Basic Assumptions That Underlie Ecological Restoration
Like all undertakings in life, ecological restoration is based upon a number of explicit and implicit assumptions. This is not a complete list. Not all restoration ecologists subscribe to all of these assumptions, nor, surprisingly, not everyone shares in this world view.
1. One assumption that drives restoration is that many parts of Earth are damaged, destroyed, or missing. As a result, the Earth’s natural capital (the total accumulation of the goods and services provided by global ecosystems) is diminished, to the detriment of the well-being of the planet and its human and non-human inhabitants.
2. Further, restorationists assume that solutions exist to repair the damage to ecosystems and their value to the world.
3. Thirdly, we also assume that some people have some capacity to care for the planet and to repair the damaged parts of the Earth’s systems.
4. People—except for neighborhood volunteers and local neighborhoods themselves—are not part of the restoration problem definition/solution. Until recently ecological restoration confined itself to the repair of damaged plant an animal communities, with the occasional concession to local neighbors—frequently well-to-do white suburban neighborhoods.
5. Restoration ecologists assume that our repair work can keep pace with environmental destruction all around us.
6. And, perhaps, the rest of the world will follow our example and quit messing up the environment, and pitch in to help out.
This is the basis upon which the global ecological restoration enterprise was founded and upon which it has thrives.
Many desired restoration outcomes have been achieved across the globe in the past 85 years since the UW-Madison Arboretum and the restoration work in Australia began. Restoration is a global efforts and the cumulative scale of the projects is impressive, but still tiny compared to the need; the achievement of restoration outcomes feels like swimming upstream to those doing the restoration. It is exhilarating work but sometimes discouraging and it also creates a dilemma for restorationists—we work at the indulgence of those who cause the destruction; our work depends upon their continued wrecking of the earth.
Despite ecological restoration work around the globe, we are falling behind. Our creative ecological work can’t keep up with the rate of destruction. Why?
For one thing, restorationists, have sometimes been treating symptoms (drained wetlands, degraded prairies,) instead of the root causes of ecological damage which is human activities (mining, logging, commercial building, etc.)
Also missing is an explicit assumption that ecological restoration should benefit people—especially people of color, and civic communities—directly.
Ecological restoration should adopt a mission to repair our disintegrating cities; to help our urban poor, assist the homeless, and the disenfranchised; ecological restoration should block the actions of predatory capitalist systems that pave over our farmland and natural areas before we an even think about restoring them.
As long as our fellow citizens and our communities suffer, are not free, and are not safe, then none of us will be healthy and none of us will be free and none of us safe, and the ecological damage will continue.
Things must change and restoration ecology is uniquely qualified to jump into the fray and help those already engaged in social and human services efforts.
We Need Some New, Additional Assumptions on Which Ecological Restoration Can Be Based.
Look around at the mess this country has created and and you can see that ecological restoration’s basic operating assumptions—while perhaps necessary at one time—are no longer sufficient in today’s world. Before we can repair our nation’s damaged ecosystems, we must repair of our country’s social, racial, cultural. If you have any doubt about the need, look at the mass demonstrations across the country the past two weeks. People in the streets are calling for social, racial, and environmental justice.
The SER Mission, Vision, and Guiding Principles
The Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) has a mission, vision, and guiding principles that address this issue head-on: guidance.
“Across the globe, centuries of unsustainable activities have damaged the aquatic, marine, and terrestrial environments that underpin our economies and societies and give rise to a diversity of wildlife and plants. SER is dedicated to reversing this degradation and restoring the earth for the benefit of humans and nature.
SER advances the science, practice and policy of ecological restoration to sustain biodiversity, improve resilience in a changing climate, and re-establish an ecologically healthy relationship between nature and culture.
Ecological restoration becomes a fundamental component of conservation and sustainable development programs throughout the world by virtue of its inherent capacity to provide people with the opportunity to not only repair ecological damage, but also improve the human condition.
Our Guiding Principles
These underlying principles guide and inform our work:
- Ecological restoration is an engaging and inclusive process. Restoration embraces the interrelationships between nature and culture, engages all sectors of society, and enables full and effective participation of indigenous, local and disenfranchised communities
- Ecological restoration requires the integration of knowledge and practice. Science and other forms of knowledge are essential for designing, implementing and monitoring restoration projects and programs. At the same time, lessons learned from practical experiences are essential for determining and prioritizing the scientific needs of the field.
- Ecological restoration is policy-relevant and essential. Restoration is a critical tool for achieving biodiversity conservation, mitigating and adapting to climate change, enhancing ecosystem services, fostering sustainable socioeconomic development, and improving human health and well-being.
- Ecological restoration is practiced locally with global implications. Restoration takes place in all regions of the world, with local actions having regional and global benefits for nature and people.
“A Restoration Ethic”
Hull and Robertson (2000, “Restoring Nature: Perspectives from the Social Sciences and Humanities.”) suggest that by restoring damage to the Earth’s systems, we also enter into a relationship with the planet that helps repairs our connection to nature and our own communities, thereby increasing our own social and personal capital.
This set of assumptions constitute what Hull and Robertson might call “ a restoration ethic”. In their view, restoration blurs the distinction between culture and nature and opens up a broad middle ground where it is acceptable for humans and nature to interact.
I would suggest we broaden the restoration ethic to include repairing our relationships with our fellow humans.
Examples of Direct Action
The SER guiding principles are excellent. But I am suggesting that those in the discipline–both paid professionals and community volunteers–build upon them by taking direct action, on our own, in addition to our traditional ecological restoration work, to aid our communities, by, for example picking one of these suggestions for individual and community civic action. Many of you, I know, are already doing one, or more, of these civic engagement strategies to great effect
Lend your expertise to start or working with a community garden in your area.
Teach people how to grow their own food.
Organize and lead efforts to restore and improve habitat in your neighborhood.
Work with a food bank or other community action non-profit.
Help with literacy programs in your area.
Find ways to fight poverty.
Help register people to vote in November 2020.
Join the governing board of a local non-profit.
Run for local political office.
Organize neighborhood clean-up efforts.
Join a local science-advisory board.
Offer your scientific or practical plant expertise to a local neighborhood-based restoration project.
Publish a news blog covering local news and events that are not covered by the local paper. If there is no local paper, such an effort is even more important.
Help clean up a vacant lot and grow native plants in it.
Teach kids and neighbors how to identify plants and birds.
Help design and install residential rain gardens and/or pollinator gardens.
Human activities are the cause of environmental destruction. Human activities are also the cause of the destruction of our cities, and their citizens. Only human activities c Gan reverse the damage we have done.
We are where we are today as the direct result of the sum total of human activities throughout our existence and thus we are all complicit and we are all responsible for repairing the damage (Ghosh, 2016). The vast disruption to, and outright destruction of, ecosystems, and the poisoning of the air, land, and water have presented restoration ecologists with vast challenges and opportunities and responsibilities. Opportunities exist to attempt to reverse some of this damage; to save some small portion of the at-risk plants and animals, and to restore or recreate other small patches of prairie, savanna, coral reefs, and tropical forests. But restoration of ecosystems is only half of the job; we have a responsibility to help repair our society.. Repair of our social and cultural systems is mandatory. Without this effort, attempts at ecological restoration are irrelevant, meaningless, and futile.
Ghosh, Amitav. 2016. The Great Derangement, climate change and the unthinkable. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press.
Hull and Robertson (2000, “Conclusion: Which Nature” IN Restoring Nature: Perspectives from the Social Sciences and Humanities, edited by P.H.Gobster and R.B. Hull, 299-307, Washington. DC Island Press