An introduction to restoration ecology: Can it combat environmental degradation?

Let’s start with the bad news.

Researchers for the last decade have been coming up with different climate change models and predicting when we will cross the point-of-no-return; the point once crossed, cannot reverse or reduce the impact of climate change anymore. Different researchers have come up with different points-of-no-returns: the more optimistic ones say 2100, the slightly conservative ones suggest some year between 2050 and 2073 while the pessimistic ones believe it’s going to be anywhere between 2030 and 2050.

I believe humans have done irrevocable damage to the ecosystems already; with a thirst for more development and capitalistic success, I am sure that the damage already caused will be dwarfed by what we can do in the next 10 years. Regardless of what climate change has in store for us, environmental degradation cannot be denied, and we have been mercilessly exploiting our natural resources. Is there a way we can reverse this?


Many recent findings share my pessimistic view. A paper released by Oil Change International (OCI), in partnership with 14 other environmental organizations, put the point-of-no-return from reversing the impacts of climate change at 2033. That’s 17 years from today. The study also suggests that to avoid hitting this point in 2033, we have to immediately, completely stop all oil, natural gas and coal emissions and extraction. The dangers for natural resources are worse. The Earth Overshoot Day, the day we use up one year’s worth of resources that the Earth can produce, is moving closer and closer to January as we speak. The year is not far when we will begin to use up two year’s worth of resources in one year. 

Oil drilling protest against drilling in the Tasman Sea.

Now, let’s be realistic. Yes, campaigns are being done all over the world to stop further leases for drilling. Greta Thunberg means well when she pleads to the Donald Trump to take climate change seriously. People are dying trying to stop oil pipelines from being built. But you cannot expect the ultra-rich, money driven, capitalists and oil companies to give in to one study, or few protests by kids. Similarly, their businesses will not stop exploiting natural resources.

So, while the protesters continue to protest and the government is stuck trying to make sure economies grow, what do we do to buffer the impacts of climate change and reduce environmental degradation?

Answer: Restoration

Restoration is the intentional activity that initiates and accelerates the recovery of an ecosystem with respect to its health, integrity and sustainability (SER, 2004). It’s a practice that has been around for a long time in small forms; erosion control, replantation and afforestation. As a branch of ecology though, it has been gaining traction from the late 1980s. Restoration ecology is still a largely experimental science, as we are yet to fully understand the complexity of ecosystems and its interrelationships.

At the heart of it, restoration ecology is a science that believes that degradation of a landscape and/or ecosystem is temporary and recoverable (Young 2000).

I believe restoration ecology is the current solution to tackle environment degradation that will eventually have a negative effect on the economy as well. At the heart of it, restoration ecology is a science that believes that degradation of a landscape and/or ecosystem is temporary and recoverable (Young 2000). Going by this assumption, every activity that has degraded massive ecosystems; mining, hydroelectric projects, urban infrastructure projects, agriculturally degraded land, all can be restored to its (partially) initial stages.

Image results for restoration ecology
Now that’s a sign I’d like to see everywhere! Source: Google Images

The primary principle of restoration ecology is to identify the characteristics of the local ecosystem (before degradation) and experimentally come up with a plan to bring the ecosystem back to that stage. Then, they implement this plan.

Some of the challenges

The process is not foolproof. Restoration ecology, because of the lack of data, continues to have a high failure rate. Also, the process of restoration is slow, taking as much as 15-30 years in some cases for an ecosystem to fully recover. The restored ecosystems have a small range of influence, so many such restored projects are required to bring a significant change. Restoration ecology is lagging where it is most desperately required; the tropical countries of Asia. Since it is still in its infant stages, it’s finding it hard to shoot off. Most importantly, restoration activities have few viable business models, because long time frames and untested methods are perceived as high risk activities by investors.

But, there is good news as well. Restoration, does have success stories and some big ones at that. Some of them include lake restoration in Minnesota, USA, forest restoration in Japan, pesticide management in agricultural lands of Andra Pradesh, generation of a complete, functioning ecosystem closer home at Hathipao, Uttarakhand. The recently constituted Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN) Fund under the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) is a flexible financial tool that seeks to de-risk restoration projects and then let market interventions build on the initial success. An example of this would be the promotion of organic commodity value chains like tea, coffee or honey.

Where do I see restoration ecology playing a role?

Regardless of where you stand on the climate change debate (it is real, but I agree to the fact that there are many factors influencing it and humans may not be the most dominant), environmental degradation from resource extraction and use cannot be denied. This where restoration can play the biggest role.

Restoration of sites can help by-

  1. Reclaiming land lost to mining, agriculture, deforestation and other human activities.
  2. The role these restored ecosystems play cannot be understated. Apart from ensuring we get something out of land previously deemed “unfit for use”, it prevents other ecological catastrophes like desertification.
  3. Restoration is largely dependent on the establishment of plant communities. Sufficiently large communities can play a small, yet significant role in utilizing some of the excess carbon present locally.
  4. The microclimate established by these plant communities can regulate the weather patterns of that area, bringing some respite from freak weather phenomenons that have plagued the world.
  5. Apart from the effects in buffering local environmental factors, this field will play a major role in ensuring safety of biodiversity on Earth.

Here is the means to the end of the great extinction spasm. The next century, I believe, will be the era of restoration in ecology.

-E.O.Wilson (1992)

Restoration Ecology could be our solution to reversing land degradation and revitalizing our economies; the best long term strategy to ensure the Earth does not become a waste land.

Further readings-

  3. Other predictions of points-of-no-return.


  2. Restoration ecology and conservation biology; Truman P. Young; Biological Conservation 92 (2000)
  3. The ecology of restoration: historical links, emerging issues and unexplored realms; T. P. Young, D. A. Petersen, J. J. Clary; Ecology Letters (2005).
  4. Other links present in the text.

Author: Saurab Babu

Usually found sitting with a good book, nibbling on a piece of dark chocolate. Always ready for a good story.

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