Shifting baselines

Here at Backyard & Beyond, we get excited by a woodchuck, some muskrats, and a dozen cattails sprouting from a roof. The return of seals to New York Harbor puts a spring in our step. Yes, we celebrate, but that’s because we’re starving, and starvation, the best of all sauces, makes every scrap at the table a feast. (The very well-received New York Times Op-Art by Anzelone and Hollender, bittersweetly depicting the city’s lost wildflowers, is more proof of that.)

“When baselines shift, each new generation subconsciously views as “natural” the environment they remember from their youth. They compare subsequent changes against this “baseline,” masking the true extent of environmental degradation, even to the degree that they no longer believe anecdotes of past abundance or size of species. […] The idea of shifting baselines is familiar to us all and does not relate only to the natural environment. It helps explain why people tolerate the slow crawl of urban sprawl and loss of green space, why they fail to notice increasing noise pollution and why they put with longer and longer commutes to work. Changes creep up on us, unnoticed by younger generations who have never known anything different. The young write off old people who rue the losses they have witnessed as either backward or dewy-eyed romantics. But what about the losses that none of us alive today have seen? […]The greater part of the decline of many exploited populations happened before the birth of anyone living today.” ~ Collum Roberts, The Unnatural History of the Sea

3 Responses to “Shifting baselines”


  1. 1 Mark Wilkinson April 15, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    You are right of course, absolutely right. The process, sad to say in my opinion, started long, long ago and entirely innocently with the development of agriculture back in the neolithic. Until that point, we were a species arguably in balance with nature, hunter gatherers and predators, prone to the vagaries of our environment, with the advantage of a highly developed brain that facilitated problem solving and the development of tools. Each generation has ‘stood on the shoulders of giants’ to coin, I think, a famous physicists phrase and we now find ourselves at a point where each year more is destroyed that can never return and the extreme tipping point may be approaching.
    I have reached the conclusion, taking a lead in my own small way from Sir David Attenborough, that we do what we can to support the organisations that fight the environmental political causes on our behalf (Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth etc), flag the issues (population expansion being THE no. 1 issue that few dare to mention) and share our love of the wonders of evolution and nature with as many as possible so that the current and next generation have at least an awareness of our fellow organisms and the wonder of life. I choose to remain positive, for anything else is psychologically damaging, but share deep down, a very pessimistic view of the future, largely because our whole society and structure is set up for the short term and driven by personal desire for ‘gain’. And all this of course is from a comfortable, western perspective, where we have time to contemplate these questions – the privileged 10% if you will. Heaven help the other 90% of the world who have other, more pressing priorities to even exist (which brings the argument back to the population issue).

    Keep putting it out there Matthew and thanks for being a voice for the natural world.

    • 2 mthew April 15, 2011 at 1:34 pm

      Thank you, Mark. Certainly one of the things that keeps me sane (some may argue differently) is the wonder and amazement I find — constantly, consistently, infinitely — in the natural world. Today, for instance, listening to the dry rattle of a belted kingfisher deep in the green heart of Brooklyn.


  1. 1 Whose Woods These Are | Backyard and Beyond Trackback on December 21, 2017 at 7:00 am

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