Jozef Keulartz

Ecological restoration and/or ecological rehabilitation?

Comments on Alan Holland

By Jozef Keulartz

In his paper Alan depicts two rather extreme positions in the discussion of the natural/artificial distinction. At one extreme, Eric Katz defends the view that a clear line can be drawn between the natural and the artificial. According to this view, the introduction or implementation of technological innovations will almost automatically diminish, disrupt or destroy the intrinsic value and integrity of natural entities. At the other extreme, Steven Vogel wants to deconstruct the dichotomy between nature and artefact. According to Vogel, all artefacts are natural and environmental philosophy ought to eschew the concept of nature entirely.

Alan rejects both these extreme views on the natural/artificial distinction as unconvincing and I think he is right in doing so. In Katz’s view technological innovations almost by definition have a negative impact and destructive effect on nature and the environment, while in Vogel’s view nature seems to have lost its capacity to function as a normative criterion that poses restrictions on technological developments.

Alan’s own proposal to avoid these extremes is based on the concept of ‘meaningful relationships’. This concept can only be understood in the context of the concept of a ‘worthwhile life’: meaningful relationships are those that contribute to a worthwhile life, while the living of worthwhile lives depends on our ability to sustain meaningful relationships.

According to Alan, the concept of meaningful relationships keeps sufficient faith to the concept of nature because he sees nature as a deeply historical concept, charged with meaning. Quote: ‘Natural relationships are a paradigm of meaningful relationships both on account of the (past) history invested in them and on account of the (future) history that they portend. Meaningful relationships therefore can be evolutionary and ecological, as well as cultural’. It is not entirely implausible, Alan claims, to read public concerns about technology, e.g. GM technology, often expressed as concerns about ‘unnaturalness’, as reflecting concerns about loss of meaning, especially the meaning invested in ‘natural’ relationships.

The concept of meaningful relationships not only has descriptive force but has normative force as well: it can be used as criterion for the ethical assessment and evaluation of technologies: ‘good’ technologies facilitate meaningful relationships whereas ‘bad’ technologies frustrate these relationships.

Maybe I’ am wrong, but I have the impression that there is a strong resemblance between Alan’s proposal and the position that Andrew Light has taken up in the debate about ecological restoration. In his article Ecological Restoration and the Culture of Nature Light opposes both Eric Katz’s and Robert Elliot’s rather negative view of ecological restoration.

In his famous article Faking Nature (1982), Eliot argues that ecological restoration is akin to art forgery. Just as a copied artwork cannot reproduce the value of the original, restored nature cannot reproduce the value of original nature. Eric Katz’s 1992 The Big Lie: Human Restoration of Nature extended this claim by further arguing that whatever was produced in a restored landscape it certainly could not count as having the original value of nature, particularly wild nature, and necessarily represented a form of disvalue and domination of nature. ‘The practice of ecological restoration can only represent a misguided faith in the hegemony and infallibility of the human power to control the natural world’ (1996, 222).

Katz argues quite forcefully that we do not have the ability to restore nature because what we actually create in ecological restorations are humanly produced artefacts and not nature.

Now in response to these negative accounts of ecological restoration, Andrew Light offers an alternative account that, to my opinion, shows at least some similarity with Alan’s proposal. Ecological restoration, according to Light, is not so much an attempt to restore nature itself, but rather an effort to restore an important part of the human relationship with non-human nature. Ecological restoration really is about the revitalization of the ‘human culture of nature’. Quote: ‘Restoration restores the human connection to nature by restoring that part of culture that has historically contained a connection to nature’. What people want to restore is a positive normative relationship with nature; they want to retain what Alan calls ‘a historical legacy – cultural, ecological or evolutionary’.

I’ am convinced that this account with its emphasis on human relationship with non-human nature does more justice to the practice of ecological restoration than the accounts of Elliot and Katz. But I also think that this account leaves an important question unanswered. I here refer to the discussion among ecologists and conservationists about what kind of nature one would like to sustain or to recover. Should one go back to the last interglacial era when man did not even yet have projectile weapons (such as the bow and arrow) and therefore was not yet capable of submitting his natural enemies? Our should one only have to go back to pre-industrial times and resort to traditional agrarian techniques such as hunting and fishing, reed and brushwood cultivation, tree planting and felling, mowing and turf cutting, the setting up of duck decoys and the use of water mills. In sum: what image of nature should one embrace as the ‘real thing’?

Now, I fear that this question returns in a somewhat other formulation in the account of ecological restoration given by Alan Holland and Andrew Light. How far should one go back in history? What historical legacy, what ‘culture of nature’ should one refer to? What state of meaningful ‘natural’ relations should one try to sustain or to recover? In his recent article Restorative Relationships (2004), Andrew Light mentions authors like E.O Wilson and Holmes Rolston who suggest that we should become more connected with nature in the raw, i.e. wild nature. And he goes on as follows: ‘An alternative view however is that it is much more important to connect people with the natural systems in their own back yards and public places where they do live rather than striving to engage them with the environments of their prehistoric ancestors’. So, should we preferably retain and entertain relationships with wild nature or with our garden, with wild animals, farm animals or pets? Or, to rephrase this question once again: should we with respect to nature adopt the attitude of an enlightened ruler, a steward, a partner or a participant?

I want to conclude my comments with my own view on ecological restoration. I’ am curious what Alan thinks of this view and if it fits his view or not. In the philosophical discussion of ecological restoration nature is almost always compared to art. Whereas Elliot compares ecological restoration with art reproduction or art forgery, Light claims that it is more akin to art restoration. Given the analogy between nature and art, the emphasis is on the structure and composition of biotic communities – environmental philosopher Baird Callicott talks about ‘compositionalism’. Key concepts in compositionalism are ‘biodiversity’ and ‘biological integrity’.

But this comparison, like all comparisons, falls short. Art and nature differ from one another in significant respects. To name just one: nature is never only the object of experiences of beauty or the sublime but has many other functions. Water for instance is of importance for traffic, transportation, food supply, irrigation, recreation, cooling for power stations, domestic use etc. This means that it is almost nearly impossible to find out what the original situation in a certain area looked like, let alone to restore that situation.

Given this multifunctionality of nature and the dynamic interaction between nature and culture the art restoration metaphor can only claim a limited range and relevance. In this respect the equation of nature and medicine looks far more promising. Instead of ecological restoration we better talk about ecological rehabilitation. The rehabilitation metaphor is not about originality or authenticity but is about health.

The rehabilitation metaphor is not man-exclusive but rather man-inclusive, it is not negative about technology but rather positive: health doesn’t depend on some original or authentic state or condition because people actually can feel quite healthy and function quite normal with a hearing aid, a bypass or an artificial kidney. Moreover, the rehabilitation metaphor doesn’t stress structure or composition but rather process and function - Callicott consequently talks about ‘functionalism’.

But of course, the rehabilitation metaphor like all metaphors also falls short in some respects. Alan himself has mentioned one in his 1995 introduction to an Environmental Values issue on ‘ecosystem health’. It concerns the relations between the health of components of ecosystems and the ecosystems themselves. Quote: ‘In the case of organisms one can identify the health of a component (a kidney for instance) by its contribution to the health of the organism; but in the case of ecosystems there is more possibility of a conflict between the health of the system and the health of the components’.

I guess we have to accept that every metaphor is restricted in range and in relevance. We have to learn to adopt what pragmatist Donald Schön used to call a ‘double vision’: ‘the ability to act from a frame while cultivating awareness of alternative frames’. In the pragmatist spirit of Schön I would like to follow Callicott’s suggestion to look at the restoration and the rehabilitation metaphor as extremes of a broad continuum: restoration is more suited to the management of the less severely degraded areas such as wilderness areas, wildlife refuges, national and state parks, world heritage sites, the core areas of international biosphere reserves, and so on. Rehabilitation on the other hand is more suited for the proportionately much greater part of the world that is inhabited and economically exploited by humans.

According to Callicott, there is a complementary and dialectical relationship between ecological restoration and ecological rehabilitation. Quote: ‘The preservation of islands of biological diversity and integrity and ecological restoration necessarily occurs at present in a humanly inhabited and economically exploited matrix. Hence the success of nature preservation and restoration necessarily depends on ecologically rehabilitating and maintaining the health of these matrices. And that, circling back, will require the preservation of biological diversity-and-integrity reserves - as databases of normal ecosystem function and as reservoirs of species … Thus the maintenance of ecosystem health in humanly inhabited and economically exploited areas depends upon the existence of proximate reservoirs of biodiversity’.