Friday, July 6, 2012

Transitory Places, part 3

Ethics in Transitory Places
What does it imply for the conservation project at Karori if the place in which it unfolds is, in some meaningful sense, transitory? What does the possibility of transitory places imply for projects in general, and for our evaluation of their means and ends? It seems to me there are at least three important lessons for environmental ethics to be derived from an acknowledgement that time and change can be unidirectional.

The first lesson is that the ends of the project at hand, not just its means, should be informed by a deep understanding of a particular place and the dynamics that shape it.  It may be obvious that the means for reaching a projects’ ends should be selected on the basis of what is available. That is just a matter of prudent, practical thinking. But that the ends should also be so shaped is less obvious. In this, the goals adopted by the Karori Sanctuary Trust are instructive.

For purposes of engaging the public and attracting tourists, the aim of the conservation project at Karori is cast in relatively pure and simple terms: to provide a glimpse of a “lost paradise,” to gradually restore the landscape “to its pre-human state” (Karori Sanctuary Trust, 2008e).  But if this is the true and only goal, the project is a non-starter, on both practical and ethical grounds.  On practical grounds, it is already too late. As the Karori Sanctuary Trust notes on its website:
there are limitations to full restoration, such as species that have since become extinct and exotic species that cannot be controlled or excluded. The context in which we are working has also irreversibly changed. What was once part of a vast unbroken ecosystem is now essentially a 225ha island surrounded by suburbs and scrubland (Karori Sanctuary Trust, 2008c).

On ethical grounds, the pure vision of the sanctuary would fall into the maw of the once-raging debate among environmental ethicists over ecological restoration, perhaps subjecting it to the charge of “faking nature” (Elliot, 1997, p. 78), and so on.  This would be unfortunate, as it would feed into what Andrew Light characterizes as a misunderstanding of restoration on the part of environmental philosophers. The misunderstanding arises, he writes, “due to the mistaken impression that ecological restoration is only an attempt to restore nature itself, rather than an effort to restore an important part of the human relationship with nature ” (Light, 2000, p. 49).

Even a cursory reading of the Trust’s website reveals a distinction between the public rationale-cum-tagline for the sanctuary and the diverse array of more modest goals that seem actually to motivate the project.  The overall outcome, as presented in the Trust’s original concept, first prepared in 1992, is this: “We will have: A world-class conservation site portraying our natural heritage that captures people’s imagination, understanding, and commitment” (quoted in Campbell-Hunt, 2002, p. 38).  Already, this is a more modest aim for the project, one oriented more to winning the hearts and minds of the public – the “culture of nature,” as Light (2000, p. 49) would have it – than to attaining a standard of biogeographic purity: the end in view is to portray the natural heritage of the region in a way that engages the public.

The Trust enumerates a number of more specific goals, under five headings: conservation and research, community involvement, education, corporate management, and recreation/tourism.  All of these together are what, from the Trust’s point of view, make the Karori project worth pursuing. While the conservation and research goals are still ambitious, they are more modest than the advertising copy might suggest, and they seem to exhibit a clear understanding of the challenges posed by the passage of time. 

For example, rather than promising a complete restoration, the Trust aims to establish in the sanctuary “fauna, flora and habitats representative of a Wellington ecological district coastal lowland and freshwater ecosystem,” one which exhibits “indigenous character” and in which “key natural processes” are at work (Campbell-Hunt, 2002, p. 38, emphasis added).  The precise meanings of these goals are articulated elsewhere, but they are shaped by an awareness of how much, and how irreversibly, the region has changed in 1000 years, as well as how limited current knowledge of past landscapes can be. This much is explicit on the Trust’s website (Karori Sanctuary Trust, 2008c, 2008d).  For example, allowances are made for introduction of species that may act as analogues for extinct species, and for species, like the silvereye, that seem to have introduced themselves to New Zealand sometime in the last few hundred years .

Further conservation goals include establishing “species dispersal and gene flow” from the sanctuary to the broader environment of the city, something that has already occurred in the case of the tui, though not yet in the case of other birds.  Beyond this, there are benefits that accrue from the very process of trying to carry out a project of this ambitious scope, as those involved will gain “knowledge and methodologies” that may be applied to conservation projects underway elsewhere, in New Zealand and beyond (Campbell-Hunt, 2002, p. 38).  In the near term, Karori also contributes to ongoing species recovery efforts: by establishing breeding populations of endangered birds at Karori as well as at Kapiti Island, Pukaha/Mount Bruce, Matiu/Somes Island, and other sanctuaries, those involved in conservation can avoid putting all their eggs in one basket (see, for example, Parker, 2008). If there is some irreversible disruption at one sanctuary – a major earthquake in Wellington, for example, or the arrival of stoats on Kapiti Island ("Second stoat found on Kapiti Island," 2011) – spreading species recovery around makes it more likely that, whatever else may happen, populations of at least some endemic bird species will be bequeathed to the future.

A second lesson to be derived from a sense of time’s passing arises from a recognition that the place in question may be in transition while the project is already underway, and only partly because of the working-out of the project itself.  This serves to highlight the need for an iterative or adaptive approach to projects in general, and to conservation projects especially. In short, projects should be approached as experiments, perhaps especially if it seems likely the ground may shift from under them while they are in progress. 

Note that this converges neatly with Bryan Norton’s take on the notion of adaptive management, which combines multiscalar analysis and place sensitivity with experimentalism. According to Norton:
Experimentalism implies that we should take nothing for granted and that we should wherever possible replace assumptions with beliefs based on experimentation or careful observation. Taking nothing for granted means also that the goals and objectives set for policy, as well as physical models, are open to amendment. The very goal of sustainable living is a moving, changing target, to be defined as part of a process and refined as more experience pours in.
Notably, in the very next sentence, Norton highlights “the need to understand environmental problems as unfolding on multiple scales of time and space” (Norton, 2005, p. 93).

What stands out, for me, from Norton’s characterization of experimentalism is that the goals of policy are open to amendment. So, as a project proceeds and we begin to see how the place responds, as conditions change, and as we learn more about what makes this place what it is, we should continually revisit and revise both the ends and the means of the project.  This suggests that pursuing a project in a transitory place calls, among other things, for a high degree of ethical – as well as practical or technical – agility or nimbleness.

To their great credit, those carrying out the conservation work at Karori seem well aware of the experimental nature of their undertaking, as they adopt a broadly pragmatist approach to their efforts. “Being at the forefront of mainland eco-restoration means trial and error are a key feature of the Trust's work.  Monitoring and evaluation work are daily activities” (Karori Sanctuary Trust, 2008a).  One error, revealed early on, was an underestimation of the resourcefulness of mice in re-invading the sanctuary, leading to a shift in emphasis from eradication to management of the mouse population, as well as efforts to further refine the design of the fence (Karori Sanctuary Trust, 2008b).  More broadly, monitoring and evaluation includes participation in broader research efforts in conservation biology at the national and international scales.

The third lesson arises from the fact that, for all its biogeographic and historical distinctiveness, the Karori sanctuary is far from unique in being conditioned by larger and largely unidirectional dynamics.  What is now the Wellington region bears scant resemblance to what it would have been, say, 25 million years ago, when it would likely have been underwater (Gibbs, 2006, p. 100), and it likely bears scant resemblance to what it will be 25 million years from now. Much the same applies at the scale of millennia and, given the pace of biogeographic change in New Zealand, centuries and even decades.

The dynamics may be different in other places, but the logic still holds: given a broad enough time-scale, every place on earth is transitory, and many places may be transitory at smaller scales than we might like to think. Under the pressure of development, biogeographic upheaval, and climate change, mere decades might suffice to render familiar places unfamiliar, shifting the patterns of opportunity for and constraint upon the pursuit of even our most basic projects.

We had all best be on our toes.

Campbell-Hunt, D. (2002). Developing a Sanctuary: The Karori Experience. Wellington, NZ: Victoria Link Ltd.

Elliot, R. (1997). Faking Nature: The Ethics of Environmental Restoration. London; New York: Routledge.

Gibbs, G. W. (2006). Ghosts of Gondwana: The History of Life in New Zealand. Nelson, N.Z.: Craig Potton Publishing.

Karori Sanctuary Trust. (2008a). Monitoring and evaluation  Retrieved September 5, 2011, from

Karori Sanctuary Trust. (2008b). A pest-free sanctuary  Retrieved September 5, 2011, from

Karori Sanctuary Trust. (2008c). Restoration Goals and Planning  Retrieved September 5, 2011, from

Karori Sanctuary Trust. (2008d). Restoring our forest  Retrieved September 5, 2011, from

Karori Sanctuary Trust. (2008e). A world-first wildlife refuge here in the heart of Wellington!  Retrieved September 5, 2011, from

Light, A. (2000). Ecological Restoration and the Culture of Nature: A Pragmatic Perspective. In P. H. Gobster & R. B. Hull (Eds.), Restoring Nature: Perspectives from the Social Sciences and Humanities (pp. 49-70). Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

Norton, B. G. (2005). Sustainability: A Philosophy of Adaptive Ecosystem Management. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Parker, K. A. (2008). Translocations: Providing Outcomes for Wildlife, Resource Managers, Scientists, and the Human Community. Restoration Ecology, 16(2), 204-209. doi: 10.1111/j.1526-100X.2008.00388.x

Second stoat found on Kapiti Island. (2011, July 19)  Retrieved September 5, 2011, from


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