If you’ve been following the Climate Crisis, especially in the past few years, then you’re probably aware of how exhausting being an eco-ally can be. Just the evolution of terminology—from Global Warming to Climate Change to Climate Crisis—shows an increasing severity of the task at hand. You might even be aware of emerging psychological phenomena, like Climate Grief. Perhaps you’re experiencing it yourself.
While I’m not here to downplay the seriousness of our ailing ecosystems, it would be insincere to report that humanity is standing idly by awaiting its own inevitable demise. In fact, this analysis would be unfair to the millions of humans working worldwide to make our Earth a better place for all.
As a respite from the temptation of 24-hour Doomscrolling, let’s take a look at some of the more interesting and inspiring conservation, restoration, and regeneration efforts happening around the world.
Differentiating these environmental efforts
Conservation, Restoration, Regeneration.
If you haven’t majored in some environmental science, you would be forgiven for treating these terms interchangeably. They’re all implemented by governments and NGOs, largely outside of the public eye. And they even roll off the tongue with a similar poetic flare.
But understanding the differences between them can help us build a deeper appreciation of the kinds of efforts that go into each of them. At the end of the day, you might even discover, of yourself, that you favour one to the others. So, it will be helpful to draw some distinctions before we continue.
Conservation biology and restoration ecology are two sides of the same coin. They complement each other in the sense that one tends to focus on individual species (biology) while the other focuses on habitats (ecology).
Conservation biology is concerned with population sizes, migration patterns, and proportions of biodiversity, making it a much more data-driven, or quantitative, field of study. When we hear of a species becoming “endangered,” it is the conservation biologists who survey the patterns of that species and, hopefully, find a root cause of its decline. All in the name of “conserving” that species’ continued existence.
Habitats are the world’s greatest hosts. They provide both food and shelter to predators and prey alike and, when healthy, are themselves composed of a rich diversity of plants, minerals, and microbes. So we also have to make sure the landscape is a suitable place to live. However, when a habitat has become so degraded that it can no longer provide these necessary nutrients—whether from deforestation, pollution, or climate change—restoration ecologists attempt to turn the habitat back into a state of productivity and stability. In this way, restoration ecology is a more qualitative field of study, as it focuses on conditions like health or resilience, which are not easily counted but must be observed steadily over time.
That’s where regeneration comes in. Rather than its own field of study, regeneration is more of a methodology for practicing restoration ecology. Regenerative practices recognise that ecosystems are not “static.” That habitat stability is indeed relative and the climate does have its own natural fluctuations on a geological time scale. Think about your favourite National Park. Do you think it looked exactly like that 100 million years ago when dinosaurs were the apex species? Of course not! What was a “stable” condition for giant reptiles would be uninhabitable to most of the species alive today. So when ecologists implement regenerative practices, they’re trying to imitate conditions that can sustain themselves in the current era and into the future.
Now that we’re all amateur ecologists, we can review some of the amazing efforts happening worldwide in conservation, restoration, and regeneration.
Conservation through legislation and NGOs
For decades now, the European Union (EU) has set a strong precedent in terms of establishing environmental directives that range from habitat and species protection to urban sustainable development plans. One such manifestation of these efforts is Natura 2000. This network of protected areas, which covers 18% of the EU’s land area (and 8% of its marine zones), is intricately coordinated to provide movement for the valuable and endangered species of Europe. (There’s a great interactive map here, where you can scan the European landscape for different species, habitat zones, and their respective distributions.)
While Natura 2000 is backed by international legislation, not all conservation efforts get to rely on such strong political initiative. That’s where NGOs—like the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)—come in. While you may have varying degrees of familiarity with the efforts of the WWF, they do have some notable projects happening as we speak.
Whenever we talk about deforestation, it doesn’t take long to get to the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil, which is being rapidly levelled for commodity crop farming and precious metal extraction. The WWF works with local communities and organisers to confront drivers of deforestation—to the best of their ability—and provide the research necessary for adopting more ecologically and economically sustainable practices.
Deforestation for rapid agricultural growth also harms much less famous areas, such as Borneo and Sumatra, which lie between Malaysia and Indonesia and contain some of the most richly biodiverse forests in the world. There the WWF works to safeguard species and has even helped set up mechanisms of transparency for monitoring, and resisting, potentially harmful practices.
These are just a couple of the projects spearheaded by the WWF, but you can find more of their projects on their website here for whenever you need a small dose of humanitarian environmentalism.
Restoration as a public good
In contrast to conservation efforts, which aim to prevent certain areas from being developed, restoration ecology is reactionary in nature (no pun intended). For example, the United States has emphasised Wetland Mitigation since its passing of the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969, which really pioneered legislative environmentalism.
Following suit over the last half-century, many countries in the global south have also embraced the importance of improving vital water bodies in their regions. When it comes to ecosystem resilience, it’s often important to pay attention to the resources that we don’t see every day—such as the “health” of aquifers, which hydrate landscapes from sources deep underground.
In Minas Gerais, Brazil, ecologists found success in improving essential urban river health by increasing public awareness and participation. By making the connection between the health of its rivers and the presence of fish populations, local scientists and citizens rallied to rejuvenate the Rio das Velhas in just over 10 years, between 1997 and 2010. Today, it remains a great case study for representing the positive impacts of community participation.
Over the past three decades, the Qianyanzhou region of China has worked on one of the largest reforestation projects in the world. Devastated by deforestation and harmful farming practices, the soil of the Qianyanzhou region became severely eroded and the whole area was vulnerable to landslides. Instead of giving up, they decided to bring in expert ecologists from all around the world to come up with solutions. Since 2010, they’ve added 74.3 million hectares of forests to the region, which has also revitalised soil productivity, enabling local farmers to resume productive practices once more. This time, without compromising soil health.
As noted above, the purpose of regenerative practices is to develop methodology that “gives back” to the land. It’s actually quite intuitive. The practice of resource extraction—even in agriculture—is often a one-way process, whereby essential nutrients are removed from a local ecological system. But this doesn’t have to be the way we approach our natural resource needs.
One of the reasons the Qianyanzhou restoration project was so successful was through the implementation of Agroforestry. Generally speaking, this is the practice of recognising and incorporating the importance of broader landscape features into agricultural practices for the long-term benefit of both. In this case, when local soil health is largely contingent upon the surrounding forest.
Regenerative Agriculture is a relatively new concept, and yet it uses some very old knowledge. Industrial-scale agriculture practices—the ones that produce corn and soybeans for miles at a time—are a historically new phenomenon. If you go back just 100 years, farms looked a lot more “sustainable” than they do today. And while our populations have grown astronomically larger, Regenerative Agriculture aims to find the middle ground between old practices and new technologies, without regarding them as “mutually exclusive.”
Another way to conceptualise regeneration is through how we build our cities. While we can all get on board with “sustainable cities,” some researchers think we can do even better. Unfortunately, we’ve grown accustomed to expecting our cities to be loud, congested centers of pollution with a few patches of green spread about. A Regenerative City, on the other hand, would incorporate practices of Livability, Ecology, Nutrition, and Climate Resiliency (among others) to create a more comprehensive understanding of that which constitutes the good human life.
While Regenerative Communities might sound utopian in spirit, its proponents argue that the vision is driven by data. We’ve been studying ecology, sociology, and economics for centuries now, and we have the technology to bring some of these ideas to life. So, in reality, what are we waiting for?
The future of environmentalism
The road ahead is not simple. Efforts worldwide face a variety of obstacles—ranging from a lack of funding and legislation to a lack of local and public support. The reality is that protecting the environment is about as complex as protecting the ecosystems themselves. It requires energy from all sectors of what constitutes a human society—from our histories and philosophies to our politics and economics. In a sense, these are changes to the ways humans fundamentally envision themselves in their environments.
Each of the methods outlined above presents different values and goals, different ways of approaching environmentalism and, in turn, enhancing our understanding of our own “place” in the greater web of ecology. What we need now is to continue to bring these issues to the forefront of our social and political lives. To normalise the importance of global ecological health. And a great place to start is by using our networks of communication to spread the vast knowledge we already have about how we are turning our sustainable visions into reality.