What is degradation?

Presented by Meredith Root-Bernstein

Monday, 15 November, 2021 - 16:00

In this presentation I challenge the widespread notion that environmental degradation is an ecological state. Degradation is considered, by many global organisations and NGOs, to be one of the most pressing environmental threats, interacting with climate change and biodiversity loss to threaten human welfare around the world, especially in drylands and the Global South. Degradation first emerged as a concept around the mid-1800s, in historical and geographical discussions of ancient Roman colonies, and European colonies of the Americas and Africa. With the rise of ecology as the science of the environment, degradation came "ecologized" and naturalized not as a complex historical-political-economic situation, but as an type of ecological state. Specifically, degradation is now defined as the irreversible loss of biodiversity, productivity and ecosystem functioning due to a series of disturbances pushing the ecosystem over some kind of edge. As with the ecology of all "bad things", ecological theory about degradation has remained largely separate and un-integrated with the ecological theory of "good things" like biodiverse ecosystems. Some ecologist recognize that degradation theory offers little useful guidance in terms of avoiding or reversing it through restoration. Here I will look at how datafication of ecology has created the fiction of degradation as an globally universal ecological state. I will argue that degradation is not ecological at all, but is rather entirely a socio-economic condition. Can remote sensing and statistics be used to get us out of this conceptual confusion and help us do restoration better, or is it essentially an impediment? I will hopefully bring in some of my collaborative research with Siri Lamoureaux (in progress) to illustrate these points.

Please register in advance of the meeting:  https://wits-za.zoom.us/meeting/register/tJckd-ytrzwiEtHogJsRMtAP8ZsyGZp...

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