Making Nature Whole: A History of Ecological Restoration

Making Nature Whole: A History of Ecological Restoration

by William R. Jordan, George M. Lubick


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781597265126
Publisher: Island Press
Publication date: 07/26/2011
Series: The Science and Practice of Ecological Restoration Series Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

William R. Jordan III is Director of the New Academy for Nature and Culture and codirector of the Institute for Nature and Culture, DePaul University, in Chicago, Illinois. George Lubick is a historian who has taught courses in American environmental history and the American West at Northern Arizona University, in Flagstaff.

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Making Nature Whole

A History of Ecological Restoration

By William R. Jordan III, George M. Lubick


Copyright © 2011 Island Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-513-3


Deep History

Although the idea of ecocentric restoration is a recent one, having taken shape in the early decades of the past century, it has deep roots. Searching through history we do not find full-blown precedents for ecocentric restoration projects, such as the UW–Madison Arboretum's Curtis Prairie, which most would accept as a classic example of this form of land management. But we do find many of the elements—what we might call partial precedents—of this idea. And we find them not only in practices related to the care and management of land or ecosystems but also in ideas and practices arising from relationships people have formed with other humans and with their gods.

As far as human relations with the nonhuman environment are concerned, the picture that emerges from a historical overview is mixed, with humans (like any other species) bringing about changes in an ecosystem when they first invade it but then, at least in some cases, settling down to a more or less stable relationship with the altered—and to some extent "humanized"—system. Environmental historian Curt Meine, summing up the downside of this story, describes a "sobering picture of the human past" in which "human dispersal over the past 120,000 years has been accompanied by wave after wave of extinctions and other forms of environmental degradation." However, this wave of losses typically subsides as a culture settles into a reasonably stable relationship with a new—and usually diminished—suite of species. And although human societies by no means manage this consistently, some achieve a sustainable relationship with their environment that they may maintain for millennia and that may be characterized by high levels of biodiversity at both the community and the species level. Ecologist Fikret Berkes, who has examined the resource management practices of a number of traditional cultures sympathetically without romanticizing them, notes that "where indigenous peoples have depended on local environments for the provision of resources over long periods of time, they have often developed a stake in conserving biodiversity." This entails practices that reflect what he describes as "ecosystem-like" ideas, including the idea that all the elements of their world, including plants and nonhuman animals as well as humans, are interrelated. Regarding them as members of a family, they foster and maintain them through practices such as maintaining sacred areas and refugia, institutionalizing taboos that protect selected species from exploitation, and protecting critical life history stages of exploited species.

At the same time, Berkes acknowledges the limits of traditional land management practices as far as the conservation of actual species, as distinct from biodiversity in the abstract, is concerned. Even under settled conditions, he points out, these forms of land management, while maintaining qualities such as diversity and what might be called ecosystem health or integrity, typically entail both the introduction of exotic species and the extirpation and even extinction of existing species. He notes that the concerns of peoples he has studied in managing their environment are fundamentally livelihood oriented—that is, economic and social, not biological. For example, he writes, hunters and fishers behave "in the short term as 'optimal foragers' maximizing their catch per unit of effort" and so naturally pay more attention to prey or otherwise useful species than to others. Drawing on research by ethnobiologist Eugene Hunn, he points out that this livelihood interest is reflected in traditional systems for naming and classifying organisms, which typically account for useful organisms more thoroughly than others. Summing up, he concludes that "no one has ever documented a so-called traditional preservation ethic, except perhaps with sacred sites. Indigenous peoples do not have a concern necessarily with the preservation of all the species in their environment (and neither do most non-indigenous peoples)."

In our terms, what this means is that the sustainable land management practices of traditional peoples may provide models for sustainability but are motivated not by concern for anything like "all the parts" but by a desire to shape and maintain an ecosystem as habitat for themselves. Significantly, traditional forms of land management come closest to the idea of ecocentric restoration not in what we might call the working landscape but in the ancient institution of sacred groves, which Berkes and his colleagues mention as an exception to the generalization that indigenous peoples do not characteristically concern themselves with the conservation of all the species that share their habitat. In the ancient Mediterranean region, for example, groves were set aside as sacred to the gods (50). They were used only for worship and were protected from goats (representing, we may suppose, productive use of land), which were admitted only one day a year ... to serve as victims of sacrifice. Similarly, in India groves are set aside and maintained "for their own sake." Thus in the myth of the origin of a grove in Himchal Pradesh, India, the god demands that the grove not be regarded as belonging to the king, whose responsibility it is to appoint the priests who maintain it for the sake of the god. Similarly, M. Jha and his colleagues note that oran, the word for the groves, comes from the Sanskrit word for "small forest" but might also have come from the Hindi word auron, meaning "for others, or not for one's own use," a derivation that points directly to the idea of the concern for the whole and all its parts that distinguishes ecocentric restoration from other forms of land management. They also note that maintenance of the groves sometimes entails at least minimal management, including reintroduction of native species "if need be."

Ecologically, this typically results in conservation of at least some species, resulting in local hotspots of biodiversity that have on occasion served as models for modern restoration projects. In the absence of systematic efforts to compensate for their small size and for the influence of changes in the landscape around them, however, they inevitably both lose and gain species so that their species composition and overall ecology drift in time. In the absence of protocols for ecological monitoring, however, this drift is not documented in a systematic way and is presumably not even noticed.

In sum, the institution of the sacred groves clearly reflects a commitment to showing respect for nature whole and for its own sake. At the same time, in the absence of ecologically informed management to compensate for novel or "outside" influences on these island ecosystems, it cannot be counted on to ensure their well-being or the survival of their resident species over the long term.

World Renewal

Significantly, however, a sacred grove, besides being an ecological system, is also a symbol—that is, a repository of meaning. This illustrates the importance of meaning in shaping the relationship between humans and their environment, and this takes us out of the dimension of the ecological and literal and into the dimension of expressive action, performance, and make-believe. A prime example is the institution of world renewal by which many traditional societies define their experience of the world and their relationship with their environment. Historian Calvin Martin writes that the Navajo, Kiowa, and Cheyenne believe that "Things tend to run down toward evil (chaos), ugliness and disharmony" (203) and that the people play a special role in maintaining or restoring order, work that they accomplish through ritual, which reenacts—and so reinstates—the "original terms of connection" (207). Significantly for us, what is involved here, as in a sacred grove, is not the maintenance of a working landscape, or even human habitat—at least not in a literal, ecological, or economic sense. Rather, it is the maintenance of the mental, psychological, moral, and spiritual structures on which such maintenance depends, the structures that actually do run down in the absence of continual maintenance in a way that an ecosystem may not. Strikingly, this entails what we might call a virtual or subjective rather than literal or objective renewal. In other words, it depends on the technologies of the imagination—ritual, art, symbol, and language—rather than on actual land management practices. And it is understood and experienced not as compromising authenticity but as renewing it, as the Sioux experiences the self-mutilation of the Sun Dance or the Christian experiences the Eucharistic reenactment of the murder and resurrection of God as an encounter with the ground of being, the really real, or sacred.

This is a dimension of experience a modern, secular society tends to overlook. But it is one we will want to keep in mind as we explore the discovery of ecocentric restoration as a context for the creation of meaning and consider debates over the value, meaning, and authenticity of restored ecosystems. In fact, the long record of successful habitation by many traditional peoples who rely on the technologies of the imagination to organize their relationship with the world suggests that they are actually more effective at ensuring the survival and well-being of a functioning ecosystem than any kind of actual land management in the absence of such technologies. As technologies of value creation and conscience formation, they also provide means for reshaping values in response to changing conditions and ways of life, ensuring the adaptability on which any long-term relationship depends.

They do not, however, ensure the perpetuation of actual ecosystems and the full complement of species that compose them. To do that it is necessary to perceive the ecosystem from the perspective of an outsider in order to perceive and act against the current of time and change as an ecosystem responds to changes in the technologies and economies of the people who inhabit it. Anthropologist Tim Ingold points out that this is something a society cannot do as long as it experiences itself as influencing an ecosystem from within, so that they "must move with it and never against it." And literary critic Raymond Williams notes that "nature has to be thought of ... as separate from man, before any question of intervention or command, and the method and ethics of either, can arise."

This may seem paradoxical. But the reason for it is straightforward. To the extent that people think of themselves as existing within their environment and lack an idea of nature as an other—that is, as everything in the world except people, or "us"—it is impossible for them to step out of the current of time and change to observe creation from the outside and to see themselves as agents acting on, shaping, altering, and perhaps damaging an environment. By the same token, it is impossible for them to think about reversing those effects, deliberately acting to compensate for or cancel their own effects on that environment in order to restore it to some condition that existed before their arrival. The reason for this is that, as long as the human relationship with the environment is "personal," as anthropologist Mary Douglas writes, it does not provide a basis for an objectifying perspective on the unfamiliar other—that is, the other whom we do not regard as kin or a member of our family.

This has important implications. If historic ecosystems exist in a world that not only is changing but is changing in response to the pressure of novel influences that we might call history, then their survival—their rescue, so to speak, from history—depends on management designed explicitly to compensate for these influences, which is a good way to define ecocentric restoration. That, however, depends on the coming together of two linked if in some ways conflicting ideas: respect for other species and elements of nature as having value in their own right, independent of human interests; and humans' awareness of themselves as in an important sense apart from and even in certain respects transcending the rest of nature.

Environmental thinkers have typically celebrated the first of these ideas and have read the second, understood as the objectification of nature, especially as it has taken shape in the West, as a kind of cultural and intellectual original sin, or fall from nature's grace—what cultural historian Morris Berman called the "disenchantment of the world" and historian Carolyn Merchant called "the death of nature." This critique overlooks three aspects of this development, however. The first is that our species has been alienated from nature in various ways for as long as we have any record. This is evident in the self-conscious use of language and ritual, not to mention the representation of animals on cave walls, all of which entail self-conscious awareness of the other as distinct from the self. The second is that, though troubling, this sense of self is natural. It is shared in varying degrees by other species and, at the level of human reflexivity, underlies what theologian Reinhold Niebuhr called "the essential homelessness of the human spirit." And the third is that it has resulted in what most would agree are goods, such as religion, science, and the arts, that transcend purely material or economic goods.

Part and Apart

Mary Douglas sorts this out with great care in a discussion of the Ho-Chunk mythology of the Trickster, which depicts the Trickster as "at first unaware of himself as an integrated individual," "amorphous," "isolated, amoral and unselfconscious, clumsy, ineffectual, an animal-like buffoon," who cannot distinguish between himself and objects in the landscape and who mistakes parts of his own body for those of others. Far from seeing this as an indication of the Ho-Chunks' failure to differentiate the self, however, Douglas sees it as an expression of their "profound reflections on the whole subject of differentiation," as the Trickster organizes his view of the world, "begins to have a more consistent set of social relations and to learn hard lessons about his physical environment," and "gradually ... learns the functions and limits of his being" (80–81).

Douglas sees this myth as paralleling the modern idea that "the movement of evolution has been towards ever-increasing complexification and self-awareness" but notes that, contrary to the interpretations of some anthropologists, the earlier condition of culture represented by the fecklessness of the Trickster "is not pre-logical." It is, rather, "pre-Copernican." That is, "Its world revolves around the observer who is trying to interpret his experiences. Gradually he separates himself from his environment and perceives his real limitations and powers."

"Above all this pre-Copernican world is personal," she writes (81). And, as far as the difference between the primitive (a term Douglas defends on the grounds that rejecting it implies that primitive denotes an inferior condition) and ourselves is concerned,

There is only one kind of differentiation in thought that is relevant, and that provides a criterion that we can apply equally to different cultures and to the history of our own scientific ideas. That criterion is based on the Kantian principle that thought can only advance by freeing itself from the shackles of its own subjective conditions. The first Copernican revolution, the discovery that only man's subjective viewpoint made the sun seem to revolve around the earth, is continually renewed. In our own culture mathematics first and later logic, now history, now language and now thought processes themselves and even knowledge of the self and society, are fields of knowledge progressively freed from the subjective limitations of the mind. To the extent to which sociology, anthropology and psychology are possible in it, our own type of culture needs to be distinguished from others which lack this self-awareness and conscious reaching for objectivity. (79–80)

As we have seen, the idea of ecocentric restoration rests on or contains several such ideas, representing the "Copernican" distancing of self from other that Douglas considers an aspect of the psychological and intellectual emancipation that she sees as an ongoing process in all societies. These include the ideas of history and of self and society, which Douglas specifically mentions, and also the idea of nature as an object of study in abstract, objectifying scientific terms. All of these depend on a sense of oneself standing outside of something else, called "nature," which one can then regard and treat altruistically—that is, as an "other."


Excerpted from Making Nature Whole by William R. Jordan III, George M. Lubick. Copyright © 2011 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1.Deep History
Chapter 2. Run-Up
Chapter 3. Preconditions
Chapter 4. Invention
Chapter 5. Neglect
Chapter 6. Realization I: Stepping-Stones
Chapter 7. Realization II: Taking Hold
Chapter 8. Realization III: Finding a Voice
Chapter 9. Realization IV: Getting Real
Chapter 10. Realization V: The Relationship
Chapter 11. Current Thinking


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