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The value of and in novel ecosystem(s)


The very idea of novel ecosystems has been controversial in ecology. Critics have complained about its imprecision, and that it illicitly smuggles problematic ethical and political values into the science. By labelling a human-modified system a ‘novel ecosystem,‘ they worry, we give policymakers a “license to trash nature.“ The critics are right to be suspicious. I show that proponents of the novel ecosystem concept have been unable to make it both value-free and precise enough to allow for applied use.

Also, the critics are right to be suspicious, because a goal for many proponents of novel ecosystems is to bring new values into applied ecology. But the critics are wrong that this is illicit. I defend a value-laden conception of novel ecosystems, showing that applied ecologists are comfortable with other value-laden concepts (e.g. invasive species), and that the value shift motivating discussion of novel ecosystems is necessary if we want to understand and protect nature in a changing world.

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  1. I use small caps to indicate mention of a concept and inverted commas to indicate mention of a word or phrase.

  2. e.g. Aren’t all ecosystems novel ecosystems under the original definition? (Marris et al. 2013)

  3. (accessed Nov 2020).

  4. (accessed July 2021). (accessed July 2021).

  5. (accessed July 2021).

  6. (accessed July 2021).


  8. (July 2021).

  9. The environmentalists are on the right side of the issue, but that’s not my present point.

  10. This is my term. There doesn’t yet seem to be an established term for the production of ecological novelty.

  11. (Accessed July 2021)

  12. (Accessed July 2021)

  13. Though they never would have been allowed to remain prior to designation as a protected area, reinforcing the lack of distinction between regeneration and restoration.

  14. or lynx: Licht et al. (2017)

  15. Clearly, there isn’t a single definition of invasiveness that will work across all contexts (see Heger et al. 2013), and some might be value-free. But all I need for the parallel with novelty to work is that many of those definitions are value-laden.

  16. Okay, maybe not so clearly in the case of BIODIVERSITY. But see Santana 2014, 2016 and Elliott 2020) for arguments for the thickness of BIODIVERSITY.

  17. As a referee points out, you should agree even if you care mostly about “wild” ecosystems, because ecosystems are interconnected, and novel ecosystems exchange biota and resources with other ecosystems of conservation concern. So to understand and protect those other ecosystems, we need to understand novel ecosystems.


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Santana, C.G. The value of and in novel ecosystem(s). Biol Philos 37, 6 (2022).

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