The Ethics of Ecosystem Restoration

This year’s Canadian Environment Week theme is ecosystem restoration, as such, we wrote a brief article discussing the ethical questions involved with ecosystem restoration.

Ecosystem restoration refers to the process of intentional human interference with an ecosystem’s current state to assist in the recovery and management of the ecosystem to its previous state – before it was degraded, damaged or destroyed. As relatively new science and practice, our understanding of ecosystems and how to best assist them is constantly evolving. This work takes a certain level of confidence, and an ability to make difficult decisions – as many are involved when addressing the needs of ecosystems. With the health of human communities largely reliant on the health of ecosystems, it is integral that these systems be protected and restored. As such, ecosystem restoration can be regarded as “enlightened self-interest for humankind” as it increases both natural capital and ecosystem services. However, well-designed projects of this kind should include a major ethical element as the future of our planet and its inhabitants (human or not) requires more than self-interest. While the field of science has provided numerous rationales for ecological restoration, there are many ethical issues associated with such activities that must be considered. 

In recent years, issues surrounding the environment and its degradation have become common in academic, scientific, philosophical, and everyday discussions. One of the most prominent examples of these environmental issues includes climate change, indicating we as humans are becoming more aware of our impact on our surrounding environment. To some, it may seem humans are finally accepting the possibility that our collective actions have had detrimental global effects, such as climate change, overpopulation, and overconsumption. All of these issues bring forth the possibilities relating to ecological restoration. What if we had the technology and knowledge to fix some of the problems we have created due to our excessive lifestyles? This is where the ethical questions come in – just because we have the ability to restore what we have ourselves degraded or destroyed – should we interfere with restoration efforts? 

In the past, humans used to deal with environmental degradation by moving to new, unspoiled areas; however, with 7 billion people living on Earth, this is no longer a possibility – we are running out of space. Restoration is the human attempt to clean up the mess that we as a species have created. The ethics behind ecosystem restoration can be complicated, as some believe that in these scenarios, the naturalness of the ecosystem has already been lost and that restorative efforts are just further methods of interference in nature by humans. 

Some of the most crucial questions relating to restoration include: 

  • If restoration destroys the ‘naturalness’ of nature, making an area artificial or non-natural, why restore?
  • If we are aiming to restore natural value, can it even be restored? 
  • Can we restore previously natural areas? If we can, should we?
  • What happens to a natural area after it has undergone restoration? 

While it may be our fault as humans that certain ecosystems have failed, we also must ask ourselves whether we should continue to interfere with nature by carrying out restorative activities. Generally speaking, nature has a way of restoring itself; however, this process can take decades, if not centuries, to complete without help from humans. As such, it is important that as we continue to move forward and restorative activities are undertaken, we still stop and consider the integrity of the ecosystem and whether restoration is the appropriate path to take. 

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