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Shifting Baselines: Changing The Goal Posts Of Conservation

Conservationists around the world are battling to stop species going extinct. Naturally species are expected to become extinct at a rate of one in a million every year. Human activities are pushing this extinction rate 1000 times higher than it naturally should be. Problems ranging from deforestation, pollution, climate change and over exploitation are pushing species to the brink. It is the job of conservation organisations large or small to protect these species.

However, when it comes to population recovery programs and goals, who is to say what a natural population should be? How big the natural population and its range should be is a hot topic. There is concern that scientists measure ecosystem change against their personal recollections of the past, and so as we move through time the population baselines for conservation change.

In 1995 Daniel Pauly coined the phrase “shifting baseline syndrome” (SBS). He noted that a loss of memory of past environmental degradation has resulted in shifted baselines, which may result in conservation and restoration goals that are less ambitious than if stakeholder had a full knowledge of ecosystem potential. This loss of memory of past environmental destruction has resulted in “shifted baselines” or a reduction in expectations for the natural environment over time.

Furthermore, in this context, baseline is defined as a person’s view of the natural state of the world, shifted baselines are views that fail to perceive past change, and historical baselines are a past states with less human impact as compared to the current state. In other words, due to short human life-spans and faulty memories, humans have a poor conception of how much of the natural world has been degraded by our actions, because our ‘baseline’ shifts with every generation, and sometimes even in an individual.

An easy example to draw from is that the number of stars visible in the night sky when your grandparents first moved to their home compared to how many you can see today when you visit. What you perceive as a normal night sky, is seen as heavily polluted by your grandparents because they started from a different baseline. The same concept is effecting species populations. The older generations in America will remember herds of bison roaming the plains of the US, however today’s generations perceive these animals as a special rarity.

The idea of SBS comes in two forms. Firstly there is generational amnesia, as mentioned in the above examples where different generations are used to different population levels. Another example is that when legendary John Veron, who was a pioneer in coral reef ecology in Australia for many years, revisits his old dive sites he believes it to be terribly, hopelessly altered by mass coral bleaching events, over fishing and extensive tourism. However, if today’s generation dives on the reef they perceive it as a pristine, magical place that is full of fish. This type of altered perception of nature occurs with each succeeding generation.

Following on, the second form of SBS is called personal amnesia. This is when people forget how things used to be during the course of their own lives, for example they may not remember that things which are rarely sighted now, were once common. This is the case for many species from British garden birds to Australian Koalas. In this case, the individual actually ‘updates’ the change involved, so that the change (and the past) is forgotten and the new state becomes the baseline.

Moving on, SBS and omission of relevant historical information typically results in assessments of conservation status that are more optimistic, recovery targets that are lower, and fisheries quotas that are higher than if long-term data were considered. When it comes to the conservation management engaging in extinction risk assessment, recovery target setting, and management off data-poor fisheries, an accurate baseline is vital. However, who is to say which baseline we should be working towards? Humans have had an impact on our planet for so long we cannot possibly go back to pre-human populations, perhaps not even pre-industrialized populations. This has become a controversial issue in the world of conservation.

Perhaps the sector of wildlife management most affected by this issue is the global fisheries. There is concern that scientists mismanage fish stocks because they tolerate gradual and incremental elimination of species, set inappropriate recovery goals, and use the wrong reference points when calculating economic losses due to over-fishing. Each generation of fisheries managers accepts a baseline stock size and species composition that occurred at the beginning of their careers, and uses this to evaluate changes. Based on this decidedly short-term view, many fisheries around the world are close to collapse and barely resemble the ecosystems of the last century, let alone decade.

Unfortunately, as well as the mismanagement of populations SBS leads to funding difficulties for conservation organisations. Shifting baselines, or failure to perceive past change, affect support given to projects and perceptions of the current environment or the “status-quo” impact people’s willingness to pay. If we can provide data that shows a bigger population reduction, people will become more engaged with the issue. People who perceive more change and destruction will be willing to pay more to protect them. Goals for restoration and recovery are likely to be more ambitious if the public is aware of long term change.

This had led to conservation scientists and practitioners becoming divided about whether the public is more effectively engaged by optimistic or pessimistic messaging eg whether to show the results of small population increases or provide details and large scale population declines. While good news stories give the public a sense of hope, there is concern that if problems are not understood, the urgency of action will be underestimated. If people clearly recognise population declines and see the need for intervention, they will be more willing to pay for conservation.

Moreover, how can environmentalists convince people that the environment is degraded if they don’t see it that way? This is the fundamental difficulty behind SBS: how to make conservation important when people do not see the loss. In the scientific world programs like GIS can be used to map historical ranges of species using a variety of variables like environmental conditions and habitat preference. However, in the public domain perhaps engaging with the older generations and local communities to gain anecdotal estimations would engage the public effectively.

In essence, what we see as pristine nature would be seen by our ancestors as hopelessly degraded, and what we see as degraded our children will view as ‘natural’. If we fail to realise what we are doing to our planet and what we are losing, we stand the risk of sleepwalking through the destruction of the natural world without taking action to remedy the situation. Using accurate historical and current data to manage populations is a must. Making the public know exactly what is going on in their natural world is equally as important, if we cannot show people what is going on, then how can we expect them to help change it?

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