This summer I went back to the beach where I spent most of my summers as a kid. It is my happy place. The beach is clean, the sand is white, and the ocean is generally lovely—and there are rarely many people.
There are small children with red buckets and blue shovels, building sandcastles or trying to catch small shrimp or tiny crabs in the shallows. The older ones joyfully play in the waves. Meanwhile, their grandparents enjoy a leisurely swim or just bobbing about.
It is as if time has stood still. At a glance, the scenery is exactly the same as half a century ago when I was one of those little toddlers myself, and it was my grandparents who brought a picnic basket with lemonade and sandwiches.
Yet, something is markedly different, and I am not referring to the fancy wetsuits and rashguards some kids are wearing now; we surely did not have those back then. Nature has changed. As we spent much of our long and carefree childhood summer days playing on the beach, we would also find all kinds of interesting stuff washed up on the shore.
We found many different seashells, sponges, crabs and the assorted stranded fish drying up in the sun—frequently small dogfish. On rare occasions, there was a skate or even a stranded marine mammal, such as a porpoise, which we would marvel at endlessly. Characteristic egg capsules from sharks and rays would often be entangled in the dry seaweed. It was an exciting playground and one that was instrumental in forming my life-long bond and interest in the aquatic environment.
The beach is still stunning, the water is still awesome and very pleasant. Only, there is much less stuff to find, and the ecosystem is obviously poorer or profoundly changed. I notice because I have the benefit of this hindsight, coupled with my formal education as a biologist. But who else notices? The current state of affairs has just become the new norm.
When a new normal replaces the old and becomes the accepted standard or yardstick, we are experiencing shifting baselines.
As in this simple case, it is mostly a gradual process that takes place over many decades or generations, which is why we do not notice. That is, unless we have historical records, documentation or images against which we can compare the present-day situation with the past.
That the general public does not notice the difference or is even unaware of this sliding impoverishment of our once plentiful natural resources is bad enough. But shifting baselines also affects present-day and future environmental scientists, politicians and decision-makers, none of which know how the natural state of our wild habitats are supposed to look like anymore, because they have never experienced ecosystems and habitats in their healthy, steady state.
At times, it is easy to despair and feel overwhelmed, say, when we learn that the mighty Great Barrier Reef has been severely damaged by unprecedented marine heat waves. Climate change is indeed a daunting challenge and probably the biggest one ever faced by humanity.
Can ecosystems be nursed back to better health? Can we become better stewards of our natural resources while we carry on developing modern societies and driving economies?
I think so. At least sentiments appear to be changing fast. On the grander scale, the massive EU recovery fund is, for example, linked to climate change mitigation projects and addressing “Green Deal” matters. The European Union is also planning to prohibit sales of new petrol and diesel engine cars from 2035.
On a much smaller but equally important scale, greening cities and rewilding suburbs is not only providing wildlife with some much-needed new habitats, but just as importantly, is also bringing a new appreciation of wild nature, possibly showing a viable way of blending infrastructure with nature, without compromising either.
I suppose only time will tell. In the meantime, my spirits have been significantly lifted by having several butterflies, bees and even a couple of elegant dragonflies fly in and out of my downtown office this summer. This is probably thanks to the new urban gardens and the restoration of the city's lakes.