A History of restoration that braves the distinctions
Making Nature Whole: A History of Ecological Restoration
William R. Jordan III and George Lubick
Island Press, 2011, 254 pp.
By Gavin Van Horn
In restoring a piece of land, big or small, a person is asking questions not just with mind but also with body. If a restorationist is honest, she probably pauses at some point and thinks: Why the hell am I breaking my back for this? In the short term, it can be difficult to perceive what, if anything, has changed due to one’s labors. Restoration workers or stewards may make decisions that result in disappointments even in the short run. In the medium term, climate change will affect, and possibly undo, the good work a restorationist is trying to accomplish. In the very long term—geologically speaking—we know that a 6th great extinction will be followed by a 7th and so on. How can one avoid a cynical fatalism about the value of restoration activities in the face of such uncertainties and changes?
I think the answers to such questions lie in what Bill Jordan and George Lubick, in their remarkable book Making Nature Whole, refer to as “the fourth dimension” of value. This fourth dimension is the dimension of imagination, performance, and meaning, the why of what we do as we directly confront our deep dependence on nature as well as the limitations of our own ability to manipulate it—or as the authors put it, a negotiation of the human experience of being apart from as well as part of nature. This dimension of value is especially relevant, the authors contend, to what they call ecocentric restoration.
Three Distinguishing Features
If you have not read Making Nature Whole, then it is doubtful that you have yet heard of ecocentric restoration. This would not necessarily be due to unfamiliarity with conservation literature or practice; it is because Jordan and Lubick invented the
term. (Inventing terminology seems to come naturally to Jordan, who—with his colleague Keith Wendt—was also responsible for coining the term “restoration ecology” in 1977.) When we spoke recently, Jordan told me that he and Prof. Lubick intended that the epigraph for Making Nature Whole would be “Brave the distinctions.” The phrase, taken from an editorial by New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier, wound up being misplaced in production, but was to have signaled to the reader that the book would insist on the distinction between self-interested and other-oriented conservation practices and, perhaps more provocatively, the importance of those distinctions in developing these practices as performing arts—that is, contexts for productively engaging with the “otherness” of the natural world.
Braving the distinctions, then, the authors assert that ecocentric restoration is a distinctive game to be playing with nature, a performance of sorts that involves at least three distinguishing features: 1) a “self-conscious encounter with nature as other” (nature goes on without our help, and its purpose is not centered on us), 2) proactive engagement that makes us deeply aware of human influences on ecosystems, and 3) a form of tribute (to nature’s intrinsic value, in which all the parts—not just the useful or convenient ones—are restored), that is, a giving back in full knowledge that this giving will never be sufficient. Jordan and Lubick observe that ecocentric restoration is also an idea “that takes shape pretty naturally once the key elements—concern for the old ecosystems, a sense of historical time, perhaps a bit of nostalgia, the idea of restoration as redemptive, and ecology—come together” (p. 84).
But ecocentric restoration is clearly not the only land management game in town. One way to divvy up the ecosystem management pie is to picture a large slice that represents what the authors call meliorative land management. This would include any form of land or water remediation or restoration that focuses on improving the status or condition of a valued species or habitat (be this for financial reasons, or for aesthetic enjoyment, or to avoid legal repercussions, as might be the case in the creation of a wetland to “replace” one that has been destroyed). There may be many motives for meliorative management, but the benefit to humans drives the practice.
An even larger slice of the pie would be represented by “working landscapes” that are cared for with a long-term interest in their sustainability or as an amenable site of human habitation. Selective logging might be an example of this; or an organic farm with a conservation easement; or rotational cattle grazing that protects surface water and stream banks.
Another pie slice would be represented by a more hands-off, preservationist approach, based on the idea of “untrammeled” wilderness—lands that are minimally managed and protected from certain forms of human use (though as Jordan and Lubick rightly insist, these lands are not protected from environmental change or “ecological drift”).
A small sliver of pie now remains in our metaphorical pie tin. Actually, in deference to the authors—who compare ecocentric restoration to a Sabbath practice (pp. 173, 188), in which work for material gain ceases and one honors the intrinsic (or God-given) “otherness” of creation—let’s say that one-seventh of the pie remains. This one-seventh is ecocentric restoration, a type of restoration practice that is distinguished by its insistence “on the literal re-creation of a previously existing ecosystem, including not just some but all its parts and processes” as well as “an ongoing attempt to compensate for novel or ‘outside’ influences on it in such a way that it continues to behave or can resume behaving as if these influences were not present” (p. 2). Or as the authors describe this—admittedly impossible—task elsewhere, importing “the [ecological] past back into the present” (p. 117).
What unites all of these land-management practices—what makes them pieces of the same “pie”—is that they are all responses to unwanted and/or undesirable ecosystem change. But the authors are more interested in what divides the pie than in what unites it. The book, as I mentioned, is about “braving the distinctions,” and Jordan and Lubick stake out their ground in no uncertain terms: “…[A]s self-conscious creatures, humans experience the world as something they are both part of and apart from. That being the case, if the aim of environmentalism is to provide the means for negotiating a healthy relationship with the environment, then it has to provide psychologically effective ways of dealing with both aspects of this experience. From this perspective there are just two forms of land management: ecocentric restoration and all the others” (p. 5).
Making Nature Whole makes many important—indeed, unique—contributions to the ongoing articulation about what restoration is and why it is valuable. Perhaps foremost among these contributions is that it skillfully traces the social history of the idea of ecocentric restoration, offering “a story not of a great watershed and wild surmise but of stepping-stones, of seat-of-the-pants
experiments, modest insights, and small realizations, not by one or two but by dozens and even hundreds of people” (p. 38). The story arc is one that includes modest pioneering attempts and fitful starts at ecocentric restoration in the early part of the twentieth century; a decades-long period of neglect from the 1940s to the 1970s in institutional contexts (e.g., the National Parks Service, The Nature Conservancy); and the emergence of community-based restoration programs during the 1980s and ‘90s, which the authors highlight as ecocentric restoration’s coming-of-age as a communal experience. Along the way, the reader is treated to insightful commentary on how and why the story of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum has become part of an “origin myth” for restoration (pp. 75-83); an exploration of Aldo Leopold’s recreational restoration with his family at “the Shack” (pp. 87-93), which strikes me as a novel contribution to Leopold scholarship; interesting material about the early experimental efforts of Paul Shepard in the 1950s, which anticipated future volunteer-based restoration efforts in the Chicago region a couple of decades later (pp. 108-113); and convincing arguments about why tallgrass prairies in particular acted as “a prominent incubator and proving ground for ecocentric restoration … in its most ambitious form” (p. 108), which helps explain the vigor of the restoration “culture” characteristic of the Midwest (pp. 38, 80-81, 122, 138). In recent decades, Jordan and Lubick argue, the proliferation of citizen-based ecocentric restoration groups has “constituted a kind of revolution in the organizations and communities involved,” for it has become a way “to connect large numbers of people with old ecosystems, linking ecology with sociology and history…” Restoration has thus moved beyond an eccentric or specialist form of land management toward a practice “involving thousands of people who work to restore endangered native ecosystems in their neighborhoods or in parks, preserves, and other public lands” (p. 179).