Shifting Baselines and the “New Normal”

A powerful essay by Dawn Stover in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists explains how the expression “the new normal” contributes to the problem of shifting baselines.

In 1995, marine biologist Daniel Pauly used the term “shifting baseline syndrome” to describe how declines in the size, numbers, and species of fish go unnoticed because experts have forgotten that there were once more (and bigger) fish in the sea: “Each generation of fisheries scientists accepts as a baseline the stock size and species composition that occurred at the beginning of their careers, and uses this to evaluate changes. When the next generation starts its career, the stocks have further declined, but it is the stocks at that time that serve as a new baseline. The result obviously is a gradual shift of the baseline, a gradual accommodation of the creeping disappearance of resource species, and inappropriate reference points for evaluating economic losses resulting from overfishing, or for identifying targets for rehabilitation measures.”

The shifting-baseline problem extends far beyond ocean fisheries. It’s why a world without virgin forests, free-running rivers, sprawling coastal wetlands, vibrant coral reefs, and native prairies seems normal to people who have never seen them in their glory—and even to some who have. It’s why people aren’t working harder to bring back 100-pound salmon and 9-inch-long oysters.


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