Classics: Shifting baselines

14 02 2011

The Conservation Classics series will soon be collated and published in a special chapter for the book ‘Biodiversity’ to be published later this year by InTech. The chapter is co-authored by Barry Brook, Navjot Sodhi, Bill Laurance and me. This is a snippet of one ‘classic’ I haven’t yet really covered extensively on

Daniel Pauly’s (1995) concept describes the way that changes to a system are measured against baselines which themselves are often degraded versions of the original state of the system. Pauly (1995) originally meant it in a fisheries context, where “… fisheries scientists sometimes fail to identify the correct ‘baseline’ population size (e.g., how abundant a fish species population was before human exploitation) and thus work with a shifted baseline”. It is now considered a mantra in fisheries and marine science (Jackson et al., 2001), but it has been extended to many other conservation issues. Yet, quantifying shifting baselines in conservation is difficult, with little empirical evidence (but see Jackson et al., 2001), despite the logic and general acceptance of its ubiquity by conservation scientists.

Papworth et al. (2009) have recently addressed this knowledge gap by defining two kinds of shifting baselines:

  1. general amnesia (“… individuals setting their perceptions from their own experience, and failing to pass their experience on to future generations”) and
  2. personal amnesia (“… individuals updating their own perception of normality; so that even those who experienced different previous conditions believe that current conditions are the same as past conditions”)

Humans inevitably have short memories when it comes to environmental degradation, suggesting that real-world biodiversity declines are probably far worse than many realize.

CJA Bradshaw

ResearchBlogging.orgPapworth, S., Rist, J., Coad, L., & Milner-Gulland, E. (2009). Evidence for shifting baseline syndrome in conservation Conservation Letters, 2 (2), 93-100 DOI: 10.1111/j.1755-263X.2009.00049.x

Pauly, D. (1995). Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 10 (10) DOI: 10.1016/S0169-5347(00)89171-5



4 responses

16 04 2014
South Australia’s tattered environmental remains |

[…] so we have a jaded and myopic view of what our environment should look like. Complicate this shifting baseline syndrome with the rapidity of climate changes, and you have a confused, rudderless management outlook that […]


28 07 2013
Whispers from the Ghosting Trees |

[…] It’s only natural to recoil from the horrifying suspicion that we are destroying our only home, Earth. The pernicious implications for climate, our food supply, and the habitat for so many of our fellow creatures, are soul-crushing to contemplate. As the health of trees is gradually degraded, our reluctance to accept industrial civilization and overpopulation as the fundamental cause is enabled by the phenomena of shifting baselines. Over time our perception of what is normal changes, as we gradually forget how robust and vigorous trees once, and not so very long ago, either. If you’re not familiar with the concept of shifting baselines you could watch Daniel Pauly give a TED talk about how our expectations for life in the sea have been eroded as fishstocks have been exploited over time. This concept has been extended to other perceptions, as described here: […]


25 02 2011
Gail Zawacki

It’s true. The trees are dying out, along with all the other vegetation, and hardly anyone notices.


14 02 2011
Tweets that mention Classics: Shifting baselines « --

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Eric Heupel, ConservationBytes. ConservationBytes said: Classics: Shifting baselines: The Conservation Classics series will soon be collated and published in a special … […]


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