Shifting baseline syndrome

/ˈʃɪf.tɪŋ / ​​ˈbeɪs.laɪn / ˈsɪn.drəʊm/


Dr Mairi McFadyen



See Also

Land Nature
Shifting baseline syndrome describes the shift over time in the expectation of what a healthy ecosystem baseline looks like. Simply put, it’s a form of gradual environmental amnesia.

Further Reading

About the Biodiversity Intactness Index on the Natural History Museum website


The theory of shifting baselines was first elucidated by scientists exploring urban children’s perception of nature in 1995. The term Shifting Baseline Syndrome (SBS) is a phrase coined by Daniel Pauly, a French marine biologist. As the natural environment gradually degrades over time, people falsely perceive less change because they do not know, or fail to recall accurately, what the natural environment looked like in the past. In other words, due to short life-spans and faulty memories, humans have a poor conception of how much of the natural world has been degraded by our actions, because our ‘baseline’ shifts with every generation. What we see today as pristine nature would be seen by our ancestors as hopelessly degraded, and what we see as degraded, our children will view as ‘natural’.


Perceptions of the Highlands might be said to suffer from Shifting Baseline Syndrome. Many visitors come to the Highlands for romantic notions of ‘wildness,’ imagining magnificent vistas and rugged mountains untouched on the fringes of Europe. The reasons for this are complex. These landscapes have been heavily mythologised, a process that began with the European Romantic imagination in the 18th and 19th centuries and continues today with popular media and the gaze of a global tourism industry. The reality is that, in ecological terms, this is a hugely nature-depleted, degraded and heavily managed landscape, famously described as a ‘wet desert’ by ecologist Frank Fraser-Darling in the 1950s. In a study from 2021, Scotland ranked 212 out of 240 countries and territories that were measured using the Biodiversity Intactness Index (BII) – essentially, how much nature we have left.



Driftwood and marine debris, Image: Robb Mcrae

Questions & Provocations

What does ‘wildness’ mean to you?
Dr Mairi McFadyen
Is there a word in your language for a place untouched by humans, such as an untouched forest?
Carl C.Z. Jonsson