Each generation forgets how rich nature was before them: nature amnesia is what the natural historian Marc Argeloo calls it. ‘Because we have a limited view of nature, our ambitions in the area of nature care are also limited.’
Many see the Wadden Sea as one of the most impressive nature reserves in the Netherlands, which must be well protected so that it can remain as it is now. But the way the Wadden Sea is now is not what it once was.
Meter-high mussel and oyster banks, large beds of sea grass, huge rays and cod, gray whales plowing sideways through the silt in search of food. These have disappeared after centuries of fishing, diving and shipping. ‘The three-dimensional mudflat became a two-dimensional sandbox,’ says natural historian Marc Argeloo.
Is discrimination based on appearance inevitable?
Argeloo calls the tendency to forget what nature used to look like ‘nature amnesia’, a topic on which he received his PhD at Utrecht University in early September. ‘We lack the ability to transfer the knowledge we have acquired about nature to the next generation.’
Broken Zero Line
A consequence of this is what biologists call the Shifting Baseline Syndrome: we involuntarily take the state of nature as we come to know it during our lives as a point of reference. ‘A kind of zero line of supposedly untouched nature. But we don’t realize that the generations before us have already done it, so our frame of reference shifts quietly and we don’t feel the constant decline of species and areas.’
Ultimately, this produces a distorted image of nature. “For example, we believe that the lion is a typical African animal that can still survive there. But they were once also found in Greece, the Middle East and throughout India. The remaining population has also declined by 42 percent in three generations of lions, from 1993 to 2014, to more than 20,000 animals. It is as much as the number of inhabitants of Delfzijl.’
But wait a minute: by 2022, everyone knows nature is in decline, right? ‘True, but as soon as it comes to the question of what to do about it, nature amnesia sets in. Because we have a limited view of nature, our ambitions in nature care and nature restoration are also limited. We rarely look back beyond the 1970s, because our numbers don’t go back any further. So when we think about nature management in the Wadden Sea, the gray whale is no longer in our system. It no longer appears from our policy’.
Argeloo argues for ‘historical ecology’ to combat this forgetfulness. In addition, sources unusual for biologists and conservationists are useful. “Anecdotes from older people, e.g. On Sulawesi, I do research in Maleo or hammerbirds, an iconic bird in local culture. To the young the maleo is just a brand of peanuts, but the older still remember where they were found and in what numbers.’
The fishermen’s stories also provide valuable data. ‘Older anglers told me they used to catch bass over 40cm. Now you find them in many places in the Netherlands, no bigger than 30 centimeters. If you look at data from angling club fishing competitions, where all catches are recorded, these memories prove to be correct. What you might write off as fisherman’s Latin is actually a valuable historical resource.’
With such anecdotal information, we can reconstruct our image of nature much further back in time, say 1950, argues Argeloo. But there are several sources: menus, trade registers, travelogues of explorers such as D’Albertis, Wallace and Darwin. ‘It stretches the picture to about the sixteenth century. With data from archaeological research, for example bone remains of prey animals in ancient settlements, or palaeontological research into fossils, for example, you can go even further back into the past.’
Argeloo emphasizes that we should not choose a specific year and then try to restore nature to that moment. ‘It would fix nature again at any time. I prefer that historical knowledge inspires us to think bigger in nature care. For example, the deepening of the siltation channel to Ameland and the consequences for animals and plants are now being discussed. Are we thinking about today’s two-dimensional sandbox, or about what the Wadden Sea once was and what it can potentially approach again?’
‘I argue for more imagination and ambition in nature care. Don’t rejoice when one species benefits, but try to restore natural processes, such as ocean currents and migration patterns. Unspoiled nature no longer exists, but the potential for natural dynamism is still there. The gray whale back in the Wadden Sea; why shouldn’t that be possible?’