Twenty-six years ago, marine biologist Daniel Pauly coined the term “shifting baseline syndrome” to describe how fishermen grew accustomed to catching ever smaller hauls as seas were depleted by overfishing. With each new generation of fishermen, the bounties that filled previous cohorts’ nets were largely forgotten. Scarcity that would have once seemed unimaginable became the “new normal.”
That shifting baseline effect is also evident in the way we perceive climate change: We often don’t fully grasp the scale of change because it unfolds so gradually. We grow used to the ever-encroaching tides, the frequent floods, the droughts.
John Sutter’s documentary project “Baseline” is an ambitious attempt to counter this tendency. Over the next three decades, Sutter will film from four sites at the forefront of the climate crisis: Shishmaref, Alaska, where melting sea ice and thawing permafrost are claiming lives and houses; a community in central Utah parched by intense drought; the storm-battered island of Dominica, in the Caribbean; and the Marshall Islands, a string of low-lying atolls threatened by sea levels rising at twice the global average rate. Each of the communities is a proxy for many more like them.
The project will consist not of a single documentary film but of many; Sutter plans to film in five installments from now until 2050, to document climate change’s gradual incursion into these places and the lives of the people who inhabit them. Think Michael Apted’s “Up” series, but for climate. “It’s my attempt — for myself and for other people — to try to rethink the way we conceptualize time in relation to the climate crisis,” Sutter says. “And to tell stories that cross decades, cross generations, and really try to make sense of the magnitude of what’s going on around us.”
Sutter has been drawn to stories about place since he was a child. He says that when he was growing up in Oklahoma, his grandmother would tell him stories about the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s. She described clouds of dirt that swirled thick in the air, blocking out the sun. “It just sounded truly apocalyptic,” Sutter recalls. He says those stories about the Dust Bowl, and the mass migration it engendered, likely contributed to his present-day fascination with narratives about communities impacted by climate change.
After attending college in Georgia, Sutter returned to Oklahoma, found work at The Oklahoman, and developed a penchant for telling environmental stories. He later joined CNN, where he worked as a senior investigative reporter, producer, and columnist for 10 years. There, too, he gravitated toward stories about people living in places threatened by environmental change. He covered climate migration from Honduras, the effects of coral bleaching on a fishing community in Madagascar, and Hurricane Maria’s impact on Puerto Rico.
He also wrote about Shishmaref, where longtime residents — most of them Alaska Natives — recently watched a home slump into the sea due to thawing permafrost. More houses are expected to follow.
Sutter says there’s real value in listening to people who are so tied to places — people who are finely attuned to the changes that are unfolding. They experience and understand climate change much more intimately than he can, Sutter says. That’s one reason that he and the “Baseline” team decided to supply children in each location with cameras, making them documentarians of their own.
The material the kids have captured “is among the most interesting stuff that we’ve found so far,” Sutter says. “I think that there’s something unique about seeing the world from a kid’s height and perspective, and some of them are really pretty stunning photographers.”
The first installment of the documentary series is in its early stages and, like so many other projects, has been delayed by the pandemic. But despite the project’s long timeline, Sutter operates with a sense of urgency. Communities are already feeling the effects of climate change, and the window of opportunity to convince world leaders to act on it is narrowing.
I asked Sutter what he expected the world would look like in 2050, when “Baseline” is wrapping up. He said he’s optimistic that the Biden administration will take aggressive action on climate. “But there’s a lot of inertia in the current system,” he added. “We’ve known essentially the same scary facts about climate science for a few decades now.”
Sutter says he has faith that humanity will find inventive ways to respond to the mounting climate threat but that, ultimately, he doesn’t know how things will unfold. And that, he says, is why he’s making the film.
Anna Blaustein is a research associate with the Knight Science Journalism Program and a student in the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing. You can read more of her work at annablaustein.com and find her on Twitter @annablaustein.