Shifting Baselines - How Can We Protect The Future Of The Oceans If We Don’t Know The Past?

Randy Olson
Fall 2006

An interview with Dr. Jeremy Jackson

Twenty-nine years ago this summer I visited my marine biologist hero, Dr. Jeremy Jackson, to beg him to accept me as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. He is one of the world’s greatest authorities on the biology of coral reefs, and is today a professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography as well as a board member of the World Wildlife Fund. Though we sat and talked almost until sunrise the next day, he eventually rejected me for their program. But many years later, after I had left my career as a marine biologist (resigning from my tenured professorship at the University of New Hampshire) to become a filmmaker, he came knocking on my door with the news that all was not good in the oceans. He asked if we could make a few films to help improve mass communication about the problems. And he suggested we focus on this new term, "shifting baselines," as a means of delivering a single, simple message – that we are forgetting how rich and full of life the oceans used to be.

Note: "Shifting Baselines" is a term coined in 1995 that refers to the loss of awareness of change that happens when we lose track of reference points from the past (baselines).

Q: What is the relevance of shifting baselines to our world today?

Shifting baselines refers to the fact that we assume that the way we see the world is the way it’s always been. By not being aware of how the world was, we look at nature and see it in a distorted light. We’re running out of fish to eat, we’re closing beaches due to contamination, hurricanes are devastating us, and we don’t realize that it was not always this way. We don’t know what once was and, therefore, what we’re missing.

Q: What’s the risk of not being aware of shifting baselines?

We’ve changed the world so much that what goes on has very different consequences than what it had before. I guess the greatest risk is getting ourselves into more trouble than we’re already in. Like taking for granted that we’ll always have water to drink and that the ocean will always be a healthy place. We are making the mistake of assuming the world is a stable place. We can push it over the edge and then everything will break down. It’s impossible to understand exactly how nature works without having some notion of how it’s changed over the last few centuries and the role we’ve played in changing it.

Q: Why should we be aware of jellyfish and bacteria in the ocean?

Entire coastal ecosystems that used to be full of all sorts of stuff that we enjoyed for eating or just for the beauty of being there are going down the drain because of our excessive pollution and overfishing. So all those things we valued and enjoyed are being replaced by jellyfish and bacteria in these regions we refer to as "dead zones," except that they sure as hell aren’t dead because there are zillions of bacteria in every drop of seawater. And so jellyfish and bacteria are symbolic of the utter destruction of the coastal zones. As our theme song says, "Jellyfish and bacteria, that’s what you get when the ocean is infeer-eee-yah."

Q: Tell me about the short story you’re working on titled "Escape from Malibu."

I guess it comes from hanging around with you and seeing all these mansions on the cliffs north of Los Angeles, and it’s so beautiful and you look out on the ocean and think you couldn’t be in a better place, but imagine if it turned into a dead zone and every time the waves broke, this toxic stuff would be thrown up in the air and make people sick. People would want to get away, and the only people who would be left in Malibu would be the people who were too poor to escape. So the whole world would be turned upside down by this deterioration of the coastal ocean.

When I first started to talk about this it seemed absurd, but in recent years I’ve heard there are places on the southwest coast of Florida where exactly that sort of thing is happening. There are these toxic algal blooms that drift into shore in these great masses of black water; the waves stir them up and the stuff gets in the air and people who live on the shore get sick and they have to abandon the island and close the schools. It’s really pretty shocking.

Q: Why should we know about Palmyra Atoll?

Palmyra is a tiny atoll near the equator in the Pacific. It’s like a time machine. When people like me reconstruct how things were in the past by reading old books and digging up old records, it’s very easy for people to be skeptical because you can’t actually see it; you’re only describing history. But there are these rare places on the planet like Palmyra that by some magical accident have been left relatively undisturbed and they dramatically demonstrate how things used to be.

That was so obvious last summer when we went out there on this cruise with Scripps Institution of Oceanography. We went to four particular islands – one in the south, Christmas Island, that has about 5,000 people; then Fanning Island with about 2,000; then Palmyra with a couple dozen; and, finally, a submerged atoll, Kingman Reef, where nobody lives. At Christmas Island there were virtually no sharks, there were no big fish, the corals were mostly dead; they were overgrown by blue-green algae. It was disgusting.

Fanning was pretty screwed up, but not quite as bad. And Palmyra was beautiful, even though there had been all this coral bleaching from warming of the waters and there had been some destructive fishing in the past. After the bleaching happens, however, there is a real tendency for recovery because the ecosystem is much more intact.

But Kingman Reef was just incredible. The first time we got in the water, there were 20 or 30 sharks all over the place, and big snappers and a whole host of large predator fishes. There’s just no way you could imagine that without seeing it. So what a place like Palmyra or Kingman Reef does is really show in a tangible way what the world used to be like, much more than we can ever imagine from reading books.

So when people like me come along and try to say, "If you do these things you can actually have healthy coral reefs," the tendency is to say, "yeah, yeah, yeah," but if people can actually go out to a place like Palmyra and see that sort of abundance in a place that has been protected from over-exploitation, it really fires the imagination for what can be possible. And of course, without imagination we can never restore nature to its full vitality.

About the Author

Randy Olson is a filmmaker living in Los Angeles. In 2003 he cofounded the Shifting Baselines Ocean Media Project with marine biologists Dr. Jeremy Jackson and Dr. Steven Miller and veteran Hollywood movie producer Gale Anne Hurd. His most recent project is the feature documentary, Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus