A culture of restoration

Human culture is a constantly shifting, evolving and organic body of ideas and behaviors around which societies organize interactions and exchanges. Language, art, food, recreation and means of production are among the elements of our lives that are in a continuous state of flux.

In many ways, human society could be considered fickle and motive-driven, because we have always demonstrated the ability to adapt the culture and change our value system, shifting our narrative accordingly as the requirements for survival and the power balance also shift. There always have been conservative elements who view this shift as a threat, as well as revolutionaries in the opposite extreme who push the boundaries beyond the point of comfort. Although radical positions on both sides seem excessive to most, generally speaking a balance tends to be worked out to allow advancement of human interests.

This process is not without its tragedies, as said balance does not always come quickly enough or in a way that avoids pain and struggle. History is full of examples of unfortunate victims to the drama of human social evolution, with all out war between factions as the most obvious example.

We now live in interesting times. The very real possibility of ecological catastrophe is forcing us to question our relationship to Nature, and the philosophical frameworks that have brought us to this point. The fact that our storyline cannot exist outside of our natural context is beginning to dawn on us, and Western societies (historically responsible for the majority of the devastation to Nature), have become self-reflexive, embracing holistic thinking and seeking solutions in the “exotic” cultures formerly judged to be primitive and unenlightened.

In this context our cultural resilience represents our best hope. Our self-interest and willingness to abandon ideas that have proven to no longer serve our interests is actually one of our best traits and may be the key to our long term survival.

We are fond of imagining a life of luxury where we have artificially recreated all of the comforts that ecosystems provide us (clean air and water, abundant food, pleasant climate and environment, psychological health, etc.), while controlling all of the wild and dangerous factors that terrify us.

This conquest of Nature has been a theme and driving force behind many of the most destructive elements of our industrial excess, and is still a narrative we adhere to at our peril. We imagine ourselves capable of recreating the natural ecosystems of Earth on a distant planet, for example, or of controlling all the environmental factors that affect human health even at the genetic level.

While advancing the fields of synthetic biology can have exciting and positive outcomes, it is shortsighted and even naive to believe our science can give us ultimate mastery over the endlessly complex and little understood systems of our natural world. If we are to survive and thrive we must instead humbly accept and embrace our place within our much larger and complicated environment, study it with reverence, and include every discovery in our respectful efforts to foster the balance we intuitively seek within it.

I envision a near future where this awe and respect for nature is a basic premise of our evolving human culture. A society where every aspect of our lives, from politics and economics to art and recreation, are carried out in such a way that values and respects our role within the complex ecosystems that surround us.

This is not such a radical vision, because we have actually lived this way for thousands of years and in every culture around the world as hunter gatherer communities and then settler agriculturalists, where our livelihoods were directly linked and dependent on our environment.

My question now is what does our return to Nature look like in a post-natural age? Because even though we have not gained true mastery over Nature in the sense that we aren’t able to control and shape every element to fit our narrative, we have certainly developed the power to destroy the balance that allows us to live on this planet.

Opportunities in connectivity

Connectivity is simply defined as the state of being connected, and these days we often think about it in terms of information and communication. In conservation biology, connectivity is thought of as the ability for the organic and non-organic features of an ecosystem to be linked from one location to another. Obvious examples are wildlife corridors and bird migration routes. But there are more subtle ways in which Nature connects across territories, such as the mycelium networks that develop along with tree roots in large forests, or the transfer of nutrients (and pollutants!), along food chains.

The importance of ecological connectivity for the health of our planet’s ecosystems – and by extension to our living environment and quality of life – can’t be understated. For this reason, the topic is getting a lot of attention at the upcoming World Conservation Congress of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a big meeting of many of the major conservation players that is scheduled to take place in France in 2020.

It is very likely that ambitious connectivity goals will be discussed and agreed upon at this meeting, building on existing targets for biodiversity conservation and carbon sequestration. Because there are 213 Nation States in the IUCN, it is possible that these agreements will have some influence on actual law and policy. As always, the challenge will be to find effective ways to implement these goals regionally, where the conflicts between economic or political interests and Nature conservation play out.

Hopefully this focus on connectivity is taken as a Call to Action by governments, NGOs and private conservation groups, and serious steps are taken. The major impact, however, will come when private investment and industry begin to truly understand what ecological connectivity means and how it can affect the long term viability of their productive activity. When beverage companies like Coca Cola or Nestle, for example, understand that their business model relies on healthy watersheds with extensive interconnected forest cover they may realize that simply buying up the land around where springs come up is not sufficient to mitigate the real risk of running out of cheap, clean water. A coordinated regional reforestation effort including private investment form these companies, and emphasizing the connectivity of watershed ecosystems, could go a long way in mitigating risks not only for their business but for humanity at large.

If we would like to see healthy connectivity within bioregions and between conserved areas, it will be essential to coordinate with public and private sector stakeholders to agree on and fund holistic design and long term management, creating a mirror connectivity among human society that prioritizes ecosystem health as part of our productive activities.

This is the niche where the field of Integrative Eco Social Design has opportunity to grow. Whether as part of a regulatory or implementing State agency, or in the form agile private companies that offer services to industry and governments alike, the need is there for specialized meta and systems thinkers, with expertise around fostering and regenerating healthy, connected landscapes that take into account human activity and Nature, understanding that the two cannot be considered separately if either is to thrive.

Capitalist conundrum.

Can free markets safely manage and regulate our environment and natural resources?

As a society we are pretty solidly sold on the idea that capitalism is the most – or even the only – viable and fair system under which we can organize our affairs. This idea is defended tooth and nail, and has become so entrenched as to be unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. Naomi Klein points out that this fact may well be the single most salient success of capitalism: to convince us that it is the only way. This despite the fact that the system in practice is far from its foundational ideals, and has yielded a mixed bag of benefits and drawbacks depending on what perspective you measure from.

The fact remains that whether we subscribe or not to the idea that this is the best system ever, it is here to stay and will likely govern the way we trade, mine for materials, innovate and build for the foreseeable future. Laissez-faire or Free Market capitalism pushes the notion that markets are ideally self regulating because of laws such as supply and demand, free competition and equilibrium. Because these laws are inviolate and universal, we can trust that the free market is the very best way to ensure benefits, and that justice and wealth will be fairly distributed among all hardworking people.

But before we are to trust our quality of life and well-being to this theory (as if we had a real choice at the moment), there needs to be some serious accounting. I can’t pretend to even begin to point out the holes and inconsistencies that separate our current system from a Perfect Market where price accurately reflects Value and everyone receives their just desserts. But the particular issue I think needs to be addressed quickly if we are to continue on our current path without facing a complete ecological apocalypse is the lack of accountability for the value of Nature, and more specifically begin paying the cost of its destruction in economic terms.

Although one can’t but applaud recent efforts to create a carbon tax and to quantify the value of carbon sequestering forests and ecosystems, this does not begin to scratch the surface of the actual worth of healthy biomes that provide us with air, water, food, shelter, habitat, and many other tangible and intangible services that are essential to our health, identity and existence as humans on earth.

A toothpick company that purchases softwood lumber from a clearcut operation in south Asia; but does not pay the cost of the losses in terms of animal habitat, human displacement and loss of ecosystem services in the devastated area; has to be considered a vulture operation doomed to eventual failure. Similarly, if this company were to pay for the cost of these losses when purchasing its raw material it would not be able to compete in the toothpick business, and would be forced to find a more cost effective and sustainable material to use – therefore potentially sparring the endangered forests of southern Asia from the saw.

It is not merely a matter of ethics, it is sound economics – as long as we are able to carry projections forward for a period of more than a handful of years, which is precisely the challenge most modern capitalists face: How can they possibly include long term planning and projections into their accounting when they operate in a cut throat system that demands the highest immediate returns, placing value on short term cash flow above all other factors?

As a generalized ecological malaise begins to influence our consumer decisions, companies eager to tap into our psychological drivers take on the trappings of sustainability and put forward ideas about 7 generation planning, carbon neutral production, and other feel good messages. The hard truth, however, is that all of these businesses rely on supply chains and infrastructure that is not paying the actual environmental costs of the cheap fuel, cheap labor and cheap materials that allow them to compete with each other in a race to the bottom.

If we are to embrace free market capitalist theory, we must believe that at some point these environmental costs will figure into the bottom line and the system will be brought to equilibrium. Unfortunately, this phenomenon is either too subtle or too slow to be apparent, and in the meantime is costing us 60% of the earth’s species (over a million according to the The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services), as well as the majority of forests and ocean ecosystems, and very likely the eventual viability of life on earth as we know it.

We must find a more efficient way to bring about equilibrium. Opaque factors must be taken out of the picture and our system must be adjusted to be come truly allocativelly and productively efficient. Capitalism must evolve at a faster rate that the current extinction phenomenon by addressing the natural wealth being lost by not doing so. We must address the proverbial elephant – before it is no longer in the room.

Dreaming of re Greening

As the natural world collapses around us in an accelerating Armageddon – with a majority of large mammals and insects facing extinction, forests and ocean habitats becoming degraded faster than ever, and the harrowing warming of the planet with nightmare polar ice melts and extreme weather events, it is all too easy to become disheartened, get depressed and turn to fantasy for solace.

Some of the more hopeful among us dream of technological solutions that can save us from the horror of a world without Nature and usher in the sweeping social and political changes that can bring about a real green revolution. Some fantasize about finding a nearby earth-like planet to colonize (not going to happen as long as E = Mc^2), or about greening a nearby rock such as Mars or the moon for human colonization. Others imagine us living in post apocalyptic underground engineered forests after being forced to shun the radioactive earth surface, or suggest we (or at least the wealthy among us), could remove to lush garden space stations orbiting our polluted and toxic mother planet.

Sadly, most of the solutions found in eco-science fiction are physically or at least economically impossible, and are in any case so far from our actual technologies as to be unlikely solutions given the urgency of our current needs. However, because I truly believe hope dies last and it ain’t over until it’s over, today’s post looks at some real technological advances that are now being developed and could have real positive impacts on Earth’s ecology.

  • Self flying drones – Forget the self driving car -that’s yesterday’s news. Startups touting flying cars and taxi drones are already appearing on the scene. It is only a matter of time before these two technologies combine and bring us driver-less flying Uber. This to me invokes images of a a parking lot free future! Imagine all that real estate, along with a majority of roads dedicated instead to connected parkland, habitat restoration, organic food production, and public green space. Hopefully the trade of of increased air traffic, sound pollution and impacts on birds will be offset by the regeneration of green spaces below. One can always dream.
  • Solar highways – even with flying cars, some heavy merchandise will have to be transported on land. Roads and large hauling vehicles are not going away in a hurry. New highways could produce electricity from the sun as well as from the kinetic energy of all the rolling cars and trucks. Projects like this are under development, and it can only mean less green house gas emissions from electricity generation.
  • Genetically engineered bacteria – The field of synthetic biology is as exciting as it is scary, and there is understandable resistance to the concept, as well as profound ethical questions. The potential for engineering organisms capable of say, digesting toxic and radioactive waste into inert or even fertile sludge, or quickly biodegrading the plastic in a landfill or ocean is very promising and deserves a closer look. Since this vast field is evolving at a faster rate than the microchip, we will very likely see many developments here. Lets just hope the bioengineers heed warnings and employ all cautionary principles so we actually end up with a cleaner, greener world.
  • Genetically engineered “weeds” – Again, in the vast and expanding field of synthetic biology, there are people hard at work to create quickly propagating species capable of fixing nitrogen in degraded soil – an essential step in regenerating biomass. This new technology could greatly speed up the process of combating desertification and bringing devastated landscapes back from the brink. Again, lets just hope they get it right in terms of planning for these new organisms to die out of ecosystems rather than becoming a horror story of GMO invasive frankenplants!
  • Green roofs – While this is a field that has been around for generations, the value and benefits of rooftop greenery and energy efficient buildings is finally being valued on a larger scale. While it does not really represent a radical scientific breakthrough, the improvements in quality of life and environment from transforming grey cities into a new type of forest will be huge. There are already indications of migratory bird populations making a comeback due to large scale green roof initiatives in urban centers.
  • Lab meat – Again a topic of some controversy that will require thorough ethical scrutiny as well as research into human health impacts, but the prospect of eliminating or at the very least reducing the ecological pressures of cattle farming is hopeful indeed. While many argue that a better solution is a shift towards small, diversified farms for the production for sustainable and healthy meat, it seems doubtful that this shift could provide the growing meat market suitably or quickly enough to have a serious impact. Maybe eat lab meat most of the year and kill your own animals for special occasions?

While it is not likely that a single technological breakthrough will solve our ecological crisis – only a concerted and coordinated human effort can bring about a real paradigm shift – we are at a crossroads in our history where all technologies and opportunities must be explored. These up and coming breakthroughs have the power to positively transform our environment, and could be part of an exciting and greener future.

Valuing caretakers of natural wealth

Indigenous and local communities that have lived in integrated and sustainable relationships with their biome are intrinsically valuable.

In recent decades, large corporations have begun to understand and address the risks of biodiversity loss and habitat destruction. In response, they have begun qualifying and quantifying the economic value of Nature, both in ecosystem services and natural resources.

The private sector is way ahead of government agencies, UN organizations and NGOs in this field. While international agreements around carbon taxes are only just being reached after years of negotiations, corporations such as Nestle have been sizing up and purchasing water resources for decades. This is only one example of what has become a vast but opaque area of investment.

Inevitably, it seems these reductionist corporate assessments fail to take into account the role and importance of human populations in land stewardship and resource management.

The tropical savannah of Northern Australia, for example, thrives under the careful fire and water management of traditional Indigenous groups who have a 60,000 year relationship with the land – reflected in a wealth of practical and cultural knowledge.

The rainforest of Mesoamerica are not actually untouched by human influence, but rather the result of centuries of selection and management by generations of Mayan forest gardeners.

A failure to consider the importance of this knowledge and its impact on the land and biology can only mean a loss of wealth and negative impacts on sustainability and quality of life.

As projects and discussions around monetizing ecosystem services move forward, the importance and value of Traditional Knowledge, as well as Indigenous and local communities must be understood and brought to the forefront.

Corporate actors interested in benefiting from the wealth contained in landscapes under the stewardship of these communities would do well to begin any project with a negotiation process involving them, and understanding both the tangible and intangible importance of their sustainable presence and involvement with the landscapes they inhabit.

Perhaps a niche role exists for business and organizations dedicated to bridging the gap between capital investment, corporate leadership and Indigenous or local leadership. In order for these negotiations to be fruitful, a rights based approach that recognizes subtle power and non Western thinking must be used.

Quantifying the intangible

The problem with subtleties is that most people miss them.

Can we accurately measure and place an economic value on ecosystem services, or Nature’s contributions to people? Will it ever be possible for mechanisms like carbon taxing or the United Nations Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UN-REDD), actually represent the true value of these contributions in the balance of economic transactions and policy decisions?

Our relationship to Nature plays throughout our human history as a dramatic struggle between contrasting forces. Our very concept of what Nature is, and our place in it, is dynamic and constantly shifting within this narrative, a process that seems to be largely driven by our understanding of science and our relentless advancements in technology, exploration and discovery.

We are now far removed from the concept of the natural world as some omnipresent and overpowering force that was prevalent during much of our history, when humans lived much more exposed, dependent and vulnerable to the immediate surroundings. As depicted in the paintings of the Dutch masters of the XVII century, where we see tiny human figures cowering under a dark and wild canopy of menacing forest, humans were but a small part of a much larger, often menacing and always wild environment.

Nature has gone from being an almost omnipotent force to be reckoned with, cut back and tamed, and has gradually become a fragile and somewhat distant web of delicately balanced life systems which suddenly need protection from our voracious needs. Nature is no longer The World, but a quaint place we visit or view from afar, a non functional space where we can go to enjoy serenity and reconnect with something we are not quite sure of anymore.

But as can still be seen among in Indigenous communities, during the bulk of human existence on our planet the place and relationship of humans to the natural environment made up the entirety of our context, our narrative, and ourselves. On this timeline, the story of modern society can be interpreted as a shift or a tearing away of the human animal from the ecosystem that created it.

The Conquer of Nature is in many ways a triumph of the human imagination, an impossible dream of godliness that our species has painstakingly made manifest through constant innovation and struggle, beginning with the harnessing of basic tools and the use of fire, to the terrifying leading edges of synthetic biology and nuclear fusion. We have in some ways outgrown or at least overpowered our natural context, and are staring into the dawn of a post-natural era.

The great tragedy of this exhilarating story of human conquest is that even as we seem to be achieving the dominance and power over Nature that our ancestors would dream about as they lay in damp caverns wrapped in their hard won bear furs, we perceive that in our quest for power also lies our doom as a species. Our science and our senses tell us that this path is unsustainable, that we cannot keep going in the direction we are going at the speed we are going without falling off the edge, that we have missed an essential thing and we are at risk of loosing it forever.

It would seem that the trajectories of industry, science, economy, and modern human society are on a collision course with the physical and biological reality of our planet. Experts have been sounding the alarm for decades now about climate change, loss of biodiversity, pollution and depletion of resources, and we seem unable to reconcile these with the constant needs, pressure and momentum of our Great Human Experiment.

What did we miss? We measured, cut open, observed, weighed, qualified and quantified all the factors we could find. We dissected Nature from the whale to the atom, harnessed its powers and took what we needed. Even now, we hope against hope that a technological innovation will provide a deus ex machina, some kind of eucatasrophe that will remove acidity and plastic from the oceans, regulate global temperature, harness carbon and regenerate forest habitats and feed the world.

There is definitely strong precedent that supports a faith in human ingenuity and innovation. Time and again our tenacity, audacity and genius have overcome obstacles to open new horizons. The case for hope is undoubtedly strong, as are the resilience and flexibility of our collective imagination. This has consistently proven to be the case.

But as our current nagging ecological malaise seems to be trying to tell us, in order to turn this corner and save our planet from ourselves we need to shift the narrative. As our awareness that our planet is a living web of subtle biological relationships has grown, so has a desire to find harmony, integration, and holistic understanding. We must find the missing, intangible and hitherto unmeasurable factors that can bring us the balance and well being we yearn for, that reintegration to Nature we dream about, that indeed we require in order to survive. For all our dreams and aspirations, we need to understand we are a part of – and not apart from – the ecosystems we have evolved in. We tend not to see the forest for the trees, because we are too busy cutting them down to stop and think about it.

The notion that we must take into account the real value of Nature and it’s contributions to humans in order to bring about the necessary changes to keep our planet alive is important. Are we capable of revisiting the narrative of our human experience to include the things we’ve missed? Can we find our place in Nature again, and realize that all we are and ever have been is also a part of Nature?

A Day at the Zoo

Yesterday I had the good fortune of being a fly on the wall during the second day of meetings and presentations of a regional committee for International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), held at the Conservation Pavilion of the National Zoo in Washington, DC.

The IUCN is the largest umbrella organization for conservation groups worldwide. It is a vast entity that brings together 213 nation states and over 11,000 NGO’s to form unified policies and strategies for conservation and regeneration of biodiversity around the world. This was a meeting of the committee representing the North America and Caribbean region.

While a significant portion of the day was understandably taken up by issues of internal governance, the presentations and discussions were fascinating to me personally, and would be to anyone interested in habitat restoration and biodiversity in general. The concerns represented the leading edge research and thinking of ecologists, biologists and conservationists, which echoed and validated the very concerns and interests that sparked the creation of this blog.

An overview of the rapidly developing field of synthetic biology created a buzz even among the attendants, raising immediate questions among them over the definition of nature itself, the obvious ethical questions around introducing genetically altered lifeforms into the world, and also interestingly the potential uses of the rapidly developing technology in conservation and restoration efforts. It was interesting to know that the IUCN is developing an official policy position and document addressing synthetic biology, to be approved at their next general congress, which will likely represent the Gold Standard of ethics and Best Practices around these very difficult but exciting questions.

Even more interesting to me was the panel discussion around the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The panelists spoke at length about ecosystem services, and their overlapping categories of Nature’s Contributions to People, emphasizing the importance of communicating the economic and intangible value of these. I was happy to learn that teh IUCN identifies 18 specific contributions of Nature to humanity:

  1. Habitat creation and maintenance
  2. Pollination and dispersal of seeds
  3. Regulation of air quality
  4. Regulation of climate
  5. Regulation of ocean acidification
  6. Regulation of soils
  7. Regulation of freshwater quality
  8. Regulation of freshwater quantity
  9. Regulation of hazards and extreme events
  10. Regulation of organisms
  11. Energy
  12. Food & feed
  13. Materials and assistance
  14. Medicinal, biochemical and genetic resources
  15. Learning and inspiration
  16. Physical and psychological experiences
  17. Supporting identities
  18. Maintenance of options

It was also startling to learn that the data from IPBES showed significant losses in all of these categories except for Energy, Food and Material production – which interestingly are the items most easily monetized and quantified in economic terms. Listening to Bob Watson reiterate the importance of communicating the economic and intangible value of all of these services was reassuring and inspirational.

Overall, the experience was very informative and useful. It is positive to see that there are truly great minds working in the world of conservation at the highest level of policy. I also found it comforting to know that there is such a wealth of work and resources to draw upon for any organization or individual interested in conservation, land management and ecosystem restoration, and that there is no need to reinvent the wheel in many instances. Future innovations and initiatives have a wide international support network and body of knowledge with which to build solid foundations.

If anything, I was surprised I had not been previously more aware of the breadth of IUCN’s work and the many organizations that form it. Perhaps this is an area where a little effort could go a long way to inspire more public action around the urgent need for conservation. A robust and steady media production arm for the organization could capture imaginations and empower people worldwide who experience our shared anxiety over the future of Nature. The IUCN produces the world’s best contemporary conservation and restoration philosophy and policies. I am glad to have been exposed to its inner workings for a day, and hope to use their resources for future projects, and blog posts!

A question of Integrity

We often use the concept of a “holistic” vision as a counterpoint to the rather more reductionist approach to conducting human business that has often been the norm throughout modern history. There seems to be an ideological counterpoint between placing value on specialization and expertise in a given field at the expense of a wider view, and the attractive idea that a whole systems approach is the best and moral way forward.

Part of the recent fascination with Indigenous ways of life comes from a perception that traditional societies operate on a different paradigm that seems to integrate seamlessly and respond organically to the context and environment. A truly holistic approach that harmonizes Nature and the human experience.

Taking apart a problem or issue in order to understand its factors is generally not a bad way to go about solving something, it is fundamental to the scientific method, and an expedient way to elicit a specific result. The lack of a whole systems approach, however, often leads to undesirable outcomes and unforeseen consequences. This is apparent in the devastation left behind by otherwise productive activities such as mining, logging, energy production and manufacturing.

Could these industries benefit form a whole system or holistic approach? Long term outcomes could certainly be improved, but is the dichotomy between the holistic and the more fragmented specialized approach useful or even real? What real factors and consequences might compel industry to take responsibility for the environmental impacts and long term costs of their productive activities?

The need for an integrative approach is felt by those most invested in a landscape. The people whose livelihoods are linked to the territory are the always those most immediately and profoundly impacted by disruptive activity, and logically are the first to organize attempts to stop, curb or influence projects that will change their relationship to the land.

It may be time to abandon the argument of the atomistic versus the holistic approach and focus on creating useful and productive linkages between these modes of relating, build working bridges between the specialized experts coming in to create wealth in very specific ways, and the generational caretakers invested in fostering the natural and intangible wealth of a landscape. By making these linkages with integrity, conditions may be created for a process with free, prior and informed consent, and a design that takes into account tangible and intangible wealth on a generational timeline.

To preserve Nature, or to persevere in Nature?

The dichotomy between productive and preserved landscapes is false, and leads to negative outcomes in both productivity and conservation.

Much ecological philosophy seems to be largely founded on the notion that clear boundaries must exist between territory dedicated to human activity, whether it be productive industry or settlements, and territory dedicated to habitat and wildlife conservation.

According to this thinking, the “best” conservation sites are those where the fewest people are allowed to enter, and where Nature is left untouched to thrive in it’s “purest” form, unencumbered by destructive and burdensome human activity.

The main problem with this kind of thinking is that it fails to take into account human tenacity in the pursuit of productive goals, and assumes an ability for governments or other organizations to stem the tide of economic development, human population pressure and the voracious appetite of global capitalism for growth.

By creating territories by decree, and deciding on to use them in ways that do not immediately address the needs of the surrounding populations, countries and regions, these conservation agreements are set up to fail.

Human animals have evolved within a variety of natural habitats and demonstrated a limitless ability not only to adapt to these environments, but to alter and adapt the environments to their own needs and visions.

There are many examples, both living and ancient, of traditional societies that inhabit natural environments and maintain sustainable production sufficient to provide for what are sometimes large and dense populations while still creating a surplus of wealth for trade.

A great deal (if not arguably all), of traditional knowledge deals with how to live in Nature as humans. While research into exactly when and how the idea cam to be that we exist and grow separately from Nature may be interesting from a historical or academic perspective, the fact remains that this not the actually case. This concept is in fact no longer useful to our survival, and must no longer be allowed to drive our designs and policies moving forward.

The concept of human-free conservation areas, while very appealing, seems based on this outdated mode of understanding. Humans are capable of living in Nature without destroying or upsetting its balance. This statement is true when a community and society draw directly upon their environment for their daily survival, understanding themselves to be a part of it, and living the consequences of their actions on it.

When considering the restoration of devastated landscapes and habitats, it is important to understand that humans and human activity will be a living part of the restored environment. The wealth of ecosystem services and other bounties offered by a thriving ecosystem must be enjoyed and fostered by the human population that live and survive on it. In the end, there are no better caretakers for a landscape than those people whose livelihoods are drawn directly from it, the people who are invested in the ecosystem in every aspect of their lives.

The Four elements: a guide for landscape restoration

Fire, Air, Earth and Water are the traditionally defined elements in many cultures.

When approaching a devastated landscape, the condition of the soil will be a primary concern, and very likely the most apparent. The preservation and development of fertile topsoil will be a primary activity and goal. Creation of biomass through the cultivation of fast growing plants, compost and humus production, and the use of nitrogen fixing annual and perennial species will be useful, giving way to tree cover as the project matures.

The appropriate species and planting succession will vary by region, as well as respond to the intended use and outcomes. For this, local gardeners must be engaged and committed to a long term stewardship of the land. The earlier in the design process these stewards are engaged, the more negative impacts can be minimized through adequate planning.

The position and mechanism of the land within the larger watershed must be considered. Rain catchment and other water sources will play a major role. Generally speaking, the goal should be to retain as much water on the land as possible, designing for water seepage while creating ground and canopy cover where possible. Water management experts should also be engaged in the design process and long term stewardship of the site.

Air quality is one of the most apparent ecosystem services, directly dependent on vegetation density and biomass. This fact must be leveraged when presenting the case for an integrative eco social design approach, and should be part of the initial design process. Expertise around measuring air quality and quantifying the impact of restoration will be useful and important. Prevailing winds and meteorological phenomena should also be considered, and how these may be influenced by forests, wetlands and other restored habitats.

Finally the sun, which is the source of all power on our planet, must be taken into consideration during planning and restoration. It is cumbersome and often counterproductive to plot a design based on the position of a road or other man made feature, when this does not take into account the potential for solar energy and the management of temperature, evaporation and photosynthetic plant activity.

Until the practice of including a restoration plan in all development and industrial activity becomes commonplace, there will be a need for the rehabilitation of destroyed habitats and landscapes where little or no consideration was made for the aftermath. Many of these places will have problems of chemical pollution, radiation and other forms of waste. Creative solutions for cleaning up these hazards will be important, and is another necessary area of expertise.

Ultimately, the design must serve the needs of the local human population, or it will simply be adapted to those or abandoned completely. Engaging local stakeholders and stewards is key to success, and working towards shifting the culture of industry to consider the tangible and intangible wealth that healthy ecosystems represent, as well as the risks inherent in their destruction.