What are the ambitions of ecosystem restoration?

Representative photo: Ivan Bandura / Unsplash


  • The explosive growth and the omnipresence of ecosystem services provide a new frame of reference for valuing nature.
  • Arguments in favor of a non-anthropocentric assessment of nature are clouded, although contortions have been made to accommodate and adapt “cultural services” to reflect spiritual and non-consumer use.
  • This shift in ethical stance towards ecosystems, and the role restoration plays, is part of a larger transformation in the way restoration is thought about and positioned.

With a magic machine measuring the rise and fall of ideas, it is quite possible that 2003 will mark the climax of classic ecological restoration. It was certainly a simpler time. Largely absent – at least in most discussions on the ground – Also read: The problem with the idea of ​​bringing back woolly mammoths

The long-standing practice of “remediation” generally involves returning a degraded (often mined) industrial site to its production capacity. Reclamation increasingly borrows leaves from the restoration manual, as do other practices that have names such as “rehabilitation” and “revegetation”. Perhaps most difficult is the explosion of interest in green design: heavily designed pockets of ecological function on rooftops, biological gullies along roadsides, and schoolyard ecosystems. Restoration? Not exactly, but all of these practices share a commitment to this restorative impulse to repair damage.

Such excitement at the start of the United Nations Decade for Ecosystem Restoration is exhilarating. It also deals with issues that may not be immediately apparent in a rush to embrace the prospect of problem solving. Will the relatively narrowly circumscribed ‘ecological restoration’ of RES serve an international community struggling with poverty reduction, community empowerment, social justice, climate change adaptation and mitigation, and relentless pressure for measurable action?

What will happen when the details of the mismatch of principles and standards, between, say, the relative openness of rewilding versus the relatively narrow perspective of ecological restoration, are revealed and people are disillusioned? ? How to best manage fast food approaches involving arrangements such as fast growing genetically modified tree species? Is there any clarity on how best to deal with synthetic organisms, genomic techniques, nanotechnology, drone swarms for planting, and other innovations?

And what about the term enshrined in the United Nations Decade: restoration of “ecosystems”? Ecosystems are spatial units larger than organisms and ecological communities, and smaller than landscapes and ecoregions. Words matter, and that could prove to be a complicating factor. I asked in 2003, “what’s the point of keeping the ecological restoration perimeter?”

I suggested that an inclusive vision of restoration that accepts virtually anything as restoration, “including mitigation projects, replacements, de novo ecosystem creations, formal naturalized gardens” risked restoration. “drifting into the absurdity of being co-opted by socially fashionable landscape trends”. To this are opposed arguments in favor of an exclusive vision of the restoration which aims in large part to guarantee professional standards. So the debate rages on, and now on the international stage.

With catering at the center of global commitments to achieve Sustainable development goals, reverse biodiversity decline and mitigate climate change, the need to understand and secure the keystones of restoration could not be more urgent.

Eric higgs is a professor in the School of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria and author of Nature by design: People, natural processes and ecological restoration. He’s writing a new book, Changing nature: human ambition and bittersweet desire, which advocates for a future restoration adaptable to rapid changes and committed to social justice.


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