Slow-Motion Disaster Below the Waves
By Randy Olson
There is a new term in the environmental movement. It sounds esoteric,
like the kind of thing you don't really need to understand, something
you can leave to the more technical types.
The term is "shifting baselines," and
you do need to know it, because shifting baselines affect the quality-of-life
decisions you face daily. Shifting baselines are the chronic, slow,
hard-to-notice changes in things, from the disappearance of birds
and frogs in the countryside to the increased drive time from L.A.
to San Diego. If your ideal weight used to be 150 pounds and now
it's 160, your baseline -- as well as your waistline -- has shifted.
The term was coined by fisheries biologist Daniel
Pauly in 1995. It was a term we'd apparently been needing, because
it quickly spread to a variety of disciplines. It's been applied
to analysis of everything from deteriorating cities to declining
quality of entertainment.
Among environmentalists, a baseline is an important
reference point for measuring the health of ecosystems. It provides
information against which to evaluate change. It's how things used
to be. It is the tall grass prairies filled with buffalo, the swamps
of Florida teeming with bird life and the rivers of the Northwest
packed with salmon. In an ideal world, the baseline for any given
habitat would be what was there before humans had much impact.
If we know the baseline for a degraded ecosystem,
we can work to restore it. But if the baseline shifted before we
really had a chance to chart it, then we can end up accepting a
degraded state as normal -- or even as an improvement.
The number of salmon in the Pacific Northwest's
Columbia River today is twice what it was in the 1930s. That sounds
great -- if the 1930s are your baseline. But salmon in the Columbia
River in the 1930s were only 10% of what they were in the 1800s.
The 1930s numbers reflect a baseline that had already shifted.
This is what most environmental groups are now
struggling with. They are trying to decide: What do we want nature
to look like in the future? And more important: What did nature
look like in the past?
These questions are particularly important to
ask about oceans, my main research interest. Last year Jeremy Jackson
of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography brought the problem into
focus with a cover article in Science that was chosen by Discover
magazine as the most important discovery of the year.
Jackson and his 18 co-authors pulled together
data from around the world to make the case that overfishing had
been the most important alteration to the oceans over the past millennium.
Furthermore, humans have had such a strong effect on the oceans
for so long that, in many locations, it is difficult to even imagine
how full of life the oceans used to be.
One of scientists' biggest concerns is that the
baselines have shifted for many ocean ecosystems. What this means
is that people are now visiting degraded coastal environments and
calling them beautiful, unaware of how they used to look.
People go diving today in California kelp beds
that are devoid of the large black sea bass, broomtailed groupers
and sheephead that used to fill them. And they surface with big
smiles on their faces because it is still a visually stunning experience
to dive in a kelp bed. But all the veterans can think is, "You
should have seen it in the old days."
Without the old-timers' knowledge, it's easy for
each new generation to accept baselines that have shifted and make
peace with empty kelp beds and coral reefs. Which is why it's so
important to document how things are -- and how they used to be.
For the oceans, there is disagreement on what
the future holds. Some marine biologists argue that, as the desirable
species are stripped out, we will be left with the hardiest, most
undesirable species -- most likely jellyfish and bacteria, in effect
the rats and roaches of the sea. They point to the world's most
degraded coastal ecosystems -- places like the Black Sea, the Caspian
Sea, even parts of the Chesapeake Bay. That's about all you find:
jellyfish and bacteria.
We have already become comfortable with a new
term, "jellyfish blooms," which is used to describe sudden
upticks in the number of jellyfish in an area. The phenomenon has
become sufficiently common that an international symposium was held
on the subject in 2000. Meanwhile, other types of world fisheries
are in steep decline.
It is easy to miss changes in the ocean. It's
big and deep. But sometimes, if people have studied the same oceanic
trends over time, we get a glimpse of a highly disturbing picture.
The Scripps Institution's Jackson, for example, has documented the
nearly complete disappearance of the ecosystem he built his career
studying: the coral reefs of Jamaica. "Virtually nothing remains
of the vibrant, diverse coral reef communities I helped describe
in the 1970s," Jackson says. "Between overfishing, coastal
development and coral bleaching, the ecosystem has been degraded
into mounds of dead corals covered by algae in murky water."
Nothing you would want to make into a postcard.
Next year two major reports will be released on the state of the
oceans: the Oceans Report from the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the
report of the U.S. Oceans Commission. The advance word on both is
that the news will not be good.
The last major U.S. report on the oceans was 30
years ago. That report warned that "there may be a risk some
day of severely declining oceans." The inside word on the upcoming
reports is that they will conclude that the oceans are today in
The Ocean Conservancy, Scripps Institution and
the Surfrider Foundation are mounting a major media campaign for
early next year to call attention to the overall fate of the oceans
and the problem of shifting baselines. The solutions are already
known: We must care more about the environment and work to prevent
its decline. Hundreds of environmental groups have action plans
to help achieve such goals. The only thing they are lacking is mass
The oceans are our collective responsibility.
We all have to ask the questions: What did they used to look like?
What are we putting into them? Where did these fish we are eating
come from? Are my food preferences jeopardizing the health of the
And, in a more philosophical vein, we should consider the shifting
baselines in our own lives, examining how and where have we lowered
our standards to the point that we accept things that once would
have been unacceptable. Our environment has clearly suffered from
our increasing comfort with shifting baselines. I suspect our lives
have suffered in other ways as well.
Randy Olson is a filmmaker and faculty member in marine biology