Restoring the Future: Review of Wild by Design by Laura J. Martin

Restoring the Future: Review of Wild by Design by Laura J. Martin

Celeste Pepitone-Nahas

Under Review:
Wild by Design: The Rise of Ecological Restoration. Laura J. Martin. Harvard University Press, May 17, 2022.

A recent study warned there could be as many as 15,000 new viruses in the next 50 years, and that climate change is helping usher in what some have called the “Pandemicine.” Ruptured ecosystems and altered migration habits have put animals and humans in closer proximity than ever before; this, in turn, causes zoonotic “spillover events” or the transfer of viruses between species. Gregory Albery, disease ecologist at Georgetown University and co-author of the Nature study, said that climate change is “shaking ecosystems to their core.” While people have always been part of ecosystems, only quite recently have we begun to consider how to repair some of the damages from the past, and to prepare–quite frantically–for an uncertain future.

Laura J. Martin’s new book, Wild By Design: The Rise of Ecological Restoration, presents a comprehensive history of the practice of “ecological restoration,” or human assistance in recovering a damaged world. Martin both eschews blanket optimism and refuses to fall victim to doomsday cynicism around climate change. By examining the precedents for restorative ecology, she illuminates how the development of the field influences contemporary practices, and how ghosts from the historical record haunt our ecological future.

Things did not start well for restoration ecology. Martin’s opening chapters trace the violent expansion of the U.S. as it forced indigenous communities off their ancestral homelands to build game reservations for the bison that white men had driven nearly to extinction. Martin charts the growth of the American Bison Society, writing that these bison reserves, established in “places where people had lived and wanted to continue living,” became today’s National Wildlife Refuge System.

Ecological restoration began as little more than an old boys club, then grew professionalized and federalized over the 20th century. As it did so, the original methods of harm remained disturbingly intact. Martin links rising fears over immigration in the 1970s with restorationists’ newfound goal of establishing “precolonial baselines” for the land. This practice of “historical fidelity” or the idea that restoration should mimic some past state of a presently damaged ecosystem (as conceived in the white imagination), is now widely criticized as ignoring the history of Native American land management.

Despite Martin’s repeated condemnation of colonial enterprise, I would have liked to read more about the Indigenous activists who have fought for reparations, or won victories in fights to protect ecosystems, such as the work of the Gwich’in Nation, who since 1988 have transformed the debate over drilling in the Arctic Refuge into one of not just conservation, but human rights and environmental justice.

If restoration can chart a third way between older ideas of preservation and conservation, then perhaps it is an opportunity for action at the edge of disaster.

As the book progresses, Martin moves from looking back to future implications of the practice. In the book’s second part, “Recovery,” she explores the age of nuclear anxiety, when ecologists began using nuclear waste to study species interaction. Lab-produced radioisotopes allowed scientists to trace elements through chains of species and develop food webs. “Ecosystems may now seem natural and universal,” Martin notes, “but their emergence depended on the tools of a particular time and place”—namely the Cold War. For example, in the 1950s, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) dropped atomic weapons over the Marshall Islands to test ecosystems’ response in the event of a nuclear holocaust. As ecologists became the go-to disaster experts, many of the bedrock ideas in ecology textbooks emerged from a scientific practice that forced Marshallese to relocate and poisoned communities with radiation.

Lurking in the book’s final chapters is the growing specter of how even environmental organizations can perpetuate colonial harm. One such example is The Nature Conservancy (TNC), a major land trust pioneered the concept of “compensatory mitigation.” In 1992, TNC negotiated a deal with the Walt Disney World Company in which it would steward the land on an 8,350 acre ranch purchased by Disney, while miles down the road, workers bulldozed wetlands to build the Florida resort. This type of program eventually led to ideas like carbon credits and carbon markets, where companies ostensibly pay to make their carbon go away. Of course, one person’s “away” is another’s “home.” Noting that off-setting projects tend to be based in the Global South, while those purchasing the “credits” live in the Global North, Martin denounces carbon colonialism as an example of how attempts at restoration can create and re-enact unequal distributions of power. Martin avoids directly attacking “Big Green” groups such as TNC, but according to SourceWatch, The Nature Conservancy, which calls itself “Nature’s real estate agent,” now sits on nearly a billion dollars in assets thanks to corporate donations from the likes of DuPont, Shell, and British Petroleum. This highlights a key contradiction: tinkering with ecosystems will be meaningless if we do not immediately confront corporate power and stop the production of fossil fuels. 

Yet despite restoration’s many historical flaws, Martin builds an argument for its ideal form: if restoration can chart a third way between older ideas of preservation and conservation, then perhaps it is an opportunity for action at the edge of disaster. What remains are questions of balance and technique: how much should humans act? Who should be in charge? What should the practices be? Only by understanding the legacies of the term–and the historical, social-political context within which it emerged–can we begin to consider the relevance of “ecological restoration” in saving the planet today.

Many noted how during the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic, the shutdown of major industries and airlines seemed to lead to miraculous appearances of animals. In Kruger National Park, lions began sleeping on the roads. In Llandudno, goats rambled through shopping centers. Everywhere, people took up birdwatching. This past year, in contrast, has seen capitalistic regrowth as industries ramp back up and people emerge from lockdown. If we are to avert the “Pandemicine” that Albery and his co-authors speak of, we must view the human and the non-human as not separate, but interlocked.

Although its historical contributions alone would mark Wild by Design as a major achievement, Martin’s work also contributes to the practice of storytelling in the Anthropocene. What if we stop berating ourselves for harm caused, and instead told a different story: one in which we act to ensure animal and ecosystem survival? “Today a designed species or ecosystem might strike some as the opposite of a wild one,” Martin writes, “but restorationists have been designing the wild for more than a century.”

Like the mutual aid that emerged during the pandemic, restoration ecology teaches us something about global community. Martin resists the neoliberal effort to suggest individualized responses to climate change and biodiversity loss. Her work proves that only through an acknowledgement of history can we move into a future of restoration, reparations, and societal care.

Celeste Pepitone-Nahas is a writer and musician. She holds an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction from Washington University in St. Louis and a BA in English from Williams College. In August 2022 she will begin a Fulbright grant in Czechia.

Transparency Statement

This review was commissioned from an emailed pitch from ARB’s monthly calls for review. It was edited by Misha Grifka and copyedited by Jake Casella Brookins; the author and editors had no previous acquaintance. The review author was provided a review copy by the Harvard University Press.

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