Shifting Baseline Syndrome

In the mid-nineties, a marine biologist named Dr. Daniel Pauly coined the phrase “Shifting Baseline Syndrome” to describe lowering standards of expectations in fisheries.

As the “syndrome” goes, each new generation marks a point of data at the beginning (the baseline) then observes the data as it increases or decreases (the shift). Theoretically, in order to get an accurate picture of data trends you would have to provide a baseline that does not shift with each generation. But what Dr. Pauly discovered was that researchers at fisheries were setting the baseline at the beginning of their careers instead of at the beginning of the most reliable data. Consequently, there is a gradual change in what is considered “normal,” and downward trends go underestimated or unnoticed until it is too late. 

For example: the passenger pigeon is believed to have gone extinct in 1914. Prior to that, however, some researchers believe that the passenger pigeon numbered in the billions and even made up a quarter of the total population of birds in North America! What happened? Obviously there wasn’t a sudden and traumatic extinction, no huge flocks of pigeons dropping like clay from the sky. Rather, there was a gradual, almost imperceptible, decline. The baseline shifted every generation, and no one noticed or cared. So maybe in the year 1600 the baseline passenger pigeon population was 1 billion (I’m making this data up, I don’t really know). Then maybe in 1700 the baseline was 500,000 million. That would be drastic, but everyone thinks that’s normal because no one was paying attention to the drop, since no one in 1700 was around in 1600 and no data was ever recorded. Then in 1800 the baseline was 1 million. Someone might begin to say, “Hey I haven’t seen a passenger pigeon in a while!” Then in 1900 the baseline was almost zero. Then zero. All because the baseline kept shifting, each generation thought that the new baseline was “normal” and therefore of no concern. Until it was too late, that is.

SBS is obviously a big deal in environmental and conservation issues. If you fix the baseline so it doesn’t shift, you can identity problems and correct them before it’s too late. The concept is also applicable to other areas of life.

For example: our last house had air conditioning, so we used it all the time in the summer. The slightest heat wave would send me to the thermostat, and I had a low tolerance for hot days. Our current house, however, does not have air conditioning, so I just got used to sweating more. My baseline tolerance for hot summers shifted, and now I don’t even think about air conditioning. (I also live in mid-Michigan, where it’s only really hot for like 4 days in August.)

That’s a pretty innocuous example, so I encourage you to try it out on other more serious aspects of life. Like this:

A hundred years ago it was unconscionable for a young Christian couple to live together before they were married. After a while it became more common but at least people had the decency to be ashamed about it. Now, couples preparing for marriage care more about their separate bank accounts than their separate genitals, and some people are not even aware that the practice is displeasing to God. The baseline shifted, and now cohabitation is normal. Still just as wrong as it was a hundred years ago … but normal. What factors caused the shift, and how can we shift it back the other way?

You get the idea, and that’s enough to get your mind wandering. The point in identifying the shifts is to correct the baseline before any more passenger pigeons go extinct. Let me know what else you come up with. Maybe then someone can tell me how our social baseline shifted from one of diverse individuality to my friend being literally chased after in a parking lot by a woman screaming, “No mask! No mask! No mask!” What shifted the baseline so dramatically and so quickly? And how can we shift it back so this brainless automaton can realize that no one forced her to go out in public? Then again, maybe it’s too late. Maybe the passenger pigeon is on its last flight.