Tuesday, September 24, 2013

BOOK LAUNCH:Our Once and Future Planet: Restoring the World in the Climate Change Century by Paddy Woodworth

In conjunction with University of Chicago Press we are delighted to host the Chicago launch of Paddy Woodworth’s new book Our Once and Future Planet.

The book contains an impressive synthesis of restoration projects from around the world and puts the work in Chicago alongside work on other continents.  This should give us an important moment for reflection on the past and future of regional restoration.

"The environmental movement is plagued by pessimism. And that’s not unreasonable: with so many complicated, seemingly intractable problems facing the planet, coupled with a need to convince people of the dangers we face, it’s hard not to focus on the negative

But that paints an unbalanced—and overly disheartening—picture of what’s going on with environmental stewardship today. There are success stories, and Our Once and Future Planet delivers a fascinating account of one of the most impressive areas of current environmental experimentation and innovation: ecological restoration. Veteran investigative reporter Paddy Woodworth has spent years traveling the globe and talking with people—scientists, politicians, and ordinary citizens—who are working on the front lines of the battle against environmental degradation. At sites ranging from Mexico to New Zealand and Chicago to Cape Town, Woodworth shows us the striking successes (and a few humbling failures) of groups that are attempting to use cutting-edge science to restore blighted, polluted, and otherwise troubled landscapes to states of ecological health—and, in some of the most controversial cases, to particular moments in historical time, before widespread human intervention. His firsthand field reports and interviews with participants reveal the promise, power, and limitations of restoration.

Ecological restoration alone won’t solve the myriad problems facing our environment. But Our Once and Future Planet demonstrates the role it can play, and the hope, inspiration, and new knowledge that can come from saving even one small patch of earth." FROM UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS

When: Oct 14th 2013 6:30 – 8:00

Where: McGowan South 107, 1110 W Belden Ave, Chicago, IL 60614

A panel discussion and a short talk by Paddy will be followed by a reception. Contact: lhenegha@gmail.com

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.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Destroy this prairie!

WHEN I FIRST BROUGHT a group of my undergraduate students to meet William Jordan III at Cafe Mozart in Evanston, Illinois, he told them that each year we should ritualistically destroy a small plot of virgin prairie, of which there is virtually none left in this state, in order to dramatize its importance to us. I assured them that he did not mean this sacrifice literally; he assured them that he did.

[This is my favorite paragraph that I wrote in the past year... from a long and almost completely unread essay at LARB]