The Bad Becoming Normal– Desensitization and Punishment with Climate Change

They call it a One Hundred Year Flood Event. There’s only one problem. These “every one hundred year floods” are happening every 4-5 years. It’s a trend that is becoming a little too normalized– the bad becoming normal.

A bad event becoming normal

Last month my area experienced some intense weather with high winds and heavy rains. This caused issues with the rivers and drainage to the sea, and caused a LOT of damage throughout the community. Like, in the $10 million range, for the FIRST flood. Two weeks later, we were experiencing it all over again.

Here’s the real issue, as I see it. What we are experiencing is traumatic, but many people are just shrugging their shoulders, saying “there’s Mother Nature for you”. This is not normal Mother Nature, though. This is an enraged Mother who is berating her children. She is punishing us, except we aren’t listening. We’re getting desensitized. 

I’ve been seeing this pattern of nonchalant acceptance of horrific scenarios a lot lately. We are beginning to experience “seasons” that are not normal events– “Wildfire Season” and “Flood Season” are as common now as Hurricane Season. Earlier this year, I heard one of the most frustrating comments from a friend. We were talking about “Wildfire Season” and how the smoke and poor air quality made me and my husband stay inside for three days. Her response: “Well, it’s not as bad as last year…”

Folks, just because it’s “not as bad as a previous year” doesn’t make it good. It doesn’t make it normal. And we should never accept it as normal or good.

Mother Nature is Punishing Us, We Need to Pay Attention

Why shouldn’t we accept these events as normal? I mean, with climate change, these intense storms, floods, droughts, wildfires, and extreme weather are indeed becoming normal. Why not accept it as normal? Because when the bad becomes normal, we aren’t learning. We are getting desensitized, and it takes more extreme measures to wake us up.

And waking up is what we need more than ever. Mother Nature is employing a tactic that animal trainers do not recommend but are all too familiar with– punishment. Punishment is a consequence in operant conditioning that teaches the learner to STOP doing a particular behavior. While punishment isn’t typically used with animals, it is a tool to help teach the animal to stop doing something. 

If we got food poisoning after going out to eat at a particular restaurant, how likely are you to go back to the restaurant? I’ll admit I used to eat a lot more fast food, particularly Taco Bell, until I came down with the worst food poisoning I’d ever experienced. That was the last time I ate Taco Bell, way back in 2008. That was a very effective punishment, getting me to STOP eating food from Taco Bell. 

I’m not a fan of punishment, but there are occasions when desperate times call for desperate measures. I think Mother Nature is pretty desperate right now. She wants us humans to STOP! Stop what? Honestly, we probably don’t have all day to list all of Nature’s grievances with our species. But there is a lesson in these situations if we care to listen.

The Problem with Punishment

One of the problems with punishment is that it doesn’t teach us what to do, but focuses on what NOT to do. When I was a teenager, I think my mom considered sending me to a nunnery (although, to be fair, I don’t know if even that would have helped). I was quite rebellious. My favorite rebellious activity: Sneaking out at night. I didn’t even go anywhere most of the time, just OUT. On occasion, my parents caught me and punished me, and rightly so. However, as I said, it didn’t teach me what my parents were hoping for– to stop me sneaking out. Instead, it taught me to be sneakier, and find ways to NOT get caught. 

Punishment is super specific, and needs to be implemented immediately or it loses its potency and potential to teach the lesson. If you are a dog owner and use punishment to try to get your dog to stop peeing on the carpet, unless you catch them in the act, it’s not very effective. The dog has no idea why you are punishing it otherwise, and they don’t learn what their pet-parents want from them.

I see this happening in our current situation with climate change. Yes, some places are getting a beating but we don’t understand why we are being punished. I know the weather isn’t some sentient entity, waiting for humans to screw up so it can unleash its wrath. It’s a cause and effect relationship. A behavior occurs, and a consequence follows. Reinforcement encourages behavior, makes it more likely the behavior will occur again in the future. Punishment decreases the likelihood of a certain behavior occurring again. 

This punishment has been a long time coming. It’s built up over the years of us humans wasting resources, pillaging the earth, pollution, increasing CO2 emissions, and contributing to climate change. And now Nature is trying to tell us to stop. But we’re like a dog who doesn’t understand what we’ve done wrong. So, we don’t learn our lesson.

Desensitization– Getting Used to Punishment

Then we come to the final, and possibly worst, effect of punishment—desensitization. Desensitization is when we become accustomed to a stimulus—object, event, or response—that we find unpleasant. It loses its punishing attributes and becomes neutral, non-threatening. Animal trainers use desensitization in positive training methods to make something unpleasant a little more bearable and exciting. We teach animals to step onto a scary scale so we can weigh them. We train animals to enter a crate on their own by using steps of desensitization. 

The problem with desensitization with implementing punishment to stop behavior is that the learner grows accustomed to the unpleasant consequence. Punishment isn’t very, well, punishing anymore. We have to up the ante in order for the punishment to be effective.

Is “cows on your front porch” enough to get your attention?

I have seen this in animal training and with human training. A friend decided each time she caved and had a treat from the break room, a habit she was desperately trying to squash, she’d put a dollar in a charity fund. This stopped her for about a week. She decided a dollar wasn’t too bad of a price to pay to have a cupcake or cookies. “It’s for a good cause,” she told me once with a wink. After a week, she conceded the dollar wasn’t “punishing” enough, so raised her “fine” to $2. Within another week, she was regularly paying $2 for her sweet treats. This went on for months until she was paying FIVE DOLLARS to her charity each time she wanted a tempting treat from the break room. My friend finally conceded that this method wasn’t working and quit.

This is desensitization in a nutshell. Desensitization runs rampant in our society today, especially regarding environmental practices and climate change. This is the “well, it’s not as bad as last year” response to wildfires. Or the shrugging of shoulders when we experience yet another flood…five years after the last big one. This is society getting used to the extreme weather and just accepting it. We should use this punishment as a wake-up call to stop our destructive behavior.

The ever more common red glow from fires and smog…

The Bad Becoming Normal

Temple Grandin spoke about this phenomenon once in her book “Animals In Translation”. She tells a story of a chicken farmer whose roosters were killing hens, a very unnatural and problematic behavior. Instead of dealing with the issue or trying to fix the problem, farmers began to just accept the murdering roosters as the new normal. “That’s just what they do”. Makes me wonder how frequently the phrase “the roosters didn’t kill as many hens this year” was used to explain a “good year”…

Our climate is changing fast. Unfortunately, it’s not quite fast enough for most humans to notice. But make no mistake, these changes, in terms of the earth’s lifespan and what the changes are doing to the planet, are drastic, devastating, and incredibly “bad”. The last thing we need to do is feel they are the new normal.

Walking outside with a mask due to poor air quality and smoke in the air is NOT NORMAL.

Buying flood insurance and replacing your hardwood floors every 7 years is NOT NORMAL.

Raising your STREETS so they stay above the rising sea level…IS NOT NORMAL!

Don’t become complicit or nonchalant when faced with these issues. Notice them, and notice the lesson Nature is begging us learn. 

Mother Nature is Not a Human

Mother Nature is using one of the least effective teaching strategies for learning and changing behavior. She is employing punishment which as we’ve discussed doesn’t teach us what behaviors are appropriate and often leads to desensitization and the bad becoming normal. But criticizing Nature’s tactics is a moot point. She is not human. She is simply communicating in the only way she knows how to us humans. 

Punishment may not be a very effective learning technique, but it is one humans utilize most frequently. Can’t get motivated? Punish and guilt yourself into starting. Made a mistake? Berate and beat yourself up about it. It’s not empowering, but it is common.

I am looking at the scenario from two lens– one on the human-side of how we get and stay motivated. If punishment from Mother Nature herself can’t get us to change our behavior, how on earth can punishment in our own lives help us achieve success? And the other from Mother Nature’s point of view– effective punishment teaches us to stop a certain behavior. So, let’s learn from our mother, from our very planet upon which we rely so much for our lives, and just stop. Let’s pause and consider what Mother Nature is trying to tell us. Because while the consequence for our actions may not be ideal or helpful, it definitely is telling us something.

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4 comments

  1. the town of Sumas was build on a dry old lake bed , so this is to be expected for that area …. and only the new folks that move into that area know that … sorry to say but some of this flooding has been going on for long before we were all born … and it is normal … but I agree Mother earth is rebelling … and we as humans should and could and some of us do better …

  2. should of said don’t know that about Sumas the new folks don’t know the history of the town of Sumas … as the folks raised around here do .

    1. I didn’t realize that, Peggy. I suppose the folks I’ve been talking to are perhaps transplants themselves, and haven’t experienced the flooding before, at least not to the extent we experienced it this past year.
      I love how I always learn something new from you! Thanks for reading, and teaching me even more!

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