Our Shifting Baseline Syndrome Sustains the Anthropocene

Legal researcher Niels Hoek explores the phenomenon of Shifting Baseline Syndrome in our experience of the ever-changing natural world, exemplifying a generational amnesia that conservation lawyers, environmentalists and creative practitioners can help combat as we navigate the Anthropocene.


1,650 words: estimated reading time = 6.5 minutes


The natural world has been on a steep decline in the past couple of decades, and most of the readers of ClimateCultures most likely can name a personal account which highlights this decline [1]. Perhaps you have witnessed how a local grassland was converted into cropland. Additionally, you may well have observed how your favourite animal was added to the IUCN Red List, removed from its original habitat, or noted first-hand how your local forest was logged extensively [2]. All these modern issues highlight the pressing need for conservation and restoration measures, both within and outside of natural areas.

However, addressing our impact on the natural world through regulation and conservation policies is a significant challenge. Whilst a duty for conservation seeks to maintain what is still present, a legal duty for restoration returns a natural habitat to a former, more complete version [3]. Be that as it may, the extent of the damage can be widespread or dated to the point where the original image is lost entirely. Whilst there are many interesting questions on nature restoration, this short blog post reflects on which starting point may be taken within (regulatory) instruments and conservation practice. A question that, at least on the surface, appears to be uncomplicated — but on closer inspection is a rather difficult issue.

The Anthropocene and the Shifting Baseline Syndrome

The starting point, or baseline, is an important concept within nature conservation law: when the state of nature deviates from the recorded status quo, it stipulates the need for conservation measures and the enforcement of nature conservation laws, such as a deterioration prohibition as found within the EU Habitats Directive [4]. Moreover, it flags the need for additional research from all disciplines and creative activism; a starting point used for comparison is vital for ecologists, lawyers, and activists. However, the recorded baseline on which we rely in our appreciation of nature can be a double-edged sword — provided we do not pay attention to the problem of the shifting baseline syndrome, sustaining the Anthropocene [5].

Shifting Baseline Syndrome - illustrated
Tweet from @BiodiversitySoS (2021) – image source unknown

In essence, the shifting baseline syndrome is quite simple and consists of two parts. First, it starts with the grave premise that each generation leaves the state of nature slightly worse for the next [6]. Species become extinct whilst invasive alien species are introduced, and natural ecosystems are altered or destroyed; one generation at a time. And secondly, it is a psychological phenomenon that people are inclined to take the state of nature as recorded within their youth as a starting point for comparison to the present. And in turn, each generation adopts a different baseline for conservation practices — a hollowed-out version compared to the previous. This means that essential parts of the natural world are not only lost but also forgotten; a term coined as generational amnesia [7].

Once aware of this issue, the state of nature deemed as ‘sufficient’ in our modern times can be seen in an entirely different light. For example, the summer field painted by Jac van Looij at the turn of the previous century is now part of the collection of the Dutch Rijksmuseum. It portrays a rich field of blue flowers, most likely lupines. This may have been a common sight for the painter at the time in the Netherlands, but wildflower meadows have become increasingly rare due to significant levels of nitrogen deposition [8]. A sight such as this, in turn, is at risk of escaping from our perceived baseline, falling prey to generational amnesia.

Shifting Baselin Syndrome - July (‘Summer Luxuriance’), by Jac van Looij
July (‘Summer Luxuriance’), Jac van Looij, c. 1890 – c. 1910 Image: The Rijksmuseum, Netherlands https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/collection/SK-C-1645

A plethora of other examples could be noted here. Tim Flannery, in his book Europe: the first 100 million years [13] portrays a story of environmental destruction — starting as early as the time of the hunter-gatherers. In his book, he argues that Europe can be deemed an empty ecosystem, devoid of large predators such as lions or keystone species such as elephants — all of which resided, and thrived, on the European continent before overexploitation drove many of these species, which were not used to human predation, locally extinct. In this regard, credit must be given to Arie Trouwborst and Jens-Christian Svenning, who unravelled the shifting baseline and highlighted the moral and legal obligation for the restoration of megafauna on the European continent — especially when reviewing article 8(f) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) [10]. Within their article, they convincingly argue that the loss of megafauna impacts the functioning of ecosystems and the prospects of biodiversity at large, due to their vital function as ecosystem engineers. In other words, the restoration of keystone species still surviving elsewhere is a key objective ahead — which would require the shattering of our generational amnesia.

The Shifting Baseline Syndrome: embedded within legal instruments?

This brings us to the baseline currently recorded within the instruments of nature conservation law. European nature conservation law, in turn, can pose as a relevant and leading example; the Natura 2000 network reaches 18% of the continent and is the largest coordinated ecological network in the world. However, the European Natura 2000 network establishes the benchmark recorded within the year 1992 for most natural habitats, both as a baseline for its conservation measures, and for assessing which habitat types can be deemed to be in favourable conservation status.

A recent Proposal of the European Commission, which supplements the Habitats Directive, proposes restoration measures going back at least seventy years in time, which has opened the door to implement a historic approach — should the Proposal be adopted [11]. However, when reviewing the environmental destruction which occurred in the past centuries, seventy years, whilst a considerable amount of time compared to a human lifespan, merely reaches the top of an iceberg — consisting of centuries of overexploitation and land-use changes. An integrated approach to halting the decline of biodiversity loss is much-needed, as is illustrated below. [12]

Shifting Baseline Syndrome - showing how to bend the curve
‘Bending the curve’ – illustration from ‘Global biodiversity loss can still be halted’ (WUR 2022 see [12])

Looking beyond the modern state of nature

In conclusion, it is vital that society at large is aware of the limitations imposed by the Shifting Baseline Syndrome and generational amnesia. With the help of ecologists, natural historians, and lawyers, returning long-lost species back to the European continent may not be a crazed idea. As is argued by Trouwborst; how can we demand that Africans live together with megafauna when Europeans refuse to do so themselves?

In this regard, a recorded baseline codified within a legal instrument is not an inherently bad tool. However, a modern baseline can be deemed an Achilles heel for restoration practice. Environmentalists, therefore, must be aware of the shifting baseline, so that the wildflower meadows from van Looij may not be forgotten in a hundred years’ time. And, more crucially, for nature restoration laws to be effective, a historic baseline that can still reach parts of the Holocene may be desirable going forward — both from the perspective of good (biodiversity) governance, as well as our personal understanding and appreciation of the natural world.


References

[1] Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services  (IPBES secretariat, 2022)

[2] The IUCN Red List Of Threatened Species (IUCN, 2022) 

[3] Verschuuren J, ‘Restoration Of Protected Lakes Under Climate Change: What Legal Measures Are Needed To Help Biodiversity Adapt To The Changing Climate? The Case of Lake Ijssel, Netherlands’ [2019] SSRN Electronic Journal; Hoek N, ‘The Habitats Directive And Heath: The Strain of Climate Change and N Deposition’ (2022) 31 European Energy and Environmental Law Review.

[4] Schoukens H, ‘Non-Regression Clauses in Times of Ecological Restoration Law: Article 6(2) of the EU Habitats Directive as an Unusual Ally to Restore Natura 2000?’ (2017) 13 Utrecht Law Review.

[5] Caro T & others, Conservation in the Anthropocene – chapter in Keeping the Wild, ed. George Wuerthner, Eileen Crist, Tom Butler (2014: Island Press, Washington, DC)

[6] Europe: The First 100 Million Years, Tim Flannery (2014: Penguin, UK)

[7] Jones L & others, ‘Investigating the Implications of Shifting Baseline Syndrome on Conservation‘ (2020) People and Nature, Volume 2 Issue 4.

[8] Nitrogen (Wageninen University & Research, 2022)

[9] as [6]

[10] Trouwborst A, and Svenning J, Megafauna restoration as a legal obligation: International biodiversity law and the rehabilitation of large mammals in Europe, (2022) Review of European, Comparative & International Environmental Law, Volume 31, Issue 2; Megafauna Restoration is a Legal Obligation‘ (Rewilding Europe, 2022) 

[11] Green Deal: pioneering proposals to restore Europe’s nature by 2050 and halve pesticide use by 2030‘ (European Commission, 2022)

[12] ‘Global biodiversity loss can still be halted’ (Wageninen University & Research, 2020)


Find out more

You can explore the background to the problem in Are You Suffering From Shifting Baseline Syndrome? by Reagan Pearce for Earth.Org (19 June 2020): “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’.” There is an interview with Daniel Pauly for Mission Blue (March 2012) here, following his TED Talk on the Ocean’s Shifting Baseline.

In Spot the difference: shifting baseline syndrome in our own backyard for ZSL (24 July 2018), PhD student Lizzie Jones looks at the phenomenon of shifting baseline syndrome with “a rare example of a positive shifted baseline, in which we have not noticed positive change” — the growing population of Red Kite in the UK after successful reintroduction projects.

And Shifting Baseline Syndrome is one of the terms explored in the book Anticipatory history (2011), edited by Caitlin DeSilvey, Simon Naylor and Colin Sackett (Uniform Books) – reviewed for ClimateCultures by Mark Goldthorpe here.

Update January 2023: Thanks to the comment posted below by ClimateCultures visitor Peter Collins, we became aware of the work of Escaping Agharta, and Avery Dart’s track Shifting Baseline Syndrome in particular. “The goal of Escaping Aghartha is to educate people about specific examples of ongoing destruction in the biological world, using extreme music as an educational tool. Avery, a biologist, started Escaping Aghartha as an experimental solo project. Now Escaping Aghartha has started to feature skilled musicians on some releases.”

Niels Hoek

Niels Hoek

A legal researcher in EU and international environmental law whose PhD addresses regulation of light pollution, interested in synergies between environmental law, creative practice and sciences.
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The End of the World? Let’s Be Honest

Writer Philip Webb Gregg embraces our Environmental Keywords theme on Transitions with an urgent call to abandon our language of endings for one of beginnings, where we embrace the deepest change: a radical transition to more honest stories.


1,720 words: estimated reading time = 6.5 minutes


Alright, I have a confession, and I’m aware this is an uncool thing to say, but I no longer believe in the end of the world. 
 
Shocking, I know. Especially coming from me. I’m exactly the kind of person you’d expect would think the apocalypse was just around the corner. After all, I’m a second-generation activist (my mother baked bread at Greenham Common). I’ve done all the usual things; camped at the capital, given out endless leaflets, hurled abuse at the gates of Parliament with the best of them. Moreover, I’m a white, straight(ish) man with long hair, stick-and-poke tattoos on my forearms and a steady yoga practice. Of course I should believe in the imminent end of the world. Except I don’t. Not anymore. 
 
I used to. I grew up in an alternative anarchist community on the southernmost tip of Europe. In some ways, it was a happy and unremarkable childhood, but in others I have learned it was quite unique. For instance, we took for granted that the world was ending. It didn’t matter how. Could be nuclear, could be another world war. The point was, I and all my friends — and all our parents — were basically futureless. 
 
We made no five-year goals. There was never a whisper of career paths or pension plans, or even what we’d do next week. Instead, we had fun. We used the minimum effort possible to make us as happy as possible for as long as possible, until it all fell inevitably apart. In some ways, this is good for the soul. It has certainly given me an appreciation for the honesty of the present moment –- more on that later. But it also means I grew up in a world and a community that had doom on its lips. 
 
The end of the world, as we know it

So believe me when I say I understand what so many of us are going through. Call it apocalypse-anxiety, or climate-anxiety, what it amounts to is fear, dread; the empty, heavy feeling in your stomach when you see the world changing around you. When you read the science, watch the news, walk across the dead grass.
 
I have spent three decades speaking with the language of endings. But it’s only recently that I’ve come to understand that there are other tongues out there. It’s only recently that I’ve come to understand that the end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world [1]. There is a language of beginnings and a language for whatever comes in between.

Honest stories; Showing Philip Webb Gregg with a burning flower
Also a beginning… Photograph: Philip Webb Gregg © 2022

It is too easy to be seduced into the ‘last days of Rome’ metaphor. That we are Troy before the horse, Atlantis before the flood, Pompeii before the fire; living on a cliff edge with hyper-luxury behind us and the apocalypse ahead. All of this is very poetic and compelling, but ultimately inaccurate and unhelpful. 

Because, like it or not, tomorrow is coming. And it will not be the end of the world. It will just be a day, in many ways much like any other. 
 
As I write this, I can hear the voices of my family and friends gesturing frantically to their browser screens, their Facebook shares, the dry heat in the stale air. Yes, mass-disaster, societal collapse and global meltdown are already happening. Riots and starvation and power-outage are very likely in many parts of the world very soon. In other parts, they are already underway. And they are awful and inhuman and entirely avoidable. But these are symptoms of drastic (and reversible) change, not the apocalypse. And that knowledge changes everything.
 
The point of all of the above is simply this: believing the end is nigh is a forgivable form of cowardice. It excuses you from the hard work of tomorrow in favour of the pleasure, or the despair, of today. Instead I have a radical proposition worthy of the anarchist roots that bred me. I propose we embrace change, on all fronts and at all costs. 
 
Because despite everything I have said, we are in the deepest trouble, and we need the deepest change. 

An honest change

Some of this change may involve stepping forward, into what feels like an abyss. Some of it will likely feel like a step back into the past — the way things were in the ‘good ol’ days’. Most of it, I hope, will be more of a step sideways. Neither demonising the future, nor glorifying the past, but simply being more present, honest now.  Why do I use the word ‘honest’? Because I think that’s at the root of the change we need.
 
Imagine, for a moment, that you were alive a thousand, or two thousand years ago. I think it is unlikely that you cared about ‘the planet’. Almost certainly you cared about the weather. And the soil. And, in some form, the wild. Most likely you spent your days hacking away at it, fencing it, herding it, milking it, eating it, and your nights hoping it wouldn’t eat you or your loved ones. 

Give or take, that’s been the case for all of human existence. Throughout our entire collective evolutionary journey, we have not had to worry about overwhelming or choking our ecosystem in the way we do now (this is one of the reasons it is so goddamn hard to get your head around the idea of the Anthropocene). But there is another staggering change that goes hand in hand with that transition. That of honesty. Truthiness. Verisimilitude. Call it what you like, we’ve lost it. 

Sometime in the last few millennia, I believe we have learned to lie to ourselves about nature, and the nature of ourselves. Perhaps it happened the moment we overstepped our place in the food chain; began looking at the natural world as a thing separate, and beneath us. Maybe it started with the invention of fiction — that most essential and deadly of human tools — and the creation of the written word. Who knows?

All I know is that these days I see it everywhere. And the reason that these times — our times — feel like the ‘end-times’ is because they are the apex of this dishonesty. 

For me this is the core of the crisis we face, and the hinge on which our change must turn. I do not point to technology or colonialism or capitalism, though those are certainly factors, I point instead to the myths we tell ourselves. The stories, if you like, that we have built our lives upon; our cities, our skyscrapers. Stories of eternal progress, of the singularity and the isolation of the individual. We have grown so accustomed to deception we no longer see the bullshit we swim through every day. These things take us away from what we are, and have become the cause, either directly or indirectly, of the climate and ecological crisis we are facing today. 

Honest stories: showing a man holding a burning newspaper
Photo by akın akdağ from Pexels: https://www.pexels.com/photo/close-up-shot-of-a-person-holding-a-burning-newspaper-10176291/

Because really, that’s all that nature is: an honest thing. Nature is not flowers, rivers and butterflies. Sure, those things are an aspect of the natural world, but so are carnivores, rotting flesh and landslides. My point is the natural world is not a pretty or easy thing — most of it is uncomfortable, harsh and dangerous. The very opposite of our lives now. But it doesn’t lie to you. It cannot; it simply is. 

And really, so are we. When we strip away all the lies we clothe ourselves with, we are still the same scrabbling figures we were two thousand years ago, except that now the weather and the soil and the wild are all going missing and we’re left wondering what on earth is next.

Well, truthfully, I have no idea. But that’s what we’re here to find out.

If the gift of my upbringing taught me anything, it’s how to call bullshit on a world that just wants you to shut up and buy stuff. I think we need to stop being passive members of a society that’s actively slipping into chaos. We must make an effort to step away from the language of disasters and step instead toward the language of new beginnings. 

I think we need to speak, and speak honestly, and tell new stories, honest stories; not just to each other, but to ourselves. And yes, in some non-hippy way, to the world as well.


Find out more

[1] The phrase Philip uses, “the end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world”, is an adapted quote from The Dark Mountain Manifesto (2009), written by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine: “The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop. Together, we will find the hope beyond hope, the paths which lead to the unknown world ahead of us.” For its founders, the manifesto “marked a first attempt to put into words the ideas and feelings which led to Dark Mountain. Think of it as a flag raised so that we can find one another. A point of departure, rather than a party line. An invitation to a larger conversation that continues to take us down unexpected paths.”

Philip is an editor for the Dark Mountain Project, working on several of its volumes — including the forthcoming Issue 22: ARK, which is published this October.

You can read Deconstructing our Dominion Stories in a Time of Unravelling, the recent review by Joan Sullivan of two new books by the current co-editors of the Dark Mountain project, Nick Hunt and Charlotte Du Cann, and the project’s themes have also come up in several other posts, for example Conversations with Work That Connects, featuring six ClimateCultures members in wide-ranging conversations on their creativity in dark times.

Philip’s previous ClimateCultures posts include Rewilding – Slantways: an original poem exploring rewilding as a sideways step into a stranger world, resisting simplifications of ‘progress’ and the gains and losses of our current model, even as we seek to change it.

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Philip Webb Gregg
Philip Webb Gregg
A writer of ephemeral things for beautiful places, exploring the disconnect between human nature and nature nature, and grappling with themes of faith, folklore and narratology.
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