Pompeii was still recovering from widespread destruction from a previous earthquake back in 62 AD when on the 20th of August of 79 AD a series of earthquakes started to become more regular. Over the next four days the region was shaken by rumblings beneath the earth. The quakes became ever more frequent and intense; on the 24th of August 79AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted spewing out a deadly cloud of stones, ash and fumes to a height of twenty miles. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius destroyed the city of Pompeii which was buried beneath metres of volcanic ash. An estimated 16,000 people died from the eruption. The people of Pompeii were unprepared and did not take the warning signs seriously. There were no attempts to evacuate Pompeii or the surrounding areas prior to the eruption.
The story of Mt Vesuvius and Pompeii helps explain creeping normalcy. Creeping normalcy is a term used to describe how gradual changes can be accepted as the normal situation if these changes happen slowly, or incrementally. The Romans had become accustomed to minor earth tremors in the region and failed to see any imminent danger. By the time the volcano erupted it was too late to take any emergency measures. Jared Diamond made the term creeping normalcy popular in his Pulitzer prize-winning book, Collapse – How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Diamond outlines how Politicians use the term ‘creeping normalcy’ to refer to such slow trends concealed within noisy fluctuations. If the economy, schools, traffic congestion, or anything else deteriorate slowly, it’s often difficult to recognize the change from previous years. (1) The gradual and incremental changes are difficult to see, thus normalcy is difficult to recognize over short periods. It may take a few decades of a long sequence of such slight year-to-year changes before people realize, that things have changed for the worst.
While industrialization has provided many benefits to society there are numerous instances of things which have been creeping up on us, many of which have had unintended or negative consequences for both society and the planet. Below are some of the more obvious examples of Normalcy bias which have shaped and conditioned society and had devastating consequences for the planet.
Globalized Food System
Cheap energy in the form of crude oil combined with the promotion of “free trade” over the last five or six decades has created long supply chains and industrial farming. These long supply chains, source food from the low-cost producers and depend upon large scale industrial monoculture farming. Industrial farming is highly dependent upon fossil fuels inputs such as fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides to produce food. Food is shipped, flown and transported hundreds of thousands of miles around the planet each and every day. While some may see this as progress, the reality is this model of food production and consumption is unsustainable and highly damaging to both the planet and our health. This is only possible by using highly interconnected and energy intense forms of production, transport, storage and distribution. Under the present system it is estimated we are using 10 calories of fossil fuels to produce 1 calorie of food. We have gradually moved from local production to complex global production and distribution systems and now see this as the norm.
Landscape Amnesia – Urban Sprawl
A term related to creeping normalcy is “landscape amnesia”: forgetting how different the surrounding landscape looked 50 years ago, because the change from year to year has been so gradual.(2) With increasing populations cities have spread outward. This growth has led to low-density, mono-functional and usually car-dependent communities, also known as urban sprawl. While urban sprawl has been around since antiquity, especially in ancient Rome, Babylon and China, it is more prevalent today than any other time in history. In the early 1800’s approximately 7% of the U.S population lived in urban centres. This has steadily increased to over 80% by 2010. This trend is indicative of many Western countries and according to the World Health Organization this trend is set to increase across all countries over the coming decades with more people living in cities than any time in history.
As transportation and the widespread uptake of automobiles, governmental single-use zoning laws and more access to credit and mortgages, has increased since the 1940’s, there has been a gradual and steady erosion of valuable farmland, forests and grasslands. This sprawl has replaced farmland and wildlife habitats as ecosystems and forests are replaced with impervious surfaces (concrete and asphalt). There are many negative feedback loops from this implementation of artificial surfaces which affect habitat, wildlife, groundwater and pollution. Farmland is the most immediate victim of this urbanization, with 21% being impacted by sprawl, followed by grasslands (up to 17%) and forests (up to 12%) the next, followed by wetlands (up to 7%).
Deregulation of Financial Systems
The financial crisis was due to numerous separate, yet interconnected events which paved the way for the easing of regulatory requirements occurring over numerous decades. This gradual shift of incremental changes to the system created a catastrophic failure of the financial system as we know it today. The gradual deregulation of the financial markets over many years crept into the banking system. A federal inquiry into the 2008 crisis outlined the crisis was an ‘avoidable’ disaster caused by widespread failures in government regulation, corporate mismanagement and heedless risk-taking by Wall Street. This enabled the widespread manipulation and exploitation of investors, individuals, taxpayers and homeowners. Like a rumbling volcano nobody took any notice of, normalcy bias can seep into any system which fails to notice ever incremental changes.
Other Examples of How Normalcy Bias Has Impacted
Other examples of Normalcy Bias which have crept into our current society is the widespread and persistent use of chemicals and pesticides, the concentration and integration of media ownership, increased surveillance, increased incidence of degenerative diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, industrial farming, deforestation and degradation of ecosystems, the gradual and ongoing exploitation of third world countries resources.
Source: excerpts from Rethink…Your world, Your future.
(1/2) Jared Diamond,Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed: Revised Edition, Penguin Books; Revised edition (January 4, 2011)Jared Diamond, Collapse. p.435.
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