Total Recall

June 29, 2009

Ever wondered why we take so bloody long to admit that we have degraded our environment and even longer to actually do something about it. Denial, procrastination and self-delusion are obvious culprits. And now scientists have managed to prove that another reason for our environment apathy could be AMNESIA (Nothing to do with the effects of head injury beloved by scriptwriters from L.A to Bombay) A theory caled ‘shifting baselines’ proposed in 1995 by marine biologist Daniel Pauly, tried to pin down inaccurate perceptions about nature as the reason for our indifference to it. The theory say that due to short lifespans and poor memories, we have a poor perception of the extent to which we have degraded the natural world. Thus, the baseline for what constitutes a pristine forest will be different for Generation X and Gen Y. Yup, what we percieve as ‘natural beauty’ could well be ‘degraded eyesores’ to our grandparents.

This shifting baseline theory has now been validated by scientists who interviewed 50 villagers in Yorkshire, England, about local bird life. They then compared it with actual data on bird populations. The scientists found that older people were more accurate at naming the common bird species 20 years ago. They called this ‘generational amnesia’ as a chunk of information had been lost between two generations. The study also pointed to the existence of ‘personal amnesia’¬† where information was lost by an individual over their own lifetime. For example, in the interviews, one-third of the participants¬† believed that there was no change in local bird life over the past 20 years (while the actual data did show changes). This suggests that people update their perceptions without realising it.

This theory has significant implications for nature conservation. For example, the scientists point out that it could explain American and European hostility to wolf reintroduction programmes. They say that because wolves were killed out so long ago they are no longer considered a part of the natural environment and hence provoke hostility. A case of generational amnesia that could also affect our perception of other big ticket issues like pollution, climate change and biodiversity loss. It also highlights the importance of transfer of knowledge from one generation to the other. Today so few of us live in the same area we were born. The information we transfer to subsequent generations is thus only a small snapshot in time of the local environment. This is shifting our baselines much further. Luckily, we do have museum records and scientific forensic tools to remind us of our snapshot perception of reality. However, despite availability of scientific data, nothing provokes environment activism like a personal understanding of our own environment history.