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Are you suffering from SBS?

Thursday, 25 February 2021
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.

Like most people I know, I suffer from shifting baseline syndrome.

I know this because my mother had to remind me the other day that I once swam in a cool, clear river for an entire morning while she sat barefooted on the banks. What river was that? I asked, surprised. When she told me the name of the river (a small river in central Mexico that I now associate with the green algae of pollution and plastic waste) my answer was an incredulous no!

If a conservation biologist had overhead my conversation with my mother, he might have said this of me: ‘This guy is experiencing personal amnesia.’ Or maybe he would’ve been less charitable and used one the terms of the trade: ‘This guy has a case of shifting baseline syndrome (SBS).’

Waterway pollution is a useful example when thinking about SBS: A river filled with pesticides and sewage runs across your town. You think this polluted river is normal because, unlike your grandfather, you never saw the river in its heyday, when it flowed with pristine water and kids used to swim there. A friend visits you one day and holds her nose when the two of you walk by the river. “Yeah, it’s always been a mess!” you exclaim.

This is a textbook case of SBS. You have a biased perception of the river because, unlike your grandfather, you have no previous baseline to draw an informed comparison. In my case, I did have a previous baseline but, as often happens, I had forgotten about it and hence my negative view of the river in Mexico.

Airplane noise does not usually fall within the scope of SBS research, but it also serves as an example: There was a time when you could sit in your garden without hearing airplane noise every 2 minutes. That time is long past, but you still remember how quiet and peaceful your garden was before all those airplanes started flying over your neighborhood. You treasure the memory of that quiet garden, and hence you are not suffering from SBS.

This is a small consolation because airplane noise is here to stay, but at least you’re not like your next-door neighbour, a man who thinks that 2 minutes between planes is normal. SBS has an insidious quality to it: You might treasure a beautiful memory and not suffer from the syndrome, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be happier than your neighbour.

You might sell your house one day, and whoever buys it will regard airplane noise as something they can tolerate (if they notice it at all), and that will be their starting baseline: 2 minutes between takeoffs. If you are shrewd seller, you will keep the treasured memory of the quiet garden to yourself, the time when planes took off every 15 minutes, a piece of information that might actually depreciate the asset in the eyes of the homebuyers. No one really sells a house “as it was”.  

While you are pondering the selling price, by the way, you might also want to consider the deal you made. Think of the person who sold you the house. What information did she keep from you, that clever old lady? Planes took off every 15 minutes when you bought the asset from her, and you accepted this as “normal”. Indeed, you now consider this to be the “golden age” of the garden with its buddleias and its luscious gunnera plant. But what if this lady had her own treasured memory of the garden, and what if she kept this memory from you in order not to depreciate the asset? The baseline had shifted under your feet and little did you know!

How perverse of her, you might think, without realizing that you’re about to go down the same path. 

In any case, you don’t have to worry anymore, because you’ve finally decided to get rid of the asset and blow the money traveling the world. And soon enough you’ll meet a pair of young homebuyers with an acute case of SBS. These homebuyers will show up, compliment the 70’s tiles in your kitchen, and a huge Emirates cargo plane will fly overhead the minute you open the terrace door to show off the buddleias.

You will communicate with hand gestures for a full 10 seconds, but, lucky you, these people will think this is ‘normal’. The guy will show you ten fingers and point at the sky. An offer of 10k above the asking price, and that’s before the Emirates monster is out of earshot.  

Ha! you will laugh in the shower that night. House Sold!

But then you might experience not SBS but feelings of guilt, because these homebuyers have a 10-year-old daughter. Lying in your bed at night, you will picture this girl in her new garden, trying to care for her flowers with all those monsters flying overhead every 2 minutes. This girl will live in a house that quakes to its foundations every time a plane takes off, and she might grow up to think this is normal.

You might be inclined to blame modernity and go back to sleep. Or maybe you’ll call the homebuyers in the middle of the night to cancel the sale. But, upon reflection, you will persuade yourself that it’s all for the best: This girl will grow up to be an activist. She’ll remember the planes above her garden, and the eaves falling off the roof, and one day she’ll join hands with Greta and march against the airline industry.

Your conscience at ease, you drift back to sleep.

A month after the sale of the house, with an extra 10k in your bank account, you are sitting in the backseat of a cab on your way to a fancy hotel, in a place described as a tropical paradise. On both sides of the highway you see enormous all-inclusive resorts with cobbled driveways that extend deep into the jungle. These places crop up beside the road every 2 minutes or so, and this seems quite normal. Then, as you approach your hotel, the jungle disappears altogether and you begin to see stores filled with inflatable crocodiles and cars propped up on cinder blocks outside auto repair shops.

What gorgeous weather! you say. The cabdriver nods quietly and keeps on driving, and you realize then how much this tropical paradise has changed. But it’s just a hunch, because you have no previous baseline to compare the old paradise with the new, and no one here will tell you just how beautiful this place was 20 years ago, with all those caimans crossing at intervals and the flamboyant trees in full flower spreading their branches above the old road.

Arriving at your hotel you experience not SBS but déjà vu, and that’s because you had the same hunch when you were visiting that other paradise with white sands and pools.   

But you’re a lucky traveler, after all, because the locals here are great hosts. They are experts at building resorts that will insulate you from the smoldering rubble of previous baselines. The lagoon is polluted with chlorine and fecal matter? No problem, Señor. We’ll drive you to the next lagoon 39 km away.           

“Yeah, it’s always been a mess!” they’ll say if you ask. (This, you now know, is BS and SBS.)

That night, sitting quietly in your beach bungalow, you decide to make a list of all those places in the world that are still admired by a majority of the elders who live there, the ones not suffering from SBS.

You think for a minute or two, and start with Antarctica. But, after a moment’s thought, you cross it out. If enough people think it’s their birthright to see Antarctica in person the baselines will shift there as well, and the place will no longer be admired or loved by its world-famous elders, the emperor penguins.