Exploring the Social and Ethical Scaffolds of Ecological Restoration


Restoring Nature: Perspectives from the Social Sciences and Humanities. Gobster, P. H., and R. B. Hull , editors . 2000 . Island Press , Washington, D.C., and Covelo, California . 321 pp. $50.00 (hardcover) . ISBN 1-55963-767-6 . $25.00 (paperback). ISBN 1-55963-768-4.

Restoring Nature addresses restoration of nature from the perspectives of philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities. It brings together 14 essays based on papers presented in 1998 at the International Symposium on Society and Resource Management at the University of Missouri, in a session entitled “The Restoration and Management of Nature.”

The goal of the book (and the session) is “to provide a constructive body of knowledge on the social aspects of restoring and managing nature that will lead toward the clarification and resolution of environmental problems.” This is both an ambitious and noble goal, especially because Restoring Nature has the potential to achieve its goal if it is read by practitioners of restoration. It is a worthy contribution to the literature of restoration and will serve as a seminal work in the field. It should be required reading for restorationists, especially those of us coming from backgrounds in the biological sciences.

Gobster introduces the 14 papers with a review of the controversy over the Chicago Wilderness Project, which arose when local residents responded to a program initiated by The Nature Conservancy and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County to restore portions of the forest parks in suburban Chicago to the prairie-savanna formation existing in the area prior to European settlement. The initial objections to the Chicago Wilderness Project surprised restorationists and resulted in the building of a political coalition against restoration. The Chicago controversy serves as a point of reference for many of the papers in Restoring Nature and was the focus of research by a few of the social scientists whose research is presented in the book.

Gobster and Hull organized the book into four sections. Part I addresses the philosophy and rationale of restoration, part II is concerned with conflicts over which nature to restore, part III deals with making restoration happen, and part IV focuses on making and maintaining restored environments. In Part I, papers by William P. Jordan III, Eric Katz, Andrew Light, and Cheryl Foster examine the meaning of nature, the human-nature relationship, and the unique potential that restoration provides for reuniting people with nature. I found this part of the book most thought provoking. Many of my concepts concerning the nature of nature and the relationship between humans and nature have been taken to task by these authors. Central to the philosophical discussion in part I is Eric Katz's contention that all restoration is artifactual and as such is merely another example of human dominance of nature. His central concern, presented here as well as in his essay “The Big Lie: Human Restoration of Nature” (Katz 1992), is that the acceptance of that restoration as a legitimate human activity, from either an ethical or scientific point of view, can lead to the acceptance of all forms of domination and destruction of nature because restoration will allow the dominance and destruction of nature to be amended.

Jordan, Light, and Foster challenge Katz's assumptions and conclusions about restoration. Jordan questions Katz's nature-human dichotomy and suggests that restoration provides a positive way of reestablishing the relationship between humans and nature that will create natural and social value. Further, Jordan sees restoration as an approach of equal validity to preservation in addressing environmental problems. Light provides a systematic analysis of Katz's arguments and, in compelling logic, refutes all but the most central of Katz's positions, that restoration equals artifact. Light suggests that Katz's adherence to natural value (nature not interfered with or restored by humans) restricts the utility of environmental philosophy in addressing real-world problems. Foster argues that Katz's conceptual dichotomy between natural process and artifactual product may be, “in the empirical picture,” a false dichotomy that oversimplifies the issues and values at stake in the discussion of restoration. She articulates a greater caution concerning the potential of restoration projects to create a “hyperreality,” which can lead to the acceptance of models, copies, or imitations as reality. Her analysis of the geological restoration of the Old Man of the Mountain in New Hampshire is an interesting account of how restoration creates hyperreality.

Although Jordan, Light, and Foster identify philosophical arguments for the value of restoration, they are not able to dislodge the logic of Katz's argument that all restoration is artifactual. From the point of a “pristine fidelity to logic,” as Foster puts it, Katz may be correct. But as a restorationist, I refuse to accept Katz's further assumption that restoration will in the end justify all forms of domination and destruction of nature.

The remaining parts of Restoring Nature provide valuable insights into how public concern and interest can be addressed in both the planning and execution of restoration projects. These chapters have much to teach biologists and ecologists. Space does not allow me to review all of these valuable papers, but I was particularly informed and educated by the chapters by R. Bruce Hull and David P. Robinson ( The Language of Nature Matters: We Need a More Public Ecology), Andrew Light ( Restoration, the Value of Participation, and the Risk of Professionalism), Paul H. Gobster and Susan C. Barro ( Negotiating Nature: Making Restoration Happen in an Urban Park Context), Herbert W. Schroeder ( The Restoration Experience: Volunteers' Motives, Values, and Concepts of Nature), and Carol Raish (Lessons for Restoration in the Tradition of Stewardship: Sustainable Land Management in Northern New Mexico).

Other chapters are noteworthy. For example, Gobster's introduction is an excellent overview of the book and the philosophical and social dimension of restoration. Hall and Robertson's final chapter “Conclusion: Which Nature?” is a thought-provoking summary and a challenge to restorationists to think about the following questions: Why restore nature? Which natures are possible and acceptable? Which natures can be maintained and sustained?

Although Restoring Nature provides a “constructive body of knowledge on the social aspects of restoring and managing nature,” I am not certain its goal of “the clarification and resolution of environmental problems” is achieved, because the authors have addressed only the philosophical and sociological aspects of restoration. It is fair to say that the book has the potential to lead us toward clarification and resolution with regard to public participation in restoration projects. But as Gobster and Hull acknowledge, the problem of clarification and resolution of environmental issues can be as much biological as sociological.

Although I have been trained as a forester and ecologist and have worked in restoration for many years, Restoring Nature opened up a whole set of issues that I had not considered. This was due in part to my working on projects that did not involve community volunteers and on projects for which I was not responsible for dealing with public response to the proposed restoration. Had Restoring Nature been published earlier, it would have helped me to understand and possibly defuse some of the controversies my projects created for others to resolve. The lack of a philosophical and sociological perspective in my education and that of other biologists and ecologists working in restoration is a problem we all need to address. Restoring Nature is a first step in that direction.