Topic: LandscapesFrogs in Hot Water: short-term thinking

When we discuss changes to our surroundings, be it climate degradation or otherwise, we tend to think about changes that have taken place within living memory – over decades, rather than centuries. Over time, as decades pass, our standards gradually slip. This is ‘shifting baseline syndrome’; a tendency for conservation efforts to ignore the historic richness of our landscapes. But if we are going to look back, when should we look back to? Sophie Yeo explores what the phenomenon means for climate change, and what can be done to resolve it. Illustrated by Jake Alexander.

By Sophie Yeo

It was late and very dark. I was sitting in the car’s passenger seat, on my way to a remote part of the Lake District. I squinted into the beams cast by our headlights, hoping to see insects flurrying in the light, but the air was clear.

This was not unexpected. I have grown up in a world where insect populations are declining. But this is not a universal experience; older generations can still remember a world of nocturnal abundance. With the advent of the automobile in the 20th century, drivers became aware of a profusion of after-dark life. Insects clouded the beams of headlights and splattered themselves on windscreens in a phenomenon that has become known as the ‘moth snowstorm’.

Illustration of people having a picnic surrounding by wildfire

‘The true startling scale of their numbers was suddenly apparent, not least as they plastered the headlights and the windscreen until driving became impossible, and you had to stop the car to wipe the surfaces clean,’ writes Michael McCarthy in his book, The Moth Snowstorm, which examines the loss of this natural wonder. ‘Yet now, after but a short century of existence, it has gone.’

What represents a loss to McCarthy is normality for me. For as long as I can remember, I have existed in a world of clean windscreens, barren beams of light – of absence. It is an example of what ecologists call ‘shifting baseline syndrome’, where the loss of nature becomes normalised with each new generation. In other words, we are collectively forgetting the historic opulence of nature.

Humans are so extraordinarily adaptable to their surroundings that conservationists must make a concerted effort to reimagine the past on longer timescales than usual

The shifting baselines concept has been around since 1995, when the phrase was coined by a fisheries scientist called Daniel Pauly. He was dismayed by the lack of scientific tradition formally acknowledging the historic state of the oceans; old tales of bluefin tuna damaging mackerel nets were dismissed as anecdotes. He noted that this was having a negative effect on conservation, with the ‘gradual accommodation’ of new baselines leading to unambitious restoration targets.

While the ‘shifting baselines’ concept is most common in ecology, it has also offered a new way of understanding our perception of climate change.

A recent study reinforced the hypothesis that humans are ‘boiling frogs,’ incapable of noticing and responding to gradually rising temperatures. The researchers examined which weather events were considered to be remarkable and found that, over time, people became numb to previously notable events. In other words, they had internalised extreme weather as the new normal.

No one conceives of the 1930s as a golden age of nature; the planet was already irrevocably changed when our grandparents were born

This is bad news for efforts to tackle climate change. According to the authors, their findings suggest that ‘it may be unlikely that rising temperatures alone will be sufficient to produce widespread support for mitigation policies.’

So, how to overcome shifting baseline syndrome? Humans are so extraordinarily adaptable to their surroundings that conservationists must make a concerted effort to reimagine the past on longer timescales than usual. A 2018 paper suggested four ways of counteracting shifting baseline syndrome. These included: restoring the natural world, monitoring and collecting data, education and reducing the extinction of experience by promoting positive interactions with nature.

But restoring the natural world means making decisions about which historic state to restore; humans have been interacting with the natural world for thousands of years through agriculture, coppicing and hunting. Historical ecologists attempt to reconstruct the history of the landscape through other means, such as old documents, maps and pollen records.

Readjusting our shifting baselines may mean reintroducing species that have been locally exterminated, or returning a plant back to its former range. For instance, in one area of Russia, there is an effort to restore the ecosystem that would have existed during the Pleistocene, the geological epoch that ended 11,700 years ago. While some elements of this approach may not be practicable in more populated locations like the UK – the idea of reintroducing the wolf has proved unpopular so far – there are numerous efforts to bring back species such as the beaver, which was hunted to extinction in the 16th century.

While Arctic regions may appear relatively pristine to the casual observer, Indigenous Communities are alert to the degradations that have taken place over the decades

Changes to the climate, landscapes, and ecosystems as a whole, mean that it would be impossible to faithfully restore the conditions of the past in any particular area. Species that once survived in a particular niche may, for example, now prefer to live further north as temperatures rise. Some species have gone globally extinct and will never return. The original baseline has vanished, but that doesn’t mean we have to admit defeat, and some conservation projects are now explicitly incorporating efforts to overcome shifting baseline syndrome.

Back On Our Map (BOOM) is one such project. Across South Cumbria, scientists and conservationists are planning to reintroduce a range of plants and animals. The original longlist was whittled down to around ten species, which were chosen partly for their prominence in the childhood memories of members of the county’s older generation, who were consulted through workshops. This not only gave a sense of the lost biodiversity in the region, but also the cultural significance of these creatures.

‘We’re very much working on this concept of a shifting baseline: that every generation is expecting a little less from the natural world,’ says Dr Volker Deecke, Associate Professor in Wildlife Conservation at the University of Cumbria. ‘In this project, we would reverse that, and get people to expect a little more from the natural world.’

While BOOM gives a taste of how conservationists can incorporate the past into their visions for the future of the natural world, there will always be limitations associated with relying on living memory. No one conceives of the 1930s as a golden age of nature; the planet was already irrevocably changed when our grandparents were born.

For some Indigenous Communities, however, memories go back further in time. A deep knowledge of the natural world has been passed between generations since ‘time immemorial’ making the deviations from the current state more apparent. For instance, while Arctic regions may appear relatively pristine to the casual observer, Indigenous Communities are alert to the degradations that have taken place over the decades.

This knowledge could be a valuable resource in correcting false impressions of the past environment, while also promoting respect for these communities, which have often suffered from Western colonisation. ‘Experienced harvesters and knowledge keepers, identified locally as experts, are ideally equipped to offer a firm understanding of appropriate baselines,’ writes Timothy Jardine, Associate Professor at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada.

This phenomenon is not unique to the Arctic, nor does it necessarily rely on memories going back deep in time; another recent paper, carried out on Aboriginal land in northern Australia, attempted to corroborate scarce local records of native mammal decline through the memories of older Indigenous People who were intimately familiar with the region’s ecology.

Reconnecting to a world of abundance that existed before our birth may be too much to ask on an individual level. There are powerful psychological barriers to how we perceive the world; we are increasingly sheltered in cities and behind screens and many of us struggle to picture what nature would look like when freed from human influence. However, with a bit of imagination and a willingness to spend time reengaging with what’s left of the natural world, we may begin to inch towards older baselines once again.


Moore et al., 2019. ‘Rapidly declining remarkability of temperature anomalies may obscure public perception of climate change.’


Soga & Gaston, 2018. ‘Shifting baseline syndrome: causes, consequences and implications.’


In biology, the range or distribution of a species is the geographical area or habitat where the species live.


Jardine, 2019. ‘Indigenous knowledge as a remedy for shifting baseline syndrome.’


Ziembickia et al., 2013, ‘Evaluating the status of species using Indigenous Knowledge.’

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