Nonprofit journalism dedicated to creating a Human Age we actually want to live in.

Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.

Wounds That Can Heal

January 15, 2010

By Marguerite Holloway

Galvanized by observations of environmental destruction in the U.S. and in many of the countries he studied or visited during his career as an American diplomat, George Perkins Marsh wrote Man and Nature. Published in 1864, the influential book awakened the American public to the devastation humans were wreaking, the potential consequences of that devastation (Marsh pointed to collapsed civilizations undone, in part, by “man’s ignorant disregard of the laws of nature”), and the possibility of climactic change. At the same time, Marsh drew his readers’ attention to the idea of restoration and proposed that man “… become a co-worker with nature in the reconstruction of the damaged fabric which the negligence or the wantonness of former lodgers has rendered untenable.”

Marsh accomplished many things with Man and Nature, including—as environmental historian William Cronon has observed—launching the modern conservation movement. Marsh posited stunning ideas: that people could harm nature on a large scale and that people could do something about it—restoration could repair the “damaged fabric.” He included notes of hope in a dark tale.

No such notes brighten today’s environmental narratives, say some conservation biologists. The news is dominated by tales of deforestation, extinction, and climate change—examples of how humans have exacted global, irreversible transformations of ecosystems and the atmosphere. According to some observers, the hopeful piece of Marsh’s message—repair, recovery, resilience—is championed by those in the emergent field of restoration ecology, but not by the public at large and not by most in the conservation movement, who focus primarily on preserving intact ecosystems.

This is beginning to change. Since the mid-1990s, some ecologists have been calling for stronger, more-explicit links between restoration and conservation policy. Seeking to incite restoration fervor in their colleagues—with what they call “the audacity of environmental hope”—two conservation biologists at Yale University recently contributed an exhaustive analysis to this trend. Although controversial in certain regards, their research points to instances of nature rapidly recovering from human disturbances. They urge conservationists to innovate, improvise, and experiment with restoration. Nature, the researchers say, can take it.

Holly Jones knows firsthand how rodents destroy seabird colonies by eating eggs and chicks. Since 2002, she has traveled the world, trapping and killing rats in the Channel Islands and the Aleutian Islands.  “I was looking at island recovery, and we were doing a lot of these doomsday predictions about ecosystems, about how they are horribly affected and are not recovering,” says Jones, now a doctoral student at Yale. Yet she began noticing that dire predictions weren’t always playing out: “You see recovery and you see it actually pretty quickly, and it can be quite startling.” So Oswald Schmitz, Jones’s advisor and a professor in Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, encouraged her to review the literature on ecosystem recovery. “We thought we would look at the evidence, because no one really had,” Jones recalls.

What was intended as a brief sidebar to Jones’s dissertation about seabird recovery turned into a yearlong investigation, culminating with a May 2009 paper in PLoS ONE. The study, “Rapid Recovery of Damaged Ecosystems,” found that some impaired ecosystems bounce back, and within relatively short times—on the order of decades, not millennia. (1) The paper is openly upbeat, explicit in its goal to dispel doom and gloom about irreversible harm.

To research the paper, Jones and Schmitz started by plumbing the Web of Science database for articles that included words describing a  perturbation (such as logging, agriculture, invasive species, and oil spills) and the terms “resilience” and “recovery.” Their search turned up 240 studies that, taken together, described seven types of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems and 94 variables. These variables included aspects of the system such as biodiversity, canopy cover, or water quality—aspects that could recover once the perturbation ceased. Some of the ecosystems Jones and Schmitz reviewed had been actively restored, some had been left alone.

They found that more than one-third (34.5 percent) of the ecosystems recovered the attributes being examined. Although that might not seem like a lot, Jones and Schmitz  argue that, in the face of the public’s expectation that damage to nature can never be undone, this proportion is significant. In general, aspects of marine benthic systems trounced by oil spills bounced back most quickly—within an average of five years. For the authors, this presented one of the biggest surprises. “People believe that oil spills are horrible for the environment and are so long-lasting, but the data indicate that is not always the case,” Jones says.

In 90 articles (37.5 percent), the aspects being studied presented more of a mixed bag: some had recovered, some had not. Tropical forests, for instance, took an average of 40 years to recover, but if deforestation was not too extensive, facets of recovery could occur more rapidly, says Schmitz. “Large-scale tropical deforestation does not recover very easily, but there are more modest-sized disturbances that did recover.” Jones and Schmitz note that they could have included the recovered variables in these mixed studies in their “recovered” category, which would have made the conclusion more positive. “The paper presents a more pessimistic picture than what is actually happening,” Jones says.

Only 67 studies (28 percent) demonstrated no recovery of any aspect of the ecosystem. Agriculture was far and away the single most-damaging disturbance. But there were other devastating perturbations as well, such as overfishing in the case of cod. “That is an example of where I think things have locked into an alternative state,” says Schmitz. The predator-prey relationships are so changed that stopping the damage (in this case, banning fishing) “won’t be enough to bring [cod] back because there are other things that have happened subsequently to transform the system.”

Some restoration ecologists found aspects of Jones and Schmitz’s analysis unsettling. Restoration ecology is a relatively young science, one that has been growing robustly since the 1988 founding of the Society for Ecological Restoration International. Because it is young and because the systems and situations it deals with are so varied and complex, many aspects of restoration science are still evolving. Questions abound about how to determine a baseline or “original” state in the absence of good data and about what “recovery” means—should the ecosystem sustain itself, should it be managed, should all the species or aspects of the system be back in place for restoration to have occurred? “The fuzzier the criteria are for recovery, the easier they are to hit,” notes Joy B. Zedler of the University of Wisconsin. “Authors have these various judgments, and they don’t want to talk about failure. We rely on their judgment that they hit the target, which introduces bias into the whole system.”

That bias has led to gross overuse of the term “success,” Zedler contends. (2) For this reason, the Journal of Restoration Ecology just added a new section called Setbacks and Surprises. “I think that is a really good thing to do,” Zedler says, “because up until this time there has not been an invitation to authors to submit work on projects that did not work.” This potential absence of failed restoration projects from the literature concerns Zedler with regard to Jones and Schmitz’s research. “I am thinking there are just all kinds of opportunities for the literature not to be representative,” she says.

Margaret Palmer, a restoration ecologist at the University of Maryland, is worried about what might be missing from the literature, too—as well as what might be missing from Jones and Schmitz’s database hits. Studies without “resilience” or “recovery” may not have shown up. Palmer says reports of stream and river restoration in the past five years, for instance, have not documented much success in restoring either overall biodiversity or particular species. In her view, restoration of these ecosystems is failing because the techniques are not working and indeed “might be damaging.” She recently published a review of 78 projects and found only eight showing evidence of positive recovery. (3) Palmer says she now leans toward taking a page from conservation: “The focus needs to be on preserving land and letting it go back to forest. Much more so than on restoration.”

Angst is part and parcel of restoration science, despite its underlying hopefulness. Angst that restoration will justify destruction. Angst about what it means to “play God.” Angst that no ecosystem can return to a self-sustaining, historically biodiverse state—or that those historical states will even be remembered. “Angst is great. You want to have people constantly asking the core questions. A certain number of us should worry. But you can’t let that keep you from doing something,” says Truman P. Young, an ecologist at the University of California, Davis. “Systems can find a way. Mistakes should be repairable. We should go back and fiddle some more.”

This kind of thinking is precisely what Jones and Schmitz want to encourage in the conservation community. The authors acknowledge the limitations of the restoration literature and say they intend to probe more deeply in further studies—to look, for instance, at differences between ecosystems left alone to recover versus those actively restored. And, Jones cautions, evidence of resilience “does not give license to exploit; we are not saying go out and destroy the earth.”

At the same time, the two clearly delight in having identified a suite of studies suggesting that some wounds can heal. The delight shines in the paper’s language and in their conversation. “People like hope. I think it has been obvious that people like hope!” laughs Jones. The article “spread like wildfire,” Schmitz adds happily. “We got Google updates and we could just see it go around the planet, literally.”

They delight in the possibility that this paper could exhort the public and the conservation community to embrace restoration, to experiment more fully with it. Historically, Schmitz says, conservation has focused on protecting intact habitat. “But restoration is really where the value-added is in conservation. I mean, this is where we can make the biggest gain, because damaged land can be bought for cheap, and with a mixture of passive and active restoration we can do a lot of good things,” he explains. “What we are showing is that there may be more room for experimentation to figure out how we become more sustainable. If we make mistakes, we can recover from them, and pretty quickly. That really gives hope for people to try things rather than do the status quo or the light touch. Because I think with the status quo, you don’t get the kind of innovation you might need.”

Peter Kareiva, chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy, was so delighted to see the paper, he called Jones and offered her funding for a postdoctoral position so she could analyze some restoration projects more fully. “I have been running around talking about the fact that nature is resilient. We have a wrong-headed metaphor of nature as fragile,” Kareiva says. “What Holly’s paper tells us is that nature does not break that easily in the sense that it becomes irrevocably harmed. This could make a real practical difference in the conservation community because it means that you will consider a wider range of strategies and compromises.”

This idea resonates for some other ecologists as well—particularly for those who have been describing links, crossovers, and differences between the fields for a long time. “One could imagine conservation biology becoming a subset of restoration ecology when it becomes clear that most of what we have to do is restorative,” muses Young, who has written about the relationship between restoration ecology and conservation biology. (4) “Less focus on prevention of loss, and more on getting things back: a mindset changing from defense to offense. I can certainly see that it won’t be long before we are in a place where the defensive actions are all done.”

As the Anthropocene unfolds, ecosystems may come to look very different from the ones we are familiar with. “As we come into increasingly novel and hybrid ecosystems, we will be drawing from similar and varied tool kits,” says Eric Higgs, director of the school of environmental studies at the University of Victoria, Canada. “There is enormous value that comes to human communities from acts of restoration. They induce states of humility. They make us recognize hubris. There is nothing like trying to restore an ecosystem to make you humble.” And, Higgs adds, “it is hard not to feel good doing it.”

Being drawn to something tangible in an era when the largest environmental challenges seem out of the realm of human and personal control, makes intuitive sense—and it makes psychological sense. People do not respond to apocalyptic narratives, says conservation psychologist and chair of environmental studies Susan Clayton at The College of Wooster. “If they feel hopeless, they see no point to doing anything. If you make them fearful, but they have no ability to address the problem, you are going to motivate denial rather than action.” Clayton points to a recent Pew Research Center survey of 1,500 people as a potential example of fear without a clear route for individual action: between April 2008 and October 2009, the percentage of American adults who believe there is solid evidence for global warming fell from 71 percent to 57 percent.

“Our perspective was that if you want to get people behind you in conservation, you have to give them some hope,” Schmitz says. “Screaming and yelling about doom and gloom isn’t going to change things. It isn’t going to compel people to change their behavior. But if you can show them what the world will look like when they change their behavior, then maybe they might.” ❧

Literature Cited:

1. Jones H.P. and O.J. Schmitz. 2009. Rapid recovery of damaged ecosystems. PLoS ONE 4(5):e5653. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005653.

2. Zedler, J.B. 2007. Success: An unclear, subjective descriptor of restoration outcomes. Ecological Restoration 25(3):162-168; doi:10.3368/er.25.3.162.

3. Palmer, M.A. 2009. River restoration, habitat heterogeneity and biodiversity: a failure of theory or practice? Freshwater Biology 55 (suppl.1):1-18.

4. Young, T.P. 2000. Restoration ecology and conservation biology. Biological Conservation 92(1):73-83.

Additional Reading:

Dobson, A.P., A.D. Bradshaw, and J.M. Baker, 2007. Hopes for the Future: Restoration Ecology and Conservation Biology. Science New Series, 277(5325): 515-522.

Marguerite Holloway is Director of Science and Environmental Journalism at the Journalism School at Columbia University and is a contributing editor at Scientific American.

What to Read Next