Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Shifting baselines

Rather than some funky kind of house music this actually refers to the concept coined by Daniel Pauley in the journal TREE. In 1995 (a while ago now) he wrote about the already well known catastrophic collapse of the worlds fisheries, the ludicrous amount of discarded catch and the heavily subsidized inflated fishing industry. Furthermore, he also identified a new phenomenon, the idea that our standard of what is a good healthy ocean, the knowledge of what species make up the ecosystem itself is in fact changing over time.

He insisted on a historical review of fishing, so that we could look back through old records to get a true examination of the state of our seas. This was to determine if old wives tales about seas so filled with cod you could walk on them were fact or fiction. For a long time we simply didn't know this history. If you go and ask old fishermen what the seas were like when they were young, they generally believe that fish caught today are smaller and less numerous than back in the day. This is just a single generation, how far have the baselines shifted? What can we learn from the tall tales of old fishermen?

It saddens me that we do not have much faith in stories these days, indeed there are not that many people telling stories and not that many people willing to listen. If you go out and find hunter gather communities in Africa or South America they generally have at least one thing in common; old people are respected and they tell a lot of stories.

Stories of creation, songs of history and tales of how, why and where things are. These stories are altered a little year on year, but as a rule reflect pretty well on the types of activities the group needs to survive. Methods of hunting and fishing, places to do these activities and what you expect to catch are all passed down reasonably faithfully from generation to generation.

We have failed to listen to our old fishing stories, we don't know where to hunt, what method to use or what to expect in terms of catch. Each year naïve young fishermen, scientists (self included) and politicians struggle to work out what they have in their seas and what new methods they need to ensure a good catch.

One of my favourite lines from the film avatar is a fairly obvious one, 'Let me see if you can wake up from your insanity.' It is not a new idea, but I feel a pertinent one. I feel that one of the most terrifying ways for you to become disconnected from reality would be to continually forget all you know about the world every single day.

We as a culture are suffering from massive collective amnesia. Every generation we wake up screaming, angry and alone because we are terrible at telling stories. Now Memento like we must scrabble through old notes and records to find the past states of our oceans and forests. No one considered it important enough to tell these tales and we have suffered as a result.

As it turns out a good deal of the tales from the deep were accurate. I cannot praise the work of the late Ranosm Myres enough, he collected historical fishing records across the USA and also the world for hundreds of years, for hundreds of species. His findings showed that even in 100 years the baselines have shifted a great deal. Based on his analysis we have seen 90% or more declines in top ocean predators. Total overall catches per unit effort are less than a 10th of what they were 100 years ago. I wanted to avoid including too many scientific graphs but this taken form Myers et al (2003) in Nature is just too shocking not to include.

It shows nothing short of global, catastrophic and universal cultural amnesia. Every ocean in the world used to perform several orders of magnitude better than they do now. We knew this in 2003 and the struggle still continues. I would like to praise the work of Randy Olson and his team for their (much more profession and detailed) blog Shifting Baselines. Their site deals with this phenomenon in a much more complete and engaging fashion.


  1. Cool post man.

    When you say "indeed there are not that many people telling stories and not that many people willing to listen" what about the film industry? What about television and the many, many novels published each year? I agree with you we have a different relationship with stories than cultures may have done in the past (I have no data for this comment) but the quantity of stories available is vast compared with what it would have been in a hunter gatherer society, for example.

    Also I think watching Avatar in 3D Imax is probably more immersive than listening to an old man (even though that sounds charming).

    I feel there is also a deeper truth you have hinted at, that there has been some kind of disconnect of our society from the folk knowledge of the past. I feel this disconnect often. I think (haven't read it) that Campbell talks about it in Creative Mythology, I think one of the transformations our socitey has been through is that as the volume of images and symbols has grown we have lost our simple stories which used to make so much sense in the cascades of noise, and we have gained the ability to create our own mythology out of this great library of material.

    I'm sure this shift is too complicated to be a good or bad thing. If I were to put it in story form I would say "when the first birds learned to fly they found great joy in their new freedom and sometimes, when they slept, they would dream they were falling and wish their feet were back on solid ground again".

  2. I totally agree with you John, there are loads of stories out there as you say we just have a different relationship with them. I meet many people who say these things are just stories, fiction doesnt really inform their daily existence. In tribal societies the line is very much blurred, stories are fact, fiction, culture and play all wrapped up.

    I have to read some Campbell by the sound of it (and you are not the first to suggest this), I may be accidentally plagarising his ideas!

    I agree that change isnt necessarily a bad thing, but when we loose track of our cultural environmental knowledge it can lead to very bad least from my point of view!