Shifting Baseline Syndrome

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.