Sunday, July 7, 2013

Shifting Baselines

This article is about the near extinction of the buffalo (bison) in the American West, but the most interesting part is this:
Scientists have a term for the kind of collective memory loss Hornaday was combating. They have two terms, actually: In the mid-1990s, the fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly dubbed it Shifting Baselines Syndrome and the psychologist Peter H. Kahn Jr. proposed the term Environmental Generational Amnesia. Though their specific descriptions differ, both scientists realized that we accept the version of nature we inherit as normal, and we measure any changes we see in our lifetime against that baseline. We watch forests get logged, species disappear. But when the next generation comes along, it merely accepts that depleted condition as their normal. Our vision is narrow and subjective; we are zoomed in on a small part of a line graph that is, in reality, much longer and plunging more steeply than we perceive. It’s hard to zoom out and internalize those changes stacking up across generations. Pauly proposed Shifting Baselines Syndrome in the context of the slow decline of global fish populations and noted how humanity has blindly transitioned to eating smaller and smaller species of fish as we’ve fished the larger ones into scarcity. When he first published papers about Shifting Baselines Syndrome, 20 years ago, he liked to joke to the press that kids might soon be enjoying jellyfish sandwiches, instead of tuna. But about 10 years ago, he started pointing out that there really is a commercial jellyfish fishing industry ramping up.

This amnesia helps explain a phenomenon I stumbled on, again and again, while researching an upcoming book: namely, why some members of every generation have seemed to feel like theirs is the one that’s truly watching the world go to shit. (Here is a prominent butterfly collector’s description of San Francisco in 1928: “rendered sterile and worthless ... destroyed, defiled, eradicated.”) The truth is that, no matter what manner of damage is being done during one’s lifetime, or the relative magnitude of that destruction, we are always the ones cursed with watching Earth’s “normal” condition—what we presume to be nature itself—unravel and warp; that burden is ours exclusively, just like it was for the generation before us and will be for the one after us, too, because each generation operates with its own definition of “normal.” But, in reality, our pristine patch of woods is only a scrap of someone else’s more ancient, boundless wilderness. Our charming neighborhood pub is their unbearable, gentrifying Tuttimelon. In other words, Shifting Baselines Syndrome doesn’t just mean that we start our lives unaware of the damage that came before us, but that we end them burdened with having seen so much damage done. The clean slate we inherit gets mucked up all over again, right before our eyes.
The Last Buffalo Hunt (Slate)

So, based on the above, shifting baseline syndrome accounts for why people simultaneously believe that they are living in the best - and worst - time in history. It's why, when I pointed out the silliness of relying on complex, subtly-balanced artificial aquaponics systems to provide fish meat or importing them from Alaska or China in a city full of sources of fresh water (lakes and rivers), people might not at first get it. After all, no one can remember being able to catch large quantities of edible fish in the lakes and streams of an urban area. To them, it is simply "natural" that you would not be able to eat fish caught in waterways, and to suggest anything else is bizarre. It is perfectly "natural" that fish are full of mercury and should be avoided by pregnant women. Taking it beyond the environmental, it is "natural" that all our durable consumer goods should be manufactured in China and shipped here. People today do not know any other way.

It's also why people have always assumed that the "primitive" lives of hunter gatherers must have been awful. Coming from agricultural civilizations which had long ago felled the forests and driven large animals into the margins, they assumed people who relied upon simply "finding" sources of food must have been constantly living a precarious existence on the edge of survival. They did not understand the abundance of the world those ancient hunter-gathers or fisherman inhabited. They did not know how many animals had been driven to extinction and how the population pressures released by agriculture had devastated the world as they knew it.

So when people write paeans to how wonderful we have it, they cannot compare it accurately to past times. They do not know what it was like to live in 1900 or 1860 or 1200 or 100. Sure, we can look at the material circumstances, and write up statistics, but we cannot accurately know what it was like for the average person to be alive in those time periods. We assume, incorrectly in my opinion, that our relatively easy lives and numerous creature comforts make us the most well-off generation in history. But there is plenty of evidence that our modern lives are more stressful and unsatisfying, our array of choices a constant source of stress, our occupations less meaningful, our sedentism a curse, our disconnection from nature more alienating, and our constant need for stimulation a fount of depression rather than happiness. There is scant evidence that comfort = happiness. By some measures, half of us will suffer from some form of mental illness in our lifetimes. This is progress?

The flip side is that we assume our deteriorating circumstances are singularly unique. But you can read similar we're-going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket accounts from Late Antiquity as the classical world was unravelling, or from the Middle Ages during the Great Famine, Black Death and Mongol invasions; all the way up to the onset of the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression and the Second World War. The world has been going to hell for literally all of history. Are our circumstances really the worst ever? I think we're a victim of our own lack of perspective here.

Oh, and regarding those buffalo:
Hornaday’s hunt came during a great spasm of buffalo obliteration in the American West. Actually, it came at the tail-end of that slaughter, and—for people who’d lived through it, like Hornaday—it was astonishing how quickly and recklessly the animals seemed to have been wiped out. Two decades earlier, it wasn’t uncommon for trains to have to stop for hours to let rivers of buffalo cross over the tracks. Now, the population had been decimated to the point that the death of a single animal was significant enough to be reported by the Associated Press. As one newspaper put it, it was a “rate of extermination that is almost incalculable and one of which the mind can have no just conception.” Hornaday estimated that there were maybe 300 wild buffalo left on the plains—and this is precisely why he was going to Montana to kill several dozen of them.


  1. "People today do not know any other way."

    Could it be that it's also why so many people have trouble imagining--if not actively resisting--any other mode of living than the current market economy to which they're so accustomed? Anything else must seem downright frightening and abnormal.

  2. Indeed so. Although I would attribute this more to fear of the unknown, or "the devil you now." This is the Status Quo Bias:

    We humans tend to be apprehensive of change, which often leads us to make choices that guarantee that things remain the same, or change as little as possible. Needless to say, this has ramifications in everything from politics to economics. We like to stick to our routines, political parties, and our favorite meals at restaurants. Part of the perniciousness of this bias is the unwarranted assumption that another choice will be inferior or make things worse. The status-quo bias can be summed with the saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" — an adage that fuels our conservative tendencies. And in fact, some commentators say this is why the U.S. hasn't been able to enact universal health care, despite the fact that most individuals support the idea of reform.

    Creeping normalcy is a similar concept. I think the distinction is, creeping normaly happens during a person's lifetime as formerly unacceptable things become normalized (like "democratic" governments reading all our communications). Shifing baseline refers to the starting point that you experience when you become aware of the world around you. But that's just my interpretation


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