Did you ever meet a relative you had not seen in many years, and you
noticed they had changed. Maybe they were slimmer. But people they saw
often did not notice the change because it occurred slowly. Your baseline
for comparison was several years old. The person's close friend's baseline
was only a few days old.
Our ability to notice change is determined by our baseline. See the
YouTube video Shifting
Baselines in the Sound.
If we have always lived in a city with smog or air pollution, we accept
it as normal. We don't remember the days when the city had clear, clean,
unpolluted air. Our baseline says the city is normal. A much older baseline
says the city is polluted.
This is the phenomena of the shifting baseline.
It colors our ability to notice environmental change because change is
often slow, spanning generations. Sam Houston, visiting Texas today,
would be shocked by the change. He would notice the buffalo and the wide-open
spaces are gone, the night is not very dark, and the streams are muddy
with few fish.
You shoulda seen it when:
- "You could see grass on the bottom
in at least 10 to 12 feet of water."
- "Oyster reefs were so abundant they
were navigational hazards."
- "Water flowed out of water wells at
the land surface."
- "The shad run was so strong it looked
like you could walk across the river on their backs."
- "You could paddle up any creek and
fill the skiff with crab 'doublers'.”
- "Ducks and geese were there for the
- "Sturgeon roe was more abundant than
All these statements once applied to Chesapeake
Bay and the Northern Neck. Today, it is hard to imagine what the
Bay was like at the time Europeans arrived. Scientists refer to changes
in perception (Old Timer’s Syndrome) as “Shifting Baselines.”
Association for Progressive Stewardship.
- People were once uncommon. It was possible to walk for days without
meeting another person. Now, it is possible to walk for days without
getting out of an urban area, say from Boston to Philadelphia.
- Fish were once extremely plentiful. Many wrote that there were so
many fish in the ocean it was almost possible to walk across a bay
on the backs of the fish. Watch the YouTube video Emptied
- Streams and rivers were crystal clear. Beowulf could see clearly
underwater in a river. The Rhine gold was visible on the bottom of
The Gallo-Roman writer Ausonius wrote pf the
Moselle River in late fourth-century Gall as 'bright as water in crystal
goblets,' and noted that 'vision, when it pierces the stream, finds
the open secrets of the bottom.'
The Moselle River is no longer crystal clear. Photo
of river taken from the roman bridge, Trier, Germany on July 4, 2009.
Photo by Christopherd
Bonito is one of those magical places in Brazil that often escapes
notice. Tucked into a corner of southwestern Brazil near Paraguay,
Bonito lies more than 1000km from the sea and the nearest big city
is a long, bumpy bus ride away. Outside of town are Bonito's star attractions,
its crystal-clear rivers surrounded by lush forest. Owing to high concentrations
of calcium carbonate, the river over time has become a natural aquarium,
with visibility of over 30 meters.
– From Bonito
– Land of crystal-clear rivers.
- Air was clear. You could see the mast of a ship many miles away,
before you could see the hull. Few areas of the world have air this clear.
- Once we stood in awe of the night sky with millions of stars spread
across the black vastness of space. Our ancestors could clearly see
stars and the milky way on moonless nights. Now most people can see
only the brightest stars if they are lucky, or no stars if they are
in a megapolis. See the Bortle
Dark-Sky Scale to see how badly our skies are polluted by light.
Light pollution hides the beauty of the night
Left: The southern
sky, featuring Sagittarius and Scorpius. Top - Leamington, UT, pop.
21; Bottom - Orem, UT, in a metropolitan area of about 400,000.
sky, country vs. city.
Right: The constellation
Orion, imaged at left from dark skies, and at right from Orem, UT at
the heart of the Utah County comprising about half a million people.
From Light Pollution:
It's not pretty.
- The commonplace of the prehistoric landscape was very different from
the modern landscape.
Look at the changes in 152 years at Gowanus Bay in Brooklyn, New York.
For more, read Civil
society strategies on the Gowanus Canal by Lindsay Campbell. What
would a resident from 1851 think of modern Brooklyn? What was your hometown
like 100 years ago?
1851 oil painting by Australian artist Henry Gritten. The full title
is “Sun Set at Gowanus Bay in the Bay New York” and the
original hangs in the Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts in Tasmania.
The bay at that time was a "Marshy
inlet with game, fish, oysters; Gowanus oysters exported to Europe."
Gowanus Bay in 2003. "Ah, the Gowanus,
that fetid Brooklyn canal synonymous with contamination and death.
Sewage, industrial waste — perhaps
even human remains — still molder at its murky bottom. On occasion,
its famously noxious, sulfurous aroma wafts over its banks." Click
on the image for a zoom.
New York Forum.
Roberts, C. (2007). The Unnatural History
of the Sea, Island Press/Shearwater Books.
3 August, 2009