Monday, December 12, 2011

Ecological Restoration given its raison d'etre: Ecosystem Services

That sound you hear is the sound of thousands of academics cleaning their offices and finding the long-lost surfaces of their desks.

It's that time of year -- those magical weeks when we actually have enough time to answer email from October, return peer reviews a month overdue, and, in my case, get back to blogging.  The semester overwhelmed me just at the point when the "7 billion" panic was hitting its stride (remember that?) in late October, and although I have a longer post planned for that, I thought I'd reboot with just a few tidbits in the news recently.

This little video on the relationship between ecosystem services and environmental restoration is short and is actually beautifully efficient at showing us how ecosystem services policy fits into the long 20th century of policy addressing resource exploitation, overpopulation, and development.  It's a lecture by Dr. Thomas Elmqvist at Yale in their series on TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity).  The following steps have applied to all problems of environment and development since -- oh, let's say the 1950s.  I'm open to revision on that.  But the three-legged stool of most environmental crisis stories is present:

1) As I've written elsewhere, the first step in the management of the environment as sets of service commodities is the creation of a taxonomy so that you know -- and can name -- what you're looking at and trying to manage.  This is where Dr. Elmqvist starts.

2) From taxonomy he moves quickly to overpopulation: the justification for intervening is, at first cut, Malthusian.

3) Lastly, he presents global resource mapping (in this case, a worldwide map of soil degradation) as evidence of the crisis of overpopulation.  We political ecologists have long critiqued the management-by-satellite strategies of global resource managers: we tend to find answers instead on the ground in human interactions. This is a case of the sin of "scaling parsimony," described by Matt Turner (full disclosure: my dissertation advisor).  That is, people tend to look for data and solutions at the same scale at which the problem is defined: population is thought to be a global problem, so we tend to use world-spanning datasets to find answers.  Not always helpful.  But very, very common.

4) The last step is actually newer: the suggestion that ecological restoration is the solution to a crisis newly-defined as one of "ecosystem service provision" (rather than simply overpopulation or soil degradation).  This is becoming common as well over the past 10 years: ecological restoration has gone from a hobby science practiced by retirees and rogue ecologists to a global technology of production -- it lacked only the object "ecosystem services" to give it purpose and direction.  In the mid 1990s, the ecological restoration community was wracked by debates about what, exactly, was to be restored: "authenticity"? "ecological integrity"? "ecologies circa 1492"?  "resilience"?  "culturally-appropriate landscapes"?  These debates had no answer, and appeared incredibly esoteric from the outside.  But now the simple nostrum that "ecological restoration produces ecosystem services" has realigned much of the field of restoration ecology on a sometimes-implicit economic and utility-focused footing.  As Dr. Almqvist says, his definition of "restoration" avoids doctrinal debates about authenticity:

"So this is a very pragmatic definition, that you're not including any specific target -- that you are restoring to certain condition that happened to be at that area 100 years ago or 200 years ago.  This pragmatic definition just tells you that you will assist in the recovery process from a very low productive state."

Productive of what?  Ecosystem services. From my view, this represents a broad repurposing of ecological restoration -- when I began going to conferences and reading resto journals and newsletters in the early 1990s, the field was full of amateur botanists and inspired local resource managers.  Few academics and no economists.  Now, I suspect, the field is very different.

On an unrelated note, this report on "one of the first REDD+ Type projects to be entirely controlled and operated by indigenous communities" is something of an eye-opener for those of us who have become accustomed to seeing REDD policy discussed as either a sort of celebration of non-additionality or a stalking horse for the centralization of political power over resources in rural third-world areas. REDD+ is a little more complicated that that.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating post. The Y-TEEB videos are completely new to me, thanks for the share. Excellent work on the blog so far, love it. Thanks