One must take a long view in order to see the full scale of the destruction, but individuals perceive changes only in relatively short periods of time. With missing information or experience of historical conditions, each generation accepts the status quo in which it was raised as normal. As biodiversity shrinks, the reference point shifts and becomes the new baseline. It is difficult to mourn the loss of species or places that were already gone when one was born. This change in perception is called shifting baseline syndrome (SBS): slow but steady environmental changes can go unnoticed. The SBS creates a new accepted norm for the state of nature.
This phenomenon obviously complicates conservation efforts: People show an increased tolerance for environmental degradation and an altered perspective of what a healthy environment looks like.
Seemingly, the SBS is driven by social practices, like leisure-activities or education. In the 19th century, Karl Marx defined the estrangement of humans to the world as alienation. For Marx, alienation was a product of labour under industrialized capitalist production. Alienation describes the worker’s lack of control over her social and natural world – inter alia, she becomes alienated from her human nature. Arguably, labour is the most significant social practice in human life.
Work patterns accelerating the trend?
My argument is that alienated labour and the SBS are heavily intertwined. Work in the 21st century accelerates and reinforces the SBS through three dimensions. Only if we understand these dimensions and their consequences, can we surmount the SBS and halt the loss of nature.
The first, structural dimension of labour concerns how and what we work on. Today, particularly in the northern and western hemispheres, labour, whether intellectual or manual, largely takes place on computers, highly engineered machines and sterile production lines. Work routines are completely detached from biological processes and the natural environment. Ultimately, people lose touch with the natural world through work.
The third temporal dimension concerns how much we work. In a standard full-time employment model, employees work around five eight-hour days followed by a two-day weekend off from work. In many sectors, paid or unpaid overtime is expected, and it is not uncommon to work a 60-hour week. Additionally, a paid job is often followed by unpaid labour, like caring for children or elderly relatives; and the weekend is often used for other needs like spending time with loved ones, running errands or pursuing a hobby. This leaves most people with little time to spend in nature, to learn about it and most importantly to observe its changes. For many, work-life-nature balance is off.
So, how do we re-balance our lives to reconnect with nature?
Finding a work-life-nature balance
A reduction in working hours seems to be the linchpin. The temporal dimension of labour is the easiest to change and can temper the effects of the structural and spatial dimensions. In fact, we are among the first generations to be able to reduce working hours and still live decent lives due to the ongoing trends of digitization and automation. The resulting benefits should be directed towards more free-time and more equality.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a strong trend for people to spend more time in nature. With reduced working hours, we could expect a similar effect. People would spend more time in their communities and on recreational activities. Many of these activities would take place in nature, increasing interaction and knowledge of nature and, ideally, inspiring people to protect it.
Ultimately, the desire for more time is not new. In the words of the American poet Walt Whitman, “what is this world if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.” Giving people back the time to observe the world around them is essential if we want to encourage them to reconnect to nature. Only then can we, as a society, recognise the shift in baselines and ultimately, do something to halt the loss of nature. Working less presents a path out of the rat race, and opens the gate for restructuring the work-life-nature relation in the 21st century.
This article was published in an extended version on 23 September 2021 in klimareporter° (in German).