Pragmatic ecology

11 de December 2019

Recently, my friend Paul Zedler raised a question between insidious and philosophical: our scientific procedure based on searching for processes and establishing causal relationships, has no significance unless it translates into actions. I had no other option than accept the premise, otherwise I would get exposed at the top of the infamous ivory tower.

Ecological restoration has often focused on serious landscape alterations such as open pit mining. Pixabay/Public Domain.

Ecological restoration has often focused on serious landscape alterations such as open pit mining. Pixabay/Public Domain.

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To Joy and Paul

Of course, there can be many types of actions, including the publication of our research in scientific journals. But this kind of actions rather are self-contained in the own scientific practice. In contrast, ecological restoration, biodiversity conservation, or sustainable use of natural resources are activities with more tangible results, which I guess would better represent what Paul said. Historically, these disciplines have frequently been relegated to the backyard of ecology in front of other ecological topics, more dominant in the academy. But, we surely should change that perception and see these disciplines as cornerstones of the science of Ecology, since it is in them where theoretical knowledge is fully tested, where something new is built, instead of shredding reality.

Scientific knowledge decreases the chances of random consequences of our actions, getting closer to the proposed objectives. Intuition can deceive us and move us away from the objectives that motivated our actions, regardless the existence of interested manipulations.

Confronting the knowledge of natural processes versus actions has interesting derivatives. For example, if the same action results from an elaborate scientific process, but also from an intuitive or casual decision, is it really worthwhile our effort in doing science? In North America, many universities are aiming to integrate the point of view of native nations when dealing with problems related to nature conservation and management. Often, the worldview of science and that of those societies have little in common, although they may share objectives, such as preserving nature. In our own culture we also often hear arguments based on beliefs or intuitions with little rational foundation. How to work together when the arguments for or against a conservation or restoration program are of the type “the wind has said”, “the heart tells me” or “it comes out in my statistical model”? These arguments, whether “intuitive” or “scientific,” sound equally arbitrary when the other party says them. We can develop sophisticated rational arguments, but they are understandable to most people. The solution to this problem is easier if we rely on statistics. Scientific knowledge decreases the chances of random consequences of our actions, getting closer to the proposed objectives. Intuition can deceive us and move us away from the objectives that motivated our actions, regardless the existence of interested manipulations. The scientific method has another advantage: it is intrinsically revisable and adapts well to new knowledge and contexts. Hence its success, provided that it compensates for its difficult understanding with a sufficient replication, and with an appreciable ration of trust.

Paul Zedler and the author of Festina Lens in a break from his discussions on ecology and philosophy. Credit: Francisco Lloret.

Paul Zedler and the author of Festina Lente in a break from his discussions on ecology and philosophy. Credit: Francisco Lloret.

Many scientists feel comfortable with pragmatism's ideas, since they describe quite closely the approach of ​​experimental or empirical testing of hypotheses as a good way to improve our knowledge.

The arguments of ecological action are strongly supported by the philosophical current known as pragmatism. This school of thought was developed in the United States in the second half of the 19th century and its influences actively continues. Synthetically, it postulates that the truth does not lie in our mental conceptualizations but emerges from its consequences. Therefore, that truth, supported by the derived actions, is not absolute, instead it is susceptible to change as we improve our explanatory models of the world. Pragmatic philosophy developed while the scientific method strengthened. Many scientists feel comfortable with these ideas, since they describe quite closely the approach of ​​experimental or empirical testing of hypotheses as a good way to improve our knowledge. Perhaps this pragmatic thinking has influenced more the ecology developed in North America than in other parts of the world -except surely Australia where ecological research has a clear applied component-. For instance, the Ecological Society of America has been publishing documents for years to provide direct information to professionals of “ecological action” – not to be confused with “environmental activism” -. Along the same lines, the British Ecological Society has just launched a new journal: Ecological Solutions and Evidence.

It was also in the United States, where the restoration practice began for the first time at Curtis Prairie, an initiative of the University of Wisconsin. In the vicinity of the city of Madison, close to the Arboretum, you can visit the 25 ha in which different procedures for the germination of more than 200 herbaceous species were tested and burning and ploughing treatments were combined in different plots. The experience continues running on in a process of continuous learning. In that part of the world ecological restoration is an activity in which academic world, conservation organizations and public administrations jointly develop programs. There, the restoration is usually applied to important extensions of wetlands and river basins, dune systems, grasslands, forests and a variety of ecosystems. Here we usually focus restoration in spaces generated by civil works, as freeways, or by mining operations, or in wetlands and coastal and river areas, all of them intensely affected by human action. But degraded landscapes close to urban areas are also frequent. These were former agricultural farms or industrial areas, where the successional dynamics remain frozen for decades, covered by impoverished grasslands, plenty of exotic species. These lands abandoned to their fate should also be restored on a regular basis.

Prairie Curtis, the first ecological restoration carried out in 1936 in the vicinity of Madison, Wisconsin, under the advice of Aldo Leopold.

Prairie Curtis, the first ecological restoration carried out in 1936 in the vicinity of Madison, Wisconsin, under the advice of Aldo Leopold.

The motto would be something like "if we want a fully functional natural system, we better use their own tools in an integrated way"

Our view on ecological restoration is often too partial. Ecological restoration could be described as the practice to get an altered ecological system up to become an ecosystem with prefixed, desired properties. It may be the same state prior to the alteration, or more likely one state more or less similar, but with some properties that we consider appropriate. Deeply based in ecological principles, this idea of ​​restoration has an overall vision of the system, and considers that options aimed at preserving only certain functionalities, for example, avoiding erosion, have too partial objectives and often lead to new problems. The motto would be something like “if we want a fully functional natural system, we better use their own tools in an integrated way”. Since natural systems are complex by nature, it is impossible to rebuild them piece by piece and make that the whole system will work. Therefore, Joy Zedler, Paul’s wife and one of the world’s best experts in wetland restoration, does not have much confidence in the engineering approach to restoration problems.

Joy and Paul live in an old farm next to Waubesa Lake in Wisconsin, which contains an important part of the Wabesa Wetlands. Joy is a great lover of cranes and wetlands, which she perceives as a reservoir of biodiversity and a source of important ecosystem services. There, Aldo Lepold‘s legacy, pioneer of conservationism who lived in this region in the first decades of the twentieth century is present. Joy is aware if this year the farmers will have difficulties in collecting the corn crop because in the spring it rained until late and there were not enough hours of sun along the growing season, or if the autumn change in the color of the tree leaves will be too fast. Nature is too complicated to be encapsulated by cement. A more effective strategy is to implement key processes and species that allow the system to reorganize itself in an integrated way. An example of this strategy is to control the quantity and quality of the water entering in wetlands and incorporate hydrophilous plant species that colonize and regulate these environments, while generating new habitats and resources.

Wetlands provide important services and their alteration by human activity often requires ecological restoration action. In this photo, Els Muntanyans weatlands in Torredembarra. Credit: Francisco Lloret.

Wetlands provide important services and their alteration by human activity often requires ecological restoration action. In this photo, Els Muntanyans weatlands in Torredembarra. Credit: Francisco Lloret.

This interaction between engineering and ecology is also manifested in human devices. An important current has emerged in the design, particularly of inhabited spaces and cities, which advocates incorporating nature based solutions. This idea is closely related to Biomimicry, a discipline that applies biological principles to technological problems, such as the design of new materials. We know that the proximity of numerous natural elements such as water, sky, vegetation, rocks, and on a smaller scale, plants, aquariums or pets provide sensations that improve our quality of life. But things are not so simple when we want to use nature as a cheap shortcut to deal with complex environmental problems.

First, because it is not so cheap: maintaining a biological system in an artificial environment has costs, since we must incorporate flows that occur in nature without apparent effort. For example, in a green roof we must condition water drainage systems, which in nature penetrates and flows through the ground, but in buildings it may represent important costs to avoid leaking. All gardeners know that fighting pests that feed on flowerbeds plants is more expensive in cities, where trophic networks are poor and predators are scarce, than in the countryside.

Secondly, we might think that a system built on the basis of biological parts will get self-organized quickly and will maintain itself over time. The adaptive capacity of living beings would support this presumption. But evolution needs enough time to implement. Although occasionally we can see some fast-adaptive processes, it is often easier for species to move to a better place.

Green walls are an example of a nature-based solution that takes advantage of the thermal regulation provided by plants. Credit: Pixabay/Public Domain.

Green walls are an example of a nature-based solution that takes advantage of the thermal regulation provided by plants. Credit: Pixabay/Public Domain.

We should not be naive enough to think that biological systems will solve all our problems alone.

When we look at the system as a whole, the mutual regulation of their processes needs a piece of time, especially when engineering species are long-lived organisms, with an inertia that causes demographic rates to be relatively slow. Evolutionary and historical legacies -ecosystems work with the organisms they have available at hand- makes the efficiency of ecological systems sub-optimal and they do not obtain the best theoretically possible results. Although this inefficiency does not have to be worse than what we would get with a completely artificial system, we should not be naive enough to think that biological systems will solve all our problems alone. In addition to setting theses ecological systems, we must accompany and take care of them, providing supplement resources or energy.

In 2015 the writer Kim Stanley Robinson published the science fiction novel Aurora in which a colony of humans travels for generations in a spacecraft consisting of biomes that mimic those on Earth: forests, grasslands, deserts. In each module of the ship a community of humans lives fully integrated in one of those biomes. The narrative addresses the great challenge of humans to preserve the functioning of these ecosystems, with finely regulated energy and matter flows, but too small sized and isolated from each other. It is a literary example of what will likely be an important new discipline, terraformation – creation of complete ecosystems outside the earthly environment -, directly derived from theoretical ecology and restoration. The Biosphere II project in Arizona -an isolated construction, inhabited by microorganisms, plants, animals and humans that aims to build an ecosystem with all its elements self-sustaining over time- which was launched in 1991 would have been the pioneer of this future professional exercise for ecologists.

Biosphere II project in Arizona, an attempt to artificially build ecosystems.

Biosphere II project in Arizona, an attempt to artificially build ecosystems. Credit: hakaimagazine/courtesy of The University of Arizona.

Undoubtedly, ecological restoration is linked to sustainable management and conservation, the other great “actions” derived from ecological knowledge. Is it not restoration the set of interventions aimed at restoring vegetation cover with native species after a devastating fire and thus preserving water regulation of the system? Is it not restoration those actions aimed at improving habitat and thus increasing populations of threatened species? Is it not restoration those practices aimed at maintaining biodiversity on farmlands? All of them need an important foundation of theoretical knowledge that must often replace ignorance how exactly a given ecosystem works. This usually makes academic ecologists feel uncomfortable and frustrates those who exercise restoration. Knowledge only reduces some degree of uncertainty but does not ensure the success of our predictions and actions in complex and changing natural systems. To work in this surprising continuously changing context we have invented adaptive management. This approach to the management of the natural environment, is based on designing, executing, evaluating and redoing our previous designs in a series of iterations that learn from their mistakes, adding rationality to the classic practice of trial and error. In this way we hope to minimize the number of sterile attempts, as those ecologists did once decide to recover a breath of the decimated prairies of the American Midwest.

 

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Professor d’Ecologia de la UAB. Investigador del CREAF en temes d’ecologia de la vegetació i canvi global. President de l’Asociación Española de Ecología Terrestre.
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