What Can Ecological Restoration Do About It?
Monday June 1, 2020
I usually write about environmental topics like water use and issues in ecological restoration, but not today. Given the crisis in America, those topics seem a little small and irrelevant. But, the crisis in racial, social, and environmental justice in America that was laid bare, like a hospital X Ray, by the coronavirus pandemic, has also exposed the similarity between how society treats its citizens and how it treats its natural areas and wild spaces. In this country, both get the short end of the stick.
The role of ecological restoration as a values and social justice project is my topic today.
Country Being Ripped Apart by Multiple Emergencies
Amid the triple catastrophes of the global climate crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic, and resulting depression-era unemployment, along comes a nation-wide uprising against the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis , Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and countless other black Americans who have lost their lives to racial violence. This uprising has been a long time—over 400 years—coming.
The protests—the majority of which are peaceful—were sparked initially by outrage over the cold-blooded killing of Mr. Floyd and others. Over the weekend, protests were held in more than 70 U.S. cities—including Madison, WI..
Tbe looting and burning that has taken place amidst the peaceful protests is separate from, and antithetical to, the cause of racial justice. The looting is reportedly incited by both right and lift-wing extremists.
Slavery, Racism, and Environmental Destruction, are components of the same human pathology, and has gone on for way too long.
But the nation-wide outrage is also fueled by 400 years of slavery, abuse, inequality, suppression of voting rights, the poisoning and pollution of Black communities—think the Flint, Michigan crisis of lead in drinking water—and decades of systemic inequality, and racism. All of this has made the climate crisis and the coronavirus pandemic worse for communities of color. In short, America’s history of slavery and racism and led to environmental damage for us all.
A World of Wounds
As citizens, and human beings, we should be concerned and enraged by the mistreatment of our fellow citizens and humans. If we aren’t we have not been paying attention.
Likewise, as environmental activists, restoration ecologists, or birders, if for example, we are concerned and enraged by environmental damage, species extinctions, destruction of habitat and the poisoning of our land and water, we must at the same time be concerned and enraged by the systemic police brutality as practiced against African Americans. (NBC News has just reported that Minneapolis Police have rendered dozens of individuals unconscious, in at least 44 separate cases over the last 5 years through the same “knee on the neck” technique used to kill George Floyd.)
“ . . . Aldo Leopold sized up the psychological state many of us today find ourselves in today, when he wrote in his essay “Round River”: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds . . . An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.” (1949, p. 197) From Introduction to Restoration Ecology page 5.
Although Leopold was speaking of the wounds to the nation’s ecological systems, the same sentiment applies today to our wounded social, cultural, and racial communities.
Others have also written about the challenge of living in a wounded world.
For example, William Carlos Williams, the poet and physician, has said of America and its conquest of lands and peoples: “History begins for us with murder and enslavement, not with discovery.” (William Carlos Williams, “In The American Grain”, New Directions, 1925 page 44).
Likewise, Robert Kaplan in his recent book, “Earning the Rockies”, describes as “irreconcilable” the American dichotomy between its “manifest destiny” to conquer the landscape, and the material riches that flowed from the subjection of land and native peoples. These two strands of American history cannot be reconciled. This un-reconcilable “chicken” has come home to roost this week, in the words of Charles M. Blow in the New York Times on June 1, 2020.
What Should Restoration Ecologists Do Now?
Leopold’s comments about land doctoring foretold what has come to be known as the discipline of ecological restoration. The profession (which didn’t even exist as a self-conscious and named endeavor in Leopold’s day) has grown since Leopold’s early vision into a global enterprise, with an international organization to support its thousands of projects and practitioners around the world.
But what can, and should ecological restoration do today? Today, when the United States, seems anything but united. Today, when there is a bomb thrower and riot inciter living in The White House? What should be the mission and purpose of this earth mending science? What are the challenges facing ecological restoration? Should it be the job of ecological restoration to attempt to correct these social ills as well as ecological ones?
Simply put, yes, it should be the mission of ecological restoration to correct these racial, and social ills. Because, without racial justice, social justice, and environmental justice, attempts at ecological restoration are meaningless, irrelevant, and futile.
Restoration ecologists must hold their “restoration shovel” in one hand and extend the other hand in helpfulness and understanding to those less fortunate and downtrodden by systemic racism. I think that Aldo Leopold, were he alive today would urge similar action.