Shifting-baseline Syndrome

This past week I read a book called “Where the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators” by William Stolzenburg. It discusses the idea of natural habitats being affected all the way down to the microscopic level because of the removal of large predators, such as whales, wolves, mountain lions, and bears. It was a fascinating glimpse into the research that has been done over the last 80 years, documenting the consequences of removing just a few predators from the food chain. But what I found most striking was in the epilogue- an idea, while produced to describe a new generation of conservation ecologists, could be applied to any field.

Marine biologist Daniel Pauly coined the term “shifting-baseline syndrome”. It describes a phenomenon where “the world as first seen by the child becomes his lifelong standard of excellence, mindless of the fact that he is admiring the ruins of his parents. Generation to generation, the natural world decays, the ratchet of perception tightens.” Pauly specifically was referring to the buildup of bacteria-laden slime in the oceans, accepted by 20-somethings in the science fields because for them, it has always been there…when two generations previously it didn’t exist. But I wonder if this syndrome isn’t applicable to the arts, to politics, to personal values, and any other number of disciplines/subjects. And if such a phenomenon does exist, how does one go about changing it? The modern public isn’t much interested in learning about history or how actions and decisions have had ripples of impact and caused chain reactions that no one ever expected. How can this generation be inspired to have a curiosity not just about the present, but about the past and how it relates to the future? Is such an inspiration even possible?

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