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Why Taoism & Environmental Restoration Are Made For Each Other

Rewilding in the safari of humankind

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Craig Axford | United States

The gentlest thing in the world
overcomes the hardest thing in the world.
That which has no substance
enters where there is no space.
This shows the value of non-action.

Teaching without words,
performing without actions:
that is the Master’s way.

~Tao Te Ching, chapter 43

We tend to think of environmental restoration as hard work: picks and shovels, ripping invasive plants out of the ground, conducting controlled burns. This is the well meaning side of our fondness for thinking of ourselves as nature’s masters. It was our intervention that screwed it up, so it must be our reintervention that restores it.

Often, however, restoration may involve little more than pulling the plug on a foolish dam, watching the waters recede and letting an area recover on its own. Will the place ever be the same? No. But then it was never going to be the same anyway. Nature is just another word for change.

In the Taoist tradition, the concept of wu-wei (often translated as effortless/actionless action) lies at the core of the philosophy. It is closely associated with water, which though soft eventually cracks and erodes even the hardest of objects.

Rewilding likewise calls for respecting the soft power of natural processes and their capacity to eventually return even the most damaged environment back to health. Neither wu-wei nor rewilding call upon us to be utterly passive, but they do challenge us to incorporate careful observation, humility, and patience into everything we do. These have too often been missing from both our efforts to dominate nature and to preserve it. Even when we have the best of intentions, we often act rashly hoping to quickly fix what we have broken.

What rewilding isn’t . . . and is

Words like rewilding are vulnerable to misunderstanding, to say nothing of intentional misrepresentation by those who oppose it. So before getting to what rewilding is or can be, it’s necessary to say briefly what it isn’t.

Rewilding is not a Luddite movement attempting to return us to living in caves without even so much as a plastic toothbrush to our name. Indoor plumbing, electricity, and even Facebook (assuming you haven’t already deleted your account) are all comforts we would still be able to enjoy in a more rewilded world.

This isn’t to say incorporating the concept into our conservation and sustainability efforts to a much greater extent wouldn’t impact how we relate with technology. However, I’m convinced these changes would enhance human well-being and happiness rather than subtract from it. Indeed, there’s even evidence humanity could experience greater abundance than it does now if rewilding became a central value of our culture.

Rewilding remains strongly linked to the reintroduction of apex predators to ecosystems that haven’t seen them in a while. The reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone is probably the best-known example of this kind of rewilding effort. Because these animals stand at the top of the food chain they need larger areas to thrive. Therefore, their reintroduction also requires large tracts of sufficiently healthy habitat with adequate prey populations.

That said, the concept has broadened since the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction. The rewilding of a landscape need not include any reintroduction at all. For example, one can imagine the site of an ill-conceived reservoir being rewilded simply by draining the artificial lake and allowing nature to take its course as the formerly flooded canyon or valley slowly flushes itself of the accumulated silt and revegetates.

Some have expanded the concept even further to include areas as small as our backyard or urban rooftops. These tiny patches will obviously never be inviting habitats for mountain lions and wolves, but they can still function as critical refuges for birds and pollinators otherwise displaced by human development. In this context active human management is far more likely to play a vital role. That’s okay though. As I’ve written previously, playing in the dirt actually brings some wonderful health benefits. A well-planned garden that requires some muscle to maintain can be as good for us as it is for the species that use it.

The Colorado River: an awaiting rewilding opportunity

In March of 1963, the diversion tunnels for what would become the US Bureau of Reclamation’s most controversial project were closed. At that moment the waters of the Colorado River began to slowly back up behind Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell was born.

Located in a remote section of desert on the Utah/Arizona border, Lake Powell has only briefly ever reached capacity in its now more than 50 years of existence. Between seepage into the surrounding sandstone and evaporation, the lake loses nearly one million acre feet of water a year that, in spite of the name of the government agency that gave birth to it, is never actually reclaimed for agricultural use or as drinking water. According to the Bureau of Reclamation’s own website, between “two and three percent of the lake’s water evaporates into the atmosphere each year.” In addition, “About 13.4 million acre feet (16,500 million cubic meters), or almost a third of the reservoir’s capacity” was absorbed into the porous sandstone of Glen Canyon just during the years the lake was filling. That absorption continues to this day.

Photo by Rainer Krienke on Unsplash. Lake Powell (formerly Glen Canyon), USA. The Late David Brower and other environmental activists have pointed to the canyon submerged beneath the waters of Lake Powell on the Utah/Arizona border as an excellent candidate for restoration.

Even though it is far from the largest river, the Colorado River is among the most overtaxed rivers in the world. Its watershed provides water to every major metropolitan area between Denver and Los Angeles and irrigates hundreds of thousands of acres of agricultural land. Given this reality, having so much of it go toward sustaining a giant evaporation pond in the middle of a remote desert is a waste from a human as well as environmental perspective.

In the environmental classic A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold describes the 1922 trip he and his brother took to the Colorado River Delta. If you’ve visited the Delta recently, as I have, Leopold’s description of it reads like a work of fiction. He writes that “On the map the Delta was bisected by the river, but in fact, the river was nowhere and everywhere, for he [the river]could not decide which of a hundred green lagoons offered the most pleasant and least speedy path to the Gulf.”

Today it is considered a good year when the Colorado River makes it to the Sea of Cortez at all. Even then the small portion of the river that does find its way there is typically a fetid, briny rivulet contaminated with chemical fertilizer and hardened with minerals concentrated by evaporation.

Efforts have recently gotten underway to restore a small fraction of the Colorado River Delta to its former glory. A December 2014 article in National Geographic Magazine described the effects of a “pulse flow” of just over 105,000 acre feet of water that started with a release from Hoover Dam a week upstream. The results of that release were dramatic, and provide a glimpse of what could happen if a stronger more reliable flow were provided regularly to the Delta. The more than 800,000 acre feet lost each year to evaporation and absorption at Lake Powell immediately comes to mind as a possible source for such a renewal.

“Man always kills the thing he loves, and so we the pioneers have killed our wilderness,” Aldo Leopold wrote at the end of his chapter describing the time he and his brother spent exploring the Colorado River Delta. “Some say we had to,” he continued. “Be that as it may, I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”

We may never get the Colorado River Delta of Aldo Leopold’s youth back, but the signs of recovery at sites benefitting from the pulse flow of 2014 do show that even after receiving seemingly fatal blows ecosystems can prove more resilient than we give them credit for. As Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project put it, the Delta “isn’t dead,” but “it’s been dormant, and if you add water it will come back to life.”

Wildife management as an actionless action

We’ve fallen into the bad habit of seeing natural relationships through a linear zero sum lens. For example, if we like to eat something and another animal also likes to eat the same thing, killing off the species that are in competition with us will, we consistently think, necessarily increase the availability of the creature(s) we like to eat. This idea turns out to be as wrong as it is simplistic.

Wolves, coyotes, whales, seals, sea otters… In each case, our eradication policies have backfired. The removal of the wolf turned out to have huge deleterious consequences for beaver populations, aspen stands, and many other components of the ecosystem. Overhunting whales ended up having a major negative impact on phytoplankton, which a variety of fish populations humans, as well as whales, eat rely upon. Likewise, killing seals to protect fish species we consume had the opposite effect. As George Manbiot put it in The Guardian, “The fishermen who have insisted that predators such as seals should be killed might have been reducing, not enhancing, their catch.”

Our usually misguided wildlife management policies are perhaps the best example we have where the ancient Taoist concept of actionless action would, if applied, have tremendous positive consequences. Nature does not operate under zero sum rules. Predators, while obviously a threat to individual prey, play a critical role in maintaining the entire ecosystem. A healthy ecosystem is more productive than an unhealthy one, leaving more and better services for all species, including humans, to take advantage of.

There’s no need to reintroduce wolves again to the Rockies. All we need to do now is allow those already occupying the Greater Yellowstone Area to migrate unmolested to their ancestor’s old haunts. Likewise, just leaving the ocean’s whales, seals and otters alone will, in the long-run, likely be sufficient to facilitate their eventual recovery.

Any interventions we do undertake, however, must be for the purpose of restoring species to areas where they no longer exist or are extremely rare. Hunting one species for the “benefit” of another hasn’t paid dividends in the past and isn’t likely to in the future. Ecosystems are just too complex for us to know with any degree of certainty what the outcome will be if we again undertake such efforts.

Sea urchins are a staple of the sea otter diet. Sea urchins eat kelp and other plant matter. Eliminating sea otters has resulted in urchin population explosions which have devasted kelp forests upon which many fish depend. Image: wikimedia

Rewilding from local parks to the backyard

Personal and public habitats much closer to home provide excellent opportunities for both casual and more hands on approaches to environmental restoration. Obviously, our yards and city parks will never be wild in the sense that most people use that word. But they can play a key role in our conservation efforts none-the-less.

Consider Seattle’s Pollinator Pathway. This project is obviously targeting bees, butterflies, moths and other pollinators rather than the ecosystem as a whole. But by providing needed support for creatures that often struggle in urban and agricultural settings, the project increases the capacity of these critical species to absorb environmental stress and ultimately thrive.

The Pollinator Pathway runs only a mile along Seattle’s Columbia Street. However, it demonstrates the feasibility of much larger efforts that can be woven into any city’s infrastructure. These types of projects are only limited by the imagination of urban planners and architects and the willingness of local citizens and policymakers to make them a reality. If implemented on a large enough scale, the benefits to pollinators desperately seeking diverse habitats free of large scale pesticide and herbicide contamination could reverse decades long population declines.

According to bee expert Noah Wilson-Rich, urban bees already overwinter far better than rural bees. The year-to-year survival rate for bees in city beehives is more than 60%, while for rural beehives it’s only 40%. Though we are uncertain why bees seem to fare so well in cities, the fact remains that even the most crowded human environments can play a key role in the recovery of insects critical to both our own well-being and that of the more than 250,000 species of flowering plants that share this planet with us.

Conclusion:

It’s only a slight exaggeration to say the research opportunities that extensive rewilding would provide are practically endless. This will be especially true if we adopt a broad view of the concept instead of a narrow absolutist one. As the case of urban bees show, rewilding is something that happens along a spectrum rather than being an either/or proposition.

No matter how far we take our rewilding efforts in any given case, humans will always remain a component of the ecosystem. Any attempt to integrate even a little bit of the non-human world into our life will provide rich opportunities to enhance our understanding of the dynamic relationships that sustain earth’s biosphere.

But before arriving there we must take a leap of faith that is especially difficult in a culture where our first impulse is to attack and conquer those parts of the natural world that do not quickly or easily submit to our wishes. When faced with stiff resistance we are more likely to destroy what’s in our way than see the wisdom of bending like reeds in a stiff wind. As we approach 9 billion people and the climate change crisis becomes an ever more imminent threat to our quality of life, that attitude will have to change. Applying a form of actionless action through rewilding offers us a profound example of how we might go about changing it.

Photo by Owain McGuire on Unsplash. Lion Sands Game Reserve, Sabi Sands, South Africa

Follow Craig on Twitter or read him on Medium.com.

Other stories by Craig Axford that you may enjoy include:

Life Always Has Other Plans. Embrace Them

Essentialism: The Mother of All Linear Thinking

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