“Our world is on fire. The arsonists are in charge. Liberals propose to tinker and return to a past that is gone for good. The future belongs to the bold.”
—Naomi Kline in a Tweet on 12.09.19.
To Save the Earth
The “liberals” to which Kline refers could include ecological restorationists, because the the discipline spent a good part of its early years engaged in ecological tinkering with the aim of restoring a lost world. More recently, many of us have come to realize that the mission of ecological restoration is really to restore the landscape of the future–imagining a different world. Some of us are even linking social and environmental justice, and human rights as necessary components of the ecological restoration mission.
By citing “the bold” Kline is encouraging ecological restorationists and others in the conservation movement to get more actively involved in extinguishing “the fires” and putting “the arsonists” out of business. Kline is urging us to get busy with imaging and creating a different world–one of ecological sustainability, social harmony, and equal rights.
To Save the Earth will take energetic ecological restoration and much more. This is a time for the bold and the need for ecological restoration has never been greater. Not only do we need the technical and scientific knowledge and skills of ecological restoration, but we also must adopt the assumptions about the world and values that infuse and inspire ecological restoration.
Among the assumptions of restoration ecologists are that the Earth’s natural systems and resources have been damaged by human activity and that humans have the capacity and responsibility to repair the damage. Ecological restoration values include: teamwork, humility, working in a collective fashion for the common good, and a desire to heal wounded ecosystems and societies.
Restoration ecologists can lead the way because we are already in the business of imagining a different, more diverse, and better functioning world; a world that is fair and equatable, full of healthy and diverse ecosystems and a safe home to all creatures. But ecological restoration will have to change and enlarge its vision. Until now, the work of ecological restorationists—I should know because I am one—has mostly been “tinkering” on small, isolated patches and yearning for a return “to a past that is gone for good.” Now, we must imagine a different world, work to create the ecosystems and social-cultural systems of the future. To do this we can’t work alone but must recruit others to help repair the Earth in the Time of the Pandemic, Global Climate Disruption, and Environmental Meltdown.
Since that warning by Kline just last year, the situation has only gotten worse and the seriousness of the world’s plight has come into sharper focus. There is a crime against the world in progress and each of us are eye witnesses.
It seems as if we are watching the Earth’s obituary being written before our very eyes:
In the summer of 2020 wildfires have devastated the American West—destroying homes, livelihoods, and entire towns. California, Washington, and Oregon are especially suffering from the effects of climate disruption. In other parts of the world the wildfire situation is equal, or worse.
In 2019 Australia experienced an unprecedented drought and a wildfire season like no other. The Sydney Opera House and the waterfront skyline were hidden in a haze of smoke that stretched for miles up the coast. Now officials fear that the cycle is about to repeat as the Southern Hemisphere enters spring.
The Brazilian Amazon is being deforested at a rapidly increasing rate—a 30% increase over last year and the highest rate since 2008. Nearly 4000 square miles have been cut and burned to clear the land for soybeans and beef cattle since Jair Bolsonaro became president.
Experts predict that when 25-30% of the Amazon rainforest is lost, it will reach a tipping point and will begin to self-destruct and convert to savanna; right now estimates are that 17% of the forest is gone. It may have already reached that tipping point. We will know for sure only when it is too late.
In 2020 Brazil’s Pantanal, wetlands are experiencing their worst fire season in history. Wildfires are also tearing across grasslands in Argentina. Indonesia, the Arctic, northern Sweden, and Siberia are also in flames. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is dying as ocean waters warm and acidify.
Here at home in the U.S. the Trump administration has rolled back one environmental protection after another. The White House just opened up vast new acreage in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to lease rights for oil and gas drilling, at the same time it puts the squeeze on endangered species like the sage grouse—actions that threaten to exacerbate the climate crisis.
In addition to these troubles, our Planet needs help because it is dealing with several other worldwide emergencies at once: The coronavirus pandemic, which has killed over one million; the resulting collapse of the global economy which has exacerbated poverty and income inequalities; global climate disruption (with melting ice fields; rising sea levels, flooded cities, and increased frequency and severity of storms); large scale human migrations across the globe; and mass extinction of species. Each of these emergencies alone poses an existential threat but in combination the consequences are beyond comprehension, threatening to lock us into panicked inaction.
The scope of the crisis is further described in two recent books: “This Land”, by Christopher Ketcham and “The Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace-Wells.
Assumptions of Restoration Ecology
Restoration ecologists assume that many parts and processes of the 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.
“One assumption that drives restoration ecology is that many parts and processes of the Earth are damaged, destroyed, or missing. As a result, the Earth’s natural capital (the total accumulation of 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. Restorationists assume that solutions exist to repair the damage to ecosystems and their value to the world. Restorationists also assume that people have some capacity for caring for the planet and repairing damaged parts of the Earth’s systems, thereby at least stabilizing the natural capital.” (Page 22 Howell, Harrington, and Glass 2011).
Ecologists have been restoring bits and pieces of the Earth in a systematic fashion for over 85 years. Ecological restoration is needed now, more than ever, but is the discipline up to the job? Is ecological restoration capable of helping to saving the Earth? Well, success is not guaranteed but failure is certain if ecological restoration is not increased. What should ecological restoration be doing in this time of multiple global crisis.
Why can ecological restoration contribute to society and the environment to helping today’s multiple emergencies? Well, for one thing, ecological restorationists have expertise in helping to heal parts of the earth: its damaged ecosystems; cut-over forests; degraded wetlands; plowed-up prairies; and restoring habitat for vanishing species.
Necessary but not Sufficient
It is going to take more than the routine work that restoration ecologists have done for 80+ years. Ecological restoration will be necessary—but it is not sufficient—to save the Earth.
According to a recent report from the Center for American Progress, the US natural areas have lost 24 million acres between 2001 and 20017. “The scientific team at CSP found that human activities are causing the persistent and rapid loss of America’s natural areas. The human footprint in the continental United States grew by more than 24 million acres from 2001 to 2017—equivalent to the loss of roughly a football field worth of natural area every 30 seconds. The South and Midwest experienced the steepest losses of natural area in this period; the footprints of cities, farms, roads, power plants, and other human development in these two regions grew to cover 47 percent and 59 percent of all land area, respectively. If national trends continue, a South Dakota-sized expanse of forests, wetlands, and wild places in the continental United States will disappear by 2050.
As restoration ecologists our responsibilities are no less than those of every other aware and caring citizen in the era of climate disruption: That is, we all will need to pitch in.
With bold action we need to restore much more land, much faster. In the meantime we need to set aside as much land as possible to protect it from destruction. Save Half of Earth as E.O.Wilson has called for. “In order to stave off the mass extinction of species, including our own, we must move swiftly to preserve the biodiversity of our planet.”, says Wilson.
In addition to caring for and safe-guarding the biological earth, we also need to address ourselves to its civic, social and cultural restoration. In fact, these are all aspects of the same thing.
While the rest of the world heedlessly destroys ecosystems, decimates bird populations, wipes out insects, and paves over natural areas, and obliterates forests, prairies, and wetlands, restoration ecologists need to get busy.
Restoration ecologists must recruit others to join our team. The team needs people with skills as community organizers, social workers, and humanitarians. The restoration team can use social service workers, local office holders, and natural history teachers; as well as philosophers, police officers, and construction workers.
We must stop being (mostly) silent witnesses and paralyzed bystanders to our self-inflicted crimes against Earth, its climate, humanity and civilization, the results of which will be our own demise.
We must become active participants in our own salvation by stopping the causes of climate disruption; mitigating the impacts; and reversing the disruption of climate change. Rather than being paralyzed bystanders we must take charge of our own fate.
That is to say, we must continue to be restoration ecologists who work to heal the world’s physical wounds, and repair damage to its biological systems. Beyond that we must join with other Earth inhabitants, and global citizens who strive to end human rights violations, work to lift people out of poverty, act to stem climate change, and put a stop to war and suffering. It’s all part of the same problem.
A Social Cultural Action Plan
Up to this point restoration ecologists have confined our attention to the air, land, and water. We can no longer be bystanders to what is happening to our fellow citizens.
As long as people are suffering and there are human rights abuses (look at the immigrant children in cages along the US Southern border, for example), the Earth itself will continue to be misused. Repairing the Earth and mending social and cultural systems are all part of the same mission. We can no longer deny what is happening to the Earth and to ourselves. The restoration job is too large, the time too short, and the stakes too high for any of us to relax and let our neighbors do the caring for the earth and its people. We must each of us get busy with the healing and mending.
We must all become not only citizens of the Earth who work to save it. This is to say, I will no longer be a bystander in the face of global climate disruption and will do everything I can to care for the planet and repair and reverse the damage. The need is that urgent.
Do we assume—as restoration ecologists do—that solutions exist to repair the damage to ecosystems (and the Earth itself) and their value to the world and that humans have some capacity for caring for the planet and repairing the damage that our activities have caused? If we do then we must assume that there are solutions to repair the social and cultural fabric.
Or, will we continue to be collaborators, or facilitators—in the destruction of the Earth by human activities and climate change?
That is to say, do we want to pitch in to help stave off the coming climate change catastrophe or do we twiddle our thumbs as society has done for the past 50-+ years?Will we continue to stand idly by and watch as the climate is disrupted, ice sheets melt, sea levels rise, droughts increase, and people move mass migrations to find a habitable?
Will we continue to ignore the fact that immigrant children are separated from their parents and caged in Texas?
Will we sit on the sidelines as our infrastructure crumbles and public and private water supplies are poisoned by manure runoff and intentional chemical pollution?
To save the Earth, all of us must become engaged in stopping the bleeding, and reforming the system. None of us can afford to live any part of our lives as if we were innocent bystanders.
Here are some actions that we can take to help imagine and create a different world.
Combat global climate disruption.
Reduce your energy consumption by driving less, buying less, and conserving more.
Demand environmental justice.
None of us are free until all of us are free. Ecosystems can’t truly and completely be restored as long as much of the world’s citizens live in poverty and aren’t able to participate fully in civic life.
Restore wildlife populations.
Bird and other wildlife populations have declined from 50 to 75 percent over the last 50 years. This is unacceptable and unsustainable.
Protect state and federal public lands
The Trump administration is rolling back protection for public lands, the last bastion of natural systems and biodiversity. Lobby your elected officials to restore funding to state and federal land management and natural resource management agencies.
Protect and restore open spaces and public lands in your city.
Same thing as for state and federal lands. Plant native plants on every vacant and underused plot of public land in the city. Your elected officials and staff will work with you if you approach them with resolute and reasonable requests and with a desire to help them do their jobs.
Volunteer your time and expertise
Volunteer to help a local civic group such as a neighborhood or community organization. Help on a local restoration project. Teach youngsters how to plant and care for a garden. Help in a local food bank. Volunteer to help at the local election site. Volunteer to help care for and clean up a local park. These are just a few “restorative actions” that we can take to help heal the Earth and society.
Howell, E.A., J.A. Harrington, and S.B. Glass. 2012. Introduction to Restoration Ecology. Island Press. Washington, D.C.
Ketcham, Christopher. 2019. “This Land, How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption are Running the American West.” Viking.
Wallace-Wells, David. 2019. “The Uninhabitable Earth, Life After Warming.” Tim Duggan Books.
Wilson, E.O. 2016 “Half-Earth, Our Planet’s Fight for Life” Liveright Books.