A role for novel ecosystems in the Anthropocene?

Marcus Collier
University College Dublin, Ireland

We have just had confirmation that we are living in a new geological era, the Anthropocene. However, it has long been widely recognised that all global ecosystems are under some level of anthropogenic influence, having suffered severe, irreversible damage both ecologically and socially. Many are highly unlikely to recover to their pre-influence status or, if they do recover, they will not be exactly as they were prior to human intervention. In recent years some ecologists have been referring to these as novel ecosystems. Novel ecosystems, it is proposed, are no-analogue, ecological assemblages. For some they are a low-pedigree menagerie of disparate species that can never be returned to their former glory from the point of view of ecological practicality or socio-economic feasibility. Of course it is technically possible to restore most damaged ecosystems (if we knew exactly what to restore them to), but it is unlikely that we would deliberately tear down, for example, a whole city to recover the ecosystem that city had replaced. Yet even if we did such a drastic thing, the resulting ecosystem would be almost certainly be different, mainly because of the pervasive influence human activities continue to have on global natural processes. Novel ecosystems are familiar and everywhere. However, novel ecosystem theory questions a fundamental tenet in addressing human-created systems, because while conservation and restoration are the established policies and prescriptions for maintaining biodiversity, most pre-existing states are poorly defined and/or understood. So ‘returning’ to a pre-existing state may no longer be a viable policy option. All the while there is an increasing societal demand to comprehend these emerging, ephemeral ecosystems – many of which are right on our doorsteps, so to speak. Put simply, we just do not know the social-ecological dynamics of never-before-seen ecosystems, we know nothing of their implications for society, sustainability and behaviour, and we have yet to explore their potential for bringing nature closer to people, particularly in urban communities.

Novel ecosystem beside London City Airport. Image Credit: Author

For centuries we have lamented the dualism that has arisen between humans and the rest of nature. Ironically, this ever-widening schism between urbanised society and wild nature has produced some of our best works of art, as well as our fiercest scientific challenges. It has inspired modern social commentary, environmental activism, and great physical action. Yet the human/nature divide pervades, and year on year the challenges grow and intensify. Considering that most children born today will be urbanised at some stage in their lives, it is well worth asking what will be the ultimate implications of the human/nature divide. As these urban humans grow up they will have little knowledge or experience of what ‘wildness’ looks like, let alone what it means, especially those vast numbers unable to afford a visit to a nature reserve. As a result, huge efforts are being made to re-nature cities, and the current focus is on exploring the tantalising opportunities that nature-based solutions offer for building urban resilience (Haase, 2016). When it comes to conserving existing nature, some eloquently view cities as the “biodiversity melting pots of the Anthropocene” (Ellis, 2016), where we are challenged to redefine what we mean by conservation and restoration in an ever-urbanising society. So, while we debate the social and ecological implications of the fact that no one today can see an ecosystem that is unaltered, we have to explore complimentary paradigms. The more urban dwellers are separated from nature, the greater the imperative and opportunity for bringing it back. We claim to desire ‘wildness’; to live with nature and no longer apart from it, but progress is moving us further away. This is where novel ecosystem theory may have some opportunities.

Novel ecosystem theory is a shift in theoretical exploration and seeks to redefine what is sometimes referred to as ‘new’ nature, and how this novelty is perceived and valued. In an urban setting, a novel ecosystem is likely to be an abandoned space, rapidly re-wilding and relatively untouched, brimming with ‘new’ nature: garden escapes, feral/volunteer agricultural crops, opportunistic and transient species, aliens and non-aliens cohabiting in urban obscurity. It is tempting to see these places as low quality habitats, perhaps dangerous or undesirable socially, but we must now recognise that they are locations where the majority of urban dwellers can experience something resembling what is ‘wild’. For some (Marris, 2009; Ellis, 2015) novel ecosystems are perhaps an inescapable, inexorable, and inevitable consequence of human ‘progress’ and thus a manifestation of human/nature dualism in the raw. They argue that resources poured into conservation and restoration efforts over the last century and in the future may be dwarfed by to the long-term impact of humans on global ecosystems.

Image Credit: Ellie Sands
Image Credit: Ellie Irons

Most novel ecosystems are in a process of ‘natural’ rewilding. Rewilding: “so young a word, yet so many meanings!” (Monbiot, 2013). Rewilding has many connotations. It can be viewed as re-awakening the dormant desire for ‘wildness’ in our lives. It can be a facilitation or restoration of ecological processes under continual anthropogenic change. Novel ecosystem theory sees such a facilitation as an acceptance of the new reality by permitting abandoned spaces to ‘re-wild’ themselves, unimpeded. However, considering the pervasive influence of humans in the Anthropocene, rewilding must occur in tandem with human societal progress. Like rewilding, novel ecosystem theory has open, un-fixed objectives, and while it is a bridging concept between biological conservation and restoration ecology it is also a bridging concept between both thee crisis disciplines and the social sciences and humanities. Let’s take an example here.

Image Credit: Ellie Irons
Image Credit: Ellie Irons

Ellie Irons is a New York artist and social commentator who embraces ephemeral ecologies and draws on them for inspiration as well as artistic material. One of her projects explores, along with other artists, what is most appropriately named ‘chance ecologies’. They see abandoned, rewilding areas as outdoor inspiration galleries where not only artists, but also the general public, can explore what is the new wild. It is one of many projects that bring people into personal contact novel urban ecosystems. Ellie is an example of someone who doesn’t just accept novel ecosystems, she draws on them for inspiration, for education, for reconnecting an urbanised society with its wild heritage.

If we embrace novel ecosystem theory as it currently stands, we face a paradox: that the landscapes that have been so severely damaged by anthropogenic processes as to divert ecological trajectories, and that contain new ecological assemblages that have never been recorded before, might themselves be the most likely places to bring humans closer to nature – ‘new’ nature, but nature all the same. Within an ecosystem that is undergoing a rewilding process, some people may find opportunities to re-wild themselves; to begin to embrace wildness not as a threat but, as Wordsworth put it: “well pleased to recognise, in nature and the language of the sense, the anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse, the guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul of all my moral being”. Societal potential is the most unexpected, untested, and unstudied aspect of novel ecosystems theory, yet it has the most enticing of opportunities for reconnecting urban dwellers with wild nature, whatever its lineage and pedigree. Thus, might there now be a role for novel ecosystems in the Anthropocene?


Dr. Marcus Collier is a sustainability scientist and a senior research fellow in the University College Dublin Earth Institute.
TED Talk

Header Image: Novel  ecosystem in an abandoned industrial landscape.  Image Credit: Author.

8 thoughts on “A role for novel ecosystems in the Anthropocene?

    1. Hi,
      I feel that the Gaia hypothesis has a lot of strengths but some weaknesses too. Personally, I feel it’s strength is in the metaphor it presents, and there is no doubt that the theory has galvanised and stimulated huge scientific discoveries and debates – something I’m very much in favour of. Novel ecosystem theory has stimulated similar scientific debates, but I’ve not been successful in getting funding to carry out social-ecological explorations in novel ecosystems – yet!

  1. Hi Marcus,

    I liked reading your blog post. I’m just wondering whether there is a need to take more critical perspective re. ideas of undisturbed, pristine nature. In practice there really are very places which meet this criteria worldwide. Our ideas of nature and wildness are themselves cultural and in many cases it can perhaps be more helpful to see natural areas / landscapes as part of our cultural heritage rather than setting aside from society as non-cultured places. Cormac

    1. Hi Cormac,
      I completely agree. In the strictest sense of the word, there are no ‘pristine’ places of any kind! Humans have influenced everywhere, so all landscapes are in some way or other cultural landscapes. This doesn’t mean that they are all degraded or damaged, but the influence is there all the same. We are continually setting ourselves outside nature, when we ought to see ourselves as part of natural systems – a very destructive part, yes, but a part all the same. If we understand our place better, then we may be able to shape or change our behaviour and move towards more positive outcomes for other species and ecosystems. Personally, I believe that novel ecosystems are places we can explore the relationship better and observe our behavioural change over time.

  2. I have lead the work to turn a field of invasive Japanese Knotweed into a forest for the last 18 years. We now have an amazing forest, but it will never be truly wild, and it would probably take 200 years for it to begin to look like a completely wild New England forest. But it passes for nature in this urban neighborhood, and it is a great thing for the community.

  3. I spent years and years working with volunteers, painfully digging it out of nature reserves and the like. It’s such a long process and I really admire your efforts, considering the labour involved. In the end, though, the new forest will never completely match the New England of, say, 2000 years ago. These forests were managed by indigenous peoples and so, strictly speaking, not pristine either. New nature has unappreciated values; the social value of nature is only emerging. Your project is a frontrunner in this area. Send me a link to your website – I’d love to show it to my students. Nice one! Keep up the good (but hard) work!

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