you're not a primate,
you're a missile
Shifting baselines in the 21st Century.
One night I was driving along Belconnen Way past Black Mountain in Canberra, just after midnight. I was being careful – 80 kilometres an hour, right on the speed limit. At this time of night, the kangaroos often come down from the mountain and cross the highway to get to Gossan Hill in Bruce.
When I was learning to drive, my instructor told me that if you see an animal on the road you’re not supposed to swerve. Hit your brakes, yes, but if you swerve, you might run straight off the road.
When I saw the kangaroo, I did swerve. I hit the brakes, I turned the wheel. I saw the roo in the headlights make a snap decision. It turned to retreat, then turned again, then hopped straight towards me. I swerved to keep the car on the road. There was a thud as the roo hit the side of the car – right into the driver’s side door – and then it bounded away into the trees.
When I got home there was a small dent in the side of my car, but no blood. I thought, maybe it was lucky, maybe it’ll be okay. When I next drove that way, a few days later, I slowed down and looked into the trees as I passed, and a few metres into the trees, I thought I saw a dead kangaroo.
I don’t know what a kangaroo thinks when it sees a pair of headlights rushing towards it. There’s nothing in its evolutionary history that can prepare it for the challenge of crossing a highway. I’d panic, too. I’d hop the wrong way and slam right into the car before I even knew I’d done the wrong thing.
If you're driving along at high speeds – in any kind of vehicle – you're what scholar Gary Kroll describes as an 'accelerated species'.
A cheetah, by way of reference, goes very fast – up to 100 kilometres an hour, in short sprints of a few hundred metres. But cheetahs have evolved to operate at those high speeds. Behind a wheel, humans go much faster than cheetahs – and not just in short bursts, but for thousands of kilometres at a time. And we are not equipped to operate at those speeds.
When you're travelling at 100 kilometres an hour, you're effectively a different species. You're not a primate, you're a missile.
Killing an animal with a car or shooting it with a gun produce the exact same end result – but morally and legally, we see them as very different things. We don't hold people responsible if they hit an animal with a car. After all, if an animal runs out on the road in front of you when you're going at 100 kilometres an hour, you don't really have a choice in the matter.
And that's what makes roadkill so fascinating. This is a new type of death in the history of the planet. It's not one species killing another for food. It's not one species killing another for fun. This is one species killing another – by accident – because we're going too fast to stop ourselves.
There are no global statistics for roadkill, but in the United States, the annual death toll includes roughly:
- 2 million deer
- 1.2 million dogs
- 5.4 million cats
- 20 whales struck and killed by ships
- 100 manatees killed by boat propellers
- 10,000 birds killed by planes
- and around 5,000 humans.
These deaths first started occurring in the early 20th century as automobiles became common. In the 1920s, people were horrified at the spectre of all this bloodshed. Early commentators questioned whether we should continue to drive at all if we couldn’t find a way to mitigate this impact.
That didn't happen. Instead we got used to it. Within a decade or so, we came to accept wiping out animals on the road as part of the reality of travel.
The normalisation of massive road death is an example of what’s called ‘shifting baseline syndrome’. The term was popularised in a 1995 paper by fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly. Pauly argued that scientists measuring fish populations often failed to take into account how abundant fish species were before human exploitation. Instead, each scientist took the fish population at the start of their own career as the baseline.
Shifting baseline syndrome is used more broadly to refer to the fact that each generation benchmarks its own lived experience as normal. Not knowing any different, we each assume that the world we grew up in is the world as it always was.
The first people to drive cars were appalled at the idea of animals indiscriminately being killed by motor vehicles. Their children never knew any different, and so they accepted it as the way the world works.
This phenomena plays out in our experience of the environment, too. I grew up in the south-east of Australia, on Ngunawal land in New South Wales. I have vivid childhood memories of hiking in national parks like Tidbinbilla, Namadgi and the Budawangs. Finding a woozy red-belly black snake asleep by a frozen stream in the Snowy Mountains, dead leaves in thick drifts under the trees crunching underfoot, sparse grasses and the smell of smoke.
I always thought that this was the healthy and natural state of the Australian bush. Only as an adult did I learn that the country I grew up on looks utterly different from the Australian landscape that Europeans first encountered at the end of the 18th century. That land was carefully managed and tended by Indigenous caretakers, and sustained a far greater variety of plant and animal life than it does today. What we consider 'natural' today is actually a landscape deeply out of balance.
The same is true in many parts of the world. The famed moors and heathlands of Scotland are the result of 18th century English colonists, who cleared forests and grazed the land with sheep. In North America, the huge forests that European settlers encountered in the 17th and 18th century had only a few decades earlier been agricultural land, before Native American farmers were decimated by disease in the 16th century.
I can't imagine what it must be like for Indigenous Australians to live on country so altered and distorted from their ancestral knowledge. For me, as a settler, learning that the country I grew up on is actually a recent invention was deeply disorienting.
Even the transformed Australia of my late 20th century childhood is now gone. Many of the animals I grew up seeing in the suburbs around Canberra – the koalas, the echidnas, the beetles – will be unfamiliar to my nieces and nephews growing up in the 2020s and 2030s.
Our parents grew up in a world that was ecologically much richer than our own – but we never knew that world. We were born into a degraded ecosystem, and for us, that's our baseline of normal. The next generation will set their baseline at an even lower level.
Even within a single lifetime, we constantly reset our idea of 'normal'. Environmental economist Frances Moore measured people's responses to unusual weather events, and determined that our reference point for 'normal' weather conditions is based on, 'weather experienced between 2 and 8 years ago'. All the records agree that the weather was colder in the 20th century – but I have trouble remembering it, in my body.
If a time-traveller from the 20th century arrived suddenly in the present day, they would be struck by the absence of animals and wildlife. Of course, we've all time travelled from that distance ourselves - we've just done it very slowly. At the pace we experience time, it's hard to keep the world of our childhoods fresh in our memory.
So then, being a human being in the 21st century means experiencing the climate crisis at several different speeds simultaneously. On the one hand, we’re an accelerated species, flying ahead at speeds we weren’t designed for, driving and being driven by technology we’re not in control of. On the other, we’re a generational species, gradually rewriting our idea of what normal looks like and accepting the world around us as if it’s always been that way.
We travel too fast to see what’s coming up before we hit it, and too slow to process the damage we’ve done.
The truth is, I'm grateful for shifting baseline syndrome. It seems to me that our tendency to forget in this way is good and healthy. We're not wired to remember the degree of loss that happens over the timespan of our lives – and that's a kindness, because we couldn't hold all of that grief. Instead we look at what's in front of us, what's ahead of us.
The future is going to be a difficult place to live. Surviving in the 21st century will require a clear-eyed perspective on the world, a refusal to retreat into vague optimism or futile despair. In that context, I think that reaching for pleasant memories of our youth is a kind of defeat. These memories are comforting but they don't help.
If I could, I'd choose to forget that I once saw a family of koalas sleeping in a tree a few metres off the road in Tidbinbilla National Park. I'd forget about the time an echidna burrowed under the fence into our back garden in Giralang, and we put it in an icecream container and drove it to Black Mountain to release it. I'd forget the way that Christmas beetles swarmed so thick that they'd fall from trees and cling to my t-shirt as I walked home from school.
Instead, I want to remember the things I got wrong. The errors and mistakes. The harm done. The hard, clear memories that sting you with a reminder of what you're capable of and what you're responsible for.
If I’m going to be useful, when I look back, what I need to remember is a kangaroo, dead on the side of the road.
DAVID FINNIGAN is a writer and theatre-maker from Ngunnawal country in Australia. He works with research scientists to produce theatre about climate and global change. David's 2017 play Kill Climate Deniers was awarded the Griffin Playwrights Award, and has since been presented in 10 countries worldwide. He is a Churchill Fellow, an associate of interactive theatre company Coney in the UK and the Sipat Lawin Ensemble in the Philippines. An earlier version of this essay appeared in David’s newsletter, which you can subscribe to here. WEBSITE. TWITTER.
(Image Credit: Tor Stryger)