Young People Can’t Remember How Much More Wildlife There Used to Be

Only the elderly remember how many more birds, bees, butterflies and bunnies used to inhabit their backyards. Sadly, the young don’t realize they’re disappearing.

Researchers are identifying a dangerous trend when it comes to wildlife conservation – young people aren’t aware of the massive declines in wild animal populations, because they can’t remember back far enough to when those populations were abundant.

For example, teens and 20-somethings might think it’s normal that they only see a single butterfly or two on a nature walk, because that’s the world they were born into.

But just a little over a century ago, British butterfly collector S. G. Castle Russell journaled about encountering swarms of butterflies ” so thick that I could hardly see ahead.” On one occasion, he “captured a hundred purple hairstreaks” with two sweeps of his net.

The problem of forgetting past natural abundance is known as “shifting baseline syndrome” – the tendency of younger generations to perceive the world we were born into to be natural and normal because we are only comparing it to a small, recent set of reference points.

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“Photos of fishermen in Florida, who, over generations, pose equally proudly with ever-shrinking catches, famously illustrate the concept,” notes

To gauge this effect, University of London zoologist Lizzie Jones conducted a survey of 900 people of various ages, asking them their perceptions of population changes in 10 UK bird species, including the sharply declining swallow population.

They were asked to compare the number of birds they saw in the wild in 2018 with the number they recall seeing when they were 18 years old.

Even though younger participants were 18 more recently than older participants, they were generally worse at describing how many more birds there were “back then.”

“You’d expect younger people would be better,” said Jones, who  presented her work at a British Ecological Society conference on Friday.

Elderly participants recalled detailed stories about how many more birds they used to see in their youth.

“Generational amnesia occurs when each new generation takes the new, degraded state of the ecosystem as their normal baseline upon which they gauge and perceive future change,” Jones says.
She hopes that her ongoing research will help conservationists come up with methods to combat the effects of shifting baseline syndrome, so that young people can see outside the tiny bubble of their lifetimes and realize how unsustainably fast the natural world around us is disappearing.