Human folly and the future of the planet
Is there the will – even the remaining time – to repair Earth? And should we prioritise ‘ecosystem services’ or leave nature to its own path?
Man versus nature: extracting latex from a sapodilla tree in Mexican jungle. Photograph: Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty
Woman versus nature: clearing invasive golden wattle trees, which prevent the growth of the indigenous fynbos, in Cape Town. Photograph: Anna Zieminski/AFP/Getty
Our Once and Future Planet
University of Chicago Press
After the Pleistocene and the Holocene the planet’s Anthropocene epoch finds the latest anthropoid species swarming out of control. Increasingly resourceful in postponing its own mortality, it continues to exploit fellow species in the drive for comfort and power. Each day brings fresh news of its harm to surrounding life on Earth – now, indeed, to its own chances of survival.
So much for human folly. But, aware at last that nature matters, not least to humanity’s own needs, is there the will and the wherewithal – even, indeed, the remaining time – to make meaningful repairs to the planet? And what should be the priority: managed “ecosystem services” to humans, or nature left to its own unpredictable path? Can we have both?
With science presenting its latest ultimatum on global warming, Our Once and Future Planet explores the interim course of “restoration ecology”. This is more ambitious and coherent than the piecemeal tree-plantings, prunings, reintroductions and clearings-up already familiar from greener news in the media. Its current global reach, scale and philosophical vigour are often surprising, and the years of travel and research by Paddy Woodworth, who writes regularly for The Irish Times, have produced an important book.
Chicago University Press saw its particular value at a time when American thought on the human contract with nature, as pioneered by Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and Aldo Leopold, confronts the new realities of climate change. The US remains the crucible and testing ground for their modern successors in ecology, and Woodworth’s time with projects for restoring prairie ecosystems and saving whooper cranes sent him travelling for wider examples of how new and often conflicting ideas are working out on the ground.
In South Africa he found “one ballsy programme”, as the late Kader Asmal described it. As minister for water affairs and forestry (fondly remembered in Ireland for his earlier anti-apartheid activism) he helped launch the Working for Water programme. His new nation was increasingly short of fresh water as alien and thirsty vegetation invaded the fynbos, the natural shrubland of the Cape, which holds its crucial watercourses. Asmal requisitioned money for a hugely ambitious public-works programme to clear the botanical aliens. At a stroke it would protect the unique biodiversity of the fynbos, restore water as the country’s “natural capital” and put wages in the pockets of the poor.
Woodworth explores this well beyond the programme’s botanical promise. His unthreading of political, economic and social forces at work, both for success and failure, gives his field studies a keen practical value. Restoration often brings dissent and conflict. Whether a cultivated landscape in Italy or woodland “wilderness” beside Chicago, change is as much about people, their priorities and their attitudes as it is about the natural ecosystem.
In New Zealand, tensions are cultural, given Maori traditions of land ownership. In Australia, too, the lives of aboriginal people and the prospects for mining both complicate the ambitions of the Australian Wilderness Society. “Dreamtime in Gondwanaland”, Woodworth’s chapter from the bush, is richly described.
Even in South America, restoration ecology reaches back through history to connect with earlier human and natural ecosystems. In southern Mexico what is left of the Lacandon Jungle is one of the most diverse stretches of Atlantic rainforest left in North America. But next to it are clearances to pasture, the introduction of African grasses and the steady degradation of overgrazing. Here restoration must reach out to the knowledge of the neighbouring peoples of the forest, once part of the Mayan civilization.