By Heidi Alleway, Emily Klein, Liz Cameron, Kristina Douglass, Istar Govia, Cornelia Guell, Michelle Lim, Libby Robin, and Ruth Thurstan.
Individual people have different perceptions about nature. At the same time, there is a tendency for each generation to set shared expectations of what the environment should be and how it has changed according to their own lived experience. This shared generational perception can lead us to overlook smaller, incremental changes in the past; a phenomenon the fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly called the “shifting baseline syndrome.” Yet, changing social values can also alter what are “fair” human-nature and social connections, so agreement as to what is a just response to change can also shift. Failing to recognise the way individuals and societies perceive the environment contributes to environmental degradation, because people can overlook previous declines or dismiss those declines as insignificant. The shifting baseline syndrome therefore lowers our expectations for environmental health.
We, an author team from a range of fields, geographies and backgrounds, describe how appreciating the peopled connection with nature, rather than aiming to separate it from our approach to science, could be valuable in achieving a more accurate and inclusive way forward to managing and repairing environmental change and the impact of human activities. The shifting baseline syndrome is an important and rare example of a concept that connects us across the sciences and the humanities. Re-envisioning the shifting baseline syndrome, which has been popular in environmental sciences and some social settings, as a connective concept for broader use could provide a lens to create more complete and representative environmental baselines, and, importantly, more effective and equitable responses. We provide guidance for individuals and research teams, including a set of principles to support an interdisciplinary approach to the exploration of the shifting baseline syndrome and shifting baselines themselves.