Do you suffer from Shifting Baseline Syndrome (SBS)? Well, the answer is that everyone probably does. While SBS is not an actual medical condition, it has been gaining traction across environmental disciplines, as well as featuring in modern environmental literature, as seen in Isabella Tree’s Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm and George Monbiot’s Feral.
Coined by Daniel Pauly in 1995, while speaking of increasing tolerance to fish stock declines over generations, SBS also has roots in psychology, where it is referred to as ‘environmental generational amnesia’. Simply put, Shifting Baseline Syndrome is ‘a gradual change in the accepted norms for the condition of the natural environment due to a lack of experience, memory and/or knowledge of its past condition’. In this sense, what we consider to be a healthy environment now, past generations would consider to be degraded, and what we judge to be degraded now, the next generation will consider to be healthy or ‘normal’. As Soga and Gaston (2018) argue, without memory, knowledge, or experience of past environmental conditions, current generations cannot perceive how much their environment has changed because they are comparing it to their own ‘normal’ baseline and not to historical baselines.
While Shifting Baseline Syndrome is acknowledged by environmental scientists, particularly by conservationists, there is little research to support its existence that is beyond anecdotal, yet this evidence occurs globally. For example, in Eastern Indonesia, where biodiversity has declined rapidly over 30 years, younger fishers were found to recall a lower abundance of wildlife in the past, meaning they were perceiving less of a decline in the wildlife population, compared to older fishers. Similarly, in the Bolivian Amazonia, it was found that younger generations perceived the number of locally-extinct tree and fish species as lower compared to older generations. Again, a study in the Seward Peninsula in Alaska, USA, an area that is facing rapid hydrological environmental change, found that younger people were less aware of changes in the quality and availability of five local water resources. While these studies are not directly about SBS, they have each recorded a difference in how older and younger generations perceive environmental change locally, which draws back to Soga and Gaston’s framework, which emphasises the importance of differences in memory, knowledge, and experience.
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Despite the lack of empirical evidence, SBS is being given attention, perhaps because it has implications for individuals and environmental policy.
On an individual level, SBS has increased our tolerance to environmental degradation, including wildlife population decline, increased pollution and loss of natural habitats. This is because people will evaluate the severity of environmental degradation by referencing it back to their own cognitive baseline. In the UK, George Monbiot summarises the state of conservation, saying, “conservation in this country has become indistinguishable from destruction because what we’re conserving is an ecocidal system of sheep ranching. Sheep eat everything, and as a result, there’s no birds, no insects. We’ve lost almost everything, and yet we regard that as normal and natural.” In the UK people are actively conserving ecologically desolate ecosystems as they have no reference to past British wilderness.
At a societal level, this unawareness of past environmental conditions or current rates of degradation has implications for policymakers. For example, in the UK, the Environment Act of 1995 (the original legislation for National Parks was introduced in 1949) revised the legislation stating the statutory purpose for National Parks. Their main goal is to ‘conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage’. Those who introduced this legislation originally had a perception of ‘natural beauty, wildlife, and cultural heritage’, and so current National Park conservation practise is driven by a static perception, despite itself studying a subject of constant dynamism. When National Parks were originally established they were characterised by traditional agriculture. While this may seem insignificant the inclusion of ‘cultural heritage’ protects agriculture as part of the landscape, despite its environmental impact. Therefore the conservation approach in these areas can be described as unambitious as they maintain what is simply there or set targets that are not inclusive of historical data and trends. However, people are satisfied because the landscape looks the same as when the legislation was introduced.
Thus, our conservation and policy efforts are becoming less effective with each generation, while we become more satisfied with our diminishing actions because our targets are weaker in terms of biodiversity and habitat heterogeneity. The result is a feedback loop, where every generation’s increasing tolerance for environmental decline results in insufficient conservation efforts that inevitably cannot forestall degradation which next generations will tolerate because they have no preconception of the state of the environment.
Despite the ‘doom and gloom’, Soga and Gaston have designed theoretical response frameworks that could help mitigate the effects of SBS. They argue that solutions to minimise the impact of SBS lie in environmental restoration, increased data collection, reducing the ‘extinction of experience’ (the decline of people interacting with nature) and education.
Environmental restoration, mainly in the form of rewilding, will be able to demonstrate historical baselines to those who are potentially affected by SBS. Data collection will help to better inform current and future generations how the environment is changing and has changed from past conditions. Soga and Gaston suggest that citizen science could play a huge role in creating ‘large-scale, long-term data sets’ as well as increasing people’s interactions with nature to reduce this extinction of experience. In addition to this, reducing the extinction of experience through the promotion of positive experiences with nature will help to increase interaction with the environment. Finally, education will help individuals to better assess the state of the environment and to accurately communicate its past and present condition.
Thus, even while we wait for the scientific study of Shifting Baseline Syndrome to begin, the acknowledgement of this concept in environmental science means that leaders in the field could take steps to help mitigate its potential effects. Soga and Gatson’s solutions, specifically rewilding and education, could increase people’s interactions with nature and promote the importance of effective conservation.