Generational environmental amnesia fosters erosion of expectations of nature

Pokoleniowa amnezja

The forest by which I live, my grandmother would not have considered a forest at all (I. Cieślińska All of us are affected by generational amnesia…, highobcasy.pl, 07.2021).

Each of us certainly knows someone who says things used to be better. We probably even say so ourselves often (and more often as we get older). Such an attitude is certainly common and justified among naturalists of all sorts, from environmentalists, nature conservationists to amateur naturalists, who watch with concern the environmental degradation taking place before our eyes. The question is how it used to be, and whether our expectations of how it should be are really justified. Research on the phenomenon of baseline shift syndrome, a type of generational environmental amnesia, indicates that not necessarily.

Environmental degradation is often downplayed or undermined

Man is changing the environment, and probably on a scale never before observed in the history of the Earth or in any other species. There are studies that indicate that over the past few decades, nearly a quarter of total global primary production has been diverted for human consumption, half of the planet’s wild lands have been converted and (probably irretrievably) lost, and wildlife numbers have halved.

We have confirmation of this in the form of scientific results. And yet these estimates are abstract to many people, and are often even challenged, and by no small number of skeptics. Discussion of these topics often refers to personal experiences and anecdotes, as well as examples of environmental change observed locally. After all, it is not uncommon to hear the argument: What kind of climate warming? After all, it was -20°C at our place yesterday. Do you know?

Baseline shift syndrome, or we expect less and less from nature

Why do humans tend to downplay or underestimate the environmental changes they themselves have caused? One of the answers may be the so-called. Shifting baseline syndrome, also known as shifting baseline syndrome (SBS). It involves changing accepted norms and expectations about the state of the environment as a result of a lack of experience, memory or knowledge about its condition in the past. In other words, it is the tendency to see as the norm a condition that is the experience of the current generation or existed recently.

The concept was introduced into scientific discourse in the mid-1990s. In the 1970s. Daniel Pauly, a marine biologist, in his essay Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries, innovative for the time [1], originally set them in the context of fisheries. In it, he showed that fishermen and marine biologists tend to consider the proper state of the ichthyofauna as they knew it at the beginning of their work. And it is to such a base that they relate their expectations in terms of the size and species composition of catches, practically ignoring the situation before their lifetime.

This phenomenon was confirmed by the study, which showed that the number of fish species indicated as lost decreased with the age of the respondent. In other words, young fishermen saw less loss of ichthyofauna and tended to consider a much worse state than their grandparents as appropriate.

In psychology, the SBS phenomenon has a counterpart called environmental generational amnesia([2]). It relies on the fact that each successive generation becomes accustomed to the image of the world they live in and does not realize how much it has degraded compared to the world of previous generations. This can be put in a nutshell – according to the SBS concept, our idea of the proper state of the environment is eroding from generation to generation.

Generational amnesia affects not only fishermen

Although the SBS debate has largely focused on fisheries over the years, the phenomenon can be linked to a wide range of current global environmental problems, such as species decline, loss of natural habitats and processes, and increased pollution levels. Even if environmental conditions gradually deteriorate over time, people perceive them to be less than they actually are because they are not aware or do not remember what the environment is.

We look forward to those species that we ourselves once saw, but overlook those that became extinct during the lifetime of previous generations, before the time of our birth. If we remember a beautiful, clean river from our childhood days, which has now been degraded, we will consider the condition appropriate for it to be that of a few decades ago, even though it was probably far from its original state anyway. How are people supposed to know what a natural forest looks like when most of them have never seen one?

But why is this happening? Answering this question is not easy, as the issue of shifting expectations, which sits somewhere on the borderline between the social and natural sciences, is difficult to study. First of all, because of the limited methodological workshop (mainly surveying), the low availability of comparative data (no hard historical data) and the need to refer to the subjective impressions of the surveyed objects (respondents). And yet there are quite a few works available analyzing this problem.

The loss of contact with nature makes us stop perceiving it properly

One of the more synthetic yet comprehensive takes on the SBS phenomenon was made by two environmentalists, Masashi Soga and Kevin Gaston, in a review of the issue published in 2018. In the pages of Frontiers of Ecology and Evolution [3]. They point to three main reasons.

The first is the lack of proper environmental data. Remember that most biodiversity monitoring programs in Europe were launched in the late 20th century, long after anthropogenic impacts had already done most of the environmental damage. Without reliable historical data, people cannot tell whether long-term changes have occurred, and if so, to what extent. In this situation, we are left with no choice but to define baseline values based on our knowledge and our own experience, which in science is often referred to as expert opinion (a method that is quite disliked and often criticized as biased). This means basing environmental policy on beliefs rather than hard evidence, which may even accelerate the SBS phenomenon.

The authors see the second reason in the loss of man’s connection to his environment. In much of the world, people, especially children, have increasingly limited contact with nature, spending more time indoors, in front of the TV or computer than any previous generation. A special term has even been coined to describe this phenomenon – nature-deficit disorder. Nature-deficit disorder ). It is due, on the one hand, to the increase in the proportion of the human population living in urban areas without access to natural areas, and on the other hand, to the development of alternative leisure activities without the need for contact with nature (such as social media, television and the Internet). This progressive loss of human-nature interaction is another key driver of SBS.

Finally, as a third reason, Soga and Gaston cite a lack of basic knowledge of the surrounding environment, such as knowledge of local plants and animals. This type of knowledge, especially in developed countries and urban areas, is increasingly disappearing from society. Urban children think apples grow on store shelves and have no idea where raspberries come from. They may be able to tell the difference between a magpie and a pigeon, but they have no idea what a common finch or a swift looks like. And what the hell is a sloe gin? One who understands natural history poorly is less likely to see changes in the natural world.

Of course, there are groups of people in society who are exceptionally familiar with the environment and have a high awareness of nature, which include, among others, environmentalists, protected area managers or amateur naturalists. They have great potential for spreading knowledge about nature, but they usually represent only a fraction of the population.

As a consequence of SBS, our tolerance to degradation increases

Shifting the reference point has its consequences. Above all, it increases the public’s tolerance for ongoing environmental degradation, including the decline of wildlife populations, loss of natural habitats and increased pollution. People generally base their assessment of environmental degradation on how current conditions differ from their own cognitive reference points. Therefore, as we become accustomed to the current state of the environment, further degradation will be perceived as less severe.

A generational shift in reference point may also affect people’s expectations about what state of the environment we consider desirable and therefore worth protecting. A false perception of past environmental conditions can project the setting of inappropriate goals for environmental protection, restoration and management programs. This means that in the face of continued global deterioration, our expectations of the proper state will become increasingly liberal, which poses a huge threat to environmental protection, restoration and management.

Implications for water management

How does this relate to water management? And very simply – in order to properly assess water status and design appropriate corrective actions, we need to define the baseline condition (our baseline or reference point) and environmental goals (what we are aiming for). It is clear that from both a scientific and practical point of view, there is no single correct or desirable benchmark, so determining the right one is a major challenge. With an improperly set reference state, our idea of deviation from it (i.e., a de facto assessment of ecological status) is also misleading, and this in turn impinges on the environmental goals, i.e., the state of the waters to which conservation and remedial measures are supposed to lead. Frustrating, right?

But perhaps our approach stemming from SBS is simply pragmatic? Why do we need environmental goals that we can’t achieve? This only breeds frustration and discourages action. Surely the aforementioned man, who lives by the degraded river, would prefer to see it as it was in his childhood days. Even if the condition was far from natural, it was still better than the current one. Provided, of course, that he cares about this river at all!


In the article, I used, among others. From the works:

[1] Pauly D. (1995). Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries. Trends Ecol Evol 10: 430.

[2] Kahn Jr. P.H. (2002). Children’s affiliations with nature: Structure, development, and the problem of environmental generational amnesia. In Kahn Jr P. H., Kellert S. R. (eds.). Children and Nature: Psychological, Sociocultural, and Evolutionary Investigations, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 93: 116.

[3] Soga M., Gaston K.J. (2018). Shifting baseline syndrome: causes, consequences, and implications. Front Ecol Environ 2018; 16(4): 222-230, doi: 10.1002/fee.1794

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