The Shifting Baseline Syndrome

Alexander Sjogren Blog, Opinions June 17, 2015

Yellow Indian grass and big bluestem grass in full autumn color contrast with cottonwood trees in thick fog. Morning fog is a frequent occurence in autumn on the prairie.

Did you have a place in nature where you used to go as a child? Maybe a meadow, a forest patch, a small creek? Did you return later in life only to find that this place has since become “developed”, as in covered by asphalt, drained of its water or replaced by buildings? If so, did it make you feel sad?

When I was say 9 years old, my family lived in a newly built chain house next to a vast grass field stretching down to the lake a few hundred meters away. To me that field, together with the lake, was “nature”. In retrospect the field was not very spectacular, mostly high grass, but I spent quite a bit of time there in the summers, catching grasshoppers. Until a construction company came along and started to cut the grass and turning the meadow into garden lots on our side, and asphalt and houses on the opposite. I am not sure from where I got the inspiration, but I dressed myself and my friends up in home-made bandit masks designed to look like cat faces and started raiding the area after dark; as far as we were concerned, the construction workers were “destroying nature” and we would valiantly stop them… mostly by cautiously toppling over stacks of boards at the construction site until we eventually were caught in action and ran home after me ensuring them they had not seen the last of “the Cat Gang”… As it turned out however, that was pretty much my whole career as an environmental activist…

That is however beside the point. The point is that I perceived environmental degradation through the loss of that field, that “nature” was being robbed of its true, original state, when in fact that field was most likely a pale shadow of whatever nature was there before it.

In his 1995 essay “Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries”, fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly presented the shifting baseline syndrome concept. He had observed that fishermen’s points of reference for a healthy ocean fish community was the one they had experienced as a child, and that they would bemoan the environmental degradation that had occurred since. The interesting part, however, was that depending on the age of the fisherman, these points of references would correspond to vastly different states of actual environmental health. To a young fisherman, the “pristine” condition of the ocean would be degraded relative to the condition the middle-aged man remembered, and the one he remembered would in turn be degraded compared to the one the old fisherman remembered. From this came Pauly´s understanding that our collective memory of what is a healthy environment is very short, and that for each generation, the point of reference for such an environment, the baseline, shifts along with progressing environmental degradation. In his own words: “We transform the world, but we don´t remember it.”

The shifting baseline syndrome

The Shifting Baseline Syndrome

The obvious problem this creates is of course that while we can observe environmental destruction as individuals in the short time frame, collectively, we are essentially blind to it on the longer scale, meaning that except for in the glaringly obvious cases where we do take note and conscious conservation measures are put in place, environmental degradation can go on quite undisturbed. The less obvious problem however has to do with conservation itself. As it turns out, not even the people studying and protecting nature for a living are immune to the shifting baseline syndrome, and the patches of natural environment they try to save will, even if theoretically successfully preserved, only be (like the word itself implies) a frozen image of an already severely degraded state of that environment; a state that might not even be self-sustaining but requiring continuous, costly human intervention to persist. In others words, as the baselines have been shifting for so long, the conservationists´ own personal baselines for conservation are often utterly unambitious.

This of course leads to the question; if our personal childhood memories of “untouched nature” are inadequate as reference points, is simply conserving what we have left at this point enough? If not, if we instead choose to reverse environmental destruction and instead restore ecosystems, to what state should we restore them? To the state they were before the postwar era of environmental destruction? To the state they were before the onset of the industrial revolution altogether? Or perhaps, even to the state they were before the onset of the agricultural revolution? In other words, where do we set the baseline? If we don´t set in anywhere, it will keep on shifting in favor of further environmental degradation.

I for one want to do something about this, and my gaze reaches far beyond the small field of my childhood and my futile attempts to save it. This time I know the pen is mightier than the sword, and I won´t be hiding behind a mask anymore…

For more info on the shifting baseline syndrome:

  1. Original paper by Daniel Pauly.  
  2. Excellent podcast dealing with the issue.  
  3. Daniel Pauly´s Ted Talk: 

Image Sources: Grass fieldsThe Shifting Baseline Syndrome