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Grieving for the past, hoping for the future

Richard Hobbs

Richard Hobbs is stepping down as Editor-in-Chief of the journal Restoration Ecology. During his 10 years at the helm, he's often been surprised by the resistance in some quarters to the emergence of new ideas. Here's an edited excerpt from his parting editorial.......

Although lively debate on important issues is to be encouraged, I have been increasingly struck by how divisive some issues can be. For instance, in my own work, I have been involved recently in discussions on how best to confront the issue of non-native/invasive species and on the allied topic of novel ecosystems. 

In the case of non-native species, it's been suggested that the management emphasis should be shifted from considering primarily a species' origin to a focus on the impacts species have on the ecosystems in which they establish. Sounds like a reasonable proposition (and very much in the frame of EDG thinking) but subsequent critiques of this view revealed a degree of alarm, almost outrage, at the arguments presented.

Although there has not been the same degree of criticism of the concept of novel ecosystems in the literature to date, there is considerable disquiet about this notion in some quarters. At conferences where the topic is presented, concerns are aired that the concept will adversely affect restoration policy and practice, particularly by opening the way for less stringent targets. Phrases such as ‘slippery slope' and ‘lowering the bar' have been used in this context.

Two sets

In both cases, there appear to be two very different sets of people with very different perspectives on the issues involved. One set holds firmly to established ideas and principles concerning invasive species and ecosystem management/restoration and thinks that any departure from the core set of ideas will be detrimental to efforts to maintain and restore species and ecosystems.

The other set argues that, looking at the evidence of current patterns and trends, there has to be a move away from the more traditional perspectives toward one that recognizes the changing situation facing those aiming to manage and restore systems.

Both sets of people have the same underlying backgrounds, training, and, probably, broad set of ethical underpinnings. Both are smart, dedicated groups of people who seek to inform and improve the ways in which the Earth's ecosystems and species are managed. And yet they now find themselves essentially ‘talking past each other' and in apparent stark disagreement.

Why might this be the case? Why am I now apparently at odds with some of my colleagues and collaborators? Why are there such visceral responses to literature that suggests we need to start thinking differently about topics such as invasive species and restoration goals? One potential explanation occurred to me as I reflected on the nature of loss.

On change and loss

Over the past couple of years, both my wife and I have lost our mothers-both lived long, happy lives and died in their late 80s. Of course, both deaths were significant losses to our family and came with grief. Bereavement is an extreme form of loss, but losses of any kind can result in the need to grieve-the death of a friend or relative, the loss of a family pet, loss of personal possessions because of fire or theft, or losing one's job.

It struck me quite forcibly at the International Conference for Conservation Biology in Auckland in 2011 that people researching and managing the fate of species and ecosystems in today's world are constantly faced with loss. Whether it's a local and personal loss such as the destruction of a piece of local woodland or a species that was once abundant now being scarce or nonexistent, or whether it is loss on a grander and more general scale, such as the destruction of rainforest, the extinction of Australian marsupials, or the decline of the Arctic ice sheet, people with an interest in species, ecosystems, and the environment in general are constantly assailed with accounts of past or impending loss.

This is the subject matter of applied ecology, environmental science, and particularly conservation biology-investigating past, current, and future losses and how to understand, predict, and, ultimately, halt or reverse them. However, getting to this last phase is often difficult and time-consuming and requires observation and understanding of the processes involved.

It could be argued that most ecologists and conservation biologists live mostly in a world characterized by loss, and hence are either wittingly or unwittingly in a constant state of grief. This has been discussed only rarely in the literature, and scientists and practitioners rarely talk about the emotional aspects of what they do.

The process of grieving has been explored in depth in psychology, perhaps most famously by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (Kubler-Ross and Kessler, 2007), initially from the perspective of the dying patient and later in relation to grieving friends and relatives. Kubler-Ross proposed a five-stage process of grieving that is now well known: stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

The initial phase, denial, is seen as a temporary defense mechanism as a buffer against unpleasant news or events. This may be replaced by feelings of anger, envy, or resentment that may be directed at particular people, the medical profession, or the world in general. Bargaining takes the form of attempting to postpone the inevitable by negotiating or pleading with doctors, or with God. Depression results from the recognition of what has been, or is about to be, lost. Acceptance is the final recognition of, and preparation for, the inevitable finality of death, which need not, however, be viewed as resigned and hopeless giving up.

Kubler-Ross presented five distinct stages, but made it clear that these were not necessarily sequential and, indeed, individuals could flip backward and forward from one to another or experience more than one simultaneously. Her approach has been often criticized as being too prescriptive and as misrepresenting how people actually grieve. Nevertheless, the five stages are recognized even by critics as ‘handles or points of entry to comprehend what before was enigmatic even chaotic.'

Grief and the conservation scientist

When assailed constantly with accounts of loss of species, habitats, historical fidelity, and so on, could it be that many ecologists and conservation biologists may be suffering from chronic or acute grief? If this is true, can an understanding of the grieving process be useful?

When considering particular perspectives (including one's own) and the rationale behind various conservation/restoration decisions, it may be worthwhile examining the underlying basis for this rationale in terms of whether it stems from one particular stage of the grieving process versus another.

In relation to the polarized debates in ecology and conservation discussed earlier, one can ask whether they might at least partially be rooted in the different stages of grieving that people (and even whole organizations) find themselves at.

Applying the five stages to conservation losses, an equivalent set of reactions from concerned parties can be suggested, together with the associated tools and concepts relevant to each stage.

Responses to conservation loss

Denial in this context does not relate to the type of vested-interest denial that characterizes one side of the public and political discourse on climate change (and I discuss other examples in Decision Point #61). I would contend that there is a different type of denial to be found within the conservation community that relates more to an inability or unwillingness to recognize or accept ongoing changes in species distributions, abundances and interactions, and/or the increasing likelihood that some of these changes cannot be reversed.

Unlike climate change denial, this type of denial leads to demands for more, not less, action-and also leads people to reject suggestions that the time may have come to look at things differently and to find alternative solutions and ways of working.

Anger is another common response to conservation issues and challenges, particularly in the face of government or societal inaction or, worse, continued activity that leads to ongoing loss of things of value.

Bargaining, on the other hand, encapsulates the set of ideas and activities surrounding decision making, priority setting, and tradeoffs-there is an implicit recognition that it will be impossible to do everything and hence some negotiated decisions have to be made.

Depression appears to be a constant possibility for people working in conservation as they face ongoing declines of species and habitats or as they contemplate the immensity of the tasks ahead.

Finally, acceptance perhaps represents a state of mind in which some degree of reconciliation has taken place regarding past losses and a recognition that, despite change, there is still much to value and to strive to protect or restore. At the same time, acceptance is often mistakenly taken for acquiescence, that one must accept the state of affairs resulting from change. Acceptance relates more to living with a particular loss, and adjusting one's own life from the lessons that came from the loss. Thus, one can continue to mourn the loss, and yet not fully ‘come to terms' with directional ecosystem or biodiversity change without ‘accepting' the conditions that give rise to it.

Obviously, there are marked differences between a response to the loss of a loved one and individual and collective responses to conservation losses. In particular, death is a clear end point, whereas conservation losses are often diffuse, chronic, and uncertain-often characterized by incomplete evidence and contradictory claims and interpretations.

Another important feature is that conservation losses are sometimes reversible, and there have been many examples of spectacular conservation success, given the right set of circumstances and opportunities. This is where restoration comes to the fore, and provides the possibility of reversing past damage-in other words, turning loss into gain.

Kubler-Ross's treatment of the grieving process included the observation that throughout the process, hope generally remains, regardless of what else is happening. Restoration certainly provides hope for the future and has been embraced from local to global levels.

The provision of hope was one of the reasons I got into restoration ecology. When I started teaching a third-year undergraduate unit in restoration about 10 years ago, I had students coming to me after a few lectures saying how great it was to hear about something positive that could be done, after being browbeaten by 2 years of apparently intractable environmental problems. Indeed, some recent commentators have called for a reinstalment of hope in the culture of conservation biology. Restoration certainly has an important place in this endeavor.

The hope provided by restoration does, however, have to be realistic, and to be based on the reality of the situation. Blind optimism can lead to false promises, wasted effort, and poor outcomes, particularly if expectations exceed capabilities.

To increasing numbers of observers, empirical evidence suggests that we are indeed heading toward, or are already in, an ecological ‘new normal,' but others prefer to deny this and continue to believe that changes are reversible-or are angry that some others are pointing to the evidence to suggest that we need to find new ways of working. Those others have perhaps cycled faster through the grief process and have come to accept the inevitability of change and are trying to work on ways forward in the new circumstances in which we find ourselves (note again that acceptance does not mean that one has to actually like the situation).

Hence, clashes occur, not because different people have different ethical stances or values, but because they differ in the phase of the grieving process they are operating in. These people all seek to conserve the world's biodiversity and restore ecosystems: they may simply be operating from different perspectives arising from their particular intellectual and emotional journey.

Perhaps, therefore, ideas about grief can help explain, at least partially, some of the discordant debates and disagreements in conservation and restoration. As a final note, it is also important to say that loss can result in new opportunities. Loss in ecological terms may sometimes result in new but still worthwhile assemblages.

Effective intervention in the form of conservation or restoration can also help prevent further loss or in some cases reverse past losses. In lamenting what is lost, it is also important to remember to rejoice in what is still here-or what could be there in the future.

More info: Richard Hobbs richard.hobbs@uwa.edu.au

References on request: andrea@theecologist.org

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