Post-Wild, Rambunctious Ecology

Invasive species aren’t always bad.  Biodiversity isn’t always good.  There is no such thing as “pristine” nature.  Organic gardening isn’t always the best use of land.  Those are some of the points raised in the recent book by Emma Marris, Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World (Bloomsbury, 2011). 

Marris is a science writer.  In Rambunctious Garden, she engages some of the most controversial and current topics of conservation biology and ecology, and she does so with a very accessible style, including various accounts of experiences in the field, conversations with scientists and advocates, and histories of human impacts on species and ecosystems.  

One of the things I like most about this book is the optimism.  Marris is excited about the future, even if it’s an “eco-industrial vision” of the future (134).   She doesn’t deny the severity of environmental challenges like climate change, species extinction, and development, yet her approach is “proactive and optimistic” (3).  There are truly amazing possibilities for the future of human-Earth relations.  They aren’t neat and tidy, but messy and rambunctious. 

With joy and wit, Marris reports that there is no stable “nature” or untouched wilderness.  “Ecosystems are fundamentally stable entities afflicted by changes from without and within about as much as a ballet is a fundamentally static object afflicted with motion” (34).  “If one rusty beer can spoils a whole day’s search for the beauty in nature, then there isn’t much beauty left.  But I think there is, if we just adjust our perception” (169). 

If there is no pristine or stable nature, there is no sense in conservationists trying to restore ecosystems to pre-colonial baselines (i.e., what the ecosystems looked like before white people arrived).  Such baselines are arbitrary, since the nature to which they return is itself already altered by humans.  Returning an ecosystem to a pre-human baseline (e.g., tens of thousands of years ago) is an equally arbitrary goal, both because one can’t ascertain the exact conditions of pre-human ecosystems and because some conditions simply can’t be restored (the climate is already changed).  There is no simple origin to which ecosystems can be returned.  Conservation/restoration has to be done without baselines. 

Marris is excited about the possibilities found in restoration efforts that are embracing novel ecosystems instead of viewing a novel ecosystem as a mere degeneration of an intact ecosystem.  She also supports the creation of “designer ecosystems,” which are novel ecosystems that would be engineered for specific goals, ranging from carbon sequestration, nitrogen reduction, and the maintenance of a species to the maintenance of aesthetic and cultural values and even existence values (the value of existing without any purpose, sometimes categorized among “passive use values”) (166).  Along these lines, Marris hopes many ecologists and environmentalists will cease being “trapped by the seductive vision of healing wounded nature and returning it to a stable ‘natural’ state” (126).

In a nutshell, give up romantic notions of a stable Eden, be honest about goals and costs, keep land from mindless development, and try just about everything.  (170)

We’ve forever altered the Earth, and so now we cannot abandon it to a random fate.  It is our duty to manage it.  Luckily, it can be a pleasant, even joyful task if we embrace it in the right spirit.  Let the rambunctious gardening begin. (171)

Overall, the book is provocative and well-researched.  My main criticism of this book is that Marris doesn’t consistently apply her insight that there is no pristine nature.  She generally does an excellent job of countering or defusing the usual dualism between human-dominated ecosystems and intact ecosystems, but occasionally she just reverses the dualism. 

For instance, she proposes that humans should see nature as “the living background” to our lives (151).  Background?  She is trying to invoke a “gestalt switch”: in contrast to most wilderness maps and protected-areas maps, which show “shrinking islands of nature” in the foreground against the background of human-dominated lands, Marris proposes that we focus on human-dominated lands “as the foreground and everything else as the background nature” (135). 

I like the shift from pristine nature to human-nature hybrids, but doesn’t that shift ultimately mean that the shrinking islands of nature are already altered by humans (at least abiotically, e.g., climate change), such that there is no clear demarcation between foreground and background?  To put it in gestalt terms, nature as multistable seems like a more appropriate metaphor than nature as background.  In any case, Rambunctious Garden is definitely worth reading, and furthermore, it’s worth reading slowly, giving oneself time to imagine, to wonder, and to contemplate the numerous case studies, histories, and debates that she presents.

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