The authority of science

Several years ago Soule and Lease (1995) kicked off a furious debate about the meaning of nature with their book Reinventing Nature? Responses to Postmodern Deconstruction. They were unsettled by claims from social scientists and humanists that nature is entirely a cultural construct and that ecosystems will lose significance in an advanced technological society. The ensemble of essays in that volume, written by philosophers, literary critics, historians, and ecologists, painted not a simple negative view of postmodernism and the tendency to see nature as a cultural projection, but rather a complicated, ambiguous portrayal of how nature is represented. All contributors opposed a radical postmodernism in which nature is purely an artifact of human consciousness, but quite a few admitted that a complete understanding of nature depends on an interchange between so-called objective observations via science and the subjective knowledge that comes from memory, social position, and personal experience. Hence, along a line between nature-as-objective-fact and nature-as-cultural-construction the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

I think Soule and Lease were keen on exposing the frailties of postmodernism and championing the authority of science. In doing so, however, they threatened to submerge knowledge that falls outside of conventional science: personal testimony based on experience, for example, and crea tive knowledge derived from art, music, and poetry. Restorationists should take note, because they have until now thrived upon the mix of science and practical knowledge. Moreover, every time an ecosystem is restored, a particular view of nature is expressed. Restorationists are central players in defining and redefining how nature is defined and interpreted.

One risks making a too obvious claim by suggesting that restoration is practiced by people who hold particular values about what counts as an appropriate ecosystem, and this in turn is conditioned by our contemporary and changing views of nature and wilderness. Soule and Lease were concerned that these cultural values were being taken too seriously and at the expense of ecological verities. The concern, then, is that restoration would become a practice given over to human motivations alone and would result in what some have termed designer ecosystems (Palmer et al. 2004). A related objection is that any model of ecological restoration that embodies cultural awareness misses the significance of true wilderness: areas that have little or no sustained human involvement. Examples abound of wilderness restoration, but such projects are based to some extent on an acknowledgment of human engagement with the landscape. Moreover, the idea of wilderness has been impaled in a number of important ways, not the least by acknowledgment of a systemic underrepresentation of long-standing if subtle human practices (Cronon 1995; Higgs 2003). This being the case, there is danger in suggesting that either ecology or culture should trump one another. Both deserve attention. Although it is fair to suggest that cultural values, especially those of indigenous people, have been underplayed, it would be dangerous to swing to a kind of restoration that would submerge the ecological significance of a place.

Successful restoration depends on science and local knowledge (or traditional ecological knowledge as it is sometimes known, or experience; the knowledge of testimony and pattern). The ability to conduct controlled experiments and understand nutrient cycling is complemented by practical knowledge such as the history of planting on a particular site, organizing volunteers to water seedlings, with whom to speak in smoothing regulatory tangles, and where the best local supplies are obtained. Although both forms of knowledge are important, typically only scientists are considered experts. [...]

[A]n overreliance on science can deform the work of restorationists, first by pushing other forms of knowledge to the sidelines. Landscape m architects, for example, who are trained to think in several different ways, c often alternate between scientific or technical knowledge that accounts ¿j-for why some plantings work better than others and aesthetic judgment s

2 that indicates why one planting will appear better than another. Science also tends to reify nature, which is to take an abstraction and make it £ seem real. This brings us back to the beginning of this section and to | debates over the objectivity with which we regard nature. In taking too jP strong a view of nature - which after all is an abstract notion if for no ■g other reason than it is expressed through language - more weight than ^ appropriate is often given to our particular view of things instead of understanding this view as historically and culturally conditioned. Humility is difficult to achieve when the challenge of restoration is reduced to putting the right pieces into place. We do see the world through our social filters, for example, in the way we have tended to systematically exclude people from our understanding of ecological history. Cultural contingency matters for restorationists because we need to understand that people make sense of a place in different ways. In the end, science matters, but as one of many rather than the only form of knowledge that makes up the practice of ecological restoration. Relying on science alone or as the highest form of knowledge steers us away from a broader view of restoration toward an exclusive focus on restoration ecology. When science is vaulted to primary position and combined with the ethos of a technological society, as described in the previous section, the basics are in place for the ascendance of restoration ecology over ecological restoration.

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  • ambrogio
    Who is responsible for environmental scientist scope of authority?
    14 days ago

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