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Shifting Baseline Syndrome

Shifting baseline syndrome is a scientific term for a phenomenon that affects almost every branch of life, but it’s particularly important for those with an interest in permaculture, or those who are wondering why exactly permaculture is so important. While it may seem a bit of a complex term, or one that you’d rather leave to those with a more “technical” job, shifting baseline syndrome is a psychological construct that every individual needs to know.

To put it in its most simplest terms, shifting baseline syndrome is basically the way in which humans, and every generation essentially, lowers its standards over the course of time. These generations are not lowering their standards on purpose, or because they have any negative goal, but simply because they don’t know any better. It all occurs underneath the surface level, with most completely unaware of what’s happening. New generations assume the lack of quality that they’ve become used to is simply normal, and so they no longer see the extreme damage (to just about anything, be it the environment or anything else that’s declined over the ages) that someone from, say, five generations prior would be absolutely taken aback by. Expectations are lowered almost subconsciously, and so the damage to the environment keeps occurring on a broader and broader scale, as damage occurs so slowly that no one even sees it, unless they were to step back and look at things over the course of multiple generations.

However, if you’ll take a few moments to consider brief and seemingly inconsequential moments in your life, you’ll soon see the way you too have been affected by shifting baseline syndrome. For example, have your parents ever made a quick comment on the lack of green space in your neighborhood, or how the fields and forests they wandered as kids are now taken over by suburban housing or shopping centers? Have you ever looked up at the sky and wondered if there were simply more stars when you were a kid? These changes are especially prevalent for those generations living from the start of the 20th century onward, as technology and the progression of man skyrockets into a world that no human being (or animal, for that matter) from the year 1900 would recognize today. Change has never occurred at such a fast pace in the entire history of mankind, something that most take for granted. In the last century, we’ve seen the turn from the horse and carriage to rudimentary automobiles to highways connecting every conceivable space and jam-packed with the latest and greatest cars.

One of the first examples of shifting baseline syndrome was given by the scientist Daniel Pauly, and his work with fisheries. Since his work, the theory is still used by many to explain the declining oceans today. He pointed out that ridiculously depleted fisheries were using the fish population from just a few decades ago as the starting point of their measurements, their baselines, as it were, rather than what a fish population would be had it never been touched by mankind. If you’re looking at a drop in population over a few years, it doesn’t seem to be that bad of a problem, and you could easily come up with a solution to maybe make up for a little of that. However, if you look at the drop in population over a very long period of time, say a few hundred years, the problem is suddenly mammoth, and one it would be very difficult to rectify.

Shifting Baseline Syndrome 01

It’s believed that shifting baseline syndrome largely affects individuals’ participation in conservation efforts, from simple in-home habits to large project participation. If they don’t see a large enough issue occurring, after all, why put in the effort to change it? Some conservation programs feel it’s necessary to educate the public regarding shifting baseline syndrome, so as to encourage participation on either a large or small scale, both personal and public. While it’s possible to do this through normal education approaches, such as media, it’s also sometimes effective to bring older and younger generations together, so as to discuss changes occurring in a more personal way.

Those already aware of shifting baseline syndrome, though, are already well on their way to combatting this environmental epidemic. Education followed by appropriate action is the key to proper environmental restoration, and great lengths can be achieved by simply researching the true effects of today’s technology and human practices, and the way things once were – from plant and animal populations to water quality to air quality and beyond. Then, once we’ve established a proper and true baseline, a baseline untouched by human actions, we can go to the correct restorative lengths. Sustainable living leading to a permaculture revolution is what’s needed in order to truly save the planet we call home, without falling prey to shifting baselines syndrome in the process.


    1. Could you explain with a lil more detail…My memory is a lil like that ol frog.. perhaps different circumstance an amount of time an money ..simple quotes make for a limited mind awareness !

  1. Thank you for sharing this ! I could share a lil story about shifting baseline syndrome , My father at 17 years joined the navy in 1941 for the 2nd WW2 ! He was one of the lucky survivors ! Came home in 1945 an with his war savings bought a 170 acre farm with a good down payment ! Because of his training found a good job in a chemical plant ! things were great until our govt decided we needed to boost our economy again by entering the Korean War, which after a time we decided not such a good idea ! Needless to say how the Government Contractors made a fortune …The chemical plant was shut down an converted over a span of 18 months to produce Ammunition for that war ! Big money for Dupont …However the former employees were all laid off at the signing of the purchase of the plant …Now , how does that fit in to shifting baseline syndrome….The War profiteers made a larger fortune ….Laid off employees with no job lost their homes farms etc to Other Profiteers ! Would that fit somewhere in the Scenario… Today we have a few benefits for these types of situations ..back then nothing ! However folks an their offspring have very clear memories..! The backwash an ripple effect of those Dealings are still being replicated around our country today….Just being done with much more Finesse ! My Point is there are Elements in Human Nature among certain Humans whereby they FEEL Priviliged …..Therefore ,however they can be more comfortable is their total concern….They have a complete lack of concern for the Environment or their fellow creatures ! Just my thinking !

  2. That is why here in the U,S, it is important for citizens to demand we protect our National parks from mismanagement an shady deals ! timber harvesting is one ….clearcutting leads to soil erosion an damaging the earths permaculture that has developed over hundreds of years…Politics usually are short term methods or clever snow jobs ! Also perhaps we need to use Boundary line methods around State an National parks …. Look around our country , fires every year in CA. Oregon, Midwest Region , etc….Most that I am aware of have no Buffer boundary line ! I have some property in tenn …route 321 goes right by my home an property …The Smoky Mountain National Park is right across the road…Gatlinburg another example ! A more protective method would be to use a Clear Land Neutral zone …To protect the Parks Natural State an protect Humans from close proximity to the Parks ! Perhaps I am missing something but it seems the government uses it quite well for their Purpose

  3. Education is THE answer and solution to it all and it starts in the cradle to go on for a lifetime. The question is : who educates whom and who is aware of educating to what ? After all, obesity is now an “educated” syndrome, advertising has become the most insidious (obnoxious) form of “education” and parents seem to give more and more pitiful models so that younger generations can only end up with the worst of our civilisation. Each of us needs to become aware that each and every action/endeavour we undertake will become a model for those who look on. Let’s ban once and for all as well plastics as waste in general. Let’s all go zero waste, zero chemical, zero disposable ! Life can never be disposable, it is not synthetic and definitely, ecosystems cannot absorb poisonous plastics. It’s up to us to educate ourselves and in so doing, we will educate everyone around us.

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