Book review, March 2014

Published 03/03/14 | by Brian Bainbridge

Our Once and Future Planet

Paddy Woodworth, 2013, University of Chicago Press 

NEARLY ten years ago the experienced journalist Paddy Woodworth became tired of reporting on the Basque separatist movement and Irish arts scene and was intrigued by the new and positive-sounding concept of ‘ecological restoration’. The result is a thoughtful and robust analysis of ecological restoration. It is also a challenge to restorationists to engage more deeply with the wider world that ecological restoration is emerging into. And it’s a great read! 

Woodworth applies his journalistic skills to his in-depth descriptions of a dozen restoration projects from around the world. He rigorously searches and respectfully describes alternative views. The generously sized (approx. 40 pages) chapters allow him to join the threads of the project into gripping stories. This is not a dry scientific analysis of the pros and cons of the projects. It derives much of its interest from revealing human motivations, passions and especially foibles. It forms a useful history of important issues and disagreements in restoration. I now much better understand the heat in certain debates I witnessed at the 2009 Society for Ecological restoration International conference. 

The book also benefits from a world-wide perspective. There are fundamental differences in the degree of resilience of and the potential to restore different habitats. For example, his chapter on the Gondwana link project in West Australia describes a theory on how these differences can derive from geological variations on a continental scale. 

The subtitle of the book, Restoring the world in the climate change century, identifies one recurring theme – Woodworth probes his interviewees deeply on the implications of climate change. In particular he tests whether they have considered the controversial ideas of ‘novel ecosystems’ (that climate change and other changes in environmental factors at make reference to past ecosystems increasingly irrelevant). Woodworth leaves aside the scientific nitty gritty. He is even-handed but does not shy away from expressing an opinion on the quality of the protagonist’s argument. 

Among familiar themes is the tension between restorationists’ desire to get on with the job and scientists’ calls for research to build evidence-based practices. A common preoccupation as these ambitious projects mature is human and organisational sustainability, including the role of the charismatic individuals who instigated them. Woodworth’s look at how successfully various organisations have integrated their projects with their social, economic and cultural contexts makes for instructive and sobering case studies. 

I was constantly challenged to consider the lessons in relation to the restoration work I am involved in. However, Woodworth often reminds us that this is a human endeavour, we are not omniscient and our worst failure is to not to learn from our failures. 

I can’t imagine a better introduction to the state of play of the emerging field of ecological restoration – and its first few decades as part of the worldwide response to global environmental crisis. 

Brian Bainbridge