Nature matters: caring and accountability
Nature matters: caring and accountability

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Nature matters: caring and accountability

2.4.2 Ecological restoration

The changing science of ecology, coupled with a greater awareness and development of alternative styles of managing natural resources, continues to influence our notion of what is good and what is right for nature. One of the first and most influential formal expressions of an environmental ethic that arose from early organic and ecosystems models of ecology was that of Aldo Leopold. Leopold’s argument is regarded as an environmental ethic because it explicitly gives moral consideration to, and thereby a sense of obligation towards, non-human nature as part of a wider Nature (or ‘land’ in Leopold’s terms) that involves both human and non-human nature. Here, land is regarded as something living and forever changing because of the actions of its living constituents.

More recently a constructivist view of nature – one that questions the ideal of retaining pristine nature – has been given expression in the concept of ecological restoration. This can be traced back to technical endeavours that took place mainly in the USA during the early twentieth century as a way of trying to re-establish pristine environments. More contemporary interest dates back to the foundation of the international organisation Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) in 1987. The critical feature of contemporary ecological restoration is the importance given to the relationship between human culture and non-human nature. Box 12 outlines what the contemporary idea of ecological restoration involves.

Box 12 Ecological restoration: accounting for harm?

Hein-Anton van der Heijden describes ecological restoration as follows (2005, p. 428):

Ecological restoration refers to the practice of making damaged ecosystems whole again by arresting invasive and weedy species, reintroducing missing plants and animals to create an instant web of life, understanding the changing historical conditions that led to present conditions, creating or rebuilding soils, eliminating hazardous substances, ripping up roads, and returning natural processes such as fire and flooding to places that thrive on those regular pulses.

In her review of this tradition, van der Heijden summarises three main criticisms of it (pp. 429–30):

  1. It will ‘dilute our efforts at preservation and conservation, and lead to an ever deeper technological attitude toward nature’.

  2. It is ‘an elaborate practice of fakery … a kind of forgery, comparable to an art forgery’.

  3. It is ecosystem mitigation, an example of what is considered the ‘commodification of restoration’ whereby restored ecosystems are nothing more than ‘tradable units for consumption’.

She then goes on to draw on the ideas of Eric Higgs in identifying features of good practice for ecological restoration:

  1. Those involved with restoration should demonstrate commitment and focus, countering the technocratic attitude towards restoration. This will also counter the tendency of ecological restoration to be used for very large projects, as these essentially perpetuate an alienation of the human cultural context that ought to be motivating restoration.

  2. It is important to respect (i) ecological integrity, in terms of not only biophysical attributes of biodiversity and ecological processes but also regional context and cultural practices, and (ii) historical fidelity, in the sense of knowing the history of meaning attached to the location and the historic timeline involved. Higgs points out that nature completely free from human involvement is actually very rare anyway, and that humans and their culture over time are very much entwined with what is actually real-world Nature. Hence good ecological restoration must consider the complex biophysical and cultural dimensions over time.

  3. It is also important to be transparent with respect to intention and design; that is, to recognise the human values behind what we believe ecosystems ought to value. Here, the concern is to avoid projects designed for anything other than the prime overall purpose of protecting and enhancing nature, thus ensuring that the intrinsic value is drawn out as opposed to any instrumental value implied through mitigation (that is, building restorative projects as a way of compensating for other, ecologically damaging interventions).

In short, with ecological restoration, accountability must be based not only on judgements of ‘fact’ but also on value judgements.

Eric Higgs (2005) is one of many environmentalists choosing to make ecological restoration a significant point of departure from the more science-based restoration ecology. Higgs claims that restoration ecology is an important but not exclusive part of ecological restoration. In the following reading, he reflects on the particular challenges presented to scientists in the pursuit of ecological restoration, drawing on a divide between science and art first observed by Charles P. Snow in the mid-twentieth century, which he expressed in terms of ‘two cultures’. Higgs likens the divide to that between restoration ecology and ecological restoration, suggesting that the former (the science of restoration ecology) is privileged and sometimes mistaken for the latter.

Activity 16 The two-culture problem

Read ‘The two-culture problem: ecological restoration and the integration of knowledge’ by Eric Higgs (2005).

Like Snow, Higgs makes the claim that artistic endeavours and scientific endeavours are required to fulfil responsible intervention. Both Snow and Higgs recognise the importance of scientific literacy. In the historical context in which Snow was writing (the late 1950s in the UK), the concern was that academics and the higher echelons of civil servants coming from colleges and universities were not conversant enough with science. Fifty years on, Higgs recognises the same gulf between science and the humanities (arts, philosophy, languages, history, etc.), only now the tendency in contemporary practice is to make scientific literacy too authoritative (2005, p. 163):

Cultural contingency matters for restorationists because we need to understand that people make sense of a place in different ways. In the end, science matters, but as one of many rather than the only form of knowledge that makes up the practice of ecological restoration. Relying on science alone or as the highest form of knowledge steers us away from a broader view of restoration toward an exclusive focus on restoration ecology.

Higgs goes on to argue that the moral centre of restoration work must be anchored to an understanding of place. You may see in this description of restoration a strong link with Talbott’s idea of an ecological conversation.

Activity 17 Ecological conversation and ecological restoration: taking Nature into account

Describe in your own words the type of ecological conversation represented by restoration ecology, as compared with ecological restoration.

Higgs grounds his discussion with reference to the work of a team of ethnobotanists (studying the relationship between plants and people) and Lekwungen indigenous peoples on Discovery Island in Canada. Their ecological restoration project is centred on supporting the reintroduction of a particular food crop, the blue camas (p. 161):

[The project] combines common contemporary techniques for maintaining a specific community of native plants with recognition of cultural objectives. It is a vital part of the project that camas harvesting respects the ecological fragility and significance of ecosystems. The historical continuity with the harvesting sites is what anchors the restoration project; it would be an utterly different prospect to contemplate commercial, technological harvest of camas, although this, too, might become part of a Lekwungen cultural and economic revitalization.

Some important features of such projects include a more dynamic ‘conversation’ with nature, appreciating and taking into account the evolving character of the natural world; the opportunities for purposeful conversation between different cultures as well as amongst different professional backgrounds and disciplines; and appreciating the uncertainty of the outcomes. Ecological restoration contrasts with restoration ecology in being less prone to viewing the environment as an externalised entity, more integral with respect to taking wider values into account, and more discursive in terms of allowing discussion and conversation to shape the programme. Ecological restoration hence generates less risk of reinforcing the ‘command and control’ type of technocentric approach to conservation.

SAQ 3 Restoring accountability

Summarise Higgs’s views on ecological restoration in terms of environmental responsibility and the role of education in generating greater accountability. What challenges might there be?


In bringing about greater accountability for harm done to the environment, Higgs sees a particular role in education for developing a well-rounded student: ‘No restoration program should be sanctioned without courses that include environmental philosophy, economics, sociology, and so on. A well-rounded student, a concept that fliesto a certain extent in the face of modern training, will in the end be exactly what restoration practice needs’ (2005, p. 164).

My only slight reservation relates to the way in which Higgs appears to pigeonhole science as being somehow incapable in itself of being more value-full (as against an often espoused value-free activity) without the services of professional academics from the humanities. Whilst I empathise with the basic sentiment of nurturing a much-needed perspective on cultural studies and ethics, one might also empathise with any student or individual struggling to get a grip on the almost limitless number of subjects and disciplines relating to environmental studies. And is it only restoration projects that require such ‘well-rounded’ individuals in the arena of environmental management? I wonder instead whether the type of literacy being cultivated – both science and arts/humanities – might itself be improved through, in the case of science, broader attention to the values that inevitably circumscribe scientific practice, and in the case of arts/humanities, broader attention to and acknowledgement of the practice of science as an innovative art form.

One of the challenges in bridging the divide between the two cultures referred to by Higgs is possibly the need to escape from our conventional ways of framing the environment – whether from science or non-science perspectives – and to nurture framing devices that prompt better care and improved accountability. You might like to now try and consolidate your understanding of the difference between what matters from a caring perspective and what matters from an accountability perspective. SAQ 4 is designed to help you do this.

SAQ 4 Summing up ‘nature matters’ between two endeavours of environmental responsibility

Using a three-column table similar to that shown below, summarise the main differences between ‘caring for environment’ and ‘providing accountability to environment’. (You may like to use the variables listed in the first column, and/or others of your own choosing.)

Metaphor: type of ‘conversation’Informal, intuitive, spontaneous inquiryFormalised, set questions
Dominant idea of natural world
Motivating drive
Type of relationship (using analogy of family)
Features of language use
Principal disciplines informing responsibility
Principal values underpinning conversation
Consequentialist ethical expression
Main focus around responsibilitiesObligations and entitlementsPromoting more codified expressions of rights and duties


My answer, using the variables I listed, is below.

Metaphor: type of ‘conversation’Informal, intuitive, spontaneous inquiryFormalised, set questions
Dominant idea of natural worldNature consisting of human and non-human constituents in mutual partnershipAbstracted ‘environment’ responsive only to questioning
Motivating driveProvide connection with natureProvide measures of accountability
Type of relationship (using analogy of family)Co-respondent, equal numberParent–child
Features of language useSpiritual, informal, emotionalTechnical – ‘sustainability’
Principal disciplines informing responsibilityHumanities (e.g. philosophy, religious studies)Sciences (social and natural)
Principal values underpinning conversationAesthetic values towards nature and intrinsic value of natureInstrumental use of conversation though acknowledging intrinsic value in nature
Consequentialist ethical expressionBiocentric equality (equality tempered by circumstances and moral responsibility of humans)Integrity of natural world is paramount driver
Main focus around responsibilitiesObligations and entitlementsPromoting more codified expressions of rights and duties
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