Monday, May 13, 2013

Shifting Baselines Syndrome

I have to admit I never heard of Shifting Baselines Syndrome before reading Jon Mooallem's Slate article, "The Last Buffalo Hunt." You can read it here: (and in the shamless self promotion department, Jon does mention not only my friend William T. Hornaday, but also The Most Defiant Devil).

Shifting Baselines basically means each generation redefines its "norm." The best way I can illustrate it
is to compare the views of an older person whose baseline dates back two generations and a younger man whose baseline is established at that time. In this case the older man is William Temple Hornaday, conservationist and first director of the Bronx Zoo. Hornaday was born in 1854, and grew up on a farm in Iowa. His baseline of nature included vast buffalo herds and enormous flocks of passenger pigeons. By the end of the 19th century both species were rocketing down the path to extinction. Hornaday played a significant role in saving the buffalo from the abyss, but the passenger pigeon could not escape the grim fate of extermination. By the late 1920s the seventy year old Hornaday was predicting the imminent demise of all wildlife, expecting nothing but starlings and sparrows would exist by 1950. At the same time he was writing his grim forecasts of doom a young bespeckled boy was growing up in Illinois. Describing himself as the "Great Naturalist," Ronald Reagan found nature to be an abundant source of wonder.
He liked to roam the woods, and, as he wrote in his An American Life, "exploring the local wilderness." (p. 31) These rambling adventures led the future president to comment that he lived a childhood out of a Mark Twain novel. Reagan didn't miss the passenger pigeons and other wildlife that Hornaday did, because Reagan never knew them. He created a baseline without the the species that defined Hornaday's. What Hornaday considered a loss was something outside the younger man's perspective, or baseline. I think this is an interesting and intellectually useful concept that I will think more of in the future.

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