The endangered whooping crane is supposedly a great American symbol of environmental stewardship. In the 1940s, there were only about 20 of the imposing five-foot-tall Grus americana in the country. Today, there are an estimated 600. The International Crane Foundation calls the revived population “one of conservation’s most inspiring success stories.” Which is true, to an extent. But as recently as the late 1800s, there were thought to be 1,500 whooping cranes—and there were many more than that before humans began interfering in their habitats in the early 19th century. This inspiring success story is one of many ecological examples of shifting baseline syndrome: our propensity to construct a sense of what’s “normal” from a relatively recent set of reference points, and hence to miss longer—and often more worrisome—trends.
In 1995, the marine biologist Daniel Pauly noticed that many of his fisheries colleagues were using data recorded at the start of their careers as a baseline to evaluate population health—rather than using historic accounts that predated industrial-scale fishing. The result, Pauly wrote, was “a gradual shift of the baseline, a gradual accommodation of the creeping disappearance of resource species.” Species that were once abundant were now rare, but were perceived as if they had always been bit players. When rare species went extinct, they were not perceived as a big loss.
Widen the lens and it is easy to see shifting baseline syndrome lurking all around: In an article at Fusion, Felix Salmon writes, “Most new parents can’t even remember a time when vaccines were uncontroversial.” Or, remember when it was taken for granted that a single income could keep a family firmly in the middle class? Today, dual incomes and financial struggle are the norm. As George Bernard Shaw warned in 1910, “The fact that we can become accustomed to anything, however disgusting at first, makes it necessary to examine carefully everything we have become accustomed to.”
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