History is not the past, as William Cronon, an environmental historian, stated recently. Rather, history is the stories we tell about the past. His point could aptly apply to the rising number of attempts to "restore" parts of the planet – altered long ago by humans – to an imagined past and then call it "pristine wilderness."
One of these experiments to bring back old-time nature – on human terms – has been underway on the very Pacific islands whose finches and other unique species inspired Charles Darwin to propose his theory of evolution 150 years ago.
Conservationists on the Galápagos archipelago are trying to reverse changes caused by humans by removing invasive goats, rats, and plants. They even plan to introduce species "similar" to those lost. They then hope the animals that Darwin knew will thrive in a stable ecosystem – like an immutable paradise under glass.
Darwin would chuckle. To him, modern humans are merely one of the fittest players in a brutish, always-changing struggle for survival. The modern conceit that humans can restore sustainable ecosystems with an original harmony of checks and balances is just as foolish as the idea that humans can destroy nature without boomeranging consequences.
Much of Earth's surface, even the Amazon, has been altered by Homo sapiens for the past 200,000 years, scientists say. Trying to recreate an altered landscape's old dynamics is fraught with guesswork. "The historic trajectory of a severely impacted ecosystem may be difficult or impossible to determine with accuracy," states a primer by the Society for Ecological Restoration.
Take, for instance, the Galápagos hawk (whose females can have up to eight males as partners). Since the goats have been removed, the hawks' population has dwindled drastically. No one knows why, let alone what the "natural" numbers should be.
With few truly wild places left, humans must simply try to better manage what's left rather than project a myth of lost purity onto a fallen landscape. Lack of humility about the environment's complex history got us into trouble. Let's now be humble about recreating that history as if it were anything but a story.