Tuesday, May 07, 2013

The Authenticity of Marginal Nature and Retrospective Ecology

“… the reference point is not an original condition of a natural landscape, but rather a condition defined based on the current site potential and the greatest possible degree of self-regulation. From this perspective, therefore, the natural capacity for process is the central point, not a particular, retrospectively determined and often idealized, picture of nature.” [Ingo Kowarik, Urban Wild Woodlands 2005]

The ecological setting for wasteland habitat begins with a presettlement ecosystem. In America, this setting is associated with the myth of wilderness as first nature. Wilderness is that pristine pre-Columbian place that continues be the standard of American nature despite the work of geographers, historians, and ecologists who have established the role of Native Americans in transforming the ecology of America. For thousands of years, Native Americans had been busy manipulating and cultivating wilderness in ways that European American eyes failed to see, or chose not to acknowledge. Now we reify native species as the embodiment of the original moment before our own arrival, a misapprehension bound up in the retrospective discourse of conservation biology and restoration ecology and then deployed as the focus of nature protection in America.

The issue of what is native or alien to a place is a question of biogeography which is transformed into scientific programs of conservation biology and restoration ecology. Here in the wastelands, the question of native species and first nature arises most sharply when a patch of remnant habitat is found. In the wastelands, these remnants are promoted as highly prized reminders of the past; benchmarks for restoration; and “shrines” for nature enthusiasts. They are the standards used to judge the rest of wasteland nature and to label it as degraded habitat. The quest for these remnants is one aspect of engagement with wastelands, but one where only remnant shreds and scraps are valued. Habitat in urban waste space as a whole is devalued when compared to the few sites with remnant first nature. Moreover, this remnant first nature is the catalyst for restoration projects that seek to transform wastelands.

When no remnants are found, this ecological meddling in the margins can take the form of claiming them for the functional landscapes of second nature, which entails the transformation of the ecological community in wastelands for social purposes. The sports fields and lawns of urban pastoral parkland typically consist of non-native turf grasses. The reclamation of vacant lots into community gardens and urban farms replaces wasteland weeds with cultivated plants, most of which ironically are non-native species. Vegetation managed as functional infrastructure in flood plains or along waterways also consists of native and non-native vegetation. Thus, the wastelands disappear as we turn them into landscapes of second nature.

The German urban ecologist, Ingo Kowarik, uses the iterative concept of nature to argue for appreciation of wasteland habitats. The focus of his research is woodlands that grow without human help in urban industrial waste spaces. He argues that these “urban industrial woodlands” must be recognized as a distinct kind of ecological community. The woodlands that have grown in the derelict iron and steel foundries and mining areas in the Ruhr valley are well studied German examples. They, also, have been extensively studied in old railyards, abandoned railways, and other vacant lands in Berlin. If these woodlands are compared to original mature woodlands outside of the city, they are classified as degraded woodlands. Kowarik argues that this comparison amounts to judging them with a retrospective standard of nature based on past conditions. He characterizes this standard as “a particular, retrospectively determined and often idealized, picture of nature.” This picture of nature is usually a first nature image of woodland. He argues for a “contemporaneous” approach to evaluating these urban woodlands which does not value them based on a retrospective judgment about the anthropogenic origin of the site. Additionally, they should be evaluated with a “prospective” approach which assesses their potential for capacity to grow without the intervention of humans. Both their self-generation and successful growth independent of human cultivation indicate their ecological functionality from the perspective of ecosystem process.

Based on these ecological attributes, Kowarik argues that urban industrial woodlands have more similarities to first nature woodland, to which they are usually negatively compared, than to cultivated, intensively managed forests or parkland/garden trees. He suggests a revision of the iterative classification of nature where urban industrial woodlands are recognized as a fourth nature following on traditional first and second nature and including the Renaissance idea of gardens as third nature. Fourth nature “encompasses the natural development that occurs independently on typical urban industrial sites, without horticultural planning or design,” which emerges as a kind of “new wilderness.” One goal of his proposal is to shift the focus of urban nature conservation planning from particular sites which manifest first nature remnants or pastoral attributes to significant examples of each of the four types of nature. A second goal is more controversial, especially in America, since he asserts a “fundamental equivalence of values” between these four kinds of nature which is a direct challenge to the primacy of wilderness,

“The second goal is to convey, through a simple distinction between natures of the first, second, third and fourth kind, that a fundamental equivalence of values exists among the four different nature types. The original nature, which is identified as the “correct” nature from a scientific perspective through the application of the retrospective perspective of naturalness…is therefore not automatically more valuable than the other manifestations of nature.” [Urban Wild Woodlands 2005]

Kowarik creates this new classification to overcome the prejudice that, even in Germany, sets first nature or preferred cultural landscapes as the correct nature to conserve. This sanctioning of original nature within conservation biology is based on a prejudice for wilderness or traditional cultural landscapes. He is not alone in making this criticism of conservation biology, but his focus on urban nature conservation is relevant to assessing the value of marginal nature.

Even though Kowarik is not arguing that first and fourth nature are the same ecological communities, his appeal to functionality and ecosystem processes undermines the dominance of first nature as the sole standard of appropriate nature. This socioecological revision contrasts sharply with the strong argument for pristine nature that we find in American environmental ethicists. For example, Eric Katz argues that the intervention of human intentionality at any point undoes the authenticity of the natural, turns a once natural place into an artifact. [Nature as Subject: Human Obligation and Natural Community. 1997] This absolutist belief in the authenticity of natural value relies on the strict divide between the natural and the human, with pristine nature as the only ground for natural value. Appeals to functionality also surfaced in debates between Katz and restoration ecologists. In this context, the debate was about the status of restored habitats compared to authentic first nature. Katz argued against functionality of an ecosystem as an equivalent value to authenticity because it generates the “substitution problem,”

“As long as our only concern is the ecological function of the system, then we may simply substitute more ecologically efficient components – as long as we have sufficient knowledge. This criterion eliminates any direct argument for the preservation of natural entities within the system. As long as ecological function is maintained, individuals may be replaced or destroyed.” [In Gobster and Hull, Restoring Nature. 2000]

Katz’s fear is that there then is no end to substitution, and so all of first nature could be replaced by second nature as long as it functioned sufficiently well. “Nature itself – a nature unmodified by human intention, knowledge, technology, and power – will lose its value.” Between Katz and Kowarik is a divide that marks one of the key differences between American and European perceptions of nature. Kowarik is open to including in his definition of first nature areas that still have a strong connection to pristine ecosystems despite human impacts. This acceptance of some human involvement with habitats considered pristine acknowledges the reality of human habitation in ancient European natural landscapes. For Katz, this openness is the betrayal of the authenticity of pristine nature. Katz would object to the very notion of “new wilderness” since this wasteland habitat is just another human artifact. This same kind of reasoning influenced McKibben who announced the end of nature since humans have so modified the natural processes of the entire planet.

The American idea of nature as pristine wilderness, also, generates another problem since, once altered, nature can never recover its pristine status. From Katz’s perspective, there is no possibility of a new wilderness. American first nature is an object that can only be blemished and degraded, and it is not a resistant (or resilient) subject. The agency of nature emerges here again as a question since there is nothing that nature can do to recover its honor or its authenticity once human intervention sullies it. In contrast, Kowarik begins his ecological engagement with nature (urban or otherwise) from an analysis of its agency and its natural process. All four kinds of nature in Kowarik’s scheme are mixtures of nonhuman and human agency with fourth nature being a unique response of nonhuman agency to human intervention and neglect. A defining characteristic of marginal nature is this opportunistic agency, this resistant pushing back against human intentions and transgressive infiltration of urban space through the wastelands. As a coproduction, marginal nature opens new possibilities for nature and human society to interact through commingling intentions.


Anonymous said...

Dear Kevin
I find this post absolutely fascinating. I work in conservation and outreach in London, so it is directly relevant to me on a personal and professional level. So interesting to see the difference between US and European takes on wilderness. But I have one question: isn't it true that the more ancient an ecological community is eg peat bog, hedgerow, woodland - the more complexity, variety and number of species it contains? In which case older wilderness will always be more valuable? Be great to hear your answer on that!

Anonymous said...


kevin m anderson said...

No, it is not true that all older systems are more diverse. Hedgerows are young systems and very diverse, in part because they have had relatively less regular disturbance than the agricultural fields around them. Wastelands are young too and [throughout England] biologically diverse. See my post today for where ecology has moved away from beliefs like older is better and more diverse and more stable, etc.