Our Once and Future Planet

October 16, 2013
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Paddy Woodworth is an investigative journalist and a former staff writer for the Irish Times, used to taking on assignments from the foreign affairs desk, such as the terrorism of Basque separatist groups or the relationship between political turmoil in Spain that faced by Northern Ireland. In his most recent book Our Once and Future Planet: Restoring the World in the Climate Change Centurya project ten years in the making—he instead focuses on the global challenges and successes of one of the least known and most dynamic areas of environmental experimentation: ecological restoration. In a recent appearance on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight, Woodworth pointed out some of the restorative projects taking place on our home turf, here in Chicago (an accompanying excerpt offers some background). But to help frame the arguments central to environmental restoration’s rise, Woodworth turns early in his book to American naturalist Aldo Leopold (1887–1948) and an approach central, though understated, in much of Leopold’s writings: what happens when we turn to the past in order to face the challenges of the future.

More on all of this, excerpted from Our Once and Future Planet, below:

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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 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 contemporary advocates of the restoration of natural capital, he himself believed that “wilderness is a resource which can shrink but now 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 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.”

Two concepts that would become key to restoration thinking were there in seminal form in this address, though Leopold never developed them explicitly as such in his other writings: the idea of a benchmark from the past as a target for the future (the “historical reference system”), and the hope that rebuilding such benchmarks might transform the problematic relationship we humans have with the rest of the natural world.

To read more about Our Once and Future Planet click here.

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