After the Bell: The common ground between white sharks and inflation
For us, the perception is that inflation has always been a thing, while in most of the world’s advanced economies it has been bottled up for decades. Our perceptions of white sharks ride the same currents.
A few years ago, the white sharks of False Bay and Gansbaai seemingly “vanished”, with sightings in these Cape hotspots declining sharply. No white sharks were seen at all in 2019, and one was finally spotted in False Bay in January 2020 – the first one seen there in 20 months.
A recent peer-reviewed study published in the journal Ecological Indicators found that the regional population has in fact been stable in the three decades since the species was formally protected but has been shifting eastwards.
This came as no surprise to this correspondent, as it jives with my own research into the subject.
Two years ago, I wrote an article in Daily Maverick to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the publication of the book, Blue Meridian: The Search for the Great White Shark, by the famed natural history writer Peter Matthiessen, and the documentary the book chronicled, Blue Water, White Death.
Back in 1969, two years before the book and film were released, a US film crew rocked up in South Africa in a quest to film white sharks from a cage.
But from our current perch in the 21st century, they picked a curious location. Instead of heading straight to, say, Gansbaai, they chose to follow the last commercial whalers operating out of Durban in the hope that white sharks would be attracted to the slaughtered leviathans.
When that didn’t work, the crew headed to Sri Lanka, the Comoros and Mozambique, before finally hitting pay dirt off the coast of Australia. As the regular writer for this column would say, I am not making this up. The thought of heading to the Cape waters, where a white shark cage-diving industry has flourished for most of the past three decades until the recent “vanishing”, simply did not cross their minds.
There can only be two, possibly related, explanations for this. One is that the species’ existence in the Cape waters was not common public knowledge in the late 1960s. There was, for example, plenty of local media coverage of the crew’s Durban dalliance, but to my knowledge, no one in the local press suggested they head south and west.
Having said that, the owner of the vessel they hired said he had caught white sharks in Saldanha Bay, and the ship’s crew said they believed they were present in the Cape waters. But the documentary makers did not rise to that bait.
The other explanation is that the species is not always present there, or at least in relative abundance.
The Global Shark Attack File (GSAF), which stretches back to antiquity, offers some clues. Going through the database, I found only eight white shark attacks or episodes recorded by the GSAF in Western Cape waters in the Sixties, the last one in 1964.
There has been a lot of understandable angst about inflation worldwide over the past couple of years… but in the US and Eurozone the ‘baseline’ has been ridiculously low interest rates and tame inflation.
In KwaZulu-Natal waters there were half a dozen white shark attacks recorded in the 1960s, two of which were fatal and so presumably they would have made more of a media splash (pun intended). But in the Seventies there were no fewer than 10 incidents in Western Cape waters involving direct physical interactions between humans and white sharks.
So, the expedition could hardly be faulted for not going to the Cape, as white sharks in the 1960s at least did not seem to be as numerous there as they were subsequently, for whatever reason.
Conservation scientists have a term for this state of affairs: it’s called shifting baseline syndrome.
This refers to our tendency to regard the natural world perceived and experienced in our lifetimes as the norm.
Our current “baseline” for white shark populations in False Bay and other nearby Cape waters has been formed since the 1990s, when the species was first protected and the cage-diving industry there began. Along with this came increased scientific monitoring and public awareness of the populations – a level of scrutiny that had not been obtained before.
The current public perception is that white sharks have always been abundant there, but history suggests this not the case.
So, what does this have to do with inflation?
In the US and Eurozone, relatively low inflation has been the “norm” since the early 1990s. Global inflation has been a different kettle of fish, but has also been relatively low since the mid-1990s with the occasional spike.
This was not the case in the Seventies and much of the Eighties. US inflation averaged 8.0% in 2022, its fastest pace since 1981. In the Eurozone, inflation averaged 8.83% last year, its highest since 1982. Average global inflation was 8.27% and the last reading above that was in 2008.
There has been a lot of understandable angst about inflation worldwide over the past couple of years which has, among other things, triggered aggressive rate hikes by central banks to contain it.
But in the US and Eurozone – whose monetary tightening is forcing the hand of other central banks such as South Africa’s – the “baseline” has been ridiculously low interest rates and tame inflation. Consumers and voters have come to regard this as the normal state of affairs, but of course this is not the case.
Inflation has also largely been a phenomenon of the 20th century. It barely registered in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Read more in Daily Maverick: After the Bell: How good news about malaria in Africa is dampened by the cult-like spell of Trump
But our baselines are derived from personal experience, and so the perception is that inflation has always been a thing. And in most of the world’s advanced economies it has been bottled up for decades, so its uncorking is a shock.
Our perceptions of white sharks ride the same currents – white sharks have “always” been numerous in False Bay and nearby waters, and so the dearth of them now comes as a shock.
Among other things, this highlights the importance of history and viewing the natural and economic worlds through the longue durée or the “long term”. DM