Shifting baselines: a cognitive bias towards the status quo

Our memory is very short, so we quickly lose perspective of what was, and take the new as the natural order of things, as though it always was, but there is nothing normal about it. This article relates to the environment but it can be applied to our culture and seen in politics.

https://youtu.be/U7m9KlxNaK0Shifting baselines – a cognitive bias towards the status quo

When grandpa said that fish were bigger when he was young, we thought he was boasting, but he was actually telling the truth. Our memories tend to focus on our own life experience. Despite the attempt of education to see a little past that, our memories remain overwhelmingly from a short period in our lives. Studies have shown most of our memories are formed between 15 and 25 years approximately (see Memories by Julia Shaw). It is not that our grandparents are wrong, but society’s collective memory is carried by one generation, and when that generation dies the experience is forgotten. Society forgets at an alarming rate!

“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 up 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 alive today have seen?”

Callum Roberts. The Unnatural History of the Sea, 14 July 2007, Shearwater.

From the Book:

Callum Roberts. The Unnatural History of the Sea, 14 July 2007, Shearwater, 264-265.

PART TWO SHIFTING BASELINES

Pages 264-265

They were abundant in the seas fished by Griffing Bancroft and Ray Cannon, once accounting for nearly half the total fin fish catch, but have declined with time to less than 1 per cent of today’s landings. In the l940s and 1950s, fishers caught twenty to twenty-five on their best days. This fell to ten or twelve by the 1960s and 1970s. Since 1990, no fisher had caught more than four in a day, and fewer than half the fishers under age thirty had ever caught this species. The size of the biggest gulf grouper that fishers said they had e caught also declined with time, from an average of 84 kilograms 185 pounds) caught by older fishers to 63 kilograms (139 pounds) caught by the younger fishers.

Older men began fishing when the sea abounded with large predators such as bull and hammerhead sharks, enormous groupers and snappers, green turtles, and large edible invertebrates such as rock oysters and conch. They testified how these animals had been depleted during their working lives. Middle-aged fishers showed less appreciation of this past abundance, and most young fishers seemed unaware that these species had ever been common. Saenz-Arroyo herself sought out places where old fishers told her that thousands of gulf groupers once gathered to spawn. In more than thirty dives over four years, she never encountered more than three gulf groupers at one time.

Ironically, fisheries policy in Mexico encourages further depletion of groupers. That nation’s fishery statistics lump together sixteen different species of grouper, and the combined catches of this group have increased in recent years as people switch to fishing smaller species. The rise in catches misled officials into thinking that grouper stocks are healthy, and they consequently allowed fishing effort to increase. Catches of small species mask the virtual disappearance of the giants: goliath and gulf groupers, and black sea bass. The few that survive continue to be caught in the multi-species fishery, pushing them toward extinction. Gulf grouper has already been added to the World Conservation Union’s red list of endangered species.

Decline in the marine megafauna has come comparatively recently to the Gulf of California. Times of plenty are still remembered by the oldest fishermen, whereas younger generations are already begin rung to view the depleted environment as normal. In the terms of fishery scientist Daniel Pauly, their “environmental baselines” are shifting. 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 se extent of environmental degradation, even to the degree that they no longer believe anecdotes of past abundance or size of species. What is a young fisher to make of tales of mountainous schools of totoaba migrating north to spawn, or sailfish fins dotting the sea from to horizon? Today’s generations have never experienced the re-dam milk-and-honey wilderness of the Coloradodelta seen by Aldo Leopold. For them, the searing, salt-crusted banks and biological poverty of the region can seem natural.

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 up 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 alive today have seen? In most parts of the world, human impacts on the sea extend back for hundreds of years, sometimes more than a thousand. Nobody alive today has seen the heyday of cod or herring. No one has watched sporting groups of sperm whales five hundred strong or seen alewife run so thick up rivers there seemed more fish than water. The greater part of the decline of many exploited populations happened before the birth of anyone living today.

In Chesapeake Bay groups of leaping sturgeon no longer break the calm of evening and threaten boaters with water-splitting crashes. Walrus rookeries off Nova Scotia have fallen silent, and snowy beluga whales no longer enliven the Gulf of Maine. Man-eating sharks have gone from the North Sea, and the Caribbean monk seal breathes no more. Today, a few turtles puff their way ashore onto beaches that over a season once felt the scrape and clatter of hundreds of thousands of shells. Where human impacts on the sea’s populations extend far back in time, it is easy for us to view the diminished productivity of today’s seas as normal. We have known nothing different. Scientists have made it their business to understand how these ecosystems work,

Callum Roberts. The Unnatural History of the Sea, 14 July 2007, Shearwater, 264-265.

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