Our Once and Future Planet: Restoring the World in the Climate Change Century

Our Once and Future Planet: Restoring the World in the Climate Change Century

by Paddy Woodworth


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The environmental movement is plagued by pessimism. And that’s not unreasonable: with so many complicated, seemingly intractable problems facing the planet, coupled with a need to convince people of the dangers we face, it’s hard not to focus on the negative

But that paints an unbalanced—and overly disheartening—picture of what’s going on with environmental stewardship today. There are success stories, and Our Once and Future Planet delivers a fascinating account of one of the most impressive areas of current environmental experimentation and innovation: ecological restoration. Veteran investigative reporter Paddy Woodworth has spent years traveling the globe and talking with people—scientists, politicians, and ordinary citizens—who are working on the front lines of the battle against environmental degradation. At sites ranging from Mexico to New Zealand and Chicago to Cape Town, Woodworth shows us the striking successes (and a few humbling failures) of groups that are attempting to use cutting-edge science to restore blighted, polluted, and otherwise troubled landscapes to states of ecological health—and, in some of the most controversial cases, to particular moments in historical time, before widespread human intervention. His firsthand field reports and interviews with participants reveal the promise, power, and limitations of restoration.

Ecological restoration alone won’t solve the myriad problems facing our environment. But Our Once and Future Planet demonstrates the role it can play, and the hope, inspiration, and new knowledge that can come from saving even one small patch of earth.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226333403
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 08/24/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 536
Sales rank: 809,026
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Paddy Woodworth was a staff journalist at the Irish Times from 1988 to 2002 and is the author of Dirty War, Clean Hands and The Basque Country. He lives in Dublin.

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Our Once and Future Planet




Copyright © 2013 Paddy Woodworth
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-90739-0


Five Plots, Five Prairies, Reflooding a Delta

In a nutshell, the function of the Arboretum [is] a reconstructed sample of old Wisconsin, to serve as a bench mark ... in the long and laborious job of building a permanent and mutually beneficial relationship between civilized men [sic] and a civilized landscape. * ALDO LEOPOLD, a founding father of US environmentalism, on the establishment of Madison Arboretum, which gave birth to several emblematic restoration experiments

A Rubik's Cube is child's play compared to ecological restoration. So many factors, all interacting with each other. * JEB BARZEN, chief ecologist at the International Crane Foundation, walking his five prairie plots in Wisconsin

The relationship between conservation and poverty alleviation is the most important debate in environmentalism right now. * RICH BEILFUSS of the International Crane Foundation, on a project to restore the Zambezi delta

* * *

This book will follow an eight-year journey into restoration, through a series of encounters with individuals and cultures, with species and ecosystems and landscapes, and with ideas in ferment. I found that the practice of ecological restoration and its related scientific discipline, restoration ecology, are not established fields with agreed or fixed basic principles. They are more like lively adolescents, buzzing with energy—and with vibrant contradictions. Restorationists are, after all, attempting to engage with a global environment whose inherent evolutionary shape-shifting tendencies are being unpredictably accelerated by climate change.

Nevertheless, the spark that the phrase "ecological restoration" ignited for me on that damp night at an unsuccessful prairie burn has become a steadily burning passion that continues to illuminate two hopeful prospects that I glimpsed on that occasion: first, that the natural world is considerably more resilient than I had thought, and that damaged and degraded ecosystems can rebuild a great deal of their complex webs of species, communities and ecological processes, if we give them half a chance to do so; and second, that human beings can assist in beneficially managing this restoration process, and that in so doing we may restore our own relationship to nature.

"Saving nature," then, might not just mean a last-fence stand to preserve shrinking islands of wilderness by keeping people out of them. Through restoration, we might escape from our locked dichotomy between the twin roles of destroyers and preservers and find a more rewarding middle way as facilitators of—and participants in—natural processes.

The stories this book uncovers are a welcome reminder that there is nothing inevitable about humanity's current starring role as the Bad Guy of Planet Earth. The obstacles are daunting, but sufficient scientific knowledge is available to turn us into the caretakers or stewards of the biosphere, of which we ourselves form an integral part. Restorationists say they have found a synthesis which can resolve a familiar dialogue of the deaf between:

• those who see the environment only as a resource to be managed, developed, and consumed, and

• those who see human intervention in the environment only as desecration and damage.

These are false alternatives, say restorationists: we can and should use the Earth, but we must learn to do so without using it up. Public awareness of this new scenario, and the political vision and will to implement it, are both still largely missing. This book seeks to bridge the gap between the promise of ecological restoration and the rapidly growing mainstream concerns about the environment. Of course, I doubt that I would have formulated my thoughts in quite that way on that night, but I think all those elements were there, at least in embryonic form, along with a feel-good factor that, to my own surprise, has survived the often grim developments in the human and natural worlds since then. But I still had no idea whether ecological restoration was only a fad peculiar to Iowa, and perhaps only applicable to prairies in any case. After my discussion with Norminton in Iowa City, my next task was to find out if restoration projects had been attempted elsewhere in the world. I was already due to visit the International Crane Foundation (ICF) in Baraboo, Wisconsin, a couple of weeks later. I had planned to spend most of my time in the library, researching references to cranes in literature and art.

The Feel-Good Factor Takes a Battering

I already knew firsthand from a meeting in Sweden that the ICF's charismatic cofounder, George Archibald, had an exceptionally single-minded dedication to the welfare of cranes worldwide. I had read vivid accounts of his conservation campaigns in Peter Mathiessen's enthralling account of the battle to save the world's fifteen species of crane, The Birds of Heaven. But I had no reason to think that ecological restoration might play any role in his cherished cause. So I rather feared he might feel I was breaking the terms of his generous invitation to stay and study at the foundation when I told him on arrival that I was now planning to write about restoration, rather than about the cultural impacts made by his beloved big white birds. But he took my news as the most natural development in the world and led me straight off to meet the foundation's chief ecologist, Jeb Barzen. I found myself out in the field the next morning, at the receiving end of a crash course in some restoration basics. The feel-good factor took a bit of a battering over those few days, in the first sharp breezes over the reality on the ground, but that wind also braced me, and whetted my appetite for more.

Barzen is a stocky, reserved, and thoughtful man. He starts with a question: am I interested in habitat restoration, or ecological restoration? Frankly, I am not very sure. This is the first of many daunting moments—and they recur even now, eight years later—when I realize just how much I still have to learn, will always have to learn. He explains that habitat restoration is directed toward the particular needs of a threatened species—a wetland on the whooping crane's migration route, for example. But ecological restoration is much more ambitious, seeking to put back together all the parts of a damaged system, without special regard for any particular component. He takes a Rubik's Cube out of his pocket. "This thing," he says, "is child's play compared to ecological restoration. So many factors, all interacting with each other."

We walk on up through five plots of land he has marked out for a long-term prairie-restoration experiment. They are only a few hundred meters apart. Each has the same orientation to the sun on the gently undulating mid-Wisconsin landscape. Each has similar prairie origins, similar soils, and a similar agricultural history. Each has received the same restoration treatment in different years, between 1990 and 1996: the same prairie seed mixtures planted on bare ground in the fall. Each has subsequently been burned on similar rotations. Control of invasive species has been similarly limited on each site, and there has been no mowing or seed collecting. And yet the result is five radically different prairies, with different plants becoming dominant, and different community interactions, in each of them. He can attribute some of the differences to variations in weather conditions in the years they were planted, and to what ecologists describe as "stochastic" events—unpredictable but not entirely random—like a heavy early frost or the arrival one year of a very large migratory flock of seed-eating birds just after sowing. But there are other differences for which he simply has no explanation, though he will continue experimenting in an attempt to deepen his understanding of how a young prairie behaves. He has tracked unpredictability over seventeen growing seasons and witnessed a bewildering—but one might also say exuberant— turnover of dominant species.

Meanwhile, some of the common factors are disturbing: two key native prairies grasses have peaked on four of the plots and are now in (apparently) ongoing decline, while the alien Kentucky bluegrass is still expanding on all plots, regardless of its initial level of establishment. The five plots may, of course, become more homogenous over time, but he thinks it is just as likely that they may diverge even further. Nevertheless, that very unpredictability fosters biodiversity, because different plant populations become dominant from year to year. The lesson he draws from this experience is that, even though the conditions he is operating under here are enviably stable and controlled compared to many restoration projects, there is still simply no way, with current knowledge levels, that the outcome of a restoration can be precisely predicted. "Research findings," he wrote in 2008, setting out an often-ignored agenda for good restoration, "need replicates among many years to be fully understood or validated."

Wild nature is not a laboratory, there are far too many variables and interrelationships, many of which we are unaware of and many of which we cannot control in any case. This is not gardening, he continues, using an analogy I will hear many times over the next few years. Perhaps the difference with gardening, I speculate, is not only due to our knowledge gaps, but because, by definition, restoring an ecosystem to its natural state must surely mean "letting go" at some point, not attempting to control the outcome. "Yes and no," he responds. "We are not gardening, in the sense that we want to produce a particular configuration of flowers each year. But we are trying to restore prairie here. We do have a general ecosystem in mind, and we would consider this particular restoration a failure if it produced a forest, or a swamp."

Looking back, I can see how on this early outing I was already running up against many of the concepts that would successively puzzle, preoccupy, and stimulate me, and then puzzle me again, over the course of next few years. I did not know the proper terms to describe them yet, though I soon would. What "historical reference system" were we restoring to, in any given case? What "trajectory" might we expect the restoration to follow? Could we nudge the system toward the trajectory the reference system would have followed had no degradation occurred? Was "natural succession"—whereby a series of different plant communities dominate a system, each one then creating new conditions that will bring about its own replacement by its successor— going to determine that trajectory after a particular point in the restoration? And if so, would it lead to a "climax" system, a stable state in which communities of plants and animals would remain in balance with each other for the foreseeable future? Or would the system continue to change perpetually over time, in constant flux, though within a recognizable range of variation? And underlying these technical questions lay deeper conundrums of an existential and philosophical kind that began to take vague form in my mind. What are we talking about when we talk about nature? Are we part of it, or do we stand outside it? Can restoration tell us anything about these issues?

Barzen listened to my stumbling first attempts to articulate these questions and pointed me in various directions for answers. He mentioned Aldo Leopold, whose A Sand County Almanac I had already found in my room at the ICF guesthouse. Like most Europeans, I suspect, I had never heard of Leopold, but I found he was regarded as one of the founding fathers of the US environmental movement. His famous "shack" where many of the observations he records in the almanac were made is quite close to the ICF.

Keeping Every Cog and Wheel

A quotation from Leopold became one of the central tenets of the American conservation movement, and a very popular maxim among restorationists: "To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering." The analogy between the dismantled parts of a car engine, neatly laid out on a white sheet prior to a rebuild, and the elements of an ecosystem, fizzing and humming with multidirectional interactions from genetic to population levels, now seems charmingly archaic. Would that nature worked as predictably as a machine! (Though of course it would lose a great deal of its magic if it did). And yet Leopold's phrase is a good metaphor in broad strokes. You must have at your disposal all the biotic elements (living species) and abiotic elements (topography, minerals, climate, etc.) of a system if you are to have any chance of a fully authentic restoration.

It took a little time for my European readers' lenses to see beyond Leopold's rather folksy Midwestern ironies and find in his work a prescient and still painfully relevant critique of American environmental policies—or the lack of them—in the first half of the twentieth century. His writing is rooted in his wide experience with the US Forest Service, where he pioneered the creation of "wilderness areas," before taking the up the first-ever American university chair of game management at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1933. In his writings, Leopold flies kites of sophisticated yet easily accessible environmental theory, but their strings are anchored in the sure hands of a man who knows how to dig the soil and how to shoot a deer. He learns an essential lesson of conservation from the dying eyes of a wolf he has just hunted down. At the core of his work is the need for humanity to adopt a new "land ethic," based on the recognition that Homo sapiens is just one member of a vast ecological community whose interrelationships we ignore at our material and spiritual peril. At his best—Marshland Elegy —he is a writer of great lyrical power and celebrates the abundance of life in every season; he robustly defends and expresses a binocular vision of nature, in which imaginative insights have as sharp and significant a focus as scientific analysis. But he also takes a rather pessimistic view of a central paradox of environmental management in our times: "all conservation of wildness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough [people] have seen and fondled, there is no wildness left to cherish."

It is another paradox that Leopold's work has been, and continues to be, mined for insights by American restorationists, though his own bias was towards preservation of pristine "wilderness." Although he often uses metaphors that could be borrowed comfortably by con temporary advocates of the restoration of natural capital, he himself believed that "wilderness is a resource which can shrink but not grow ... the creation of new wilderness in the full sense is impossible." Nevertheless, Leopold was closely associated with the origins of a continuing project that has iconic status in American restoration history. Less than a year after his appointment at Madison, he helped launch the university's arboretum, which he acknowledged in his dedication address would be much more than a tree collection, and have a "new and different" central project: "to reconstruct, primarily for the use of the University, a sample of the original Wisconsin, a sample of what Dane County looked like when our ancestors arrived here in the 1840s."

The argument he used to justify such an almost unprecedented endeavor, at least in public, was not restoration, per se, but primarily was based on the social benefits of research into ecosystem dynamics. He gave his listeners a disturbingly vivid inventory of the damage wrought by bad land management on the state in less than a century; presumably the fact that the Dust Bowl had reached Wisconsin in the form of devastating storms only weeks earlier made them pay rather closer attention than they might otherwise have done. He suggested that studying the "original Wisconsin" would assist in "preserving an environment fit to support citizens. In a nutshell," he concluded, "the function of the Arboretum [is] a reconstructed sample of old Wisconsin, to serve as bench mark ... in the long and laborious job of building a permanent and mutually benefi cial relationship between civilized men [sic] and a civilized landscape."

Excerpted from Our Once and Future Planet by PADDY WOODWORTH. Copyright © 2013 Paddy Woodworth. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Five Plots, Five Prairies, Reflooding a Delta
Chapter 2: The Cranes Are Flying—Again
Chapter 3: From Necedah to Zaragoza via St. Louis: A Restoration Learning Curve
Chapter 4: Greening the Rainbow Nation: Saving the World on a Single Budget?
Chapter 5: Awkward Questions from the Windy City: Why Restore? To What? For Whom?
Chapter 6: Keeping Nature Out? Restoring the Cultural Landscape of the Cinque Terre
Chapter 7: The Last of the Woods laid Low? Fragile Green Shoots in Irish Forests
Chapter 8: Future Shock: “Novel Ecosystems” and Climate Change Shake Restoration’s Foundations
Chapter 9: Dreamtime in Gondwanaland
Chapter 10: Restoration on a Grand Scale: Finding a Home for 350,000 Species
Chapter 11: Killing for Conservation: The Grim Precondition for Restoration in New Zealand
Chapter 12: The Mayan Men (and Women) Who Can (Re)Make the Rain Forest
Chapter 13: Making the Black Deserts Bloom: Bog Restoration on the Brink of Extinction
Chapter 14: Walk Like a Chameleon: Three Trends, One Story
Chapter 15: Conclusions: Why Restore?

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