Shifting baselines, new normals
On the Conversation website, Christopher Sandom discusses Shifting Baseline Syndrome. In the book Anticipatory History, National Trust ranger Justin Whitehouse described this phenomenon as “personal and ‘generational’ amnesia, due to relatively short life spans and memories.” Whitehouse was describing people’s tendency to imagine contemporary natural or cultural features (in his case, the harbour wall at Mullion in Cornwall; in Sandom’s, the wildlife of Britain) as the ‘natural’ state, set in time around their own childhood or maybe stories from their grandparents’ times. We discount longer-term trends (and our parts in them), underestimating the true scale of past – or future – change.
As Sandom writes, “around the world, our unreliable memories and our failure to talk about the natural world between generations means there is an extinction of historical knowledge and experience … With each new generation, the current and more degraded state of nature is established as the new ‘normal’.”
And ‘normal’ is what we value. While changes to our status quo are, understandably, seen as threats — to be resisted — often the ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ we’re seeking to defend is the outcome of previous generations’ amnesia. The ever shifting baseline is the mark of previous rounds of nature-culture’s winners and losers.