Shifting Baseline Syndrome

Baby Boomers, Gen-X’ers, Millennials, Gen-Z’ers are terms describing generational groups. Boomers frequently heard the singing of the whip-o-will, enjoyed streets lined with elm trees, and catching brookies in local streams. Gen-X’ers witnessed Dutch Elm devastate their streets; few Millennials are found who’ve heard the whip-o-will’s singing; the Gen-Z’ers’ brook trout have disappeared from their local streams. Environmental degradation levels increase with each generation, and each generation describes their observations as “the norm”, and thus compared today’s environmental condition with the memories of their youth. Rare is the elm without dead branches, and citizens rally to preserve it. “I just heard a whip-o-will!” is excitedly posted on social media, for those rare moments when the whirring nighttime song is heard. Week-long fishing trips “up north” are needed to “catch your limit” of the once common brookies. 

In “The Once and Future World,” journalist J.B. MacKinnon cites records from recent centuries that hint at what has been lost: “In the North Atlantic, a school of cod stalls a tall ship in midocean; off Sydney, Australia, a ship’s captain sails from noon until sunset through pods of sperm whales as far as the eye can see; Pacific pioneers complain to the authorities that splashing salmon threaten to swamp their canoes.” There were reports of lions in the south of France, walruses at the mouth of the Thames, flocks of birds that took three days to fly overhead, as many as 100 blue whales in the Southern Ocean for every one that’s there now. “These are not sights from some ancient age of fire and ice,” MacKinnon writes. “We are talking about things seen by human eyes, recalled in human memory.”

So the current environmental condition is perceived as being normal. Historic conditions were normal for their times, but much different than now. “Shifting Baseline Syndrome” describes the bias inherent with the many “normal” comparisons related to natural trends. For example: during my youth, several whip-o-wills were commonly heard nightly; my kids heard maybe a few a month; my grandkids listened to them a few times in their lives. But each generation considers the whip-o-will population as being normal, but it’s actually rapidly decreasing. This results in the increasing levels of environmental degradation being accepted as the new normal. 

Recent studies describing diminished species levels and lowered conditions of their health are beginning to highlight this phenomenon. Not until we step back a bit and peer into history do we realize the destruction happening, albeit in slow motion. It’s the Boiling Frog fable happening for real, to every living thing…Earth included. 80% insect declines in less than 3 decades; 29% bird decline since 1970; scientists describe the world-wide amphibian decline as an ongoing mass extinction event; the ocean’s phytoplankton populations and health are both declining, adding to Ocean Acidification and baseline food chain depletion…BASELINE FOOD CHAIN DEPLETION. 

Scientists have been warning us that definitive actions of unprecedented levels are required to address this global warming emergency. It’s our world, current policies are destroying it, and the world-wide collective scientific community has something to say. Not listening, not planning, and not acting is not an option.

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