[Becky writes...] Restoration is an acid test for ecology.
Raise your hand if you’ve heard that statement before. I’ve heard it before -- in restoration ecology talks, classes and papers. I thought it was a restoration cliche. But when I asked on twitter, I was surprised that more than 70 percent of respondents (thanks for responding, respondents!) hadn’t yet heard this quote. So, what does it mean? Where does it come from? And what the heck is an acid test?
Anyway, according to some dictionaries, an acid test is a “severe or crucial test” (Merriam-Webster), or “a conclusive test of the success or value of something” (Oxford). But, the literal meaning of the “acid test,” expression comes not from litmus paper, but from gold. The the test in question is one that was once used by gold prospectors, dumping nitric acid on a substance to determine whether it was, indeed, gold, or was something less valuable. Acid testing is still used today. A base metal will dissolve or turn green when exposed to nitric acid, but gold won’t react. Different concentrations of acid can even be used to determine the purity of a gold sample. So an “acid test” is knowing if a substance -- or later, an idea -- is gold.
That’s the acid test part, how does it connect to restoration? The person always credited with the quote is AD Bradshaw, president of the British Ecological Society from 1982 - 1983. It seems like the first time he used the “acid test’ line was in his “The reconstruction of ecosystems, presidential address to the British Ecological Society.” It’s about soil recovery after mining. (From 1983! And we feel like we’re doing new stuff here. He literally wrote about earthworms and urban soil back then). But I digress. I don’t think those that cite him should cut him off after the “acid test” part. The rest of the statement is really lovely:
“But this approach [treating soil for restoration] allows us to ask whether we really understand ecosystems, their mechanisms and their limiting factors.” And then, here it comes: “The acid test (!!!) of our understanding is not whether we can take ecosystems to bits on paper, however scientifically, but whether we can put them together in practice and make them work.”
How good is that?! The true test of ecology is not whether we can break ecosystems down, but whether we can build them up after they’re damaged! As it turns out, the full, original (as far as I could find) “acid test” quote explains the concept quite succinctly. Later on, Bradshaw wrote an entire book chapter called (guess!), “Restoration: an acid test for ecology,” published in 1987 in Restoration Ecology: A Synthetic Approach to Ecological Research, where he further fleshed out this concept. In the chapter, Bradshaw called out ecologists, saying they are too focused on being descriptive and analytical, and that they have been, “all too little involved in the restoration of derelict land,” which as you now know, would be the acid test of all the description and analysis. In the chapter, Bradshaw defines that “acid test” again:
“There can be no more direct test of our understanding of the functioning of ecosystems than when we put back, in proper form or amount, all the components of the ecosystem we infer to be crucial, and then find that we have recreated an ecosystem that is indistinguishable in both structure and function from the original ecosystem, or the ecosystem that served as our model.”
If I’m being honest I like the 1983 version better.
We can’t ask Bradhsaw for any more definitions, or argue with him about whether an ecosystem can ever be truly restored, because he died in 2008. According to his obituary, he supported many environmental organizations and his many students, and spent his later years transforming a public park. It sounds like Bradshaw put his money where his mouth is, and that’s solid gold.