For a while I’ve been meaning to re-read Marris’s book Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-wild World. The book’s central thesis is that we must abandon the idea that the central goal of conservation is to preserve nature in a pristine, prehuman state, and consequently must rethink conservation goals and practices. I recall at the time it was published a mix of strong support from some environmentalists and strong criticism from others especially in response to the optimistic tone and Marris’ optimism which comes through quite strongly. Personally, I think she did a great job of conveying the many new challenges that conservationists are grappling with and the ways that some scientists and conservationists are subsequently rethinking their work and conservation practices more broadly.
One way of reading Marris’s book is as a call for reflexivity, as per the Research Council of Norway’s definition of reflexivity:
By reflexivity we mean the capacity of actors (researchers, institutions) to question their own taken-for-granted assumptions and routines. Reflexivity implies awareness of the limitations of our knowledge.”
The book critically examines ideas like the “balance of nature” (e.g. the assumption that ecosystems tend towards a stable equilibrium and, linked with this, don’t change much if humans leave them alone), the idea ecosystems have a correct baseline to which we must return, and the “pristineness myth” in which those ecosystems and landscapes that look wild are assumed to be untouched by humans. A key chapter exploring dilemmas related to climate change argues that it is forcing scientists to question many deep assumptions, but also contends that related conundrums have “paralyzed many scientists” (p. 78). Marris argues that some ecologists are starting to question related beliefs and prejudices, such as deeply-held prejudice against exotic species and – linked with this – their favouring of native ecosystems.
Marris contends that deeply-entrenched traditions and related beliefs are often poorly suited to the new context. For example, she highlights the tradition of non-intervention and emerging forms of human intervention which being experimented with to protect species and maintain biodiversity (e.g. assisted migration). However, it is clear that this is a challenging process, demanding significant reflexivity.
Some demands for reflexivity are related to climate change – both anthropogenic and natural – such as those related to threats to historical conditions (e.g. the baselines against which national parks often are managed to) and potential species extinctions (e.g. assisting species to adapt to climate change). Rather than non-intervention in nature being the ideal – embodied in the notion of pristine wilderness – many key questions increasingly focus on where, when and how to intervene, as well as ‘who decides?’.
Key chapters also address:
- ‘Wilderness’ preservation challenges (focussed on Yellowstone national park in the US);
- The disinclination of ecologists to study human-altered ecosystems, i.e. favouring untouched/pristine landscapes;
- Radical ‘rewilding’ practices such as reintroducing top predators into ecosystems;
- Assisted species migration;
- Exotic species and the “invasive species” paradigm;
- Novel ecosystems: new human-influenced combinations of species; and
- Designer ecosystems: designing or engineering for specific goals (e.g. nitrogen reduction, sediment capture, species protection, etc).
Her language is somewhat confrontational – she writes about “the wilderness cult”, and argues conservationists and ecologists sometimes exhibit “full-blown misanthropy”. Marris asserts that fields like restoration ecology have “been trapped by the seductive vision of healing wounded nature and returning to a stable “natural” state” (p. 126), which practically means restoring to some historical baseline rather than exploring “possibilities for designing, engineering, cooking up something new”.
Marris also calls for greater experimentation with different strategies and the creative pursuit of a range of new conservation goals. The final chapter – entitled “A Menu of New Goals” – asserts that a “consequence of throwing out the “pristine wilderness” ideal is that conservationists, and society at large, now have to formulate alternative goals for conservation” (p. 153). Marris suggests that “this may in part be why we are so reluctant to move one. After all, “putting things back the way they were” seems to handily cover any other goals we might have” (p. 153). As the notion of goals implies, many such activities need to be done with an eye to the future (e.g. assisting species to adapt to climate change).
To get something from reading Rambunctious Garden you don’t need to agree with all elements of the argument or Marris’ prescriptions. For me it nicely highlighted the role of reflexivity in innovation, especially innovation that is discontinuous in nature. It was also a timely reminder of the way scientific fields socialise worldviews (e.g. ecologists weren’t only learning theory and research techniques, their training was also a process of being socialised to a particular culture). One gap is that Marris doesn’t directly address ways of enabling reflexivity – the examples often relate to situational factors and related improvisation, e.g. whereby actors are then prompted to question taken-for-granted routines and/or assumptions. I wonder if it’s possible to enable it in other ways, e.g. in more anticipatory ways. In Rambunctious Garden Marris also contemplates a range of scenarios (e.g. the potential for a “zoo-like world”, which she wishes to avoid) and this clearly influenced her views on many conservation issues.