Uncommon baselines in social justice

Leigh Torres, Assistant Professor, PI of the GEMM Lab, Marine Mammal Institute, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Oregon Sea Grant, Oregon State University

Writing a blog post this week that focuses on marine mammals seems inappropriate amidst the larger social justice issues that our country – and our global community – are facing. However, I have been leaning on my scientific background recently to help me understand these events, how we got here, and where we can go.  But first I want to acknowledge and thank the people on the front lines around the world who are giving a voice to this fight for equality. Equality that is deserved, inherent, and just.

There is a concept in ecology, and in particular in fisheries management, termed shifting baselines, which was developed by the brilliant scientist Dr. Daniel Pauly in 1995 (who, by the way, is a person of color but that’s not the point here). Shifting baselines has to do with how humans judge change based on their own experiences and perceptions, and not necessarily on objective data collected over a longer period than a lifetime. Over one generation, knowledge is lost about ‘how the state of the natural world used to be’, so people don’t perceive the change that is actually taking place over time.

This article has a nice description of the shifting baseline theory: …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, and sometimes even in an individual. In essence, what we see as pristine nature would be seen by our ancestors as hopelessly degraded, and what we see as degraded our children will view as ‘natural’.

The concept of shifting baselines explains so much about why convincing policy makers to protect natural resources is challenging. People with short-term goals (political election cycles) and short-term memories don’t see the long-term trends of environmental degradation.

This week I have been thinking about how the concept of shifting baselines can also be applied to the social injustice we are grappling with today and for centuries. Yet, rather than shifting baselines, its more akin to uncommon baselines.

In school, we hopefully learn about the realities of slavery, the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, Fredrick Douglas, Jim Crow laws, the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and more. Often, this information comes to us in an incomplete, white-washed, biased fashion. So, if we are white and privileged in this country, we may pat ourselves on the back for what we’ve been taught is progress; for example, we might be proud of seeing integration in schools, and feel good about regularly using words like diversity and inclusion. But my baseline is very different from a black American’s baseline. Where I see progress relative to an old standard, black Americans continue to suffer from a legacy of slavery, poverty, and discrimination. My baseline cannot just be progress while people of color are still experiencing the same race inequality, police bias, economic injustice and an imbalanced power structure as their grandparents and great grandparents.

Our uncommon baselines are shaped by our previous experiences, which are culturally based, and create different perceptions of where we are in the trajectory of social and economic justice.  When scientists want to adjust for the influence of shifting baselines in ecology, we first need to recognize the influence of shifted baselines and then probe for ‘historical data’ (e.g., whaling records of the actual numbers of whales killed) or speak with those who know what it was like “before” (e.g., traditional ecological knowledge) to help us account for a broader scale of change. Thus, we can use a better baseline. Perhaps in this social justice context, to achieve more common baselines of race equality across cultures, we need more conversations with people of color to share past and present experiences and perceptions.

While these recent events have been heart wrenching to witness, I do feel this period is a critical reality check, forcing those of us who are privileged and powerful to acknowledge our uncommon baselines. I hope to learn by reading and talking honestly with others so we can all work toward a common baseline of equality and justice for all.

One last thought:


Vote for the change you want to see.

Voting is powerful.



Pauly, Daniel. “Anecdotes and the shifting baseline syndrome of fisheries.” Trends in ecology & evolution 10, no. 10 (1995): 430. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0169-5347(00)89171-5

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5 thoughts on “Uncommon baselines in social justice”

  1. What a meaningful and useful analogy- shifting baselines. I agree that we, the privileged and powerful, (tho this perception has likely experienced a baseline shift, too) have the responsibility to dig deeper and listen more closely to the voices of experience that surround us.
    Thank you, Leigh.

  2. I have often thought in terms of reframing – situations, attitudes, expectations. I had not thought about baseline shifting, except in the ecological sense. You have written a brilliant piece, Leigh, which provides us with a methodology to move forward.

  3. > Perhaps in this social justice context, to achieve more common baselines of race equality across cultures, we need more conversations with people of color to share past and present experiences and perceptions.

    Please realize when you make comments like this, you put the burden of the work on POC. They have to exhume memories of trauma to tell you these stories. And when the audience is unwilling to listen and defaults to expressing their white fragility through white woman tears (google it), by expressing that it “wasn’t their intention”, etc., POC become reluctant to have these conversations at all because they have relived their trauma only to be silenced. This happens frequently to POC.

    All this to say: do the research yourself first. Do all the readings. Read and listen to the experiences that are out there already. Support with your pocket. Be uncomfortable without involving POC. Do all this work on your own so that you’re actually ready and open to having discourse without inflicting further harm on POC. Do not let your words become another lie to POC who are digging deep to muster trust in a system that continues to work against them.

  4. Stumbled across this in post-election 2020 as this country still grapples with major challenges and many of them seem related to how we understand and fail to agree on baselines about social and political issues. Questions about things like safety, freedom, fairness, equality and sacrifice are on everyone’s minds but we are extremely segmented into different camps with different ideas about what is true, what is happening and what our values impel us to ask from each other and our leaders.
    It feels like which worldview people are accepting is very related to how they understand the baselines on a huge range of issues but a simple example is how people understand when America was great and what it meant and what is needed in order for them to feel that it is once more.
    Thanks for helping connect these questions/ideas to scientific concepts.

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