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Saturday 21 December 2019


The new normal

How our brains struggle to understand a changing world

By Peter Fiennes

If Samuel Johnson were alive today (and we’ll come back to that), he would no doubt be writing provocative commentaries and contrarian articles. Money for hot takes.

One of his favourite poses was his hatred of Scotland and the Scots. “Sir,” he famously growled to his biographer (and proud Scotsman) James Boswell, “Sir, the noblest prospect that a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to London.” He liked to tease, did Sam. Even so, after years of badgering his friend to join him on a Scottish tour, Boswell – newly married and living in Edinburgh – was still amazed to receive a letter from Johnson saying he was coming north. It was August 1773 and late in the season.

Their travels took them in a meandering loop from Edinburgh to Skye and back again, mostly on horseback, but also on foot and by small boat. It is strange to think of Johnson on a horse and not rolling down a crowded London street, but he was a good horseman. He was 63 and, wrote Boswell, “gigantick”. Both men published accounts of their journey, Johnson in 1775 (his need for money was greater), and Boswell in 1785, one year after Johnson’s death. True to form, Boswell’s gossipy account is mostly preoccupied with Johnson (what he said, who he met, the arguments he won), but Johnson had a grander purpose in mind. He wanted to record for posterity the landscape and atmosphere of Britain’s last wilderness, the Highlands and Western Isles, and describe the defeated, traumatised and rapidly emigrating inhabitants before they and their language and customs disappeared forever.

Most surprisingly, and almost as soon as they left Edinburgh, heading up the east coast through St Andrews and Aberdeen, Johnson became preoccupied with how few trees they were passing. “A tree might be a show in Scotland, as a horse in Venice,” he grumbled. And yet, he wrote, the land must have been heavily forested until very recently. As they rode west, along the north shore of Loch Ness and deeper into the Highlands, Johnson mourned this wasteland of uprooted trees and severed stumps. He said it was evidence of the spoils of victory, that ever since the Battle of Culloden of 1746, the English and their Scottish allies had been stripping the land of its bountiful forests of ancient pine and oak and floating them off down the lochs to England.


These days, for any Scottish woodland to be defined as “ancient”, it has to have appeared in the records in the year 1750, just four years after Culloden. This means that if you can trace a Scottish wood back 270 years, then it has almost certainly been flourishing since the last ice age. Before 1750 no one even bothered to plant new forests – they must have seemed endlessly abundant. Today only a tiny fraction of the woodland you’ll see in Scotland is classified as ancient; the rest is mostly twentieth century plantations of close-packed spruce and fir.

Pine tree forestry exploitation near Glencoe, in the Highlands of Scotland. Stumps and logs show that overexploitation leads to deforestation endangering environment and sustainability

In fact, if today you follow in the footsteps of Johnson and Boswell, the landscape you’ll encounter – famous around the world for its wild, empty beauty, its tawny hillsides, ice-grey lochs and heathery moors – that landscape would bewilder Johnson. So much of what we now think of as timelessly Scottish (the grouse moors and blocks of pine, the scoured mountains) has been imposed by humanity and kept in place by our actions. “All change is of itself an evil,” Johnson wrote, in a spasm of despair, as he rode through a land that had only recently lost its wolves and beavers, and where wildcats and pine martens still lived in forests of oak, ash and Scots Pine, and white-tailed eagles clung to the shoreline.

But Johnson’s most urgent question, I reckon, if he did find himself in the year 2020, retracing his route northwards from the shores of Loch Ness, heading towards Skye and the Islands, would be to wonder where all the people had gone.

The reason why it so hard for any of us to comprehend, or even monitor, the vast changes that are redefining our landscapes and lives is known to conservationists as “shifting baseline syndrome”. The term was first used in 1995 by a marine scientist called Daniel Pauly, in an article for the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution. Pauly was working in the fisheries industry, and he was trying to explain why fishermen had such wildly different ideas about what might constitute a “normal” (and therefore sustainable) number of fish in the sea. What would the “natural” level be, if we stopped all large-scale fishing? And he realised that every generation of fishermen has a different answer to that question, based on what they experience when they first start. It is the same for all of us in all sorts of ways: what we know when we are young becomes our idea of what is normal. As fish stocks plummet (or birds die, and rivers run dry), the baseline shifts, and we become inured – oblivious – to what we are losing.

Chinese fishermen netting fish

Pauly is not arguing that we can return the world to a pre-human state. For as long as we are here, we are going to keep on fishing. But what is a sustainable level? What is abundance? Right now, all we know for certain is that the oceans are being emptied of life, dragged clean – and poisoned with effluent and plastics – faster than they can recover.

It is not just the numbers of fish that are declining, they are also shrinking in size. Once again, people have learned to believe that everything is just as it should be. “We transform our world,” Pauly said in a 2010 Ted Talk, “but we don’t remember it.” And because change is incessant, we allow extinctions to pass with a shrug: “You don’t lose abundant animals. You only lose rare animals. And so they are not perceived as a big loss.”


In other words, shifting baseline syndrome is the disorientating idea that as every generation passes, our understanding of what is “normal” moves, without us even realising it. We can no longer remember, or we have no direct experience of what it was like, to live in a different world. It is not just fish in the sea, it is the butterflies in the fields, songbirds in the woods and every aspect of our world, from invisible toxins in the air to the spreading roads and cities and the battered climate. Everything is changing faster than we can comprehend. Humans are supremely quick to adapt to new circumstances – even in the course of our own lifetimes – but it is what we know when we are young that dictates our vision of what we believe the world should be.

Johnson enraged the Scots with his comments about their lack of trees. Later, Boswell tried to smooth things over by suggesting that Johnson was only talking about the east of the country – it was well known, he insisted, that the west was another matter. But what seems more likely is that Johnson was just not used to the sight of the denuded Scottish hills. Boswell, though, and his fellow Scots, had simply stopped noticing what was no longer there.

Imagine a ten-year-old child, born in the year 1960. Perhaps she is lucky enough to be walking over the hills around Loch Ness, among the downy birch and the pine. She is watching flights of blue tits and coal tits, finches and robins, goldcrests and wrens. There are sparrow hawks in the sky and cormorants on the slate-grey waters of the loch. Pheasants too, bustle and squawk in the hedgerows. And that same child, if she is growing up in Surrey or Sussex, might in the summer months listen to a nightingale’s call, mingled with the sweet song of blackbirds and the moan of traffic from a nearby road. It doesn’t matter. Her memories of those days in the woods, and by the loch, will be golden.

And now imagine another child, born in 2010, roaming today through those same woods and hills, and along the shores of the loch. Just as there were in 1970, there are songbirds in the scrub and in the trees. The world is full of wonders. And yet, without us even noticing it, or registering what is different, so much has changed from just 50 years earlier. There were 90 million more birds in the UK in 1970 than there are today. Who can help the younger child – who can help any of us – understand what that means? All those voices silenced. And over the same period the UK population of nightingales has fallen by 90 per cent. The traffic is still moaning on the roads of Sussex – there’s more of it ­– and there are crows bickering in the pines. But the nightingale, Keats’s full-throated bird of summer ease, has almost gone.

It is not a one-way trajectory of loss. The pheasants are flourishing. And when Johnson and Boswell arrived in Skye they were horrified to find crowds of desperate people getting ready to emigrate, driven out by harrowing poverty and state brutality. Almost none of them, said Johnson, wanted to leave; no one willingly abandons their home and risks everything to reach a savage land. How, he roared, can a government congratulate itself on bringing peace when it has no subjects left to rule? The Highlands had become a wilderness – and the homes Johnson once rode past on his long-suffering horse are empty ruins on the moors.

With its summit in the clouds, Buachaille Etive Mor mountain rises beside the River Coupall on Rannoch Moor in the West Highlands of Scotland

So next time you’re in a Highland gift shop, fending off the tartan rugs, tins of shortbread and tam o’ shanters, you could do worse than reach for Johnson. He is clear-sighted about the horrors of colonialism, even though (contrary dog that he was), he also believed that “English manners” had brought “culture” to the under-civilised North. But it’s surely better to read Johnson’s eye-witness account than to pick through the fantasies of Sir Walter Scott. The paradox of shifting baselines is that they obscure our gains, as well as our losses. We believe (or we did recently believe) in progress, but at the same time we have been sold the idea that everything was once better. We can dismiss it as nostalgia, but for some reason it is hard to listen to older generations when they tell us what we have lost. “The fish in this lake were huge when I was a boy, you know, and they leaped to the shore like lemmings.” “Yes, grandad, of course they did …” Golden Ages. Lost Arcadias. The Garden of Eden. They haunt our dreams.


Scientists struggle to identify what is really happening to our world for the simple reason that the records are sketchy, and very recent. Johnson may have been stomping around the Highlands complaining about the English felling all the trees, but we now think that the stumps he was seeing had emerged, hundreds of years old but perfectly preserved, from a peat bog. In other words, much of the Great Caledonian Forest, that did indeed once cover a swathe of land north of the River Clyde and west of the River Tay, had been chopped down many centuries before Johnson and Boswell ever got there, an earlier victim of the never-ending incursions of humanity.

For most of us statistics are essentially meaningless, no matter how horrifying. We can read that the number of flying insects has declined by 75 per cent in the last 25 years, or that almost one in five UK plants is on the brink of disappearing altogether. We’ve all heard this. Conservationists are calling it “the great thinning”, the sixth mass extinction. But in the end it becomes a blur of numbers – and we can look out our windows and see the familiar street trees or a robin darting across our gardens and not connect any of it to the apocalyptic shrieks of the scientists. The ice may be melting, but it is far away.

Records are patchy and they don’t go back far enough. But we are also suffering from a catastrophic, collective failure of the imagination… even memory. When the first Europeans arrived in North America, they were awestruck by the sight of a now extinct bird, the passenger pigeon, which gathered in vast, sky-blocking flocks. There were three to five billion of them, possibly a third of the entire bird population of the United States. The killing started immediately (guns, snares, habitat destruction) and ended with the death of the last bird in 1914, and no one alive today knows what it must have been like to witness the pigeons turning the daytime black, although I did see one the other day at the Natural History Museum in Tring, just next to the dodo. It was stuffed and pink and surprisingly trim.

Wright’s buffalo hide yard, showing stacks of buffalo hides. Dodge City, Kansas. 1878

The story of the slaughter of the American bison, or buffalo, is better known, but just as bleak. From a population of more than 60 million in the eighteenth century, there were just 541 still living in 1889 (and what a mournfully precise number that is). There are perhaps 30,000 alive today, but what matters here, when we try to understand the effects of shifting baseline syndrome, is that we have lost touch with what it meant for these extraordinary creatures to be travelling the continent in such thunderous numbers. It is not just the sight of them – their tang and bulk and wild danger – it is that we are only now starting to understand the immense impact they must have had on the ecology of their land. Wherever the buffalo migrated in close-packed herds, as they did every spring, they trailed great mountains of manure behind them, and they brought fertility and plenty in their wake. They did not just follow the spring. They helped create it.


Almost all evidence from earlier times is anecdotal, but that does not mean that it has to be suspect. In fact it seems to me that if we are to have any chance of living again in a more bountiful world, we have to listen with closer attention to the voices of the past. I recently followed 12 authors around Britain, retracing their journeys, absorbing myself in their books and journals, and one reason I did this was to try and understand how much has changed, and when. The last thing I wanted was for my trip to become some kind of grisly lament for everything we have lost – in so many ways things are better for us today than they have ever been – but that was also the question: are things really improving, or are they in fact getting worse? And not just for humanity, but for everything else that connects and supports us on these islands, and without which we will dwindle and die.

One of the people I followed was a man called Gerald of Wales, who was travelling around Wales in the year 1188 with Baldwin, the Archbishop of Canterbury, recruiting the Welsh and the English to the Third Crusade. And Gerald is eloquent on the subject of the salmon that leaped and flailed in the rivers and the beavers that lolloped on the banks, and built their shaggy dams over the sparkling waters. (It was Gerald who told me that beavers, when threatened by human hunters, will gnaw off their own testicles, because they well knew that it’s their balls that the humans are so keen to catch, and without them, the hunters will give up and go away.)

Gerald is casually informative about how much life teemed in the woods and wetlands of medieval Wales. So much, in fact, that it was hardly worth mentioning. But we need to find ways to remember, because we have almost lost the lived experience. And when, for example, Scottish landowners shoot newly released beavers because they believe they are going to disrupt the flow of their trammeled and weir-ridden rivers; or when the Angling Trust resists their re-introduction because they think that the fish will be disturbed by the presence of these large herbivores (with whom, we shouldn’t really have to point out, they once co-evolved); all of this just goes to show how far we have sunk from Gerald’s world; and what a miserable failure of imagination it is to think that we cannot once again share our land with these wondrous beings. Like the North American buffalo, beavers do not just bring joy to anyone who sees them; they precipitate an explosion of life in their ponds and dams.

A wild Beaver collecting food and swimming towards his lodge.

When Wilkie Collins travelled around Cornwall in 1850, taking the train to Plymouth (where the line ended) and then walking around the coast, he came to St Ives where he found the entire town, men, women and children, working together to bring in the pilchard harvest. There were dozens of people waiting with shovels:

… standing up to their knees with pilchards, working energetically; the crowd stretching down from the salting house, all along the beach, and hemming in the boat all around; the uninterrupted succession of men hurrying backwards and forwards with their barrows … the glare of the lanterns giving light to the workmen, and throwing red flashes on the fish as they fly incessantly from the shovels over the side of the boat …

It is a scene of wild activity and unimaginable plenty. And yet the pilchard industry more or less folded in the 1920s, collapsing through overfishing, a fall in demand, foreign competition, new offshore fishing methods, the EU… take your pick. There has been a tentative recovery, but if we really want to bring back life to our oceans, then we need to take the baseline back to Wilkie’s day, when in the year he visited he reckoned 60 million fish were drawn from the Cornish seas, and not to more recent times when all we would be measuring would be scarcity.

One week earlier, loitering in Lizard Town, Wilkie had watched nervously as a doctor held a smallpox party for all the local babies, inoculating them with “a lot of fine fresh matter” he had brought down from London. And he describes young children working in the fisheries and tin mines. And Gerald of Wales, riding through Wales in 1188, had much to say about a miraculous gold and silver staff, kept in a local church, that was “particularly efficacious in smoothing away and pressing the pus from glandular swellings and gross tumours which grow so often on the human body”. Yes, indeed, shifting baseline syndrome works both ways, and most of the time we are oblivious to the advances that sustain us. There are beavers in Scotland once more, breeding on the River Tay. Perhaps they will return to Gerald’s Wales. Thousands of volunteers have been planting hard to bring back the Great Caledonian Forest that Johnson once mourned.

The truth is that “shifting baseline syndrome” is just another way of describing our inability to comprehend the vast changes that are convulsing our world. Conservationists use it to alert us to loss, or at least our strange imperviousness to mass extinctions and our desire to carry on as though this dearth in our oceans, and emptiness in our skies, is “normal”. We need help separating nostalgia from reality, and we are right to be suspicious of lost arcadias and golden ages, but none of us ever lives long enough to notice, or we are all too quick to accept, that the rivers of life are running dry.

Further reading

Footnotes: A Journey Round Britain in the Company of Great Writers by Peter Fiennes (Oneworld Publications, 2019). Retracing the travels of 12 authors, from Gerald of Wales (1188) to Beryl Bainbridge (1983), woven into one continuous loop.

This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein (Penguin Books, 2014). Naomi Klein puts climate chaos at the centre of everything. It seemed frightening then – it’s worse now.

Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life by George Monbiot (Allen Lane, 2013). There has been no better explanation of rewilding, nor a more impassioned plea for its adoption.

A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland by Samuel Johnson (Penguin Books, 1984). In which Dr J holds forth on the Scots and their customs. For a gossipier account of the same journey, turn to James Boswell’s The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides.