Posted by: Jill | June 8, 2008

My own shifting baseline

The idea of “shifting baselines” was originated by a fisheries biologist, Daniel Pauly, in 1995. He explained that fishery managers’ perceptions of acceptable fish stock levels depends on when their careers began. Conditions worsen over several decades until a new generation begins work, and those worsened conditions are the new generation’s baseline. The baseline has shifted for the worse, but we accept it as normal because it is all we know.

This idea can be extended beyond fisheries to any measure of environmental quality (and, indeed, to what else? The teacher in me challenges you for suggestions). The first time I went SCUBA diving in tropical waters, I was in Discovery Bay on the north coast of Jamaica in 2004. It was amazing! There were corals and little colorful parrotfish everywhere, the water was clear and warm and I loved it. It wasn’t until later that I learned just how barren Jamaica’s reefs are. And parrotfish are supposed to be big. This was my own coral reef baseline shift: I compare all reefs I have seen to that first Jamaican reef. Anything that is in better condition seems healthy to me; someone who dove Discovery Bay 30 years ago would likely have a different baseline.

So then, to what baseline should reefs be compared? What about old-growth forests? I see big sequoias and am impressed, but a baseline for a sequoia might need to begin 1000 years ago. What about clean air? Suburban sprawl?

I have recognized a new shifting baseline in my life. When I first moved to Seattle, I was thrilled to be in a city. Years of suburban, than rural, then really rural living, meant that things like walking to the grocery store made me excited. Just sitting on the hydro-electric powered bus, to and from class every day, I felt alive and ready to BE here. Recently, though, I began commuting by bicycle most days. Last week, I needed to take the bus one day instead of biking. I sat still and passive as the bus chugged along and felt … passive.

Suddenly, my baseline has shifted. Riding the bus is mundane; biking through the wind or the rain or the bright sun (some days!!) is what really makes me love life these days.


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