Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Ecological Restoration: Are we in denial?

“I think that if it weren't for denial, I wouldn't be a comedian because to be a comedian you have to go on stage those first few years and bomb. And then walk off stage and think, that went great. Because otherwise you'd never get on stage the next night. You would just think, human beings don't like me. But sometimes denial can kill you.” –Comedian Mike Birbiglia 

Are we in denial about climate change and the state of our earth? Certainly some of this country is... although luckily, on Nov. 6th the country voted to support the environment (as well as many other important things). But even for those of us who do believe in climate change, and even try to change our day to day actions to help alleviate the problem, a question that haunts me is, “is this enough?” Is biking to work every day and eating organic and buying carbon offsets for travel (and generally acting like we are in Portlandia) really enough? And are current ecological restoration projects and conservation efforts sufficient?

As I was mulling over how to frame this question into a constructive blog post—since it is so easy to debate round in circles on this question, to no avail—I came across a recent paper by one of my advisors that addressed an interesting angle on this question. The paper, “Ecological restoration and enabling behavior: a new metaphorical lens?” by KD Moore & JW Moore, examines how we currently view ecological restoration, and how that perspective might be shaping both our behavior and the way we go about restoration. When we discuss ecological restoration, we usually assume that we are talking about something inherently positive. The paper makes the point that the language of ecological restoration is that of “healing and repairing,” which carries a positive connotation. Who wouldn’t you want to help the environment by restoring it (given unlimited money)?

However, as this paper discusses, there are certain problems with our current approach to restoration. Many restoration projects are not followed by sufficient monitoring (the case with many dam removals), so we are left to wonder how effective the restoration actually was. In addition, Moore & Moore cite several examples where post-restoration monitoring has shown that “restoration effectiveness is questionable.” (This is not to say all projects are ineffective, but rather that we should not assume the effectiveness of our restoration projects).

But besides the problem of monitoring, there is the question of whether we are enabling our energy-hungry habits by convincing ourselves that our restoration projects will take care of the problem. The paper draws an interesting metaphor for this scenario using the co-dependency of addicts (for instance, an alcoholic) and their enablers (e.g. someone who keeps paying the alcoholic’s bills). In this case, Americans are addicted to cheap, abundant energy (which comes at the cost of environmental degradation), and the enablers are the environmental restorationists, who make us feel like we are healing the environment, and who are secured a job in the wake of the destruction. Perhaps this view is too cynical—surely restoration specialists are not voting for Romney or buying SUVs just to ensure their own job security.

But, as the authors explain, we can draw an interesting lesson from this perspective; we can use this “metaphoric lens” to think about whether restoration activities have “opportunity costs”—in other words, are we using funds for restoration that could be better put towards getting rid of the cause of the degradation? We can also use this lens to examine whether these restoration activities “conceal the truth” from ourselves—we want to believe that we can destroy a habitat, extract what we need, and then restore it back to its starting state. But this is rarely the case. Yet we often move forward with restoration projects as if this were true.
I am not arguing, by any means, that we should discontinue ecological restoration. Rather, it should be a stepping stone to whatever is next. However, we know from basic physics that systems in motion have momentum, and the momentum to keep going in the direction of motion can be very strong, not to mention easier than applying force to the system to change (yes, I love physics… I even minored in it in college). In other words, we need to work to change our current habits, and along the way, we need to continually evaluate our actions. We do not want to be the ostrich, head stuck in the sand, patting ourselves on the back at all our good environmental work, and meanwhile drowning in the rising ocean.

As the comedian Mike Birbiglia says, “sometimes denial can kill you.” Or, in this case, probably our grandchildren.

So we need to rid ourselves of denial, and ask, does despair begin when denial ends? Or is that when true hope and action are born, out of the “power of outrage and… the wisdom of grief”*?

*Moore & Moore

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