Books for the News, History and Philosophy of Science

Q & A with Paddy Woodworth


Paddy Woodworth is an investigative reporter and journalist whose most recent book, Our Once and Future Planet, considers the case for environmental restoration. Woodworth recently participated in a Q & A with our promotions director, Levi Stahl; you’ll find the full transcript below:

Let’s start with the story of how you came to this subject, because (as I have the advantage of knowing) it’s a good one—and it involves a a couple of other writers.

By a happy accident! In 2003, I had recently published Dirty War, Clean Hands, a book on the very different subject of terrorism and state terrorism in the Basque conflict. On the back of that book, I was invited onto the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. Weary of writing about why people kill each other, I was looking for a happier subject in natural history, but I found myself adrift, ignorant, and lost.

Then the great American novelist and naturalist Peter Mathiessen led us on a prairie restoration field trip and discussion. I had never heard this word, ‘restoration’, applied to anything other than houses or paintings. The idea that an ecosystem might be restored, that we could reverse some of the damage we have done to the natural world, seemed counter-intuitive, but also inspiring. Traditional conservation had taught me that the options were preservation of supposedly pristine landscapes—I soon found that these do not really exist, see below—or total degradation.

Ecological restoration indicated that a different, respectful engagement with nature was possible. A ‘Third Way,’ if you like. A friend on the program, English novelist Gregory Norminton, commented that if restoration projects existed in other parts of the world—we really were completely clueless about it all—they would make a great subject for a book. My heart rose and fell in the same instant. This was the book I wanted to write, but it was his idea. Two weeks later, I bought him so much beer that he agreed I could write the book—he doesn’t do non-fiction anyway—as long as I told this story at every opportunity. As you see, I’m still, very happily, repaying this debt.

Once you knew that you wanted to write about ecological restoration, how did you go about plotting out your trajectory? How did you pick your projects and the people to talk to?

I sought advice from American restoration veterans, who luckily happened to be nearby, at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, and the Madison Arboretum. They pointed me towards the Society for Ecological Restoration (SER), and at its conferences I learned that there were indeed a wealth of restoration projects around the world, and that no one had previously attempted to survey them, or to assess restoration as a global conservation strategy.

I tried to select projects that would indicate the range of restoration projects, and the variety of challenges they face, across representative geographical, ecological and socioeconomic contexts. I think the book does reflect that kind of range: it includes chapters on South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Chicago, Italy, Costa Rica, and Ireland. But I have to confess that projects sometimes picked me almost as much as I picked them. For such an ambitious book, funding was a constant problem. I did find very generous mentors and sponsors, but nonetheless I could not go everywhere I wanted to. Asia is a big gap I still want to fill. But if I had gone everywhere significant, I might never have finished the book, and it might have been three times as long. Kind as the University of Chicago Press has been to me, that wouldn’t have worked for anyone.

A magazine commission influenced my choice of South Africa’s Working for Water program early on, and a university grant brought me to New Zealand. But in each case the projects I researched were of prime importance as paradigms for core restoration issues—combining social, economic, and ecological aims in one case, taking very radical measures to eradicate alien mammals in the other. My decision to focus on the Lacandon rainforest restoration in Mexico was the culmination of a long search for a project that engaged with traditional ecological knowledge in a sensitive but also robustly scientific manner. It was a sparked by a chance encounter with Samuel Levy Tacher, who initiated the project, in Cuba. I thought long and hard about including Dan Janzen’s Guanacaste restoration, and the North Branch restoration in Chicago, because both had been covered so well by others already, but finally decided they were so significant that I had to provide my own account of them.

And sometimes you just have to look at what’s close to home, and I was happy—if initially rather guiltily surprised—to explore excellent projects I had been unaware of in my native Ireland, and a very challenging restoration of a cultural landscape in Italy’s Cinque Terre, where we happen to have holidayed for 15 years.

Obviously, in doing this writing, you were stepping right into active scientific work and debates—and you’re not a scientist. How did you convince scientists to take you seriously and engage with you?

Not only am I not a scientist, I had no background whatsoever in ecology, apart from a few sometimes confused and often outdated ideas I had gleaned in a lifetime’s birding. I had to learn everything from the ground up.  But sometimes this is a good thing as a writer, because the broad public one hopes to communicate with is not specialist either, and it helps you to see things always from that point of view. Experts and insiders are not always the best people at communicating their own ideas.

I found scientists working in restoration ecology, and practitioners of ecological restoration, enormously generous with their knowledge and experience. I think they were aware that the restoration movement has had a surprisingly low public profile, and were hopeful that an outsider with a track record in the media might help change that.

Very early on, restoration ecologists James Aronson and Andy Clewell, and later some other colleagues, began to ask me to comment on, and edit, their articles and book chapters before publication. This was a tremendously useful exercise for me. It enabled me to see some of the cutting edge of restoration thinking as it was still cutting, as you follow me, and it gave me permission to ask lots of questions.

As I got deeper into the subject, I found that science, like every field of human endeavor, is influenced by strong personalities and deeply held ideological inclinations. Restoration ecologists are generally tremendously committed to reversing the degradation of the biosphere, but they are often deeply divided about how best to it. And as positions get taken up and harden, it seems to me that counter-productive factions develop, much as they do in politics.

I came to feel that part of my task in the book was to unpack the language behind these debates. Rhetorical devices and colorful metaphors do not just dress up our thinking, they often shape it more than we realize. I labored to find out whether there was common ground underlying heated polemics, especially on the significance of ‘novel ecosystems’, itself a very problematic phrase in my view. On some occasions at least, I found that apparently irreconcilable differences could be resolved through more light and less heat, though I’m sure I’m not immune to adding some heat myself at times. But I do believe that, to borrow a metaphor from one of the main protagonists, Richard Hobbs, a scientific debate should not be like a dumb-bell, with all the weight at each end, but more like a spectrum of intermediate, communicating, and flexible positions responding to new evidence as it is produced.

What was most surprising to you about what you found as you dove into this subject?

The sheer number and variety of restoration projects was the first big surprise. The second surprise was how little we know about how ecosystems actually work, how much we have to learn. The third surprise was that one of the best ways of expanding that knowledge is through attempting restoration. The fourth surprise was how rapidly that knowledge base is expanding, and how much is being achieved even on the basis of limited knowledge.

The extraordinary success of some projects was a delightful surprise, the most dramatic being the restoration of the jarrah eucalyptus forest by the Alcoa Corporation in SW Australia. Having destroyed the forest and mined away several meters’ depth of soil, a meticulously planned restoration is achieving the recovery, over just two decades, of almost all the old forest’s biodiversity. In my view, this project demonstrates that the greatest barrier to restoration is economic, not ecological. If every public and private enterprise invested a similar (very small) percentage of their profits in restoration as Alcoa do here (they don’t do it elsewhere, unfortunately!), we could be much more sanguine about the future of the planet.

As I mentioned above, restoration is often counter-intuitive, and that makes for constant surprises, sometimes hard to digest, but always thought-provoking. You cut down trees and poison their stumps to enable the native savannah to rebuild itself in Chicago; you trap and kill cute and furry mammals to save endemic bird species from extinction in New Zealand.

Another surprise, and a recurrent one, was what we might call the ‘1492 phenomenon,’ the recent recognition of the degree to which humans, including indigenous peoples, have impacted on ecosystems we have liked to think of as ‘pristine.’ I learned that even my local oakwoods in the lovely valley of Glendalough, which I had fondly thought of as ancient and unsullied, were in fact very heavily modified secondary growth. There are two ways of reading this new insight: ‘humankind has spoiled everything, boo-hoo!’; OR ‘human engagement with nature isn’t always destructive, we aren’t always the bad guys on planet Earth.’ I happily choose the second reading.

The most unwelcome surprise was the speed with which climate change shifted the agenda of restoration in the short decade I have studied it. Just as I thought I had mastered the basics of the restoration game, the cards were tossed into the air, and we are still not sure how they will fall. How do we restore Mediterranean systems where the climate is shifting fast towards semi-desert conditions, as in California today? That is the kind of hard question that necessarily remains unanswered at the end of my book.

On a personal note, the most gratifying surprise was that writing about restoration restored my own relationship with nature. Learning a little more about ecosystems, from soil to sky, and especially learning a little more about Irish native plants through the seasons, has made the world I walk on a much more richly populated place, and one to whose seasons I feel much more deeply connected.

You return again and again to the importance of communication, clarity, and community involvement in ecological restoration. Why do you see that as so important—and why do you think lack of it is a recurring problem?

Catastrophic news about the environment is communicated to the public with deadly regularity. As restoration scientist Robert Cabin puts it, ‘the press seems to love ‘the death of the last po’ouli’ story far more than stories such as “PEP saves another species”.’ I’m not suggesting that the bad news—real and getting worse—should be suppressed, of course. I am a journalist, after all. But I think it is very important that people also learn that positive change is possible, so that they are galvanized into action rather than beaten down into despair and apathy.

But restorationists are often bad at communicating what they are doing, even at the basic level of putting up signage saying why the trees in the local park are being cut down. With scarce resources, this is understandable, but not acceptable. It is only by engaging a much, much broader public that restoration stands the slightest chance of success.

Clarity—and honesty—are vital. The public backlash against the otherwise exemplary and inspiring North Branch restoration in Chicago, leading to a 10-year moratorium on further restoration work, is a disaster whose lessons, sadly, have still not been fully learned. Restorationists should not behave like an illuminated self-selecting vanguard who don’t need to explain themselves, and won’t engage in real debate, because what they are doing is so good. In democracies, the only legitimate way to work on public land is by enlisting public support from the outset. It may be slower, and sometimes the public may stop a good project in its tracks, but there is no alternative.

Communication of restoration can be damn difficult. Restoration science can never offer future-proofed certainty, and should never pretend to. We can and do make mistakes, and this year’s solution may turn out to be next year’s problem. As Hobbs once told me, ‘the public wants sound bites, and science can only offer more and more complexity.’ So yes, engagement with the public can be like grasping a nettle, but as Shakespeare told us in a very different context, ‘Out of this nettle . . . we pluck this flower. . . .’

Global warming colors every single discussion about ecology, restoration included. What would you say to people—and there definitely are some—who view all this sort of work as essentially rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic?

I find it very disturbing that this argument is becoming so dominant. So many people deny climate change, and therefore want us to do nothing about it. But as you say, many supposedly more enlightened people recognize that climate is changing fast – and then use that knowledge as an excuse for doing nothing also. Okay, maybe they demand that we should stop all use of fossil fuels yesterday across the world, and somehow reduce our population by half. But in the meantime, they do nothing and seem almost proud of it. That’s what I mean by catastrophic news producing despair and apathy.

Again, I’m not saying we should not campaign for the elimination of fossil fuels, the reduction of population, and for changing our economic paradigm from consumerism and endless ‘growth’ to sustainability. We should all do all these things, every day.

But in the meantime we should also be going out and getting our hands dirty doing what we can do for a healthier environment. Every square mile of good restoration work is likely to slow the speed of climate change, and on a large scale the odds are good that restoration can greatly increase the resilience of landscapes in the face of change.

So, no, restorationists are not rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. They are down in the hold, staunching the flow of water, and up with the lifeboats, making sure they are ready and fit for survival.

One of the great things about this book is that even as it’s completely honest about the problems and failings of ecological restoration, it’s also incredibly inspiring and hopeful. Is there a way that individuals can turn that hope into something tangible that they can do at home? With gardening season approaching, at least here in North America, is there anything people could do even in their own little backyard plots to nudge ecological diversity along?

Absolutely. I’m not a big gardener, and I don’t pretend to be knowledgeable in this area, but lots of small changes add up to the big changes we so badly need. Here are some obvious pointers:

Garden in accordance with your local ecosystem. That sounds complicated, but it just means using native plants—consult a reputable local supplier or public agency—as much as possible. And don’t try to maintain green grass lawns if you live in Nevada; keep a desert garden, one that will bloom all year and support native animals and birds, without stopping the rivers from flowing.

Not all exotics are ‘bad,’ and they are often very attractive. But you should find out whether you have an exotic plant or tree in your garden that is behaving invasively in the wider landscape. If so, remove it, or at the very least prevent it from setting seed.

Keep your hard surfaces to an absolute minimum. Every extra square foot of concrete or asphalt heats the planet, and impedes the water cycle that is vital to all life—and too much hard surface can lead to very costly flood damage in your home.

What’s next for you?

Researching and writing the book put me in a touch with a dynamic international network of people who are changing the world. Publishing it widens that circle every day, and I am finding new opportunities for engaging with a number of restoration projects, at home and abroad. I’m looking forward to promoting the book further, both through readings and conferences here in Ireland, and in the United States through a fellowship to DePaul University in Chicago next fall, at the kind invitation of Liam Heneghan.

I’m also currently on the organizing committee for a national conference on ‘Natural Capital: Ireland’s Hidden Wealth.’ The aim is to assist public and private institutions to meet their commitments under European law to build the economic value of our ecosystem goods and services, and the cost of degrading them, into our accounting systems.

Another project I’m engaged with is the Mediterranean Ecosystems Restoration Initiative. This is a joint venture of the natural reserves system of the University of California, and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, London, led by Bruce Pavlik and Peggy Fiedler. The aim is to workshop restoration solutions to key environmental problems on the reserves with experts from the world’s mediterranean regions; then test those solutions over time; and finally test them as temple strategies for solving similar problems in South Africa, Australia, Chile and the Mediterranean Basin itself. It’s very challenging and ambitious, but Bruce and Peggy have recognized the value of communication from the outset, inviting me to chronicle the project’s progress in print, and the landscape artist Hank Pitcher to chronicle it on canvass. I’m very excited about this, but of course it still needs funding to get off the ground.

I hope to continue writing weekly pieces on the environment, local communities, art and education for the Irish Times, a series that keeps me in touch with a wealth of promising restoration and conservation work in my own country.

I want to start growing vegetables properly at our home in the Wicklow mountains.

I’ll keep editing restoration ecology articles as long as people ask me to.

Will I write another book? I don’t know right now, there is still too much life and energy in this one I think.

But I’m attracted by the idea of attempting an ecological and political history of Glenmalure, the valley where we have our Wicklow home. Sculpted by a glacier, it has a fascinating landscape, which once sheltered one of Europe’s first guerrilla modern movements, inspired by the democratic values of the American and French Revolutions. Such a book would be a bracing challenge, combining my long-term interests in political conflict and democracy, and my new-found love of the natural world. Above all, I hope to spend more precious time with my wife Trish, our families, and our friends.