Public unable to accurately gauge environmental degradation, say scientists

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Experts have identified something called ‘shifting baseline syndrome’. No, not a symptom of excessive alcohol intake, but rather the theory that people’s perception of the environment is based on what they can see with their own eyes today, not what things were like in the past.

The theory was tested by asking 50 villagers in Cherry Burton, Yorkshire, which birds they  thought were most common in the village 20 years ago, and which were most common in 2006.   

The results showed that only the older residents could correctly identify the most common birds from 20 years ago – both young  and old were equally accurate at identifying current species. Also, people who said that there had been no change in bird population(whereas, in fact, the number of sparrows and starlings had been in decline) were more likely to name birds that are common today, rather than those in the past.   

The researchers believe that this shows wildlife knowledge is not being passed from older to younger people, meaning that the  current state of affairs becomes the new ‘norm’ and people will more readily accept a degraded environment.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist April 2009