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What Is Shifting Baseline Syndrome?


Like many specialist disciplines, ecology can seem full of jargon and unintelligible terms and phrases. From ‘rewilding’ to ‘ecological services’, many of these concepts are also often misrepresented in the popular press and so remain difficult to understand. One such term gaining increasing attention is the idea of ‘shifting baseline syndrome’ (SBS). But what exactly does this mean and is it something we all need to be aware of?

Shifting Baseline Syndrome Basics

The term shifting baseline syndrome itself was coined in 1995. Award-winning French marine biologist Dr Daniel Pauly wrote in a short essay that many researchers working in the fishing industry weren’t seeing how drastically fish stocks had declined over multiple generations. Instead, they were looking at much shorter-term sets of data. As a result, they assumed fisheries were in reasonably good shape. However, by looking further back in time, they would see that historic fish stocks were much higher than the low, more recent baseline they compared current levels to. Only then would they realise just how much fish numbers had declined and that there was a problem.

Shifting baseline syndrome fishing boat
Dr Pauly suggested that fisheries researchers weren’t looking back far enough for their data

The phrase, along with the related ‘generational amnesia’, is now used in ecological circles more generally. It is used most often in reference to the ways we tolerate our nature-depleted environment and see it as the norm. One reason for this is changing family dynamics. Living in smaller family units means we don’t pass knowledge down in the same way as we used to. This means that many of us don’t realise how much more abundant our wildlife once was. And sometimes we even suffer personal amnesia, forgetting how much more of something there once was within our own lifetimes. Ultimately, the result is the same. Because we don’t know, or remember, how abundant wildlife once was, we measure current levels against our own present-day baseline. Consequently, we don’t see how degraded our environment is.

Why Does SBS Matter?

Our perceptions of how healthy the world around us is (or isn’t) of course have a huge bearing on whether we decide to help it or not. If we think everything is tickety-boo, we won’t refrain from destructive practices, campaign for better environmental protections or support charities trying to restore ecosystems. Writer and environmental campaigner George Monbiot uses the examples of the UK’s uplands to illustrate this. When many of us see pictures of or visit places such as the Pennines, Snowdonia or the Scottish Highlands, we think of them as wild, unaltered places, little touched by man. As a result, we don’t think anything needs to change to conserve them. However, they are actually completely different from how they would look naturally. They would once have been largely mixed woodland with some open areas. Centuries of sheep farming or management for grouse or deer shoots mean that they are now considerably ecologically depleted.

shifting baseline syndrome uplands
Many people think the Scottish Highlands are untouched wilderness but they are anything but

The problem doesn’t just apply on a landscape scale, either. Many older people will tell you that car windscreens were once covered in splattered insects after summer car journeys, but not anymore. This anecdotal evidence is backed up by more rigorous research from Denmark and the UK. Both show huge declines in insect numbers. Younger generations, though, who don’t have any memory of those bug-splattered windscreens, are less likely to understand that we need to help our invertebrates. The same also applies to species like the starling and house sparrow. Both have declined considerably in recent decades, putting them on the UK Red List of birds of conservation concern. Because they are both still numerous, however, people are less likely to remember when they were much more abundant. Once again, if we fail to recognise there is a problem, they could continue to decline, potentially leading to local extinctions or worse.

How Can We Combat SBS?

It is clear, therefore, that we need to combat SBS if we are to recognise ecosystems need increased protection or restoration. Fortunately, although research on the phenomenon is still in its infancy, there are a number of ways to combat SBS. This applies to both the environmental sector and the wider community. Increasing the amount of data we collect about populations and ecosystem health is vital. Only when we have a full picture of the state of our environment can we judge where there have been declines, how large they are and where we need to focus conservation efforts. Restoring degraded habitats, meanwhile, has the potential to bring ecosystems back to their historical baselines. Then we can compare present day conditions more accurately with past.

Shifting baseline syndrome surveys
Increased data-gathering through surveys can counteract SBS

Most important of all is helping everyone to have a better connection to nature again. In the past, our lives would have been entwined intricately with the natural world. We would have noticed any changes over time. We would also pass on our knowledge to those coming after us. Now, as we live increasingly urban lives, we have largely cut ourselves off from this knowledge. And as more of us live as nuclear family units rather than with our extended families, inter-generational knowledge is lost, too. To counteract this, ensuring we can all access green spaces is essential. Having daily contact with nature means we see it, are more likely to learn about it and then ultimately care, as well as noticing when things aren’t as they should be.