Shifting Baselines, Altered Horizons. Max Plank Institute, Berlin 2018.

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2018 Sammler, K. Drawing a Line in the Sand: The Rising Politics of Sea Level. Shifting Baselines, Altered Horizons: Politics, Practices, and Knowledge in Environmental Science and Policy. Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, Germany, 21-22 Jun.

Shifting Baselines, Altered Horizons: Politics, Practices, and Knowledge in Environmental Science and Policy

This workshop, organized as part of the Art of Judgement working group, aims at fostering a multidisciplinary analysis of the role of baselines in a variety of fields, ranging from policy to academia, and including nature conservation, toxic waste, sustainable development, and sea level rise.

One of the workshop’s purposes is to suggest alternative pathways for conceptualizing and utilizing baselines, putting in the forefront the necessity to put all different kinds of existing baseline discourses in science and policy into their broader social, cultural, and material context. The working group that will crystallise around this workshop aims thus at reframing the epistemological problem of shifting baselines as one of cultural representation and imagination, radical historicity, connection of power and knowledge, and the distributed agency of a variety of human, non-human, and post-human actors operating at multiple geographic and temporal scales. Finally, instead of merely asking which temporal framework best serves as a starting point for measuring environmental change, the workshop plans to explore how and in which terms global and cosmopolitan processes of standardsation of environmental knowledge prevailed over vernacular, regional, or national ways of seeing, measuring, and stewarding ecosystems.

via Max Planck Institute for the History of Science | Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte

TITLE: Drawing a Line in the Sand: The Rising Politics of Sea Level.

AUTHOR: Katherine G. Sammler, Geography, California State University Maritime Academy

ABSTRACT: Sea level rise has entered mainstream consciousness through developing concerns over floods, erosion and major damage to coastal city infrastructure. While it is largely perceived and experienced via these impacts, sea level is less often thought about as a political surface. The boundary where land and sea meet and mix is determined by the height of the ocean, manifesting materially as a realm of coastal features and produced politically as baselines by means of technical practices. Defined by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, baselines are the low-water line upon which national boundaries are traced. Yet, this line between adjoining mediums of land and sea, between hydrologic and geologic, is much more physically blurred and dynamic than represented politically and legally. The difficulty of delimiting a coastline, a challenge referred to as the Coastal Paradox, due to its fractal properties, means the length of a country’s coastline will depend on the size of the ruler used. Delineating an ephemeral coastline can be explained as an entanglement of instrument and measurement, of subject and object (Barad 2007). Both sea level and baselines only emerge through an act of measurement.

Rising sea levels encroach on physical coastlines as well as techno-legal baselines, shifting national terrestrial and maritime borders inland. Drawing fixed political boundaries, in contradiction to the changing material world, manifests in legal uncertainty for low-lying nations’ territorial sovereignty and livelihoods. Exploring the technical and political construction of baselines and sea level, this paper expounds on the question, “How does the geopolitical take account of the geophysical” (Elden, nd)? Making this relationship explicit by exploring the historical development of ocean measurement and delimitation, the goal of this paper is to create an opening for intervention in how sea level rise politically marks the world in the face of an uncertain future.


Wilko Graf von Hardenberg, PhD. Senior Research Scholar, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science Dept. III Artefacts, Knowledge and Action.

Sebastián Ureta, Director, Magister en Ciencia, Tecnología y Sociedad, Departamento de Sociología, Universidad Alberto Hurtado.

Thomas Lekan, Associate Professor, History, University of South Carolina.