The Uses and Disadvantages of History for Ecological Restoration

by Liam Heneghan


Click diagram to enlarge

Context: One of the newer biological conservation strategies, ecological restoration, attempts to reverse the degradation of lands set aside for conservation purposes by reinstating, as closely as possible, the species and environmental conditions that existed before recent and large scale disturbances by human activities. A newly emerging framework within restoration ecology – the novel ecosystem paradigm – points out that with global change we are moving into an era for which there is no historical analogue. As a consequence land must be managed without excessive regard for the past which can no longer serve as our guide. This has generated a lot of controversy within the field. I was asked by Irish journalist Paddy Woodworth to speak on a panel on “The historical reference system: critical appraisal of a cornerstone concept in restoration ecology” at a conference of the Society for Ecological Restoration held in Madison Oct 6 -11th 2013. In recent articles and in his new book “Our Once and Future Planet: Restoring the World in the Climate Change Century” Woodworth had been critical of the novel ecosystem paradigm wondering if it does not undermine the case for restoration. I had not realized how controversial the topic had become. Tensions at the conference were running high, and the room in which this panel convened was over capacity with dozens turned away. What follows is the outline of my remark at this session.

On first glance the work of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), the German philosopher, might not seem especially helpful for restoration ecologists or indeed for anyone contemplating our relationship with the natural world. After all, his work supposedly challenges the foundations of Christianity and traditional morality. Nietzsche’s famous locutions concerning the “death of God” and his extensive discussions of nihilism should, however, be seen as his diagnosis rather than his cure. For Nietzsche our real cultural task is to overcome the annihilation of traditional morality, replacing it with something more life-affirming. The failure of our traditional precepts of value stem from the fact these express what Nietzsche calls the ascetic ideal. This ideal measures the appropriateness of human actions against edicts coming from beyond our natural and earth-bound life. The highest human values, as we traditionally assess them, came from a denial of our natural selves. Nature, in turn, is regarded as having no intrinsic value.

Thus Nietzsche even when he wrote in areas seemingly distant from traditional environmental concerns has useful things to say to us environmentalists. At times, in fact, his aphorisms are those of a poetic naturalist. In The Wanderer and His Shadow (1880, collected in Human, All too Human) he wrote “One has still to be as close to flowers, the grass and the butterflies as is a child, who is not so very much bigger that they are. We adults, on the other hand, have grown up high above them and have to condescend to them; I believe the grass hates us when we confess our love for it.” This is not, of course, to claim that Nietzsche is a traditional naturalist. His concerns are primarily about the thriving of human life, though in this he seems less like a traditional wilderness defender and closer to a contemporary sustainability advocate who seeks to locate a promising future for humans while simultaneously solving environmental problems.

A central device in Nietzsche’s work is a type of thought experiment about eternal recurrence of the same: the thought of a pure and perpetual restoration. An early use of the thought is in The Gay Science (1882). There he wrote: “This life, as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once more and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees and even this moment and I myself.” There are those — do you count yourself among them? — who might welcome this. For many of us, however, the prospect of the same sequence playing over and over again would crush us.

In some ways eternal return asks us how much history we can tolerate. In what circumstances does embracing the past testify to our strength: the ways we are disposed to ourselves and to life? And if we cannot take on the entire weight of history, how much of it are we prepared to take on: a little, a lot? The question of what to do with history is considered by Nietzsche in an 1874 essay entitled On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life: the essay from which I take my title. In it Nietzsche decries a style of knowledge acquisition for the sake of knowledge alone. This desiccated strategy ends up sapping our vital impulses. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Nietzsche, memorably, wrote that history can be related to the life of a person in three ways: “it pertains to him as a being who acts and strives, as a being who preserves and reveres, as a being who suffers and seeks deliverance.” These are Nietzsche’s “three species” of history: the monumental, the antiquarian and the critical species.


Restoration is always a game that we play with time. Ecology has a history of being overly confident about that which is genuinely perplexing to other disciplines, namely time. There is a long standing suspicion among philosophers that time, as such, is meaningless. The British philosopher John McTaggart (1866 –1925) famously pronounced the unreality of time. The argument, briefly, is that since every event is both past and future and thus there can be no coherent ordering of events. The observation that an event is not simultaneously past and future relies itself on the ordering that it is trying to explain, creating a vicious circle. Restorationists, however, have a refreshing lack of interest in abstractions such of these. We are concerned, however, with the degree to which we should incorporate the past into our plans for the future — this is the essence of debates about the use of historic reference systems.

The connection between restoration and history is obviously the case for classical restoration defined by the SER International Primer on Ecological Restoration as “the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed.” All those “re” and “de” words etymologically reveal their indebtedness to the past. The origins of the prefix “re”, for instance, refers to the original Latin, meaning ‘back’ or ‘backwards’. Ecological restorationist’s concern for the past is not, of course, necessarily about the past for for its own sake, but on behalf of a suite of reasons connected with our direct human needs as well as in discharging of our ethical obligations to the biosphere. As Dave Egan and Evelyn A Howell phrased it in The Historical Ecology Handbook: A Restorationist's Guide To Reference Ecosystems (2001): “A fundamental aspect of ecosystem restoration is learning how to rediscover the past and bring it forward into the present – to determine what needs to be restored, why it was lost, and how to make it live again.” In William Jordan III’s strict definition of “ecocentric restoration” — “restoration focused on the literal re-creation of previously existing ecosystem, including not just some but all its parts and processes” — restoration, this seemingly impossible grappling with the past generates a broad range of values, some of which we will never get by ignoring the past. In Making Nature Whole: A History of Ecological Restoration (2011) Jordan wrote: “The motives behind this new and some ways odd enterprise [of ecocentric restoration] were complicated: a mixture of curiosity, scientific, historic, and aesthetic interest, nostalgia, and respect for the old ecosystems, together with the idea that the old ecosystems are ecologically privileged assemblages of organisms, endowed with distinctive qualities of stability, beauty, and self organizing capacity, and so might be useful as models for human habitat.” Jordan’s work invites us to deal with the full blast of history, to endure it for the sake of the “classic ecosystem” which otherwise won’t survive, and by enduring to understand better our current relationship with the rest of the natural world. In Jordan’s work, failure is an option — sometimes indeed, failure may be the very point.


Let us engage in a little Nietzschean thought experiment of our own. If an ecological manager from today was transported to the future and shown three sites: one minimally influenced by human activity (assuming that such a thing exists), one classically restored, and one that had been classified at the time of the manager’s departure as a novel ecosystem, the manager would not be able to distinguish based solely upon an inspection of their respective ecological properties one category of site from the other with certainty. Time Traveler

Contemporary ecologists have for generations abandoned any expectations that natural systems, even those uninfluenced by human activity, are static. In the absence of human intervention, ecosystems will change, according to some accounts at least in episodic ways, as one ephemerally stable condition gives way to the next. Each stage will be characterized by species combinations that are largely historically unprecedented, as paleoecologists have documented for systems since the Quaternary and even before. Attempts, therefore, to predict the future of “natural” communities are prone to error. The future is indeterminate. In this ecologists agree with an emerging philosophical consensus that the past is realer than the future, and that the present moment is realist of all.

Nor will the future condition of a restored system be readily identifiable to today’s manager. If our time-traveler has with her the SER Primer on Restoration Ecology, an inspection of the expected properties listed there for identifying a restored system would confirm that this difficulty must be the case. Identifying which species of a future assemblage are indigenous — in restored systems the majority of species should be natives according to our contemporary standards — becomes more difficult the further into the future we project. Over sufficiently long time scales, evolutionary forces come into more pronounced play. Additionally, it is conceivable that species not at present within a biogeographic range of a system may become so in due course without human intervention. Thus naturally altered vegetation patterns may not easily distinguished from those caused by deliberate or inadvertent human introductions. Ultimately, the difficulty that our time-traveler will have in identifying today’s restoration efforts projected into the future arises because current restoration thinking acknowledges, as it should, that communities are dynamic, and sound contemporary management practice should not seek to curtail this dynamism.

A novel system, is defined by Hobbs, Higgs and Hall in Novel Ecosystems: Intervening in the New Ecological World Order (2013) as “a system of abiotic, biotic and social components that, by virtue of human influence, differ from those that prevailed historically, having a tendency to self-organize and manifest novel qualities without intensive human management.” A novel system that is currently under management no matter how minimal (this absence of intensive management being a defining aspect of novel systems), would likewise be difficult to distinguish from sites under restoration management or merely undergoing long-term successional change. All sites are subject to the vagaries of dynamic but unpredictable change. One manager’s failed restoration project, or natural successional system, is another’s future novel system.

At first glance one might be inclined to say that the novel ecosystem is an ahistorical concept: history in a deficient-mode: history being conspicuous by its conscious absence. But there is more history involved in the identification of a novel system than might at first be obvious. The identification of novelty depends upon historical analysis. A determination is made by a historically-informed person, that these systems are not classically restorable and have certain emergent properties of value and are therefore worth studying, conserving, and managing, albeit non-intensively. Although, as we noted, novel ecosystems are defined by their lack of need for intensive management, nonetheless when a novel system is providing conservation services and generally functions in a manner that is pleasing then a management regime may be instituted. As soon as this management is enacted the novel ecosystem is thereby governed by a historical reference system even if the historical moment being referred to is but a few moments in the past.

The conclusion that these systems cannot be identified without context should not be interpreted nihilistically, nor should it demotivate us. The point I am making here is that history matters regardless of which paradigm of restoration prevails. The engagement with history can be done objectively but it generates important subjective values. That the novel ecosystem is enmeshed in history is acknowledged by its proponents. Richard Hobbs and colleagues wrote “there is a gravitational pull in our discussions towards historical conditions. In acknowledging novel ecosystems, it is plain that this gravitational pull is sometimes very weak; it remains however, if only as a reminder that the past matters and has mattered.”

It is turtles all the way down, and those turtles are history!


I want to give the last words to Nietzsche. In his view, stretched between vast forgetfulness and the stultifying horrors of forgetting nothing, is a level of reckoning with history that may be helpful for life and restoration. Though as Nietzsche wrote “Forgetting is essential to action of any kind”, nevertheless restoration — classic or associated with novel system management, is always about history, and must therefore reckon the costs of both deliberate but empowering forgetfulness and value-creating but expensive commemoration. Cows, Nietzsche wrote “do not know the difference between yesterday and today …and thus [are] neither melancholy or bored.” The downside, one supposes, is that neither do they know joy nor beauty, and when all is said and down, they are, after all, cattle! An oversaturation with history, on the other hand, can be inimical to life. Nietzsche lists many reasons why too much history can be dangerous (I mention only the one that most pertains to us): it implants a belief, harmful at any time, in the old age of mankind, the belief that one if a latecomer and epigone. The past swells behind us and though it is tempting to think that everything was so much better last week, last year, in previous ages, nonetheless it would be deadening to think of ourselves as anything but a vernal species with a promising future ahead of us. In some case we draw strength and value from total recall, but there are times we must know when to forget. Lord, grant us to wisdom to discern when it’s best to remember and when best to forget.

Follow me on Twitter @DublinSoil for 140 character updates on my columns. Links to previous 3QD columns here.