Easy Chair — From the September 2017 issue

Now and Then

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In the 1990s, the fisheries biologist Daniel Pauly popularized the term “shifting baselines” to describe the impossibility of accurately appraising the present without a clear sense of the past. A baseline is the stable point from which you measure change in a system before it was damaged or dramatically altered — the usual date on which the spring thaw used to arrive before climate change began, for example, or the total population of a given species before it became endangered. The scientist and filmmaker Randy Olson put it this way:

If we know the baseline for a degraded ecosystem, we can work to restore it. But if the baseline shifted before we really had a chance to chart it, then we can end up accepting a degraded state as normal — or even as an improvement.

This principle goes far beyond ecology. If history and intergenerational memory give us social and political baselines, amnesia renders us vulnerable to experiencing the present as inevitable, unchangeable, or just inexplicable.

There is power and possibility in remembering that booms don’t last, that campaigns like those Pleasant supported can alter a people’s fate or even a nation, that the ways in which we think about race and gender, childhood and age, are mutable, that anyone who has lived for more than a few years has lived through violent transformations. Even what we consider the past is not so past. I know people who as children knew people born in slavery; they remind me that this atrocity is not so distant that we are beyond it.

The tragedy of Philips’s eviction was the persecution of an old and frail and exceptionally charming woman, but she was far from the only near-centenarian being forced out; there were also poets, historians, hallowed institutions — a Latino drag bar, a downtown watering hole that had survived Prohibition. What replaces these businesses often seems willfully rootless, enterprises that promote visions of a future so sunny the past is lost in shadow. Airbnb, which is headquartered about a mile and a half from Philips’s home, has offered landlords and speculators incentives to replace residents of cities around the world with transients, to turn larger and larger portions of cities into playgrounds where no one has a baseline on what the place once was.

Measured over too short a span, change becomes imperceptible; people mistake today’s peculiarities for eternal verities. The image that comes to mind is a map on a phone. When trying to navigate, you see either a picture too small to provide detail or details too close up for context — or you blindly obey orders dictated by an algorithm that has made all your decisions for you, and never fully grasp where you are.

There have been many versions of the past as a golden age, attainable only through the brutalization of some minority population, the reassertion of old hierarchies. Donald Trump’s exhortation to “Make America Great Again” is only the most flagrant of the recent examples. Such ugly sentimentality might seem a case against reaching backward for perspective — but really it is an argument for a present in which people are not so bereft of recent history that they will accept fictions and oversimplifications. It’s an argument for more history, not less.

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More from Rebecca Solnit:

Easy Chair From the March 2018 issue

Nobody Knows

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October 2018


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