In 1990 my wife and were on vacation in Florida with some family members. I had previously snorkelled at John Pennekamp State Park and couldn’t wait to bring everyone back to a truly spectacular diving experience. We were not disappointed.

I remember vividly the moment when I tapped my brother-in-law on the shoulder and pointed beneath the surface to a spotted eagle ray with a four-meter wingspan gliding gracefully through the water. In that moment, time stood still.

A couple of years ago, Marsha I and took our young adult children on a Caribbean cruise. In Belize we decided to take a snorkelling expedition to what was being touted as some of the best in the country. After an hour in the water, I was disappointed by the experience. I had an experience previously that was so much better. Instead of seeing hundreds of colourful sea creatures, I saw handfuls of much blander looking fish and dull coral.

Bryan Walsh, the senior editor at Time wrote about a snorkelling expedition that he took in Belize this summer. He was at Glover’s Reef, a state protected area. The reef is part of a project to rehabilitate and protect coral reefs and the experience was spectacular. In the article he notes however that the reef is only a fraction of what it once was.

Coral cover in Glover’s Reef dropped from 80% in 1971 to 13% in 1999. There’s been some recovery in the years since, thanks in part to the establishment of a large “no-take” protected area within the reef, and as a result Glover’s is one of the healthiest coral ecosystems in the Caribbean. But that’s in many ways a reflection of how degraded the rest of the Caribbean—and coral reefs around the world—have become, thanks to pollution, coastal development, overfishing and climate change. Outside of parts of the South Pacific, too remote yet to be impacted by human activity, coral reefs are nothing like they used to be. The bewildering abundance, the sheer mass and variety of sea life that the first scuba divers would have encountered decades ago is long gone. We’re trying to protect a shadow of what once was—even though to me, floating among the coral of Glover’s Reef and straining for a view of that elusive hammerhead shark, it all seemed so perfect.
It turns there’s a scientific term for this feeling: shifting baselines. The fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly coined it in 1995 to describe how overfishing has changed the ocean so rapidly over the past several decades that what we think of as normal and healthy—the baseline—has had to shift to keep up with reality. Our picture of the environment becomes skewed, as we forget what used to be and adjust unconsciously to a diminished present.[i]

‘We’re trying to protect a shadow of what once was.’  Where else do we see a depletion and degradation of what once was? It’s not simply nostalgia that can be dismissed with ease. The truth of loss and corruption appears in many ways and we have shifting baselines.

Once thriving neighbourhoods and business districts become ghost towns and the haunt of broken spirits. Detroit goes bankrupt and it is viewed as a merciful break for a dying city. This is the shifting baseline for industrial cities.

A generation that grew up with an abundance of employment opportunities now have debt-laden, university educated children working at menial jobs for minimum wage. Some of the kids are not maturing into a work ethic until they reach thirty years of age or more. The baseline of employment has shifted.

Mighty cathedrals built to seat hundreds of worshippers barely survive with a handful of attendees and we accept it as the new baseline.

What we once thought was normative, healthy and good has been downgraded. If we look at world history over thousands of years, we see that some things have improved while others have diminished. In the generation that you belong to, you have a new baseline from which you measure success, morality and priority.

Are there any baselines that do not shift? Is there anything that stays original and unaffected by degradation? Is there anywhere we can go and not find the ground shifting beneath our feet?