Investigating the implications of shifting baseline syndrome on conservation

Author(s): Jones, L.P., Turvey, S.T., Massimino, D. & Papworth, S.K.

Published: August 2020   Pages: 14pp

Journal: People and Nature

Digital Identifier No. (DOI): 10.1002/pan3.10140

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Shifting baseline syndrome (SBS) describes a persistent downgrading of perceived ‘normal’ environmental conditions with every sequential generation, leading to under‐estimation of the true magnitude of long‐term environmental change on a global scale. The presence of SBS should be considered when local ecological knowledge and participatory techniques are involved in conservation target‐setting. However, despite increasing recognition of the phenomenon, there is little empirical evidence for SBS. Here we provide evidence of SBS, and the first empirical investigation of the impacts of SBS on public perceptions of conservation need.

Large‐scale online questionnaires were used to collect public perceptions of long‐term biological change regarding 10 UK bird species, as well as demographic information and measures of knowledge and experience of the local environment (n = 330). A paired data approach compared social perceptions to a large‐scale longitudinal biological dataset. Using information theoretic and model selection techniques, we estimate the relative importance of multiple demographic, social and psychological predictors of SBS. We provide a framework for investigating evidence of SBS and its impacts on perceptions of conservation need for species in decline.

Evidence of generational amnesia was found as an age‐related difference in perceptions of past ecological conditions. The perceptions of older participants had significantly higher agreement with biological data than the perceptions of younger participants. Our results therefore support the expectation that younger, less experienced people are less aware of historical ecological conditions and show greater evidence of SBS. We also present evidence of a negative impact of SBS on future conservation, as older people were more likely than younger people to perceive a greater need for conservation action for three declining species.

Our research supports the need to encourage greater intergenerational communication and increase experience of local nature. Discovering evidence of SBS in public perceptions of species experienced within everyday life demonstrates SBS as a pervasive social issue with the potential to impact public perceptions of local nature.

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