Restoration in the Age of Ecological Chaos
I am often challenged during agency and non-agency interactions regarding the efficacy of restoration work. Anyone even remotely aware of what it costs to conduct ecological restoration knows that the costs are exorbitant. The questioning of restoration efforts has caused me to take pause for evaluation. After all, experiments in futility are rarely rewarding. The good news is that the expenditure of resources, both monetarily and sociologically, have reaped measurable results in many of the complex and daunting aspects of restoration work. In that context I would like to put down some random thoughts for your consideration.
The Chaos of Species Extinction and Invasive Species
One of the most compelling forces driving restoration ecology is the extirpation of species on an unprecedented scale in human history. It is estimated that over geological time scales, four species a year have gone extinct. Much of that is due to the spread of humanity through the world’ s ecosystems. Of course that number is excluded when we talk about extinctions due to rapid environmental changes brought about by nature. Ice ages, volcanic ages and massive asteroid extinction events are unique and should always be in the back of our minds as a point of reference.
Extinction is part of the reality of the natural world and something to be avoided if possible because complexity and diversity in the natural world promotes resilience. The instinct to survive is strong. Rarely do species welcome being eliminated from the wondrous experience of being alive and part of the magic of the natural world. Even the smallest creatures act with skill and wisdom. Honey bees for example are marvelous and their extinction would be a tragedy to the human race and the natural world.
Presently, we see something new. Since the dawn of human existence our species negatively impacted the natural world. It is apparent today that through technology and innovation, our negative impact on nature has increased exponentially. It’s true that we incorporate environmental change wherever we go. Even in ancient times, the mega fauna, such as the mastodon and mammoths, were driven to extinction by our voracious appetites and skill to survive. However, in our time, let’s estimate since the inception of the industrial revolution, that we have irreversibly and radically changed our world. Our existence and expansion as a species has raised the level of man caused extinctions to an estimated 100 species per day! We have created an imbalance in the natural world tantamount to ecological chaos. Coral reefs, insects, mammals and plants are all in a disheveled state. We influence nature it seems such that we keep it in a continual state of imbalance. This adverse impact on natural processes tends to gain momentum and then multiply by taking on a life of its own. Drought, floods and crazy weather in general also tends to stress and knock off various parts of the web of life.
Imbalances in nature bring about an up-swell of species also. Soon insects and animals begin to multiply because the natural forces which kept them in check are eliminated. The same is true of our forested landscapes. Present practices are drying up streams, poisoning animal life and fragmenting the biosphere. For the sake of convenience, hardwood species are cut to make room for monoculture Douglas-fir stands. All of the species that depend on those hardwoods are effectively removed from the food web. That in turn leads us to the topic of introducing invasive species into the ecosystem. Through world travel we have managed to mix up delicately balanced natural cycles and order by transporting invasive plants, animals, insects, diseases and fungi. Of course humans have always done this and it hasn’t always been bad. Europeans brought Mediterranean honey bees and horses to the new world. It is very questionable if the good has outweighed the bad. The old world incursions also brought small pox, syphilis, bubonic plague, chickenpox, cholera, the common cold, diphtheria, influenza, malaria, measles, scarlet fever, typhoid, typhus, tuberculosis, and pertussis (whooping cough). Epidemics ensued and wiped out entire tribes of aboriginal people and Europeans.
Faith in Nature
We lean on nature far more than we realize. Some part of the human psyche is wired to trust in the resilience of the living world in spite of our insatiable desire to dominate it regardless of the results. It seems apparent that such trust is based on the fact that our impact as a species was relatively limited until the industrial revolution. I do not believe that nature is capable of unending disruption of its rhythm and flow. Our chaotic intervention must at some point end before our own extinction ensues.
What compels the desire of the restoration ecologist to act under such daunting challenges? Foremost is idealism buffered by wisdom and knowledge. One of the most powerful human experiences is to see life come out of death. It is an invigorating experience associated with the recovery of a fish run or the preservation of a species. It’s nothing short of miraculous when the trust in life is allowed to blossom into resilience and renewed efficacy of natural processes. Few rewards or accolades by mankind can compare to the satisfaction of witnessing resilience in the natural world. Second is the intrinsic awareness that we are undermining the very underpinnings of the natural world that sustain us. When we see the support structures of our world disintegrate, we are compelled to act with self-preservation. The combination of the love of life and the fear of death becomes a bulwark of motivation to restore life to balance. Both emotions of ‘love’ and ‘fear’ – though contrary in many ways – seems to be a mighty motivation for humankind to be both courageous and resourceful to bring back balance.
Reactions and Adaptations
Strategies to restore are built on the fundamental principle of doing no harm. Mindful interaction with the natural world is the first step to restoring equilibrium to what remains of a natural system. Some of our actions do more harm than good because we act out of impulse instead of reason. We must learn to understand the natural processes surrounding us. From there it is a short step to devote oneself to implementing the emulation of ecosystem processes. We discover through science the component parts of historical natural processes. These parts we incorporate and support hoping they will be a catalyst to reigniting the beautiful processes that nature has used in the past. We focus on keystone and indicator species and their environments knowing that they will, in turn, reinvigorate the natural processes dependent on them.
We reap the reward of hearing a song bird once long silenced – or the return of a salmon run to its ancient living and dying ritual in our streams. These kinds of victories in the natural world are what gives the restorationist both strength and hope. Our goal of aligning ourselves with life and understanding, excluding the insatiable greed that blinds us to be damaging, heals the creation. In so doing we live.