Shifting baselines


This December, I started a book and read it. From start to finish. It was J.B. MacKinnon’s “The Once and Future World.” It was a beautiful read, felt close to my heart and beliefs, and really got me thinking about shifting baselines. Basically, baselines are points of reference in how we see the world based on an individual or generation’s experience. “Shifting Baselines Syndrome” is a term used to describe the small changes which are forever happening which seem minor, until they form a larger reality. We generally know they are happening, yet somehow lack the ability to see the impact of the changes in aggregate across a long time period and struggle to understand the meaning or overall picture of how all of the small pieces have added up to or will add up to a large shift in our reality. And generally a large shift that is very difficult, maybe impossible to reverse, and possibly left us in an uncomfortable position.

In the book, MacKinnon talks about shifting baselines in the context of nature and the world we share. Example: the baseline we share today about nature is significantly lower both in terms of diversity and volume of nature in our lives than has been in the past, yet we think it is normal. MacKinnon suggests that part of the reason this degradation has happened may be our inability to understand the overall impact of slowly shifting baselines. What’s one less bee until we struggle to pollinate blossoms in China—we always pollinated by hand didn’t we? What’s one less bison until they no longer roam free on the Prairies—there weren’t bison running around the Prairies that I remember? What’s one less whale as the carbon cycle becomes an issue? (this is actually a fascinating story… Google it… I dare you). 

I started to think about baselines in day to day life and my mind wandered to my Grandma. My Grandma is 95 years old and still kicking it on the farm. A real trooper who had her first surgery ever this summer and flew through it like a 65 year old. Once when she was about 90, she told me she couldn’t really remember when she became old. She said sometimes she looked in the mirror and expected someone different; a younger version of who was looking back at her. I remember thinking that was so surreal; I mean obviously to me (and pretty much everyone else beside centurions) she was old. For her, the baseline was always changing ever so slowly that she usually felt like just the same person she pretty much always was. To her, while she knew she was getting older, one day she woke up and really, truly, whole heartedly, realized she was old.

Then I started to think about shifting baselines in relation to business and credit unions. A couple of examples where I really think credit unions have nailed it, are ahead of the curve, and deserve to celebrate:

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