Shifting Baseline Syndrome (SBS) describes a gradual change in the accepted norms for the condition of the natural environment due to a lack of human experience, memory and/or knowledge of its past condition.(1) In the absence of past information or experience with historical conditions, members of each new generation accept the situation in which they were raised as being normal.(2)
The fisheries biologists, Daniel Pauly, introduced the term in a 1995 article. In 2017 he discussed the idea in his TED Talk “The Ocean’s Shifting Baseline”
He and George Monbiot, an environmental writer and proponent of the idea, discussed it in a 2017 article with Oceana.org “Daniel Pauly and George Monbiot in conversation about shifting baselines syndrome”
The recent ABC article “Bird populations are collapsing, and it’s a sign of a bigger problem” suggests the lack of monitoring of Australian insect populations, a vital food source for a number of bird families, means we lack objective data to combat SBS.
I recently visited a local suburban pond surrounded by trees and flowering plants, birds singing, and juvenile fish at the water’s edge. The trees were Willows (Salix sp), the flowering plants Boneseed (Osteospermum moniliferum moniliferum), Gazanias (Gazania sp), Capeweed (Arctotheca calendula) and Onion-Leafed Asphodel (Asphodelus fistulosus), the birds European Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), Spotted Doves (Streptopelia chinensis) and Eurasian Blackbirds (Turdus merula), the fish European Carp (Cyprinus carpio) and Mosquito Fish (Gambusia holbrooki). This environment may well form the ‘baseline’ for some of the next generation.
As an example, take the Little Lorikeet (Glossopsitta pusilla). This little Parrot has not been recorded in the Mount Lofty Ranges and Adelaide region in many decades and is considered a rare seasonal visitor travelling up from the South-East of the state. However historical accounts suggest it was present and breeding in the region. (The Little Lorikeet in South Australia) Without these accounts, our ‘baseline’ for this region may not have included this Parrot.
The 2017 paper “Shifting baseline syndrome: causes, consequences and implications” proposes three main causes:
(1) Lack of data on the natural environment,
(2) Loss of interaction with the natural environment, and
(3) Loss of familiarity with the natural environment
To address these causes, two of the recommendations are to “increase monitoring and collecting data” and to “increase people’s natural history knowledge through education”.
It is here where the value of iNaturalist becomes apparent. The primary goal being connecting people to nature through a platform that provides a space to share biodiversity information and help people learn, while also generating scientifically valuable biodiversity data from these personal encounters. iNaturalist works to address all three potential causes of SBS listed above.
So consider when making an observation that a species that is common in an area today, may be rare or entirely absent in that area at a future time. That record will help to establish an objective baseline for the species historic distribution.