Ecocentric

Shifting Baselines: Why the Environment Is Even Worse Off Than You Think

When it comes to the ocean, we don't know how good we used to have it.

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Mark Conlin via Getty Images

Bleached and dead coral in the Pacific Ocean

I had a chance to tag along this past weekend in Belize with a team from the Catlin Seaview Survey as they began their underwater assessment of the endangered coral reefs of the Caribbean. You can read about the project—which is using panoramic underwater cameras and machine vision to digitize the oceans—over here. It’s very cool stuff, done in conjunction with Google Earth.

As part of my reporting, I dove with the team in the waters above Glover’s Reef, which is part of Belize’s protected Hol Chan marine reserve. (I know, environmental reporters have a tough life.) The water was warm and blue, and the varied coral to my eye looked abundant and healthy, with intricate, boulder-size brain coral, jagged fire coral and majestic elkhorn coral. There wasn’t quite as much sealife as I’d been hoping to see, though  brilliantly-colored parrotfish swam among the coral, and I just missed glimpses of sea turtles and even a rare hammerhead shark. To me it was a beautiful dive, a gorgeous coral reef. It was what the oceans should be.

And it was nothing like it used to be. Coral cover in Glover’s Reef  dropped from 80% in 1971 to 13% in 1999. There’s been some recovery in the years since, thanks in part to the establishment of a large “no-take” protected area within the reef, and as a result Glover’s  is one of the healthiest coral ecosystems in the Caribbean. But that’s in many ways a reflection of how degraded the rest of the Caribbean—and coral reefs around the world—have become, thanks to pollution, coastal development, overfishing and climate change. Outside of parts of the South Pacific, too remote yet to be impacted by human activity, coral reefs are nothing like they used to be. The bewildering abundance, the sheer mass and variety of sealife that the first scuba divers would have encountered decades ago is long gone. We’re trying to protect a shadow of what once was—even though to me, floating among the coral of Glover’s Reef and straining for a view of that elusive hammerhead shark, it all seemed so perfect.

(MORE: Antarctica Melted in the Past, and As the Climate Warms, It’s Poised to Melt Again)

It turns there’s a scientific term for this feeling: shifting baselines. The fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly coined it in 1995 to describe how overfishing has changed the ocean so rapidly over the past several decades that what we think of as normal and healthy—the baseline—has had to shift to keep up with reality. Our picture of the environment becomes skewed, as we forget what used to be and adjust unconsciously to a diminished present.

Pauly explained the concept in a 2010 TED talk filmed on a  expedition to the Galapagos organized by the oceanographer Sylvia Earle—another trip I was lucky enough to be part of:

We transform the world, but we don’t remember it. We adjust our baseline to the new level,and we don’t recall what was there. If you generalize this, something like this happens. You have on the y axis some good thing: biodiversity, numbers of orca, the greenness of your country, the water supply. And over time it changes — it changes because people do things, or naturally. Every generation will use the images that they got at the beginning of their conscious lives as a standard and will extrapolate forward. And the difference then, they perceive as a loss. But they don’t perceive what happened before as a loss. You can have a succession of changes. At the end you want to sustain miserable leftovers. And that, to a large extent, is what we want to do now. We want to sustain things that are gone or things that are not the way they were.

Ocean science is particularly vulnerable to this effect because we still know so little about the state of the deep now—and even less about the way it was decades or centuries ago. Reliable global fishing statistics only go back to about mid-century, and it was only around the same time that scientists began to be able to explore the underwater oceans in depth. But underwater pictures and film from decades ago are rare, and there’s little hard, original baseline data—which is why that baseline shifts so easily. The best evidence of how the oceans have changed over that time period is found in the memories of the veteran scientists and divers who have actually seen the transition over the course of their lifetimes—people like Earle, who has been diving and studying the oceans since the 1950s, and Jeremy Jackson, a marine ecologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Jackson has studied the coral reefs around Jamaica for decades, and over that time, he’s seen that ecosystem destroyed by development and pollution. But someone diving today in Jamaican waters—and thousands of people do every year—would have no idea what they were missing, just as I can’t imagine what a pristine Glover’s Reef might have looked like decades ago. The present—diminished as it may be—is my baseline.

(MORE: Breaking the Waves: Catlin Seaview Survey Digitizes the Endangered Oceans)

That’s what makes the work of the Catlin survey so valuable. Over the course of several years, the group aims to build reliable, broad baseline data about the health of coral reefs around the world. That’s something that only became possible within the last few years, as underwater cameras became capable of taking thousands of pictures at a time and computer programs were written to analyze those images more than a hundred times faster than a human being could. The work is being done just in time—coral reefs have already degraded significantly, but as coastal population continues to grow and climate change takes its toll, coral will come under even more pressure in the future. By developing a firm baseline picture of the state of corals now, in 2013, we’ll have a reliable reference as they change in the future. The baseline will be fixed.

Still, I can’t help wondering if there’s a psychological value to shifting baselines. We live in an era of unprecedented and rapid environmental change—change that’s happening faster than our brains, which evolved over a period when stasis was the norm, might be able handle. By moving the baselines, by resetting our memories, we can cope with that change—with that decay, really. We can convince ourselves that the sea is clear, the coral is vibrant and it’s all not slipping away.

[UPDATE: Don’t end this piece thinking that the situation is entirely hopeless—though there’s been more environmental decline than most of us are aware of, actions can and have made a difference. A new study in Conservation Letters that looked at reefs in Belize found that instituting “no-take” policies in marine reserves can help make affected coral reefs much more resilient to future threats. Corals are six times more likely to regrow after a stressful event if parrotfish are protecting from fishing. Parrotfish are herbivores, and they keep seaweed in check that would otherwise crowd out growing corals. “If we ensure that corals are still able to regrow and reproduce, then even when they die, they’ll be able to replenish themselves,” says Peter Mumby, a coral ecologist at the University of Queensland in Australia and a Pew Marine Fellow who was the lead author on the paper. “It keeps the door open for adaptation.” Just because the baselines are shifting beneath our feet doesn’t mean that we’re helpless.]

10 comments
tolyarutunoff
tolyarutunoff

wonder what the world was like before krakatoa exploded, chilling the world for a few years--wasn't that the last time the Thames froze over?  And Mt. St. Helens in '81--I heard one announcer talking about the tens of thousands of cubic yards of various poisonous matter (arsenic, asbestos, etc. etc.) that it had thrown into the atmosphere...and never heard anything like that analysis again.  Things change.  The Hudson was so polluted 4 or 5 decades ago that what appeared to be a new species of worm appeared, growing out of the bottom a couple feet vertically.  The Hudson got cleaner.  The worms disappeared.  I'm not worried.  Things change.  Ever hear of the high content of co2 in the ice cores dated to the 13th/14th century?  must've been from all that human industrialization... 

graemes@pipeline.com.au
graemes@pipeline.com.au

I'm presenting before an Independent Planning Panel to voice my concerns over yet another unsustainable  'Sustainable Growth development' in my area of Victoria, Australia. There is a myriad of  scientists and journalists doing their best to inform the public about the human-induced raft of dangers coming our way in this 21st century.

 As a member of my local community, I feel an incumbency to do the best I can to at least inform and apply extra pressure to such panels so that they are aware of the externalities of their growth mantra. In the short term at least, it will only be through community pressure that there will be any opportunity to create positive change. I hope more local people will stand up for their area (locally/globally).  

jdyer2
jdyer2

Shifting baselines indeed.  Your own magazine pointed out last week that it was 'good news' that the amount of deforestation in Africa was declining.  We are still deforesting the heck out of it, just not as bad as we did before. 

DanBruce
DanBruce

The battle to save the environment was lost decades ago when we as a species failed to figure out a sensible and humane and fair way to control population growth and resource consumption, and laughed at those whop said we should be trying. We have now passed the point of no return. Much of the ecosystem we have today will be gone in another century or less. Future generations will only be able to experience free-roaming wildlife, dripping glaciers, and magical forests in books or on videos.   

witsendnj
witsendnj

Baselines don't just shift across generations. They shift within individual's memories. That's why people are able to walk around and not realize that all the trees are dying. They've even become used to having them fall on cars and houses, which they never used to do, and knock out power for weeks. It's as remarkable as the death of coral reefs, but because we see trees so much more often, it's less noticed.  Pollution is killing them:  http://witsendnj.blogspot.com/2013/08/blog-post.html

ClintonMcDade
ClintonMcDade

@witsendnj I see dying trees all over the city. When I mention it to other people they are like "what?" and look at me like I am nuts. I think we take so much for granted, people riding around in cars don't notice the ecosystem is collapsing  all around us.

witsendnj
witsendnj

@ClintonMcDade @witsendnj well, it's a pretty terrifying prospect so it's not too surprising that most people ignore it.  Professional nurserymen and foresters seem to be the most in denial!  Also ozone is invisible so many people don't even know it's a worsening problem.  Most who do notice blame a whole host of other reasons, mainly warming & drought, even though trees are dying in places that are wetter, not drier, from climate change...and they're also doing poorly in nurseries where they are watered.  Then, there are those who blame invasive species, even though there has been a robust global trade in nursery stock for centuries, and only in the last couple of decades have the insects, disease and fungus exploded.  Then there are the folks who blame chemtrails, as though we need a secret conspiracy to explain all the toxins in the air when we are releasing them right out in the open!  I wrote a guest post last January that summarizes the science:  http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2013/01/29/whispers-from-the-ghosting-trees/

ccalmbach
ccalmbach

@Ripsitntwistsit @witsendnj @ClintonMcDade  "The good life of connection with nature and the environment" means so very much to me and my children. I was lucky enough to be raised by a family with a deep reverence for nature. My grandfather had a 1,000 acre ranch and all of us spent about half of our growing years there. It is still together...virgin land which goes back to the first homesteaders. But it will fall at some point. There are enough very wealthy Texans who, for some reason, want to live deep in our precious hill-country. They cut down the beautiful oaks and sycamores, ravage the land and build their mansions there. I'm glad that I'm 70- yrs.- old and can treasure my love and experiences with nature in my heart. Will there be any nature in the future? I think someone has written a book with that qq. as a title.

Ripsitntwistsit
Ripsitntwistsit

@witsendnj @ClintonMcDade Yep, yep, yep. Those who know are in the extreme minority. I have struggled to find a way forward for the sake of the priceless things... I don't even have kids to educate. Those who do only focus on themselves and theirs. No alternatives or solutions are conceivable by these people if it includes even a little sacrifice. The attempt to present the big picture have been only marginally successful in raising consciousness (Pretty nature documentaries). The good life of connection with nature and the environment has been replaced with the life of internet connections, self-fulfillment philosophy and religion, and indoor environments with thermostatic controls. Life is an unbroken undulation of asphalt and concrete for most people. When nature erupts from a crack in the sidewalk much consternation results. The baseline concept is incredibly important to understanding the context of our awareness, but to a population who doesn't value life and worships money and selfishness it is futile. The transcendental religions are creating a hell on Earth while imbibing deadly pride. Everyone is on happy pills and so, why aren't you??