We argue that merely ecological restoration is inadequate to the challenges we are facing.
Tom Simpson and William R. Jordan III
The two of us met in the late 1990s, when Tom was an assistant professor in Geography and Environmental Studies at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, and Bill was editing “Ecological Restoration” at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum in Madison.
We soon realized that we shared the idea that restoration has an important, possibly crucial role to play in the urgent business of negotiating humans’ relationship with their environment, and we have been exchanging thoughts and concerns about the idea of restoration and its development as a discipline ever since.
Not long ago, in the course of one of our conversations, Tom pointed out that restoration has been, as he put it, “captured” by the
science of ecology, and that, though this may seem obvious, even appropriate, it seriously limits what restoration can accomplish, both on the ground, and in what we regard as the most important
dimension of any form of land management—that is, as a context for negotiating our relationship with our environment, and creating the values and shaping the consciences that grow out of that relationship.
We both thought this provided an interesting perspective on restoration, and that is what we explore in this post.
The term “capture” may seem strange, perhaps an overstatement, in this context. But we are using it to suggest that practitioners, critics, and interested members of the public think and talk about ecological restoration using the language and rules of ecology, that this is not a necessary condition, and that while it may facilitate the growth of bio-ecological knowledge about restoration, it subordinates, marginalizes, and, thus, restricts the application of knowledge from other disciplines in the development of restoration.
This, of course, isn’t the whole story. But to the extent it characterizes thinking and practice within what we might call the restoration community, it means that disciplines such as ethics,
earth science, politics, the social sciences, religious studies and the visual and performing arts must be attached ad hoc to a conceptual and often institutional framework that is fundamentally ecological. And to the extent this is true, it deprives restoration of the perspective these disciplines and areas of experience provide on important aspects of human experience, notably those related to the spirit of community and a lived religion, including citizenship, fidelity, loyalty, courage, piety, and ritual. While there have been connections with disparate disciplines, and borrowings from them, ecology pretty much defines the practice of restoration, gives it a language—starting with the term “ecological restoration”—and polices its boundaries.
This may seem a bold claim, and we have no unambiguous proof to back it up. Further, any attempt to prove such a claim with references to articles or statistics for word usage could equally be said to prove that the practice was and is a natural fit within the discipline. Also, one might argue that ecology did not capture restoration, rather, both the state of the science and the state of restoration are products of a pervasive, expanding tendency of modern societies to think and manage their affairs in technological terms. Our claims are only (1) that the first people to cut brush from a prairie remnant probably did so primarily from a sense of personal loss rather than an adherence to ecological theory, (2) that the practice of restoration today understands itself using the language and rules of ecology, and (3) that we might imagine other modes of self-understanding that are at present discouraged or forestalled by this capture.
There is nothing unusual about this siloing of disciplines. Specialization has been an important factor in the growth of knowledge. And the splitting off and separation of disciplines has been an inevitable result. Over a half a century ago C.P. Snow, himself a chemist and novelist, deplored what he described as a breakdown of communication between the “two cultures” of science and the humanities, and we see that similar divisions and subdivisions have taken place over the past century or so, often with notable consequences.
Soils, history, religion…
A good example is the current placement of ecology within the natural sciences. When ecology came into existence in the late 19th and early 20th century, the logical response of the academy would have been to reorganize all learning and teaching in the natural sciences under the umbrella of this new, holistic discipline, perhaps assimilating it to geography, which had a long history, going back to ancient times, and had become a recognized academic discipline by the 18th century. Like geography, ecology is concerned with relationships. It is, in other words, properly an overarching discipline, so that courses in ecology should have been the educational foundation for anyone interested in taking up the study of biology, geology, climatology, or soil science. But that did not happen. Ecology was captured by the already established discipline of biology and remains there today, artificially distorted and truncated to fit within a discipline that should be one of many expressions of ecology, and now, a century and a half later, we regard this state of affairs as perfectly normal.
In the same way, just as the science of ecology was “captured” by the already established discipline of biology around the turn of the 20th century, restoration was captured by this biological-ecology in the 1980s and 1990s. The result is that restorationists look to ecology as the source of their authority, and so often explain what they do in the terminology of that science.
Around the same time that ecology was becoming a branch of biology, something similar happened to soil science, which became a stepchild of agronomy and geology, and so has only a marginal presence in biology or ecology. And because restoration looks to bio-ecology for its authority, soil science is marginalized and trivialized in restoration. Tom, for example, has spent 25 years teaching the importance of landform and soil to planning and understanding the goals of restoration projects. Along the way, he has worked with many dozens of classes and workshops and many hundreds of students. People listen to his presentations and say, “Isn’t it interesting how all this is related.” But when they leave the classroom, they go back to a world that has little use for such knowledge, despite such professional acknowledgement of its importance as a widely cited special issue of “Restoration Ecology” almost a decade ago. Except in situations where law requires the field examination of soil, wetland delineation being the obvious example, onsite examination of soil as a guide to management is rarely if ever done. NRCS soil maps are a convenient substitute, but they represent a partial solution to the problem at best. If these maps provided all managers need to plan projects, wetland delineation would be unnecessary. People commonly use the word “soil”, and then speak reverently of its complexity and importance. But they rarely examine and take into account the actual soils of the place under restoration. One could speak reverently about plants and their place in the ecosystem, but unless one looks carefully at the actual plants present on a site and takes full account of their changes and future prospects, such reverence is hollow.
If the capture of restoration by ecology, and the disjunct between ecology and soil science handicap restoration efforts even in a purely technical sense, consider its implications for the much larger and arguably even more important matter of its development as a context for exploring our relationship with the past—after all, we are talking about “restoration”—and, more broadly, the relationship between humans and their environment. These are both key elements, or dimensions, of human ecology, but ecology has little to say about them. Humans, however, are aware of their debts to their ancestors and the past, and have always invented ways not only to memorialize the past but to bring it into the living present, and these, is is fair to say, are properly factors in any serious consideration of the ecology of humans, which is to say the ecology of a species that strongly influences and even dominates the ecology of many contemporary ecosystems. Historians like David Lowenthal and Edward Linenthal and art historian Sonya Lee have given a good deal of thought to the matter of humans’ relationship to their past, why it matters and what can and should be done about it. Prof. Lee, for example, has documented the tradition of restoration of works of cave art in China over periods of many centuries. Yet work of this kind has informed discussion about the value and aims of ecological restoration little if at all.
And if history is challenging for a scientific discipline, the dimensions of value represented by religion and ritual are even more so, since, as ritual scholar Evan Zuesse comments in his book Ritual Cosmos, “Ritual and the scientific attitude are poles apart” (239).
“Poles apart.” A troubling thought, considering, for example, anthropologist Gene Anderson’s observation that anthropology knows of no society that has achieved a successful—we might say sustainable—relationship with its environment without having recourse to “…religious or ritual representation of resource management”.
In other words, successful societies have managed their environments for millennia without ecology, through policies of relationship maintained and inscribed into consciences by rituals of initiation, character formation and world renewal that typically have no direct effect on the environment, but serve to shape the “intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections and commitments” that Aldo Leopold called the “foundations of conduct”. These don’t just happen as a result of good advice or imprecation, but are achievements of culture, generated and transmitted in large part by ritual and the arts, or what Bill has been calling the technologies of the imagination.
Night Burn of restored prairie before an audience at the McHenry County Conservation Department’s Glacial Park. A step toward the development of restoration as a performing art.
Wasting the work?
Ecological restoration took shape as a practice more as an extension of the Romantic, or naturalizing motif in landscape design—that is, as an art—than as a science. And ecology grew up in dialogue with both geography and sociology. Indeed, this has led to notable commitments to questions of human/nature relationships in all three
of these discplines. And it’s easy to identify developments one might suppose would encourage a productive relationship between restoration and the various modes of ritual, performance and expressive behavior. The discipline of performance studies, for example, has taken shape during the same few decades that restoration has gained stature as a conservation practice and academic discipline. And as early as 1982, Richard Schechner, an early leader in this field, emphasized concern for the environment, urging in The End of Humanism, that we “Measure humans against planetary needs, not the other way around”. Since then, the humanities have greened dramatically, and the environmental arts have flourished and explored the uses of ritual in negotiating human/environment relations in projects such as Radical Joy for Hard Times and the Dark Mountain Project. Yet developments like these have had, so far as we can tell, no more influence on the thinking reflected in, for example, the publications of the Society for Ecological Restoration, than Tom’s lectures on the importance of soils have had on the practice of restoration. We talk these days of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) with great respect, but take this to mean mainly technical knowledge, overlooking the TRK, the ritual knowledge, practices and traditions that, as Gene Anderson points out, clearly play a crucial role in the shaping and perpetuation of the values and consciences that underlie citizenship in ecologically successful societies.
To the extent this is true for the community of restorationists, it seriously limits prospects for the development of restoration as a context for meaning-making, and for shaping and perpetuating the values, such as Leopold’s beauty and community, that are the foundation of any ethic. Reduced to a science-based technology, or “applied ecology,” and with, at best, a limited sense of the value-forming, conscience-shaping technologies of art and ritual, restoration thinking and practice are deficient in what the world-renewal rituals of traditional societies provide: a way not only to respond to change, but possibly to avert it by providing a way to change the values that are its ultimate drivers.
All this is, at least in part, a consequence of what we have characterized as the capture of restoration by a scientific discipline. Think about it. If we were to observe an indigenous tribe on an isolated island engaging in a practice similar to ecological restoration, maintaining and restoring a historical, as distinct from merely useful, condition of land, we would talk about it using the language and rules of anthropology or sociology—the cultural nature of the practice being obvious, because it isn’t our culture. In a similar vein, we might wonder why these people expend such great effort on small amounts of land to affect what, from our disinterested point of view, would seem to be only partial and temporary effects. We might reason that this culture understood the practice as fulfilling a relationship to the sacred, and we would use the language of religious studies to investigate and describe their behavior. In both of these examples, ecology would be marginalized and its domain restricted.
Gene Anderson’s observation about the role of ritual in the lives and practices of ecologically successful societies, together with the growing body of research on the importance of ritual and the arts in human life, suggest that these are not incidental to restoration, but integral, indeed prior to it, not only historically, but philosophically and experientially. We believe that to undertake restoration without regard for them is to overlook the nature and needs of the dominant species in the ecosystem—that is, us. It is to omit the means of achieving real membership in the land community.
It is, simply put, to waste the work.
This is not, of course, to discount the importance of ecology in restoration, especially under current conditions, which often involve radical alteration of the historic ecosystems that commonly serve as models for restoration efforts.
It is simply to make a case for the pro-active engagement of restorationists with the full range of relevant disciplines and cultural perspectives as they seek to realize the value of restoration as an important, perhaps crucial element in our urgent attempt not just to save the planet, but (probably inseparable from that) to live graciously on it.
Tom Simpson is a restoration ecologist with the Research Field Station of the McHenry County (Illinois) Conservation District. Bill Jordan is editor of “Environmental Prospect”.