Ecological restoration is the thought and the attempt to put something into a prior position, place, or condition. That much is clear enough. But why should we humans bother trying to put something back the way we perceive it to have been? Why try to go backward in time when society’s push is forward, always forward? The answer draws on two paradoxes: backward is sometimes forward, and slower is sometimes faster.
In our drive to maximize the harvest of Nature’s bounty, we—especially in the United States—typically strive for an ever-increasing yield of products, and we intensively alter more and more acres worldwide to that end. What we need, however, is a sustainable yield, which we cannot have until we first have a sustainable ecosystem, such as a forest or an ocean, to produce the yield.
In practice, we tend to think it a tragic economic waste if Nature’s products, such as wood fiber or forage for livestock, are not somehow used by humans but are allowed instead to recycle in the ecosystem, compost as it were. And because of our paranoia over lost profits (defined as economic waste), we extract far more from every ecosystem than we replace.
We will, for example, put capital into the production of a crop, but not in maintaining the health of the ecosystem that produces the crop. This type of “investing” is part of our Western, industrialized tradition and thus is engrained in our culture. As a result, much of the atmosphere (air), the litho-hydrosphere (the rock that constitutes the restless continents and the water that surrounds them), and the biosphere (all life sandwiched in the middle) are being degraded through over-exploitation because people insist the stock market should be like a bullet train going full speed on an endless, straight track of endless economic growth because the natural resources that are limitless and free for the taking—a biophysical impossibility.
ENTER THE CONCEPT OF RESTORATION
Basically, restoration—as it is generally thought of—helps us to understand how a given ecosystem functions. As we strive to put it back together by reconstructing the knowledge of times past, we learn how to sustain the system’s ecological processes and its ability to produce the products we valued it for in the first place and might value it for again sometime in the future.
Similarly, restoration helps us understand the limitations of a given ecosystem or a portion thereof. As we slow down and take time to reconstruct what was, we learn how fast we can push the system to produce products on a sustainable basis without impairing its ability to function.
Thus, the very process of restoring the land to health is the process through which we become attuned to Nature and, through Nature, to ourselves. Restoration, in this sense, is both the means and the end, for as we learn how to restore the land, we heal the ecosystem, and as we heal the ecosystem, we heal the deep geography of ourselves. Simultaneously, we also restore both our options for products and amenities from the land and those of future generations. This act is crucial because our moral obligation as human beings is to maintain the welfare of our children and those beyond. To this end, maintaining healthy, viable ecosystems is an expression of the heart and the spirit of taking care of Earth as a biological living trust. I use the word spirit on purpose because it is derived from the Greek word for “breath,” which denotes life.
We, as citizens of the Earth, must learn to understand and accept that the sustainability of a forest, a prairie, or any ecological system for that matter, is an ever-elusive prize, which, like a horizon, continually retreats as we advance. The dance of approach and retreat causes me to think of sustainability as the duty of each generation to pass forward to the next as many positive opportunities for safekeeping as is humanly possible. This notion requires clarity of mind because it means that we, the adults, must finally come to grips with the fact that each generation is obligated to pay its own way—beginning with us, here, now. The cost of our presence on Earth must be accounted for in how we treat the ecosystems that we, like all generations, are obliged to rely on for our survival. By this, I mean all debts incurred by the generation in charge must be paid by that generation—not passed forward as an ecological mortgage to encumber the social-environmental welfare of those who are young or unborn.
To achieve the level of consciousness and the balance of energy necessary to maintain the sustainability of ecosystems, we must focus our questions—social and scientific—toward understanding the biophysical principles inherent in the governance of those systems and our place within that governance. Then, with humility, we must develop the moral courage and political will to direct our personal and collective energy toward living within the constraints defined by those principles—not by our economic/political ambitions. To this end, William Greider, a veteran reporter and columnist for the Nation and the Washington Post, is of the opinion, “that there is nothing inherent to the functional principles of capitalism that requires it to be . . . [exploitive]; that’s a value choice made by people who have power within the system.”1
RETHINKING THE CONCEPT OF RESTORATION
The biophysical systems we are redesigning by our existence in and our interaction with our surroundings are continually changing the environment—all of it, if in no other way than through the generalized atmospheric pollution. Consequently, conditions prior to the arrival of Europeans in North America are irrelevant because the compounding environmental influences of today’s burgeoning human population and its so-called permanent developments have, in many ways, limited the possibilities of ecosystem restoration. Added to our current environmental dilemma is the fact that indigenous populations were much smaller and often more nomadic than our contemporary mega-populations. Moreover, the ecological systems with which we daily interact are becoming ever further removed from the types of biophysical balances that characterized pre-European conditions.
Our challenge today is to mature sufficiently in personal and social consciousness to recognize a functionally healthy and sustainable ecosystem when we see it—and then to maintain it as such. Beyond that, we need to repair functionally degraded ecosystems to the greatest extent we’re capable of. Achieving sustainability is a process, a journey toward the ever-increasing consciousness that we humans must acquire in order to learn how to treat our environment for the benefit of all generations—including ours. Sustainability is not an absolute (not a materialistic endpoint), but rather a lifetime journey of evolving consciousness.
If you wonder why some people appear unwilling to begin this journey, I think British author George Monbiot has put it well: “There are several reasons why we do not act. In most cases, the personal risk involved in the early stages of struggle outweighs the potential material benefit. Those who catalyse revolution are seldom the people who profit from it.”2 Another reason people stick to the status quo is the perceived opportunity to make substantial amounts of money. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the hottest debate has been in the realm of agriculture, where predictions suggest that crop yields will rise in some areas, at least under certain conditions. “The avowed possibility for substantial monetary gains has caused some political factions and business interests to dismiss all relevant data on the environmental hazards of global warming and tout the benefits of climate change [to agriculture].”3
However, Jonathan Foley, an environmental scientist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, warns that, “if the whole world begins to look like Iowa cornfields, we’ll have to take an even larger share of [the] global biological production into human hand, and that leaves a lot less for other things. And those other things won’t be just pretty butterflies and tigers and charismatic animals, they’ll be things that matter to us, like the things that clean our water, preserve our soils, clean our atmosphere, and pollinate our crops.”4
Although sustainability is not a condition in which a biophysical compromise can be struck, the social decisions leading toward sustainability often necessitate conciliation. Seeking sustainability to a degree, an apparently innocuous concession, defeats sustainability altogether. Leave one process out of the equation or in some other way alter a necessary feedback loop, and the system as a whole will be deflected toward an outcome other than the one originally intended, which calls into question what some people think of as the balance of Nature.
THE BALANCE OF NATURE
This so-called balance of Nature is a figment of the imagination, something conjured to fit our snapshot image of the world in which we live. In reality, Nature exists in a continual state of ever-shifting disequilibrium—irrespective of human influence. Disequilibrium means that an assembly of plant-animal communities is a dynamic process in which the composition of species changes as some move into and colonize a new area; others increase in abundance, while yet other species decrease or go locally extinct. Although the coalescing of species in a community is driven partly by intrinsic interactions, such as competition and predation, extrinsic forces, such as physical disturbances, epidemics of disease, and the colonization of new species, play a part. Extreme climatic events are examples of severe, but infrequent, physical disruptions that can differentially affect certain species, thereby altering the community’s composition, interactive feedback loops, and thus the use of available resources.
Here, a sheet flood at Portal, Arizona, is illustrative. Sheet flooding is caused by comparatively shallow water flowing over a wide, relatively flat area, which typically does not have the appearance of a well-defined watercourse. It is especially dangerous because even when standing in an area subject to sheet flooding, one often does not find it obvious that the area could become inundated.
A massive downpour and subsequent sheet flooding dramatically reduced the population of six of the eight species of seed-eating rodents that were present at Portal, Arizona, before the flood. These species included the banner-tailed kangaroo rat, Merriam’s kangaroo rat, and Ord’s kangaroo rat, all of which suffered dramatic mortalities despite having been the historically dominant members of the community. Conversely, the flood caused no detectable mortality in either Bailey’s pocket mouse or the desert pocket mouse. This shift in species composition resulted in the immediate, dramatic, and long-lasting reorganization of the rodent community, a permanent shift of unprecedented magnitude to a new interspecific structure dominated by pocket mice. (“Interspecific” means between or among species.) So both biological and physical perturbations can reset the structure and dynamics of a community on a new, relatively stable trajectory. One kind of biotic influence is the invasion of a new species (either native or exotic), which can be facilitated by a catastrophic physical event, such as the aforementioned flood.
Although the reassembly after the flood did not change the identity of the four most abundant species, it did change their interactions. The long-term increase in the number of Merriam’s kangaroo rats in response to the increasing shrubby vegetation (an increase caused by climate change) and the decline of its larger competitor, the banner-tailed kangaroo rat, were reversed after the flood. But the ensuing decline of Merriam’s kangaroo rat ultimately allowed the pocket mice to dominate the community.
These dynamics indicate that the flood-caused differential mortality altered the preexisting hierarchy and allowed formerly subordinate species surviving the event to dominate the new hierarchy. The best explanation for these changes is that resident individuals within a species had the advantage of incumbency. In this instance, the loss of incumbency not only altered interspecific competition but also had profound, long-lasting effects on community structure because these desert rodents have established home ranges, stores of seeds, and burrow systems. In addition, they rely on acquired knowledge of their territory for finding and securing food, as well as avoiding predators. Incumbency also facilitates a resident’s defense of its territory and helps to ensure that its offspring, or at least an individual of the same species, will inherit the home range when the resident dies.
Although the advantage of incumbency acts to stabilize the dynamics of both the population and the community, the sheet flooding had a destabilizing effect in that it caused the wholesale mortality of the dominant rodents. In fact, the flood, which mostly eliminated the incumbents, largely equalized the competitive interactions, thus allowing individuals of previously subordinate species to colonize the area and establish territories. Moreover, they had available the resources the original residents had stored and defended.
The ultimate effect of the flood was to facilitate the immigration of previously rare, native species in a manner similar to that of other disturbances, such as road construction, in aiding the colonization of exotic, invasive species. So disrupting the advantage of incumbency is one way an extrinsic physical circumstance can interface with intrinsic competitive processes and thereby alter the rules of assembly and engagement in the wholesale reorganization of a community. Similar responses occur in plant communities in response to fire and grazing.5 Other types of responses to catastrophic events further demonstrate the disequilibrium of natural systems, such as those of cottonwood trees, a caddisfly, and a giant waterbug.
Cottonwood trees, which once grew in profusion along the banks of western streams and rivers in the United States, where they provided shade, woody debris, and nutrients to the aquatic-terrestrial interface, have all but disappeared, to the detriment of the ecosystems they served. Cottonwoods require the bare, scoured banks that result from floods in order for their seeds to germinate and grow, despite the fact that some of the trees die as a consequence of the flooding. Today, because of flood-controlling dams, cottonwood trees are dying out in many areas.
There is a caddisfly that inhabits a stream system in the mountains of Arizona, where it is subjected to the extremely violent force of flash floods, which occasionally scour out the stream channels. The caddisfly, in turn, has evolved through the generations to metamorphose from the immature, aquatic state into the winged, adult phase during a period that is almost perfectly timed to miss the most common season of flooding. This behavior keeps enough of the population out of harms way to perpetuate the species.
Finally, a giant waterbug that lives in some desert streams has adapted over the last 150 million years to “read” the weather and make a mass exodus from a stream that is about to experience a flash flood. During the exodus, the waterbugs literally climb the canyon walls to escape the dangerous waters but return to the stream within a day.6
If the balance of Nature can now be dismissed as a viable hypothesis, where does that leave us humans in relation to the concept of a natural ecosystem?
WE HUMANS ARE A NATURAL PART OF NATURE
There has been an increasing emphasis in recent years on “natural” ecosystems, as though only those devoid of visible human influence qualify. This idea has been perpetuated by writers who created the romantic myth that indigenous Americans somehow had the wisdom and self-control to live in perfect harmony with Nature, taking only the bare minimum of what they needed to survive and, by inference, voluntarily keeping their own populations in check. It has also been assumed that predators and their prey were in a perfect balance, that Nature’s ecological disturbance regimes either did not exist or did not have any affect on the great American landscape until the Europeans invaded the continent—hence the idea of a climax ecosystem, one that is indefinitely stable.
With respect to our human influence on ecosystems, what sets us apart from our fellow creatures is not some higher sense of spirituality or some nobler sense of purpose but rather that we deem ourselves wise in our own eyes. Therein lies the fallacy. We are no better than or worse than other kinds of animals; we are simply a different kind of animal—one among the many. We are thus an inseparable part of Nature, despite religious doctrine.
As a part of Nature, what we do is natural even if it is often destructive. This is not to say our actions are wise, ethical, moral, desirable, or even socially acceptable and within the bounds of Nature’s biophysical laws. It is only to acknowledge that we will, of necessity, change what we call the natural world, and it is natural for us to do so because people are an integral part of the total system we call the universe. However, we may justifiably question the degree to which we change the world, the motives behind our actions, and the ways in which we make these changes. And it is our motive for redesigning our environment—spiritual humility or material arrogance—that is knocking at the door of our consciousness.
1. Quoted in Paul Rauber. A New Mobilization Is Just Beginning. Sierra, (January/February 2004):38–39.
2. George Monbio. Why We Conform. Resurgence, 221 (2003):16–17.
3. Quoted in Susan Milius. Wildfire, Walleyes, and Wine. Science News, 171 (2007):378–380.
4. Quoted in Sid Perkins. Invasive, Indeed. Science News, 172 (2007):235–236.
5. The discussion of community assembly and incumbency is augmented by: (1) Nick B. Davies. Territorial Defense in Speckled Wood Butterfly (Pararge aegeria): Resident Always Wins. Animal Behaviour, 26 (1978):138–147; (2) Barry J. Fox. Species Assembly and the Evolution of Community Structure. Evolutionary Ecology, 1 (1987):201–213; (3) Camille Parmesan, Terry L. Root, and Michael R. Willig. Impacts of Extreme Weather and Climate on Terrestrial Biota. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, 81 (2000):443–450; (4) Peter Chesson, Renate L. E. Gebauer, Susan Schwinning, and others. Resource Pulses, Species Interactions, and Diversity Maintenance in Arid and Semi-Arid Environments. Oecologia, 141 (2004):236–253; (5) Tsuyoshi Takeuchi. Matter of Size or Matter of Residency Experience? Territorial Contest in a Green Hairstreak, Chrysozephyrus smaragdinus (Lepidoptera: Lycaenidae). Ethology, 112 (2006):293–299; and (6) Katherine M. Thibault and James H. Brown. Impact of an Extreme Climatic Event on Community Assembly. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105 (2008):3410–3415.
6. David Stauth. Streams May Depend on Violent Floods, Droughts. Corvallis Gazette-Times, Corvallis OR. January 24, 2003.
Text © by Chris Maser 2012. All rights reserved.