Monday, September 9, 2013

How important is the "re" in restoration ecology?

By Liam Heneghan

This is the first in a series of short posts on the value of history for restoration.  They are written preparatory to a session at the World Conference of the Society for Ecological Restoration in Madison, 6 -10 Oct at which I will present a condensed version.  (Wed Oct 9th: 8am - 10am: Session 1.06 Discussion - The historically-based reference system, chaired by Paddy Woodworth.)

“Ecological restoration,” William Jordan III wrote, “is the attempt, sometimes breathtakingly successful, sometimes less so, to make nature whole.”  It is a game self-consciously played with time. This is not to say, as amateur dabblers in environmental philosophy are inclined to, that restoration is doomed to failure because it attempts, impossibly, to reverse the flow of time.  Nor it it fair to claim, despite the rhetorical tendency of some early practitioners to describe it so, that restorationists privilege one historical moment in time — pre-white-settlement in the Midwest, for example —  and attempt to return a dynamic system to this one state and thereafter freeze it in time.  Rather, a majority of practitioners view restoration as a set of actions performed to compensate for unwonted recent human impacts, thereby reestablishing the historic range of variation of a system. Depending on the specific history of a region this ecological trajectory may reflect the influence of indigenous human populations.

The connection between restoration ecology and history is manifested in the etymology of the word restoration. The origins of the prefix “re” refers to the original Latin, meaning ‘back’ or ‘backwards’, though in connection with a large variety of words the use of this prefix can be quite complex.  For instance, in words like recede and reduce it means to go ‘back to or towards the starting point’, or more evocatively, for our purposes, in a word like restitution the prefix implies going ‘back to the original place or position’.  It is clear from the lengthy etymological essay on this prefix in the Oxford English Dictionary, that both in Latin and subsequently in the English, the “precise sense of re- is not always clear”.  That being said, the authors remark that in English formations “re- is almost exclusively employed in the sense of ‘again’”.

Although the suite of activities that collectively constitute what we call restoration might have been named something else — Bill Jordan told me once that “synthetic ecology” had been floated as one possibility — contemporary definitions of this management indicate that “restoration”, with all the temporal connotations this term carries, is indeed appropriate.  For instance, in the Society for Ecological Restoration Primer, restoration is defined thus: “Ecological restoration is the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed.”  Note that the word “restoration” is conflated in this definition with “recovery”, another word  with a prefixial use of “re”, and is followed, by several ones where “de” is the prefix.  The history of the prefix “de” appears to me, at least, to be less complex than that of “re” but generally it has the function of undoing or reversing the action of a verb.  It can also mean to take something down (replacing to an original condition).  Thus to destroy is to undo the action of “struĕre”, a piling up, a construction.  Note that had “synthetic ecology” been the term we inherited this would have not direct linguistic connection with the temporality.

Recognizing therefore a temporal signature in the term restoration we might ask: in what practical sense should history (that “whole series of past events connected with a particular person, country, institution, or thing.” OED) serve as our guide when we plan the future trajectory of managed ecosystem?  Or putting this question on its head, to what degree should we merely synthesize an ecological future using elements that are currently available to us in novel combinations for which there is no historical analogue?  Recognizing that these approaches represent, to some degree at least, stylized positions, let us, for the purposes of the reflection, call the former practitioners “historians”, and the later the “synthesists”.  From the perspective of these two groups there can be disagreement on degree to which the past provides a legitimate model for directing the future course of ecosystems. It is fair to say, however, that historians and synthesists share a model of how ecological change occurs in time: that model being some version of contemporary successional development theory.  Both groups believe, I think it fair to say, in the reality of time.

Restorationists must, of course, assert the reality of time since restoration is ultimately an activity where humans intrude into the temporality of ecological systems.  This is true even if the restorationist alters a system with a view to a longer-term disengagement from a direct human involvement — erasing the impact and tip-toeing away from the land.  A subjective assessment of temporality is therefore both implicit and consequential for restoration.

Restorationists are not the first, of course, to grapple with the question of what time is, and how we should incorporate (or not) history into our plans for the future.  There is, however, no clear agreement among philosophers, or indeed physicists, about time, or even whether it should be regarded as “real.”  In the post that will follow this one I'll provide a road-map to philosophical accounts of the nature of time.

Additionally, assuming that we sort out the issue of time to our satisfaction, I would like to outline an argument that suggests that the development of a historical sensibility can be in certain circumstances disabling.  This is the perspective of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) who in an essay entitled The Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life (1884) argues that an overly punctilious regard for history can be less than useful for life.  This essay does not offer proofs for the utility or dis-utility of history in general circumstances, but, as I think I can show, it alerts us to the possibility that in some circumstances the employment of a historical sensibility may either assist or hinder our conservation efforts.

1 comment:

  1. Liam, this is quite a semiotic piece of writing. I believe you have captured many of the historical discussions on the act of restoration. I would also add the word 'evolution' into the mix because of its implied time perspective and scientific understanding of how life as we know it came to be. The consequences of human intervention has an impact on this process even though it is well hidden for human life is a brief moment in the continuum. The crux is that individuals develop a personal timeline according to their experience, a precise baseline often found in a childhood experience. The rest must be learned from the works of others that preceded them; thus historical accounts become crucial doorways to our chosen actions. The redo part comes when a choice must be made and we are faced with divisive explanations or theories, so in effect we need to redo in part the works of the past and compare them to our own time and knowledge. Meanwhile all the past decisions have affected the environment and the starting point or baseline is different from that of the previous historical work. So not only are we restoring but also rethinking and deducing and deciding from a moving target. What allows to be successful in many instances is the understanding of the fundamental workings of natural processes and that knowledge is an historical cumulative event within its own continuum as we learn from the act of restoration itself, mostly by trial and error.