Two years ago I attended a meeting, were a conservation biologist made a remark regarding restoration ecologists, saying “I hope I will never be like you.” The statement is a criticism of restoration indeed, and the person making the statement was not the first one to question restoration ecology.
Critics of restoration usually question that humans can restore ecosystems, and that whatever we end up with will be an artifact of the original nature, comparable to a painting. These viewpoints have been presented by Robert Elliot (1982) and Eric Katz (1997). Katz states that the assumption that humanity can recognize the harm we have done and restore it is false, and that it is”...an unrecognized manifestation of the insidious dream of the human domination of nature.” This view has been held by humanity for thousands of years, and is present in Genesis were man is given authority to rule over nature. Moreover Katz sees restoration as an assumption that we can restore a degraded system back to what nature intended it to be. Nature however, does not have any intentions or blueprints for a system, and although modern biologists are aware of this, they still act as if nature had a plan which they understood argues Katz. Although Katz and Elliot are from the discipline of philosophy, the issue that man-kind overestimates her ability to restore nature has been voiced by restoration biologists to.
Hilderbrand et al. (2005) outlines what they perceive as the 5 myths of restoration ecology. The myths can be summarized as:
• The carbon copy myth: The idea that we can restore a system to a previous ideal state.
• The field of dreams myth: The idea that biotic composition will follow automatically if only the physical structure is restored.
• The myth of fast forwarding: The idea that we can accelerate the development of a system by controlling dispersal and colonization by for example sowing.
• The myth of the cookbook: The assumption that a successful restoration-case in one area can be performed at another site with similar result.
• The myth of command and control: The idea that we have the know-how and foresight to control and manage ecosystems structure and function now and in the future.
Finally the authors propose a sixth myth that they see as widely held by today’s society. This is the myth of the Bionic world, which is the belief that science and technology will eventually solve the problems caused by human exploitation. (Hilerbrand et al. 2005). Although the myths presented by Hilderbrand et al. bears many similarities to Katz and Elliot’s statements of man kinds overestimation of her capacity to control nature, Hilderbrand et al. are clear in their support for restoration, and they believe that as long as we are aware of the limitations of each myth, we have a higher chance to succeed in our efforts to restore degraded systems.
One problem with both Elliot’s and Katz position is that although we are prone to overestimate our ability to restore ecosystems, the choice to not restore is a choice for status quo (Allison, S.K 2007). With hardly any ecosystem being unaffected by human actions, we are seldom in a choice were we can preserve what is natural, but more often forced to choose to restore a degraded area to a system that either existed prior to the disturbance, or a system that is better than the current one, even if it did not exist prior to the disturbance. The basic mistake that both Elliot and Katz make, is in my opinion, that they fundamentally fail to see what the starting position is, and therefore makes a comparison between the virgin ecosystem, and the restored.
Hilderbrand, R. H., Watts, A.C., Randle, A.M. 2005. The myths of restoration ecology, Ecology and Society 10(1):19
Katz E. 1997. Nature as Subject. Human Obligation and Natural Community. Rowman and Littlefield: Lanham.
Elliot, R. (1982). Faking nature Inquiry, 25 (1), 81-93 DOI: 10.1080/00201748208601955
Allison, S. (2007). You Can’t Not Choose: Embracing the Role of Choice in Ecological Restoration Restoration Ecology, 15 (4), 601-605 DOI: 10.1111/j.1526-100X.2007.00271.x