Restoring the future
Ecological restoration may be our last best hope for a sustainable future, according to the author, in an account of how he came to write ‘Our Once and Future Planet: Restoring the World in the Climate Change Century’, his new book on this radical conservation strategy
No fixed principles
The practice of ecological restoration, and its related scientific discipline of restoration ecology, are not established fields with agreed or fixed basic principles. They are more like lively adolescents, buzzing with energy and vibrant contradictions. Restorationists are, after all, attempting to engage with a global environment whose evolutionary shape-shifting tendencies are accelerated unpredictably by climate change.
Nevertheless, the spark that the phrase “ecological restoration” ignited for me on that damp night has become a steadily burning passion that continues to illuminate two hopeful prospects I glimpsed on that occasion: firstly, that the natural world is considerably more resilient than I had thought, and that damaged and degraded ecosystems can rebuild a great deal of their complex webs of species, communities and ecological processes if we give them half a chance to do so; and, secondly, that human beings can assist in managing this restoration process, and that in so doing we may restore our own relationship to nature.
“Saving nature”, then, might not just mean a last-fence stand to preserve shrinking islands of wilderness by keeping people out of them. Through restoration we might escape from our locked dichotomy between the twin roles of destroyers and preservers and find a more rewarding way to facilitate and participate in natural processes.
The human stories I encountered show evidence of our frailties: in science, in policy and politics, and in personal relationships. But they carry, overall, a welcome reminder that there is nothing inevitable about humanity’s current starring role as the bad guy of Planet Earth. The obstacles are daunting, but enough scientific knowledge is available to turn us into the caretakers or stewards of the biosphere, of which we form an integral part.
I’ve learned that soil was the basis of all restoration but that very few restorationists pay it much attention. And that those who did confessed freely that they understood very little about how the microfauna and microflora under our feet interact. If restoration was part of the solution to the global environmental crisis, it was clearly no silver bullet.
But I had also heard a rousing address by Keith Bowers, then chairperson of the Society for Ecological Restoration, telling delegates that “ecological restoration is the reframed environmental movement” and that that reframing was focused on “restoring the future”.
I am not starry-eyed about ecological restoration. From a scientific perspective alone, the race to close restoration’s knowledge gaps, even as climate change and other accelerating human effects on the environment are widening them, will be very difficult to win. Indeed, some leading restoration ecologists now question whether it is winnable, sparking a passionate controversy within the movement.
And even if this race is winnable in theory, there are a host of daunting obstacles in practice: rapidly expanding human populations; the seemingly inexorable rise of consumer demands on critically limited resources; and the ideologies of unregulated greed and apocalyptic irrational fanaticisms that stride the world stage of human affairs.
But restoration, as a conservation strategy that embraces both biodiversity and human needs with energy, imagination and innovation, offers new paths through this bleak scenario. The future of our planet, and of our species, may depend on whether we decide to follow them.
Our Once and Future Planet: Restoring the World in the Climate Change Century is published this month by University of Chicago Press; it will be launched by Mary Robinson on December 5th