Laura Martin pioneers interdisciplinary environmental policy, combating biodiversity loss with restoration ecology. Dive into her innovative approach, uniting science, design, and justice, redefining our relationship with nature through ecological restoration.
Which wall does your research break?
My research breaks the wall between the sciences and the humanities in order to craft better environmental policy. An ecologist and a historian, I overcome disciplinary divides in order to understand the drivers of global ecological change and to call for biodiversity restoration that is also socially just. Biodiversity loss is one of the most pressing challenges of this century. Confronted with climate change, persistent pollution, and habitat fragmentation, species are struggling. There are currently more than 40,000 animal and plant species threatened with extinction according to the IUCN. And it’s not just that species are going extinct – the number of individuals within many species is also decreasing dramatically. By all metrics, biological diversity is declining, despite the fact that the number of nature preservation areas has increased exponentially since 1970. In Wild by Design, I argue that ecological restoration represents a more hopeful and effective path than preservation. I define restoration as an attempt to co-design nature with non-human participants. Wild by Design illuminates restoration’s history as a scientific discipline, a design practice, and, ultimately, a cornerstone of global environmental policy. Early restoration was often deeply unjust: For instance, the first wildlife restoration sites in the United States were established on reservation land that the federal government was systematically dismantling in order to erode Native American sovereignty. Today, carbon offsetting projects routinely violate human rights. Understanding this pattern is essential to designing a new mode of ecological restoration that is aligned with the goals of social justice. Rather than separating nature from culture, we must ask who benefits from a restoration project and who is harmed by it, as well as who gets to decide where and how restoration happens. Another aspect of my work that breaks down barriers between the sciences and the humanities is my research on constructed environments. My collaborators and I coined the term “indoor biome” to describe the ecological realm of species that reside and reproduce in human-built structures. The extent of this biome already rivals that of other small biomes, such as tropical coniferous forests, and it is growing rapidly. In a related project, I think about how designers might use machine learning and other types of automated technologies to sustain wild places, a form of “design from a distance” that involves people, technology, and other species.
What inspired or motivated you to work on your current research or project?
I began my career as an evolutionary ecologist. I turned to the humanities in order to understand how science and environmental policy shape one another. My experience in the field, working with rare and fragile species, influences how I interpret the archives of science. I am motivated by wonder: we share the world with millions of strange and beautiful species. How do we move beyond seeing human action as always antagonistic to the flourishing of wildness and wild species? How can we break down barriers to accepting responsibility for the futures of all species? I am currently researching how herbicides – compounds developed to destroy life – have fundamentally reshaped the biosphere. The world’s first synthetic herbicide, 2,4-D remains in widespread use today. Since its market debut in 1946, 2,4-D has played an under-appreciated and pivotal role in shaping the ecology of agricultural, residential, and forested ecosystems from the equator to the Arctic. In The War Against Weeds, I seek to explain the development and dissemination of the world’s oldest and most popular synthetic herbicide, with the ultimate goal of contributing to more sustainable environmental management. The world-shaping power of 2,4-D stems from the fact that it is a selective herbicide: it kills dicots but not monocots. 2,4-D and related herbicides destroy “broad-leaved” plants like poison ivy and maple trees while leaving unharmed “narrow-leaved” plants like bananas and grasses. Many staple foods are grasses, including corn, rice, wheat, and sugar, and so auxinic herbicides are an immensely powerful agricultural tool. Spray 2,4-D on a corn field and it will kill thistle and bindweed but not the corn. Spray it on a lawn and it will kill dandelion and clover but not the Kentucky bluegrass. Surprisingly, this immense power to reshape life at a global scale is a historical accident: researchers were not aiming to develop a selective herbicide when they first synthesized 2,4-D. This project will reveal how 2,4-D – a material often treated as immaterial, invisible and negligible – is a driver not only of social change, but also of ecological change. Widespread and long-term use of 2,4-D has transformed agricultural, residential, and conservation ecosystems into what I call “grassscapes.” These grassscapes support considerably fewer species than the habitats they replaced. It is a pattern made visible by overcoming the limitation of seeing agricultural, residential, and conservation lands as disconnected.
In what ways does society benefit from your research?
My research has contributed to a deeper understanding of how the politics of environmental management shape the possibilities for life on Earth. If the barriers to ecological restoration and designing wildness fall, many kinds of ecosystems will be transformed. Restoration will not be confined to large tracts of public land: people will work to create flourishing habitats on farms, in industrial centers, and in cities. Many more people will be involved in decisions about which species to restore and where. Today ecological restoration is one of the most widespread and influential forms of environmental management in the world. Public and private organizations spend billions of dollars per year on species reintroduction, invasive species removal, wetland creation, and related restoration projects. Recognizing restoration’s potential – and its centrality to international environmental negotiations – the UN General Assembly recently declared the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. My work aims to guide the future of restoration practice. Many of us have cared for a pet or a houseplant – species that we choose to live with, that we cherish, that we might even consider family; species that we treat very differently from laboratory animals, or species we eat, or those we consider pests. We have some sense of what counts as caring for these “companion species.” We provide them with food, shelter, companionship, entertainment, and medical care. We shield them from harm. These are accepted ways of expressing care for our creaturely companions. But what does it mean to care for a “wild” species? We imagine wild species to be autonomous and self-reliant, living outside the boundaries of human society, unentangled with our built landscapes of work and rest. In the eyes of many environmentalists, human actions – even ones of care – diminished the wildness of species. And yet in an age of habitat destruction, anthropogenic climate change, and the redistribution of species at a global scale, many wild species will not survive without acts of human care. Ecological restoration confounds the seeming contradiction between the autonomous and the managed, the wild and the designed. Unlike other modes of environmental management, ecological restoration embraces active interventions by humans into non-human worlds. Restoration centers a human role in the making of nature; it allows us to design the wild as a way of reconciling past antagonisms among humans and between humans and wild species.
Looking ahead, what are your hopes or aspirations for the future based on your research or project?
I plan to continue to break barriers to designing wildness. I am beginning a project, “Beyond Biophilia,” that will bring together ecologists and architects to think about how buildings and cities can be designed not only to avoid harming other species (e.g. using non-toxic materials and anti-bird-strike glass) but also to intentionally aid other species. This project aims to go beyond green roofs and pollinator gardens to design buildings and spaces with other species’ needs in mind. I will also continue to research how biodiversity is shaped both by climate change and by regulatory and design responses to climate change. I hope to see a future in which many more people are directly involved in caring for wild species.