My love/hate relationship with Paddy Woodworth’s Our Once and Future Planet

By Lauren Umek*

I’m writing this review from my perspective as a PhD candidate studying restoration ecology and as an occasional-to-regular practitioner of restoration in the Chicago area.

I love this book.

And I hate this book.

This dichotomy is present throughout my reading of a Once and Future Planet as well as my regular thoughts on the topic of restoration. In general, I’m reminded that our interactions with nature themselves are bi-modal. Our species interacts with nature through exploitation but we also work hard to undo the destruction resulting from this exploitation. Our positive interactions with nature may occur while on a stroll through a blooming prairie in summer or colorful, senescing woodland in fall are in contrast to our negative encounters with nature; where we brave sweltering heat, blistering cold, and are annoyed by mosquito bites and poison ivy rashes.

It is with this dichotomous theme that Paddy explores restoration. We are forced to think of nature and culture, of science and practice, of success and failure, of knowns and unknowns, of support and opposition, of short and long term perspectives and most importantly, of the answerable and unanswerable questions.

I love this book, because, at least in the Chicago-centric chapter, from my, albeit biased perspective, science is the hero.  (In fact, there is a paragraph that I selfishly interpret to indicate that my dissertation, looking at ecological outcomes of various durations of restoration at a landscape scale, will change the world.) It is clear throughout all of the chapters, that there are still so many questions to be answered. Thus, objective, well replicated research are essential in effective restoration practice and outcomes. This reminds us that restoration ecology, as a science is still in an adolescent, if not infantile stage, without a significant Wright Brothers-eqsue breakthrough.

I love this book because it reminds me that I’m not alone. By showing a global perspective on a topic that I’ve had such a personal, as well as professional connection with, makes it obvious, that while I know quite a lot about restoration, that I don’t know nearly enough. It also reminds me that that there is a planet full of other people that are thinking about and working on similar, if not identical issues of what, when, where, why and how we should restore.

I hate this book because it makes me uncomfortable. It makes me think about things that I am not traditionally trained to think about as a scientist. I am forced to question my understanding of ecosystems and how I interpret both basic and complex components and interactions in nature.

As a scientist, I collect data in search of the “truth” of the natural world. What I rarely consider, is that there are other “truths” of nature that I can’t measure, can’t quantify and can’t describe. Even if I could, (as I recognize that my colleagues in the social sciences explore exactly these issues) I am forced to consider that what I might find to be ecologically appropriate, might not be culturally, economically or temporally appropriate.

The considerations we face as practitioners and scholars of restoration are not all quantifiable. I cannot graph or calculate a p-value to describe how someone feels about nature let alone reconcile how, when, where, why and if we should restore it. And even more perplexing to me is what if it is that social connection with nature that is what is in need of restoration, not just the ecosystem itself? Surely the restoration of one’s connection with nature cannot be restored with the application of herbicide, seeds or even fire.

The topics covered in this book remind us that restoration is a relatively new practice, at least given this name and restoration ecology is an even newer science. This means that while almost any question we ask, will yield a new and hopefully interesting answer, it also means that there is a lot of uncharted territory. We’re working hard, but we’re not REALLY sure if our work is working, or if our goals are even really appropriate or sustainable. Paddy makes us consider our ecological as well as social, temporal and global context when considering the topic and practice of restoration.

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“It is what it is” or things T. W. Adorno would have hated




By Rick Elmore

There are few phrases I dislike more than “it is what it is.” It grates me something awful. However, if there is one person that would have hated it more than any of us, it’s T. W. Adorno. In fact, the one redeeming attribute of this phrase is that it perfectly highlights the central stakes of Adorno’s work. I’m not being hyperbolic. If you want to understand what critical theory is all about, one way to explain it is to say that critical theory is a fundamental rejection of “it is what it is” and all that phrase implies. But first things first, let’s revisit the horror of “it is what it is.”

People probably can’t help the occasional recourse to banal tautologies. Phrases like “it is what it is” have a certain sports radio, ‘works in almost any conversation’ kind of appeal. It’s like describing a team as “strong up front” or affirming a statement with “you can’t stop a train.” No one really knows exactly what you mean, but it sounds just concrete enough that everyone goes home happy. Yet, what’s truly pernicious about this phrase and what connects it to Adorno’s work isn’t that it’s tautological or unimaginative, but rather that it is a shorthand way of naturalizing the current state of the world.

When someone says “it is what it is,” what they really mean is that this thing, whatever it may be, is an intractable fact of reality: unchanging and unchangeable. It is what it is. That part of the world cannot be otherwise. It’s necessary, not in the least open to the contingencies of history or desire. You might as well stop thinking about it. “It is what it is” marks the parts of the world that cannot be other than they are, and, in so doing, it implicitly marks the limits of what is worthy of thought. Now as a general rule, I follow the environmental philosopher Karen Warren in thinking that anything one has to take the time to say is “natural” or “necessary” probably isn’t, since if it was, you wouldn‘t need to say so. However, claims to naturalness are also one of the central concerns of Adorno’s work.

Enlightenment, capitalism, fundamental ontology, the culture industry, nature, these are all logics that Adorno argues work on one level or another to make what is historically contingent appear ahistorical and necessary. Thus, the worry over the phrase “it is what it is” is itself the fundamental worry of critical theory. Just take the example of Adorno’s critique of Heidegger (steady…we can do this).

Like the concern for “it is what it is,” Adorno’s critique of Heidegger focuses on the worry that Heidegger’s fundamental ontology ends up naturalizing the world. This naturalization occurs through Heidegger’s notion of the “ontological difference,” that is, the difference between the existence or “being” of any particular thing and the quality or fact of “Being” (with a big B) that all existing things share insofar as they exist. Now this might sound complicated, but it’s actually very common sense. Heidegger is just pointing out that in a world of existing things there is a difference between the existence of any one thing and the quality or characteristic of Existence that all things share insofar as they exist. However for Adorno, Heidegger’s insistence on this strict separation leads him to dark dark places, like naturalizing Nazism for example. So starting from the ontological difference here is how Adorno argues you or Heidegger can naturalize the current political, social, and economic character of your world in five easy steps.

1. Given the strict separation of the ontological difference, you argue that one cannot define Being (the kind that all things share) nor make it into a concept, since any qualifying of Being (giving it a particular characteristic or quality) would violate the ontological difference. It would make what cannot be particular, particular.
2. You state that this unqualifiable notion of Being is essential to all existing things, since without it they wouldn’t exist at all.
3. You contend that since what is essential to all entities is their relation to your unqualifiable notion of Being, all the other particular, material, specific, and historically contingent aspects of these entities must be inessential or accidental, since for these characteristics to be essential (part of your unqualifiable notion of Being), they would have to be essential to the existence of all entities, and they obviously can’t be that.
4. Having made it this far, you go on to argue that your unqualifiable notion of Being, since it is essential to all entities, must be the truest expression of their lived experience, as otherwise it wouldn’t be essential to them in any meaningful way. Hence, it turns out that all those particular, material, specific, and historically contingent aspects of an entity’s existence that we thought were accidental are actually the very expression of their Being in a grand sense.
5. Hence, you conclude that through the logic of the ontological difference, the current aspects of every entity’s existence, the social, political, material, and economic state of their world, is the very expression of Being. The world as it is is the necessary, ontological essence of what it means to exist at all. Or, put another way, you’ve just shown that the world, as it appears right now, is the only world that could have ever appeared. It is what it is. Now whether or not Adorno is right about Heidegger (and I think he is in general), it’s certainly the case that there is nothing more fundamental to the project of critical theory than resisting, at every turn, the notion that the world is what it is.

One of the things for me that remains crucial about critical theory and Adorno’s work in particular is that it reminds us unrelentingly that the logic of claims like “it is what it is” are not only problematic insofar as they naturalize some contingent aspect of the world, but also because they implicitly naturalize the whole framework in which that contingent aspect appears natural. When one says “it is what it is” today, one is not simply stating that whatever one is talking about is natural and necessary, but also that capitalism is necessary and natural, that climate change is unavoidable, that the extinction event we are in the midst of could not have been otherwise, that LeBron really does belong in Cleveland, etc. Adorno reminds us that one of the major impediments to progressive and radical thought, particularly on the environment, is not only the inability to really believe that the world can be different, but also the inability to think through the radical interconnectedness of our material lives. Hence, it’s precisely because the world isn’t what it is, that the world still needs critical theory.

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Killing Things

by Liam Heneghan

In the early 1980s wanting to be a naturalist — a coleopterist, in particular, that most Darwin-like of naturalists — I spent a couple of summer months in Killarney NaChrysomelidBeetleWikitional Park, in Ireland, making a collection of chrysomelid beetles. This was the first of many such collecting trips, part of a series of increasingly violent engagements with the natural world that served as stepping stones that link my life as an Irish teen to the one I live now in Chicago. All of them involved the killing of animals or plants for the sake of science.

The Chrysomelidae had been offered up to me by Dr Jimmy O’Connor, an entomology curator at Ireland’s Natural History Museum (The Dead Zoo, as it was called in Dublin). Apparently, the Irish representatives of this group were poorly known, not having been taxonomically revised since early in the 20th Century. Chrysomelid beetles include a number of notorious pests such as Leptinotarsa decemlineata, the Colorado Potato beetle, but for the most part these insects go about their business without causing us much bother. They are remarkably pretty though, many of them possessing metallic elytra (the sclerotized outer-wing of the beetle) and when you train your eye to notice them you see them as a marvel of shimmer and vivid color. Some of them, the flea-beetles, have greatly enlarged hind-leg femora, so that when disturbed they erupt into action and spring away from you like a glorious idea that thought you had but now cannot seem to fully recall.

Collecting them is easy enough. Using a sweep net, I thrashed my way across the grassier spots in the National Park; in other locations I’d search the under-leaves of shrubs and low hanging plants, catching them on the tip of a wetted paintbrush.
The issue of killing them was quite another matter. After all, I wanted to collect them because I had conceived a liking for them, and was concerned that if neglected, we, the scientific community, would not know, ironically, if these animals needed more vigorous protection. I loved them enough I suppose to want them dead; a couple of specimens of each species at the very least. I was the Noah of death and my ark was a killing jar.

However, when one sees glamorous creatures such as these looking up at you, as it were, from the bottom of the net, the ethical calculation concerning their dispatch is not an easy one to make. Should these few glimmering Isaacs be sacrificed so that others of their kind might flourish. Or perhaps more proximately, since the question of how data might be used is always somewhat further down the road, should they die so that the storehouse of my knowledge could grow?

Perhaps in matters concerning cultural affairs there exists a parallel to Ernst Haeckel’s evolutionary conjecture that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. It certainly seems as if the youth are adept at inventing rituals, and sacramentalizing their lives, in a way that seems culturally primordial. Certainly children often are ritualists in ways that those of us who are older have little patience for. So it occurred to me, youth that I was back then, that in the matter of the beetles, though my commitment to their dying was unwavering, the manner in which I put them to death mattered.

The recommended way to kill insects is to pop them in a killing jar: a sealable glass container on the base of which is a layer of plaster of paris charged with ethyl acetate, a synthetic poison. Now, I had learned around that time that the leaves of cherry laurel, if crushed, give off hydrogen cyanide. Crush cherry laurel in your hands and that delicious aroma like toasted almonds that is given off, that’s the smell of a kinder, gentler death. This being the way some plants deal with its more aggressive insect visitors, I thought, therefore, that the crushed leaves of cherry laurel might provide for my chrysomelids a sweeter, more appropriate end. Thus my routine for the summer was to walk in measured paces, sweep at regular intervals, and transfer, when the time was right, insects to a killing jar.

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Glenn Albrecht at DePaul Tuesday 27th May 2014 (3:30 PM)

We welcome pioneering environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht to Chicago and DePaul. 

Professor Albrecht investigates the positive and negative psychological, emotional and cultural relationships people have to place.  Albrecht coined the now widely used term “solastalgia” which names the human distress related to the lived experience of familiar places negatively altered by environmental change.

He will give an informal seminar and discussion on Tuesday, May 27th, 2014 From 3:30 – 5:00  PM McGowan S Rm 204 (

Albrecht’s TED talk is here:

The seminar is free and open to the public.

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Join Us For a Book Event: A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature: Ecologies of Thought by Anthony Paul Smith

APSWe are proud to welcome Anthony Paul Smith back to DePaul to celebrate the publication of his book: A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature: Ecologies of Thought.

Anthony is DePaul Department of Philosophy alum and a Fellow of the Institute for Nature and Culture. Anthony is Assistant Professor in the Religion Department of La Salle University (Philadelphia, USA).

His  book is available here:

A series of blog posts discussing the book are archived here:

The format of our event will be a series of responses to the book from faculty and graduate students ranging from Religion, Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse, Environmental Science and Studies, Philosophy, the Institute for Nature and Culture.  This will be followed by a response by Anthony!  Then I suppose we shall retire to continue our deliberations over a beverage!

When: Thursday, May 15th 6:00pm

Where: McGowan South Rm 204. 

Please RSVP to so I can judge if we need a bigger room.  

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Forum on Ethics & Nature: A Cascade of Loss, An Ethics of Recovery


DePaul Professor Liam Heneghan will be a featured speaker.

The following text is quoted directly from the Center for Human and Nature Website:

REGISTER now for the upcoming Forum on Ethics and Nature on Friday, May 2, 2014, a symposium co-hosted by the Center for Humans and Nature and the Chicago Botanic Garden.

The year 2014 is the centennial anniversary of the death of “Martha,” the last passenger pigeon. The 2014 Forum on Ethics and Nature will mark this occasion by exploring the topic of extinction in non-obvious ways, balancing information and personal stories with ethical reflection about the possibilities of social and ecological recovery.

What are the new ecological realities in front of us and how do we respond to them with care? Topics include

◦                needed ethical deliberation about recovering species through various means (e.g., the current de-extinction “debate”),

◦                the relationship between species extinction and the destabilization and loss of culture, and

◦                establishing new relationships in order to work toward the recovery of cultural and biological diversity.

Click here to be taken to the registration page.  

Friday, May 2, 2014
Chicago Botanic Garden
Regenstein Center, Alsdorf Auditorium

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Screening of Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for our Time.




Thursday 24th April: A Screening of Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for our Time.

6:00-7:15: Green Fire film showing in McGowan South 108

7:15-8:00: Discussion with Curt Meine (writer/narrator) and a team of experts in McGowan South 108: Panelists: Laurel Ross (Chicago Wilderness), Gavin Van Horn (Center for Humans and Nature), Shawn Bailey, Environmental Science and Studies, Megan Hoff, DePaul Student.

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