It is argued that our relative lack of experience of environmental change leaves us vulnerable to something called shifting baseline syndrome.

This describes an inability to perceive change over time; this could be personal or more social. For example, what we consider to be quite normal ecological conditions are shifting (for the worse) as time passes. This leads us to underestimate how much has changed. Our experience of the now is considered normal, and in a way it is. But it wasn’t so a generation ago, for example. In terms of UK wildlife there are many examples of this. For example, the loss of ‘unimproved’ meadows, the decline in songbird populations, the loss of hares, the quality of water in rivers, etc. You can fill in the etc with your own horror stats. In global terms, the situation is far worse in relation to many charismatic species.

It should be said, of course, that the baseline sometimes shifts for the better. The reintroduction of the red kite to England is a good example, the first storks to breed in England since lord knows when, the re-introduction of the great bustard, the pine marten moving south, and butterflies coming back to these shores. Most of these positives have occurred because of concerted and determined human activity. And legal protection plays its part in this although there are sometimes unintended consequences. For example, the protection given to badgers is blamed by some on the loss of hedgehogs.

Given that we’re in a crisis now, then the crisis has become part of the normal; it follows that more information (ie knowledge) about the nature of the crisis, its extent, its development and likely trajectory is unlikely to stir most of us to do something. Our inability for whatever reason to do this is also part of the normal. This has profound implications for environmental education.

For more detail on the syndrome, see this article by Lizzie Jones and colleagues in the BES journal. The researchers compared the perceptions of people in the UK with data from a bird survey provided by the British Trust for Ornithology over more than 50 years. People were asked about the past and present abundance of 10 garden bird species in their local area and how they think they’ve changed over time. Younger and less experienced people were less aware of their declines than older people, and were less likely to see the need for interventions to help once common species such as the house sparrow. And see this article in Conservation Letters which explores the evidence for the syndrome.

1 Comment

  1. Interesting article. Shifting baseline is a very real thing. It’s good to see this sort of thing available online. I work as a police support volunteer for Durham Constabulary. I work in wildlife crime and education. My role (once covid is finally over!) is to go into schools and talk to Year 6 and/or 5 about badger/wildlife crime. (I’m also the Education officer for Durham Badger Group.)
    I will join NAEE, and please feel free to visit our badger group website, and use whatever you find useful.
    Best regards,
    Graham Temby

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