Working in environmental conservation right now is frustrating. It’s frustrating because we actually know how to save the environment, and the technology exists to scale up sustainable practices; what’s challenging is trying to convince people to implement them. Human psychology, it turns out, is the biggest barrier to the environmental movement today. Most of humanity’s reasons for resisting the realization of these sustainability goals are rooted in the economic (unsurprisingly), but that’s not what I want to talk about today. One of the greatest, most poorly understood threats that environmentalists face is perspective, and it comes in the form of something we call the shifting baseline.
The concept of the shifting baseline was coined by Daniel Pauly in 1995 in reference to fisheries, the management of which represents one of our monumental failures in the environmental sphere. It should not come as a surprise that one hundred and fifty years ago, the oceans were filled with exponentially more life than they are now; in fact, it is currently estimated that the numbers of large fish used in fisheries have declined more than 90% in this time. Aggressive and unsustainable fishing practices in the past century and a half have massively depleted fish stocks, bringing some species to the brink of extinction and causing irreparable damage to oceanic ecosystems around the globe.
As such, it is difficult to assign a baseline for what fish stock numbers should be kept at to maintain a healthy ecosystem in modern fisheries, as this baseline has changed with every successive generation.
For example, the standard used by fishermen in the 1950s to measure the health of fisheries can’t be used by modern fishermen, because the ecosystem has degraded, and fish stocks are no longer what they were. The slow decrease in fish stock numbers is mostly overlooked, and the result is that every fisherman believes the healthy baseline for fisheries should be what it was at the start of his or her career. But the reality is that the current “baseline” doesn’t represent healthy ecosystems at all. As the baseline continues to shift, the environment becomes destabilized without us realizing the severity of the situation.
The shifting baseline, while originally applied to fisheries, finds relevance in most fields of environmental science, and even outside the scientific field. It is based on the idea that global changes that are happening slowly go unnoticed by most, and each successive generation has the tendency to assume that the changed environment they are exposed to is the norm.
This skewed perception of our environment and its health is why we are so reluctant to implement environment-friendly policies. The changes we are seeing happen slowly when paced alongside human lifetimes, so without realizing the consequences, we drill deeper, we build higher, we burn bigger piles, and we develop technologies to bring in more fish.
This phenomenon is becoming increasingly important to take into account as the environment continues to decline. Establishing baselines for ecosystem health is one of the fundamental things that environmental scientists need when they attempt to help an ecosystem recover; you cannot expect to restore an environment if you don’t know what your end goal is!
We live in an age now where the status of the environment is well-documented, and we have a pretty clear understanding of how to tell the difference between a healthy and damaged ecosystem. But this shifted baseline, compounded generation after generation, has left us almost completely incapable of conceptualizing what true “healthy ecosystems” look like. This makes setting goals for environmental conservation and restoration a mess: what do we even shoot for?
Take the example of salmon fishing in the Columbia River, a critical fishery for the Pacific Northwest region of the US. Current salmon populations are twice what they were in the 1930s, which sounds like a win for us, if the baseline we are using is the population numbers in the 1930s. But historical data tells us that salmon numbers in the 1800s were at least ten times what they were in the 1930s. The baseline we have set for current populations may be better than it was at one point in time, but it by no means represents healthy populations. The baseline we set to measure the health of an environment matters, and to do that, we have to look into the past.
The use of historical data has become a good way for us to be able to establish baselines, but it is not a perfect solution. Modern fisheries make use of historical catch data in order to determine sustainable baselines in fishery management, but even this historical data may not represent a “healthy ecosystem” that is undisturbed by humans; for that, you’d have to go back a couple hundred years. But the data going back this far either doesn’t exist or is purely anecdotal; using historical data is only valid to a certain point, and even then, it is still often unreliable.
A good example of this is the current state of coral reefs. As a SCUBA dive instructor, I often led dives in the Caribbean, where an estimated 95% of the coral has degraded or died completely due to climate change. Nevertheless, new divers were enthralled by the underwater world, by the clarity of the water, by the occasional reef shark or lime green moray swimming through the algae-covered avenues of dead reefs. They leave the water riding the high of the unfamiliar, and it is not their fault that this first image becomes their baseline; my own ideas for a healthy reef stem from my earliest experiences as a diver.
Go back generations, however, and you will hear stories from divers who began diving in reef environments that looked completely different than they do now. Unfortunately, laws don’t get passed using stories; we need to provide data to our legislators if we expect them to do anything.
The issue with coral reef restoration is that we don’t really have data on what a healthy reef looks like. We can only assume that reefs that were completely undisturbed by humans (before overfishing, pollution, climate change, and disease began to decimate reef populations) last existed more than 200 years ago, before the start of the industrial revolution. But back then, no one counted fish populations on reefs, no one quantified coral cover, and no one took measurements on what types of stress these ecosystems could handle. The data to establish these baselines simply does not exist.
The best we can do in coral restoration science is to try and help degraded coral reefs recover to what we think are healthy characteristics: high coral (and low algae) cover, lots of fish, and high biodiversity on the reef. But these are still just educated guesses. Gergely Torda, a research fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies in Australia, believes that “from a scientific point of view, the problem is that we have probably missed the opportunity to understand how pristine coral reefs function. [In this respect], shifting baselines is a serious issue.”
One of the best things we can do to combat this now is to document how things are, and try to keep an accurate record of how things were. In the future, this data can be used to establish baselines that cannot be shifted by perception or undermined by politicians that claim we lack the data to support our claims (namely, that the environment is being destroyed). The ability to collect and analyze mass amounts of data in the 21st century makes this possible. Better education of the public will help emphasize that the current state of ecosystems are not normal, and describing what healthy environmental conditions are should give the general public an idea of what to shoot for. The best weapon we have to combat shifting baselines is awareness.
For now, try becoming aware of some baselines that may be shifting in your own life. You may not notice that increasing traffic lengthens your commute to work by a few minutes when the city you are living in experiences a population spike, or that the deer have disappeared from your suburban backyards as houses are built on the ruins of once-dense forests. It may not strike you as odd or notable that your “healthy weight” has shifted up a few pounds, or that the sounds of frogs in the early hours of the night have been replaced by silence. In all of these cases, the baseline has shifted, and you now perceive the new conditions as normal. It doesn’t mean the changes that are happening are not significant, though; the cities are becoming overpopulated, the frogs are going extinct, and you’re slowly getting fat. The shift in perception just makes us unaware of how the world is changing.
The shifting baseline keeps us passive and sedated in a haze of perceived normalcy as the consequences of our actions slowly digest us. It allows for people to pollute, raze, reap and destroy almost entirely unaware that they are driving a global-scale ecological collapse. If this seems dramatic, it’s because the problem is a dramatic one. The death of coral reefs, the mass extinction of species, and the melting of the ice caps are not happening rapidly enough for their effects to be a deterrent to the blast fishermen, the loggers, and the fossil fuel tycoons, but they are happening nonetheless. Walk with open eyes and a skeptical mind; things are not yet what they could be. But we’re on our way.