Shifting Baseline Syndrome

Feral (2013), George Monbiot

I’m writing the morning after the UEFA cup final. One manager, Chelsea’s Thomas Tuchel, is being praised for tactical intelligence, one, Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola, has been criticised for an apparently erratic squad choice. I didn’t watch the game, so I’m not sure whether City played in a more interesting or creative manner, but football, like all sports, has a pretty clear set of criteria for success: score more goals than the other team.

However, life is generally more complicated than sport (with the possible exception of cricket). One of the important issues is therefore a reference point to start from: what is the target that we’re going to improve upon? The current UK Government has a difficult relationship with the truth at the best of times. One of the most interesting examples is the plan to recruit 20,000 new police officers. Nowhere in the press release does it mention that between March 2010 and March 2019, that the number of police officers in England and Wales fell by 20,600. If your baseline year is 2019, the Government is up 20,000. If your baseline year is 2010, it’s down 600. Technically, no one has lied, but by shifting the baseline, the Government is intentionally manipulating. Again.

Of course that’s what politicians do, however egregious. I’ve come across another more subtle example of a slippery relationship between a starting point and success. In George Monbiot’s Feral, he discusses the notion of the Shifting Baseline Syndrome. The book explores how nature denuded the UK’s land and sea is, the impact of losing touch with nature on humans and the causes of this deprivation. Most of the causes relate to practices such as intensive land use and over-fishing, but some of the most interesting analysis is the way that environmental agricultural subsidies can be highly damaging. Sometimes this is due to landowners exercising undue influence over legislators, but there’s another phenomenon: the Shifting Baseline Syndrome. The shifting baseline arises from two sources: the difficulty of finding early reliable records to use as a baseline and our own unconscious biases about what is ‘normal’ in nature.

Difficulties finding suitable early records

There are almost incredible stories about the quantities of fish to be found when Europeans first arrived in North America. The Grand Banks were reputed to be so rich in fish that a man could walk on the backs of fish from one boat to another (there may be some exaggeration here). Monbiot argues that it’s quite probable that the same was true in European waters but that at some point in our past a tipping point was reached and both large fish and large shoals of fish were wiped out by over-fishing. If the scientific proces of measuring fish stocks only began in the 20th century, the baseline is drawn from a seascape already devastated by centuries of over-fishing.

What is natural anyway?

This is a second, more subtle, problem. Throughout ‘Feral’, the idea of rewilding emerges. One of the real challenges is “What is wild?”. Large parts of our uplands are described as natural wilderness, for example in the UK, the Lake District, Snowdonia, the Pennines all have beautiful wind scoured upland landscapes. Their rugged beauty feels wild. On one level, it is, if I’m standing on top of Kinder Scout in the Peak District, it is wild, I’m a good hour away from the nearest cappucino, but on another, it’s a totally managed landscape. This moorland is managed for two fundamental purposes: grouse shooting and sheep farming. In reality, it is as controlled as a field of wheat. The natural state for most of these areas is probably some form of temperate rainforest. Clearly, there are huge issues with simply turning all of the UK’s upland farmland into wilderness areas, particularly as farmers feel the post-Brexit pinch, but Monbiot’s point is that, under recent subsidy regimes, farmers have to farm to a constructed model of what natural looked like. That vision of nature is based on a 20th century perception of normal. The challenge is about where you set the baseline. If the baseline is maintaining the landscape as it has been throughout the 20th Century, then it’s meeting its purpose. However, if it’s based on what the landscape would have looked like before humans changed the landscape wholesale, it’s an unmitigated disaster for wildlife.

What makes this all the more painful is that, unlike politicians bending the truth for short term advantage, this appears to be a genuine example of well meaning people being boxed in by their pre-existing map of the world. Feral is a few years old and the rewilding movement now appears to have some momentum behind it (even if only for very practical reasons like flood risk management), so it will be interesting to see how things change. I know that social scientists and data wonks will be conversant with the issues of appropriate control groups, but I think that the Shifting Baseline Syndrome is worth remembering as a way to regularly challenge our assumptions and look out for our biases.

Sort of an appendix: Is your best friend the apex predator?

One overarching theme in the rewilding narrative is the reintroduction of megafauna, for example apex predators such as wolves or lynx. I’m really struck that the most rewilded places in the Peak District may be the dales in White Peak such as Dovedale or Lathkil Dale. I’m sure that some of this arises from enlightened land use from the landowners such as the National Trust, but if you compare photos from the early 20th century or even prints from the 19th, these dales appeared to be much more open in the past, far more grazed by sheep. These days the dales are far more wooded, I’d previously thought that at certain beauty spots (for example, Tissington Spires in Dovedale) it’s a shame that the sheep weren’t there suppressing trees. I believe that I’m wrong about that now. My theory is that there are so many dogs off the lead in the dales that the farmers largely keep their sheep away for fear of them being attacked. This in turn has meant that trees can get a toehold and is leading to reforestation. Your best friend may have had the same impact as the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone.

Lathkil Dale from the 1911 Beautiful England series
More or less the same view, taken summer 2020

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