Friday, July 8, 2016

“Beyond the War on Invasive Species” Offers Whole-Systems Guidance for Ecological Restoration

In 2009 two colleagues and I got permission to make an experimental “pocket prairie” on about 3,000 square feet of campus lawn. We coupled a minuscule budget with an aversion to pesticides, so instead of “nuking” the grass, that December we seeded into the frozen, live sod. (Most prairie seeds need a period of cold before germinating in warm weather.) I had read somewhere that this approach could be taken—had been taken at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum. The next spring we mowed, and added some small plants we’d either propagated or ordered from a native plant nursery. All summer we searched for signs that our seeds had germinated, but they took their time: for a couple of years it seemed as if the turf grass and non-native weeds would win out. Gradually, however, through continued care, over seeding and planting, and a yearly early-spring mowing, the area thrived. Tall, strong prairie plants have mostly shaded out the turf grass. Bird and insect life proliferates, even though the place remains a tiny island in a chemically treated sea of lawn bordered by parking lots. Even endangered Monarch butterflies have shown up in increasing numbers to sip nectar and lay eggs on the four species of milkweed. 

The early challenge posed by weeds continues, though less than the first couple of years. Incursion by aggressive species (aka opportunistic, early successional annuals and perennials) would, if not controlled, soon dominate the prairie garden, as we call it. Of the approximately 2,500 species in Cook County, Illinois, about half were not present prior to European settlement and are considered non-native. Of these, a relatively small number have the ability to reduce biodiversity where they grow and are considered invasive. Thus, in the prairie garden, Canada thistle, white sweet clover and perennial sow thistle appeared in successive years, followed this year by crown vetch, and, because of their natures, soon became too abundant for good balance among species. There are no “bad,” or “evil” plants, and these do have some value for pollinators. For example, some pf the clover honey available in stores comes from this species of clover. However, each of these plants has the potential to shade and crowd out the slower to establish and grow prairie plants, quickly and decisively becoming a near monoculture. How to manage them? 

It is this kind of dilemma that Tao Orion’s “Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration” (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015) approaches head on, with smarts, honesty and the authenticity that comes from lived experience. Orion, who holds both a degree in agroecology and a permaculture certificate, manages a 6.5 acre smallholding with her husband. She also teaches at the University of Oregon and is on the staff at a non-profit sustainable living institute, Aprovecho. She knows whereof she speaks. Her book is a worthwhile entry in the ongoing discussion about how to carry on the very real and most urgent tasks of ecosystem regeneration in human-occupied areas, which is to say nearly everywhere. She criticizes the vocabulary and approach of the field of invasion biology, which, according to her, is ideology driven, demonizes non-native species and features an increasing reliance on toxic pesticides to eliminate invasive plant species in natural areas, which in her view repeats the mistakes of industrial age agriculture. She proposes that healthy ecosystems more readily resist aggressively opportunistic species; instead of treating symptoms of extreme disturbance using extreme measures, we should look at the larger causes that enable invasive species to take hold, begin to remedy those, and while we are doing so, adopt management techniques drawn from permaculture ideas and practices. What we would be left with would be human-managed ecosystems that might not necessarily duplicate those that existed pre-European settlement and would include not-historically-native species—but would be healthy, diverse and well functioning. 

In this context Orion begins from first permaculture principles: care for people, care for planet, reinvest the surplus, and turn problems into solutions. She presents case studies of ecosystems where invasive plant species have taken over from natives and recounts the moral language used about these plants and measures, often violent, used to extirpate them, often without success. For example, Orion analyzes the problem of tamarisk (salt cedar) trees along the Colorado River, their displacement of willows and cottonwoods and how land managers have tried to eradicate the tree without addressing what it is about the ecosystem that favors the invasion: in this case, the nearly nonexistent river flow owing to human urban and agricultural use. Salt builds up, water is reduced and a salt-loving species such as tamarisk is bound to be ecologically favored over the water loving, less salt tolerant natives. She makes the very good point that it is human development and control of the river, including the siphoning off of all of its water before it reaches the delta and the Gulf of California that are the real problems. These new conditions disfavor the historic plants but favor the salt cedar for good reasons. More reasonable, at least from an ecosystem’s—or the willows and other historic species’— point of view would be to change river management such that water flow would bear some resemblance to historical norms. 

This approach, as she points out, would of course also require vast changes in the human societies along the river, from residential water use to agriculture and manufacturing, which in turn would require vast changes in government policy and multi-state agreements. (And in fact, a single “pulse flow” of less than 1% of the river’s historic pre-diversion flow, that in 2014 briefly revived the riverbed all the way to the Gulf, took eight years to negotiate. Native vegetation subsequently regenerated, among other positive changes; hopefully this was a first step toward ecosystem rehabilitation and there will be more pulse flows in the future.) 

Because Orion is a permaculturalist, she naturally thinks about ecosystem management in terms of benefits to humans. The book is packed full of examples of how weedy plants could be turned to better account. A great example of this is the lowly ailanthus tree, or tree-of-heaven, with which almost everyone is familiar and almost no one loves. One reason we have them in the US is that the ailanthus silkworm produces a fiber reminiscent of a cross between silk and wool. At one time there was a thriving “ailantine” textile industry in the US and other parts of the world, which ceased when cotton gained dominance. Similar to the argument proponents put forth in favor of hemp, she proposes resuscitating an ailantine production sector. Like hemp, ailanthus trees can grow on marginal land and in unfavorable situations and do not require the fertilizer and pesticides needed in industrial cotton farming. As she says, “cultivating tree of heaven for fiber helps mitigate climate change, reduces pesticide use, remediates heavy-metal-laden soils and has the potential to create economic outcomes for people living in invaded ecosystems.” She has similar ideas for kudzu, scourge of the southeast. 

In some ways, however, Orion goes too far in her rehabilitation of invasive species and the claim that healthy ecosystems can resist them. Certain species actually do exist that rampage through even healthy ecosystems for which controls must be found. Midwesterners continue to mourn the ash trees, now replaced on urban parkways and lingering as ghosts in the woods, which succumbed to the emerald ash borer, the seemingly unstoppable pest from eastern Eurasia. In the case of the ash, Orion says that suboptimal rain in the Eastern US weakened millions of them: fully healthy trees would not have died. Unfortunately there is more to this story. American ash lack the EAB-fighting chemicals that Chinese ash possess owing to coevolution. In China, for example, healthy American ash trees die, while Chinese ash species do not. What is to be done? 

On the other hand, Orion’s larger point, that we should manage ourselves and our ecosystems to maximize biodiversity while also helping ourselves, is well taken. Having spent much time clearing Eurasian buckthorn from oak woodland savannas over a period of fifteen years, I have witnessed how control allows assemblages of native plants to flourish. At the moment, buckthorn is chopped down and burned and the stumps herbicided. I’ve long thought better use could be made of the wood. Perhaps licenses could be given to people to harvest and put it to good use, whether as fuel or for crafting—it is good, sturdy wood, after all. A pity to waste it. 

Another slight caveat I have is Orion’s apparently somewhat romanticized ideas about indigenous peoples’ land management practices. For excellent reasons, the myth that prior to 1492 the US was a pristine wilderness has been dispelled; now, partly in reaction to our own bad management practices, an idea has taken hold that ancient indigenous peoples always managed the land better than we do. Yes, many pre-modern and non-western cultures have much to teach about useful methods, and perhaps even more importantly, about maintaining right relationship with the natural world. Yes, the peoples that would later be called Native Americans managed the continent on a vast scale through strategic burning, cultivating wild plants and trees within wild settings and practicing garden agriculture. In many cases this led to increased biodiversity, including an abundance of game and plentiful food crops, and Orion’s examples are both evocative and to the point. The prairie and woodland savanna landscape I love was created through this kind of management. However, it is also important to remember a few other facts that temper the record. Certain practices such as prehistoric mass bison kills would not look sustainable to us. The Anasazi and Hopewell cultures both collapsed partly for environmental reasons, including, in the city of Cahokia’s case, overpopulation and agricultural degradation. And in central Mexico, Aztec overpopulation resulted in overuse of the land, evidenced by the marks of widespread erosion that occurred prior to the arrival of the Spanish. 

More generally speaking, while what was to become the US was certainly more populous (50-100 million) prior to European incursion than previously believed, that many people living an ecologically friendly, land-based lifestyle within a much larger matrix of ecosystems is vastly different from 350 million or so employing ecologically disastrous methods to supply our wants and needs. Clearly, though less populous than many other countries, from an ecosystem point of view, even the US could be considered overpopulated. 

Looming over this book, and over all questions and ideas about how to manage land so that not only people but all the other species—plants, animals, lichens, fungi, and all the denizens of the several microbiomes—can thrive, is the overwhelming fact that we have indeed entered the Anthropocene—the age dominated by humankind. Debate continues about when it began. To Orion’s point, a recent article in PNAS demonstrates through a review of evidence that we’ve been altering ecosystems for 13,000 years for better and worse. Also, while we have a right to be here, and are capable of managing ecosystems in beneficial ways, it seems irrefutable that other species need room too. Globally, our one species is taking up space and eliminating suitable conditions for the other 2 million named species and 6 million potentially to be found and named. For them there must be large areas of good habitat. 

Orion recognizes the need to restore ecosystems and manage our land in such a way that certain species of plants that are overly opportunistic in certain contexts can be managed and controlled. She gives a number of useful recommendations that range from eminently practical to “if only it could happen” scenarios. Yet she doesn’t fall into the opposite, gung-ho Anthropocene “nature is dead and we might as well get used to it” camp, and for that I thank her. At this point, we can’t stop the ongoing reshuffling of ecosystems. Too many factors are stacked against us to return to some version of the past, whether we view that past as mostly wilderness or mostly beneficially managed through indigenous peoples’ activities. Yet large, intact ecosystems with defining characteristics do persist. And land management, and the ethos that defines it, is already changing, as evidenced by books like this one. What needs to be changing even faster are the social conditions and the inexorable civilizational logic that create environmental chaos in the first place. 

Recently, I learned a new term: “moral injury.” This is what soldiers suffer when they return from war, having been required to take part in or helpless to prevent morally repugnant actions, or having seen terrible things they couldn’t help, such as the killing of children and helpless civilians. These lie outside their identity as moral beings and they can’t forgive themselves. Though symptoms can be similar to those of PTSD, moral injury is different and creates deep-seated, lasting emotional wounds, with unrelenting feelings of guilt, shame and despair. There are a number of therapies, some of which are psychiatric, but also spiritual and meditation-based. Strikingly, something that seems to help is being out in nature and learning again to experience the beauty of the earth. I mean no disrespect to the vets who have undergone such terrible experiences and live with such debilitating results; but in thinking about the term itself, I wonder if there can be another form of moral injury that arises from the way our society clearcuts forests, plows prairies and pollutes the air and waterways. I have read many texts in which the writers mourn the old landscapes and feel guilt, shame and responsibility that they didn’t or couldn’t do more to preserve them. 

Perhaps our industrialized society is staggering under a huge load of this kind of moral injury regarding our treatment not only of people but also of the ecosystems that support us. Perhaps climate change deniers, in effect, are denying their own debilitating moral injury. Perhaps, however, it is most acutely felt among people most in tune with their home ecosystems and among those seeking to help our dominance become less ruinous to other species. I believe that being out in nature helps. Practicing reciprocity—giving back to nature what we owe—helps. How do we replace a societal ethic of relentless growth with one of nurturance and restraint? If enacted on a wide scale, land management of the sort Orion is advocating, along with other forms of reconciliation ecology, has the potential to help cure this societal sickness through the restoration of ecosystems. “Beyond the War on Invasive Species” is a good example of the new ecological theory and practice that is manifesting in multiple arenas. 

Meanwhile, here in the prairie garden we keep planting and observing. As I write, yesterday I was cutting back white sweet clover. It is nearly as tall as I am, but then so are the liatris, prairie sunflowers, the cup plants and compass plants, common milkweed, grey-headed coneflowers and so many others. The flowers are mostly at eye level, and the warm-season grasses will overtop them all next month. Plants cover every square inch of ground. Wading in among them to cut the clover, green growth pressing on every side, bees and butterflies pollinating close by, is one good way to experience living nature, Midwest version, in its sun-powered, midsummer exuberance. I’ll never eradicate the weedy plants, but neither will they take over. I’ve discovered that cutting back thistle when in flower to a height of six or eight inches helps knock back the population, as does cutting sweet clover while in bloom but before it sets seed. There are, besides, native plants that can hold their own against opportunistic weedy plants. For example, fast-growing cool season native grasses such as switch grass are reputed to be able to stand up to crown vetch’s suffocating embrace. I’ll plant some soon and see how it goes.

Many thanks to reader Margaret F-H for suggesting this book.

Note: Posted at the end of a horrific week of gun violence in the US. When will we ever learn?

Related Posts:
A Backyard Plant Species Count
A Small Prairie Garden

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Podcast: "Saving the Ecosystem with Wild Backyards (and other awesome endeavors!)"

Rivera Sun and Sherri Mitchell
Rivera Sun and Sherri Mitchell of Love (and revolution) Radio contacted me for an interview about native plant gardening and reconciliation ecology. They are warm and encouraging radio hosts. We had a wonderful talk. Here is the link to the podcast

From the Love (and revolution) Radio website: 

"Rivera Sun is a novelist and non-violent mischief maker. She is the author of The Dandelion InsurrectionBillionaire Buddha and Steam Drills, Treadmills, and Shooting Stars. She is also the social media coordinator and nonviolence trainer for Campaign Nonviolence and Pace e Bene. Her essays on social justice movements are syndicated on by PeaceVoice, and appear in Truthout and Popular

Sherri Mitchell (Penobscot) is an Indigenous rights attorney, writer and activist who melds traditional life-way teachings into spirit-based movements. Follow her at Sherri Mitchell – Wena’gamu’gwasit." 

Rivera and Sherri interview all kinds of folks about sustainable living, so readers might want to subscribe to their email newsletter here.

Related Posts:
Ethics and Ecosystem Interactions: Why Reconciliation Ecology Matters
Urban Neighborhoods Can Be Good for Native Bees

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Ethics and Ecosystem Interactions: Why Reconciliation Ecology Matters

The problem with ecosystem interactions
Here’s a phrase that’s lately been haunting me: “the extinction of ecosystem interactions.” I first encountered it in science writer Connie Barlow’s fascinating book, The Ghosts of Evolution, which is about the plants, mainly trees, that have lingered into modern times even though the megafauna with which they were co-evolved, that ate their fruits and dispersed their seeds, have gone extinct. Of the several reasons the animals disappeared, a major one has everything to do with our species’ penchant for using a resource until there is nothing left. Thus, when you look at, say, an Osage orange tree, with its large, inedible, multi-seeded fruits, or savor the delicious flesh of an avocado (while not eating the insanely large, poisonous seed contained within), you are summoning the ghosts of the elephant-like gomphotheres and others that once roamed the Americas.

This is an excellent example of the extinction of ecosystem interactions. Once the animals disappeared, so too did the relationships and their attending interactions, leaving the plants hard put to survive into the present day. How and why they did so is a long, convoluted story best told by Barlow. The phrase itself comes from a short article, published in 1977 by pioneering ecologist Dan Janzen, called “The Deflowering of Central America,” in which he traces the relationship of a particular bee species with a certain species of flowering plant, and describes what happens when that relationship is interrupted by over-disturbance of the human kind.

When we think about species extinction, we often think about individual, usually charismatic species such as honeybees, monarch butterflies, eagles, wolves or polar bears, or plants such as giant sequoias. However, individual species of plants and animals do not exist in a vacuum. They live as participants in a four-dimensional structure of relationships, dependencies, limiting factors, physical environment, weather, and multiple stocks and flows that includes all the other living beings who also exist in this same web. For example, plants have flowers so they’ll attract pollinators, who forage among the flowers for food in order to raise their young so that the whole cycle can perpetuate itself. And some pollinators such as monarch butterflies are so exquisitely adapted that their young can only grow and thrive on the pollen and nectar of certain plants. Plants also produce fruits and seeds, and, if not wind-dispersed, rely on animals to eat the fruits and disperse the seeds, though the animals, of course, are looking for tasty food. Then there are the soil critters with whom the plants interact (the biological system of the soil), and the predators that hunt the herbivores, and on and on in the dizzying complex web of interactions that makes a healthy, dynamically balanced ecosystem.

It is this web of interactions that can get thrown seriously out of whack through destructive human disturbance, which, as we can’t avoid knowing, is happening on a planetary scale.  Human overpopulation is a major factor. Urban overdevelopment on the one hand, and, on the other, desertification caused by overgrazing and unsustainable farming practices that include overuse of groundwater are perfect instances of what I’m talking about.  So is clear cutting forest, and in a very extreme example, the nearly complete replacement of thriving, complex ecosystems such as the oak savannas and prairies of the Midwest or parts of the tropical rainforests of Brazil with industrial corn and soy production. In these latter cases, the destruction of interactions extends as far as killing off a thriving soil biome and polluting streams and rivers.

Even in less extreme cases such as when land is cleared for a school, shopping mall or housing development, the native plants get cleared away, native bees and other insect pollinators, predators and herbivores subsequently decline through lack of food and habitat to enable good reproduction, which leads to further plant declines for lack of pollination. When the insects and the seeds and berries produced by native plants decline, so do the songbirds that depend on them, as do the raptors that hunt the songbirds.  The same pattern goes for all the other life of the ecosystem: mammals large and small, amphibians and other reptiles, and the myriad life of the soil. When birds and other dispersers decline, plants further decline, and so on in a downward spiral of impoverishment until--in my part of the world-- the prairie, savanna or woodland becomes a shadow of its former self. If enough of these interactions go extinct, the ecosystem, which by definition is a complex adaptive system, will, owing to positive feedback loops, slide into a less complex state, with a cascade of negative effects for all other species in the system, including further extinction of species. The word for these kinds of sad landscapes is depauperate: they are poor, impoverished and devoid of the richness and biodiversity that should be there by rights.

All of this is a long-winded way of getting around to what I want to discuss, which is the importance of the protection and restoration of ecosystem interactions in human dominated landscapes and how reconciliation ecology can help us do so. The question is not just how we can save any particular good-looking species such as monarchs. Beyond that lies the bigger question: What can we can do to encourage complex ecological interactions, and do it on a large enough scale, quickly enough, thus saving monarchs, and all kinds of other species (some of which we haven’t even discovered yet), as well?

This is an altogether more interesting, difficult question. It is also more fraught: with danger, difficulty, and potential failure. Yet only by attempting to answer and act on this question in a given place—and indeed the answer is worked out through the action—can we, ourselves, find a home within nature, and help ensure that all kinds of ecosystems—and ultimately the planet—will be not only a suitable habitat for these others, but also for us. The question is fundamentally practical because answering it could go a long way towards helping solve many global environmental problems such as climate change and the need for carbon sequestration.  Yet it is deeply ethical and spiritual as well. Discovering answers and appropriate actions requires a shift in thinking, a redefinition of humanity’s proper role vis a vis the biosphere as well as a shift in ethics, religious doctrine and spiritual practice. In the long run, the complex definition of what it means to be human may shift and change, as well.

What is reconciliation ecology and how can it help?
As formulated by Michael J. Rosenzweig in 2003, reconciliation ecology is “the science of inventing, establishing and maintaining new habitats to conserve species diversity in places where people live, work and play." Implied is an ethos demonstrated through action that has the potential to help us move beyond our current, cruel dilemma of how to live on the earth without wrecking it. Like ecological restoration does at the landscape level, it does not focus specifically on saving one or another particular species. When most effective, reconciliation ecology helps a given piece of land recover the myriad functions and interactions that enable it and all its denizens to thrive, yet does not post “keep out” signs for humans. Importantly, unlike conservation or preservation, which focus on reserving landscapes specifically for non-human species, reconciliation ecology also encompasses the work of reconfiguring overly human-dominated landscapes to make room for other species. It enables humans to take our rightful place as caretakers, rather than destroyers, of the earth.

The thing about natural systems is that they need a lot of space. In ecology, the species-area curve suggests that the larger the area, the more biodiversity can be supported. Thus, in general, islands have less biodiversity than continents. By extension, in a fragmented landscape of nature reserves surrounded by human development the reserves function like islands. Species go extinct and ecosystem interactions wink out when there is not enough habitat and contiguous landmass to sustain enough different species of plants and animals so they’re able to reproduce well enough to keep populations at a healthy size. While nature reserves are of the utmost importance, no matter how we increase their size and extent, they are not by themselves enough to provide for real habitat needs, even if connected by corridors. We can see this clearly in the case of bee and butterfly declines in the US. Yes, pesticides and disease take a deadly toll; but it is also simple lack of habitat—of large areas with huge numbers of diverse flowers that allow for healthy ecosystem interactions—that is a major factor in the struggles pollinators face in maintaining viable populations.

E.O. Wilson has recently proposed that we should give over to nature half of the earth by creating vast reserves on land and sea. This statement could bring to mind the old human culture/nature dichotomy so prominent in Western thought, including the either/or binary thinking and non-holistic problem solving that has so often and still continues to result in incomplete solutions that in turn generate further problems. This type of thinking gave us the now generally discredited idea that there is a bright line of demarcation (perhaps symbolized by a fence) separating humans and human culture from the rest of earth’s species. One might fearfully imagine the human population huddled in crowded cities, sequestered from vast areas where we are not allowed. This is clearly not Wilson’s intent, however. One of his models is places such as Area de Conservaci√≥n Guanacaste (ACG) in northwestern Costa Rica, where Dan Janzen and his wife Winnie Hallwachs have, with local people, developed a model of conservation and restoration that includes livelihoods for residents.

One way I like to think of sharing the earth is to picture a continuum, with outright wilderness on one end and completely human-dominated areas, e.g. over-developed urban centers or industrial zones such as the tar sands mining areas on the other. These are extremes. It is desirable—and necessary—to greatly enlarge protected wilderness zones and to restore as many natural areas as possible, while sharply decreasing the size and impact of anthropogenic sites— and completely eliminating the most egregious. But in-between there is a huge amount of territory that is and will remain mostly human-impacted but livable. Here lie plenty of opportunities for reconciliation ecology at every scale.

Living the good life in the middle landscape
In the US, at least, much of our landscape is what could be considered what literary critic Leo Marx described as a “middle landscape” that blends human culture and nature—admittedly, often disastrously at the moment, but where we also have the most obvious chance to do better. This middle landscape, as discussed by Marx and others subsequently, encompasses towns, suburbs, farms and even nature preserves in a human-managed patchwork. This is the type of landscape within which Thoreau resided and wrote so productively about nature, as did both Aldo Leopold, when he moved back to the Midwest after years out west in wilderness areas and May Watts, who lived in Chicago and whose writings celebrated and defended close-by natural areas. It is where my colleagues and I do our own ecological restoration and management work in Chicago-area forest preserves and where I do my native plant gardening at in my backyard.  Most Americans may never hike in the Rockies or, conversely, visit the tar sands desolation. But most of us do reside in some version of the middle landscape. Here is where most ecological restoration via the practice of reconciliation ecology must and can be done—at home.

I like to think of reconciliation ecology as the umbrella term for all the ways that people are learning to live and work while making room for nature and biodiversity. The list is long and encompasses multiple, overlapping disciplines: ecological restoration and rehabilitation, carbon farming and ranching, organic farming, agroecology, agroforestry and permaculture, among others that involve working on the land hewing closely to natural processes and cycles, while looking to increase biodiversity.  Urban planners, architects, landscape architects and designers who are incorporating green infrastructure, green corridors and other resilient features into their designs must also be included, as well as native plant and bird gardeners, regenerative gardeners and myriad others.

It all adds up. The fact that my next-door neighbor and I garden with native plants in our backyards might not be enough to help increase ecosystem interactions in our town. But the fact that over the last five to ten years hundreds of people in the same town have begun to engage in some form of native plant gardening, along with local schools and parks, means that for many species of animals, especially birds and insects, there is increased habitat richness and abundance, leading to the chance for increased complexity of ecological interactions and hence, a stronger ecosystem. Meanwhile, backyard carbon sequestration is going on, the air is a little less polluted, the soil is healthier, and rainwater more easily absorbed. And, these gardens form a link or corridor with the forest preserves, helping to expand habitat a little further—important not only for resident birds but for all the migrating warblers and other birds that pass through spring and fall. In this way, we local gardeners are contributing to improved ecosystem interactions at a continental, even a hemispheric level.

The kind of earth-centered ethos and practice I am talking about recognizes that, while human beliefs and actions help “bring the world into being,” a foundational teaching in some indigenous belief and ceremonial systems, our species is, as is becoming increasingly clear, not the boss of nature, even though we bear responsibility as caretakers. Nature gives us great gifts: life itself, for example, and the wherewithal to create societies and enduring civilizations. We might ask ourselves what we owe in return, and how we can reestablish a relationship of reciprocity. We indeed are not “as gods so we might as well get good at it,” as the Whole Earth Catalog famously proclaimed in 1968 and some neo-environmentalists seem lately to have taken for a motto, particularly those in favor of techno-fixes for ecological problems.

This is not at all to dismiss science or technology; I thoroughly understand the roles both will have to play as we work to help ecosystems recover their natural functioning. But, as Quaker economist Kenneth Boulding pointed out, also in the 1960’s, we must mature past “cowboy” ideas about living on earth. Hard limits mean we do not actually have the freedom to do whatever we want, wherever we want, whenever we want, with no planetary consequences. Many people are still resisting if not outright denying this truth. However, ever-increasing numbers of people have embraced an idea of reciprocity, even if not fully articulated, from those risking their lives in environmental struggles in Honduras to affluent Midwest suburbanites who have stopped using pesticides, let their lawns get a little less “pristine,” and begun to plant milkweeds for the monarchs.

They all have recognized in some way and have expressed through their actions that it is time, past time, to once again take up our sacred role and responsibility of tending to the earth, whoever and wherever we are. This goes double for those of us who are not of indigenous cultures. In this light, reconciliation ecology might be seen as a religious project, for, as Chicago-based William Jordon (who coined the term “restoration ecology” in the 1980’s) writes, “religion is the art and discipline of dealing with the problems of relationship at the psychological and spiritual levels.” I recognize that some of those most committed to ecological restoration and reconciliation ecology would be the last people to speak in overtly spiritual, much less religious terms. Yet there it is. If we work faithfully and patiently to aid wild nature, we just might avoid mass extinction while helping mitigate climate change and making up for grievous mistakes we have made and continue to make. 

I am not advocating a return to a hunter-gathering way of life, or, again, getting rid of science, nor the scientific method; nor am I advocating romantic pie-in-the-sky solutions that ignore the very real, implacable natural processes that can be so destructive to human kind. Nature is not our cuddly Disney friend, and much restoration work is hard, dirty and can involve sheer drudgery; I say this from experience. But I do believe that unless the spiritual, ethical and moral elements are reincorporated into our relations with nature, we will not get very far in our efforts against climate change, pollution or any other environmental problems we face.

Can reconciliation ecology, along with conservation and ecological restoration, return continental ecosystems to how they were before European settlement (in the US), a rule of thumb standard for many in the ecological restoration community? No, not likely. For one thing, time and change only move forward. As Heraclitus pointed out, a person cannot ever step twice into the same river because the water flows and the person changes.  So it is with landscapes: they can only ever evolve into something new. Physical conditions change, the people and other species inhabiting them are different, human culture is different and myriad new (and some destructively invasive) species have made their homes across the country. We must beware the false dream that there is some past, edenic golden age to which we might return, if only such and such conditions were met. (Also, as a reminder, in many places, pre-European landscapes were not unpeopled wilderness. The land was managed in ways to increase overall productivity; management was part of and requisite to material culture and spiritual belief systems.)

Physical conditions in the past were not those of today, and true to the nature of history, we can’t ever fully know what they were. Even if we had access to a wayback machine, the complexity would be too great for us to recreate. Even in the present we can’t know all the interactions in a given ecosystem, or for that matter, whether we are truly restoring or instead helping create something new. As Jordan has written, there are always “Humpty Dumpties,” or ecosystem features that may have contributed to the structure and ecological functioning of a given place that cannot ever happen again, preventing the landscape we are restoring from exactly entering its historical arc. The mere fact of taking on such a project in the present by modern people would guarantee that such a recreation would be inexact. However, though we can’t know all the interactions we are trying to restore, it is still possible to get things going again and build up to some kind of critical mass so that the web of relationships begins to recomplexify on its own.

The upshot is that if we carry on restoration and management projects, large and small, and make plenty of room for wild nature, as E.O. Wilson suggests, there is hope that continental ecosystems can recover into a new state of health. But much would have to change.

Where are we going? How will we get there?
 Based on the evidence of climate change, resource depletion and species extinction, it is clear that many of our currently accepted, conventional ways of life and means of solving problems based on the model of “progress” aren’t good enough anymore because they fail to take the biosphere enough into account. To truly “return,” or recreate something even approximating pre-European conditions, in which there could be expansive enough habitat to maintain good enough biodiversity so as to least slow species extinction to normal ranges, while also increasing resilience and helping to sequester carbon and slow climate change, the US population would have to stabilize and ultimately shrink. In the meantime our society would have to evolve, hopefully by choice, but also perforce, into something so radically different from its present state as possibly to become nearly unrecognizable to many people alive today. Yet this new, biocentric or ecocentric civilization and resulting land use might also be unrecognizable to historic native peoples, though based on similar cultural deep structures of relationship with the natural world as those societies had and their descendants continue to have.

In such a society many of our accepted conventions would be turned on their heads and categories that are clear-cut to us would become permeable and would blur and change. I find it easy to imagine the landscapes, and harder to imagine the embedded society. Cities might become biodiversity hubs interlaced with green infrastructure, farms and wide green corridors that would connect large natural areas outside their limits, while in the meantime farms and ranches might not be easily to distinguish from the surrounding “wild” countryside. Large parts of the country would be off-limits to development and would be places dangerous for the unwary owing to a proliferation not only of herds of herbivores, but of the large carnivores on which ecosystems depend for their health. There might be fewer roads, and those that remained would have wide overpasses designed for free wildlife movement. There might be new religions, and traditional ones might become more ecocentric. Perhaps the old versions that focus on reaching for the sky at the expense of life on earth would come to be considered immature. The nature of work might change in unforeseen ways. Children would be trained in systems thinking and would grow up with a working knowledge of ecology in general and ecosystem knowledge specific to their place. Materialism might decline. With restrictions on resource use across the board, and particularly fossil fuels, material wealth would certainly decline, and life would be less “convenient” and harder, possibly much harder, measured by modern American expectations. There would be no such thing as “disposable” anything, dwelling spaces would be smaller, travel more difficult.

Such is the logic of truly low-carbon, ecosystem-sensitive living, which requires an ethic of modesty and restraint, the practice of living within the constraints of community and a willingness to attune human ambition, societal expectations and mores to what a balanced ecosystem permits. I do not in the least think I am indulging in “ecotopian” thinking. Human nature wouldn’t change and people in general would not suddenly become wiser and more wonderful than they are today. I suspect that many Americans, if deposited suddenly in this kind of society, would not find it to their liking. Yet I also suspect there might be satisfactions of a different kind than we are mostly accustomed to.

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Thursday, February 25, 2016

On Pretending That What’s Happening Isn’t Actually Happening

Deep Winter Ruminations
"Unbelievable Winter Color" by Albert H. Krehbiel
Des Plaines River, 1928

In December I found myself sliding into a state of extreme unwillingness to take on new projects, to continue work on those in hand, to write, or do much of anything else, really, at work or at home. I found myself prodded awake in the night by worries about global warming, the tides of war and migration, the ramifications of random, dismal environmental facts come upon during the course of a day’s work, or of social justice problems encountered in the news and on the streets of Chicago; about any of which I can do very little to help. There were too many meetings with environmental groups, and no time for walks. I could not look at a tree without wondering how its species would fare in coming, climate disrupted years. I had reached a state of incipient burnout. 

Thus, for a few weeks--a month and more, actually--after the solstice, I went into a state of semi-retreat. I did this by allowing myself to hope that COP21 would help bend the climate curve, and by pretending that our ongoing environmental catastrophe, of which climate change, is, after all, only a pernicious, deadly symptom, isn’t happening. I also attempted to pay less attention to the ever increasing spate of bad news, from war, to race relations, to migration, to the grim presidential race—and on and on and on, much of which is at least partly related to said catastrophe, with some industrial civilizational collapse, resource depletion and overpopulation thrown in.

I cooked and baked; had family over for meals; helped my mother with projects; visited with my children; went to a party; accompanied my husband to concerts that featured unamplified voices and acoustical instruments; saw friends; wandered through art exhibits; cleaned out a closet; finished one crochet project and started another; and read books whose vocabularies did not include the words “ecology,” “habitat”, or “ecosystem.” I went so far as to go to a movie, watch a TV show, spend time on Facebook and make an effort to listen to people talk about football without wishing I were somewhere else. Most of these things I’d do anyway, but the difference was that I determinedly wasn’t thinking about ecological collapse and the need for ecological restoration all the while earnestly pretending I was too busy to take a walk through the cold, leafless woodland savannah along the gelid Des Plaines river near my home.

In short, I made an effort—attitudinally, at least—to live what I imagine to be “normal” life: at least as an educated, white, fairly-comfortably-situated American might, and as many people I know seem actually to live. So many are so deeply immersed in their private lives and, whether by press of circumstance or by willful turning away and emotional dissociation, manage to express concern but are too busy to do much about larger issues at hand, not to mention attempting to recognize and ameliorate their own complicity in same. We Americans are very busy.

It couldn’t be a full retreat: my day job requires ongoing understanding of, engagement with, and action regarding environmental and sustainability issues ranging from climate change to ecology, from transportation to recycling, with some energy thrown in. My day-to-day lifestyle continues in semi-collapsed mode, as in John Michael Greer’s half ironic, half serious slogan “collapse now and avoid the rush.” Various family responsibilities (and finances) preclude my hying myself off to some Benedictine monastery, Zen-flavored spa in beautiful scenery, or rural artist’s retreat. But I told myself the story that I could, for awhile, at least, stop paying attention to the matters that concern my relationship with those whom the Potawatomi language calls “the standing people” and all their friends and relations. For a while, at any rate, I could turn away from concern with Gaia. I told myself that this would somehow make me feel better. I stayed indoors. Kept my walking confined to neighborhood sidewalks. It should have been very easy.

Everything about American life is geared towards this kind of pretense. It’s so easy, when online, to choose to spend hours down the rabbit hole of surfing, shopping, reading feature articles about fashion, health, exercise, or what have you, not to mention politics. It’s so easy to get obsessed with handbags or shoes or celebrities, watch sports on TV, movies on Netflix, so easy to get in the car and drive somewhere instead of taking public transit, walking or biking, easier still that it’s winter. It’s so easy to buy packaged food, to imagine that organizing and decorating your house will transform your life—and give you more room to buy more things!—so easy to go out to eat, so easy to “be concerned” about the environment, but keep your own house warm enough to wear a short-sleeve t-shirt when it’s 10 degrees (F) outside, or fly, without thinking about it, somewhere for business or pleasure. It’s so easy to separate one’s professional life—no matter how “do goody,” from one’s personal life of comfort and consumption. It’s so easy to live a life separate from the natural world and thus from its concerns. Yeah, global warming is terrible, have you joined Amazon Prime?

(It is also incredibly easy to be judgmental about all of the above, as though one were not, oneself, present and participating in American culture, one way or another.)

To not do those easy things, to avoid falling into those easy habits takes a certain kind of discipline. In here somewhere also is a question of balance. How is one to balance family, work and calling? How does one stay dedicated to one’s calling and still keep friendly relationships with family, friends and colleagues who mostly don’t think about trees, rivers or birds? Who mostly think, in fact, that paying attention, spending time outside at the expense of more practical matters is somehow self indulgent or evading responsibilities? How does one do what one can do without burning out? How does one carry out a spiritually and practically earthcentered way of life while living in an American and global culture—in which we all are embedded, willy-nilly, no matter how disengaged—dedicated to ignoring the true environmental costs of the ways in which it keeps itself going? How much of one’s own “private” life does one sacrifice? How much do one person’s actions count, anyway? What constitutes private life? How on earth does one keep up good relations with Gaia and the standing people?

I understand I can ask these questions because, as an employed member of the shrinking middle class in the US, on a global scale I am incredibly privileged. I can choose how high to turn up the heat, have enough nutritious food to eat and can go to sleep at night without worrying that my neighborhood will be lit up by gunfire and/or cratered by bombs. There is enough water and it is more-or-less safe to drink. I can decide to pretend everything is ok and maintain the illusion pretty steadily. But for me, this pretense of living the good life doesn’t work. Most available electronic entertainments and on-offer material appeasements to our craving—for what, exactly?— get tedious and do nothing to calm the underlying nature-and-environment-related, deep structural anxieties that I believe infect our culture like a disease, disturbing even the most willfully dense, even the richest and most powerful among us.

Besides the distractions of entertainment, there are other ways of displacing, rather than attending to this often unacknowledged anxiety; there are, for example, the high abstractions of ideology, and, regrettably often, the run-of-the-mill blaming of those of another religion, color, political party, nationality, or what have you for whatever social problems there are. This is not to say that politics don't matter, that discrimination and poverty don’t need to be ameliorated, because obviously they do: societal injustice and inequality are terribly real; destructive things happen, terribly, in the name of one social worldview or another. Rather it is to say that ideological thought often confuses an abstract model for the messy reality of complex systems, in its believers, at any rate, and often results in an effort to make the messy reality match the beautiful abstraction to often brutal results. Ideologies thus become a distraction from, and symptom of, our separation from the natural world and, crucially, because of that separation, from the truly existential environmental problems that do already or soon will afflict us all. Even more crucially, they can separate us from the possibility of developing regenerative ways of life. From this perspective, one could even say that the most extreme and violent ideologies, religious or not, are fueled by the most extreme refusal to see what the real, actual problems are, much less grapple with them in constructive ways that would benefit people, other species, and the biosphere as a whole. There is no lack of examples, but no point in naming them.

I haven't yet worked out an answer to my own dilemmas and possibly never will. I have started to read natural history again and a few days ago spent time outdoors. Alone, loafing about, as Thoreau or Whitman might put it, though never out of earshot of traffic noise. In the morning light early groups of sandhill cranes made their way north in that raggedy, glittering way they have. Later, two red tailed hawks circled over woods and fields in ever widening, ascending spirals. A chickadee called. I ate lunch sitting on a log in a sunny space. I walked along a muddy path, collecting dark goo on my boots, appreciating the soft, non-concrete feel of it. Sunlight shone on the smooth ripples and white-capped riffles of a noisy creek littered with boulders left by the last glacier. The bare trees were every imaginable, glowing shade of brown. Flat, shelflike fungi gleamed on fallen, crumbling logs. Two cardinals sat on a branch overhanging the water, watching me approach for a while before deciding to change trees. Unseen woodpeckers announced the news that a human was in the vicinity. Before returning home, I picked up a couple of spherical seed clusters from beneath a sycamore tree and a few clean, white and black mussel shells from a miniature sand spit. The shells will stay in my jacket pocket for awhile, as reminders. Some time this spring I expect I’ll be watching a clutch of baby sycamores unfurl their new leaves in a nursery flat. I’m looking forward to it.

Related Posts:
Summer Notes: Birds, Pollinators, and Prairie Flowers Over Six Feet Tall
Spring Notes: Plants, Birds, and Bumblebees
Ecological Reality Is Not What You Hypothesize