|Meghalaya living root brige, India.|
Human intelligence and ingenuity has meant that today we are capable of engineering ecology. Committed to the pathway towards sustainable development, numerous countries have adopted environmental mitigation policies, whereby the degradation of an ecosystem by large-scale infrastructure implementation must be compensated for. By using a reference system, or details of the pre-disturbance event site, ecologists are able to modify the physical properties of the site, before reintroducing displaced species to restore a site to its former state. Such a balance between man’s use of natural resources and natures provision rings true the goals set for a sustainable future. In theory.
Sadly, this statement of hope is itself engineered, foundations laid, supports rigged, and brass polished. But the standing of a structure does not equate to its success. Reintroduction and restoration projects are now the norm in civic development and environmental conservation, with thousands of initiatives launched to restore a marshland following industrial pollution, degraded soils or populations of locally extinct cranes. But the idea that man can recreate the work of thousands of years of natural selection in the space of a couple of months is a fallacy.
This is not to say that such projects are a waste of our resources. We are facing a steep decline in the world’s natural resources, both biotic and physical, which demands that we address our current methods, and aim for alternatives. And yet the success rates of such projects at recreating what was lost is low, with Moreno-Mateos et al (2012) reporting an average of a 25% reduction in biological structure and biogeochemical functioning in restored sites compared to their original or reference state. Projects of animal reintroduction, such as the Arabian Orxy, largely trumpeted as successes have more recently revealed renewed declines in population numbers.
What is most worrying is the potential that such a practice will give licence to developers to slosh down concrete and bolt on girders at an ever increasing rate, able to claim ecological neutrality when in fact it is far from the case. Mitigation banking systems recently unveiled detach constructers further, whereby a lump sum is deposited following site conversion, hands washed of responsibility whilst others implement restoration programmes.
The practice of ecological engineering is still in its infancy, and obvious teething pains are bound to occur. A greater understanding of ecological process is required before such a huge step can be taken to remedy our destruction, an otherwise admirable aim. But we must remain wary of any sensation of complete comprehension of the cogs that twist, link and turn our natural systems.