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5.0 out of 5 stars The Future of Nature, January 12, 2012
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This review is from: Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World (Kindle Edition)
Emma Marris is a talented writer and lucid thinker who has written a brilliantly sensible book. "Rambunctious Garden" is about the future of nature. It rejects the "wilderness cult" and melancholic perfectionism which has dominated much of nature conservation policy in the last century. Instead, with thorough research and documentation, Marris explains the importance of "adaptation" policies which accept the reality that there is no pristine nature left on this planet and that it is not possible to restore nature on Earth to its former state.

Marris may step on some toes with her dismissal of the traditions of John Muir and Henry Thoreau whom she describes as being forerunners of a trend in conservation that, by the 1980s, had become "full blown misanthropy". One senses an impatience and near disdain in her attitude toward traditional conservation ideology and its "Romantic, religious" obsession with pristine nature. She herself presents a more postmodern, realistic view of how, not simply to conserve pockets of wildernesss, but to respectfully and productively cohabit with all of nature.

Reading Marris's insightful history of conservation and ecology science, I was struck by two realizations:
One is how little is actually known about nature's processes and how very hypothetical and untried ecological science is.
Two is that adaptation models have been considered unacceptable. Marris points out that nature is always changing and in flux--why is this news? However, cosmologists were also reluctant to give up the "steady-state" model of the universe and accept it as changing, expanding; it seems the human desire to keep things as they are (or were), to want to conserve the status quo, runs deep, no matter how contraindicated by life and death.

Regarding the many unknowns in ecological science, Marris's chapter on "rewilding" makes evident how very difficult it is to predict what consequences ecologists' decisions will have on the future of nature and how even acting with the best intentions may be disastrous, although Marris is hopeful that ecological science will create balance and "more nature" than it will destroy. Yet so many ecological choices and policies are based on untried hypotheses. A plan to reintroduce large predators like lions and cheetahs to the Great Plains of the United States to bring that damaged ecosystem into balance was recently devised by a handful of men who had a meeting at Ted Turner's ranch. They suggested that "towns and farms" that do not want wild predators roaming their area could "fence themselves". This is not all that different than current large predator policies that allow mountain lions to roam regional parks in the West, sometimes (rarely) attacking hikers or wandering into towns. A proponent of the Great Plains idea wrote that without large wild predators "...nature seems somehow incomplete, truncated, overly tame... Human opportunities to attain humility are reduced." Personally, I prefer the John Muir style of misanthropy.

More disturbing, regarding the arbitrariness of hugely important ecological decisions, is the influence of commercial value. In a chapter on "assisted migration"--a very new practice of repopulating species further north or further uphill to help them survive global warming--Marris indicates that a decision on what tree species to preserve on 25 million hectares of forest in British Columbia is mostly influenced by the "surprising importance" of just one man's ideas, a British Columbia forester, for whom the commercial value of forests is primary.

Perhaps all this arbitrariness is the underlying point of Rambunctious Garden. Nature, Earth and its life/death cycles are in constant flux. The only real known is that nature will take its course. Individual species, including humans, will have to adapt or die off. Marris is hopeful that adaptive policies can conserve much of nature, including humanity, and she makes a powerful case for her beliefs. Her arguments for adaptation--as opposed to only preserving hypothetical pristine baseline states for protected ecosystems--are followed by her chapters addressing responsible ecological stewardship through adaptive policies such as "rewilding", "assisted migration", "novel ecosystems", "designer ecosystems" and "conservation everywhere".

Marris's vision is eclectic, inclusive, pragmatic and optimistic. The final pages of her last chapter "menu of goals" are moving and inspiring. They also contain a magnificent description of Sandhill cranes at a river in Nebraska which reveals her remarkable creative talent and love of nature. Rambunctious Garden is a compelling read throughout and seems to me, a layperson non-scientist, to be a very important voice in the field of ecological science--and more, an extremely important book for absolutely everyone.
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Initial post: Mar 9, 2013 2:55:40 AM PST
Frank says:
I think you greatly over-play the idea of nature changing. Of course, this is a common meme among those who believe in evolution, or as I call it "transformism". I reject transformism in favor of classical emanationism, personally.

In fact, I think the whole theory of evolution, and the resulting idea that species will just evolve and adapt, is a huge threat to maintaining a healthy environment.

The fact is, the environments around us have the same species in them year after year after year unless humans interfere. These species are interconnected in delicate balances which we will never fully understand, therefore the best action is minimal action. This is only common sense.

I do not say this from a misanthropic point of view. As a Christian I of course believe man has a place in the world, and when I say "minimal action" I am including farming, towns and cities, etc. The key is that these are all managed in an environmentally friendly way, which of course is hard in a machine society, and really requires the rejection of much 20th century technology.

At any rate, the environment is not in some "constant state of flux" or at least not on a time span which would enable us to just play around with it without worries; the flux is on a long time span - I expect to see the same species around my area this year as I did last year.
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