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Obstacle 7 - The misconception that the drift of ecosystems is reversible

Updated December 2021

The restoration of disturbed ecosystems is crucial and urgent, thousands of restoration projects are proposed around the world (e.g., the 2021 UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration) numerous projects are already running, many are already completed. The media echoes these initiatives and thus public and decision-makers are aware of their importance, existence and positive results.


But the media transmits a simplified version of the restoration process and exaggerates the expected results, distorting the perception of the public. Simplified and optimistic considerations are frequently transmitted also by environmental activists working hard to have their proposals approved and funded by decision-makers. The media and grey-literature inform on these projects to public passing the misconception that affected ecosystems will be easily and promptly recovered if the right actions are performed. There are thousands of examples of oversimplified articles on environment restoration published by news journals and websites from all around the world. Just to quote a few examples: Seagrass makes a comeback (Kenya’s Watching 2021), Rivers are key to restoring the World’s Biodiversity (The Leaflet, India 2021), Mars unveils world largest coral reef restoration programme (BusinessGreen, UK 2021), How this Leonardo DiCaprio-backed ‘rewilding’ plan will restore the Galapagos ecosystem (Fast Company, USA 2021), FG moves to restore mangrove ecosystems in Niger delta (This-Day, Nigeria 2021), Countdown to extinction, or destination restoration ? (Landscape News, International 2021), Celebrate world environment day in natural spaces (Bundaberg Now, Australia 2021).


Unfortunately, the recovery of collapsed ecosystems is difficult, sometimes impossible, and even a partial recovery may take decades. Disturbed ecosystems can be recovered only partially even in the long term as shown by the analysis of 3,000 sampling plots of recovery processes by Moreno et al. (2017) and the review of 400 recovery studies by Jones et al. (2018). The reasons are numerous. Changes in ecosystems are usually not linear with the increase of the impacts, but catastrophic (abrupt and intensive, sometimes with no early warnings) and then the recovery is again not linear with the decrease of the impacts. This is due to the resilience of the ecosystems that absorb increasing impacts with almost no changes till the regulating processes are exceeded and collapse arrives (Scheffer et al. 2001; Sage 2020; Cooper et al. 2020; Figure 1). In other cases the impact is accumulative as sometimes occurs with nutrient loading to lakes: external loading (e.g. discharge of wastewater) causes both eutrophication and the accumulation of nutrients in the bottom of the lake (internal loading). This internal loading continues to feed nutrients even if the external loading is discontinued. Another example is the presence of persistent pollutants in the environment (e.g. PCBs, POPs, plastic debris, DDT) that is not reduced by stopping the inputs because they do not degrade or degrade at very low rates. One more example is the introduction of non-native species that may become a plague difficult to remove: e.g., rabbits in Australia (West 2018), rats in Galapagos (Marris 2019), mallard duck in South Africa (Shivambu et al. 2020), American parrots in Europe and Middle East (Souviron et al. 2018).


Several studies indicate that the social perception of restoration does not reflect the actual ecological recovery of an ecosystem. General public and decision-makers understand that an ecosystem is “recovered” when the area is clean and biodiversity increases, without considering ecological structures, functions and services which are much more difficult to recover and much less noticeable by the general public (Arsenio et al. 2019; Polednikova and Galia 2020; Matzek and Wilson 2021). The difference between restoration initiatives and actual ecosystem recovery is too technical for the understanding of general public. The final result is that public and decision-makers get the misconception that a collapsed Biosphere could be eventually recovered if the counter-effects on humankind become too heavy. A misconception that induces to underestimate the challenges and encourages decision-delays. As stated by Bradshaw et al. (2021) “Without fully appreciating and broadcasting the scale of the problems and the enormity of the solutions required, society will fail to achieve even modest sustainability goals”.

Ecosystem catastrophic shifts.JPG

Figure 1. Catastrophic shifts in a lake:

1- Solar radiation reaches the bottom of an oligo-meso-trophic lake where benthic plants take up all the nutrient load and maintain a rich community; small increases in load result in increased bottom plant biomass but biodiversity changes are smooth.

2 – Nutrient load increases to an eutrophic state, bottom plants cannot take up all the nutrient load, some phytoplankton develops increasing turbidity, radiation stops to reach bottom, all the benthic plants die, phytoplankton blooms, biodiversity falls abruptly (shift A).

3 – A decrease in nutrient load is not enough to revert the situation because phytoplankton maintains a high turbidity and radiation does not reach the bottom.

4 – Radiation reaches the bottom again only when the nutrient load is so low that phytoplankton becomes very diluted; then the benthonic plants start to take up all the low nutrient load, phytoplankton almost disappears and a rich community develops again (5, shift B).


Arsenio P, P Rodriguez, I Bernez et al. (2019) Riparian vegetation restoration: does social perception reflect ecological value ? River Res. Applic. 36(6):907-920.

Bradshaw C, P Ehrlich, A Beattie et al. (2021) Underestimating the challenges of avoiding a ghastly future. Frontiers Conserv. Sci. 1:615419.

Cooper G, S Willcock and J Dearing (2020) Regime shifts occur disproportionately faster in larger ecosystems. Nature Comm. 11:1175.

Jones H, P Jones, E Barbier et al. (2018) Restoration and repair of Earth’s damaged ecosystems.

Proc. Royal Soc. B  285:20172577.

Marris E (2019) Drones unleashed against invasive rats in the Galapagos. Nature 565:543-544.   

Matzek V and K Wilson (2021) Public support for restoration: does including ecosystem services as a goal engages a different set of values and attitudes than biodiversity protection alone ? Plos One 16(1): e0245074.

Moreno D, E Barbier, P Jones et al. (2017) Anthropogenic ecosystem disturbance and the recovery debt. Nature Comm. 8:14163.

Polednikova Z and T Galia (2020) Photo simulation of a river restoration: relationships between public perception and ecosystem services. River Res. Applic. 37:44-53.

Sage R (2020) Global change biology: A primer. Global Change Biol. 26(1):3-30.

Scheffer M, S Carpenter, J Foley, C Folke and B Walker (2001) Catastrophic shifts in ecosystems. Nature (review article) 413:591-596.

Shivambu T, N Shivambu and C Downs (2020) Impact assessment of seven alien invasive bird species already introduced to South Africa. Biol.l Invasions 22:1829-1847.

Souviron L, A Muñoz et al. (2018) The legal international wildlife trade favours invasive species establishment: the monk and ring-necked parakeets in Spain. Ardeola 65(2):233-246.

West P (2018) Guide to introduced pest animals in Australia. SCIRO Publishing, 160 pp.

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