Ecological Historicity, Functional Goals, and Novelty in the Anthropocene

E. Desjardins, J. Donhauser, and G. Barker (Environmental Values), January 24th, 2018

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While many recognize that rigid historical and compositional goals are inadequate in a world where climate and other global systems are undergoing unprecedented changes, others contend that promoting ecosystem services and functions encourages practices that can ultimately lower the bar of ecological management. These worries are foregrounded in discussions about Novel Ecosystems (NEs); where some researchers and conservationists claim that NEs provide a license to trash nature as long as some ecosystem services are provided. This criticism arises from what we call the “anything goes” problem created by the release of historical conditions. After explaining the notion of NE, we identify numerous substantive motivations for worrying about the anything-goes-problem and then go on to show the problem can be solved by correcting two mistaken assumptions. In short, we argue that the problem is a product of adopting an overly sparse functional perspective and one that assumes an unrealistically high degree of convergence in the trajectories of natural processes. Our analysis illuminates why such assumptions are unwarranted. Finally, we further argue that adopting an appropriate ethical framework is essential to overcoming the anything-goes-problem and suggest that a certain virtue ethics conception of ecological management provides useful resources for framing and resolving the problem.