Everything now is either managed or it should be, including 'the natural environment'. We call it that if we're planning to manage it, and, in Australia, we rarely think 'environmental management' without thinking 'restoration'. There is that image of Australia pre-1788, the native bush before ferals, weeds, clearing, logging, super-phosphate, and all that. It's an image that captivates ecology, pop ecology and romantic environmentalism.
There's a whole culture of ecosystem management — National Park managers, degrees in ecological management, Catchment Management Authorities, assorted bureaucracies, and 'out there in the community' there's Landcare. It's civic society. It's not a media thing though. At budget time you might hear a mention of Caring For Country or some other government program rebranded, or axed. But it's not up there with Tasmanian forests, the Barrier Reef, the Murray-Darling, Climate Change, or bushfires.
Back in 2009 I went to a conference of the Society For Ecological Restoration in Perth, where I sat in on a session on 'novel ecosystems'. Richard Hobbs from the University of WA spoke, so did Eric Higgs, a Canadian ecologist who'd written a book called Nature By Design. It was on the final morning, a time for mild stimulation and slight unorthodoxy. 'Ecosystems are emerging that never existed before. It is impractical to try to restore ecosystems to some “rightful” historical state. ... We must embrace the fact of 'novel ecosystems' and incorporate many alien species into management plans, rather than try to achieve the often impossible goal of eradicating them or drastically reducing their abundance.' That was the session's theme, even though the quote itself is more recent. It's from a June 2011 article in Nature, by the US ecologist Mark Davis and eighteen other authors, including Hobbs.
The stimulation was mild, the novel ecosystem thesis was not quite as novel as I had hoped, and novel ecosystems themselves didn't seem all that novel. I thought of subtropical forests of queen palm and camphor laurel, riverbanks of Madeira, catsclaw and balloon vine, seasides of bitou and glory lilly, even wheat fields, gardens and golf greens, or the minimalism of motorways, and nuclear test sites. I guess now was the time to 'embrace' them and tweak them into something useful or cool or subversive by wedging in a bit of designer biodiversity. But was the thesis any more than just hyping a groovy response to the empirical surprises and philosophical challenges that had puzzled and entertained restoration ecologists and naturalists for ages?
Provide a label and you collect a body of thought, maybe even kick off a discipline. In the 1950s the 'ecology of invasions' was used to gather together a set of ecological ideas that had been around since before Darwin. Origin of Species mentions things like cattle going feral in Australian. Twenty years earlier John Henslow, the Cambridge biologist who had passed his place on The Beagle on to his younger protegé, had formulated a rudimentary theory about competition between natives and exotics. People in Australia have long been doing what, in the 1970s, they started to call 'bush regeneration', restoring the bush to something like its pre-invasion condition by removing exotic weeds.
Now we have the label 'novel ecosystems' gathering together ideas that have also been around in some form since Darwin's day. The ideas inspired the nineteenth century Acclimatisation Societies with their vision of enhancing the flora and fauna of Australia and America. And while bush regenerators have been weeding the bush since the 70s, Permaculture designers have been trying to build self-sustaining ecosystems from encyclopaedias of useful plants and animals. More recently Peter Andrews became a folk prophet of novel ecosystems by sexing up standard on-farm water management with exotic willows and contrarian weed ecology. It was only a matter of time before the novel ecosystem label registered in the media as breaking scientific news. That June 2011 Nature article — a summary two page manifesto that relied on references to several other papers to do the ecology — was enough to get the ABC and the SMH interested. They picked it up and ran 'novel ecosystems' as a story.
Meanwhile in America and hence the world there was science journalist Emma Marris with a new book to promote. And by December 2011 Michael Duffy was interviewing her on ABC radio's Counterpoint about Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. It was clear the Anthropocene — the current epoch, so called because the big ecological changes are anthropogenic — was out and proud, and Marris's 'Nature 2.0' was the new pristine. The header on Marris's web site, a quote from the San Francisco Chronicle's Joe Christensen, leaves us in no doubt that world historical events are afoot: 'Marris is already being compared to the greatest environmental writers and thinkers of the past century, Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold.'
With a pitch like that it wasn't going to be long before someone noticed the contrarian potential of novel ecosystems, tailor made for taking on environmentalism. I remember the editor of a scientific journal on restoration ecology predicting some such thing way back at the 2009 conference.
Contrarianism is a seductive attitude. It has an unfortunate appeal for self-promoters, because it seems to underwrite radical intellectual originality with owlish scepticism. You can fancy yourself as Galileo against the clergy, plain-spoken amongst the mealy-mouthed. Richard Steele nailed contrarians three centuries ago: 'they can turn what little knowledge they have into a ready capacity of raising doubts, into a capacity of being always frivolous and always unanswerable.' Michael Duffy began an essay in the SMH with the line: 'It's been suggested that passionate environmentalism is a bit like religion. It has its own sense of original sin, the belief that the New World was once a pristine and stable wilderness that was defiled by Europeans'. The rhetoric is a give away: the passive voice, the vague 'suggested', the lines 'a bit like religion' and 'original sin' to rankle those atheistic greens. Create a straw dummy of your opposition before you blow it down
Prompted by Duffy on ABC's Counterpoint, Marris noted the irony that supposedly anti-racist greens tread a fine line between invasion ecology and xenophobia when they apply the native/alien distinction to flora and fauna. Meanwhile in the New York Times she and three co-authors let readers know that 'in fact, humans have been changing ecosystems for millenniums' and 'we have learned that ecosystems are not — and have never been — static entities.' They made it sound as if this were not textbook ecology.
Maybe I'm being too harsh. It's not easy to write one truth after another and be scrupulous about every inference and implication. We all use rhetoric. And it uses us. Me too now. Even the Nature article had the straw dummy trick. When it made the point that 'nativeness is not a sign of evolutionary fitness or of a species having positive effects' was that supposed to imply that all those restoration ecologists had been unable to figure out that invasive species have the evolutionary advantage and that native species are not reliably resilient under a regime of invasions? And there's the claim that 'invaders do not represent a major extinction threat to most species in most ecosystems'. Note the casual proliferation of 'most's and 'major's, the feral 'represents' replacing the native 'is', the implication that those misguided restoration ecologists must think that invaders are a major extinction threat to most species in most ecosystems.
What do they think? Why remove exotic species from native ecosystems? It's a combination of post-Darwinian ecology and aesthetic passion. The science is about how long-term evolutionary processes in the absence of high rates of species invasion — e.g. in pre-1788 Australia — create ecosystems rich in species and varied in structure, even though they might be susceptible to invasions. The aesthetics is in the 'rich' and 'varied'. Restoration ecologists sometimes call the Anthropocene the Homogecene — an epoch when a few weedy and feral generalists dominate lots of ecosystems. It's not a matter of corny primevalism, religious environmentalism or native plant Nazis. The complex organisation of nature fires the great aesthetic emotions of admiration and wonder. Goethe said 'the beautiful is a manifestation of secret laws of nature, which, without its presence, would never have been revealed.' Those secret laws sound like what modern ecology is about.
The Nature article ends soberly bureaucratically. 'We urge conservationists and land managers to organise priorities around whether species are producing benefits or harm to biodiversity, human health, ecological services and economies. Nearly two centuries on from the introduction of the concept of nativeness, it is time for conservationists to focus much more on the functions of species, and much less on where they originated.' Environmentalists and restoration ecologists have always argued in the same managerial terms. Environmental politics still has 'to organise priorities around' terms like biodiversity and ecological services, terms that have to do the talking for the aesthetics of nature.
But novel ecosystem ecology has its aesthetic too. It wants to be post-modern restoration ecology — original and avant garde. Defined negatively it's about not restoring some authentic pristine nature. And it's about not simply gardens and farms. The positive is mostly imagined in examples that don't yet quite live up to the dream: theme parks of the early Pleistocene; authentic Anthropocene wilderness weedscapes; bioengineered ecosystems that deliver economic and ecosystem services; meta-gardens that are wild and 'rambunctious', with their own cool, hyper-functionality. There are whole genres out there.
Note however that the old romantic aesthetic about wildness is still at work here: Let nature do its thing, but let it be the new unruly nature of the Anthropocene, and don't try to impose your old Nature on it. Let nature naturally move on. Even that schizoid division of humans from nature seems to persist. But of course it makes things very handy, almost too good to be true. Its efficient — humans can let nature do the work. It's fun — we can tweak and play around with ecosystems if we like. It's liberating — it replaces melancholy with positive thinking. And when it comes to environmental politics it's useful: any excuse for trashing a bit more of the old nature, or winding back the culture of ecosystem restoration and national parks. But the culture is entrenched. It remains to be seen whether or not the novel ecosystem thesis will be a successful invader.