The year 2021 started with some news that mostly went unnoticed, as, after all, did many other things in a pandemic-dominated year-long news cycle. A study published in Nature estimated that the mass of all human artefacts surpassed the biomass present on Earth: concrete, tarmac, plastics, metal products and devices, wood, paper – essentially, everything manufactured by humans – weigh more than the totality of living beings on the planet. Another milestone passed without us even noticing. And one that says a lot about the economic model in which we are submerged, based on the unrestrained exploitation of resources and ecosystem degradation.
It is time to stop. The balance of forests, oceans, rivers, lakes, prairies, savannahs, mountains, and glaciers has been compromised. In 2018, the FAO raised the alarm about soil: there is now no longer a piece of land that has not been contaminated by a potentially polluting element. Even in the Arctic. Even in the Amazon’s most remote recesses. And the oceans, suffocated by plastic and oil, saturated with carbon dioxide and chemical discharge, have started making the evolutionary clock go backwards – as Pulitzer Prize winner Ken Weiss had already denounced a few years ago – bringing more primordial species back to prominence because they are able to better adapt to an environment that is becoming less hospitable to their more evolved counterparts. Forests are not doing much better: according to a WWF report published earlier this year, deforestation – caused primarily by industrial agriculture and farming – ate up 43 million hectares of forest ecosystems between 2004 and 2017. Meanwhile, in 2020 alone, Global Forest Watch found that an area of primary tropical forest the size of The Netherlands was cleared away by human activities. Lastly, the water crisis, agricultural overexploitation, and mounting effects of climate change are putting 40% of the Earth’s surface at risk of desertification. According to UN estimates, this endangers the livelihoods of over one billion people.
The Decade on Ecosystem Restoration
It is, undoubtedly, time to stop. But stopping is no longer enough: now we must regenerate.
On World Environment Day 2021, which falls on 5th June, the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration proclaimed by the United Nations will be inaugurated. The programme’s dedicated website explains that the goal is to help ecosystems to regenerate, not only by removing the pressures that alter the natural balance but also through direct actions, such as reforestation and rewilding. “All kinds of ecosystems can be restored, including forests, farmlands, cities, wetlands and oceans,” each one with its most suitable strategies and rhythms.
First of all, it is a question of survival and thus it does not have a price. However, the United Nations is required to speak the language of economics, so it has also run the numbers. “Between now and 2030 – the website declares – the restoration of 350 million hectares of degraded terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems could generate US$9 trillion in ecosystem services. Restoration could also remove 13 to 26 gigatons of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. The economic benefits of such interventions exceed nine times the cost of investment, whereas inaction is at least three times more costly than ecosystem restoration.
And, even more pragmatically, the UNEP has published the Ecosystem Restoration Playbook, containing practical instructions to start acting, both collectively and individually, on both the political and personal level, starting from the places we inhabit and our choices as consumers.
A new vision: from conservation to mutualism, via restoration
Thinking about this, it is clearly a radical paradigm shift compared to just a few years ago. The need for ecosystem restoration has replaced the mere conservation of Nature, a concept that accompanied environmentalism throughout the 20th century and that had actually been “institutionalised” halfway through the 1800s, with the creation of the world’s first national park, at Yellowstone. While the idea of the “conservation of nature” has doubtless led to many benefits, it has also contributed to disseminating the misleading notion of a Manichean divide between the human and the natural: Nature was the garden that needed protecting, and man was its custodian. This vision was at least as presumptuous as the one that gives the human species the exclusive and unlimited rights for the exploitation of this planet’s resources.
Thinking in terms of restoration, meanwhile, changes the playing field, because it forces human beings to acknowledge their role in the natural cycle, realising that they are not a separate entity. To restore is to go back to operating within the rules written in the DNA of every living being: it means drawing from one’s ecosystem only the resources one needs to live and then returning these to the ecosystem in a different form. Thus, all organisms can benefit from their ecosystem and contribute to its collective preservation. Planting trees is perhaps the simplest way of spreading the message and getting people to act, but it is far from the only thing that can be done. A restorative vision, for example, also includes regenerative agriculture, which restores the soil while producing food, or more generally the regenerative economy (which is another name for the circular economy).
To sum up, we need to step back into that garden out of which we burst two or three centuries ago, wrongly thinking of ourselves as a thing apart. It is time to take a step back and overcome what, in the new language of the Anthropocene, people have started calling our “species loneliness”. Robert Macfarlane put it beautifully in his latest book, Underland: "the only possibility of salvation in our path through the uncertain and troubled centuries that await us is collaboration: mutualism, symbiosis, and the involvement of more-than-human communities in our collective decisions". First of all, restoration means cooperation between species, which after all is what defines an ecosystem. In short, we should be neither reckless exploiters nor presumptuous custodians: just equals among equals.