Friday, February 18, 2011

What We're Used To

Yesterday I had another of those startling encounters with a "foreign" culture when someone visited from downtown Denver to install equipment. Really a nice guy, but he always has trouble finding the place even though he's been out here before (we're 20 miles from Denver). To get here, after exiting the highway, you have to make all of three turns, all on paved roads. More than getting lost, though, I was surprised by his concern that he might encounter a snake. Not just a rattlesnake, but apparently any kind of snake.

It's February. I explained that his chances of seeing a snake were somewhere between extremely slim and zilch, no matter how mild the day. We also talked about bears and mountain lions, neither of which I've seen in person in my 30 years here. We know they're here, we just don't see 'em. In fact, we've grown used to not seeing 'em. (Photo by H. Barrison via Wikipedia.)

We don't live in a remote mountain cabin without services. This is, for all intents and purposes, civilization. There are neighbors within shouting distance; we even have regular trash pickup. But when I thought about the "other foot"—how I feel when I go to downtown Denver—I got it. It's culture shock; it just wasn't what he was used to. I can function downtown, more or less, and he can function here; it's just outside of the comfort zone.

In fact, I can navigate fairly well downtown, as long as I'm going somewhere I'm used to. But set me down in San Francisco or St. Louis, and I'm a fish out of water. Big cities make me nervous; if I went to New York City, I'd turn into a basket case utterly dependent on my guide. There would have to be a guide. (Photo adapted from Wikipedia.)

I had the same experience decades ago when I was in college. I tutored a young man from The City who found himself unsettled by the surroundings of the rural college we attended. Drop him off the subway in the middle of Queens or Yonkers, he'd be fine. The green hills of upstate New York, though, freaked him out. I doubt he ever left the campus. As we talked about it, we realized I'd be equally freaked on his home turf.

We humans are adaptable creatures, and that's the problem. We're able to get used to whatever's around us, and it becomes a new norm, a new basis for future comparison. Scientists call it shifting baselines and Wikipedia does a pretty good job of explaining the basics. Originally applied to the oceans and perceptions of fish abundance, the concept works marvelously for just about everything. We can only compare with what we know. That's why the older we get, the more different the "good old days" look.

The message, I guess, is be careful what you get used to, whether it's the new superhighway, more convenient shopping, having 100 TV channels, or never seeing open lands and wildlife. It will end up in your future. Sci-fi writers have suggested that humans can adapt to planets and environments that are entirely manmade. At the rate we're going, some of us may get to find out.

Every day we all make choices, says a student at Scripps. Make sure your choices count.

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