Saturday, September 1, 2012

Enacting Political Ecology, Unintentionally: An Analysis of William Jordan's Critical Philosophy of Restoration Ecology

During the keynote address of the 1st Annual Dimensions of Political Ecology Conference, Paul Robbins noted that political ecology is constituted by a diverse set of texts. These texts contain stories about the winners and losers of environmental change, both human and non-human. Producers of these texts ‘operate at the borderlands between analysis and action and between social practice and environmental change.'* In my research, I work with restoration ecologists, both professional and volunteer. Many of these individuals critically engage in the co-production of nature and society as they deal with the myriad contingencies involved in recreating historical organismic assemblages. Restorationists, in my work, tend to advance philosophies of nature that resonate with those held by geographers and social theorists that use political ecology as an interpretive frame. These philosophies are embodied in restored landscapes that are both textual and informed by more traditional ink and paper texts.

My perspective in this matter is necessarily situated. I am influenced by relationships formed with individuals in the North Branch Restoration Project (NBRP) in the Chicago region. This group popularized volunteer restoration work in the US and is often held up as an exemplary model of citizen science. William Jordan’s book, The Sunflower Forest, details a particular normative ethos for critical restoration practice and was based on his experience with the NBRP (2003). In this essay, I make the translation between Jordan’s work and recent concerns in political ecology. I explore the opportunities for practical and social engagement between critical geographers and ecologists that might mutually inform restoration practices, and the production of nature in general.

In his work, Jordan articulates a conservation/environmental philosophy that 1) requires restoration participants to realize that nature is social by making and maintaining an ecosystem, 2) challenges cultural and ecological narratives that portray nature transcendent, primordial, and balanced while simultaneously attempting to produce a temporarily stable state**, and 3) uses the creation of a material landscape as a shared myth-making practice that forms temporary alliances between individuals with diverse interests (2003).

Jordan’s first two points resonate with what nature-society geographers refer to as "social natures" (Castree and Braun 1998) as well as non-equilibrium thinking in ecology (Botkin 1992; Jelinski 2005). The social natures approach to political ecology attempts to break down the persistently contentious boundaries between the reified categories of ‘culture’ and ‘nature.’ These boundary crossings produce new possibilities for political engagement (Braun 2004; Castree and Braun 1998). In this vein, Jordan argues that modern societies lack effective environmental movements because we hold nature and culture separate. We (culture/humans) consume nature but have no way to repair what we’ve done. This societal attitude relies on a complex myth that nature was created as a pristine, static, and transcendent domain, and that humans set in motion only destructive processes of change (Merchant 1996; Cronon 1996). In this cosmogony, the original creation was ideal, but any human metabolization of nature is a distortion of this lost primordial state.

Jordan suggests that in order to develop more effective environmental politics, we must rewrite this myth to understand that acts of creation are always violent and entail the destruction/metabolism/death of different aspects of what was present before. Instead of confronting the destructive aspect of every moment of creation, Jordan says humans in industrial societies either try to imagine and produce harmonious, changeless natures devoid of human influence such as nature preserves (i.e. Braun 2002) or we treat nature in a utilitarian fashion and consume without problematizing the violence in our actions. Jordan says we must confront the contradiction inherent in our biological/metabolic need for resources, and the violent, destructive form that these acts take.

Jordan’s second point extends ecology’s recent embrace of nonequilibrium forms and nonlinear processes and relates to concerns with a poststructural relational ontology or a Marxian dialectic where objects come into being only through the creation, destruction, and interaction between other objects (ibid; Levins and Lewontin 1985; Whatmore 2002). By questioning the efficacy of any seemingly solid category or object, poststructuralists uncover social relations embedded in processes/objects/categories. Nature as a governing concept is particularly powerful in obscuring social processes, and restoration involves socially and scientifically deciding which landscape state is more ‘natural’. To this end, restoration ecologists employ different methods to approximate an ecosystem’s historical ‘natural’ state, but practitioners realize that their targets for restoration are moving, not necessarily achievable, or even an accurate reflection of some past state.

From a cultural/social perspective, practitioners make normative claims about the landscape while realizing that the nature they are producing is inherently social. Additionally, restorationists intervene in the landscapes with the realization that they may need to destroy the ecological functionality of existing biotic configurations to achieve a different temporarily stabilized state that more fully includes practical and cultural concerns of the public (McDonald et al. 2004). In all cases, restorationists are confronted by the limitations of what they can do, how accurate their nature might be, and a realization that restored ecosystem will not exist forever or even a season. Instead, these cultural landscapes require continued engagements, interventions, and social negotiations.

This brings me to Jordan’s third point: myths don’t change just by thinking about them differently; they need a socio-material platform for new ritual enactments. Jordan suggests that ecological restoration practices can re-mythologize the human social relationship with the environment. Restoration ecology, from this perspective, is as much about what acts, rituals, and practices do for participants. Participants, in this vision, are invited to perceive origins as unstable or the result of the dialetic interaction between creation and destruction. By enacting a form of creation that is only temporarily stable and requires the foreclosure of other possibilities (Derrida 1988), restorationists meditate on the continual emergence of nature as a social/material/discursive hybrid, that ties together normative decisions, ecological theory, cultural values, and individual idiosyncratic actions. If preservationism is marked by nostalgia, ecological restoration, or the return of an ecosystem to a previous state, seems like it would be the ultimate reflection of this nostalgia, or at least a scientific conceit that humans can make nature. Yet according to Jordan, the difficulty and continual incompleteness of the task are constant reminders that nature is constantly being re-made by the contingent acts of humans, organisms, and history (Castree and Braun 1998).

Jordan’s work is not without its shortcomings, especially from a political ecology standpoint. For instance, Jordan’s work is rather silent on political ecological questions of how nature, and restoration ecology in particular, might have other political economic and social outcomes. Other political ecologists/critical theorists have examined this topic more thoroughly (see Katz 1998; Robertson 2000). Jordan also doesn’t consider how an intentionally produced landscape might be the expression of a particular class of people with more free time and money to engage in non-productive (monetarily) labor (Duncan and Duncan 2004). Nevertheless, Jordan’s vision is a good example of how a critical socionatural philosophy enters into praxis.

I developed an interest in restoration ecology precisely because of Jordan’s conservation vision. Part of my interest in this vision is the way that he merges myth, ritual, and material to provide an entrance into a way of doing/thinking about nature that doesn’t rest on its ontological separation from human acts. He also dispenses with our ability to know/make/enact some original natural state. Instead, he articulates nature as something that needs a consciously and socially developed mythology that doesn’t avoid difficult questions and existential contradictions. He also emphasizes a decentered ontology of nature and ecology that finds resonance in post-modern scientific thinking on objects and social scientific theories of enaction. Genes only achieve material form through contextual interactions with other genes and proteins (Levins and Lewontin 1985) and atoms only persist through the fleeting interaction of quarks, leptons, and bosons (Halliday et al. 1997). Ontological/cosmological beliefs are reinforced and modified through social rituals that stabilize the world into meaningful categories (Eliade 1957; Grim 1992).

What became clear from these diverse inquiries objects, ecosystems, organisms, and societies are relational and subject to multiscalar, nondeterministic processes. To apprehend some ultimate concept or to even accurately describe the most mundane of objects would require a ‘view from everywhere and nowhere’ (Haraway 1991, pg. 191) or a way to accurately describe all the aspects of something. As Rose (1992) and Haraway (1991) illustrate, this omniscient point of view is the central conceit of the Enlightenment; science claims to uncover the order of things in the world, to tell us what is really there. It is the same belief of the natural theologians who sought to describe God by empirical studies of nature (Livingston 1993). Instead, Haraway offers an alternative strategy to make sense of the world. To be objective in her view is to realize that all knowledge is partial and to maintain this self-critical stance on what we know while at the same time forming partial connections to others. In other words, we create our own mythologies and truths. What is important is that we are reflexive about this endeavor.

Through these realizations, which are post-structural in respect to categories, but concerned with the actual materialization and operation of living entities, many new inquiries are possible. Jordan’s strength is to bring ecosystems, and our social-scientific strategies for remaking them, into the realm of critical, reflexive inquiry. The restoration of an ecosystem, from his perspective, is contingent on organismic materialities (i.e. life history traits of certain plants), yet subject to creative social intervention that moves beyond questions of authenticity and seeks to create shared cultural meaning among practitioners.

Jairus Rossi

**As participants fail to adequately create exactly what they intended, they supposedly experience an existential crisis that reveals the limitations and constant changes characteristic of any material form/organism. Specifically, they recognize that all organisms and ecosystems are not stable entities and continually form part of other organisms upon death.

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