Overcoming Shifting Baselines

A few years ago, I was combing the beach of Barlow Bay on Lopez Island when I found a whelk shell that had washed out of a midden. This shell was easily ten times larger than the others I had often found dotting the beach, and I have never seen another whelk shell like it. In fact, if that shell hadn’t eroded out of the midden, I would have never known the size that whelks grew to historically, only having seen the smaller shells that I considered normal. My experience was an example of Shifting Baseline Syndrome.

Shifting Baseline Syndrome is how our accepted thresholds for environmental change are steadily being lowered. With each passing generation, the baseline shifts because the new generation perceives their present environmental conditions as “normal.” Consequently, the perceived degree of environmental change is minimized. For example, a particular species may be prolific during one generation’s lifetime, though by the time the species goes extinct, several passing generations have seen its population gradually declining, so the loss is not considered extreme in the eyes of each generation. The “baseline” shift between generations prevents the magnitude of the changes from being perceived.

Clearly, shifting baselines have serious implications in our fight against global environmental issues. Can we expect ourselves to “wake up” from our inaction if the alarm never rings loud enough? What will it take for us to understand the impact of our present actions?

I believe we can still overcome the barrier to action that Shifting Baseline Syndrome presents. First, we must recognize the problem—our generational shortsightedness. Then, we must practice awareness, recognizing how our individual actions are environmentally consequential in the long term. Finally, among other solutions such as ongoing research and education, we must renew our connection with the environment and with each other. I would argue that storytelling has a significant role in this last step. Data and facts can certainly be powerful, but sometimes it takes a story to evoke emotion and inspire change. Older and younger generations can bridge the gap between each other’s perceptions by passing on writing, photographs, and memories. By sharing our experiences, we can create a collective “memory bank” that will extend our perceptual window and provide a clearer view of change in the world over a longer timeframe. Establishing a fixed baseline will help us restore and sustain the stability of our natural world, reconnecting ourselves to the planet.

As I write, the large whelk shell sits on my shelf next to the smaller, more common ones I often find, providing me with a constant reminder. Baselines have shifted, and we must work to shift them back.

Written by Kaia Olson (high school sophomore)

San Juan County is at the center of existing and proposed fossil fuel export projects. We have much to lose and nothing to gain. Our community needs to stay informed, get involved, and be part of the public process of understanding the approaching changes which will affect us all.

San Olson

member, Lopez Island