Shifting baselines is an effect where when what is perceived to be standard gradually changes over time and people accept the current conditions as a “baseline’ for what is standard, when in actuality the baseline used to be much different. This effect happens because people have not experienced these past baselines and without knowing the past, people do not think that whatever is being considered can be improved, even though it used to be better. Because of this continual decline in quality or quantity, people think that what they are experiencing is normal and they don’t consider that things could even possibly be better. In the case of northern cod, the effect of this shifting baseline is that in more recent times, people are trying to maintain a lower amount of cod when in actuality it is possible to sustainable fish a larger population of cod if we were to manage the population well. People think that the amount of cod in the water right now is acceptable because that is how it has been their whole life and why mess with something like the cod if they are doing okay right now and interfering with them will not guarantee returns in the future. When discussing sustainability, lots of people say that we have an obligation to leave the world as well off as when we entered it. This is something that I think most people agree on, but when past generations have worsened the state of our planet, why shouldn’t we try to make the earth better than when we entered it. Our goal of sustainability should not only be to preserve the earth as it is, but we should foster conditions that lead to the betterment of earth as a planet.
I agree with your closing statement of sustainability. Leaving the world better than we found it, versus leaving it just as we found it is very insightful. I’ve used the phrase when referring to specific areas, like at band competitions or picnics, but I had never really thought about it in terms of fisheries or other industries. If only everyone had the same mindset!