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The Ethical Aspects of Ecosystem Restoration

– Lillianne John, PhD Program in Philosophy, Loyola University Chicago, USA

Introduction: What is Ecosystem Restoration?

Ecosystem restoration, broadly speaking, is the process by which human beings “assist the recovery of an impaired tract of nature” (Woods, 530). Our ecosystems have been, and continue to be, degraded, damaged, and destroyed (in some cases) in various ways. Degradation refers to long-term, non-severe human disturbance. Examples of degradation include deforestation, overgrazing, or selected extermination of particular species. Damage refers to acute or severe human impact or disturbance that alters and transforms an area. Think of building projects or the impact of war on the land. Destruction refers to when “most or all organic matter is removed” from an area (Woods, 530). Restoration of ecosystems (also interchangeably sometimes called ecological restoration) might involve “acts of revegetation, reintroduction, and assisted colonization/migration,” in direct response to such degradation, damage, or destruction (Woods, 530).

There have been devastating, human consequences of this: “declines in human health are increasingly being linked to concomitant decline in biodiversity and the quality and quantity of ecosystem services” (Aronson, et al, 731). The current global context seems to point towards increasing ecocide: reports from as recently as 2019 have indicated that we would see 1 million species of plants and animals go extinct. The year 2019 was the second warmest year on Earth since 1850. Earth Overshoot Day—or the day that humanity is using up natural resources 1.75 times as fast as ecosystems can regenerate them—was 29 July 2019. Countries have been falling short in their attempts to tackle climate change at the national level. Humans have both had a hand in and been impacted by climate change, mass extinction, food and freshwater shortages. Natural disasters are also linked with how we have abused our ecosystems (Aronson, et al, 731).

Ecosystem restoration, at its core, acknowledges that something went terribly wrong with how we engaged with the world. There is a moral duty associated with this human attempt to correct mistakes of the past: one author refers to this reparative justice as “environmental moral repair” (Woods, 531). Perhaps it is clear from just this short description that there are ethical aspects to ecosystem restoration that cannot go ignored. The United Nations has declared 2021 to 2030 as the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.

Ecosystem preservation and restoration have been underway for decades now. However, the capitalism-motivated,  market-based, individual action-focussed, top-down approach is inadequate. In some cases, we have proceeded without adequate knowledge of particular ecosystems: with incomplete, ahistorical, selective, and misleading data (Bliss & Fischer, 139). Bliss & Fischer provide case studies from Western Africa and Northwestern America of how colonial attitudes ensured inappropriate ecosystem restoration strategies. These attitudes rejected traditional ecological knowledge (shortened as TEK) that indigenous inhabitants of the area have maintained and transmitted safely across generations. Such arrogance has led to strategies that focussed more on control and economic success than the health of the ecosystems under consideration.

There have also been two kinds of excesses in ecosystem restoration strategy: too much of a top-down approach—that is, heavy-handed governmental intervention—and too much of a hands-off local approach without adequate support. There must be a balance between the two in order to honor local responsibility and stakeholders, providing them with access to larger resources from the national or transnational context when necessary. Ecosystem restoration is not a race between communities, but a collective project we all share in. The literature warns us against setting too ambitious a goal as well as against setting too limited a goal: both reflect disingenuity at the level of the strategic planning (Aronson, et al, 734). An appropriately sensitive ecosystem restoration strategy would have to be (a) sensitive to shifting local conditions, (b) dynamic enough to switch its approaches based on these changes, and (c) technically skilled enough to do both.

What does the literature in ethics of ER propose?

The literature I focussed my research on had less to do with abstract philosophical theories of right and wrong, and more to do with concrete social and political impacts of ecosystem restoration. This is not a problem, since justice is a matter of concrete circumstances, and is meaningless if not applicable to social and political situations. Marlène Elias, Deepa Joshi, and Ruth Meinzen-Dick, in their 2021 article “Restoration for Whom, by Whom? A Feminist Political Ecology of Restoration,” stress on our need to understand how existing injustices affect ecosystem restoration. They point out that global-level diplomatic agendas and multinational corporation’s economic interests do shape smaller-scale, local initiatives towards ecosystem restoration. This has been true of certain “green development” strategies (Elias, et al, 11). Further, the excessive weight given to the natural sciences in ecosystem restoration work has also meant that the social sciences have been neglected in informing such strategic planning (Elias, et al, 4). The authors observe that this has led to exclusionary ideas of what ‘sustainability’ is, and that ecosystem health has been reduced merely to biophysical health (Elias, et al, 4). They insist that human-nature relationships are complex and should not be simplified to suit the interests of those who will not have to directly experience the consequences of insincere restoration. Since social and political processes, such as colonization and capitalist greed, have been involved in creating and sustaining ecological crises, they must be addressed in their local forms when attempting to plan ecosystem restoration. Elias, et. al. ask us to be mindful of which natural state we are trying to return the area to, and also of whether plural, unequal local voices and knowledge systems are being valued (Elias, et al, 4).

Andrew Light, decades earlier in 1994, wrote an article called “Hegemony and Democracy: How Politics in Restoration Informs the Politics of Restoration.” In this article, Light contextualized ecosystem restoration as reaction to ‘preservationist environmentalism,’ which itself had explicit political dimensions because it involved making a collective decision about what would and would not be preserved in the ecosystem in question (Light, 141). Similarly, Light says, ecosystem restoration also involves deciding what to restore and what not to restore: these choices have ethical and political aspects to them because of the political governance of nature (Light, 141). Some of us might be familiar with this attitude through the anthropocentric doctrine of dominion over the earth. Light notes that this prevailing perspective involves the political concept of ‘sovereignty,’ and ushers us towards understanding a more symbiotic relation between humans and nature (Light, 140) (Pope Francis, in his Laudato Si’ encyclical, refers to perhaps understanding ourselves as stewards rather than masters of our ecosystems.) Given this prevailing perspective, we cannot be uncomfortable with thinking through the political dimensions of ecosystem restoration, since that would also lead to ineffective planning. Political motivations guide many groups, bodies, and associations that have resources to offer or withhold from ecosystem restoration, but especially to spend on shaping what the strategy will be and who will make decisions at the local level. Perfect ecosystem restoration performed using slave-labor, observes Light, will not be acceptable, given the injustice of this situation (Light, 142).

Going back to Elias, et. al,: they observe that ecosystem restoration has both great transformative potential towards justice as well as high risks of continuing injustice because of its intimate connection to land (Elias, et al, 5). When certain areas are demarcated for industrial use, for instance, those of marginalized communities who access, use, and maintain that land are barred from it. They give an illustrative example from Gambia, where external donors’ interests ‘environmental stabilization’ led to their supporting of men’s agroforestry projects on land that women had been using for cultivation (Elias, et al, 5-6). Thus, these pre-existing power asymmetries, in terms of gender, class, caste, etc., can complicate ecosystem restoration efforts because of their relation to legal land rights (Elias, et al, 5).  They are suspicious of whether powerful capitalist interests that got us into ecological crises are motivated or even able to provide adequate solutions to restoration efforts: such interests are fundamentally exclusive and undemocratic. These power relations intersect with one another as well, requiring careful analysis and not rushing towards simplistic solutions. They affirm that we will need a diverse set of agents to adequately form the narrative about ecological crises from place to place, leading to a holistic and context-sensitive plan of action  (Elias, et al, 7). Elias, et. al. also remind us that some of these plans will involve addressing historical injustices done to indigenous communities, who have had inextricable relationships with their land and natural environment  (Elias, et al, 8).

Robin Kimmerer’s 2011 article “Restoration and Reciprocity: The Contributions of Traditional Ecological Knowledge” addresses this particular angle, stating that the idea of reciprocity with land is fundamental to many indigenous belief systems (Kimmerer, 257). She develops and argues for ‘reciprocal restoration,’ stating that it is the mutually reinforcing restoration of land and culture such that repair of ecosystem services contributes to cultural revitalization, and renewal of culture promotes restoration of ecological integrity. Reciprocal restoration recognizes that it is not just the land that is broken, but our relationship to it (Kimmerer, 258). Traditional ecological knowledge, she observes, is highly rational, empirical, and pragmatic, while simultaneously integrating cultural values and moral perspectives. With its worldview of respect, responsibility, and reciprocity with nature, TEK does not compete with science nor detract from its power, but extends its scope into additional human interactions with the natural world (Kimmerer, 262). The ability of indigenous peoples to exercise their stewardship roles with the land is central to the principle of reciprocal restoration, and also inextricably linked to legal title to the land (Kimmerer, 267). A focus on restoration of the relationship guided by TEK moves us away from an anthropocentric relationship to land, into the realm of a “kincentric” relationship in which our moral responsibility extends to all of our nonhuman relatives. Nonhuman species are the prime beneficiaries of the restoration; what conservationists call “biodiversity,” traditional peoples call “kin” (Kimmerer, 268). Kimmerer also asserts that such restoration as a process is understood as directed by nature: the practitioners adaptively change the plan as the land responds to treatments. The stated goal of the restoration is to help a site evolve through cyclical changes, rather than establishing a linear trajectory (Kimmerer, 269). (Reciprocal restoration also offers the opportunity for an immigrant culture to start becoming “indigenous to place” by healing relationships with land and history. This does not mean appropriating the culture of indigenous people, but generating an authentic new relationship [Kimmerer, 272].)


I will close by drawing out a few practical insights from a 2020 paper titled ‘A world of Possibilities: Six Restoration Strategies to Support the United Nations’ Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.’ They recommend a holistic and integrative, community-oriented approach which is sensitive to indigenous history and injustices. This is also referred to as ‘eco-cultural restoration.’ The authors suggest investing in interdisciplinary work, given that the kinds of problems ecological crises raise are complex and require large-systems approaches. They advise us to significantly increase on-site training and capacity building opportunities for local stakeholders from a wide variety of fields, from education and science to religion and administration. This will adequately mobilize local, traditional knowledge and build a community of skilled and invested ecosystem restorers. They advocate the studying and communication of the  intricate linkages between restoring ecosystem health and the improvement of physical, mental, social, and cultural health of local and global human populations, along with the general well-being and sustainability of communities, nations, and society (Aronson, et. al, 732). Ecosystem restoration practices have ethical aspects to them that, once elucidated for the particular context in question, can guide appropriate strategies for action.

Text presented on May 4, 2023 at the Ecosystem Restoration Webinar, organized by the Jesuit Justice and Ecology Network Africa (JENA). Lillianne John is a PhD student of Philosophy at Loyola University Chicago (USA). She works in social and political philosophy that is sensitive to the multicultural composition of our world.


Aronson, James, Neva Goodwin, Laura Orlando, Cristina Eisenberg, and Adam T. Cross. “A World of Possibilities: Six Restoration Strategies to Support the United Nation’s Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.” Restoration Ecology 28, no. 4 (March 27, 2020): 730–36.

Bliss, John C., and A. Paige Fischer. “Toward a Political Ecology of Ecosystem Restoration.” Human Dimensions of Ecological Restoration, 2011, 135–48.

Elias, Marlène, Deepa Joshi, and Ruth Meinzen-Dick. “Restoration for Whom, by Whom? A Feminist Political Ecology of Restoration.” Ecological Restoration 39, no. 1-2 (March 2021): 3–15.

Kimmerer, Robin. “Restoration and Reciprocity: The Contributions of Traditional Ecological Knowledge.” Human Dimensions of Ecological Restoration, 2011, 257–76.

Light, Andrew. “Hegemony and Democracy: How Politics in Restoration Informs the Politics of Restoration.” Restoration & Management Notes 12, no. 2 (1994): 140–44. .

Woods, Mark. “Restoration.” The Routledge Companion to Environmental Ethics, July 28, 2022, 529–45.

Image Source: Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Australian Government

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