Shifting Baseline Syndrome

One of Remote Footprints’ goals is to facilitate deeper relationships between people and wildlands.  We believe unique experiences and the sharing of knowledge are two important ways to accomplish this goal.  This page represents an opportunity for us to share information about conservation issues that we have encountered during Project Remote and our other endeavors.  We invite you to use this webpage as a platform to learn about the issues and we hope you will contribute to the discussion.

The Shifting Baseline Syndrome

Shifting Baseline Syndrome refers to a gradual change in our accepted norm for ecological conditions.  The phrase describes an incremental lowering of standards that results with each new generation lacking knowledge of the historical, and presumably more natural, condition of the environment.  Therefore, each generation defines what is ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ according to current conditions and their personal experiences.  With each new generation, the expectations of various ecological conditions shifts.  The result is that our standards are lowered almost imperceptibly.

Daniel Pauly first elucidated the idea of shifting baselines in a 1995 Trends in Ecology and Evolution paper. He wrote about the gradual accommodation of the disappearance of fish species, how each generation of fishers and marine scientists assumed that the current population of fish was the norm.

Today, we discuss many different types of shifting baselines:

  • The spring water issuing from your local swimming hole and how it has changed from the deep blue color of your childhood to the green, algae-infused color of your child’s experience.
  • The number of stars visible in the night sky when your grandparents first moved to their home compared to how many you can see today when you visit.
  • The fire-suppressed condition of forests in the Southeast.  Accounts from the contact period describe vast park-like stands of huge longleaf pine trees with diverse herbaceous groundcover.  Compare that to the dense monoculture pine plantations prevalent today.

Let’s explore an example involving the development of roads across the United States throughout the 20th century.  If you were born in 1900, you would have grown up imprinting on dirt roads and tracks.  Your children’s generation would have seen the advent of the two-lane highway.  With each passing generation, the American road system would expand dendritically across the landscape.

By 1950, roads spanned across the continent.  By 1980, the Interstate Highway System was extensive, and reached into all the conterminous 48 states.  All major U.S. cities were linked.  According to the Federal Highway Administration, by 2008, there were 2,734,102 miles of paved public roads in the United Sates (with an additional 1,324,245 miles of unpaved public roads).  In four generations, the U.S. went from zero paved roads to over 2.7 million miles of road extending into almost every parcel of land in the country.  In four generations, we went from wondering if there was a way to reach a destination and how many days or weeks it would take to get there, to never thinking about if we can get somewhere, just how many hours it will take.

From the perspective of Project Remote, we can only imagine how remote the United States was in 1900.  There were no paved roads.  The American West was a frontier with a few towns.  In the lower 48, there were only towns and cities connected by horse and buggy trails, save for the railroad system.  Alaska was a wilderness with scattered Native Alaskan villages.  If Remote Footprints had existed in 1900, we might have utilized distance from horse and buggy trails, instead of roads, in order to define remoteness.

Because of the phenomenon of shifting baselines, it is paramount to measure and record baseline conditions, especially from the perspective of natural resource conservation and especially in a country like the U.S. with such a history of rapid resource and landscape development.

We are using Project Remote as a tool to measure and record 2010-2012 baseline physical and ecological conditions of the remotest locations in all 50 United States so that this information may be used in future wilderness conservation and restoration efforts.

If we do not measure and document current conditions thoroughly, we will have no empirical evidence to prevent the baseline from shifting once again.

6 Responses to Shifting Baseline Syndrome

  1. Brooklynite says:

    Very perceptive post about the extent of roadway construction. One thing though: in 1900, you’d almost certainly have used distance from a railroad to determine remoteness. By then the US railroad system was nearing its greatest coverage, with every major town east of the Mississippi, and many very small ones, connected in some way to the system.

    • Remote Footprints says:

      Hello Brooklynite…Sounds like you have contemplated remoteness a time or two…Thanks for your interest in Project Remote.

  2. Fletcher Scott says:

    I’ve lived long enough to see this process take place, not only in education but in our environment as well. Not only am I envious of what Lewis and Clark saw, but I am deeply saddened by the thought that it will only be through books and pictures that future generations will know what we see and know as remote today. What kind of legacy is this to leave our grandchildren?

    • Remote Footprints says:

      Hello Fletcher…We passionately feel as you do. Let’s fight together to preserve what remote and natural areas are left in our wonderful country.

  3. Dennis Midge says:

    I find it interesting that after reading a Time magazine article about the change in Coral reefs that the only Google search reference to the statement of “Shifting Baselines” is based on Ecological changes. The definition is correct, but it is happening not just in the Ocean, it is happening all around us. I am seeing this same effect happening in our workplaces as well.

    • Remote Footprints says:

      We fully agree with you, Dennis. “Shifting baseline” is a concept that can be applied broadly to the world around us not just ecologically, but culturally as well. The conundrum of a shifting baseline is that it happens imperceptibly slowly such that the majority of humans accept change in their lives without giving potential negative consequences any second thought…Apply this to ecology on any scale, and what we have is a global ecological mess, caused by us, that we have been inching toward for at least 2 centuries now…We hope that humans can reverse the trend. And soon. –Remote Footprints

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