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Our shifting understanding of an ever-shrinking natural environment

One of the most significant environmental challenges we face today is not an explicit threat to a particular ecosystem, such as deforestation or coral bleaching. Rather, it is a matter of perception — a matter of how we, humanity, perceive the environment.

The threat I am speaking of is known as “shifting baseline syndrome.” And it is something that more of us need to be aware of if we are to halt or reverse the degradation of the natural world. We can use the analogy of the frog in boiling water to explain SBS.


So the analogy goes, if you put a frog in boiling water, it will jump out immediately. Yet if you put a frog in cool water and slowly turn the temperature up, the frog will stay put until it boils to death. (Who is slowly boiling frogs to death is anyone’s guess, but the analogy does serve a purpose.) In SBS, we are the frog. And the water is the environment. The water is already very, very hot. Yet, with each new generation, we shift our baseline of what is an acceptable temperature, what is an acceptable environment.

Yet the natural world is already a shadow of its former self. The lion and the African elephant offer two examples of this. Image one shows the historic and current range of the lion. In red, where lions used to live. A colossal expanse, with gaps in the Saharan and Arabian deserts and the wider Congo rainforest. And the blue shows the current range of the lion: restricted to tiny areas in East and southern Africa. The story is similar for elephants. Image two shows the historical range of the African elephant, covering almost all of the African continent. Image three shows the current range. Again, restricted to small, broken-up pockets.

Of course, some animals are doing better. But many are doing just as poorly as elephants and lions. Many are doing even worse — teetering toward extinction. In 2022, humans comprised approximately 36% of the biomass (or weight) of all mammals on land. Livestock, such as cows, sheep, and pigs, account for 60%. All wild mammals account for only 4%.

The truth is that in most of the world, traditional concepts of “the wild” no longer exist. We keep shifting our baseline of what the wild actually is, of how the environment is faring. Meanwhile, we, the frog, continue to sit in the water as it gets ever hotter. As the environment continues to shrink around us.

Environmental issues are so politicized these days — something that is the fault of both conservatives and liberals. Irrespective of exactly how much any individual might prioritize protecting the environment, most of us would probably agree that some things have gone too far. This might be sentiment, but a world without lions, elephants, tigers, whales, and sharks is a cold one.


Andrew Rogan is a marine biologist specializing in the study and preservation of whales and their habitats.


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