The words we use to describe phenomena in science shape our understanding of those phenomena, much more so than we often realize. This is especially true in fields driven by strong policy agendas, like restoration ecology and the practice of ecological restoration. The twin challenges of accelerating global change and upscaling global restoration practice make it more imperative than ever to define the terms and the scope of ecological restoration clearly, and differentiate it from other ameliorative land management practices like rehabilitation. Poor definitions and loose use of language will otherwise lead to muddled conception and planning of projects, confused and disappointed stakeholders, and failure to exploit the enormous potential of this radical conservation strategy for both human well-being and the recovery of biodiversity and ecosystem functions. It is also important to be aware of the rhetorical devices that have given some momentum to the so-called “novel” ecosystems concept within the restoration community. The advocates of this concept initially used it to alert restorationists to the gravity of the global change challenge. But it has been unfortunately formulated through increasingly polemical language to effect a major and dangerous policy shift: abandoning the pursuit of the ambitious but still valid promise inherent in the phrase “ecological restoration,” in favor of the management of degraded landscapes for diminished ecosystem goods and services. While we are always “restoring the future,” there is no good reason to abandon the goal of restoring ecosystems to their historical trajectories, and the historical reference system remains an essential tool for the identification of the specifics of this goal. The author considers the contributions to the symposium from these perspectives. He concludes that if we clarify the language we use about restoration, and are appropriately mindful of the dynamics of global change and the complex social and ecological dynamics of large-scale restoration, this discipline and practice can indeed mature to become the gold standard and cutting edge for conservation in this century.
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