleached due to global warming, used to overflow in riotous, colorful life. Pundits will shake their heads at the latest absurdity from Trump's twitter feed, forgetting that things like recorded comments describing sexual assault used to disqualify one from public office.
We live in an age of dangerous amnesia, where the "new normal" gets recreated so fast it's hard to hold on to what was and therefore what should be. We accept a status quo which is anything but. Terms like "business as usual" are used to describe something deeply strange, like the idea that the fulfillment of human potential relies on burning dead dinosaurs or that we should accept the destruction of the planet as the only way to live on it.
Our forgetfulness allows war crimes to become collateral damage, atrocities to become externalities, the destruction of our environment to become the "cost of doing business." Forgetfulness can also limit the scope of our dreams. We throw away ideas as "too radical" or "too far outside the mainstream" when they were once considered moderate proposals and distinct possibilities.
In the age of Trump, we must guard our memories. We must remember our values--the ones that tell us that women, people of color, Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ+, and all people under attack by Trump deserve the same protections, liberties, and opportunities as every one else. We must remember our dreams--the creation of a clean energy economy that works for everyone, a society where we respect people and the planet.
We can't let Trump shift our baselines one inch. As people who care about the climate crisis, we should never treat it as "normal" that Trump is the only head of state to deny the threat of human caused climate change (even North Korea, a dictatorship walled-off from the rest of the world, acknowledges the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions). And if Trump does admit that the climate change is real, we shouldn't applaud this as some great accomplishment: we should point out how outrageous those words were in the first place.
If we pat ourselves on the back for simply stopping Trump from causing all-out catastrophe, we still will have lost. The science is very clear on that point: we don't have four years to slide backwards on climate change, we need to make progress and fast. Just because the work is harder, doesn't mean it's less important. Physics and chemistry don't care who won the election and the earth will go on warming. If we lower our sites now, we're all but doomed.
There are those who will argue that sticking to our baselines will make our work as activists harder. That we should adapt to the new political reality and find a way to make some small progress by working with Trump. I strongly disagree. The Democratic Party's failure to recognize how far the lives of most people in this country had shifted from the "American dream" is part of what got us into this mess. The lackluster policy proposals that seemed well suited for the current political discourse failed to inspire millions of voters who were hungry for change.
The cure for environmental or political amnesia isn't to describe how things could be a little bit better: imagine one more tree or maybe he won't frack everywhere. The cure is to paint a vivid picture of what was and what could be: imagine an entire forest standing here or imagine a world powered by 100% renewable energy.
And we should never forget that most Americans want these things too. Only 25% of the public voted for Trump and only a small percentage of those voters thought about climate change or the environment (or any other progressive issue) when they filled out their ballot. Trump has no mandate for his radical agenda and we need to remember and repeat that truth every single day.
Trump wants us to forget, to be subsumed by his all-powerful ego. He wants to accept the deportations, accept the hateful language, accept the latest scandal as only just a little bit worse than the last one. He wants us to give up on renewable energy, give up on solving climate change, give up on protecting the environment. Memory is now an act of resistance. It will be important to remember that.