Holistic Vision

Ecological Restoration in a Changing Biosphere

Reid, J. L., and J. Aronson. 2017. Ecological restoration in a changing biosphere. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 102:185-187.


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On October 8, 2016, a group of scientists, a historian, and a journalist convened at the Missouri Botanical Garden to discuss a paradox. Many countries have committed to restore large swaths of damaged land over the next ten years, but the premise of restoration – that for some cost humans can help ecosystems recover – is under fierce debate. Some respected researchers argue that humans are changing the world too quickly and too irreversibly for restoration to be achievable. Others disagree.

Is large-scale restoration inevitable or impossible? We compiled eight opinions from diverse scholars about what large-scale restoration will look like in the coming years.

The importance of these questions can hardly be overstated. If global restoration is enacted diligently, strategically, and to a high standard, then many species extinctions may be avoided, the global mean temperature may have a path to remain close to historical norms, and quality of life may improve for millions of humans. If restoration as we know it is precluded by rapid and irreversible change, then other options need to be explored quickly.

We invited eight researchers (ourselves included) to present their views on whether restoration is a viable option in a rapidly changing world and how large-scale restoration will or should be enacted in the coming decade.

Naturally, opinions varied. The following were among the key messages about ecological restoration (ER) and rapid, global change (GC):

  • ER’s conceptual basis is sound and can accommodate GC.
  • GC calls for a radical rethinking of ER.
  • he question of whether ER can cope with GC is not black and white.
  • ER needs disruptive innovations to cope with GC.
  • ER needs large-scale, long-term, participatory studies to best address GC.
  • Natural regeneration is the most efficient strategy for large-scale ER in the context of GC.
  • ER, however implemented, must persist for long time periods to address GC.
  • The words we use to discuss ER and GC matter.

We published these opinions in a special feature in the Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden.


The PARTNERS connection

The topic of this symposium was inspired in part by discussions at the first PARTNERS meeting in Storrs, CT. Many sessions at that meeting focused on the reality of large-scale restoration and the ambiguity about how that restoration would be enacted. It later occurred to us that it was ironic how the moment when restoration ecologists are called upon to scale up ecosystem restoration is also the moment when the central premise of ecological restoration is under intense scrutiny. As we planned for Missouri Botanical Garden’s annual symposium, this paradox stood out as a rich topic for discussion. Six PARTNERS members presented at the symposium. The symposium itself is described in a blog post on Natural History of Ecological Restoration. This paper is also reprinted (with permission) on the same site.