My PhD Project

Degraded, Damaged, and Destroyed: A Conceptual Analysis of Ecological Restoration and Its Ethical Implications

My PhD Thesis in a Nutshell

My PhD thesis titled “Degraded, Damaged, and Destroyed: A Conceptual Analysis of Ecological Restoration and Its Ethical Implications” is a philosophical analysis of ecological restoration. The first part of my PhD thesis is focused on conceptual analysis, trying to understand what ecological restoration really is and mapping any inconsistencies and shortcomings of the concept. The second part of my PhD is dedicated to the normative analysis of ecological restoration, where I explore whether humanity can be considered having an obligation to restore the damage it has caused to nature and I aim to build a normative framework for ecological restoration.

Context of my PhD topic

Climate change, population growth and growing consumption have led to the destruction of our natural environments, loss of biodiversity, started the sixth mass extinction and possibly a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. Due to the damaged state of our environment, restoration is required to help us repair the damage and it, therefore, serves as a major form of ecosystem management. This has been recognised by national and international environmental policy. For instance, the United Nations General Assembly has announced a global initiative, the “U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021–2030.” The initiative responds to the two billion hectares that have been identified as being in a degraded state and thereby suitable for restoration (United Nations, Environment 2019). The European Union has also included ambitious restoration targets as part of its biodiversity strategy. The European Union was committed to restoring 15% of degraded ecosystems in Europe by 2020 and is expected to put forth even more ambitious restoration plans as part of it’s Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 that will be announced by the end of 2021 (European Commission 2011; European Commission n.d.). As the former European Union Strategy on biodiversity states, nature's biodiversity is our life insurance policy. Without healthy and diverse environments, we cannot maintain healthy human societies (European Commission 2011).

Restoration, as a separate field from ecology, is still in its infancy, arising in the 1980s. The Society for Ecological Restoration (SER) presented the first international definition of restoration in 1990: “Ecological restoration is the process of assisting the recovery of an ecosystem that has been degraded, damaged, or destroyed.” (Society for Ecological Restoration, 2004) In fact, SER has felt the need to redefine restoration three times since 1990. This implies that restoration is a challenging and problematic concept that is difficult to pin down by a simple definition. Because of these definitional difficulties, international consensus over the definition has not been reached. What makes defining restoration particularly challenging is that it targets ecosystems all over the world, all of which are unique and have been damaged by different cultural practices. In addition, several philosophical problems – such as the concept of nature, ethical issues with restoration, and the definitional dichotomy between humans and nature – all contribute to the challenge of defining restoration. It is, therefore, important to pay careful attention to definitions, as political decision-making and implementation relies on functional concepts.

The philosophical analysis of restoration was pioneered by Robert Elliot (1982) in his article ‘Faking Nature’. According to Elliot, it is far from obvious that restoration activities are able to restore all the values of a damaged ecosystem. In fact, restoration is incapable of restoring one particularly important value, naturalness. Another major concern for Elliot is how restoration could be, and is being used, as a tool for further environmental harm. Companies could justify environmentally destructive activities by promising that the damage is only temporary, since the area will later be restored to its former condition. As Elliot argues, not only is this often a naive assumption in practice, it also dangerously undermines conservationist principles. After the publication of ‘Faking Nature’ several other philosophers have joined the debate such as Eric Katz, Andrew Light, William Throop, Marion Hourdequin, and Eric Higgs. In general, the philosophical analysis has been relatively pessimistic of the capabilities of restoration. The worry being that restoration is incapable of restoring the naturalness of damaged landscapes. In my thesis, I will attempt to reevaluate and redefine restoration in a way that responds to the major criticisms that have been raised against it.

Importance of Conceptual Analysis

Conceptual analysis is extremely important because “[d]ismissing conceptual debate ignores the power of language in shaping belief and practice” (Higgs 2003). Conceptual clarity is important since conceptual obscurity and covert and implicit use of language creates fertile ground for oppressive use of language and destructive discourses (Stibbe 2012). My PhD thesis emphasises the important role language and concepts have in our restoration and preservation efforts. After all, they help to construct shared reality. Despite the work that has been done over the last four decades, there is still room for debate and clarity. Especially now when we have to adapt restoration to realities of rapid climate and environmental changes which are challenging many of our ideas of the human-nature relationship. One way in which the importance of concepts manifests itself is how the current definition of restoration has been constructed largely through an Anglo-American perspective. What could the inclusion of other cultural perspectives add to the way we understand restoration? In my analysis, I will introduce to the debate the Finnish understanding of the concept of nature. This perspective provides an alternative to the Anglo-American understanding of nature. In addition, I will analyse the concepts of nature and wilderness and their effects and relation to the concept of restoration. Especially, the role of wilderness is often ignored in the restoration debate. I see wilderness as a useful and critical concept to help us to better understand natural and restored ecosystems. My aim is to create a functional concept of restoration that is capable of guiding the work of ecologists, political decision makers and the general understanding of what restoration projects ought to look like and importantly how they are different from other ecosystem management approaches that cannot be categorised as restoration.

Importance of Normative Analysis

It is equally important to evaluate the ethical implications of restoration. Restoration involves a host of ethical issues and dilemmas. As such, it provides a great acid test for our environmental ethical theories. A major reason why nature is being destroyed is that humans treat nature unsustainably without care and respect. Restoration is not only an important sign post that something has ethically gone wrong, but it is also an important opportunity to set things right. In order to address both of these issues appropriately, a deeper analysis of ecological restoration is needed.

The second part of my PhD thesis is devoted to analysing the ethical and normative implications of ecological restoration. The question over the moral status of non-humans has largely been unexamined in the restoration literature. My aim is to map out which entities are morally considerable in the restoration context and to re-evaluate what ecological restoration should be defined and practised against these findings. I argue that restoration should include a moral perspective. I will, therefore, propose that the definition of restoration should have the principle of moral integrity included. This principle introduces a human perspective to restoration which has been largely ignored by the philosophical literature on restoration, thus recognising that restoration goals should go beyond the ecological.

Want to hear more?

You can follow the progression of my PhD thesis by reading my blog and following my publications.