Designing ecosystems, reconciliation ecology for conservation
The theme for the influential Ecological Society of America’s annual conference last year was “Novel Ecosystems in the Anthropocene”. A novel ecosystem is a human-made habitat and community of plants and animals. Novel ecosystems can be planned, accidental, or caused by poor environmental management that cannot be undone. And Anthropocene describes the current geological age when we, people, are the most significant influence on the planet.
They are both de rigueur right now.
Late last year the first issue of Anthropocene: innovation in the human age, arrived in my mailbox. Once titled Conservation Science, it now “explore[s] how we create a sustainable human age we actually want to live in”.
Anthropocene features novel ecosystems and “inventing, establishing and maintaining new habitats to conserve species diversity in places dominated and impacted by people”. This is Reconciliation Ecology as first described in Michael Rosenzweig’s book: Win-Win Ecology – How the Earth’s species can survive in the midst of human enterprise (2003).
Consider also the recent avalanche of compelling books re-thinking our relationship with biodiversity and ecosystems:
- Rambunctious Garden – Saving nature in a post-wild world (2011 – Emma Marris),
- Living Through the End of Nature – The future of American Environmentalism (2010 – Paul Wapner),
- Wildlife in the Anthropocene – Conservation after Nature (2015 – Jamie Lorimer),
and, most provocatively for New Zealanders,
- The New Wild – Why invasive species will be nature’s salvation (2015 – Fred Pearce).
These publications describe the horizon in the applied ecological sciences, like conservation, that we are approaching.
But New Zealand (NZ) is on another planet
While the rest of the world is talking about reconciliation ecology and novel ecosystems, in li’ ol’ New Zealand (NZ) we are talking war on exotic species at an unprecedented scale and in a theatrical and highly politicised fashion to restore our ecosystems to how they were once upon a time.
Eradicating to be Predator-free by 2050 is attempting to return our ecosystems to how they were before people and exotic species. It is a step in the opposite direction to the future that the rest of the world is contemplating.
Putting restoration and eradication in their place
Restoring habitats and species and managing exotic species currently dominates ecological science, policy and practice in NZ. They are a part of my own research program too.
Here I will not suggest that they have no place. But, I will argue that their usefulness is a question of values, context and scale. And I will argue that they are much less useful to future biodiversity conservation than we are lead to believe.
Planting for habitat and reintroducing animals will only continue to grow in importance in a human-dominated world. Novel ecosystems will require them more, not less. Sanctuaries that protect our most sensitive native species will always have a role in biodiversity conservation. And the need to efficiently and humanly kill some exotic species (e.g., inside sanctuaries and to control Tb) will continue (although many exotics in other contexts will be valuable and retained, if not propagated).
But, the proposal to restore NZ to a pre-human state by eradicating exotic predators? The aspiration is unnecessary, logically flawed, cannot be implemented at the scale required, and is failure-certain for our changed and still changing ecosystems. In NZ we are, by international norms in applied ecology, out on a small, fragile and extremist conceptual limb.
Making better use of ecological science
The Predator-free aspiration fails to put our modern and complex understanding of ecology and ecosystems to its greatest effect. It distracts us from investing where our intelligence and efforts can have greater environmental benefits.
We can already protect the most vulnerable biodiversity in sanctuaries without country-wide predator eradication. A few better endeavours spring immediately to mind: national fresh and coastal water-quality standards that actually protect biodiversity; defendable estimates for the ecological carrying capacity of people and their enterprises, including tourists, on the New Zealand’s landscape; or designing ecological management to protect native biodiversity at greater scale because it facilitates their co-existence with exotic species.
Such ecological science would be more demanding of course, being more complex and empirical, and needing new hypotheses and data. It would also be a biological AND social science.
We would begin by acknowledging to the wider community the great uncertainties we have about the ecosystems of the future. We would also be honest that science, while gathering evidence to test ideas, is fundamentally driven by the values of those who practice and use it. Nativism – exotic species eradication and restoration ecology – in NZ is strongly values-driven. Science has just been along for the ride.
Science makes faster progress when we, first, acknowledge and define the unknown and, second, are open to a diversity of objectives and explanations. And, yes, that should include apparently heretical ideas like that exotic species can be our allies as well as our problem. Which they are is a question of values, environmental context and scale (i.e., ecology in its broadest sense).
Turning failure into success
We are still failing to protect our native biodiversity and habitat in this country. The current focus on restoration and exotic species eradication is not arresting that country-wide decline.
Our primary failure has been to not recognise people as the root-cause of the native biodiversity crisis. We destroyed habitats, polluted, over-harvested and introduced exotic species. And we continue to do all of these.
It is time to stop expediently scapegoating exotic species as if a national program to eradicate them will solve our biodiversity crisis. A few iconic, visible native species will benefit but, elsewhere, our native biodiversity will continue to decline. Until, that is, we do something about us.
Consider also that our environments have changed and continue to change in ways that we cannot undo (e.g., climate change). Our ecosystems will never be the same again. Their biodiversity, therefore, can also never be the same.
We need an applied ecological science of change and of the future, not stasis and the past. Understanding and building novel ecosystems of natives AND exotics for the future is our only chance of success. Better a novel ecosystem designed for biodiversity-purpose than restoration band-aids on a continued decline to conservation failure.
“Once we rid ourselves of traditional thinking, we can get on with creating the future”
– James Bertrand (quoted on the back cover of Anthropocene).
Imagine an ecological science informing conservation practice that works with nature, not against it. It would foster win-win solutions, not fight nature’s processes (like dispersal, species interactions and evolution). Instead, NZ’s professional and popular culture in ecology and conservation appears largely unaware, reluctant, or afraid to consider it.
I think progress in conservation and its science in NZ is hamstrung by traditional and populist thinking about ecology. We have made ecology into an ugly, distorted caricature of itself, in this case nativism. And, we are using nativism to motivate the unnecessary, logically-flawed, mission-impossible, and failure-certain aspiration of restoring the past.
To this end we have convinced ourselves that we are ecologically objective and environmentally righteous (ironically at the same time). But actually, we are just allowing simplistic, old-fashioned, and quasi-religious values to dominate our national focus.
Walking backwards into the future
Reconciliation ecology and novel ecosystems are taking their place amongst science, policy and practice around the world. In NZ, however, we have chosen to approach the future, Anthropocene horizon walking backwards with our eyes focused on the past.
The Sciblogs Horizon Scan
This post is part of the Sciblogs Horizon Scan summer series, featuring posts from New Zealand researchers exploring what the future holds across a range of fields.